Faces of Iran – Meet Mahsa in Yazd and the Afghanis
Meet Mahsa in Yazd:
“Khomeini was the devil in disguise, and Khamenei is his equally evil incarnation! All the Mullahs are from hell as well! I hate them!”
I met Mahsa only five minutes ago, but she’s certainly not shy to voice her opinion about sensitive political and religious issues. Mahsa just picked me up with her friend’s car and is keen to show me around her hometown Yazd, which is often referred to as the oldest living city on the planet. It is believed that this site has been inhabited continuously for more than 7000 years. Mahsa appears to be the perfect example of a modern young Iranian woman. She’s well educated, speaks fluent English, and has strong opinions about life and its limitations in Iran. Like many liberal-minded Iranian women she’s dressed in a fitting overcoat and wears her headscarf on the back of her head, revealing a head full of beautiful black hair.
“I’m sorry for not being able to explain the different ranks of the religious leaders to you any better!” Mahsa apologizes. “I just know that all clerics are called Mullahs. The Mullahs are the foot soldiers of Islam in Iran. This includes the Ayatollahs who are also considered to be the supreme scholars. That’s all I know really. In the end to me they are all the same. You know, I have never seen a real pig in my life. We don’t have any in Iran. However, when I see the Mullahs I am always reminded of those animals.”
After visiting some of Yazd’s most remarkable sights Mahsa takes me to a modern café to meet two of her friends for drinks and snacks. The café is remarkably modern and tastefully furnished. If I didn’t know better I’d believe
we just entered a hip coffee shop in Vienna, London, or New York City. There is ambiance lighting; pleasant lounge music wafts from the speakers, and framed pictures of George Clooney and other international celebrities adorn the walls.
Over delicious ice-cream smoothies and chocolate cake Mahsa and her friends fill me in on what life looks like for a modern woman in a traditionally conservative city such as Yazd.
“You know, there are so many problems we girls have to face living here. It’s so annoying! I think as soon as I finish my MA degree I’ll move to Tehran. I have some friends there who have offered to put me up and help me to get settled. Tehran is not perfect, but at least there appear to be less crazy people around there than there are here.”
“Right now I am attending an Islamic university. It happens to be the best university in town, that’s why I am studying there. Every day when I enter the university compound I get reminded to cover my hair properly. This happens elsewhere in town as well, but fortunately not as frequently. In any case, if someone bothers me about the way I wear my veil I usually comply with their wishes, only to pull my headscarf back again once they are out of sight. I really hate those religious guardians. Why do they have to bother people like this? I can tell you; more than 70% of all Iranian women would take their headscarves off if they were only allowed to do so!”
“Even laughing is discouraged for girls at my university. The guardians say that improper laughing is immodest and might attract boys. I like to think that boys would be attracted to girls even if they had no mouth to laugh with at all!”
“Would you believe it, once I actually got arrested for painting my nails!? I used red color which badly offended some people who informed the police. The police took me to the station and gave me a hard time for not being proper. They told me that I was bringing shame to my parents, and how this kind of behavior was disrespectful considering our nation’s martyrs’ sacrifices in the past. I still paint my nails these days, but now I usually choose a less provocative color than red.”
“Anyway, I don’t understand why we are always encouraged to wear dark colors. In the Quran it is written that people should wear clothes in bright and cheerful colors, yet the Mullahs don’t like that at all! It doesn’t make any sense!”
After finishing our treats at the café Mahsa and her friends suggest taking me to Bagh-e Dolat Abad, a beautiful pavilion set amid quiet gardens. Foreigners pay 30.000 Rial (1,8€) to enter the compound, which is ten times more than locals are paying. Mahsa suggests handing over my backpack and camera bag to one of her friends. In turn I get to carry the big plastic bag full of freshly baked Barbari bread he bought just moments ago. Mahsa pulls my baseball cap down over my face and instructs me to walk past the ticket seller at the entrance with purpose while her friend buys the tickets for our group. The “bread camouflage” ploy works, and we find ourselves a comfortable place to sit at an outdoor teahouse and restaurant where we enjoy Islamic beer and delicious camel meat burgers over good conversation.
“You know, it’s really important for most Iranians to be met and talked to maintaining eye level with foreigners. Many times we have experienced that foreigners believe Iranians cannot possibly be as well informed as them. They argue that our media is censored and we are not able to travel as much as they can, hence we must be ignorant about world affairs. This is really insulting to us! Most of us may not be able to travel much, but we have satellite TV and the internet. Most of us take pride in being informed!”
“Also, foreigners are often incredibly politically correct. They have strong opinions about certain issues but often very little understanding about the facts. For example, I’ve had many arguments with foreigners about Adolf Hitler. Many foreigners are so incredibly sensitive about him. You see, in Iran Hitler is quite popular with many people. “Mein Kampf” is a very popular book in Farsi language. I’ve read it too, as well as a 1000 page biography of Hitler, and found both books fascinating. I have had many foreigners call me a racist because of this. The foreigners ask me if it wasn’t bad enough that Hitler was directly responsible for killing in excess of six million people. When I ask them who those six million people were they often don’t know the answer. How ignorant is that, yet they want to lecture me!”
“By any means, I don’t condone what Hitler has done. He was a monster, but he has never done anything really bad to Iran, and neither has Germany. Iranians don’t easily forgive and forget. We are still upset with the Russians who took our land, the British for exploiting our country and its resources, and the Americans for meddling in our politics for all the wrong reasons. Actually we are even still upset about Alexander the Great for burning down Persepolis more than 2300 years ago. Hitler on the other hand has spared Iran from invasion. Many Iranians appreciate this about him. They mostly look at what good he has done for Iran. In fact, of all foreign nationalities Iranians probably feel closest to the Germans. Iranians may not look much like Germans, but if immigration in Germany continues the way it has in recent decades they probably soon will!”
Meet the Afghanis:
Walking through towns and villages of rural Iran time and again I come across strangely exotic looking people; men with distinctively Central Asian features and women with almond shaped eyes wearing the ubiquitous Iranian black chādor. I soon learn that they are representatives of the largest group of foreign refugees in Iran. They are Afghanis.
On one occasion I am waiting for an Iranian friend in Kamal Ol Molk square in the center of Kashan. It’s the early afternoon and the town is sizzling in the scorching sun. Looking for some respite from the heat I sit down on a bench in the shadow of a tree. There’s a fountain in the center of the square. I watch four young boys dressed only in cotton underwear frolicking in the cool water. Once in a while they glance over at the lone foreigner sitting on the bench nearby. I decide to play a magic trick for them, and they go nuts over it. It’s good, harmless fun.
Suddenly a tall, well dressed man approaches with big steps.
“Those kids, they are not Iranian! They are Afghani! No good! No good!” he shouts in English.
With an angry face he storms off again, cursing incomprehensively in Farsi language. The boys in the fountain shout something back at him. I decide to leave.
Two days later, in the spacious courtyard of a traditional hotel in central Yazd, I meet 26-year-old Zalmai. He’s a tall and handsome guy with a charismatic face and expressive eyes. Oddly he speaks fluent English with a strong Scottish accent. He tells me his story.
“Life is hard as an Afghani in Iran! I was born in this country. I have grown up in this country. I have gone to school in this country, and I speak Farsi as well as any Iranian, yet they treat me as if I just ran across the border yesterday! Just like my parents I still have refugee status! The obscene thing about this is that I haven’t even set foot in Afghanistan in my entire life!”
Zalmai’s parents fled the never-ending conflict in their home nation more than thirty years ago and consequently made Iran their new home. Hundreds of thousands of their countrymen have followed their example ever since and have attempted to cross the border in droves in search for a better life, and most importantly, security.
“Sometimes I really feel like giving up. People like me are not afforded a real chance in this country. I understand Iran puts its own people first. That makes perfect sense to me. 70% of Iran’s population is aged 30 years or younger. They need education, jobs, and opportunities. However, is it really necessary to bar us from any chance of feeling at home and making a decent living here as well?”
During my time in Iran I’ve heard many stories and opinions about Afghanis from Iranians. Drug smuggling is a major issue. Afghanis allegedly train camels to make drug runs across the border. Afghani smugglers and human traffickers also frequently attack and even murder young Iranian soldiers who are guarding the border. Lots of the soldiers become addicted to cheap Afghani opium as well and create a problem in communities all over the country when they finish their service and return to their villages. With other words, for many Iranians Afghanis mean nothing but trouble.
“I work for this hotel illegally. I would prefer to study at university but this hasn’t been an option for me. Instead I have to keep my head down and pretend that I’m Iranian. If I get caught out working here even my parents may suffer repercussions. Without official permission we Afghanis are not even allowed to travel from one province to the next, much less seek employment in jobs other than construction work or other lowly paid manual labor. We can even get deported at a moment’s notice. The problem is that obtaining a permit is not easy at all. It’s official arbitrariness by the Iranian authorities. To them Afghanis are what Mexicans are to Americans. They paint us with the same broad brush, almost like people in the West think of Muslims, as if we are all the same.”
“It’s extremely hard to get Iranian citizenship, even if one of your parents is Iranian. For me that’s not even the case, but even if I had a child with an Iranian woman it would only have refugee status after its birth, just like its father. The line of the father is the one that’s always being followed. If a child’s father has been a refugee it is very difficult for the child to receive Iranian citizenship.”
“Because of the high number of Afghanis living in Iran the Afghani government has pleaded with the Iranian government to afford them better opportunities. An agreement was reached a few years ago. Since then it has become easier for Afghanis to study at university, but for me this progress has come too late. Fact is, even as a European immigrant to Iran you’d get treated better than an Afghani immigrant because the authorities would assume that you haven’t arrived out of economic necessity. Compared to its immediate neighbors in the region, Iran has a really good standing. It’s reasonably stable, relatively more liberal, offers its people opportunities to prosper, and has a diverse and beautiful landscape as well.”
“Then again, it could also be worse. Unless you are Shiite, as an Arab you probably have it even harder here. You know, Afghanis are recognized as hard working people. They are not like most Arabs who are lazy and stupid, and are usually coming here to beg, like the Pakistanis! Afghanis are Iranians’ brothers and sisters!”