Iranians take cue from West

A new era of pool halls, paintball, and pet dogs is dawning on politically repressed Iran.

The click of balls on a pool table is being heard again in Iran nearly a quarter of a century after the ayatollahs outlawed the game because of its associations with gambling. It is a triumphant sound.

Some 2,800 pool halls have opened in Iran, with 400 of them in Tehran alone, since the ban on pool, snooker, and billiards was lifted two years ago.

The reestablished pastime is just one sign that Iran's old guard is grudgingly giving ground on the social front while it continues to slam the brakes on political reform.

By allowing pool, "they want to show Europe and the West there are freedoms here," says Hamid Amini, the owner of the plush Afra Pool Club.

Other American fads are also taking hold in the Islamic Republic. Paintball is big here, and Rollerblading is taken to extreme measures by some youths who defy the law and common sense by clinging to the back of cars that hurtle down Tehran's thronged expressways.

Even though dogs are considered unclean in Islamic law, keeping pet canines is on the rise, especially among rich Iranians in Westernized north Tehran.

And women's dress code remains a handy, if rudimentary, barometer of social change. The head scarf, while still mandatory in public, is worn in brighter colors than ever, and some women sport a baseball cap underneath.

Mohammad Khatami, the reformist president, has said that young people need "legitimate" pleasures. "We cannot ask them to go only to the mosque."

Controls on pool halls were eased, say officials, as a safety valve to relieve boredom and disaffection in a country where more than half the population of 62 million are less than 20 years old, and unemployment stands at 16 percent.

Yet some restrictions remain. Women cannot join most pool clubs or play at the same time as men: The posture adopted by a woman over the table is apparently considered sexually suggestive.

Nor can the 40,000 theology students in Qom, Iran's center of clerical learning, take up a pool cue. Clerics in the city this summer insisted the ban must remain there to prevent gambling.

Still, the boundaries are being pushed back, as Western influence creeps forward. At the cluster of cozy cafes in a mall on Gandhi street, a popular meeting place for north Tehran's upmarket bohemians, Audrey Hepburn look-alikes wear well- tailored, knee-length tunics in cheerful colors that hug figures that are supposed to be covered by shapeless gowns.

"The government is too busy with other issues to worry about the dress code," explains Mohsen, an engineer who studied in the US. He noted the similarities between Iran's and America's social climates. "Look around. The atmosphere is very relaxed."

The conservative pragmatists, who are expected to win control of parliament from the reformists in elections next year, are unlikely to try to jerk back the hands of the social clock. Street harassment by volunteer Islamic vigilantes who monitor and enforce public modesty is declining, although periodic crackdowns ensure a climate of uncertainty.

Certain types of "decadent" Western behavior are more frowned on than others. Walking a dog seems to rile the guardians of public morality more than women wearing a dash of makeup.

Police occasionally fine pet owners and confiscate the animals. Somaya, owner of a poodle-terrier named Fifi, has been particularly cautious since a hard-line cleric singled out short-legged dogs last year.

"We never walk Fifi in the daytime," Somaya says, as she strokes her recently groomed dog. "But we do take her out into the countryside in the car and let her have a run around in places where other people won't see her. It's not easy having a pet dog in the Islamic Republic."

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