Fun is a force to be reckoned with.  In Tehran this week, 14,000 people of all ages loaded their water pistols and gathered in a public park for a water fight in response to an invitation on Facebook.  Pictures of the event shown in The Guardian and on the site of blogger Potking Azarmehr show people having an absolute blast:  a joyous young woman sending an arc of water into the air, a delighted father whose arms overflowed with his little girl and a giant water gun, and a grinning woman emptying a water bottle on her friend.

But, as has been reported around the world, this unbridled joy promptly incurred the wrath of Iranian authorities, who, according to Saeed Kamali Dehghan in The Guardian, referred to the event as “abnormal”, “shameful” and “against social norms”.  They wasted no time arresting some of the participants, forcing them to appear on state television, their backs to the camera, to atone for their “crime”.

Officially, the problem seemed to center on the fact that the water fight was a mixed-gender event.  Girls!  Boys!  Water!  Iran, of course, has very strict rules prescribing the separation of the sexes so a bunch of boys and girls frolicking in the park would definitely be provoking to authorities.

Unofficially though, the problem might not have been the mixing of the sexes itself so much as it was the fun they had.  In his post on the water fight, Potking Azarmehr writes that in Iran, “you risk incarceration if you dare to have fun, particularly if it’s group fun and if it is in public”, and in Dehghan’s article Azarmehr is also quoted as saying, “There are two issues here which have troubled the regime:  people having fun and people organizing a gathering through the social media.  Both are perceived as a threat by the regime.”  Indeed, in his post Azarmehr furiously notes that the authorities investigate real crimes such as knifings and rape only lethargically, whereas they’re very vigorous indeed about cracking down on fun.

While no expert on Iranian politics, I think there are a number of reasons why the authorities there might perceive fun as dangerous.  First, fun is an irrepressible feeling of being alive.  To feel alive is to feel engaged and energized, and while mercifully I’ve never lived in an authoritarian state, from all accounts such regimes try to coerce their citizens into being dulled, afraid and withdrawn.  There may be room for some version of “fun” if it is organized under the aegis of the authoritarian regime itself and meant to support it – I’m thinking here in particular of the Nazi program “strength through joy” – but I think it’s fair to question if this kind of fun leads to the same unbridled levity as the Iranian water fight.

The other reason fun is potentially dangerous to authoritarian regimes is because there’s a whole lot of fun to be had breaking rules, and the “authoritarian” in “authoritarian regime” pretty much gives it away that these guys are big on rules.  Of course, fun can be a subtle means of teaching us the “rules” in the first place (many of us first learn about capitalism playing Monopoly, after all), but I think it’s possible that one of the key social purposes of fun is to lead us to push at boundaries, experiment, break rules, play with the possible.  This aspect of fun is a wildly creative force, both personally and socially, and it’s this generative spirit that’s actually the problem for the regime, not just the rule-breaking in and of itself.  In the water pistol example, the participants’ fun is a shining example of another way of life, and they are potentially energized to do something about it.

And finally, authoritarian regimes might also fear fun because it is a powerful mechanism by which to connect to something, which is perhaps why, if Azarmehr is correct, the Iranian authorities were also particularly perturbed by the organizers using social media to invite the public to the water fight.  In this case, the water fight connected 14,000 people who shared a joyous few hours using water to beat the brutal summer heat.  Those are 14,000 people who now have a shared memory of the event and who know what it meant to them-  notwithstanding the officials’ desperate-sounding attempts to define it as something shameful and awful.  This connection might dissipate as fast as it was created, but it also might be the seed of a new vision of a defiant collectivity, or if that is too outlandish an interpretation, we can perhaps see it at least as part of a mosaic of events that are bringing Iranians together is novel and unsanctioned ways that brim with possibility.

We had a water fight of our own a few weeks ago, on a scorching mid-July Sunday.  It started innocently enough.  Our neighbour was playing a game with his son, in which they took turns attacking each other with a hose, and using a shield in defense.  Our daughter, lured over to their garden by the siren sound of their laughter, soon joined in.  Then, somehow, water started flying across the fence that separates our two yards and pretty soon it was a fully-fledged adults vs. children hose and water gun fight.  It was mayhem, water coming from all directions, children in bathing suits underfoot, ambushes, full-on assaults, you name it.  We literally screamed with laughter.  We all had dinner together later, still on a high from our half-hour of play, buoyed and connected.  We’ll probably remember it as a highlight of our summer.  And, a few days later, little Jamie, who’s two and was a bit taken aback by it all at the time, hauled out a hose all by himself in order to try to replicate what happened.

So although one who is lucky enough to live in Canada probably can’t fully appreciate the public water fight in Tehran, I can imagine the feelings of joy, connection and sheer aliveness the participants must have felt and, when I think of Jamie getting out the hose again days later, I can imagine the contagious power their fun must have generated.  Contagious power that has the authorities watching in fear.

Tehran water fight: this image is taken from the Facebook page of one of the participants and has been widely circulated online