Waiting for a chance
Frustrated desires and perpetual lies
January 21, 2002
From Mark Mordue's "Dastgah:
Diary of a head trip" (2001, Allen & Unwin, Australia).
Mordue is an Australian writer, journalist and editor. He has been published
in Interview, Madison, Speak and Salon in the USA, and Purple
in France. At home in Australia his work has appeared in Rolling Stone,
HQ, Vogue, The Australian, The Age, Sydney Morning Herald, GQ, The Bulletin
and HEAT. He was the founding editor of Australian Style
(1992-97). He is the winner of a 1992 Human Rights Media Award and is currently
Asialink 2001 writer-in-residence at Beijing University.
He laughs and says 'Khamenei' in a low voice. Then he makes a slicing
motion with his thumb all the way across his throat along with a quick,
hacking sound.Then he looks at me. 'I don't think so,' I say back to him.
But I hardly understand what I am saying at all. Just the sounds of confidence
these automatic words somehow conjure, a droll white noise in place of language.
I keep walking. And let the door swing shut behind me as we leave the
restaurant. Still tingling with the tracheal gesture. Still feeling as if
he means me. Me who will lose my head in Iran.
Oddly enough, there is no particular menace to the moment. It all happens
so quickly I barely take in the interchange. It almost seems humorous: the
bland smile, the smell of baking food, his weary gesturing.
For some time afterwards I still try to take it as a joke. A joke for
Westerners fresh to the 'madness' of Iran. Then I wonder again if it is
what he wishes. If he wants to see a jihad, a 'holy war' or 'a struggle
in the way of God', continued against the infidels now beginning to infiltrate
his country as tourists for the first time since the Revolution. If he would
really like to see my head roll.
Lisa and I have sat eating rice with fish, a bowl of salad with a vinegar
and yogurt dressing, and a plate of mint with two halved onions. A typical
Iranian meal in a clean, basement level restaurant in Esfahan, the city
of merchants and glass, a place renowned for its crafts and craftiness,
its skilful liars.
I talk to the men who work in the restaurant, making self-effacing fun
of my guidebook Farsi phrases: where are you from? hello, goodbye, I'm sorry
I don't speak Persian (bebakshid farsi balad nistam). One man on
his lunch-break smiles at me from across the room. The others look on bluntly,
staring slowly from the fluorescent, middle-aged weight that seems to colour
the whole room and drag at the heels of their boots. Moving like men in
some invisibly thick soup.
We stand. Go to the cashier.'Chand-e?'An enquiry about the cost.
He holds up a 10,000 rial note to our eyes.The money changers on Ferdosi
Avenue call this 'a Khomeini' after the dead Ayatollah whose stern face
stares out from it. I leave an extra 1,000 rials tip (about US$0.50). And
we start to walk out the door.
That's when the moustached 40-something man in the washedout khaki uniform
of a cleaner or a dishwasher looks at me and makes his little cutting motion
to the throat. It's not because I'm a lousy tipper. I'd already heard
about this gesture yesterday from a Frenchman who had just visited Tehran.
He wasn't clear on the meaning of it either -- if it was a joke, or something
very nasty indeed. In Tehran people had done the same thing to him, but
they had made a brief whirling about their head as well, to signify the
turbans of the mullahs (Islamic clerics), before they too slashed at their
throats with their thumbs and laughed.
At first I don't tell Lisa about all this symbolic throat-cutting. But
eventually I have to mention my goodbye message at the restaurant as we
walk off into the silence of the city's 10 p.m. streets. It troubles her,
then she says, 'Perhaps they mean death to Khamenei?'
Well do they?
People say there is much unhappiness with the rule of the mullahs in
Iran. In the 1998 parliamentary elections for the Assembly of Experts, clerics
ensured that the candidates who could run were predominantly conservative.
Only 46 per cent of the population bothered to vote. It had already been
decided behind closed doors by the mullahs.What was the point?
The Assembly selects and appoints Iran's Surpreme Leader -- currently
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the like-named successor to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini
-- who controls both the military and the security forces as well as the
judiciary. This is Khomeini's vision of the world's first Islamic theocracy,
an indisputable leader who can interpret God's will with an iron fist wherever
and whenever necessary.
The President, Mohammad Khatami, is an anomaly in this scene, a freak
victory in a landslide people's vote that saw 76 per cent of the voting
population, mostly women and the young, turn out to elect him in 1997. But
the conservative mullahs aren't so impressed with a man who studied philosophy
in Germany for two years, nor the Western 'liberal decadence' he is encouraging.
Khatami lacks real power, yet he has popular support. He balances himself
delicately on this edge. As one local told us, 'Khatami says such beautiful
words. Such beautiful words. But what is really happening in Iran?' What
is really going on?' A strange tension underlines Iranian daily life. As
if the opening up of the country is contained by a firm vice that will only
allow it to expand so far. The question seems to be: when will the unstoppable
force meet the immovable object?
The word 'mullah' swings in the mouth like a club. It carries weight
when you say it. Walking around the streets of Esfahan, we get very used
to being stared at by people curious about Westerners in their midst.
Whenever the turbaned shape of a cleric approaches, however, there is not
a flicker of interest or recognition in their eyes.We do not exist.We are
not there. One feels the mullahs' neutralizing power, the sheer stoicism
of how they refuse you through the mere act of not looking and looking right
through us at the same time. They simply erase us from the scenery.
This oppressive weight, this power of erasure, has an effect on far more
than tourists. It extends into all aspects of Iranian life. The mullahs
are always 'there', through the secret police and informers, through faith
itself and the constantly inflamed values of the devout. In this way the
mullahs invisibly penetrate and purge the world with their presence, possessing
their streets-when they do appear -- like fearsome and radioactive stones.
The result is a country silently divided. And a pressure that creates an
even greater longing for freedom.
You sense this most when you talk to the young. At first there's pride,
of course, in their country. The initial images that they paint of Iran
are almost Disneyesque, 1950s-pure. They're also very aware of Western stereotypes
of them as screaming, crazed religious fanatics. Most people hate this global
media cartoon of them and their country and their faith. As if to counter
it, people are ridiculously friendly -- strangers literally invite you home
for dinner, take you on personal tours of their city, give you small gifts.
It's actually quite difficult to deal with this overwhelming enthusiasm
and courtesy wherever you go.
But like the 1950s there's a lock on the mind and the spirit. As we talk
more and more to young people and they open up to us, they admit to being
'stuck' in their lives, often speaking of their desire for change, or of
simply wanting to leave Iran altogether.They also tend to idolize the West
with a naive enthusiasm. As a dream of freedom, with all the forbidden fruits
that go with it. As a total fantasy.
Within six months of the Ayatollah Khomeini coming to power in 1979,
he made a speech declaring that, 'There is no fun in Islam. There can be
no fun or enjoyment in whatever is serious.' It's hard to maintain that
sour reverence when over half of your population is under 25. Iran is witnessing
a youthquake, and it can't cope with the energy. The strange thing about
its youth is how commonly they refer to the time of the Shah with yearning
and nostalgia -- yet they have no memory of his brutal and exploitative
reign or the Revolution that deposed him. It is as if they yearn for a past
that never existed.
In Tehran we read a newspaper article warning that the clerics in parliament
have voted to send a paramilitary group known as the Basij into the universities,
to help police and suppress 'liberal Western influences'. Their goal involves
more than just intellectual oppression-it means intimidating young people
to stop them holding hands in public, and preventing women from wearing
lipstick or pulling their chadors back provocatively onto their heads to
reveal a little of their hair.
These acts of 'Westoxification' that hark back to the days of the Shah,
these relatively mild gestures of public affection and decoration, constitute
the pagan rebellions of Persian youth today. In the extreme and early years
of the Islamic Revolution, the Basij were renowned for their opposing fervour,
taking the lipstick off women with razor blades. Drafted from the ranks
of a massive peasant underclass, they are devout enough to still serve the
darkest commands of hardline mullahs, to be thugs in the name of Allah.
'What will they do?' asks one Tehrani man benignly of yet another bout
of oppression from the mullahs and their henchmen. 'This is nature. A boy
and a girl. It is like trying to stop running water.'
We talk to a tour guide about it all. He tells us how he wants to escape.
Maybe through India. Maybe through Hungary. He can hardly go anywhere in
the world, he complains, as very, very few countries will give him a visa,
with exceptions like India, Pakistan, Nepal and Japan. It is hard to get
out. It is hard to travel at all.
'I am 26. Two years ago I fall in love with a German girl,' he tells
us.'I could not go to see her. They would not let me leave here. And Germany
would not give me a visa either. I was very angry.Very crazy.'
He shows us pictures. Two shots of a blonde, one of her sitting on a
beach, another of the two of them in his car. The photos look creased and
'Many times I have been arrested for mixing with tourists too much. They
put me in prison one week, two weeks. I say, "Why do you do this
to me? I am representing Iran to tourists in a good way. I am working hard
for my country. I am contributing to my country."'
He looks at us with a salesman's eye. 'Okay, of course I do for myself
as well. But I work hard. It is good for Iran too. And they arrest me! So
I tell them, "Send me away.You arrest me. You don't like me, you don't
want me. You don't want hard working people.You would rather I did nothing.
So let me leave this country. This is a crap government that wants crap
'They tell me, "You talk a lot" and put me in jail,' he smiles.
Then laughs. 'But I am not political. I don't care about that. I am 26.
I just want to live. I meet tourists. Sometimes I go to Goa.They tell me
things,' he nods childishly, conspiratorially, alluding to the rave capital
of India's reputation for partying and drugfueled abandon. He wants us to
understand that he knows what real pleasure is.
'If you have tasted an orange and an apple, and you want the orange,
you want the orange. If you do not ever taste it, then maybe you don't know.
I know my country is very beautiful. But it is no good for me. I am 26,'
he repeats as if it is something to be astounded and depressed by. His mantra.
'How can I meet girls? I am not allowed to wear a bracelet even,' he
says, looking at mine as it sits heavily on my wrist, 'it is too Western.'
'No!' he cries out. 'What sort of life is this? To get up early to work
all day, to come home at night quietly and sleep like a cat. There is nowhere
to go at night. My friend tells me I should stay. Iran is changing. Sure,
maybe in five years. Maybe in ten years. He is 35 and married. It is okay
for him. But what about me now? I am 26.'
And with that outburst over he shares his simple plans of escape, how
he will sell his car, his motorbike and his rare Persian carpet. How he
will go to see the girl in Germany. How he doesn't like the cold, however,
and he will wait till spring before he escapes to Europe. How Western girls
on tours often flirt with him and try to kiss him even when they have husbands
or boyfriends. 'Why they do this? I think sometimes they want to punish
We explain to him that sometimes Western girls play games and that it
doesn't mean they are really interested in him or love him. He lights up
with recognition -- this is a suspicion confirmed.
'Now I understand,' he nods.'Now I understand.'
He considers himself a man of the world. Didn't live with his family
as a boy.Was brought up in the snake turns of the local bazaar, 'working
very hard. Very hard. Very hard like you cannot understand.'
Now life is good. He is a man on the move -- or on the make at least.
But he has no freedom. He cannot fall in love. He cannot go anywhere. He
cannot wear a bracelet. And there is that burning experience of two years
ago, and these two photos of the girl he loves, both pictures marked with
sticky tape where he has pulled them from his bedroom wall to show us. Marks
that show he has pulled them from the wall a dozen times or more and told
this same story to other travellers, whoever listens.
He unfurls his carpet, with its myriad patterns and silky blues and royal
reds. He shows us where the makers wove an error into the carpet on purpose,
so as not to affront Allah, since the Creator is the only one who can make
a perfect thing.This is his magic carpet ride out of Iran. 'I think if I
sell it I can make much money. It's beautiful,' he says a little sadly.
I try to warn him that he could be jumping into a deep hole if he becomes
an illegal immigrant in Germany. For some reason his fears about the winter
cold quietly depress me about his hopes. But he thinks he could just as
easily fall down a hole in Iran, he says.
'Anything could happen here. Anything.'
So we talk about love again. And another painful experience as a teenager,
when an older married Iranian woman had an affair with him. He didn't know
she was married until after the affair had begun and she finally told him
'I told her to leave me alone. Sometimes now a married woman here in
Iran will try to give me her phone number,' he says, disgusted.'This is
dirty. I tell her go away, you bastard. I don't want this. You are dirty
bastard woman, leave me alone.'
He is 26-years old, going on 14. It seems to be a part of Iran's 1950s
moral atmosphere to reduce people to adolescents. For him, Iran is frustrated
desire and perpetual lies behind the backs of people. He wants the girl
in Germany. The dream life. The dream love. But thoughts of freedom lead
him back to the emotional prison of Iran, and Iran leads him back to questions
and plans and schemes to escape. Running his fingers over the carpet, thinking,
looking for the error.
We talk about him over dinner that night. In that sullen, slowmoving
fluorescent restaurant where everything feels becalmed and exposed. Me twisting
my bracelet round and round as I worry about him, till I'm given something
else to keep me thoughtful. Later still as we lie in bed, I think about
the gesture at the restaurant. Whether it was friendly or aggressive, or
even subversive as quite a few people have quietly suggested. The end of
Khomeini and Khamenei, the death of the mullahs? Or a deepening and darkening
of the Revolution as they fight to preserve their rule?
I'm really not sure. But this to me is the hidden Iran: a thumb at the
throat, a girl who can't be loved. All blurred, hard to see, waiting for
Diary of a head trip