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