I had no formed opinion of Iran as a country. Over the years, the country has been associated with most things negative in the media. But I heard quite some good things about the Iranian people from returning travellers. Everybody says the country is safe to travel. The people are most frequently described as ‘friendly’ and ‘hospitable’. One friend coming back remarked that the people are so generous that he did not need to worry about where to stay throughout his two-month trip across the country. Locals kept inviting him to be the guest in their homes and got everything sorted.
It goes without saying that the government and the people are separate entities when we talk about a country. No matter how much truth is in it, a country being denounced as ‘evil’ does not mean the people are; just as ‘bad’ parents do not necessarily make ‘bad’ kids. It is quite understandable, though, most kids falling in the situation do not want to be viewed the same way as their parents. This is perhaps something that I found many Iranians care a lot.
Whenever I met a local on the street who can speak some English, I was almost always met with this same question. ‘What do you think about Iranians?’/ ‘What is your idea of our country?’ I took note of this little coincidence after the first few encounters in the country. The question did not seem to serve simply as a casual conversation starter per se. I had a feeling that my answer meant something to them, something they really care. I soon started to develop a standard short answer for the sake of convenience: ‘Iran has the friendliest, most hospitable people I have ever met’. In return, I would often be given an approving nod and a broad smile that comes with something that looks like a hint of relief.
Living in a country being portrayed as the ‘bad guy’ in world politics, I guess, the Iranian people might have perpetually a feeling of being wronged. To have people from the outside world who tell them they are not the same as their ‘bad parents’ might be an assurance they are desperately looking for. I might be completely wrong, but on occasion I have a feeling that some of their kindness towards foreigners is driven by that very need of affirmation of their good nature. Whatever the case is, the fact is still that Iranians are absolutely some of the nicest people to travellers.
The new round of American sanction must have caused a serious blow to the Iranian economy. I was told that it picked up a bit a few years back during the Obama administration, but it did not last. In the city of Qazvin, where I saw unexpectedly the rough form of a moderate-sized industrial city, the locals told me that foreign investment had withdrawn one after the other amidst the new sanction. Most factories had stopped operations. Jobs vanished and unemployment surged.
As a transient visitor who stays here just for a few weeks, Iran is a traveller’s paradise. The cost is next to nothing. Travellers bring Euros in exchange for Iranian bank notes which bear many zeros. The exchange rate fluctuates significantly. One day I met a guy on the street. He asked that standard question about my view on his country, and I readily handed out my model answer, expecting the same approving nod that everyone else had given me. I was wrong. My answer did not seem to satisfy him. He elaborated, not as a question but more as an expression of his views, ‘I mean, what do you think about our country as a traveller? Our economy sucks and we have the sanction, so it’s very cheap to travel here, isn’t it? But it’s hard on us.’ I was not prepared for this and did not know what I should say. I could feel a note of bitterness as he said it. I was sure that his sentiments were not against me nor against tourists at large. Yet the conversation left me sorry and guilty.
I also felt sorry for not letting the Iranians I met know enough that I found them more than just ‘friendly and hospitable’. I met many very brilliant people. One day I was sitting on the edge of a famous bridge in Esfahan. I was waiting for the sunset in a pensive mood. An old man approached me. His face and hair reminded me of Albert Einstein. In perfect English, he asked me about the population control policy of China and how the country copes with such a huge population. The subject was serious and my mood at the time was obviously not ready to handle such questions. But he continued to lead the conversation in various subjects, jumping from physics to politics to history to religion, from Free Masonry to its relationship with Jewish genocide, then from the UFOs to Mark Zuckerberg. I could not quite follow what he said, but he did impress me for his wide spectrum of knowledge, which he claimed was all acquired through reading. When I finally found the courage to ask to be excused from the chat that had no sign of ending, he moved closer and said mystically, ‘Now you know I am really a genius. Don’t you see even my face looks like Einstein?’ I fled. He might be a lunatic, but if he is, he is at least a very smart one.
They have the brains. They have the look. Iranians are the lucky bunch who have inherited everything beautiful from their Persian root. It is a fact beyond dispute that the country produces beauties. Wavy dark hair, olive-colored skin, twinkling big eyes that can speak, sensuous lips and voluptuous bodies are all typical features found in Iranian women. Their tall straight noses make their flat-nosed Asian counterparts envy. It is a pity that a lot of the Iranian girls seem not to appreciate their godsend gifts that much. Nose fix is popular among Iranian women. Girls proudly show off their Band-aided nose bridges on the streets. And they look cute and charming even with those Band-aids!
The Farsi language that Iranians speak is beautiful too. It has a particular rhythmic tone. Some people compare it to the beauty of the French language. In fact, it sounds a bit like French that even some native French agree. Sometimes the rising tone at the end of a sentence makes Iranian guys sound a bit soft and girlish, but it is a sweet contrast to their masculine nature. Reciting poems in this melodic ancient language must be a feast for the ears. This might also explain why poetry is such a big thing in Persian literature and even in modern Iran. It was a surprise to see the crowds gathering in the mausoleums of the two most loved poets of Persian time, Hafez and Saadi, on one ordinary weekday afternoon. Throughout history, Persian poets penned tonnes of beautiful love poems. They are not outdated even today and I was told that Iranian teenagers still handily quote the famous lines when they want to express love to some girls of their dream.
Persian aesthetics was exemplified everywhere in palaces and gardens in historic cities like Shiraz and Esfahan. The use of lovely pastel colours adds a tone of femininity and sophistication to the Persian decorative art. Delicate flowers such as roses and birds like nightingales are common themes on wall murals. Men and women of the Persian Empire were not shy in showing their lust and affection, as depicted in many works of art. Romance is in the genes of the Persians and their descendants.
Needless to say, religion is a bigger-than-life thing in a religious state like Iran. It governs the everyday life of every living being within the territory, travellers inclusive. It is the golden thread that binds the relationship between the government and its people, but it also gets the two entangled in the opposing forces of cohesion and tension. Religion compels the whole country to lead a double-life.
In the public life it is all harmony. People do exactly what their government wants them to do. They follow the religious rules and avoid harams (things forbidden by Islamic law, and there are many). The undercurrent of tension only comes to the surface when you get to talk to local people who open up about their other life, i.e., their private lives. Once you are allowed to tune in to that channel, you discover an underworld squarely contrary to the world above. These missing pieces complete the picture behind the veil.
As a rule, women are to wear hijabs in public space. Visitors are no exception. I dutifully obliged as everyone else, but found it a torture to wear one under the scorching sun, a sauna room on-the-move. While I can fling this goddamn cloth the first minute I jump on the plane home, I am aware that the local women cannot. Towards the end of the trip, I was still not able to find any comfort when I was wearing one. But I gathered that Iranians have developed some unspoken tricks to make hijab lives easier:
(1) While wearing a hijab in public is a thing that has no room for compromise, the bottom line is to have the cloth being seen on a woman’s head. One can hang it loosely. One can even dangle it around the far back of the head and have half the hair exposed without getting into trouble.
(2) Under the hijab, nobody knows what sort of haircut a girl is having. You can shave a skinhead or do anything unconventional. I was surprised when I saw the short cool permed haircuts of some girls when they uncovered their hijabs. They can look completely like another person. Think of the nuns in the movie ‘Sister Act’.
(3) You can take off the hijab in private places as long as there are no strangers around. That means, when you are sure that nobody is going to report you.
(4) Where there is no chance of bumping into the Police, you can safely take off the hijab in semi-private space, such as in a car.
I was told of the last trick by a taxi driver with whom I had a long distance transfer one day. I must have looked miserable in the hijab under the suffocating heat. Once we left the city and our car was flying on the highway, he helpfully suggested that I could take off my hijab. ‘But you have to wear it again when we get to some towns where there will be Police. I will let you know,’ he said. Later, when we passed through road blocks or small towns, he gave me the signal, and I cooperatively put on the hijab. I was curious what would happen if I was found bare-headed. But soon I found out myself.
The taxi driver and I were quite chilled when we finally arrived at our destination after the long drive. In my excitement, I forgot the hijab, climbed out of the car bareheaded and went to the boot to unload my luggage. In a matter of seconds, I heard the agitated voice of a man babbling something, his finger pointing at me. He was the shopkeeper of a grocery on the side of the street. In a frenzy, I deliberately ignored his accusing finger and continued with my tasks on hand. Secretly I wanted to yell at him, ‘What’s your fuxxing business if I do not wear a cloth on my head? It is my head.’ But I didn’t say a thing. True, it was my head; but where I stood, it was his territory. I quietly put on the hijab after I finished unloading my luggage without protest. His accusing finger could finally put to a rest.
Sexual freedom and gender issues are the major grounds for tug-of-war between the government and the people. The most incredible stories I heard about the country are related to these subjects. In the public space, for example, I could not fathom how the locals can easily tell between a married and an unmarried couple on the streets, thus report on any ‘inappropriate’ behavior of the latter. Only their trained eyes can make out.
The boundary of ‘public’ and ‘private’ domains plays its subtle role here. I heard many personal stories of Iranians having sex before marriage, sometimes casually, and outside of their marriage at home, or otherwise just anywhere private. There is nothing to surprise about if I hear them elewhere, but in a place where even couples holding hands is a rare sight in public, it is something worth surprising. Given the frequency of hearing these stories, I can only trust that they have a certain generality. I heard that the sex issue even intensifies class conflicts in Iran. Young kids from rich families can afford to have their private space to do whatever they want and to have access to paid sex, whereas some poor kids who cannot afford it and cannot marry are consumed by burning desire and resentment. I was told that there have been numerous scandals of young people from the privileged class showing off their supposedly private ‘wild life’ on the social media which brought great controversies and discontent in the country.
Slowly I found that the less religious Iranians have their own way to work around the rules in their religion, those big ‘no-nos’ imposed by their patriarchal government. One Iranian told me about a common practice of ‘white marriage’ among the younger generation. A man and a woman might get officially married at the relevant authority, only to do that in order to serve some purpose other than having a real marriage relationship. The marriage is essentially technical, but the marriage certificate gives the couple a license to enjoy free uninhibited sex, to live together for some time without having to explain to anyone, or to rent a place in a big city just to share costs. They get a divorce when the practical needs are done with. The government knows what is happening, but they can do nothing.
A similar arrangement is a ‘fixed-term marriage’ or a ‘temporary marriage’, which means basically having a marriage with an expiry date. Beyond which, the couple becomes strangers without a need to go through the formalities of a divorce. The bizarre part is, this is a legitimate practice by law and is endorsed by the religion.
The taxi driver who first told me about this is a devoted believer. We talked a lot about religious issues at large while we were driving. He found genuine difficulty understanding why a non-believer like me can claim myself a reasonably good person. In his values, no one can truly be a good man without following the guidance of God and the Holy Book. He debated confidently of his religious beliefs until I mentioned sex before marriage. His firm gaze started to lose a little focus, and I found distress, or even agony, on his somewhat twisted face. An unmarried man of 34 years old, he admitted that this particular haram made his life miserable. His natural desires and sexual needs cannot be fulfilled if he wants to stay as a good Muslim. It was at this point he told me about the possibility of ‘nikah mut’ah’ (temporary marriage), which means he can find a girl to ‘marry’ for a few days, or even just for a few hours, lawfully. I put it straight to ask if it is the euphemism for ‘prostitution’. He did not give me an answer. With a confused look, he told me instead there is something he admittedly cannot reconcile. Perhaps the absurdity of this invention is so great that even devoted believers like this driver cannot find a reasonable defense under the religious framework. But so I heard much later, that those inventing the law insist that they find relevant scriptures in the Holy Book in support of the legitimacy of the practice.
Interestingly, this taxi driver, with his strong religious devotion, was quite in the minority among the people I met. For most others, they easily admitted themselves as unreligious people, and did not feel ashamed to make such proclamation. They have their own judgment and they are extremely liberal-minded. They hate harams and hate being told not to do something just because of some rules laid down from the distant past. But they also know too well that they have to dutifully do their part in the public life so they can be left alone to live their private life. They cannot break away from their own world, but they are eager to connect with the other world and to share their thoughts and values.
I met young musicians who have to stop playing rock music altogether, not even underground, because of the government ban, and have to struggle to earn their living by playing folk on the streets. Yet that does not stop them from speaking out their true minds when they can steal a chance. I met brave women who had taken long legal battles to get a divorce in spite of long-term domestic violence because of the inherent unfairness of the law. Yet when they broke free at last, they started their lives afresh and are now standing firmly on their own feet. I met ambitious entrepreneurs who set up flourishing businesses. Yet they do not stop there and thrive to explore new chances through smart and inventive ways. I met taxi drivers who used to know not a word of English. Yet they could exchange thoughts and ideas rather fluently after a few months of hard work through self-learning, all because they are eager to understand people from other countries. They are all wonderful people who strive for a better life in their own world.
They are the many faces that truly define this country.