Tue. Dec 7th, 2021

Iran’s growing social divisions can be seen at Tehran’s international airport, where pilgrims to Iraq’s holy city of Karbala stand shoulder to shoulder with tourists heading for a beach holiday in Antalya, on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast.

The two sides – which have a history of conflict – have long accused each other of taking the country into a social, cultural and religious abyss. They exchange blows on social media for their opposing lifestyles, and each claims that the others are fueling the pandemic by going to packed holy shrines in Iraq or concerts with exiled pop singers and rap stars in Turkey.

In recent months, I have witnessed some of the busiest days at Imam Khomeini International Airport. Most check-in counters handle flights to Turkish destinations. However, there is no mention of Antalya on flight information screens: rather they show lesser known places like Adana, Alanya or Gazipaşa.

It has been almost two decades since the Islamic Republic forced Turkish airlines to take a detour so that leaders can hide from their religious followers that Iranians travel freely to Antalya to sunbathe and drink alcohol in five-star hotels.

Iran’s travel agencies rent Turkish flights, which stop for about 45 minutes in Adena or elsewhere and then go to Antalya. Even privately owned Iranian airlines, quietly backed by regime members, stop at Turkish destinations which are a five-hour bus ride from Antalya.

In times of pilgrimage, the social extremes are sharp. At the end of September, the airport was full of pilgrims to Karbala, with women dressed in black Islamic robes. Before the pandemic, several million pilgrims traveled to mark Arbaeen, the 40th day of mourning over the death of Hossein, a grandson of Prophet Muhammad, who was buried in Karbala. But this year, the Iraqi government allowed only tens of thousands of Iranian pilgrims and ordered them to travel by plane rather than overland to limit the spread of Covid-19.

Tehran’s leaders, who encourage such religious ceremonies, provided military aircraft for the trip. In Karbala, pilgrims get plenty of free food and tea. They are even charged a lower airport exit fee than other travelers.

For Iranians, it follows a familiar pattern: the regime cherishes its loyalists and those who want more social freedom can find it in a neighboring country, in exchange for a high fee and a slightly tortuous journey. Some Antalyan hotels are heavily promoted by Iranian travel agencies on social media, raising the suspicion that powerful hands linked to the regime are reaping the benefits of this lucrative business.

This approach – whether viewed as tolerance, pragmatism or corruption – has not gone unnoticed by passengers. One woman who was traveling to Antalya asked, “Why do we have to stop? What is this policy? ” A male passenger replied: “Take it easy, ma’am! We will have a lot of wine. ”

At the airport, both sides look at each other despondently or shake their heads disapprovingly.

When an expatriate rapper from Iran held a concert in Turkey for which tickets cost up to $ 250 – close to the monthly salary for an Iranian worker under US sanctions – audience members fell into hooliganism and started physically fighting with each other. The videos, which went viral, raised furious questions as to why such actions could not be held in Iran to avoid public fighting overseas that is bad for Iran’s reputation. Hosting concerts at home will also make attendance cheaper.

But a Member of Parliament, Ali Yazdikhah, stated that an Islamic country could not allow public alcohol consumption simply “to save a few dollars and euros”.

The social gaps continue and the Islamic Republic is expected to continue to play both sides.

During the 10-day Ashura religious festival in Tehran this August, I asked organizers to turn off their loudspeaker, which rang out of a small park across from my apartment at midnight. “You have your parties until 2 a.m. for 355 days of the year, but only 10 days of the year are ours,” said one man, a volunteer member of the Revolutionary Guards. He did not hear me grumble: “Actually, I thought 365 days was yours.”


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