Iran: Summer of 1998

by Paul L. Heck

Terrorism, anti-Americanism, religious fanaticism. It was humbling to admit being nervous as I approached the Iranian border station. It seemed almost comical in its disrepair, and yet it was the only government authority in this isolated desert some thirty kilometers east of the Turkish town of Doğubeyazit. I had thought I was beyond the fears of Iran that my American childhood had driven into me, but when I was called out of line and led to an office out of view of all other humans, I began to wonder whether going to Iran had been such a good idea after all.

Three weeks later I found myself in a café off Tajreesh square amidst Tehran’s upscale northern neighborhoods. I was lingering over a chocolate milkshake, reading an article on freedom of the press in the latest issue of Payām-e Imrūz (Today’s Message) while trying to ignore—and yet still drawn to—the noise of young people, girls and boys, chatting away, smoking, laughing, enjoying ice-cream.

The border officer into whose office I had been led announced how happy he was that I had come to Iran. Offering me tea, he said he only need to know why I had come to Iran and what cities I planned to visit. Before sending me on my way, he advised me to get my visa updated if I planned to stay longer than the month that the Embassy of Iran in Ankara had granted me. Before I knew it, I was outside in the bright sun and surrounded by eager moneychangers. A chunk of riyals was placed in my hands for a fifty-dollar note, and I was on my way to Tabriz, the first Iranian city ahead of me. The impact of my American education was still with me. I could not believe I was in Iran. That night in Tabriz, as I walked along in the company of Ferhad, a university student I had met at a fruit-juice stand near the city’s central park (Bāgh-e Ghulistān), the conversation turned to America. Fear of America had been as much a part of his education as fear of Iran had been of mine. As we parted, he said, “Still, young Iranians, and even not so young ones, have changed their idea of America.” The Iranians to which he referred slowly became part of my life over the next four weeks.

Another hot and noisy afternoon found me on the crowded streets of Shah-e Cherāgh, the major shrine of Shiraz. A beautiful school, called Madrase-ye Khan, where aspiring religious scholars had been taught for centuries, became my refuge from the sun that afternoon. The grounds were vacated, signaling summer vacation. A handful of workers repairing the northern portico soon departed. One soul remained to greet me in the shade of the school’s garden, a middle-aged man by the name of Seyyid Hussein. He was quite thin, almost emaciated looking in his white robe. His beard and the hair on his head were matted together in clumps, hardly surprising since he had spent the past thirty hours on a bus coming from Mashhad in northeastern Iran to make the pilgrimage to the shrine in Shiraz.

“Why do Americans hate Iranians?” His candor implied he was at ease with me. I wanted to respond in kind, but as a guest in Iran, I did not want to dwell on allegations of terrorism, nor did it seem right to raise American reservations about the existence of religiously based republics in the modern world. Instead, I mentioned the hostages. Americans, I said, had not forgotten. The ill will, I added, was hardly one way. What about those slogans? “Death to America!” “The Great Satan?” Such words, I suggested, did not leave a favorable impression. A genuine look of regret appeared on his face, and he tried to explain.

People in general, he claimed, were now sorry about the hostages and hoped Americans could leave the event in the past. The use of “satan,” he maintained, was more complex. In Iran, it is used for tricksters, who say one thing and do another for the sake of gain. He said Iranians use it often enough among themselves. Even a child who always tries to get his or her way is called a satan. He could see that I wasn’t convinced that it didn’t have a specific meaning when applied to America.

He then became quite serious. Iranians may have taken a handful of Americans hostage and burnt American flags, but it was done openly. It is nothing compared to the suffering America has inflicted on us, saying one thing and doing another. How many thousands died in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) and at the hands of Mujahideen in Afghanistan by American-supplied weapons? [Recall that this was before 9/11.] Why does America always distort the image of Islam? We, he insisted, are the moderates. Our Afghani neighbors are the extremists, tribal people unable to speak anything but their barbarian Pashto tongue. Yet America along with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan is financing them, creating a system that knows neither reason nor civilization, all to convince the world how awful Islam is. The Taliban, Sunni extremists in his view, are a highly disruptive force in the region. [Again, this is before we attacked the Taliban in the wake of 9/11.] That’s another plus for American interests. Yes, he concluded, America has been the great trickster.

His reasoning had its merits. I had no doubt that my government, like any other, worked to promote its interests, but didn’t the US and Iran have shared interests to pursue? His argument smacked of conspiracy, and without saying it, I wondered whether the US manipulated things in his region of the world with the ease of organization he claimed. I began to see the gap between the way Americans saw things and the way Iranians saw things, blocking mutual understanding. We parted with a warm smile and a firm handshake, and he said to me, “I hope more Americans and Iranians can talk like this.” [It has been my prayer ever since.]

Others viewed America less critically. Almost everyone, when they heard me say I am American, stood open-mouthed for several seconds before regaining composure. Nearly all treated me as a personal guest. The fruit-juice vendors refused my money for the first glass. One young man whom I met at one of the fruit-juice stands awkwardly pressed a pomegranate into my hand, saying it was all he could offer. I awkwardly received it, knowing it was all he could offer. During four weeks of wandering around Iran, only two people did not welcome me warmly. Both had been wounded in the Iran-Iraq War and, I believe, held America partly responsible for its role in arming Iraq. One had taken a bullet in his abdomen. The other had inhaled chemical gas into his lungs.

The respect with which I was greeted as an American puzzled me, and I began to consider why this was so. A hotel manager in Shiraz, in business for fifteen years, said I was the third American he had come across. Was the warm reception due to rarity, like the exotic bird whose appearance seasoned watchers greet with excitement or perhaps relief in knowing that the species still exists? Of course, American power and prosperity, science and technology, all command global attention. Perhaps people would have been no less amazed had they seen a computer made in the USA rather than me. But American products were a familiar sight in all the stores, and no one eyed them as they did me. Besides, while I know the world values power before all else, I find it difficult to believe that the vendors were thinking about American weapons when they treated me to the first round of cantaloupe juice. Was there any answer to this Iranian-American enigma?

My trip to Shiraz was motivated by my desire to visit the tombs of two classical Persian poets, Sa‘di, who died near the end of the thirteenth century, and Hafiz, who died near the end of the fourteenth. I had taken two planes to get to Shiraz—the first from Tabriz to Tehran where I then boarded another flight to Shiraz. It was like a trip from Chicago to Boston with transit in Washington, DC. The main difference was the price. The total trip cost 1500 tomans, roughly twenty-six dollars at the time. With gas selling at twenty-five cents a litter, travel was cheap. The eight-hour bus ride from Shiraz to Isfahan cost about eighty cents.

The two poets still resonate deeply with the Persian soul even after centuries, especially Hafiz whose poetry reminds Iranians of the mystical side to their daily life. On the coffee table of every family in Iran is a copy of the Qur’an and a copy of Hafiz’ poems, which are consulted in time of doubt or confusion. Some might call it chance, but Iranians take it seriously, pondering deeply over the first page to be opened in search of a message, some hint of advice for the particular situation at hand. It is a way to locate the divine intuitions in one’s life. Many claim it actually works.

I set out by cab to the tomb of Hafiz early in the morning after my nighttime arrival to Shiraz, as if on pilgrimage, anticipating a peaceful morning in the tea garden next to the sanctuary where I intended to meditate and read a few poems in homage to the master. I might as well have hoped for a McDonald’s in Iran. Placing my order for tea, the cashier couldn’t keep away from me. This was his first sighting of an American, a moment, it turned out, he had long dreamed of. His behavior was the closest thing I saw to fanaticism in Iran. Only it wasn’t religious fanaticism. The passion that consumed him was classic American film, everything from Clark Gable to Judy Garland. When he saw that I was not able to keep up with his knowledge of American culture of the good old days, he kindly turned to more recent productions, asking me my thoughts on Titanic and Basic Instinct. He had seen them all. America, he said with a wistful yearning, is paradise. I hesitated to disagree for fear it would break his heart. Besides, weren’t American films banned in Iran? What had happened to the repressive regime and its policy of strangling the life out of its people as reported by US media? Was the mystical moment I had hoped to experience in Shiraz reduced to the highly contestable statement that America is paradise?

The manager of the tea garden, Ja‘far, was much more reasonable. His dream was Tahiti, to live on a deserted island—a tropical rather than cinematic paradise. His knowledge of geography was striking for a man who had left Iran only once to visit neighboring Turkey. He read a lot and had long ago settled upon Tahiti as the only realistic salvation for an Iranian. There, as he saw it, he would do nothing, just eat fruit and forget the frustration of Iranian bureaucracy. His government, he claimed, was broken: “kharāb.” [Americans in 2014 might share the gridlock frustration.]

Ja‘far directed the cook to prepare a pot of stew for me, without charge, of course. I began to feel partially compensated for not getting the mystical moment I had sought in coming to the shrine. There was a man at the tea garden visiting Shiraz from the suburb of Tehran called Karaj, and Ja‘far suggested he accompany me for the rest of the day. Rasuli was his name. He had maneuvered his way into our conversation as only Iranians can do, first eavesdropping, then offering a comment, and finally joining us at our table, as closely involved in the discussion on American film and Tahiti as the rest of us. Private space in Iran is not that same as in the US, and Rasuli’s insertion of himself into the conversation was not seen as unusual but even welcomed as if Iranians enjoyed as much close company as is physically possible. In any event, I welcomed the opportunity to tour the city with an Iranian.

We visited religious sites, wandered around the bazaar, and trekked up to a park on the city’s northern heights just before sunset. I enjoyed the view across the urban panorama. Rasuli, like Seyyid Hussein, was proud to see that I was enjoying my American self in Iran. Entering the inner sanctuary of Shah-e Cherāgh, he took the risk of explaining Islam to me. He was a bit insistent that I know the truth, perhaps hoping I might be as comfortable with Islam as I was with Iranians. It was late afternoon, and I was becoming tired. I was also a bit taken aback to find an Iranian so eager to explain his religion since up to the point interest in sharing religious sentiment had been entirely absent from my encounters. My fears from the border station returned. At that moment, in the holy of holies, I began to wonder who paid Rasuli’s salary. But then I thought, if Seyyid Hussein were there, he’d laugh at my paranoia just as I had shrugged off his ideas of American conspiracy in the region.

There is a tea-house perched above the northern wall of Isfahan’s Emam Square. I would occasionally play chess there with the owner’s son, Muhammad, who never failed to beat me. Other times, I’d go there before sunset and gaze out at the square below. Hundreds of people, families with children, would descend upon the square at night to enjoy the evening breeze, wander around, eat ice cream, picnic on the green, relax, little boys and girls running after each other, playing soccer, rolling in the grass. It seemed idyllic and contrasted with the constant requests I received for information on getting to America—taxi drivers, soldiers, money-changers, students, everyone. I found it so pleasant to visit the square at night, watch the moon reflected in the domes of the Safavid-era mosques, lie in the cool of the night on stone benches still warm from the day’s heat. Alternatively, I would wander down the tree-lined Chahar Bagh Avenue towards the river and its famous bridges where people gather to look at one other. No evidence could I find to support the claim of nearly every Iranian I met that it would be much better to leave Iran for America.

My bus from Shiraz to Isfahan had dropped me off at Emam Square well before dawn, but to my surprise it was already occupied with people pursuing various exercises. A little down the road I came upon a beautiful park, Hesht-e Behesht, which also was abuzz with early morning activity that included a vigorous volleyball match. Had I fallen out of the Middle East into Southern California? My suspicion was nearly confirmed as I observed the occasional person walking by briskly, stopping only to pick up a neglected piece of trash. Iranians seemed to be leading lives rich in exercise, cuisine, arts and literature. There was almost a hungry pursuit for the fullness of life, and yet at the same time they complained about the wretchedness of their lives in Iran. I was beginning to become skeptical.

Shiraz, too, had its park where the activity of choice on weekend mornings was ping-pong rather than volleyball. No table was free on Friday, the weekly holiday. This full engagement with life seemed at odds with the Iranian self-perception. A cab driver in Tehran told me that anti-American propaganda had little effect. Nearly everyone knows someone in America and hears stories of the happy life there. Alas, he sighed, there are no Americans in Iran to report back the sad face of Iranian life. I had to voice my disagreement. Iranians, I told him, were very much under illusion about life in America and also about their own lives as wretched in comparison. They had somehow convinced themselves that America was paradise, Iran the inferno.

Tehran is the city with the greatest concentration of bookstores in the world. You can find all types, some specializing in religious texts in Arabic, others in school textbooks, but most offering a range of literature. Foreign literature translated into Persian was widely available, especially philosophical and historical works. I was a little suspicious at first that there might be a market for so many bookstores, until I began to talk to people.

The desire for knowledge, to refine oneself through knowledge, is quite conspicuous in Iran. Upon arriving in Shiraz late at night, I made my way to the Sasan Hotel where I hoped to find lodging. A young man, about twenty, greeted me in impeccable English with no noticeable accent. The hotel was full, but we chatted a bit. He asked me if I’d like to know how he had learned English, since, so he claimed, he had never left Iran in his life. Without waiting for my response, he proudly revealed that he had sat in his room for three months, listening to the Voice of America night and day. I was struck at this instance of such intense focus, but the more I spoke with people, the more I saw such bursts of scholarly concentration as routine part of Iran’s cultural ways. Knowledge for the sake of a refined life: That seemed the message in the cultural exploits of the nation, sullied only by the pride that the occasional Iranian took in his or her own accomplishments.

It was in Shiraz above all that people deftly combined desire and endurance in pursuit of knowledge. One night, while enjoying a pizza in a restaurant on a corner of Shiraz’ main avenue, my eye caught a young gentleman in his twenties standing outside. He was a vendor of books and had spread his wares on the pavement to attract passersby. We looked at each other and smiled. I pointed to the pizza, inviting him to join me as so many had invited me. He shook his head and waited for me to finish. As I left the restaurant, he pulled me aside in the hope, it turned out, of speaking English. He was a bit surprised to see that the language spilling off my tongue was the same as his. We sat for a while, sharing a bit about ourselves. His name was Ali, and he belonged to the famous Qashqa‘i tribe. He had no formal education to speak of and had never set foot in a university, and yet he had managed to teach himself English well enough to read everything he could get his hands on. He especially enjoyed existential philosophy and American literature. He had read all of T.S. Eliot and English translations of a few of Nietzsche’s works. I could see he was a little disappointed when the American before him showed trouble in keeping up his end of the conversation on such topics.

His scholarly endeavors had left their impact on this young man who called home the tribal region around Shiraz. Ali defined himself as a human first before any ethnic or religious category. His thoughts were very sophisticated for someone the world would label an uneducated man. He was also rather sad. Fate is a concept with a deep hold on the Iranian soul—a sense of the ineluctable dictates behind life’s events. Ali’s reading of Nietzsche had given his fatalism a nihilistic tinge. He saw no meaning in life, nothing but the allotment of deprivation that fate had determined for him. There he was, a young, bright, energetic soul, consigned to a life of peddling books on the streets of Shiraz for a few pennies daily profit. Yet I wanted to tell him that never had I met anyone who had made so much out of so little and who had defied fate and the circumstances into which he had been born. I wondered how many others like him were back in his tribal lands. He returns there once a week, not because he likes going back but because there is a girl who, as he put it, has taken possession of his heart. As long as she is there, he will go back. Such is love, he explained. Before parting, he took my address and expressed a desire that we become cultural friends. I hope he writes.

Religion seemed such a hidden affair in Iran. It is impossible not to notice the parades for the revolution and its great martyrs, the daily television sermons in praise of the Islamic Republic of Iran, but religion itself seemed so publicly limited. My travels in other countries in the Middle East had accustomed me to the sight of men in prayer, prostrating on mats in public—at street corners and in parks. That kind of piety seemed wholly absent in Iran.

Only one man, Ihsan, discussed religion with me in a way that suggested real commitment. He managed a book store on Karim Khan-e Zand Avenue in Shiraz. His was a moderately enthusiastic piety. He did not demand my conversion to Islam unlike so many I have encountered in other places in the region. The central piece in Ihsan’s belief system was the need for divine guidance on earth. The Prophet Muhammad, though perfect, was gone, and yet guidance was still necessary. One, of course, had to choose one’s guide with care. Ihsan claimed that his guide, Ayatollah Khomeini, was a voice of moderation and unity for the troubled world of Islam and a skilled judge of the signs of the times. For example, Imam Khomeini had permitted Shi‘a to pray behind a Sunni prayer leader. Ihsan said that his father would never accept that, but he can. The real enemy of Muslims being Israel, Ihsan concluded, Muslims ought not to bicker among themselves.

I wanted to suggest to Ihsan that he had actually used his own judgment to determine the kind of spiritual guide he wanted. Could his own capacity to discern good from bad not serve him as his guide? But time for prayer came, and Ihsan invited me to join him in the mosque across the street. I sat quietly at the back of the courtyard, watching Ihsan perform the ritual with others. My happiness in observing this gentle expression of devotion was upset, as was my stomach, at seeing a bearded youth, perhaps twenty, totting a machine-gun as he watched over the congregation. His occasional nervous twitch and apparent instability unleashed wild scenarios in my imagination. He finally put the gun away, performed the ritual ablutions, and joined the group in prayer. I still wanted to distance myself from this bizarre scene, which no one else seemed to think unusual, and I hurriedly bade my adieu to Ihsan after prayer was completed and made my way out into the crowded streets of Shiraz.

In Isfahan I found myself again faced by this odd combination of piety and violence at the Cemetery of the Martyrs (Ghulistān-e Shuhadā’). It was moving to gaze for a moment at all the photos, framed and mounted on endless rows of gravestones. These were the Martyrs of the Revolution who had offered themselves to the nation in the war against Iraq. I was stunned into silence as I looked at the lost lives of young men, so many, all of them young, teenagers and early twenties. It was a powerful witness to something, but I could not think what that something for which these youth had given themselves as a worthy cause could be. Had they really died so that the spiritual leader of the nation not be humiliated against his enemies?

Later that day, I was relaxing in the cool passageway under Isfahan’s Kaju Bridge where young students go to flirt. I could hear the rush of the Ziyandeh River below me and began once again to think about Iran, a country that could both adulate the American way of life and send its children into a war to die for their supreme leader. But before I became too absorbed in my thoughts, a man in his thirties sat down next to me, clearly interested in the foreigner at rest amidst the Iranians. His name was Hussein, an unemployed painter who passed his day idly like so many young Iranian males, hoping for employment and stimulation. He humbly introduced himself, and I began to share with him my feeling from the Cemetery of the Martyrs. It just happened that at that time the Taliban in Afghanistan had kidnapped a number of Iran’s diplomats, a Sunni slap in the face of the Shi‘a nation. Iran would respond by massing its troops on its border with Afghanistan. I mentioned to Hussein my distaste at this combination of piety and power. Even aside from the question of religion, history shows that war only perpetuates violence. He didn’t agree, claiming that war is sometimes the only way to right a wrong. Dialogue and diplomacy, which I had emphasized, often breakdown, making force a legitimate way to attain goals, even, he added, religious goals. I remained firm: The struggle for justice is important, even necessary, but must be undertaken without weapons. Violence, I confessed, may well be endemic to the human species, but I insisted we at least try to end the cycle. He smiled at me as one would at an enthusiastic but naïve child. Later that week, America bombed targets in the Sudan and Afghanistan in revenge of its honor, violated by the explosions at its embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

The thought that came to mind as I paid one last visit to the shrine of Shah-e Cherāgh in Shiraz was that I too should go on pilgrimage. As I joined in with the mass of pilgrims, I sensed no devotional urgency. Entering the shrine to pay homage to the saint seemed the last thing on people’s minds. Rather, the scores of families on pilgrimage had dispersed themselves throughout the compound, gathered together in the shade under the portico that ran the length of the courtyard. In my solitude I couldn’t help feeling a little envious of the solidarity of these families enjoying their picnic lunches, laughing together, being together, as a family. I wondered at this conception of the holy place, which, from what I observed, meant a picnic with the family. People did arise now and then to proceed ever so solemnly to the shrine’s central sanctuary, to pray for forgiveness, cry over their regrets, and perhaps ask for a favor. But all that seemed incidental to the centrality of the family picnic to the pilgrimage. I liked the idea of pilgrimage as the designation of a time and place to become more keenly attuned to the holiness of the family picnic.

Slowly, I began to get a better sense for life in Iran. From my conversations, I reached the conclusion that the desire for freedom runs deep in the Iranian soul. This had prompted the nation in the past to demand the end of foreign control—Russian, British, and then American. But things had become a little muddled since the struggle for freedom was now a struggle not against foreign potentate but a struggle within the nation. A carpet salesman in Isfahan, Iraj by name, kindly invited me to lunch with him and his business partner. We enjoyed company and conversation. As merchants, they expressed deep discontent with the government, its clerical leadership, and the obstacles it created to national prosperity. Where, they asked sarcastically, do these mullahs get all their money—“az kojā avordand?” Iraj become more philosophical and spoke of the desire for freedom that I found so pervasive. With a serious look on his face, he stated emphatically that the government may put obstacles in front of him, even take away his freedom of movement, but it can never touch his thoughts.

Freedom seems a bit maladjusted in Iran today. Young men I meet tell me they want to go to America to taste freedom, but when I ask them what freedom means, they almost all respond, “Freedom to be with girls” (bā dokhtarhā). This was interesting. It was not exactly intellectual or political freedom they sought. To be sure, people have to be discreet, but whenever I was pulled aside, people never hesitated to criticize the government and its success in destroying the economy. One man with whom I had struck up a conversation in Freedom (Azādī) Park in Tehran announced to me quite loudly that he thought Khomeini a monkey—“Khomeini maymun bud!” I was equally surprised at the comments of university students in Isfahan who attributed the cultural bankruptcy in Iran to religion and its attempts to curtail freedom to speak, and yet I felt the need to remind one of them as we conversed on a busy street that he was expressing himself with complete freedom at that very moment.

The underlying issue seemed to be one of sexual freedom. Was this what the demand for freedom in Iran is all about? Some might argue that a desire for sexual freedom is simply the driver for political freedom. One is truly free to govern oneself only when one is free to decide when and how and with whom to have sex. But the idea seems reductionist. Is that the essence of human freedom? Iranians, I found, lead a daily life not very different from Americans, the one difference being sexual freedom. The governments of Iran and America accuse each other of terrorism. Both seek to exert their influence over the Persian Gulf and Caspian Sea in the battle for control of oil. What is the grand struggle between the two nations all about? Is it ultimately a question of sexuality, its place and purpose in society, and how it is defined?

The young women of the upscale northern sections of Tehran let their veils slip back on their heads. The act is both politically provocative and sexually suggestive. In the conservative city of Kashan, which lies between Isfahan and Tehran, there is a park, Bāgh-e Fīn, built during the Qajar dynasty (1779-1924). It is a lovely refuge from the hubbub of the city—streams and evergreen trees behind tall walls. It also serves as a place for young men and women to flirt. Two young ladies sitting on the bench next to me offered me a cookie as a way to strike up a conversation. We spoke a bit about ourselves, and then they asked me to call them at their home in Qum, the holy city of Iran with all its seminaries and mullahs in training! When I hesitated, one of them asked whether I didn’t want to speak with them by phone. I didn’t want to be rude, and they were vivacious and pretty to my eye, although in my mind I knew I wouldn’t be calling them. They couldn’t give me their phone number openly, so they directed me to meet them, as if in passing, in a corner of the park where they could quickly slip me their number. I was now part of the art of seduction in modern Iran.

I took their number and bid them adieu. I assumed that this would be a singular experience for me in what was supposed to be a conservative society. But humans are humans. Not much time had passed when I felt myself being followed by two other ladies with marked sexual insinuation. This, I gradually realized, is fairly common in Iran because it doesn’t carry the risks it would in American society. You can share meaningful glances, even savory phrases, knowing that nothing will come of it. If whispers and promises turned into unwanted advances, people would quickly intervene as self-appointed guardians of the nation’s morality. It does free one, perhaps especially females, to relate with the opposite sex without fear. The limits are well established. Still, I was surprised at the forwardness of this new pair of young ladies on my tracks. One quickly asked me whether I thought Iranian girls pretty. I said I had no opinion since I knew them only by sight. What they thought about the world and aspired to remained unknown to me. At that, she asked if I had a girlfriend. When I said I didn’t, she asked whether I’d like her as my girlfriend, and we could talk about all sorts of things together. Was it a game? Or did I sense a hope on her part that I would sweep her away, then and there, from a world so carefully regulated that it rode roughshod over her yearnings within? I began to see a justice in the struggle for sexual liberation. She was a bundle of confused emotions, which she will only have a chance to discover and explore once she is married. Of course, sexual freedom in America doesn’t necessarily result in emotional maturity, and I don’t find gender relations in my own beloved nation to be a model of harmony and mutuality. Still, I wondered whether marriage in Iran is a matter of sexual convenience. One has to get married to have sex. Was this better than the system in America, where one can easily have sex without marriage? Why do we have sex, after all?

Cultural relativism aside, I was starting to sense that Iranians had suffered in recent decades from the politically organized repression of sexual expression. Was this the gist of repression in Iran? I wondered whether it would help things if Americans were simply to admit this as the goal of their struggle with the regime of mullahs. It might make more sense of America’s calls for greater freedom in Iran. Once people are sexually liberated, all else will follow, no? If we cannot admit that our struggle with Iran is really one about sex, then we will have to cede our claim to the moral high ground and confess that we’re really in the fight in order to control the region and its resources. Still, given what I see in my own country, I’m still not sure what sexual liberation really means.

In Isfahan, three young men invited me to tour the city by car: Muhammad, his best friend Shahram, and Muhammad’s cousin Alireza. They gave me a tour (rather a taste) of Iran’s sexual, rather than Isfahan’s urban, landscape. We drove wildly across town with Alireza behind the wheel and forbidden Persian music, produced in America, blaring from the radio—the tunes of Daryush and Laila. The conversation focused on sex. They stopped speaking about sex only at the occasional sight of a lovely woman standing on a street corner. At those moments, the three men directed their entire psychological energy at her, shouting all sorts of remarks about her looks and their yearnings. The ladies, for their part, pretended to be disgusted but could not totally hide their pleasure at being the object of male attention. It was all amusing in a way, but also a bit disheartening, this way of negotiating the sexual parameters of society in Iran, and I felt for a moment that I had returned to junior high school with its twisted, confused, tortured, and sometimes explosive emotions.

Later that night over kebab prepared by Muhammad’s mother, we discussed the matter. None of the three thought mixing with girls a bad thing, but it was simply not allowed. Alireza narrated how he had been caught with a girl some years ago and sent to prison for a few days where he received a sound thrashing by a mullah. He now harbored deep-seated and possibly permanent animosity towards religion as a whole. His cousin Muhammad tried to take a more objective stance. Things in Iran, he explained, were sexually confused, leaving people feeling strangled by the regime. Even the government, he continued, now recognized that the attempts to control the sexuality of the nation had been a mistake. But for the government to admit that openly now would be to deny the very grounds upon which it based its claim to rule, so much of which was based on governance of sexual morals. Besides, he added, it was useful for the government to heighten the stakes around sexual desires as a way to distract people from the real problems facing the nation. Again, it struck me how closely the sexual and the political were connected in Iran. Muhammad expressed his hope that the government under the leadership of President Khatami could gradually distance itself from its repressive sexual policies in order to reestablish itself on a true basis of political legitimacy. He connected this, as I suspected, to the Iranian fascination with America. Certainly, he stated, sexual liberation would free people from their sexual obsessions, allowing them to devote more energy to creating educational and professional opportunities for themselves. And, he concluded with a wry smile, with sexual freedom, we would no longer be interested in America.

The beautiful park in northwestern Shiraz, Bāgh-e Irām, offered refuge from the city’s unexpected poverty. As I sat amidst the streams and fruit trees, I realized that this is what I had expected from Iran: the cool shade of peaceful gardens in which to think and converse with undemanding and truly refined companions. I believe Hafiz composed his poetry in a place like this. The five-hundred toman entrance fee keeps poverty from intruding into this space, but I now realized that this was not the real Iran I encountered daily in the streets. I had expected to meet Iranians like the ones I knew in America, who are well-off, well-educated, and well-mannered. I hadn’t considered the possibility of poor people. After all, Iran was floating in oil, no? Also, as a result of my study of Iran’s history, with its extraordinary artistic, architectural, and literary achievements, I assumed the I would find in Iran the leisure that was required to produce such monuments to civilization. However, I now viewed the cultural achievements in Iran differently, not as the product of wealth but rather as civilization in spite of the rampant poverty.

Leaving the garden, I headed towards the western section of Shiraz, near the hospital, where I came upon Mr. Izadi. He was well-dressed and well-groomed, the son of a mullah I later learned, and himself employed in a government ministry. When he introduced himself, he, like others, was startled to hear that I am American, and asked, as if addressing himself, whether they were now admitting Americans. We hit it off, and he suggested I spend the day in his company. It was a treat to see Mr. Izadi in operation. He traveled by bus and was always recognized, clearly with affection. We visited some of his friends in the hospital. Afterwards, a group of Afghani refugees approached. They were unwashed and attired in tattered clothing. Mr. Izadi knew them well, treated them as his friends, and began to discuss their situation with them. He wanted to know whether they were receiving proper medical care. For the rest of the day, we visited homes in areas beyond Shiraz proper, sometimes respectably middle-class, sometimes poor and very much like shantytowns. Every visit only increased my marvel at this mid-level bureaucrat and his love for his people. He was Christ-like, as the saying goes, in his love for all, especially the down-and-outs. He was simply unable to judge or condemn any of them but accepted all without condition. This was the final straw in the camel’s back. The demonic images of Iran in the US media might contain a speck of the reality, but they miss the truth of Iran. I put my trust now entirely in what I observed.

We ended the day at the house of one of Mr. Izadi’s friends who worked as a carpet weaver along with his sons. His friend was elderly and a bit decrepit. I later learned he had worked for years as a camel-driver before settling with his family on the outskirts of Shiraz. We sat to drink tea together, and his sons, mostly in their twenties, began to ask me about America while criticizing their own government. I was startled that they would do so in the presence of Mr. Izadi, the son of a mullah and himself a government official, but no one blinked an eye. I was even more surprised when they turned on the television and began scanning the endless cable channels on their satellite television. Nothing was missing, from Iraqi news and its anti-Iranian propaganda to American films and their r-rated scenes. Wasn’t this forbidden? Mr. Izadi, sensing my confusion, said that as a government official, he could not have this in his own home, but he then fell silent and followed the program along with the rest of us, laughing and commenting when appropriate. He clearly did not condemn the program. Was that Mr. Izadi or all of Iran?

The next morning Mr. Izadi sent a young man, Muzaffar, to my guesthouse. At the time, Muzaffar was serving his compulsory eighteen months in the military. We visited the Shah-e Cherāgh and ate pancakes, much to my surprise, in the inner sanctuary. When Muzaffar passed me a pancake, I hesitated and asked whether it would be more respectful to eat outside. He looked at me blankly, as if eating pancakes in the inner sanctuary of Shah-e Cherāgh was the most natural thing to do. When we finished our breakfast, we walked through the city, visited his brother the butcher, and then paid a call on two of his female friends. He referred to them as “fāhishe,” a word in Persian that I only knew as prostitute. I told him I wasn’t interested, but he insisted that they were friends, describing them in English as courtesans, which didn’t relieve my suspicions. They met us in a gallery of boutique stores but did not stay long. Muzaffar later informed me that they were frightened at the possibility of being caught in the company of two unrelated males. I still was confused about their identity, especially when Muzaffar told me they sometimes give him money since his pay as a conscript in the army is ridiculously low. Had Muzaffar tricked me into a situation that the police could use to frame a westerner? No, I concluded, this is just another of Mr. Izadi’s assorted friends, whose behavior, social status, or youthful deviancy do not diminish his love for them.

The word in Iran these days is change, “tahavvalut.” My mornings in Tehran in late August 1998 were spent wondering whether I should take the newspaper reports at face value. They made it seem that reform was sweeping the country, every sector, every nook and cranny, of the nation. I was puzzled. One paper reported the imminent founding of an Islamic labor party, under the aegis of the labor organization known as Khān-e Kārgar, whose secretary general, Reza Mahjub, is also a member of parliament. Also involved are the minister of labor, Hussein Kameli, and a female member of parliament, Sohaila Jelodarzade. It didn’t appear to be a grassroots movement. Was this truly reform or just the regime’s attempt to claim to have the people’s interests at heart? In Iran, after all, Labor Day, Marxist in origin, was made into a quasi-religious holiday. Things were never quite as they appeared.

Keihān, Khabar, Hamshahr, every newspaper seemed to sound the call for social justice, fairer distribution of wealth, freedom to make constructive criticisms, and changes in administrative practices. All spoke of the importance of diversifying the economy and strengthening local industry, so that Iran not be so singularly dependent on its oil resources. Some reports were nigh incredible, such as President Khatami’s statement that the government derives its authority from the people, and there were other reports, more prosaic but still impressive, such as the decision of the Commerce Bank to lift the credit limits on non-oil exports. As a result, five dairy farms with the intention of exporting their products were about to begin operations.

Nightlife for me during my week in Tehran consisted of television in my hotel room. One program focused on discipline in the family and the fine line dividing discipline and cruelty. The message was clearly directed at men. Another program discussed the burden of dowry expectation on young men hoping to marry. It was suggested that in the increasingly urban landscape of modern Iran something like a prenuptial agreement might be more in step with the times. Every night a political speech or religious sermon got top billing. There were movies, plays, poetry readings, even music videos. One depicted a pregnant woman desperate for love. In the end, she kills herself. Her husband, realizing his guilt for having neglected her, jumps off a bridge into oncoming traffic. The entire script, morbid to the core, was set to song.

Could it be that during my week-long media binge in Tehran I was not simply consuming state propaganda but rather caught up in a reflection of the national reality? The great wealth of northern Tehran seemed surreal next to the fear that I saw in the eyes of homeless children, eyes that implicated me in their suffering as I scurried past them on my way back to my comfortable hotel. I have still not recovered from the sight of these children whose eyes pleaded with me to relieve them of the terror of spending another night on the street without protection, without a parent to tuck them in and kiss them to sleep. Tehran was like all other urban metropolises in this respect.

I had not expected to find such poverty in a country with such natural resources. It showed how important honest and competent leadership is for the welfare of a nation. The brother of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamanei, controls billions of dollars as head of a foundation meant to serve the dispossessed and needy, Bunyād-e Mustazifīn, and yet the faces of poverty are unable to hide their pain. I still carry with me the image of a man lying in his blanket on Rudaki Avenue in Shiraz, his life destroyed by addiction to drugs; of a woman sitting on the main avenue in Shiraz, covered as the law required but exposing the stump of her maimed leg to solicit the sympathy of passersby.

There were reasons why no one was helping these people. I caught a glimpse into the reality when my neighbor at the guesthouse where I was staying in Shiraz paid me a visit. Ghulamreza was his name. He had seen me and learned that I am American. We sat together than night on the rug in my room. He was from the city of Bushehr in the province of Khuzistan, which borders Iraq. Huge numbers had fled the province during the Iran-Iraq War, and many ended up in Shiraz. Ghulamreza began to weep in front of me as he recounted his woes. His eighteen-month old son, Isma‘il, cried every night because he had no milk. Troubles with his wife had started when he ran out of money. She had contemptuously returned to her parents, leaving the child in his care, and he was doing what he could along with his aged parents.

I found it all very pathetic. Since he was young, I asked him why he wasn’t working. He claimed that as an outsider in Shiraz, there was no way to obtain work, not even the simplest of jobs. No one would employ him over a local. I then asked about charity organizations. A look of total disbelief came over his face at the naïveté of of my query. I felt compelled to believe him when he said that there was nobody in Shiraz to help him. With a certain astuteness, he claimed that the economy was a mess and that people were too concerned for their own well-being to help an outsider. As tears came to his eyes, he said that that was why he had come to me. Besides God, I was his only hope. I didn’t like the totality of the trust he placed in me, but his words did explain something of the poverty I saw. I recalled how on my first night in Shiraz the young man at the front desk of the Sasan Hotel had cautioned me to trust no one in Shiraz, adding “not even your brother” to drive home the point. Poverty does have that effect on a people’s moral fiber. Without hope of a dignified life, they will disregard even the laws of God.

The government may well be using the media for its own purposes, but the discussions I followed on television do speak to Ghulamreza’s situation and to many others—social justice, fair distribution of wealth, administrative reform, anti-drug campaigns, family life, and so on. I don’t know if change will come for Ghulamreza, but Iran is talking about its problems openly. The country has become rather American in that sense.

It was my final day in Shiraz and I wanted one last taste of falūde, a sweet of frozen vermicelli soaked in lemon juice. Having purchased a cup of the stuff, I sat down only to behold a somewhat overweight and shabbily dressed elderly gentleman staring at me. He would have been taken for homeless in America. Perhaps he was. His hair and beard were disheveled. His heavy clothing, including wool cap and corduroy coat, were out of season in the hot summer. I tried to avoid his gaze and concentrate on my falūde. He took the initiative. In perfect BBC English, he announced (clearly to me) that he had sacrificed body and soul for literature. I was amazed at both the tone and content of his statement. He belonged to the middle (even lower middle) intelligentsia, which, it appeared, had been thoroughly defeated over the last twenty years since the revolution. The upper intelligentsia had fled the country or made deals to protect their wealth. He had been consumed his whole life, so he told me, with the beauty of English and Persian literature while living off the insufficient salary of a professor in Iran. [I was soon to learn that the same is true in America.] Now he had no one. He was undergoing treatment for some illness but could not afford it. He seemed ready for death, pursuing our conversation as if he knew it would be his last. He coached me on Persian, comparing it to Italian. It is to be sung when spoken, he said, and advised me to have a friend play the violin when I spoke it. Finally, he told me he would pray for me when it was his time to fly. He then added that he would pray for my nation. Finally, he blurted out that he would pray for the whole world. I told him I would pray for him too. He asked that I take his picture, as if knowing that it would be his last. I look at that picture now and then and wonder whether he has flown and is now praying for us all, Americans and Iranians alike.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *