Magazine article New Internationalist

Bling, Iranian-Style

Magazine article New Internationalist

Bling, Iranian-Style

Article excerpt

Until a decade ago one could easily pick up a second-hand Cartier or Rolex watch from the many jewellery shops scattered around Tehran. Pawned by the newly insolvent gentry, the sight was reminiscent of pre-revolution days when, for some, a Rolex watch was a standard gift you gave to a son-in-law at your daughter's wedding, and when Cartier's only official agent in the Middle East was not in Jeddah or Dubai but in Tehran's Mirdamad Avenue. In those days French designers like Charles Jordan had a chain of shops running the breadth of north Tehran and cake shops employed top French patissiers to teach their Iranian staff the skills of the trade.

Present-day Tehran's not quite there yet. But there is a Canadian chef at Bistango in Valiasr Avenue, there's a big new Benetton at the corner of Farmanieh, and you can stumble on most top designer labels in the overpriced boutiques. Persian antiques are being sent back from Europe into Iran because dealers can demand higher prices for them here. And significantly, after many years of absence, the new bling bling Rolexes are back in the jewellery shop windows.

Two years ago Mr Saeedi, a respected Persian patriarch and a colonel during the pre-revolutionary reign of the Shah, decided to demolish his typical one-storey villa in north Tehran's Pasdaran area - worth about $800,000 at the time - and build an apartment block. He would accommodate himself and his two married daughters who, like most young working professionals, had been priced out of the housing market, and either sell off or rent the rest of the apartments for additional earnings. Today his 10 new apartments - at $3,500 per square metre - are worth well over a million dollars apiece.

With prices for new builds on average starting at $1,200 and rising to $8,000 per square metre, there are soaring returns for the rich. The three months to August 2007 saw an 81-per-cent rise in the number of planning permissions issued for new builds in the capital.

There is a massive gap between those who own property and others - such as a schoolteacher on a salary of $300 a month -who have been priced out of the market. Recent Government figures show that the percentage of the population living below the poverty line in OPEC's second-largest oil producing country has nearly doubled in the last 15 years to more than 13 per cent. Yet for those who are reaping the short-term benefits, there seems nothing more remote than UN sanctions or war.

What sanctions, what war?

I am amongst a group of young women at a bustling Tehran restaurant who are celebrating their university graduations. These girls are the sort of young people that writers (myself included) often enthuse about: the educated, burgeoning children of the Iranian Revolution, with enlightened ideals, at odds with their hardline politicians. Yet these students don't appear to be fully conscious of the outstanding UN sanctions over Iran's nuclear programme. 'We've been too busy cramming for exams, I can't even remember the last time I read a newspaper,' is one typical response. Still, even if she had picked up a newspaper, she would have had to read between the lines to decipher such news. Iran's National security Council has for some time banned any negative reporting of outside pressure over its nuclear programme. This uninformed, passive, politically disengaged outlook is rather typical of most Iranians I have talked to in recent months, rich or poor.

Yet like most Iranians these young women openly grumble about the rules and regulations; the lack of jobs, inflation, poverty and corruption. They mock Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and unashamedly breach the strict guidelines by wearing their compulsory headscarves way back over their head to reveal as much (illicit) hair as possible. This is especially daring as Iran has endured an intensive summer crusade to banish widespread violation of the Islamic dress codes that has seen many cautioned and arrested. …

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