By Thomas Erdbrink
In February 1979, Tehran was in chaos. A cancer-stricken Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Western-backed autocrat, had gone into exile in mid-January, leaving behind a rickety regency council. On Feb. 1, Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the godfather of the revolution, returned from exile in Paris. And in the Iranian version of “Ten Days That Shook the World,” street demonstrations raged until the government collapsed on Feb. 11.
Ecstatic Iranians danced in the streets, playing cat and mouse with soldiers as lingering pro-government sharpshooters fired from the rooftops. Families joined in mass protests, as vigilantes ransacked liquor stores and people kissed the foreheads of turbaned clerics leading the revolution.
Forty years ago, Iranians swelled with pride, hope and the expectation of a better future. Dreams of freedom and independence from the United States fired up the revolutionaries. But great, rapid change can leave deep and lasting wounds. There were lashings, hangings, amputations and mass imprisonment. Thousands of people died and hundreds of thousands left the country, some fleeing for their lives, never to return.
What materialized after those first bloody years was truly revolutionary: an Islamic republic, a theocracy built on ideological choices inspired to a great extent by Khomeini.
New rules were put in effect to forbid anything that might lead people astray and prevent them from ascending to a heavenly afterlife: strict controls on the media, which isolated Iranians from Western influences; an absolute segregation of the sexes in public places; compulsory headscarves for women; bans on alcohol and musical instruments on television; rules forbidding women to ride bicycles. It went on and on, zealously and sometimes brutally enforced by the morality police and the paramilitary Basij forces.
But over the years, as the early revolutionary fervor gave way for most people to a yearning for a more normal existence, the rules became negotiable. While the political system is basically the same as those early years, the society changed slowly, at times almost imperceptibly. Those changes have been enormous, and Iran today is closer than most outsiders generally appreciate to being that “normal” country Iranians want.
It took time for the cumulative changes to reach a critical mass. When I first visited Iran as a young reporter, the 20th anniversary of the revolution had just passed and the country was still living up to its revolutionary image. High-rises were decorated with anti-American murals or portraits of the martyrs of the 1980-88 war with Iraq.
The notoriously snarled street traffic was made up almost entirely by a sea of white, locally made cars called Paykans. In a small park, close to where I would eventually settle down, boys and girls would secretly meet on some of the more hidden benches, away from the prying eyes of relatives, but also from the morality police.
In those days, it was inside people’s houses that I saw a completely different Iran. Passing through a front door often meant stepping into a different reality, one where all the rules that applied on the streets would magically disappear.
There would be stories — Iran has a deep culture of storytelling — and bursts of laughter would be followed by dancing to Persian pop songs smuggled in from Los Angeles. Often, the music would be accompanied by someone playing a drum or, if that wasn’t available, a rice pan grabbed off a kitchen shelf. Everyone — accountants, journalists, doctors, nurses — would enjoy weekend parties that were technically illegal.
Iranians became adept at acting various roles. Abbas Kiarostami, the award-winning director who died in 2016, used mostly everyday people rather than actors in his movies, because Iranians were so accustomed to switching between lives in two worlds.
But as the years progressed, the changes began to creep outdoors and become more noticeable. When my wife, a photographer, decided many years ago to get a nose ring, she was fired on the spot. While the editors thought of themselves as reformists, they still considered a nose ring despicable and Western.
But now, they are everywhere. It is not all that unusual to spot a woman with pink hair flowing under her headscarf. Women now race through traffic riding bicycles, once seen as improper. They can even be seen riding motorcycles.
While state television still refuses to show musical instruments, there are buskers on the streets of Tehran. One day I was watching a couple of young men, one on drums and the other on guitar, when suddenly a tall young woman appeared with a bass guitar and joined in. At times the state would fight back, making a few arrests in fitful efforts to roll back the changes, but never for long. At times, it seemed as if they had simply given up.
Connections to the outside world — the internet, of course, but particularly satellite TV broadcasts that broke the veil of isolation — were critical drivers of change.
One day police raided our apartment building and destroyed the multitude of satellite dishes on the roof. The only one left was mine — as a journalist, I had special permission to have one. That evening about 20 female neighbors joined me in my living room to watch their favorite Turkish soap opera. By the next day, they all had new dishes.
Police have largely given up that fight, too. There are just too many dishes around. Iranians can now watch over 200 Persian-language channels operating from abroad, showing everything from “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” to unfiltered news and Hollywood movies.
There were days when people would turn and stare at the sight of a boy and girl walking hand in hand on the streets. Public displays of affection were not appreciated, especially between unmarried couples. Today they hang out in parks together, smooching in the shadows, and hug each other during rock concerts.
Now, with Valentine’s Day approaching, young men are anxiously deliberating what to get their girlfriends. They can be seen running around with heart-shaped balloons or gigantic teddy bears, falling on their knees for their girlfriends in public spaces, and then posting the whole spectacle on social media, for all to see.
Instagram, which is not blocked in Iran, has revolutionized the way Iranians view themselves. The photo-sharing app has been a major driver of change in a country where everything was hidden. When I moved here in 2002, photos were still taken on film, and we had to be careful because they would be developed in a lab where someone might see something that could cause problems.
But when I recently added one of my neighbors as a friend, I could see her without a scarf, at parties, having fun. The walls that long divided the private and public in Iran have been broken down, with Iranians using the streets in the way they like.
Politics in Iran are a different story. There was the Green Revolution of 2009, when people rose up to protest a fraudulent election. But that was violently suppressed, and the group of people making the decisions has remained largely unchanged over the years, even narrowing some. Yet after allowing so many social taboos to slip, Iran’s leaders face a growing dilemma of whether to start translating the social changes into new laws and customs or try to hang on to the 40-year-old ideals of the revolution.