It was almost a year ago to the day that I was sat in the café. My memory is therefore foggy and the details are skewed and perhaps even a little exaggerated. I suppose that doesn’t matter too much, though. In fact it might be better in this case, as far as the subject matter of this article is concerned. Names and locations have been changed for security reasons.
Nasrin, 19, and her sister Sahar, 15, had been my impromptu tour-guides for the Northern districts of Tehran on what was only my third day in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Nasrin is striking and extremely mature for her age- troubling experiences have a tendency to fast-track people into adulthood. She’s the only person I have ever met who manages to turn arrogance into an endearing personal quality. There is an air of an innate chutzpah in her every move that transforms something as banal as crossing the road, or walking through a group of chador-clad pedestrians, into something of a spectacle- a demonstration of how to be startling aware of your surroundings whilst not giving them a second thought. I watched her in pure admiration.
We had spent the early afternoon ambling around the perimeter of the ransacked U.S Embassy building. Apparently indifferent to the heavy, historical weight of our environment, Nasrin was chirpy and light-hearted. I photographed some of the murals on the wall while she translated the beautifully calligraphed Anti-American slogans for me. Hatred had never been so colorful. At that point I hadn’t yet found my footing in Iran so I maintained my better-safe-than-sorry, conservative manner. We walked down towards the end of the front wall of the embassy where the pavement turned off to the right and away from the main road. As soon as we rounded the corner Sahar removed the hood of her jumper which had been acting, loosely, as a headscarf.
Even at her age Sahar is not exempt from the law that dictates that all women must wear hijab in public. Obviously she knew very well that this is the case. Her act of defiance was measured and wholly deliberate. Both girls seemed entirely unperturbed by Sahar’s decision, but it gave me a pang of guilt-laden anxiety. Our trio was already taboo; two girls, one who smoked in public, hanging around with a Westerner and laughing at the murals near the occupied U.S Embassy where we could well have been within earshot of the Revolutionary Guard. The last thing I wanted was for them to get into trouble because of me. The circumstances, the very peculiarity of our group, had the potential to intensify the consequences of being pulled up by a disapproving official. I went along with it, nonetheless, as we circled the embassy building. Then, satisfied with our dose of politics for the day we headed down into the metro. I met the gaze of the curious commuters on the train as it jostled its way northwards.
We reemerged onto a bustling street. It was dark by now but the glare from the headlights of the sputtering taxis amplified the atmosphere of incessant movement. Shadows and chadors raced across the avenue. I followed Nasrin who was walking at a pace, cutting corners and turning down streets without warning. We were heading to her friend’s café. I had little time to take in my surroundings; I remember something vaguely about walking near a university, or a theatre. But that is no more than a glimpse of a memory in my head by now. I don’t even remember what the front of the café looked like, not that I would describe it to you if I did.
The café had an L-shaped interior. Looking in from the door you could see as far as the counter but not around the corner, where we were sat. Its design was simple; cream-colored walls adorned with black and white portraits of old, Persian actors. The grainy, traditional soundtrack, so ubiquitously played in taxis and restaurants across Iran, had been bumped for a more Western-affair and fancy American coffees from an equally fancy espresso machine supplanted the dowdy servings of tea. This is a youthful, more modern Iran that, for better or for worse, embraces Western culture. It makes for a stark contrast with the pious propaganda on the embassy building walls. In here young couples, shrouded in cigarette smoke, leaned across the tables towards each other and talked in muffled tones, relishing the liberty that this space provided them. The lilting chatter of Farsi was occasionally interrupted by an exclamation of victory- “baleh!!”- from one of the guys at our table who had beaten me, Nasrin and the other four people with us, in two consecutive games of a board game similar to Ludo.
Sahar removed her hood again but she no longer looked out of place. All of the women at our table, the one out of sight, had uncovered their heads. No sooner had I noticed this than Nasrin started to undo her own. As she slowly unravelled the headscarf I waited, expecting to see her long, dark hair fall down to rest on her shoulders. What I saw instead, however, was that she had shaved her hair to an even length of around 1cm all over. Her large, green eyes were now more radiant than ever. I could tell from everyone’s reaction, or lack thereof, that I was the only person in this group who didn’t already know this about Nasrin. We carried on playing the game and the conversation flowed on effortlessly.
Our main topic, considering that I was a foreign visitor, was life in Iran. “There’s practically nothing to do here,” Nasrin told me, “especially as a woman, there are so many limits on what I’m able to do. I wish I didn’t have to live here”. The response from the table of her friends, and me, was murmured agreement. If the agreement seemed reserved, it is not because it was a divisive topic of conversation, but rather that they had no idea who could be sat in the café, listening in. And although we could speak with relative abandon overall, several other factors pointed towards our precarious situation as a whole. The fact that we were sat around the corner and almost out of earshot from the rest of the patrons is only one of these. In this position, the owner also had a small head start to turn down the Western music incase anybody untoward should come through the door. To the same end, the hidden space afforded our female friends with enough forewarning to put their headscarves back on and stub out their slender cigarettes. A friend of mine told me that he had heard of this café and didn’t go because he felt it was dangerous. It is a place where progressive ideas are stirred and imbibed just as frequently as coffee.
I turned back towards Nasrin who lit another cigarette. “I went to Istanbul several months ago to apply for a British visa and to leave Iran. I had to stay there for three months while I waited for a reply. My whole family was there trying to leave. I can’t believe the way some of the people were dressing out there. I went to the beach one day and everybody was wearing bikinis, I felt so uncomfortable, so exposed, like, I just wanted to cover my whole body,” she laughed and pretended to cover her body with an imaginary towel. “People stare at you when you dress like that. I didn’t like that. Anyway, so we waited for three months to hear if we would have our application accepted. But we were rejected in the end, so we had to come back to Tehran. That’s why I shaved my hair; it used to be down to my hips, really long. But I shaved it off because I couldn’t believe that I had to be back in Iran. I hated the fact that I had to wear a headscarf again. I hate wearing it, I don’t even have a choice. I was so mad when I was shaving my hair, so upset I remember crying. I regret it sometimes, though. But yeah, that’s why my hair is like this,” she laughed again. “I think it looks great,” I replied, slightly stuck for words at this point. But it was true, it did look great.
Everybody else was waiting to tell me of their own experience in Iran, but I couldn’t take my eyes off Nasrin at this point. Everything I had noted about her personality earlier on in the day; her confidence, her air of defiance, suddenly made perfect sense. She was fed up before her attempt to leave Iran and she was angry upon her return. She had turned some of her anger in on herself. To shave her hair was to lash out at the obligatory headscarf in a fashion that addresses the idea of identity in a country where she feels her personality will never flourish in the open. For Nasrin the headscarf transcends aesthetics, it is a symbol of the Islamic Republic itself. A symbol which reduces her to something that she is not. A symbol of something that can quite literally smother her identity. Only in the alcoves of this rigid regime, such as the corner of her friend’s café, could she be herself. The rest of the time she would have to keep covered up.
I had to make a dinner with a friend on the other side of Tehran so Nasrin accompanied me to the metro station. On the way we discussed the options she had on offer in her attempt to leave the country, but I was of little help. We walked back past the university, or the theatre again, and came to a stop at the mouth of the busy metro station. Still in my conservative public role, I had no idea how to say farewell. A kiss on the cheek was completely out of the question in such an exposed area. Even a handshake might have drawn unwanted attention to us. As I mulled over my options, Nasrin pulled me into an embrace. “Nice to meet you,” she said. “Nice to meet you, too. Take care,” I replied, before walking down into the metro station to be swallowed up by the masses of young men, children and headscarves.