Sheer incredulity

Journalists, business people, tourists, artists and culture professionals – in 2016 many more foreigners travelled to Iran than in previous years. The visitors often remark on how inspiring the "desire for freedom" and "cosmopolitanism" of young Iranians in particular is, leading to a host of superficial observations. By Stefan Buchen

By Stefan Buchen

Uncovering something unexpected in far-off lands, penetrating through into hidden worlds carefully shielded from malicious powers: it′s the stuff that explorers' good fortune and reporters' dreams are made of.

No country in the world has attracted so many German and European "conquistadors of the unknown" in recent years as Iran. They don't struggle there on foot over "rough-hewn ways". Nor does the typical traveller of today see the country "from a saddled vantage point". Instead, these adventurers are tourists of society. By way of "couch surfing" they gain entrance to cheerful drinking parties at which young bikini-clad women jump into swimming pools.

Amidst the sea of humdrum apartment blocks in Tehran, they uncover "islands of hedonism". On forays through shopping malls, they bring to light "stylish", "high-fashion" beauties sporting lots of "makeup and glitter". Their headscarves are invariably pushed casually back on their heads. In popular books such as "Couchsurfing in Iran", or in articles in newspapers ranging from the respected "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" to the tabloid "Bild", the visitors remark in astonishment on the overwhelming "desire for freedom" among the Iranian youth. The reporter for the "Welt am Sonntag" finds that "the Orient looks much more Occidental than one might think."

Caught up in cliches

That the urge to pursue the "casual Western lifestyle" is jeopardised by sinister "guardians of public morals and religion" who "can strike at any time", meaning that the sword of Damocles is hanging over the happy-go-lucky goings-on, with the threat of years in prison, only increases the appeal of such research and draws more attention to the journalistic product.

If "lovers fall into the clutches of the morality police", the stakes are staggeringly high. Not only the "cosmopolitan" protagonists are then at risk, but also the reporters themselves. The photographs and film must be made clandestinely, access gained under false pretences and data media smuggled out of the country using clever subterfuge. The reporters could after all also land in jail.

Women′s fashion In Iran by Loo-D Design (source: Loo-D Design)
Searching for "islands of hedonism ": on forays through shopping malls, Western journalists bring to light "stylish", "high-fashion" beauties sporting lots of "makeup and glitter". Their headscarves are invariably pushed casually back on their heads. In popular books such as "Couchsurfing in Iran", or in articles in newspapers ranging from the respected "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" to the tabloid "Bild", the visitors remark in astonishment on the overwhelming "desire for freedom" among the Iranian youth

The most recent wave of enthusiasm over Iran's hidden hipster scene was triggered this autumn by the release of the documentary "Raving Iran". "Electronic music is banned in this country," the reviewers inform us. "A film against the dark, blurred image of the Orient," is the opinion of an upbeat critic ( also reported on the film).

The German film director Susanne Meures had travelled to Iran to do research for her graduation project at Zurich University of the Arts. The heroes of her film are two young men who are electronic music DJs. The filmmaker observes Anush and Arash throwing underground parties and grappling with the spoilsports from the censorship authority. Anush and Arash end up as asylum seekers in Switzerland, "just like in a classical drama with a hero's existential fall from grace" (Sueddeutsche Zeitung).

Amazement at the same old thing

In Switzerland, the two Iranians are shown looking into the face of a woman with short blonde hair. "I've never been to Iran. I can't imagine that you can be locked up in prison there just for making music," she says, full of empathy for the two exotic DJs. In this scene, the Swiss woman briefly plays the role of audience. She embodies the incredulity that drives both the work and its reception.

We apparently enjoy marvelling at how young people strive in the obscure theocracy to lead "a normal life". How nice it is to know that "our Western lifestyle" serves as a shining example for Iranian youth and as a "target of their desires". We convince ourselves that the young people will be able through the "power of subtle provocation" (Focus) to bring about the "end of the dictatorship" (Welt am Sonntag). In the process, we don't hesitate to elevate House music to the rank of an "Ode to Freedom" (Berliner Zeitung) and a rave in the desert to the significance of an "archaic adoration" (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung).

Cover of Navid Kermani′s ″Schoner neuer Orient″ (Beautiful New Orient; published by dtv)
In one of the ″Schoner neuer Orient″ reports Navid Kermani dismantled the "puritan image" held in the West of the "Iranian theocracy". "Tehran harbours a vast subculture of dance floor and ecstasy, of alternative rock, rap and techno," he writes. Society there has "secularised and modernised"

Must we excuse the writers of these words because they were maybe stoned when they wrote them? Most astonishing of all is how Western writers, reporters and evidently also media consumers manage to get excited 1,001 times over the very same thing. The "lax-fitting headscarves", "the tighter and tighter coats" and the "un-Islamic pleasures of the Iranian young people" have long become cliches every bit as popular as the image of chador-clad Iranian women once was, or before that the wise and clever Shah of Persia.

Never leave home without your cliche

Travellers to Iran like film director Susanne Meures are unquestionably courageous. There is no doubt that their work in the country puts them in danger. However, one thing tends to be overlooked: in terms of content and journalistic skills, works such as "Raving Iran" require no courage at all. On the contrary: they keep to the well-trodden paths of incredulous amazement and soothing self-assurance. As if the motto were: "I never leave home without my cliche".

Imagine a reporter for "Neues Deutschland" in former East Germany. He could definitely provide an accurate picture of homelessness in the United States. But does that require journalistic courage? Hardly, because he would only be satisfying prevailing perceptions of the cruelty of capitalism.

It would probably be too much to ask that the irony of the moment when in Goethe's West-East Divan "the veil a sweetheart lifts" might cast its cooling shadow upon today's news coverage of the Orient and particularly of Persia. But we might nonetheless expect a somewhat greater sense of progress in our knowledge of the situation and a slightly sharper awareness of the risk of going around in circles.

Sex and drugs in the Islamic Republic

Navid Kermani already encapsulated the themes touched on here back in 2003 in the volume of reports from Iran he titled "Schoner Neuer Orient" (Brave New Orient). In the chapter "Sex and Drugs in the Islamic Republic" he dismantled the "puritan image" held in the West of the "Iranian theocracy". "Tehran harbours a vast subculture of dance floor and ecstasy, of alternative rock, rap and techno," he writes. Society there has "secularised and modernised".

He points out, however, that this finding is "just as ambivalent as modernity itself". Kermani reports on a decline in social morals and a rise in prostitution along with widespread drug use. "There is probably no other country in the world where the political system has detached itself to such a degree from social developments," is his diagnosis – made 13 years ago. All the same, he steered clear of interpreting the non-conformist behaviour of young people and adults in Iran as a form of political protest.

Green movement demonstration in Tehran, June 2009 (photo: Getty Images)
Subversion has its limits: the Iranian opposition politicians Mehdi Karrubi and Mir-Hossein were officially beaten by the incumbent Ahmadinejad during the 2009 presidential elections. Refusing to recognise the outcome, they and many other voters accused the authorities of falsifying the results. The regime used force to crush the mass protests that followed. Former premier Mussawi and former parliamentary speaker Karrubi have both been under house arrest since February 2011

Compared to Kermani, the author of these lines came quite late when he devoted several television documentaries to youth culture in Iran in early 2006. He observed at the time how young people turned the Ashura festivities commemorating the Shia Imam Husein into a "Husein Party" on the night-time streets of Tehran, how long-haired heavy-metal rockers thrashed their electric guitars in an auditorium at Tehran University under portraits of Khomeini and Khamenei (while the audience got high on ecstasy pills), and how it was possible to get away from it all by skiing in the Elborz Mountains.

"The milder despotisms are the more permanent ones"

Since then, a generation of Iranian children has grown into young adults who are having similar experiences. So why should we keep telling the same stories? What knowledge is to be gained from that? Is our media culture suffering from a neurotic tick? Rehashing the same narrative again and again is simply embarrassing, particularly as the political and social culture of the West has itself fallen into a deep crisis and can hardly be described anymore as a model to emulate. What's more, we already realised the limitations of the subversive force of the young generation in Iran back in 2009, when the "Green Wave" failed.

At the latest since that time, it is plain that the "Islamic Republic" must not necessarily be replaced by a liberal democracy (with freedom-loving youth blazing the trail). The revolutionary guards could very well transform the country into a military dictatorship instead. Or Iran could descend into chaos and civil war, especially if it doesn't manage to get its growing environmental and demographic problems under control. And the rule of the clerics may persist for some time to come. At any rate, Iran's leaders seem to be much more flexible and capable of learning than we like to think.

Perhaps they have long since learned to accept raves and rock concerts as part of reality and even see some benefits in them. "The milder despotisms are the more permanent ones," wrote Peter Sloterdijk in a theoretical dissertation on "Stress and Freedom". This is because mild despotisms offer "subjects enough pleasant pastimes to compensate for existence under the yoke of subordination."

With this in mind, the roving reporters from Germany might do well to look at Iran's congenial individualistic youth culture in a completely new light.

Stefan Buchen

© 2016

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor