Friday, November 14, 2008

Babak: Freedom of speech, freedom of software | Mashad

Babak reading his own campus newspaper before class

Babak is tall and thin, and when he opens the front gate of his house, eyes narrowed by sleep, he looks younger than his 21 years. I had just arrived from the overnight bus from Yazd, filled with pilgrims on their way to Imam Reza shrine, the holiest shrine in Shi'a Islam. Before setting off, we were lead in group prayer, and along the way, had made stops at roadside mosques for passengers to perform their evening and morning prayer.

His house is in a quiet, posh outlying suburb of Mashad, with a coffeehouse on the corner, just off a highway leading into town. In his room, posters championing Firefox web browser and Ubuntu open source software lie around, and an acoustic guitar sits in the corner.

"You've heard of open source?" he asked me. "Oh good! Open source is my life."

Babak is a man of many interests. Other than being a city ambassador for open source, he is the editor of one of his university's daily papers, pulls some part-time IT troubleshooting work, is learning French and reads voraciously, both online and off. He proudly points out the thousands of blog posts he's contributed to several web forums where young members of Iran's blogosphere sound off on social issues, one that he moderates himself. His English, compared to most Iranians, is exceptional.

I ask if his interest in open source is political at all.

"Extremely political," he affirms, without hesitation. "Open source software is connected to freedom. I am interested in freedom: political freedom, freedom of speech...they are all related."

He attributes his political interests to his family. After a feast lunch of mixed kebabs, pizza, eggplant and other Iranian culinary staples, his father, a small, quiet-spoken manager, told me about his own youth.

At Babak's home entertaining on the guitar

"Before the revolution, I was interested in the ideas of Karl Marx and other writers," he explains, gently. "But now, I think history has shown that these systems do not work. We prefer the American democratic system." His wife cares not to wear the headscarf in front of me, and his children are all as secular as he.

I visit Babak's university, a private institution where he is clearly a popular guy around campus. Witty and quirky, he chats with a dozen others within the space of five minutes, pointing out to me how relations between the opposite sex are more open than one would find at a public university. As if to point out the difference, in an empty classroom, he and his girlfriend embrace briefly, flirting indiscreetly as they study a French audio CD on his laptop. Sitting a small distance from them, I avert my eyes in an odd mix of fear and embarrassment, at behavior that I wouldn't even notice in other countries.

Mural commemorating martyrs from the Iran-Iraq war (Mashad)

But that evening, returning home late, Babak is less upbeat, lips tightly pursed. In their French class, a conservative student, known in Iran as the "Hezbollahi," saw Babak and his girlfriend make physical contact. They had been joking around, and Babak had playfully jabbed her in the ribs. The student had reported the incident to the teacher, and at the end of the class, the teacher had told them of the expulsion. The school returned them the payment for the class, upon which Babak and his girlfriend signed up for an alternative French class.

Over dinner, he explained his situation to his parents, who were understanding and, though angry, ultimately resigned. He said it was less the teacher's own will, as the school's fear that some of the more conservative enrolled students, seeing that such behaviour went unpunished, might withdraw from the school, or tarnish its name.

I ask him if he's going to write about the incident in his newspaper.

"There's no point," he sighs. "This sort of thing happens every day in Iran, so it's not worth writing about."

A modern home in Babak's neighborhood

I was surprised at how quickly it seemed Babak had resigned himself to his fate, ridiculous as everyone agreed that it was. Earlier in the day, when talking of my reservations in blogging about political affairs in Iran, Babak told me to write what I wanted.

"We complain about the government all the time in the newspapers," he said. "It's only if you criticise certain people in the government that you get into trouble."

But as we discussed just how free Iranians are to dissent and criticise, he sounded decreasingly sure of himself. Then, later in the evening, surfing online, he read his girlfriend's anonymous blog. I asked what sort of things she writes about.

"She's venting about things in society she disagrees with," he answered. "Things you can't say in public. These sort of blogs are very common in Iran."

At Imam Reza shrine, which an estimated 20 million pilgrims visit each year

This line, between what is and is not acceptable within public discourse, seems to have blurred considerably in Iran. Farsi is apparently the fourth most blogged language in the world, and young, urban Iranians are as wired and as hungry consumers of international media as their Western counterparts. But whether accessible knowledge and online communities, blossoming despite the government's occasional efforts to slow it, will be enough to challenge the old-fashioned strong arm of the regime, remains to be seen.

My host family, educated, Westernized, secular and progressive, living somewhat ironically at the heart of Shi'ite Islam and annual host to millions of conservative pilgrims, speak of timelines for change. They see it as inevitable, citing how the Islamic Republic continues to lose ever more hold over its populace.

Almost every person I spoke with in Iran was of a similar persuasion, but this might be expected, as the people I met were of a particular demographic. Less wealthy, urbanized, tech-savvy Iranians tend to align more with the conservative mullahs. But even among former adherents, according to Babak's family, the regime's support is drying up.

Devotees at Imam Reza shrine

I quiz them about how long such changes will take.

Democracy? Soon, maybe within their generation.

The head scarf? Longer perhaps, maybe 30 years.

But whatever the length necessary, they made one thing clear. If Iran is going to change, and I've never seen a society so bursting at the seams to do so, it's going to happen on their own terms. No foreign intervention, and no violence, was what Iranians reiterated to me repeatedly. After the legacy of the British and consternation regarding America's war in countries bordering their west and east, foreign invasion, locals feared, would only turn people back to the regime in a nationalist backlash.

1 comment:

Francisco Galárraga said...

Another fantastic post. Do you know if some of these persian bloggers post in english as well?