"Look Mr. deBellaigue – I’m Iranian. I can’t remember
drinking alcohol or looking lustfully at any woman
other than my wife. I can’t remember going without
saying my prayers. Behind this lies a thought, an
essence, and this essence has to be made to harmonize
with modernity. Then, our problems will be solved."
Christopher deBellaigue "In
the Rose Garden of the Martyrs."
"Here in Iran, no matter what the differences are
between us, we are all the same here," she says,
pressing her hand to her chest. "We are all
Woman at a concert I attended.
Today, as I was walking to the Internet café to write
this, I passed a woman in a full black chador. She
was talking on a cell phone…her essence "harmonizing
with modernity." Ali is a religious young man. He prays and fasts. He
tells me that in Iran the criminal penalty for
adultery is death. He says the government tries to
avoid this punishment by discrediting witnesses to
acts of adultery. It’s part of Iran’s attempt to
moderate its image abroad.
Adultery is also, of course, against Ali’s religion.
In addition to married people cheating on spouses,
adultery also applies to sexual relations between
unmarried couples. To circumvent violating his
religion in his relationships with his girlfriends,
Ali resorts to a temporary marriage – a feature
unique to the Shia branch of Islam.
An unmarried man and woman can have relations
by entering into a mutual agreement that allows them
to be married for a set period of time. It could be for
one night, or it could be for years. Typically Ali and
a girlfriend will agree to a temporary marriage for three
months. This is done with the simple recitation of some lines
in Arabic and the payment of a dowry to the woman.
Ali might give his girlfriend a rose as a symbolic
dowry. If they like, the temporary marriage can be
renewed so that relations can continue. But temporary
marriages are also used to take advantage of women who
are destitute and forced to prostitute themselves.
It’s a way for the man to absolve himself of sin for
a night of pleasure. Ali performs his own temporary
marriage, but to have a truly legal one, he says you
must apply to the government. So he is still subject
to criminal prosecution if he is caught.
Ali is attempting to balance religious tradition and
modernity. Some reform-minded Iranians are trying to
do the same. I spent time Saturday with Ali Mazruei,
the head of the Iranian Association of Journalists. I
asked him if democracy and Sharia (Islamic law) are
compatible. He said he believes they are. This
isn’t the opinion of other liberals in Iran, but it
is the safe one to express. Perhaps Mr. Mazruei is
being sincere, or maybe he’s practicing the
self-censorship that he told me all Iranian
journalists must practice.
Mazruei served several terms in the Majlis, the
Iranian parliament. In elections earlier this year,
he and other reformists were deemed unqualified to run
for reelection by the unelected, cleric controlled
Guardian Council. When Mazroei’s reformist
newspaper, Salam, was shut down in 1998, it sparked
violent student riots. Today there are far fewer
reformist newspapers than in the past. Mazroei says
without this outlet some reformists have become
radicalized. "The only chance to save the country
is with democracy," he says. He feels that now that
the conservatives have consolidated power in all
branches of government, they may not feel as
threatened. He says that perhaps under their control
there will be some relaxation of freedom of speech and
press, but, he added, "The behavior of Iranians is
As the name implies, shared taxis involve riding with
other passengers. They whiz through the streets of
Tehran and when you flag one down, you tell the driver
where you want to go. If it’s along the route
he’s taking to drop off the other passengers, you
climb in. If not, he simply zooms off and you wait
for another shared taxi. Obviously it’s in the
interests of the driver to pack as many fares into his
car as possible. Frequently four people are squeezed
into the back of the little Iranian-made Paykan, with
two people sharing the passenger seat in front,
practically on each other’s lap. Friends have told
me they’ve even seen a passenger squeezed in to the
left of the driver!
On the outskirts of north Tehran, the Alborz Mountains
rise dramatically, appearing through the smog and
haze. You can jump into a shared taxi near Tajrish
Bazaar and take the short ride up the narrow road to
Darband, a park in the foothills of the mountains.
Here you climb a stone and concrete walkway that
follows a stream. Both sides are lined with
restaurants and teahouses. There are vendors selling
corn roasted over coals. There are stalls packed with
fruit. You can pay 200 toman (about 25 cents) to a
man who holds a parakeet in his hand. He passes over
row of folded papers until the bird plucks the one
that is your fortune. Mine told me that people take
advantage of me and that I shouldn’t get my hopes up
about the future. Some fortune.
The teahouses are on terraces that climb the steep cliffs
You take off your shoes and sit on a carpeted platform
above the glittering lights that line the walkway below.
Couples find privacy here and in the dark corner of a
platform a boy and girl can show affection in a way
they wouldn’t dare in a more public place. Here
women can smoke the "hubbly bubbly" or "galyun" (water
pipe), which they aren’t permitted to do in other
places. The fruit-scented smoke drifts into the