Into the Belly of the Beast (II)


TEHRAN – (Continued from Part I) Maryam and Shohreh* led me to the buzzing courtyard of Café Gallery, which was, by all appearances, a little nugget of modern Europe grafted onto what was already the most Western part of Iran. It was all clean, minimal lines in there, somewhat over-designed, and mixed tables of 20- and 30-somethings talked and smoked and picked over frou-frou salads to the accompaniment of LCD Soundsystem’s latest long-player. I realized then just how quiet the country had been up to that point: there’d been very little music played in public, and if the country had a soundtrack it would be the muted noise of traffic, clanking cutlery, and the muezzin’s call to prayer. Here in the Café Gallery, things were very different, and it was jolting.

Western-style brunch featured heavily on the menu. Trying to blend in, I ordered a cappuccino and a carbonated mineral water. The waitress, who seemed to be a well-known eccentric among this North Tehran crowd, didn’t bat an eyelash at that and promptly returned with my drinks. The cappuccino was perfectly executed – they even made a heart-shaped pattern in the foam and included the little cookie on the side, which I genuinely appreciated after the raw approach to coffee preparation all across the Caucausus – and while the water wasn’t quite up to the standard of a Hungarian Theodora or a Serbian Knjaz Miloš or even a Georgian Borjomi, it was still pretty good. (You can take the boy out of the farm and all that, but you can’t stop him becoming a mineral water snob.) I leaned back with my Euro-drinks to survey the scene and it felt off-kilter, like I was somehow bending the laws of space and time. This wasn’t the Iran you read about in the news.

The downtown branch of Café Gallery

Maryam and Shohreh made great company. Multilingual, secular, university-educated, and career-oriented, they were the very picture of liberal Iranian youth (and there’s no shortage of youth here, with 70% of the population under the age of 30.) Our conversation slid from weighty matters of the day to a rundown on all the scandals happening within those café circles: which waiter or waitress had hooked up with whom, who was married but had something going on the side, and so on. Pretty juicy stuff. I’ll confess to being a little distracted, though. After barely a week in the Islamic Republic, I was stunned when a girl seated nearby suffered a headscarf malfunction, and as she took her sweet time putting it back on I got an eyeful of long, lustrous blonde hair. Meanwhile, she’d rolled up the full-length sleeves of her manteau – it was still hot outside, even in those hills – which resulted in a shocking display of forearm. The compulsory hejab rules in Iran neatly invoke the law of unintended consequences: they manage to somehow eroticize a woman’s elbows, thus making the entire country a very sexy place indeed. I learned that many women here ditch the Muslim duds whenever the coast is clear, and sometimes even when it’s only partly clear, and in the semi-enclosed space of that café they subtly waged a war of attrition against the heavy-handed forces of reaction. I, for one, was rooting for the underdog.

Shohreh then related a story about her vacation a few summers ago up in the town of Nowshahr, on the Caspian Sea, with her sister, her sister’s boyfriend, and a few others. They’d been walking across a park one day when one of the notorious morality police vans pulled up, and out sprang a pair of cops – state-operated party-poopers, essentially, who rove the streets looking for any unfortunate souls whose morals are visibly polluted by Western influences. The fuzz demanded to know the relationships between the men and women in the group, none of whom, of course, were married or related to one another. A bribe of $150 worth of rial was offered, which isn’t exactly chump change in Iran, and when the cops’ demands for more cash couldn’t be met, a ruckus ensued, out came the cuffs, and they hauled Shohreh downtown. After two days of languishing in a cell with some pretty shady characters, she was summarily tried, convicted of publicly consorting with unrelated members of the opposite sex, and sentenced. Punishment was swift. She was led into a cell where a burly, whip-wielding woman in a black chador stripped her naked and lashed her twenty times, from the back of the neck to the back of the ankles, drawing blood with each stroke. She was then released — not before a prison guard snidely observed “Guess you won’t do that again!” — and she made her way back to Tehran in tears. It was a full week before she could sit down or sleep on her back. “I decided then,” Shohreh said, “to leave Iran as soon as I could.” No kidding.

She leaned back and sipped on her Diet Coke while I digested the story I’d just heard. What I’d seen of the country didn’t feel like a medieval backwater at all, and I struggled to square the circle of how this sort of thing could have become an everyday occurrence in such a pleasant place. Iran, as we all know, frequently makes the front pages for its public lashings and hand-amputations and, most controversially, stonings, a practice reserved exclusively for women accused of adultery. (All the while, the government in Tehran, wearing its best straight face, routinely makes bids to chair UN conferences on women, human rights, and the like.) It makes for appalling reading, but these things always seem to happen to some sorry and benighted people out in some far-flung desert, and I’ll confess to usually filing it away under “stuff that doesn’t affect me personally” before switching to the sports section to read about the Leafs’ latest miraculous two-game winning streak. It was discomfiting, to say the least, to hear it from an actual person sitting in front of me — a person who still had scars on her back — and in such familiar surroundings. It was only here, in one of the Axes of Evil’s more notorious hipster enclaves, and not out in some less happening corner of the country, where I was finally shaken out of my complacency. Which invites the question of why that distinction should even matter, and of course it shouldn’t, but fact is, it’s normal to empathize more with those you can relate to. And, as a typical comfy Western tourist blundering his way across Iran, I wasn’t prepared to hear a five-foot, hundred-pound girl with impeccable taste in music casually describe being whipped in a torture chamber.

Maryam and Shohreh: Enemies of the state

Most of the women I met in Iran had found themselves in the back of the bad-girl van at least once in their lives, although Shohreh’s ordeal was more unpleasant than most. (Offenders usually just have to spend an afternoon in custody, pay an exorbitant fine, and they’re free to go.) But ever since Mahmoud Ahmajinedad came to power in 2005 with the backing of conservative clerics, there had been a clampdown on the enforcement of hejab dress and deportment, and Iranian women appeared to be constantly looking over their shoulders. The overall effect was of witnessing the infantilization of grown adults. The country was like one vast, horribly strict boarding school, one that, instead of mandating that hemlines end below the knee, went ahead and banned skirts outright. They’ve banned shorts on men, too. Earlier in the week, a hotel concierge had panicked and run after me when I, clad in my finest grease-stained cargo shorts and carrying my pitiful bag of tools, was on my way out to tinker on the Vespa in the courtyard. “Your knees!” he cried. “Your knees!” Frankly, I was flattered by the attention. I never knew my knees possessed such dangerously sensual power.

Those of us from North America are both blessed and cursed with a short historical memory. We have this habit of assuming societies get more permissive over time — and if you can only reach back a hundred years or so into the sepia-toned fog, it’s true, we behave with reckless abandon compared to people back then. I know I’m not alone when I feel this is part of the inexorable march of progress; we’re wired to believe that kids behave worse and worse with each passing year, and that’s just how it goes. Who knows what kinds of revealing clothes our grandchildren will be wearing, and what crazy music they’ll be listening to, and what horrible things they’ll be getting up to in public? Whatever it is, I’m sure I won’t like it.

Which is what makes a visit to Iran so discombobulating: you get to see a society, once ruled by a liberal-minded overclass, that’s actually gone backwards. It’s easy to forget how recently things here changed. Back in 1978, as far as the CIA was concerned, Iran “was is not in a revolutionary or even a pre-revolutionary situation.” Jimmy Carter had been in office for a year, a little movie called Star Wars was in theatres, and Boney M’s Nightflight to Venus was riding high at Number 1 in the charts. Meanwhile in Tehran, ordinary women were parading around like this:

Before the revolution, the wearing of even a token nod to sharia law — like a simple headscarf — was banned in schools, and girls from conservative families could be seen putting their scarves back on as they left class and headed home for the day. A few decades further back, during the reign of the previous Shah’s father, there was, briefly, a total ban on public hejab, and police ran around arresting daringly modest women for covering up. (A hell of a job, but somebody had to do it.) It’s a curious inversion of the situation today in Iran.

My education in the excesses of today’s Iranian security apparatus continued. Now, when you visit Iran, you’ll invariably hear a lot about the Basij. In the early 1980s, half a million members of this perfervidly religious young people’s militia, fanatically loyal to the Ayatollah, were sent to fight the invading Iraqis as human mine-clearers and cannon fodder. Nowadays, though, the organization has evolved into a sort of plainclothes police force, and its members — some recruited as young as 12 — spend much of their time confiscating satellite dishes, breaking up house parties, and so on. You can see them riding two-up around town on little Hondas, wearing their trademark five-day stubble, long-sleeved shirts, and not-so-stylish utility vests from the L.L. Bean catalogue. And few people have anything good to say about them, including this correspondent. (A pair of Basiji hassled me on last day in Tehran as I rode my bike out of the hotel’s parking lot, asking first for my papers and then what I was really doing in their country. They made it clear that they could, and should, arrest me for something, because something sure did smell fishy about me. Eventually they let me go on my way.) Another Tehran native I met later, Farideh, recommended a tough-minded approach to dealing with them, and she gave me the lowdown on all the other, less salubrious activities the Basij are involved in nowadays. If her stories are to believed, these warriors of Allah have the domestic market in Afghan heroin and Ukrainian hookers all wrapped up.

Farideh: dishing the dirt on Iran's heavily-armed Boy Scouts

Maryam and Shohreh, no fans of the Basij themselves, told the story of their time in last year’s post-election protests, in which millions had taken to the streets amid widespread allegations of electoral fraud. The details as I remember them are sketchy, but here goes: protest organizers furiously twittering on their phones had, at one point, corralled undercover demonstrators, including the girls, into a large Tehran mosque, and many of the assembled weren’t the least bit religious and had no idea what to do in there. Once the jig was up, it degenerated into a melee which then spilled onto the square outside. Later on, Basij snipers, lured from the distant countryside with the promise of a few hundred bucks, did the dirty work of firing indiscriminately into the crowds from surrounding rooftops, while riot police closer to the centre of the action made sure the water in their high-pressure cannons was close to boiling. As protests continued in the following days, Basij motorcyclists armed with batons and, occasionally, sidearms, beat whichever demonstrators were unlucky enough to be isolated from larger groups, and in some cases shot them. By the time the fracas wound down, dozens had been killed and many times more than that injured. Hundreds more protesters summarily arrested by the Basij remain in Tehran’s Evin Prison, which makes Abu Ghraib look like Romper Room, to this day. This was what Maryam and Shohreh were up against in the summer of 2009.

Are these guys dicks or what?

I asked them what they felt had become of the abortive Green Revolution after the dust had settled, whether or not they thought that summer would see a repeat anytime soon. Their answer: an unequivocal no. A vast cross-section of Iranian society, from North Tehran liberals to disaffected clerics to, increasingly, provincial conservatives had, for the first time, made very clear their dissatisfaction with the results of the 1979 revolution in general and the government of Mahmoud Ahmajinedad in particular. Fat lot of good that did; reform-minded Green Movement leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi’s opposition remains as marginalized as ever, and the regime is back to business-as-usual, albeit more spooked and paranoid than before.

But your average man on the street hasn’t been cowed into silence. While riding in a battered, packed-to-the-gills private taxi later that week, the conversation among five complete strangers turned to an animated group bitch session (in English, for my convenience) about Ahmajinedad, with my fellow passengers emphatically distancing themselves from this embarrassment who was “not a real Persian.” I heard the exact same line from other locals, from the friendly oil & gas engineer whom I asked for directions (and who insisted on walking me where I was going) to the guy who sold me sparkplugs and 2-stroke motor oil down at the Grand Bazaar. It betrayed a whiff of the famous Iranian superiority complex: no way could this clown Mahmoud be of the same civilization that produced Xerxes and Cyrus the Great. And far be it for me to begrudge them this. But for now, people seem content to just blow off steam and leave it at that — and with good reason. “The government has guns,” Maryam said, reducing the problem to its essence, “And we don’t.”

Maryam, like Shohreh and millions of other young Iranians, would jump at the chance to emigrate to North America or Europe or Australia. Which apparently suits the government just fine, given how much of a headache its educated classes have been over the last three decades. There isn’t much of a place for them in modern Iran, where an open mind is a liability and the lives they wish to lead have necessarily retreated into the confines of their homes — a sphere that, as yet, hasn’t been completely overtaken by the state. The lure of money and creature comforts abroad doesn’t play into it much, either. Floating as it is on a sea of oil, the country is in no way a “failed state.” While its people are generally not that well-off, generating something in the neighbourhood of Romania’s per-capita GDP, there remains a culture of general competence in the humdrum business of running a country. The roads are good, public transit is efficient, garbage gets collected, and the power stays on. There are no feral dogs running around, and a creaking social security system ensures that nobody starves. Nosejobs remain a priority for many. The biggest threat to public health, apart from the way they drive, appears to be the onset of Type-2 diabetes from all that sugar they eat. This isn’t North Korea.

"Bummer about our inalienable human rights. But on the upside, I think your schnozz will turn out great!"

No, what animates Maryam and others like her is right there in a throwaway comment she had made earlier in our conversation: “We are not free.” I stifled an instinctive, and shameful, giggle when she said that. It sounded so hokey. This word “free” is usually deployed with airborne quotation marks around it, and I couldn’t remember the last time I heard it said in earnest. We Westerners live in a privileged world where we can take the Jeffersonian ideal of freedom and ironize all the meaning out of it, and then go on to doubt its very foundations. That, in essence, is a form of freedom, when you think about it. But I’ll go one further and suggest that freedom might be better defined in the negative: going for a walk in the park, for example, without fear of being flogged until you bleed.

I’VE BEEN A LAZY TOURIST LATELY, and didn’t go out of my way to see many of the sights in Tehran. I spent much of my time there trying to find out where a few gremlins were lurking in the Hamburglar, and without much success. But I also took the time to relax and just chill for a few days — long-haul touring on a Vespa, it turns out, really takes it out of you. One pleasant discovery was the nearby downtown branch of the aforementioned Café Gallery, found in the top floor of an arts complex behind the former U.S. Embassy on Taleghani street. Someone’s thrown a lot of money at the place, with well-manicured gardens all around and people playing badminton in the sun among the sculpted hedges. To get there, though, you’ve got to take a long walk around the well-fortified wall surrounding the sprawling property from which the U.S. ran the country as a virtual client state prior to 1979, and inside which Islamist students held 52 Americans for over a year during the Iran hostage crisis. The new regime, being a sore winner, thought it wise to plaster all of its surfaces with the most thuddingly obvious propaganda imaginable. You’re not supposed to take pictures, which is strange, because propaganda is meant to be seen. Maybe they’re just embarrassed at how bad it is. Either which way, it’s an insult to the intelligence of the minds it’s meant to indoctrinate.

Get it? Liberty is, like, dead. It's deep, man.

That's funny -- I'm down with the USA too!

Then you round the corner and pop in to the café, which features actual thought-provoking works by local artists on its walls, and tuck in to a decent omelette. The lady running the place loves Leonard Cohen, whose albums get played front-to-back all afternoon long. If the powers-that-be weren’t such artless buffoons, they’d probably shut the joint down for playing such beautifully subversive music. This was still a country where every shop and office and bank and school prominently featured the portrait of a man who, as Christopher Hitchens put it, “gave Salman [Rushdie’s] book The Satanic Verses the single worst review any novelist has ever had, calling in frenzied tones for his death and also for the killing of all those involved in its publication.” Or, to put it more flatly, the Ayatollah Khomenei “offered a large sum of money, in his own name, in public, to suborn the murder of a writer of fiction who was not himself an Iranian.” That places like the Café Gallery even exist here is a wonderful testament to some Iranians’ insistence that, among other things, the fatwah was bullshit, and that there is a larger world outside, and it is big and unimaginably varied, and no, there are no absolute truths. What’s more, with a (regrettably virgin) Bloody Mary in hand, you can sit in the sun there overlooking the grounds of the old embassy and enjoy a convincing simulacrum of a Montreal brunch. I went there every day.

My new friend Yusef was in town for a few days, and he dropped by for a bite. In typical Yusef fashion — which is to say, in typical Persian fashion — he insisted on adopting me for the day and helping me get my chores done. He dragged me long distances all over town finding odds and ends for my Vespa, and was indefatigable in this, brushing aside my profuse thanks like really, it was nothing. Later we went to say hello to a friend of his who ran an insurance company and was working on the weekend, which of course involved yet more tea and the ingestion of about a thousand calories’ worth of the weird but delicious desserts that Iranians always seem to have at the ready. Afterwards, before I said goodbye, we rode the bright and clean and fast Tehran metro back to my hotel. As requested by my friend Chris, who has a thing for public transit, I got a picture.

After dilly-dallying in Tehran several days longer than I’d planned, I plotted my route southwards. I’d ride to the holy city of Qom before jogging southeast towards Esfahan, which is allegedly the most beautiful city in Iran. It wasn’t a huge distance, but I wanted to go easy on my still-temperamental bike. The next day, I loaded up the Vespa and eased it out into the Tehran traffic. After a week in the city, I’d ridden quite a few of its streets, and my GPS unit faithfully recorded every lip-biting minute of it.

My GPS unit wasn’t so faithful in directing me out of town, though. South-central Tehran features several spaghetti junctions of highway, none of which are particularly well signposted in either Persian or Latin script, and I went from exit to exit trying to find the goddamn highway to Qom. Eventually I found myself on what I thought was the right 6-lane road, and cruised along in 3rd gear in thick traffic heading southeast. Ahead of me was a truck, which obscured the view ahead. As I crossed an intersection doing maybe 50km/h, the surface of the bone-dry pavement beneath me was replaced by water, under several inches of which the pavement suddenly felt quite bumpy. And then the horizon abruptly rotated 90 degrees counterclockwise.

I wasn’t expecting that, and basically froze, staying with the bike in a riding position as it and my helmet and my armoured riding jacket scraped along on their sides. Both myself and the Vespa came to a stop facing the direction in which we’d come, and I saw the grille of the car a few metres behind me lurch downwards as its driver braked hard. I instantly sprang up, did a quick check to make sure no bones were broken, then picked up my bike and walked it to the curb where I frantically checked for damage. Amazingly, aside from a bent mirror and scraped windshield and kickstarter, nothing was too out of shape. The crash bars I’d installed for purely cosmetic reasons did their job. I then must’ve looked like an irate cartoon character in fast-forward as I paced around looking for somebody other than myself to blame, and discovered the source of the treacherous puddle: some city worker had been meant to be watering the plants lining the avenue, but he stood there holding a hose watering the asphalt instead. It hadn’t rained in quite some time, and he’d done a good job of getting weeks of leaked motor oil to rise to the road surface. I had a few choice words with him until a policeman, who’d seen the whole thing, walked over and tried to calm me down. Oh shit, I thought, the cops. These are the guys in Iran you’re supposed to be afraid of.

The cop sat me down on the curb, and didn’t ask me for my papers, or ask where I was from, or what I was doing in Iran. He was more interested in seeing if I was injured, and whether or not I needed to go to the hospital. After we established that all I’d suffered was a bruised hip and some shredded underwear — mysteriously, my trousers were perfectly intact — we went over to check on my bike, which started on the first kick. The steering, brakes, gearbox, fuel flow, everything was in working order. Satisfied that both I and my Vespa were good to go, he extended his hand, and I shook it.

He smiled. “Welcome to Iran,” he said.

I got on my bike and carefully, slowly, made my way towards Qom.

*I’ve changed the names of people in this post, for obvious reasons.


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