The Silk Road, China

Tuesday, 24 April 2007

Iran - the 'red line'

I write from an Internet cafe in Yazd, a oasis town in the desert of central Iran. We've been here a week and I feel I'm just about getting to grips with this fascinating - if a little confusing - country. Clearly Iran has very strict rules and it's important to be aware of the 'red line' as Ehsan, a guy of 26 from Esfahan told us... The problem is that in our experience, attitudes to the regime and the rules vary wildly depending on where you are: it's often very hard to know where the line is! We have created a 'Mullah index' - where 10 is reserved for Qom (a holy city from which the revolution originated) and 1 is .... somewhat more liberal than 10!

The way people have react when they see us has varied. Our reception in the north was cool to say the least. At the border, the official thought that if he asked us enough times whether we were English or Irish we would finally say that we were Irish. Clearly he was both confused by the inclusion of Northern Ireland on our passport and perhaps a little surprised that anyone from the land of wandering sailors ("did they go to prison when they got back?" we were asked innocently by a local) managed to get a visa.

The first thing we noticed in northern Iran, during our stay in Tabriz, is that we were largely ignored. The town was modern and clean and extremely crowded, and everyone appeared to be very busy, giving off an impression of I'm-just-doing-what-I-need-to-be-doing that is all too familiar back home. Chris found this absence of "hello mister... how are you?" refreshing; I was initially a little concerned that we'd wander round in a bubble and only get to look at (beautiful) buildings. While we were encouraged by how similar some of the stock Farsi phrases were to Arabic and that getting to grips with written numbers was fairly easy (interestingly, they are written left to right while text is written right to left), it was immediately obvious that not many Iranians speak English.

By contrast, our reception in Shiraz (3 pushing 2 on the Mullah scale) in central Iran couldn't have been warmer: lots of people keen to talk to you and hospitality to match that we encountered in Syria. (See separate posting on Shiraz). We now might be able to hazard a guess as to what it's like to be a celebrity: polite and enthusiastic responses to a never-ending barrage of (often unintelligible) questions from total strangers.

After suffering the agonising embarrassment on our first evening (in the north) of being told it was illegal to play cards and in light of the cool reception so far, we were on very best behaviour. We were wandering around looking for a place to have lunch, did a U turn and nearly bumped some young girls; we realised they had been following us. They offered us help and so told them what we looking for. At this point we felt an atmosphere of extreme hostility coming from a number of men nearby, and from one man in particular who was deploying what can only be described as a death stare. Sensing this, (and now understanding why one of the girls had been literally shaking) we made our excuses and scarpered around the corner. 10 minutes later in a restaurant, one of the girls slipped in and gave us her number: after all, it would be us who would cop the blame! But we had learnt our lesson: don't talk to women in public.

So for some, playing cards and talking to strangers of the opposite sex is crossing the 'red line.' For others it is not. Two days later we were sitting in Shiraz having tea with four young women in chador... And a week later we were playing chess in Yazd like it's going out of fashion...

The only other evidence of hostility we have encountered in Iran is sprayed over the walls of the former US Embassy, now hilariously called the US "Den of Espionage." Messages of aggression aimed at the "Great Satan" abounded; we couldn't help wondering who wrote them, how widespread this view was and whether it extended to people like us.

Our experience in central Iran is encouraging; indeed Iranians are clearly concerned about the impression of them that is painted in our media. Playing the 'celebrity' game is back on the cards for us: every day we skip from one unsolicited conversation with a total stranger to another and photo calls in public with giggling girls (and occasionally men, somewhat alarmingly!) abound... but the 'red line' isn't clearly defined at all.

The clothing debate is widely publicised. By and large, it appears that men can wear what they like (tight T shirts and Elvis haircuts being the thing to be seen in at the moment). Women on the other hand, must of course wear the veil by law. Needless to say, "the veil" ranges from head to foot black 'chador' at one extreme, and at the other a brightly coloured head scarf worn so far back on the head it barely stays on, a figure hugging thigh length coat /'manteau', jeans, strappy shoes and all of this topped off with uber coiffured hair pouring out of the front of the scarf and masses of makeup (so much makeup in some cases that it would be dubbed trashy anywhere in the world!).

However, I read in the news that the clerics are giving up. They attempt to stop the way women (and men) bend the rules, and they are particularly keen at this time of year (the beginning of summer. (see We recently saw a victim of this policy: a girl being driven off in a police car in Esfahan.

The 'red line' in fact cuts right through Iranian society, making a geographically based Mullah Index somewhat flawed. As a visitor you sense you are given a wider berth on these matters, but it is important for us to keep our wits about us. Things have got more relaxed as we headed south, but we will have to adjust back when we head north east towards the pilgrim city of Mashad...


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