The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran
By Hooman Majd
Hardcover, 288 pages
List Price: $24.95
The cat, a sinewy black creature with dirty white paws, darted from the alley and jumped across the joob, the narrow ditch by the curb, onto the sidewalk on Safi Alishah. It took one look at me, and then fled down the road toward the Sufi mosque. "That's the neighborhood laat!" exclaimed my friend Khosro, a longtime resident of the no-longer-chic downtown Tehran street. "He's the local tough, and he beats up all the other cats. Every time my mother's cat goes out he gets a thorough thrashing and comes back bruised and bloodied."
"Why?" I asked.
"He just beats the crap out of any cat he doesn't like, which is most cats, I guess."
"And no one does anything about it?" I asked naively.
"No. What's there to do? Every neighborhood has a laat."
Iranians are not known to keep indoor pets. Dogs are, of course, unclean in Islam, and as such are not welcome in most homes (although not a few Westernized upper-class Tehranis do keep dogs, but generally away from public view). Cats, Islamic-correct, are far more common, although unlike their Western counterparts Iranians don't so much own their cats as merely provide a home for them and feed them scraps from the table. That is, when the cats want a home. Persian cats, and I mean Persian as in nationality, are (to use a favored expression in Washington) freedom-loving animals, and they wander outdoors, particularly in neighborhoods where there are houses rather than apartments. They do so as often as they like, which seems to be quite often, and they get pregnant, they have fights, and they even change their domicile if they happen to stumble across a better garden or, as is usually the case, a more generous feeding hand. Such as Khosro's mother's cat, who appeared at her house one day and took a fancy to her.
Persians, despite having been best known in the West for really only two things, prior to their fame for Islamic fundamentalism, that is, cats and carpets, spend an awful lot of time pondering carpets and virtually no time thinking about cats. The Persian cats we know in the West, the ones with the impossibly flat faces and gorgeous silky hair, are not as common in Iran as one might think, or hope, and there is a national obsession neither about them nor about their less sophisticated cousins, the cats one sees on every street, in every alley, and in the doorways, kitchens, and gardens of many homes. And some of those cats are just by nature, well, laat.
Laat, like many other Persian words, can be translated in different ways, and some dictionaries use the English "hooligan" as the definition, although it is in fact wildly inaccurate. The laat holds a special place in Iranian culture: a place that at times can be compared to the popular position of a mafioso in American culture, albeit without the extreme violence associated with him, and at other times a place of respect and admiration for the working-class code he lives by. Hooligans are anarchic; laat fight only when necessary and to establish their authority. Iran's cultural history of the twentieth century prominently featured the laat and with perhaps more affection the jahel, the onetime laat who had elevated himself to a grand position of authority and respect in a given urban neighborhood. The jahel, a sort of street "boss," occupied himself with many different illegal and quasi-legal activities but, unlike gang leaders in America, rarely found himself the target of police investigations, partly because the police were often from his social class, partly because the police were doled out many favors by him, and partly because the governments under the Shah were loath to disrupt or antagonize a class of society that could be relied upon for support should it become necessary to buy it.
The last Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, when forced to flee the country in 1953 (in the face of a popular uprising in favor of Prime Minister Mossadeq), found great use in the jahels and laats of South Tehran when the coup organizers intent on restoring him to power (financed and organized by the CIA) hired a prominent and formerly pro-Mossadeq laat, Shaban Jafari, better known as Shaban Bimokh (Shaban the "Brainless"), to successfully lead a counter-uprising in the streets of Tehran and mercilessly beat any anti-Shah demonstrators they came across. Using street-savvy toughs rather than the military (which was anyway unreliable and caught between the authority of the democratically elected prime minister and that of the Shah) gave the Shah the cover of populist sentiment in his favor, not to mention the convenience of violent reprisal perpetrated in his name, rather than directly by him or his forces.
The laats and jahels came from the lower and therefore deeply religious strata of Iranian society and were strong believers in Islam themselves, but they were notorious drinkers and womanizers, not to mention involved in prostitution and drugs. The jahel code, at least they themselves believed, was one of ethics and justice, Shia ethics, and the occasional sin would be repented for later, as is possible in Shia Islam. The code extended to their dress: black suits, white tieless shirts, and narrow-brimmed black fedoras perched at an angle high on their heads. A cotton handkerchief was usually to be found in their hands as a sort of fetish, and the famous jahel dance in the cafes of working-class Tehran involved slow, spinning movements with the handkerchief prominently waved in the air.
The jahel, and the laat to a lesser degree, represented the ultimate in Iranian machismo, Iranian mardanegi, or "manliness," in a supremely macho culture. Upper-class youths affected their speech, much as upper-class white youths in America affect the speech of inner-city blacks. There was, and still is, a perverse male and sometimes female fascination with the culture of the laat that invades even the uppermost echelons of Tehran society. At a dinner party in early 2007, in the very chic and expensive North Tehran Elahieh district at the home of an actor who has lived in America, a young man who serves as a guide and translator for foreign journalists (some of whom were in the room) peppered his speech with vulgar curse words that would ordinarily have been out of bounds in mixed company, or at least unfamiliar mixed company. "You probably don't like me," he said as he pulled up a chair next to my seat, having noticed my occasional winces in the preceding minutes. He helped himself to a large spoonful of bootleg caviar on the coffee table in front of him. "Because I swear so much," he mumbled with his mouth full. "But I'm a laat, what can I do?" I hesitated, wanting to point out that a laat would hardly be eating caviar in a grand North Tehran apartment, nor would he ever employ the language I'd heard in front of women, not unless he was getting ready for a fight.
"No," I replied instead. "I have no problems with swearing."
"I'm a laat," he repeated, as if it were a badge of honor. "I'm just a laat." His wife, seated on my other side, giggled nervously, glancing at the other women around the table whose smiles gave tacit approval to his macho posturing. What would a real South Tehran laat make of this scene? I wondered.
Despite their seemingly secular ways, at least in terms of drinking, partying, and involvement with prostitutes, the working-class laatsand jahels had been ardent supporters of the Islamic Revolution of 1979, and even though some royalists had suggested they be bought again, as they were in 1953, the Shah seemed to realize that times had changed and Khomeini's pull, which unlike Mossadeq's encompassed virtually all of Iran's opposition, was too strong to be countered with cash. Islam's promise of a classless society, along with the promise of far more equitable economic opportunities in a post-monarchy nation, was appealing enough in working-class neighborhoods, but what's more, unlike the intellectuals and aristocrats who surrounded Mossadeq, those fomenting this revolution were, after all, from the 'hood. As such, the street toughs and their jahel bosses, the xber-laats if you will, had assumed that an Islamic state would not necessarily infringe on their territory, but the clerics who brought about the revolution weren't going to let a bunch of thugs (in their minds) have the kind of authority that they considered exclusively reserved for themselves. The jahel neighborhood authority, along with its flamboyance of style and dress, also quickly went out of favor, replaced by cleric-sanctioned and much-feared paramilitary committees known as komiteh (the Persian pronunciation of the word), which undoubtedly numbered among their ranks many former laats.
In the few years of its existence the komiteh, often reporting directly to a cleric, involved itself in almost all aspects of life in each neighborhood where it was set up, and apart from enforcing strict Islamic behavior on the streets, it functioned as a sort of quasi-court where all manner of complaints were investigated. Among those complaints in the early days of the revolution were charges of corruption lodged against businessmen or the merely wealthy, usually by former employees but sometimes by jealous rivals, that resulted in further investigations by real courts and sometimes the confiscation of assets, a satisfying result for the early communist and left-wing supporters of the Islamic Republic who numbered among them the now-archenemy Paris- and Iraq-based Mujahedin, as they're known to most Iranians (but referred to as monafeghin, "hypocrites," by the government), or the MEK (for Mujahedin-e-Khalq), as they're known in the West. (The political left had also been undoubtedly pleased to watch as the new government nationalized many of the larger private enterprises in Iran, a program that has been in various stages of undoing since Khomeini's death in 1989 and whose undoing continues today, even under an administration more ideological than the pragmatist and reformist governments that preceded it.)
The laats who joined a komiteh or even the Revolutionary Guards in the dramatic aftermath of the revolution may have thought of themselves as finally empowered politically, but they quickly learned that in an Islamic government, all real authority would rest with the clergy. In one of the first acts of the post-revolution government, ostensibly for Islamic reasons but also as a show of just who was in charge, Tehran's infamous red-light district, Shahr-e-No, or "New City," the stomping ground of many a jahel and laat, was shut down and razed. Today, the old district is bordered by a broad avenue lined with shops selling surplus military wear, including, as I saw myself, U.S. Desert Storm boots in mint condition and an assortment of other U.S. military clothes and footwear newly liberated from Iraq. On the day I was there, and as I was examining the various articles for sale in a storefront, an old man shuffled by slowly, wearing a dirty black suit and loafers with the heels pushed down. "See him?" asked the friend who had brought me, a child of South Tehran who spent many a day of his youth in the Shahr-e-No neighborhood. "He used to walk up and down this street, just like he is now, in the old days. But he was a big guy then."
Today, while laats still abound in urban areas, the jahel is but a fragment of memory for most Iranians, to be seen in the occasional old Iranian movie or to be talked about nostalgically. Once in a while, one can bump into one (or someone who at least affects the look) on the streets of downtown Tehran or farther south, as I did on Ferdowsi Avenue, just off Manouchehri, a street lined with antiques dealers, on a few occasions in the past few years. Among the Jewish shop owners and other stall vendors, one heavyset older man works out of an impossibly narrow shop carved into the side of a building. His dusty window displays an array of old rings, bracelets, and other jewelry, the odd off-brand man's watch here and there, and he himself sits on an old stool just outside on the pavement. He wears a black suit, a slightly discolored white shirt, and a narrow-brimmed black fedora one size too small on the top of his obviously balding head. His thick black mustache, from which years ago he may have dramatically plucked a hair with his fingers to show good faith in a deal, is dyed, the reddish tint of the henna showing on the outermost hairs. His only concession to the Islamic state of affairs is the day-old growth of beard surrounding the mustache: snowy white growth that betrays the dyed mustache even more startlingly than the henna hue. I don't know if he was ever a jahel, but it seems likely that he was. He sits there on Ferdowsi, keeping his own hours, like a toothless old cat, a reminder for those who might care that the neighborhood's top laat is not what he used to be.
The Javadieh neighborhood of South Tehran was once the city's roughest; to the young male residents it was known as "Texas," presumably because of the association in Iranian minds of that state with the lawless Wild West. A rough neighborhood, though, meant poor and run-down but not necessarily dangerous in the way we might think in the West. Upper-class Iranians would never have ventured into Javadieh; they still don't, but not out of fear, rather because of the strict Iranian delineation between the classes. Some upper-class wealthy young males may want to affect the macho posturing of the lower-class laat, but they would never sit down with one and have a chat over a cup of tea. Nor would they know how to deal with a chaghoo-kesh—"knife-puller" literally, but someone who lives by his knife. Guns have never been popular among Iranian toughs, mainly because they kill more often than maim, but also because guns in Iran have been associated with armed struggle or revolution rather than self-defense or criminal activity. As such, governments, whether under the Shahs or in the Islamic Republic, have zero tolerance for guns, which they have viewed as threats to their power, but have had a wide tolerance for knives and other fighting equipment.
Knife fights, common enough even today, rarely end with serious injury, although on occasion death does occur, as it did recently on the street where I was staying when a fight broke out between two young men over the affections of a local girl, with whom neither had relations but whom each felt was his. The thrust of a knife, a little too hard and a little too close to the heart, probably unintentional, resulted in death, and the onetime chaghoo-kesh was transformed from street thug to murderer in an instant. But usually a knifing is meant to cut rather than kill, and in the old street tradition a knife fight begins with one or both of the men cutting themselves on the chest, to draw blood and to demonstrate the fearlessness of the fighter. That disregard for one's own well-being extended easily into the practice of fearless suicide missions performed by the all-volunteer Basij forces during the Iran-Iraq war.
Copyright 2008 by Hooman Majd. Reprinted by permission of Doubleday.