Para Ser Humano


Crimes against humanity permeate all corners of our planet. I saw a kid with a mullet on the metro the other day. Every day I have to read inspirational quotes people have shared on Facebook. This morning I woke up with a mild hangover and had forgotten to put a bottle of water by my bed for the morning. It doesn´t bare thinking about does it?

I mean, would you just look at the bloody news?

Storm Imogen is being a right bastard. The Obamas aren’t satisfied with their Wi-Fi coverage in the White House. A leopard lost the bleeding plot in a school in India, police are interviewing him to determine the motive. Cameron is trying to reassure us that he will raise ferry prices to ensure the wild children from the Jungle, Nord-pas-de Calais, won´t ever see the blue birds of Dover. AK-47s raised their ugly nozzles once again in Ireland. 27 more nameless humans drowned of the Turkish coast. Prisoners in Syria are still being systematically murdered by Assad´s cronies…

There are wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Ukraine, Somalia, Turkey, Nigeria, Sudan, South Sudan, Chad, Niger, Cameroon, Mexico, Pakistan, Egypt and Libya.

We can only hope that our supreme leader and saviour, Donald Trump, will send us a divine message telling us how to clear this all up.

It´s easy to give up on humans. We´re crap. Total crap.

It doesn´t help that the people who represent us on the world stage are blighted with the same disease of being homo sapiens. It´s playground politics really, homo sapiens will forever want better shoes than their friends. There´s always that one kid who will punch you in the stomach for a cheese and onion crisp. Or the weirdo who tortures stray cats in their spare time.

We can pretend as much as we like that in our ever-enlightened world there is no place for racism, but imagine a “swarm” of migrants and what do you see?

Dehumanisation, too, comes in handy when squinting at reality. We can´t kill a human but we can kill a rat. We couldn´t bomb a human, but we could bomb the “scum”.  How could we possibly deal with a swarm of migrants, swarms of stuff are never good. Waves are dangerous, too.

We can´t imagine the horror that some people have to live day in and day out. So we often just don´t.

But I find it odd how the people who lose faith in humanity aren´t living the nightmare. We can edit our own reality; turn the news off if we find it too distressing, we can say “oh, god, I don´t want to know”, we can text a donation to plaster over the guilt.

What drives people to sail across the Mediterranean on raft? Desperation no doubt, but perhaps a faith in humanity, too? Faith that their fellow human beings will help them. And for a time that was the European mood, people went to train stations in Germany with toys and blankets and food to meet and greet their new arrivals. Sweden accommodated thousands of people. Then a migrant murdered an aid-worker, and then shelters were burned down and fascists took to the streets again. And then there were incidents of sexual harassments across Europe. And we reveal racist thinking by trying to find patterns and connections of culture in a mass of people with one identity: migrants.

People are great, I think. This morning Fi bought me bread. In Iran people invited me for dinner nearly every day. In Turkey a man paid for my bus-ride. Perhaps it´s just impossible to consider the human race as a whole, and when we do the patterns of behaviour we find, or at least concentrate on are largely negative. I´d argue that the forces for good are found in the individual and miniscule transactions of everyday-life. Saying hello to someone is nice. Tipping a waiter is nice. Parting with an object is nice. Squeezing someone´s arm mid-conversation is nice. Thinking about someone is nice. Being concerned about someone is nice. Being concerned about people you´ve never met is just as nice.

When I start to lose my faith in humanity, I just try to focus on the details.

I will remember to put that water bottle by my bed tonight, though.

Why I Support Donald Trump

1. Firstly, it would be hilarious. The image of this grinning, mouldy tea-bag of a man walking onto the stage against the backdrop of the Star-Spangled Banner is a source of endless entertainment.

2. There’s no room for sanity on the world-stage. Trump would be hoisted to the heady heights of Putin and Xi Jinping— two megalomaniacal autocrats whose iron knuckles scrape the floor. One subtle difference is that while Putin and Xinping like to swallow people and countries whole, Trump prefers to spit them out. He might have to consider invading Ottawa if he wants to gain any respect from those particular peers.

3. It would do justice to the American political system. When sensible Republican candidates sink to the bottom of the barrel leaving one rotten apple who probably kisses the bathroom mirror every morning and another who thinks the Pyramids were built by the Tony the Tiger, is it not time for a quick reassessment?

4.  Because money does equal power. If Trump didn’t get that million-dollar loan on which to build his Empire, he’d probably just be the drunken, racist driveller at your local bar complaining about the sober Mexican guy who took his job.  The only reason the world is subjected to his ill-formed opinions is because of the bulge in his back pocket.

5. Peace in Syria. He would most likely accidentally re-direct airstrikes towards Slovenia, ironically killing thousands of innocent Syrians queuing up at the border, clambering over each other for a dose of the racist indifference that awaits them.

6. Revolutionising men’s hair. Out with the Kim Jong-Un look, the kids of tomorrow will ask their barber to blow-dry the road-kill they have sellotaped to their head. Anything to look like our new Imperial overlord.

7. He’ll provide thousands of jobs to migrant bricklayers who will find themselves marveling at their achievement from their home country.

Complacency is a Virtue

Copyright: Jake Threadgould

Copyright: Jake Threadgould

I am militantly apathetic and therefore well acquainted with the confines of cynical complacency. I violently project my apathy towards most things that other people seem to get riled up about; the Scottish Indy Ref, Jeremy Corbyn, David Cameron (oink), Catalonian independence, being productive, fulfilling dreams, waking up in the morning. I mean, whatever, all days end anyway.

This may sound like I have the sentience of phlegm, but I do care about some things— gay rights, women’s rights, Kurdish independence, Rioja— to name but a few. Perhaps a curious selection considering I am a hetero (?) male from the overcast climes of the Scottish north. Actually, not that curious at all if you believe in love and perhaps skim the news once in a while or, like me, read it so obsessively that it affects your social life: “no I can’t come out tonight, there’s been a landslide in Brazil”.

It also helps that I was raised by feminist social worker who would thankfully scorn me for saying someone’s shoes were totally gay from the day the nurse spanked my gender-neutral arse cheek until the day it sank in that it was totally gay to call something gay in a derogative, totally gay way.

Copyright: Jake Threadgould

Copyright: Jake Threadgould

Today’s protest was of the feminist ilk: contra la violencia machista. It reminded me that looks can be deceiving. I was speaking with a guy in a bar not long ago and our conversation swiveled towards women’s rights. His key point was “go outside and you’ll see that women in Spain are equal”.  It may appear that way but just because women in Spain don’t have to wear hijab, can leave their house unaccompanied, can drive, can vote, can choose their partner, have access to tampons, condoms, education, aren’t stoned to death on a daily basis doesn’t mean there isn’t work to be done.

Some people struggle to see the inequality because they don’t have to live it. If I go on a night out the chances of catcalling, being groped or forcibly kissed are pretty bloody slim. And just because I roll the bottom of my jeans up doesn’t mean I’m asking for it. It sounds ridiculous but I’d hesitate to guess that almost 100% of my female friends could relate to this. I have had to play the role of pretend boyfriend for people before in order to curb unsolicited attention. That should not be brushed off as the norm.

There should also be no reason why a woman can’t walk through a dark park at 4am after a night out. But there is. Until there isn’t, there will still be a place for global feminist movements.

But you know, whatever. Like I care.  All days end anyway.

Protesters, Gran Via

Copyright: Jake Threadgould

Circular Paths

This monologue was inspired by a series of conversations with a friend in Iran. Although I have taken a few of their points accurately, I have invented much of it. I do not claim to represent the views of my friend or anyone in particular.

Tehran Bazaar

Tehran Bazaar

“If someone in Iran denies having at least two lives they’re either lying or they’re boring”- A.

I am officially mentally ill. ‘Officially’ in this case, however, does not denote reality or scientific accuracy or anything genuine at all. In fact I’ve never even seen a doctor about it. There’s no point. Some people refer to my entire country— and countries like mine­­— as schizophrenic. I definitely don’t have that. Schizophrenia is the inability to decipher fantasy from reality. I know exactly what is real. And I know what’s not real. What the government spews out on television, in leaflets, on billboards is a manufactured reality that only a few truly believe in. Yet, in order to survive in this stolid and oppressive regime everyone must spend part of their daily life upholding these fantastical pretenses. This way we can appease the government and its arms purely in order to carry on living our realities.

How I conduct myself in public— under the gaze of the police— contrasts dramatically with how I conduct myself in my private lives. Yes, lives. I have a few. The one I choose to live on any given day depends on where and with whom I will be spending my time. I’ve mentioned one life already; my public persona, which is the more conservative mask I don in the busy parts of town. Very little of my true self is exposed in this environment for fear of harm. This façade bears no resemblance whatsoever to the personality I take on around my boyfriend in the privacy of my apartment. Well, I say boyfriend, he is in fact a married man but he’s just like me. Our kind of relationship is not uncommon in our community. My apartment is my sanctuary. It smells like cannabis from about 10am onwards. I love cannabis. At night, the silence of my room is prickled by the crackle of joints and the groans of sex.

I suppose that this is a kind of fantasy life. It can’t exist outside my room. I don’t know what I’d do without it. It’s a created world. A world fashioned by the coming together of him and me. It is where I indulge in my vices. I’m always high at the weekends, too, which adds to the unreality of the situation. This life never comes into contact with my others. Well, it did once. I managed to bump into him and his wife at the bazaar— quite the feat if you think about it. Of course I couldn’t say anything, I couldn’t even wave, but I did smile. I doubt his wife would have been standing there if she knew I’d fucked him the night before. Then again, neither would I, probably.

Those are two of my lives. Overall I have five; first there is the life involving ‘it’, which is the gaze and the propaganda of the authorities, the same authorities who tell me that I am mentally ill. ‘Them’ is the second life, it represents the general public, strangers who don’t know me but are told of my kind and how to approach us, whether they take heed of this advice depends on the individual. Surrounded by ‘them’ I must carve out yet another, self-protective existence. Whether I’m in the queue at the bakery, at the bank or at university I deepen my voice slightly and straighten up. Then there is ‘him’, who I’ve already mentioned— my escape, my pleasure, and my vice. Then there is ‘you’. ‘You’ is you, the reader, ‘you’ is my sister, my confidant, the sphere of my life that comes closest to the final frontier of my true self— ‘me’. If you imagine four overlapping circles, ‘it’, ‘them’, ‘him’ and ‘you’, then ‘me’ is the opaque center.

Censored graffiti

Censored graffiti

‘Me’ is my real personality, a deftly veiled and disguised life that would be easily corroded in this toxic atmosphere. The authorities here in Iran make it difficult even for me to explore myself truly so I’m only going on what I think I know. To do what I want would be a crime against the values of the Islamic Republic. In fact, some of the things I do regularly are punishable by death. Only two people know this truth: me and my sister. I imagine that you are starting to get an idea, too, of whom I really am?

My secret truth is safe with my sister and I trust it’s safe with you. To expose my real personality would be to give myself into to systematic destruction that meets and greets people of my ilk. A reaction so volatile that my entire personality (and thereby me) could be snuffed out of existence, strung up by the neck in some grubby prison basement. I was born with this burden. It should be a celebration of love but I am not free to love. I am not free to express myself. I am not free

I. Am. Not. Free.

I am trapped, suffocated, hidden, invisible, gasping, in love, exhausted, desperate, in love. I am torn between fantasies. Fantastical future and fantastical present. Nothing is real. What is real is hidden in the recesses of my mind. I have a feigned past- an outward lie. No past. A past that I myself do not recognize as mine. No trace of me in my behavior. No proof of my reality. My past is ‘him’, ‘it’, ‘them’, not my own. An artificial existence. A pre-determined path of stale and unattractive opportunities. I can’t escape ‘it’. ‘It’ would kill me if it had the chance. I would be erased. But what would be erased? I don’t exist. Not really. Not yet. The government would kill me because I make love to another man, because I love another man, but they wouldn’t see it that way.

Did I choose to live this fantasy because of the reality in which I was born? Or did I choose to live this reality because of the fantasy in which I was born? Deciphering the two is a survival technique, not a symptom. I sometimes feel partially dead. Like I’ve never really existed. I would never renounce my Iranian nationality, which has nothing to do with it. I am fiercely proud to be Iranian. I am an Iranian who is gay. My country tells me that I’m mentally ill because of the way I am. It graciously offers a plethora of treatment, ranging from psychological realignment to gender realignment. Neither of which I need. Neither of which I want. I often find happiness in small things, with my friends and family, and with him. But I’m worried that this, too, is a survival technique.

Sanandaj, Kurdistan

Sanandaj, Kurdistan

My Stealthy Freedom: how women take to social media in their protest against compulsory hijab in Iran.

Credit: My Stealthy Freedom

Credit: My Stealthy Freedom

Masih Alinejad is well known in Iran not only to the followers of her writing but also to those whom she writes about. Alinejad became popular for her unabashed, campaigning style of journalism. However, it was this critical stance, with regards to political and social issues within the country, which eventually forced her into exile in 2009.

Now in the uncensored safety of the UK, Alinejad continues to criticize and highlight the injustices of the Iranian theocratic dictatorship, exposing the country’s social issues to a rapidly expanding international audience. In 2014, Alinejad created My Stealthy Freedom, a social media based platform that allows women in Iran to protest the strict law of obligatory hijab by posting pictures of themselves in public places without their headscarves.

I asked Alinejad when she first found herself becoming politically active.

“From my teenage years I [wondered] why my elder brothers, especially Ali […] could go swimming or ride a bike or have more freedoms than me. In high school, I joined a group to produce a samizdat newsletter about freedom and democracy— we were arrested!”

A campaigning journalist at heart, Alinejad reiterates that she does not represent the women of Iran; she merely facilitates the protest. Recently however, and with the aim to further promote the cause, Alinejad has become the figurehead of the movement with interviews in The Guardian, Vogue and many more.

Credit: My Stealthy Freedom

Credit: My Stealthy Freedom

Today, the page has upwards of 700,000 followers. The idea was inspired by the response to the pictures that Alinejad posted on her own Facebook page.

“I use Facebook as my medium, a way to disseminate news and opinions. I have my own pages and noticed that every time I posted a picture of myself especially without a hat or a veil I got a lot of comments and ‘likes’ […] then I posted a picture inside Iran of myself without hijab (I was in my car) and asked women if they also felt like taking off their hijab when no one could see them, especially the police. The response was overwhelming”.


Not only does My Stealthy Freedom provide a platform for peaceful protest, but it also affords the wider world a glimpse into the true sentiments of many Iranian women, an aspect of society that is censored by media outlets in Iran and often ignored in the West.

Scrolling deep into photographs on the page reveals some of the simple desires of those who have posted to My Stealthy Freedom.

“I like it when the wind blows through my hair”.

“Gender equality and empowerment of women? We are not even allowed to choose our own clothes!”

“Here is Iran, the touch of the sea, twisting the wind through the hair, feeling delicate and light, feeling of freedom”.

The wind is a recurring and powerful feature in the testimonies. Even the freedom to the feel the breeze through your hair is something denied to Iranian women. And it is often the accumulation of these side effects of compulsory hijab that drive the protest. A friend of mine once told me that she laughs every time she puts her headscarf on in the morning purely because it seems so ridiculous. She described the banalities of physical act of putting in on; of being late for work because of it; of smudged make-up and of it constantly falling off. The small, daily struggle with the headscarf is something that all women in Iran can identify with.

Credit: My Stealthy Freedom

Credit: My Stealthy Freedom

Not only is the headscarf a minute-by-minute struggle with a cumbersome garment but for many it is also a symbol of the regime and thus it becomes the embodiment of oppression. It is an involuntary physical addition to the body of a woman in Iran. The insignia of the inequality must be carried around at all times. Female friends in Iran have told me that they feel suffocated by it.

In Iran women test the boundaries of the law by opting for loose headscarves, wearing make-up and choosing shorter manteaus [a shapeless coat]. This is most evident in the middle class areas Tehran. Even small alterations to the dress code can lead to trouble with the police and the Revolutionary Guard.

The chador-clad, female branch of the Basij stalk the public areas and address those who they deem to be inappropriately dressed. These women are often indistinguishable from other conservative women who do the same on their own volition.

My Stealthy Freedom is by no means against the hijab in principal, only the obligation to wear it. It exists in order to cast a light onto what cannot be seen in Iran; an alternative to the politically crafted social ‘norms’ that are projected daily through the country’s propaganda machine.

Credit: My Stealthy Freedom

Credit: My Stealthy Freedom

Suffocating in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Dunes south of Kashan. Copyright: Jake Threadgould

Dunes south of Kashan. Copyright: Jake Threadgould

For security reason all names and places in this report have been invented. The only thing that is true is the story. 

The Plains

The evening before the 35th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Iran I was with Giv somewhere between Rasht and Bandar-e-Abbas. We had driven out through the dilapidated suburbs of the city and on to the desolate plains. Although Giv was speeding, the mountain range on the horizon, which was tinted purple by the same setting sun that gave everything in the car a strange clarity, was static. We had entered a vacuum, a pocket of monotonous emptiness, soporific scrub and dull winter sky, the yellow smog of the city in our wake; we were free from the grasp of the Islamic Republic. Giv lit a cigarette and sunk back into his seat to fish his phone from his pocket. In lieu of a seatbelt I had my hand on the dashboard. I was keeping an eye on the road, feeling as though if I did it would make up for the fact that he wasn’t, but the land around was featureless and the car was swirling with heat from the air vents. My eyelids started to droop. In an effort to stay awake I decided to strike up fresh conversation; I had to ask Giv’s opinion on whether I should photograph the demonstrations marking the anniversary the following day– I had received conflicting advice so far– but before I had a chance, he turned the car down a slip-road and pulled up to a pit-stop diner. I’ll ask later, I thought.

Outside the bazaar in Tehran. Copyright: Jake Threadgould.

Outside the bazaar in Tehran. Copyright: Jake Threadgould.

The building was inconspicuous, the grey façade blending perfectly with the beige of the steppe. Its drabness turned out to have no reflection on the clientele it attracted, however, and despite advertising itself as a restaurant- offering kebabs and tea- it was a social space first and foremost. The patrons and the interior of the establishment clashed vibrantly with the dreary world outside: white smoke issued from blood-red pouts, black head-scarves silhouetted against verdant geometry on the tribal throws, water trickled with syncopated drops into the faux-marble fountain, waiters in stained shirts hovered around. The bubbling of the qaylan pipes provided the soundtrack to progressive conversations that had found room to breathe in this shaded corner of the Islamic Republic of Iran. It was liberal. It was relaxed.

Giv sat cross-legged opposite me in our booth. His bleak demeanor was exacerbated by the fact that he was clad entirely in black. I held his gaze as he took a lengthy draw on the qaylan, the coals flickered orange. Giv’s face was sullen, half hidden under a scruffy fringe and thick eyebrows offset only by a pair of piercing eyes– emeralds set in black rings. He had a thin, crescent-shaped scar on his temple. “So what do you think about tomorrow?” I finally ventured, “will it be safe for me to take my camera to the demonstration? the receptionist at the hotel told me to stay inside until it’s all over”.

“Who cares? only a few people at the rally will actually want to be there. Idiots. The rest are forced to do it because of their jobs, most of them are teachers or work for businesses owned by the state. And, by the way, nobody believes in any of the Anti-American stuff you will hear tomorrow, you know that?!”

Giv’s retort had been abrupt, he was annoyed. Perhaps the question appeared to stem from a respect for the authorities in Iran, rather than a fear of being arrested. I was fully aware that the general psyche in Iran is far from Anti-US, or Anti-Israeli for that matter. Demonstrations of this ideological ilk are usually government fabrications, used purely in order to project an image of strength. The burning down of the British embassy in 2011 is a perfect example of this political posturing; the mob responsible for the ransacking was supported by government hardliners who wanted to send a message to the West. Most Iranians were simply confused by the events. Several friends told me of their disbelief when recalling it. Over time, overt political actions such as this have come to be met with indifference by the majority of the public. This indifference is born not out of apathy, however; it is a survival technique, for equally overt opposition movements are routinely quashed before they can can surface for air. Nowadays, socially and politically progressive organizations, like My Stealthy Freedom, are bound to social networks, which are currently blocked in Iran– available only through the use of a virtual private network (VPN).

The last occasion progressive ideals were audaciously (and perilously) cast into the sterile political discourse was during the Green Movement– a revolt against the staged reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June 2009. Giv had been involved, it changed his life in ways that nobody, not least Giv himself, could have anticipated.

Giv took a draw from the pipe and, with a smoky chuckle, he passed it to me, along with his mobile phone. “This is my friend, Arshan, he’s the one with the glasses on”. I took the phone, it looked like the photograph had been scanned into a computer, or that Giv had used the camera on his phone to take a picture of a 6×4 inch print. Arshan was crouching down in the middle of a group of friends– student types– with his arms draped over their shoulders. They were in front of Azadi Tower. His eyes told of a smile, but a scarf covered his mouth. Perhaps it was mid-February, too? At that point Arshan would have been in his first year of university studying Chemical Engineering. According to Giv he had always been too clever.

Young men in Kashan. Copyright: Jake Threadgould

Young men in Kashan. Copyright: Jake Threadgould

The Street

I handed back the phone. “I went to stay with Arshan for the protests because he was staying in Tehran at the time, in the north” Giv told me, “it was crazy. I’ve never seen so many people”. As a pair they headed to every demonstration. It became their shared priority. They squeezed into the crowds, shoulder to shoulder with hundred of thousands minds in accord. Arshan and Giv floated in a sea of roses, megaphones, green bandanas, ink-stained peace signs, shouts for democracy and emancipation. In the northern neighborhoods, after dark, the call for revolution was echoed across the city’s tower blocks. The streets of the Islamic Republic were clogged with progressive people who were emboldened by the sheer volume of their comrades. It seemed unstoppable and for the briefest of moments Tehran witnessed a power shift. Collectivity breeds courage– “how could this many people be wrong?” Giv had asked me. The youth were united and passionate and their demand was strong: where is my vote? Their voice shook the crows from the trees and as the Movement gathered momentum, the Basij militias swooped in from the sidelines to disrupt the demonstrations.

The government was anxious. They clamped down on the media outlets, distorted the facts and strangled the flow of information by bringing down the country’s social networks. However, before all channels in and out of Iran could be blocked, important mobile phone footage had been leaked. The death of Neda Agha-Soltan, a 26-year-old philosophy student from Tehran had been caught on film. A member of the Basij shot Neda in the chest and the image of her desperately wide eyes slowly filling with blood became a symbol of martyrdom. But this turn of events didn’t impede the government’s tactics. More people were arrested, more people were shot and more people were killed. The non-violent masses of the Movement came face to face with the systemic violence of a regime struggling to hold power in the glare of the international spotlight. The government lashed out and took down its civilians. Giv and Arshan were propelled by these injustices. The government’s purge only gave further validation to the Movement.

Enjoying tea in the bazaar in Rasht. Copyright: Jake Threadgould

Enjoying tea in the bazaar in Rasht. Copyright: Jake Threadgould

Giv rubbed his forehead and ruffled his fringe. “It got really dangerous; some of my friends received phone calls– on their mobiles– from the authorities warning them that they knew who we are, that they knew our families, and that if we are seen out on the street again we will be arrested. They could find out everything about you”.

It was mid-July, 2009. The concrete was hot and the city was airless. The toxic smog, something that always lingers on Tehran’s horizons, was at its smothering peak. The friends started to make their way through the thinning crowds as they headed back to Arshan’s apartment in the north east of the city. They’d likely be back in Azadi Square later that evening. Walking down the quieter end of Azadi Street, however, the atmosphere was no longer courageous and free, but tense. A scuffle had broken out on the periphery of the demonstration between protestors and Basij militiamen. Smoldering remains of mopeds and bins caked the pavement in ash. From further down the street a tear gas canister swirled into the crowd near Arshan and Giv. It span on the concrete, releasing its chemicals with a sharp hiss. The crack of live gunfire from a rooftop swiftly followed. The crowd dispersed. Amid the chaos of the white smoke, the screams, the whirring vessels of gas and the stick-wielding men, Arshan lay face down on the road clutching his throat. His blood trickled steadily out through his fingers and he turned pale against the hot, grubby tarmac.

The Basij streamed down the middle of the road on motorcycles, wielding batons. The crowd fled in either direction to the pavements as people were hit and wrestled down. Giv was cut off from Arshan, who now had a crowd of people around him, and was being lifted up and away at some pace, his head lolling and rolling as he was carried. Giv ran down the opposite side of the road, trying to keep up with his friend but he was caught in the ebbing swell of people. He had no option but to hop over the littered ditch between the pavement and the road, and break through the barricade of militiamen. Giv was struck round the head with a baton and pushed back down onto the ground. He was arrested on the scene. Arshan died from his wounds. Giv still doesn’t know when or where, only how.

I looked up at Giv as he told me this; he offered a smile, letting me know that he know that there was nothing I could really say. He was the same age as me but he suddenly looked centuries older. He had talked about the subject at a distance, an oft-recited tragedy. It seemed as though it had happened to someone else entirely.

I suppose that is the only way one can recount such stories. It is part of the same survival technique of superficial indifference that millions of Iranians use in order to survive in a demoralizing dictatorship. A collective rage that is swallowed deep, a systematic sense of loss passed through the generations. The vacuum of Iranian public life leads to the internalization of personal beliefs. There are whispers of dissent in private; in apartments, in cafes and in truck stops. This only appeases the progressive sentiments of the population to a certain extent, when the pressure becomes too great to bear the people in the shadows of the Islamic Republic explode into the light in the name of total emancipation.

Behind the veil of the international image of Iran is a vibrant, intelligent, multi-cultural and liberal population who desire nothing more than to take their rightful place on the global stage. During the Green Movement the streets burst with color. They will burst with color once again.

A portrait in Kashan. Copyright: Jake Threadgould

A portrait in Kashan. Copyright: Jake Threadgould

An Endearing Arrogance in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

A night market in the Kurdish region of Iran. Copyright: Jake Threadgould

A night market in the Kurdish region of Iran. Copyright: Jake Threadgould

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. 

The Embassy

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.

On older man from the city of Yazd, central Iran. Copyright: Jake Threadgould.

On older man from the city of Yazd, central Iran. Copyright: Jake Threadgould.

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.

A mural on the wall of the U.S. Embassy building. Copyright: Jake Threadgould

A mural on the wall of the U.S. Embassy building. Copyright: Jake Threadgould

The Café

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.


A shop owner in the central city of Yazd. Copyright: Jake Threadgould.

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.


A shopper in Tehran’s sprawling bazaar. Copyright: Jake Threadgould