Iran's Jet-Set Youths Forsake Revolution for a Lasting Tan
'HEY babe, watch this," yells Behzod, as he slows to a halt with a neat parallel turn, spraying snow over a crowd of sun-tanned youngsters in fluorescent jackets and wrap-around sunglasses.
Behzod slicks back his hair, snaps off his skis, and gives his friends a high-five. "Pretty impressive, huh?"
Aspen? Chamonix? No, this is Shemshak in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Just 90 minutes' drive from Tehran, Shemshak lies in the cool, clean air of the Alborz Mountains.
Slender Tabrizi trees, stripped of leaves in winter, cover the white-powdered mountainsides. A cluster of imported all-terrain vehicles stands by the chair lift, surrounded by groups of elegantly dressed Iranians guzzling soft drinks. It is far away from the pollution and Islamic strictures of the capital, Tehran.
Before the 1979 Islamic revolution, Shemshak and Dizin, a larger resort an hour to the north, were the center of Iran's winter sports season. Celebrities from Europe came to ski; many stayed at the stone-built Shemshak Hotel, where guests would enter a basement trapdoor and descend into a nightclub known as Hell.
There is little apres-ski in Shemshak today. "It was much better in the old days," confides Farshad, a ski instructor on the slope. "We'd have a great time on the mountain and then party all night."
Even so, Shemshak is more liberal these days than Dizin, where Revolutionary Guards ensure that men and women ski on separate slopes, and enforce Islamic hejab (covering) for women, even on the downhill. "They have guys reading the Koran on the slopes at Dizin," says Kami, a fashion-conscious teenager from Tehran. "What do they think we'll do - stop and listen while we're skiing? These people just don't understand."
To a visitor accustomed to the more sober attractions of Iran, Shemshak is indeed revolutionary. With only one main run, there is no space to segregate the sexes.
Young Iranian women, stylishly made-up, push back their head scarves with abandon. Men and women defy Islamic law by shaking hands in public. Everywhere, people are smiling.
According to local rumor, the komiteh, gangs of semi-official Islamic youths, tried to reassert Islamic order in Shemshak five years ago, but the local people, whose livelihood depends on the skiing industry, beat them up. Since then, an uneasy stalemate with the authorities has prevailed.
A day's skiing is extremely inexpensive by Western standards: A day's ski pass costs only $2. But many in Shemshak are children of the nouveaux riches of Iran, the millionaires who live in palatial villas in mountainous north Tehran. Most have learned to coexist with the inflexible rules of Islamic Iran. They socialize in private houses in the north of the city, only rarely descending into the city below. So long as they steer clear of politics, it seems, the authorities leave them alone.
Yet Iranian youths are demanding political change in subtle ways. Iran's population has doubled since the revolution; almost one-half of its citizens have no memory of the last shah's regime. For them, revolutionary dogma and the call of the mosque have little appeal.
"There is a major conflict in this country now between the old and the young," says Saeid Leylaz, a reporter from Hamshahri newspaper in Tehran. "We have one of the youngest populations in the world now. Young Iranians want good jobs, hobbies, and an ordinary life. They want new ideas."
Iran's youthful population is already affecting the politics of the country. The most popular candidate in the 1992 parliamentary elections was Ali Akbar Husseini, who acts as a kind of Dear Abby on TV. And last week, in the latest elections to parliament, Faezeh Hashemi Rafsanjani, deputy director of the Iranian Olympic Committee and a vocal sports advocate, cruised through the polls to take a seat in Tehran. Ms. Hashemi, who is the daughter of Iranian President Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, has long campaigned for greater sports facilities for young Iranian women.
President Rafsanjani himself has called for sensitivity in dealing with Iran's youth; last year, Iranians say, he ordered the komiteh to be lenient when enforcing the laws on public dress. Members of parliament have discussed the possibility of legalizing satellite television, banned in 1995 amid much controversy within the regime. Moreover, the Revolutionary Guards now need to obtain a warrant from the courts before raiding a private house.
"The main trend in Iran is toward liberalization," says Leylaz. "It's an uncertain path, and we are just at the beginning. But each year, a great many Iranians travel to the West and then come back to Iran. This has to have some effect.
"Education and technology, too, are changing people so fast that there have to be political changes to match."
At present, the youths on the slopes at Shemshak are far from convinced. Until that change occurs, they say, they will devote themselves to their slalom and their downhill and concentrate on building up a really lasting tan.