Twenty-two years ago, Tehran was transformed overnight from a playboy king's capital to the epicenter of a Muslim revolution that changed the world. Today, the city remains a study in contradiction.
In the north, where luxury homes nestled in the mountain foothills literally look down on the poorer south, the well-to-do have seized on President Mohammad Khatami's moves to ease social restrictions.
Women who used to look nervously over their shoulders for the feared morals police now flaunt their painted toes in open sandals, and flash the latest hairstyles from under their required Islamic headscarves.
Their mandatory cloaks have shifted away from basic black to emerald or turquoise or chocolate brown, in lockstep with the shade of the moment set by the world's fashion capitals.
Young couples even dare to hold hands as they gaze at window displays of pasta makers, treadmills and other trendy gear that many Iranians have never even heard of, much less are able to afford.
But head south below the Avenue of the Islamic Revolution ― once called Shah Reza but, like many public places, renamed after the overthrow of the monarchy ― and a different Tehran comes into view.
The boutiques give way to state-run bread stores and drab apartment blocks, the sloping tree-lined boulevards become flat, dusty stretches of tarmac, and the social ease brought about by Khatami's reforms vanishes into the distance.
The cloaks are still black and the shops mostly empty in Khazaneh, the southernmost neighborhood of the capital, where many are struggling to make ends meet and resentment over how the other half lives runs high.
"They use the people down here for propaganda," one shopkeeper says bitterly, pointing to the groups of unemployed young men ambling aimlessly outside his window. "When it's time for a display of revolutionary unity, they call us out for support because we're good, honest Muslims. But when it comes time to make money, we never see a thing," he says.
"You need $200 to $250 a month to live but a lot of us here only make around $60," he says. "They say we have to chant 'Down With America' and then they turn around up north and sell American products."
An old man waiting in vain for customers outside his kitchen supplies shop says that for the poor of Khazaneh, things are getting worse day by day. "The only reason I'm able to survive is that I bought my house 30 years ago," says the man, who like other residents here asked to remain anonymous.
"I have no money coming in. Even if I tell a woman she can buy something for 1,000 rials (12 cents), she says it's too expensive. All those reforms they keep talking about don't mean anything to us," he says. Asked if he will vote for Khatami, he replies with a flash of anger: "Why should I?"
The gap between a wealthy north glorying in social freedoms and a south struggling under often crushing poverty cannot help the re-election bid of Khatami, who has already seen conservatives stymie many political reforms.
"The reformists are caught up in the battle with conservatives," says a professor who claims he was active in the student movement that helped topple the shah and bring Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power in 1979.
"Khomeini really worked to get rid of the gap between rich and poor," he says. "But since he died, the country has been drifting back toward the same kinds of class divisions. The reformists now have little energy left over to deal with the economy."
He acknowledges that he and his friends in north Tehran have directly benefited from Khatami's relaxation of social pressures, while the nation's economic woes have little impact on his life.
"It's one of the many ironies of politics," he says. "The well-off reformists are trying to lessen some of the extremism they helped create when they were well-off radicals. For the poor, well ― that's another question." ― (AFP, Tehran)
by Marc Carnegie
© Agence France Presse 2001
© 2001 Mena Report (www.menareport.com)