Incarcerated, feasting on kebabs: last days in Iran

Yes, we’re proceeding sans chronology. Consider it a day of enforced spontaneity as I dig through and post some old musings.

South Tehran is commonly accepted to be the poor, dirty cousin to its Northern suburban counterparts. In the north, friendships with the mullahs and good connections in government (more often than not the same thing), keep the Maseratis and Ferraris and BMWs in driveways. Fortunes are made and lost in a week, apparently, depending on whether you currently curry favour with the big boys in power.

In the North, women wear labels and make only a passing attempt to cover themselves. Pants are tighter here than Saturday night on Kings Cross but the fabric’s less flammable. Headscarves are worn so far back that the only thing they cover is the base of the ponytail – or enormous fake detachable bun as the case may be.

But it’s in the South among the rats and the dirty construction zones and the graffiti walls of the former US Embassy (officially referred to as the Den of Espionage by the IR) that the art students gather. It’s here in the House of Artists, at Baghe Honar garden that I’m finishing the Iran Trip.

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KV left today for Kurdish Iran, the western areas that are reportedly incredibly beautiful and populated with super friendly non-English speaking inhabitants. I’ve opted to head further east, for a quick, spontaneous sorjourn to Beirut. I hear it’s lovely this time of year, what with the terrorists in full swing and the sun shining*.

Both of us are leaving slightly poorer – emotionally, sometimes (it’s a hard country to stay sane in) but most certainly financially. We found the Tehran Bazaar, and a friend of a friend there gave us the friend of a friend tour of the carpet department. Turns out we both quite like carpets.

Apart from selling us some family heirlooms – which they will be if they manage to stay red wine-stain free, our carpet man fairly neatly summed up the feeling of a large swathe of the younger generation we’d met during our travels there. We had been lucky with our timing. Disaffected Iranians are not backwards in coming forwards, the Geneva nuclear negotiations were in full swing. Talk on the street was about whether sanctions would be eased, and more tellingly,whether Rouhani had sufficient balls to stand up to the hardliners enough that he could negotiate a sensible outcome and put a halt to the veiled US threats of a potential invasion to shut down the nuclear program:

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On the subject of America, according to our friend of a friend H – 

When I was eight, I still remember so clearly talking with my friend at school about what was happening. At the time America had told us “We are coming”. We thought, Oooh.

We worried about it…

Now I’m thirty one. [Shrugs] They still haven’t come.

On the subject of government – 

When I was at school with my best friend, we were about eleven, we thought the way it all worked was no good; not being allowed to be with the girls, it was no fun. We used to talk all the time, and get really excited about how by the time we were sixteen the government would be changed and it would all be better.

Then, when we were sixteen we used to say, don’t worry, definitely by the time we’re at university it will be better, definitely it will have changed. Then we were at military service we were always talking saying, oh now it’s going to change, yes, soon, by the time we’re twenty five, it will change. Nothing’s changed.

On the subject of alcohol – 

It takes eight hours to get hold of a bottle of red wine. If you want hash, opium; twenty minutes.

He laughs. Iran is nothing if not a land of contradictions.

“An Englishman, an American and an Iranian died”, he says as we walk through the bazaar in the freezing air. It’s almost pitch dark under the arched stone domes, making me wonder how those renegade kids manage to connect when they kick empty coke bottles and cans of no-alcohol beer down the laneway.

“The three men get to the gates and the boss man says, here is the list of the things you’ve done in your life, good and bad. And he reads their lists; and he said to each of them, no, you can’t come in, you have to go to hell,” H continues.

It’s going to be a long joke but I’m reserving judgement just yet.

“Later, the boss says OK, you’ve been suffering. What would you like to make yourselves feel better? Anything you want, just tell me.

The American said, “I really, really miss my wife and my children. Is there some way I could talk to them?

The boss says Ok, that seems fair, you can ring them and talk for five minutes. So the American rings.

The Englishman sees this and says, that’s what I want too. So the boss says, ok, five minutes on the phone for you too. And so the Englishman calls his family for five minutes.

The Iranian also decides it’s a good idea and asks to call his family. The boss says yes ok, five minutes.

The American says, Thanks, that was great. How much do I owe you? The boss says, five thousand US dollars. The American thinks that’s fair for five minutes on the phone and pays it.

The Englishman says what about me? How much do I owe? The boss says, you owe five thousand pounds. The Englishman says ok and pays it.

The Iranian man says, And me? The boss says, fifty thousand rials.

The Iranian is taken aback and says, what? I don’t understand why is mine so cheap? The others paid one hundred times more.

The boss tilts his head to the side and looks at him for a minute: “From hell to hell is a local call”…

Meandering down Enghelab Street the following day, away from the square, it begins to drizzle. The sky is already dark and the rain spatters blur the edges on the taillights of the thousand cars edging past. I’m almost sure this is the street where fighting exploded in 1979. All I can remember from the story of a woman, who was chief assistant to the Shar’s wife, and who wrote her experience of the revolution in Behind the Peacock Throne, was how she and a handful of others were trapped in the offices of the First Lady, somewhere in one of the high rise buildngs around here.

She watched as crowds surged down the street, where I’m walking now in the dark. I try to imagine this busy main interface between east and west Tehran in the south of the city empty of the normal traffic and replaced with mobs, and military and grenades and gunfire. It’s a strange thought.

Last night H was driving us back to the hotel after our hours spent discussing carpets and poetry and Iranian politics. A mutual friend mentioned that H had been around during the Green Revolution, the largest protests in Iran since the 1979 ousting of Shar Reza – sparked by allegations former President Mahmoud Im-a-Dinner-Jacket won the 2009 elections by election fraud.

But H hadn’t mentioned it during the day, and I didn’t want to push it.

“There was this labourer,” he says out of the blue while we were driving, smiling; remembering 2009. “I knew him because he worked with us in the bazaar. I saw him around a lot and we used to talk.”

“When we were all out on the street that day, there were people everywhere, and I saw him up ahead in the crowd. He wasn’t really very educated, and I caught up to him because I wanted to know why he was there, what he was protesting for, what he was upset about.

He told me that he’d come out and couldn’t understand what all these people were doing in the street. He said that he thought they were making a run on the bank, and determined not to miss out on any potential spoils, he wanted in on the action too.

H throws back his head, the mirth apparent in his crinkled eyes. “He was trying to go to the bank!”

Details about the Green Revolution remain sketchy. Journalists aren’t particularly welcome in the country and state media is renowened for underplaying critical anti-government events and sentiment. Western media suggested up to three million people crowded the Tehran streets after the election result was announced; security deteriorated; 32 people died. State media maintains it was just seven.

The police came, H says, remembering his friend. I watched as they grabbed him. I saw him up ahead and I saw police on a motorbike ride up and grab him. I saw it happened. He was there, then he wasn’t.

He says he was one of the lucky ones when the police came – a shop assistant opened up the security awning just enough for H to slip underneath before slamming it down again.

“They say the government brought in the secret police. Not the usual type but police that no-one had ever known existed. I’ve heard people say that they were bringing in police from other countries, who couldn’t even speak farsi. Because it was easier for them. It didn’t matter.”

Easier for what?

“To kill the protesters. To shoot them. Easier because they didn’t care.”

The labourer wasn’t seen around the bazaar for the next two months. When he came back, H said he asked what had happened. “Oh it was fine,” the labourer said. ‘I’ve been great’.

Really? Didn’t they put you in jail? H asked. “Oh yes, sure they did,” came the grinning reply. “But it was all OK. They fed me kebabs, it was actually good.”

The treatment of prisoners during the period following the Green Revolution has been a poorly kept secret of ritual humiliations, systematic rape, torture and beatings. The government did everything in its power to stop talk about the period, H says.

It later emerged that the labourer’s two month sabbatical was anything but a long lunch of marinated meats and sweet tea. He was repeatedly beaten and terrorised for his assumed role in the protest.

“He told me the police, when they released him, made him swear that he wouldn’t say anything to anybody about what happened during his time in jail. They said if he did, they would find him and beat him. When he told me the real story a while later, he said on the day he’d been released he got a taxi home from jail. During the ride the taxi driver asked him what had happened and the labourer told him about all the bad stuff. The driver pulled the car up, did a u-turn and drove him back to the jail. The driver was secret police.

“The labourer said he was very badly beaten for speaking about his arrest. Now he tells everyone he had a great time. Kebabs. He tells people he was fed kebabs.”

The evening I wrote this, I spent a good few hours staying warm and eating spicy strange spaghetti bolognaise in the house of artists, killing time because I’d checked out of hotel rather than spending money on another night pending my 2 am departure time for the airport. When I finally did wander back late to get my luggage, a very strange conversation with the night receptionist ensued – he with little English, me a bit weary.

“Your friend, you want to see you friend?”

“Ah my friend yes, she left for Sanandaj today”

“Oh, right”

“Yes.” [long pause]

“You want to go and see her?”

“In Sanandaj? No, Im flying to Beirut tonight”

“Upstairs”

“Beirut”

“Upstairs. Your friend is upstairs.”

[Aaah, say what now?]

“You can call her”

“My friend, the red-head, she’s upstairs”

“Yes call her”

Turns out KV’s little plane on the flight to Sanandaj had been subjected to some rather inclement weather and they opted to turn back to Tehran rather than try and land. I laughed Quite A Lot. That was, until, my Iran Air flight to Beirut took a sudden and unexpected detour to Central Turkey to sit on the tarmac there for six hours while the pilot and crew worked out if we were (a) going to be blown up in Beirut airspace (b) had enough avgas to get back to Tehran without going past Syria, and (c) did the crossword.

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