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Monday 30 July 2012
TEHRAN — NearIran's parliament building here, groups of men and women gathered Sunday to protest what they called injustice.
The men, mostly middle-aged telecommunications workers from the provinces, said they were owed back pay and had seen annual job guarantees slashed to daily work contracts.
The women, many donning traditional black cloaks covering their heads and bodies, said they had been coming here for five days to protest the loss of preschool teaching jobs as the number of classrooms is cut for budget reasons.
"The Education Ministry says that we are no longer needed," complained one of the teachers, some of whom have been sleeping inside a shrine of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Amid soaring prices, sweltering temperatures and escalating international tensions, a Ramadan of discontent is unfolding in the Islamic Republic.
Protests have been brief and contained, nothing like the mass demonstrations that followed the disputed presidential election in 2009. But they are still noteworthy in a nation where the government endeavors to project an image of contentment and defiance to the outside world.
Fast-rising prices, probably fueled in part by new international sanctions tied to Iran'scontroversial nuclear program, have tested the patience of people facing an eroding quality of life. Complaints are muttered at bus stops and cafes. The prices of figs and dates, two items often consumed once the dawn-to-dusk fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan has ended, have risen at least 20% in just a few days, said a fruit hawker in north Tehran.
Perhaps no issue has been so contentious as the cost of chicken, long a relatively inexpensive staple popular during Ramadan. In the last two months, prices have more than doubled, outraging many consumers.
Recently, residents of the northeastern city of Neyshabur poured into the streets in an unusual rally against chicken prices, the semiofficial Iranian Students News Agency reported.
Amateur video footage posted online shows men confronting a uniformed police officer. The policeman assures the crowd that someone will "come and explain" at a nearby mosque.
The protesters, not appeased, break out in a decidedly antigovernment chant: "Death to the looter of public treasure!"
The slogan captures a popular perception that public money is going into the pockets of bureaucrats and politicians and not benefiting the Iranian public.
The government appears to be scrambling to counter anger over the rising cost of living. Press outlets have been advised to downplay coverage of price complaints.
State television has been airing a live show called "Viva Life" aimed at encouraging people to reduce consumerism and become more self-sufficient. Viewers are offered tips on how to sew their own clothing and set up their own chicken pens.
Authorities have also stepped up imports of frozen chicken and meat from abroad. Imported chicken from places such as Turkey and Brazil costs about 90 cents a pound, about half as much as local chicken.
The chicken hullabaloo has spurred a flurry of sarcastic text messages, such as: "From today onward the poverty line has been redefined: below chicken line and above chicken line."
Just last week, a leading hard-line ayatollah seemed to reprimand such chicken-price complainers. He reminded worshipers that Iran was a standing up to Western nations determined to wage economic war on the Islamic Republic.
"If there is a shortage in chicken meat then change your diet and look for other sources of protein," advised Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda in his Friday sermon in the eastern city of Mashhad. "Do not expect to continue the lifestyle you currently have."
Life is not all about shortages and sweaty grimness on this Ramadan. There are moments of joy and small consolations.
The so-called moral police — responsible for cracking down on receding head scarves, too-short cloaks and other manifestations of un-Islamic wardrobe — have been noticeably absent in major squares and shopping centers. Few regrets have been expressed about their disappearance, probably a temporary phenomenon.
After dusk, with the daylong fast broken and the heat reduced, many residents sit glued to their TVs watching Ramadan soap operas that explore a range of topics, from a couple's struggle with infertility to a secret between two old friends.
On the evening streets, cheers and laughter echo as throngs of young men participate in the Ramadan Soccer Cup, held in various fields and stadiums. Their enthusiasm is infectious.
This year, the cup almost didn't happen. The ultra-devout argued that Ramadan was a time for praying, not playing. But, after intense negotiations, clerical authorities allowed the games to proceed.
To escape the summer heat, many Iranians traditionally flee to Mazandaran province on the picturesque southern shores of the Caspian Sea, an area of sandy beaches and wild forests.
Alas, when a middle-aged man and his ailing father recently sought to immerse themselves in the cooling waters, police patrolling the shore on motorbikes waved them off. No bathing, they advised, apparently enforcing a restriction on daytime dips during Ramadan.
Special correspondents Mostaghim reported from Tehran and Sandels from Beirut. Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell in Beirut contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2012, Los Angeles Times