Reuters: Iranian authorities beat up and tear gassed exuberant young revellers as they breathed new life into a pre-Islamic fire festival with a night of dancing, flirting and fireworks. The Islamic Republic, which has an awkward relationship with its ancient Zoroastrian religion, only gave guarded recognition to the “Chaharshanbe Souri” festival last year.
By Christian Oliver
ISFAHAN, Iran – Iranian authorities beat up and tear gassed exuberant young revellers as they breathed new life into a pre-Islamic fire festival with a night of dancing, flirting and fireworks.
The Islamic Republic, which has an awkward relationship with its ancient Zoroastrian religion, only gave guarded recognition to the “Chaharshanbe Souri” festival last year.
Hundreds of people poured onto the streets in Tehran and other cities for a rare night of partying. Public revelry is unusual in Iran where the authorities consider it to be at odds with the country’s strict moral codes.
The IRNA news agency said police used tear gas in more than four places in Tehran. Vigilantes were also seen beating up a group of boys in the central city of Isfahan.
“Anti-riot forces dispersed hundreds of young girls and boys who had gathered on … streets neighbouring Mohseni Square,” IRNA reported.
“Special police forces on motorbikes attacked the crowd. While escaping, women and children fell and some were injured,” it added, in unusually frank language for the state news agency.
Some 50 people were arrested in the capital, according to the semi-official ISNA students’ news agency.
But for the most part, Tuesday night’s celebrations passed off peacefully in a carnival atmosphere.
Iranian cities crackled and flashed with bangers and fireworks as warring gangs of 10-year-olds terrified pedestrians with exploding pellets.
Flirtatious young men lobbed firecrackers at delighted girls, mimicking their shrieks. Teenagers drew sparkling shapes in the night sky by whirling charcoal burners on chains.
“Hundreds of young people are celebrating and dancing on the streets … while letting off firecrackers,” IRNA reported from Tehran.
ANTI-RIOT POLICE USED
Chaharshanbe Souri is thousands of years old, but was pushed underground after the 1979 Islamic revolution.
The purification festival, which is meant to dispel evil spirits, is celebrated on the last Tuesday night of the Persian year.
But Islamists see the ceremonies as a pagan relic.
In Isfahan, a Reuters witness saw men in black leather jackets seize a group of nine boys and young men playing with firecrackers, ram them against a wall and smash their faces and shoulders with batons.
A woman screamed hysterically as one of the religious vigilantes in a motorcycle-helmet dragged a battered teenager into an unmarked car. A regular policeman drove by without stopping.
Most people in Isfahan chose to celebrate the festivities in the city’s maze of backstreets, some lighting fires in old tyres and deep cooking pans.
Blaring pop music wafted from high-walled gardens.
Leaping over the flames, many chanted an ancient prayer invoking the fire — the Zoroastrians’ most sacred element: “Give me your red colour, take away my sickly pallor.”
But Behrouz, an elderly bystander, thought the firecrackers and flirting missed the point.
“For the Zoroastrians this festival focused on taking purity from the fire, now the fire seems to bring out the worst in people,” he said.