Faces of Iran – Meet Nooshin in Esfahan
Meet Nooshin in Esfahan:
“He is saying we have to leave this place within the next minute. We are not supposed to be here!” Nooshin explains.
Nooshin and I are on the grounds of Esfahan’s famous Jameh mosque. Of all the impressive mosques I have visited in Iran so far, vast Jameh mosque with its incredible range of architectural styles is probably the most astounding. It literally breathes history. This monument to mankind’s ingenuity doesn’t get swarmed by tourists as it undoubtedly would if it was located anywhere else in the world. As with most of Iran’s incredible sights, we don’t have to share it with anyone.
Visiting one of the mosque’s many fine interior rooms to marvel at the elaborate Nezam Al-Molk dome a man approaches and tells us to leave.
Nooshin: “The Mullah has seen us enter this area and has questioned why we have sneaked away into this room and thereby out of his sight. He has sent this man to instruct us to go back to the courtyard where he can keep his eyes on us. The Mullah believes we are boyfriend and girlfriend and have entered the secluded parts of the mosque to behave inappropriately. The man says that not long ago a female shopkeeper from the nearby bazaar brought her boyfriend here and had sex with him on a porch. The Mullah is worried we are going to desecrate this holy place just like they have.”
“Please tell the man to inform the Mullah that if he brings Nezam Al-Molk dome to the courtyard for me to appreciate it there I’d be happy to stay where he can see us!” I instruct Nooshin to tell the man. She smiles
but keeps her mouth shut.
“By having sex the Mullah probably means the couple was holding hands!” Nooshin tells me. “You know, it takes a certain kind of dirty mind to imagine these things.”
Back out in the courtyard we sit down on a stone step to absorb the peacefulness of this special place. The only sounds we hear are the rhythmic flapping of flocks of doves flying around the courtyard. Again, the Mullah appointed chaperone approaches and gestures us to get up.
“It’s not proper for you to sit there like this!” he scolds us. “And you, put your headscarf in place. I can see your hair!”
We decide to leave. Walking out of the courtyard we see a dozen men lazily dozing on carpets in the shade of a giant arch.
Walking to the nearest bus stop Nooshin has a sad yet defiant look on her face. She pulls her headscarf back and adjusts her thick black hair. Nooshin is a beautiful young woman who clearly doesn’t appreciate having to cover her hair in public. She has usually arranged it in a fashion that allows her to slide her headscarf all the way to the back of her head without it falling off. Nooshin has large round eyes and some of the longest eyelashes I have ever seen. When she speaks she puts extraordinarily much emphasis on the last syllables of words, giving her voice an unusually melodic sound.
“Don’t worry about what happened at the mosque!” she says. “It’s annoying, but I have almost become used to it. I have to deal with this kind of nonsense every day. Two days ago I was arrested for riding my bicycle again. It has happened many times in the past. Some of the religious fools believe it’s not proper for a woman to ride a bicycle. Actually, the main reason why I was arrested was because I shouted at the policeman that it’s none of his business if I’m riding my bicycle or not. My parents had to bail me out. Anyway, I’ve had run-ins with the police many times before. A few months ago a friend and I took part in a demonstration against the government. I was secretly filming the demonstration with the camera of my mobile phone. The police spotted me and chased me down the street. I managed to escape and begged a shop owner to hide me from them. She gave me a chādor to wear to disguise myself. That worked well, but then my friend called and told me that the police had caught her. I had to go back for her. The police gave us a hard time and deleted the memory of our mobile phones. Actually I was lucky we weren’t harmed. The Basijis, the religious militias, are wild. They can do awful things!”
Nooshin invites me to visit her home. She wants to change into more comfortable clothes before continuing our tour around Esfahan. On the way we stop at a shop to give me a chance to buy some stamps. All stamps have Ayatollah Khomeini’s face on them.
“You need two Khomeinis for postcards to Europe, and three Khomeinis for postcards to the US!” the shopkeeper explains in broken English. “Too many Khomeinis! One was more than enough!” he adds.
I later learn that the US post office doesn’t accept mail from Iran. If I want to send a postcard to the US I need to take it out of the country and send it from there.
“If you stick another stamp on top of the three Khomeinis, in Iran you’ll get arrested immediately!” Nooshin explains.
We continue by bus to Nooshin’s home. The bus is extremely crowded. Nooshin gets in through the back door, as the rear section of the bus is reserved for women. I squeeze in through the front door. Overlooking the heads of the people on the bus with us, I keep an eye on Nooshin’s colorful headscarf which stands out in the sea of black chādors worn by the women around her.
Nooshin’s family lives on the second floor of a modern house in a good neighborhood near the river.
“We have to run up the stairs to our apartment quickly but quietly!” Nooshin instructs me. “Our neighbors on the first floor are religious. They must not see you. My father and brother are not at home, only my mother, and it’s not proper for a man who’s not a family member to visit under these circumstances. At least some crazy people think that way.”
As soon as the door shuts behind Nooshin her headscarf and overcoat come flying off, not only revealing a head full of long black hair but also a tight pair of jeans and blouse showing lots of cleavage.
Nooshin’s mum is very friendly and immediately offers me tea and dates before she goes on to interview me in the French language.
“How old are you? Why are you not married yet? Difficult question, yes? There is a guy who is fond of Nooshin. I think he’s nice, but Nooshin keeps on saying she isn’t interested in him because he keeps asking her to report to him. Nooshin doesn’t like that at all. Anyway, she’s still young, and she wants to go abroad to study…”
Leaving Nooshin’s home we take a taxi to Jolfa, the Armenian quarter of Esfahan. It has a distinctively different flavor than other parts of Esfahan I have seen. At first sight it makes a very modern and liberal impression. Its many modern cafes
and shops even remind me of hip neighborhoods in Tel Aviv.
We sit down in a coffee shop and have cappuccino and chocolate cake. As in many other shops and restaurants, once again I notice the pictures of the Supreme Leaders Imam Khomeini and Ayatollah Khamenei hanging on a wall.
“They have to put their pictures up if they want to avoid uncomfortable questions. Police would make trouble if the pictures weren’t there!” Nooshin explains, noticing my curious looks.
We walk to the river to take a look at the magnificent bridges Esfahan is world-famous for. They are a sight to behold, despite the fact that the river has recently run dry.
“We have to be a bit more careful walking together in this area!” Nooshin warns me. “This place is popular for people to gather and debate; hence there is usually a more significant police presence. If anyone approaches us and asks how we know each other, you must tell him that you have lost your way and I’m showing you which way to walk.”
Walking along the riverfront an elderly lady with a slightly crazed look approaches us. She introduces herself as a fortune teller and suggests we would appreciate her services. She asks for 10.000 Rial each, in total 2$. I ask Nooshin to give it a go, simply for the fun of it. Nooshin is game and agrees to translate for me.
“Say the names of Mohammad and Ali! In the name of the prophet, if he is willing the two of you will be together for your lifetime!” the fortune teller starts her fast-paced sermon.
“But we are just friends!” Nooshin tries to interrupt her.
The fortune teller doesn’t pay any attention. She continues to utter phrases with her quick tongue, making it impossible for Nooshin to translate everything for me in time. Eventually the old lady takes some seeds out of her cloak’s pocket and tries to put them into Nooshin’s hand. She vehemently refuses and closes her hand to a fist.
“Some friends of mine who accepted these kinds of seeds from fortune tellers in the past became cursed. Something bad happened to them” she explains.
“Put a 50.000 Rial bill (5$) in your hand for good luck, so I can bless it and you in the name of the prophet!” the fortune teller insists.
The moment Nooshin puts the bill into her hand the fortune teller grabs it and starts walking away at a brisk pace.
“She better run! Fortune telling is against Islamic law. There are police lurking around here everywhere. If they catch her she will go to prison, no questions asked!”
Short before nightfall we reach famous Khaju bridge. While we are pondering if it would be better to sit underneath the arches of the bridge, or on the grass next to the riverbed, Nooshin suddenly runs off and hides behind a tree. I turn and spot a police car patrolling along the street next to the river.
Nooshin and I find a cozy spot below the arches of the bridge. Many people have gathered here to enjoy a balmy Esfahan evening. We watch couples and families enjoying themselves, chatting, and having tea. Traditionally the bridges of Esfahan are famous gathering places for intellectuals, singers, and poets. Until two years ago there were several teahouses located at and around the bridges, but the government cracked down on them.
After a while of us sitting there a man starts singing. His voice resonates somberly from the walls.
“Oh god, why don’t you care about us anymore?! I’m talking to you! I’m pleading with you! Why have you forsaken us? Why have you stopped listening?”
Three plain clothes policemen rush around the corner of the wall Nooshin and I lean against. Nooshin instinctively sits up straight and slides away from me. The policemen tell the man to stop singing. He lowers his head and complies. The policemen walk away.
“Tomorrow is the anniversary of the day of death of Supreme Leader Khomeini” Nooshin reminds me. “It’s a three day holiday. The authorities consider singing disrespectful and inappropriate.”
Less than five minutes later the same man starts singing again from the top of his lungs.
“I fell in love with open eyes, the first time I was blind! You told me you were with me, that you were the light of my life, but you left me alone…”
The following morning Nooshin introduces me to her English teacher. He calls himself Walton after the small town in the US where he used to live for some time. Nooshin had mentioned me to Walton during a lesson and he suggested taking a day trip together.
Nooshin and I sit on a bench at a public bus stop waiting for Walton to show up. Most people are indifferent to us, yet some men stare disapprovingly. It’s not proper for a girl to sit with a guy like this.
Walton arrives in his old Opel Astra. In the land of locally manufactured Peugeots and Kias, Opels are rare.
“It’s my favorite car!” Walton announces as we speed off and out of the city. The speed limit on the two-lane road is 60 kilometers per hour. Soon we are travelling at 120.
“When I was living in the US I was driving very differently!” Walton mentions. “But you know, when in Rome…! Really, this is the only way to survive in Iran. There’s nothing to worry about. I’m a good driver! I even use my turn indicators!”
With gusto Walton throws his Opel from one lane to the other and back, weaving through the traffic. Suddenly we hit a bunch of speed bumps, and hard! Walton curses: “Speed bumps! They are so dangerous! They should put warning lights up to tell drivers they are there!”
After a drive of about 20 minutes we arrive at a suburb of Esfahan. Walton steers the car off the main road and on to some gravel roads. He stops beneath a tree and tells Nooshin and I to get out. He then opens the trunk and reveals a long wooden stick
and a tablecloth. We spend the next hour taking turns whacking the branches of blackberry trees with the stick, and collecting the falling berries with the spread out tablecloth. Soon we are devouring handfuls of delicious sweet berries.
On the way back to town Walton chooses to travel via a more scenic route through some fields. Farmers are selling apricots and other fruits at the side of the road. Walton stops to buy some cherries from one of them. Driving on he suddenly turns his car around and stops at another farmer’s shop. He gets out the car and soon after returns with a huge basket of apricots.
“This farmer saw me buy fruits from the other guy. He looked sad about the fact that I didn’t buy from him too so I decided to turn around and give him a chance to sell something. I told him that I came back to make him happy. He responded that he’ll pray for me.”
“You know, today is the anniversary of Imam Khomeini’s death. You should avoid wearing a red or green shirt during the holidays. Red is considered a color of joy. Green has originally been the color of Islam, but since the 2009 election it’s also associated with the government protesters, so it’s better to avoid wearing anything green too. You are foreigner so it’s not such a big issue, but when you wear your cap and shades you could pass as an Iranian. Better be careful! You want to avoid getting kicked in the face by some religious zealot.
Walton drops Nooshin and me off in the center of town.
“Count on us as real friends!” he says and drives off.
Great stuff. Sounds like a real adventure over there!