Guest Column: Nasrin Alavi

alavi.jpegI became aware of Nasrin Alavi last summer, when I came across notices of her book, We Are Iran, a portrait of contemporary Iran through its (very dynamic) blog culture. The book was among a handful to be recommended by English PEN, and was also selected by Pankaj Mishra for the New Stateman Best Books of the Year list. We Are Iran was published this month in the United States by Soft Skull Press. Nasrin Alavi contributes a guest column on Moorishgirl today; she will also guest-blog on TEV this Thursday, December 8, so look for her there as well.

Iran: Then and Now
Nasrin Alavi

As Western leaders consider Iran’s referral to the UN Security Council over its nuclear activities, there is another, furtive Iran simmering behind the headlines.

Those who lived through the Iranian Revolution of 1979 are now a minority. Iran has one of the most youthful and educated populations in the Middle East. Her younger generation has been completely transformed through the Islamic Republic’s education policies of free education and national literacy campaigns. Seventy per cent are under thirty, with literacy rates of well over 90%, even in rural areas. Notably, last year, more than 65% of those entering university were women.

It is the voice of this educated youth that comes through loud and clear in the phenomenon that is the Iranian blogosphere. The internet has opened a new, virtual space for free speech in Iran, a country dubbed the “the biggest prison for journalists in the Middle East”, by Reporters sans Frontieres (RSF). With an estimated 75,000 blogs, Farsi is now the fourth most popular language for keeping online journals. A blogger asks: “Has everyone noticed the spooky absence of graffiti in our public toilets since the arrival of weblogs?” Unlike the graffiti, Iran’s blogs are boundless and global. Only time will tell if Iranian blogs are merely a place for the beleaguered to blow off steam or a modern day Gutenberg press that would usher in the age of Democracy. But for now they offer a unique glimpse of the changing consciousness of Iran’s younger generation.

It is no secret that most of the rulers in the Middle East are out of sync with their youth, and Iran is no exception. Except that while Arab leaders have tried to crush the militants, in Iran’s case you have had a militant regime. Tahkim Vahdat, Iran’s largest national student union, was formed after a decree by Ayatollah Khomeini to reinforce his rule; yet nearly a quarter of a century later it became one of the most vocal critics of the regime.

In November 1979, at the dawn of the revolution, Khomeini had stated that “a country with 20 million youth must have 20 million riflemen or a military… such a country will never be destroyed,”. The intention was to create soldiers of the state, but now groups of young people who aspire to a more Western lifestyle have even turned events like St Valentine’s Day into a local festival. The regime’s attempt to shield Iranians from the West’s ‘cultural invasion’ has backfired magnificently. The country’s youth is now almost obsessed with the Western culture they have been deprived of for so long. Last year Iran’s former deputy-President Ali Abtahi, a mid-ranking Shia cleric, greeted the new cause for celebration for young lovers in Islamic Iran in his blog by writing that although there are many irritated by all this, “We cannot deny the reality. And anyway the Islam that I know encourages life and love.”

Iran has also endured a 20th century that is incomparable to the experiences of her immediate neighbours in the region. President George Bush has recently hailed the groundbreaking progress towards democracy by countries like Qatar and Bahrain in setting up constitutional governments, while more than a century ago colonial powers brought an end to Iran’s constitutional government of 1906. In the 1950s, the democratically elected government of Mossadegh was finished off in a coup backed by the United States and Britain. Iranians have lived through a recent violent revolution and war; bleak years that they logically do not want to encounter again. They are clearly still haunted by the futility of an eight-year long war with Iraq that only ended in 1998.

Blogger baba.eparizi writes, “When the most ruthless are the victors and not the wise…the story is truly of a bloody vicious struggle… The ruthless killings at the dawn of the Revolution…the assassinations…eight years of devastation and war…the bombing of towns…the dastardly killings of prisoners en masse in the 1980s… These are all the bloody roots of our story… Yet today these blood feuds are fading from the minds of a new generation…a generation that was created to fight for God…a generation that was created for martyrdom is suddenly aware of its predicament and the world around…and no longer believes in the endless wars of its forefathers… A new generation is pressing forward to destroy the old formula.”

The roads, streets and narrow alleyways of Iran have been renamed after the hundreds and thousands of martyrs that the locals of these neighbourhoods still vividly and fondly remember as young boys. As one blogger puts it, “Our youth were either in Evin [prison] or at war. The best of that generation ended up in our cemeteries. There was no one left to fight the regime…until now and this new generation.” While another laments that, “The Americans fight and go to war to prove to the world that they are cheerful, beautiful and sophisticated humanitarians. The Palestinians fight, as this is all they can do to defend their homes. We fought so that men who represent God…will have more chance of racketeering. We fought against another Muslim country to defend this Islam”. Blogger ‘Shargi’ perhaps sums up the views of many when she says, ‘I hate war. I hate the liberating soldiers that trample your soil, home, young and old under their boots. Believe me I love freedom. But I believe that you have to make yourself free. No one else can free you.’ In a jibe against an American threat one blogger writes that, “God invented war so that Americans can learn geography”.

On Sunday (November 27) a group of Iran/Iraq war veterans protested outside the Presidential office against the lack of healthcare and support for injured and disabled veterans. One banner read “Blessed were the martyrs who departed as they did not [live to] see these days”. On the same day there was a student protest at Tehran University during the inauguration ceremony of Ayatollah Ameed-Zanjani (the first ever cleric) appointed as the chancellor of Iran’s oldest University. Mohammad Mehdi Zahedi, the Minister of Science, was forced to leave through the University library’s back door so as not to come face to face with the student protestors. During the confrontation Ayatollah Ameed-Zanjani’s turban was knocked off his head.

Yet what is happening in Iran is more significant than the toppling of turbans. It is also more sustainable in the long run than the mere overthrow of dictators; that, as we are witnessing in Iraq, is the easy part. As blogger ‘Even Now’ puts it, no one can expel the extremists from Iran. “To reach democracy perhaps there is no other way but to tame this tribe”. Today, for more reasons than are obvious, the worst thing that could possibly happen to Iran would be a US attack.

Nasrin Alavi is a British Iranian who gave up her career in the City of London to work for an NGO in Tehran. She spent her formative years in Iran. After attending university in the UK and working in the city of London and academia she returned to her birthplace working for an NGO for a number of years. Today she lives in the UK and in Tehran. This is her first book.


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