Mehrabad Airport, March 2006
“He will grow to be huge and vicious, the kind of dog who could guard a barracks,” I assured the customs officer at the airport as I cradled the dozing, two-month-old beagle in my palm. The Turkish Airlines flight from Istanbul had arrived at three a.m. to an empty terminal, and the other passengers, Iranians returning from holiday, had the customs agents’ full attention. Most were bearing down on the green nothing-to-declare line with carefully blithe expressions, hoping the toasters and epilators bulging out of their suitcases would escape attention and thus duty.
I stood alone in the red line, fidgeting with the puppy carrier, anxious that the beagle avoid airport quarantine, which I assumed was tantamount to death. The customs officer scratched his pious stubble and leaned back in his chair, scanning the dog’s vaccination booklet. The beagle had come from a two-square-foot cage in Istanbul’s grand bazaar, and his vaccines were as suspect as the leather-jacketed, dog-despising pet dealers who’d sold him.
Most Turks, like most Iranians, recoiled from dogs as though they were grotesque vermin; only ‘guard’ dogs, charged with protecting humans and their goods, were deemed less offensive, though still repellent. As the hadith attest, the Prophet Muhammad was a cat person; he made ablutions from his favorite cat Muezza’s water bowl and once cut off a piece of his robe to avoid waking her. As to those who kept dogs, the Prophet reportedly decreed: “One qirat of the reward of his good deeds is deducted daily.” People seemed to take this handed down aversion quite literally. We had nearly missed our flight back to Tehran, as taxi after taxi passing us on the ring road down from the Bosphorus eyed the dog carrier and kept going.
The beagle was effectively a rescue, I reminded myself, pushing a 5,000-toman note toward the customs agent’s desk. I always felt vaguely ridiculous and terrified when bribing anyone in Iran, expecting the person to shout, “Stupid woman, what kind of place do you think this is?” That never happened, of course, only a slight movement by which the note would smoothly disappear, resolving the issue at hand. “All right, go on,” the customs man said wearily, waving us toward the exit.
Owning a dog had somehow been distilled in my mind into cultural rebellion.
London thus started his life in Tehran with deception. That this was historically resonant greatly amused my father in California, an ardent despiser of Britain, who began repeating down the phone line, “An English dog to needle the mullahs!” and chuckling to himself. I proudly reported London’s arrival to my mother, also a resident of California, but she found nothing romantic in rescuing a beagle from a life of fetid neglect in Istanbul. She asked where he slept and became cross upon hearing of his lax hygiene: “My cousin Mori in Sacramento wipes his terrier’s behind with baby wipes. Can’t you do the same?”
As London’s purpose—as companion rather than laborer—was illegal under Iranian law, the lies did not end that night at the airport. I knew, of course, that being a dog owner in Iran was fraught. I lived and worked in the country as a reporter, and wrote news stories about the government’s campaign against dogs with some regularity. The readers of Time magazine, like most ordinary readers in the West, found Muslims’ ambivalence towards dogs entertaining, a colorful reminder of the Muhammadans’ ontological difference and basic inferiority. I abetted this view with my journalism, of course, but there was really no way around it—the clerics would need to stop inveighing against poodles from their pulpits before the stories would stop going viral. Perhaps because I wrote about the Hermès-clad, north Tehran stick girls’ love for dogs and their charged encounters with sexually-deprived Basiji youth at checkpoints, owning a dog had somehow been distilled in my mind into cultural rebellion. I was fully detached from the scruffy reality of actual dog ownership.
The only pet I’d kept growing up in San Jose was a goldfish, a throwaway in our Persian New Year spread that ended up living a freakishly long four years. My dog experience was limited to a worn, stuffed Snoopy that I carried with me when I was forced to accompany my mother on visits of the old Iranian ladies in the Bay Area. Installed in front of the one Persian satellite TV channel, I caressed Snoopy as the matrons detailed their digestive woes, the breathless singsong of the Pari brand rice commercial echoing in the background. When I began fantasizing about having a real beagle in Tehran, I thought fondly of Snoopy, of his unflappable poise and worldly imagination. I thought about how I would get the dog to the vet without being spotted in traffic, and which government official I’d call if some angry, keffiyeh-wearing Basiji confiscated him. Having just done stints in Iraq and Afghanistan, I was wired to think about the dramatic, bigger picture. Mundane details, like what this dog would eat and where it would walk, did not occur to me.
Soon I was spending my mornings cooking dog food from scratch.
I began walking London in the streets of Darrous, where I lived, nudging him around the plane trees and along the sidewalk canals, sticking to the neighborhood’s quieter back streets. Dogs had slowly begun to creep into middle-class life in Iran, but traditional families still considered dogs unthinkable and Darrous was overrun by the wealthy pious. Little children scuttling after their chador-clad mothers crossed the road when they saw us, fearful as if London were a bull mastiff.
As we walked the streets one sweltering morning, an Afghan construction worker toiling on a luxury condo tower hurled a chunk of mortar at us (fair enough, I’d have been enraged as well if I were him, but surely he should have aimed for me rather than the beagle). I skulked home sadly and began over-feeding London puppy treats, trying to make up for the hostility he must surely perceive around us. I was aware that I brought to Iran an American vision of dog ownership—the dog as loyal friend, the dog as seamless part of community, the dog as adder of happiness to a life—and that I would need to radically re-imagine what having a dog would be like. I just hadn’t imagined how lonely and laborious all that would be.
Soon I was spending my mornings cooking dog food from scratch. In went the chicken livers, in went the hearts, all into a giant vat borrowed from my mother-in-law, whose kitchen was equipped to prepare four-course lunches for fifty. I dragged a wooden spoon slowly through the sticky mass of rice and meat, waiting for my dial-up Internet connection to load the front page of The New York Times, inch by inch. I considered researching “beagle delicate stomach” online, but figured that would divert precious bandwidth (in those days of excruciatingly slow Internet in Iran, recreational Googling was not an option). The vet had cautioned us against feeding London the wood chips and grain junk that passed for commercial dog food in Iran. This meant either buying cans of imported Purina, the equivalent of five U.S. dollars, at Behjat Abad market downtown or cooking his food myself. Keen to avoid more trips to the vet—as London grew bigger it became impossible to transport him in my handbag —I kept up my weekly labor over the cauldron.
London on his own didn’t have a tremendous appetite, but at five months old he had been joined by a cheerful St. Bernard puppy who left great lakes of pee around the apartment. My husband, an avid climber of snowy peaks, had always admired St. Bernards and brought her to Iran as a friend and guard dog for his family’s house in Lavasan. We soon moved both of them there, hoping they would have it easier outside the city, protected from a dog-ambivalent society by high walls.
More than once I caught the housekeeper kicking [the dogs] aside when they swirled around her long skirts.
They seemed thrilled with the move initially, careening around the cherry and walnut orchards, ecstatic at the fresh air, the free rein. Living in Lavasan was idyllic for them, but it soon became nerve-wracking for us. Dogs, like small children who can’t yet speak, are especially vulnerable to abuse because they can’t tell anyone if they’ve been harmed. More than once I caught Rayhaneh Khanoum, the housekeeper who had tended my husband’s family since the Revolution, kicking them aside when they swirled around her long skirts. Agha Mojtaba, the caretaker at Lavasan, viewed the dogs as a nuisance and a threat. He felt humiliated at having to feed them, their barking disturbed his beloved pigeons, and he harbored designs on the small corner they’d been allotted alongside the property’s eastern wall.
One day, returning unannounced after a week’s absence, I ran excitedly through the garden to their kennel area to find the dogs missing. In their place, a small herd of shorn sheep ambled about. I found them confined in a small cage in the rear of the orchard, slunk down in the dirt, lethargic in the heat with their water bowl empty. Mojtaba had bought the sheep with his wages, looking to earn extra by keeping them. He had claimed on a few occasions that London had jumped the two-meter high wall around the property, perhaps trying to prepare us for some eventual “disappearance.” I was furious and upset, but most of all keenly disappointed. Not at the unexpected hardship of having these dogs, but at the realization that their presence made so many people around us unhappy.
Over the past fifty years, most Iranians had managed to shake off many of the conservative beliefs that had been ingrained in them for generations: the belief that music was haram (Islamically forbidden), that alcohol was “Satan’s piss,” that a woman who didn’t cover her hair lacked virtue. Dogs, however, resisted this cultural normalization. Perhaps Iranians’ native moral flexibility, their inexorable march toward the modern world and its moderate norms, made accepting these other former sins inevitable. But dogs weren’t as essential to the pleasures of daily life as music or booze or sex, and they remained taboo, even in an Iran where mullah princes raced Lamborghinis down Vali Asr Boulevard and sons and daughters of devout merchants flirted on Facebook.
I had to part with London, in the end. He needed a vigilant owner, someone who was around and available enough to cushion him from the harsh lot of dogs in Iran. Though my life didn’t permit that at the time, it took me a long while to admit he’d be better off with a better owner than me. I felt ashamed and bereft, but the experience of loving and losing him was instructive. I learned an important lesson about the difference between the intellectual notion of realistic optimism—pessoptimism, a la Emile Habiby’s protagonist Saeed—and the gritty daily reality of rebelling against a system that had oil wealth and ideology on its side.
When I look back on those days now, I can scarcely believe how intolerable they seemed compared with today, when life in Iran is exponentially more difficult. London, I presume and hope, lives contentedly with his adopted Iranian family. The St. Bernard developed cancer shortly before Ahmadinejad’s re-election and was put down by the Lavasan vet. I live in England now with a Siberian cat, eschewing dogs out of loyalty to the memory of London, the Turkish-Iranian beagle-love of my life.