Take a break

Kuhsar Restaurant in Darband, in the clean, clear northern suburbs of Tehran at the foot of the magnificent Alborz mountains, has a reservation policy rivaling that of the chic restaurants in New York. Well, maybe you don't have to wait six months to get in, but you cannot walk in from the streets and expect to get a table, and to get a “good” table – one near the small stage in the upper level of the restaurant – you have to beg, call long ahead of time, or perhaps grease the palm of someone in charge.

The restaurant is supposedly in the “traditional style”, which means that instead of a modern decor, it has Qalamkar curtains and tablecloth and a few “antique” knickknacks hanging on the walls alongside the requisite hagiographic photograph of Khomeini and Khamenei. The food is exquisitely mediocre and amazingly expensive (6,000 tomans per course – which is approximately $8 per person or one-fifth of the monthly salary of an ordinary government employee). But you don't go for the food; you go for “the scene” and you pay for the entertainment. And you cannot BELIEVE the entertainment: three courses of full-blown dance music (though NO ONE is allowed to dance) and so popular too!

The first course of music is the indispensable house band with full Iranian orchestra and a spaced out front-man/singer in a maroon jacket and black pants who sang the ever-so-popular songs by the Los Angeles-style Iranian singers. The songs are not the weepy-style ones on the state radio and TV stations, but the semi-banned and banned music of exile singers who cause a swinging of the foot and rocking of the body-in an imitation of dance.

Through the whole set, I watch Lukas, my visiting Czech friend, and I gauge the degree of the singer's chemical alteration by the extent to which his eyes are drooping and his hands are squeezed shut or twitching. So, through the first act, we partake of the tasteless salad, cup after cup of tea brought over by the excellent waiters (in traditional servants' dress), of the superb buttermilk, and of the garlic-yogurt.

After a short break, the most amazing music act goes on. Two drop-dead gorgeous, tall, dark and handsome men in identical black pants and white shirts go on the stage, one with a santoor (dulcimer) and the other with a daf (a piece of skin pulled upon a wooden, two feet in diameter). And the two begin the best live act I have seen in Iran. They both play with closed eyes and with such utter focus that one cannot help but fall silent in deference and interest. They approach a state of rapture, playing the simple music of Iran, that which tastes of traditional village weddings, of the ecstatic rhythm of old Ashura mourning ceremonies (where the mourner beat their chests in unison and in time with the mournful and solitary sound of daf), of the henna-painting feasts before weddings, of circumcision celebrations, of all those occasions for gathering and socializing which the “educated” and “sophisticated” set in urbane and urban areas find so distasteful.

The daf-player, Reza Darbandi, is a particularly breathtaking musician and performer. The repetition of the rhythm and the recurrence of the percussive background, that which brings ecstatic “passion” as part of the most fundamental customs of all nations, brings him to lose himself utterly to the music, circling the daf and throwing it in the air, catching it, caressing it, all the while his fingers finding little pause from their frenzied drubbing upon the skin of the daf. They play for nearly an hour and leave the stage to the obvious disappointment of the crowd.

Then the food is brought and in the short space between the second and third acts, I check out the crowd which is decidedly up-market. The men, if they are younger, have carefully coiffed hair and the requisite fake (or real) Polo and Hilfiger on. If they are older, they are generally in suit and tie, clean shave, and smelling decidedly of cologne. The women are to die for! The amount of makeup and hair dye in the room is sure to have made a thousand Revlons and Lancomes happy. The scarves are small, colorful, and thin, carefully placed at the crown of the head to reveal bangs, puffed and coiffed in copper and bronze and wine and every shade but black. And the clothes, oh, the clothes! Under fur coats and chic raincoats, there is an abundance of bare ankles in sling-back shoes – though earlier it had snowed outside. A large number of women are in cigarette-thin pants and slit-side tunics in bright colors and very un-Islamic shapes. The necessary group-female-visits to the restroom are without exception to replenish lipstick and rouge.

The entertainment highlight of the evening is a Mr. Asadi who is as cheesy a performer as I have ever seen. In too-long pants and a light brown suit with a ski-collar white shirt and a silk scarf around his neck (my cousin says the scarf emulates a tie), he has blow-dried his thin hair to full cream-puff, has a flower in his collar, and since he cannot serenade the women – this IS the Islamic Republic after all – he caresses the men and croons in their ear, to such extent that our table of three can no longer hold back our giggles at the embarrassed reaction of the men. This Mr. Asadi sings forbidden songs by the pre-Revolutionary singers, Haideh and Mahasti, Aref and even Marziyeh. All around the room, the crowd claps, whistles, and sings along in a dreamy fit of nostalgia and memory.

When the program finally ends at 1:30 a.m., the crowd is delirious with happiness and exhaustion. You can even see it in the bearded, severe guys who look like they can be from the Ministry of Guidance or Intelligence, as this place is rumored to be under some control and observation; though one could never tell by the music and the dress and the atmosphere of the place.

The same sense of frenetic delirium rules at the beaches of Motel Ghu (or Salmanshahr) on the Caspian coast during the Noruz holidays. During public holidays, a great majority of well-to-do Tehranis (one can tell their general prosperity by the make and model of their cars) caravan through the beautiful and dangerous Chalus Road and the Alborz mountain range to reach the fertile, humid and green (well, the parts that have not been stripped of the rainforest to be replaced by cement block walls) lowlands of the Caspian Coast. This area is decidedly the vacation spot for the chic set, those who can afford the expensive hotels, villas, restaurants and everything else in between.

The rush of demanding Tehrani youth to the coast necessitates entertainment, and aside from an abundance of parks, beaches (generally used in the cold season for romantic walks, fireside gatherings and horseback rides), telecabin rides to the peak of high mountains which separate the Caspian from the interior of Iran, there is Salmanshahr – which is stubbornly not called by this name, but rather by its pre-Revolutionary name, Motel Ghu,. The area was so called because of a Shah-era chic motel, The Swan (or Ghu) Motel, which had two huge cement swans at its entrance. After the Revolution, for some reason, the swans were deemed anti-revolutionary, the motel was renamed to Salman Motel, and the name of the area was changed to Salmanshahr; but in the last few years, the beaches in this area have found a second life as the hangout for Tehrani kids.

There is a charge for parking and a strip of beach lit with multi-colored bulbs. Small food-shops along the strip have set up beach tables and beach chairs on the sand, South Beach style, and sell everything (legal) from local foods (like the delicious Mirza Qassemi) to French fries, tea, Nescafe, hot chocolate, and best of all, waterpipes with strawberry, apple or honey tobacco. Throughout the day and specially at night, the average age at the place does not exceed twenty, and the profusion of chic and hip Tehrani style is mind-boggling. The hejab codes seem to be much more relaxed at the Caspian, where I have seen many women only in pants, short (well over the knee) overcoats and pea-coats, tiny hair-scarves, and bright lipstick and nail polish.

The parking lot at Motel Ghu is full of the latest model Iranian-assembled cars, older foreign cars, and even an occasional new foreign car – which only speaks of financial clout and political connections (the state has not allowed import of foreign cars since 1992 in order to encourage the local car industry). The kids on the beach gather, openly flirt, even sing songs a little further away in the darkness. The shops on the beach blare all kinds of music, even pop American and European music, and do brisk business as few tables and chairs on the beach are empty. The boys and girls mill about, check each other out and occasionally sit down for Nescafe and hubble-bubble (whose amazing smoke easily replaces alcoholic intoxication).

What is astonishing, to me anyway, is that neither at Kuhsar nor at Motel Ghu, there is any disruption by military or security forces. In fact, Kuhsar is rumored to have a table always reserved for the “observing agents” of some ministry and at Motel Ghu, when we were leaving, we saw a car-full of men of military forces stopping between two shops. The only reaction? The techno music blaring from the loudspeakers was replaced with Turkish music, big glasses of tea were given to the bearded men along with smiles and polite small-talk (and perhaps something more of value), and all was good!

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