"Describe a stereotypical bazaari," I asked a longtime foreign resident
of Tehran who speaks Persian. He answered, putting it in the form of a
caricature, "A bazaari is a fat guy with meaty hands and fingers like
kebabs, with gold rings on them. He sits in his shop and sips tea. He trades.
He makes a lot of money and he prays several times a day. He comes home at
night to a big, expensive house with nothing of taste in it, where he has a
wife who slaves for him."
"Yes, I am a bazaari ," a vendor in the Tehran bazaar told me. "I buy and sell
"In other words, you are a thief," interjected the vendor next to him,
Vahid, the son of a mullah in Tehran, told me, "A bazaari will say to
himself, 'I am a man of God who prays very often, so if I say that such and
such a carpet that I wish to sell to you is worth so-many rials, that is the true worth of the carpet, since a religious man like me would never lie.' Because the bazaari is religious, he believes that he is always right." He went on, "The word for 'beard' in Persian can be pashm, which also means 'wool.' The bazaari, while stroking his beard, will say to a customer regarding a carpet for sale, 'Yes, this is made of very good wool.'"
The bazaar where Rafiqdoost grew up is the quintessential bazaar in transition:
a labyrinthine world of corrugated iron roofs, brick archways, and plate glass
in the midst of a poor working-class region of South Tehran. It lacks any trace
of beauty—save for the eighteenth-century Imam Khomeini Mosque (formerly the
Shah Mosque) at its center—and is filled with every manner of goods, from
chadors and carpets to pots and pans to radios and television sets to
American candy bars.
Rafiqdoost grew up as not just a bazaari but, more specifically, a
meydani ("person of the square"): someone who worked in the
fruit-and-vegetable market and therefore had few business connections with
Westerners or their companies—of the sort that, for example, a seller of
expensive carpets or electronic goods would have had. Yet Rafiqdoost's clan is
not unsophisticated: members of his extended family include doctors and
engineers. Rafiqdoost's brother used to run another of the handful of large
revolutionary foundations established with money confiscated from the Shah.
"I was born in South Tehran, near the bazaar, to a very religious family close
to the Imam," Rafiqdoost told me. "I was always pro-Imam. I am a self-made
man. I was not allowed to enter university, because I was expelled from high
school in 1953, when I was thirteen, for pro-Mosaddeq activities. [Mohammad Mosaddeq
was the Iranian Prime Minister who nationalized Western oil companies in 1951 and was
subsequently overthrown in a 1953 coup organized, in part, by the Central Intelligence
Agency.] Anti-Shah sentiment was something I learned in my home growing up. In 1976 I
was jailed for political reasons. Four months before the revolution, in 1978, I was
released when the people stormed the prisons [as part of the series of
demonstrations that culminated in the Shah's downfall]. Immediately after
leaving prison I became a contact point for anti-regime people, and for distributing
the Imam's decrees from Paris. I was also hiding people from the Shah's police. When
the Imam decided to return to Iran, a revolutionary council was organized. I was given
the task of logistics and personal security for the Imam. That's when I decided that I
myself would be the Imam's driver." Though Rafiqdoost is not now known for violence, his
past leadership of the violent Revolutionary Guards demonstrates to all in Iran his
capacity for it.
I asked Rafiqdoost about the financial particulars of the Bonyad, the
Foundation of the Oppressed, whose 1,200 companies are involved in mining,
housing construction, transportation, hotels, and tourism. In 1993, Rafiqdoost
said, the Bonyad made a profit of 250 billion rials, or, in 1993 terms, roughly
$100 million. "The first part of our profits go for the victims of the Shah and
the wounded in the eight-year war with Iraq. The second part is for high schools in
poor areas, for public-health clinics, for clothes for five hundred thousand needy
students. The third part is for reinvesting."