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February 15, 2006
Letter From Iran

When Tehran Rocks, Discretion Rules


TEHRAN Rock stars are a brash, in-your-face breed, often challenging their audiences with lyrics of defiance. But here, they are all that and a bit scared, too.

"Please, I'm going to be in deep trouble," said a rock musician after a recent show when asked for a copy of the lyrics to a song his group had performed (in English). He handed them over, but cautioned he could get in trouble if they attract the attention of the authorities.

I have a right to be caught by the cops

Have a right to be called by the judge

Have a right to be sent to the fronts

And come back in the back of a truck in a box.

Compared with the defiance that explodes from rock music in the West, the song seemed tame. But this is Iran, a nation that often feels otherworldly, caught someplace between an "anything goes" attitude and the intense restrictions and scrutiny of a religious government.

After the 1979 revolution, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was fashioning Iran into a Shiite Islamic state, one of his many sayings was, "Keep the appearances of Islam." Public profile is important and so, if Iranians chose not to fast during Ramadan, well, O.K., but they were expected to eat in the privacy of their homes. After centuries in which Shiites were permitted to hide aspects of their faith in order to protect themselves against discrimination, a practice called Taqiyah, the principle seems to have etched its way into the national character. Appearance is often valued more highly than truthfulness.

During the years reformers were in power, the authorities permitted some outward challenges to appearance: looser dress codes and some public questioning of the government. Now there is a new president, the ultraconservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and people are wondering where the lines will be drawn, how far will they be permitted to challenge appearances.

The president has given some clues, though not necessarily the ones that were expected. Many thought he would quickly issue a strict Islamic dress code for women, but it has not come to pass. In a way, on some matters, the new president seems, by design or circumstance, to be imposing control by not defining where those red lines are.

"There is no written law," said the musician, whose name is being withheld because he was worried about being punished and his band blocked from playing. "You are allowed to do everything, unless you want to share it."

That seems to be the unwritten law in Iran today: no sharing. The act of publicly sharing ideas that challenge the system is forbidden, because, at a minimum, that amounts to challenging the appearance the government would like to promote. A blogger sits in jail for sharing his ideas. Newspapers are shut down for sharing. A journalist is denied permission to leave the country. The BBC's Persian Web site is filtered. Always the offense is sharing which can, of course, lead to the slippery slope of public questioning, public discontent and public organizing.

Paradoxically, civil society here appears vibrant. It has not been crushed, the way it has by the authoritarian leaders in the Arab world. There is, on many levels, real politics here often with the outcome unknown and on the most important issues, leaders must draw consensus from the different levels of power. And so people in many spheres arts, sports, politics, business find themselves pressing against the limitations of what is deemed permissible.

Mostly, this is done behind closed doors, in the privacy of people's homes. Some people, like the rock musicians, do risk public sharing, but watchfully.

These are tense times in Iran. The country is under threat of once again becoming an international pariah, as in the days when Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the death of Salman Rushdie, author of the book "The Satanic Verses." This time it is the leadership's drive for nuclear power that threatens to slam shut the door of international isolation.

That alone has caused widespread anxiety. But those Iranians inclined to challenge appearances, even slightly, have an added worry.

At the awards ceremony to conclude the 24th Fadjr Film Festival in January, Iran's biggest stars were out, having wrestled their way through the mob scene blocking the entrance to Vahdat Hall. The stars milled around the lobby with excited guests who asked for autographs and for a chance to pose with the celebrities.

"Not everybody is capable of laughing when a crisis is going on," said Ali Reza Khamseh, a comic actor whose show (now canceled) had addressed family issues. "It is important to laugh when we are being banged on the head." He said he was talking about divorce, unemployment and other personal issues but in these tough times, the message had a much broader reach.

Mr. Khamseh said this with a big broad smile. Until a man walked over. The man leaned into the conversation, not smiling, not frowning and listening intently. Approached, he said that his name was Yehia Nouri and that he was a gym teacher. He wore a beard, as religious Muslims do, and a soiled winter jacket, and carried a small briefcase.

"The Koran," he said, "says whatever hardship one is feeling, your attitude should be to bear it."

Perhaps he was a gym teacher eager to listen to a celebrity and to offer his ideas to a foreign reporter. But this is a place where people are, in fact, watched, and so the conversation with the comic actor evaporated.

At a recent concert, as young men and women piled into a small room, one concertgoer leaned over and said, casually, "I hope the Basiji don't rush the place." He was referring to the vigilante squads of bearded men who often use violence to enforce strict Islamic social codes. As the music played, the crowd swayed and clapped, shouted out choruses, and bopped the way any audience of young men and women might in the West. The music, though upbeat, had a slightly funereal quality to it, as the singer took the chance to share his thoughts, in public.

Have a right to be ignored and neglected

Have a right to be segued and be raided

Have a right to be damned a right to be jammed

Have a right to be sanctioned and banned.

When the show was over and the lights came up the band seemed exhilarated and frightened.