A vitality that wasn't expected

Our CBC team reports on Iran today.

"Welcome to Tehran," said the voice over the plane's PA system. "The local time is 9:25. A reminder that importing alcohol is strictly prohibited."

Finally. I am in Iran. Thirty years too late for this country's biggest story, but, hey, I was a youngster then. And besides, Iran always has interesting stories to tell.

While we waited for the plane's doors to open, many other women and I reluctantly donned the requisite clothing. I wore a large black scarf and a worryingly short, black trench coat.

Young women, supporters of reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi display a banner with an old Iranian proverb that says "The politeness of a man is greater than his status." (Ben Curtis/Associated Press)

I had a backup chador in my carry-on, in case my chosen outfit wasn't enough to conform to the dress code. I had come prepared.

But then I discovered that Tehran's streets are not a mass of black chadors.

Young women had long ago exchanged them for stylish coats and knee-length — or even shorter — dresses of all manner and colour.

A dazzling array of head coverings barely hung onto the backs of their heads, while styled bangs, sometimes dyed blond, boldly flopped over their made-up faces.

I felt dowdy and ignorant.

A certain vitality

This is clearly a country that's being driven by its young people. Sixty per cent of a population of some 70 million, according to the last census, are under 30.

Election blog

CBC reporters Nahlah Ayed and Margaret Evans, along with producer Stephanie Jenzer, are in Iran all this week to cover the presidential election on Friday. Throughout the week, they will be filing their impressions of the country and the people they meet.

And on the 30th anniversary of the revolution that transformed Iran into an Islamic republic, many of those young people are fashioning a revolution of their own.

Iran now is in the midst of its tenth presidential election campaign since the new republic was formed and it may very well be today's young voters who will decide the outcome later this week.

More than anything, from what I can tell by following the news here and interviewing people, they want jobs. Some want better relations with the West.

Others, of course, want the tough tone of the past four years to hold. But on all sides, they are making their wants known.

Young people have often played a pivotal role in Iran's political history. They were the mainstays, after all, of Ayatollah Khomeini's 1979 revolution.

Supporters of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at an election campaign in Tehran in June 2009. All the campaigning parties seem awash in a sea of colour. (Hasan Sarbakhshian/Associated Press)

But this time it seems the old traditions have been cast aside.

Thousands of youth, supporters of both the reformist candidates and sitting president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, are gathering in the streets, shouting slogans, waving flags, even dancing out in the open in a country that is supposed to prohibit it.

Today I heard the forbidden sound of young women singing out loud on the sidewalk in broad daylight. In all of this the authorities have remained at distance.

That, too, from what I've been told, is new.

The thunder of enthusiasm

In the last presidential election in 2005, a large part of the reformist camp sat out in protest. In this campaign, they appear to be out in full force.

Supporters for the top reformist candidate, Mir Hussein Moussavi, have adopted some of the modern political tactics that are sweeping the world.

His movement has a colour — green — and everywhere you go you see people with green ribbons tied to their wrists, heads, bags and cars. With the help of the internet and text messaging, the practice is spreading.

Today, as a show of electoral strength, a sea of green gathered to form a human chain along the longest thoroughfare in Tehran. They blocked traffic for hours.

Yes, there were many older Iranians participating, but the vast majority were young men and women demanding change.

Moussavi's wife, Zahra Rahnavard, has taken on a prominent role in her husband's campaign, becoming the first wife of a candidate to do so since the Islamic revolution.

'Green' supporters of reform candidate Mir Hussein Moussavi linked arms in downtown Tehran on Monday, June 8, to form a human chain. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

When we met her, she was, as she often is, wearing a jean jacket under her delicately embroidered black chador. She spoke of the need to improve Iran's image abroad, to create jobs for the young and for freedom of speech.

Later that night, we attended another "green" event, at an art gallery, where paintings by both Rahnavard and Moussavi were on display.

This is an election in which the candidates engage in live televised debates watched by millions. They are an opportunity for opposition leaders to direct criticism at the government, and for the government to defend its record and take some shots of its own.

This past weekend, we watched thousands of supporters of these opposing candidates gather outside the official television station to view the debates on a large screen.

Young people we talked to on all sides were excited by the dynamism of the campaign and by the chance to air their views in public. Even the crackle of thunder failed to dampen their enthusiasm.

I came to cover a presidential campaign. I don't know precisely what I thought it would look like in Iran, but I hadn't expected this.

By Nahlah Ayed


Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.