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Iran: It’s My Party

Is a party in Tehran any different from a party in the United States?

November 8, 2002

Is a party in Tehran any different from a party in the United States?

Tehran: "Afshin, we are having a big party on Thursday! Everyone will be there! Music! Dancing! Even Mr. Johnnie Walker might show up! You must come!" The excited voice on the other end of the line was Mehran, a 25-year-old Tehran resident who always seemed to be throwing "a big party."

"We will have a DJ. Many girls! It will be great. You have been spending too much time with mullahs and politics and your books. You need to shake your hips a little bit! You need to party Tehran-style!"

Mehran lives in affluent North Tehran, scene of some of the most raucous youth parties. A North Tehran youth party is the Islamic Republic's worst nightmare.

Imagine hip-shaking boys and girls, sometimes drunk, dancing to Western music blaring from sophisticated sound systems. They all snub their nose at the conservative values imposed from above.

I arrived late to Mehran's party. "Come in," he said, smiling, slightly buzzed. "Join the fun!" The party was rocking. Boys in gelled hair and jeans, girls in trendy black pants, slinky dresses and red lipstick, moving and swaying on a large red Persian carpet-cum-dance floor. The voice of Latin pop sensation Ricky Martin was booming.

The DJ, a 20-year-old named Keyvan, exhorted the people on the couches to get up and join the fun. "Everyone! I want to see everyone on the dance floor," he yelled.

Ricky Martin's Latin pop hit preceded Madonna, a sampling of European dance hits — "just released in Paris," Keyvan proudly told me — and Iranian pop songs from Los Angeles.

Amid the noise and dancing, Mehran took me aside and offered me a beer. "Mr. Johnnie Walker could not make it," he said apologetically.

"Maybe next time. This Turkish beer is not bad, though." Mehran buys his alcohol, as do many Iranians, from Armenian Christians in Tehran.

Armenians are allowed to have alcohol in their homes, so a few entrepreneurs have used this privilege to sell to their thirsty Muslim compatriots. "The Armenian said he is out of Johnnie Walker," Mehran said.

Leila, a philosophical young lady, wondered what all the fuss was about Johnnie Walker. "I don't drink much, but I think wine is the best drink," she said, wiping away dance sweat from her brow.

"Our great poets drank wine and wrote their beautiful lines with their brains soaked with wine. Wine makes me think deeply. Why is there no wine here?"

"The Armenian had only beer and aragh," Mehran said, referring to a vodka-like drink that was a favorite of an older generation of Iranian men.

The party progressed with more dancing and flirting. I received several requests for help to "get out of this country," and a special treat: DJ Keyvan singing one of his own songs, a heart-tugging love ballad.

It was a relatively tame party: no drugs, no dirty dancing, not much drinking, no kissing, just a group of twentysomethings dancing and laughing.

"Are you having fun, Afshin?" Mehran asked, always the attentive host. "You see, we know how to have fun in Iran!"

Suddenly, there was a buzzing sound. It was repetitive, agitated. Someone was at the door. The group hushed. Keyvan stopped in mid-ballad. A few young women scurried upstairs.

"Oh, my God," Leila said. "I hope it's not them." Yes, it was "them," the morals police. Mehran and the other party host walked across the courtyard of their house. I followed. They opened the door.

A young man with a beard, wearing a green jacket, his motorcycle leaned up against the wall, smiled. "My friends, are you having a party?" he said. Poker-faced, Mehran said: "No, we are not. My cousin is here from Germany. We put on a little music to celebrate her arrival. That's all."

The young police officer looked unconvinced. "Here is a little something for you," Mehran said, handing him a few bills. "Thanks for your vigilance. We will lower the music." "Yes, definitely lower it," the police officer said, "and give my regards to your cousin," he said sarcastically.

When they closed the door, they smiled, raised their hands for a high five. They walked back into the house. Everyone was quiet, perhaps wondering if the vans awaited them outside.

Those vans would take them to a detention cell for the night, charged with "insulting Islamic sanctities in a depraved party." Mehran smiled. The room let out a sigh of relief. "Where is everyone? This is a party!"

He turned to Keyvan, nodding. The DJ inserted a CD. Ricky Martin's voice boomed: "Go, go, go!" The women came running downstairs, a few still wearing the head scarves they had placed on their heads in fear of a raid. "C'mon, everyone!" DJ Keyvan said. "Dance!"

Mehran and his friends occupy the elite strata of Iranian youth. They grew up in wealthy North Tehran, watching MTV on their satellite dishes, playing the latest video games, listening to Western music.

They have cousins who live in the United States and Europe. Their parents make sneering references to akhoond-ha, the ruling clerics. They speak fairly good English.

Occasionally, they travel outside the country — to Europe, to America, to places where dancing is not a crime. All along, they hope that it will soon be possible to enjoy all of this in Tehran free of interruptions of the “morals” police.

And they’re not alone. In poorer South Tehran, two young men once approached me, knowing I was a journalist. One of them, a guitarist, showed me a pamphlet he had written. Its title? “Music and Dancing Is Not a Crime. It is Art.”