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.
Steve Mason/Photodisc/Getty Images
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 ...
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Iran is kind of a dick to its female athletes: In June 2013, one woman was denied recognition for her record-breaking swim because her body was briefly visible through the full hijab she wore the whole freaking time (she awesomely stated that the record for her 20-kilometer swim was "being held hostage by people who cannot even swim 20 meters"). Luckily, Iranian female athletes do not give a fuck. Despite being repeatedly told about how modest and incompetent they are, they're doing everything from climbing Mount Everest to learning martial arts to defying law and social convention by practicing parkour in public.
As a philosophy, parkour is all about finding ways around obstacles and seeing the world in a new way, so it's actually not that weird that Iranian women are so into it. They've found lots of ways to defy the restrictions imposed on them -- from turning their oppressive dress standards into fashion statements to dominating higher education -- but back-flipping off bridges while wielding nunchucks in physically restrictive clothing is probably the most awesome way to show that you couldn't give less of a shit about the laws of man and, like, physics. It also proves that oppressing women with headscarves is like oppressing Bruce Willis by putting him in an air duct -- it just makes their inevitable badassery all the more impressive.
Hitall Girls, via Girl Parkour
Parkour has become associated with petty crime and drugs in the eyes of authorities (for them, the fact that young people do it is reason enough). One teenager I spoke with recounted that his instructor had been detained for training earlier that week. And since women are more likely to be bothered, they're also more likely to be found practicing in secluded areas -- meaning that Iranian culture has made the not-so-great decision to breed a generation of oppressed people who are in great shape, awesome at sneaking around, and really tired of being told what to do.
Bertil Videt, via Wikipedia
At a certain point in spring, I heard explosions going off. Not just little pops, either -- major bangs. It was loud enough that I checked the news in case there had been a gas explosion or, you know, a war. But then I got it: It was the Festival of Fire and Nowruz: a celebration in March that's basically New Year's, if you celebrate New Year's by building bonfires in the street, shooting fireworks at each other, and doing doughnuts in your car in the middle of crowded intersections.
Nothing reminds us of the holidays like the earthy smell of burned rubber.
One of my friends reported that he had spent part of the day in a car while the occupants exchanged fireworks with other cars on the freeway at 60 mph. There are thousands of injuries, with over half resulting from homemade grenades, naturally. Oh -- and did I mention how many people are dressed as Blackface Santa? Sure, the character's face is supposed to be covered in soot, but no amount of cultural understanding can prepare you for your first sight of children boarding a midnight bus looking like they're on their way to a minstrel show.
Pedramgh, via Wikipedia
Tonight we're gonna party like it's 1899.
You might think, "Wow, Muslim festivals are pretty badass," but the truth is that Nowruz actually comes from Zoroastrianism, a religion older than either Christianity or Islam. Only 35,000 to 90,000 Iranians (out of 74 million) self-identify as Zoroastrian, but you wouldn't know it when pretty much everyone celebrates their major holidays -- although, again, who on Earth would pass up an opportunity to celebrate "blow up everything day"?
Mehdi Ghasemi, Islamic Society of North America
Their sparklers can flash-fry a horse.
Despite the fact that Zoroastrian values have had a massive influence on Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, the country is currently divided on how to treat this ancient religion that everyone celebrates despite technically not belonging to it. While some have persecuted them, and members have historically been treated as second-class citizens in ways that don't really work for comedy websites, the fact that the entire country seems hell-bent on keeping Zoroastrianism around means that even though we've managed to avoid any actual war with them, Iran is likely to continue kicking our asses at partying for the foreseeable future.
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