Part one in a series on Iran
On one of the last days of the month of April, 2007, you happen to be sitting in a Starbucks coffee shop in Chelsea looking out of the window, laptop open. A Sunday morning in New York City, with an hour to go before yoga class – the class a weekly ritual of your life in the States for the past several years. Your cell phone does a jig, a call from a friend back home in Iran. She is calling from somewhere on high, in the mountains that overlook the Caspian Sea. She tells you that yesterday she was walking in the woods with a mutual friend and was stopped by the morality police. She tells you a lot of things – the inane questioning that somehow always smacks of the screeching sexual frustrations of the questioners, the night in jail, the stinking cell, the incessant weeping of the twenty-year-old girl, her cellmate, who was hauled in for something similar – like daring to smile in public or singing in the rain or whatever else it is they haul you in for during their periodic campaigns to enforce the codes of modesty.
But what of the indignity of it? A woman and man in their late-thirties having to pay fines or be lashed with a garden hose because the weather was nice and they wanted to take a walk together.
So your friend, who has been freed on bail and has to appear in front of a cleric in the morning, tells you that there are a couple of possibilities for the two of them: they either have to cough up some money or get a few good whacks. There is no question of innocence. This is just the way it is. Another 24 hours will pass before you find out that your friend actually opted for the beating. When she calls again she tells you that it wasn’t too hard; in fact the folks with the rubber hoses did not really have the heart to deliver the blows. You see, she says, the revolution is on auto-pilot and no one believes in it any more, not even the whack-givers.
But what of the indignity of it? you think. A woman and a man in their late-thirties having to pay fines or be lashed with a garden hose just because the weather was nice and they wanted to take a walk together, up there in the forests above the once lovely and now obscenely polluted Caspian Sea.
The judge who sees to their case is, of course, a classic fellow, first making a stab at trapping them by saying that one of them has already confessed. When that doesn’t work, he threatens to have your friend sent to the “official doctor” to see if she has had intercourse of late. But when both defendants say they are ready for that too, the judge resorts to chiding them for their bad behavior – Do you not know that a man and woman walking together can cause all sorts of difficulties? (No, judge, we don’t.) Do you know that you may not be able to control yourself? (Your friend answers that she’s quite capable of controlling herself, that she’s neither an animal nor a slave to the hysterical desires from which his highness implies she’s suffering.) But what of your male friend? He’s a man, after all. You could be walking along and suddenly he jumps on you; what will you do then? (In the judge’s world everything begins and ends with the matter of conquest; he cannot possibly imagine that two human beings of the opposite sex who have been friends for years could simply be taking a walk outside because the weather was fine.)
That’s the story of feeling as if you live a fragile, perilous existence every day of your life, in a place that can turn on you in a heartbeat.
And so with the court done, the judge satisfied to have dispensed his wisdom and his ruling, your friend ends up with the lashes and goes on her way. As she conveys this, she sounds distressed, yet resigned. There aren’t even any marks on her back, she says. How she felt during the beating and how she will feel for the weeks and months after, that’s a story for another day. That’s the story of feeling as if you live a fragile, perilous existence every day of your life, in a place that can turn on you in a heartbeat. This is not an experience unique to Iran, but it’s common there, and one that you return to often.
You think about the newspapers in America and the articles you have read, here and there, about the annual Iranian “grab them” campaign. The articles are basically correct: each year at the turn of spring as the weather improves, the powers that be see fit to harass “sinners and decadents,” as they put it. They send their vigilantes out on the streets of Tehran and the provinces to make sure that veils are properly worn and that men and women keep clear of each other. It’s a thankless task for all involved and nothing ever comes of it. Once the campaign is over, everybody goes back to doing exactly what they were doing before. But the papers here, they speak of the Islamic Republic’s campaign like it’s the Great Inquisition. You are, for instance, particularly struck with one headline article from a few days earlier that ran in the New York Post. The cover of the paper featured a photo of the authorities back in Tehran grabbing a Persian woman on the street for not being properly covered up, the title of the paper reading: MEDIEVAL. You have no quarrel with that; it is in many ways medieval. It is just that there is something hysterical in that one-word headline; something a little over-dramatized.
So, after your friend’s phone call, as you sit in the coffee shop pondering all that has just befallen her, you look out into the quiet Sunday morning in Chelsea and think: How many worlds am I really living in? You do not have a whole lot of time to brood on this, however. It’s time for that weekly yoga class. The class happens to be quite full, about four-fifths women and the rest men, both sexes wearing revealing outfits that you barely even notice; you are here to do yoga after all, not gawk. But you can’t help thinking that some of the poses in the one and a half hour session would be considered so enticing to an obsessed mind that if the judge who handed down the lashes to your friend were there he’d lapse into madness.
This notion, besieging you in the middle of yoga class, brings home the enormity of the gap between your friends’ lives out there by the Caspian shore and where you are now. And the idea of that gap freezes you for a minute; you completely lose track of the movements and of what the instructor is saying. Before you know it, you’ve managed to fall into a depression while doing yoga. How is this possible? It is possible because you are living in a world of in-betweens. You are never really in a yoga class or a coffee shop or a Banana Republic clothing store, or anywhere else for that matter. Your world, too, like the world of your friends over there is perilous and fragile. Any moment a call could come on your cell phone, bad news waiting to announce itself. Your only reprieve, in fact, used to come during these yoga classes, when you are directed to turn the damn cell phone off (which you do), and to quiet your mind (which you are now incapable of doing).