The Last Bastion of Political Critique in Iran: The Humble Taxi
Midday was drawing near as the air conditioning unit began to choke in the corner of the underground restaurant I’d taken refuge from the heat in. The temperature outside in the city of Shiraz in Iran’s south-east was 45 degrees, and set to get even hotter.
The broken air conditioning was no problem for the 20 or so other diners whom, despite it being the holy month of Ramadan, were feasting on lamb, bread and dates while sipping away on orange juice and water. I paid my bill and passed a group of women, seated separately from the men, who had slightly lowered their hijabs in a casual manner. Flickers of their thick Persian hair was on show – an unthinkable act in public.
Walking up the stairs and out of the restaurant, I thanked the manager who was vigilantly keeping watch on the street, protecting his patrons from the prying eyes of the secret police who enforce religious traditions – of which he, and all his patrons were breaking – as well as political dissent with a resolute iron fist. Unwilling to fight the scorching heat in my black jeans (hobos beware: shorts are not an option in Iran), I contacted a driver who I met the day before to take me out to Persepolis, a collection of 2500-year-old ruins.
My driver, Arman, showed up a few minutes later in his dingy white hatchback with the windows rolled down: a pretty clear sign the air conditioning wasn’t working, or was never installed in the first place. We set off on the hour-long journey and quickly got onto the topic of petrol prices, almost yelling at each other over the thunderous roar of the wind entering the cabin as the hatchback sped through the desert.
“I pay 20 cents for a litre of petrol. How much is petrol in your home country?” Arman shouted. Before I could answer, he continued. “Iran is a very rich country. We have a lot of oil, a lot of gas and things in the ground our government sells. This is good for the government, for the rich people, but for the poor people, we see no changes from all the money we make.”
Arman stopped short of throwing anyone under the bus, so I probed a little deeper, asking him the dangerous question of what he thinks of his government.
“Religion and politics are not to be mixed. It’s a bad thing for Iran that the religion has become our government”, he quickly replied. “Previously, our leaders took religion out of the schools, made universities free and made showing signs of religion, like a man’s beard or a woman’s hijab, illegal. This is very different to the Iran that you see today.”
Arman wasn’t wrong. Not long after finishing his sentence, we passed a massive road-side billboard glorifying the Ayatollah’s face, alongside portraits of martyrs who had died in the Iran-Iraq conflict of the ’80s.
The influence of the Shia-Islamic clergy in Iran’s political sphere throughout the 20th Century has ebbed and flowed, but was ultimately hindered by the secular monarchy of Reza Shah. That was until Ayatollah Khomeini took control of Iran following the 1979 Revolution, whereby Iran became an Islamic Republic the next year.
Since then, secular culture and education have completely evaporated, the only free schooling available to poor rural families is at schools that teach primarily of the Quran and Iran became the significantly more insular country that we know today.
“Sometimes I think it would be better for Iran to not have so much money, to not have so much oil. If we had less money from the oil, maybe our government would have to open up more to the outside world, and they would act differently,” said Arman.
Much of the money made from Iran’s vast oil reserves – estimated at around 10 per cent of the globe’s supply – is invested in religious and ideological institutions that will always remain supportive of Iran’s ruling party.
“It’s very dangerous to talk of these things in Iran. The government has many spies, and you can be arrested for speaking against the government. I talk to many customers that take my taxi and speak of these things, and when they arrive at the destination, we pretend the conversation never happened.”
Not all have stayed silent, but they did pay a price for expressing their opinion. In late 2017, thousands of Iranians defied their government and hit the streets to protest. Their long list of grievances included the far-reaching influence of the Shia clergy in politics, a lack of social freedoms, governmental corruption, a stuttering economy under international sanctions and questioning the need to send billions of dollars to wars that Iran is fighting via proxy, be it the backing of forces in Syria, Houthi Shiite rebels in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon or Hamas in Palestine.
Many Iranians were, and remain, critical of the government for handing over money for proxy wars that could have been spent instead on education or infrastructure locally. These protests landed many hundreds in jail, with an estimated 21 killed, and resulted in blockages to many social media sites – Facebook, Twitter and Instagram – for their facilitation of what the government described as “violent acts of protest”.
“I think most of the people in Iran feel the way I do, but they will be silent. Many people have protested against the government, and disappeared. The rest of the people will say nothing, because they are scared,” explained Arman.
Hearing him speak, I couldn’t help but realise that there, in his dusty old Saipa hatchback racing through the Iranian desert, I found myself in one of the few remaining places for an open political discourse. Free from government intimidation – and indeed reprisal, Arman’s taxi encapsulated something invaluable that we in the West often take for granted: a harsh and honest critique of our political system without fear of repercussion.
Western media paints an unflattering portrait of Iran, focussed on images of burning American flags and the perpetuation of the narrative that Iran is a rogue state with nuclear ambitions. Truth be told, the portrait is indeed accurate, but it remains solely a portrait only of Iran’s government, which many Iranians feel does not represent their values, and to which they merely pay lip service, holding little respect.
Don’t paint Iran with too broad a stroke of the brush. Many Muslims don’t fast throughout Ramadan, and once they’re in the privacy of their own home, women lift their hijab and don short sleeves as they cook up lunch for their family. In much the same respect, many Iranians don’t blindly follow the rule of, or even respect their government, and when they’re in the confines of their own house – or taking a trip with a trusted taxi driver – they unload their political grievances, exchanging ideas that are deemed dangerous by their government, hoping one day for a change in governance.
Cover by Majid Korang beheshti; inset by the author