THE DRIVE down Vali Asr avenue — the main arterial road cutting through the heart of Tehran and connecting its working-classes in the south to the more upscale north — passes through a tree-lined boulevard dotted with hoardings of Goya, Van Gogh, Vermeer, Andy Warhol, and local Iranian artists. Curious, one asks those in the know, and is told that the Tehran municipality, since last year, has begun dedicating its billboards to works by painters, in place of advertisements, for about 10 days every May.
While the art gallery on the street lends a unique character to Tehran, it is not the only occasion the city surprises visitors as the country emerges out of its international outcast status after three decades of sanctions. At every step, Iran’s capital challenges stereotypes. Its roads and infrastructure hardly reflect the economic turmoil the country has had to face under sanctions. And a stroll through Tehran’s Grand Bazaar is past fashionable women with headscarves, their hair still visible, jeans, trendy shoes and nail art.
If the women and their attire point to a liberal Tehran, public displays of affection on its streets only reinforce that notion. Scores of women can be seen holding the hands of men without stares from passers-by or even a glance from the police and revolutionary guards. An Iranian friend says many youngsters are in live-in relationships and that nobody bothers them. “The moral police doesn’t act unless there is a complaint. Once there was a complaint against a couple friend of mine, and all they had to do was come clean with their parents,” he says.
Then there are the signs of resistance and dissent. “F*** the police,” says a graffiti on a wall in the neighborhood of Gheytarieh, even as images of Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, dot the city’s landscape. There is little billboard space, however, for President Hassan Rouhani, whose government of reformists has been in power for the past three years — the Ayatollah’s face though is ubiquitous.
Khamenei is largely seen as a “politician” who provides the balance in the tussle between the hardliners and the reformists, but some feel he is responsible for the country’s hardships. “He needs the reformists to manage the country since during Ahmadinejad’s time oil prices boomed but the people didn’t get the benefits,” a political commentator says. The revolutionary guards and Ahmadinejad are reviled in Tehran as there is a belief they siphoned off millions of petro dollars.
At 1.30 am, Tehran’s supermarkets are still bustling — and well-stocked, mostly with indigenous goods. Indian products like Himalaya toothpaste have also made it to the shelves. “It has always been like this,” a friend says. Iranians proudly say that the over 36 years of sanctions has made them self sufficient and that they have been manufacturing everything of daily use — from toothpaste, TVs to cars. Pointing to a shelf of Coca Cola — seen as a symbol of American capitalism — an Iranian friend shares an apocryphal story: After sanctions were put in place, he says, Iranian scientists cracked the formula of Coca Cola and have since been making it.
Beneath the shades of liberalism, however, still lies the Surveillance State. Tehran’s hotels routinely want to keep passports of visitors and openly say they have to report everyday activities of guests to police. Any discussion on the Revolutionary Guards or the Supreme Leader leads Iranians to talk in “hushed tones”. Many have bitter memories of the 2009 protests, when Ahmadinejad is believed to have rigged the elections and opposition candidate, Mir Houssein Mousavi, was sent to jail; he is still under house arrest.
“Many photographers went to jail for just clicking pictures of the protests and those getting published, ” a friend says. Pictures of protests by the Opposition are still banned in Iran. Twitter and Facebook are both blocked, although both Khamenei and Rouhani have active Twitter accounts. Iranians, however, freely use the VPN to circumvent the blocked access to social media. Youngsters also use Instagram, where they share pictures of women, men families. Many, in fact, expressed surprise at the recent arrest of the Iranian models, since there are many who have put up pictures without headscarves.
In a country where Prohibition is the law, alcohol is available and is consumed behind doors. “Everything is available underground,” a friend says, offering to get a bottle of Scotch. While a liberal atmosphere seems prevalent in Tehran, it is hardly the barometer of the country. “Our society is full of contradictions. There is a constant battle between the old and the new. Our head is modern, but our feet is steeped in tradition. Things are changing with the new generation,” says Laylaz, who has two children in their early 20s.