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Misreading Tehran

By Karl Vick
Sunday, June 25, 2006

TEHRAN The mullah asked the Korean: "What's your idea about Iranians?" The question was rhetorical, a greeting between veterans of a shattering week. The mullah was among a small army of clerics overseeing the burial of perhaps 40,000 people in three days, victims of a catastrophic earthquake in southern Iran during the final week of 2003. The Korean was a rescuer packing for home after finding no survivors.

"You are closer than us to the United States," the mullah said in a voice a half-measure louder than necessary. "So do whatever you can to them on our behalf."

The Korean's smile remained in place.

"Tell the Americans that you saw the clergy burying the bodies in Bam. We are very expert at this. Tell them: 'We will bury you, too.'

"If graves are required," he said, "we have one for Bush."

If the destruction of Bam was like a ghoulish cartoon -- a mud-brick city reduced to uniform brown heaps that no earthquake expert recalled ever seeing before -- here was a cartoon within a cartoon. The mad mullah kept grinning and glancing toward me, the intended beneficiary of his diatribe. A second cleric cleared his throat in embarrassment. "This is a good situation," said a third, "for everybody to understand that human beings really need each other."

What's your idea about Iranians? Almost everyone I encountered in my 10 visits to the Islamic republic over the past 3 1/2 years resembled the mortified colleagues of the mad mullah: gracious, hospitable, apparently genuine in their regard for ordinary Americans and reasoned in their criticism of Washington. Years before the Bush administration's recent and surprising agreement to Tehran's request for negotiations , Iranian officials were likely as not to close an interview with a sidelong bid for some contact, any contact, between the two governments.

Perhaps that's why, in scanning my recollection for scenes that might encourage the understanding that eludes both countries, what stands out are the extremes, outliers such as the lanky, intense cleric in the Tehran crowd gathered for the free food and festival on the 26th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. Every few steps, he bent at the waist, plucked a paper Iranian flag from the ground and tore the emblem from the center. Then he kissed the scrap and stuffed it in his pocket.

The emblem contained the word ''Allah," he explained, and a close reading of religious texts dictated that it should never touch the ground. His son, who looked about 7, gazed at the street littered with thousands of the paper flags, then up at his father, struggling for comprehension.

* * *

You tend to do that in Iran, a place that newcomers invariably describe as not what they expected. The reality turns out to be less severe -- less like the billowing black chador so irresistible to photographers: big, vaguely frightening and often in counterpoint to the more nuanced background scene it overwhelms.

The severity exists these days mostly as memory and threat, a reservoir of fear that surged to the surface of more liberal Iranians last year when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president. The day after the election, a young secretary given to wearing spring pastels with matching sandals showed up at work looking like a nun. "I am making myself ready," she said.

But the crackdown never came. Iran's ruling theocrats know their failures as well as anyone: stunning rates of opiate addiction, brain drain, traffic fatalities and a feeble per capita income. They clearly have calculated that the nation's young majority will not abide both joblessness and ruthlessness. The fear runs both ways.

In a morale meeting for hardliners last month, a young man who five years ago had the power to chastise the young women in his office for not sufficiently covering themselves whined: "They make fun of me."

So today on one side of a Tehran thoroughfare, a fading wall mural celebrates a Palestinian suicide bomber, while on the other a line of posters advertise HUMMER, a cologne named for the American war wagon.

After 2,500 years on the plateau that holds them -- along with their self-regard -- above the Arabs, Iranians know who they are. Their traditions are elegant. If they are indeed proud, as the children of empire will be, a particular aspect of history often pointed out these days is that almost all of Iran's wars have been defensive.

"Why don't Americans know this about us?" a man asked me last month in Arak , where the government is building a water reactor as part of its nuclear program.

* * *

The official spokesman of the Army of Martyrs of the International Islamic Movement struggled to summon a militant mien. At the time, in early 2004, U.S. troops were fighting in the Iraqi city of Najaf, and the leaders of the Shiite theocracy in Iran felt compelled to rattle a saber in the name of protecting Shiite Islam's holiest city. The group claimed to be signing up volunteer suicide bombers by the thousands. But as the discussion progressed, the spokesman acknowledged that the effort was essentially public relations, and that he, for one, was not about to blow himself up.

What about the two men sitting silently in the corner?

Perhaps, one said, but first he had a question for the American visitor:

"Do you know the film by Mr. Jim Carrey -- 'Bruce Almighty'?"

It was their new favorite. They had watched it over and over. They liked the part at the end, where Morgan Freeman, in the role of God, summons the power of the heavens in a distinctly ominous way, clouds gathering, stentorian oration.

They saw this as a message in line with the narrative of Twelver Shiism, the brand of Islam followed by 89 percent of Iranians. It reveres the 12th imam, or 12th Shiite caliph, to succeed the prophet Muhammad, the one who disappeared 1,100 years ago and whose return will herald the day of judgment. Iran's religious government claims to be holding his place.

Both shook their heads when I insisted the film's message was basically laughter.

"Americans take this very seriously, I think," one said.

* * *

In Tehran's needle park , the junkies milled in the slow motion of the drugs that consume the country's unemployed. The opium addicts warned that the heroin addicts can be aggressive. A man sat on the trimmed grass, tipping forward at the rate of one inch per minute.

On a table set up under the only shade tree for blocks around, desperation was measured in the worthless, almost surely stolen items offered for sale -- a belt, a doorknob, last year's pocket calendar.

"I've been tortured because I've been in the United States," announced Saeed Mahmoud. "They hate America. I'm sorry to tell you. It's quite unfortunate."

He spoke in staccato bursts of English.

"I was educated in California." He was 47, and addicted to opium since the shah was in power. The mullahs mystified him.

"What did Israel do to you? Have they stolen your glasses? What has the United States done to you? Didn't you fight Saddam Hussein for eight years? General Myers should be your goddess. He IS my goddess. Osama bin Laden, give me him for a couple of minutes, see how I do him."

He made stabbing motions with an imaginary pin.

* * *

Reporters are routinely warned against mistaking northern Tehran for the nation at large. The same concentration of wealth that makes the capital's leafy, prosperous upper reaches home to every good hotel also nurtures a spoiled population of dissolute youth, identifiable by their haute hijab (diaphanous scarves tossed over bouffants) and bandages indicating recent rhinoplasty.

Last June, as Iranians were preparing to elect the obscure Tehran mayor Ahmadinejad president, a guest in one of the better hotels was an Iranian American student conducting fieldwork for a doctorate in public health.

Her topic was the increasingly profligate sexual behavior occurring behind the compound walls of Tehran's wealthiest neighborhoods. The work meant long nights at the parties that lasted until the wee hours, followed by lonely days translating into clinical terms the exertions of young Persians whose mania for sensation appeared to correlate inversely with their government's disapproval.

"I have got to find a boyfriend," she said.

* * *

In a corner shop in a working-class area south of Tehran, Mohammad Tavasoli unfolded a newspaper and spread it into the bottom of a cage.

"I'm not very concerned about political parties," he said. "I'm fond of birds, really."

This much was apparent from his haircut, a wonderful, distinctly avian affair carefully upswept and curled inward like the crest of the cockatiels in his cages. The birdman blew a handful of seeds toward a pair of nightingales and explained why he has never voted.

"It's only theory," he said. "No practice. The revolution was supposed to be in the name of the poor people, the people in the south of the city. In the beginning, everybody was talking about this. But then they got used to power, and there was no getting away from it. They all love money.

"I'm indifferent and neutral. I'm not interested in any of these debates. But I've got to tell you, I'm 44 years old. Twenty-five years ago, I was one of the people who was looking to be martyred for this cause. I spent six months at the war front. But now I can't think of anything but my children's future. I'm trying to make ends meet. I'm mired in my economic problems."

Canaries cost 60 cents to $5. Nightingales went for more.

"The children in the south of Tehran, this is how they entertain themselves. In the north they've got computers, Internet, that sort of thing."

* * *

Near the center of the city, two stooped men pushed a cleaner's cart while struggling to support a third man, older and unable to walk by himself. Crabbing along, Khodadad Torshamli, his brother and his uncle were a scene from Beckett framed by the dingy white marble that encases half the buildings in the capital.

"I just hear noises," said Torshamli, 46, when I asked him about the Iranian nuclear controversy. "There's no money in it, so why should we care?"

The trio had lost their jobs as farmers in the provinces and come to Tehran like millions of other economic migrants. They worked sweeping the tidy streets. After four years, they were still trying to raise money so their uncle might be able to have surgery on his back.

"What the latest news is, I don't know," Torshamli said. "But they keep saying they are very wise and brave." His smile was deadpan. "What we are looking for is security, but in these noises there's no money, there's no security. I can't smell anything good."

He put a shoulder into the cart and got it moving again, sideways and forward at the same time.

vickk@washpost.com

Karl Vick is the Washington Post's Istanbul bureau chief.

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