Motivational Speaker Finds Eager Audiences in a Struggling Iran

Artificial smoke belched from machines and loud house music filled Tehran’s most prestigious auditorium, as Ahmad Hellat, a source of inspiration for many Iranians, appeared simultaneously on three enormous video screens, wearing a blue tracksuit and driving a scooter.

Like a latter-day Norman Vincent Peale extolling the virtues of positive thinking, he was there to provide the assembled hope for a happy and successful life, something in short supply for many in the Islamic republic, where rules can be suffocating and economic prospects are grim.

“May a shower of gold rain on your heads!” he told his audience of about 1,800 fans in the videotaped message, as a welcoming introduction. “I am Dr. Hellat and I am handsome, rich and powerful, and you can be too, if you just repeat those magical words. How are you doing?”

“Great,” the audience thundered in unison, a response they had learned during Mr. Hellat’s many seminars. Life, says Mr. Hellat, who is not actually a doctor but is working toward a Ph.D. in psychology, is all about love, positive thinking and prosperity.

Iranians, many in dire need of a lift in spirits, are eating it up.

Thirty-five years after the Islamic revolution, with the furor and high hopes of that time long since diminished and with an economy seemingly stuck in neutral, life for many, if not most, Iranians has settled into a dreary routine of increasing hopelessness about the future.

According to official statistics, fully 25 percent of the population is suffering from depression. In Tehran, the number is even higher, at 34 percent. This blanket of despair is reflected in some harsh statistics: divorces up 135 percent since 2001; addiction to drugs and alcohol rising steadily over the past decade; marriages and birthrates declining.

“We cannot deny what we see around us,” said Mr. Hellat, 51, during a recent interview in his office. Next to his collection of chrome pipes stood a framed poster of a stack of hundred-dollar bills and reading, “My First Billion.”

“The basis of most problems is a financial aspiration that cannot be met,” he said. The key to happiness, therefore, is success and money, he concluded.

Shiite Muslim clerics traditionally are the ones who advise Iranians on how to eat, pray and love in Iran, and Mr. Hellat is careful to emphasize that his teaching in no way supplants religion. “What I do is motivational psychology, this is something completely different,” he said.

In the Tehran Milad Tower auditorium last Wednesday, Iranians from all walks of life had paid roughly $20 for four hours of life lessons during “The Great Festival of Positive Energy.” Most of them were readers of Mr. Hellat’s “Moavaghiat,” or success, magazine, which is one of the most popular in the country.

Finally, Mr. Hellat himself strides onto the stage wearing a black suit, shiny shoes and a microphone stuck to his ear so he can gesture freely with his hands. “I want to teach you 30 techniques of success that will explode like a bomb,” he shouts. The stage was designed with “plus” symbols, signs of positivity. “Success is waiting for you, you just have to grab it.”

The audience, a wide mix of middle-class Iranians, stared up at him with greedy expectation. Women in traditional chadors, the all-black veil that covers everything but the face and hands, scribbled notes as Mr. Hellat spoke. Young couples held hands tightly when he said that lives can be changed. Friends whispered in each others’ ears as the “Doctor” again urged everybody to clap and shout that they were feeling great.

Iranians, during their thousands of years as a civilization, have always looked for leaders to guide them, not only in politics but also in matters of daily life. Mr. Hellat left no detail unmentioned on the road to success.

“Men! Shine your shoes, it is the first thing women look at,” he said from the stage. “Are you fat? No problem, but at least wear suitable clothes, so that you look presentable.”

Borrowing freely from American motivational speakers like Anthony Robbins, Mr. Hellat managed to get the crowd going wild; at least, as wild as you can get in the Islamic republic, where dancing in public is forbidden. Men wearing bow ties and crisp suits clapped their hands to the beats of a song called “Ibiza,” after the Spanish party island, while women covered in colorful scarves moved in their seats.

Then, just as Mr. Hellat entered the stage for more messages of positivity, accompanied by a keyboard player, playing Boney M.’s disco hit “Ma Baker,” a turbaned cleric entered from a side door.

Iranians, skilled in the art of adaptation and survival, immediately stopped clapping, which is considered un-Islamic by some hard-liners. Some women started refitting their headscarves, so that they would not show too much hair.

As the music died down, like a deflating balloon, Mr. Hellat disappeared backstage, only to come out half a minute later, sporting a big smile. “We welcome Hojatoleslam Ali Razini, one of the highest members of Iran’s judiciary,” he said. “Don’t worry people, you are allowed to clap in front of him!”

When Mr. Hellat started out with his self-help and motivational classes in 1997, he was viewed suspiciously by the clerics. Some clerics said that he was giving the people “Westernized” advice. But on this night, Mr. Razini, who some decades ago nearly lost his life in an assassination attempt, sat down in one of the V.I.P. seats on the first row and nodded his head toward Mr. Hellat.

“Everybody praise the prophet!” Mr. Hellat urged in response.

A female ventriloquist entered the stage with a doll named “Can Do,” who told the audience that they must always believe in themselves.

Mr. Hellat decided it was time to recapture the lost attention. “Let’s all be calm and do a breathing exercise,” he suggested, explaining that it was much better to breathe from the stomach. “Join me, everybody join me,” he said. “Ah, that feels good no?” Soon even the cleric could be seen focusing on the breathing exercise.

In the corridors of the auditorium, fans took advantage of the quiet to rush to the bathrooms. “We tape all his speeches, so we can listen to them over and over again,” said Abuzar Raesi, 34, who had driven for 10 hours from the city of Shiraz with his pregnant wife. “We felt defeated in our lives before we met the doctor,” he said. “Now we feel full of energy.”


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