Hope, fear, apathy: Iranian youths look to election
Iran is gearing up for a presidential election on Friday but many young people are more focused on the daily struggle to survive and their dreams for the future. Jobs are scarce in a recession-hit economy battered by sanctions, a crisis exacerbated by the region's deadliest outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The prosperity and opening many had hoped for after Iran's 2015 nuclear deal never materialised because then-U.S. president Donald Trump torpedoed it three years ago.
The Islamic Republic is a youthful country of 83 million, almost half of whom are aged under 30, born long after the 1979 revolution.
AFP spoke to several Iranians in their 20s and 30s, in Tehran's leafy and affluent north and bustling downtown area, about their hopes, fears and aspirations.
"Stay and build?"
Nursing student Narges, 20, was spending time with her classmates outside a popular burger joint in northern Tehran's Tajrish square.
"Life is hard," she said, as "living costs are back-breaking and a trip to the supermarket empties the bank (account)".
Faces of Iranian youth
Behind a suffocating political system and inquisitive cliches, Iranian youth dream of a break with the system while proudly defending their culture. By Gwenvaël Engel
Culture vultures: Tehran's galleries are very popular among Iranian young people and the cultural scene is constantly diversifying. According to a 25-year-old photographer, "government restrictions play an important role in this phenomenon. Art is seen as a means of emancipation"
Murals permitted: while protest graffiti is forbidden in Iran, the public authorities actively encourage young artists to decorate school walls. "Sometimes even locals stop in the street, astonished to see a woman painting so freely on the walls," Negin says to me, laughing. "When they see what I am doing, total strangers often encourage me – for artistic reasons, but also for reasons of emancipation"
Time out from the system: many Iranians like to travel into the countryside on weekends to get away from the hustle and bustle of the cities, but mostly to escape the police presence for a few days
Dreaming of a simpler life: the ardour of youth knows neither borders nor ideology. Some want to emigrate in the hope of a better future, others are keen to stay. "We love this country as passionately as we hate it," one young man told me
Across a cultural divide: in the working-class neighbourhoods of southern Tehran, a more "traditional" youth reveals itself. Here, the men are looking for a male interlocutor, avoiding speaking to an unknown woman out of modesty
A window on the world: tourism has had a considerable impact on Iran's coastal villages. Mohammad, who works in tourism around the Persian Gulf, confesses to me: "Thanks to tourism, my cousins are learning English and discovering other cultures from an early age. That would have been unthinkable 10 years ago"
The perfect desert island: Qeshm is a godsend for Iranian youth. Water sports gained a foothold there several years ago, proving an inevitable draw for young people
In symbiosis with the sea: life on Qeshm takes place more on the water than off it. Fishing is one local industry that is thriving
State obligations: Meisam is worried about beginning his military service, due to start in a few days. He has no idea how he will send the money he earns home, or who will take care of his sick eighteen-year-old wife in his absence
On the road to recovery: Ali and Majid are gradually weaning themselves off drugs. For some young Iranians struggling to find their place in a world weighed down by tradition, substance abuse can often seem like the answer
"But it still has its beauties," she added with a chuckle, saying she likes to browse Tehran's many bookstores and, occasionally, impulse-buy sweets.
The nuclear deal was shaping up when Narges was still in high school, she said, recalling that back then she expected that "the country is going to get colourful".
"But, well, it didn't," she said.
The lack of a "bright outlook" has made her consider moving back in with her parents – or even to leave Iran, an idea she once rejected.
"I was someone who didn't want to leave, who believed in 'stay and build'," she said. "But not anymore."
This is the first election in which Narges is old enough to vote, but she said she did not have "any particular feelings" about it.
Fellow nursing student Nahid, 22, said she "neither felt super great before nor so bad right now that I would want to leave... I think this is life, it just goes on."
"Just keep living"
Mohammad Hekmat, 34, who has been trained in metallurgy, was peddling roses and daffodils under a hot summer sun in a city park.
Hekmat moved to sprawling Tehran about a decade ago after he couldn't find a job in his northern hometown of Qaem Shahr.
"I imagined this to be a metropolis, with the chance to grow and find a job, have a future," he said, clutching flowers left unsold the previous day.
"But it didn't turn out the way I wanted it. Suddenly everything changed. Not just for me, but for everyone."
He earns just enough for food and a rented room on Tehran's eastern outskirts.
"It's like you can't think of the future, just the present, to stay alive."
In Friday's election, he said, he hopes whoever wins will be able to revive the battered economy.
His dream is to "have children, a future and grow old" in comfort – but he said this will be impossible "unless the economy is fixed".
Future pop star
On a nearby bench sat 20-year-old busker Mohammad Sheikhi, a guitar tattooed on his arm, even as his beloved instrument had just been broken in an accident.
Undeterred, he declared that one day he will be a famous pop star: "I'm the one who'll be on stage, singing and playing to an audience of 15,000."
Sheikhi said he plans to migrate to Turkey, as did his favourite Iranian musician, the controversial R&B artist Amir Tataloo.
Sheikhi said he does not follow election news, but he did recognise the name of the frontrunner, the ultraconservative Ebrahim Raisi.
He expressed hope that the next president will allow Iranian musicians, even those out of favour with authorities, "to work, have concerts, get permits".
"Mr Whoever's gonna be president, congratulations," added Sheikhi. "I hope you can lead the country properly."
"Far from my dreams"
In downtown Tehran, Mohammadreza Nezami, 20, works as a shoemaker, after previous jobs in construction and a dairy processing plant.
"I've been working since I was 13, but what's there to show for it?" he asked. "I can't buy a car or anything else. Things have gotten difficult."
"Money is hard-earned and easily gone. And whoever says money does not bring happiness is wrong because part of life is money."
His goal is to own a shoe shop, a good car, and to have a good income, "a happy life", he said.
"I have no doubt I'll reach what I want some day, but now I'm very far from my dreams."
Even though the path will "be difficult," he said, he plans to stay in Iran, arguing that those who leave are "making excuses" and lack the determination to succeed.
Looking to the election, Nezami said: "It's the first year I can vote. But I'm not really sure. I might vote." (AFP)