By Mario Kaiser
Most people dream of spending their honeymoon on exotic beaches. My American bride and I opted for a road trip through the land of the ayatollahs.
We raced through the darkness and didn’t see it coming. Mehdi sat erect behind the wheel, honking slower cars out of his way. But one car stayed in its lane; it challenged his hierarchy. Mehdi honked, flashed, tailgated, and when the other car slowly made way, he barreled into the opening. Then something crashed, glass shattered and the other car’s sideview mirror went flying through the air, leaving a trail of silvery dust glittering in its wake.
Mehdi laughed and kept going.
We sat in silence, and it unsettled Mehdi that my wife, Gypsy, and I weren’t laughing. He kept looking at us, anxious, it seemed, for approval, some kind of validation. And then, suddenly, a car appeared next to us, honking, flashing, pushing us to the edge of the road. Mehdi looked for a way out, braking, accelerating, swerving, but the other car followed us like a shadow. He struggled for a while, then gave up and slowed down. The other car cut him off, forcing us to a stop.
It was after midnight and we were cornered on a dark road somewhere in Iran. This is where our honeymoon ended and the epilogue began. Without turning around, I whispered to Gypsy not to move or say a word. Then I pushed the bag with the money deeper into the legroom, until it was no longer visible.
The other car’s doors opened and two women got out. The woman on the passenger side screamed into her phone and started walking in circles, glowering at us in the glare of our car’s headlights. The woman on the driver’s side went to the trunk of her car, opened it and leaned in. She was heavyset and wore her headscarf in a rigid style, showing no hair. Mehdi jumped out of the car and raised his arms in disbelief. The woman pulled a baseball bat out of the trunk, straightened herself and slowly walked toward him.
I knew that a honeymoon in Iran with an American bride would not be without complications, and that my being a German journalist wouldn’t help. When two governments are as mistrustful of each other as America and Iran, their citizens are made to feel the suspicion whenever they enter the other country. The fact that we were living in Berlin might have made us look a little less suspicious, but I was prepared. In my pocket, I carried a piece of paper with the phone number of the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, which, in the absence of a U.S. Embassy, takes care of Americans and their consular needs. Missing from my emergency plan was the wrath of the Iranian women.
We had been sitting in this car like exhibition pieces in a museum of the Iranian Revolution—in the front, Mehdi and I, two bearded men— in the back, Gypsy, a veiled woman. And suddenly the dominant male figure around which everything seemed to revolve in this country was gone. The man who minutes ago had his hands on the wheel was now standing in the street beseeching a woman who wanted to crack his skull.
When Gypsy and I made plans for our honeymoon, we weren’t dreaming of lagoons and lonely beaches. We weren’t drawn to riding elephants in India, or flying in a propeller plane across the Okavango Delta. We wanted to penetrate a hermetic country and find beauty behind its forbidding façade. We liked the idea of lovers subverting a state ruled by imperious men, and quickly fell for Iran.
The first conflict of our honeymoon erupted even before we departed, in the women’s section of a department store in Berlin. We argued about a pair of shoes. To me, they looked like the shoes of a splay-footed ballerina—black and shiny, with ribbons glued to the tips. Their brand name was “Yessica,” and I didn’t like them. They made my wife appear small, with feet-like fins. I called them “mullah shoes.” Gypsy bought them for seven euros.
We were standing in the middle of Berlin’s hip Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood, and I felt as though the power of the Iranian mullahs extended all the way to the German capital. They had reprogrammed my wife.
I didn’t know this side of Gypsy, this kind of submissiveness. She was born in the Dominican Republic and grew up in the Bronx, and she has the fearlessness of the underprivileged and Simone de Beauvoir’s lust for arguing. She is also the daughter of a woman who used to carry a ladies’ revolver in her purse, and who once shot into the ceiling of a bar where she had tracked down her husband, who had another woman sitting on his lap. And now Gypsy bought a pair of ugly shoes to please the mullahs, letting them decide when she was a woman and when a subject. I didn’t understand. “You lack pragmatic intelligence,” Gypsy said.
We knew that the dress code of the Islamic Republic of Iran was also enforced in Frankfurt, from the moment passengers entered an Iran Air plane. At the gate, we didn’t notice it. We sat among Iranian women who only stood out because they were dressed more elegantly than the German women around them. But at some point they began to change. As boarding time approached, they slipped into overcoats and covered their hair with headscarves. They slowly disappeared.
A few Iranian women remained uncovered. They showed their hair, their necks, the shape of their bodies, and they weren’t wearing mullah shoes. They walked around in high heels and didn’t mind being followed by the looks of others. They seemed determined to hold on to their freedom for as long as they could.
Gypsy didn’t dare to do that. She knew that, as an American, she would be watched with particular scrutiny, and she worried about offending anyone. She covered her head with a black scarf and pushed it back to reveal some hair, just as she had seen it in pictures of street life in Tehran. She knew the Iranian dress code in detail—she had been studying it for weeks. Sometimes during her many dress rehearsals, she would stand in front of me, covered in a headscarf and an overcoat, and ask if I was still attracted to her. I didn’t care for the coat, but I became enchanted by the way the scarf framed her face, the mystery it bestowed on her.
Gypsy knew that liberal Iranian women are smarter at interpreting the dress code than the mullahs are at writing it. She admired their mastery at stretching the rules, how they played with the fact that the boundaries of the permissible are fluid on a woman’s body. But she also knew that plainclothes officers walk the streets, harshly enforcing the dress code. In their canon, women are only allowed to show their face and hands; their feet, if they dared to wear open shoes, had to be covered by opaque stockings.
We entered the plane, and my Dominican wife, who was raised in America, lived in Germany and bears the name of a vagabond, obeyed the Iranian dress code by covering herself in an overcoat sewed by Chinese hands and a scarf bought from a Kashmiri in India.
Gypsy understood the uncovered Iranian women and their longing for freedom, but the German women irritated her. She looked around the plane and none of them was wearing a headscarf. She found it disrespectful. The men on Iran’s Guardian Council would have liked Gypsy, how she stood there in her headscarf, her opaque stockings and her mullah shoes, seething at the women of the West.
I kept quiet. In a strange way, I was indebted to Ayatollah Khomeini and the revolution he instigated. My life would have been different without him, shallower. I never would have met the first love of my life. He pushed her toward me, and if he were still alive, I would have to kiss his hand for it.
* * *
Her name was Mandana, which means “the Everlasting.” Her parents took her and fled to Germany after Khomeini seized power. We went to high school together, and she enraptured me in a hotel room in Warsaw. I was eighteen and knew nothing; she was nineteen and knew more. Our love lasted six years. I could have liberated her father from the brothers who kept calling from Iran, claiming they had found the perfect husband for his daughter. But I kept her waiting, and she left for Jerusalem with the one who promised to make her wait no more.
Observing Mandana’s father, I studied the inner conflicts of an Iranian man. He used to work as a bartender, and had married Mandana’s mother even though she was a divorced woman from the West. He loved his black Jaguar and a good whiskey. He worked tirelessly to give his beloved four daughters the best education possible. And he lied for me when he told his brothers that Mandana was already engaged.
His name was Faramarz, and he could be as tender as his name suggested: the one who forgives his enemies. He seemed like a prototype of the modern Iranian man, but his modernity had its limits. He wasn’t supposed to know that Mandana took the pill. He wasn’t supposed to know that she was lying in my bed when she purported to be staying at a girlfriend’s place. He wasn’t supposed to know any of the secret deals his wife struck with his daughters.
He knew it. He knew everything. But he had to pretend he knew nothing. At the time, I thought he was living in a lie. Years later, I understood that the lie was his armor in defending us against the liars, the cover behind which he gave us freedom. I never thanked him for it, and it haunted me.
Gypsy knew this part of my past. She understood that Mandana had played a crucial role in shaping me into the man she took as her husband, and she was grateful for it. She knew that it was Mandana who had kept my life from falling apart when I despaired over my parents’ separation, and that it was Mandana who had pushed me to mend my relationship with my mother. This journey was a passage into our future that acknowledged the past.
* * *
We landed in Tehran and entered a quiet country. Freedom of speech was quietly suppressed. Dissidents were quietly arrested. A nuclear program was quietly developed. We detested the regime, but we believed in the beauty of the country. We believed that the Iranian people were different from the men who pretended to represent them.
It was the spring of 2009 and we had no idea of the turmoil that was coming. We couldn’t know that, only months later, people would take to the streets to protest the manipulated results of a presidential election, only to see their uprising brutally crushed. Many would be arrested, many raped, bludgeoned, shot dead. We didn’t know the face of Neda Agha-Soltan yet, the student who would lie dying in a street in Tehran, blood streaming across her cheeks, a sniper’s bullet in her chest.
The apparatus of the Islamic Republic of Iran received the American bride with theatrical coldness. The photograph in her visa showed Gypsy smiling, and the immigration officer might have liked it. But he didn’t open her passport. It was enough for him to see the golden eagle and the gilded words “United States of America.” He grabbed the passport, gestured harshly in one direction and said, “Come!”
He led us to a desk where two men in elaborately embroidered uniforms were sitting, frozen in straight posture. They carried themselves with an abrasiveness that suggested they were in charge of handling sensitive cases. I presented my German passport, but they waved me off. I pulled out our marriage certificate, but it didn’t help that it carried the seal of the City of New York. One of the officers took Gypsy’s passport and disappeared, the other pointed to a bench by the wall and said, “Wait!”
We sat on this bench like defendants. It didn’t surprise us that the American received special scrutiny, just like Iranians are singled out whenever they try to enter the U.S. But we were convinced that they had vetted Gypsy before issuing her visa, and the same was probably true for me. We didn’t have anything to hide and knew that our governments would be there for us if we needed help. But after twenty minutes in abeyance, we became nervous. We began to strategize how to react if they separated us.
That is the frame of mind where dictatorial regimes like to have their visitors. They give you time to think, and watch as you slide into irrationality. Gypsy was now a woman without a passport, stateless in an arbitrary state. The officer kept staring at us from behind his desk; that seemed to be his task. Gypsy leaned over my shoulder and whispered, “My heart is going to jump out of my chest.”
After a while, the other officer returned with Gypsy’s passport. He placed it on the desk and took an inkpad and a sheet of paper out of a drawer. Then he asked for Gypsy’s hand. Printed on the paper were two large and ten small squares. He took Gypsy’s hand and pressed the tip of her fingers on the ink pad, then on the paper—the individual fingerprints in the small squares, the whole hand in the large squares. When he was done, he pushed the passport across the desk and smirked. He seemed to enjoy the fact that the American now had to run around his country with ink on her fingertips, like a criminal.
I waited for him to ask for my hand, but he wasn’t interested. When I asked why he took Gypsy’s fingerprints but not mine, he looked amused and said, “Because America does it.” Our eyes locked and we both laughed at the absurdity of the games governments play.
Gypsy and I got on a bus that took us into the city, and the first thing we saw were the illuminated minarets of the Khomeini Mausoleum, piercing like lances into the night sky. Khomeini followed us wherever we went, always watching. Our hotel in Tehran was named after Ferdowsi, a revered Persian poet, but we only ever saw Khomeini. He gazed at us from a wall behind the reception, and on the way to the elevator we passed a Khomeini painting and a Khomeini bust, then listened to an instrumental version of “Careless Whisper” as we ascended to our floor. Even the elevator music was from the time of Khomeini.
We entered our room and saw two single beds, a picture of Khomeini hanging in the middle. We thought it was a misunderstanding. Perhaps they had given us separate beds because Gypsy had not shed her family’s name. We went back to the reception and explained to the concierge that we were on our honeymoon and would like to sleep in the same bed. He gave us a mystified look and said that Iranian couples sleep in separate beds.
We dismissed this Iranian tradition and pushed our beds together under Khomeini’s beard. Then Gypsy undressed in front of him. The ayatollah had to look at a number of things during our honeymoon. Maybe that is why he always stared at us with such a grim face.
* * *
The next morning, as we walked around Tehran to get a feel for life in the city, Gypsy caught a glimpse of her reflection in a store window. She stopped, spun around and said, “I look elegant.” It was a tender moment that demonstrated how porous the mullah’s banishment of sensuality from public life was. They didn’t seem to understand that the shrouds into which they forced women are like frames that emphasize their beauty. Or maybe they did.
In the afternoon, Gypsy and I argued about something, and she went for a walk by herself. I shouldn’t have let her go, but it seemed like a good way to release some of the tension the all-pervading restrictions had caused between us. After an hour she came back to our room, stirred up. She dropped her purse and said, “They’re hissing at me!” She was talking about the men. Gypsy was used to this in the streets of Santo Domingo, but there was something playful about the hissing of Dominican men. They would explain themselves. The hissing of Iranian men was desperate, and they didn’t say a word. Their speechlessness frightened Gypsy.
The men’s desperation made me think about the unintended effects of the dress code. Coming from Berlin, where I had tired a bit of women with candy-colored hair walking around barefoot and holding bottles of cheap beer, I appreciated the proper way Iranian women dressed. But I wondered if the strictness of the code created a suppressed erotic tension in the streets. There was a sense of the men feeling strangled, of wanting to break out, and I could see myself as one of them.
Gypsy studied the women and learned how they pushed the dress code’s boundaries. The closer she looked, the more skin she saw. She noticed women who pushed their headscarves so far back that they almost fell off their heads. She saw sleeves that ended at the elbow. She glimpsed skinny jeans under overcoats cut so tight that they revealed more than they covered.
Gypsy remained covered; she didn’t want to be seen as the loose American. Every morning, she disappeared under her overcoat and closed it all the way up to her neck. She spent more and more time in front of the mirror, and despaired over how far she could go. One particularly hot morning, she stood in front of me and asked, “Do you think I have to wear the coat?” I thought so and pulled up her coat’s zipper. Gypsy looked down on herself and, sounding crestfallen, said, “I’m oppressed.”
I, in contrast, felt almost liberated. I was aware that there is also a dress code for men. (When you google “male dress code,” the suggested search automatically includes “Iran.”) But I was in no danger of being targeted by the chastity squads. The very style that had often earned me teasing from my friends — crisply ironed shirts rather than T-shirts, no bright colors, and never, ever shorts — was in perfect sync with the mullahs’ definition of decency. I also lacked the dramatically spiked haircut popular among young men, for which some of them have been arrested. I was behind the Iranian curve, though, with my rejection of Texan-size belt buckles, and bell-bottoms that seemed to come straight out of “Saturday Night Fever.”
In the streets, the visible women stood in stark relief next to the invisible ones. The women that I once heard two young Iranian men call B.M.O.s—black moving objects—fluttered around completely covered up, showing only their eyes. “They could become pregnant and nobody would notice,” Gypsy said. We soon learned that there are many things the invisible ones can do under their shrouds.
When one black moving object walked past us, we caught a glimpse of her uncovered feet in her open shoes. Her nail polish was a seductive scarlet. The discovery changed the way I looked at women. I began to understand the burning of Iranian men for a woman’s ankles. They are the erotic zone in a disembodied country.
We began to see the abyss behind the veil, the revolts in the details. And then we saw two women prancing around the lobby of our hotel, dangerously uncovered. One of them had Cindy Crawford’s hair and mole; she wore boots with heels capable of impalement. The other one had Amy Winehouse’s winged eyeliner and aura of emaciation; she purred without pause into her phone. We saw this as our chance to join one of those infamous illegal parties raging behind Iran’s closed doors, with dancing, alcohol, and other sins. But as we got closer, we stopped in our tracks. They were either transvestites or transgender women, pushing the boundaries in the safety of a hotel frequented by Westerners.
Deceit has always been the cloak of lovers in Iran, long before Khomeini seized power. The door of an old teahouse in the city of Yazd, an architectural jewel in the heart of the country, reminded us of that. In the old Persia, houses had separate door knockers for men and women. Men used a massive rectangular piece of iron to knock, while women touched a slender ring, announcing their arrival with a softer, gentler sound. But what was meant to keep men and women apart, opened the door for men who wanted to be with their beloved behind the façades of chastity. They knocked as women.
Khomeini didn’t like the blurring of the line between man and woman, and he sought clarity. In 1984 he issued a fatwa allowing transsexuals to change their sex. To him, transsexuals were prisoners caught in the wrong body. He set out to liberate them and bestowed penises on male women, and vaginas on female men. It is a lesser-known part of the ayatollah’s legacy that the Islamic Republic of Iran has a budget for sex changes, allocating the equivalent of 122,000 dollars for each person diagnosed with “gender identity disorder,” the regime’s term for transsexuality.
Khomeini became the god of plastic surgeons, and not just for transgendered people. The shroud under which he forced Iranian women reduced them to faces. He focussed the male gaze on the one part of the female body that men could study in detail, and they were beguiled by the darkest eyes, immaculate brows, and beautiful noses. I liked the Iranian nose; there was something regal about it, mystical. But I made the same mistake as Khomeini. Many Iranian women don’t want a nose that stands out from the frame of their scarf, a nose that exceeds the conventions of the West. They dream of a generic nose, a line in the face. This is how the ayatollah created a promised land for plastic surgeons. For a few thousand U.S. dollars, they plane every bump in the Iranian face.
The operated women weren’t hiding. We saw them everywhere: in the streets, in teahouses, at the mosque. They couldn’t wait to exhibit their bandaged faces and show others that they were able to afford a small nose. The operated nose is the Iranian woman’s Gucci purse.
And the nose was only the beginning. Step by step, plastic surgeons were conquering the body of the Iranian woman. After diminishing the nose, they moved on to pumping up lips and breasts to desperate-housewife levels. The veil turned out to be one of their best marketing tools, emphasizing the visible results of their work and covering the ones not to be seen.
The men, in a rare reversal, were beginning to follow the women’s lead. Many of them are less educated than most women. They skip college in order to chase fast money, hoping it will enable them to purchase a captivating bride. But when it came to nose jobs, they were slowly catching up, showing off their freshly operated noses just as proudly as the women.
Gypsy shared my affection for the Iranian nose; she didn’t like the operated men. Once, I saw her holding a rial bill dominated by a portrait of Khomeini. She moved her thumb across his face, as though she was caressing him. “He was a good-looking man,” she said, gazing at Khomeini. She found his nose beautiful.
* * *
We traveled south and followed the road of addiction. The highway between Tehran and Kerman is the main artery of the drug trade in Iran, where an estimated five million people are addicted to opium and heroin. We didn’t see any of that. All we saw was a dry, rocky landscape dotted by an endless gallery of portraits of supposed martyrs, sent to their death in the war with Iraq. Their faces lined the road like advertisements for an unnamed product.
At one rest stop, we saw a different kind of gallery. A truck driver opened the door of his cab, revealing he was surrounded by pictures of half-naked women. When he got up, the body of another half-naked woman materialized, life-size and printed on the red cover of his seat. He had been sitting on her lap.
The mullahs have divided love into the allowed and the forbidden. Allowed love is a corset that suffocates lovers. That is why many seek refuge in forbidden love. Couples are not allowed to have sex before marriage, but if they do, there are solutions. Nobody ever asks the groom if he is still a virgin, and the bride can have her hymen stitched back together for a few hundred dollars.
Money is an important substance in Iranian love, a currency with the power to surpass the value of passion. The parents of a bride can demand a large sum for their daughter. The groom’s family in return purchases the bride with a money-back guarantee, in case the marriage fails. A woman’s value is meticulously assessed in the arithmetic of the law. In life, as a bride, she is most precious. But if she dies and somebody is culpable in her death and forced to pay blood money, she is worth only half as much as a man.
I gazed at Iranian love like a world behind glass. I was traveling around the country with a woman who had chosen me at a time when I had neither money nor the promise of it. I didn’t have to pay for her, and I was allowed to find out if I liked sleeping with her before I married her. My love life began to feel like a province of privilege.
Sleeping with a man who is not her own can be deadly for an Iranian woman. An extra-marital affair can also lead a man into death, but he can rely on the masculinity of the Iranian state of law. In court, a woman’s word, like her life, is only worth half as much as that of a man.
That was the other Iran. We didn’t see it, but we heard of it. While we were savoring our honeymoon, seven women and two men were waiting to be stoned to death for adultery and sexual indecency. Their stonings were suspended, but when the time comes, the accused have to descend into a pit — the women down to their chest, the men down to their hips. The stonings have a strict choreography, and the stones must not be too big. Justice is supposed to descend slowly upon the indecent.
I have done things in my life that could have gotten me stoned in this country. My indecency had not gone unpunished, but I had gotten off comparatively cheap. I remembered the force with which a betrayed girlfriend once hit me in the face. I remembered the gentle stoning I received from Mandana. She threw the other woman’s letters at me.
* * *
Later that night, Gypsy and I walked around Kerman and saw a house with two blinking hearts on its façade, melting into one. We suspected something wicked going on behind these walls, and sneaked inside. But the club of hearts was not a hotbed of vice; one couldn’t buy love there, at least not the fast way. It was a wedding ballroom, but one with a twist. The Iranian hierarchy was turned upside down in this house—the women were celebrating upstairs, the men downstairs.
The bride was beautiful. She had eyes black as coal, and the classic Iranian nose. She was dancing in a strapless gown. I never saw her; I wasn’t allowed to go near her. Gypsy told me about her, after a group of giggling women had taken her upstairs. I was sitting downstairs with the other men, staring at our juice glasses.
I felt dirty in this aura of purity. The separation of men and women and the banning of alcohol and lust were the opposite of everything that was welcome at our own wedding. We had placed the voluptuous Turkish woman next to the divorced German man, hoping for attraction. My bride danced with other men. We drank Dominican rum in large amounts, and at five in the morning, a gay male friend was passionately kissing a woman.
All that was taboo in the lonely-hearts club. The women offered Gypsy sweets; the men were brooding in their juice quarantine and ignored me. I felt like inciting them to storm the women’s floor, but I learned that there were other ways for them to find solace. For Shiites, Iran’s overwhelming majority, marriage can be a wide-open field, at least for men. There is room for up to four wives in their marriages, and if that is not enough, the husband can expand his portfolio with “temporary marriages.” This kind of marriage may last up to ninety-nine years, but the more popular version lasts only a few hours. That is why Iranians also call it a “pleasure marriage.”
The pleasure is the man’s alone. He is not obliged to tell his wife about a temporary marriage, and all he has to discuss with his pleasure wife is the price. No written contract is required, which is also a pleasure for a man in a country where his word counts twice as much in court as that of a woman. If the man wants to, he can strike a temporary-marriage agreement that includes how often he wants sex. The woman, however, is not entitled to any sexual demands, and she must not be married. She only has to be at least as old as Aisha when she became the third wife of the Prophet Muhammad. Aisha was nine.
The temporary marriage affords men a diverse sex life, where no adultery and no children out of wedlock exist. The wives in temporary marriages are usually divorced women, who are damaged goods in the permanent-marriage market. They need the money, and hope that the man stays with them for more than an hour, perhaps even leaves his first wife. They discreetly signal that they are available for a temporary marriage by wearing their chador inside out.
Wherever we went, we realized that this is not the norm but, rather, a possibility. It felt like a wand invented by a male-dominated regime trying to show a way out to the very men it is stifling, and we were reminded of that at the lonely-hearts club, where the pleasure was the women’s alone.
* * *
It was almost midnight, but there was still light inside the shop. An elderly woman wearing a black chador stood in front of a white wall, perfectly placed between portraits of Khomeini and Khamenei. When I stopped to take a photograph of her with the ayatollahs looking over her shoulder, she gestured for us to wait and called to someone in the back of the shop. Out came her smiling daughter, and a perilous conversation ensued. She told us about her forbidden love.
I cannot write where we met her; there would be terrible consequences if the guardians of Iran’s order found her. She had a lyrical name and spoke good English; she liked the language and literature of her country’s supposed enemy. She was in her early twenties and hungry for unrestricted love. But she was afraid they might come for her. There was always the fear of being arrested for the crime of having a boyfriend.
She told us about the night everything changed. She remembered it clearly, the time, the place, the sweet taste of ice cream on her lips. They had waited until night fell, thinking they would be safer under the cover of darkness. They drove to a quiet street, with her at the wheel, pretending to be sister and brother. They had just stopped when another car slowly passed by, with two men inside staring at them. After a while, the car came back and stopped behind them. The two men got out, approached their car and dangled handcuffs in front of the ice cream-eating couple.
The men weren’t wearing uniforms and didn’t identify themselves. They didn’t have to. The couple knew that if they said a wrong word, they would be dragged to a building that everyone in the city knew—the prison of forbidden love. After their arrest, the parents would have had to pick up their indecent children. They would have had to pay a fine and sign a pledge that this will never happen again. “We don’t have the right to eat ice cream,” the young woman said, tears welling up in her eyes.
The mother looked at her daughter and took her hand. She didn’t understand a word, but she seemed to know exactly what the daughter was telling us. Then she threw her thumb over her shoulder, pointing at Khomeini and Khamenei on the wall behind her, and shook her head. We went back to our hotel room and turned Khomeini’s portrait around, making him face the wall.
It was the saddest night of our honeymoon, but something changed as we lay on another tradition-defying bed. A delicate confidence was seeping into the way we looked at the country, especially the women. There was a subcutaneous seething, a quiet determination to turn their rage into change—with a baseball bat if necessary. It reminded us of something a man had told us at a teahouse. We were cautious not to discuss anything with the slightest political undertone, but we eagerly listened to whatever people wanted to share. What the man told us sounded incredible at the time, but his words kept coming back to us as the mothers and daughters of Iran came into sharper focus. He said, “The women will bring the mullahs down.”
* * *
The man with the golden microphone stood in front of a wall and sang. A small crowd of people gathered around him, looking enchanted as they listened to him. This made the man dangerous. He sang only love songs, but a policeman pushed through the crowd, bent over the loudspeaker and lowered the volume. The man smiled and kept singing. A few minutes later, two other policemen came and unplugged his microphone.
We were standing in a street in Shiraz, and the Iranian police state reminded us of its fearful nature. Shiraz is the city of poets, the heart of romantic old Persia, but we came only for Hafez. Iran’s most beloved poet had written with breathless passion about love and lies in the time of despotism, and it moved us. He called himself a “serf of love,” drank heavily, and dreamed of soaking prayer rugs with wine. Hafez lived in the fourteenth century, when mosque and state were one and the mullahs ruled with an arbitrary fist similar to the Iran of the twenty-first century. We read his poems and felt as though he was still alive.
Preachers who preen in prayer-niche and pulpit,
when in private, quite another matter do they practice
than they preach!
The Hafez mausoleum is a place of pilgrimage for lovers. Newlyweds come from all over the country to be close to Hafez, and we followed them. We placed our hands next to theirs on the cold marble of his tomb and listened to them recite the Qu’ran’s first surah. While they vowed to worship Him alone, we whispered a worldly wish, desiring a child.
There was something about Hafez that made people feel safe. At no other place did we see so many couples touch each other — holding hands, embracing each other, exchanging chaste kisses. And in the park surrounding the mausoleum we saw men that, former president Ahmadinejad once claimed, don’t exist in Iran. Following the trend of the time, they had carefully modeled their hair to look like ransacked birds’ nests. But something was different about them. Their eyebrows were a little too perfect, their T-shirts a little too tight, their nails a little too filed, and one of them sat on another’s lap. We sat with them for a while, and one of them confided to Gypsy that they were “admirers of men.” Then we saw some of them look at two policemen walking by as if they were their secret fantasy.
Young men and fire. A lot of them seemed to be playing with it, especially in matters of love. But the gay men reveling in Hafez’s shadow, despite being persecuted by a homophobic regime, seemed almost privileged when we came across another generation of young men. On the road from Shiraz to Isfahan we stopped at a white building adorned with Iranian flags; it seemed to be decorated in celebration of something. Inside were the tombs of three soldiers who had fallen in the war with Iraq. It was a shrine to their deaths, silent on their lives. On the pristine white walls surrounding the tombs were photographs that documented their transformation from soldiers to martyrs. The first images showed nervous, smiling young men up to their chests in murky water, each holding a rifle over their head like a monstrance. The last images showed bodies that were missing something. An arm. A leg. A head.
In Isfahan we wanted to let go of all this. The sadness of having ice cream. The danger of golden microphones. The decency guards wielding feather dusters at the mosque, tapping women they deemed insufficiently covered. The air was clear and the night warm, and we felt like tourists again. But the men had a way of drifting toward us. We walked across the Bridge of 33 Arches and watched a man having his portrait drawn by a street artist. When the man noticed us, he pointed at the drawing and asked, “Beautiful?” He was unhappy with the size of his nose, even though the artist had drawn it smaller than it actually was. We sat down for our own portrait, and the artist, giving us the Iranian treatment, drew our noses smaller than they actually were. When we said goodbye, he reached out and shook Gypsy’s hand. He was the first man in Iran who touched her.
Under the bridge was a teahouse with a beautiful view of the river, the glow of the city reflecting on its surface. Teahouses are the Iranian substitute for bars, a placebo for those who want to talk and mingle in a country where drinking alcohol is forbidden. The place was bustling with large groups of friends and families, and watching them engage in passionate discussions, it became obvious why the regime had shut down teahouses around the country. It was there that we met Mehdi and his brother Muhammad. They brought us saffron ice cream and told us about each of their difficulties finding a bride.
Mehdi and Muhammad were in their early thirties and their father was getting nervous that his sons still weren’t married. He was putting pressure on them. The problem was money — they had too much of it. Coming from a wealthy family, the brothers felt that what attracted most women to them was their buying power. It’s the luxury problem of privileged men in a society where brides come with a price tag. “Maybe I should marry a foreigner,” Mehdi said.
As a man with a foreign bride, I was not in a position to argue against marrying one. But I didn’t want Mehdi to give up on an Iranian bride, and I told him about the women in New York I had pursued in vain. Claiming that Gypsy was an exception to the rule, I said that, over there, I often felt that a man’s value partly depended on his net worth. Gypsy put her hand on Mehdi’s and nodded. He looked at her in disbelief.
We talked late into the night and wanted to take a photograph to remember it by. Gypsy placed herself between the brothers, but they didn’t fit into the frame. They kept their distance from the woman in the middle and stood next to her like soldiers at roll call, arms pressed against their flanks. I motioned for them to get closer to Gypsy. The brothers looked over their shoulders, as if planning a crime, and then, beaming, moved in and put their arms around Gypsy.
The man I came to call Little Shah didn’t want to be in the picture. He had heard us speak English and hovered around our table, but now he kept his distance. Mehdi knew him; he was a regular at the teahouse. His English had a tinge of an American accent, which he seemed to cultivate, and he watched us like somebody who knew us. He was dressed in a black pinstriped suit with a shiny veneer of neglect, as though he had not taken it off in a long time. He wore it like his past.
His name was the same as that of the last Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza. When we went for a walk along the Zayandeh River, which irrigates the fields and dreams of the people along its banks, he followed us and told us his story. He said he used to work as a journalist and, as punishment for writing the truth, was thrown into jail for several years. Now he worked at a police station. He cleaned it.
I viewed the Little Shah in the conditional. He had a black briefcase that he hugged like a pillow and said things that make a person cautious in a surveillance state. He told us that he had seen us in the morning near our hotel and overheard us speak German and Spanish, and he tried to impress us by speaking a little bit of both. He knew what had recently been on the cover of Der Spiegel, a magazine I have written for. He wanted to know if I had brought a laptop and foreign newspapers.
Maybe he was an unrefined spy; maybe he was just a ragged man cleaning the dirt of those who had broken him. I didn’t know what to make of him. We said goodbye, pretending to be exhausted from our honeymoon, but the Little Shah wasn’t done with us. He asked us to give him just a few more minutes. He sat down on a small brick wall, pulled a school notebook and a fountain pen from his briefcase, and wrote a poem for us.
People tell me that windows
have no feelings and no heart.
But when a window fogs up
and I write the words
“I love you”
on the glass,
the window begins to cry.
The following night, we went back to the teahouse. Mehdi had asked us to meet him there. He wanted to drive us to a popular spot in the mountains that he said has the most beautiful view of Isfahan. As I sat down on the passenger seat, he put a plastic bag full of money between my feet. I looked at the bag in amazement, and he laughed and said inside were the day’s earnings from his uncle’s business.
As we drove out of the city and saw it turn into a sea of lights behind us, Mehdi tried to impress us with his racing, pushing other cars out of the way. We ignored it, until everything came to a stop and we saw the woman with the baseball bat walking toward Mehdi. She was taller than him.
The road lay in front of us like a stage in a play about a future Iran. In the spotlight stood a man at the moment when everything crashed and his hubris caught up with him. Mehdi raised his arms higher and pleaded with the woman. But she didn’t say a word. She held the bat in front of her chest like a scepter and stared at him.
Mehdi slowly retreated, came back to the car and reached into the bag with the money. He grabbed as many bills as he could, walked back to the woman and waved the bills in front of her, begging her to take them. The woman lowered her bat, turned around and got into her car. She sped off and left Mehdi standing in the street with a handful of money, a small, humiliated man.
Mario Kaiser is a writer of narrative nonfiction whose work seeks to expand our understanding of social justice and human rights. His stories are based on long-term immersion in environments that are difficult to access, illustrating how government policies and social disruptions affect people’s lives and long-term prospects. After graduating from the University of Bonn, Kaiser received a master’s degree in journalism from New York University. A former reporter and editor for Die Zeit and Der Spiegel, his work has also appeared in The International New York Times, Guernica, Narratively, and Transition. He lives in New York City. “Love and Lies in Iran” originally appeared on the website Narratively. You can follow Mario at @MarioKaiserNYC.