Faces of Iran – Meet Reza in Kashan, and Mohammad and the Uranium
British friend: “Hah! You are nuts… but good luck and enjoy…look forward to seeing the photos…!”
Japanese friend: “I wish that you were not certificated as a member of modern society’s enemy!”
Filipino friend: “Say hello to Ahmadinejad! ;))”
Dutch friend: “Haha, cool! Let me know how it was when/if you return!”
It’s one thing to hear about Iranian hospitality towards visitors. It’s quite another to actually experience it! Iran: Truly the land of stories and poems. Meet some of its people…
Meet Reza in Kashan:
“Do you have bitches in your country?”
I’m in Kashan, a small city located in the central highlands of Iran. It’s a conservative town with an enchantingly lethargic atmosphere. Much different to Tehran, the vast majority of women I see in the streets are wearing the chādor,
a traditional full-body-length cloak, in compliance with the Islamic dress code.
Within my first hour of arrival to Kashan I have met Reza, a 23-year-old student of English translation. He’s a clean-cut guy dressed in stonewashed jeans and a red t-shirt. Together we wander through Kashan’s deceptively large covered bazaar. Just like so many other Iranians I have met before him Reza is starved for conversation with foreigners. He speaks English with an American accent. Most of his pronunciation is impeccable.
“The bitches!” Reza reiterates. “Surely you must have some? What would people do for fun without the bitches?”
“Sorry, I’m not sure if I understand your question correctly…”
Reza looks surprised. He explains: “You see, in Iran people like to travel to the Persian Gulf to enjoy the sand and the sea at the bitches. Kish Island is a very popular place for that. In your country, do you have any place like that as well?”
“Oh…a place with beaches you mean!” I repeat with a relieved smile.
We sit down in an old traditional tea shop that according to Reza serves excellent Faludeh, a frozen sorbet made with thin starch noodles and rosewater. We order one each. While we are waiting for our cool treats Reza nervously types text messages on his old Nokia.
“Excuse me, but it’s my girlfriend asking to chat with me all the time. We send each other about 100 text messages per day. That’s much cheaper than calling, as long as we write in Farsi. If we type in English it’s almost double the price.”
Spurred on by my interest Reza goes on explaining about his life and the challenges he is facing…
“My girlfriend doesn’t live in Kashan, but we are planning to get married within the next few months. We met about three years go. She’s originally from Esfahan. Her parents are quite liberal, unlike my own. They know about me being their daughter’s boyfriend. My parents on the other hand don’t have any idea that I have found a good girlfriend a long time ago already. Of course, both my brother and my sister know, but that’s a different story. I will have to address this matter with my parents very soon, otherwise they might start looking for a suitable bride for me. In any case, when my girlfriend comes to visit my parents she will have to make sure to wear her headscarf properly and cover all her hair. My girlfriend is very modern and usually wears the headscarf loosely, but this is not acceptable for my dad at all. He doesn’t even like to watch satellite TV because it shows women without headscarves. They are too naked for this eye, he says.”
“You know, traditionally marriage works like this. The parents look for a suitable girl for their son. If they find one they will go and discuss the matter with the girl’s family. If everyone agrees the families will meet again and give the boy and the girl a chance to meet for the first time. That is when they can get to know each other a little and discuss their respective plans for the future. If they agree with each other’s plans a third meeting will be scheduled. During that third meeting blood samples are taken to make sure neither the boy nor the girl are ill. Then the Mullah performs a simple ceremony to seal the engagement. From that moment on the couple is free to live and be seen in public together.”
“Personally, as soon as I talk to my parents about my wedding plans, I will have to go through all these steps as well. However, as I already know my girlfriend I will not have to exchange ideas about our future plans with her during the second meeting. Obviously we have talked about those matters many times already. I know and like my girlfriend already. There really isn’t much we need to discuss anymore. Also I’m really looking forward to the time when I can be seen with her in public without the risk of offending anyone. In this regard being with her has been a little tricky in the past. A few times we were caught out walking together in the street and were arrested. That was really annoying for both of us.”
“For the wedding the bride’s family has to pay a dowry, while it is the groom’s obligation to organize and finance the wedding ceremony. Depending on the size of the wedding that can be an extremely expensive proposition! Personally I intend to keep things simple.”
The more questions I ask Reza the more curious he becomes as well. Reza has met and enjoyed conversations with several foreigners, but most have been unnecessarily shy talking openly to him. On his request I explain the concept of one-night stands to him, and how guys and girls meet and form relationships in the West.
“Men in Iran want to marry a virgin. That is really important! I haven’t as much as kissed my girlfriend so far. We have agreed to wait with that kind of intimacy until we are properly engaged to be married. I have heard that in the West people have sex in the park while others are watching. Is that true? In Iran, girls may already be called whores for hugging a guy who’s not part of the immediate family.”
Having finished eating the delicious ice-cream, Reza and I get up and slowly walk out of the maze of meandering alleys of the bazaar. Exiting the bazaar a man approaches me and whispers: “Christian? Catholic? Protestant? I Catholic! You?”
As I shake my head he quickly scurries back into the shadows.
Reza and I take a shared taxi to another part of town for dinner. We squeeze ourselves into the uncomfortable backseat of the Paykan. Soon after another passenger joins. It’s an elderly lady wearing a chādor. Reza makes sure to make extra space to avoid possible embarrassment of any part of his body accidentally touching the lady. In public buses women have their own area in the back where men are not welcome, and while there are dedicated women taxis with women drivers in operation in Tehran, everywhere else pragmatism has gained the upper hand when riding shared taxis. After all, money can be saved by sharing a taxi, even with someone of the opposite sex.
Riding the taxi to our destination Reza explains about his career plans…
“I have managed to postpone my military service until I finish my studies. I’m happy that I haven’t had to do my service so far, but I also know that there is no way of getting around it. Eventually I will have to join up for almost two years, and I will not have any say in where they are going to place me, or what I’ll be trained to do. You know, life can really be difficult for a guy until he has done his service.”
“Without having served you cannot buy a home, cannot buy a car, and cannot get a job. You also cannot travel abroad as the government won’t issue you a passport, unless you deposit a significant amount of money with the military to ensure your return to the country. I will probably do my service after finishing my MA degree, unless I decide to go on with PhD studies right away. With a PhD I may have a chance to avoid serving with arms. They might send me to teach English to villagers instead. I would like that actually. However, I definitely don’t want to work for the military in the long term. Yes, the benefits are good, but there’s also a lot of paranoia! The military has a lot of ways of interfering with your personal life. They are free to talk to your neighbors to confirm if you are trustworthy enough. They have the right to disapprove the marriage partner you have chosen if they don’t like her for any reason. Lastly, as a clerk in the military you have to grow a beard. I hate that idea!”
Reza and I get out of the taxi and step into a pretty traditional restaurant where we order a sumptuous meal consisting of eggplant stew with thinly baked bread and a refreshing yogurt drink called Doogh. We are the only customers in the restaurant at
this time, yet Reza often glances around nervously while we are discussing sensitive topics such as Iran’s politics and the world’s perception of the country.
“You know, it’s very easy for the government to discredit their political opponents here. Many people in Iran are deeply religious. If the government tells them that someone is against Islam, those people will hate them no matter what. The government has told those lies about all kinds of people a lot recently. Sadly, most people still don’t really have a chance to perceive a different perspective.”
Meet Mohammad and the Uranium:
The following day I decide to take a day-trip to Abyaneh, an isolated 1500-year-old village situated at the foot of 3900 meter tall Mount Karkas, about an hour’s drive south of Kashan. Mohammad, my taxi driver for the day, shows up at 8 AM. He’s a lanky guy with a jovial character and a big smile.
Driving out of town and into the desert Mohammad tries to make conversation but his English is very poor, and my Farsi is even poorer. Eventually he pulls a Polaroid photo of his family from his jacket and hands it to me. It shows him with his traditionally clad wife and two small children, a boy and a girl.
“Have two kid! One boy! One gay!” Mohammad exclaims happily and grins. “You?!”
“No kids!” I shrug and smile.
Mohammad looks at me with a sad expression.
After a few quiet minutes Mohammad starts fumbling around with the car’s stereo. The chorus of the latest Jennifer Lopez song starts blaring from the speakers. Mohammad’s smile has come back. In his seat he rhythmically moves with the beats. Then, as the chorus ends, suddenly Jennifer Lopez is gone and the deep voice of a guy singing to the tune of the song in Farsi language emanates from the speakers. Mohammad starts singing along loudly.
After speeding along the empty desert highway for about 30 minutes we reach a large intersection and take a turn towards the mountains. A road sign informs that we are close to the village of Natanz. Not far from the intersection I spot a heavily guarded
industrial complex. Soon we pass military patrol cards and several large man-made hills with anti-aircraft guns and even missile launchers on top of them, ominously pointing towards the sky. I see soldiers patrolling behind towering razor-wire
fences. Upon my return to Kashan in the evening I learn that what I saw was an underground uranium enrichment plant.
Upon saying goodnight to Reza the previous evening he recommended me to hitchhike all the way from Kashan to Abyaneh.
“It’s much cheaper than going by taxi, and you are certain to meet friendly people! It’s easy too! You only have to change your ride once when you get to the big intersection at Natanz!”
Imagining myself waiting to hitch a ride carrying a large camera bag, all in walking distance to the nuclear facility at Natanz, I now challenge the wisdom of Reza’s suggestion.
It’s another 20 kilometers to Abyaneh. The road winds uphill to an elevation of almost 2400 meters. The weather is pleasantly cool up here. Mohammad drops me off at the edge of town. Unexpectedly he hands me a small bag of dates and a can of date-flavored milk before sending me on my way.
Walking down the village’s steep, twisting lanes of mud and stone I eventually reach the bottom of the valley and cross over the fields to the slopes on the other side. Climbing them offers a spectacular view back over Abyaneh and the entire valley!
On my way back I come across an elderly woman taking rest sitting on a large stone. Two large bundles of grass are next to her. The woman waves and gestures me to help carrying her load. I pick up the surprisingly heavy bundles and, following the old woman, carry them up the slippery and steep trail to a storage room in the upper part of the village. Putting the bundles down it takes me a minute to catch my breath. Thinking it would be nice to take the woman’s picture I smile at her while suggestively pointing at my camera. She frowns, raises her hand, and starts rubbing her fingers together. “Money!”
A friend later tells me he’s heard that many of this conservative mountain village’s old women are actually the mothers of Tehran-based high-rollers who like to take advantage of the village’s remote location for having wild parties
with booze in no short supply. Whether or not this is true I don’t know.
Returning to the car Mohammad greets me enthusiastically. His white shirt is covered with dark red stains from top to bottom. On first sight it looks as if he was the victim of a brutal mugging. In his hands Mohammad carries dozens of large juicy blackberries. He offers me to eat them. They are sweet and delicious.
In the early afternoon we return to Kashan. I pay Mohammad the agreed fare of $30. He blows me a kiss for goodbye.
Later this evening Mohammad sends a text: “It’s a nice feeling when u know that some1 misses U, some1 needs U but it feels much better when u know that som1 never ever forgets u that’s ME”
Absolutely wonderful. A trip report par excellence…and I can't wait to read the next 4 parts!