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Travel Image: Tehran, Iran

Travel Image: Tehran, Iran

Contemplating Tehran (cont.)

It doesn’t take long to notice that Tehran has a sex-tricity in the air. You can see the desire on people’s faces; no one is hiding it anymore. Anyone who says different has either never been here or has ulterior motives to make you believe in Islamic chastity (itself a farce). Not to say the mullahs haven’t tried to repress sexual freedom, just that, like the regime itself, they’re losing the battle.

I often look in the mirror at a generously proportioned, balding guy in his late twenties with a very relaxed (some might say uninformed) sense of fashion and wonder what the kids right outside my door in Vanak Square would say if they knew I was the only American among them. I don’t fit their stereotype of what it means to be a Yankee—and they don’t fit ours of what it means to be Iranian or even Muslim.

When young Tehranis hear my broken Farsi, they always ask me where I’m from. My standard reply is, “The Great Satan,” which is usually met with a shameful giggle and then a barrage of questions.

“Who is the most famous DJ in United States?”

“I don’t know.”

“Can you help get me a visa?”

Picking up on the local lingo, I answer, “Whatever God wants.”

“Yes, of course,” they reply, knowing full well that the odds of an Iranian getting a visa to go to America are about as high as the odds of the mullahs offering an apology for all the suffering they’ve caused.

Appearances aside, I’ve become an instant commodity, and I’ve taken to calling my passport “American Gold.” My best friend here is a working-class guy named Mehdi, who—despite warnings from friends of higher social standing not to trust anyone from his neighbourhood—has a key to my apartment and often uses my place for illicit encounters with young Tehrani ladies. Lately, he’s been teasing me for my chastity.

“Everyone knows Americans and Europeans are relaxed and free,” he tells me. “You say what’s on your mind and go after what you want. So just find a couple of girls you like and ask them if they have boyfriends, ask if they are virgins or not, then invite them to come over and spend a few hours. One at a time, of course.” Apparently, it’s that simple.

There is a well known saying in Iran that goes, “In the time of the Shah, we drank in public and prayed at home, and now we drink at home and pray in public.” The phrase gets tossed around enough that some of the meaning has been lost, but day by day I am coming to understand its depth. At this point, I have much more confidence in, and respect for, the Iranian who drinks than for the one who can be found praying in his office or in the middle of the airport or on a Tehran sidewalk. Faith seems more than ever to be the badge of compliance, whereas the offer to drink together is a sign of trust and camaraderie. Though the stakes are still too high in Islamic Iran to drink with just anyone.

An Iranian friend of mine who was born in the US and works in media in Tehran warned me recently not to try too hard to make sense of contemporary Iran. For instance, a call for the end of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei—even one employing language usually reserved for Israel and the United States—should not be taken literally.

“‘Death to Khamenei’ might really mean ‘death to Khamenei,’” he said. “But it might just mean ‘Legalize Beer.’ I’m not sure. And the point is, I don’t trust anyone who says they know what’s going on here.”

He didn’t put to rest the questions that have bombarded me since my arrival, but his statement about Iran was the truest I’ve heard yet.

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