Iran regularly features in the media, but never in a good way. When you say you’re going to Iran, most people’s reaction is comparable to telling them you’re going for a beach break and sailing excursion along the Somalian coast.
However, although the government and its foreign policy supposedly presents one of the largest threats to ‘Western’ security, the country is safe, pleasant and it’s rammed full of some of the best sightseeing this side of the Seine.
The regime, however, is never far away. In many ways its law and rhetoric are deluded and almost comedic, but in the saddest possible way. A few weeks before we arrived, the president, Ahmadinejad announced that the rains had not arrived in Iran because the British had stolen them, and that is the reason why it always rains in England and not Iran. He also gave a speech to announce the celebration that Iran is free of homosexuals. The delusion could be viewed as funny from an isolated point of view, but for the people who have to live in Iran, it’s really rather sad.
Iranian people, however, could not be more different from the county’s image portrayed in the media.
Fiercely proud to be Persian (and not Arab; if you fail to make this distinction, you will be met with some very stern looks indeed!), they are articulate, intelligent and, from my experience, all appear to despise the government. Men dress in a western manner (albeit often a slightly greasy manner; their open silk shirts would garner a few double takes in the UK any time since the eighties) and the women wear skinny jeans, inches of make up and finely coiffed hairstyles. All this effort is unfortunately covered by the mandatory hijab-veil and a god-awful shirt-cum-dress that does a very effective job of hiding their figures in accordance with the strict laws governing women’s dress.
As soon as you enter an Iranian home, the veil and dress-shirt are removed and illegal satellite TV (beamed from abroad) comes on the television to show you the real Persia, if its people were free to do what they wanted. Verity shows in Persian, filmed in London, allow people a sort of escape from the constant repetition of the Ayatollah’s speeches and propaganda that infest the terrestrial airwaves. BBC Persia provides them with unbiased news, film channels from the Emirates beam Hollywood’s banned finest into their front rooms and soap operas from South America, Australia, and the US provide housewives with badly-dubbed distraction (Hollyoaks apparently didn’t make the cut though…)
The last blog finished with us driving through the streets of Tehran desperately trying to evade any of the pro-democratic riots. Although we saw no rioting, the exceptionally high police presence confirmed that if anything did happen, it would be stifled immediately.
Tehran was the worst driving so far. Iranian drivers are completely lunatic! The signs that in most countries dictate speed limits, appear to dictate a minimum speed with which to overtake a London taxi, before cutting back in front with less than a foot’s space between our front light and their un-working rear light. Everything is at full speed; weaving between the dense traffic, always trying to get there ever so slightly faster.
Iranian drivers are not actually bad drivers though, in fact, they are generally highly-skilled drivers who have reinterpreted the rules of the road with Persian flair, a disregard for safety and a well-developed concept of the exact size of their cars. You regularly see a car racing for a gap that it shouldn't have a hope in hell of getting through, but somehow the driver gets it to fit; without even lifting from the accelerator in the slightest!
We managed to escape Tehran and decided to put a bit of space between us and the city. The main roads in Iran are excellent, fully-lit motorways with very few cars on them. We were in the desert by now, with nothing for miles except rocks and sand. After a few hundred kilometres we took a turn off, driving along an empty road for less than a mile, pulled over into the desert and pitched camp in the darkness, with only the lights from the motorway in view on the horizon.
The next morning, I was roused to something nobody ever wants to wake to when camping in Iran; “is that an artillery piece?”. Unzipping my tent, it appeared our deserted desert… was not so deserted! I could count three mounds topped with anti aircraft guns within a few hundred yards of the taxi, a half-built power line, and beyond that, what looked like an oil pipeline being constructed. Only partly realising the gravity of our situation, we started the pack, and quickly. We were later to learn that a British man was in prison for simply taking a picture of a power line.
This was not looking good. We were three British kids, driving a British car and surrounded by three of the most sensitive kinds of installations to the Iranian government, in the middle of nowhere. And to make it worse, Johno and I had taken pictures of the guns.
Why would we do such a thing you may be asking yourself? Two reasons, firstly, we thought it was pretty funny, and secondly and most importantly; we are bloody idiots.
The car was packed, we were just mounting up and it looked like we would get away with it as an unmarked Chinese made pickup (sanctions mean most cars are either made in Iran or are Chinese rip offs) bounced along the desert in our direction.
Out hopped two men, one big, fat and sporting a pair of cube-like school-style shoes of the variety that your mum would dress you in on your first day back at school, then your mates would relentlessly mock you for. The other was short, thin, bookish and looked more like an accountant than a police officer. He would habitually remove his glasses and clean them when he spoke, revealing that his eyes actually pointed in separate directions, leaving you with the awkward worry of which eye to talk to.
They each wore poorly made uniforms with clearly hand-sewn police badges. Knowing that it’s possible to buy these uniforms in the market and that fake police is a well known scam in Iran, we didn’t trust them a bit. But we were, however, parked in a very dodgy place and it was seven am- hardly the time for scammers to be up? They quizzed us and then got on the phone to their superiors.
Very soon another unmarked pick-up arrived, with two men who didn’t even wear uniform. It was clear, however, as soon as they stepped out of the cab and the authority with which they instructed our two new friends, that they were the real deal.
They were the well-known and much-feared secret police.
I was being quizzed by the fat man in bad shoes; he asked whether I was a Muslim. Tempted to point at my blue eyes and very white face and make patronising ‘what do you think’ comment, I simply mumbled a no.
“Are you a Christian?”
Now, this is where one should nod one's head vigorously, saying yes in as many languages as one knows and possibly go as far as dropping to one's knees and reciting passages from the Bible. This is because, to Muslims, Christians are men ‘of the book’ too and generally respected, and most importantly they are not ‘infidels’ (those of no faith), Or worse… Jews!
I, ( see previous paragraph about being a ‘bloody idiot’), considered diving into an in-depth rhetoric about my Catholic upbringing, it’s lapsed status (once a Catholic, always a Catholic?) and what this means in the theological landscape of modern Britain, but settled for a simple,
It was just about then that fat-bad shoe's accountant colleague started to get in his pick-up with our passports. I rapidly terminated my theological interrogation and stopped him, adamant that our passports were not leaving our sight. He needed to photocopy them back at the base but I was not allowed to come there for security reasons.
A Benny-Hill like farce then unfolded as he told me I couldn’t come, but I refused to let him go. He would get in the pick up, so would I. He would step out, I would step out. He would get back in, closely followed by me playing dumb. He would try to tell me, again and again, that I couldn’t come. Each time I would hedge my bets by addressing a different eye, telling him I was not leaving our passports.
Eventually, after much deliberation, consultation from our much scarier new friends and theatrical Persian sighs; it was established that they could photocopy at a service station and that I could come too.
We climbed into his blissfully air-conditioned cab and made off across the desert, leaving the lads to sweat in the now fully-risen sun with the secret police.
As soon as I had left, my podgy-poorly-cobbled friend turned to the lads and stated
“So your friend… he is Jewish, yes?”
Now for anybody who doesn’t know me, I have thick black hair with a tendency to curl and a nose which has never been described as ‘insubstantial’. These features are often associated with Jews in the Iranian anti-Jewish press and after our previous conversation, this assumption was forgivable. Obviously the lads piped up in unison, adamantly denying this.
Unconvinced, our friend simply replied:
“Yes, I think he is Jewish.”
End of conversation.
The secret policeman, who had been examining our car documents, came across our Carnet de Passage at just about the worst time. The Carnet is a car passport document, which says the countries the car is not allowed to enter in big writing on the top,
Now, the secret policeman was a good looking man in his early thirties, in a typically cheap Iranian shirt. He was clearly already used to being revered and respected by all he comes across in his line of work, a work which he engaged in without much humour and a cloying cloud of cheap aftershave. His English was a little weak, and even to a good English speaker, the subtle ‘ex:’ on the top of the Carnet can easily be missed
“Ah-hah, so you have been to Israel, yes?”
Cue an hour of arguments under the beating sun assuring them that no, I am not a Jew, and no we have not been to Israel, and (most importantly) no, we are quite definitely not Jewish spies,
“But you travel on British passports, Jewish spies travel on British passports… like in Dubai when you killed that man. Yes?”
While this is going on, I sat in a service station drying off in air-conditioning, drinking an apple flavoured non-alcoholic German beer and eating dates with a pretty Iranian girl (or at least I though she might be. She had nice eyes, which was all that I could see…). My would-be-accountant guardian proved that there is a desk job somewhere in Tehran that is wasted on someone else, as he diligently photocopied every single page of all three passports.
By the time we returned, it appeared the lads had partly assuaged the secret policemen’s fears and they proceeded to thoroughly search the car. A god (Muslim, Jewish, Catholic or Christian!) must have been smiling on us that day, and they somehow that managed to miss Johno’s huge SLR camera filled with incriminating pictures.
Well, maybe the search wasn’t that thorough, but to their credit the taxi was a characteristic shit-tip. They only found Leigh’s camera, which he never uses, and his laptop (diligently cleared of all porn before entering Iran, apparently). They found nothing too dodgy in the search and even cracked a smile at our talking Napoleon Dynamite mascot.
A phone call came through giving them permission to let us go. We bounded off back to the motorway and made our way to Esfahan, confident that wherever we go in Iran from now on, some poor, bored secret policemen wouldn’t be too far behind; taking notes as we wander around mosques, sleep in leafy parks and discuss how much we could murder a real beer.
Written and contributed by It'sOnTheMeter