Day 56: OK, so this place is now officially freaking me out
Tehran Travel Blog› entry 81 of 260 › view all entries
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.