Disturbing encounters in Iran

Did that gesture mean he wanted to slit my throat? Or that Iran was slitting its own?


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Mark Mordue
July 24, 1999 5:30pm (UTC)

He laughs and says, "Khamenei" in a low voice. Then he makes a slicing motion with his thumb all the way across his throat along with a quick, hacking sound. Then he looks at me.

"I don't think so," I say back to him.

But I hardly understand what I am saying at all, just the sounds of confidence these automatic words somehow conjure, a droll white noise in place of language.

I keep walking and let the door swing shut behind me as we leave the restaurant. Still tingling with the tracheal gesture. Still feeling as if he means me, me who will lose my head in Iran.

Oddly enough, there is no particular menace to the moment.

It all happens so quickly I barely take in the interchange. It almost seems humorous: the bland smile, the smell of baking food, his weary gesturing.

For some time afterwards I still try to take it as a joke. A joke for Westerners fresh to the "madness" of Iran.

Then I wonder again if it is what he wishes. If he wants to see a jihad, "a struggle in the way of God," continued against the infidels now beginning to infiltrate his country as tourists for the first time since the revolution. If he would really like to see my head roll.

My girlfriend and I have sat eating rice with fish, a bowl of salad with a vinegar and yogurt dressing and a plate of mint with two halved onions. It's a typical Iranian meal in a clean, basement-level restaurant in Isfahan, the city of merchants and glass, a place renowned for its crafts and craftiness, its skillful liars.

I talk to the men who work in the restaurant, making self-effacing fun of my guidebook "Farsi" phrases: Where are you from? Hello. Goodbye. I'm sorry I don't speak Persian ("Bebakshid, farsi balad nistam"). One man on his lunch break smiles at me from across the room. The others look on bluntly, staring slowly from the fluorescent, middle-aged weight that seems to color the whole room and drag at the heels of their boots. Moving like men in some invisibly thick soup.

We stand. Go to the cashier. "Chand-e?" I inquire. He holds up a 10,000 rial note. The money changers on Ferdosi Avenue call this "a Khomeini," after the dead Ayatollah whose stern face stares out from it. I leave an extra 1,000 rial tip (about 20 cents). And we start to walk out the door.

That's when the mustachioed, 40-ish man in the washed-out khaki uniform of a cleaner or a dishwasher looks at me and makes his little cutting motion to the throat.

It's not because I'm a lousy tipper.

I'd already heard about this gesture yesterday from a Frenchman who had just visited Tehran. He wasn't clear on the meaning of it either -- if it was a joke or something very nasty indeed.

In Tehran people had done the same thing to him, but they had made a brief whirling motion about their heads as well, to signify the turbans of the mullahs (Islamic clerics), before they too slashed at their throats with their thumbs and laughed.

At first I don't tell my girlfriend about all this symbolic throat-cutting. But eventually I have to mention my goodbye message at the restaurant as we walk off into the silence of the city's 10 p.m. streets. It troubles her, then she says, "Perhaps they mean death to Khamenei?"

Well, do they?

People say there is much unhappiness with the rule of the mullahs in Iran. In the 1998 parliamentary elections for the Assembly of Experts, clerics ensured that the candidates who could run were predominantly conservative. Only 46 percent of the population bothered to vote. It had already been decided behind closed doors by the mullahs. What was the point?

The Assembly selects and appoints Iran's Supreme Leader -- currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the similarly named successor to Ayatollah Khomeini -- who controls both the military and the security forces. This is Khomeini's real vision of the world's first Islamic theocracy, an indisputable leader who can interpret God's will with an iron fist wherever and whenever necessary.

President Khatami is an anomaly in this scene, a freak victory in a landslide people's vote that saw 76 percent of the voting population, mostly women and the young, turn out to elect him two years ago. But the conservative mullahs aren't so impressed with a man who studied philosophy in Germany for two years, or with the Western "liberal decadence" he is encouraging.

Khatami lacks real power, yet he has popular support. He balances himself delicately on this edge. As one local told us, "Khatami says such beautiful words. Such beautiful words. But what is really happening in Iran? What is really going on?"

More recent local council elections in March suggest change by stealth. All over the country women and young people managed to get elected, a surprising defeat for the hard-liners. Despite the people's renewed optimism, it remains to be seen whether the executives appointed by the mullahs to supervise these councils will allow them much real freedom.

And so it is that a strange tension underlines Iranian daily life, as if the impetus to open up the country is meeting a firm vice that will only allow it to expand so far. The question seems to be: When will the unstoppable force meet the immovable object?

The very word "mullah" swings in the mouth like a club. It carries weight when you say it.

Walking around the streets of Isfahan, we get very used to being stared at by people curious about Westerners in their midst. Whenever the turbaned shape of a cleric approaches, however, there is not a flicker of interest or recognition in their eyes. We do not exist. We are not here.

One feels the mullahs' neutralizing power, the sheer stoicism of how they refuse you through the mere act of not looking and looking right through us at the same time. They simply erase us from the scenery.

Under such weight, such force of erasure, there is a terrible longing for freedom.

You sense this when you talk to the young. At first there's pride, of course, in their country. The initial images that they paint of Iran are almost Disneyesque, 1950s pure. They're also very aware of Western stereotypes of them as screaming, crazed religious fanatics. Most people hate this global media cartoon of them and their country and their faith. As if to counter it, people are ridiculously friendly -- strangers literally invite you home for dinner, take you on personal tours of their city, give you small gifts. It's actually a hassle to deal with all this enthusiasm and courtesy wherever you go.

But as in the 1950s, there's a lock on the mind and the spirit. As we talk more and more to young people and they open up to us, they admit to being somehow "stuck" in their lives, often speaking of their desire for change, or of simply wanting to leave Iran altogether. They also, with a naive enthusiasm, tend to idolize the West as a dream of freedom, as a total fantasy, with all the forbidden fruits that go with it.

Within six months of coming to power in 1979, the Ayatollah Khomeini made a speech declaring, "There is no fun in Islam. There can be no fun or enjoyment in whatever is serious."

It's hard to maintain that kind of reverence when over half of your population is under 25. Iran is witnessing a youthquake, and it can't cope with the energy. The strange thing about its youth is how common it is for them to refer to the time of the Shah with yearning and nostalgia -- when they have no memory of his brutal and exploitative reign or the revolution that deposed him. It is as if they yearn for a past that never existed.

In Tehran we read a newspaper article warning that the clerics in parliament have voted to send a paramilitary group known as the Basiji into the universities to help police and suppress "liberal Western influences." This means more than intellectual oppression. It means intimidating young people from holding hands in public and stopping women from using lipstick and from wearing their chadors pulled back provocatively onto their heads to reveal a little of their hair: all the pagan rebellions of Persian youth today.

"What will they do?" asks one Tehranian man benignly. "This is nature. A boy and a girl. It is like trying to stop running water."

We talk to a tour guide about it all. He tells us how he wants to escape. Maybe through India. Maybe through Hungary. He can hardly go anywhere in the world, he complains, as very, very few countries will give him a visa, with a few exceptions such as India, Pakistan, Nepal and Japan. It is hard to get out. It is hard to go anywhere.

"I am 26. Two years ago I fall in love with a German girl," he tells us. "I could not go to see her. They would not let me leave here. And Germany would not give me a visa, either.

"I was very angry. Very crazy." He shows us pictures. Two shots of a blond, one of her sitting on a beach, another of the two of them in his car. The photos look creased and old.

"Many times I have been arrested for mixing with tourists too much. They put me in prison one week, two weeks. I say, 'Why do you this to me? I am representing Iran to tourists in a good way. I am working hard for my country. I am contributing to my country.'"

He looks at us with a salesman's eye. "OK, of course I do for myself as well. But I work hard. It is good for Iran, too.

"And they arrest me! So I tell them, 'Send me away. You arrest me. You don't like me, you don't want me. You don't want hard-working people. You would rather I did nothing. So let me leave this country.' This is a crap government that wants crap people.

"They tell me, 'You talk a lot,' and put me in jail," he smiles. Then laughs. "But I am not political. I don't care about that.

"I am 26. I just want to live. I meet tourists. Sometimes I go to Goa. They tell me things," he nods childishly, conspiratorially, alluding to the reputation Goa, India's rave capital, has for partying and drug-fueled abandon. He wants us to understand that he knows what real pleasure is. "If you have tasted an orange and an apple, and you want the orange, you want the orange. If you do not ever taste it, then maybe you don't know.

"I know my country is very beautiful. But it is no good for me. I am 26," he repeats as if it is something to be astounded and depressed by -- his mantra. "How can I meet girls? I am not allowed to wear a bracelet even," he says, looking at mine as it sits heavily on my wrist. "It is too Western.

"No!" he cries out. "What sort of life is this? To get up early to work all day, to come home at night quietly and sleep like a cat. There is nowhere to go at night.

"My friend tells me I should stay. Iran is changing. Sure, maybe in five years. Maybe in 10 years. He is 35 and married. It is OK for him. But what about me now? I am 26."

And with that outburst over, he shares his simple plans of escape: how he will sell his car, his motorbike and his rare Persian carpet. How he will go to see the girl in Germany. How he doesn't like the cold, however, and he will wait till spring before he escapes to Europe. How Western girls on tours often flirt with him and try to kiss him even when they have husbands or boyfriends. "Why they do this? I think sometimes they want to punish their men."

We explain to him that sometimes Western girls play games and that it doesn't mean they are really interested in him or love him. He lights up with recognition -- this is a suspicion confirmed.

"Now I understand," he nods. "Now I understand."

He considers himself a man of the world. He didn't live with his family as a boy. He was brought up in the snake turns of the local bazaar, "working very hard. Very hard. Very hard like you cannot understand."

Now life is good. He is a man on the move -- or at least, on the make. But he has no freedom. He cannot fall in love. He cannot go anywhere. He cannot wear a bracelet. And there is that burning experience of two years ago, and these two photos of the girl he loves, both pictures marked with sticky tape where he has pulled them from his bedroom wall to show us. Marks that show he has pulled them from the wall a dozen times or more and told this same story to other travelers, to whomever will listen.

He unfurls his carpet, with its myriad patterns and silky blues and royal reds. He shows us where the makers wove an error into the carpet on purpose, so as not to affront Allah, since the Creator is the only one who can make a perfect thing. This is his magic carpet ride out of Iran. "I think if I sell it I can make much money. It's beautiful," he says a little sadly.

I try to warn him that he could be jumping into a deep hole if he becomes an illegal immigrant in Germany. For some reason his fears about the winter cold quietly depress me about his hopes. But he thinks he could just as easily fall down a hole in Iran, he says. "Anything could happen here. Anything."

So we talk about love again. And another painful experience as a teenager, when an older married Iranian woman had an affair with him. He didn't know she was married until after the affair had begun and she finally told him the truth.

"I told her to leave me alone. Sometimes now a married woman here in Iran will try to give me her phone number," he says, disgusted. "This is dirty. I tell her go away, you bastard. I don't want this."

It's hard not to laugh at his moral distaste, so naively expressed. "You are dirty bastard woman, leave me alone."

He is 26 years old, going on 14. It seems to be a part of Iran's 1950s moral atmosphere to reduce people to adolescents. For him, Iran is frustrated desire and perpetual lies behind the backs of people. He wants the girl in Germany. The dream life. The dream love. But thoughts of freedom lead him back to the emotional prison of Iran, and Iran leads him back to questions and plans and schemes to escape. Running his fingers over the carpet, thinking, looking for the error.

We talk about him over dinner that night. In that sullen, slow-moving fluorescent-lit restaurant where everything feels becalmed and exposed. Me twisting my bracelet round and round as I worry about him -- till I'm given something else to keep me thoughtful.

Later still as we lie in bed, I think about the gesture at the throat. Whether it was friendly or aggressive, or even subversive, as quite a few people have quietly suggested. The end of Khomeini and Khamenei, the death of the mullahs? Or a deepening and darkening of the revolution as they fight to preserve their rule? I'm really not sure. But this to me is the hidden Iran: a thumb at the throat, a girl who can't be loved. All blurred, hard to see, waiting for a chance.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Epilogue: These events occurred last November on a single day while traveling in Iran. This story was basically written that same day. It captured a palpable mood that has since burst to the surface in Iran.

In the past fortnight students and their supporters have rioted in the streets of Tehran and 15 other major Iranian cities. Initially they were peacefully protesting the closure of a reformist daily newspaper called Salam, which had strongly backed President Khatami and his reformist policies. But the agenda of the students broadened into a pro-democracy movement. They chanted, "Either Islam and the law, or another revolution."

Protests became more volatile as the army, security forces and government-backed extremist Islamic vigilante groups brutally attacked the students. There is also evidence emerging that "evil forces" inciting violent activity by the students may have been covert security agents looking to destabilize the reformist movement, thereby encouraging a more oppressive course of action and discrediting President Khatami in an apparently out-of-control situation. Meanwhile, a counter-protest or "unity rally" in favor of Islamic rule was called by the clerical establishment, drawing tens of thousands.

For the time being the streets of Tehran are quiet again. But the movement from an Islamic theocracy to an Islamic democracy will continue to simmer until the national elections in February, when progressive voting patterns stimulated by a voting age set at 15 will likely decide the course of Iran's future. In the meantime, our 26-year-old friend has escaped to Germany -- where, he writes, he has "many girlfriends now."


Mark Mordue

Mark Mordue is a writer who lives in Australia.

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