CHANGING IRAN

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A few kilometers from Mashhad it’s almost dawn, and a group of women bend down on their knees over a lilac carpet. The cold temperatures of November in Iran do not hold them back. Patiently, their slender fingers slide up the flower and gently tear it from the stem. In Iran saffron is a magic dust that can be found for a few weeks a year, and its red pistils have become the symbol of a new social and economic prosperity. The election of President Hassan Rouhani has opened a new course, more optimistic and hopeful. For Iran it is time to pay a pledge to many people who feel now entitled to collect their previously denied freedom. People like Mohamad, Reza, the boys of “Humans of Tehran”, Hamid, Susan and Behzad.

During President Ahmadinejad’s 8-year-mandate, it certainly cannot be said that the government supported the economy. The saffron entrepreneurs were forced to export it in small boxes, losing fragrance and business opportunities. None of them would ever openly express their hope for a change in strategy. Nowadays, the rules are more flexible and the government even refunds shipping costs through the banks. “Since Rouhani has been elected, export has remarkably increased”, says Mohamad Saketi, owner of a saffron import-export company. With the opening to international trade, even language barriers no longer exist: since he opened two new stores in Beijing (in addition to those already active in Spain and Dubai) Mr. Saketi has been learning Chinese with enthusiasm. “The price of saffron, like the price of gold, is changing – he says – in 2012 a kilo costed $ 2,000, in 2013 the price dropped to $ 1,400 because it could be exported in unlimited quantities”. 

From Manchester to Mashhad, with many dreams to tell and craving Sholè (typical dish, Ed.), Reza is forty years old and wears a T-shirt in November. He speaks with fervor of women and Imams, without paying attention to who might strain their ears while his baritone voice propagates along the entire Tehran bus station. “In Europe there is no work. I came back to invest my savings in my country and, if Rouhani will follow up on his commitments, then Iran will become the new Eldorado”. He seems to share the same idea with Ali, an ultra religious oil contractor who kindly pays for our taxi ride before rushing into a mosque: “We have signed many new contracts with the United States. They need cash, while we need products”.

The streets of Tehran are never empty, and despite the million cars on the road the air has a fresher taste. Antipollution measures have been enforced and a renovated metro service now leads to the foot of the Alborz Mountains. A few kilometers away, in the Iranian Artist Forum gardens, celebrations for the official recognition of the National Association of Iranian photographers are taking place. “In this photo – laughs the spokesperson – I still had my hair!”.  Unlike their older fellow photographers,  the “Humans of Tehran” people have not waited a decade. Modelling their project on “Humans of New York” by Brandon Stanton, they have started a group of street photography (street photography is officially still illegal ) that explores the intersections of Tehran to recount its inhabitants. The photographers are four: Shirin, Yara, Noosha and Omid. “In many places it is not easy to photograph – they say – People were initially reluctant but we gained popularity thanks to our Facebook page. Humans of NY – they explain – allowed the inhabitants of the City to see themselves differently and Iran also needs the same. This country is hostage to a media image that so far has only covered international politics and relations”.

In June 2009, thousands of people took to the streets to protest against the alleged electoral fraud that extended Ahmadinejad’s mandate at the government  for another four years. Among the students there was Hamid, captured by the police, imprisoned and sent into exile away from Tehran for over two years. His crime? He had lived for three years with his girlfriend without being married. Almost 30, Hamid was then readmitted to the Faculty of Psychology of the University of Tehran, where he will discuss a thesis entitled “The use of the female and male body in modern Iranian society”. But he does not seem happy with the ‘pardon’ he has received and speaks with a subtle  hint of sarcasm. “During those three years, I never touched my girlfriend with a finger. Then, while I was in exile, she lost her virginity to a friend of mine, then she has married and divorced with a third party, just to finally have her hymen surgically repaired. What a complicated life! -  he says, and slips a cigarette between his lips – I will not stay here even if this government is better than the last. Rouhani is nothing but a sheep ruled by wolves”.

Susan and the “Fair Family Law” group are also among those who do not trust the new political developments. “Thanks to the new President, we feel freer to participate in the active life – they explained during one of the carbonari meetings – but he is mainly focused on providing a new image of the country, whereas we need a new social legislation”. The group organizes clandestine workshops on domestic violence, abortion, education and work. “The real problem is not the veil – says Susan – The fact that Rouhani appointed Ms Shahin Dokht Molla Verdi as vice president for gender issues is a positive sign, but it is not enough. The previous government employed surveillance body “Fati Kommando” (policewomen in plainclothes, Ed.) in an attempt to further isolate women, keeping them indoor as much as possible and limiting the possibility of confrontation”.

The car struggles to get up the mountains, then rolls down like crazy into the empty space. Our arrival to the Caspian Sea is celebrated with many salaams and a few glasses of homemade wine. Bezhad has the attitude of someone who has studied in “Farang“, in Europe. In Tehran, he left everything: his wife, home, car, and job. He moved to Laijan. “I’d had enough of her – he confesses – after her last jealousy scene I left. Now I have nothing, but at least I am a free man!”. After five years of hellish marriage, Bezhad has rediscovered inner peace. “Iranian women – confesses – are afraid to be left alone. That’s why they ask for outrageous dowries: if they are abandoned, at least they can live on the riches of the former husband. But she did not accept my decision and her parents have even offered me money to get back”. But Bezhad does not look back. An unusual morning sun awakens the appetite and auntie’s breakfast is ready with bread, eggs, cheese and carrot jam. In Laijan nature is lush and up here women are different from the rest of the country. “They are revolutionary” says Bezhard.