Reporter’s Notebook: Goodbye from Iran

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"In Iran everything is possible and everything is impossible," –
Woman in a restaurant.

"Iranians are jealous of Afghanistan and Iraq. They are free and we
are not." – Tehran taxi driver.

In Iran, there is a certain degree of freedom for people to speak out and
criticize the government.
But there
cross, and, as one Iranian said, you can’t be sure from one day to the
next where those red lines are.

There is, among people who fear they may have crossed the red line, an attitude
that, to an American, seems like unnecessary paranoia. It doesn’t appear
to take much for an Iranian to feel he or she has attracted the unwanted attention
of the government. Perhaps you meet with other people to talk about working
together to bring about political change in benign ways like through art or
poetry. Then you are afraid. You spend time on the Internet, visiting websites
critical of the Iranian government. Later you find that access to that website
has been blocked by authorities, and you become concerned someone knows you
visited it. Maybe you’re seen with a foreign journalist. You’re
careful about what you say to your companions in a restaurant. There are a
thousand ways to feel fearful. You worry that your apartment is bugged, or
your phone is tapped. You wonder if you’re being followed, that someone
somewhere is marking you down. You become cautious and suspicious. You become
preoccupied with these nagging fears and you worry about losing what freedom
you have.

It’s someone’s job in Iran to go through every magazine sold here
and black out offending photos. I looked through a copy of National Geographic
the other day. A photo of a person standing naked in a wash basin with their
back to the camera was covered in black magic marker. For some reason a photo
on an earlier page featuring bare breasted women in body paint wasn’t.
A big sticker was placed over the cover photo of a yoga magazine to hide a
woman who was wearing a bathing suit.

An Iranian friend of mine was arrested once for wearing
a short sleeve shirt. He spent a night in jail. He was arrested twice more,
bright colored shirts. The way he dressed was considered un-Islamic. That was
years ago. "Now
change is happening so quickly in Iran, he told me, "The best man of
today is the worst man of tomorrow." My friend is a very modern, enlightened
person and he’s
not a devout Muslim, but I find it interesting that when he weighs Iran’s
social or cultural changes, he still uses Islam as a means to measure its value.

My friend told me about something he witnessed just recently as he walked
past a mosque. A young woman was standing on the sidewalk outside the mosque.
She was wearing a tight manteau that revealed her figure, her scarf was worn
back and her hair was exposed. A man came out of the mosque. He’d just
finished praying. He said to the girl, "We will kill you."

Sometimes I’m inclined to think that Iran isn’t changing. But
this isn’t the same Iran where my friend was arrested for his shirt color.
It’s not the same Iran described in "Reading Lolita in Tehran." Martin
Luther King, Jr. said the arc of time bends towards justice. In Iran it’s
a long, slow arc. There will likely be convulsive moments along the way where
Iran takes a step or two backwards. Despite some claims that Iranians are only
waiting for a nudge and a few dollars to rise up against the theocracy, there’s
no evidence of this – there’s no organized opposition or public
will for it. Whatever changes occur will have to take place at least with the
tacit approval of the mullahs.

I worry that Iran also has much to lose as it changes. I love the culture
in all its touching, puzzling, maddening aspects. I love the fact that Iranians
seem to really value contact with the outside world because they have so little
of it. Its isolation has preserved many qualities I’m afraid Iran will
lose if the doors to the world swing open too fast and with too little thought.
I’m afraid what will come through is fast food and tube tops, not a stronger
civil society or a better life for the 50 percent of Iranians living at or
below the poverty level. There’s already evidence here of the allure
of the cheaper commercial aspects of western society.

My fourth night in Iran, I attended a concert of Persian classical music,
Sufi spiritual music as it’s described to me…

Several hundred people stand outside a central Tehran concert hall called
Tawlareh Vahdat waiting for the performance to begin. The show is sold out.
The people are beautifully dressed. Women with their long hair gathered under
colorful scarves, their makeup accentuating their dark features. Some of the
men have long hair and neatly trimmed beards. Others are wearing sharp sport
coats. There is laughter and the murmur of happy conversation. People greet
each other in the warm Iranian way; a handshake a slight bow, maybe a hand
placed over a heart. Women shaking hands with men in public – that’s
something relatively new.

When the gates swing open, though, the men and women must separate. They aren’t
permitted to enter through the same gate. The women, for some reason, have
their bags checked. My companion is concerned about the camera she carries
in her bag, so I take it through the men’s entrance. On the other side
of the gate, only a few feet from where we’d been standing together before
we entered, couples, families and friends reunite. The brief separation feels
like an odd ritual from a past that no longer exists.

We walk under tall pines, past boxes planted with dusky lavender and into
the concert hall where a domed ceiling rises high, glittering above the three-tiered

When the lights dim and the curtains open, there are twelve musicians and
eight singers on stage. A man and a woman sit in the center. She is dressed
in white. The musicians wear black. There is a small violin section on one
side, and on the other side a group of soloists, including a violinist, an
oud player, and a man playing a tar – a stringed instrument with a small body
and long, slender neck. There are two men playing round flat drums called dafs.
They hold them aloft in front of them and beat with their finger tips. The
drums seem to float as they play. The man and woman in the center are the lead
singers. Women aren’t permitted to perform solo in front of mixed audiences
in Iran. The music is transcendent and cinematic. The instruments and voices
rise and fall together, with long instrumentals – frenetic string work
dissolves into meditative solos. At the end of the concert the musicians
and singers all take up dafs. Another group of daf players rises from the orchestra
pit. The drumming fills the hall and you’re transported. Here for a moment,
with these amazing performers, there’s a feeling of pleasure and happiness
beyond trouble. For a short while the politics, sadness and anger outside the
hall are far away, and it seems possible for Iran to be free.

"They smell your mouth
To find out if you have told someone:
I love you!
They smell your heart!
Such a strange time it is, my dear"

From "In this Dead End" Ahmad Shamlou, 1979

Goodbye from Iran,


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