Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Young Iranians Torn Between Two Worlds

Turning away from the TV screen, nine-year-old Alireza makes a grave pronouncement, “We shouldn’t let the Americans kill us like they kill the Iraqis.”

Alireza has been watching old footage of the moment a group of British sailors was released last year, following their detention by Iranian border guards. He cannot tell the difference between British and Americans, but the fair complexion of the faces he sees gives him reason enough to understand they are the enemy.

Yet Alireza’s world view has been formed less by images of this kind than by the latest western cartoons, which he watches on his favourite kids’ channel, MBC 3, available via the illicit satellite dish owned by his family.

He finds it hard to reconcile what he watches on the satellite channels with the knowledge that this kind of thing is disapproved of and even discouraged by the school he goes to.

His mother is one of the many Iranian parents who find it hard to explain to their young children how to reconciles these clashing views of the world.

The gulf between what is taught at school – overtly and implicitly – and what people practice at home, away from prying eyes, is a difficult one to navigate for many adults, let alone children.

Alireza has come to understand that there are some things about school that you just have to take at face value. The message he gets at home is, “You’re too young to understand”, and “When you grow up, you’ll find out for yourself.”

A foreigner walking around in Iran would be shocked at the number of anti-western slogans adorning the walls of public institutions like offices and schools, and at the rhetoric in similar vein delivered by the state-run monopoly broadcaster IRIB.

To people on the inside, it all seems perfectly normal.

For nearly 30 years, Iranian children as young as six have begun their day by chanting slogans against the Great Satan (the United States), the Occupying Regime of Israel, and, depending on the political mood of the day, a number of other countries such as Britain. This is now so commonplace that few Iranians passing a school in the morning will be irritated to hear the chanting of hate-filled slogans.

PE classes at school are usually accompanied by the same resentful slogans. It is quite a paradox to see young smiling children imitating their trainer and punctuating their agile moves with vows to wreak revenge on a country they’d be hard put to find on a map.

On Qods Day (Jerusalem Day) last October, Iranian state television broadcast a cartoon in praise of suicide bombings targeting Israelis – or “martyrdom-seeking operations”, as they are called in Iran. The cartoon showed a young boy blowing himself up “to show the Zionists how brave Palestinian children are”.

As well as television, the theme has entered the booming electronic games market. A recent release called “Rescue the Nuclear Scientist” invites gamers to save an Iranian engineer kidnapped by American forces in Iraq while on pilgrimage with his wife to the holy city of Karbala.

As the Fars news agency explained, the game was conceived by its designers as a response to “Assault on Iran”, an American product. However, it does not appear to have taken off among young Iranians. Many of them have never even heard of it.

Iranian manufacturers have also tried to combat western culture by making a homegrown, Islamic version of the Barbie and Ken dolls, called them Sara and Dara. Sara wears a headscarf and a long dress, while Dara cuts a dowdy figure next to Ken.

Although heavily advertised on state TV, the figures never really stood a chance against their flashier foreign rivals.

For a consumer opinion, we asked five-year old Minoo about her preferences. Minoo spends hours changing Barbie’s fashionable clothes, applying the cosmetics that come with the doll, and making up stories about her and Ken.

She has never wanted to acquire Sara, a doll conceived as the image of Iranian cultural and religious values. Sara “isn’t beautiful”, she explains.

It is fairly easy to influence children as young as Alireza and Minoo, when their horizons are limited to cartoons, video games and toys, plus whatever else their various adult mentors – parents and teachers – want to instill in them.

Beyond a certain age, though, attempts to influence them are no longer so effective, and adolescents begin to exercise their own choices. Then it becomes more complicated to guide them towards one’s own preferred way of thinking.

As children grow up, the state has its work cut out trying to retain the upper hand. It fears losing a generation that was not even born when the Iranian revolution took place in 1979, and whose knowledge of the decade-long conflict with Iraq in the Eighties is limited to the stories their parents tell them, war films, and pictures of martyrs on street walls.

Young Iranians may not know much about why a particular street is named after a martyr, a war hero, or some other national figure like a poet or a scientist. But they are up to speed on James Blunt and the Spice Girls, their song lyrics, and all the celebrity gossip.

In recent years, the government has imposed strict filtering policies on websites and intensified its crackdown on “bad hijab” and privately-owned satellite dishes. But it can hardly claim victory in its campaign against the western cultural invasion.

To the dismay of the state, young people have figured out how to get round internet filters, and how to hide a satellite dish from nosy neighbours.

All this stems from a desire to be connected with the rest of the world. It would be quite naive to imagine that members of this, the third generation of the revolution, are cut off from the outside world, even if the image they acquire of the West is somewhat skewed.

The preference for western over Iranian culture may not be the result of a genuine curiosity about all things foreign, whether this is fed deliberately or by accident from outside. Instead, ignorance of what constitutes true Iranian culture has more to do with the poor and vulgar terms in which it is articulated – through indoctrination and the regime’s identification of selected values as the correct ones, with no attempt to win hearts and minds.

An unspoken struggle is taking place for the minds of this generation, whose members make their own choices between the two options whenever they can, and submit helplessly to whichever trend is prevalent when they cannot.

Young Iranians have made huge efforts to surmount the barriers and gain access to the outside world, often at some cost to themselves. Yet often it seems they end up caught between two worlds, knowing only a little about either. And that is a shame.

In Iran, a great deal of time and energy has been expended on keeping young people away from things they should not do, and very little on engaging their interest in what they should do.

There is a Persian proverb which goes, “The crow wanted to learn to walk like a partridge, but it forgot its own way of walking.”

Young Iranians did not themselves choose to forget how to walk in their own manner. It is their own government’s pursuit of its illusory “campaign against cultural invasion” that has alienated them, and left them somewhere between the worlds of the crow and the partridge.

Samaneh Maddah is a freelance journalist in Tehran.

Samaneh Maddah is a freelance journalist in Tehran.

This article is an abridged and translated version of the full original text published on the Farsi pages of Mianeh, with editorial adjustments agreed with the writer made to provide clarity for English-language readers.

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