ESFAHAN, Iran -- "OK man, let's go," says Ali, nervously craning his head to see who might be watching us. "But we should leave one at a time so the police don't stop us."
Ali slinks out of the front entrance of the Hotel Shab Abbas in Esfahan, Iran's fabled city of blue-tiled mosques and Persian arts, and tries to be as inconspicuous as possible. His younger brother Hamid notices the paranoid look on my face and tells me to calm down. "Don't worry," he says. "We'll go together."
After a quick nod, we speedwalk to the door, then make a mad dash to the corner and pile into Ali's battered old Citroen.
In the car they explain that they could be arrested for being with a foreigner, particularly an American, and request that I lay low.
Swerving crazily through the traffic of Esfahan, where all cars bear scars of mercenary driving, Ali vibrates with an uncontrollable restlessness. Two years after finishing his military service, he's 25, unemployed and desperate for fun and excitement -- not an easy pair to come by in post-revolutionary Iran.
"If police find a boy and girl together, they beat us," says Hamid, 17, an aspiring fashion designer. Like 50 percent of all Iranians, he was born after the revolution. And like Ali, Hamid is trying to get a visa to study abroad.
"I hate it here," he says. "I just want to go somewhere else where I can be free."
Sexual freedom is tough to find in a country where strict social codes have been in place since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Today's youth, sick of being repressed and bored, have begun to take center stage with their grievances; their loud rumbling last year made it to the national political arena when their support helped moderate candidate Mohammed Khatami win a landslide victory in Iran's presidential election.
But even if the new president loosens some of the social constraints, the secret social gathering Ali has brought us to would still be far from legal. Because behind the iron gates of this two-story house, there is a slice of Iranian life that could only exist behind doors in this culture. It's a house party, Iranian style. Ironically, as I look around, I'm stung by the realization that, minus the black-hooded cloaks and the Armenian vodka, this could be any college party in America.
Swaying to the groove of banned Western dance music, young men and women,
all in their late teens or 20s, move on the living-room dance floor. Having stashed their cloaklike black chadors in the closet, the
women flaunt their bodies in sexy minidresses, treating the guys to a
spectacle of legs, necks, cleavage -- and even bellybuttons.
The host's parents are out of town, which gives these kids a rare
opportunity to let loose and get down. But parties like these also have a
more libidinous purpose. They provide a protected environment for boys
and girls to meet and socialize with one another without being accosted by
the Komite, Iran's network of secret police.
"If you and I want to have a friendship," explains Nobine, a 24-year-old female
university student, "we cannot meet and go to a restaurant. We must be
secret. We are ... what is the word ... oppressed."
As a result, young men and women feel an intense pressure to begin a
relationship, and have sex, as quickly as possible because they never know
when they'll have a chance to meet again. And both sexes complain about the
absence of romance from their furtive courtships.
Well, maybe the girls complain a little more.
"What do you think of love?" asks Chadab, a college student majoring in English. "I think love is a holy thing. Boys just want sex,
they don't care about love."
For their part, the boys say that it's girls' insistence on secrecy that
takes the fun out of flings. "They're all pretending to be good girls,"
says Salman, 20. "I can't handle it."
Salman was born in Iran and grew up in Arizona, where his father was a
professor. After a family trip to visit relatives in Esfahan, he learned
that he would not be permitted to go back home. His parents had never
filed residency papers for him and the United States refused to issue him a
visa. That was three long years ago, and he's been stranded in Iran ever
A novice in the Iranian social scene, Salman had to learn a whole new set
of signals -- fast. But when he tried to explain the gist of modern
Iranian courtship, it sounded vaguely familiar. "First you have to get
them inside," he said. "Then you try to get them naked."
On the dance floor, the men, drunk on black-market vodka, take turns
dancing in the center of a circle, imitating the sexy moves of the women
who cheer them on. A rivalry quickly develops between Nobine and Chadab
over the attention of Ali. Nobine, awkward and shy, can do nothing right.
She finally gets up the courage to ask Ali to dance, but as soon as they
rise the music cuts off and her chance is blown. By the time someone pops
in a new cassette, Ali is deeply engaged in Chadab's research on the nature
of love and Nobine is sulking in a corner.
"Boys don't understand me," Nobine sighs.
When the clock strikes 2 a.m., everyone crowds together on the floor for the
host to take a picture. Then people gradually drift toward the door to
leave. Boys kiss boys goodbye and shake the girls' hands.
The women put on their black chadors, which hides their chic
Before we leave, Ali slips Chadab his phone number and offers her a ride home.
A few blocks from the hotel, Ali stops the car and tells me to get out.
"OK, man," he says. "We have to leave you here to be safe."
I watch them go, then feel a chill run up my spine as a police car with
flashing red lights drives off in the same direction.
They are just kids driving a beat-up old car. But they are outlaws.