The Islamic Republic of Iran (part 2): confounded expectations, from students to pimps

Two months to get a visa, worth every minute. In February 2011 I traveled to Iran. Sadly, little has changed geopolitically or for the Iranian people in the intervening years. Two years of sitting on my to-do list is embarrassing, and with me on a contested regions trip this week, I have dusted off the pictures and present The Islamic Republic of Iran. See also parts 1, 3, 4, and the photo album.

Shiraz is a historic city of poets, two of the most highly esteemed Persian poets, Sa’di and Hafez, both entombed there. The hotel was a pleasant compound in the old town and with the new guide’s recommendation, I tried a Persian restaurant with traditional music on offer. Aside from fast food pizza shops, restaurants in Iran seem few, typically in basement floors and not well labeled. This began a routine of delightful evenings of exploration to offsset relatively dull tour days.

Sharzeh Traditional Restaurant occupies two underground floors in square shape, the upper floor a thin perimeter of seats overlooking the stage below. I took one of these seats, and next to me were a late middle-age women and her daughter, which I will call M and Y rather than use their real names. M saw my difficulty with the menu and started helping me with pretty fair English. Her daughter, Y, is an classical art student with much better English and soon I spent the evening listening and learning from them about Iran and was surprised how much M brought up about the pre-revolution days, talking about how on her honeymoon she flew Iran Air to New York, spending six moths touring the US, how the scarves are so hot in summer and a nuisance, how she misses red wine (after all, sitting in the town of Shiraz, where now only the local Jewish population can make wine). Y was young when the revolution hit and it was so odd contrasting the mother’s very liberal experience of youth with the deeply conservative society her daughter knows. The father long since passed away, but they have enough resources to take holidays overseas and are well informed about the world. There is much wider freedom of movement overseas than I had assumed.

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Nothing at all the like lockdown in North Korea, and just as religion was not visually pervasive, other than the riot police on the first night, nothing I saw looked all that much different than other countries in the region. Lots of commerce, lots of traffic, lots of rundown buildings, lots of women pushing the fashion restrictions. Miles apart from media portrayal. If anything, Iran is rather mundane to visit. As my guide later said, “In Iran, everything is possible, but in private.” And depending on what you want to do, the police need to be bribed and often invited to participate!

Back to the restaurant, I was enthralled with the conversation and the festivities as the band played wedding tunes for a wedding bash on the lower floor (bride in bright red dress), while women made a loud trilling sound to show their enthusiasm. Families were out and having a great time.

Challenging preconceptions further, M and Y took me oout for a coffee at a sleek coffee shop with trendy (non-alcoholic, of course) drinks and a flashy, young crowd. Delicious coffee smoothie. On the way over, the taxi driver was listening to a shortwave with Persian broadcasts from overseas, reporting on the demonstrations that day, and he did not feel it dangerous to keep it on with strangers in the taxi.

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M and Y are from Tehran, there were only in Shiraz  for Y to take a university entrance exam because the prior year Ahmadinejad concocted some scheme to reduce student numbers in Tehran by moving schools and students to other cities. Y was sent to Shiraz and trying to get back to Tehran.  We agreed to meet at the end of the week back in Tehran.

It is foolhardy to make conclusions on one week, but it very much has a feel of China where I lived so long, where people are free to do quite a lot, and the government stays out of your hair unless you cross certain very clear lines, but if you cross those lines, there is no mercy.  There is even relative freedom of movement out of the country, with statistics confirming my anecdotal evidence that nearly everyone seems to have some relative who has gone overseas in pursuit of greater opportunity.  I do not want to downplay the brutality of the Iranian regime, and nearly everyone I talked to (obviously a self-selecting, English-speaking group) volunteered major dissatisfaction, but it is definitely not North Korea, and it has a seemingly reasonable, educated population that would like to get back to being a normal part of the world order.  The radicals that fill media reports seem a small and thuggish minority with a stranglehold on the state.

The next day was filled with parks, tombs and mosques, all aesthetically interesting but tedious to go into detail. All three of us in our group instead were fascinated with a group of school boys from a rural village outside Shiraz.  The boys reflected Iran’s wide ethnic diversity, from dark olive skin to pale white, and some of the greenest eyes any of us have seen. I would have loved to spend time throughout Iran and learn more of its peoples, such as the nomadic areas where the government fears to tread. In another cost-saving move the agency threw an Iranian newlywed couple in with us for the day, but they spoke some English, the wife a PhD scientist, and she even had pictures on her phone of her bachelorette party, sans head scarf, but would only show it to the woman in our group.

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On my own for dinner, I tried a workmanlike place with a lots of testosterone and kebabs but no English.

With so many different ethnicities, a fair number of people would ask me directions in Persian, but one chap, encountered after dinner, had some English and another agenda.

“What country are you?”

“United States.”

“What city?”

“Minneapolis.”

“Are you here as teacher or tourist?”

“Tourist.”

“Are you here with family or alone?”

“Alone.”

“Do you know what is dirrrk?” [sic]

“I think so.”

“Do you f***-ing?”

(Time to leave.)

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I guess every place has the ‘oldest profession.’  A few minutes later, though, outside the main mosque and bazaar, a headphone-wearing young man stopped me with the more typical topics, but in a fun way.  “Where are you from?”

“America.”

“What city please?”

“Minneapolis.”

“America. Los Angeles, my beautiful city. Washington, my beautiful city. New York. Michael Jackson, Metallica band (with air guitar strumming motion). Iran is a good country, a beautiful, big country.  Have a good night.”  And he was off.

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