At the foot of Sabalan mountain, in Northern Iran, deep in the valley, by the famous ski resort, is a bubbling mineral hot spring gushing calcium, potassium and us. Tonight under the stars, we all sink into the natural hot waters, aching joints melting in the thick soup of the water that fizzles on our skin. The lull and hush of green meadows, velvet in the black night, craggy bedrock and flecks of sheep grazing on the mount slope surround us. The water is heated from the volcanic mountain and it gushes savagely, fizzing with minerals. The town is sleeping.
A soiree at natural hot springs at the foot of a mountain is so much sexier than your average booze and drug fuelled vom-fests in Camden town on a Saturday night. But it is death we are smearing ourselves with, that yummy fetid excrete of possible torture by flogging, being stoned to death, if caught by the morality police or the Basij. Mixed genders, especially in this context is illegal and punishable by flogging and imprisonment so I am nervous, especially as the couples are here to hang out, make out, drink alcohol and do drugs. All of which terrifies me as drinking alcohol is illegal and also punishable by flogging and imprisonment.
Two girls, Settareh and Roya are smoking like lab beagles, greet me wearing tight short manteaux, (the compulsory long overcoat that has to be worn by women in Iran, long, loose and dour-hued), peroxide blonde ringlets tumbling down from behind bright headscarves, heavily made up faces with puffy collagen lips and drag queen eyebrows cartoonishly etched on and of course the chiselled dinky noses, ground down to a severe banana slope and button snout by the surgeon’s knife, Iran being the nose-job capital of the world. The short tight version of the manteux and facial cosmetic surgery with the drag make-up is what Iranian women have weaponised in Iran, as protest, as an act of aggression and revolt to the Islamic Republic regime who has agency and ownership of its people’s bodies, bodies’ functions and reproductive systems.
Islamic hejab is compulsory, as is in theory a modest, dark dour coloured long loose hejab and makeup-free face and if not adhered to, punishable by flogging and imprisonment by the morality police who cruise the streets looking for ‘immodest’ dress and anti-Islamic behaviour. As a little girl just after the revolution I had had a few run-ins with the morality police when they had caught me showing too much hair from under my hejab and once a bit too much bare ankle whilst sitting in my parents’ car. Lady morality police used to slash women’s lips with razors if they saw them with lipstick on in public. Even men wearing a tie was seen as counter-revolutionary and punishable. Them were the days.
When Khomeini had come into power after the revolution in 1979, he granted power over women’s sexuality and reproductive functions to the state and to men while also reversing trends in love and marriage. He lowered the age of marriage to 9 for girls, encouraged temporary marriage and polygamy, banned anything that enhanced a woman’s physical appearance, major decisions in a woman’s life had to be approved by her father or her husband: her education, travel or change of address, prohibited women from singing or dancing in public and a man and woman only being able to be together in public if they could prove with a certificate that they were married or father/daughter, brother/sister.
With so many limitations on interactions between single men and women, temporary marriage (sigheh), became a necessity. Sigheh was also an ethically suitable alternative to masturbation and prostitution.
Settareh (which means Star) and Roya (Fantasy)-both very common Iranian names- are from Tehran and here for a vacation. They have had to do a ‘temporary marriage’ contract with their boyfriends just so they can travel and holiday together legally as sex outside marriage is not only a crime in Iran but punishable by up to 99 lashes. Temporary marriage, sigheh, anything from one hour to 99 years, allows men to have as many sexual partners as they want and up to four temporary wives – all sanctioned by sharia law. A man and a woman can by undergoing a verbal or written private contract in front of a Muslim cleric marry for a fixed period of time for an agreed fee which the man pays the woman. The man can end the sigheh almost at any time, but there is no divorce right for women in temporary marriages.
The restriction for women also includes that fact that after each sighe, she must wait two menstrual periods before marrying again. And because for every temporary marriage the man has to pay a pre-determined sum to his short-term wife (more if she is a virgin), it is basically legalised prostitution and an acceptable form of adultery in Iran. Many travelling businessmen take advantage of this law to take in a 2-3 hour wife for sexual pleasure and there are even designated ‘houses’ where men can go and choose from a menu the price/ duration of a temporary wife-a virgin will demand a higher price. In effect these are prostitution houses under the guise of temporary marriage. Girls and boys who want to date and have sex, use this law as loophole to go on holiday together, stay in hotel rooms together and have sex legally. A certificate to say that they are in a temporary marriage is the best way of staying hassle free by the religious police. Mixed genders who are in each other’s company and aren’t related or married are routinely stopped by the morality police and interrogated, sometimes flogged and imprisoned for having relations outside of marriage. Widows and divorcees and women who are struggling financially also take advantage of this Islamic law to engage in a sigheh, for financial gain; apartments, cash and gifts in exchange for temporary marriage with any man with sufficient financial means.
With Settareh and Roya and their temporary husbands Peyman and Reza, I hear about crystal-meth-fuelled sex parties in Iran. Opium is seen as an old man’s drug and associated with the working classes, so cocaine and meth are the rich kids’ high. In beauty salons uptown, crystal meth is even sold as a weight loss supplement because they don’t think that it could be addictive like opium or heroin. They just think it’s chic.
There is designer brand alcohol and cocaine and ecstasy for the rich uptown kids of Tehran doing it in mansions with butlers and for the downtown poor kids, derelict hovels with opium and aragh sagi, cheap moonshine vodka made from raisins-aragh means sweat and sag means dog-the harshness of the homemade brew giving it the name ‘dog sweat’. Everyone drinks alcohol in Iran even though the punishment is flogging and imprisonment unless you can bribe the basij or morality police who’ll come to your door. No mixed gender party is complete without a stack of bribery cash at the ready to keep the morality police from prosecuting everyone there.
Since the revolution there has been various policing groups cruising the streets of Iran. The Revolutionary Guards in their Jeeps are prevalent on the streets on Iran, as are the morality police, stopping cars or people who display any hint of counter revolutionary activity, including showing strands of hair, wearing makeup, playing western music in cars or being in the presence of a different gender not related to-proof in the form of a document is required. There is also 3 million Basij, a volunteer paramilitary group operating under the command of the revolutionary guards and the supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei who cruise the streets of Iran in cars and stalk the pavement looking for any ‘un-Islamic’ dress code and behaviour, arresting, hassling and imprisoning anyone displaying anti-Islamic activity.
The Basij who are considered the ‘army of the guardians of the Islamic revolution’ and government watchdogs, are planted in every section of society, enforcing virtue, crushing protest, and whose official duties are internal security and law enforcement, are in reality a network of armed thugs stopping, and beating up whoever they please in the name of Islam. They carry out violent attacks and physically assault anyone protesting or being critical of the regime. Any protest or dissent is a threat to national security, a treacherous act against Islam and therefore severely punishable. Being considered the eyes and ears of the Islamic republic, they spy on the population, stop cars to check for music, seize music CDs and DVDs and satellite dish antennae, stop women for use of make up, burst into weddings and arrest guest for mixing genders.
Although voluntary, being in the Basij attracts social benefits and material perks, so recruitment is especially targeted at deprived families. Teenage boys are enticed with day trips, summer camps, food, and higher chances of gaining places at university and because the official age of enlisting is 18, deprived families even pay to forge their underage sons’ birth certificates. The material perks and the power it attracts are a huge motivation for the largely bored, idle and unemployed youth of Iran with little or no privileges as well as the opportunity for them to cruise the streets and commit acts of thuggery in the name of Islamic law. The Baijis are not there because they are ardent devotees of Islam but because of the material reasons offered along with the power to be legal thugs.
Gashte ershad, literally meaning ‘guidance patrol’ are the morality police. Also formed to cruise around to spot un-Islamic dress and behaviour. They harass females showing hair under their headscarf or wearing too tight a manteaux or too much make up and boys who wear ‘western’ style clothes, or have ‘western’ hair styles (long hair or ‘emo’ styles). Or anyone listening to music in their car too loudly, especially if it’s western music. Whereas the Basij are military thugs, ordered to use physical and armed force to crush any resistance and attack any demonstrators or protestors and are armed, it isn’t legally their duty and they are not meant to do the job of the morality police to stop girls and boys with un-Islamic dress. However both morality police and the Basij take it upon themselves to do as they please cruising the streets, being the mafia for the government. And since one’s agency, body, reproductive organs, thought and expression is state-owned in Iran and religious law and religious courts interpret all aspects of law, regarding gender relations, marriage, artistic expression, sexuality and sexual identity, young people’s method of ‘resistance’, of revolt is performed through the body; the body as a site of political and cultural struggle is the only way they can ‘breathe’ a little. They are actively engaging in what they deem to be ‘western liberation’. To them, mimicking an MTV version of the west: sexual imagery, cartoonish cosmetic surgery, simulation of pornography as sexual and gender identity is engaging in resistance; liberation. Thus the porn chic attire and make up, a constant engagement in the cosmetically vaudeville, drug and alcohol abuse, and hyper sexual behaviour learned only from porn, is embraced aggressively as a form of resisting the Islamic republic.
Then there are traditional pressures like having your hymen intact on your wedding night so hymen reconstruction is very common in Iran, some surgeons even inserting a red capsule in the vagina to make the ‘virginity’ more authentic.
The 1979 revolution was a backlash to the dramatic changes that had been taking place so speedily in Shah’s Westernization of Iran, of Western imperialism and consumerism. This modernization was deemed too vacuous by the majority of people because the westernization of Iran was mainly concerned with putting women in short skirts, make up and sexual merriment and it seemed like Iranian culture was being made inferior by having to blindly mimic western cultural practices, while the bulk of the population lacked proper housing, food and education. This had caused severe anxiety in the social fabric.
Many people were executed mostly without trial and mass graves were building up in Evin prison. Most public spaces were segregated- like beaches which were divided by a wall, buses where women had to sit at the back, parks, restaurants and cinemas and obviously schools and even weddings. In the course of the revolution the hejab had become the symbol of resistance against the Pahlavi regime; resistance to Western norms. Women were randomly dragged off the street and beaten and tortured for even showing a strand of hair or wearing makeup. Lashing, stoning, amputations were daily occurrences as the Islamist government was committed to reversing modern trends. New laws and regulations encouraged child marriage and polygamy and prevented women from leaving abusive marriages.
A few days later I am in Kandovan, an 800-year-old fairy-tale village where doll-like houses have been naturally sculpted into the belly of the mountain by volcanic eruptions. The volcano sculpted the formation of the troglodyte village naturally and 600 inhabitants live in the beehive cave homes. Angular pumice textured houses made of volcanic particles mushroom the mountain landscape like a giant termite colony. Their ancient wooden doors are lodged into the pile of rocks, the hollowed cavity in the mountain acting as both a balcony floor and roof shelter. The rock acts as an energy resource, keeping the house cool during summer and warm during winter, which means that heating or air conditioning is not required.
With Parvaneh (meaning Butterfly, another common Iranian name), an engineer friend from Tehran who has met me in Kandovan, we trail upwards through stone steps created from the indentation of the rocks, dimpled and crumbly, up the artery of passageways into the mountain, past the cave homes and clustered steps of the mountain, past donkey carrying local wares and stone courtyards sheltered into the mountain. Women with crimson chadors and rouge scarves make cheese and dry Morello cherries on top of the balconies, laying out fruit leather to dry. Tourists sit inside cave cafes and disappear inside secret pathways shimmying up the mountain with balconies and bridges all interconnecting to a network of homes, cafes, vaults and boutiques. No wonder they come from around the world to stay here in its mountain excavated cave hotels.
Parvaneh is having her hymen sewn up as she needs to be a virgin on her wedding night. At night in the restaurant on mountain-carved plateaus, we are eating saffron rice with barberries, chicken with pomegranate puree and crushed walnuts and Parvaneh is excited. She has found a doctor who can insert a red capsule in her vagina as well to make the illusion even more authentic. Even in well-educated, liberal families, a non-virgin bride can be embarrassing and shameful for the family, so many women undergo hymen reconstruction just before their wedding, some even going so far as having red ink capsules inserted in their vagina.
A long running joke in Iran is that girls ought to get zips in their vaginas because of the amount of times they keep getting their hymen reconstructed only to have sex again. It is important to their family’s honour that they are a virgin on their wedding night, with those from lower traditional classes having to prove it by blood-stained sheets after consummating the marriage. The consequence of all this virginity nonsense is that a lot of girls in Iran only have anal sex as they don’t want their hymen to be torn and to do away with all the hassle and expense of hymen reconstruction.
Persimmons and pomegranates, cherries and green gages follow as dessert. The land of Iran rich in plentiful produce and fruit and spices tastes of sunshine and intricate flavours, flavours that can’t be described in English.
I am on my way to Tehran, having got to Iran via Turkey on horseback. The streets are just the way I have left them as a 10 year old in 1984. Kids playing hopscotch in the alleyways under persimmon and morello cherry trees. Rows and rows of sycamore trees along boulevards, over the buzz of motorbikes and traffic. In the afternoon as the sound of prayer wails from the local mosque and bores through the neighbourhood, seizing it into a trance as the warm hum of the afternoon siesta follows. The alley bakery will open again in the early evening buzz where in deep clay ovens sangak (foot long triangular bread with tiny stones) is baked and people will line up as a chain gang of men prepare the dough on the stone, passing it on and throwing the large flat triangular shape into the clay fire. Everyone awaits their piles of the large nooneh sangak, the tiny hot stones burning fingertips. Shopkeepers sell thick strained homemade yoghurt in buckets and we carry them home swinging past street vendors selling sour tamarind and hot beet.
I am back after decades of being away so the neighbourhood makes a feast: saffron and tarragon, sumac, shallots, fenugreek, dill and mint and rose petals are added to plain yoghurt as well as stews of aubergine lamb and pomegranate puree chicken with crushed walnuts and dried plums. Puddings with rose water, crushed pistachio, walnut and cinnamon. And cream chunk ice creams and handmade cream cakes. A banquet of fruit is the permanent fixture of any Iranian home: always full of persimmons, quince, plum, cherries, pomegranate, oranges and small cucumbers. Giant watermelons puking seeds from their deep pink blush bellies and sour cherries dried in the sun, mulberries and bilberries, barberries, green gages and cornelian cherries all thick and rich dried or fresh, some sour and salted.
‘Why haven’t you had a nose job yet?’ Aunts and uncles chide over the noise at me. ‘It looks like an Arab nose.’ Not only are Iranians obsessed with nose jobs, with Iran being the nose job capital of the world but even shop mannequins in shop windows wear post-surgical plasters over their nose as a fashion statement.
Huge billboards of Khomeini and the current supreme leader Khamenei etched with revolutionary slogans scowl down at collagen lips of coral and peach, piles of peroxide blonde hair spilling from a teeny piece of Islamic ‘headscarf’, sky-high heels and a sea of blue and green contact lenses as we walk around the streets by jam-packed shops open late into the night, their coloured bulbs and the smell of burning esfand (rue seeds) wafting out from the pavement. I see the hub of night life come alive. Antique doors leading to vaults where merchants sell carpets, spice, copper and gold, textiles and hand painted miniatures and crafts.
I buy jewelled anklets and hand crafted tea glasses, an antique lamp, shawls of blood red silk with gold threading, and spice, belly dancing chains and sour plums and cherries again for I have a sour tooth.
Hessian sacks spewing dried mulberries and barberries, tarragon and pistachios, walnuts and saffron are daubed onto the setting. The perfume of loose tea mixed with natural soap blocks, with honey, dunes of persimmon and peach on carts wafting through with rose water and human body smell, as throngs of people huddle in and out haggling.
Twilight, it is electric blue, ancient Persian night and families will come out, all congregated in and around the alleys and square. Old men will play chess or backgammon, selling barbequed corn on the cob, cooling it by dipping it in a bucket of cold salt water. Some families will bring all their dinner complete with saucepan and plates to have a late night picnic on the grass in the parks. They will gossip and giggle into the night with night barbecues sizzling kebab and buttered barberry rice.
People give each other signals if morality police are around. Suddenly at a panicked sign from the shop opposite, salespeople switch off the music, hide Western fashion magazines and lingerie. The females in the area swiftly lower their headscarf and wipe their lipstick as they hurry away. One unlucky young girl has a gang of morality policewomen surround her with an elderly chador-clad woman shrieking: ‘khanoum (lady), what is THIS?’ Her face distorted in white rage at the white strip of ankle peeking from the girl’s trousers.
‘Aren’t you embarrassed? Don’t you have any shame to walk around like this? How do you live with yourself?’ she continues her tirade.
The bone and sinew, the milky white flesh bare in the glow of street lights make her a shameful whore. They must be pure sex, her ankles, to invoke such controversy, such sexual longing in men and such reaction in the morality police. I wonder how all the Tehrani women with their porn chic make up and attire fare with the morality police on a daily basis.
We passed huge billboards of martyrs from the Iran/Iraq war, festooned with garlands and airbrushed with blushing cheeks and rose bud lips, thickened with black lash and arched brow. Young men who were martyrs of the war and now have a key to paradise. We breathe in mid-town fumes until we get in the car towards North Tehran and fresh rich people’s air uptown. Posters for new Iranian films, a poster for AIDS with a man coming out of the sea and praying to God, billboards of sketches of veiled women with speech bubbles blurting out the message that: ‘Those women who wear makeup and expose their hair from beneath Islamic hejab are deemed to be psychologically damaged by doctors.’
Girls walking down the street will walk past a guy and suck their air between their teeth like a sex starved animal and say ‘what a piece!’ and stick in his hand a piece of paper with their number on it. It is aggressive but yet done covertly just incase the morality police are around. Guys and girls exchange flirtations from their cars and throw a bit of paper with their phone number into each other’s car, slowly cruising around, holding up massive traffic behind them as they pass their phone number to potential dates. It is mobile clubbing. It would be low-class and shameful to flirt with the opposite gender at family parties and since it is illegal for opposite genders to fraternize with each other in public, this absurd way of pickup technique and mating ritual is implemented by young guys and girls.
I just want to drink some pomegranate juice and see my streets but I feel like I am in a starved jungle, with human mouths sewn closed, with hands and feet bound aching, yearning to live.
In fact very soon I learn that two things are an outlet from this pressure cooker of terror and tyranny: being highly educated-most women become doctors, engineers, lawyers and academics- and extreme sexual promiscuity.
At a mehmooni- frequent family gatherings at someone’s house where relatives, neighbours, friends and their family will eat a multitude of different foods, dance in different regional styles, recite poetry late into the night, talk politics, and generally gossip, play sitar and tell jokes, with someone usually ending up singing a beautiful folk song or play an instrument like the sitar late into the night- my girl cousins and their friends invite me to a party. A few of the women-a dentist, a film-maker, a woman’s football team coach- are dating a chain of guys secretly, and some are firm on the rule of no sex before marriage. A couple of their friends have had hymenoplasty so only practice anal sex as they just can’t be be bothered with getting their hymen sewn back up over and over. I am astounded at the lack of sex education and sexual health in Iran. Islamic education preaches that masturbation will collapse the nervous system and make one psychotic. The solution to masturbation is to avoid sexual thoughts and desires by reading the Qur’an and fasting.
All I want to do is go to the night bazaar, the mountains and rivers, bathhouses and old parts of town but I am also mesmerised by this secret life, this underground living.
Most of the downtown girls, the poor and working class constantly do sighes just to get some money. Most of them are runaways from the provinces, and marry old men for a couple of hours for gifts and cash. My friend, an artist, Azadeh (Freedom) tells me of a girl who made porn, and who was stoned to death when the authorities discovered her identity. This took place in the notorious Evin prison in 2001 where she had been held for 8 years. The police had discovered her identity when examining one of her videos and seeing the serial number of her electricity meter in one of the scenes and tracked her down that way. None of the men who were in the films or made the films were executed.
I had heard about execution by stoning since I was a little girl, just after the revolution when Khomeini came into power. It was the sentence given for adultery and moral corruption. The body of the person is wrapped in white shrouds ready for the grave. Then they are placed upright in ditches; men up to their waist and women up to their breasts as a crowd gathers around them to throw small stones (small stones so they don’t die quickly) until they die which usually takes about 30 minutes. The law states that if the victims manage to rip off the shrouds and climb out from the ditch, they can go free. This would be impossible for women as they have no way of using their arms, the ‘logic’ of them buried up to their chest being that if the cloth is ripped from that area as the crowd throw the small stones, the breasts would be exposed. It’s a slow and very painful death, the white shrouds’ first gush of red speck seeps through, speedily escalating to a drenched shredded red pulp. Yet everyone I see here is sex-obsessed, having sex outside of marriage or committing adultery. Everything in Iran is a secret life, bound in peril, blood-thirsty.
We meet Azadeh’s friends in a café; a collection of artists, writers, intellectuals, poets and film makers who had gathered to discuss Fellini, John waters and Metallica. The usual mixed genders together, not giving a fuck.
The next night Azadeh and I go to the uptown party. It is a mansion a little out of Tehran, belonging to a bazaari family (the merchant class with traditional values) whose son Siavash has organised the party. Designer brand spirits and wine provided by Armenians (in Iran, they are allowed to drink alcohol in private because they’re Christians by birth), flow freely, as does crystal meth, cocaine and ecstasy.
At the house we are greeted by Siavash, and we are led to a room to change. All the women who had deliberately dressed in modest Islamic dress and have come make up free, to avoid any kind of attention have now emerged from the pile of chadors and hejabs, manteauxs and headscarves on the floor in the changing room into lace and silk slips, high heels and thongs, crushed rouge cheeks and kohl smeared eyes.
One girl, in her early ‘20s with a black vintage chignon and only a pair of black heels, is playing with a couple of guys. Others drink and chat as they watch. Guys leap from girl to girl laying on mats and lilos in the empty swimming pool outside engaged in various sex acts. Bodies swathed in a heap of limbs, snaking hips and heels.
I am throwing chicken bones to this crying cat and her litter who have found their way to the huge garden outside when Yasmin comes to grab me. I had been standing there thinking, there are so many stray animals in Iran, and no one cares about animal welfare because they are too busy with their own human right atrocities, when Yasmin, mono-browed and long raven braided, comes to me in the moonlight. Rose bud lips, a university teacher, she pulls me to her, voracious, glutinous.
‘You are so nice, such a nice girl,’ she says in broken accented English and lays me down on the grass. She smells like the outside, of parks and match sticks.
Right there in that orchard by the pomegranate tree and a wall etched with calligraphy, she is the typical timid Iranian girl who in secret plays hungry games, ravenous for the hardcore, the taste of ghormeh sabzi (herb stew) saturating my nose and mouth, cheeks and breath like home.
Suddenly, quietly, she gets up, slips on her gown and gives me her bracelet as a sign of friendship. It is pearl and blessed by her ancestors she says. I can’t take that kind of gift I say. ‘No, you are our guest, you must’, she whispers. She murmurs shyly and said that if I am not drinking, there is caviar and fruit in the kitchen and I should help myself.
The pretty girls, girls of Iran, glide inside the house, kissing, in slumber, in smoldering heaps. The inadequacy of me, not quite as pretty, as goddess-like, more like a potato from a council estate is gnawing at me. I can’t quite compete with Iranian girls’ beauty, grace and goddess auras.
The party isn’t raided but maybe Siavash had already bribed the Basij and morality police before the evening’s commencement of events so that they could leave us in uninterrupted peace. He was after all connected to the clerics and mullahs, all bribing each other and giving back-handers.
The consequences of this type of partying are so dire if raided, that I don’t understand why it is such a thrill for these girls. Mixed genders in a room is illegal by itself. Even at wedding parties people keep bribery money incase morality police raid the home.
Every girl I befriend in Iran is madly immersing themselves in education: medicine, law, architecture, sports and the arts. The women here are ruthlessly ambitious and work hard and play harder. But lack of employment and legal activities, the frustration and boredom of your body,thought and speech being daily smothered and suppressed with constant retributions and harassment on the streets can lead to focusing a lot of time and energy on plastic surgery, make up and husband hunting.
‘Did you hear what happened last week at Kianoosh’s party?’ Elie, another girl asks Azadeh. ‘They raided it. Everyone got handcuffed to each other and taken to the police station to have blood tests for alcohol and drugs. They were in cells for a few days and their families were called.’
‘Did anyone get the lashings?’ Another girl, Negar (meaning Sweeheart) asks.
‘Yeah and even Armin whose parents are super rich couldn’t get him out of jail. He was in a cell with junkies and murderers for days and just avoided getting the 100 lashes as his dad offered the judge a huge bribe.’
The problem with this forceful ‘Islamification’ of the Iranian people- Islam being used as a political weapon- is that it drives people to behave in as much an un-Islamic way as possible. There is a saying that before the revolution people prayed at home and drank in public and after the revolution, they drink at home and pray in public (work or mass gatherings to faux prove their faith). The deliberate hyper-visibility of nightclubs and discos in the Shah’s times had been his desperate showcasing of how ‘liberated’ and westernized he had made Iran, with praying very much a private affair behind closed doors, whereas now it had to be a public act of loyalty to Islam and the Islamic regime and partying hidden and underground.
But the Persian night is magic even when penetrated by the threat of raid and arrest. As Azadeh and a few of us leave the party, the car is warm and I peel off the skin of pickled walnuts bought from the vendors at road sides. The mural of Khomeini and Khamenei with their Islamic and revolutionary slogans scowl down on the city as again, I hold on for dear life as Negar violently halts and brakes in the middle of intersections, swerving and beeping hard as cars zoom towards us and pedestrians spring up suddenly from behind vehicles.
Girls and boys in cars this late into the night all seem to be coming out of parties or still continuing the night’s merriments by cruising around, as loud music blasts from drivers’ cars, mostly younger kids and drivers swerving drunk or high.
The Basij and morality police are super vigilant at this late hour and stop cars with young people in them frequently to check for made-up faces or to see if the young guys have western haircuts. As we stop in traffic, I see Basijis by the roadside cutting the long hair of a young guy and screaming and punching him. ‘He had the rocker long hair, poor idiot. They’ve cut it off. Look at them punching him, motherfuckers.’ Mahtob says.
‘He probably had booze on his breath and western CDs in the car too,’ Negar says. ‘Hope he’s got enough money to bribe them.’
‘These teenage Basjis have such a fucking chip on their shoulder, because they come from poor families and now have the power to beat up and arrest the rich kids who have everything they don’t have,’ Mahtob added.
I learn that all the violence and abuse that the Basij perpetrate isn’t strictly because they are such devout Muslims but these Basijis have what is called oghdeh, deep seated bitterness and resentment; a chip on their shoulder against the rich kids who party and have expensive luxury lifestyles, because almost all Basij are from poor working class families.
We stop the car and I watch in horror as two girls with heavy makeup and who were also in the car with the young guys getting dragged out. The Basiji men who looked around 19 or 20 are screaming: ‘You fucking whore! Your hair is out, make up like a whore. Wipe it! I bet you would spread your legs for own dad if he paid you.’
And with that one of them takes a cloth and smothers it all over the girl’s face, her makeup now a melting watercolour. ‘You have CDs too, yeah?’
And they are taken out of the car and one by one broken into pieces. The definition of moral corruption and anti-Islamic behaviour is ad hoc; improvised. For example the Basij or morality police can decide on the spot that a woman who claims she has been raped actually consented to sex and it wasn’t rape and therefore she committed sex outside marriage and committed moral corruption. Imprisonment is possible but mainly it is humiliation and bullying, name-calling designed to break your spirit.
Those arrested with un-Islamic dress or behaviour will be taken before a committee of revolutionary guards, humiliated and interrogated and kept in without food or contact with family. If they don’t have the money to bribe the officials that is. The revolutionary committee will contact the person’s family to ask for the title deeds to property as bail depending on the severity of the crime. The more severe the crime the higher the demand for money, the barometer for which is: showing of hair, heavy make-up, alcohol consumption and sex outside of marriage.
Anyone who can’t come up with the money receives 100 lashes. There is up to 100 lashes for sex outside marriage or stoning or hanging for adultery or moral corruption.
We have arrived at a traditional early morning café and there is a lot of the younger crowd there, no doubt after a night of drinking. The place is full of lorry drivers and manual labourers getting ready for the day ahead. It has suddenly become hip for the young crowd of hard party goers, after binge drinking to eat Kalleh pacheh-literally meaning head and hooves- a stew of sheep’s head with the brains, eyes and tongue and hooves seasoned with turmeric and cinnamon. It is a traditional breakfast dish eaten at dawn and is also good for hangovers as it is very fatty and soaks up the booze. High in cholesterol and full of calories it gives men with hard labour jobs enough energy for the whole day and the cool kids, a new trend in curing hangovers.
It tastes too heavy for my palate and so I decline. Maybe some of my Iranian-ness has been smudged away.
In the early hours of the morning my grandmother lights the samovar and I walk around my old neighbourhood, go to a public bathhouse, get sour cherries and read poetry and immerse myself in the Azan from the mosque. I have been trying to get hold of Azadeh but her phone line is dead and after calling her family I find out she has been arrested for writing a play about social issues in Iran.
Her crime will be anti-government activity and propaganda, mocking Islamic practices and Islamic sanctity. She will be kept in prison.
She would have been executed in the 1980s for this.