Islamic law reaches everywhere in Iran Rules are relaxed but the risk remains

January 07, 1991|By Gelareh Asayesh | Gelareh Asayesh,Sun Staff Correspondent

MASHAD, Iran -- The loudspeaker banishes sleep. The amplified voice drifting up to the open bedroom window is alarming -- until it is resolved into words.

"Sweet pomegranates. Green beans. Green beans. Sweet pomegranates."

The roving street sellers are starting their morning rounds in the neighborhood, with carts full of vegetables, housewares, even air conditioners. Soon the salt-seller joins in, his mournful cry of "Namaki" summoning housewives to buy rock salt or sell him their leftover bread that will end up in a farmer's hands, food for the cows.

It's a big difference from the days just two years ago when, twice a week, the air would fill with keening and sobs, and cries of "Allah-u-Akbar" -- "God is Great." Bodies came in by the hundreds then, and the city would mourn its dead young men, home from the Iraqi front.

But though the war of bombs and bullets is done, the war of nerves goes on.

Day-to-day life here, Iranians say, is frustrating, sometimes to the point of despair. Only money makes things easier.

Iranians have endured a national apocalypse, losing much of a generation of youth in a conflict that lasted longer than World War II -- even as they endured a decade of turbulence in the wake of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's revolution.

Though the nation seems eager to leave behind both the war and the revolution's violent early years, the legacy of the past decade persists.

Iran is in the midst of a transition from war to peace, from revolution to more stable rule. The problems of transition include: 50 percent inflation; disintegrating automobiles, telephone lines and roads; general disarray; and a lingering sense of insecurity as Iranians pursue forbidden pleasures in defiance of Islamic law.

With the government struggling to rebuild an economy mangled by war, most Iranians' lives are reduced to a perpetual struggle to muster the basics of life, even though luxuries are abundantly available for those who can afford them. Staples such as tea, meat and rice -- even car tires and building materials -- are rationed. Spending hours in line for such goods is as much a part of life as brushing one's teeth.

Money is so devalued that any sizable purchase requires handing over bags of bills. Value is pegged to the dollar, which at the official rate is worth 70 tomans. At street corners, where clusters of men openly hawk dollars, deutsche marks and lire, a dollar was worth 140 tomans in early October, as much as 147 tomans in November.

Though personal freedoms have increased under the regime of President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who took over in the summer of 1989 after Ayatollah Khomeini's death, fundamentalist Iranians fight changes welcomed by their more liberal brethren. Meanwhile, many Iranians live in a gray zone between what is official and what is tolerated. The threat of punishment always looms, often striking without warning.

The country is at once wholly normal and perilous. Neither the normalcy nor the uncertainty entirely define the reality of the experience. They exist in perfect tension.

In daily life, post-revolutionary Iran has plenty of rules and plans and schedules. But as the country struggles to get back on its feet, as Iranians continue to dig mines out of the streets and welcome back prisoners of war, there is still a feeling that the rules of society remain suspended.

Will the Mashad-Tehran bus run today? Will hard work ensure university acceptance or a promotion? Nothing is certain, and that, more than anything, fosters frustration, even despair.

Iranians complain that getting routine things done depends on personal relationships. Having an acquaintance -- a parti -- is the key to getting a job, a pardon or an airplane ticket. Corruption, a staple of the ousted Shah Mohammad-Reza Pahlavi's regime, continues despite government crackdowns.

"Everything needs a parti," says a disgusted Tehrani.

For the young, university admission, which in Iran is synonymous with success, has always been difficult because of the intensity of competition. But set-asides for families of martyrs, the war-wounded and the returning prisoners of war have made it virtually impossible for others. Many youngsters now take for granted that they won't pass the concours, the examination that determines their future.

You come here for two months, three months, you see the surface of the matter," a young university student tells a visitor.

"People are laughing, happy, naturally they're happy to see you. But if you live here day to day . . . you either have to go live in isolation somewhere or from morning till night you get frustrated. You see things that drive you crazy.

"Every morning, I get up, I tell myself I'll handle it. Then something else happens that just makes it impossible."

The very fact that people complain steadily about what they wish to see changed, both publicly and privately, suggests a level of stability and implicit acceptance of the existing government.

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