Iran So Far Away
1. WHY IRAN IS SAFE
2. THEY ACTUALLY DIG AMERICANS
3. BEARDS ARE BAD
4. IRAN’S ANN LANDERS: ANY RANDOM FOREIGNER
5. DISCO WARRIORS, NOT RELIGIOUS ONES
6. THE TOURISTY STUFF IS GREAT
7. NO BARS BUT PLENTY OF LIQUOR
8. EVIL-BASTARD GOVERNMENT
1. WHY IRAN IS SAFE Many of you were surprised that I went to Iran. There’s reason to worry about westerners in some places in the Middle East because of terrorism and hatred of the West/free world/non-Muslims. Iran is not one of those places. Here’s my take, which you are all welcome to challenge:The conditions are not present in Iran for the sort of terrorism we fear. Terrorist groups are often ethnic minorities that want to form their own state or have more influence in the affairs of the country they are ruled by. Iran is almost all Persian, about 98 percent. Even if there are any ethnic groups that want to secede, they are not big enough for anyone to notice their presence. So there are no such terrorists in Iran.If a terrorist group doesn’t represent an ethnic struggle, odds are these days that it wants a more religious government. Since Iran’s rulers are very Islamic already, there’s no religious whackos in Iran that want to overthrow them. So there are no religious terrorists either. No terrorism means no random bombings and no fear of being kidnapped for a ransom that would help pay for the group’s activities.As for anti-Western sentiment, you would think there there would be a lot of it there. Not true, although Iran’s government would like it to be. There are propaganda murals in every city. Some memorialize people who died in the Iran/Iraq war, others are there to remind everyone who the enemy is. One such poster in Tehran shows a bloody hand gripping a stone above a picture of Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque. A Star of David in barbed wire covers the mosque. It’s revolting and obvious, and a good thing that few people pay attention. Lots of Iranians know their government uses the US and Israel as a scapegoat and a distraction from domestic problems. The government does not represent or reflect their views. They have pickpockets and scammers like anywhere else, but the domestic crime rate is almost nil. For every dangerous person, there’s dozens of good ones that will help you find a hotel, apologize for the actions of their government, invite you for a home cooked meal, give you a ride, and so on. A lot of times I had no need for this help, but they would not be refused. One time a guy was so determined to help me find an Internet Cafe that he walked me six blocks out of the way before I could make him understand that I already knew where it was.
2. THEY ACTUALLY DIG AMERICANS The biggest shock for me was the extent of their love for anything American. I knew before going that Iran is more pro-American (especially the culture) than outsiders expect, but I couldn’t have anticipated the scope or depth of this love. Now, it’s hard to overstate it. It is like an obsessed teenage crush of a relationship. Iranians pine after American freedoms and mimic their culture. America, of course, doesn’t notice.``The Ultimate Fried Chicken Joint’’ is a very popular restaurant in Tehran. If you ask for a sandwich you get a burger. There are satellite dishes everywhere reeling in American programming. They wear stars-and-stripes shoes and shirts. There are achingly bad Iranian versions of American pop music.(Speaking of music, I found found some very good Iranian music from the 60s that sounds much like classic rock.) While they may not like everything the U.S. government does, they are good at separating its people’s actions from it’s government’s actions. Where there’s no tradition of democracy, there’s no inherent assumption that a government is representing its people.I usually told people I was Canadian. In the few times I experimented and told them I was American, and they were even more excited to talk to me.
3. BEARDS ARE BAD Shaving was one of the best things I did in Iran. (Beard is back now, don’t worry.) For Muslims a beard is sign of piety. When mine was gone, nobody could mistake me for a religious person. A retired Air Force pilot told me he was denied a promotion for being clean-shaven. Military types have to take religion classes, and in one of these classes a mullah told him that shaving was a sin. If he did it every day, the mullah warned, Allah would eventually consider all that accumulated sin to be as bad as murdering someone. Anyway, I got a shave at a bus station barbershop to kill time waiting for my bus. It cost 60 cents or so. With cheeks exposed, the number of curious people that approached me probably more than doubled. One guy asked me to autograph his day planner, and a teacher asked me to write a note for his students. Everyone wanted to exchange small gifts so they could have a memento of our meeting. By the end of my four hours at that bus station, I felt like I knew everyone. The rest of the trip, same -- if I stopped moving for any length of time, I would slowly attract a crowd.
4. IRAN’S ANN LANDERS: ANY RANDOM FOREIGNER Any time I got to talking with Iranian, it was more like giving an interview. They are full of questions. At one point, on a bus, a group of ten guys crowded around as the one guy that spoke English sat next to me and translated questions, from inane to mundane. My favorites:-What is your philosophy of life?-What are the world’s best schools are for mechanical engineering?-How do you to get girls to like you in America?It didn’t matter if I had expertise in the field or not -- my answer was gold. If any papers in Iran started an advice column called ``Ask An Unqualified Foreigner’’, it would probably be the most popular thing in the paper. It’s just my guess, but Iranians attach themselves to visitors like this because they fear that the rest of the world has the wrong idea about them (which is true). Almost everyone asked me ``my thoughts about the Iranian people.’’ They don’t want to be seen as trigger-happy zealots who sit around praising Allah all day and vowing to destroy America next Thursday.Not that those types aren’t there -- they’re just a minority. In Esfahan, a city six hours south of Tehran, I saw a rally of the local religious police -- volunteers of all ages who roam around and look for people doing unIslamic things, such as women insufficiently covered up, or an unmarried woman talking to an unmarried man. I stood there watching with a friend as some mullah’s screeches were blasted throughout a public square. I asked what the guy was saying and my pal said ``It’s better that you don’t know. It’s that bad.’’ A few exhortations later, he laughed and relented. Apparently, in between reminders of how evil Israel is, the mullah snuck in a request to patronize the shops in the bazaar surrounding the square because ``they have some lovely carpets and souveniers.’’I met this friend, Babak, in Yazd, a desert city in the middle of Iran. He sells carpets there. After we hung out in Yazd, he went with me to Esfahan and showed me around there. We were together for about a week, and I constantly fought him to let me pay for stuff.There are long and loud battles in Iran to try and pay for something. If Hamid and Ali and Mohammed go for lunch, and Hamid grabs the check, Ali and Mohammed will try to give him money. Their hands are pushed back across the table several times. Ali and Mohammed will try and shove the bills in Hamid’s pocket, but Hamid will twist his hips out of the way. There’s a verbal yes-no-yes-no volley througout. Sometimes they’ll toss bills back and forth at each other across the table until someone relents.
5. DISCO WARRIORS, NOT RELIGIOUS ONES Many men are peacocks and prettyboys. They strut around in tight, black and pinstriped slacks and wear loafers with toes that curl up at the toe like Arabian slippers in Disney cartoons. They have wavy black hair that they grow out a bit and slather with hair gel. They wear dress shirts half open, disco style. Few seem to have chest hair. They must shave/trim it. Lots of people, both men and women, get nose jobs. Religious women wear a chador: the black thing that covers everything but the face. The minimum coverup is a headscarf and a long coat. Brave ones push back the headscarf to the top of their head to expose some hair, wear overcoats that get pretty tight around the waist, and pants that might show an inch or two of ankle. Women compensate for their lack of fashion options with gross amounts of makeup and manicured fingernails. My pal Babak was constantly spotting girls with supposedly great figures, but most looked pretty shapeless to me under all the clothing. Iranian men have obviously developed a fine eye for small clues. Darwin would be proud.
6. THE TOURISTY STUFF IS GREAT Iranians are, as a general rule, pretty good at skirting the harsh laws they live under. I found them in general to be a creative and educated bunch. Lots of book stores, public murals, cinema.This heritage is apparent at the tourist attractions. One can’t go to Iran and not visit a bunch of mosques, and I expected my resentment of the religious repression to overwhelm any appreciation of them. This didn’t happen. These mosques are the finest buildings and artworks I’ve ever seen -- there is symmetry, geometry, intricate detail, shadows and light, grandeur, and so on. It took years to build these things. Anyone with any knowledge or appreciation of art history would surely be even more awed. The pictures I took failed to capture what I saw. You just have to go there.They don’t build like that today, so creativity shows up elsewhere. Storefront signs are often very vivid: cacti sprouting from the middle of pizzas, alpine meadows with children and cows, airbrushed scenes of happy families, and so on. All this is the backdrop for something mundane like ``Ali’s Variety’’ or something. They don’t do utilitarianism there. The finest mosques were in Esfahan, which is also known for having beautiful old stone footbridges spanning the river. One bridge has water passing between pillars that have steps people sit on. Another has a teahouse underneath it where you can hang out at the waterline. Very pretty.The most interesting thing I saw in Iran was a reenactment of a Persian prewar dance ritual in Yazd. Soldiers used to do this before going out to battle. It was a mix of pushups, yogaish things, swinging wooden clubs around and spinning and hopping on one foot. All of this was done in time with 2 guys drumming and singing. The guys doing this ranged from 12 years old to 60 or so. Everyone looked like they were in decent shape except for one hugely obese man. This wasn’t a performance for tourists -- it’s what these guys do every day to stay in shape. Picture people coming to your health club and paying about a dollar to drink tea and watch you on the stairmaster. Same idea.They started with pushups; hands on a little wooden bar about two inches off the ground. Not real pushups, though -- they used the rest of their bodies for momentum and swayed up and down and side to side. The fat guy sort of just assumed the position and bobbed around. With no warning some guys would jump up, spin around, then fall back down again go back to pushups. Some lifted their butts all the way off the ground and looked very downward dogish.This went on for about 15 minutes. Then they stood up and hopped/jogged in place and did about 15 minutes of stretching their arms and upper bodies. There was some call-and-response stuff between the singer and the dancers, throughout, and the intensity of the exercise was always matched by the intensity of the drumming. Even after three days of going to see this dance -- it’s called Zurchani, which translates as ``House of Power’’ -- I couldn’t tell if the dancers led the drummer or the drummer led the dancers. There were no cover tunes. For phase three, they grabbed clubs that looked like stubby, thick baseball bats, and swung them around in a very tight circle around their shoulders. The movement would be super-useful for rock climbers because it probably works all the upper arm and back muscles. Each night, after the club swinging, the fat guy would walk to the middle of the circular dance floor and spinning and hop on one foot. I was thinking that maybe centuries ago Persian armies needed a token fat guy and this was his special part in the dance, but no -- everyone spins for as long as they can without falling over and breaking rhythm, which is usually 15 seconds or so.
7. NO BARS BUT PLENTY OF LIQUOR Iran’s food is fantastic -- warm and spicy stews, a million versions of a very tasty eggplant puree, good kebabs, saffron rice, on and on. Expert use of pickled vegetables. I had no idea how many tastes mesh with pickled veggies. I tried camel meat and didn’t detect a difference from beef. All of this was quite cheap. We ate lots of great food in beautifully decorated places and usually paid about $6 for two, not including wine. That was a bad joke but a good transition -- alcohol is illegal in Iran, and getting caught with some is a pretty serious crime. So most drinking is done at home. One tour guide offered me a bottle of Johnnie Walker for $50. (He also offered me an ``Iranian girlfriend’’ for the night).I did not see this happen, but supposedly some people sneak a bottle into the restaurant and mix it into their Cokes. They’re big on Coke and orange sodas. In lots of places you get one even if you didn’t order one.Anyone with a sweet tooth could go crazy in Iran. You’d need a month of constant eating to try everything. They mix up bananas and milk and nuts and such into very nice shakes. There are date cookies, liquid sugar baked into solid shapes, and hundreds of pastries. I usually picked out 3 or 4 different bite-sized pastries a day for an afternoon snack and still didn’t manage to try about half of the options. One also sees the sweet tooth in action at tea time. They toss a sugar cube into their mouths, take a sip of tea or two to dissolve it, then repeat the whole process. So they’re more-or-less consuming sugar by the pound.
8. EVIL-BASTARD GOVERNMENT So, the crappy thing about all this is that the zealots in government seem more are interested in making sure Iranians are behaving according to the Koran than making sure they have jobs and good hospitals and so on. Most people want to talk about the lack of jobs, not the religion. Of the few dozen people I talked to in my two weeks there, just one described himself as devout.They seem resigned to enduring this for a while. They all complain that there’s no good leadership to counter the government. Some said they hoped the US would invade Iran when they are finished with Iraq, although it’s hard to believe that most people would support this. So I left Iran thinking that maybe revolution isn’t so close at hand anyway. When it happens, Iran could be an incredible story.