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Thursday, 3 January, 2002, 16:50 GMT
Getting round Iran's alcohol ban
Conservative clerics
Islamic clerics back alcohol and rock music bans
By Nick Pelham in Tehran

When foreign commentators celebrated Ireland's victory at the recent World Cup qualifier in Tehran, that was not the only reason to celebrate.

They could also look forward to the flight out of the Islamic republic of Iran - and an end to a teetotal week.

But had they ventured beyond the bus and the hotel, they might have discovered a rather different Iran.

Mullahs argue over what to do with the sons and daughters of the Islamic revolution who want to party rather than pray

For over 600 years, Iran's poets have penned odes to the tipple. The 14th Century poet Hafez sought to quench his desire for women and wine.

But, say the conservatives, that was mere allegory for his thirst for gods. At Hafez's home town of Shiraz in southern Iran, they have sanctioned the restoration of his tomb with a cafe offering the teenagers who go there nothing stronger than tea.

The ayatollahs have gone further - they have converted the local brewery into a telephone exchange.

Local resistance

But converting the people is less easily achieved. Hafez's city of Shiraz, after all, is so renowned for its vineyards, it has given its name to one of the world's most popular varieties of wine.

And at the back of the old brewery, Shirazis are still keen to preserve their local traditions.

Scouring the alleys on the lookout for religious police, youths in loose leather jackets stuffed with illicit substances bike round town - mobile off-licences peddling beer, vodka and opium.

Muslim women
Strict moral codes are gradually relaxing in Iran
Almost all their merchandise comes from abroad - the beer from Holland and Australia, the vodka from Azerbaijan and the opium from Afghanistan.

Prohibition is good news for smugglers, but appalling for local producers. Shiraz's manufacturing base has retreated underground.

In cellars across the city, Shirazis ferment anything from grapes to pomegranates. Old men sound out Jewish acquaintances for the latest home-brewing techniques, and the young drink to their labours at soirees.

Come Thursday night and they dance in their homes or rave in the forests beneath the ruins of Persopolis, the ancient Persian city which the Shah restored as a symbol of Iran's pre-Islamic greatness.

New generation

Moral codes have relaxed in Iran. In the richer suburbs of northern Tehran, the supermarkets even do a trade in under-the-counter cans - slang for booze - and, at pizza parlours downtown, the waiters serve their pizzas with Fanta laced with a heavy dosage of vodka.

In the cloisters of Koranic colleges, the mullahs argue over what to do with the sons and daughters of the Islamic revolution who want to party rather than pray.

Western music is banned in Iran
The authorities have also banned many forms of pop music
The conservatives, armed with "god squads" of religious vigilantes known as basij, back a crackdown. The reformers call for a reprieve.

Mohammed Husseini, a prominent intellectual in the reform movement, said there are some people in Iran who interpret Islam in the same way as the Taleban.

"They think like Taleban - they think that everything should be forbidden. But in Islam, the first rule is that everything is allowed to all the people. Celebrating is very good."

Music ban

But while the debate rages on, the distance between the official line and the popular mood grows wider.

The radical Iranian pop group, O-Hum, remixes 14th Century Hafez into 21st Century rock. Sensing a challenge to their teetotal vision, the authorities have banned their music.

But as Babak, O-Hum's base player, explains, who needs a licence when the young have the internet?

"They say that combining Hafez's lyrics with rock music is somehow an offence towards Iranian culture and Iranian identity, but we didn't give up, " he said. "We had such a great feedback from the people who listened to these songs. People said that their lives had changed."

Booze in Iran is even older than Islam. The challenge for the authorities is how to keep the alcoholic dissent from brewing out of control.

See also:

18 Aug 01 | Middle East
Iran police plan moral crusade
03 Jul 01 | Middle East
Crackdown on smuggling in Iran
08 Jan 01 | Middle East
Party-goers arrested in Iran
25 Jun 01 | Middle East
Iran 'losing war on drugs'
20 Dec 00 | Country profiles
Country profile: Iran
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