TEHRAN — AS the sun sinks behind the snow-capped Alborz mountains, Tehran bursts to life. Cars and motorcycles jam the maple-tree-lined avenues. People flood department stores and traditional outdoor markets.
Firecrackers explode, drowning out other noises and adding a chaotic but jubilant air to the nights leading up to Nairouz -- the Iranian new year.
Neither United States and Israeli accusations that Iran is attempting to develop a nuclear arsenal, nor recent United Nations condemnation of the country's human rights record, are getting in the way of preparations to celebrate the nearly 2,000-year-old tradition on March 21.
And beneath the din, softer voices are resuming debate on theological, cultural, philosophical, and political views. But these voices may be more profoundly affecting a society ruled since the 1979 revolution by rigid Islamic law, which set up proper political and personal behavior for Iranians.
Young intellectuals on university campuses hold lively debates. Harvard University professor Samuel Huntington's theory of the inevitable clashes of civilization (especially Islam versus the West's civil society) and Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Noam Chomsky's criticisms of capitalism are vigorously discussed.
Many enthusiastically discuss German existential philosopher Martin Heidegger's theories on individual responsibility. And London School of Economics philosopher Karl Popper's views on an open society are often cited in debates on the state of affairs in Iran and the world today.
''It is one way of generating a debate without directly challenging the system,'' says a self-proclaimed Tehrani dissident intellectual.
But even intellectuals who oppose the rigid Islamic system imposed by the state say that the international community is not making an effort to understand the situation in Iran.
Image is everything
Many Tehranis interviewed say the Iranian people have been ''smeared'' by the West's image of them as ''backward'' and ''fanatic terrorists.''
Although they admit that Iran's negative image was partly the fault of the government's practices -- such as imposing strict Islamic law, sponsoring terrorism to undermine Middle East peace, and violations of individuals' human rights -- most believe that Western governments and media deliberately distort the image of Iranian society.
''We are smeared because we do not conform to the Western political and social norms,'' says Suheila, a young pharmacist who speaks Persian, English, and Arabic, and is working on her French.
Suheila is a devout Muslim who participated in protest demonstrations during the 1979 revolution, which led to the downfall of the pro-Western Shah Muhammad Reza Pavlavi regime. Her light hazel eyes, contrasted with her jet-black hijab (a scarf covering the face, neck, and shoulders that women must wear according to Islamic law), glow as she discusses both her disillusionment with the government and the international community.
''The revolution did not fulfill our dream of a just Islamic society, but I think that the West would have condemned us anyway even if we had succeeded, because we do not conform,'' she says.
Despite the strict Islamic code and limitations that places on recreation and entertainment, Tehran is bustling with life. Coffee shops and kebab and pizza parlors are crowded with customers, mainly families. But young couples, too, in violation of the segregation of the sexes law, are often seen cuddling in cozy corners.
On weekends, families and teenagers spend time in the city's many beautiful parks strolling, picnicking, and paddling small boats in the lakes.
''Life in Iran is more active and alive than the country and the people are given credit for abroad,'' says Bijan Khawajapour, a management consultant and economic analyst.
Difference of views
One of the most sensitive issues, especially to religious Iranians, is that they say Islam rather than their government practices is being condemned in the West. Because Iranians are different -- they dress conservatively, believe in segregation of men and women, ban alcohol and premarital sex -- they say they are not accepted by the West.
''Why is it if you have different beliefs and you want to practice, you are condemned as backward,'' asks the young Payeman Naderi, a computer programmer.
But Tehranis do not express their views in outbursts of anger. Officials and ordinary people, including critics and professed opponents of the government, are keen to use persuasion to change Iran's image.
Aware of the bad publicity Iran gets from imposing the hijab, officials go out of their way to explain to visiting foreign women that they do not have to be very strict about observing Islamic dress code.
An official from the information ministry laughingly told this reporter, who was wearing a head scarf on the second day after arriving, ''You are overdoing it, you have to feel comfortable.''
That does not mean Iranian women leave their homes without a hijab. But especially on the streets of the more affluent neighborhoods, women now allow their hair to stylishly show from beneath the hijab. And wearing lipstick, they smile defiantly to show they know they aren't supposed to do it.
This reporter has not met a single person, regardless of how he or she feels about the government, who agrees with the imposition of the hijab. Some people even say that President Hashemi Rafsanjani would make wearing the hijab a matter of personal choice, but fears the reaction of the more conservative clergy.
And the latest fashions are displayed in chic boutiques together with the long conservative monteau -- fashioned like a long coat.
Even that emulates the latest Western styles in fashion and colors, although neutrals and black remain most acceptable.
The hijab also comes in the most stylish fabrics, designs, and colors -- mainly imported chiffon from Italy.
Although cosmetics are formally banned, most stores display stacks of lipstick, powder, rouge, and eye makeup, as well as imported perfumes.
But to many, cosmetics and fashion are only important as an expression of the right of the individual to choose and are not indicators of a substantial cultural change.
But to others, these ''cosmetic'' changes are part of an important process. ''Something is definitely happening here, These manifestations on their own are not important,'' says Murad Thakfi, the French-educated editor in chief of Goft-u-Go, a secular cultural magazine published in Tehran.
''But if you see it in the context of the debate process that Iran is going through, then there are indications of opening up to diverse social behavior and norms,'' he says.