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It has been exactly three years since I left Iran after living there for two months in 2014. Just yesterday, upon meeting someone new, I was asked about the top three craziest things I had ever done in my life. My decision to move to Iran and work for Simorgh Theatre Group (a children’s puppet theatre based in Tehran and Mashhad) as puppeteer and performer for a few months was at the top of the list.
Most United States nationals don’t get to see the Iran that I did because the visas are normally limited to a week and only allow for fully guided tours (read: supervision) for the entire duration of your stay. I entered on a 10-day artist visa sponsored by the ministry of culture and, after three failed attempts, was finally granted the full two month stay.
Despite the “freedoms” that I had under this visa, I quickly realized that due to the political, social and cultural situation in Iran, many things are restricted or veiled.
Even though I had been instructed and warned prior to my departure that men and women who are not married or related are not allowed to touch at all in public, I stretched out my hand instinctively to meet our director, surrounded by the border officials, the foreign team and the Iranian team just after we had crossed through customs. He stepped back and waved his hand in front of his chest, nervously eyeing the border officials, saying only “no.” Our international coordinator and informal translator reminded me of the law as my cheeks flushed. It was such an innocent gesture, a reflex of my culture and upbringing, that in an instant had become something so wrong and shameful.
Away from the public eye, both the director and I later apologized to each other – he for not shaking my hand, and me for trying to shake hands in the first place.
I learned almost instantly that most people in Iran, especially if they are not religious, live three different lives with three distinct personalities: one in the office or workplace, one in the general public and one in the privacy of their own homes with trusted friends and family. In public, women do not speak or laugh too loudly, do not sing, do not hold hands, definitely don’t dance in the street and are covered (at least to the mid-forearm, the ankle and over the head). At home, hijabs come off, masks come off, we kiss each other on the cheek three times to greet and say goodbye, we share food and drink, we smile, dance, sing and laugh.
As a woman who had never previously worn hijab, it was difficult for me. The other foreign women in the group also struggled with this daily transition. Hijab is not just a head scarf, it’s an entire style of dress that needs to be adhered to. Even though we were advised ahead of time that we should bring loose, long-sleeved shirts and scarves to cover our heads, none of us had the correct wardrobe legally, despite our best efforts to pack appropriately. Our long sleeved shirts were too short at the bottom; women don’t wear loose long skirts and can’t in theatre rehearsal; and the neckline of the shirt was too wide or too low to be correctly covered by the headscarf.
What was meant by the “loose long shirt” was actually the length of a short summer dress or tunic that falls a few inches above the knee. We all needed to borrow appropriate clothing for our first couple of days there, and none of us ever really pulled off the Iranian women style – elegant, colorful and impeccably matched.
What most women actually wear is a manteau, a kind of very thin long-sleeved robe, tied at the front, which usually falls mid-calf. They come in all different wonderful colors and patterns. The longer and more flowy ones trail behind a woman’s steps gracefully. The best and most ingenious aspect of the manteau is that you can wear literally anything you want underneath it – jeans and a tank top, a cocktail dress and leggings, pants and a cool t-shirt. You put it on when you leave the house and, when you get to the next relaxed location inside, you take it off and you’re already wearing exactly what you want.
The headscarf itself is actually not the most important part of the hijab. Since it’s something that women are forced to wear, most take the rule quite liberally. Unlike women who wear hijab for religious reasons, many women in Tehran balance their headscarf on top of artfully piled hair near the back of their head, and are unconcerned about covering the front of their neck. In Tehran I saw many instances of women with very long hair who simply draped a scarf over their head, letting their loose hair flow freely behind them. The scarf, like a ridiculous afterthought, was a colorful, and sometimes patterned, middle finger to the man.
Of course there are monuments, buildings and areas of interest to see in Tehran, and our hosts were insistent that we see them all: the Milad Tower, the Bame Tehran (Roof of Tehran), the old bazaar of Tehran, Tajrish Square, Azadi Tower and the Moghadam Museum. We saw them and have a series of stiff group photos in each location with none of us touching. Granted, the views from the top of Milad Tower and from the Roof of Tehran are breathtaking and beautiful, but I still found the culture of private life infinitely more interesting than anything touristic we ever saw outside.
As alcohol is illegal, it’s impossible to buy it normally from a shop. Instead there are vendors on the black market selling all different kinds of alcohol. Real Jack Daniel’s, in the original bottle and not hidden in a plastic bottle or bag is a big deal; it’s a taste that only the privileged and wealthy elite of Tehran enjoy. As foreign alcohol is risky to bring in and very expensive, it’s more common to drink homemade aragh (a distilled liquor of at least 65% ethanol), homemade wine and homemade beer.
On our one and only day off, two of us from the group decided to go on a hike in Darakeh to the north of Tehran. The village is the location for many trail heads going into the mountains north of Tehran. To summit one of them would be a serious trip involving multiple days and equipment; we only had that day though, so we just started walking on one of the trails into the mountains until we decided that we needed to turn around.
We passed the cluster of charming tea and ghelyoon (Iranian water pipe) gardens that frame the river at the base of the mountain. As we continued to walk up, houses and businesses became more and more sparse until there were long stretches of nothing but us, the dusty trail and the sound of the wind whistling through the mountains.
As soon as there wasn’t a shepherd’s house in sight, we removed our scarves and felt the mountain breeze blowing through the strands of our hair. And there, in the mountains of northern Tehran, I felt so purely for the first time freedom. Freedom from the laws made to suppress our desires, freedom from the watchful and judgmental public eye, freedom from the judgment coming from within as we see ourselves in another’s eye, as we strive to live up to the standards set in place by outside forces. On the mountain, we are free. And I felt the fragility of my own small life within the immense and powerful force of nature – and the laws and rules we create for ourselves and others seemed to be crafted in vain.
Also check out, Dalyan, Turkey.