To most Americans, Iran is a far away place of sand, camels, terrorists and, most recently, nuclear ambitions. Should Iran be bombed, cities with names like Mashhad, Tehran, Shiraz and Isfahan will only become names on the battlefield map. Few will remember the shining strips of fruit lace and floating walnuts sold in the cool hills of North Tehran, the smiling families in Shiraz picnicking on grassy knolls, the reflection of the lights from Isfahan’s Bridge of Thirty-Three Arches stretching into the distance toward the hotel Kowsar.
While from the outside it might seem Iran is ruled by an oppressive system (it is still an “Islamic Republic” led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei), I found the Iranian people to be welcoming.
When asked what dangers one should be aware of in Iran, a senior Western diplomat replied: “The only thing you’ll really be aware of is the Iranians’ kindness.” It is not unusual for casual acquaintances to invite you back to their houses and treat you like family.
Then again, it is not unusual to find certain “freedoms” to be severely limited in Iran; some journalists have been locked up for expressing anti-regime views. Strangely, though, the security levels vary throughout the country. Do Iranians care about their lack of freedom? “Not really,” said Kai, a 33-year-old publisher in Isfahan. “We get along, and in Iran it’s possible to find everything, just like in other countries. You just don’t show it on the street.”
Amir, a young public relations man from Tehran, agreed. However, he said that he believed that the Islamic regime would be slowly eroded. “You will see, in ten years, there will be nothing of this … but we need time,” he said to the background of heavy house music bumping from his car stereo.
Hassan, a guide from Shiraz, echoed this sentiment. “If the Americans attack now, they will make every Iranian hate them,” he said. “Most of us love Westerners now … Only seven million people out of 71 million voted for Ahmadinejad, but he only makes it worse for himself — he is speeding up the change.”
Tehran youth are known for throwing some of the wildest house parties this side of Mecca. With a flourishing drug and electronic music scene, Tehran teenagers attend underground parties with up-and-coming DJs, and, while there is always the fear that the “Moral Police” will bust the party, Kai assures me that neither he nor any of his friends have ever been at a party that was busted.
Benjamin, an English college student, said one party that he had been to was “straight out of MTV [with] a huge bar, a jacuzzi, waiters in bowties.” When the “Moral Police” arrived along with a more conservative element of the Republican Guard, everybody had to flee. “But most of them probably got away,” Benjamin assures. “They were pros.”
Sophie, another English student, described the dancing at one party she went to as “quite lesbianic.” She said that “girls were wearing absolutely nothing and danced all night.”
Alcohol is acquired like drugs; most have a dealer who brings duty-free bottles smuggled from the United Arab Emirates. But in a country where a roughly estimated 10 percent are conservative Muslims, there are many smugglers and many parties.
I was struck how, despite the prejudices against it, Iran is such a normal place. Yes, there are “Down With The USA” signs and giant portraits of Imam Khomeini, but there is also a rich, warm Persian culture that continues its life relatively unhindered by the mechanics of the Islamic State.