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