Issue 172, Winter 2004
Why, I wondered long ago, don’t the Iranians smile? Even before I first thought of visiting Iran, I remember seeing photographs of thousands of crying Iranians, men and women wearing black. In Iran, I read, laughing in a public place is considered coarse and improper. Later, when I took an Oriental studies course at university, I learned that the Islamic Republic of Iran built much of its theology on the public’s longing for a man who died more than thirteen hundred years ago. This is the Imam Hossein, the supreme martyr of Shi’a Islam and a man whose virtue and bravery provide a moral shelter for all. Now that I’m living in Tehran, working as a journalist, witness to the interminable sorrow of Iranians for their Imam, I sense that I’m among a people that enjoys grief, relishes it.
Iran mourns on a fragrant spring day, while watching a ladybird scale a blade of grass, while making love. This was the case fifty years ago, long before the setting up of the Islamic Republic, and will be the case fifty years hence, after it has gone.
One morning in the autumn I found myself in the backseat of a stationary taxi, facing due south, inhaling exhaust fumes. The authorities call this road an autobahn, because it’s meant to be quick and efficient. They have flanked it with lush verges on which they squander the city’s meager water resources. I don’t think the former mayor, Ghollam-Hossein Karbaschi, who built this and most of Tehran’s other freeways, listened to foreign experts when he was drawing up his ideas on public transport. Had he done so, he would have learned that more asphalt does not lead to less traffic, but to more. Karbaschi’s urban arteries do not race. They loop clownishly. During the rush hour they atrophy.
On the car radio, a woman greeted us. “To all you respected drivers and dear, dear bureaucrats, to you conscientious teachers and workmen, I say: Salaam and good morning! To all the beloved professors and students of the Islamic world, I say: Good morning!”
According to the scientists, we in Tehran take in seven and a half times the amount of carbon monoxide that is considered safe.
This information starts to mean something only after ten days or two weeks without rain, without wind. If you go out for long, you get cruel headaches for which lemon juice and olives are the recommended cures. Windless weekdays are said to carry away scores of old people, all of them poisoned. In the town center, there’s a pollution meter whose optimistic readings, naturally, no one believes. The sunsets look like nuclear winters.
The woman speaking on the radio sounded as if she were on LSD. She said: “I think it would be a good idea for us to perform some simple acts that enable us to start the day in fine fettle. If the window of the car you’re in is closed against the cool of the morning, start by asking the driver if he would mind winding it down.
Actually, why don’t I ask him myself? Mr. Driver? Would you mind lowering your window a little? And to all those housewives at home, I say: Open the window a bit, the weather’s splendid!”
Tehran has too many cars and not enough buses. There’s a plan to replace fifteen thousand elderly taxis. There’s a plan to give out loans so that taxi drivers can run their vehicles on compressed natural gas. There’s a plan to extend the metro, which at present has limited reach and is overwhelmed by rush hour. There’s a plan to increase public awareness, to tell the middle class it’s not beneath their dignity to use public transport. Plans, plans.
“Take a deep breath, and keep it a few seconds inside your chest. Now, slowly let it out again. Exactly! During the next song, I want you to do this several times.”
There should be a plan to teach Iranians how to drive. On the road, there’s no law, no culture of civic courtesy. There’s no inside or outside or middle lane; the heavier the traffic, the more lanes come spontaneously into being, and the narrower they are. There’s no indicating left or right. There are pedestrians who can’t be bothered to take the pedestrian bridges, crossing the motorway like morons. Some evenings, when the kids are out, with the ducking and weaving at extraordinary speeds, you might think you’re in a rally or a computer game.
Drivers communicate by leaning on their horns and flashing their headlights. They use symbols: the thumbs-up (a rough equivalent of the finger), the clenched fist (a bit worse). Tempers fray. Once, as a passenger in a taxi, I found myself leaning out of the window and deploying a Turkish profanity that I had learned while living in Ankara but never, on account of its considerable obsceneness, dared to use.
“And now it’s the turn of the smile. Everyone smile to everyone! The rose of a smile will beautify your face. The scientists have established that people who smile in response to daily challenges are more likely to retain their health. Don’t frown!”
In the 1990 s, Karbaschi let the magnates into north Tehran, where they developed neighborhoods with little regard for taste or safety. (It’s not unknown for new buildings to collapse as a result of vibrations from nearby building sites.) The city’s infrastructure couldn’t keep up with the pace of growth, and there was a bad smell of impropriety. His freeways, his skyline, his parks and his cultural centers: They symbolized a regeneration, Tehran’s version of the building boom that bulldozed and revived Europe’s cities in the 1950 s. Karbaschi was announcing: The war’s over. Let us look to the future.
But a revolutionary state can’t look to the future. The Revolution is everything, and it has already happened. The war with Iraq of the 1980 s, that epic struggle against Saddam Hussein that killed hundreds of thousands and ended in a dismal draw—it was the Revolution’s crescendo, and the authorities have preserved it. Living in Tehran is like listening to the sea in a shell.
The authorities made the war part of the fabric. They put it on the city maps. As casualty figures rose, so the localities started changing. Thousands of streets called after nightingales, angels, and pomegranates were given new names. Martyr Akbar Sherafat (this was the street where he grew up; his parents still occupy a flat in number sixty-one); Martyr Soufian (his daughter was born a few days after an Iraqi shell scattered bits of him over the front); the Martyrs Mohsenian—two brothers whose faces, smiling down from heaven, have been painted on a wall.
In the process of finding a friend’s house, you commemorate heroes: “Excuse me, Madam, where’s Martyr Khoshbakht Alley?”
“Well, you go down Martyr Abbasian Street, turn right onto Martyr Araki Street, and then turn left immediately after the Martyr Paki General Hospital... ”
My taxi was going slowly. I saw that scaffolding was up in front of a mural that had interested me since my arrival in Iran. Men in overalls were sitting on the scaffolding, under a canopy. There were pots that I assumed to be full of paint; they were preparing to paint over the mural.
The mural showed a dead man, a martyr, lying in his bier, with his daughter standing over him, holding a rose. The daughter couldn’t have been more than four years old, but she wasn’t looking down on her father with the exuberant grief that you might expect.
Her expression said: “I understand. You were my father but, more important, you were a Muslim. Having weighed your competing responsibilities, you went off to defend the Revolution, and Islam, from the Iraqi rapists. Good for you.”
We passed the Nest of Spies. It’s the regime’s name for the former U.S. Embassy. A few months before I’d visited a temporary exhibition there. The people had come to smell America. The organizers of the exhibition had placed dummies of American diplomats around a table, in a soundproof room that had apparently been used for secret meetings. As a visitor to the exhibition, you stood outside the room, which was made of two thick panes of glass with a vacuum between them, and looked in at the Americans. They wore ties: a Western affectation. They were seated on chairs: a kind of enthronement. They had crossed their legs, or splayed them, showing off immodest American crotches: canine.
As you stood there, pressed up against the glass, and viewed their washed-out complexions and ugly auburn hair, you could imagine them talking over ways to control Iran, to defeat Islam. At the end of the working day, you could imagine them drinking beer and taking a slut for the night. That was what Americans did, wasn’t it?
We carried on, and the grid of south Tehran started to take shape. Scraps of yellow and turquoise tile were visible on the older facades and rust-colored roofs. There was less building activity in this part of the town and more traffic. The women mostly wore chadors. A different town, conservative and claustrophobic.
Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to live here. There would be a mode of conduct, proximity to the neighbors, a feeling of impermanence. These old communities are under attack—by unemployment and highly adulterated heroin at fifty cents a hit, by women who aren’t family, and the influx of migrants from the provinces. Nothing stays the same. A neighbor leaving, another taking his place, a divorce, a business success, an iron ball crashing into a corner shop.
The defenses are religion and the watchful eyes of neighbors, the chador and Islam. If the community is an island, and if the roads and bazaars full of strangers are the sea around them, then people behave themselves on the island and swim free in the fathomless waters of moral decay.
At the South Terminal, I got out of the taxi, holding my bag, and turned to face the Peugeot drivers. I was going to Isfahan, a city in the center of Iran, and I decided to take a shared taxi.
One of them came up to me. He had a bronze complexion, purplish lips. “Isfahan! Leaving right now!” His face was convulsed by the opiate’s bonhomie. (In Iran, the masses have both religion and opium.) His hand gripped me insolently.
I picked another driver, one with a clean mustache and an ironed shirt. A man in his twenties and another chap with a beard occupied the backseat of his Peugeot. A young couple shared the front passenger seat and fed each other crisps.
We moved off. The driver shifted position in his seat, hunched over the wheel. He flicked the gears with his palms and ran his hands through his shiny hair. There was a short conversation about what music we would listen to. The field was narrowed down to the titans of Turkish pop: Tarkan or Ibrahim. Ibrahim won. The driver pushed Ibrahim into the cassette player with the tips of his fingers. He lit his cigarette, but not before putting it in a mahogany-colored holder. Every elegant move seemed designed to beguile the senseless boredom of his hours. We left south Tehran.
I was feeling sick and we were pelting along. We were driving through Zahra’s Heaven, the main cemetery in south Tehran. Seventy thousand dead soldiers in there.
We skidded onto the motorway. One hundred and fifty kilometers an hour, in an Iranian-built GLX 2000. Tired driver, straight road; he could fall asleep at any moment. One careless bolt, cruelly loosening. That’s all it would take. I looked at the other passengers. The bearded chap was silently mouthing an invocation, again and again, using dead time to accumulate credit with God. The couple had fallen asleep entwined. No one was thinking about seat belts. If we had to brake suddenly, we’d be scattered over the tarmac.
Mr. Driver, have you considered that every action has a consequence? what do you think of cause and effect?
I tapped the driver on the shoulder. “Mr. Driver?”
He looked at me in the rearview. He turned down the music a little bit and said: “You don’t like Ibrahim?” The young man was looking at me.
“No, no, Ibrahim’s fine, I was wondering, could you drive at a more... er”—I groped for the word—“reasonable speed?”
The driver’s expression in the rearview mirror was puzzled. What did “reasonable” mean? What did I want him to do?
He put his foot down. The speedometer gave up the ghost.
Back in the 1970s, Isfahan was sinking under slime. The eastern wall of the Seminary of the King Mother kissed Iran’s most opulent hotel, the Shah Abbas. (The Shah Abbas had been a traditional travelers’ rest house; now, it had a slab of modern rooms stuck on the front, and a kind of unending feast of Balthazar going on inside.) Outside the door of the seminary, in the commercial street called the Four Gardens, cars blared Western music. Their young occupants lusted for a U.S. college education. Everywhere, there were signs of progress. Advertisements for washing machines; Old Spice aerosols in pharmacy windows; female arms sprouting downy hairs coming out of halter-tops. You could buy foreign booze in the Four Gardens and go whoring round the back of the municipality.
The shah was Muhammad Reza Pahlavi. He hated mullahs almost as much as he hated Communists; the mullahs were the forces of black reaction, sabotaging his attempt to make Iran modern. The King of Kings had put Isfahan’s religious foundations in the hands of a retired general. Perhaps the general had visited Notre Dame or the Duomo; he’d certainly heard how Europe was neutralizing its own black reaction by turning churches into museums. Christianity was changing from a religion into a secular way of appreciating beauty. Could Islam undergo a similar lobotomy?
The general threw open the seminary doors. Some of the mullahs protested. They argued that the seminary was an all-male place of study, whose architectural beauty was designed not to delight strangers but to inspire the seminarian. Why, they asked, had the seminaries been built looking in on themselves? (Answer: to protect the religious scholar from worldly temptation and to reflect his harmonious soul.)
Paying their price of entry, the tourists came into the Seminary of the King Mother, wandering around in shorts and Jesus sandals, peering into cell windows, hoping to catch a seminarian at prayer-whirling, perhaps? On hot days, they dangled their feet in the pool. They asked for postcards, ice cream, toilets.
Gradually, the seminarians were driven out. They found it impossible to concentrate on their studies. Some were lured by moral corruption. Rumors abounded of ghosts, restless mullahs from the days of Sultan Hossein, warning of defilement. Some of them took cells in other seminaries, off the tourist track. Their hatred for the shah expanded; it became contempt for the Western model that he was trying to impose on them.
The tourists had been attracted by Iran’s antiquity and culture, and in some cases by the person of the shah and his succession of lovely wives. The shah was America’s friend. He was the West’s bulwark against Communism. You only had to open Time magazine to learn that America wouldn’t let him fall. As they toured the city, the tourists occasionally solicited the political opinions of a shopkeeper. There were broad smiles. A signed photograph of the shah with his third wife, the tirelessly charitable Farah, was produced from a drawer.
The tourists were unaware that they and the shopkeepers were being monitored by Savak, the shah’s U.S.-trained secret police. They didn’t realize that everyone they came into contact with had been intimidated or bought. They didn’t know—perhaps they didn’t care to know—about the bastinadoes, the electrodes, and the rectal violations that were the specialties of the Savak safe house.
One evening, the tourists gathered in the courtyard of the Hotel Shah Abbas. They raised their glasses to Isfahan’s beauty— to the Safavid architecture, to the Armenian and Jewish quarters. “And to the shah!” the smiling maФtre d’hЩtel interjected. The tourists were beside themselves. The shah’s picture was in the lobby, and the restaurant, and at the entrance to the swimming pool. But this was different: a spontaneous show of fealty. “To the shah!” they cried.
Back in the seventies, there was also a second set of foreigners. They were based in the capital, Tehran, but sometimes spent the weekend in Isfahan. They were oilmen and arms dealers, petrochemicals salesmen and dam builders. They had come to Iran to suggest to the shah ways of disposing of his massive oil revenues. They spent a lot of time and money bribing ministers and bureaucrats, chasing contracts that would allow them to retire. They enjoyed smearing thick-grained Caspian caviar on crustless toast, posing a shard of lemon peel on top and shoving the whole lot into their mouths.
The third group of foreigners was composed of U.S. Air Force officers. They worked as engineers, instructors, communications officers at Iran’s biggest air base, outside Isfahan. Every Isfahani girl had a crush on a U.S. Air Force officer. Their brothers dreamed of piloting a Tomcat. In the bazaar, among the butch porters, blond American boys were all the rage.
The Revolution started sometime in the late twentieth century.
Who knows when?
The leftists say it started at the party of 1971, when the world’s despots, dynasts, and democrats dined with the King of Kings at repugnant expense in the ruins of Persepolis, the magnificent temple complex that was started by the Achaemenian King, Darius, in 520 B.C.
The economists say it started with the oil-price hike two years later, when opec quintupled the price of oil. It turned the King of Kings into a superstar, beloved of arms dealers and industrial development gurus, and set inflation on its upward trend.
A taxi driver once told me it started when the people saw the shah drinking alcohol with his foreign guests, and heard the rumor that certain members of his family liked to swim in milk.
Perhaps it started in Isfahan, the day a boy spat in the face of a German woman who was immodestly dressed.
A friend of mine from Isfahan, Mr. Zarif, set up his first gang in 1978, when he was twelve. He and his friends copied and distributed illicit pamphlets. They pasted flyers and photographs of dissidents onto walls at night, making sure that no one was around to turn them in to Savak. The following day, as the people walked to work, they’d see Ayatollah Khomeini, the shah’s chief enemy among the clergy, looking at them. His eyes would demand: “What have you done for the morally upright and economically downtrodden?” They would accuse: “Acquiescence to tyranny makes you an accessory!”
The local officials would be embarrassed; they’d phone the police, who would rush to the scene of the crime and start scraping the papers off the walls. “Quick, boys! The governor’s limousine is cruising up the street!”
The principal at Mr. Zarif’s school hauled him up for daubing Death to the Shah on a wall. Only the intercession of a friend of his father’s, a kind gent from the education ministry, saved him from Savak.
“Did you understand what you were doing,” I asked him, “that you were taking part in a revolution? Or was it just a game?”
Mr. Zarif smiles, a you-should-know-better-than-to-ask-that smile. Then he says, “Khomeini.”
Of course, Khomeini! There was something about him that called out, fathered you. It was impossible not to be scared of Khomeini—imagine him staring at you, like a torch shedding black light! He made you ashamed to breathe the same air as the officials of the King of Kings. Waiting for him to come back, willing his return from exile... people called him Mister. The Mister. Around the time of the Revolution, they started calling him the Imam.
On January 16, 1979, the King of Kings flew away, with a great many jewels and a clod of Iranian earth. Two weeks later, Khomeini returned from exile, dismissed the government that the shah had left behind and announced a provisional administration. Mr. Zarif saw things clearly: History had restarted with the Revolution and Khomeini’s return from exile—just as it had restarted with the Prophet’s migration from Mecca to Medina in 622 A.D., and the establishment of the first Islamic administration. The Imam would re-create the pure Islamic rule that Muslims had only known under the Prophet and later on, for four years, under the Imam Ali. There would be social justice, for social justice is inherent in Islam. Society would be cleansed of Western influence.
Whatever the Imam decreed would happen. There was no question of challenging the Imam’s authority, for that would be the equivalent of challenging God.
It’s October 1980, a few weeks into the Iraqi invasion. The Imam is sitting on a dais, underneath a sign that reads Allah. The men in front of him, most of them wearing military uniforms, are crying.
They’re crying because their Imam is praising them and they consider themselves unworthy of his praise. “I feel admiration,” he’s saying, “before these smiling celestial faces, before these heartfelt sobs.” The fighters, killers of Iraqis, convulse, tears pouring down their faces. “I feel insignificant,” the Imam goes on. The weeping reaches a crescendo.
He’s the greatest communicator. He understands television instinctively. “In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate,”
he starts his speeches, and then... silence. Fifteen seconds, or twenty: the Imam looking at you, through you, and the hairs on the back of your neck rise. His frail head slightly bowed, thick black brows like guillotines about to fall.
You learn to love, and fear, his inviolable monotone.
Like the imamate of Hossein, or Ali, his leadership is supranational. When he speaks, the world listens. (Before, when Kennedy and Nixon and Carter spoke, the shah listened.) America, mighty America, quakes. As he addresses the people, the Imam inlays the war into the marble of Islamic endeavor. When he finishes, you realize it’s impossible—morally, logically, physically—for Iran to give in.
“The difference between our army and theirs,” he says, “is that ours is constrained. For our army, it’s Islam that lays down responsibilities, whereas the other side has a free rein. They launch their shells and their ground-to-ground missiles... and they destroy an entire city. And they get congratulated. Our men don’t do that. They can’t. They won’t.”
There will be no compromising the principles of Islam. How, then, can there be compromise with Saddam Hussein? What use is it to live, unless God is smiling and your conscience is at peace?
“What motive,” the Imam asks, “did he have in doing—without studying the subject, without understanding what the consequences would be, without taking into account our people—what a few devils like himself, whispering into his ear, told him to do?...What is his motive, rushing from pillar to post and inviting us to make peace with him?”
The Imam’s questions aren’t meant to be answered.
“How can we make peace? With whom? It’s like someone telling the Prophet of Islam to go and make peace with Abu Jahal. In the final analysis, that’s not someone you can make peace with.”
Abu Jahal was Muhammad’s uncle. He planned to have the final Prophet of God assassinated. He’s the only one of God’s enemies wretched enough to merit a verse in the Holy Qoran.
“You’re the one who committed all these murders in your own country, and in ours, you're the one who had all those Muslims killed... Now! Imagine that our president and our parliament and our prime minister sit down and give you the time of day, and say, ‘Come in the name of God: The Arab River’s yours, just leave us alone!’”
Khomeini, chuckling inwardly at Saddam’s naivety: “Is that what it’s all about?” Across Iran, in villages and small towns, the people, looking at the TV, know that it’s not.
At the end of our lives we must compile a log of our activities and present it to the authorities. Points are totted. Heaven, purgatory, or hell; you go to one, and your performance on earth determines which. If we let God down in this world, he’ll catch up with us in the next. Where’s the gain in that?
“How are we to answer the downtrodden of the world, and what are we to say to the people of Iraq? If we get a missive from Karbala, and it says: ‘What are you doing, making peace with a person who killed our holy scholars, who jailed our intellectuals... ?’ What peace does that leave us with?”
Here, the Imam is laying out the second big responsibility of the Muslim—to the community at large, to the oppressed. “The question is one of religion. It’s not one of volition. Our dispute is over Islam. You mean we’re to sacrifice our Islam? What... Islam is land?”
No, Islam is not land.
“We shouldn’t imagine that our criteria are material, or define victory and defeat in terms of what is organic and material. We have to define our objectives in sacred terms, and define victory and defeat on the holy battlefield... even if the whole world rises against us, and destroys us, we will still have prevailed.”
Iran is alone, like the fulfillment of a prophecy. The Imam rises and the men shout: “Khomeini! You’re my spirit! Khomeini! The smasher of idols!”
In Isfahan, I went to see a veteran called Amini. He owned a kiosk near one of Isfahan’s big hospitals, selling synthetic fruit juices and tea in plastic cups. (After the war, Amini had gone into business and was unlucky. Someone, his partner I think, swindled him. The kiosk was the dregs of his empire.) I hung around for an hour and a half and bought two mango juices, one of which I gave to his employee. Later, Amini phoned my hotel to apologize for standing me up and to set another date, but his voice told me he was more suspicious than sorry.
You get used to suspicion. It’s partly inherited. Iranians resent their recent past with its foreign capitulations. (Two centuries of semicolonization sometimes seem worse than unambiguous colonization; at least the unambiguously colonized got railways and sewers and unambiguous independence.) As a consolation, many Iranians present the efforts of foreigners to subjugate them as a compliment, albeit backhanded—proof of what an important and desirable place Iran is. When I’m feeling sour, I reply that, on the contrary, Britain was only interested in Iran because it lay on the route to India.
I’m doubly or triply suspect. I speak their language, I ask questions for a living, I’m British. Spy! Troublemaker! Agent! I try to smile phlegmatically. This isn’t easy; those who “out” me as an operative of MI6 generally think they are the first to hit upon this theory. Conspiracies are an immensely enjoyable diversion and they can be catching. The longer I live in Iran, the more I involuntarily entertain the widespread and insane (surely!) idea that the Islamic Revolution was wrought by the British, jealous at having lost their dominant position in world affairs to America. Sometimes, I find it far-fetched that I should have married my Iranian wife because of love, not strategic interest, that I studied Persian at university for reasons other than national calculation, that I seek my own advancement and happiness, not a reprise of Britain’s global domination.
As I walked from my hotel to meet Amini, my heart was heavy with the thought of having to overturn this mistrust. Coming down the road that runs parallel to the river—the two are separated by a lawn and trees—I saw a bus parked by the curb.
According to the bunting on the back window, the bus had come from Ahwaz, almost three hundred kilometers to the southwest; it was part of a convoy that had taken pilgrims from Khuzistan to Khomeini’s tomb on the outskirts of Tehran. (It must have stopped for the night on the way home.) As I approached, I saw a line of feet protruding from the lawn at the side of the road. I couldn’t see the bodies they belonged to; they were obscured by the shadow of the trees. As I got closer, I heard a hum coming from the vicinity of the feet. There was a smell of sweat and something else, an organic process like meat decomposing in the gaps between teeth.
There were twenty sleepers, male, and they had five-day stubble, and long-sleeved shirts sticking out of polyester trousers. None was less than corpulent. From their appearance and the back window, I guessed they were government employees; from their age, it was reasonable to assume that they had fought in the war.
The hum was their snoring. They had obviously dined substantially before rolling out their cane mats by the side of the road. One of them seemed to be smacking his chops in his sleep.
Each one was lying flat on his back, facing the sky. A few had arms out, encroaching on their neighbors. They were having nice dreams—of the golden dome over the Imam’s body or of a cat purring on the ledge. To lie with such abandon in an exposed place—without curling into a ball and turning this way or that— conveyed an impression of profound content.
Amini was standing where we had arranged to meet—at the south end of the Allahvardi Bridge. He had a sportsman’s barrel chest and his cheek was scarred by a crescent of beard. He had penetrating eyes but he was taciturn. His face and head didn’t seem to fit. They could have come from different kits. (I later learned that his forehead was a collage of metal and bone. He had around sixty bits of shrapnel inside him.)
He held strongly onto my hand, and said: “Come and meet the lads.” There were about ten of them, and they invited me to take off my shoes and sit with them on a rug that had the image of a nine-year-old girl with a perm and blue eyeliner. They ordered two water pipes and tea all round.
The riverside had families eating kebabs that had been cooked on portable grills, and children throwing a ball or playing badminton. The sound of clapping and singing came from the bridge. Some young migrant workers—lads from the province of Lorestan, in western Iran—were having a party, and their voices bounced off the water.
Amini and his friends were the depleted shadows of the contented men I had seen sleeping by the side of the road. They were superficially similar: same age, same gray trousers and graying socks, the same semi-beard. But these men had passed over the sinecures and the junkets. (Either that, or they’d been passed over.)
They were struggling shopkeepers or small-time bazaaris. Their paunches were small. Underneath their jokes, there was a current of shared tragedy—something that I, they told me with bland, distrusting eyes, would be incapable of understanding.
One of them, whose surname was Zahmatkesh, had a vivid red beard, which isn’t something you see often in Isfahan. He was sitting opposite me, in a heap that seemed less substantial than his broad torso suggested it should be. Surreptitious investigation revealed that he had no legs; they must have been blown off by a mine. He was the joker of the group. He called me “Mister” so it rhymed with “cheetah,” and the others sniggered.
“Here, take this,” said Amini, and handed me one of the water pipes. He put a glass of tea by my side. “Mr. Zahmatkesh has brought a watermelon. You can have some after your water pipe.”
Amini was putting sunflower seeds into his mouth, one by one. He would split the shell between his teeth, spit it out, swallow the seed and start again.
We were waiting, he told me, for another friend to turn up; then we’d start talking about the war. A conversation started about degenerate youths. “I had one at the shop yesterday,” Amini said, “jabbering into his mobile to his girlfriend. Rich kid, drove a 184 CHRISTOPHER DE BELLAIGUE nice metallic blue 206. Offending everyone with his crude talk. He asked for orange juice, and I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘You don’t have orange juice?’ I said, ‘Thanks be to God, I don’t have to sell anything unless I want to. At least I’ve retained that much independence.’”
“How do you know it was his girlfriend?” asked someone. “It might have been his wife.”
“These kids don’t have wives,” he replied dryly. “They have freedom.”
Zahmatkesh addressed me. “You have freedom in England, don’t you?” He was smiling unpleasantly.
I guessed what was going through his mind. Europeans were always lecturing Iran on the importance of freedom, but what did that mean? The freedom to flaunt un-Islamic sexual relations? To parade stolen wealth in front of the mass of the people? To drink alcohol and smoke opium? If that was freedom, Iran had a surfeit.
I smiled, trying to convey the impression that I perceived the same irony as Zahmatkesh, and wishing I weren’t British.
The conversation moved on to some recent street protests.
They had been held to commemorate a larger, pro-democracy protest a few years before. The protests had been attended by students and other mostly young people who were demanding more political freedom. The participants had been beaten up by the police and hired toughs.
“I was passing,” said one of Amini’s friends, “and saw everything. You should have seen the cops! There were ten for every kid!” It wasn’t clear whose side he was on. “After the demonstration, I saw one cop rip up the seats of a girl’s car and beat the shit out of her.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Moral corruption. She had a pink headscarf, halfway up her head, and she was made up like a whore from north Tehran. I think also she may have given him some lip.”
Their smiles were listless and cynical. They were sad, I suppose, that a girl from Isfahan, a conservative provincial town, should dress and make herself up like a kitten from north Tehran. They were sad as well that a policeman should beat a teenager with a baton. You could only smile at the absurdity of a state training and employing men to injure its own citizens.
The singing and clapping from the bridge got louder. One of the Lors was dancing sensually in one of the arches, arms above his head, his girlish rump pointing down the river.
“Freedom,” said someone. “Freedom for them to dance.” Lors did a lot of the menial jobs in Isfahan. They worked hard, for poor wages, and some Isfahanis resented them.
“What’s it to us if he dances?” Mr. Zahmatkesh gave a hollow laugh. “Let him dance.”
Just a few years ago, there would have been no dancing on a bridge over the river in Isfahan. If a man wiggled his bottom in public—not with a woman, just with himself, or male friends— he’d have been arrested. He’d have spent a painful time in a small room at a police station. He’d have got a lecture on Islam’s injunctions against depravity. If he went before a judge, he’d have been sentenced to a lashing. A bit further back, say ten years, you’d not have seen much laughing in public. Women had to wear black.
Men didn’t wear short sleeves. Young people with boyfriends or girlfriends would be severely flogged. No one dared put on Western music in their cars. It felt as though the war was still going on.
From the sneer he was directing at me, it was obvious that Zahmatkesh was preparing another assault. To preempt him, I blurted out the first thing that came into my head. “Is that why Hossein Kharrazi went off to fight the Iraqis? So that Iranian policemen can beat up young women?” Everyone stopped smiling.
They had all fought under Kharrazi, a heroic commander who had been martyred near the end of the war. We listened to the clapping and singing. I felt angry and embarrassed.
After a while, one of the lads got to his feet. He said he should be going. Someone else looked at his watch and said that the man we were waiting for probably wouldn’t turn up. One by one, they started to leave. Zahmatkesh bounded like a chimp several yards to the road. By the curb, there was a contraption made of two motorbikes with a steering wheel on a platform welded between them. He leaped on and roared into the night.
No one offered me a lift back to the hotel. Amini told me to phone him, but his tone suggested that he hoped I would not. As I left, I reflected that perhaps they hadn’t been waiting for someone else after all; they’d invented him and his non-appearance in order to have an excuse not to talk about the war. Or was I inventing conspiracies of my own?