Neighbors / A Valentine From the Ayatollahs

Tehran is going a little easier on Iran's youth, allowing the screening of a once banned movie and doing little to stop the spread of Valentine's Day swag. Saudi Arabians are looking on with envy.

Meet the Simorgh: a huge bird with a face like a dog's, which can carry an elephant or a whale on its back and has many myths woven around it.

In the Farsi-English dictionary "Simorgh" is translated as "Phoenix," and comes from ancient Persian culture, well before any Islamic Revolution.

Once a year the Simorgh is brought into the limelight - during the annual Fajr Film Festival in Iran. Fajr means "dawn" in Farsi amd symbolizes the "new day" in Iran after it rid itself of the shah in the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The Iranian Oscar given to the winners is called the Crystal Simorgh, a decidedly unreligious memento that harkens back to ancient Persian heritage. Even the leaders of the Islamic Revolution who celebrated its 31st anniversary last week have realized there are issues that mustn't be touched.

The film festival, which ended about two weeks ago, presented a surprise this year. While the Revolutionary Guards were beating up opposition demonstrators and firing gas grenades, in the festival's main screening hall Ebrahim Hatamikia's film "In the Color of Purple" was being shown.

Eighty films competed for the Simorgh, 26 of them Iranian productions. However, Hatamikia's film, which won the prize for the best screenplay, is extraordinary for two reasons.

Firstly, the film was produced five years ago and banned from screening in Iran by the censor. Only now, when the regime is fighting a battle for its legitimacy, has it been cleared by authorities for release.

The explanation in Iran is, as usual, quite convoluted. In order to attract audiences to the festival and show that everything is normal, including a film festival, the authorities decided to "throw a bone" to the human rights people and demonstrate a bit of freedom of speech.

The second point, which has to do with the content of the film, is even more perplexing. The film is about an Iranian intelligence agent who is sent to keep surveillance on a young woman, the daughter of a member of an opposition underground.

Predictably, the agent falls in love with the girl and is torn with respect to his mission. Along the way the director and the screenwriter take the viewers on a journey through the regime's oppression of youth.

The film depicts the regime's restrictions on freedom of speech and is critical of cultural and social issues in Iran enough so that a government journalist strongly condemned it. According to the reports from Iran, this film had the largest audience of any of the films in the festival.

The implicit dialogue the Iranian regime is conducting with the public, and especially with young people - over 70 percent of the population - is not confined to moves of this sort.

For example on Sunday, Valentine's Day, there were the usual warnings from the clerics lest citizens be tempted into celebrating the holiday or buying red roses. However, for a number of years now young people have been ignoring these injunctions and have been flocking to the shops on Mirza Shirazi Street in downtown Tehran where small gifts for the holiday are sold.

Greetings on Internet sites and the sending of virtual valentines, and in English at that, are also part of the custom of the protest. Last year cleric Mohammed Ali Abtahi, formerly Mohammad Khatami's vice president, even blessed the Iranians on the holiday of love on his Internet site.

Abtahi, incidentally, was arrested after the last elections on charges of "incitement" against the regime.

Rigid Iran could teach a lesson in openness to Saudi Arabia. There, the morality police ordered flower shops not to sell any red flowers on Valentine's Day and went through the gift shops to ensure they were not stocking anything red and heart-shaped, in a few cases even confiscating such merchandise.

They issued religious rulings declaring Valentine's Day a pagan holiday and therefore forbidden.

As compared to Iran, where the shopkeepers are no longer afraid to decorate their show windows with symbols of the holiday and deck them with red ribbons, in Saudi Arabia the symbols of holiday are pushed under the counter.

"Islam is not against love," explained Saudi cleric Omar Abdel Kafi. "Islam is full of love for God and his creations."

The holiday of love, however, is a holiday that testifies to seduction by debased Western and Christian customs and therefore is not appropriate for Muslims, he says.

At the same time, Saudi writer and commentator Yusuf al-Mahamid lashed out at these religious restrictions, which he says testify that "we are a society that lives in fear of anything new or unusual, so that we are afraid even of love - or of the color red that symbolizes this holiday."

Nahid Andijani, editor of the Saudi edition of the women's magazine Marie Claire, scoffs at the morality police mustering against Valentine's Day and relates that just as the morality police plan their hunt for shops stocking gifts for the holiday, Saudi lovers prepare in advance and buy what they need before the morality police arrive.

"Why shouldn't we have a Saudi love day unconnected to the international holiday? Why is our society afraid to express love out loud and in public?" She asked.

Through the whole dispute, the owners of gift shops and flower shops in Saudi Arabia gaze enviously at their Iranian or Egyptian colleagues who make good money from the holiday.

"In Egypt there is a love day and there is a love of money day," someone wrote on an Internet site. "Both of them fall on the same day. But why do I need to pay 40 Egyptian pounds for a bouquet of flowers? Haven't you, the merchants, a bit of love in your hearts?"