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IRAN: 'Tis the season, also in the Islamic Republic

December 19, 2008 |  9:44 am

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At Tehran's Zaeem flower shop in Pasteur Square, a stone's throw from the office of President Mahmoud Ahmdinejad, you can spot something unexpected for the Islamic Republic of Iran: a small Christmas tree.

Ahmad, the busy salesman, says he's been putting the trees up for about eight years. "During the final days of the year, we add all the lights and decorations to the tree that are meaningful for the Christians," he said.

Despite Iran's image as an austere Islamic theocracy, there is a diversity of religious subcultures.

In the pious and poor south of Tehran, Islamic icons and revolutionary knickknacks are in window displays at a shopping mall. In a building near Tehran University, shop owners get ready with black banners and streamers for the mourning month of Moharram, which starts Dec. 29.

And at a shopping mall in the well-off northern section of Tehran, pricey Christmas trees decorated with tinsel and tiny lights are in window displays of the chic boutiques. Seems Christmas trees are everywhere. Small Christmas trees sit next to the reception desks at hotels, apartment buildings and offices.

"By erecting the Christmas tree, we simply make ourselves happy," said Yorik Warouzh Karim Masihi, an Iranian film critic and writer of Armenian descent.

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Iran's version of fundamentalist Shiite Islam differs from the Sunni fundamentalism of nearby Saudi Arabia. Iran's Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians predate its Muslims, and in some ways make a stronger claim to Iranian identity. And Christmas trees go back a long way.

"If the Muslim minority in the U.S. can have the right to celebrate their Ramadan, the Christians have the same right to do so here," said Narges Maliki, a book illustrator.

Plus, the Christmas trees delight the children. Who could argue with that?

"We erect the tree simply because our customers who are kids love to see the tree every year," said Shahram Mohammadi, owner of a toy shop in northern Tehran. "As a businessman, I cannot help" but put up up a tree, he said.

2Nearby, Fatemeh Asgari is getting a Santa Claus doll she just bought gift-wrapped for her granddaughter. "We are Muslims," she said, chuckling, "but my granddaughter passing by here with her parents spotted this white Santa Claus," called Baba Noel, in Iran.

"She told me secretly that she wanted it," Asgari said.

Of course, publicly displaying Christmas paraphernalia in Iran is not without potential perils, albeit minor. On Villa Street, near the famous Armenian Sarkis Church, about a dozen bearded members of the hard-line Basiji militiamen marched by, holding up Islamic banners with religious propaganda, just as the Christmas season got underway.

Nasser Rabiaee, owner of a gift shop in Tehran, said he was "advised" by some "friendly neighbors" not to display Christmas trees or stockings with too much glitter in his window display, lest they resemble those in the West.

Nevertheless, the plastic Christmas trees he sells move briskly at $38 for the small ones and $78 for the larger ones.

-- Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran

Top photo: The window display at a gift shop in Tehran. Middle: Christmas trees galore at a shop in Tehran. Bottom: Santa Claus in all shapes and sizes at a shop in Tehran. Credit: Ramin Mostaghim / Los Angeles Times

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