I’m spending a lot of time in Tehran, arranging visas for upcoming countries. Central Asia has carried over much of the inane bureaucracy from its days as part of the Soviet Union, and trying to get approval to visit their countries and add to their economies is no exception.
When all is said and done, I will have spent 12 days in Tehran, with only 4 of them actually successful in achieving anything with the Central Asian embassies. But now I only have Kyrgyzstan left, which is apparently reasonable to get in Uzbekistan.
Frustrations have included incorrect maps in the Lonely Planet, unexpected required documents, inept taxi drivers, and too many early mornings. I’m also USD243 poorer for just three visas. I have spent more on visas than I have on the rest of my stay in Iran so far, including a new harddrive and my hejab clothing.
But enough complaining.
I first got to Iran on an overnight train from Van. I was made to join a sleeping compartment with a young married couple, and was thankful to feel safe on the journey after my creepy overnight border crossing from Greece to Turkey.
They were in their late 20s, married for 3 years, and it was easy to see they were in complete love with each other. They had been in Van saying goodbye to one of the husband’s childhood friends. He was moving to Canada. The husband was quite upset about saying goodbye, and wasn’t above shedding tears and using his wife’s shoulder for support.
The husband has converted to Christianity a week previous. This is interesting in the sense that it could result in his death in Iran. I asked why he had converted. His wife, Vajihe, explained that his heart was never settled with Islam. I asked her what his parents think. Turns out his parents won’t be told. I asked her if she has plans to convert as well. She was considering it, but wanted to read up more first.
God willing, the couple wanted to move to Canada as well. They asked if it was difficult to find work in Canada. Vajihe had a biology degree. I imagined them struggling in Canada, competing with other new university graduates for work, but with poor English and a foreign degree. Canada is not the utopia it sometimes appears from afar.
I was reminded of the Cuban artist I ended up staying with near Holguin when I was in Cuba in 2006 (in a rush to the see the country before Fidel died. Apparently I needn’t have rushed). The artist had had her work shown in international exhibitions, but she herself had never left the country. She earned her living selling her prints to tourists outside the nearby all-inclusives. She had recently, just two months previous, received an invitation from the Office of US Interests out of the Swiss Embassy to immigrate to the US. Apparently the US government cherry picks the best and the brightest of Cuba. She asked me if she should go. She was able to bring her husband and her son, who both are also artists (paper maker and print artist respectively). She would have to leave the rest of her family in Cuba. She wouldn’t be able to visit for at least 3 years. Her mother is old.
Her life in Cuba was decently middle class. What would her life in the US be? Sure, freedom to travel, but that’s not the only freedom I believe is necessary to be ‘free’.
I don’t know what she ended up deciding.
But back to Iran. I asked Vajihe if she would continue to dress in hijab if she moved to Canada.
“It depends if I become a Christian,” was her response.
I had been in Iran only a few hours, and I knew already the headscarf thing was not going to be my favourite memory of the country. But when you grow up with the headscarf, it becomes a part of you, your identity, your outfit I suppose. Later on in this trip, I spoke to a woman that left Iran just before the revolution. She compared the situation to someone in Canada telling a woman, “Go ahead, you don’t have to wear your shirt anymore. It’s OK. Why would you wear your shirt if you didn’t have to?” Sure, some women would be happy, but most would feel exposed.
We arrived 5 hours late to Tehran. 11pm. Unfamiliar city. Thankfully I was brought from one comfortable space to another. Vajihe and her husband were picked up at the station by friends, and they drove me through the city to my hosts in Tehran.
As we wound through the expressways, I felt like I was in an underground European movie. No dialogue, just fastforwarding through a neon city with techno music pumping.
I arrived at my destination a little after midnight.
Tehran is where I tried my second CouchSurfing experience, and it has been wonderful. I arranged a “couch” with Somayeh, a 28 year old Iranian woman who lives with her parents, older sister Nasi, and younger brother Amir Hossein. All three siblings are engineers (industrial, computer, and civil respectively) and they have possibly the sweetest family in Iran.
They are like any happy, loving family from Canada. Lots of laughs together.
Amir, the father, looks like a Persian Cheech Marin. Once in a while he’ll spout a series of English words – my daughter, my water, bread, jam, very good. He likes a good laugh, and music and movies from before the revolution. When he was a kid he would skip school with a friend and sneak into watch the movies. From what I gather, he is an accountant/owns a store which he leases out/owns a small tissue box factory. He wants to know why Canada isn’t good at any important sports, like volleyball.
Nasi, the mother, is the ultimate Iranian wife and mother. If I wake up early to get to an embassy, she gets up as soon as she hears me stir to put on the tea and put out the breakfast stuff. I try as often as I can to wave her back to bed. She loves socializing with her friends (I got to tag along with her twice) and doting on her son. She cooks, mmm she cooks, and attempts to refuse any offer of doing the dishes. I got to do them eventually. She also is a devout Muslim, so she prays faithfully and listens to religious channels and CDs. I feel lucky to be a woman and get to see her without her chador on. Dressed with it she appears dowdy and sullen. Dressed without it she glows, she smiles, her skin young and smooth for a mother of three adult children.
Amir Hossein is the beloved son. Flirty, 22, civil engineering, lover of music, constant singer, great motorcycle driver. Skilled at pouting and whining to his mother, who loves to give in to his requests, unless he is caught with cigarette smoke on his breath. I have since taught his mother the phrase “upside the head”, which she enjoys repeating with a smile as she cuffs him one against the back of his skull.
Nasi, Somayeh’s older sister, seems like a mother-in-waiting. Responsible, loves children, hard worker. Great at scolding her brother in a high-pitched whine that she gets from her mom. Fantastic laugh. Now she just needs a husband and she can get working on her own kids to love and shake her finger at.
I’ve been adopted as a big sister to Hediye, the nine year old cousin from downstairs. She looks about twelve, so sometimes I think she’s immature for her age, the way she hangs onto me and moves around awkwardly in her maturing body. But she’s only nine. She likes to practice English words for fruits and vegetables and give me massages. I french braid her hair in a crown. We get along great. Hediye’s brother has a little toddler, who apparently rarely smiles. Well, I’m proud to say that I was able to fly him around the room like Superman right up to Hediye’s face, and make him not only smile, but laugh.
And finally, my host Somayeh. Likes dancing, friends, talking on the phone. Interested in completing her masters overseas. She is the only female employee at a cement factory with a payroll of 600. On my first evening together, we had full conversations about expectations of women in Iran, about sex and relationships, etc etc. While she believes in Allah, she does not believe in Islam. And though her mother would love it if she was more religious, her and her husband are open-minded and let their children believe as they please.
My harddrive crashed somewhere on my journey into Iran. I’m on the train, I’m listening to audio books, and then I try to turn the thing on in Tehran, and it’s dead. Amir Hossein has a friend who has a friend, and we meet him in a car on a side street in the centre of Tehran. I laugh because it seems like we’re sneaking around, doing something illegal. In the end, I get a new harddrive and operating system. I was thankful for about 10 minutes when I imagined sending the thing home and not having to carry it anymore. But only for 10 minutes.
I went with Somayeh’s mom and sister to join about 15 of their female friends and head up into the mountains north of Tehran. A van is rented. We head first to the villa of a friend, where tea is shared and food is prepared for our next stop. Once inside, the headscarves come off, shirts get changed, and voices rise in volume. Man, these women can talk. Loudly. Lots of laughter. We attempt to leave to our next destination, but the van can’t get up the hill. It’s smoking white and black smoke. Half of us get out, and it still can’t move in first gear. The driver gives us the excuse that the engine is from India. We end up sending the van away and getting taxis for the remainder of the trip.
At the mountain, we head into a sort of cabin. Something that you might see at a ski resort – rows of adjoined two story lofts with a balcony overlooking the valley beyond. Again, the headscarves come off and the voices go up. Nasi explains to me once and a while what they are talking about. Sex and husbands are a common topic.
Before lunch, we snack on chips and dip. Or more like dip with chips. I’m told if I don’t have a spoon, I can use chips to eat the dip. Literally, the woman take a bowl of dip – yogurt with garlic, yogurt with dill, yogurt with some sort of flower – and use their fingers to suck down every last bit. Chips are only used sparsely.
The rest of the afternoon we enjoy a huge lunch at the resort restaurant and Nasi and I take a walk afterwards. A nap ensues in the fading warmth, and we head back to the city late in the evening. I actually get a bit chilly. It’s been a while.
I head with Somayeh, her mom, sister, cousin, and aunt to Karaj, which aparently is also known as Little Iran. Everyone from the country side that wants to move to Tehran but can’t afford it moves here. This get together is something that happens about once a month. Lots of food. Money draws. Sparkly t-shirts and high heels. Lots of talking. Before we left Tehran I had braided Hediye’s hair into a crown, which drew a lot of attention. I ended up doing 3 other heads – two women in their twenties, and a shy little girl. It was a hit.
At the party, one new mother forgot to bring a soother, so a few of the women head out to buy one. The come back and the soother they bought turns out to for a newborn. It’s too small. “Suck on it, it will get bigger!”, one of the women jokes. This is the kinds of stuff you’ll find in private in Iran. Not exactly the perspective you get on North American television.
Swimming in Iran
Somayeh took me swimming on one of my nights in Tehran. Since women’s bathing suits are definitely not hijab, swimming pools are men-only or women-only at any one time. They will either alternate mornings and afternoons, or more commonly odd and even days. Once again, Iran behind closed doors looks remarkably like North America. Women in spandex working out in the gym. Lifeguards in tight suits. Women of all shapes and sizes in bathing suits of all shapes and sizes. It’s nice to get out of the heat and enjoy a cool swim.
I ask Somayeh if there are any good Iranian swimmers, and how they compete internationally. Turns out there are Islamic Games, in which all the officials, staff, spectators are women so that the women can compete in the usual sporting garb. Some of the few sports that Iranian women compete in non-Islamic competitions (if I remember correctly) are ping-pong, fencing, judo, and weightlifting.
I really didn’t do all that much sightseeing in Tehran, which is not unexpected as Tehran isn’t really known for its sights. On my second day in Iran I went with Somayeh to a palace complex, where the old Shah used to live, and various dignitaries from around the world visited. It was oppulent and excessive, but interesting. We also walked uphill to Darband, where locals head to escape the heat. The tight valley heading up the mountains north of Tehran is lined on both sides with traditional restaurants. We meet up with Amir Hossein and his girlfriend, I enjoy a dish called dizi (which involves a small metal plunger), and we smoke qaylan (water pipe with flavoured tobacco).
In the rest of my time in Tehran, I checked out the multiple narrow covered lanes of the main bazaar, visited the jewel museum, the carpet museum, and attempted to visit a few other museums which turned out to be closed. I had lunch on my own at a traditional cafe, and when the bill was added up, the cashier asked me “Ti?” I run through my head…what does ti mean? It takes me about 30 seconds before I respond. “Ah, tea! No, I didn’t have any tea.”
The highlight was probably the ridiculous jewel museum. Held within a vault in the basement of a bank, it basically is a low-lit room with glass cabinets and roped off areas featuring jewels, and things with jewels on them. I caught up with an Engligh-speaking museum guide. I found his tour to be hilarious, as the tour he took us on was so fast, it was like what he was showing us was not all that impressive. “This globe is covered with one thousand rubies and four thousand sapphires and five hundred diamonds. OK next this is the largest pink diamond in the world. OK next.” It went on like this for 20 minutes. His shpiel was only interrupted by one or two questions. He described nonstop, and we moved nonstop around the vault.
I said goodbye to Somayeh and family three times. The first I headed west into the mountainous Kurdish region near the Iraq border. Amir Hossein got me into a shared taxi to get to the bus station, while his mother threw a cup of water after me down the street, which apparently is intended to bring me back again safe. The next time we rushed back from the monthly party and they drove me right to the train station, though turning the wrong way down a one way street and getting stopped by the police. They waived me on to the station as I was already cutting it close. The final time I was heading to Mashhad and onto Turkmenistan, and again Nasi threw water after me, this time more like a litre. What a family. Whereas so many other tourists try to get out as quickly as possible, they made Tehran a wonderful experience. I hope I can reciprocate in Canada.