How the Other Half Lives in Iran

Demonstrators after Iranian police fired tear gas to disperse protests over Iran’s weak economy, in Tehran last month. Credit Associated Press
Demonstrators after Iranian police fired tear gas to disperse protests over Iran’s weak economy, in Tehran last month. Credit Associated Press

The village of Zaras lies in a valley circled by the Zagros Mountains in southwestern Bakhtiari Province of Iran. An hour’s ride from Izeh, the nearest town, Zaras is home to about 60 families, who make a living from farming, pastoral nomadism and working as migrant laborers in Iranian cities.

On a September afternoon in 2014, I sat by the mud wall of a hazelnut garden with Darab, a 50-year-old farmer in Zaras. Darab, a man with a charming face and rough, calloused hands, cultivated potatoes, beans and onions on a plot of land slightly larger than an acre. Yet the harvest wasn’t enough to feed his family — his wife, his six children and his elderly parents. Iran imported grains and potatoes on an enormous scale, and the prices fell each year.

Darab supplemented his meager earnings by digging wells and working for a few months at construction sites in nearby cities. He would make less than the equivalent of about 20 American dollars for 10 hours at a construction site — work that did not offer the safety net of insurance against accidents or ill health.

The village of Zaras has, like the rest of Iran, suffered from drought in the past decade. The land and the harvest have depleted. Darab spoke wistfully about a time when there was enough water for the gardens and the fields in the village. “It gets worse every year,” he said. “Nowadays they pour some water around the trees. It does not reach the roots.” Many hazelnut trees around us were already dead.

On Dec. 31, Izeh, the town near Darab’s village, witnessed one of the more violent protests triggered by economic hardships across Iran. Young men in Izeh took over the city for several hours. Several young men were killed; many were injured. They had confronted the Iranian policemen with bare hands.

But the first targets of the protesters’ rage were the buildings housing the banks. Drought has forced an increasingly large number of people in the region to seek loans. Unable to pay off their loans, their debt grows, and the bank confiscates what they have left — land, a house or a tractor.

“People’s lives are worthless!” I repeatedly heard Iranians in the villages and the cities make this despairing declaration. Sociologists use the term “precarity” to describe this abandonment, this depriving people of a livable life. “The world has boycotted us,” Darab said. Before the sanctions were imposed on Iran, Darab and other workers would travel to Iran’s Persian Gulf area to work for oil and gas companies. Foreign companies moved out after the sanctions and the jobs dried up.

Almost all young men in Darab’s village moved to cities to join the growing urban precariat, who are exploited as cheap and docile workers in the informal labor market. The absence of opportunity has intensified the migration from the villages to the urban areas, which have been growing five times faster. According to the Iranian Parliament data, the number of Iranians living in slums has increased 17 times since the revolution in 1979 to almost 10 million.

Every year more Iranians are classified as poor. Official sources reported in 2015 that 40 percent of Iranians lived below the poverty line. The unemployment rate among young people — between 20 and 24 years old — rose to 30 percent in 2016. This explains why more than 90 percent of the people arrested during the recent protests were under age 25.

About 11 million Iranians, around 50 percent of the work force, work in irregular employment, according to Iran’s Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. Almost all young workers I met during my extended fieldwork in the past 15 years have been in irregular employment, rarely paid on time, with little protection from exploitative employers. Between 10 million and 13 million Iranians are entirely excluded from health, work or unemployment insurance.

The Iranian poor do see the vast riches of the Iranian elite. Since the early 2010s Iran has witnessed the growth of a consumerist culture and rising inequality. An increasing number of imported luxury cars have appeared on the roads; buildings whose price per square meter equals three years of a worker’s wage have come up across the cities. Ice cream covered in edible gold — worth a worker’s monthly salary — is on the menus of luxury restaurants.

After the day’s work, I would walk with workers from Darab’s village from the construction sites in wealthy neighborhoods in North Tehran to their modest rented rooms in the poorer South Tehran. As we walked past Porsches and Maseratis parked outside luxury boutiques and restaurants, they would address God satirically and say, “If these people are your creatures, what am I then?”

Alongside financial insecurity and drought, Iranians are reeling from intense pollution in the cities. A decade of sanctions has significantly increased the prices of groceries, medicines and fuel. The sanctions also excluded Iranians from the formal international banking system and forced them toward informal cash-based transactions, making them vulnerable to fraud and black market prices. The value of the Iranian toman has fallen by more than half against the dollar since 2012, which affected all other costs inside the country.

President Trump’s anti-Iranian tirades leave no hope for lifting or easing sanctions on Iran. The fear of military attack by Israel or the United States has added to the popular anxieties.

Yet hope for democracy and social justice in modern Iran has been replicated time and again through political struggles, from the constitutional revolution in 1911, the oil nationalization movement in 1950, the revolution in 1979, the green movement in 2009 and the most recent protests led by the poor.

As the images of the protests in Iran appeared on screens worldwide, I thought of my conversation with Darab in his village. We had stared at the distant mountains rising toward a clear, blue sky in silence. “See all these lands that we cannot get one single toman from. We do not have water. Write it,” he had commanded. “And write that those in Tehran have been taking all money for themselves and have forgotten that we also are people.”

Shahram Khosravi, a professor of Anthropology at Stockholm University, is the author of Precarious Lives: Waiting and Hope in Iran and Young and Defiant in Tehran.

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