Iranians Wait And Wonder If A New Dawn Is Coming | KUOW News and Information

Iranians Wait And Wonder If A New Dawn Is Coming

Feb 20, 2015
Originally published on February 20, 2015 6:43 am

When we walked into a shopping mall in Tehran, Pooya Shahsiah was waiting for us at the top of the escalator. She's the co-owner of a trendy little shop on the second floor that sells shirts, scarves, cups and jewelry. Cloth hangs along the walls in reds and yellows and blues.

There is, for example, a purple shirt with a colorful illustration of a rooster crowing. Parts of the rooster are made out of Persian words.

Shahsiah says it was inspired by a Persian poem, and she's applied the same design to scarves and mugs. It's all from the same collection, she says: a poem about a new day, a new dawn.

Is that a metaphor?

Yes, most of our work consists of metaphor, she says. When she says "our work," she means her work with her friend and business partner Sara Noghani.

They're both in their 30s, and stylishly dressed, as you'd expect of the proprietors of a clothing shop. They met years ago, as college students, and lived through what seemed like a new dawn in Iran.

They remember casting their first votes ever for a reformist president elected in the 1990s.

"We say, 'You are spending your golden age when you're a student,' " Shahsiah says.

They went to cinemas, plays, and concerts more freely than at other times. It wasn't so complicated making friends with men. That brief moment of openness was soon stifled by a conservative reaction.

Yet Shahsiah's friend Noghani says the mere memory of greater openness still carries them forward.

"It was very great for us ... because we were young, because we could do many things and we were a little bit free," she says.

They've lived off that memory through more restrictive, and more troubled, recent times. They got a sign of just how troubled when they started selling another silkscreened shirt.

This one featured a single Persian word, omid, or hope.

When they started showing customers the shirt, they got a divided reaction.

Some people loved it. But others thought they were being too hopeful and said things like, "Are you serious?"

Dashed Hopes

Many Iranians are reluctant to place too much faith in today's new moment of possibility, symbolized by the 2013 election of President Hassan Rouhani, who promised greater openness.

Far outside Tehran, in the city of Isfahan, we met a man who recalls another moment of anticipation.

Ahmad, a student who asked that we only use his first name, recalls the 2009 presidential election, when it seemed that a reform presidential candidate was likely to win. Instead, the reform side lost in a disputed vote count, and president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad remained in office.

"Personally, I really lost my, you know, hope," he says. "Because many people my age wanted to make a new change, build a new country."

But that didn't happen.

"You know, the election is just something for decoration," he adds.

Now, he expects only modest change from Rouhani. And though he has not given up on the country he loves, he is making plans to study abroad.

We spoke with Ahmad in a centuries-old square in Isfahan. Pointed arches surround that square. Little tourist shops fill many of the arches.

Diminished Expectations

In one of those shops we found one more Iranian with his own approach to moments of anticipation and hope.

Asghar Pourheydar-Shirazi, was sitting on a chair, holding a hammer in one hand and a nail in the other. He was using them to etch patterns into the surface of a giant metal vase.

He's engraving unbelievably intricate patterns, by hand, on a vase. It's work he's been doing for 50 years. He even said he could engrave an image of my face on the vase if I wanted.

"If I make a mistake it becomes a new design," he says.

This too is a kind of metaphor for how Shirazi has survived in this business so long — and the way he gets by in Iran, where he says business has been poor for decades.

Shirazi recalls his own moment of anticipation. Shortly after Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, he says, business boomed.

Then came the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, which Shirazi went off to fight in and business has been weak ever since.

As with his work, Shirazi just adjusted to Iran's economic mistakes. In the good times, he made a living working four or five hours a day. Now he works 10 to 12 hours. He's 64 now, and has put five of his six children through college.

He quietly supports Iran's president in his efforts to open up the country and the economy, but he hasn't seen much change yet, and doesn't seem to worry much about it anyway.

He just keeps working. When he finished talking he put down a spare nail and went back to cutting his patterns.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We now bring you three scenes from Iranian lives. These are stories of people we met while traveling in that country. We were seeking snapshots of a nation on the edge of change, and the people we met have lived through past moments of anticipation in Iran. They all take different approaches to hope; the word in Persian is omid. And we heard that word when we met Pooya Shahsiah. When we walked into a shopping mall in Tehran, she was waiting for us at the top of the escalator.

Good to see you.

Shahsiah is co-owner of a trendy store on the second floor. It sells shirts, scarves, cups and jewelry. There is, for example, a purple shirt with a colorful illustration of a rooster crowing.

POOYA SHAHSIAH: (Foreign language spoken).

INSKEEP: She notes that parts of the rooster are made out of Persian words. Shahsiah says it was inspired by a Persian poem.

It's a lovely rooster. It's on several things here, right? Here's another version of it.

SHAHSIAH: (Foreign language spoken).

INSKEEP: Rooster scarves and mugs each bear the poem, which is about a new day, a new dawn.

Is that a metaphor?

SHAHSIAH: (Foreign language spoken).

INSKEEP: "Yes," she says, "most of our work consists of metaphor." When she says our work, she means her work with her friend and business partner, Sara Noghani. They're both in their 30s and stylishly dressed. They met years ago as college students and lived through what seemed like a new dawn in Iran back then. They remember casting their first votes ever for a reformist president elected the 1990s.

SHAHSIAH: We say that you are spending your golden ages when you're a student.

INSKEEP: And in that golden age, they went to cinemas, plays and concerts more freely than at other times. Conservatives in the government soon cracked down. Yet, Pooya's friend, Sara, says the mere memory of greater openness still carries them forward.

SARA NOGHANI: It was very great for us. And we are not that negative. We don't have that negative opinions because we experienced that era, because we were young, because we could do many things. And we were a little bit free.

INSKEEP: They've lived off that memory through more restrictive and more troubled recent times. They got a sign of just how troubled when they started selling another silkscreened shirt. This one featured that single Persian word.

SHAHSIAH: Omid.

INSKEEP: Omid, or hope. When they started showing customers the shirt, they got a divided reaction. Some people loved it. Others...

SHAHSIAH: (Foreign language spoken).

INSKEEP: Others sadly said, are you serious?

SHAHSIAH: (Foreign language spoken).

INSKEEP: You're just being too optimistic. You're not being real if you're too hopeful. Is that what the negative is?

SHAHSIAH: (Foreign language spoken).

INSKEEP: "Exactly right," Pooya says. Many Iranians are reluctant to place too much faith in today's new moment of hope. Far outside Tehran, in the city of Isfahan, we met a man who recalls yet another moment of anticipation.

AHMAD: My name Ahmad from Iran, Isfahan. And I'm 28 years old. I'm currently just a student.

INSKEEP: He's a little young to clearly recall the opening of the 1990s. Instead, he thinks of an election in 2009, when it seemed that another reformed presidential candidate was sure to win. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won instead, and security forces enforced his victory by cracking down on protests and placing opposition leaders under house arrest.

AHMAD: Personally, I really lost my hope because many people in my age just wanted to make a new change, build a new country. But after that, when we just realized that nothing change in our decision, it's not our decision that change anything. You know, the election is just something - it's just something for decoration.

INSKEEP: That is a lasting feeling. Four years later in 2013, a moderate candidate won the presidency. Hassan Rouhani won office on promises to open up society and improve relations with the West. But Ahmad in Isfahan is wary at best.

Were you excited when Rouhani was elected in 2013?

AHMAD: Not really.

INSKEEP: He expects only modest change. And though he has not given up on the country he loves, he is making plans to study abroad. We were speaking with Ahmad in a centuries-old square in Isfahan. Rows of arches surround that square. Little tourist shops fill many of the arches. In one of those shops, we found one more Iranian with his own approach to hope. His name is Asghar Pourheydar-Shirazi. We found him sitting on a chair, holding a hammer in one hand and a nail on the other. He was using them to etch patterns into the surface of a giant metal vase. He's been engraving unbelievably intricate patterns by hand.

This is copper that has been - what is the right term? - embossed.

ASGHAR POURHEYDAR-SHIRAZI: Tin, tin - tin.

INSKEEP: Oh, copper with tin top.

He's been working with vases like this - some of them several feet tall - for 50 years.

I'm amazed that you can do such intricate work from memory without a plan.

POURHEYDAR-SHIRAZI: (Foreign language spoken).

INSKEEP: He says he's been doing it so long it's easy. He even said he could engrave an image of my face on the vase if I wanted.

POURHEYDAR-SHIRAZI: Not very difficult, very good...

INSKEEP: (Laughter). I'm so impressed. If you make a mistake, do you just change the design to fit the mistake?

POURHEYDAR-SHIRAZI: (Foreign language spoken).

INSKEEP: "Yes," he says. "If I make a mistake, it becomes a new design." This, too, is a kind of metaphor for the way that Pourheydar-Shirazi has survived in this business so long and the way he gets by in Iran.

How's business?

POURHEYDAR-SHIRAZI: Not very good. It's good, good.

INSKEEP: Meaning could be get better, not the worst, OK.

In fact, he says, business has been poor for decades, ever since his own moment of anticipation. Shortly after Iran's 1979 Revolution, he says, business boomed. Then came the Iran-Iraq War, which Pourheydar-Shirazi went off to fight in, and business has been weak ever since.

Wow, that's more than 20 years of not-such-great business then.

POURHEYDAR-SHIRAZI: (Foreign language spoken).

INSKEEP: Just as he's done with mistakes in his work, Shirazi adjusted to Iran's economic mistakes. In the good times, he says he made a living working four or five hours a day. These days, he works 10 to 12 hours. The craft that he took up at age 14, he's still doing at age 64. He's put five of his six children through college. He quietly supports Iran's President Rouhani in his efforts to open up the country and the economy. But he hasn't seen much change yet and doesn't seem to worry much about it anyway. He doesn't really hope. He just works. He seems confident that his grandchildren will have better lives than he has because he has worked and saved for them. When he finished talking with us, he put down a spare nail and set back to cutting his patterns. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.