Spaces of freedom in the Islamic Republic of Iran

Tour Guide

Spaces

I was sat on a large wicker chair in the rooftop café at my hotel in Shiraz where, in keeping with the Shirazi tradition, a group of guys next to me were reciting poetry. The scented smoke of a bubbling qaylan pipe twisted and turned on the blue tarpaulin above. Downstairs, in the courtyard restaurant, the voices of men and women competed with a cross-legged Kurdish chap in the corner, playing a sitar. Tourists and local men alike pulled chairs up to the tables of young women to chat, safely hidden from the gaze of the authorities outside. Spaces such as that hotel provide an environment of freedom in Iran. In here a woman’s headscarf can teeter tantalisingly close to sliding down the nape of her neck. In here each drag of her cigarette flies in the face of that deeply held taboo. In here large, brown eyes wandered and lingered.

In coffee shops in the affluent areas of town, young people socialise freely.

In coffee shops in the affluent areas of town, young people socialise freely. Copyright: Jake Threadgould

The media representations of Iran in the West are strangulated and distorted both in their creation and at their reception; firstly by strict censorship and secondly through an editing process conforming to populist preconceptions. The fact that I was told to ‘keep my head down’ so many times before I went, betrays this. As, too, does the fact that I was nervous getting off the plane. In the West we are often told about how the actions of Ayatollah Khamenei and his inner circle of like-minded cronies go against our own interests. We are warned of the threat of nuclear weapons, of dodgy dealing, and of cyber-warfare. We are little enlightened, however, as to how the actions of the Iranian government may also go against the interests, or desires, of the Iranian people themselves.

The first impressions of Iran, as a lone traveller, can be a little overwhelming. Giant posters of Ayatollah Khamenei alongside his predecessor Ayatollah Khomeini, watch over busy junctions from the sweltering streets of Mashhad to the bitter roadsides of Tabriz. Endless rows of portraits of men and children (the latter of which were sometimes used to clear minefields) line the main roads of every town, commemorating the victims of the Iran-Iraq war and demonstrating the regime’s dedication to its people. The odd mural slanders Israel or the U.S.A. And the flag of the Islamic Republic is nothing but ubiquitous.

So, before your fears are inevitably allayed by the hospitality of the Persian people, you may be forgiven for conceding that the media representations you had come here to disseminate were perhaps true that the regime is, indeed, omnipotent and brutal. The latter: yes. But the regime is far from omnipotent. The government’s monopolisation of the public space in Iran is symptomatic of a Leader who is anxious about the proportion of the dissenting populace that give his iron grip the slip. The public space is otherwise vacuous; the real fibre of the modern Persian culture, and that which the West rarely glimpses, exists in the shadows.

The majority of people walk by indifferent to the message.

The majority of people walk by indifferent to the message. Copyright: Jake Threadgould

To gain an understanding as to what happens when these underground philosophies, lifestyles and desires emerge into the light one need only refer to the atrocious government reaction to the Green Movement. In the eyes of the ruling authorities the core of this movement was rotten with wanton ideals. Not surprisingly, then, everyday acts of dissent, ranging from the minor to the relatively major remain veiled, occupying all those spaces into which the government cannot delve.

Different worlds, different personalities

These spaces of freedom take several forms. Playing a similar role to the aforementioned hotel restaurants are the myriad parks, shopping centres and cafés in the affluent areas of major cities where couples can saunter and socialise in secret. After dark, behind the closed-curtains of Tehran’s apartment blocks and in the deserts outside Kashan and Yazd, youthful parties flowing with black-market booze, MDMA, cocaine, marijuana, and casual sex spring to life. Yet, examples of dissent don’t have to be so extreme. A simple mobile phone offers a person access to Facebook and Twitter, both of which are currently blocked in the country. Indeed, many middle-aged men who I met would proudly scroll through their photographic stock of drink cabinets, scantily clad women and portraits of the last Shah.

On my second night in Iran I was invited to a party in a middle-class area of Tehran. Since we were a mixed gendered group with a foreigner (yours truly) in their midst, we had to be reasonably inconspicuous when we stepped out of the car and onto the street. As soon as we stepped over the threshold of the house, however, we were no longer in the Islamic Republic.

Without hijab, a woman dances with her partner at a party

Without hijab, a woman dances with her partner at a party. Copyright: Jake Threadgould

The hot, familiar breath of alcohol hung in the air, buoyed by the dense smoke of cheap cigarettes. The decision to max the volume was as bold as the dancing it elicited: both genders intertwined in that Persian style. I was naïve and nervous, initially, and peered around after every knock on the door as new guests arrived. It was only when the drunken host returned to tongue-in-cheek cheers of ‘you survived!’ after waving off some of his friends on the street outside that I relaxed. They were risking a lot more than me: jobs, possessions and freedom. I could do to take a pinch of courage from the group who had so gracefully welcomed me into their house, into the warmth of Persian hospitality, away from the frigid and stoic public space on the other side of their heavy, wooden door. The change of the host’s personality when he moved between the outside and the inside world to welcome guests sticks in my mind, though, and begs the question, which of these worlds is the real one?

One of my Iranian friends who is gay, and who I’ll call Ali, told me that if an Iranian denies having at least two lives they’re either lying or they’re boring. Ali existed in more worlds than anyone I else I met in Iran. In order to survive in a country where same-sex sexual activity is punishable by death he would adapt his personality in accordance with his environment. Ali had come out to his parents and to his close friends and while walking through the Northern districts of Tehran where the city’s mind is at its most open, he was unashamedly flamboyant. Likewise, when I spoke with Ali in the privacy of a drab hotel room in Esfahan he was free to confess his love for cocaine, to complain about the married man he was seeing at home in Tehran and to describe the ultra-secretive LGBT parties he’d been to. On the contrary, when we met for tea near the sprawling Bazaar, where government support is firm, he had to reel in his personality and joked, in hushed tones, that “these people would want to kill me if they knew I was gay”. Ali has two years of military service standing between him and a passport.

The government relies heavily on the support of the people who work at the Bazaar

The government relies heavily on the support of the people who work at the Bazaar. Copyright: Jake Threadgould

The very existence of these multi-faceted underworlds could be viewed not as a solution, then, but rather a symptom of the violence that the authorities are willing to carry out on their citizens. The Green movement of 2009-10 is perhaps the best recent example of a mass transition of the underground world into the public sphere. Faced with millions of protesters across the nation the Basij, the Revolutionary Guard and the police, under the orders of Ahmadinejad, clamped down on the simmering revolution. It was carried out with such ferocity that the regime was able to purge individuals from the masses and gather information on the mechanisms of the underworld during the time it was briefly exposed. Ali received threatening phone calls from anonymous officials for weeks afterwards.

Freedom, too, is punishable by death

Towards the end of my stay in Iran a man who I will call Mehdi took me to lunch in the Northern city Tabriz. He drove me to the outskirts and pulled off a motorway onto a track covered in loose rock, plastic bags and puddles of brown ice and slush. The restaurant, which could best be described as a Persian diner, was spacious. Young couples and student-types sat cross-legged on the raised booths that lined the walls. Between healthy drags of our qaylan pipe, and sips of sugary tea, Mehdi and I picked at some flatbread with kebab meat, fashioning small parcels with our forefinger and thumbs before rolling it into our mouths.

An older Kurdish gentleman in traditional attire

An older Kurdish gentleman in traditional attire. Copyright: Jake Threadgould

Passing me the qaylan, Mehdi told me how he and his girlfriend had joined the throngs of people in the Tabrizi streets each day during the Green Movement, impelled further by the knowledge that millions of Iranians were simultaneously doing the same. A few days into the protest, his girlfriend was shot and killed in the street by a member of the Basij. Naturally, Mehdi rushed to her side but was arrested at the scene. Before he even had time to digest what had happened, he found himself interned within the opacity of the regime itself. He was moved from holding cell to holding cell, before being shipped out the mountains along Iran’s frontier with Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan to serve out his punishment of two years forced military service. High in the crags of the Zagros Mountains, then, he was instructed to fight against the Kurdish militias: people who were, in his words, basically just villagers with no military training. “They would step out of cover, empty the clip from their AK47 towards the general area I was in, and then reload their weapon while still fully in the open, and bang, I shot them, it was awful”.

Mehdi fell silent for a while after that confession. He had already professed his desire for peace, democracy and harmony. For him, it was of the utmost importance that I understood that he was forced to fight against his will. And not only that, he was forced to fight for the regime who had killed his girlfriend for the sole purpose of making an example of her. Faced with such consequences, then, after briefly surfacing for air, the Iranian underground worlds fully retreated back into the shadows. Filling the bloodied void, the government enlarged its presence in the public realm a reminder to those who had any doubt as to where they lived.

Avoiding the glare

Now when you take a taxi from the airport, ginormous flags of the Islamic Republic line the motorway, twitching in the wind and occasionally revealing mark of the Tawhid. Colourful billboards encouraging pro-creation or offering out moral advice sit atop the concrete buildings like pious cherries on indifferent cakes. For if this omnipresence evokes the feeling of a divine surveillance, an Ayatollah who scours his land, then much of the Iranian public have long turned their backs to shield themselves from the glare. Individual realities and places of safety can be snuffed out if the establishment’s searchlight pierces the shadows.

A young girl wearing Chador in the old streets of Yazd, Central Iran

A young girl wearing Chador in the old streets of Yazd, Central Iran. Copyright: Jake Threadgould

And although a globalised and intellectual youth are constantly testing the boundaries of the public sphere in Iran, sometimes at a cost, the result of restricted and monitored progressiveness can leave real public life somewhat sterile. This is a space where people’s thoughts and people’s skin remain unexposed, where people lie to get by and where passive support for the regime is a survival technique.

A museum curator, having enthusiastically showed me the collection of artefacts, pulled me to one side and asked how he could get a job in Britain. Two local women I bumped into at the ruins of Persepolis, having asked me my opinion on Iran, told me how much they wanted to leave. This is not to say that there is no happiness. The people of Iran were the most hospitable, kind-hearted, generous and welcoming people I have ever come across in all of my travels. But to sample real happiness you must cross into the world of freedom that thrives in the nooks and crannies carved out of the Islamic Republic. Therein lies an intellectual, progressive but painfully excluded community of people who decide for themselves what to indulge in.

I wonder how long these communities can remain veiled, however. How long will it be before their world, and their blood, is spilled out before the government once again for the sake of freedom? For the sake of happiness?

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90 thoughts on “Spaces of freedom in the Islamic Republic of Iran

  1. This is a fabulous piece of POV blogging! Iran is *very high* on my travel bucket list. I almost went a few years ago, but as an American I worried that my parents would panic too much, even though they know full well that much of the information we get in the U.S. is just propaganda. I’ll get there one day though, for sure.

    And if it’s okay, I’m gonna share this on my gringopotpourri.com public Facebook page. Keep up the great writing!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have recently been privileged enough to befriend a beautiful Persian woman who arrived in Australia all but three months ago. She had a death warrent on her head and a son to protect. The stories she has enlightened me with are not disimilar to this article and for this reason touch my heart personally. Thankyou for sharing this Jake.

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  3. Having lived in Esfahan from ’76-’78, we experienced firsthand many of the issues you outlined above. As part of my dad’s work contract, we were scheduled to leave in mid-78; however, dad was initially tempted to extend his contract and stay another year or so to see the job (an oil refinery his company was building) to fruitition. A suddenly strong military presence in the streets, rumors of acid being thrown at women not wearing approved Muslim dress, civil unrest and the sounds of machine gun fire late at night gave dad pause to think more carefully about his decision. The straw that broke the camel’s back was a somber message his driver gave him one morning after a sleepless night as once again he was awakened to the sounds of machine gun fire. Reza, his driver, simply told him, “it’s time for you to leave, Mr Medina.” Simple, yet chilling words. Chilling enought that dad heeded Reza’s advice and when we left in May of ’78, it was not for R&R as originally planned, but instead it was for good. It was a decision that no one ever regretted. Shortly thereafter, the Shah left for asylum, Iran fell under martial law and our friends who stayed behind had to be evacuated out of the country.

    As the young girl who cried desparately for the first month or more when we first arrived, it was ironic that I cried just as desparately the night before we left. I came to love the country and most of its people. I found the majority of the citizens there to be caring and kind, unlike the people they are depicted as in the news, in books and movies. The sights, sounds and smells that initially repelled me, become exotic, intoxicating aromas that enhanced the colorful visual effects that painted my surroundings. It saddens me that I will likely never step into the bazaar aagain, haggling over prices. I’m thankful I have the wonderful memories I have.

    Liked by 2 people

    • You have an extremely important and personal perspective on the current situation in Iran. Most Iranian expats I meet tell me that they left Iran around the time of the Revolution. I can´t even imagine what the atmosphere must have been like. The words that the driver muttered to your father must have been chilling. This situation was, indeed, real. I´m glad your family made it out and that there were no regrets on that part. I´m also glad that you have fond memories. Some of my own fondest memories are of my time in Iran. Hopefully, one day, you´ll get to back!

      Liked by 2 people

  4. What you describe Jake still sounds so limited, as well as hidden. I think unfortunately government terror can be quite effective at keeping these things hidden, and leave people very unprepared and naive when things change.

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  5. Media allows you to believe what they want to help fund genocide. Fact is every country every religion has bad apples yet they pick upon people’s fear to create a hate war, to install racism in common every day people. When you dehumanized as a human what is your options?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Fantastic story. Will share it now. Always stunning when mankind remembers the second half of our title. And for a moment we are reminded we are all humans. With laughter, fight and gorgeousness under all the shades. I wish everyone saw through your eyes. I wish being completely true to a God … didn’t mean conquering and converting the free. I wish being completely free to believe … didn’t come with so much propaganda xx Matisse

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Reblogged this on A PIECE BY MATISSE and commented:
    I firstly want to say this. Yesterday I went to Port Arthur in Tasmania with my Mum and Step-Dad. There is a wishing well there, in the old penitentiary and I threw in a 20c coin.

    I wished for the safety of hostages who were being held at Martin Place in Sydney. I prayed for their survival.

    Later that afternoon I continued reading my current book “Son of Hamas” by Mosab Hassan Yousef.

    I closed the book on this quote:

    “My father was Islam to me. If I were to put him on the scale of Allah, he would weigh more than any Muslim I had ever met. He never missed a prayer time. Even when he came home late and tired, I often heard him praying and crying out to the God of the Qur’an in the middle of the night. He was humble, loving, forgiving – to my mother, to his children, even to people he didn’t know. More than an apologist for Islam, my father lived his life as an example of what a Muslin should be. He reflected the beautiful side of Islam, not the cruel side that requires its followers to conquer and enslave the earth.”

    There two sides to any story. But to some. There are millions.

    Please read. Please learn. Please love.

    #illridewithyou

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Jake, I love your style of writing and how you have beautifully covered a difficult subject like the veiled lives of Iranian youth. I keeping coming across stories like the girl being imprisoned for cheering at a football match and a gay person fleeing the country to avoid persecution, each of these stories resonate the fear and loss of freedom that you have highlighted in your piece. Being from an Arabic country like Dubai, I have also been witness to a different life being led by the girls in the UAE behind their traditional garbs. A life which somewhat resembles that of a young girl’s life in a western country, where they freely express their love for English movies and characters, buy the most expensive bags and accessories to impress the unmarried men and speak freely about their life and ambitions. Behind those doors, there are no culturally enforced ideas or roles required to be played by the women and it is truly a refreshing change.

    I hope to read more from your experiences. Keep up the good work.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I really enjoyed this post. It sounds like the modern perception of Iran is somewhat askew from reality. Still, it seems like a risky place to live where people are forced to have two lives and shift their personality depending on the neighborhood they happen to be walking-in. It makes one thankful for the freedoms we experience. Thanks for taking the time to write this–very well done, for what it’s worth.

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  11. Nice article Jake, i have always been curious about Iran myself as it has exported a better part of its culture, language, cuisine, architecture and people for centuries to my own country India and particularly to Northern India. If you ever happen to travel to Northern India then you have already done your homework. Infact the name Iran derived from ancient aryan tribes and Northern India at a point in history was Aryavrata the same tribe which migrated eastwards to settle. In medieval times Moghuls brought more recent customs and other things associated and settled in North India. I still remember my grand mother who could hardly read hindi reading farsi (persian) as it was official till independance. Lastly we still savour our won versions of all sorts of kebabs:)

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