Living In Iran #2 – Tehran After Dark
I am fortunate enough to work on a generous rotational basis of six weeks on, one week off, with a paid trip back to the civilisation and normality of Dubai, supplemented with three weeks home leave every 4 months. However after more than 6 months here in Tehran, the boredom factor is becoming a serious issue. Both myself and my work colleague, with whom I share the apartment, find that after 4 to 5 weeks, we start getting cabin fever, becoming increasingly tetchy and irritable. Our one week of freedom and respite from the boredom becomes a real treat to look forward to.
I did realise before coming here that there would potentially be a limited expat lifestyle, but perhaps idealistically thought that the locals would have by now taken us under their wing and invited us into their homes. From what we can establish they tend to lead a very western and secular lifestyle, however they just don’t share it with foreigners!
I did think that after four years of living in Saudi Arabia I could live anywhere, but this is much harder for the average westerner. At least there, I was in a housing compound, with great recreational facilities, surrounded by many other expats, so there was always some social activity going on. We even had a pub on the compound open a couple of evenings a week, so booze, albeit more of the moonshine variety and company was rarely a problem. Surprisingly English was widely spoken, even amongst the locals. Plus having a car, rather than being dependent on a driver as I am here, I was able to take the 40 odd kms drive across the Heineken Bridge to Freedom; the causeway from Al Khobar to the island Kingdom of Bahrain on our doorstep. Bahrain would become our regular weekend Dubai type release! Regretfully we have none of those facilities available to us here.
My release has been to start keeping a monthly blog, commenting on some aspect of the very dysfunctional socio-economic-political life style here in Iran.
But enough of my complaining and moaning, I promised you that this was about Tehran after dark, so here goes… Once again, welcome to the land of forbidden pleasures and regulated misery – the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Perhaps in my naivety I thought that Tehran would still be as it was all those years ago when I first visited in the early 1970’s. In those days the country was very pro-western under Shah Reza Pahlavi, a secular Muslim whose policies of modernisation, industrialisation secularisation and open educational opportunities were at odds with the strict Shi’a clergy of Iran. He gradually lost the support of the working class and traditional class of merchants known as the Bazaari. The national airline, Iran Air even had a Concorde! Despite the backlash from religiously observant members of society, an example of which being the banning of wearing a hijab in public, The Shah managed to create a seemingly western orientated cosmopolitan city life, allowing some degree of cultural freedom.
The US and UK considered Iran to be their major ally in the Middle East, (perhaps more to do with its cheap oil!) but even more galling for conservative factions, was his relations with Israel. Although many considered The Shah a dictator, due to his authoritarian measures, repression of any dissent and his eventual dismissal of multiparty rule. These policies were enforced by the hated and much feared SAVAK secret police and political detention, now sadly replaced by the equally feared and hated Revolutionary Guards and political detention. This all set the stage for the infamous revolution of 1979 led by Ayatollah Khomeini, the declaration of The Islamic Republic of Iran and The Shah’s ultimate exile.
Tehran in those days was known as the Paris of the Middle East, with women wearing western dress, mini-skirts even, their heads uncovered, and freedom to mix between the sexes. I well recall the street side sandwich shops, selling cold beer for a few Rials, numerous cafes and bars selling alcohol. During my few months there in those heady exotic days, I remember being taken to nightclubs, rather like some of our western styled disco’s popular in the 70’s. The Armenian Club, a restaurant, still going today, now only open to Christians and the local Armenian community, is one of the only places in the city that is allowed to serve alcohol.
But as the saying goes, “that was then, this is now…” The realities of life here in 2013 are totally hypocritical, with Tehran as a city all but shutting down after midnight. That is apart from a few affluent party pockets where the authorities turn a blind eye to illegal activities, like wearing too much make up, short skirts, drinking of the demon alcohol and generally having fun. Having found one of these late night party hangouts recently (where I was far too old to be seen!) I thought it worthy of comment.
This one small corner in the up-market northern suburbs offers a rare glimpse of what goes on behind the closed doors of many Iranian’s apartments and villa’s. In contrast to the deserted sidewalks and shop fronts lining Tehran’s boulevards, the block around the late-night grocery store ‘Super Jordan’ buzzes with activity. Traffic is denser here, with Porsches, Mercedes and BMW’s lining the streets, revving their engines, their windows down with banned western pop music blaring from expensive sound systems, with many of the occupants in an advanced state of inebriation.
The municipal law states that all stores are to close by midnight, Super Jordan stays open 24 hours, a draw card for late night revellers refreshments. It’s rumoured that the owner is exceptionally well connected with the local municipal government and police, thus allowing him to circumnavigate the law. Thereby allowing his mostly inebriated patrons to buy their needs without interference from the authorities. I suspect however that his 24-hour privileges are more to do with the backhander’s that are paid to the police and the hated motorcycle riding revolutionary guards. Even in the days of The Shah corruption was always a major part of life in this country and continues unabated today!
Thursday evening, the start of the Islamic weekend, young guys dressed to the nines in western style clothes loiter near the entrance of the store. Nearby, a corresponding bunch of young girls equally well dressed, with nose jobs, lips swollen by Botox injections wobble on 6” stilettos. Needless to say that the ‘official chador’ is nowhere to be seen, even the hated hijab is pushed well back, revealing lustrous heads of hair. Even remembering that extramarital sex is illegal in this country, some will pair off and go who knows where. Although also illegal, the abortion rate is supposedly extremely high, carried out at huge expense by back street ‘doctors’. This crowd of youngsters is supplemented by local residents popping in to stock up on the imported mixers, cigarettes and snacks to take home for their own gatherings.
However, one thing is common to them all – the smell of alcohol on their breath!
Although officially ‘dry’, Iran has a proliferation of booze smugglers. Our own is summoned by a phone call, an order placed, not by brand, but rather by category. Dependent on availability it is difficult to guarantee brands, although incongruously Dr. Chavaz from Iraq is a particularly good blended whisky. Beer is disproportionally expensive as one tends to pay by volume, mass and bang for the buck. It is therefore that much cheaper to smuggle a bottle of whisky than a case of beer, the latter costing up to US. $100 per case. So our tame and friendly smuggler, Ali (remember everybody in this country is named Ali something, after the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson) takes our order. Late at night – never before 10pm, he will ring the outside bell of our apartment block with the same greeting, “Hello, I am Ali”. One buzzes him up to our top floor apartment, when on opening the door, he thrusts a black bag through the opening, with a “have a nice time” greeting and disappears back into the night. The cash is always settled a day or so later in an open public area by our Mr Fix-it, go-to guy – also named Ali.
While many Iranians consume booze within the privacy of their own homes, they rarely do so in the presence of strangers. Society abides by the old Persian adage that “Whatever goes on between four private walls, stays between those walls”. Areas like those around the late night Super Jordan store offer a rare glimpse into the realities of this dysfunctional society. While condemned activities like sex outside of marriage, drinking, prostitution and particularly drug abuse are all commonplace, they are rarely dragged into the public arena.
I was having a conversation with one of the more ‘forward’ of the girls here at work today and asked her why this was kept so close to their chest and foreigners like ourselves not invited. She summed it up in one word, “scared”… scared of the authorities finding out. “But how would they find out?” I asked. Her simple reply, “the neighbours might inform on you”. This is indeed a sick society as few trust another, with this fear permeating all aspects of society due to the strict oppressive theocratic government regime.
Tehran evidently has dozens of such ‘grey zones’, where illegal activities are tolerated. Of the many squares and parks that dot the city there are streetwalkers (or hookers as we would know them) with painted faces awaiting a customer. I have been told that any woman seen standing on the street after 10 pm would typically be considered as a hooker. Over a weekend, in the well-to-do northern part of the city where we live, one will see those same expensive sports cars cruising the streets on the look-out to pick up a ‘date’ for the night.
Although I have yet to find them, I am told that there are cafes and restaurants where management turn a blind eye, staying mute if patrons pour something stronger into their non-alcoholic mojitos. My colleague regularly walks (too steep a climb for this aging body!) of an evening, up to the first cable car ski station Tochal on the Alborz Mountains. He reports that most evenings he sees young couples gathering in their droves at the start of the many hiking trails. They have evidently arranged rendezvous here, away from the prying eyes of parents and authorities.
So only behind closed doors and it seems, only within the confines of close friends and family is all discretion thrown to the wind. While the threat of a police visit overshadows most house parties, the code of the four walls gives hosts a sense of safety, even entitlement. Respect for the code varies from neighbour to neighbour, but even when the police are summoned, revellers evidently have multiple avenues of escape to avoid flogging. This was up until fairly recently, the nominal penalty for drinking the demon alcohol. However probably due to public pressure, it is apparently no longer practiced to any great degree today.
According to my Iranian friend Nayyereh, who lives in Dubai, but visits here regularly to see her parents. Amongst the wealthy and well-connected, the boundaries of hedonism are limited only by the spatial confines of their villas or luxury apartments, which are by western standards, huge. She tells me that some fit out their homes with back-lit bars and DJ tables, transforming their homes into nightclubs at the flick of a switch. There are strobe-lit discos where girls in bikinis spray guests with water guns, and embassy-district shindigs (another limited access area to plebs like us!) in which the range and quantity of smuggled and imported booze is evidently mind blowing.
Then, there are private parties based around banned western movie screenings. There are even dance performances and concerts by some of the banned underground bands that may either perform western rock music or worse, sing counter-revolutionary type songs against the establishment. Here members of the cultural scene gather to critique each other’s projects, sway to the Western devils 1970/80’s-style music, or simply enjoy some Persian-tinged flamenco. One is continually reminded of the evils of the hedonistic and decadent West by the huge murals painted on the side of buildings all around the city, denouncing in particular, the USA, with such slogans as, “Down with the Great Satan”, or “marg bar Âmrikâ” (down with USA) Another being the depiction of The Supreme Leader burning the US or British flags.
However, it seems that most of the time, most gatherings are fairly simple affairs where friends and acquaintances gather in search of release from daily pressures. Parvaneh, a girl here in our office, a single mother, says throwing regular parties in her two-bedroom apartment gives her something to look forward to; to alleviate the drudgery of the 6-day weekly grind. “I get up just after 5, splash some water on my face, get breakfast for my son, grab a taxi, sit in the heavy traffic and get to work at about 7. In the evenings, if I’m lucky, I make it home by 8, cook and eat dinner, chat to my son and go to bed. If I didn’t have this small release, what kind of life would I have?”
This then is the society as designed by The Committee – the government of this once great nation of Persia. A failed social experiment I hear you say… perhaps, but the resilience and fortitude of the Iranian people will I believe, win through.
Since the election of Hassan Rouhani, we are seeing subtle and small changes, an example of which I witnessed on a recent trip to Isfahan, a UNSECO World Heritage Site and is referred to as “as half the world”. The country, closed to the west for so long, is slowly opening up to western tourists, who bring in much needed foreign currency. Isfahan is indeed one of the most beautiful and historic of all Iranian cities… and perhaps in all the world. We were taken to lunch at one of the very traditional Caravanserai’s, an inn for travellers (normally found in the desert regions of central Asia or The Caucuses) designed in the Islamic architectural style and arranged around a water fountain and pool in its central courtyard. At the table next to us was a large group of European tourists, eating the ubiquitous kebabs and rice. This was reinforced later that same day as we walked through one of the covered Bazaars of the incredible and historic Naqsh e Jahan Square, where once again we saw many Chinese and European tourists. But I am digressing, Isfahan, one of my favourite Persian city’s, will be the topic of a separate future submission…
I am given to understand that one of the major social problems is the ever increasing drug culture, particularly amongst the young here in Tehran. I am told that they use the drugs as a form of release from the day to day pressures of just living here. But more of that in another social comment submission.
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