Fun and Games in the Islamic Republic of Iran
“We will never compromise with the U.S.A.” reads the sign. Above it, a map of Iran populated with veiled women and bearded men forms a fist that is, quite literally, punching the top hat of Uncle Sam who is, for good measure, surrounded by hellish flames.
An older woman stops, her mandatory hijab pulled back to show as much hair as possible without attracting trouble. “This used to be the U.S. embassy,” she explains in reasonable English, “but there are too many crazy people here now. Before, you could wear your hair out, drink, go to discos – we could have a good time.”
On the walls surrounding the complex, where the splendidly named Kermit Roosevelt (grandson of President Theodore) plotted the 1953 overthrow of Iran’s first democratically elected president, the Statue of Liberty is painted with a skull for a face and the White House flies an Israeli flag. In the quiet, pollution-streaked streets of central Tehran the day after New Year’s, the sky monochrome overhead and the air frigid in our throats, smiling, bearded soldiers wave at us to put our cameras away and inform us that no, we can’t come in.
Later, we find crowds standing around outside tiny Khoshbin Restaurant, their breath visible and mixing with cigarette smoke in the freezing midday air. We push inside, and when a space finally opens, we’re crammed in opposite a young couple. They speak English, so they explain the menu and order for us in Farsi. They insist we taste a few of the brightly-coloured dishes they’re smearing across their flatbread, and when we take a liking to one in particular, they order more. On the walk home, we pass a monolithic government building – ‘The Islamic Ministry of Agriculture’ or something equally ridiculous – with black flags bearing excerpts from the Qur’an and the same machine gun toting soldiers in desert camouflage. We cross swirling Imam Khomeini Square and head down past the mechanic workshops on Amir Kabir Street. As we pass, customers and mechanics alike stop what they’re doing to stare and smile. Those with a little confidence in their English say, “Hello,” and welcome us to Iran. “Is it me,” says Peta as we step into our cheerfully dingy hotel, “or are people just really, really nice around here?”
Iranians are as old as human history itself. Under Cyrus the Great, who ruled the Persian empire around 2500 years ago, their domain stretched from the Black Sea to Egypt and out as far as Pakistan. It was the world’s first great civilisation. After its fall, Iranians weathered the endless waxing and waning of innumerable empires. Foreign armies have been marching and retreating across their deserts in all directions for thousands of years. In 1979, a combined revolt of conservative Islamists, liberal democrats and communists overthrew a dictator who’d been installed by Kermit and his CIA cronies to ensure the steady flow of oil. Ayatollah Khomeini, the Islamists’ spiritual and political leader, outmanoeuvred the leftists during the turmoil that followed and created a theocracy that banned, among other things, alcohol, homosexuality and extramarital sex. Every time she stepped out of a hotel room, Peta had to cover her hair and neck in a hijab. Her clothes weren’t allowed to show off her curves and her coat had to hang low enough to cover her bum. We wore fake wedding rings so winking hotel receptionists could let us share double beds.
Iranians, for their part, bear these indecencies as they always have, with a weary observance in the street and an almost total disregard in the home.
“Take off your hijab,” Peta is told in a friend’s house on the outskirts of Esfahan. Mahmoud gestures at the laughing men around the room, smiling. “Believe it or not, we’re not going to get too excited over your hair.” Later, he breaks out the bootleg wine and vodka. In the absence of legal alcohol (the non-alcoholic alternatives taste more like soft drink), people simply make their own. In Iran, anyone with connections can get whatever they need. Iranians argue that this makes the sanctions imposed by “the west” useless. Those in power can provide for their families, while many ordinary people cannot, and rightly ask why they’re being punished for the actions of their government.
In the desert oasis of Garmeh, we’re invited on a huge Tehran family’s outing to the dunes. Their bus had been pulled over by police the night before and their considerable reserves of wine and vodka had been confiscated. An uncle was forced to spend the night in prison and we stop by the jail to check up on him on our way to the salt flats the next morning. A court appearance and a fine later, the police drop him off and he receives a hero’s welcome, hoisting an inexplicable coke bottle full of wine above his head like a trophy.
“We’re really lucky they didn’t find our weed though,” says Mas, a young English teacher from Tehran as he draws on a joint among the dunes later on. “It’s not like the old days. Alcohol only gets a fine, but weed – you can get in some serious shit for this.”
He passes the joint to me.
“How do you even get it out here?” I ask.
“Dude,” laughs Phillip, a random Canadian somehow tagging along with the family outing (and the only other foreigner we spoke to in three weeks in Iran), “we’re just across the border from Afghanistan.” And we turn away from the sun, setting over ice capped mountains, to peer across the endless dunes rolling away to the east towards the Afghan border.
We went to the desert city of Yazd, with an unearthly name and a cityscape that would look more at home on Tatooine. A driver who took us into the desert had us climb a tiny minaret in the mud brick town of Kharanaq, and promptly rocked back and forth, shaking the old structure around us. It snowed all day, turning the desert white.
Outside Shiraz – named for the long-gone wineries – we crawled around the ancient city of Persepolis, the onetime capital of the Persian empire that was sacked by Alexander the Great in AD 330. We met two earnest young men who, despite a lack of mutual language, spent the evening taking us to dinner and the tomb of Hafez, the great 14th century poet. In the visa extension office, a friendly bureaucrat teased us about Iran’s 1997 defeat of the Socceroos to qualify for the World Cup. In Esfahan, with its gigantic blue-tiled mosques, we stayed with a lovely expat couple who fled to France and then England following the revolution. Mahmoud had known and worked with Prime Minister Bakhtiar, the Shah’s only democratic Prime Minister, who was eventually assassinated by Khomeini’s agents in Paris.
We headed west to Sanandaj, where the Kurdish men wear leather vests with great horns coming out of the shoulders, sipping tea as their pretty daughters peered at us from upstairs windows. We wandered between Kurdish villages on the Iraqi border, where kids climb from valleys to mountain passes just to go to school. And in Tabriz we had dinner with a high-ranking police official and his family in a restaurant reserved only for the police, and housed on the grounds of the former American consulate. “This is my religious aunt,” our new friend Jalal whispered to me as we approached their table, “so watch what you say about the government.” Everyone – the police officer, the pious women wrapped in their chadors – was, of course, lovely.
Upon meeting Iranians, you’re going to wonder where the idea of a belligerent nation bent on the destruction of Israel and “the west” even came from. “We don’t mind Jews here,” claimed one man in Yazd over a plate of chicken and a glass of vodka. Iranians are an intelligent, cosmopolitan and above all, hospitable people whose history of foreign intervention and the insular reactions it spurns has not been kind to them. They are, in short, the nicest bunch I’ve ever met, unfortunately governed by a band of crazies. They deserve to be better understood.
The names of the Iranians we met along the way have been changed, you know, just in case.