Their cheeks were bitten by the threat of snow, but the sisters didn’t have anywhere else to go. They’d coated their faces with makeup and painted their eyelashes until they looked too heavy to blink, gaudy faces to offset drab denims and black coats. This afternoon, their spirits hung as low as the brooding clouds over the mountains.
“This country is very dirty,” said Mansureh, a pale 23-year-old who answers telephones at a law firm because she wasn’t accepted to a university. “Nobody likes the regime, especially the youth. There are so many restrictions, we can’t do anything.”
It was Friday afternoon, time for prayers in the Islamic Republic, but the sisters and hundreds of other young Iranians trekked into the mountains on the outskirts of Tehran instead. Droves of twentysomethings flooded the rocky paths as if they were headed somewhere in particular -- a concert or a rally. But there was nothing at the top; they were simply climbing their way out of the smoggy urban mazes.
The mountains were alive with hormones and directionless potential. Forget black robes and beards; these young Iranians dressed as if they’d just come from a rave, with faded running shoes and aviator glasses shoved high into their hair. They slouched along, glassy-eyed and smoking cigarettes. Many of them looked stoned. Boys and girls held hands. The winter light slanted through the dying trees. The mood was nihilistic.
“I think the government wants the youth to be on drugs so they keep quiet,” said Mansureh’s sister, a 17-year-old high school student who also gave only her first name, Mona. “They say it’s a problem, but they’re the ones importing it.”
As their government squares off against the West and vague rumors of outside intervention run in the streets, the youth of Tehran move through the months as if dreaming, passing moodily from pop culture to Persian traditions, groping for their place in the world. Conversations with dozens of young adults in Tehran painted an overwhelming picture of a generation lost, disaffected and stained by longing.
“I’d like to start a new life,” said Mansureh, her words hanging in tea steam, “somewhere else.”
Like many young Iranians, the two sisters chafe at a strict Islamic government but drop into lethargy when it comes to politics.
The previous night, they’d been kicked out of a shopping center by a government morality squad. Run-ins with police are common; the two say they use their pocket money to bribe their way out of trouble. Their friends have turned to drugs or even suicide.
A quarter of a century ago, Iran’s fiery youth drove a revolution in the name of Islam and anti-imperialism. But those students grew up, and their zeal faded as they softened into graying bureaucrats. The babies they birthed en masse at the feverish urging of the clergy have inherited a legacy of double-digit unemployment, widespread drug addiction and gnawing religious disillusionment.
“There aren’t any jobs for us,” said Rahim Keab, a 21-year-old soldier in a dirty khaki coat who made his way across a city park under a steely winter sky. He and four friends drifted to the capital months ago from a farming village in the southwest. Now they are languishing. Keab doesn’t know what he will do when his military service is over.
“Young people want to get married, but first they need work,” Keab said. “So instead they start to smoke [opium], and they get addicted. The government hasn’t done enough for us.”
This apathetic, youthful mass is a powerful, albeit untapped, force: Three-quarters of the population is younger than 35. They are enough to shape an election; in a truly representative system, they would decide their government.
But few young people are expected to go to the polls in next spring’s presidential election. There’s the stupor of hopelessness, and the boycott threat by some reformists. They say they will shun the polls if the conservatives once again ban reformist candidates from running, as they did in parliamentary elections this year.
“When I was a youth, we were revolutionaries, and we were ready to pay the price,” said Hamid Reza Jalaipour, a 46-year-old sociologist and onetime student activist who now runs reformist newspapers. “These days the youth are not ready to pay. They prefer to depoliticize, and the conservatives are very happy about that. They are looking for passive masses.”
Even the Islamic Republic’s legendary student movements have fallen silent. It was the students who swept President Mohammad Khatami into office in 1997, heady with his promises of reform and progress. But Khatami proved weak, and the reforms never came.
So the students lost patience. But when they smashed through the streets in the massive demonstrations of 1999, they were arrested and tortured. Bit by bit, the fire faded from the campuses.
“Our language used to be more courageous,” said Majid Haji Babaei, a 31-year-old doctoral student and a leader at the Student Unity Office. “But we were beaten up and even thrown out of windows, we were suppressed, and many went to jail. Naturally, some students felt disappointed, and the risk of political involvement also got higher.”
Many Iranian youths yearn for a better life elsewhere but are hard-pressed to articulate where, or how. They resent their own government but complain that they have been unfairly stigmatized by the West. They speak like people drained of politics and religion.
“Everybody believes in God, but now there is a big gap between us and God,” said Majid Ghanbari, a 28-year-old film buff, music enthusiast and malcontented entrepreneur with floppy hair and rumpled jeans. “The government tried to force people closer, but instead they sent us further away.”
His brother nodded. “Before the revolution, we had real believers, but not now,” said Hamid Ghanbari, who at 25 is exactly as old as the revolution. “After the Islamic Revolution, we don’t have religion anymore.”
Majid Ghanbari owns Video Home, a loud and improbable outlaw’s den tucked into a corner of a shopping mall in the sandy urban jungles of western Tehran. Its walls are festooned with the bright covers of bootleg movies and albums. He’s pushing pop hits from America alongside Iranian films. He hunches over his computer all day long, burning CD after CD.
“Anything you want, I have it,” he said.
How about DJ Maryam, the mysterious singer who runs her voice through a computer so it sounds like a robot croaking, the one who is rumored to have been jailed because in Iran it is illegal for women to sing? Her identity is secret, but her albums are everywhere.
Of course the album is available, Ghanbari scoffed -- “Aren’t you hearing it in every taxi?” A few clicks of the mouse, the cursor dances on his flat-screen monitor and the voice spills out into the mall.
As is the case with most of his Iranian peers, Ghanbari’s thoughts have been driven away from politics. He has watched with disgust as fundamentalists resurged and flexed a new, bolder power.
Just the other day, a busload of morality police raided the mall and arrested any women who weren’t wearing “good hijab” -- in other words, women who were showing too much hair. People in Tehran haven’t seen that brand of open bullying from the fundamentalists in eight years, Ghanbari fretted. “Those girls were our customers,” he said.
In these nervous times, Ghanbari finds solace in pop music and bootleg movies. “Almost everybody supports the left, but they don’t have any power,” he said. “When the left doesn’t do anything, people just forget about it. They put their heads down.”
Two schoolgirls slipped into his shop, dressed in hip-hop gear. They were looking for the latest bootleg Iranian music from Los Angeles, and weren’t disappointed. Ghanbari reached beneath his mouse pad, as if he had been waiting for them, and handed over a CD.
As the girls slumped back into the crowds, Ghanbari sighed. How long would it be, he wondered, before the police returned to shutter his shop for selling illegal CDs? It happens every few months.
“And then I get nervous and feel really bad. Every time I think, ‘I should do something, I should leave this country. What kind of life is this?’ ” he said, shaking his head. “But then they open the shop again, and I have my job, I have my life. And I am Iranian, I love Iran. I forget about it until the next time.”