TEHRAN — Hotel Evin is one of the most regarded hotels in Tehran, if not usually one of the busiest. But recently the hotel’s lobby has been swarmed with visitors. Foreign businessmen and European politicians have descended on Iran, enticed by the election of a moderate president and promises of an improved climate between Iran and the West.
A few hundred meters to the north, the softly curved side of the Alborz Mountains glows in the light from a different Evin: the prison notorious for holding and, according to former detainees, torturing political dissidents. This Evin is always busy. That’s one thing the change in leadership hasn’t changed.
Your judgment of President Hassan Rouhani depends on which Evin you focus on. Rouhani’s election promise to restart nuclear negotiations and warm up international relations is off to a hopeful start. His second promise, to grant more freedom to civil society, is not.
Since the election last year, observers have eyed Rouhani with apprehension. Will he open his country’s gates for more Western-inspired culture, as the New York Times suggested last month? Or is he just another “security apparatchik,” personally responsible for prison beatings and public executions, as the Wall Street Journal claimed?
It is tempting to see every twist and turn in Iran’s human rights record as a result of directions from the presidential palace. It is also grossly simplified. But no matter which way you look at it, small rips have begun to appear in the cloak of censorship.
In March, in an old villa in central Tehran, the singer Hasmik Karapetian dutifully donned her hejab and stepped in front of the camcorder. In private, many Iranian women don’t wear the mandatory headscarf, but Karapetian’s performance was to be taped and sent to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance for evaluation.
“They have to know everything about us,” Karapetian said, smiling, during a break in the rehearsal. If approved, she and the rehearsing orchestra will be allowed to perform Mozart’s “Magic Flute” at one of the city’s greatest concert halls, and Karapetian will be the second woman in the 35-year history of the Islamic Republic to sing opera solo in public. Last fall, her student, Shiva Soroush, was the first. “This is really big progress,” says Karapetian, who is in her mid-thirties. “I think that we can keep it with the new government, but how long, I can’t say.”
For Iranians, negotiating the barriers of censorship is in itself an art form. Film directors, in particular, have long been masters of bending the rules, using metaphors and symbolism to subtly inject criticisms against the system into their work.
Maziar Miri directed one of last year’s biggest box office hits in Tehran, The Painting Pool. He says that when authorities ban a movie, they often seem to act more on a gut feeling than on actual written rules. “The government is afraid of concepts and ideas. Of things that are open for interpretation where it can sense there are things it doesn’t understand,” says Miri. His latest film depicts an intellectually disabled couple and their son, who struggle to understand one another. The son eventually runs away from home. The plot is an analogy, the director says, for arguments within Iranian society and with other countries, where opposing sides often fail to understand the others’ point of view.
As many Iranian artists know, everything is political under a paranoid regime. Even if you shun politics, your work will almost invariably be viewed as support for or opposition to the leadership.
A case in point is Pallett, a fusion band that blends Iranian folk music with jazz and Western pop influences, and who performed on national television in January. Since the 1979 revolution, showing instruments on television has been illegal, so the five-member band pantomimed instead. “Our music is not political,” insists Rouzbeh Esfandarmaz, Pallett’s clarinetist. But not everyone saw it that way. “For us, what we did was just something irregular. It was just a funny clip,” he says. “But for everyone else it was much bigger. Somehow they said that we were humiliating the television, so that made it a bit controversial.”
That’s an understatement. Pallett's performance made headlines for weeks, and superiors at the state broadcaster reportedly reprimanded the producer of the show.
At times, censorship in the Islamic Republic can seem surprisingly arbitrary. In principle, most art is not illegal, but artists need permission, which is given on a case-by-case basis. Therefore, censorship is often left up to individual concert organizers, gallery curators, and theater houses.
Last summer, The Muckers, an indie rock band, were permitted to play two shows in a theater hall in Tehran, but the venue canceled the second one. Although no dancing was allowed and the audience sat obediently in their seats during the first performance, “They said we were too wild,” says lead singer Hamid Kosari. He suspects that when the venue saw how many people turned up to the first gig, they pulled the plug to avoid attention.
The rules of censorship are so vague partly because the establishment is far from a monolithic force. And protecting the values of the Islamic Revolution is not just about protecting Islam. Habib Ahmadzadeh, a retired captain in the Revolutionary Guard who has authored several books and film scripts, says the higher purpose of Iranian art is to create patriotic unity against external and domestic foes. The most dangerous art of all, he says, is the one that creates division in the country.
Although he stops short of mentioning names, Ahmadzadeh is clearly referring to former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's policies, which deeply divided the political establishment. Ahmadinejad often used censorship for political purposes and only allowed a narrow sliver of art to flourish—art that, according to many critics, fostered factional strife rather than national coherence. (Opponents of Rouhani have claimed that the current government is no better ever since 9 Dey, a hardline weekly, was suspended in March.)
The Ahmadinejad government’s cultural policies were also often based on autonomous readings of Islamic scriptures that conflicted with those of influential clerics. “We have started to act like God,” Ahmadzadeh says about Ahmadinejad’s scriptural interpretations, which he thinks have endured via conservatives who still dominate parliament. Ahmadzadeh blamed “shallow moralists” for trying to advance in the ranks by beating others over the head with faux-religious laws.
Rouhani is trying to root out allies of the former president, and he and his ministers have been consistent in denouncing censorship imposed under Ahmadinejad. Most vocal is the culture minister, Ali Jannati, who has criticized book censorship by saying that if God himself hadn’t sent it, Ahmadinejad would have banned even the Koran. Early in his tenure, Jannati also said that segregating Iranians from the rest of the world by banning Facebook has nothing to do with preserving Islamic values. Many members of the cabinet, including the president, use social media to promote their views and policies.
Other statements have been more tacit. Last week, Jannati was photographed at the funeral of a prominent musician, sitting next to Rouhani’s brother, who advises the president on arts and culture, and censored author Mahmoud Dolatabadi.
Overall, little has been done to alleviate the general pressure on Iranians. Nine months after Rouhani was ordained in the beige halls of the presidential palace, Iran’s human-rights situation remains pretty paltry.
Authorities continue to close media outlets with the stroke of a pen. Social media is banned, and millions of websites are still blocked. Scores of political prisoners including the aging Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, who inspired the 2009 Green Movement, remain locked up. In the first two months of 2014 alone, Iran executed almost 100 people.
The government is not solely to blame. Executions are administered by the judiciary, which answers to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The same goes for freedom of the press, as Jannati pointed out after the closure of the popular reformist weekly Aseman: “Shutting down the newspapers is out of our hands.” As for opening wide the gates to the internet, the president needs to maneuver the 22-man Supreme Council for Cyberspace, which is dominated by conservatives.
Although it is possible for the government to challenge other pillars of power, Rouhani may gauge that he doesn’t have the political capital to do so, given domestic opposition to the nuclear negotiations. Everyone remembers President Mohammad Khatami’s failed attempts at reform in the late 1990s. Yet, some don’t believe Rouhani had real intentions in the first place. There's a Persian saying, “The yellow dog is the brother of the jackal,” which means: One ruler is just as bad as the next one.
“You cannot change the mentality of an akhund,” says Samin, a 30-year-old jewelry designer in Tehran, referring to Rouhani with a derogatory Persian name for an Islamic cleric. “And everyone who works with him grew up in this system.”
Correction: A previous version of this word referred to "akhund" as Arabic. While "akh" is Arabic for "brother," "akhund" is considered Persian slang.