On my first night back in Tehran, I met some friends for drinks. It was a hazy night, and we convened at an intersection of a major expressway. I assumed we would head to someone's house, but my friends had something else in mind. In four cars, we took off down the highway, going 60 miles an hour, swerving to get close enough so I could pass a cocktail made of whiskey with mulberry nectar out the passenger-side window of our Korean hatchback to a friend in one of the other cars. Our stereo screeched Shaggy's Hey Sexy Lady; theirs, insipid Lebanese pop. Tehran, with its murals of suicide bombers, Versace billboards and rickety buses adorned with portraits of Shi'ite saints, slid by in a smoggy blur. We careered past police, who didn't blink. The driver of my car frowned as I flung out my arm to grab another drink. "You can't do this properly," she said, "if you keep closing your eyes."
In today's Tehran, a land where political expression can be lethal and thrills hard to come by, dangerous pastimes have a special appeal. Young people are constantly drawn to activities that are extraordinarily outrageous--and very now. When we tired of the bar on wheels, we stopped at a pomegranate-juice stand that stays open until 4 a.m. for anyone who needs a late fix. "Sorbet? Juice? Something else?" asked the juiceman, arching a brow. Ecstasy, the leisure drug of elite Iranians, used to be smuggled into Iran from Europe. Now garage chemists produce the tablets locally, and a hit costs about $2. I slunk low in the car seat and muttered to my Iranian friend, "Aren't we too old for this?" What I really wanted to ask was, When will you stop considering this freedom? When will you care again about what's happening in the world?
When I left Tehran in 2002, after spending two years in the country my parents had left behind in the 1970s for the U.S., life was different. In many ways it was worse. After the U.S. Administration declared Iran part of an "axis of evil," the ruling clerics lashed out at home, enforcing social strictures with such vigor that we wouldn't leave parties without first chewing several pieces of gum to conceal the alcohol on our breath, in case we encountered a checkpoint run by Islamic paramilitaries. When the rhetoric cooled, the system turned its sights back to its angry young people and essentially decided to stanch their discontent by buying them off. While continuing to brutally suppress all political dissent, the mullahs boosted subsidies on gas and household commodities. But most significant, they began loosening control over the lifestyle choices of the 48 million Iranians under the age of 30, who make up more than two-thirds of the population.