I'm sitting in the front seat of a dilapidated taxi, barreling through Tehran at a perverse speed, on my way to the most popular hangout in all of the city, the food court at the Jaam-e Jam mini-mall.
The traffic in Tehran is the perfect metaphor for the Islamic Republic of Iran. There are modern lights and well-kept lanes throughout the city, but both are mere suggestions. I've been here three days and have yet to see a single car actually stop at a red light. People drive for miles on the opposite side of the road—often in reverse! Steering through an intersection in Tehran is like driving through a crowded mall. Pedestrians amble across busy highways as though deliberately challenging drivers to hit them. And because any car with a free seat is potentially a taxi, it's not unusual for entire families to loiter in the middle of the street waiting for a ride. Worst of all, the responsibility for maintaining law and order rests in the hands of a bored and barely conscious police officer who stands on the sidewalk and randomly points at cars to stop for a "chat," by which he quite frankly means a bribe.
Ever since the imposition of Islamic law in 1979, breaking the law has become a national pastime in Iran. This is a country in which drinking alcohol is technically punishable by flogging, though every home I have entered has a well-stocked liquor cabinet. Satellite dishes are strictly banned by the government, but Tehran's hazy skyline is dotted with shiny white discs. Iranian women walk through the streets covered head to toe in the traditional black chador, only to strip them off once indoors to reveal the skimpiest, most fashionable outfits.
Teenagers especially have devised ingenious methods of getting around the Islamic Republic's strict ban on intermingling between boys and girls. Because dating is practically unheard of, packs of sexually charged teenagers drive up and down Tehran's busy streets at night indiscriminately flinging their phone numbers at each other on scraps of paper. The papers are collected, phone calls placed, introductions made, and if all goes well, a soiree is planned at someone's house, at a park, or, best of all, at one of the many mountain retreats just outside of the city, where boys and girls can mingle away from the prying eyes of the Basij.
The staggering death toll of the Iran-Iraq War left Iran with an exceptionally young and profoundly discontented population. Indeed, it was primarily their discontent that swept the Reformist President Mohammed Khatami into power with an unprecedented 80 percent of the popular vote. Emboldened by his popular mandate, Khatami launched an audacious liberal agenda. Restrictions were eased, laws finally upheld, and Iran's Basiji thugs reigned in.
Throughout Tehran, women replaced their dull black chadors with fashionable overcoats and flashy, colorful head scarves that barely covered their well-coiffed hair. Almost overnight, dozens of liberal newspapers were opened, most of which brazenly condemned the corruption of the clerical establishment and its inept handling of Iran's economy and foreign affairs. For many, it seemed that the promise of the revolution— freedom from tyranny, social justice, and above all democracy—was about to be fulfilled.
But the clerics fought back. Unable to attack Khatami personally—he is not only a high-ranking cleric himself, he is a descendent of the prophet Mohammad and related by marriage to the Ayatollah Khomeini—they instead attacked his supporters. Democratic leaders were rounded up and imprisoned. Writers, artists, and intellectuals were murdered in their homes. Newspapers were shut down, and student protesters savagely beaten on the streets by the Basij and the Revolutionary Guards.
For eight years, Khatami responded to these treacherous actions by threatening to step down and take the parliament with him, thereby shutting down the government and exposing the clerical establishment to worldwide humiliation. But he never did. Whether to avoid more bloodshed or (as some now say), because he had always been a pawn of the Conservatives, Khatami consistently backed down. Iran's youth—battered, imprisoned, tortured, and murdered—finally gave up.
When elections were held a few months ago, hardly anyone bothered to vote. (The clerical establishment had also disqualified more than half of the Reformist candidates from running.) As a result, the Conservatives recaptured parliament for the first time in 10 years. Journalists throughout the world quickly declared the Reform movement in Iran to be dead. They have only to see the Jaam-e Jam mini-mall to realize how wrong they are.
"Food court," as it is known throughout Tehran, is the refuge of Iran's next generation. This is the generation born after the revolution. They do not recall life under the Shah and are fed up with the anti-imperialist rhetoric of their elders. They were children during the Iran-Iraq War and have no experience of the horrible sacrifice Iranians were forced to make to keep the revolution alive. They couldn't care less about the revolution. They want what all teenagers want. They want what they see on their satellite stations.
Amid the pizza, burger, pasta, and Tex-Mex stands, boys in jeans and T-shirts ogle made-up girls in stylish designer scarves. Text messages are relayed back and forth between the tables. Seats are exchanged. I'm amazed at the bravado with which they casually mingle with each other.
As I sit typing on my laptop, a tall girl with heavy makeup stops at my table and smiles brightly. "Hello!" she exclaims in overly rehearsed English. "My girlfriends want to know if you will please like to join us for a Coke."
I'm baffled and say nothing. I want to tell her I speak Persian, but I sense the revelation would somehow disappoint her. She taps me on the shoulder and points to a group of cheerful young girls in flashy headscarves stealthily smoking cigarettes and giggling uncontrollably. One of them waves me over, and it occurs to me that this generation will not put up with the clerical noose around their necks much longer.