Monthly Archives: September 2001

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Iranian Girls

First published in Prospect Magazine, 1 November, 2001.

They are not free because their minds are not free,” said the headmistress, introducing me to my first class. “You are not here only to teach them English, you are here to open their minds.”

Ten women were seated around a table in the over-heated room. All except two of them were wearing dark headscarves and overcoats. The two exceptions were enveloped in the full-length black veil, resembling a nun’s habit, that is called a chador. The headmistress had just returned to Iran after 15 years in Hamburg, married to a Dane. Perhaps because of this, she was the only woman who seemed to have difficulty keeping her hair in her headscarf. A purple curl had fallen forward onto her forehead.

“Hello,” I said. “I am Rory. I come from Scotland.”

The headmistress interrupted, “tell the class how you have come to Hamadan.”

“I walked here from the Turkish border.”

“Class, Rory has spent the last two months walking across Iran, only on foot, not using any transport.” She turned to me. “Iranian women are not free. They only think to get husbands with nice clothes and a nice job. That is why I will ask them whether they would marry a man like you.” She looked at the beautiful 14-year-old on my left. “Would you marry a man like this, Aisha? One that is walking all the time. He cannot give you a car. Well, what do you think?”

“It depends on the man,” said Aisha.

“Do you understand my question? Would you marry a man like this?”

Aisha looked at me and raised her black eyebrows. “It depends on the man.”

“You see, they are so conventional,” said the headmistress, turning to another student.”How about you, would you marry him?”

“No.”

“And you?”

“I wouldn’t marry a man who was angry with me.”

“You?”

“If he loved me and I loved him, I would walk with him all round this great earth, far and wide,” replied one of the women in a chador.

“You are too romantic.” She turned to me. “What is your idea in walking?”

“Well, it gives me a lot of time to think.”

“People think too much, you should just act. Do you think which foot to put in front of the other?”

“He cannot think on his own: you can only learn from other people,” a student interjected.

“Any more questions, class?”

There was a pause, then an older woman said, “Hello I am Tima. Do you know TS Eliot? Have you found the ‘moment of silence’ on your walk?”

“I once thought I had,” I replied slowly, “but now I think I was wrong-it wasn’t it.” “There is no such thing!” interrupted the headmistress.

Silence.

Finally the woman who believed in true love asked, “are you rich?”

The class ended. The woman who liked Eliot gave me her e-mail address: [email protected], adding, “don’t listen to the girl who was talking about love.”

Since I was being paid with internet time, I used the break between classes to write an e-mail home. The connection went through Tehran and the line kept crashing. I lost my message six times. The next class was waiting outside. I tried a last time:

Hamadan

Dear All

I’ve just returned from two months in villages where I hardly saw a woman (food was left on a tray outside the door for my host to bring in). But here, on my second day in Hamadan, I have been teaching a class of women, each with different, terse opinions on marriage… If you asked a British classroom, we would all say similar things at inordinate length. Are their views different here because of the sexual segregation and lack of public discussion? (Buses, mosques and schools are segregated; there are no bars, no café culture to speak of…) Or do these opinions allow them to find love despite all the restrictions?

Or am I just taking an English class too seriously?

Yesterday was haircut day. The barber asked if I wanted “Style Marx, Style Lenin, or Style Engels.” I told him I didn’t want a beard. “Ah ha,” he said, “Style Stalin.” The barber has just emerged from spending three years in jail for promoting communism.

The government here bans pop music and most foreign films and does not encourage sport. The dress regulations for women are an insuperable problem for the national women’s swimming team. But, although people say there is no globalisation here, I think Hamadan looks just like a European town of the 1950s. I’m enjoying talking to people about their views of the government, President Khatami, and state Islam. I’m hoping to understand how they deal in everyday life with the contradictory orders from the mullahs and generals.

Sorry I can’t write at more length.

Love, Rory.

This time, to my delight, the e-mail was successfully transmitted. I had put a lot of people on the addressee list, but not the Iranian police. They rectified this oversight themselves by hacking into my account. If I had been aware of how they would react to the e-mail, I might not have been so delighted.

Since I was a man and a foreigner, it wasn’t only in the villages that I found it difficult to talk to women in Iran. However, a slim Iranian woman had once beckoned me to her table in the restaurant at Dubai airport. I assumed that we had met before and it was only when I sat down that I realised I was mistaken.

“It is so lonely here-I need someone to talk to. Would you like a cigarette?” she said.

I shook my head.

“I saw you in the terminal in Tehran,” she said. “I thought I would like to speak to you, but I couldn’t take the risk in Iran…” She had taken off her headscarf, revealing a pale face and long, dyed, red hair. Her tight blue jeans made her legs seem very thin.

I had lunch and we talked for four hours. She was 37, single, living alone and working as an industrial designer. Most single Iranian women live with parents or siblings. “I am in love,” Raisa said, “with a Swedish boy I met in Syria. He is so liberated. He has a ponytail. He does not commit to me because he believes in freedom. I respect that. I will give him his freedom. He is totally original.”

“How do you meet men in Iran?”

“Of course, we cannot do what I did to you. To invite a strange man to sit with you is normal in Europe but it is not in Iran. No, in Iran we cannot look at such a man or speak to him. But if we see a man who looks nice in a shop, for example, we can say our phone number loudly to someone else and, if he likes us, he can ring us.” She laughed. “Of course, we have not spoken, we only know that they have beautiful eyes or something. Afterwards we can get to know each other on the telephone, but we cannot meet until our parents have met.”

Iranian men had told me that they had found their wives through this disembodied courtship. “Things are better now,” Raisa continued more quietly. “They have been better for four years, since our new president came. You know, they have decided, I think, to let us more alone, they let us be a little more free.”

“Why have you dropped your voice?”

“That man to your left,” she whispered. There was a bearded man, sitting alone over a cup of coffee. “He is an Iranian intelligence officer.”

“In Dubai?”

“Everybody from Iran comes here.”

“Is he listening to me or you? Shall I leave?” “It’s alright. He probably won’t do anything. The people in government have more important things to worry about-they are all fighting each other and they are very afraid of what the people think now that Russia is no more. Before it was very different.”

“How was it before?”

“Crazy.”

“What do you mean?”

She dropped her voice further. “For example, a boy telephoned me at home about ten years ago and I told him nicely not to phone me any more. But when I put down the phone it rung again. I picked it up and a woman’s voice said: ‘the police heard that conversation. I am the police. You must come down to the police station now or we will come to arrest you.’ It was late at night but my father took me to the station. When we arrived, the policeman said to my father, ‘do you know that your daughter has been receiving phone calls from a man she is not married to?’ My father said, ‘that is fine with me.’ ‘It is a crime,’ the policeman said and brought out a file on me. Inside, it had photographs of me walking with a boy in a park 20 years ago… words from phone conversations 15 years ago… all these things they had collected, with bad things which people I know had said about me.”

Raisa paused, “they put me in the cells with an old woman who was crying all night, she was very dirty. I think she was eating opium. Later I found out that the friend who had called me had been imprisoned for three months. He was arrested in a public telephone box while he was calling me. It was more serious for me than for him, Rory: at the beginning of the revolution, they stoned women to death for this. We knew people in the ministry and we worked very hard on them. The police sent a doctor to see if I was a virgin.” There was a silence.

The man in black, who had lingered over his coffee for four hours, stood up to go.

“Were you a virgin?”

“Yes.”

“How old were you?”

“Twenty-six. This doctor thing was so disgusting. You cannot imagine. The judge at the trial talked to me as though I was a very cheap woman. He did not put me in prison, because I had talked to my family’s friend in the ministry. But I became ill for almost a year. I could do nothing. All I want are moments of silence… Visit me in Tehran.”

I never saw Raisa again.

The ambiguous laws controlling female behaviour are constantly reinterpreted by the police. Some time after my conversation with Raisa, I met a woman who had just been arrested on the street without any explanation. She was sent in front of a judge, who asked her why she was there. She said she didn’t know. He told her it was because her chador, which she had worn for ten years, had a wavy hem. He added, “I will release you but don’t do it again.” She wanted to reply, “don’t do what?”

It is sometimes difficult even for judges to be certain what is illegal in Iran. The Spiritual Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in a magazine interview that it was forbidden in Islam for women to ride bicycles, and it took months to establish that this was not a new government law. This confusion is made worse by the fact that there are so many law enforcement agencies, each with a different interpretation of the law. I myself have been questioned in random road checks, on separate occasions within the space of a month, by the uniformed and secret branches of the revolutionary guard (Sepah Passdaran), the police (Niroye Entazami), the Islamic militia (Basij) and the internal forces of the army (Artesh), as well as by the gendarmerie and the Ministry of Islamic Guidance.

There are at least three bodies who still haven’t interrogated me. Each has its own command structure and all except one have their own separate airforce. The government is divided into liberal and conservative factions, each supported by different agencies. In November last year, members of the Basij militia physically assaulted in public a wheelchair-bound government minister from a competing faction. Women in Iran must cope not only with a religious but also with a military culture. The Iran-Iraq war is still the principal obsession of the regime, although the fighting finished 12 years ago. Pictures of the 1m men who died in the war dominate the drab streets and the interiors of mosques and are the subject of television documentaries and soap operas.

War veterans share government with the clergy. To survive in Iran, women must have an intuitive sense for the attitudes of these men.

Two days after my first class, an agency which I had not yet encountered, the Iranian foreign intelligence service, intercepted my e-mail and took objection to the fact that I was asking people about the government and state Islam. They decided not to renew my visa. On the afternoon in which I was told that I had to leave Iran, Tima, the TS Eliot reader, invited me to visit an ancient mausoleum with her friend Shirin.

The sun was setting. When I arrived at the gate I saw Tima and some schoolgirls taking photographs. Their camera flashes lit up the pale, delicate face of a woman in a black chador, who turned out to be Shirin. We entered the mausoleum together. The Jewish curator spoke in a rapid, peculiar French, “Nous sommes sur, c’est la vrai tombeau d’Ester -la femme juive de Xerxes de 450 BC.”

Since neither of my companions could understand French, we soon left to sit in the garden. While Shirin and I sat in silence, Tima explained that they were both single, 30 years old and had fathers in the army. They had met at university and were living with their parents on the outskirts of the city. I wanted to include Shirin in the conversation but I could not think what to say to her. Her chador made her look very serious-minded. I asked her whether she liked wearing it.

“Yes.”

“I hate mine,” Tima interjected. “Shirin only wears her chador because she works in the Ministry of Islamic Guidance and it is obligatory for civil servants.” Shirin made no comment.

“What did you study at university?” I asked Shirin.

“Persian literature.”

“I am having a problem with a poem,” I said. There was a pause and Shirin said, “recite it to me.” I did. Tima laughed. “Your accent is terrible: we can’t understand you.” Shirin could. She completed the poem: “va migoft ku ku ku ku… it is by Khayyam.”

“Yes,” I said, “what does chah mean at the start?”

Shirin whispered something to Tima and Tima replied, “Chah is like a wheel, but here it is the earth: ‘this great earth far and wide.’ Would you like to see a traditional café?

“We went out and stopped a taxi. “To Ganjname.” “Get in,” said the driver. He was driving the standard Iranian boxcar, which is made to a 1960s British design, but he seemed to be able to go remarkably fast down the wrong side of the road. “It is eight o’clock at night, everything will be closed,” said the driver.

“Well then, let’s go back,” I said.

“No, no-somewhere is bound to be open,” said Tima. She and Shirin were sitting, in accordance with the gender regulations, in the back and were laughing at something. I couldn’t hear what they were saying. The driver shouted, “are you going to smoke a water pipe in front of these women in a Ganjname tea-house?” He laughed. Teahouses, where you smoke water pipes, are all-male places dominated by gruff ancients in woollen caps. He found the idea of women with a water pipe in public very funny. Before I could reply he launched into a song about a Turkish girl, by the 14th-century poet Hafez.

Sharon leaned forward, “Can we have the radio?”

“No. I am the radio. The radio is broken.” He drove faster, still singing, beyond the last city light, into a narrow country lane.

“Do you speak Turkish?” I asked him in Turkish.

“No,” he said.

“But before you lived in Hamadan you came from a village where everyone spoke Turkish?”

“I am Persian. I speak Farsi.” “But you’re Turkish-you have just learnt a new language.”

“He’s Persian.” Shirin and Tima shouted from the back. The taxi driver started singing a Turkish ballad and they joined in, although it is illegal for women to sing in public.

Ganjname was deserted, but there was still a light on at one of the shacks that serves as a café. Shirin and Tima sat down and ordered food. I walked along the path to the waterfall. It was a winter night, with no stars. I put my hands in the cold water and looked up at the column of white foam falling from the rocks above. The 11,725-foot Alvand Mountain was hidden in the darkness. Round the corner were two ancient inscriptions carved on a boulder, both in neo-Babylonian cuneiform and Old Persian.

The grandiloquence of the texts-about the great King Darius and Ahura Mazda, who created Xerxes-was at odds with their position, one placed asymmetrically higher and slightly to the left of the other on a lopsided boulder. They were carved in small characters that could barely be seen. Perhaps their obscure position was a deliberate precaution. If so it was successful. Very few other inscriptions have survived in place in Iran for 2,500 years. There were translations next to them in Persian and English. The inscriptions were illuminated by the flickering beam of a faulty spotlight.

When I returned to the café, I found the taxi driver standing, staring uncertainly at Shirin. She was half-kneeling on the bench with her shoes off and a water pipe in front of her. The oil lamp illuminated the white smoke in the glass bowl. She inhaled deeply, smiled and passed the pipe to me. As I sat down beside her, I brushed against one of her small feet and she curled her toes back. She was wearing fine black stockings. The apple-flavoured bubbles burst up through the water and along the wooden stem of the pipe into my mouth. I smoked for a few minutes.

Shirin watched me. Finally she asked, “are you happy?”

“Yes.”

I offered the pipe to Tima who refused. I ate a slice of liver kebab and inhaled a little more and handed the pipe stem back to Shirin, who put it in her mouth. Now I watched her smoking.

“Are you happy?” I asked. “Yes, of course,” she said.

“I hate water pipes,” said Tima. “They are dirty. I hate Hamadan-the people have such a small-town mentality.”

“Kheili mamnunan (thank you very much),” said Shirin, laughing. She is from Hamadan. She inhaled a little more and then passed the pipe to the standing taxi driver. He seemed a bit uncomfortable. He wiped the stem on his jacket and smoked in hurried gulps.

By the time we had finished the pipe it had started to snow. Shirin and I finished the liver kebab and then we moved off to the taxi. The driver drove us back even more quickly than we had come, stopping to pick up a family of four, who squeezed in around us.

Tima leant forward and began talking loudly to me about very little, while Shirin sat in silence. She had pulled her black veil up to cover her face. We passed a suburban square displaying a poster of the Supreme Leader, looking grim, and the eroded remains of a granite lion, placed there by Alexander the Great. Whereas 4th-century Persian kings reinforced their rule with rock carvings of themselves in action, surrounded by symbols of a glorious history, the modern regime was more reticent. Although they preserved the evidence that Hamadan was once the summer capital of Darius “king of this great earth far and wide” (as the inscription puts it), they illuminated it with a faulty spotlight. They told the people nothing about the life of the Supreme Leader and they did not depict him with workers or children.

This muffling of personalities and the past reflects Islamic principles. But the government is now so divided that it is probably incapable of promoting a single personality or a single view of history. A group of 14-year-old boys waved us over on the main boulevard. One of them was wearing his school uniform. All of them were holding automatic rifles. They tapped on the window and shouted at the driver. We dropped our heads. The driver answered their questions very politely and eventually they waved us on. He did not need to ask who they were. Their age made it clear that they were Basij, the Islamic militia that had sent human waves, often consisting of children of this age, across minefields in the Iran-Iraq war. A hundred yards further on we reached the central square of Hamadan and the other family got out.

“Sorry I was leaning forward and talking so much,” said Tima. “Shirin knew the family who got in the taxi. We didn’t want them to notice her, coming back at this time of night from Ganjname with a strange man…”

Shirin had pulled her veil up to cover her mouth. She refused to let me pay for the taxi.

“How can I get in touch with you?” I asked.

She stared at me but she said nothing.

“Well, I suppose I can contact you through Tima.” I paused. “Goodbye then.”

“Goodbye.” Shirin said.

I held out my hand. She didn’t shake it, but she said “goodbye” again before she turned away. I looked past her at the snow falling beneath the streetlights in the vast shabby 1930s square that was once the showpiece of the Shah’s modernisation programme. Under a picture of an unsmiling Ayatollah and bearded martyrs in camouflage fatigues a donkey brayed at the snow. The donkey’s owner was shouting “grapes from Shiraz,” although since the time of Alexander the most famous grapes in Iran have been from Hamadan itself. He and the other street vendors in the square had the watery eyes and shaking limbs that come from opium (50 cents a gram). I watched Shirin walk past them in her civil servant’s chador, past the closed bazaar and the mosque, towards her parents’ house in the suburbs. I wondered whether anyone minded her going home so late. I wondered whether she had been smiling behind her black veil when we said goodbye. She had a long walk home and in front of her I saw Basij boys laughing and pointing their Kalashnikovs at an elderly mullah.