There are three of them, perched on their café stools like an elite flock of glamorous pigeons. They are perhaps 19, and indisputably lovely. One wears a cherry-red, knee-length coat, or manteau, over white capri pants. Her lipstick, too, is cherry-colored. Far back on her head, and knotted beneath her chin, is a tiny white silk scarf dotted with roses. About six inches of long, glossy hair hang out below the scarf.
A second young woman is equally coordinated: Her long, loose lavender scarf perfectly matches her pants and purse, all nicely set off by her white manteau. The third wears a black manteau, tightly fitted to her slim waist, and a black silk scarf with white flowers. Her white pants dangle low over her three-inch heels, low enough to have picked up a smattering of grey splotches from the street.
They seem out of place with the rest of her carefully honed perfection, but Tehran is, after all, a tremendously dirty city.
You can feel it in the air. You can see it. The mountains are shrouded in yellow-brown haze. Trash floats downstream in the gutters. Private space—the home, the garden, the body—is scrupulously, scrupulously clean. I live in a private dorm with 40 young, middle-class women. We remove our shoes in the entryway, and change into indoor-only flip-flops. A separate pair of communal flip-flops waits outside the bathroom door. My roommates wear one set of rubber gloves for washing dishes, and another for washing their clothes in the sink. The housekeepers change into knee-high rubber boots for their daily hose-down of the already-spotless bathrooms. When I forget to change my flip-flops before entering the bathroom, as I sometimes do, I feel like a barbarian.
Setareh is lying on her butter-yellow cotton bedspread, her long legs propped up the ladder that leads to my bunk. She is 23, a medical student, and bored. Nasrin, 26 and unemployed, rubs a peeled plum over and over her face, for softness. It is two in the afternoon and Setareh is trying to nap.
“Why do you want to sleep?” I ask. “Do you have plans tonight?” Setareh recently has started dating a boy. She says he’s cute, but immature.
“If I don’t sleep, what else is there to do?”
Tehran can be a tremendously boring place. It’s tempting to blame this on government restrictions—there are no bars, few movies, few restaurants. But even more restricting is the city itself: its shape, its grotesque contours. No matter the time of day, traffic crawls.There is virtually no public transportation, unless you count the decrepit white sedans that serve as shared taxis. The infrastructure, built in the giddy, prosperous sixties, speaks to the promise of modernity gone awry.
Tehran is especially boring for Nasrin, who is among the roughly 50 percent of young university graduates who cannot find a job. Her degree is in agriculture. She takes German classes, hoping it will increase her chances of leaving. But mostly she hangs out in the dorm, waiting for something to happen.
It seldom does. Setareh and Nasrin lie prone on their mattresses, joking, sighing, reading classical Persian poetry aloud.
They laugh a lot. They polish their nails. Parisa, who is perhaps 5’7″ and 135 pounds, examines her hips in the mirror and sighs. Then she sits by the window, where the light is best, and plucks her facial hair. Setareh sits beside her, shaving her arms.
Whenever they do decide to go somewhere—probably Jam-e Jaam, the very hip new international-theme food court—they spend half an hour in the shower. Then another half hour working on their make-up. Add the cab ride and the food, and going to lunch can kill most of an afternoon.
Of course, they’d rather have jobs.
Azadeh was born in 1979, the year of the revolution; her name means “freedom.” She grew up mostly in Sweden and has taken a year off from college to spend time in Iran. Her mother, Soheila, is feeding me lunch—a four-hour affair of fruit and sweets, followed by the meal itself, and then another few rounds of dessert. (Before the revolution, people went out to eat, says Sohelia. Once it became too much of a hassle—no alcohol, the dress code—they learned to compensate, gradually perfecting the technique of stuffing their friends silly.)
The year Azadeh was born was an exciting one for Soheila. It looked like the U.S.-backed Pahlavi monarchy was really on its way out, and if that meant rallying behind a religious leader, so what? Khomeini had the power to bring the lower classes into the struggle. And if middle-class women donned a chador as a statement of solidarity with their more traditional sisters, so what? Once the shah was gone, they would have freedom—not just to wear what they wanted, but a secular democracy that would bring social justice, transparent and responsive government, an end to the extremes of wealth and poverty.
Some women adopted Islamic dress to express a different kind of body politics. They called those who chased the latest trends “painted dolls,” and considered them gharbzadeh, or “West-struck.” Today, there are Muslim feminists—although few in Iran—who embrace modest dress for just these reasons. They say they are the ones who are free, and it is the women who display their bodies like meat in a butchershop who are truly oppressed.
There are six cafes at the mall down the street, and their signs—Mint Café, Kactus Coffee Shop, Coffee de France—are in English only. You’d think it was a tourist ghetto, but there are no tourists in Tehran. This is where the cool kids go: to drink elaborate ice cream creations, to see and be seen.
We came here to talk, so I could practice Persian and Katy, English. We squeeze into Coffee de France, which, with its wood paneling, mismatched antique furniture, and stacks of beat-up novels in European languages, more or less fits its name. Sitting at the table next to us is a group of fashionably scruffy young men, their hair longish, their shirts tight. As Katy tells me about her parents and her hometown, her English is slow and hesitant; her eyes flick around as she takes in the comings and goings around her.
A young man with an Afro squeezes by.
“The people who come here are not good,” she says, low.
I ask what she means.
“They smoke weed, yes? You see their faces?”
The kids at his table do, in fact, seem a bit clumsy. One girl fumbles fruitlessly with her pack of cigarettes, her enormous sundae melting slowly before her. Katy repeats the popular theory that the government is behind the widespread availability of pot in Tehran—they want to keep the kids too stoned to revolt.
“And this girl! Look, she is very not good!”
Outside, a tall, lanky woman saunters into the courtyard. She stands with her hips jutted defiantly, sizing up the opportunities. Her manteau fits tightly to her boyish figure. The look is Iranian Goth: two brassy blond locks dangle from a severe center part like Morticia Addams, her eyes ringed with thick, black liner.
“She wants everyone to see her. Yes? And she will go with any of them to go make love.”
Katy, who is 26, says she has never had a boyfriend.
“Iranian boys, they are not good.” She jerks the top of her head toward the next table. “They want lots of girlfriends, yes? Even after they are married, they want girlfriends.”
She explains that she will wait until marriage to lose her virginity. If she leaves Iran, she will find a husband for herself. If luck fails and she does not manage to leave, she will let her parents know that she is seeking a husband, and wait for a family acquaintance to come courting. Because honor still matters to her, and to many. This kind of arrangement is how Azadeh’s cousins found husbands, and Shadi’s sister, and Setareh’s and Nasrin’s.
Katy’s perfect eyebrows crumple a little as she watches the Goth girl giggle and flirt.
“Oh! She is very not good!” Katy says, with a theatrical shudder.
Azadeh’s father picks us up in a shiny gray Cadillac with velour upholstery. The car was manufactured, Azadeh says, the year she was born. He drops us off at Azadeh’s building, then promptly disappears. This party is for women only.
Fourteen floors above, we change from flats into heels, pants into short skirts. We touch up our make-up: fresh lipstick, thicker mascara, routine eyebrow maintenance. Thick brows are not considered chic these days; most girls diligently wax theirs into delicate tapers. But not all of them. In the historical capital of Esfahan, I met a thoughtful poet who, in a deliberate statement of cultural pride, refused to wax the area over her nose. This does not mean she was some kind of nature girl. On the contrary. Instead, she waxed her entire brow into the smooth double-arch that was considered the height of beauty during the 19th century. She says she feels true to her culture. She also says she puts up with a lot of harassment.
The hairdos and outfits and furnishing at the party are as well tended as the eyebrows. We sit in a large circle of chairs around a Persian rug in shades of powder pink and baby blue. The room sparkles with polished china and silver, with chandelier crystals that dangle and flash. There is gilded trim on the furniture, and everywhere there are mirrors. In the corner, a boombox blares Persian pop imported from Los Angeles. Soheila flutters around serving drinks—something sweet and creamy and ever so slightly alcoholic, as if a single bottle of bootleg Bailey’s has been stretched with extra milk and sugar.
Between trips to the kitchen, she stops to dance in the center of the circle. She encourages the guests to join her. The older women with their hair dyed red and blond, the younger women with their short skirts and precarious heels. But it is clear who is the star. Soheila’s hair is inky black; her shirt is teal spangles. As a treacly tenor warbles over a techno beat, her hands form gentle waves in the air. First one rests against her forehead and the other floats suspended in space, then a hip shimmy, a graceful shrug of the shoulders, and the other hand joins the first, swirling through the air. As the younger women take to the circle, their hands, too, drift gracefully, like tendrils of smoke rising from a cigar.
We dance. We stuff ourselves with cookies and fruit. Then it is time for dinner. The buffet is massive, delicious—and Scandinavian.
Both Azadeh and her mother could continue to live in Sweden, but both prefer Iran. (This despite Azadeh’s mother’s irrepressible love for fashion—in the years before reformist president Mohammed Khatami was elected in 1997, she was arrested three times for wearing make-up, escaping only through hefty bribes.) Even as hordes of young Iranians are desperate to leave, many who have left are dying to come back. I met one such fellow one afternoon in a shared taxi, as I was telling an American friend about my roommates’ romantic woes.
“They say there are just no worthy guys in Tehran,” I said.
One of the other passengers looked at us sharply.
“What do you mean there’s no good guys in Tehran?” he said, in perfect American-accented English. He had lived in Michigan for 20 years, and was now moving back to Iran. It took a while to convince him that my roommates were Iranian, and that we weren’t just snooty foreigners.
After dinner, the music resumes, and one of the older women takes to the center of the circle, decked out in one of Azadeh’s father’s suits. A fedora sits tilted forward on her head, and a rough moustache is smeared around her lips with eye shadow. Her arms are stretched outward and upward, her shoulders hunched up around her ears. The overall effect is somewhere between a scarecrow and a zombie.
Snapping her fingers, she jerks around the circle in a convincing impression of frustrated, primitive masculinity. She pumps her hips forward and back, and occasionally grabs her crotch. After about five minutes, she pulls Azadeh into the circle. She dances with Azadeh, and then starts rubbing her rear. Azadeh jumps back and looks embarrassed, but keeps dancing, The old woman then grabs a stiletto-heeled blond, and then it is my turn. She kisses my neck in time to the music, smearing it with blue-grey eyes shadow.
Azadeh later tells me that this sort of event is by no means normal. Nasrin says she’s heard of it, but never actually seen it. She thinks it’s an old custom nobody does anymore.
We are watching the Jennifer Lopez film Angel Eyes on Shadi’s computer. As it is a burned copy of a pirated DVD, the material blurps and gargles and warps incessantly, giving Shadi trouble following the English subtitles. I explain the plot: Jennifer Lopez plays a tough, scared-of-love, no-makeup cop who eventually learns to trust men and wear eye shadow. Early in the film, though, she silently endures the vulgarities of a man she arrested telling her all the things he’d like to do to her, you fucking bitch. Finally, handcuffed to a radiator at the station, he makes a grab for J. Lo’s crotch. In one quick move, she pushes the back of his head down while bringing her knee up, bashing him spectacularly in the face.
“I need to learn that move,” mutters Shadi.
Never have I been in a place of such open sexual harassment as Iran. It can be as simple as a whisper in passing: “How lovely.” “How beautiful.” Others go for vulgarity: “What a slut,” kissing noises, or, in badly pronounced English, “Fuck you.” (Meant, presumably, literally.)
Sometimes they follow you down the street, just a few steps behind, incessant, impossible to ignore. Others go for the surreptitious butt-swipe, a caress that “could” have just been an “accident.” And then there is the full-on grope: open, hateful, hard. When this happens, I generally respond by screaming a lot, followed by half an hour of clenching my fists, stalking about in helpless rage, and fantasizing about beating the groper senseless. My preferred fantasy is getting in a good, solid knee to the balls, hard enough to make him vomit, and then a kick in the face when he’s down. I envision a lot of blood.
I am at an impromptu dance party in Maryam’s room when a scream erupts from the room next door. The other dancers immediately dash out the door. By the time I catch up, four girls are restraining the screamer, a 17-year-old named Rufiya, who struggles, dry-heaves, and sobs.
The Concourse is only three weeks away, and she fears she will do poorly. The Concourse is a national exam that determines who will gain entrance into the free national university system, and at which branches they can study. It is graded on a ranking system—the top performer gets a score of 1; the second-best, 2, and so on. The year Nasrin took the exam, she was number 1,841 out of all the high school graduates in Iran. This was not high enough to study medicine; ergo, agriculture.
The competitiveness of the exam means that Iranian students are among the best in the world. Most, however, would rather be anywhere but Iran. Again it is tempting to chalk this up to the mullahs. But most kids I meet are more concerned about the economy, which is a mess.
During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, Ayatollah Khomeini encouraged the nation to breed him an army; so many families were losing sons that having large families made sense at the time. No longer. Now, two-thirds of the Iranian population is under 30. These days the government requires all engaged couples to receive counseling, where they are encouraged to have one child, maybe two. But that demographic bulge will be a problem for a long, long time.
the busses creak through traffic, the kids flip through English and German
and Italian grammar books, preparing for lives Somewhere Else. Nasrin eventually hopes to join her brother in the United States. In the meantime she studies German, preparing for an interim in Germany. Katy, who has an engineering degree, has a complicated plan to become a language teacher in England, and if that doesn’t work out, in Canada. As a last resort, she’ll take a job as a lifeguard in Dubai. The only young woman I’ve met who doesn’t hope to leave is Setareh. She wants to return to her hometown, marry, and work as a surgeon.
Setareh is sitting on the floor, leaning against the closet. As usual, she is wearing spandex shorts and a tank top. She is translating the warnings and side effects of a package of diet pills that Nasrin has bought.
“Are they any good?” I ask.
“They’re good,” she says. “But not for Nasrin.”
She continues reading. The pills work by bonding with fat to make it indigestible. Side effects include jitters, inability to concentrate, and a whole suite of unusual digestive events. I learn the Persian words for rumbling stomach and fecal urgency; I learn there are two Persian words for fart, depending on whether or not there is sound. Since Nasrin and Setareh both know some English, I slowly enunciate the phrase “silent but deadly.” They find this hilarious.
The demographic situation has another curious feature—since most of the deaths in the Iran-Iraq war were male, young women in their late 20s to mid-30s now greatly outnumber men. Nasrin tells me there is a three-to-one ratio of single women to men. I don’t trust the numbers, but women do outnumber men at the universities.
She came home last night, Nasrin did, all upset after visiting a friend who had been beaten up by her boyfriend. Her eyes bulging indignantly, Nasrin describes cuts, bruises, a black eye. The boyfriend is 46. The friend is 19. The boyfriend is ugly, rude, and rich. Rich enough to have several girlfriends in addition to his wife. Nasrin’s friend is twice-divorced—perfect girlfriend material since she has no virginity to protect. She met her “boyfriend” when she was waiting on the street for a taxi. He pulled his car over, and she got in.
I had often wondered why random newish cars—not the hobbling white Paykans usually used as taxis—sometimes pulled over while I was waiting for a taxi. I thought that perhaps the drivers were newly unemployed and had only recently turned to driving. Now I know. It’s a proposition.
Nasrin says she wants to marry a foreigner. She has lost hope of ever finding an Iranian boyfriend.
Nasrin is on a diet. On Saturday she eats nothing but milk. Sunday nothing but chicken, and Monday, just lettuce.
Someone has promised her she would lose 5 to 15 kilos in a week. I tell her I’m skeptical.
“I think that’s for severely overweight people,” she says. “For me it will be about 3 to 4 kilos.”
She seems hopeful, so I just tell her she looks perfectly thin to me.
She pinches her hips and frowns.
It is our friend Anne’s birthday, so we take her to an Indian restaurant and toast her with the domestic non-alcoholic beer (tastes nothing like beer) and then an imported German one (tastes like bad beer). We buy a cake—banana, with chocolate frosting and crumbled pistachios on top—and sit around our room eating it. Nasrin refuses the cake. She looks very sad.
The diet lasts only a few days. By the end of the week, Nasrin and I are back at the coffee shop. Perched all around us are flocks of young women, glamorous in their cherry-red, lavender, and black silk. We critique some outfits. Some we admire. We crack up at the boy whose low-rider jeans expose several uncool inches of snowy-white undies.
We slowly sip our melting milkshakes. We wish there was something better to do. We wish that something would happen.
During the two months she spent in Iran, Rachel Proctor May became accustomed to being the least-chic girl in the room. She lives in Austin and continues to practice her Persian.