If you go by the depictions in the news and movies, Iran is exclusively made up of experimental nuclear weapons, angry bearded mobs, and silent, oppressed females. And while the country may indeed have its fair share of all three of those, the reality is a far cry from what you'd expect. I spent almost a year in Iran, and I was amazed to discover ...
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One morning in Tehran I found myself in the middle of an anti-America protest. Instead of cars, the streets were packed with a mass of people chanting in Farsi: "Marg bar Amrika," they sang. "Death to America." Hundreds of thousands of people had gathered to commemorate the Islamic Revolution, burning effigies and waving around reversible signs printed with "Down with America" on one side and "Down with Israel" on the other. I thought the warnings about these protests from various state departments and foreign ministries were alarmist pandering -- is Iran really just a constant parade of jingoistic fury?
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This is your standard Tuesday commute.
Actually, no: While I had stumbled across one of the largest celebrations of the Islamic Revolution ever, the reality is that the "Death to America" stuff is actually going out of style. Everyone from politicians to newspaper editors has basically said, "Guys, you're kinda making us look like dicks," and popular opinion is with them. If you arranged every Iranian presidential candidate since the '90s on a "Lotsa Death" to "Cool It With the Death" continuum, candidates on the latter end have been vastly more successful than those who have adopted a more expressly pro-death-of-America stance.
For example, former president Mohammad Khatami is best known for pursuing a "dialogue among civilizations" with the U.N. and won his election and re-election through multiple consecutive landslides. Current president Hassan Rouhani ran on a "less death, more talking" platform as well and went home with a respectable 50 percent of the vote, while the more pro-death candidates were stuck scraping the bottom of the voting barrel.
Executive Office of the President
Although we have to admit, a few "kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out" congressmen would make C-SPAN vastly more watchable.
And I can say that in everyday interactions people in Iran are nice to foreigners -- even the youths in Revolutionary Guard uniforms on the bus are pleasant. So the chanters are extremists, and they're not even that extreme. It turns out "Death to [thing I don't like]" is a fairly common political colloquialism. In just the past 34 years, Iranians have chanted for "death" to Russia, England, France, Israel, and Saddam Hussein. The chant changes to match the hot topic of the moment. As a movement, it's more analogous to any of the numerous times Americans have casually compared something to Nazism than it is a metaphorical terrorist powder keg getting ready to blow.
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"Death to Chrysler!"
You know that episode of Seinfeld where an old man repeatedly insists that Jerry take a space pen, and when Jerry finally accepts it, he inexplicably pisses off an entire community of retired people for stealing a pen? That kind of weird negotiation double-speak is actually how even the most mundane exchange works in Iran. Whenever I asked a taxi driver how much a trip cost, he'd deflect my offer with a cordial "It's nothing," when he was really every bit as desperate to get paid as anyone else. Confused foreigners will sometimes exit a taxi without paying, forcing the driver to chase after them and explain that he didn't mean it -- it's just how things are done.
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That's sorta like a stranger thanking you for bus fare and then helping himself to your wallet and all your clothes.
This is ta'arof in action, and it's not just a taxi thing; it sets the tone for every interaction you have. It's rare to purchase anything from any trader without them first refusing to take your money at least once, then "thank you" is countered with "I am your servant," which leads to "No, you are the master." And if that wasn't confusing enough, people will sometimes genuinely refuse money. After a particularly friendly taxi ride, my ta'arof exchange with my taxi driver ended with him handing me a pile of change that amounted to the exact amount I'd given him. Then he pulled over, let me out, and drove off. I guess I still may have screwed up, but if ta'arof demands that I chase his car down like I'm the freaking T-1000, then I guess I just suck at ta'arof.
And don't even get us started on what tipping a waiter escalates into.
Ta'arof also includes complex sets of greetings and farewells, and once you combine them with the loquaciousness of Farsi, everyday interactions can turn into the spoken equivalent of dueling banjos. And while it's totally normal in context, a literal translation of most conversations with vendors will undoubtedly include a promise to follow you through the bowels of hell itself rather than accept a fair price for your groceries.
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In Iran, the sanctity of marriage and being sexually faithful are prized above all else. Until recently, women could be arrested for dressing improperly in public, and divorce is complicated by oppressive laws and social factors. Unless you're a man, in which case the whole country is basically a more lenient Las Vegas.
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Minus the liquor and gambling.
Sigheh, or a "temporary marriage," is an obscure part of the Quran that, in Iran, basically functions as state-sanctioned prostitution. Married men can legally enter into a marriage with another woman, without telling their wives, for a predetermined amount of time -- even if just for a few minutes. You can see where this is going.
Vows that specifically mention the Carolina Corkscrew?
Often these marriages involve a mehr, a specific amount of money that the man owes the woman. While women are allowed to negotiate their own mehr or dowry (something they can't do in a permanent marriage) and their obligations are limited to sex, any change to the contract -- from ending it early to renewing it -- comes at the man's discretion.
This isn't some fringe custom frowned upon by a more reasonable government. President Ahmadinejad went so far as to make the sigheh even easier by making it so married men didn't need their wives' approval, and it's been promoted as a way to live together without living in sin, because even a temporary marriage explicitly entered for the purpose of boning isn't technically "extramarital." It's just too bad that if a woman decides her situation sucks, her options are either "give up and deal with it" or "work through the shame and ridiculous hassle of a divorce."
Photo taken shortly before the judge and bailiff started playing "keep away" with the divorce contract.
And if that part sounds pretty much what you'd expect in terms of what life is like for a woman in Iran, here's something you didn't know ...