One very early morning this week, the people in my neighborhood who wanted fresh bread for breakfast congregated outside the local bakery, wondering why the doors were locked and the stone oven cold. Fifteen minutes later, when it became clear there would be no bread that day, people began speculating why a bakery that has been open every weekday for literally decades should mysteriously be shut. The small crowd swiftly concluded the worst: the Iranian government had sent all the country's flour to Lebanon.
By noon, when I was up and contemplating a sandwich, word had spread around the neighborhood. Everyone blamed the dearth of fresh bread on the government's over-generous aid to the Shi`ites of Lebanon, displaced in the recent fighting between Israel and Hizballah. I should point out that my neighborhood is split between religious and secular families, and that the most pious of the bread-deprived were just as quick to shake their heads with resentment. No one said "let them eat cake," but it came pretty close.
Two days later, a gleaming new counter arrived outside the bakery. The baker was remodeling, and as far as he knew, there had been no massive delivery of grain to Lebanese Shi`ites. But as is so often the case in such matters, the truth is almost less relevant than what becomes the prevailing belief. That people so readily accepted that their government would forsake their daily loaf for a distant Islamic cause just speaks to the overwhelming bitterness these days in Tehran. Most people are convinced the government is spending outrageous sums on the Lebanese, and ever since the Iranian government declared a "victory" for the militant group Hizballah, rumors of what the Lebanese are 'getting' have been flying. Free SUVs? Plasma televisions? Nothing seems out of the question. Nightly news broadcasts that Iranians watch on their illegal satellite dishes have shown Hizballah doling out thick stacks of cash, courtesy of Iran. "Did you see the cash? They're giving each family ten thousand dollars!" one of my relatives phoned to tell me.
For the majority of Iranians who are barely scraping by, such news is infuriating. In fact, unpopular government spending on a faraway Arab community brings out a rather ugly Persian chauvinism. One story has Mrs. Nasrallah, the wife of Hizballah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, receiving a gift of Iranian caviar, and thinking it some sort of jam. There is no jam that looks like tiny eggs, I told the friend who repeated the story to me. Her look told me I was being obtuse. The fact is, the more President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his government pander to public sentiment in the Arab world, which is ecstatic over Hizballah's defiant stand against Israel, the more Iranians feel neglected.
The government of former President Mohammad Khatami was much more sensitive to Iranians' feelings, in particular their ripe tendency to fume when state money is spent outside Iran's borders. It underplayed the amount of cash and aid Iran pumped into Afghanistan after the removal of the Taliban. As a result, Iranians had no idea that for once, their government played a noble role in rebuilding a war-ruined neighbor. But it also saved them from resentment. Earlier this week, a front page headline in an Iranian newspaper read: "In Arab countries, they call the president Mahmoud." Iknow the president is popular in the Arab world. My Arab friends grin like Cheshire cats when he appears on Al-Jazeera, fire breathing his revulsion for the U.S. But would they like him to appoint him as honorary head of the Arab League? I hardly think so.
The main reason Iranians dislike the government's Islamic generosity is because in general, they believe their leaders use Islam as a cloak for their own economic greed. When police started confiscating illegal satellite dishes earlier this month ostensibly satellite is banned for its impure Western content in about two days the whole city knew exactly why. The story went like this: the son of a prominent regime-connected ayatullah had recently begun importing small, laptop-size satellite dishes. If the government rounded up the ungainly, rooftop dishes, and flooded the market with the discreet little one, everyone would be forced to buy the ayatullah's son's dishes. This connection between regime piety and corrupt wealth dominates how Iranians see the world the little events that transpire in their daily lives, from bread shortages to satellite raids.