Girl checking Valentines Day gifts at a shop in Tehran. (ISNA)

February 18, 2020

They have a red rose on each table, white, red, and pink heart-shaped balloons on the walls, and the song “Love Story” is playing in the background. This is a coffee shop in Andisheh City on Valentine’s Day.

“What we’ve done this year, is the most we can do for Valentine’s Day,” says café owner Ali. “Previously, five or six years ago, it was more sophisticated. We had surprises and little gifts. We would sell mugs with heart patterns on them and used to charge an entrance fee. We would turn off the lights and light candles, and customers would give gifts to each other. But for several years they have banned Valentine’s Day celebrations in coffee shops.”

According to Ali, the agents had visited his café today, but before the balloons and the little wool bears were put on the wall. “If they had seen these, they would say it’s a Valentine’s Day symbol and you should take it down or face the consequences.”

The café slowly fills as the day becomes evening. Everyone has either a box of roses or a basket of chocolates.

A few minutes later, a young couple enter the cafe. The woman wears a headscarf; but she has a colorful scarf underneath the veil, that matches her manteaux sleeves. She also has a small dried pomegranate. The boy is wearing a formal suite.

Their table has been the focus of other customers’ attention. The girl occasionally smiles and looks around.

“The days when Valentine’s Day in coffee shops were special occasions just to a certain class are gone,” says Ali. “Now there are all kinds of customers. Religious and traditional families once considered the coffee shop inappropriate, but now we have a diverse clientele. Valentine’s, Halloween, and Christmas are now popular occasions. Religious people too, if they are not sympathizers with the regime, welcome these celebrations and occasions.”

“Valentine’s Day in Iran barely existed before twenty years ago,” says a sociologist living in Tehran, speaking about the remarkable acceptance of events such as Valentine’s Day despite being denounced by the government as symbol of Western culture.

“Although this is not long, it has a longer history than Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Halloween. The reason for a general and wide acceptance of Valentine’s Day and other non-Iranian celebrations is to protest against the government and the country’s conditions. People see these customs in the movies or through social media and want to be part of the global village.”

The sociologist argues that hardship due to economic sanctions and economic hardship has led people to pay more attention to joyous occasions. “In recent years, traditional celebrations such as Yalda or Norooz, are celebrated even more extensively. It is as if this is a defensive reaction of the people against all this bitterness.”

Roxana works in a small gift shop in Tehran’s Shariati Street, selling hair slides, small sculptures, dolls, chocolates, and incense. These days, sales are booming, and she has Valentine’s customers today, but she says it has not been as busy compared to past Valentine’s days.

Most of Roxana’s customers are young. “Most students and low-income people buy from us because the price of our products is relatively reasonable,” she says. “I’ve been in this store for three years, but this year, Valentine’s Day is not busy. Either romance has diminished or people’s economic situation has become worse.”

Among her clients are all social groups: “Some are students of art and look for special decorations with certain characteristics.”

She shows a piece of embroidered cloth and says, “Most customers like it. They are looking for handicrafts and colorful cloths. We also have religious customers who are looking for large size 90 scarves.”

She says: “Today we had some gentlemen who were apparently religious. One of them even had worry beads and spoke with distinctly religious words. They each bought a scarf. Everyone said they wanted to give the scarves as gifts and purchased gift boxes. I think Valentine’s Day has become widespread among Hezbollahis too!”

Sara is a friend of Roxana and is searching among the men’s fragrances in the store. She says she has made a card for Valentine’s and wants some balloons to decorate the house.

“Isn’t it forbidden to sell balloons?” I asked, to which Roxana replies “I read the news too, but they didn’t tell us. We didn’t receive any notices and the police gave no official order.”

Two days ago, Hossein Dokmehchi, chair of the gift shops’ union, announced a ban on balloon sales on Valentine’s Day, saying: “The police responsible for public spaces wrote a letter to the gift shops’ union to ban the sale of balloons. This has also led to a ban for the general public. Therefore, it is forbidden to sell balloons until further notice.”

But yesterday, Naja law enforcement forces denied the letter banning the sale of balloons to the union. Dokmehchi confirmed the news, saying the ban on balloon sales was a decision of the union: “Members have been informed, just as in previous years, about the internal decisions of the union and they are required to comply with these decisions. Selling balloons, in particular colors and formats is the propaganda of foreign cultures, must be stopped. But unfortunately other guilds are selling them, and their job is not under the jurisdiction of the gift shops’ union.”

Roxana says with a laugh: “Even if gift shops do not sell balloons, how do they deal with peddlers selling balloons?”

Sarah buys some heart-shaped balloons and colored candles and says goodbye to get home before her husband arrives.

Sepideh is a tailor who has produced embroidered heart cushions for this year and sold sold them online. “People welcome decorations for special occasions,” she says. “The tablecloths I sewed for Yalda also sold well.”

“The occurrence and appearance of this kind of phenomena in Iran can be useful from several angles, the most prominent of which is to create a feeling of public affection,” the sociologist explains. “In Iranian Islamic culture, what is most often seen is secret love and affection. People born in the 1970s and 1980s rarely saw their parents kiss each other or express their interest in each other when they were children. As Valentine’s Day became more widespread in the country over the past two decades, the younger generation has realized that loving a partner or a wife is a beautiful thing, and it is worthwhile to show it. Another positive thing about the phenomenon of Valentine’s Day is with the parents themselves. They also changed their behaviors and found that some expressions ofd love could have improved their quality of life for all these years.”

When she says goodbye, Roxana looks at her phone and says, “Sara could not make it on time; she was the one who was surprised!”

She laughs and shows me the picture that Sarah sent to her via WhatsApp. The house is decorated with candles, flowers and balloons, and a red box full of roses is on the sofa. “I was surprised,” Sarah wrote.

Iran Wire

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Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.