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Mixed dancing at the marriage party
Joining a guest list of thousands at a four-day revolutionary wedding celebration in Iran

By Sharmilla Devi
Financial Times (London)
June 10, 2000, Saturday

The Iranian women crowded around me, fingering the silk drapes of my sari. "Where are you from? Are you married? Do you like Iran?" Echoing around us were the reverberating sounds of the drum and flute music. The women urged me to dance, dragging me before the musicians where wedding guests of both sexes had looped their fingers together to form concentric circles of movement.

Not since before the 1979 revolution had the people of Loristan seen such a scene. Men and women dancing together, on the streets, head scarves falling awry. The Basiji volunteer militia, which used to be vigorous in upholding Islamic, modest modes of behaviour, would have been furious.

Upstairs in the house where the main wedding celebrations were taking place, at least on this particular day, a handful of men were huddled together for the ritualistic manoeuvres involved in the burning and inhaling of opium. Beer and vodka were also available.

Between 2,000 and 3,000 people attended the wedding of my Iranian friends, spread out over four days of hard partying in the mountains of this western province, towards the Iraqi border, where the people are a mixture of Persians, Kurds, Laks and Lors.

The food was of gargantuan proportions: 60 sheep (many of which were slaughtered before my eyes), 500 chickens, half a tonne of rice, 200kg of sweets, 200kg of fruit, 60 litres of vodka (homemade) and seven cases of beer (smuggled from Turkey) - all in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

"We have more freedom here than you do in the west," the bridegroom told me proudly. At that moment, on the third day of celebrations, it was hard to dispute this. We were in a huge convoy of at least 70 vehicles making our way from the bride's home to the bridegroom's village, set high in the snow-capped Zagros mountains.

The convoy had stopped on the border between the terrain of rival tribes after a perilous journey on steep, winding roads. But the break was also to enable the groom to greet members of his tribe who came to meet us on horseback, firing Kalashnikov rifles into the air.

The men, women, children and musicians who had been packed into the assortment of vans and cars poured out and up the hills for a deeply moving and impromptu dance. The musicians took up their beat again and women ululated.

I was urged up on to a horse with only a blanket as a saddle, the men refusing to acknowledge my lack of horsemanship. I promptly fell off.

Eventually, we set off again and arrived in the village of about a dozen houses in a small valley of green wheatfields and apple orchards set among the mountains. The bride rushed off for at least her third change of outfit so far. She shed her white, satin bridal gown for a traditional, Lori outfit - a glittering long green dress and waistcoat of silver coins with an abundance of hair toppling from the headscarf that was wrapped around, not over, her head.

She and her new husband posed for countless photographs, clutching a Kalashnikov rifle, which I later fired for myself in a valley already echoing with gunfire.

Women were at the forefront throughout the celebration, chador or no chador. They urged on the dancing, particularly the flirting, and distributed the food. As my headscarf toppled off repeatedly, the women took pity on me and allowed me to dispense with it altogether.

It was only later that I was able to gain any sense of the fierce anti-western sentiment that was unleashed by the 1979 Islamic revolution. In Tehran, the walls of the old US embassy, which had once housed 52 hostages for more than a year, are still covered with fantastic murals depicting fanciful images of the "Great Satan", including a picture of the Statue of Liberty with a skull for a face.

Such views are also to be found in the newspapers and, of course, among the mullahs. But people told me that reforms led by President Mohammad Khatami would surely win out.

Back in the village, we sat around as the groom finally relaxed after having narrowly averted a mini riot at lunchtime because of the lateness of the food. Sitting with us was his sister and her husband. The husband told us how, 30 years earlier, she had been offered to him as a wife in settlement of a family feud in which his father had been shot in the leg.

And had this long-married couple enjoyed the wedding? Very much, they said. Only last night they had made love, she said, at which point the husband grasped his wife to him for a great, slobbering kiss.


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