IRAN
Blog - August, 2006
by Amanda Roraback

In August 2006, author Amanda Roraback traveled to the Islamic Republic of Iran to complete research on her book, "Iran in a Nutshell." Below are some personal accounts of her trip.

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Preparations for a trip to the Islamic Republic

It was the middle of July, 119 degrees outside (really) and I was shopping for a coat and scarf to wear across the world in temperatures that were also reported above 100 degrees.

Perhaps it was a little crazy to visit Iran at this time: Hezbollah, well-known to have financial and strategic ties with Iran, was in the middle of a war with Israel, America’s ally; Iran’s president was being vilified by the U.S. for his comments on the Holocaust and threats to wipe Israel off the face of the earth; and the UN Security Council was forcing Iran to suspend uranium enrichment this month or face the threat of economic and diplomatic sanctions.

My understanding friends knew that I had to go now, in case the shit hit the fan and travel to the Islamic Republic was completely blocked. Truth is, it wasn’t really meant to be an impromptu vacation. I’d actually been planning this trip for a year and a half.

With help from some Iranian friends, I had compiled a “suitable” wardrobe consisting of a floor length black coat decorated with giant blue buttons and a blue scarf to match, a white flowered chador and a white knee-length coat with tan headscarf. My mother had also sewn sleeves onto a thin, black stylish summer coat she had bought in at a discount store for the occasion. Later, I felt very guilty for having mocked her for ripping up an old black petticoat to fashion cuffs for the outfit since I ended up wearing the thing (with nothing underneath) most days in my journey.

The night before my trip, I decided to celebrate California-style by quaffing a couple of beers and dancing the night away at a concert on the Santa Monica pier. I deliberately wore something particularly low-cut and revealing because, well, I could. This evening, I felt particularly appreciative of our freedoms as women in the U.S. Tomorrow, I’d have to cover up and act proper.

First minutes in Iran

As I had expected, the women in the plane from London to Iran had boarded looking quite “normal.” As we began to enter Iranian airspace, the pilot, a little earlier than on other international flights, announced that the plane was preparing to land and that we should “take care of business” at this time. Some women made their way to the lavatories to “transform,” others pulled out their scarves and began tying them under their chins. The 20-year old girl sitting next to me waited until the last minute to put on a stylish tapered coat over her jeans and T-shirt and complained that she would need to buy a new, more stylish, shorter and tighter coat as soon as she got to Tehran.

By subtly raising the hem-lines year-by-year, the younger generation was doing what it could to combat Iran’s traditional dress code which, after the revolution, once compelled women to wear tunics that reached the ground. After nearly a decade under the term of the relatively progressive former president, Khatami, Iranian women had staged what one author had called a “lipstick jihad” by wearing make-up and more revealing clothes “as if” they were allowed. A friend also pointed out that Khatami’s tenure also coincided with the rise and popularity of the internet and satellite TV. 

We arrived at 7 o’clock in the morning and, contrary to my fears, the customs desk was rather friendly. While packing my bags, I was particularly careful not to include anything that might be deemed offensive or threatening. I limited my notebooks to only 2 small pads and one large one placed in different pockets and decided against bringing a tape recorder in case I was mistaken for a spy. I carefully bought a small, unassuming camera – again to look like a simple tourist – and had vetted all gifts that had images "scantily clad women" – that is, with bare shoulders or knees. 

In order to enter the country more freely, I relied on my British passport (I was born in Scotland) and left my American passport, Time and Newsweek magazines and London-to-Los Angeles airplane tickets in an expensive locker in Heathrow airport. Still, I was afraid that I had overlooked something: the tag on my suitcase with a U.S. address?; a small picture of an American flag on a label?; perhaps three notebooks would send up a red flag? I was particularly spooked by the story of a Canadian photographer who had been beaten to death a month earlier for taking pictures of a student demonstration in Tehran. If they could do that to a Canadian, what would they do to an American who lied about her intentions and citizenship to get a tourist visa?

At the time, I wasn't aware of the different perception of "true" foreigners compared to Iranian-born visitors with foreign passports. Iranians who emigrate and take up citizenship in other countries are sometimes portrayed as traitors and particularly culpable for the "crimes" they commit in their spurned homeland. And no matter how settled an Iranian man may be in his adopted country, as long as he was born in Iran, he must serve his compulsory two-year term in the military if he expects to set foot on Iranian soil before the age of 40.

Still, I had been influenced by the warnings and threatening horror stories that I heard from my well-meaning friends.  Even my mother, who has always been very cool about my travels to, well, "less-conventional" countries sat down with me for a heart-to-heart about my decision to go the Islamic Republic. I promised to send her regular emails to assure her that I hadn't been kidnapped. But at this moment, in the Tehran airport, I wondered -- what could she really do if I was kidnapped? And as a "British citizen" would the American government even care?

As I stood in line for the stamp on my passport, I clung to my new young Iranian friend. I was the only one in line with blue eyes and not a word of Farsi in my arsenal of languages. When the customs officer motioned for me to step aside while he spoke to my new companion, I had the feeling, which I had harbored from the day I first tried to get a visa, that I would never get the chance to see Iran. The poor girl was questioned. "How long have you known her? What’s your relationship with this woman? What’s her name?  Why is she here?" She looked at me in despair. We had only exchanged a few words about clothes and music. She didn't even know my name.

To our rescue a minute later, another avuncular guard approached looking embarrassed and sent us on our way. That was it. No arrests. No interrogation. And no one scouring through the undies and toothpaste in my bags. With such little fanfare, I almost wished that I had brought some alcohol, playing cards and especially, the half-read Time magazine that I had to leave behind.

I also breezed past the next checkpoint manned by a bevy of older women in chadors making sure that we were all dressed appropriately – women with scarves and long jackets, men with long pants.  I was finally in! And very glad to finally meet my tour guide, Ali who, surprisingly, reached out his hand for a handshake. I guess this experience will not be as scary as I thought it would be.

Day 1

I think I learned more about Iran during my first ½ hour drive in Tehran to my hotel than I did on most days during my trip   

I was relieved to learn that my guide, in fact, knew that I was American and that I lived in Los Angeles. He also knew that I had written a series of books, including one on Iran and another on Israel, and had interviewed two Iranian authors on C-Span.  All the info. was readily available through a simple Google search but I felt that he and I shared a secret which would bond us for the rest of the trip.

It also turns out that Ali had also gone the extra mile to get me into the country. By doctoring a document that I had created stating that I was a “secretary” by altering my fake Iranian “employer’s” name to make him sound Indian (I thought the Iranian name would have helped) he helped me get past a hurdle in the tourism dept.  Had I come as a journalist or writer, he told me, I would have been required to pay up to $200 a day for the privilege. Had I come as a full-fledged American rather than a Brit, I would have had to pay for food and lodging for a round-the-clock minder. In the end, I had misrepresented myself in just the right way and I was finally here.

The First Interview

Feeling comfortable with my apparently cosmopolitan and complicit guide, I decided begin asking the obvious questions: (answers are paraphrased)

What do you think about Ahmadinejad’s comments on the holocaust?

Answer: Few of us had even heard of the holocaust before his statement.

Question: What about Hezbollah?

Answer: Many people resent the money that the government has put into running Hezbollah, especially when there is such poverty here. People have to work two or three jobs just to be able to pay for an apartment in Tehran. I think Ahmadinejad (Iran’s president) is just making trouble to distract us from his abandoned campaign promise to bring oil revenues straight to the “peoples' tables.”  We thought we were going to be eating oil for dinner. Instead, government money is going towards a fight with Israel.
(Later in the trip, an Iranian told me that ads had been placed in the local papers offering compensation up to $2000 a month to anyone who volunteered to fight with Hezbollah in Lebanon -- quite a sum in a country where the average income is $800 a month. The same source told me he thought Iran’s involvement in the region was intended to stimulate the Arabs [Iranians are Persian, not Arab]. By adopting an Arab cause Iran was hoping to secure the support of the Sunni, Arab community in Iran's conflict with the U.S. over uranium enrichment and other issues).

Question: Tell me about relations between men and women.

Answer: Ten years ago, I was taken in by the police for being alone in the car with my girlfriend (now Ali's wife). Today, if the police want to bother an unmarried couple, we just tell them to mind their own business.

Question: What do you think of Ahmadinejad?

Answer: There are a few jokes in Iran about our president. He is known to be obsessed with the return of the Mahdi (The "Mahdi" is the 12th and last Imam in Shi’ite Islam eschatology. He is believed to have gone into hiding in the 9th century and is expected to return on the Day of Judgment to institute a kingdom of justice ). With so much construction on the highways leading to and through Tehran, there were jokes circulating that Ahmadinejad wanted to make sure the returning Mahdi would not be stuck in a traffic jam.

Another joke: in 2005 Iran suffered from an outbreak of cholera caused by contaminated water. Iranians joked that the outbreak began when Ahmadinejad (who is really scruffy) had dropped his socks in the water supply.

And one more: When there was a water-shortage in Tehran, locals joked that the water had all been used by Ahmadinejad who had decided, finally, to take a bath.

The Den of Espionage

My hotel was right around the corner from the former American Embassy or “Den of Spies” as it had been colloquially renamed. Twenty-five years ago, American diplomats were held hostage in the Embassy for 444 days creating a deep rift in Iranian-American relations. Today, the wall of the complex is decorated with anti-American murals of a gun painted with the stars and stripes of the American flag, a skeletal statue of liberty and an ominous promise by the Ayatollah Khomeini that “we will make America suffer a great defeat.” The gate of the American Embassy was decorated with a crumbling American seal that made me feel a bit sad. I wasn’t used to seeing symbols of this powerful nation in such careless disrepair.

Of course I was dying to take photos but I was told that it was now an official governmental complex occupied by the hard line Sepah militia and that it was illegal to take photos. It was impossible not to notice the strategically placed security cameras.

Ali suggested I come back later, take photos, and if the police came, just play the stupid-foreigner-without-a-clue card. Yeh, like I’m going to piss off the police on my first day in the Islamic Republic.

I did come back later that day and futilely tried to capture the images by hiding my camera under my coat and shooting from the hip. All I got were unrecognizable blurs and the tops of parked cars.  Later in my trip,  I learned that a foreign friend, Hanna from Holland, was happily and naively snapping away at the propaganda when some locals warned her that someone had been taken away a day earlier for taking the same photographs. Luckily, she had already gotten shots of the most belligerent images.

 The Subway

At about 9 a.m., Ali and I decided to start the “tour” slowly by visiting the Tehran Ancient History Museum.  I was still a bit giddy by the fact that I was actually in Iran and tried to absorb as much as I could:  the stop lights that had counters (99, 98, 98 … 2, 1 GO!), the fact that some women wore chadors and others donned the other “uniform,” a veil, long coat with, often, jeans and high heels peeping from below, the ubiquitous charity boxes (I’ll get to those later), the deep, wide, precarious gutters on either side of the streets and the incessant, yet polite, honking. I guess part of me was still under the impression that I would be booted out any minute and wanted to at least memorize the moments I had in Iran.

Because it was now rush hour in Tehran, we opted to take the subway to the museum. Surprisingly, (I didn’t know what to expect) the station was very clean and modern with a number of giant plasma TVs entertaining passengers with soccer highlights before they boarded the underground. I was told that the first two cars of the subway trains were “family cars,” that is, reserved only for women and children. The rest were supposed to be mixed.

The inconsistency of the segregation of the sexes is striking here and perhaps reflects socioeconomic differences and hence, degrees of religiosity (at least that was my take on it).  Regular city buses are strictly segregated – a rope in the middle of the buses separate male and female riders. Airplanes are mixed – except on flights from Mashad (Iran’s holiest city) when I noticed that women donning black chadors sat separated in the back of the plane. I, as an androgynous American, was thrown in with the men and secular Iranian women in the front. Some taxi riders prefer to shuffle around so that unmarried men and women don’t sit next to each other, others just take a seat wherever they can. Most restaurants in the countryside and traditional areas have designated “family sections” where women, children and their husbands dine hidden behind curtains. One fellow said he preferred this arrangement because it prevented men from staring at his wife and daughter-in-law. In northern Tehran, by contrast, I saw unmarried couples canoodling in dark corners of European-style coffee shops and expensive international restaurants.

Still too petrified to go off on my own, I boarded the subway with Ali in one of the “mixed” cars. I was, of course, suitably covered but felt unbelievably conspicuous. I appeared to be the only woman as far as I could see. I don’t think anyone ogled although I couldn’t be sure since I stared at the ground as if I was thrown uninvited into a male locker room. I tried to make the best of the situation by studying shoes. In the very uncomfortable 15 minute ride, I discovered that Iranian men wore one of three types of shoes:  sandals with socks, loafers or stylish pointy dress shoes. This dazzling bit of information carried with me for two weeks as I involuntarily found myself paying undue attention to men’s feet.

.Waiting in Tehran

After a lovely morning at the museum (the most intriguing display was the “Salt Man,” a preserved man’s skull complete with wiry beard and his disembodied leg found lodged in his boot), we returned to the hotel where I checked in. 

The room wasn’t too fancy, just a small bed, TV and a refrigerator with a jug of water and a small bottle of mineral water. No beers in this “honor bar” – although, some hotels in Iran were well stocked with “Iranian beer,” -- near beer with fruit flavoring -- and candy bars.

Particularly striking was the small picture of the Ka’aba taped to one wall and a closet filled with a Quran, a prayer rug and a laundry bag with the former name of the hotel written on it. This hotel wasn't unusual, all hotels in Iran had some indicator of the qibla – the direction of Mecca and most provided rugs, Qurans (one even translated into English!) and even small clay circles on which Shi’ite Muslims place their foreheads during prayer times.

The laundry bag was still marked with the original name and address of the hotel: Hotel Semiramis on Roosevelt Ave., a street that had been named after the U.S. president because it ran alongside the American Embassy. After the revolution, 1000s of streets and institutions were renamed to reflect the new Islamic, revolutionary face of Iran. Roosvelt (sic) Ave. was renamed Taleqani Avenue after a beloved ayatollah who led the first Friday prayer after the victory of the Islamic Revolution. Hotel Semiramis (named after a legendary Assyrian queen) was renamed Hotel Mashad or “place of martyrdom” after Iran’s holiest city.

 

I had  had plenty of time to explore and photograph all the corners of my tiny hotel room while waiting obediently for Ali’s first call. Not yet a whole day in Iran and I already desperately missed my cell phone. An hour after the appointed time, the phone rang, “I’m trying to arrange a change in your schedule to include a trip to Mashad, my hometown. I’ll call back in one hour.” I made the mistake of taking a little catnap between calls expecting to be roused in an hour. Two and a half hours later, I gave up and decided to venture out on my own.

Still scared that the police would nab me for having a camera, or not being covered properly or not accurately stating my aims in Iran etc. etc., I walked conservatively around the block, not daring to cross the street or enter any shops. Okay, the real reason I didn’t cross the street was because of the dangerously erratic Iranian driving. I didn’t dare tell my mother that I would have an infinitely higher chance of dying under the wheels of a Paykan (one of Iran’s national automobile brands) than getting kidnapped. Truth is, the entire trip, I was too afraid to cross the street without someone guiding me or holding my hand. One could often see a long line of pedestrians standing side by side playing a very sophisticated game of “frogger” across Iranian avenues. Remember that video game? Using a joystick, players bounce little frogs across heavy traffic one lane at a time. Doddle too long or jump too quickly and SPLAT, the little froggy became road kill. The nice thing about “frogger” is that you can put another quarter in the slot and miraculously buy a new life. Also better in the game, the cars respect the lanes.

In Iran, if three lanes were marked on a street, chances are that five or six cars would try to squeeze in. In one city, the government even put up signs reminding drivers to respect the marked lanes (they didn’t).

Red lights were merely a “guideline” like “do not walk” signs in New York City. If no one was coming, the intersection was fair game and cars readily sped through red lights to get to the other side.  To make matters worse, motorcyclists often rode down either lane or even down the sidewalks leaving no safe-zone for pedestrians. In one area, a two-way street ended without warning a couple blocks down leaving unaware motorists suddenly facing oncoming traffic.  And, in one case at least, one-way street signs were spray-painted by motorists eager to travel in the other direction.

In a manner that could only be found in Iran, though, the drivers seemed surprisingly courteous and even-tempered. I likened it to a school of fish that could swim precariously close to each other but miraculously never touch. I’m not saying that cars didn’t bump into each other in Iran. In 12 days I counted 13 accidents, but the skill with which the cars manage to navigate inches around each other was really remarkable and I didn’t see any signs of road rage. One time, a car banged into one of the tour buses at an intersection leaving a nasty dent on the car’s front bumper. The tour bus driver shared a few words from his window to the driver which I guessed went something like this: “hey you idiot, where’d you learn to drive, America?” and then the two drove off without concern. No police, no pulling over to swap insurance information, no fist-fight, no rubber-necking.  

As I climbed the stairs to my room in hopes of receiving a call from a now elusive Ali, a man walking down the stairs offered the standard greeting, "Salaam." After Ali informed me that indeed, I can act normally with people here (which, in my world, meant returning greetings and smiling when I was in a good mood), I quickly replied with "Salaam." I don’t really know why, but the fellow, who called himself Mohammed, turned around and followed me up to my room bragging about his English language abilities and boldly asking me to join him in his room. When I said no, he asked “why?” “Why?!!! Well because you’re a strange man in a strange country,” I thought to myself. I wouldn’t even follow a familiar man in a familiar country into his room after saying “hello.” In the latter part of my trip when I traveled alone, I noticed that many men would follow my rejections of their absurd, very forward requests with “why?” as if “no” just wasn’t an acceptable answer. I finally came up with a response that was sure to send any man scurrying away: “Why? Because my HUSBAND wouldn’t be very happy.” Okay so it was a lie but it was much better than trying to come up with a reason that wasn’t just plain rude. Unfortunately, I hadn’t yet learned the magic words when Mohammed was standing outside my hotel room. With him blocking the path to the stairs, I had no other option than to escape into my room. For the next two days, Mohammed called me every few hours asking if he could take me to dinner, show me Tehran, share a drink, invite me to his room etc. When I returned late, he called the minute I got into the room telling me how worried he was. I was more than a little relieved to check out of that place without leaving any trail that Mohammed could follow. I don’t really know whether he had any ill intentions but after being told that American women had a reputation in Iran of being easy, seductive and corruptive, I began to understand the basis for the many many brash advances. I also felt a little sorry for the men who seemed to be pathetically desperate to get a little female attention.  

It was about 10:30 pm when Ali finally called – 5 hours after he had promised. He claimed to have had some kind of emergency and I bought it at the time. What else could I do. By that time, I had wasted most of my first day in Tehran in my room avoiding a horny Iranian madman and waiting anxiously for the promised invitation to see the dazzling northern part of Tehran. By 10:45, Ali did show up with his gorgeous wife and mother-in-law in tow. About the only thing I could handle that night was a trip to the ice cream store (a tradition among Iranians all over the world). They served me something they called ice noodles which was citrus-flavored ice cream frozen around a special kind of flour. It was delicious but swam in a pool of sweetened water. Careful to avoid ingesting unfamiliar bacteria, which I was sure would give me crippling diarrhea; I ate only half and planned to toss the rest. The waste was badly received. I guess here nothing should be left behind and the rest of the people in the car forced themselves to finish my half-eaten carton.

After a few more nights waiting like an idiot in my hotel room for phone calls (from other Iranians) I understood that time was relative here and promises weak.

Day 2