Iran battles boredom with paint guns

Some Iranians are seeing the newly imported craze of paintball as a way to reach out to troubled youth

Clad in full body camouflage and wearing menacing masks, like Serb paramilitaries preparing for an operation in Bosnia in the 1990s, the gang of gunmen awaits instructions.

"This is not a defensive game - you've got to attack!" the team captain bellows, as his troops load their guns with ... bright pink and blue balls of paint.

"Anything else?" he asked.

"Don't kill the reporter!" shouts one masked storm trooper, eliciting laughter as he nods toward a tall visitor dressed in a referee's jersey and draped in cameras - a tempting target for the trigger-happy gunslingers.

Welcome to paintball in Iran, where young people say they are desperate to relieve boredom - and have embraced a newly opened three-dimensional, paint-splotched battleground as their latest obsession.

Entertainment possibilities are limited in the Islamic Republic, with its reputation of dour clerical rule, that has ruled out fun. Public dancing and singing are prohibited, Western films can only be watched on private video players at home, and for women, wearing lipstick or revealing hair in public can still bring out vigilantes' wrath.

But things are changing in Iran, and budding paintball buffs are amazed by the new Matrix complex. They are handed a gun - each one thoroughly checked by Iran's defense and internal security ministries to ensure it can't be converted to a real firearm - a packet of paintball ammunition, and then can test their wits in combat.

"I think it's about time for these kids to have some fun like this," says Hamid Nikpour, the Iranian entrepreneur and paintball aficionado who imported the game from Canada, where he has lived for years.

Convincing the clerics to permit such sport took 1-1/2 years, but was easier than Mr. Nikpour thought. Customs and defense officials, on hand at the airport when the guns arrived, asked why. "To shoot each other!" Nikpour joked, paving the way for a surge in interest that he hopes will one day lead to an Iranian team in the paintball world championships.

If the 56 players who took up arms on one recent night are any indication, that moment may come sooner rather than later. Players start at either end of a vast, covered former parking lot. The field is 3,100 square yards and stocked with 120 guns. It's laid with 500 tons of Caspian Sea sand, buildings, a stream running through the center line, and a maze of caves.

With blood lust in their throats, they sometimes shout "Hoorah!" before taking up positions to play war, or capture the flag, or one of scores of variations.

Natural sniper nests abound. When players reach 50 hours of experience, they can move onto the second level above, with its swinging rope bridges and rooftop vantage points.

Farzad Biyouk couldn't wipe the grin from his face, after getting knocked out of play with a purple blast right between the eyes.

"In war, you would be known as the 'unknown soldier,' " quips his pony-tailed friend, Amir Mahajeri, a mechanical engineer, as they wiped paint from their masks and camo outfits between rounds. "I love it - this is a very good game, because I have never seen anything like this."

Mr. Mahajeri says he plans to come several times a week, as long he can handle the relatively high cost of $12.50 a session, plus ammo.

"Look at the faces - that's the real reason we do it," says Matrix founder Nikpour, pointing toward the electrified fighters as they reloaded and cleaned up between games. "It is real positive energy, with all the bad going out, and all the good going in."

Importing the equipment "would have been big trouble, if it was anything but sport," Nikpour says. He says he has even received appreciative calls from parents: one mother who used playing the game as leverage over her son to get his school work done; and a father who said his 14-year-old son never talked much at home - until he started playing paintball.

"The youth in Iran are so bored, that's why there is so much drug and alcohol abuse," says player Majid, noting Iran's social problems. Officials say that Iran has two million drug addicts - a figure that grows by 8 percent a year. "Anything interesting will really take off."

Paintball is taking off for spectators, too, who sit behind a half-inch thick shield of plexiglass. At the conclusion of the last game of the night, the remaining players ran the length of the battlefield, shooting toward the crowd - the moment this reporter got drilled in the back with a pink round. The would-be Iranian Rambos fired at the plexiglass, dripping paint as targeted family members cheered from behind.

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