By Nina Gribling and Annick van Rinsum
“Isn’t that far too dangerous?!” That is what we heard all too often when we told anybody we were travelling to Iran. We decided to dismiss these warnings as well-intended but naïve concerns. Yet, some research soon learned that homosexual behaviour could get you killed and that the thumbs up sign essentially means ‘fuck you’. Contrary to the stigmatized image Iran has in the West, we were struck by the open mindsets of the people we met. We came to know this interesting country where hijabs are obliged but girls have multiple boyfriends, where alcohol is illegal but where everybody takes drugs.
In the beginning of our trip, we were very careful. Not holding each other’s hands walking the street like we normally would have and notifying each other when a headscarf had fallen off. Once, Nina walked the corridor of the train confidently, hijab on and all when suddenly Annick screamed: ‘Nina your ass is bare!’ She quickly ran back into the private coupé and got dressed; she put a shirt over the pants she was already wearing, hiding her female assets. For Iranian women, being in public comes with strings attached. Soon we realised that as foreigners, especially as blond girls, we were in some respect invincible before the law – except for one time. On our journey from Bandar Abbas to Jazd, in the more conservative south, our bus suddenly stopped to park at a place that looked like a police station. The man sitting behind us, who had been asking us a lot of personal questions was asked to step out. Scared we had broken some moral code, we worried for the guy even though he had been massively annoying and it seemed called for. Leaving him behind, we drove to another parking place where we were asked to step out and line up against a wall. Then a dog jumped into the bus looking for drugs. Being the only foreigners in the bus, we were the only ones questioned by the cops. After we told them that we were on holidays, without revealing anything about our trip to the hippie islands we had just come from, they welcomed us to Iran and we could continue our journey.
We discovered that Iran is a country where nothing is allowed but where everything is possible.
Our journey was two-sided. While having hard times adapting to Iranian rules and conventions on the one hand, we felt immediately at home with the culture and people. We discovered that Iran is a country where nothing is allowed but where everything is possible. Where the boundaries between public and private are very strict, and the struggle for freedom always present. Our Iranian friends have learned how to dodge the laws of the Islamic government: by walking the dog out at night instead of during the day (having a dog in Iran is illegal), brewing ‘Arag’, the Iranian vodka, and throwing the craziest dance parties at home. The café next door serves cookies in rainbow colours, suggesting the support of gay rights, and smoking inside is not allowed – but definitely possible. We experienced a peak of freedom after a 20-hour train ride from the worldly capital Teheran to a small hippie island called ‘Hengam’, a place where free and artistic people like to escape the business and pressures of city life. Here, freed from smog and the police, truly beautiful things happen.
Even though all these little expressions of freedom and resistance exist in Iran, they can only manifest themselves privately. Only within the walls of people’s homes, cars and coffee shops, people are free to express themselves. It´s exhausting, and many leave the country.
Don’t dig too deep, you’re only going to find sadness
Near the end of our trip, Ayatollah Rafsanjani, former president of Iran, died. As opposed to the conservative Ayatollah Khamenei, people believe he had a moderating influence on state affairs. One can only speculate what is next, but some fear that it will impact the elections this year, that the restrictions might get worse again. It made us aware of the uncertainty people have to live in. Living normal lives while every single issue is political. No wonder that often people weren’t eager to talk about politics or the revolution that completely changed the country 38 years ago. “Don’t dig too deep, you’re only going to find sadness”, a friend advised. It is a part of their everyday life we could never really understand. Listening to Iranian people singing revolutionary songs and reciting the beloved poetry of ancient days, we could sense the deeper layers that one usually doesn’t get to see.