Honeymoon in Tehran: Two Years of Love and Danger in Iran (8 page)

The Right Man?

I
had been in Iran for over a week, and would spend my last few days writing my story. One afternoon, I took a break to have lunch with Nasrine. We met at the kabob restaurant Nayyeb, whose creamy, pillared edifice evoked the residence of a Roman emperor. The taxi driver dropped me off half a block away, beyond the chauffeured BMWs and Mercedes double-parked outside the restaurant. A footman in tails admitted me into a sumptuous space painted in golds and pastels, its walls adorned with the gilded paneling of an eighteenth-century French palace. The people who could afford to eat at Nayyeb clearly aspired to royalty. The crowd inside, a mix of young men in tight designer shirts, slim, tanned women bearing status handbags, and businessmen with Islamic stubble and chador-draped wives, all ate the same thing: tender lamb kabobs with fluffy saffron-and-butter-infused rice.

When I lived in Tehran during 2000 and 2001, the branches of Nayyeb numbered fewer than five. Now they were opening across the city. At lunchtime, the wait was over an hour, a fact that told you the number of people who could afford a ten-dollar plate of kabob was on the rise. “There is money sloshing around this country,” I said to Nasrine as we jostled to reach the hostess. The restaurant’s patrons came from the country’s middle and upper classes, estimated at about
8 to 10 percent of the population. Though the vast majority of Iranians struggled increasingly in the country’s decrepit economy, this small group had somehow managed to increase its wealth. Many of the affluent belonged to the higher echelons of government and amassed fortunes through graft. The rest profited from the three lone areas of the private sector that thrived—housing, construction, and consumer products. In Iran, there is no middle class as we understand it in the West. If you try to carve up society in terms of income, you’re left with a handful of affluent Iranians (ranging from the comfortably well-off to the obscenely wealthy) and everyone else, who is poor (ranging from the strained to the destitute). The sorts of people who would be automatically middle class in the West—college professors, engineers, graphic designers—earn only enough to cover expenses like rent and school tuition. People who hold those jobs in the West can usually afford regular holidays and restaurants, but in Iran few have any meaningful chance to improve their lot. They are, however, educated, modern, and worldly—the attributes you’d associate with the middle class in the West; to call them anything else, like working class, would be misleading. For clarity’s sake, I call this sizable population of Iranians as middle class in these pages. I do this to capture how these Iranians would define themselves, and to emphasize how much influence they wield in Iranian society. As you read on, I ask you to please bear in mind this one caveat: in Iran, middle class means something different than two big cars parked in the driveway.

I wondered whether Nasrine and I—wearing little makeup and simple linen manteaus—would even manage to get a table, but after half an hour, we were seated in the back corner of the second floor. We chatted with a twenty-nine-year-old waiter, who was sweating in the silly uniform of frock coat and tails. When I asked how he felt about the Khatami era, he leaned against one of the restaurant’s magnolia columns almost as if to steady himself. “What do I have to be content with? I work from eight
A.M.
to midnight, commute an hour each way, and manage to see my wife and child for half an hour before falling asleep exhausted. It took us a whole year to manage to get married, I’m still paying off the marriage loan, and since we had a
baby immediately, supporting us all has gotten even harder. I almost regret it.”

In a society where people traditionally married in their early twenties or younger, the staggering costs of housing and of holding a conventional wedding had wrought nothing short of a social crisis. Young people were living at home longer, and premarital sex was becoming more common; both conditions strained the ties between parents and children as never before. To ameliorate the situation, the state offered marriage loans, but these one-off disbursals of largesse tended to thrust low-income young people from one predicament to another. Instead of being poor at home with their parents, they become poor married couples, left to fend for themselves in an inflationary economy. Often they had children immediately, only to discover that they had rushed into a life they could not afford. The waiter’s complaints mirrored those of my former driver, Ali, who at twenty-four rarely saw his daughter and regretted his rush to early fatherhood. Now employed by an oil company that offered him longer shifts, he no longer worked for me, but his bitter fights with his wife, conducted over a mobile phone as he swerved through traffic, still rang in my ears, a reminder of how unpleasant it was to be young, poor, and responsible for a family. It all convinced me to start my own family late, in my thirties, only once I had lived my youth to its fullest and become financially independent.

I thought of Ali as the waiters rushed past carrying platters of glistening grilled meat, tending to the clipped calls of bearded businessmen and of women in Hermès headscarves. I asked the waiter whether he would vote in the election, just over two weeks away. The waiter said he didn’t know much about the candidates and wasn’t sure he would bother. We finished our lunch, unwrapped the sticks of banana gum that came with the check, and prepared to leave.

That day marked the start of the official campaign period, the eighteen days candidates legally had to make themselves known to voters ahead of the election. One of the most perplexing aspects of covering an Iranian election was the official scheduling, which essentially gave the nation—its citizens, its media, its pollsters, and its
candidates—a bit more than half a month for a process that in other countries takes months or even a year. This made public sentiment notoriously difficult to predict.

Rafsanjani launched his campaign that evening on a busy, tree-lined corner where street vendors usually sold fresh walnuts and sour green plums. The seventy-year-old mullah’s grinning face was plastered across the hood of a new Mercedes-Benz, while dandyish young men and made-up young women in snug, bright tunics leapt into traffic to slap Rafsanjani stickers on passing cars.

I was packing my bags to return to Beirut as my two-week trip neared its end. I had not intended to stay through the election itself;
Time
would run its big election package, including my story, that same week. The actual results would appear as a small news update in the following issue, as was
Time’s
custom for elections in which no surprise was anticipated. As we drove around the Rafsanjani campaign corner that evening, Nasrine tried to coax me to stay another week. We hadn’t had time for any fun, she complained, and besides Arash was having a party over the weekend and had expressly invited me. I was tempted, especially by the prospect of seeing Arash again.

“Tell me exactly what he said.”

“He just said he would be
very
happy if you would come, and that I should
definitely
make a point of bringing you,” she said, adding what I assumed was her own emphasis.

“How many people are invited?”

“About fifty, I think.”

I thought about it for a moment. Arash and I hadn’t met since our first brief encounter, and a party seemed like an ideal chance to get to know each other. But I hadn’t made arrangements to be gone any longer, and felt bad asking my Beirut friends, for the umpteenth time, to pay my rent, cancel my Arabic lessons, and tend my other details.

“I don’t think I can do it, Nas. You have to tell him very nicely that I wanted to come. Explain that I had lots of work.”

I pledged to return early that summer for another round of work on Shirin khanoum’s book, thus consoling Nasrine as well as myself.

On a Thursday evening, I boarded the weekly Iran Air flight to Beirut. As usual, I was the only woman on the flight with a bright
headscarf, a lone fleck of color among the women in black chador and the turbaned mullahs in their muted robes. About ten minutes after takeoff, during which the entire cabin chanted loud salutations to Allah and his messenger, I pulled my headscarf off. Iran Air regulations demand that women keep their veils on throughout all flights (international law holds that aircraft can impose the laws of their own nation). But in the past three years, the airline had relaxed this code. The flight attendant politely served me tea and saffron pudding, and I unfolded a Lebanese newspaper, curious to read about Iran’s vote through Arab eyes.

T
he next morning, I resumed my Beirut routine as usual. First, I had breakfast—a thyme croissant and cappuccino—with my Lebanese friend Kim at the local patisserie. We did not spot any celebrities that morning, though usually you could count on at least one pop star or Robert Fisk. As this was Beirut, a city with a French attitude toward comportment, we had dressed carefully for breakfast, even though we were headed straight to the gym. We both worked out with our personal trainers (mine commended me for not eating too much rice in Iran), and then lay by the pool overlooking the Mediterranean. The poolside terrace had been damaged a few months prior, when a massive bomb killed Lebanon’s prime minister along the stretch of road below. But from where we were reclined, you could see no traces of that event. I told Kim all the important details of my trip, from Mr. X’s reception to meeting Arash, and wondered aloud whether I shouldn’t have stayed longer after all. Kim said the comforting things girlfriends say at such moments, and we parted ways to run errands and spend a few productive hours writing, before reconvening that evening for dinner and cocktails.

My first week back in Beirut passed quickly. The sybaritic whirl of Levantine socializing for which the city is legendary—seaside nargileh (water pipe) sessions, vineyard lunches, and nightclub openings—made the Iranian election seem as distant as Tibet. To bridge this sense of disconnection, I stayed at home on June 17, 2005, the day Iranians went to the polls, to read that week’s
Time and
follow the results.
The magazine had put Rafsanjani on the cover with the tag “The Return of Rafsanjani” as “the man likely to be Iran’s next president.” The story recounted his political rise, fall, and reemergence. I had not contributed, preferring to focus on my own essay, which ran alongside, about how the regime was seeking to buy off discontented young people. The people I had met on my trip—the Basiji in Naziabad, the former activist Mr. Amini, Sonbol the racer, and even the Nayyeb waiter—all appeared. I had detailed their diverse frustrations, as well as the state’s ineffective efforts to address them.

That Rafsanjani would win was taken for granted among strategists in all camps. Everyone, reformist and conservative alike, shared the underlying assumptions: that he spoke to the perceived desires of the young electorate and offered a bridge between factions; that without him, the country was much more likely to move toward radicalism. Rafsanjani was the only candidate who could slaughter the revolution’s sacred cows. He understood the importance of restoring ties with the United States and of cutting Iran’s support for militant groups, such as Hamas, that opposed peace with Israel. The eternal pragmatist, Rafsanjani offered the promise of subtle change while the fundamentalist old-timers died out. Two days ago, I had read online a column by one of the country’s most important conservative strategists declaring “It’s over … we have no chance.”

As had been expected, Rafsanjani came first, with 21 percent of the vote, but he was trailed closely by an obscure candidate, the former mayor of Tehran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with 19 percent; Mehdi Karroubi, a dark-horse reformist candidate, took 17 percent. I shook my head at the television in Beirut, confused. Not a single person I had spoken to in Tehran the days before the election had uttered the name Ahmadinejad. It wasn’t simply a matter of not being a favorite; the man was unknown. In describing whom they preferred, many Iranians had referred to other candidates, explaining why they would not be voting for them. But Ahmadinejad might as well not have been on the ballot, so little did he seem to figure in either the calculations of strategists or the minds of everyday Iranians. In truth, I had little sense of him, apart from half-formed impressions of a religious fundamentalist. As mayor, he had focused on Islamic gender
segregation schemes, and rumor held that he had attempted to bury war martyrs in all of Tehran’s public squares.

I did not at first believe that the election had been fixed. The regime had its characteristic ways of distorting the democratic pro cess, but in the recent past outright vote fixing had not been one of them. The mullahs believed such measures would destroy the government’s legitimacy, so instead they carefully vetted candidates, keeping those they considered undesirable off the ballot. It was a far more subtle form of political corruption. In the most recent presidential and parliamentary elections, the authorities had permitted a substantial number of reform candidates to run. These elections were fiercely competitive; outside observers considered Iran’s electoral process more open than many of its neighbors’. But this time around, everyone in Iran wondered whether the vote had been fixed. The concern was not that ballot boxes had been stuffed, but that, as a spokesman for the Interior Ministry put it, people’s votes had been “orchestrated and organized.”

Much has been said and written since about what happened that fateful day, but this much is clear: at the very last minute, the top leadership of the Iranian state chose to back Ahmadinejad with all its considerable institutional weight. The Revolutionary Guards and the Basij, both accountable to the Supreme Leader, mobilized their networks of tens of thousands, spreading the word throughout their obedient constituencies that Ahmadinejad was the man to vote for. This campaign began after I had left Iran, scant days before the vote, and journalists who picked up on the activity underestimated its scope. Basij members received phone calls and text messages “persuading” them to vote for Ahmadinejad, and instructing them to pressure others. At Friday prayers on election day, Ahmadinejad’s supporters appealed to the most faithful, pleading for their votes despite the official ban on campaigning on election day.

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