Iran's revolution bears down on embattled middle class
Tehran, Iran — Middle- and upper-class Iranians are waging an uphill battle for social survival in an Islamic revolutions that has condemned them as heretics. They have been branded as "Taghugi," or the idol worshipers, by the militant Muslims who dominate Iran's 15-month-old revolutionary society and reject anything that smacks of a "satanic" West.
At first, the Taghugi brand seared only those who had made money and gained power from the suffering of others under the deposed Shah. There were many.
Increasingly, the label seems to taint just about anyone who has some money -- not necessarily a lot -- and who is not openly, fervently "Islamic" and "revolutionary."
one victim, in April: a Tehran Community School teen-ager who defiantly held hands with his girlfriend under the gaze of an Education Ministry inspector.
"We had warned the boy before," explained one of the dozen American teachers remaining at an international school turned virtually all-Iranian by an exodus of foreigners. "We had no choice but to suspend him."
the showdown with the Taghugi -- like so many others in a revolution that has torn iran's political, social, and economic fabric apart -- may well prove to be a battle without truce and without victors:
A deposed and defensive elite can mount no direct threat to a revolution powered by the poor. But in Iran as elsewhere, those with most of the money tend also to have much of the scientific, managerial, and professional expertise the new government may need to put the country back together again.
In that sense, thousands of brains have been drained from Iran over the past year.
At a Taghugi dinner party under the mountain tiara of northern Tehran, atrophying businessmen, professors, shop owners, and others of the rich and not-so-rich deride the venerable Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in song, verse, and an occasional off-color joke. They lampoon the self-styled "Muslim students following the line of the Imam," wondering out loud whether the youngsters are getting academic credit for their occupation of the United States Embassy.
"Did you hear that we closed down the Tehran buses now that we have the line of the Imam?" spars one young woman, educated in the US.
Yet the celebration seems empty, with all the joy of a wake, and many talk simply of leaving -- all the more so since the ruling Revolutionary Council began began in April to weigh sharp restrictions on Iranian travel abroad.
A downtown boutique owner who used to do a thriving trade in the latest Paris fashions says 80 percent of his business has evaporated: "Lots of people have already left the country. Those who stayed behind aren't really in any mood to buy dresses."
If the government goes ahead with plans to limit most Iranians to one three-month stint abroad each two years, he will leave, too.
"I have been waiting in the hope things will get back to normal, not back to the old regine, but just back to a normal way of life," he said.
He is "waiting" now only because he has decided to go to the United States, a difficult maneuver under President Carter's sanctions. "But if they go through with the travel restrictions, I'll leave anyway," he says. "I'm finding I just can't last here any more for more than a month at a time without going crazy."
Iran did not make its revolution for boutique owners. The wrenching contrast between the plush sitting rooms of northern Tehran and the festering slum quarters of southern Tehran affords ample proof that boutique owners, and their neighbors, needed no revolution.
Nor, as one American newsmagazine implied last year, was the point of the revolution to maintain the Western trappings of "joy," its liquor, and its music and revelry.
Besides, boutique owners and the like, if not profiting, are surely not starving either. They eat and, discreetly, drink as they did before.
Pop music still blares from an occasional street-corner cassette kiosk. Isolated John Travolta posters vie with thousands of Ayatollah Khomeini and President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr.
Yet like a spray of machine-gun fire, the revolution's escalating campaign to purge alleged vestiges of the old regime sometimes seems less than discriminating in its aim. Many victims, with no links to the deposed Shah, seem targeted simply for not being poor -- for having been winners in a system where many more lost.
Others, like women's hairdressers, happen to make a living in trades now deemed counter to Islam.
And increasingly, it appears that the young will be made to pay for the presumed sins of their elders.
The branded elders, by and large, say they do not crave a return to the old order -- perhaps because the possibility seems so remote. They ask for something more modest: acceptance, any niche at all in the brave new Iran.
"I am Iranian," says one professional."I am not a politician. I never particularly liked the Shah, and I don't want him back. Why must I be treated like an enemy in my own country?"
"I supported the revolution, in that I believed there should be a change in Iran," adds a young Iranian journalist, educated in the West. "But that was because I had expected the new order would be tolerant and free."
For the Muslim militants who have become the engine of permanent revolution in Iran, however, there seems less and less room for compromise.
The disparate economic, social, and political threads of one of this century's deepest popular upheavals seem to have come together in Iran's headlong spring toward "Islamization:"
* local revolutionary committeemen recently shaved the head of a north Tehran hairdresser because he had been doing women's hair. The Bureau for the Battle Against Corruption, a post-revolutionary phenomenon attached to the prosecutor's office in Tehran, has argued all such hairdressers must close.
"Those affiliated with the Taghugi regime have not given up their practice of doing women's and girls' hair," one Tehran newspaper explained. "Male hairdressers' salons have been put at the disposal of loose women and girls and serve as hangouts for pleasure-seeking men."
* Movie theaters are another target. Iranian officials announced in April that a measure of control over the country's cinemas -- it remained unclear just how much control -- would be ceded to a militant Islamic charitable group formed after the revolution. From now on, movies shown in Iran would "reinforce the promotion of the holy Islamic religion," and "prostitution and corruption" in their administration must go.
The Cinema Owners Association rebutted weakly: "It cannot be though that Islam, which is one of the most progressive religions in the world, will let the only source of income for 2,000 families of cinema owners be taken away."
* The Bureau for the Battle Against Corruption also wants to bar mixed marriage celebration -- "mixed," in this case, meaning jointly male and female, as opposed to separate wedding parties for men and women.
"We are not opposed to happiness and joy," one bureau spokesman explained. "But under Islam, neither must women entertain men, nor men entertain women."
* The revolutionary prosecutor recently summoned 12 playwrights, singers, actors, and other prominent artists under the old regime for interrogation, a Tehran newspaper reported.
* In April, six Iranian managers of the local Canada-Dry subsidiary were taken hostage, a not uncommon form of contract negotiation in an increasingly polarized Iran.
* Middle-class political leaders, even pro-revolutionary ones such as former Foreign Minister Kareem Sanjabi and former Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan, have been shunted to the sideline in the past year. If Mr. Bazargan retains at least some power, it is because he is vocally Islamic an still commands the trust of the man who appointed him, Ayatollah Khomeini.
The new regime has also been purging the alleged Taghugi from government ministeries and other offices. those pre-revolutionary officials who remain, if often excluded from decisionmaking under the Shah's one-man rule, seem even more irrelevant under the new order.
One veteran Foreign Ministry official was asked to comment on a matter that presumably should have been under his department. "I don't know," he replied, a little embarrassed. "What do you actually do in the ministry?" asked the reporter. "That," the official replied, "is an excellent question."
The latest battle in the Islamization of Iran seems over the country's youth.
Fundamentalist Muslim students managed in April to force generally more well-to-do, and more "Westernized" leftists to shut political offices on university campuses. President Bani-Sadr now has ordered universities to close early this year, apparently to pave the way for the "Islamic cultural revolution" demanded by the militants. That revolution in fact began early last year with the suspension of a number of professors accused of links with the Taghugi regime.
A veteran linguistic professor at Tehran university says in mellifluous French, "I tried to steer clear of politics in the classroom," but adds with an uneasy grin that he just doesn't know whether his tenure will survive the latest "cultural" upheaval.
"It is not a coincidence for us," wrote a hard-line Muslim commentator April 21, "that imperialism finds its widest spheres of influence among the intellectuals.
Yet if one is to go by the revolutionary graffiti, the real "center of cultural imperialism" in iran is believed to be among the few surviving international high schools, such as the Tehran Community School.
Forced to move by free-lance militants in the summer of 1979, the Community School now is quartered in the one-time residence of the West German ambassador, in Tehran. While no decision has yet been announced, Iranian officials and news media have long suggested that at least some of the international schools will have to close, if only because their coeducational approach is deemed distinctly non-islamic.
An all-male soccer game roars over the flagstone terrace, having replaced the coeducational recreational period of pre-revolutionary times. "If the Education Ministry finds even one girl wandering out during the boys' recreation time, we could be in trouble," one teacher explains.
"At first the idea of not being able to play with the girls was really hard for us," says an Iranian youngster.
And what if the Community School closes? One older boy shrugs this off: "We'll go to Iranian schools," he says.
Most other children are less sanguine. "I don't know what I would do," says one. "My parents may send me abroad. But I would miss this school. I've been going here for 10 years. My friends are here."
Indeed, simply "going to an Iranian school" would seem for many of the students reading or chatting on the Community School terrace nothing less than a private cultural revolution. After all, children are creatures of parents. And these children's parents are pariahs of a revolution their offspring would be asked to accept.