[Marxism] How the Other Half Lives in Iran

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Jan 15 20:10:33 MST 2018

NY Times Op-Ed, Jan. 15, 2018
How the Other Half Lives in Iran

Demonstrators after Iranian police fired tear gas to disperse protests 
over Iran’s weak economy, in Tehran last month. Credit Associated Press
The village of Zaras lies in a valley circled by the Zagros Mountains in 
southwestern Bakhtiari Province of Iran. An hour’s ride from Izeh, the 
nearest town, Zaras is home to about 60 families, who make a living from 
farming, pastoral nomadism and working as migrant laborers in Iranian 

On a September afternoon in 2014, I sat by the mud wall of a hazelnut 
garden with Darab, a 50-year-old farmer in Zaras. Darab, a man with a 
charming face and rough, calloused hands, cultivated potatoes, beans and 
onions on a plot of land slightly larger than an acre. Yet the harvest 
wasn’t enough to feed his family — his wife, his six children and his 
elderly parents. Iran imported grains and potatoes on an enormous scale, 
and the prices fell each year.

Darab supplemented his meager earnings by digging wells and working for 
a few months at construction sites in nearby cities. He would make less 
than the equivalent of about 20 American dollars for 10 hours at a 
construction site — work that did not offer the safety net of insurance 
against accidents or ill health.

The village of Zaras has, like the rest of Iran, suffered from drought 
in the past decade. The land and the harvest have depleted. Darab spoke 
wistfully about a time when there was enough water for the gardens and 
the fields in the village. “It gets worse every year,” he said. 
“Nowadays they pour some water around the trees. It does not reach the 
roots.” Many hazelnut trees around us were already dead.

On Dec. 31, Izeh, the town near Darab’s village, witnessed one of the 
more violent protests triggered by economic hardships across Iran. Young 
men in Izeh took over the city for several hours. Several young men were 
killed; many were injured. They had confronted the Iranian policemen 
with bare hands.

But the first targets of the protesters’ rage were the buildings housing 
the banks. Drought has forced an increasingly large number of people in 
the region to seek loans. Unable to pay off their loans, their debt 
grows, and the bank confiscates what they have left — land, a house or a 

“People’s lives are worthless!” I repeatedly heard Iranians in the 
villages and the cities make this despairing declaration. Sociologists 
use the term “precarity” to describe this abandonment, this depriving 
people of a livable life. “The world has boycotted us,” Darab said. 
Before the sanctions were imposed on Iran, Darab and other workers would 
travel to Iran’s Persian Gulf area to work for oil and gas companies. 
Foreign companies moved out after the sanctions and the jobs dried up.

Almost all young men in Darab’s village moved to cities to join the 
growing urban precariat, who are exploited as cheap and docile workers 
in the informal labor market. The absence of opportunity has intensified 
the migration from the villages to the urban areas, which have been 
growing five times faster. According to the Iranian Parliament data, the 
number of Iranians living in slums has increased 17 times since the 
revolution in 1979 to almost 10 million.

Every year more Iranians are classified as poor. Official sources 
reported in 2015 that 40 percent of Iranians lived below the poverty 
line. The unemployment rate among young people — between 20 and 24 years 
old — rose to 30 percent in 2016. This explains why more than 90 percent 
of the people arrested during the recent protests were under age 25.

About 11 million Iranians, around 50 percent of the work force, work in 
irregular employment, according to Iran’s Ministry of Labor and Social 
Affairs. Almost all young workers I met during my extended fieldwork in 
the past 15 years have been in irregular employment, rarely paid on 
time, with little protection from exploitative employers. Between 10 
million and 13 million Iranians are entirely excluded from health, work 
or unemployment insurance.

The Iranian poor do see the vast riches of the Iranian elite. Since the 
early 2010s Iran has witnessed the growth of a consumerist culture and 
rising inequality. An increasing number of imported luxury cars have 
appeared on the roads; buildings whose price per square meter equals 
three years of a worker’s wage have come up across the cities. Ice cream 
covered in edible gold — worth a worker’s monthly salary — is on the 
menus of luxury restaurants.

After the day’s work, I would walk with workers from Darab’s village 
from the construction sites in wealthy neighborhoods in North Tehran to 
their modest rented rooms in the poorer South Tehran. As we walked past 
Porsches and Maseratis parked outside luxury boutiques and restaurants, 
they would address God satirically and say, “If these people are your 
creatures, what am I then?”

Alongside financial insecurity and drought, Iranians are reeling from 
intense pollution in the cities. A decade of sanctions has significantly 
increased the prices of groceries, medicines and fuel. The sanctions 
also excluded Iranians from the formal international banking system and 
forced them toward informal cash-based transactions, making them 
vulnerable to fraud and black market prices. The value of the Iranian 
toman has fallen by more than half against the dollar since 2012, which 
affected all other costs inside the country.

President Trump’s anti-Iranian tirades leave no hope for lifting or 
easing sanctions on Iran. The fear of military attack by Israel or the 
United States has added to the popular anxieties.

Yet hope for democracy and social justice in modern Iran has been 
replicated time and again through political struggles, from the 
constitutional revolution in 1911, the oil nationalization movement in 
1950, the revolution in 1979, the green movement in 2009 and the most 
recent protests led by the poor.

As the images of the protests in Iran appeared on screens worldwide, I 
thought of my conversation with Darab in his village. We had stared at 
the distant mountains rising toward a clear, blue sky in silence. “See 
all these lands that we cannot get one single toman from. We do not have 
water. Write it,” he had commanded. “And write that those in Tehran have 
been taking all money for themselves and have forgotten that we also are 

Shahram Khosravi, a professor of Anthropology at Stockholm University, 
is the author of “Precarious Lives: Waiting and Hope in Iran” and “Young 
and Defiant in Tehran.”

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