09 mei / Silent revolution in the Islamic Republic: Could the true Iran stand up please?

In the classically decorated restaurant, walls covered in thick red velvet and old black and white photo’s which call forth memories of a time long before the foundation of the Islamic Republic, a woman sits at a table, alone. She’s eating kebab, lavash (wafer thin bread), rice and grilled tomato while she stares out the bent windows. Mist and thick smog color the sky a deep gray.

The turquoise-blue dome and minarets of a nearby mosque contrast with the drab sky like flowers.

The snow gathers in thick clouds and falls softly in the chaotic dirty busy streets of Tajrish. Once upon a time a charming village with beautiful gardens not too far from busy Teheran, it has now been swallowed up by the big gray city. Masses of people crowd the narrow streets with cheap shops while the overwhelming traffic drones and honks at a complete standstill like always.

The restaurant is located at the top floor of the bazaar and is surrounded by boutiques and art galleries where art academy students are hard at work. They are practically exclusively women.

In the cramped displays kitschy replicas shine in their spotlight, the penciled copies of photographs portraying yearning women’s eyes and fully tattooed men’s bodies. Other boutiques sell realistic paintings in romantic style – Italy, and especially opulent Venice are popular. Then there are the framed tapestries of haughty forest scenes with naked women, elves, and gentle mountain creeks. Several shops sell the more correct calligraphy art. Lastly, the hideous 3D frames can’t be left out, portraying with the help of slats and fabric recreations of entire land- and cityscapes.

Not all students produce such tasteless copies however. While I walk past the tiny shops, my gaze falls upon a small painting of a dark child. Quickly I walk in.

Salam khanom, hello miss,” I greet.

A young looking girl looks up from her easel, beaming. She’s working on a large canvas of around a meter and a half tall.

To my surprise she’s working on a copy of a naked African woman. A pointy breast stands high and proud.

“But why a black woman?” I ask in amazement.

“I like dark people,” she says in broken English while her eyes twinkle mischievously.

“But isn’t this haram in Iran?” I ask while I point at the nude breast.

“Yes, but I think it’s sexy.” She laughs, unshaken. “I like dark and nude.” She winks.

Despite her appearance the student, named Madousa, turns out to be thirty-nine years old. She’s afraid to let me take a picture of her, but she does let me capture her hand floating above the canvas with a brush. She holds a degree in biology, but returned to university to study art. She has only been studying at the art academy for two months and is currently employed as an intern for eight weeks. She’s good. The canvas looks exactly like the small printed photo of the original, taped to a corner with tape.

“Are you married?” I obediently repeat the question I myself get asked every two minutes.

“Oh no,” she answers resolutely. “Iranian men only cheat. They can’t be trusted.” I wonder who can, in this country.

Salam, halet khoobeh, how are things going?” Madousa’s art teacher comes in, curious.

“Daring painting,” I note.

“Yeah, beautiful isn’t it?”

“How is the artistic freedom in Iran?”

“It’s alright,” the teacher frowns. “Things are permitted, so long as it’s inside. Not everything though…” she hastily adds.

“So this painting won’t go on display in a window later?”

“Oh no, no, no, this painting will remain out of sight,” the teacher says with a smile.

Sometimes freedom is only for those who can handle it.

Iran is like a body with two souls, a country with two faces, or maybe even more, but where culture and religion demand you never show your own face.

Nothing here is what it seems.

Iran welcomes its lost children
I notice this as soon as I arrive at Khomeini International Airport where I am received not by red-white-green flags or penetrating images of bearded clergy, but bald walls covered in photo’s of Iranian cities and posters of imposing ruins of the Persian empire. Without much hassle I get my passport stamped and my Iranian-Dutch friend and I go down the escalators. We are greeted by a veiled woman with a broad smile, who promptly presses a rose into our hands. Iran greets her visitors with love, who, elated, run towards their family members waiting in throngs behind the fenced arrivals to be able to close their arms around the millions of lost children of the country: descendants of the intelligentsia who left directly after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, or the capitalist children of now who if in any way possible aspire to study abroad never to return with the exception a rare family visit. Most leave for Canada and the United States, where in the latter a city like Los Angeles alone already counts 520,000 Iranian-Americans. However, Great-Britain, Germany and The Netherlands remain favorites for an exact degree and an attempt at a corresponding residence permit. Whoever doesn’t make it entrenches himself in the freedom of his home which is revered by Iranians as if holy.

The roomy apartment of the aunt of my Iranian-Dutch friend has a small patio of one by two meters, filled with drying clothes, freezers and food supplies. The tiled pen is closed off by the tall bare walls of the neighbors’ apartments. If you look up you see the thin snowy sky above the city. This small tiled square is the only natural light source of the house. The windows of the formal reception- and living room are covered by thick curtains and lace. The bedrooms are no different. When I pull back the curtains, longing for light and space I get warned. “Watch out! You’re not wearing a headscarf, the neighbors aren’t allowed to see you hair.” Quickly the lace curtains and pulled shut. The first days in Teheran call forth feelings of confusing, amazement, fascination and faint repulsion. In the outstretched semi-modern city without a central heart or city centre I find more freedom than I ever could have suspected. The colored headscarves are worn far down the back of women’s heads. Faces are alike: thick layers of extravagantly colorful make-up, tattooed eyebrows, the characteristic Persian nose replaced by monotonous plastic productions. Coats get shorter and shorter, pants and shirts tighter. The Iranian youth dance on a high-strung chord of social conventions and state norms.

At the same time the city seems to be in denial of itself. Windows are closed or simply blinded. Shutters are shuttered, curtains drawn.

Country of invisible walls
In astonishment I walk through the empty and mostly bare streets. Beautiful nor ugly. Rich nor poor. Teheran most closely resembles a collection of concrete blocks through which melt water rushes from the mountains to the north, only to flow through the poor southern parts of the city as slowly as a dirty brown stream of mud through the deep ditches of the street.

The compulsory portraits of the late head ayatollah Khomeini and current highest spiritual leader Khamenei are found in most shops as shriveled up postcards hidden in a corner. The shops can be divided into two categories: household goods and beauty products. Food and beauty, inside and outside, these are the obsessions and antipoles of this country where you can’t escape the pressure of the visible and invisible walls.

Most prominent are the walls of gender and sexuality that make it so women are concealed under long coats and veils while men (despite it being ice cold) proudly display their copious amounts of chest hair that swells up from under their tight half open shirts. The many walls in and around the women’s park which are meant to free women from the peeping gaze of male outsiders is another example. Here the walls are not only visible, they also block every view. While my friends and I walk through the mountainous park, I am bothered by the blind walls and numerous guards keeping an eye on us. Jealous, I follow the graceful flight of a colorful bird flying over a wall without any difficulty, while I can’t escape staring at green steel.

There are fictitious walls such as segregation in public transport: women in the back of the bus and men in the front, women in the women’s coupé and men in the men’s coupé, women in the green women’s taxi and men in the mixed taxi. The latter is a voluntary choice, you might as well join someone of the opposite sex on the cramped back seat of an old Paykan (the Iranian variant of the Lada), but with 2000 women’s taxi’s an increasing number chooses for religious but definitely also safety reasons for single-sex taxi’s, driven by chauffeurs’ shrouded in green. “And then they can easily engage in small-talk without being improper,” according to Naje (50), who was one of the first eight years ago to take up a job as a female taxi chauffeur.

She is a mother of three studying children and drives more than eight hours a day, seven days in the week, even during Friday afternoon prayers. Her husband is practically blind and unemployed. In this country plagued by international boycotts and hyperinflation, Naje needs every riyale and tuman (the two currencies of the country , ten riyale make up one tuman) she can make.

Lastly there are the virtual walls. Through the internet the notorious Iranian secret service keeps tabs on everyone and everything. President Hassan Rohani, inaugurated on the 3rd of August, may be allowed to have a Twitter account (one of the proofs of his so-called modernity) but for the normal Iranian citizen Twitter is still out of the question. Same goes for Facebook.

“Filter,” shrugs the local owner of a stuffy and warm internet café. He refuses to say much more. He ignores my questions about Rohani’s Twitter account.

“He’s the president,” says a female internet user next to me. “There are different rules for us.”

After yet again a round of arrests, people are gripped by fear. I don’t get many responses to my interview requests. None actually. Everywhere I go I am received with warm hospitality, but no one is looking to openly associate with a journalist.

Persian pop music plays in the small establishment situated in a ghastly mini-mall. Viber is taking Iran by storm, even though the latest religious fatwa’s condemn the app as haram for encouraging people to date. In reality Viber is of course a political threat. Data traffic made up of sound files poses a significantly more difficult task to monitor than text files for the extensive intelligence agencies. A visit to another aunt of my friend who does own an old computer with an internet connection doesn’t prove to be much of an improvement. The filter pops up as soon as I search for Facebook or Twitter. This aunt does have Skype so she can talk to her children who live abroad. Three of her four children live in The Netherlands, they left to become students in the past decade and have now definitively emigrated. The other youth in the family live in the United States. In their twenties and thirties, they have fanned out over the many states and cities. Dozens of photo’s of beaming couples in sleeveless white wedding dresses and fitted suits, without headscarves or chador, show off lives of freedom and affluence which stands in stark contrast with the closed windows of this apartment. Somewhat uncomfortable, I maneuver myself between the free but shut off interior and the limiting yet open exterior. In hidden café’s in basements of the shopping streets and neon-decorated store frontage on upper floors we drink honey-sweet, weak coffee priced at 10,000 tuman or more (€2,50 +) while men’s eyes fixate hungrily on us without reserve. Ordering alcohol is not an option. On the plain to Teheran we noticed how the alcohol prohibition was systematically introduced. The menu card provided to us by Turkish airlines was replaced after an intermediate landing in Istanbul. The food tastes better, but where we were able to order vodka, beer or wine while in European airspace, orange juice, mint-lemonade and cola are the only options left.

“There is no virgin left in Tehran”
Iranians illegally distill their own alcohol, buy it from the Christian Armenians who are permitted to use alcohol, smuggle it into the country through Turkish merchants and in the case of embassy personnel: import and resell the stuff in bulk. In public however, alcohol is nowhere to be found, not even in the most expensive hotels. Embassies are the only instances indemnified from the import ban. So I end up drinking original Johnnie Walker whisky (Red Label to be exact) in the evening, acquired by the more mischievous aunt through an acquaintance to the Greek ambassador. In the evening she awkwardly dishes up uncensored American films, illegal downloads she shrewdly obtained from street merchants who hastily flee the scene with their backpacks.

In the mean time unbridled rumors circulate about sex parties, prostitution (in the form of a marriage for a few hours or a night followed by a flash divorce, so completely halal) and excessive drug use. The Iranian youth are among the most addicted in the world, and injects and snorts the worst junk in cases of financial hardship.

We don’t see any of this. Diligently we search for an opening through this wall which hides many worlds from the political correct streets.

“There isn’t a virgin to be found in this country,” laughs Kaveh, the thirty-three year old son of a nephew of my Iranian-Dutch friends father who turns out to be a bit too interested in me. During a birthday dinner he scoots closer and closer to me and lays his hand on my thigh. His wedding ring disappears into his pocket. Shocked, my friend and I stare at his suddenly naked hand. He tells us how youth manage to do “it” together. “You just hire a villa of a friendly or corrupt owner in the mountains. You can do anything there.” Still he has been arrested once with his girlfriend. “We spent a night in a cell, but we had a good story, money and connections.” He laughs and shrugs. “The girl’s family was notified but luckily they didn’t make too big of a deal out of it.”

The less affluent portions of the population also manage to satisfy their wants and needs.

“Is it true that drugs are legal in The Netherlands,” asks a twenty-nine year old taxi driver while he maneuvers us through bottled up traffic towards the big train station in the south of Teheran.

“Which drugs are most popular among you?” he questions eagerly. According to him, LSD and weed are most popular in Iran. Since the poppy cultivation is abundant in Afghanistan following the chaos brought on by America, opium and heroin are dirt-cheap. Trade in the latter involves payment in kind. Iranian dealers trade the increasingly scarce and expensive pistachio and saffron for Afghan drugs.

The driver isn’t prosperous, but he tells us that poorer youth also make their way to the northern mountains.

“We hire a villa with thirty of us, that way it’s affordable for all. Where there is a will there is a way.”

Smoking, drinking, in Iran you can do anything which Allah by way of the Grand Ayatollah has forbidden.

In one café we are told “no” when we request an ashtray and water pipe.

“Women don’t smoke,” is the surly answer of a servant whose looks indicate he is somewhat repulsed. In another café hidden behind several shops further down the street, women do smoke, and with a smile we are handed an ashtray. To the 80’s tunes of German pop group Modern Talking, alternated by Phil Collins and Stevie Wonder, amorous couples and well-dressed gays rub up against one another. They briefly let their gaze fall on me, bored, after which they cross their legs and continue talking under the blue lights.

Hair games
The headscarf however isn’t allowed to come off anywhere. Even in the pricey north of the city where cheap household stores are replaced by Versace Art Galleries and marble shopping malls housing brands I know only from hear-say. While women with highly bleached hair and stiletto heels enter the silent clean-cut shopping centre, a small sign at the Illy reminds us to decently keep on our headscarves.

Not only the coffee bars in the busier streets of the city are masked. The many beauty and massage salons for women and of course the hair dresser aren’t allowed to be seen by men’s eyes. On my second morning I decide to trust my hair to the care of Iranian hair dressers. With enthusiasm my friends aunt joins us on our way to the salon. A few knocks on the front door of an apartment on the ground floor and an entire world opens itself up to us. The scorching quarters are not far from being a chicken coop. Dozens of women let their hair loose, exchange the latest gossip and in some cases, flirt mischievously. A young woman with beautiful curls trims eyebrows and removes moustaches with amazing speed using a sharp thread. Meanwhile female hairdressers in white uniforms bustle to accommodate their customers. In a cramped corner of the steaming hot room my hair is washed rapidly after which I, lost and dazed, am seated in a salon chair. Nobody speaks English, but my hair is cut and blow-dried until it is as polished and slick as that of the others. Most women have bleached hair, but according to the owner of the salon, long and dark is the newest fashion – with highlights, mind you, because the blond diva’s from the badly lip-synched Turkish soaps continue to be the ideal.

To be honest, the aunt doesn’t much like this salon.

“The customers are very Islamic,” she hisses to us in her favorite space of her house (the kitchen). You can tell. As soon as the women have been cut, blow-dried, highlighted, and depilated and the latest gossip has been exchanged, the headscarves go back on and the chador is draped over head and shoulders. The long black cloth which is held together under the chin with one hand has been disappearing off the streets, but continues to be a sign of religiosity under believers, especially now that younger generations have been wearing the headscarf further back. I too have to replace my headscarf, although a large swath of hair is allowed to remain visible.

While Kaveh’s father Ali pours his self-distilled wine from a coke bottle, we end up in a whirlwind of political discussion.

“I process 2500 kilos of grapes into 100 liters of wine annually,” his father bellows through the room.

“Doesn’t such an extreme purchase of grapes attract attention?” I ask surprised.

“Of course. Especially since this type of grape is only used to make wine. But nobody asks or says anything.” He winks. “Cheers!”

“The big question keeping the entire world occupied is where the Middle-East is headed,” Kaveh explains in the mean time, taking another gulp of the disgusting red liquid that most closely resembles grape juice with a shot of spirit. “Iran is going to be a big player in this region. Egypt as well of course, as the largest potential market with the highest population count.”

He doesn’t see much of a future for Sunni Islam. “The Sunni radicalization is wholly financed and facilitated by Saudi-Arabia and the Gulf states, but oil is going to be of decreasing importance in the future. There won’t be much public support for their ultraconservative views, just take a look at the massive opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood. The coming struggle will be over human capital and Saudi-Arabia has been lagging behind in its investments. I think the socio-political orientation in the Middle-East will shift towards secularism. At the same time Shi’ism has been gaining influence. This religion is much more flexible and dynamic than Sunni conservatism and is much better suited to modern times.”

The hidden Shia agenda
Shi’ism is in fact a mix of Islam and pre-Islamic religious beliefs. Kaveh describes Shi’ism as an artificial religion which sprung up during the first Arab invasion (in 633 A.D.) in the Persian kingdom (…) Through concepts such as ijtihad (reinterpretation of the texts) Shi’ism has always been more able to anticipate new developments. The practical effects of the religion in Iran appear – although omnipresent – to be generally less strict than in countries where Shi’ism is prevalent, whether enforced by the government (like in Saudi-Arabia) or through social pressure by the (over)religious population (like in Egypt or Morocco for example). The headscarf may be required here, but the loose manner in which it is worn by many is unthinkable in the Sunni world. Also the call to prayer is less overpowering: the speakers and megaphones that echo prayers don’t populate every street of the country. Because two of the five prayers within Shi’ism are allowed to be combined, believers only pray thrice a day in practice. Women have an easier time divorcing in the two schools of Shi’ite law than in the four Sunni law schools; and although the choice to go through life unmarried or to live on your own continuous to be somewhat of an issue, there is greater acceptance than in the Arab world.

“And don’t forget that Iran significantly expanded her power,” Kaveh adds in a practical tone. “Teheran even negotiates directly with Al-Qaida. All alliances are possible, religion is but a verbal cloak under which the true power games take place.”

Kaveh is laconic when I ask questions about the emphasis on martyrdom in Shi’ism. “Yes, worshipping heroes is part of Shi’ism, but have you ever heard of a Shi’ite suicide bomber? Martyrdom is beautiful, but blowing yourself up? A Shi’ite would never go that far.” I have my doubts about the latter. Modern Shi’ite suicide bombers are indeed rare, but in early Shi’ite history kamikaze acts were not uncommon. In the eleventh century the Shi’ite Assassins took on the enemy head first without any fear of death. Customary lore says they did this heavily under the influence of drugs, hashish, which was fed to them by their commanding officer Hasan al-Sabbah and after which they were named. In addition, the English and French words assassin and assassinat have their roots in the name of these ancient suicidal killers. In modern Iran lampposts all over the country are decorated with pictures of similar martyrs. The street names refer to the many heroes of the revolutionary past. The boys died by the hands of the brutal SAVAK, the secret service of the former shah, or during the bloody Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), when tens of thousands of young boys, teens and students found death with plastic keys hung around their necks. These keys were given to them by the regime with the Khomeini’s personal promise that these would open the gates of paradise for them. Many Iranians today however see the martyr cult of the great war as a sly way for the religious establishment to line their pockets and ensure their future political safety. The war started less than a year and a half after the revolution and caused a massive rally around the flag-effect. The invasion of Saddam’s troops saw the Iranian people, out of necessity, support the newly instated Islamic regime, destroying widespread support for a military retaliatory coup or a new insurrection. The propaganda was paid for and ordered by the bonyad-e shihad, foundation of the martyrs, initially a national relief-fund charged with remitting compensation for lost family members, but whose arms like many other (semi-)government instances reach out far into economic and societal life.

Suddenly Kaveh bends over to me with a mysterious smile. “Let me tell you something. Iran is on the verge of closing a nuclear deal with the United States. The five plus one talks are well underway. But I have heard from a most reliable source from within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that the talks don’t actually centre around the nuclear accord. That’s simply the message being broadcasted to the outside world with which the international media is being mislead and the attention is pulled away from the real issues at hand. They are focusing much more on the future role of Iran in the region, especially with respect to Syria. The United States wants Iran to pull out. Washington is under enormous pressure by Saudi-Arabia and Israel who fear the enormous advance of Shi’ite groups in the region. At the same time, they don’t want Al-Assad to be weakened because that means radical Sunni groups like Al-Nosra and ISIS will gain ground. Let’s just say that Iran pulls out of Syria but Hezbollah doesn’t.” Kaveh flashes an accomplished grin and takes another bite.

For a dissident he has a lot of insider knowledge. Within a week Iran signs the nuclear accord and the UN invites the Islamic Republic to take place at the Genevan negotiation table – but the country must under loud protest from the Syrian opposition step out of the peace talks.

The old rebel
Kaveh’s interest in politics doesn’t come as much of a surprise. His father, Ali, was a full-blooded communist and was arrested not only under the regime of the shah, but of the Khomeini as well. During the short-lived socio-political rise of the green movement in 2009 he took to the streets, as did the rest of his family. Kaveh studied in Great-Britain but spend day and night editing video material sent to him by his friends which he then sent to CNN and BBC. It was a thrilling period of time. Many of his friends were arrested. Some had to flee the country never to return. Kaveh speaks of psychological torture practices in jail; without using actual violence the secret service managed to drive at least one of his friends completely crazy. Yet Kaveh was able to return to his country of birth a few months later without any problems, even though his name popped up routinely during the interrogation of his friends.

“If this party was crashed by police right now, we would definitely have problems. A thick wad of cash however could easily bribe the police. If you’re arrested for political reasons money doesn’t work. Then it’s about national security. Only good connections inside the regime can help you then.” That how his father Ali was able to repeatedly secure his freedom. Ali’s brother was an important surgeon who operated on prominent Iranians as well as members of the shah and Imam Khomeini, allowing him to help his brother out. These days his father is an architect who runs his own architect and consultancy bureau and has a hundred men under him. Well, “men”: it’s mostly women that fill the better functions in his offices.

“Women are better employees,” he explains a few days later during a tour of his head office. “Men are much too eager to start something of their own. In addition way more women graduate as engineer or architect.”

Ali no longer believes in revolution. “The Egyptians should have waited to depose Mohammed Morsi, it would have been better to vote him out of office,” he says. Then his eyes start to shimmer. “They did it well though, they didn’t let it go so far as Iran in any case. They gave it thought. A regime like ours is almost impossible to get rid of.”

“But where is the Green Movement now?” I ask. He stares into space. “We’ve had our revolution and all it did was bring us more pain. Actually, every revolution unleashes the same chain of events: one dictatorship makes place for the next because it’s always the group with the most money and the best organization means that wins and pulls all the power towards itself. In the Middle-East the winners are always the army or the Islamists.”

“But that doesn’t mean that developments in Iran have come to a halt. On the contrary!” he continues. “The political parties have fallen apart. An organized opposition doesn’t exist. The leaders are abroad, in jail or have traded in their ideological convictions. The Green Movement shows that society is still bubbling and that through modern communication means completely unorganized youth can appear on the streets in the millions warning. The standard-bearers have been rounded up, but they haven’t disappeared. She has returned to the underground but is steadily stepping up the pressure on the government. How do you think the current president Rohani got his votes? Without joint agreement or public protests members of the Green Movement voted for him. Things are moving much more slowly and gradually now. Step for step we can achieve more without ripping apart the country. Even the poorer conservative Islamic parts of the population are losing faith the political elite.”

The latter is an accurate description of the conservative Islamic housekeeper of the aunt with which I’m staying. Although the woman stands behind the principles of the Islamic republic, she preferred the situation during the rule of the shah. The reason? “There was a lot of work and life was much cheaper.” The emergence of the Grand Ayatollah didn’t affect her belief much. “I was a believer then and I still am. The state doesn’t have any effect in that respect.”

“Of course I’d like for Iran to change in one night, women who cast aside their headscarves, for the system to disintegrate, but we have to mind the lessons taught by history,” says Kaveh. For now both ex-revolutionaries (like most) are pre-occupied with making money.

The strength of a dual political system
In Iran there is more to be reckoned with than bad experiences of the past. Every potential revolution encounters a double threshold due to the dual political system. A real attempt at true revolutionary change requires both the overthrow of the president and his government and the more hidden religious shadow cabinet. Next to the parliament (and president) elected by the people, there is the function of velayat-e faqih or Supreme Leader. This religious-political position was created by Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and was modified later on to accommodate ex-president Ali Khamenei as successor. The Supreme Leader actually has the most power, as the ultra conservative Guardian Council, appointed by him, can veto any bill or political measure. And then there are many other religious councils, committees and institutions in the country. Think of the states army, the holy army of Jerusalem (religious fighters), basjij (religious thugs) and the vice squad. Gradual reforms can make the government less corrupt and more democratic, but for the religious shadow cabinet additional steps will have to be taken. The Supreme Leader can because of his religious status still count on support from large swathes of the population, as I discover at his massive sepulchral vault which has been under construction since his death in 1989. I visit the tomb, which from the outside looks very much like a kitschy Disney-palace and in the middle looks like a gigantic sports hall, on the birth date of Mohammad. “Ya Mohammed, ya Mohammed, ya Mohammed,” sings the exuberant imam. Hundreds of gruff men’s voices join in. In my women’s section the women undulate with the sea of voices. They aren’t allowed to sing along, it’s haram. I go up to the caged grave of the Grand Ayatollah. Khomeini’s grave consists of a square stone under a poison green carpet. Thousands of bank notes lie around his grave like an aureole. Once outside I eat a hamburger in the neighboring burger bar and drink a Coca Cola. On my way to the women’s bathroom, shielded off, I nearly trip over a number of rugs with racy lingerie. Buying a bra a stone throws distance from the grave of the great Ayatollah? Anything is possible in a country where the culture prescribes people to always keep their true face hidden, even if that requires cosmetic intervention.

Searching for the beating heart of the Islamic Republic I decide to leave the progressive, secular and cynical capital behind. In the large Shi’ite sanctuary of Shiraz I am greeted by millions of glistering mirrors. Women in black chadors bow and press their heads firmly against the mud prayer stones. The dark mass of people heaves and waves. Uncomfortably I make my way through the praying bodies. At the shrine I am stopped by a woman with a green feather-duster. Soft yet resolutely she taps my arm with the duster. Like all members of the committee she wears a green sash over her chador and a number of emblems shine on the thick black fabric. “Go to the other side,” I gather from the Farsi, which is closer to Arabic than I initially thought and employs practically the same alphabet (the Persian alphabet is identical to Arabic writing, but contains three extra characters).

Meek I move behind a procession of women and pass the shrine where the two brothers Amir Ahmad-Ibn-e-Musa Al-Kazam (alias Shah-e-Charagh) and Amir Mohammed-Ibn-e-Musa al-Kazam have found their final resting place. Emotional, the women kiss the hundreds of mirrors on the man-high tomb which is separated in two by a shielding fence. One side is for the women. On the other side I can hear a stream of men, but I can’t see them. Yet both sexes touch the grating with their hands and stuff notes of 500 and 1000 tuman between the bars.

The two idols that are buried here are brothers of Ali-Ibn-e-Musa Al-Reza, the eighth imam in Shi’ism.

The percentage of Shi’ites in the Islamic Republic lies, according to official statistics, at 89% of the total population. The majority belongs to the school of “twelvers”. This means that in the line of successors after the death of Mohammed they recognize twelve imams. The Sunnites claim that every believer can lead the oumma or Islamic community, while Shi’ites accord the twelve imams special qualities like divine insight derived directly from the bloodline passed from Mohammed on to his son-in-law Ali (the first imam). The twelve imams waged a heavy fight over the right to divine administration over the swelling community of believers. The first great imam after whom the Shi’ites are named (shia Ali, literally: follower of Ali) was killed in a field battle as was his very young son Hussein. Time and time again the imams attempted to demand their rightful place without success. The eight imam suffered a brutal death as well. He was poisoned. Only the twelfth imam didn’t die, but according to custom hid somewhere under a rock where he waits for the right moment to return. Up until today, believers wait for his return. Many thought that with the rise of Khomeini the great Mahdi had finally reappeared, but with his death that dream was shattered.

The extravagant mosque full of mirrors and reflected colored light is one of the holiest shrines in Iran. Entry is forbidden for unbelievers. But I overlook the elaborate prohibitory sign and am easily mistaken for an Iranian and a believer with my headscarf and chador. Dazzled, I walk over the stretched out square, while melodious spiritual music which reminds me of classic Gregorian singing from the Roman-Catholic Church, reverberates between the many religious buildings. In and around this gigantic mosque in the heart of the old bazaar of Shiraz you don’t encounter the progressive secularism which dominates the well-to-do neighborhoods of the Iranian capital Tehran. Here the Shi’ite Islam, the foundation of the Islamic Republic, is alive and kicking. Not only in this religious centre by the way. In a city like Qom, birthplace of the Grand Ayatollah Khomeini, I am told people are even more religious. Near a large gas station, just outside the city, enormous neon signs flicker, advertising the various facilities of the truckers stop: for example the weekly namaz gomeh (Friday afternoon prayers) are announced in clashing red on the sign. Restaurants and sanitary facilities follow in much smaller neon lights.

Cat and mouse games with religious police
Just minutes into the 16 hour long train trip to the southern city Shiraz I realize that I am in a completely different world. In the long narrow corridors of the swaying train wagons I don’t see any hip western clothing, ear buds, sunglasses and pulled back headscarves, but black chadors, beards, worn shoes, ragged clothing and friendly but more often pedantic looks. The large train station in South-Tehran had already prepared me somewhat. Meters tall depictions of Supreme Leaders Khomeini and Khamanei decorated the outside and interior and exterior walls. Some passengers greeted the meters high Qur’an placed prominently near the entrance. Spread of the gigantic hall hung more Qur’an recitations and religious depictions. And then there is the notorious ceiling relief of tens of swastika’s braided into one another, which were applied as decor by the fascist Reza Shah Pahlavi who sided with the Germans during WWII, but which the Islamic regime never felt needed replacement. The station is swarmed by shivering passengers who clearly do not belong to the rich of Tehran. Traditionally clothed, carrying plastic bags with food for the hours and sometimes day long train ride, pushing mounds of merchandise on ramshackle trolleys; all in all a rather barren spectacle. Amidst all of this a woman in stylish clothing and a shiny suitcase containing a saz, a lute-like string instrument, stands out.

She turns out to be a musician. She can’t really perform. With the exception of second-rate culture centers and theaters shielded off with screens there is no place for women in the music industry.

In addition such concerts are limited to traditional plucking of strings.

The musicians was in Tehran to visit her sister and give a private concert. Now she’s going back home.

Whether she’s giving another concert anytime soon?

“No, unfortunately not. I play at home. And then… I sing too, in secret of course.”

The ban on singing is one of the many strange ambiguities in this country. Both prerevolutionary music (so from before 1979) and women’s singing are strictly forbidden, but in the mean time many shop owners and taxi drivers listen loudly to western pop music by female artists who’s acts are significantly more offensive than this veiled musician on the station.

“Tell her to fix her headscarf,” a young man in rather hip clothing whispers into the ear of my Iranian-Dutch co-traveler while he bends over her with all his weight. Since we sat down in the restaurant coupé of the train he has barely been able to keep his eyes off us. He’s not the only one. This space is occupied by men exclusively, and all the men sitting at the disintegrating tables, with the exception of an old mullah, throw us a range of looks. This man is, however, very insolent. Since we’ve started the train journey he has bothered us continuously. First he came running after us, panting, claiming that I’d lost my mobile. My friend was allowed to go get it at the police station in the last minute before the whistle. How my phone, which was buried deep in my backpack, had been stolen and subsequently landed in the hands of the police is a mystery. Afterwards the man walks into the police office as if it’s his daily workplace, but he wasn’t wearing a uniform and eventually he gets into the train as a co-passenger. I can’t even stick my head out of the closed off women’s coupé without him coming at me with the next flirtatious yet disapproving comment.

“You’re vest is too short,” another man points out to me. “Put on a coat.”

It is scorching hot in the coupé and the thick cigarette smoke covers everything in a blue-gray haze. I refuse.

“No, why should I? Why?” I yell furiously through the coupé.

I receive wide-eyed bewildered stares from the men. They don’t have an answer, but continue to insist I put on my winter coat. “It’s for your own safety, if the police come you’ll have problems,” sounds there excuse. But there is no police on board, except a young man who’s been nipping at our heels the entire journey, but can’t strike up anything more in the swaying coupés of this train which proceeds through the 1200 kilometer snowy landscape at an slow pace.

My friend, meanwhile, has other worries. In the cramped women’s coupé which we share with two women and a baby, the oldest of the two starts a fierce matchmaking attempt between her and her absent single grandson. Tens of question and small pinpricks continue all night long. Whatever we try, she won’t have “no” for an answer and insists we meet her daughter and grandson whom she contacts by telephone to let them know of our arrival. The Iranians principle of tarof, the sometimes exasperating politeness which must be maintained at all times, although hardly ever sincere, stops us from retorting too harshly. Once we arrive at the station in Shiraz we run out of the train, in an attempt to shake off the young agent and old woman. We succeed, but not completely. At the checkpoint we run into the same young man who extensively inspects our passports. We outrun the woman, but when we’re leave the checkpoint we find her waiting for us, husband and unmarried grandson by her side.

Shiraz is an oasis of peaceful rest in comparison to hasty, dirty and chaotic Tehran. The city may be conservative and all activities cease come sundown (with the exception of praying perhaps), but the bazaar is much less stratified and at least the chador covered faces aren’t subject to the mass plastic surgery which men and women undergo in the capital. Birds chirp in little cages hung on cables and ropes tied to the sides of the narrow streets. According to the old traditions of the bazaar they bring luck and prosperity, but I’m more inclined to see them as a symbol of a country that’s being cages by her own division and religious captivity.

From God to poetry
From the Shi’ite sanctity in the old city we move to the extensive cemetery to visit another grandiose monument. The grave of Hafez rises, it’s light contrasting with the ink-black winter sky of the southern city Shiraz. Motionless a man looks over the marble gravestone. On the stone is displayed a stanza from his vast body of poetry. The early 14th century Persian poet still lives in the hearts of Iranians. A popular saying poses that every house needs two things: the Holy Qur’an and a collection of Hafez’s words. In reality Iranians prefer to change the word order. Hafez is, anno 2014, still praised on every street corner and his tomb functions as one of the biggest pilgrimage destinations of the country. Couples emerge from the extensive gardens and respectfully circle the tomb, softly reciting poems. Businessmen pose gravely in front of the monument. With Hafez in hand you own the future. In the folk ritual of the faal-e Hafez one of his volumes is opened at random in the hope to find clues as to the course of one’s life. In the language of artfully woven words the rebellious heart finds expression of her anger and the reader the happiness of clandestine recognition about all those social, political and religious issues which the Islamic Republic would rather avoid than address.

Now even the communists and greatest progressives have sworn off political revolution, poetry together with film, visual art and all the expressions of popular youth culture function like blood-less weapons in the social revolution that’s transforming this country at an amazing rate, as I discover during a visit to “House of Artists” back in Tehran. Here, young artists work at their projects in small modern ateliers, in reasonable safety. Impressed I walk by the glass displays where glassware, tapestry and even Buddhist paintings and modern figurative art shine in the spotlights. Here and there I even spot nudity. In the central hall a boy in his twenties zealously plays the two-stringed dotar while he recites old Persian poems to the weeping tones. Due to the central location they may be easily surveilled by the state, but the social cohesion and public visibility inhibit the secret service from accosting or arresting the artists.

In the entirely vegetarian restaurant of the alternative art factory I meet one of the modern poets of Iran: Kabuttar (literally: “the dove”). The woman, in her forties, who originates from the nomad tribe of the Baktiari’s is a conspicuous figure with her deep colored skin and soft facial expression. Majestically she walks up the stone stairs of the building in her narrow brown boots. She is fashionably dressed, wearing a red woolen poncho and an artfully colored shawl nonchalantly drawn over her dark hair so only the back of her head is covered. Later when the fabric slides off her head she sits calmly, and her hair freely breathes in the smoky air. This journalist and poet has two bundles on her name. The first under the title “why I am like you” is already a number of years old. The second bundle “women hide everything” is currently awaiting publication.

The life of a poet is not easy in Iran. They are constantly watched by the many security instances because the government knows like no other the power of poetry as essential oxygen to the lungs of the Persian soul.

“My work suffers from two kinds of censure: the censure of the government and increasingly self-censure.”

When I ask which terrains are a no go, she fluidly counts off on her slender fingers: “erotica, politics and religion.”

I am reminded of a Jordanian saying that you can write about anything in Jordan, except about sex, the king and Islam.

“But how do you do it then?”

Her dark eyes light up. “Ah, that’s the art! We must weave the words together in such a manner that we come to tell the truth without causing a scandal.”

Not unlike the strictly prohibited exalted poet Farhouzad – not wholly by change Kabuttar’s biggest inspiration – the central themes are women’s rights and society. However, she also writes about politics and oppression in poems like “the zigzagging road to Evien” (the most notorious prison). In this case she doesn’t shun even the most dangerous themes.

During the green movement of 2009 a group of poets started a literary magazine. Kabuttar dubbed her contribution “a gift for Mohammed”. With soft tones she recites the stanza’s. The Farsi is almost impossible to translate, but the essence is unambiguously daring, if not outright blasphemous.

He doesn’t know what he had to write

Nor what he had to tell

Yet he knew what I must do


“The core is this,” she says while she brazenly grabs a cigarette right out of the hands of a boy behind her and inhales deeply: “Mohammed you as illiterate have hidden me in the cave behind the spiderwebs.” I immediately recognize the referral to the cave where Mohammed in the Sura of the Blood-Clot receives his first divine revelation.

Kabuttar giggles. “At one point I even write:

A naked woman stands in front of the mirror

How do you see me

As a devil

Or that which I am

SImply a naked woman

The lost soul of a nation
How the risky adventure with the magazine ended? “Oh, it was banned shortly afterwards by the government.” In a brisk motion the poet puts out her cigarette. “We thought that the wide popular uprising brought more freedom, and that we could write more openly, but the so-called opening didn’t last long. Now under the new president Rohani there was supposed to be another reformatory wave through the streets of Tehran, but in practice you don’t notice a thing. In fact, his election has brought even more arrests.”

Kabuttar herself is no stranger to being imprisoned. It started when she was fourteen. Being socialists they were first enemies of the state under the shah, and later under the Islamic regime. She wasn’t tortured. Her two sisters were.

“In the early days of the revolution of ’79 everyone was politically active. Now practically every has turned their back on politics. The youth don’t know any political membership of clear political activism but struggle in other terrains: those of breaking the many taboos of religion and society. They lack the feeling of responsibility carried by previous generations. They fight, but they fight mostly for themselves.”

She stares outside. In the sculpture garden a number of couples walk hand in hand, unimaginable up until a few years ago. “Instead of fighting the entire system with political activism, I try to stimulate reform from within, especially from within religion. With my poems I feed those in support of reform, but it doesn’t cease to be an intellectual debate of course.”

This is something she tries to change by placing her poems, open and bare on the strongly prohibited and filtered Facebook (though for every blockade there exists complementary hacker software). “I can’t even tell you how terrifying and exciting it is sometimes. With every poem I post I think of my father, my brothers, every male family member and lastly the Supreme Leader (Khamanei) and still I post it.” She laughs playfully and leans over to me a bit. “Last night I wrote a poem about love. I closed my eyes, pressed send and snapped my laptop closed immediately. I don’t dare touch it, not even today.” With this small confession we fall into her favorite theme. “In Iran Kierkegaard’s religious concept – not to touch means not to lose – is popular. This concept was aggrandized after the revolution of 1979 as an excuses to forbid physical contact. It caused prudishness, the lack of public affection and the general discomfort thereof outside and even within marriage. Of course this blew up under the eyes of the mullahs. The current generation thinks of nothing but touch,” she sighs. “Men have a new girlfriend every night, casual sex is the norm and the love appraised so beautifully by our greatest poets is nowhere to be found. We are a country of cheaters, destroying ourselves and each other in our rush.”

The college town Isfahan, world-renowned for her blue mosques, is more modern than Shiraz yet marked for centuries by the presence of a number of the world’s most famous places of worship. For hours we walk the narrow covered bazaars where respectively the most stunning souvenirs and the most hideous Chinese fake-tupperware are sold. The old bridge which has served since her early days as a romantic meeting place contrasts meagerly with the empty riverbed. For the past three years it has been bone dry due to the construction of a dam which redirects the river water to military factories. The river is Shiraz ran dry for the same reason.

In the large mosques, renovated every winter, several believers worship, men and women, in the last light of the weak winter sundown. A boy runs amidst the many pillars, stops and motionlessly looks at me, after which he runs towards his father and wildly waving his hand sends the doves flying up into the sky.

This article was first published in Dutch in de Groene Amsterdammer, the Dutch equivalent of the New Yorker (April 2014).

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