I stand at the arrival hall of the Imam Khomeini Airport south of Tehran in December 2005, thinking about how it has taken me 27 years to get up the courage to return to Iran. There were practical obstacles but also fear. Having lived most of my life in the United States, my apprehension was fed by my family with whispers of the they will arrest you in the airport and don't you know what they do to Jews and somebody will just grab you and no one will ever hear from you again variety. My youthful rebellion, at least in this regard, took unusually long to fruit and, after some toe-dipping trips to Dubai and other neighboring states and with much scene-setting—including arranging for well-connected friends to whisk me through the airport—I return to Iran for a visit, by coincidence, only months after Mahmood Ahmadinejad's election to the presidency.
My first few days are a whirlwind of rediscovery—of old neighborhoods and schools and hang-outs—and acclimatization to crowds and Tehran's demented traffic and speaking Persian all the time. The city is full of hustle and bustle. Everyone I meet (including taxi and car service drivers) seems to have an engineering degree and hold two jobs. The driving is maddening—crossing some streets on foot is nearly impossible—and the smog suffocating. There are young people all around and Internet cafes often have waiting lists.
The people seem hardened at first—I suppose like in most large cities—but open up instantly upon finding that I am from the U.S. There is a charming insecurity that causes nearly everyone to try and put their best foot forward. The local dry cleaner-a young engineer by training-presents a four-page glossy brochure ("VIP-Service," "Today's European Standard Dry Cleaning with Natural Ingredients") and stresses that "don't think, sir, you from America, that we do a bad job; we use European machines and methods."
At the pizza and fast food restaurant run by several young men, a semicircle forms at my table with the waiter carrying my pizza and diet Coke, followed by the manager, the cook, the cashier, and a couple of their hanger-on friends. "Since you are from America," the manager says in a hushed tone, "you know what good pizza should taste like," and only after I signal my approval—with noisy chewing and vigorous head movements and "bah bah, how wonderful"—do they sigh in relief and return to their stations.
There is also a hunger for information from the outside world, particularly America and Europe. The local bookshop owner turns out to be mostly interested in space flight and NASA and aliens. "Are there UFOs flying around, like they say, in America?" he asks, holding my hand tight as we drink tea with sugar cubes. "Do you think they have really found aliens in that desert city, what was it"—he turns to his shop assistant—"Mexico?"
The other thing noticeable about Tehran is that no outdoor visual space is left without a banner slogan or picture of a war martyr or multi-story portrait of Imam Khomeini—the spiritual leader of the Islamic Revolution—or Ayatollah Khamenei who replaced him as the Leader in 1989. One is admonished at every turn toward Islamic behavior and cover (mainly women, of course). "Please follow Islamic hijab," says the handwritten sign on the milk and yogurt refrigerator at the local grocery store. "We are unable to serve sisters with bad hijab," reads the beautifully calligraphed notice behind the cashier at the McBurger sandwich shop (the one with the large logo of a black African fighter, scantily covered with leaves and holding a shield and a giant speared burger). So does the sign in the fast food joint with the smiling, horn-helmeted Viking insignia. Nowhere else in the Moslem world—including Saudi Arabia—have I seen so many slogans, posters, correctives, directives, and reminders of who the Leader is.
As expected, of course, people escape, bend, or break the rules.
A young café owner keeps the lights low, playing classical music and sitting at a corner table whispering with his beautiful, hijabbed girlfriend. They steal tip-of-finger touches when no one seems to be watching. He later tells me that every few months he gets shut down and arrested but always reopens when he's released.
The young pizza shop owner, whom I befriend and use his restaurant as my late night reading hangout, serves me homemade whisky from a plastic gallon ("the opposite of smooth, like drinking a fistful of nails" I report to my friends back home, "but what delight").
And they all escape inside their homes. Visit after visit, I find a paradise of rugs, foods, flowers, poetry, music, and women's beautiful, black, wavy hair, unnaturally full and springy as if rushing out from a tight daily prison. They tune to illegal satellite television channels, drink alcohol, play western music, surf the web, laugh out loud, dance, and commit a dozen other acts that are, at the very least, frowned upon or, depending on the daily winds, arresting offenses. All the prohibitions and punishments, a quarter of a century's worth, have not eliminated fun but, rather, driven it indoors, underground and, in fact, have concentrated it, heightened its joy.
Some look for a way out. Routinely I am asked about what it takes to move to the west. One day, the pizza restaurant waiter shows me a clipped advertisement on the U.S. visa lottery and asks if it is real and do I know how good his chances are. The grocery store owner asks about moving to Canada. The bookshop owner points out one of his assistants ("a very gifted musician but cannot work in Iran") and asks if I can do anything for him.
Many, so battered over the decades, no longer care about either moving elsewhere or following the rules. Over lunch, some female Baha'i relatives, poor and dignified, tell me about arrests and tortures, about how the government built over their cemetery, how their children are not allowed to attend the university, and how their property was confiscated. (One piece of grabbed land was turned, in that nasty, rub-your-nose-in-it habit of the Islamic Republic, into a police station.) During goodbyes, they kiss and hug me in public, illegality of unmarried male-female contact be damned.
Two years into the Ahmadinejad presidency and I am back in Iran. According to the writer and journalist Roya Hakakian, the political situation in Iran can always be inferred from the status of women's hijab. Which means things have surely changed. In 2005, the manteau, worn by women who prefer not to don the tent-like chador, had become colorful and shorter and even form-fitting, often over tight jeans. Now, a year and a half later, curves are once more outlawed, and the manteau has reverted to its intended rice-sack bagginess. The choice in colors reminds me of the famous Henry Ford quip ("any color...so long as it is black").
But this is not the first thing I notice. It is my taxi driver on the first morning, a weary, middle aged man who unleashes a string of mild expletives, cursing the government and the president and even Islam. "We had our own religion," he froths. "What was wrong with Zoroastrianism before these Arabs came? We had everything we needed. 'Good thoughts, good words, good deeds,' the Avesta said, and now we have to pray three times a day for show and pretend to listen to the Friday sermon of some stinky cloth-head."