Day 56: OK, so this place is now officially freaking me out

Tehran Travel Blog

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The streets of Tehran

Thanks to the people I've met here and/or travelled with: Araz (Iran), Michael (Australia), Cain, Abel & Fatima (Iran), Willian (Brazil)

I have struggled a long time with writing this blog entry. I wasn't sure how much of what happened should be in my blog, but in the end I decided to write about the events in the way I experienced the day. Some names have been changed in order to protect the innocent.

A few weeks ago I posted a message on the Iranian Couch Surfing forum to see if anyone would be interested in meeting up. I had been inundated by responses, mainly from Tehran. Since the protests following last year's election fraud network sites like Facebook have been blocked by the government and couch surfing is one of the very few remaining sites network that can still be accessed in Iran (though there are proxy's available which enable people to access filtered sites anyway).

The streets of Tehran


So that meant that for the two or three days I would be staying in Tehran I had a host as well as several coffee dates.

I had taken the high speed train from Zanjan to Tehran, which was not only faster, but also a lot more comfortable than the bus would have been. Once at the station I phoned up Araz, my courch surfing host and he gave me the instructions how to get to his house.

Tehran is a big city. A biiiig city. A big city with a big problem: traffic. The whole city is basically one big traffic jam, and its mass transit system is very limited to say the least (The Tehran metro wasn't opened until 1999, after the Revolutionary government had cancelled earlier works in 1981).
Some nice murals in central Tehran
So to get from the train station (south) to Araz' house (west) took the best part of two hours. First I had to walk to the nearest metro station, seemed a lot further than the 1500 metres the sign said. Then I had to take the metro, then change trains and take the next metro to the final stop. And then finally another 20 minutes by shared taxi.

After a shower, a change of clothes and several cups of tea with Araz, I did the above journey in reverse in order to get to the centre where I would be meeting another couch-surfer: Cain.
As I was on my way I got a phone call from a girl I had been in touch with, Fatimah. She was also a friend of Cain's and she told me he wouldn't be able to make it (that was strange, I had spoken to him this morning) but I would be meeting up with her instead.
An unexpected sight: the Sarkis Cathedral (note the many posters of Khomeini around it)
She told me to go to the metro station near the bazaar where two other guys (one Australian, one Iranian) would be waiting so that the four of us could do some sightseeing together. Now that I write this down it seems more like the plot of a bad B-movie, but at the time everything made perfect sense.

I arrived before Fatimah did and when I saw a guy who didn't look as if he was Iranian I approached him with the words: "Are you Australian?"
He looked at me surprised (and a little suspicious) and said, "How did you know?" As I explained the situation to him he realised who I was and it turned out we had actually been e-mailing about possibly meeting up in Iran as well. Couch-surfing is in fact a pretty small world.
The other guy turned out to be Cain's brother: Abel.
Tehran bazaar
Something had come up and Cain wouldn't be able to join us until later today, even though Michael, the Australian guy, was supposed to be staying with him tonight. So Abel had stepped in to entertain us today instead.
A little later we were joined by Fatimah and the four of us went for some lunch in order to be able to get to know each other a little better.

After lunch we had a stroll around the bazaar. The Tehran bazaar is neither pretty, nor a place where tourists would do much shopping. At the Tehran bazaar day-to-day business is being conducted the same way it has been done for more than a thousand. Despite the opening of several large malls on the outskirts of the city, most of the more conservative Tehranis still buy much their clothes and gold-ware and household appliances and toys and carpets here.
Tehran bazaar
It is estimated that the Tehran bazaar controls a third of Iran's entire retail and trade sector.

After a few hours at the bazaar and surrounding area Fatimah asked what we wanted to do next. Since I still had trouble getting used to that Irani habit of talking several conversations at the same time while walking through busy streets, I opted we go for a drink somewhere so that we would be able to talk normally.
I should have chosen my words more carefully. In Iran 'going for a drink' is a pastime which is virtually non-existent. While in Tehran some place that could be called bars have opened up in recent years, it was obvious none of them can be found in the conservative area around the bazaar.

And I think I already mentioned Tehran was a big city.
Tehran bazaar
From the point where we were standing in Central Tehran, to the coffee house next to the film museum in Northern Iran, using a combination of metro, bus and taxi.
However, the journey did give us the opportunity to talk at great length. Especially Fatimah was a very interesting person to talk to. She is not your typical Iranian woman. In fact, you could say she was a feminist.

To give some background, Iran is governed by Islamic law. One of the many rules of Islamic law stipulates that women must have as little rights as possible in order for men to resist any type of sinful temptation. This is a bit of a simplified explanation, but it is basically what it comes down to. Whatever desire a man might have, it is always the fault of the woman. Men waving their dicks around have decided that sinful thoughts of men are the fault of women and as a result women should look as unattractive as possible.
Tehran bazaar
So this means they have to cover themselves up all the time, no hair should be visible, no skin apart from the face (full covering Burqa is something of Sunni Muslim, not the Shiite branch of Iran), and definitely nothing like make-up, or clothes that reveal the contours of the female body.
In essence this means that all women have to wear a hejab, a scarf to cover their heads, and a manteau, which is basically a shapeless overcoat that covers about three quarters of the body. These pieces of clothing must be worn at all times outside private homes, so inside restaurants, in the shops, in the streets even when it is 40 degrees outside.

Another piece of dress is the chador, which is a black cape which covers the whole body. Women generally wear this draped over their body, holding it with their hands.
Tehran bazaar
This is not a compulsary dress, so it easily gives you the distinction between the two types of women in this country: the ones who wear a chador are wearing this because their religion or at least tradition dictates doing so. You could say they do this out of their own will. The ones wearing only a hejab do so because the law tells them to, even though because of the laws they have very little affinity with Islam anymore.

In Tehran this goes a few steps further. Women are not afraid of the police anymore, and their hejab is often little more than a scarf, loosely draped around the head. They're showing more than a few strands of hair, often the hejab only covers the backside of the head, despite this being a pubishable offence (I have seen girls get arrested for not wearing their hejab properly).
Tehran bazaar
Many women also wear a figure-hugging manteau, which is more a trendy overcoat than a religious dress.

When I compare this to other Islamic countries I have visited, for example Egypt or Syria, the differences are striking. Both these countries are secular and guarantee freedom of religion. The fact that almost every woman wears a hejab (usually kept neatly to their head with pins so that it doesn't fall off, like it does all the time with Iranian women) means that they are in fact religious. I dare say that people in secular countries like Egypt or Syria or even Turkey are more religious than they are in Iran. In Iran, by enforcing this by law only has the opposite effect. Sounds familiar, doesn't it? Remember the time when Vatican pretty much ruled the whole of Europe?

There are many other laws in this country that limit the rights of women.
Tehran bazaar
Many of them to do with basic rights on education and work, but many others targeted solely at limiting women's rights to express themselves. During my stay in Iran a new law was passed that manicured nails are now also illegal, with a fine of up to $ 100 per finger. In other words, should you be a woman in Iran with manicured nails, then gloves is what you should wear. Did I mention yet that 90% of this country is a friggin' desert?

In a country so obsessed with sin it is obvious that it is forbidden to have any contact with the opposite sex outside blood relatives or marriage. So it is not allowed to date. Pre-marital sex is illegal as women are supposed to enter marriage as a virgin (no such law exist for men, obviously). Fatimah told us a story of a friend of hers who went on a date with a guy and they got arrested.
Some bald bloke sneaking a picture inside the Imam Khomeini mosque
She was taken to a special kind of 'doctor' who examined whether she was still a virgin or not. When it turned out she was, she was forced to marry the guy she was dating. Imagine that, your first date with someone you just met and you are forced to marry him. Can't imagine there are many happy marriages in this country and in fact pretty much everyone I met in Iran was single and happy to be so.

Another very degrading law is that adultery is punishable by death (for women) - even if this 'adultery' is committed through rape!
Nope, Iran is not a great place to grow up as a women. (believe it or not, there are worse countries, like Saudi Arabia for example)
Needless to say Fatimah had her opinions on all of this. She'd lived abroad for a while and did a fair bit of travelling as well.
At the Imam Khomeini mosque
She would have none of all this conservative nonsense.

We finally arrived at the Film Museum of Iran. Not to have a look at Iranian cinema (although I would have liked) but because one of the best coffee shops in the country is situated on the premises. One of the best and one of the most popular, as our two hours of travel as rewarded with the message that they were full and we had to wait for a table.

When we finally had a table (indoors, outside the waiting list was over 2 hours. In any other country they would resolve this by adding more tables, but hey, you guessed it, that wasn't allowed here) we treated ourselves with some great coffees and delicious shakes.

We were joined by Cain, Abels brother. He was the one I was supposed to meet up this morning to discuss a proposed trip to the Kordistan province which he was organising (for which Michael signed up as well) but something had come up.
The streets of Tehran
Well, the trip was off. We finally learned what the issue was and as it turned out Cain had been arrested. Or well, he had been arrested a long time ago, but today he was given the verdict.

For this I need to explain some of the background of the politics in Iran. Back in 2005 many people had initially voted for Ahmadinejad because he was the underdog. He came from outside the established order which seemed a good thing. It soon turned out he was little more than a puppet of the Supreme Leader, seemingly more interested in pissing off the West with off-hand remarks about exterminating Israel, than with actually governing the country. Four years later his hard line politics, his populist remarks and his seemingly incapability to govern a country have made him very unpopular.
Getting a refreshing drink at a street stall
Realising this unpopularity the Guardian Council, the 'shadow government' or religious clergy which basically has the real power in the country, made sure to bar over 30% of the candidates for presidency and parliament having too progressive ideas.
And surprise surprise, Ahmadinejad won a second term in 2009. This enraged the population and hundreds of thousands took to the streets protesting against the re-election, which they claim was rigged. The police responded by arresting thousands of protesters and beating hundreds more to pulp. An unknown number of people died that day.

Cain had been one of the people out in the streets that day. He claims he hadn't taken part in the protests, he was just an onlooker, but he got arrested nonetheless. Rather than having a trial he was offered a bail, and after paying $20,000 he was a free man again.
Film museum of Iran
To me this sounds like the reason for his arrest was solely to extract money out of him (he never received a report of his arrest or a receipt for the money). However, with the anniversary of the protests less than two weeks away the government fears a repetition of the protests. So all people who had been arrested at the time have been called in for a trial. The timing is perfect. Cain was called in today and was sentenced to 2 years jail. Tomorrow he has to go back to the justice department where he will hear when his sentence starts.

It all sounded so dodgy. He never got anything on paper. He was forced to sign documents of which he didn't receive a copy. The Iranian police knows all too well that he can apply for amnesty in other countries if he has proof of his mistreatment in Iran.
Film Musem of Iran
Cain seemed very calm under all of this. He told us the whole story all very matter of factly. We suspected he was not planning on doing time, but instead would try to flee the country.

Michael and I looked at each other. This was shocking. Yes, we both knew this country was a totalitarian dictatorship and yes we knew beforehand that people in this country have no freedom. But this was getting a little too close. It is so odd. Freedom is something we take for granted, but for the people here it just does not exist. The government can do whatever they like with whomever they like.

What was worse, Michael was supposed to be staying with Cain and his family tonight. This wasn't right. There was no guarantee Cain would be allowed to spend the night 'freely' with his family.
At the Film Museum
What would happen if tomorrow morning police would show up at his house to pick him up for court and they would find an Australian in the house? If they wanted they could accuse Michael of illegally helping Cain flee the country or something like that. It just wasn't right. And while the risk was small, there was a genuine risk. Even if there wouldn't be an issue for Michael, him being in the house could pose a risk for Cain and his family.

It should come as no surprise that couch surfing is not entirely legal in this country. While it is not forbidden to have foreigners stay at your house, if you do so you should register this with the police. Obviously no one does this, because they fear that if the government finds out about the popularity of CS, they will shut that website down as well.
At the Film Museum


The day had taken a completely different turn now. Cain and Abel took off together, to tell their parents the bad news. Fatimah, Michael and I walked down Valiasr street, the longest street in Tehran (stretching for almost 20 km from north to south). At night this becomes the scene of massive covert flirting. Boys and girls drive up and down the street at snails pace, exchanging looks phone numbers while they pass each other. With sexes segregated at school and university and with any type of social gatherings outlawed, this is pretty much the only way a boy can meet a girl here.

At one point Fatimah said "you guys have to wait, I need to cross the street first and you can follow a few moments later". She had spotted the religious police on the other side of the road.
Genuine Dutch beer - peach flavour! (never seen this in Holland though)
She could be arrested for walking in the street with two strange men. Gawd, this just isn't fun any more. Michael and I didn't feel very comfortable being in this city any more. Michael even less than I, for obvious reasons. We discussed the matter again and he decided to find himself a hotel for tonight, rather than staying with Cain.

We each went our separate ways. Michael and Fatimah went to Cain's house to pick up his luggage and I travelled across the city to find Araz in order to have some dinner with him.

We had a nice dinner in a traditional restaurant, where I could try some typical Iranian specialities. There was another couch surfer staying with Araz tonight, a Brazilian guy names Willian who had met Araz a few weeks before. He was now on his way out of the country, making a last stop in Tehran.
Traditional restaurant


Once home I went straight to bed. I was exhausted. It had been a very long day (can't believe I was still in Zanjan this morning) and the events that had happened had really taken their toll. The moment my head hit the pillow I was in a coma.

NB: A few days later we received word via Abel that Cain had indeed left the country. This means that as long as the present regime is in power he will never be able to visit his home country again.

amirms says:
I have lived in Iran for more than 25 years and I have rarely seen things you say you have seen during your trip. Specially the part about a fine for having manicured nails! this one was a rumor, in fact one to make fun of the moral police! The last part which you said women could get arrested if found walking with two strange men, that made me laugh! I think there are much much more things to enjoy in Iran that you have overlooked thanks to your negative minded, i dun wanna use the word liar, hosts!
Posted on: Nov 23, 2011
sundasazeem says:
hey people...a scary story i must say.... I do think the arresting part of the story sounds real. I have been there for enough time to know the political ISSUES that spring up ven at the most unexpected times. Te politics there raises unnecessary restrictions and often totally absurd accusations...while the part about women being the only ones punished for adultery are a complete fallacy i must say. i have enough evidence to support my view that the men are clearly the ones punished more often than women on such accounts. though restrictions come up now and again regarding the public dress code, i have seen women there looking strikingly smart and beautiful..even more than many of us who enjoy COMPLETE FREEDOM here in pakistan! the manicure thingy is unbelievable! anyways, nice to see a detailed account of a visit to Tehran, Iran is clearly one of my favourite places.
Posted on: Jul 16, 2011
alikohan says:
those arresting are not only against girls, even boys get arrested cause of the way they wear (even to me happened once)but still no one cares about them. and about job and finger nails and some other things you mentioned about women in iran i dont think they are the truth. 60% of students in universities in iran are girls and most of the vacancies are only offered to women. in islamic culture i would agree with you that men may have more right thane women but in our original culture women are more respected than men in which these 2 rules have been mixed in the society.
anyways your "documentary" I call it, is literally appreciable
Posted on: Oct 15, 2010
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The streets of Tehran
The streets of Tehran
The streets of Tehran
The streets of Tehran
Some nice murals in central Tehran
Some nice murals in central Tehran
An unexpected sight: the Sarkis Ca…
An unexpected sight: the Sarkis C…
Tehran bazaar
Tehran bazaar
Tehran bazaar
Tehran bazaar
Tehran bazaar
Tehran bazaar
Tehran bazaar
Tehran bazaar
Tehran bazaar
Tehran bazaar
Tehran bazaar
Tehran bazaar
Tehran bazaar
Tehran bazaar
Some bald bloke sneaking a picture…
Some bald bloke sneaking a pictur…
At the Imam Khomeini mosque
At the Imam Khomeini mosque
The streets of Tehran
The streets of Tehran
Getting a refreshing drink at a st…
Getting a refreshing drink at a s…
Film museum of Iran
Film museum of Iran
Film Musem of Iran
Film Musem of Iran
At the Film Museum
At the Film Museum
At the Film Museum
At the Film Museum
Genuine Dutch beer - peach flavour…
Genuine Dutch beer - peach flavou…
Traditional restaurant
Traditional restaurant
Tehran
photo by: macajam