Middle East Monitor caught up with British-Iranian writer and director Javaad Alipoor this week for a conversation about his work. He has been online-touring with his latest production Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran (2019), which won the Fringe First Award at the Edinburgh Festival.
Alipoor describes himself as a "political artist" who wants to take complex political and historical ideas and turn them into drama. In particular, his plays explore how fractured identities, resentment and technologies are transforming the world. His 2017 play, Believers Are But Brothers, explored online radicalisation of young men by Daesh and the alt-right and won him recognition in Edinburgh. Rich Kids… follows the story of a young Iranian couple, both of whom are social influencers, who tragically died in a car crash, unleashing a storm of controversy in Iran over the lives of the elite in the Islamic Republic.
"Who those people are is related to why I want to tell a story about them," explained Alipoor. "There is an Instagram page and an Instagram hashtag called Rich Kids of Tehran. Our show is about a particular subset of these kids. It is also about Instagram, how pictures work. And it is about colonialism and climate change."
He finds these kids interesting because they highlight a contradiction not only at the heart of the Iranian regime, but also the heart of similar regimes throughout the global south. "Particularly regimes that present themselves as ideologically anti-imperialist in character and largely the result of some kind of revolution or anti-colonial struggle. One of the interesting quirks of Iranian politics is that it doesn't matter how powerful you are, it doesn't matter how much money you have in a Swiss bank account, it is political suicide to show your money off."
This, he suggested, has a lot to do with the ideological framework of the country, which is a regime that came into power off the back of a popular revolution. "These very stern, very serious men, however rich they are, they don't flash their cash. The problem is that they have children, and their children do flash the cash, and they do it on Instagram and for some reason that is one of the few social media platforms not censored in Iran."
Alipoor's play follows a fictionalised version of the story of two real people: Hossein Rabbani-Shirazi and Parivash Akbarzadeh. "Rabbani-Shirazi was the grandson of Ayatollah Shirazi, who was one of the few Iranian clergymen to support Ayatollah Khomeini during the revolution; his father was a war veteran who became quite senior in the Iranian government." Young Hossein grew up in a very different world, because his dad is hugely rich, and he lived a life of luxury and foreign holidays.
"Hossein Rabbani-Shirazi was found dead in a crashed Porsche, at the height of the sanctions, lying in a car full of empty drug bags and empty Bollinger bottles, in a country which is in principle a dry country. Next to him was a young woman from a lower middle class background. He was cheating on his fiancée with Parivash Akbarzadeh. This blew up on Iranian social media."
Social media, Alipoor pointed out, has a role to play in Iranian politics. Anti-regime protesters cite Instagram accounts like "Rich Kids of Tehran" as evidence of the corruption of the governing class. The effect of social media on this year's presidential election in Iran will be felt keenly.
"I think the big challenge — and this is a controversial point — is that the Islamic Republic has been, to some degree, democratic since its foundation. There is huge debate to be had at different stages, but one can certainly see from the 1980s until now, an opening and then a very rapid closing down of the possibilities for open democratic discourse."
The writer and director mentioned that former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, for example, isn't allowed to be shown on TV. "The boundaries of discourse get narrower to the point where there is no open reformist candidate running for a lot of things. I think that what this does is open up social media in the same contradictory and complicated way that it does in the West."
The added complication is that Iran is a more dictatorial system. "So, on the one hand it will open up as a space where unofficial mobilisation is possible — we saw, for example, the role that Telegram played in the 2018 uprising in Iran — but on the other hand it allows it to be a space where all kinds of alternative facts surface."
What's clear, concluded Javaad Alipoor, is that there is a substantial and growing political crisis for the regime in Tehran.