This piece in the OpEd section of the Wall Street Journal could be written about any despotic regime in the history of humankind…except, of course, for the satellite dishes. Regime change rarely trickles from the top down, and when it does, it’s more like regime swap than any true social progression. In the case of Iran, a country with 70 million people — the majority of whom are under the age of 30 and two degrees removed from the last major revolution — the status quo isn’t all that bad. Those in the best position to pressure the powers that be are still too caught up in their sumptuous Middle Eastern lifestyle to vocalize any meaningful dissent, and that’s as true today as it was 1400 years ago when the secular Zoroastrian aristocracy took their first half-hearted bow toward the west…
How can you have a revolution when everyone is watching TV?
BY FAROUZ FARZAMI
TEHRAN–Killing time the other day on my way to meet my boyfriend, I walked through the long narrow passages of the House of Artists in the vicinity of the old U.S. Embassy, when I came upon a graceful exhibit of books published in America.
The books had been imported by a company called Vizhe Nasher (“special publication”), which is authorized, as it must be, by the government. Most concerned the visual and architectural arts, photography, sewing and cooking, and there was a wide variety offering weight-loss techniques, but I came across one I was startled to find: “The Daily Cocktail: 365 Intoxicating Drinks,” by Dalyn A. Miller and Larry Bonovan.
I live in a country where alcohol is officially banned, but where the art of homemade spirits has reached new heights. Sharing my astonishment about the cocktail book with some friends with better connections to the Islamist regime, they explained the government has a silent pact with the educated and affluent in Iran’s big cities, who render politics unto Caesar, provided that Caesar keeps his nose out of their liquor cabinets.
In other words, the well-to-do Iranian drinks and reads and watches what he wishes. He does as he pleases behind the walls of his private mansions and villas. In return for his private comforts, the affluent Iranian is happy to sacrifice freedom of speech, most of his civil rights, and his freedom of association. The upper-middle class has been bought off by this pact, which makes a virtue of hypocrisy.
The accommodation runs both ways. A friend who has made a small fortune in the pharmaceutical business told me that recently that the enforcers of Islamist law appeared on the roof of his condominium in the northwest Tehran suburb of Sharak-e-Qarb to seize all the satellite dishes. Every household received an order to attend a hearing of the revolutionary court, where the magistrate–typically a mullah–will levy fines. The fines help feed the friends of the courts, while for my wealthy pharmacist friend, erecting another satellite dish is as easy as refueling his car–and even the inconvenience of replacing the dish will not be necessary for long. Technology is more than up to the challenge posed by the morals police. “I have heard there is a state-of-the-art dish made of invisible fiberglass that I can install on the window pane of my apartment,” my friend told me. “I’m going for it.”Many Iranians believe the occasional crackdowns are being organized by corrupt officials who secretly own interests in the new generation of satellite dishes. The confiscations just create markets for newer products.
The issue illustrates the larger pattern. My friend’s luxurious apartment is worth more than four million tomans, equivalent to about $4,000 per square meter. He owns a pharmacy downtown and is in the comfortable upper-middle class. These are the kind of people who can afford mansions in Shahrak-e-Qarb or in Lavasan, up in the desirable hills where former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and his ilk live.
“I can afford yearly two or three months’ vacation in Dubai, Europe or even America,” my friend said. “Why should I bother to organize a protest against seizing our satellite dishes? We may be forfeiting our freedoms, as you say, but when the price of avoiding the authorities is so affordable, why would we risk everything to take on the regime? We have to wait until society itself is disillusioned, and the masses open their eyes.”
In this world, it is only the principled intellectuals of moderate means who suffer, like my friend Farid Nazari, who courageously speaks his mind on all occasions and who operates a stall that sells banned books. He has had his inventory seized several times in the last two years. “We live in a circus,” he said. “We, as the people of culture, are victims of official idiosyncrasy. The authorities act impulsively based on whimsical assessments of risk. Their actions defy common sense and logic, so are completely unpredictable. It is that unpredictability that leads to panic and intellectual paralysis. That’s the secret of the current Iranian despotism.”
That, and hypocrisy. The well-to-do are paying a price for their comforts, and I wonder sometimes if they understand what it is. How can you have a revolution when everyone is watching TV?
“Farouz Farzami” is the pseudonym of a journalist who is forbidden to publish in Iran.