Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Grass roots politics in an Iranian bread line

Allowing for the differences between "first world problems" and those in a much poorer country, the conversation around me at the coffee shop this morning isn't much different from what The Guardian reporter heard in front of a Tehran bakery.

Any clues here about the future of Iranian politics?

Iran Standard Time: a day in the bread line
Ali, a 60 year-old man wearing a navy blue coat and a neatly trimmed beard, stands in a bread line near north Tehran’s Tajrish square. “This is the hundredth time,” he says, reacting to news of the latest multi-billion dollar embezzlement scandal within state-run banking, which led to the arrest of12 people.

“A million cases like this never come to light. What’s worse, they’re selling off all the oil for their own benefit.”…

Inside an Iranian bakery
Such conversations are common in Iran’s bakeries, where people from all walks of life spend long periods of time crushed close together in long, tight lines. The intimate surroundings offer a rare opportunity to vent political frustrations and exchange rumors with strangers… [and] sift through the disinformation to find grains of truth about the way the nation’s secretive power structures function.

“During Ahmadinejad’s time, we were saying there would be some thieving. It will keep happening,” Ali says… Now we have to bring someone in from the outside who can fix up the country… [N]ow that the mullahs run things, [who can] stop the son of Khamenei or Rafsanjani from doing whatever he wants?”…

A man who has made it to the end of the line and bought his bread makes his way out of the bakery, passing underneath the large metal racks used for cooling and cutting sangak bread. Under his breath, he grumbles about the bakery skimping on sesame seeds.

A 55-year-old woman speaks up. “Everyone up there does whatever they want. They raised the price of bread from 800 to 1000 tomans, they made the portions smaller, and now they’re being stingy with the sesame seeds too. Prices up, portions down. If you say anything they tell you sarcastically to go make a formal complaint. Who’s going to listen to these complaints? Should we spend a year in the courts trying to convince a judge to arrest a baker for spreading too few sesame seeds on his bread?”…

The same cynicism emanates from conversations in a much more crowded bakery in Bahman Square, in the old south Tehran neighborhood of Naazy Abad. Women easily outnumber men here…

[A] elderly man… chimes in: “It’s safer now that the Revolutionary Guards are there, in Iraq. Airspace security there is basically Iran’s responsibility now.

The conversation drifts toward the recent rise in prices. A woman of around 30 blames Ahmadinejad: “He tricked the people with his subsidies,” she says. “Everything got a hundred times more expensive and even after three years, subsidies haven’t increased whatsoever. All of this was set in motion before Rouhani.”

“Ahmadinejad set us back 100 years,” the elderly man interjects in agreement. “And we already need 400 years to make real progress. That makes 700 altogether. Forget about it, it’s a total loss.”

“They’ve ruined everyone,” another middle-aged man chimes in. “These bread lines used to be so joyful and full of energy. People would talk and laugh with each other, but now people are so preoccupied with surviving that no one talks.”

“But this is just what the government wants - for people to give up,” quips the woman who blamed Ahmadinejad. “They want people to be so concerned with just getting by that they don’t have the time or energy to worry about what’s going on up above…

“For 60 years it’s been like this, madam,” the elderly man says to the teacher. “Both in the Shah’s time and now, there are few jobs, high unemployment, all the prices go up, and people’s heads get so caught up in the day-to-day that the politicians just go about their business. At the end of the day, both old men like me and teachers like you have to worry about the price of bread.”

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