I was in the Imam Mosque in Esfahan and was asked if I would do an interview on my impressions of Iran before and after I arrived. I ran through the usual half-true vague statements about Western media perceptions and good ol’ Persian hospitality. (This was all taking place on a ‘set’ they had created in a corner of the mosque, complete with couches and TV lights.) The interviewer, a turbanned Shia cleric named Ahmed Reza Karimi, then asked me what I studied at university. I told him Arabic and this is where the interview took a turn for the theological. In the course of the next twenty minutes or so we covered the Sunni-Shia schism, comparison between the Qu’ran and the Bible, whether war in defence was justified, the greater and lesser jihad, the idea of the Messiah, female modesty, who has the right to make laws, and my personal favourite question, ‘As a Christian, how do you reconcile the Trinity with the unity of God?’ Most people in Iran assume you’re Christian and it’s usually better to keep it that way. With a perfectly straight face I replied, ‘Well, this is something I often struggle with in my faith…’ We moved on to secularism and it began getting a little heated; Ben had to step in with a few soothing words and a ‘clarification’ of what I had meant when I said that thing about being in favour of a secular government.
I have spent two and a half days in Iran and I have been overwhelmed by it. Firstly, there’s the woman thing. It took me a day or so to get used to hijab; I kept reaching up my hand to take my headscarf off before remembering. Ben and I have to sit at different ends of the bus because public transport is segregated here; we go to the front, pay together, then I nip to the back doors and take my place in the women’s section. Men here usually do not speak to me, and I have to butt into their conversations with Ben a few times before they get used to my presence. But the variety of women here is something I had not expected. A friend once described Iranian women as a ‘delicious surprise’. The average middle-class Esfahani teenager, as far as I can tell, wears an impressively buoyant hairstyle with a tiny headscarf balancing at the back of her head, a perfectly made-up face, tight jeans and a manteau that leaves little to the imagination. For every chador-billowing woman there is another in designer heels and handbag.
We meet a lot of young Iranians who are keen to drive or walk us around and talk to us about Iran and the West. The constant question is: why did you come here? We all can’t wait to leave. People here talk about their government in a way that Syrians never would. A guy we met today told us he hated Ahmedinejad and voted for Moussavi as we were walking through Imam Sq in Esfahan, a policeman within teargassing distance. The usual complaint is not so much political, however, but economic (although you can’t ever really separate the two). The oil wealth promised by the Islamic revolution has not come through, and the current government is only perpetuating this scam on the Iranian people. Add to this sanctions and most of the young Iranians we have met are fed up and want to leave for better jobs elsewhere. Before this, however, you have to make it through military service in order to get a passport. Then there is the problem of getting a work permit for abroad, which is not easy for Iranians. We answer a lot of questions about life in England, including the price of a bag of apples, which embarrassingly neither of us had much of an idea of. (It’s been a while since my last trip to the Cambridge Co-op.)
Esfahan is beautiful; kind of Parisian with tree lined boulevards, public fountains, beautiful buildings. We’ve only seen the tourist part though, which has a lot of government money poured into it, and not ‘the ghetto’ as one Iranian friend put it. Ben studies architecture and so we are spending a lot of time looking around Safavid buildings, pausing from time to time so he can sketch and I can read the Thomas Friedman book he lent me and get angry with him (Friedman, not Ben). It’s nice to be an unashamed tourist after Syria and Lebanon. Enough poking around refugee camps, demilitarised zones, and resistance museums. Sometimes it’s nice to just sit in a beautiful Persian square and eat some rosewater ice cream. Yesterday our Iranian friends Sahar and Mohammed took us on a tour of Esfahan in their car. We drove from bridge to bridge, blasting ‘underground’ Iranian pop by groups called things like Shish-Hasht and Ashkiin Melody, taking in Esfahan at night. Our favourite place was Khaju Bridge, where people come in the evening to sit and eat picnics and generally hang. (French and German have excellent verbs for hanging out in cities, ‘flaner’ and ‘bummeln’ respectively, which convey something that our tired Americanisms do not. But anyway.) There were kids firing fireworks and a man singing Hafez poems. If you stand in a certain place on the bridge and someone else stands in a certain place, you can talk to each other using echoes. Apparently this was so courting couples could talk to each other without being caught.