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The Rave Resistance: Extremism in Tehran’s Clandestine Party World

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In a country where alcohol is banned, clubs and bars don’t exist, and unmarried men and women aren’t legally allowed in the same room, Iranians rise to the occasion when it comes to nightlife.

In Iran, a country with one of the highest drug addiction rates in the world, opium is cheaper than beer and meth is cheaper than cigarettes. It’s common to see people smoking opium and shooting heroin on main roads in Tehran, but piecing together the puzzle of Iran’s exclusive, clandestine party world is a more difficult task than examining the opioid crisis of the blue-collar classes.

“Because of COVID, you guys (in Western major cities) are partying the way we have for years,” said Amin*, a 53-year-old man who has been partying in Tehran since the revolution ended in 1979. Only several months ago was the cover of New York Magazine plastered with the statement, “New York nightlife never stopped. It just went underground.”

“Ironically, I’ve probably never partied harder than during the pandemic,” my best friend boasted to me as she recalled the events of a particularly exhilarating illegal party. The secret rave she attended in the basement of a London barbershop was busted by the police for blatantly defying Covid-restrictions – for her, this was exhilarating.

“Now, you guys in the West are getting a taste for how much more fun prohibition is,” said Amin.

Amin’s friend Farzan sent me videos of “casual” house parties in Tehran, which showed veil-less women dancing in skimpy outfits, paid waiters and bartenders, and most shockingly, canapé trays laden with pills, pre-rolled joints and lines of cocaine. The videos of desert raves and secluded techno parties in the mountain town of Shemshak featured DJ sets that rival the likes of Ibiza’s DC10 and Berlin’s Berghain. Fuelled by MDMA and psychedelics, revellers have been known to stay at these secluded raves for days.  

It all seemed too unhinged to be true. But Ariana, an Iran-born journalist and millennial hailing from Washington, D.C., clarified that such raves do not include everyone and anyone. “Iran is quite classist and people are extremely careful about who they party with,” said Ariana, noting that the secret police often send undercover officers to raves. “It’s luck of the draw if you get in trouble. It depends who is raiding and if you can pay them off,” she said.

Mina, a born and bred Tehrani who attends college in Europe, compared her last New Year’s party to a scene from Project X. “I didn’t know 80% of the people in my house. There was a DJ there and I don’t know who invited him. People were doing drugs all over the place,” she said. When the police showed up at her door, they told her she had 10 minutes to give them the equivalent of $2,000 or all of her guests would be arrested. This was pre-pandemic, and the police weren’t aware about the alcohol or drug use – the charge would be for intermingling of the sexes.

This experience was stressful but not unexpected for Mina. Both of her parents had previously been jailed for being caught at a party, only to be released a week later by bribing their guards. “If I told one of my friends at college that my parents have been to jail, they would think my family is crazy. But in Iran, this is very normal,” she said.

Amin and his friends are all over the age of 40, but they take drugs to an excess rivalling teenage music festival-goers. He nonchalantly described his wife’s recent arrest for doing a line of cocaine in front of an undercover officer at a party, and quipped that she doesn’t do many drugs anymore, “except smoking weed obviously,” (to his dismay).

To Amin, Iran’s exclusive MDMA raves are “one of the ways you can forget about all the economic, political and social issues and be free for a night.” For him, and many others of his generation, “hope has been lost” for Iran as socio-political unrest has only intensified since the revolution, and partying to excess is “an escape from the reality we feel ourselves being caged in.”

Yousef, a millennial who lives between Tehran and London, said Amin’s drug habit is typical of members of Gen-X who experienced the revolution first-hand. “Ourselves and everyone his age are doing the same,” he said.

Amin’s generation has been dubbed the “Burnt Generation” for their marked distrust in institutions and disenchantment with traditional societal ideals. This generation lived through the revolution as children, so they’ve already seen all they ever knew disappear in what felt like an instant. For this reason, Ariana describes the attitude of her parents’ generation as “Like being YOLO constantly. For them, going out in Iran is constantly an apocalyptic vibe – like this could be the last time. And they embrace that.”

Ariana attributes the shift towards normalizing drug abuse to the economic repercussions caused by international trade sanctions on Iran following the Iranian nuclear programme. “Nobody cares anymore. Who cares about drugs when you can’t afford your rent? That’s everywhere, not just Iran,” she said.

Drug use hasn’t just become more prevalent, it’s become more dangerous. “When Trump came in, the borders really got shut down more. The majority of the stuff you find now is synthetic because it’s made locally, which has a lot of dangers associated with it,” said Amin.

While there aren’t many reliable sources detailing overdose rates in Iran in recent years, Amin says all you have to do is walk down the street to realize that the issue has been exacerbated. His business is based outside the city and requires multiple buses to transport employees there and back. He recently discovered that his bus drivers had set up a crystal meth lab in their restroom and had been using the security guards as drug mules – unbeknownst to the guards themselves. He also fired the babysitter who took care of his 6 and 9-year-old children because he caught her smoking meth on her breaks.

“There’s always this conspiracy theory here that they (the government) don’t really want to be too serious about drugs, because a drug-using population actually helps them out,” said Amin. “If someone is sedated, they’re not going to start a revolution,” Farzan added. As dystopian as it sounds, the idea rolled off their tongues – demonstrating what their faith in their nation has been reduced to.

The two men both have the financial means to leave Tehran and move West. They both have roots in Europe, and American college degrees. I didn’t understand why they weren’t detailing plans to move as they nihilistically detailed the hopelessness of their country’s future.

“Why don’t you just leave?” I finally asked.

The duo laughed courteously, bordering on condescension. Had I mis-stepped?

“It’s the excitement. The chaos, the crisis, not knowing what’s going on ever,” said Farzan. “You get attached to it.”

“Going to the West is like listening to elevator music. In the West, everything seems like the Truman Show,” said Amin.

I had forgotten to consider a crucial detail about each person I spoke to – “Do you love it here?”

“Yes. I have a love-hate relationship with this country,” responded Amin.

“The chaos there really is great. It’s more fun, being illicit,” said Ariana.

Farzan feels a sense of responsibility to his home. “We’re the last generation to be educated outside yet come back here. You don’t see any of the people now being educated outside, come back here. It’s a massive brain-drain,” he said.

“Persians are extremely romantic people who have lost their love. So, they’re trying to numb their brain, so they don’t realize what’s going on around them,” said Amin, at last recalling the home he lost as a child – Persia.

“There’s no tension in the West. You’re not afraid of anything,” said Yousef. “It’s the excitement of Iran that I love.”

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*All names changed for privacy reasons.

Would you go to an illegal rave?

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