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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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,
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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