Sunday, November 30, 2008

Recommended books before you go

Here are some books I found very useful for reading up and learning more about Iran before (and after!) I visited Iran:

The Soul of Iran, by Afshin Molavi: I read this book in China before going and finished it in India, but almost wish I had kept it with me whilst in Iran, so as to re-read some of the many elegant, insightful passages about certain parts of the country while actually there. Molavi brings a great understanding of both American and Iranian culture to this work, and maintains an engaging balance of national history and personal anecdote. I recommend this to anybody going or simply interested in Iran.

Persian Mirrors, by Elaine Sciolino: Written by a NY Times journalist who has spent some 20 years reporting from Iran, this book presents a unique insider's perspective. One point in which it may differ from Molavi's "The Soul of Iran" is in Sciolino's access to female voices more difficult for a man to hear. I'm not yet through it myself, but have found it thoroughly entertaining to date.

We Are Iran: A fellow backpacker was reading this while we were traveling together and recommended it. I haven't had a chance to read it yet but from flicking through, found it to be an excellent collection of translated native voices from the Iranian blogosphere.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Babak: Freedom of speech, freedom of software | Mashad

Babak reading his own campus newspaper before class

Babak is tall and thin, and when he opens the front gate of his house, eyes narrowed by sleep, he looks younger than his 21 years. I had just arrived from the overnight bus from Yazd, filled with pilgrims on their way to Imam Reza shrine, the holiest shrine in Shi'a Islam. Before setting off, we were lead in group prayer, and along the way, had made stops at roadside mosques for passengers to perform their evening and morning prayer.

His house is in a quiet, posh outlying suburb of Mashad, with a coffeehouse on the corner, just off a highway leading into town. In his room, posters championing Firefox web browser and Ubuntu open source software lie around, and an acoustic guitar sits in the corner.

"You've heard of open source?" he asked me. "Oh good! Open source is my life."

Babak is a man of many interests. Other than being a city ambassador for open source, he is the editor of one of his university's daily papers, pulls some part-time IT troubleshooting work, is learning French and reads voraciously, both online and off. He proudly points out the thousands of blog posts he's contributed to several web forums where young members of Iran's blogosphere sound off on social issues, one that he moderates himself. His English, compared to most Iranians, is exceptional.

I ask if his interest in open source is political at all.

"Extremely political," he affirms, without hesitation. "Open source software is connected to freedom. I am interested in freedom: political freedom, freedom of speech...they are all related."

He attributes his political interests to his family. After a feast lunch of mixed kebabs, pizza, eggplant and other Iranian culinary staples, his father, a small, quiet-spoken manager, told me about his own youth.

At Babak's home entertaining on the guitar

"Before the revolution, I was interested in the ideas of Karl Marx and other writers," he explains, gently. "But now, I think history has shown that these systems do not work. We prefer the American democratic system." His wife cares not to wear the headscarf in front of me, and his children are all as secular as he.

I visit Babak's university, a private institution where he is clearly a popular guy around campus. Witty and quirky, he chats with a dozen others within the space of five minutes, pointing out to me how relations between the opposite sex are more open than one would find at a public university. As if to point out the difference, in an empty classroom, he and his girlfriend embrace briefly, flirting indiscreetly as they study a French audio CD on his laptop. Sitting a small distance from them, I avert my eyes in an odd mix of fear and embarrassment, at behavior that I wouldn't even notice in other countries.

Mural commemorating martyrs from the Iran-Iraq war (Mashad)

But that evening, returning home late, Babak is less upbeat, lips tightly pursed. In their French class, a conservative student, known in Iran as the "Hezbollahi," saw Babak and his girlfriend make physical contact. They had been joking around, and Babak had playfully jabbed her in the ribs. The student had reported the incident to the teacher, and at the end of the class, the teacher had told them of the expulsion. The school returned them the payment for the class, upon which Babak and his girlfriend signed up for an alternative French class.

Over dinner, he explained his situation to his parents, who were understanding and, though angry, ultimately resigned. He said it was less the teacher's own will, as the school's fear that some of the more conservative enrolled students, seeing that such behaviour went unpunished, might withdraw from the school, or tarnish its name.

I ask him if he's going to write about the incident in his newspaper.

"There's no point," he sighs. "This sort of thing happens every day in Iran, so it's not worth writing about."

A modern home in Babak's neighborhood

I was surprised at how quickly it seemed Babak had resigned himself to his fate, ridiculous as everyone agreed that it was. Earlier in the day, when talking of my reservations in blogging about political affairs in Iran, Babak told me to write what I wanted.

"We complain about the government all the time in the newspapers," he said. "It's only if you criticise certain people in the government that you get into trouble."

But as we discussed just how free Iranians are to dissent and criticise, he sounded decreasingly sure of himself. Then, later in the evening, surfing online, he read his girlfriend's anonymous blog. I asked what sort of things she writes about.

"She's venting about things in society she disagrees with," he answered. "Things you can't say in public. These sort of blogs are very common in Iran."

At Imam Reza shrine, which an estimated 20 million pilgrims visit each year

This line, between what is and is not acceptable within public discourse, seems to have blurred considerably in Iran. Farsi is apparently the fourth most blogged language in the world, and young, urban Iranians are as wired and as hungry consumers of international media as their Western counterparts. But whether accessible knowledge and online communities, blossoming despite the government's occasional efforts to slow it, will be enough to challenge the old-fashioned strong arm of the regime, remains to be seen.

My host family, educated, Westernized, secular and progressive, living somewhat ironically at the heart of Shi'ite Islam and annual host to millions of conservative pilgrims, speak of timelines for change. They see it as inevitable, citing how the Islamic Republic continues to lose ever more hold over its populace.

Almost every person I spoke with in Iran was of a similar persuasion, but this might be expected, as the people I met were of a particular demographic. Less wealthy, urbanized, tech-savvy Iranians tend to align more with the conservative mullahs. But even among former adherents, according to Babak's family, the regime's support is drying up.

Devotees at Imam Reza shrine

I quiz them about how long such changes will take.

Democracy? Soon, maybe within their generation.

The head scarf? Longer perhaps, maybe 30 years.

But whatever the length necessary, they made one thing clear. If Iran is going to change, and I've never seen a society so bursting at the seams to do so, it's going to happen on their own terms. No foreign intervention, and no violence, was what Iranians reiterated to me repeatedly. After the legacy of the British and consternation regarding America's war in countries bordering their west and east, foreign invasion, locals feared, would only turn people back to the regime in a nationalist backlash.

Arshiya: Maverick, Cynic, Persian

 Arshiya on campus

I met Arshiya through another couch surfer, one of his classmates studying English literature at the prestigious Esfahan University, on the steps of the Si-o-seh (33 Arches) bridge, which spans the Zeyandeh River. Iranians describe Esfahan, known as the City of Art, as being the most beautiful city in the country. I found both descriptions apt, as I wandered Imam Square, the winding labyrinth of its bazaar and its charming riverbank parks.

He is 18, though he looks about 13, making his offer to host me at his home feel somewhat like having a middle school student invite you to his marriage.

"I have four homes," Arshiya explained to me, "so don't worry about a place to stay!"

Esfahan is in mine (and popular) opinion, the most beautiful city in Iran
They include his father and stepmother's home, where he normally stays, his mother's apartment, and two grandparents' homes. In busy rush-hour traffic, we opted for one of the latter, where we spent the night with his two aunts and 11 year-old cousin, Fatima.

They chose not to join us for dinner, for religious reasons, leaving Arshiya and I to discuss Iran's education system, which is quite distinct from that in the West. From primary through to high school, they attend classes from around 7:30 to noon, finishing before lunch. They also begin streaming from tenth grade, receiving a diploma by eleventh in their chosen specialization. Arshiya specialized in humanities, and it showed. Though only beginning college, he is already well read in classical Persian poetry, reciting (in translation) stanzas from Khayyam's Rubaiyat by heart and making casual reference to Plato, Nietzsche and dialectics.

Shah Mosque at Imam Square, Esfahan

He also, with a puff of his chest, provided me with his exact academic ranking. Of the two million or so Iranian youth competing for a place in university, he knows where he ranked nationally, out of his division*, and then for English literature positions in his institution (17th out of 50). Coming from the West, where people tighten up at the notion of ranking people explicitly, it reminded me of my Singaporean cousins' culture of "Childhood as Academic Coliseum." But for a prodigious young man like Arshiya, who claims to be "married to the English language" and has already been teaching the language for two years, he basked in the placement of his ranking.

He wears a gold Farshallah medallion around his neck, the symbol of Persian people, and like almost every Iranian I've met, he detests Arabs and their influence on his country's language and culture. When a Polish backpacker had mentioned his plan to head to "the Gulf," Arshiya immediately interjected: "You mean the Persian Gulf."

One of his aunts is a theology teacher at a high school, and I had the opportunity to speak with her later in the evening, as Arshiya translated a series of questions we posed one another. Described by her non-believing nephew as "extremely conservative," she maintained the full-length chador, compared to my host in Tehran, who dressed openly in shorts and t-shirts within the home. We spoke of wahabism (falsified and power-driven), nuclear energy and weapons (the first a national right, the second undesirable), Israel and Judaism (no problem with Israelis and Jews, problems with the Israeli government), Iranian women's rights (they are completely free) and why I came to Iran (to have these very discussions).
Arshiya's aunt and family (the theologian is the one on the right)

It was amusing watching Arshiya's expression as he translated his aunt's answers. He makes no qualms about voicing his dislike of religion, Islam included, though he goes through the motions of prayer and other rituals sometimes in order to satisfy his aunts and society.

"All Muslim women, in Iran, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and so on are completely free," he translated, before turning to me, eyebrows raised, to add: "She claims!", leaving no doubt to his own opinion.

But just as things were getting interested, his aunt left quickly, apologizing as she left the room. Had I offended her? My one chance to talk to an actual supporter of the regime, and she had run off!

"Her favorite serial is starting," Arshiya explained, "and it’s the final episode of the season."

Later, an interview between Ahmadinejad and Larry King was being broadcast, and Arshiya's aunt called us in to watch. He translated ably for me, having just explained his rather grim belief that Ahmadinejad and the mullahs who he thought engineered his election are intent on attaining a nuclear weapon and attacking Israel, whether or not it also leads to the destruction of their own country.

"Everyday I wake up I thank God that there's still peace," he confided.

With a friend of his after a fancy dinner

Walking around town, and whilst visiting his campus, it felt clear that I was being talked “at,” and not “to.” He and his fellow English majors would often make fun of each other if they made a minor grammatical slip, asking me for feedback and to correct their English. Studying English connects them to the outside world, and more directly: to prized Western backpackers like myself, whose attention they could be quite catty over.

Whilst outside a bookstore, a young girl asked me if I needed any help. Arshiya suddenly reappeared.

“No, he’s with me. He doesn’t need your help!” he declared, aggressively, and she left, taken aback by his attitude, and Arshiya continued to shoot death glares at her long after she had left.

“Some people want to just use you to practice their English, but they just talk shit,” he told me.


*Major cities make up Division A, whereas small towns and villages take up a different position, similar to affirmative-action quotas

A young couple enjoying a biryani lunch off the main commercial thoroughfare (Esfahan)

Debate and Discussion: An English translation class in Esfahan

In class at Najaf Abad University (Esfahan)
I sat down on the stage, legs akimbo, before a class of English translation students at Najaf Abad University in Esfahan. The class was split dramatically, like foreign language classes tend to be, in favor of females; in this case, about 20 women to three men. The men sat on one side, the girls on the other, and the dynamic was split into two separate spheres.

Earlier, the class had been debating when and how often to meet. This was their first time back, and I sat in the corner, observing them debate how to run their class. There were no set times, nor teacher: the entire group was self-governing. The previously established leader of the class, one of the guys, was arguing with the female students over whether lectures should be given, and how topics should be chosen.

With a host in Kashan (who I met off the street)

"But in my experience, last summer, none of the students chose to give a lecture," he lectured, rather dismissively.

One of the male students explained to me that this isn't the case in the elite universities, where attendance is compulsory. But here, most upper level students did not attend their classes, instead studying independently before showing up to take the final exam.

I gave them a little spiel about myself and why I'm in Iran, before we began to exchange questions about each other.

Emboldened after a while, the questions, asked mostly by the girls, became increasingly personal and controversial. They ranged from the commonplace and obvious: “Are Iranians like what you thought they would be before you arrived?”, to the religious: “What do you think of Hossein Ali?”, to dating preferences: “What do you look for in a woman?”

Faloodeh - vermicelli served with cardamom icecream: an absolutely delicious traditional Iranian dessert

When I asked them in return: “What do you look for in a man?”, nobody answered. I had crossed an invisible line, into the private sphere in which they weren’t willing or able to discuss, particularly in front of their male peers.

But we spoke plainly about inflation, of the difficulty involved in finding a job for college graduates, and I made references to “increasing global understanding” and “breaking down borders.”

A few days later, Ahmad, who had invited me to speak when we’d met at Fin Gardens in the city of Kashan, asked me to return.

“They want to have another class, just for you,” he gushed. “They felt, how do you say, ‘blown off’, by you!”

“Blown off?” I thought, now feeling somehow guilty.

“I mean ‘blown away!’” he laughed, before adding: “I like to use idioms! Can you teach me more American idioms?”

Retirees chat inside the calm walls of a mosque in Esfahan

Monday, October 13, 2008

Finding the Disco in Shiraz

My host in Shiraz, Arash, playing an Iranian folk song for me

With discotheques being banned in Iran, young people have to get creative about socializing with one another.

At first, I wasn't sure why Hassan, the cousin of my host in Shiraz, Arash, was driving around in circles in his mother's orange hatchback. I thought that maybe he was simply being indecisive, and kept changing his mind about where to go. It was only after about the fourth U turn that I decided to end the suspense.

“Why are we driving around in circles?!”

Only then did Arash, whose communication method tends toward do, rather than explain, reveal to me that we were not simply driving around recklessly in circles, pumping Iranian rap music (being what we in Australia refer to as “bogans”): we were, in fact, at a disco. But not any ordinary kind of disco, such as those involving nightclubs and overpriced drinks and circles of hungry single men eying self-conscious young women...

This was a Car Disco, Islamic Republic of Iran style!

“This is how young people meet each other in Shiraz,” he told me.

“When something is banned, you have to be creative.”

Arash's massive, elegant, walled-off home
I didn't really get it until we found ourselves driving next to a friend of Hassan. With windows down, they turned to greet each other cordially--somewhat hair raising for me in the back, given the speed and manner in which we were traveling (Iran has the highest death toll rate in the world, backpackers love to quote). They made yet another straight-into-oncoming-traffic U turn then quickly pulled to the side of the road. There, the two disembarked from their cars, chatted for a few minutes, exchanging myriad Iranian pleasantries, before re-entering the fray.

It was just as one might do in a club, only we were on a crowded two-lane street, filled almost exclusively with cars driven by teenage and 20-something revelers, each pumping their own brand of high-volume Farsi pop power into the humid Shirazian air. In a city known for its poets and its wine, pleasant, charming Shiraz now also hosts a far cruder, more contemporary “The Fast and The Furious”-meets-”Lipstick Jihad” scene.

A Car Disco, once you get used to the idea, works much like a regular one. Arash assures me that girls can and do indeed get picked up at such events. The road is the dance floor, the car an extension of your body. Every time a set of cars U turn, some five at a time, they do so at dramatic pace, weaving and accelerating to get in front of each other, the sort of confident entry that the lone Central American guy gets to make at Wednesday salsa night before a floor of half-drunken stiffs. To hit on a girl, one approaches by speeding up beside them, motioning for them to wind down their windows. If the sweet-talker is lucky, he might just get her to agree to pull over for a more “intimate” chat.

At the tomb of Sadi, a revered poet, with Audrey, a French backpacker friend I made through CS

Police presence was minimal. Apparently they pull cars over if they're speeding, but short bouts of manic acceleration seemed permitted. The only real action I saw was when a traffic officer—Iran apparently has three kinds of police, ones for traffic, ones who handle “social' law, and more-serious criminal types—was filling forms following a minor traffic accident.

And is there a cover charge?

Well, not explicitly. But you're not likely to see many “lemon” Paykans on these elite roads. All the cars taking part in the disco, Arash tells me, are new, preferably fast, and largely foreign. So unsurprisingly, just like the discos we have in other countries, Iranian car discos are also self-selecting, popular amongst wealthier, upper-middle class youth, those with cousins in Los Angeles who prefer to lug Benetton, not copies of the Quran.

After several more rounds on the dance-road, we turned off into Arash and his cousins' preferred culinary destination: the American-themed fast food joint. The way Americans turn to Chinese food for something cheap and greasy, so the Iranians head for the American. There, we dined on “kentaki” chicken strips, mushroom cheeseburgers and “fried potato” (french fries), scoping out the heavily made-up, bright blonde girls in their headscarves sitting at the next table.

Before the Gate of All Nations, Persepolis

The Towers of Silence, Yazd: plus, George Michael, Lars Von Trier and Iranian youth's Western pop culture diet

According to Mansour, my host in Yazd, the ‘Towers of Silence’ that lie just outside the city are a few thousand years old. We took a cab out there after I had spent the night at his classmates’ place, sleeping on a mattress in their couch-less, bed-less one-room apartment. Their walls were bare but for Persian poems and images of Ali and Hossein, two of the twelve Shi’a imams.

Mansour has dubbed one of them Clint, as in Eastwood.

“You know ‘Dirty Harry?,’” Mansour explained to me. “He looks just like him from that famous scene!”

Clint is Baluchi, one of the handful of ethnic minorities in Iran, but speaks Farsi at home. Apart from Baluchistan, in the southeast, Baluchis also live in Pakistan, to Iran’s east, and share similar loose, flowing garb and Sunni Islam with the people from that nation. They are often linked to the lawless drug trade that takes place along the Pakistan-Iran border. Clint however, could not have come across as more clean-cut: shy and ruggedly handsome, having his roommate translate for him while explaining Iranian card games to me.

Clint lives with Alef, who is from Bam, also in the southeast. It was once one of Iran’s most famous tourist destinations, because of its fairy-tale mud castle, but which was badly ruined along with much of the city by a 2003 earthquake . Alef wants to go back and work in tourism in Bam after his studies. All three of them are doing a BS in tourism management at Yazd University.

My CS buddy Mansour, at ease at a restaurant in town.

They have, like college students throughout the world, a solid collection of downloaded movies and music on their PC. Iranians have an unfortunate, if understandable enthusiasm for soft rock, which only seems to grow over time from a song’s original release. George Michael's "Careless Whisper" must surely be the country's English-language pop anthem, it's grip on the nation's psyche even rivals that which Celine Dion's “My Heart Will Go On” continues to have over China's. Kenny G and Michael Bolton feature from car stereos and restaurant muzak playlists. A techno remix of Fleetwood Mac’s “You Can Go Your Own Way” was pumping at a hip fast-food joint in Shiraz. Most of the time, however, the Iranian youth I’ve met seem to prefer Farsi pop, whether it takes the shape of electronica, hip-hop or otherwise.

So I was impressed to find a far more current movie collection on Alef and Clint’s PC. “Snatch,” “Crash” and one of my favorite documentaries, “Baraka,” were all there, as was the Korean cult-classic “Old Boy.” “The Piano” and Lars Von Trier's “Europa” were also neatly stored away, alongside a curious Indian-English animated musical. Iran's DVD stores seem filled only with “Die Hard”-aping action films and cheesy Hollywood romantic comedies, but these two college guys seemed to have acquired a more high-brow taste. No Iranian films however.

Away from European films, the two Towers of Silence and some well-preserved Zoroatrian buildings stand in the suburbs, next to a mine, not far from the university. Like Yazd's famous old city, the buildings are crafted from mud and thatch, and whose smooth, multi-domed roofs recall sand castles and children's paintings.

The garden courtyards of Iran have a most classic beauty (Yazd)

Mansour and I climbed to the top of one tower, taking breaks for his smoker’s lungs and my general lack of fitness. At the top, we stared into the circular hole where the Zoroastrians (whose prophet, Zoroastria, is also known as “Zarathustra”, of Nietzschean fame) would leave the bodies of their dead for vultures to pick clean. According to their religious beliefs, the elements are sacred, and so burying or cremating corpses is considered impure. Tibetans have a similar practice known as sky burial. However, due to hygiene concerns, the practice has been banned in Iran since the 1960s, and there’s now a Zoroastrian cemetery nearby.

Interestingly enough, the Zoroastrian symbol, “Faravahar", has been adopted as a symbol of Persian people, in direct opposition to the Arab influence upon the country, since the original Arab invasion in the 7th Century. Many Iranians make no qualms about displaying their resentment towards Arabs, generally separating the Arab people from Islam, the faith that they brought to the Persians. It features the profile of a male figure, with long wings and a tail/skirt below his torso. My host in Shiraz, Arshiya, wears it with pride, telling me he appreciates the simplicity of Zoroastrian doctrine: “You simply have to think, speak and do good.”

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Don’t ta’arof me! – The fine line between mooching and disrespecting

With some carpet sellers in Kashan

If you compliment an Iranian on his shirt, he may offer it to you. Don’t accept the offer! He’s merely being courteous, following the traditional form of Iranian etiquette known as ta’arof. As a general rule of thumb, if they continue to offer after being declined three times, you can assume the ta’arofer is being genuine.

Iranians, if you talk to anyone who has been there, are almost absurdly hospitable. As a traveler on a budget, this is a fantastic feature of travel here in the Middle East. But in the wrong hands, it becomes a dangerous force that can easily be abused in what can only be described as rich-world-mooching-off-poor-world nincompoopery. A thin line is walked: allowing them to play the traditional role of host becomes pillaging from those who can’t afford it. Refusing to accept their generous offers too frequently is tantamount to turning your nose up at your host.

How does ta’arof play out for guests in Iran?

One: They will fight you away when you try and pay for anything. Shadi, a product manager and karate student who took me to go buy a power convertor to charge my electronics, tried to pay for the convertor herself. Ahmad, the guy who sat next to me on the plane from Kuwait and shared a taxi into town, fought me off from paying my share of the hour-long cab ride.

A bus stop in Tehran - note the young woman's rebelliously-displayed hair

Two: Shop owners or taxi drivers will decline your payment or give you discounts. Some cab drivers have charged me less than locals, simply because I am foreign. One must spend time in India, where foreigners are universally charged between two to one hundred times more for taxi rides (simply because they are unknowing enough to be cheated so severely), to know how nice such a gesture feels.

Dried apricots at a shop selling foodstuffs (Kashan)
Three: Dinner invitations flow like (metaphorical) wine. You only need to have met an Iranian and exchanged nary a few sentences before the invitation to eat at their home follows. On Eid-al-Fitr, which celebrates the end of the month of fasting, Ahmad, the one from the plane ride, invited me to his home, where we feasted on mixed lamb-chicken kebabs, tabouleh garnished with lemon and mint, long-grain rice with potatoes and this wet, slow-cooked lamb dish I’d never seen before but sure hope to see plenty more of. After dinner, he drove me home, accompanied by his childhood friend and two sons.

At Ahmah's home, enjoying a dinner feast thrown for me

With younger, English-speaking friends, I’ve attempted to use the guise of introducing them to the Western tradition of “going Dutch,” with mixed results. All of this kindness has had me wondering what it is that makes us in the West so ginger about inviting guests in for a meal? Is it some legacy of frosty Anglo-Saxon social code? Maybe we’re simply too caught up in our own, self-centred lives to want to make time for guests. Whatever the reasons, I think we could do with a little bit of ta’arof, though perhaps not to such Persian lengths, in our increasingly atomized, eating-lunch-at-our-cubicle, existences.

Soheila and Sepideh, on being 21 and beautiful in Tehran

With Soheila and Sepideh (and Ohmee!) at Park-e-Laleh, Tehran

Amir and I were walking towards the National Jewels Museum, home to the world's largest diamond, when two beautiful young women asked us for directions. For perhaps the first time in my life, as every guy might wish to happen, it turned out that they were going to the same place, and they accompanied us in.

The first thing I asked Amir, who quickly slid into the smooth, local translator role, was "Do they have any European blood?"

Soheila in particular is very pale, with green eyes and auburn hair, pulled straight back a la Gwen Stefani a few years back, a grey cotton scarf barely clinging to her remarkably high 'do. Sepideh, with her classical Persian features and olive skin, could easily pass as Spanish or Italian.

It turned out that I was totally off. They were Iranian to the core, hailing from two historic political towns, Tabriz and Hamadan originally but now in university in Tehran, studying accounting and anthropology. I've since realized that many Iranians look indistinguishable from Europeans, often hailing from different regions of the country.

They took forever at the museum, as girls surrounded by priceless Qajar-era royal jewels are apt to do, before we finally convinced them to come hang out at a park where we could talk more easily. We went to Park-e-Laleh in the centre of town, apparently a spot for discrete young couples to flirt. Unabashed performer that I am, I decided to give a little kung fu demonstration on the grass.

Wearing my thin cotton Indian trousers, I attempted a long tiger stance, and the already-sewn-up-once crotch area tore apart anew, with a fatalistic "Rrrrip!" I hobbled back, and spent the rest of the evening with my legs held together as if carrying a heavy bladder.

Sepideh washing her hands before heading to a cafe for some post-sunset food
Sepideh was far more outgoing and lively, and she answered most of the questions as we chatted about their interests in poetry, their chosen majors and desire to travel abroad. But for some reason it surprised me when she told us she wanted to stay at home after she married, that she was more traditional when it came to family. Soheila, on the other hand, was keen on continuing to work. Though they have a lot of male friends, there are no boy friends. And when I asked what they thought of local guys, the verdict was unflattering.

"These days, Tehrani boys are less genuine. After two months, they will stop being friends with you. They are not interested in love," Sepideh complained, leaving me to fill in the unspoken. When I told her that in the West, sometimes women use men with similar intentions, she smiled.

“Are you guys looking to get married soon?,” I asked at one point, and they and Amir all burst into laughter.

“Would you take one of them out of Iran with you?” Amir asked, jokingly.

“I’d have to ask my girlfriend first,” I responded, and more laughter followed.

Coming to Iran, I was happily surprised to see how relaxed and easygoing the girls were about hanging out with two unknown, foreign men. I’m not sure how receptive most American girls would be in the same situation. Amir, however, explained that Soheila and Sepideh were of a more liberal background. They disagreed with the conservative social direction Ahmadinejad has followed, and liked the more moderate previous president, Khatami. So in being so open and friendly with me, they were living out their own politics about gender relations in a small, but very direct way.

They asked me who I thought would win the US election, and I told them that I think it’ll be close. When I asked who they support, Amir immediately responded: “Of course Obama! He has a better policy toward Iran.”

It was getting dark and the azan song was sung over loudspeakers, signaling the end of fasting for that day. A park police motorbike swept by on a parallel path, and the girls shuddered a little.

“Let’s go eat,” Sepideh said. They didn’t want any trouble with the police about hanging out with boys, as happens increasingly often these days. So we walked to a nearby restaurant for osh, a tasty Iranian noodle dish that is eaten during Ramadan.

Osh, a noodle dish eaten during Ramadan
Sweet dates and tea for dessert

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Taymaz: from Sydney homies to student activist and professional

Taymaz smoking hookah at a restaurant (my first meal in Iran)

I met Taymaz through my host. He’s 24, with thick, longish hair and light freckles across his nose and cheeks. When I met him, he came with a couple of Chinese colleagues and wore a hipster cap and horn-rimmed glasses, along with his casual work clothes, corduroy trousers and a white and blue striped shirt.

We clicked immediately. He spent two of his high school years in Sydney, so his English has a slight Australian twang. We’re both into music—he plays traditional Iranian drums and had a band in university—and both enjoy the “Harold and Kumar” movie franchise.

The beautiful home where I was hosted in Tehran
Laid back, Tay describes himself as a bit of a "hippie," unlike the more fashion-conscious Tehranis from whom he separates himself. At one point, while taking a shared taxi, the driver turned up his electronic pop song, leading Tay to shake his head in disgust, muttering: "pathetic." He's into traditional Persian folk.

Tehran, sprawling metropolis, shadowed by the Alborz mountains 

From 8:30 to 4:30 Saturday to Wednesday, he handles official customs for a Chinese construction firm that’s renovating one of Tehran’s largest towers: the Azadi Grand Hotel. At dinner, a traditional lamb kebab feast at one of the restaurants atop the Jamidiyeh Park that overlooks Tehran, we sat cross-legged on lovely, maroon-red Persian carpets. His colleagues, both from Beijing, were discussing their work here. Like me, their Farsi is minimal, and so they communicate with their Iranian colleagues in English.

Tay, pronounced “Thai, like the country,” is the only professional Iranian working on the project; the others are laborers. He expressed an admiration for the Chinese work ethic. Tehran's new, efficient metro system was built originally by Chinese workers, and contracting them to renovate the hotel, he thinks, will cut the project length from four to one years.

The clean, modern Tehran subway system (with optional separate cars for women)

“They built this toilet in only two days,” he pointed out, after we visited the hotel construction site, where the 200-odd Chinese workers, holed up in temporary dorms, rarely stray from. Their project managers are strict: when one of the others accompanied Tay home one night out of concern for his safety, he was penalized a month’s salary for leaving the site. And though Tay's been begging his foreign colleagues to come out and sample some Iranian culture over dinner, the two who came with us that evening were the first to accept.

I asked him how things fared in Sydney. I’d moved from Australia to the US around the same age, and know how painful a social landing pad high school can be when moving country.

“I had some trouble with the ‘homies,’” he laughed, referring to the Lebanese and Persian gangs around Sydney, who take their cue from the inner-city African-American ruffians of rap music and Hollywood lore. But he had a few close friends, including a Korean-Australian named Tim, who watched his back.

At first apprehensive, I was surprised when this security guard in Tehran allowed me to take a photo with him
After returning to Iran, Tay became involved in student politics, starting a group with a close friend that campaigned for improvements to campus life, such as better food and more qualified teachers. But after five months, the police cracked down, and a number of them were beaten and imprisoned. When I asked him about jail, he simply responded: “it’s not good.” I took his word. After that, the other students were too scared to participate and activities stopped.

Despite his experiences, whilst so many young Iranians are applying to emigrate to the West, Tay seems set on staying.

“Now, I have to think about my mum, my sister, my girlfriend...” he explained. Before he was working, he was studying veterinary science as a lab researcher.

“Now I have a good job. Maybe I’ll go back and do my PhD when I’m fifty!” he joked.

A street merchant selling recycled wire figurines

Monday, September 29, 2008

Fashionable Tehran

Nose job bandages are a common site amongst Tehran's image-conscious youth

 Tehran is a fashionable place.

Having arrived from India, where it seems that men’s fashion has held fast to the 70s—bell-bottom cuffs and clashing striped shirts are commonplace—wandering through Northern Tehran is like glimpsing High Kensington Street.

The bachelor-age men, with their immaculately styled hair, fitted shirts and jeans and European-pointed shoes revel in what Westerners once dubbed “metrosexual.” The Persians around my former city of Washington D.C. had a reputation for being greasy: a little too much gold chain and chest hair, far too much hair gel.*

What's not visible is this guy had a faux-hawk spike on top of his head too (Armenian quarter, Esfahan)

But here, they seem to bring a more tasteful hipness to their clothing. Flying down Modarres Expressway, a major north-south artery in this giant city of 15 million, one Tehranian in dark Ray Ban shades, his curls flapping in the wind, looked like he was on his way to a film set. Another, on the subway, wore a huge Versace-branded cowboy-belt buckle and brown pointed boots in a mixture of Clint Eastwood-meets-Enrique Iglesias suave. Dressed in my grey t-shirt and cargo pants, the epitome of “backpacker utilitarian” style, I feel utterly under-dressed amongst these veritable Beckhams among town.

Streetside calligraphy in the hills of Tehran (note the ladies' visible hair and blonde dye)

Young women, in turn, sport elaborate, dyed streaks blooming out of their black head scarves like something out of an iTunes commercial. They too are constantly in expensive sunglasses, their body-hugging coats and fine scarves give off an air of refined class. Their slim-leg jeans, in fashionably dark blue hues, snake down upon a mixture of flat-soled converse-styles to minimalist ballet shoes, with colors jumping from bright red and yellow patent leather to black. Nose jobs, popular apparently because plastic surgery is so affordable here, are broadcast to the world by tell-tale white bands across the recently-enhanced snozz.

Of, course, I’ve only really been around central and northern Tehran, the latter of which is the more upscale, Rodeo Drive-esque part of the city, with Benetton and Gucci stores vying for business along its commercial strips. It’ll be interesting to see how the rest of the country clothes itself.

This friendly couple were hanging out at a park


Note: For a hilarious take on this Persian stereotype, see the Persian villain character in the Australian film “Chopper.”

All dressed up at Sadi's tomb (Shiraz)
This shy young lady was practicing her English with me, at the behest of her mother (Kashan)

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Welcome to Couchsurfing Iran!


Welcome to Couchsurfing Iran, a blog about my trip around Iran, in which I plan to stay with hosts and meet with locals all met via the website Couchsurfing.

I plan on sharing the stories, opinions and lives of these ordinary Iranians with an English-reading audience, in the hope that I might spread some good ole' peace and understanding during this increasingly tense and worrying time in Western-Iranian relations.

This blog is not about political issues per se, but rather is meant to offer an inside look at Iranians behind the headlines. Comments are welcome.


Because if you’re thinking of bombing a country, as a certain presidential candidate has literally sung the Beach Boys to, then I think you should know something about the people who live there beforehand. Surely Iraq has taught us that much.

Who am I?

I’m a 24 year old Australian currently based in Chengdu, China, where I study kung fu and teach English. Previously, I worked for a humanitarian agency in Silver Spring, MD. I have a B.A. in Government and Politics from the University of Maryland, College Park. When I have a chance, I like to attend indie rock concerts and do tai chi in public squares. My favourite Arabic numeral is panj, five, which looks like an upside-down heart. ۵