I was sat on a large wicker chair in the rooftop café at my hotel in Shiraz where, in keeping with the Shirazi tradition, a group of guys next to me were reciting poetry. The scented smoke of a bubbling qaylan pipe twisted and turned on the blue tarpaulin above. Downstairs, in the courtyard restaurant, the voices of men and women competed with a cross-legged Kurdish chap in the corner, playing a sitar. Tourists and local men alike pulled chairs up to the tables of young women to chat, safely hidden from the gaze of the authorities outside. Spaces such as that hotel provide an environment of freedom in Iran. In here a woman’s headscarf can teeter tantalisingly close to sliding down the nape of her neck. In here each drag of her cigarette flies in the face of that deeply held taboo. In here large, brown eyes wandered and lingered.
The media representations of Iran in the West are strangulated and distorted both in their creation and at their reception; firstly by strict censorship and secondly through an editing process conforming to populist preconceptions. The fact that I was told to ‘keep my head down’ so many times before I went, betrays this. As, too, does the fact that I was nervous getting off the plane. In the West we are often told about how the actions of Ayatollah Khamenei and his inner circle of like-minded cronies go against our own interests. We are warned of the threat of nuclear weapons, of dodgy dealing, and of cyber-warfare. We are little enlightened, however, as to how the actions of the Iranian government may also go against the interests, or desires, of the Iranian people themselves.
The first impressions of Iran, as a lone traveller, can be a little overwhelming. Giant posters of Ayatollah Khamenei alongside his predecessor Ayatollah Khomeini, watch over busy junctions from the sweltering streets of Mashhad to the bitter roadsides of Tabriz. Endless rows of portraits of men and children (the latter of which were sometimes used to clear minefields) line the main roads of every town, commemorating the victims of the Iran-Iraq war and demonstrating the regime’s dedication to its people. The odd mural slanders Israel or the U.S.A. And the flag of the Islamic Republic is nothing but ubiquitous.
So, before your fears are inevitably allayed by the hospitality of the Persian people, you may be forgiven for conceding that the media representations you had come here to disseminate were perhaps true that the regime is, indeed, omnipotent and brutal. The latter: yes. But the regime is far from omnipotent. The government’s monopolisation of the public space in Iran is symptomatic of a Leader who is anxious about the proportion of the dissenting populace that give his iron grip the slip. The public space is otherwise vacuous; the real fibre of the modern Persian culture, and that which the West rarely glimpses, exists in the shadows.
To gain an understanding as to what happens when these underground philosophies, lifestyles and desires emerge into the light one need only refer to the atrocious government reaction to the Green Movement. In the eyes of the ruling authorities the core of this movement was rotten with wanton ideals. Not surprisingly, then, everyday acts of dissent, ranging from the minor to the relatively major remain veiled, occupying all those spaces into which the government cannot delve.
Different worlds, different personalities
These spaces of freedom take several forms. Playing a similar role to the aforementioned hotel restaurants are the myriad parks, shopping centres and cafés in the affluent areas of major cities where couples can saunter and socialise in secret. After dark, behind the closed-curtains of Tehran’s apartment blocks and in the deserts outside Kashan and Yazd, youthful parties flowing with black-market booze, MDMA, cocaine, marijuana, and casual sex spring to life. Yet, examples of dissent don’t have to be so extreme. A simple mobile phone offers a person access to Facebook and Twitter, both of which are currently blocked in the country. Indeed, many middle-aged men who I met would proudly scroll through their photographic stock of drink cabinets, scantily clad women and portraits of the last Shah.
On my second night in Iran I was invited to a party in a middle-class area of Tehran. Since we were a mixed gendered group with a foreigner (yours truly) in their midst, we had to be reasonably inconspicuous when we stepped out of the car and onto the street. As soon as we stepped over the threshold of the house, however, we were no longer in the Islamic Republic.
The hot, familiar breath of alcohol hung in the air, buoyed by the dense smoke of cheap cigarettes. The decision to max the volume was as bold as the dancing it elicited: both genders intertwined in that Persian style. I was naïve and nervous, initially, and peered around after every knock on the door as new guests arrived. It was only when the drunken host returned to tongue-in-cheek cheers of ‘you survived!’ after waving off some of his friends on the street outside that I relaxed. They were risking a lot more than me: jobs, possessions and freedom. I could do to take a pinch of courage from the group who had so gracefully welcomed me into their house, into the warmth of Persian hospitality, away from the frigid and stoic public space on the other side of their heavy, wooden door. The change of the host’s personality when he moved between the outside and the inside world to welcome guests sticks in my mind, though, and begs the question, which of these worlds is the real one?
One of my Iranian friends who is gay, and who I’ll call Ali, told me that if an Iranian denies having at least two lives they’re either lying or they’re boring. Ali existed in more worlds than anyone I else I met in Iran. In order to survive in a country where same-sex sexual activity is punishable by death he would adapt his personality in accordance with his environment. Ali had come out to his parents and to his close friends and while walking through the Northern districts of Tehran where the city’s mind is at its most open, he was unashamedly flamboyant. Likewise, when I spoke with Ali in the privacy of a drab hotel room in Esfahan he was free to confess his love for cocaine, to complain about the married man he was seeing at home in Tehran and to describe the ultra-secretive LGBT parties he’d been to. On the contrary, when we met for tea near the sprawling Bazaar, where government support is firm, he had to reel in his personality and joked, in hushed tones, that “these people would want to kill me if they knew I was gay”. Ali has two years of military service standing between him and a passport.
The very existence of these multi-faceted underworlds could be viewed not as a solution, then, but rather a symptom of the violence that the authorities are willing to carry out on their citizens. The Green movement of 2009-10 is perhaps the best recent example of a mass transition of the underground world into the public sphere. Faced with millions of protesters across the nation the Basij, the Revolutionary Guard and the police, under the orders of Ahmadinejad, clamped down on the simmering revolution. It was carried out with such ferocity that the regime was able to purge individuals from the masses and gather information on the mechanisms of the underworld during the time it was briefly exposed. Ali received threatening phone calls from anonymous officials for weeks afterwards.
Freedom, too, is punishable by death
Towards the end of my stay in Iran a man who I will call Mehdi took me to lunch in the Northern city Tabriz. He drove me to the outskirts and pulled off a motorway onto a track covered in loose rock, plastic bags and puddles of brown ice and slush. The restaurant, which could best be described as a Persian diner, was spacious. Young couples and student-types sat cross-legged on the raised booths that lined the walls. Between healthy drags of our qaylan pipe, and sips of sugary tea, Mehdi and I picked at some flatbread with kebab meat, fashioning small parcels with our forefinger and thumbs before rolling it into our mouths.
Passing me the qaylan, Mehdi told me how he and his girlfriend had joined the throngs of people in the Tabrizi streets each day during the Green Movement, impelled further by the knowledge that millions of Iranians were simultaneously doing the same. A few days into the protest, his girlfriend was shot and killed in the street by a member of the Basij. Naturally, Mehdi rushed to her side but was arrested at the scene. Before he even had time to digest what had happened, he found himself interned within the opacity of the regime itself. He was moved from holding cell to holding cell, before being shipped out the mountains along Iran’s frontier with Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan to serve out his punishment of two years forced military service. High in the crags of the Zagros Mountains, then, he was instructed to fight against the Kurdish militias: people who were, in his words, basically just villagers with no military training. “They would step out of cover, empty the clip from their AK47 towards the general area I was in, and then reload their weapon while still fully in the open, and bang, I shot them, it was awful”.
Mehdi fell silent for a while after that confession. He had already professed his desire for peace, democracy and harmony. For him, it was of the utmost importance that I understood that he was forced to fight against his will. And not only that, he was forced to fight for the regime who had killed his girlfriend for the sole purpose of making an example of her. Faced with such consequences, then, after briefly surfacing for air, the Iranian underground worlds fully retreated back into the shadows. Filling the bloodied void, the government enlarged its presence in the public realm a reminder to those who had any doubt as to where they lived.
Avoiding the glare
Now when you take a taxi from the airport, ginormous flags of the Islamic Republic line the motorway, twitching in the wind and occasionally revealing mark of the Tawhid. Colourful billboards encouraging pro-creation or offering out moral advice sit atop the concrete buildings like pious cherries on indifferent cakes. For if this omnipresence evokes the feeling of a divine surveillance, an Ayatollah who scours his land, then much of the Iranian public have long turned their backs to shield themselves from the glare. Individual realities and places of safety can be snuffed out if the establishment’s searchlight pierces the shadows.
And although a globalised and intellectual youth are constantly testing the boundaries of the public sphere in Iran, sometimes at a cost, the result of restricted and monitored progressiveness can leave real public life somewhat sterile. This is a space where people’s thoughts and people’s skin remain unexposed, where people lie to get by and where passive support for the regime is a survival technique.
A museum curator, having enthusiastically showed me the collection of artefacts, pulled me to one side and asked how he could get a job in Britain. Two local women I bumped into at the ruins of Persepolis, having asked me my opinion on Iran, told me how much they wanted to leave. This is not to say that there is no happiness. The people of Iran were the most hospitable, kind-hearted, generous and welcoming people I have ever come across in all of my travels. But to sample real happiness you must cross into the world of freedom that thrives in the nooks and crannies carved out of the Islamic Republic. Therein lies an intellectual, progressive but painfully excluded community of people who decide for themselves what to indulge in.
I wonder how long these communities can remain veiled, however. How long will it be before their world, and their blood, is spilled out before the government once again for the sake of freedom? For the sake of happiness?