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Iran doing "nothing" for the lads in Haqqi Alley

TEHRAN, Iran, February 16, 2000 (AFP) - He has ambition, he has intelligence, and at 24 years old he even has a girlfriend he's in love with. But the one thing Jaman Valilou has never had is a job.

"The government talks and talks. They keep on babbling but they don't understand the unemployment is killing us," he says, stuffing his hands in the pockets of his dirty red jacket to ward off the cold.

"Ninety percent of the guys don't have a job around here."

"Around here" is Khazaneh in south Tehran, a tumble-down neighbourhood of grafitti-littered alleys and dusty shops without customers that you could just about call working-class -- that is, if anybody had a job.

Jaman spends his days hanging out on the steps in front of a tiny shoe store with friends, trying to avoid the attentions of the police and waiting for something to change.

Since getting out of the army three years ago, he says, he has never been able to find work for more than a couple of days, odd jobs in the bazaar and once even cooking in the cafeteria at a government office.

"Even there I got laid off right away," Jaman says. "There just isn't any work."

According to official figures, Iran's unemployment is between 10 and 15 percent, while outside estimates put it at more than twice that.

But here in ramshackle Khazaneh, 90 minutes but a world away from the lipsticked-girls laughing on their cell phones down the shopping avenues of north Tehran, it's the rare young man who has a job to go when he wakes up in the morning.

"We're all just prisoners here," says 29-year-old Mohammad, leaning against a wall in Haqqi Alley, a side-street off the main square where dozens of young men are whiling away another idle day.

"We have abilities, we're not stupid. But there is nothing for us to do. The economy is zero. The government never does anything for us here on Haqqi Alley."

Almost everyone here has a different idea of who the "government" is, whether it's reformist President Mohammad Khatami or supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei or the conservative-dominated parliament.

Newspapers and candidates talk about the importance of Friday's legislative elections, when Khatami might finally get a parliament sympathetic to his economic, political and social reforms.

But the talk means little to these young men, who say they have heard all the promises, all the pledges of "reform" and "progress", before.

"Even if I voted it wouldn't change a thing," Jaman says, as his friends crowd around him and nod their heads in agreement.

"All I want is a job, any job, some way to earn a living so I could get married to my girlfriend."

He says he is just waiting for the day when she finally tells him good-bye. "She's a pretty girl. Some day a rich guy with a job will spot her, and ask her to marry him, and she'll go," he says.

"That's just how it is for us."