“There is no fun to be had in the Islamic Republic,” Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini once said. And in faithful adherence to its revolutionary founder’s command, Iran’s Islamic government has for decades punished such things as the mingling of men and women who aren’t relatives, alcohol, and female solo singers, with fines, jail time and lashes.
That’s why setting up a party—one with drinks, DJs and dirty dancing—has become a complex enterprise. Soundproofing the house to avoid attracting attention, for example, is fairly standard practice, says Mariam (not her real name), 23, an Iranian who now lives in Washington. Hosts, she adds, must also strike a difficult balance between inviting a restricted number of trusted people, while not leaving anyone out who could tip off the police in a fit of pique. Guests know they have to drink in one room, making it easier to collect and hide the alcohol, says a Toronto-based Iranian who asked to be referred to only as Ali. Girls sometimes set up another room for makeup and hairdos so they don’t catch the morality police’s eye on the streets. Above all, Mariam and Ali agree, there must be cash at hand for possible bribes.
In fact, many people try to pre-empt police strikes by paying off authorities in advance. Current fees for keeping police at bay range from $200 for smaller parties to up to $3,000 for wedding ceremonies, says Mariam, who frequently travels back to Tehran. Further bribes may be needed to fend off the Basijis, the Islamic Republic’s voluntary militia. Money, though, can’t always buy safety. Some officials are incorruptible; others will pocket the cash and still crack down. That was the case, recalls Mariam, when a family friend’s generous bribes couldn’t save his daughter from lashes for throwing a clandestine party, although the money did result in a vague promise to “whip her lightly.”
For others, there just isn’t any money to bribe with, says Pardis Mahdavi, a professor of anthropology at Pomona College in California who documented Iran’s party scene in her book Passionate Uprisings: Iran’s Sexual Revolution. When boys and girls from low-income families gather around a small radio in a warehouse, “the stakes are higher,” because their parents don’t have the financial resources to come to the rescue—or if they are conservative, might not even want to.
Ironically, says Siavash Rad, 36, who is homosexual and was granted asylum in Italy in 2008, gay parties are generally safer. If the feast is a dry one, he says, the police won’t mind a guys-only gathering, confident that, as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad once said, “in Iran we don’t have homosexuals.”
In another stratagem to elude the police, as the conservative Iranian website Tabnak reported, people are increasingly “holding parties on the fringes of cities,” as country villas and mountain chalets feel safer than the urban scene. Even that, though, offers no guarantee of security, as the police have taken to setting up roadblocks to capture furtive partiers heading out of town, says Mariam.
But, although the game of cat and mouse continues, all sources agreed that the Islamic Republic has grown more lenient toward its festive young ones in recent years. It may be because, with 70 per cent of the population currently under 30, authorities feel there’s little they can do to stop the partying masses. Another reason, though, might be that, after Iranian youth poured onto the streets to protest allegedly rigged elections last year, partying has come to look like the lesser evil. If it keeps people out of politics, the ayatollahs may have found, a bit of fun isn’t so bad after all.