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Iran’s social divisions are bared at airport departures

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Iran’s widening social divisions are on display at Tehran’s international airport, where pilgrims to Iraq’s holy town of Karbala stand shoulder to shoulder with tourists heading for a beach holiday in Antalya, on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast.

The two sides — who have a history of conflict — have long accused each other of taking the country into a social, cultural and religious abyss. They trade blows on social media for their opposing lifestyles, and each claims the other is fuelling the pandemic by going to packed holy shrines in Iraq or concerts featuring expatriate pop singers and rap stars in Turkey.

In recent months, I have been witness to some of the busiest days at Imam Khomeini International Airport. Most check-in desks handle flights to Turkish destinations. There is, however, no mention of Antalya on flight information displays: instead they show lesser-known places such as Adana, Alanya or Gazipaşa.

It has been almost two decades since the Islamic republic obliged Turkish airlines to make a detour so leaders can hide from their religious followers that Iranians travel freely to Antalya to sunbathe and drink alcohol in five-star hotels.

Iran’s travel agencies charter Turkish flights, which stop in Adena or elsewhere for about 45 minutes and then continue to Antalya. Even privately owned Iranian airlines which are quietly backed by members of the regime stop at Turkish destinations which are a five-hour bus ride from Antalya.

In times of pilgrimage, the social extremes are stark. In late September the airport was full of pilgrims to Karbala, with women attired in black Islamic coverings. Before the pandemic, a few million pilgrims used to travel to mark Arbaeen, the 40th day of mourning for the death of Hossein, a grandson of Prophet Mohammad, who is buried in Karbala. But this year the Iraqi government only allowed tens of thousands of Iranian pilgrims, and instructed them to travel by plane rather than over land to limit the spread of Covid-19.

Tehran’s leaders, who encourage such religious ceremonies, supplied military aircraft for the journey. In Karbala, pilgrims are given plentiful free food and tea. They are even charged a lower airport exit fee than other travellers.

For Iranians, this follows a familiar pattern: the regime pampers its loyalists and those who want more social freedom can find it in a neighbouring country, in return for a high fee and a slightly tortuous journey. Some Antalyan hotels are heavily-promoted by Iranian travel agencies on social media, fuelling suspicions that powerful hands connected to the regime are reaping the rewards of this profitable business.

This approach — whether seen as tolerance, pragmatism or corruption — has not gone unnoticed by passengers. One woman travelling to Antalya asked: “Why do we have to stop? What’s this policy?” A male passenger replied: “Take it easy, ma’am! We will have lots of wine.”

At the airport, both sides look at each other in despair or shake their heads in disapproval.

When an expatriate rapper from Iran held a concert in Turkey, tickets to which cost up to $250 — close to the monthly salary for an Iranian worker under US sanctions — audience members descended into hooliganism and began physically fighting each other. The videos, which went viral, prompted angry questions about why such performances can’t be held in Iran to avoid public brawls overseas which are bad for Iran’s reputation. Hosting concerts at home would also make attendance cheaper.

But a member of parliament, Ali Yazdikhah, declared that an Islamic country could not allow public alcohol consumption merely “to save a few dollars and euros”.

The social gaps persist and the Islamic republic is expected to continue playing both sides.

During the 10-day Ashura religious festival in Tehran this August, I asked organisers to turn down their loudspeaker, which was booming at midnight from a small park opposite my apartment. “You have your parties until 2am for 355 days of the year, but only 10 days of the year are ours,” said one man, a voluntary member of the Revolutionary Guards. He did not hear me grumble: “Actually, I thought all 365 days were yours.”


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