For Iranians who have lived abroad for years, it takes many trips back to the homeland to fully understand the social scene there. Iran is a country still ruled by Islamic law, where socializing of unrelated members of the opposite sex is technichally illegal and harshly punished. Even the father of Iran's revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini once declared, “There is no fun in Islam.”
But Iran is also a country of sophisticated subtlety and even deception; nothing in Iran is what meets the eye. Iranians have proven Khomeini wrong, that in fact there can be fun in Islam and more certainly, there is much fun in Iran. But like everything else in Iran, partying remains a complicated matter. We all know the statistics regarding Iran's population pyramid– more than 50 pecent under 25. It's not just the political scene this group is busting onto, but the social scene as well. Simply put, Iran's youth party.
I will try to explain Tehran's social scene and give expatriates an idea of how partying works in Iran. With the premise that one still needs an excuse to socialize in Islamic Iran and in the absence of private parties, eating, drinking, and sport remain the best reasons to linger in public places and socialize with members of the opposite sex. Take the grand entrance of coffee culture in Iran — or better yet, coffee-shop culture. It's not just coffee served at coffee shops, but also pizzas and burgers at restaurants mimicking America's popular fast food culture that attract young Iranians.
BUT the first order of business when Thursdays roll around is to decide whether to stay in town or to plan a get-away. The out-of-town choices are clear — hiking in the Alborz mountains that border Tehran, traveling north to villa towns along the Caspian, or skiing and snowboarding in the small resort towns of Dizin and Shemshak. The benefits of going away are clean air, more privacy, and more freedom from strict rules.
The drive to Dizin is about two hours from the city. There is usually enough snow well into the spring to attract avid skiers throughout the week and crowds of youth and families at week's end. Iranians who can afford the sport usually begin skiing at an early age and by the time they are in their teens, skiing on weekends is a staple activity. Skiing photos here
It is expensive by Iranian standards– 6,000 tomans (about $7) to ski all day. The slopes are usually packed with young men and women, mixing freely and playfully bumping into each other. The restaurant atop the mountain serves pizza, sausages, hamburgers, tea, and soft drinks and is the main hangout for fashionable Tehranis who lay on the snow, socialize, and show off their Killer Loop, Burton, and Salomon snow gear.
Headscarves and manteaux here are replaced with ski caps and jackets. These days it's not uncommon to encounter wafts of marijuana or empty red Tuborg beer cans while riding up on the gondolas. At night, the surrounding villas and chalets are the sites of heavy partying. There is more social freedom for youth atop the snowy mountains, but “morality” police do occassion the slopes, whizzing by on their skis and harassing youth. There is even a small office at the base of the mountain serving as a detention center for youth cross the boundaries of “modesty” .
I met two unmarried young couples on the slopes who described a crackdown two weeks before at Dizin. “The basij (plainclothes 'morality' police) were here all day that day harassing people,” said Alireza, 21. “They were closing down the ski runs, and our girlfriends went up for one more run. Reza and I decided to carry their skis since they were heavy. The basij detained us and left the girls stranded without skis for an hour. They knew it was freezing at the top with the sun setting. Finally, after much pleading, they let us go up and gave the skis back, but then detained all of us when we came down. The only reason they let us go was because my sister happened to be with us that day and was waiting at the base of the mountain.”
So why did people stay if the police are there, I wondered. People were scared, but not scared enough to stay away or leave once they knew the police showed up. “People paid good money to ski,” said Alireza. “They wouldn't leave because of the police.”
Resort towns along the northern Caspian coast are what serve as the main summer vacation spots for most affluent Tehranis. On summer breaks and weekends, families take refuge in their villas from Tehran's crowds and pollution. Khaneh Darya, Khezer Shahr, and Darya Kenar are among the many well-known “shahraks” (small cordoned-off cities) about a three and a half hour drive north and east from Tehran on the scenic Chalous road.
Hundreds of one and two-story single family homes organized in rows are contained in these pre-planned communities along the waterside, completely separated with gates and security from local neighborhoods and town centers.
I didn't like this aspect of Shomal but according to shahrak residents who prefer the separation, officials and developers intentionally planned the area this way due to the different standards of living and lifestyles between Tehran's rich and local Mazandaranis. Such differences include a visible economic gap and cultural issues like girls riding bicycles. “We are more comfortable this way and so are the locals,” explains 45-year-old Parivash, a villa owner in Aram Shahr. “Unfortunately, cultural tolerance does not yet exist in our society.”
Fresh air, walks along the beach, quiet nights and parties among neighbors are the attractions for vacationers who spend time here. There is no mixed swimming in shahrak and hotel beaches, only on large plots of private property directly on the water. Most use shahrak swimming pools, which are segregated by time slots throughout the day: men swim in the morning, women swim in the afternoon.
In the evenings, young people spend their time driving up and down the main coastal strip called “Jade Kenar” in what is described by one friend as a “a car exhibition”. “One's car is a symbol of status,” explains Nima, 27, whose family owns a villa in Izad Shahr. “Guys drive their family's best car around for show whether here or in Tehran, mostly to grab female attention.”
Circling the scene of each shahrak is essential, but unless you live in that shahrak or are visiting a particular home, getting through security is tough. The youth have trouble gaining entry, particularly carloads of young guys. But there is no limit to their creativity in breaking rules. With years of practice, for them it's like solving a math equation.
Evenings on the beachside in Khaneh Darya resembled an outdoor party. It was a meat market if I'd ever seen one. It was a serious hangout for trendy guys and heavily made-up girls who stand around, eat, smoke, and check each other out. Rows of bonfires burn until morning while people sit by the water, talk, sing, and even dance.
The food kiosk there sells sandwiches, hamburgers, fries, kabobs, coffee, tea, soda, and cigarettes. I ate the best shishliek (grilled lack of lamb) on that beach. You'd never know alcohol isn't served there since many in the crowd were visibly intoxicated and I could smell it on people's breath. Cocktails start at sunset and in the privacy of one's villa.
Staying in Tehran
Staying in town offers a few choices as well. Unless one is invited to a private party in a home, the evening will consist of a survey of the most happening coffee shops, restaurants, and streets of northern Tehran. One can be sure that a night on the town for young Iranians will always entail eating and drinking, and a lot of driving. Other options are the movies, theatre, and musical performances, which are increasing in quality and quantity and attracting more and more Iranians. For this, credit is due to the Ministry of Islamic Culture headed by Ataollah Mohajerani, who continues a more liberal policy of granting licenses for films, music, publications, and the press.
Finally, one can stay home, order out, and watch bootlegged movies. It is true that Hollywood movies on video and DVD hit Tehran's black market in a matter of weeks after their release in American theatres. Last summer, I had seen more new American movies in Iran than my friends had seen in the U.S. Music videos and shows like the Oscars are also easy to find. Tehran now even has its own version of Takeout Taxi called “Peyk Khan-e Rangin” (Colorful messenger) which delivers food from different restaurants to your home 24 hours a day.
Persian carpet dance floors
The best opportunity to meet new people and socialize is private parties. They vary in type and atmosphere, but it must be said that all kinds of parties can be found in Tehran. Most, however, are what can be described as large dinner parties with a full-service dance floor. Depending on the host, alcohol is served and the music is usually a mixture of Iranian and Western Pop and dance tunes.
Arriving late to a party in the northern section of Elahiyeh, the thirty plus guests were already buzzed and dancing on the beautiful Persian carpets. Being a little late assured we had avoided the “ice breaking” stage before Iranians nudge into their first drink and put aside formalities. And unless you have access to standardized foreign alcohol smuggled into the country, one drink of the more potent home-made “aragh” mixed with soda or juice is enough to do the job.
A side table of refreshments included Iranian chicken salad, cold cuts, vegetables and dip, potato chips, bread, cheese, and fresh herbs. We danced to Ricky Martin, techno, and Bandari. An adjacent room offered a different ambiance; softer guitar music was being played as a handful of guests conversed and passed around a joint. A nice surprise was meeting someone I had only heard about. He was visiting from New York, a sign that young expatriates are infiltrating the Tehran scene by increasingly choosing their native land for vacations.
We left early — a long day of Majlis-election coverage awaited. Good thing we did. Later local police had paid a visit due to noise complaints. A visibly drunk friend and his wife who were leaving the party much later, barely escaped trouble — a phone call, niceties, and cash did the trick.
Security forces seem to crackdown less and less on matters of “immoral” behavior such as drunkenness, socializing of unmarried couples, possession of Western videos or cassettes. These days, cars are still arbitrarily stopped, but are screened mostly for “national security” reasons. My friends and I were stopped by the basij one night driving to a dinner party in Niavaran. A quick look at driver registration and we were off, no questions asked.
But for many young Iranians who have suffered through the most difficult times of revolution and war and know nothing other than the social restrictions and repression of their youth, it will take some time to realize real changes are taking place. Skepticism and cynicism are traits as often found as are hope and determination about Iran's future. Indeed, habit and memory are difficult elements to erase. Whenever I go to Iran, my cousin and I drive around town blaring dance music. These days, such music is common and tolerated. Even the state radio stations play instrumental music like Robert Miles and Shahin and Sepehr. But years of caution and fear have caused him to keep his hand close to the volume dial; at every turn and every sound, the volume goes dead.
If there is no party in sight, Tehran offers many hot spots for single Iranians who want to meet each other. Early and late evening are best to catch crowds at coffee shops, and in between, restaurants and pizzerias are packed full of young people getting their fill of Western-style cuisine. Throughout the day, streets such as Iran Zamin and Jordan are streaming with carloads and groups of slow-strolling well-dressed guys and heavily made-up girls as young as 16 and 17, picking each other up and exchanging phone numbers.
Other times, girls and boys may decide on the spot to meet somewhere or go to someone's house to get to know one another. Two steps behind are hawk-like police driving up and down the same strip, waiting to catch men and women in the act of social engagement. Even talking while under watch is enough to get them arrested and the youth have learned to outsmart police and avoid costly mistakes.
Inching up traffic on Jordan Street last Thursday night, my friend Nima pointed to the cars around us. “Look, young people are in every car ,” he told me. This was true. In front of us was a carload of young women and next to them in the other lane a carload of guys. But they aren't talking or even looking at each other, I said to Nima. “They are definitely communicating,” Nima said confidently. “These groups will spend the rest of the evening together. They'll probably pull into one of these side streets, talk, discuss their plans, and decide to either exchange numbers or to meet somewhere,” he predicted.
My friends pointed out many other things that I wouldn't have noticed otherwise: expensive cars pulled over to the side where three prostitutes were waiting to be picked up. But, I could never tell which women standing on the street were prostitutes and which ones were just standing to meet men and socialize.
“It's obvious which ones are for sale and which ones aren't,” was the chorus I always heard from young Iranian men. They added that most “good girls” don't get into cars and go somewhere with a man to get to know him better. But I doubted that. From what I could tell, these guys were just being hypocrites since I knew this was how they met women themselves.
In the absence of other options for youth to meet, getting together on the street and in cars had become very common and many times led to dangerous sexual situations. It seemed that even “good girls” were willing to make that risky decision.
Shortly thereafter, we passed a police checkpoint where officers struggled to pull over cars — “Peugeot-pull over!” one barked, motioning to our car. Melissa and I were sitting in the back, Amir and Nima in the front. It made sense, but then the officer changed his mind. Instead, he told us to go ahead and ordered a white Pride (Iranian-assembled Ford Festiva) full of guys to pull over. No one was worried, it was routine.
As we drove off Amir told us his most recent police story. Just weeks before a trigger-happy basiji had pulled him over and put a rifle to his head because he tried to back up and avoid the checkpoint due to the traffic it had caused. After telling the basiji he was late for an exam for an engineering course, the basiji told him that he had taken the course. “Of course,” Amir replied dryly. “The university has quotas.”
Nima described another incident in which his friend broke the nose of a basiji, ran to hide in an empty building, and threatened to hit him with a concrete block if he was pursued. These stories were becoming less and less shocking, even for me.
Starbucks a la Nescafé?
Sure, Iran is known as a tea-drinking country, but coffee culture has long hit the scene. Not necessarily for coffee's sake, but as a stylish excuse for socializing. Modern-decorated coffee shops lace northern Tehran's shopping malls, boulevards, and side streets. They are places where Iran's sizeable younger generation go to meet and hang out. Café & restaurant photos here
At different times during the day, one can see young unmarried couples or groups of young men and women from their mid-teens to late twenties sitting in corners, huddled close in deep conversation, sometimes holding hands, and spending hours at a time socializing. Even single and not-so-young men and women frequent these establishments for the opportunity to meet potential partners.
Coffee drinks in Iran — whether café au lait, cappuccino, or expresso — are made from instant Nescafé. But even Nescafé has different grades; there is regular classic, gold blend, mocha and more. Coffee connoisseurs may be deterred, but when Iran's youth cram into Tehran's cozy smoke-filled coffee shops, they don't seem to care much about the quality or authenticity of their coffee, they are mainly there to see and be seen.
Among the popular coffee shops are Tootfarangi, Konj, Hot Chocolate, Classic, Eskan, Sheice, and Zanbagh. The charming Gandhi Street built on a hill also has four coffee shops alongside each other in an outside mall.
Konj, located on Fereshteh Street, is decorated with Japanese-style light wood and black décor with a centrally-located fireplace. It attracts posh Iranians dressed to impress in brand names. Tootfarangi, another popular hang-out on Kar-e Tejarat Street in the Vanak area of Tehran, is dimly lit and designed like a bar. Its large bar, however, serves assortments of coffees, ice creams, and shakes. The music playing in the background the owner told me was Sacred Spirit, a New Age group from Latin America.
The owners of both Konj and Tootfarangi asked me not to take pictures for fear it might bring retribution from authorities. In the past, both had been investigated, closed and or fined for serving as a hang out for unmarried youth. The second time I went to Tootfarangi in 1999, a sign at the front door read “Families Only”. On this visit, it was anything but family.
I have only heard stories of lesser-known places where live guitar music, American Rock, and Iranian pop music is played — still legally banned in Iran, but tolerated more and more. Last year, according to a close source, a coffee-shop near Argentine Square closed its doors and allowed women to take off their headscarves late at night. And another place called “One” near Haft-e Tir Square blared the music of Pop musicians Googoosh and Andy. When we asked one of these coffee shop owners why weren't they afraid, he said, “We have phat connections in the Council of Guardians.” An outdoor sign not yet put up read, “Try us once and you won't believe what you'll see.” It was our ears we couldn't believe.
Internet café's have also sprung up all over town. My favorite is Chineh Sepid on the corner of Kamranieh and Dibaji Jonoobi streets. With four computer terminals, the place charges a bit more than its competitors, 2,500 tomans (about $3) an hour for Inernet use. But the coffee is good, the management is helpful, and the décor is elegant. The ambiance fits one of a coffee shop whilst the others resemble computer software stores.
Dining in Tehran
After an hour or so at a coffee shop, the next stop is for dinner. Tehran offers a variety of restaurants — traditional, contemporary, “chelo-kabobis” and a handful of foreign restaurants. The price scales vary according to the type and quality of service and food. The most expensive are the foreign restaurants, the highest of which is Seryna on Bijan Street which serves Japanese cuisine. I have been told the place serves real sushi and charges prices as high as 10,000 tomans (about $12) a dish.
A Chinese restaurant I went to called Golden Dragon on Vali Asr Street served stir fried Chinese meat and vegetable dishes. The rice was prepared Persian-style, but with spring onions mixed in. No fortune cookies. There are also Indian, Mexican, and Italian restaurants to choose from, but rarely do these places suit the budget of local Iranians.
A bit more moderately priced are Suissi on Forsat Street and Sorrento on Vali Asr Street, which both serve popular contemporary cuisine in Iran — a menu of chicken schnitzel, steaks with mushroom and pepper sauce, pizza, burgers, kabobs, and beef stroganoff.
Among popular spots for traditional restaurant-goers are Azari Restaurant on South Kargar Street which offers a set menu of dizi, a greasy lamb stew served in clay pots with fresh bread and herbs. The only alternative is nimroo, or eggs sunny-side up. Seating is on wooden beds covered with Persian rugs and cushions and entertainment is an instrumental ensemble of breath-taking traditional music. Just don't expect to carry dinner conversation over the oft too loud music.
Another beautifully-decorated traditional restaurant is Khan Salar on Alvand Street, which sets out a large buffet of traditional Iranian food and also has live music. Dalan-e Salar on Amir Abad Street offers traditional fare and has a reputation for live performances of fast and rythmic music finding customers singing along, stomping their feet, and snapping their fingers in a show of public gaiety.
If you're in the mood to exercise before you eat, grab your sneakers and head for Park Jamshidieh. A beautiful park designed with cobble stones and gorgeous landscaping on a steep mountain slope in northern Tehran, Jamshidieh is proof of ex-mayor Gholam Hossein Karbashchi's previous life as a gardner. Another feature of the park is its thematic restaurants placed high at different altitudes overlooking Tehran's skyline. The hike up to the Kurdish, Azari, or Baluchi restaurants is sure to muster up an appetite. Live music after dinner draws large crowds who clap; men dance and women sway to the music.
Fridays are days for family get-togethers in Iran –for picnicking if the weather is nice, for family lunches, and finally for Iran's mouth — watering chelo-kabob. This is understandable; one needs a day of rest to digest this heavy meal of meat and rice. Families and friends flock to Tehran's best spots, among them Alborz on Sohrevardi Street, Nayeb on Vozara Street, and Navid on Apadana Street.
Strangely, at one o'clock in the afternoon one Friday, the crowd waiting to eat at Alborz resembled a line to Webster Hall in New York City. Beautiful young men and women dressed as if they were going to a nightclub wrapped the three floors of stairs as they waited in line to be seated. On that particular day, a friend and I were shocked to see a carbon copy of Pamela Anderson speaking Persian! Interestingly, at the front door, a sign read “Families Only”.
For younger Iranians with a smaller budget, casual restaurants serving contemporary Western fare fit the bill. Take Star Burger owned by brothers Akbar and Asghar Shadmanpour on Molla Sadra Street. An attractive fast food establishment, which offers McDonalds-style fare, had people lined up outside one month after it opened last year. Hailed as serving “the best burgers in town,” on Thursday nights the large seating area is filled to capacity, but customers are happy to eat Deluxe Burgers, Morgh (chicken) Burgers, and french fries which look exactly like McDonald's Big Macs, and signature fries standing outside or sitting in their cars. Asghar Shadmanpour admits his success is due to more than just the taste of his burgers. “Young people love this place mostly because of the type of food and the restaurant's décor,” he told me.
Behrooz, another popular place among Tehran's young, is located in the same area on Shiraz Street. This take-out joint offering a variety of delicious sandwiches and hamburgers has no seating area. But customers don't mind–standing outside provides more opportunity to mingle.
Finally, for good pizza try Pizza 222 (Golestan Mall), Pizza Dar-be-Dar (Shariati Street) or Pizza Express (Saman Street). All are chain restaurants and are considered among the best in Tehran. Most Iranian-made pizzas require cold ketchup in the absence of tomato sauce, but Pizza Express also offers house olive oil, garlic olive oil, and hot sauces.
The last stop of the night is a choice between late-night coffee shops or hotel lobbies. The choices are Hot Chocolate on Niloofar Street, Hotel Homa on Bijan Street, and perhaps Tootfarangi, again.
Hot Chocolate is an interesting phenomenon. A tiny run-down take-out coffee shop, for years has served as a popular meeting place of young girls and guys in Tehran. There is no décor, no place to sit; no ambiance. It serves coffee drinks, tea, and hot chocolate in clear plastic cups.
For sale are select foreign items at outrageous prices: foreign chocolates such as Snickers, M&Ms, Merci, Extra chewing gum, tobacco products, pipes and Zippo lighters. Most bizarre are the family-size Kellogg's Corn Flakes and Frosted Flakes, which adorn the top shelf and sell for 6,900 tomans (about $8.50)!When I asked who can afford such prices, the salesperson smiled, handed me my large bag of peanut M&Ms costing 3,200 tomans (about $4) and replied, “People like yourself.”
Owner Ghader Amini has become rich from Hot Chocolate's popularity. Amini attributes its success to “a mixture of luck, timing, good coffee, and good business ethic.”
At ten o'clock on Friday night, a Corvette, BMW, and Mercedes Benz were parked outside with guys leaned up against their cars, sipping their nescafés and talking on cell phones. Five minutes later, a Nissan Patrol SUV full of women pulled up and verbal exchanges began.
“People like it because it's simple and it's cool,” says Ali, 24. “It's where to meet because you can pull up in your cars and begin conversation — it's much easier than sit-down coffee shops.”
According to Ali, location on a side street also plays a role in Hot Chocolate's success, as it is less in the public eye. For extra caution, nonetheless, Amini has cut back his hours from 2 am to 12 am.
At the entrance of the spacious lounge of Hotel Homa there are two signs designating two sections: “Men” and “Families,” which brings me finally to the meaning of “Families Only”. The logic is as follows: men or groups of men are not considered family, but a woman or groups of women are. And since it is now rare for anyone to ask, mixed company is automatically considered family.
So I sat next to a couple in the “Families” section at Hotel Homa and asked them if they are married. Alireza, 26, and Mehrvash, 25, told me they are girlfriend and boyfriend and met when he gave her his business card. In fact, every seat in the families section was occupied by what seemed like unmarried couples on dates. On the other end of the lounge were groups of middle-aged men engaged in heated discussions.
I'm not sure the logic is sound, but good thing for Hot Chocolate or else a trip up and down Jordan Street might be necessary to get a night cap!