Traveling to Iran after twelve years
Part Two of three
By Laleh Khalili
Observations in Tehran
Tehran is not as you remember it. Even in the early morning darkness, the streets are not as you remember. The highways (which you don't recall from before) have actual signs which direct you in the direction of streets and squares. The driving, though, is exactly as you remember it. The lane demarcations seem to be taken as optional guidelines, as heavy trucks (at this time of night, there aren't many personal cars on the road) weave merrily on the road.
In those few minutes on the way home you are told that Tehran's mayor has done much for the city, that he has created cool oases of parks and fountains all over the city, and that he has expanded the highway system to prevent the further deterioration of Tehran's notorious traffic. In the days to follow, you hear much about him, this mayor and his amazing city-planning initiatives, while the older monarchist acquaintances grumble that he has only put in place plans drawn up during the Shah's reign. No matter. The city actually has great roads, and you manage to see beautiful and well-landscaped green spaces even in Southern Tehran.
In the days to follow, in your Tehran portion of the trip, you want to see the city: the north and the south, the "modern" and the traditional. You often have to ask or utter the "old" - meaning the pre-revolutionary - name of the streets and squares in order to convey your destination. The city early in the mornings is majestic. You had forgotten the awesome spectacle of living at the foot of towering barren folds of earth arising so high to the heavens so near the city. The city sits in a valley, and the smog and the dry heat cling to the bottom of the valley. The polluted air of Tehran does not give you headaches as reported, though as the day progresses, the haze of pollution gradually renders the Alborz mountains invisible.
Amazingly, you find Tehran and New York alike in many ways. The traffic, the urbanity, the rush of people, and the fearless taxi-drivers of Tehran remind you of New York. You had expected some level of isolation from the world, but all the Western products you can imagine can be found somewhere in Tehran, and if the original can not be found, Iranians are creative people. You see more fake Chanel purses and Gucci scarves than sold on the streets of New York. At the Tehran bazaar you find that you can buy Adidas, Boss, and Nike clothing labels by the yard. All sorts of perfumes can be found on the wide and glorious Champs-Elysees of Tehran, the Vali-e-Asr street (formerly Pahlavi). The perfumes are incredibly expensive (even for those with dollars) and you are told that they have been diluted with water or else are extremely old.
The video stores have American movies which are only a few months old and dubbed. You see an original version of "Terminator 2" at a relative's house. One early morning, your uncle shows you the forest of illegal Iranian-made satellite dishes hidden behind bamboo curtains (haseers), sheets and air-conditioning units on the rooftops and balconies. The efforts of the government to protect the nation against the cultural corruption transmitted by the demonic satellites seem to have come to naught. Your Tehrani relatives know more about the Iranian expatriate musicians in Los Angeles and a number of Western musicians than you could ever hope to know.
On the back streets of Tehran, next to the sayings of Imam Khomeini rendered in beautiful calligraphy and the censored anti-regime slogans, you see a war of words between "W.A.S.P" (the American heavy metal band) and "RAP" (the symbol of all things American). The spray-painted peace symbol abounds on the high walls. The teenage boys who dress in baggy clothes and have longer locks and rebellious attitudes are called "Rap kids." But there are other men in Tehran. And you find them fierce and hungry. This fierceness perhaps comes from the economic hardships, the uncertain future, the 18 years of self-imposed and U.S.-imposed austerity, the repression of any individualistic activity which can be construed as a symptom of Occidentosis (gharbzadegi).
These men with their high cheekbones, their lean looks, and their curious eyes (you often wonder "Do I LOOK like I have come from another continent?") appear to you more beautiful than you remember. It can also be the heat, the exhaustion, and the desire-inducing nature of prohibition. You are afraid that after 12 years you are sentimentalizing them, that you are creating an image in your mind which has little to do with reality. You find it incredibly attractive that these men "read" for god's sake; that they argue about politics in that same passionate personal way that you were taught to argue; that like you, what happens in the rest of the world matters to them.
In the taxi cabs of Tehran, in the small, all-purpose, inevitable, eternal Paykan automobiles (an Iranian-assembled version of the English Hillman), where five passengers plus the driver are the necessary norm, you sit close to these men, you breathe in their cumin and sandalwood smells, you eavesdrop on their conversations, and you smile at the irony of having to wear a veil to prevent a man's temptation "by the rays emanating from your hair" while so closely sitting next to him, a total stranger, in a cab. The religius leader - Imam Jom'e - of Shiraz wanted to do away with mixed taxi-cabs, but was not successful.
The women of Iran are something else altogether. You try to look at them through your Iranian eyes, through your American eyes, through eyes untainted by nationality and bias, and either way you find them all, collectively, beautiful. It could be the makeup. They must have learned how to apply their makeup from the latest fashion magazines. Several times, upon commenting on the women's flawless complexions, you are corrected by a female relative. Most Iranian women color their hair (and want to know if you color yours). All shades of wine, mahogany, wheat, and coffee peek insolently from the colorful scarves, tied strategically to reveal the bangs. The coats worn to cover the curves are certainly not as simple as yours: they are light in color or striped or bedecked with large ornamental buttons and clasps.
You hear that coats with "bat wings" similar to the Arab abaye are the latest rage in Tehran. And when you compare your comfortable and practical shoes with their sexy, latest-fashion chunky summer shoes or delicate open-toed sandals, you definitely feel frumpy. Your relatives even insist on taking you to Vali-e-Asr to buy new shoes, and you buy a gorgeous pair which makes you feel like an Italian starlet, at the cost of 9,000 tomans (which is the black market equivalent of $19).
You also learn that an Islamic version of feminism thrives in Iran, that a group of ferocious and learned women are using the Holy Qor'an and the Hadith - the Prophet's sayings - to battle a patriarchal system reinforced by the laws of the land. These women have been candidates and members of the Majles (parliament), written for women's magazines, spoken out from the theater and television screens, and fought their silent and nearly-invisible war with a grace and courage you find admirable and infuriating at once. You want them to raise their voice, to be more impudent and assertive; but you are also painfully aware that by choosing to live abroad you have subtracted your voice from theirs, and that your opinion is issued from the safety of distance.
You read an article in a progressive magazine which teaches you that the Iranian Constitution is deliberately vague about whether a woman can become president; however, there is little doubt that she can become a vali-e-faghih (the jurist guardian). Television shows and newspaper articles promote the right to a just and fair divorce for women, and everywhere, the women you meet ask you about what the rights of women are in the United States. They also want to know if you want to marry, if you want to have children, how far do you want to go with your career; but mostly whether you feel safe living in New York. When you tell them that you are in no hurry to get married, that you feel quite safe in New York, that you have no fears (you later revise this statement to say you fear nothing except for Iranian motorcycle drivers), they smile at you benignly and with unbelieving eyes. A couple of your nosy (fozul) female relatives want to know if you have a boyfriend, and if a girl can "remain a girl" in the vast den of sins the United States is said to be.
Everyone wants to know if the United States is "better" or Iran, and you leave this question largely unanswered, because you, yourself do not know the answer. There are other signs of the progress in what is traditionally known to be women's issues: graphically illustrated and well-placed billboards on the streets sternly warn against large families and the cost of supporting many children. The women who are guardians of other women's virtues and the hejab (the coverings of body and hair) are polite and smiling, the diametric opposite of your very own personal memories. During your stay, a woman is appointed vice president to the newly-elected President Khatami, and some of your female relatives are quick to point out that the United States has never had a female vice president.
You observe marked generational changes in the popular attitudes toward the role of women in the violence perpetrated against them. During your stay, a serial killer who raped, mutilated, murdered and burnt nine women is publicly executed by hanging. This generates a healthy debate in your family about violence against women: While your older female relatives still believe that "if a women were pure, she would never be the object of rape, abduction and violence," the younger generation of women in your family is fiercely opposed to these ideals. Since you rudely take the side of your younger cousins, the conversation ends abruptly, and you realize that old attitudes are hard to change.
This sense of futility is reinforced when during your stay at one of your relatives' apartment, you hear the wrenching and painful thuds, screams, and wails of domestic abuse on the floor above, and you realize that despite their distaste, your relatives do not intervene. You also learn that the patterns of domestic abuse here are different than those in the West: in those families in which this type of violence is manifested, all members of family (including the women and the grown children) engage in violence against each other. As far as you know, there are no laws against domestic abuse; your relatives point out that even the United States did not have such laws until 10 or 15 years ago.
During your stay in Tehran, you insist on visiting the bookstores near Enghelab Square (formerly 24 Esfand) and the University of Tehran. You are shocked to find befittingly tacky translations of books by Grisham, Chricton, Danielle Steele, and the new age guru Coelho on sale. Deeply disappointed, you always find the Iranian modern literature section smaller than the translations section, and the Iranian books seem to be mostly the same ones you recall from before. Also glancing through the books of modern poets whose names you do not recognize, you are saddened by their dry and unoriginal phrasing, shortage of imagination or space in which they are allowed to imagine. On the other hand, you find an abundance of "historic novels," books of history, and theological and philosophical writings. The books of Abdolkarim Soroush - who in the Middle Eastern Studies circles of the West has become a symbol of dissent in Iran - are freely available everywhere, and frankly it seems like he is not as famed or revered in Iran as he is in the West.
While Iranian modern writers may not be faring well, the filmmakers are. You find it quite ironic, however, that those Iranian filmmakers who are so canonized in the West, the ones who have won the Cannes Film Festival Palm-de-Or and are shown in New York City theaters, do not have large audiences in Iran, while the more popular and mediocre that deal with themes of war, deceit, betrayal and bloody mayhem sell tickets at the same speed the comparable films do in the United States. Just as you remember from long ago and from the United States of present time, the general audiences recognize the names of the actors and the actresses, not the directors. Many of the Iranian films shown abroad are banned at home anyway.
In preparation for your trip to Shiraz, you attempt to overcome all your expectations. Tehran was not as you remembered it. Will Shiraz be?
* Also by Laleh Khalili:
- Loving an Iranian man