Letter From Iran

Like entering 'another world'

Some say the store is a symbol of progress. Others say growing consumerism threatens traditional values.
Some say the store is a symbol of progress. Others say growing consumerism threatens traditional values. (Newsha Tavakolian - Polaris)
By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Holding up a large, red pomegranate, the Tehran housewife decided that her life had just improved a bit. ¶ "Look at the price," Kevayat Pirmoamer told her daughter while stocking up on Iran's most traditional of seasonal fruits. "This is much cheaper than in our local supermarket." ¶ All around them, families were pushing shopping carts, carefully navigating Iran's first large U.S.-style supermarket, a Wal-Mart-size megastore called Hyperstar, modeled on France's Carrefour "hypermarket" chain. The aroma of freshly baked baguettes wafted across the aisles as shoppers picked up T-bone steaks or examined packages of frozen shark meat.

"This store is like stepping into another world," said Mansoureh Jafari, a nurse who had just bought a Winnie the Pooh bear for her 15-month-old daughter, Anahita. "Being here, shopping, makes me happy," she said, smiling broadly. "There are so many choices here."

Since it opened quietly in August against the backdrop of anti-government street demonstrations and international insecurity over Iran's nuclear program, Hyperstar has created an upbeat buzz among Tehran's beleaguered middle-class residents, many of whom support the political opposition. A new concept in the Islamic republic, the vast store offers Iranians a shopping experience that they previously could obtain only by traveling abroad.

But at the same time, it represents something of a contradiction, given President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's diatribes against Western capitalism. And there have been signs that smaller-scale shopkeepers are none too pleased with their big-box competitor.

Hyperstar, financed by a businessman from the United Arab Emirates, is in an up-and-coming neighborhood of western Tehran and has become a huge success, largely by word of mouth. About 15,000 customers a day now visit the nearly 97,000-square-foot supermarket. On average they spend roughly $100 -- half of Iran's monthly minimum wage.

"This megastore illustrates Iran's progress," said Pirmoamer, who wore a long conservative coat as she pushed her full shopping cart toward the lines at the cash registers. "Just like other countries, we are going forward." Her 20-something daughter nodded in agreement, strands of bleached blond hair escaping from beneath her head scarf. "Now we can shop just like people abroad," she said.

Tehran's roughly 4 million middle-class residents -- who make up about a third of the capital's population and form its backbone because of their jobs, incomes and education -- are under increasing economic pressure. But in the past 10 years, amid the rising influence of the Internet and satellite TV channels and encouraged by a previous government that promoted change and individualism, they have taken to traveling and shopping, buying everything from cars to computers.

Ahmadinejad, who won a second term in June in a disputed election that generated opposition charges of fraud and weeks of street protests, says the behavior of the middle class shows that the lives of Iranians are improving. But critics call it a surrender to consumerism that they say is rapidly changing traditional values in the country. Prosperity has not risen, they argue, and people instead are working themselves to death only to keep up with a changing standard of living.

"Ten years ago, someone who was honest and unselfish would be regarded as a successful person. Now it depends on the type of car you drive, or the house you live in," said Amir Mohebbian, a political analyst who shares Ahmadinejad's ideology but is critical of his policies. "Globalization has reached our country and is rapidly changing traditional values. Middle-class people need to work to keep pace, so they have less time for family, friends and -- as some clerics fear -- for religion," he said.

Mohammad Khoshchehreh, a former parliament member who now teaches economics at Tehran University, said that before the current economic crisis, Iran's huge oil income empowered parts of the middle class. "But generally, the quality of life in Iran has not increased at all," he said.

The gap between rich and poor is widening, with some people desperately trying to get on the right side of that divide, said Khoshchehreh, who once strongly defended Ahmadinejad's economic plans to elevate the country's poor but has since become a prominent critic.

"People in Iran often live above their status," and many of them take on extra jobs to keep pace with rising expenses, he said. "The salary of a doctor or a judge doesn't cover regular visits to a megastore or a new foreign car. They have to work more, and some take bribes to cover the expenses of their status."

According to Khoshchehreh, the government encourages consumption by using part of the oil windfall to finance imports, which amounted to more than $85 billion in the last year.

"A megastore will, of course, thrive in this environment," he said. "People need to buy products."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company