A slightly navel gazing but possibly interesting reflection on a trip to Iran (in 2004).
Iran made me realise that oppression isn’t always cataclysmic or dramatic. On a day-to-day level, it’s tedious and stifling. Iran looks normal and modern in some ways. In the cities, you can go out dinner with your friends at a nice restaurant, wearing excessive makeup and dressed to the nines (perhaps with your headscarf pushed back as far as possible and rebellious three-quarter pants), discussing poetry and art. But you always have to keep the rules at the back of your mind. Even the most routine activities frequently require a consideration of how the rules might apply, and a weighing up exercise about whether to break them, as Iranians often do. And you regularly see pyjama-suited mullahs and religious police roaming the streets, presumably with little else to do but get people in trouble. What an eyesore.
More ephemerally, I think there’s a general psychological weight to living under an oppressive dictatorship, a heaviness of mind. Iranians seemed depressed, although this may be an unreliable impression, as I was only there for a month. Previously, without giving it much thought, I’d assumed that as we are all subjected to some kind of constraints, whether social or legal, unless people (or their friends) are being physically targeted, their happiness level will naturally adjust to their circumstances. But of course, there are degrees of constraint. Most Iranians have friends or family that have suffered at the hands of the regime, either now or in the past, and they live under a real threat of state-based violence.
I visited Iran overland from China and Pakistan when I was 21. At that age, I welcomed experiences that were strange, confronting, even unpleasant, as a necessary step on my journey towards enlightenment and becoming an ‘interesting’ person. So yes, there was an element of wanting to make myself feel shiny by traveling to extreme places, but also a genuine search for understanding. It’s worth asking whether visiting developing countries was the only way to achieve this, but I definitely learned things on that trip that I now carry with me every day.
In this novelty-seeking state of mind, I was initially fascinated by what it would be like to live in a theocratic dictatorship. But I quickly got tired of having to observe the many rules about what you can wear, do, say. I remember small things, like falling asleep on a bus sleep, becoming aware that my hijab was slipping off and that people were staring at my hair, and having to wake up to readjust it. Or getting hungry during Ramadan while out walking with a friend, and the only solution being to get in a taxi, duck down, and scoff two oranges in quick succession. Of course, I was in Iran by choice, so these were only trivialities to me, but they were wearing nonetheless.
In Pakistan, the rules were stricter, yet they didn’t feel as oppressive, perhaps because they were socially rather than legally enforced. I spent time in both countries during Ramadan. In Iran, I saw people walking along scoffing bits of bread in their mouth, or having a sneaky cigarette in a dark corner. I never saw anything like that in Pakistan. I’d also wear the hijab there, but only in really conservative areas. One time in Pakistan I was in a marvellously character-filled, but definitely rough, old bazaar in Peshawar and a man came up to me and said, ‘Put your headscarf back on, they might kill you,’ gesturing at the market crowd. I’m think he was pulling the piss but I couldn’t be sure.
Most Iranians I visited would take their hijabs off as soon as they entered the house. But toward the end of my trip I was visiting my Swedish–Iranian friend Bahrum’s family (more about him in a minute), and when I went to whip it off before going into their house, he said, ‘Hang on, don’t assume.’ He suggested it would be more polite if I entered the house wearing it, and then he could gauge his family’s reaction to me taking it off.
Most of the Iranians I spoke to were critical of the theocratic dictatorship, expressing visceral hatred of mullahs and a sometimes enthusiastic, sometimes qualified, appreciation for the West – I was surprised they talked about politics so openly. Nobody said they wanted a revolution, though – after all, they’d had already one, with high hopes, and look where that ended up. Some Iranians even suggested to me that America should bomb their country, which seems like a terrible idea. Only one person I spoke to was supportive of the regime. Of course, there’s an in-built bias to this story, in that the pro-Western Iranians were probably more likely to speak to foreigners (and perhaps, to speak English?).
What most captivated me about Iran was the sense of poetry and mysticism embodied in its language, poetry, architecture and cinema. Persian is a very lyrical language, and not dissimilar to French. Not being able to speak Persian meant I couldn’t get a full sense of Iran’s cultural traditions, but I liked the vibe I got: transcendant, mystical Persian poetry; realist, highly allegorical New Wave cinema; Zoroastrian fire traditions; elaborate mosaics; and elaborate paintings on the ceilings of buildings of Persians drinking wine and generally being sumptuous. A lot of these traditions dated back to pre-Islamic times, and when I asked Persians about their culture, they’d often remind me that they weren’t always Islamic, as if they were saying ‘This is what we’re really like.’
The architecture took my breath away: beautiful gardens, graceful lines, tranquil spaces, perfectly placed bodies of water.
I recently visited the Taj Mahal in India, a melancholy, moving piece of architecture. I wasn’t surprised when I found out it was built by an Iranian architect.
Iranians may live under a crude, unmannered regime, but most of the people I met were educated, cultured, and sophisticated. Public appearances are important. People are very polite, and put a lot of effort into their external appearances. For the girls, this can mean plastered makeup and in Tehran, plastic marked by little plastic bandages over their noses. Bahrum commented to me, somewhat bitterly, that Iranians have two faces.
There’s a word for Iranian politeness – taarof – and one aspect of this is that if someone offers you something, you usually decline it once, even twice, before taking it. But people were so generous to me: they’d almost always offer the third time. This hospitality extended to asking me to stay with them, and I did, quite a few times.
Looking back on that, I don’t understand how I was so trusting, but it never worked out badly. The worst thing that happened was that I felt a bit claustrophobically cosseted. Like, for example, I’d sniff and then next minute there’d be a tissue in my hand. And I’d be discouraged from going for walks by myself: your hosts would always send someone with you, or make it a bit of an event.
Once I arrived at a dodgy bus station late at night by mistake; I’d meant to go to Tehran and I ended up in Karaj instead (a nearby city, but now becoming like an outer suburb of Tehran). There were all these seedy men whom it seemed (to me) were circling like sharks. I was over-tired and paranoid, and didn’t feel like I could even trust the transport operators. Then this beautiful young girl came up to me and asked me the polite Persian equivalent of ‘What the fuck are you doing here by yourself?’ I subsequently romanticised the experience in a group email:
‘I was surrounded by several shady unshaven men who I was trying to ask where a hotel was but they didn’t speak any English. Then alighted an angel, with a beautiful moony face shimmering out of her chador, and big black eyes, she said ‘come’ and I followed blindly. She took me out to her car where sat her kind-faced father and her big brother bouncing her baby brother on his lap. I stayed with that family for two nights and got the treatment of a queen, which I submitted to with grateful infantile surrender.’
Viewing through this wide-eyed idealised prism definitely meant that I missed some of the texture and detail of experiences. At the same time, staying with that family was a pretty idyllic experience, as far as idylls go. It was just like staying with family friends anywhere in the world. When we got home, the girl’s mum was cooking dinner, a kind of Iranian spaghetti. She couldn’t speak English, but as she was serving up the dinner she launched into the song ‘Happy Birthday,’ giggling.
The girl was really kind to me but without making me feel like a freak. Her English wasn’t great, but it was somehow really easy to talk to her – I felt like we could have been friends at school. We watched the news with her Dad, who when the Ayatollah came onto the screen, turned to me and said in a winking, conspiratorial way, ‘Shayturn, Shayturn’. The Persian equivalent of Satan.
As they were driving me to the bus station, they gave me a present. I felt a bit bad, because after all the hospitality they’d shown me, it should have been the other way around, although I don’t think they would have let me venture off by myself to go gift shopping for them. A similar thing had happened to me in Pakistan – I think it’s just extreme Muslim hospitality.
It felt like people were nicer in Iran and Pakistan than anywhere else. I remember saying to Bahrum, ‘People in Pakistan and Iran are so nice!’ He replied, throwing up his hands, ‘Everyone everywhere’s nice!’
I first saw Bahrum walking down the stairs at a backpackers in Isfahan. They had an old school backpackers there, probably a relic from the hippy trail days, and male and female travelers could stay in the same dorm (how that slipped through the moral police’s net, I’ll never know).
I liked Bahrum as soon as I saw him: long dark hair in a ponytail, skinny with spider legs, blackish eyes and a craggy, friendly face. I couldn’t quite place him: he looked Iranian and spoke Persian, but no Iranians had long hair, and he dressed like Westerner. The Iranians generally didn’t know what to make of it either – they couldn’t tell if he was foreigner or Iranian, and at one hotel, they thought he was a Sufi dervish.
Bahrum’s story was that he was involved in the Islamic revolution in the 1980s, as a Communist. When it all went wrong he caught a boat to Dubai with only a few dollars to his name. He was 21. He then fled to Sweden as a refugee, spending the next twenty years there. So he’d spent about 20 years in Iran, and 20 in Sweden. He didn’t feel fully a part of either culture, and tended to complain about both.
Bahrum was now 43, and this was his first visit back to Iran, to visit his family. After staying with them for a while, he felt a claustrophobic, so went to stay at this backpackers in Isfahan he’d heard about, presumably for a bit of foreign company, and maybe as a way to meet girls, too. Now I don’t know whether the whole story was true, and I’m not even sure why I question it – everything that happened seemed fairly consistent with it.
Here’s how I romanticised Bahrum in my group email:
Bahrum is a decidedly crazy man living in a perpetual state of cultural homesickness that he is not afraid to complain about. He told me jokes and disconnected stories which I struggled to understand and wouldn’t let me pay for anything [this is pretty typical Iranian hospitality] I can say his smile would light the hearths of half the people of Iran (God knows they need it). ’
At that stage I was starting to think I believed in God too, in a religiously polygamous kind of way. To an extent, this tendency stemmed from a simplistic conclusion I’d drawn from positive experiences in Pakistan and Iran, i.e. ‘religious faith makes people honest and kind.’ I also had a desire to transcend the material specificities of things, the arbitrary constraints of language and intellectual frameworks, and gain a higher understanding.
I was influenced by Bahrum too, who’d give thanks to God all the time but wasn’t religious. One night we were walking stoned around the riverbanks of Isfahan once and I asked him if he was a Muslim. He threw his hands up and said, ‘I love God!’
What I now somewhat disparagingly call my ‘spiritual stage’ continued when I got back to Perth, and involved diverse activities like reading books on every type of religion, but particularly Sufism and Buddhism; sleeping on a yoga mat and never buying anything; and discreetly clasping my hands together in silent prayer whenever something good happened to me, thinking that such gratitude would bring positive karma. It was a bit cheesy, but I’m also slightly sad that stage is over.
Bahrum and I spent about three days just walking around Isfahan, mostly on the riverbanks and bridges. It was a dreamy, poetic time, aided by the amount of ganja we smoked as we were walking around, out of a coke can bong. Of course, I romanticised it in my group email:
‘We spent three days just walking, and smoking, and talking, and talking, amidst Isfahan’s beautiful, waiting lights.’
When I refer to Isfahan as ‘waiting’, I think meant ‘waiting for democracy.’ Which sounds a bit trite, but Isfahan had a beautiful sense of possibility, and I did wonder what it would be like under a democratic government.
Isfahan’s stone bridges were filled with quaint, beautiful teahouses. You could sit in the arced window of the bridge drinking tea, smoking nargile, and looking out at the water. Boys and girls would sit together in an obviously intimate kind of way, presumably on illicit dates. I guess the teahouse owners just turned a blind eye to it. I heard that the government shut down some of those tea houses a few years ago, purportedly for anti-smoking reasons, but more likely for social control.
Walking around the river, you’d catch young guys playing guitar and smoking pot in shadowy corners of the bridge. At night, the teahouse windows became burnt orange orbs shining onto black water. I remember Bahrum and I talking about music while staring at the water. He said he didn’t generally like music that much (this seemed insane to me) but Pink Floyd were the exception. ‘How good would it be if Pink Floyd stood played on the water there,’ he said. ‘Yeah, that’d be really nice.’
Bahrum and I decided to travel around Iran together in this green van he’d bought. But then his father got sick, and he needed to go home. He told me it would only be a few days, so I flew (very cheaply) home to Shiraz with him, staying with his family on the farm for a while, and then in a hotel in Shiraz. Bahrum kept saying, trying to convince himself as well I think, that we’d soon drive away in his van and start our travels.
Then his Dad died, and I had to leave. I caught a 24 hour bus to Tabriz. As soon as I got on the bus, I started crying, convincing myself that I’d been in love with Bahrum, although it’s also possible I was just tired and lonely. Later on, I convinced myself that I regretted nothing ever happening with Bahrum. It could have, but I didn’t want it at the time.
He’d never made a move on me, but he did made some suggestive comments, after which I told him that the age difference was too great. ‘I know this well,’ he said, as if he never expected anything at all. And I remember looking at him thinking he was just too physically old. It’s easy to regret things in retrospect, and I think my infatuation with Bahrum was probably highly contextual and conceptual. My do-nothing instincts were probably right.
The bus trip to Tabriz was the worst of my life. The bus driver was being very kind to me, offering me tea, a blanket, a pillow, and some kind of tablet. I only drank a little bit of the tea, because it was already 1.00 am in the morning and I didn’t want the caffeine to wake me up. I didn’t take the table though, not knowing what it was. The driver let me sit in the back of the bus where there was a bed. I went to sleep.
When I woke up, we were at the bus station and the bus had stopped. The driver was leaning over me and pressing on my shoulders quite hard. I remember being pretty sure he was going to start trying to have sex with me, although it’s possible he could have just being trying to wake me up. I tried to wake up, but couldn’t break out of my sleep, which is really unusual for me. Eventually I did though, screaming, pushing him back, and running off the bus. He didn’t try to take it any further.
I didn’t think about this at the time, but later I wondered whether he might have put a date rape drug in the tea. It wasn’t the first time I had troubles with men in Iran. Most were kind, helpful, and gentlemanly, but some would follow me in parks, shopkeepers would try to feel me up, and at one hotel in Shiraz, one of the hotel guys kept trying the door of my room at night. The cost of sexual repression, perhaps, combined with outdated cultural attitudes toward women, and the standard sexual harassment experienced by a solo female traveller.
Somewhat annoyingly, many of the other female travelers I met didn’t have any problems at all, which slightly made me feel like it was my fault (was it what I was wearing, my lack of discreetness, my red hair?) although I did later hear of one solo traveler being raped in Iran (as could happen anywhere).
My obsession with Iran continued when I got home, and involved watching as many Iranian movies, translating Persian poems as I could, and even taking Farsi lessons. It also involved getting an Iranian boyfriend refugee boyfriend who, despite being was warm and kind, spoke little English and was fairly chauvinistic: i.e. he’d pay for everything and might have lend me his jacket if I was cold, but would also beseech me to brush my air, and once, slightly ridiculously, offered to pay for a breast enlargement. We had little in common.
Before this short-lived relationship ended, I asked the Iranian boyfriend to help me my friend Bahrum in Iran. Surprisingly, Bahrum picked up the phone. He was now married and had taken over his father’s farm. He invited me to visit him and his wife. ‘I can really show you around now, you can help us on the farm, we can all travel around together.’ A nice thought, although I don’t think it will happen.