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Tehran relaxes to the sounds of Brahms and BBC

Iran/ glimmers of liberalisation
A FUNNY thing happened at Friday prayers last week. A man with a neat beard, an Iranian bank manager fiercely loyal to the memory of Ayatollah Khomeini's teachings, led me down among the worshippers in front of President Rafsanjani, so that I could take close-up photographs of the revolutionary guards and mullahs at Tehran University. And then, as we were walking back across the auditorium, he turned to me and said: "Can you do me a favour? I'd like a copy of the schedule for BBC World Service programmes. Could you find one for me? I love listening to the BBC."

It was tempting to smell a little hypocrisy in his request. Why on earth would an Islamist supposedly dedicated to the destruction of the West's iniquities - a man quite happy to shout "Death to America" - wish to listen to the voice of the Little Satan? But Tehran today is full of such gentle ironies, not least because there is, behind the natural xenophobia, a faint new spirit of freedom. At a politics seminar at Tehran University last week, graduate students were remarkably outspoken about their country and its recent history. Five years ago, someone in the seminar would have turned on a tape-recorder and tried to trap a foreign visitor into saying something that could be used as propaganda in the pages of the Tehran Times. But in the class, students argued about the meaning of the Iran- Iraq conflict and one young woman in a black chador insisted on speaking her mind about her people's behaviour in time of war.

"Iranians were very brave - they fought for their country and were martyred for Islam in great numbers. And we say, rightly, that it made us united. But I have to tell you something. When the Iraqi missiles were falling on Tehran, not all the people here were so brave. Some of them were leaving the city every night, fleeing their homes to hide in the country to avoid the explosions. So not all Iranians showed the deep sense of solidarity about which we like to talk."

No one tried to shout her down. Even the pasdaran (revolutionary guards) war veterans in the class listened respectfully. Nor was the woman making much of an admission; everyone here knows that Tehranis in their thousands spent the hot nights sleeping under the motorway bridges of the Karaj highway during the "war of the cities". But the woman's remark showed an extraordinary desire to confront the realities of a war which is once more being commemorated with much passionate intensity by the authorities. These little signs are everywhere. Women who would once have walked cowled in their hijab are showing more courage in the face of the slowly decaying bureaucracy of puritanism. Hem-lines, once at pavement level, have crept above the ankle. Scarves are slipping back behind the hair line. And despite stories of women arrested for "improper" dress - some of these reports are all too true - make-up and discreet jewellery are now commonplace on the streets of Tehran. Black cloaks are turning beige and grey, scarves are often coloured. Western culture, despite the old Khomeini restrictions on music, has not died out.

In Ferdosi Square last week, posters of the shell-smashed palm trees of Khorramshahr, freed from Iraqi occupation exactly 13 years ago, were outnumbered by large ads for the Tehran Symphony Orchestra's latest concert offerings of Brahms, Debussy and Grieg.

Of course, there is another side to the story. In some areas of the city, in some institutions, a frightened "mullahocracy" is trying to crush this freedom. In one college of education, teachers have been told to abandon all classes in 20th century European and American literature. So goodbye to Joyce, Faulkner, Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, Auden and the rest. Oddly, Shakespeare has suffered no restrictions and copies of Hamlet and Othello - all the bawdiness uncensored - are prominently displayed in bookshops, presumably on the grounds that anything old is viewed with favour by divines who regard the past as more sacred than the present. College teachers are now preparing new courses on Fielding, Defoe, Yeats and Dickens. "Four or five years ago, we couldn't talk as freely as we can now," a female student at Tehran University pointed out last week in the sanctuary of the home she shares with her schoolteacher husband. "During the war, it was forbidden to say anything against the leadership in any way. Now we can criticise a lot of things. It's true that no one listens to us, but it feels good.

"Of course, we can't criticise the Imam (Khomeini) publicly. But the mullahs have proved they can't run the country and their numbers have declined in our parliament from around 60 per cent in the first elections to about 20 per cent now. The mullahs don't like to argue with people because they are the representatives of religion and don't like to have anyone seen to be in dispute with them. They know that the more they mix religion and politics, the more dangerous it can become for them." Rafsanjani's new exchange rate for the Iranian riyal - at 3,000 to the dollar - first touched Iranians last week when they turned up for international flights at Mehrabad airport in Tehran. Staff at check-in desks demanded up to pounds 200 extra on pre-paid tickets, a claim which forced several families to abandon their journeys.

The very poor, as usual, have been cushioned against Iran's 200 per cent inflation; the government still provides them with subsidised bread and rice, even super-cheap tickets for the haj pilgrimage. The pounds 28 return air ticket to Mecca is so over-subscribed that the waiting list runs for the next 20 years.

The secular rich have been left generally alone, allowed to break the rules, to watch their Western videotapes, to listen to their western CDs, to drink their illicitly brewed vodka - providing they commit their sins in the privacy of their homes. There are still night-time parties in north Tehran at which the old elite remember the Shah with ferocious nostalgia, heap scorn upon his exiled, high-flying son and exchange stories of harassment by pasdaran patrols who find scarves too bright or lipstick too colourful. Many hold British or American or French passports. And they listen to the BBC - about the only characteristic they share in common with the man at Friday prayers.