Photo by Yalda Moaiery
For several months, I’ve been living in a small apartment off Vanak Square, in the heart of Tehran, the vast, sprawling Iranian capital. I chose the neighbourhood for its central location—it’s something of an invisible border between the city’s freer north and more conservative south—and for what originally felt like a more tolerant atmosphere. But first impressions don’t count for much in this place; I’ve been caught off guard more than once since I arrived.
From every angle, this society contradicts itself. Religious thugs, with their semi-automatic weapons, periodically set up roadblocks a few steps from my home and check to see if my neighbours and I have been drinking. At the popular restaurants I frequent, vigilantes called Basiji police female clientele for the length and tightness of their coverings. Women’s scarves and jackets, called manteu, are now more a fashion statement, a way to show off well-sculpted figures, than a means to promote Islamic modesty.
During the few months I’ve been in Iran, the hardline Guardian Council has issued orders to block 15,000 websites for explicit sexual and political content. A new crackdown on artists and intellectuals, particularly filmmakers, has resulted in numerous arrests. And, of course, there is the enduring controversy surrounding the murder of Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi while in custody following her arrest for allegedly taking photos in a forbidden area.
Yet Bowling for Columbine recently premiered to sold-out crowds at three cinemas across Tehran. And the most popular radio station in Iran is Radio Farda (Radio Tomorrow), the outlawed Farsi-language channel beamed in by the United States.
Though the regime does everything it can to defame all things American, their propaganda campaigns have inspired the exact opposite response. The desire of the Iranian people to move toward a freer and more secular existence is manifest everywhere—and nowhere more plainly than in their hunger for American culture.
The long-standing struggle between conservative and modernizing forces is simply the surface of Tehrani life. It’s become a cliché now, really, one that the BBC, CNN and Time magazine have been talking about for years: Tehran is “politically charged,” “schizophrenic,” “uncertain,” “filled with great hope and even greater despair.”
But listen to anyone besides the reformist President Khatami and his ever dwindling group of supporters, and you’ll hear that the reform movement died well before the Bush administration ever acknowledged it publicly. Perhaps the idea of Islamic democracy died along with it; certainly the masses’ faith in the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy did. The passion for national politics, so strong in the late 1990s, has faded.
A new world is teeming just below the political façade, and since I arrived I’ve had the uneasy feeling that at any moment it might burst forth, as it did for a few riot-filled nights in June 2003. But as religious forces and riot police fought on those summer nights with Iranians fed up with twenty-four years of lies and mismanagement—unable to express what they wanted other than to say it wasn’t this—life went on unchanged for most young Tehranis. It was business as usual in Vanak Square: girls recovering from nose jobs walked openly, unashamed of their disfigured and bandaged appearances; couples held hands; teens fake-Versace-clad, undetected trannies and part-time hookers shopped at the dozens of boutiques in the neighbourhood. The mass of Iran’s youth—which means most of the country, as more than 70 percent of the population is under thirty—has decided to check out of the cultural debates, leaving them unresolved. Consumerism is their new mantra.
Like Cuba, with its legendary pre-revolution American cars—sky blue and hot pink tanks from the long gone fifties—Tehran has a fascination with Detroit engineering. Funky Chevy Novas and Dodge Darts from the 1970s, packed with highly fashionable, chain-smoking girls caked in blush, race through late-night traffic chauffeured by Antonio Banderas look-alikes. They’re searching for parties or someone to hook up with, and they all have one thing in common: an “anything goes” (within limits) attitude. They’re tired of repressive rules that don’t speak to anything that matters to them as young Iranians (or to young people anywhere, for that matter). They’re doing anything and everything to distance themselves from the regime under which they were born—breaking every law, but following all the rules (wearing their scarves, never drinking in public and rarely admitting to any of their sins).
It doesn’t take long to notice that Tehran has a sex-tricity in the air. You can see the desire on people’s faces; no one is hiding it anymore. Anyone who says different has either never been here or has ulterior motives to make you believe in Islamic chastity (itself a farce). Not to say the mullahs haven’t tried to repress sexual freedom, just that, like the regime itself, they’re losing the battle.
I often look in the mirror at a generously proportioned, balding guy in his late twenties with a very relaxed (some might say uninformed) sense of fashion and wonder what the kids right outside my door in Vanak Square would say if they knew I was the only American among them. I don’t fit their stereotype of what it means to be a Yankee—and they don’t fit ours of what it means to be Iranian or even Muslim.
When young Tehranis hear my broken Farsi, they always ask me where I’m from. My standard reply is, “The Great Satan,” which is usually met with a shameful giggle and then a barrage of questions.
“Who is the most famous DJ in United States?”
“I don’t know.”
“Can you help get me a visa?”
Picking up on the local lingo, I answer, “Whatever God wants.”
“Yes, of course,” they reply, knowing full well that the odds of an Iranian getting a visa to go to America are about as high as the odds of the mullahs offering an apology for all the suffering they’ve caused.
Appearances aside, I’ve become an instant commodity, and I’ve taken to calling my passport “American Gold.” My best friend here is a working-class guy named Mehdi, who—despite warnings from friends of higher social standing not to trust anyone from his neighbourhood—has a key to my apartment and often uses my place for illicit encounters with young Tehrani ladies. Lately, he’s been teasing me for my chastity.
“Everyone knows Americans and Europeans are relaxed and free,” he tells me. “You say what’s on your mind and go after what you want. So just find a couple of girls you like and ask them if they have boyfriends, ask if they are virgins or not, then invite them to come over and spend a few hours. One at a time, of course.” Apparently, it’s that simple.
There is a well known saying in Iran that goes, “In the time of the Shah, we drank in public and prayed at home, and now we drink at home and pray in public.” The phrase gets tossed around enough that some of the meaning has been lost, but day by day I am coming to understand its depth. At this point, I have much more confidence in, and respect for, the Iranian who drinks than for the one who can be found praying in his office or in the middle of the airport or on a Tehran sidewalk. Faith seems more than ever to be the badge of compliance, whereas the offer to drink together is a sign of trust and camaraderie. Though the stakes are still too high in Islamic Iran to drink with just anyone.
An Iranian friend of mine who was born in the US and works in media in Tehran warned me recently not to try too hard to make sense of contemporary Iran. For instance, a call for the end of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei—even one employing language usually reserved for Israel and the United States—should not be taken literally.
“‘Death to Khamenei’ might really mean ‘death to Khamenei,’” he said. “But it might just mean ‘Legalize Beer.’ I’m not sure. And the point is, I don’t trust anyone who says they know what’s going on here.”
He didn’t put to rest the questions that have bombarded me since my arrival, but his statement about Iran was the truest I’ve heard yet.