In Iran, private signs of significant change

Openness: A Tehran club offers far more than book discussion - free speech, democracy and women's rights.

December 30, 2003|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TEHRAN, Iran - In the land where Islam is supposed to be the basis of all law and behavior, the 13 men and women meeting a few nights ago in one of the well-to-do neighborhoods of north Tehran created a secular democracy.

In their country within a country, women enjoyed the same status as men. Everyone's opinion could be freely given, and Iran's Islamic clerics had no special powers. The inhabitants of that small republic, thriving in the living room of a comfortable apartment, easily dropped all the veils that the Iranian government imposes on dress, speech and actions.

So went the meeting of a Tehran book club.

In the privacy of members' homes, the 13 men and women meet twice a month and talk frankly about almost everything, even politics. Their doing so is a token of almost invisible yet significant changes in Iran - especially the growing pressure on authorities to allow far greater openness and to guarantee basic human rights.

"We've learned in Iran that we can live," said Majid Islami, a film critic and club member. "Over the last 10 or 15 years, I've always had things to read, things to watch, things to write. It's not that we can't do anything. The situation is not unbearable."

But the situation is far from secure either for supporters of reform or for the conservative clerics who hold ultimate authority.

Over the past two years, Iran uneasily stood back as the United States invaded two neighboring states - Afghanistan to the east, Iraq to the west. Iran was labeled by President Bush as being part of an axis of evil; a senior State Department official reiterated this month that Iran remains one of a small number of "rogue states" against which the United States reserves all options.

Iran's government remains divided between an elected, reform-minded parliament and the conservative clerics who advise the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It has shown itself capable of significant reforms but also of brutal violence against domestic critics. Neither the reformers nor the clerics seem able to prevail over the other. Reformers consider the clerics extremists; the conservatives fear that the revolution that made Islam a potent political force is in danger of being undone.

"People are tired of this radicalism," said Davoud Bavand, a professor of international law at Tehran University. "The fruits of the revolution turn out to be disappointment."

Conservatives as well as reformers have had to compromise in times of crisis. This week, the government welcomed emergency aid from the United States and other countries to cope with the earthquake that devastated the city of Bam. It was a rare occasion, rooted in tragedy, when Iran was regarded as a country like any other.

Knowing the limits

At the most recent meeting of the book club, the agreed-upon topic was a newly published collection of short stories. For five hours, everyone talked seriously about books, gossiped over dinner about families and colleagues, then resumed talking about writing, work, changes they hoped to see.

The stories by a 30-year old Iranian were contemporary in every sense: about a drug overdose, the kidnapping and rape of a young girl, the cruelties of adults. Fresh flowers decorated the room; a giant basket of fruit made the rounds. No one was shy. The book club members included a physician, an architect, writer-musicians, critics, a painter-photographer, a screenwriter-engineer.

Everyone was aware of certain limits. Iranians know what they can and can't do; restrictions exist for almost every endeavor. Writers know they cannot write overtly about Iranian politics, that they cannot expect to see in print anything that could be considered critical of Islam. A person can write as long as he censors himself.

"I have a short story, one that I love, but it's about God," said Sepideh Shamloo, a novelist and member of the club. "I know there is no hope to publish it."

Other limits are more serious. The government has jailed without charges people it deems to be dissidents, closed dozens of independent newspapers critical of its actions and used force against people trying to document its abuses. This month, members of Iran's parliament formally accused officials of having illegally arrested a Canadian-Iranian journalist in June and then attempting to cover up the circumstances of her death after she was beaten while in custody.

Journalist Zahra Kazemi was arrested after taking photographs outside Tehran's Evin prison. Guards grabbed her as she stood across the road from a prison gate and, according to several accounts, dragged her inside. Doctors later concluded that she died as a result of blows to her head.

Members of the parliamentary commission that investigated Kazemi's death called for the judge who approved her arrest to be prosecuted. They also reported that officials who had provided them with information during the inquiry had altered documents.

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