Taking a domestic plane in Iran, the joke goes, is a sure way to heaven. Years of sanctions have made airplane spare-parts hard to come by. You can fly on a plane (and they certainly are cheap to fly), but there is no guarantee you’ll come back down in one piece.
Nevertheless, when I touched down in Tehran on the last day of 2011 and called Majed, he insisted I join him up in Iranian Azerbaijan. He had gone there to try to get the money owed to his wife’s brother living in Damascus, Syria. I took the domestic flight and for an hour up there I turned religious. In the city of Ardebil, we skipped collecting the owed money and went to the natural hot springs near the majestic Sabalan Volcano instead. There in an open pool with near boiling water I saw grown men doing double flips from below zero weather into what surely felt like boiling water. I said, “Majed, these Turks, I think their constitutions are made of steel. How can they do that? No wonder they could run an empire for so long. They are unbreakable.” Not one to be outdone by our hosts, Majed said, “Now you want to see an Arab do a somersault?” I begged him not to. But of course he went ahead and did it, and then he swam casually up to me and said, “Look, we have to make a film about the reality of this country.”
It was like someone had piled all my money together, thrown some cow dung on top of it for fuel, then set the whole heap on fire.
Reality hit me the next day on the road back to Tehran. While Majed pumped gas somewhere near Astara by the edge of the Caspian coast road, my mobile rang. It was my brother calling from New Jersey. His voice sounded funereal.
“What?” I asked.
“Obama finally signed that new anti-Iran bill.”
“Which means what?”
“You didn’t see the Iranian currency rate?”
Obama’s signature guaranteed my own financial ruin. I’d come to Tehran this time around to collect some of my money, turn it into dollars, and bring it back States side to pay off my debts. But from one day to the next, the equivalent of thirty thousand dollars dwindled to 20 and then 15, with no end in sight. In the bazaars of Tehran, there was a rush to buy gold and the price of gold tripled. When you think there’s going to be war with a superpower and the currency turns into a joke, the only thing left to do is horde metal and wait for the rain.
Soon after, Majed needed to go to the extreme opposite of the country, Iranian Baluchistan, to continue following the tracks of the drug trade from Afghanistan for his documentary. The Iranian authorities had finally given him the green light to hang out for a week with border commandos in some of the most inhospitable terrain imaginable in the Iran-Pakistan border. With no permission to accompany him—nor the will, since my financial ruin was now complete—I stayed in Tehran to see if I could make some sense of the catastrophe the Americans had brought upon me.
The following weeks in Tehran were a circus. The price of the dollar against the Iranian Rial became everything. Meat doubled in price. A lot of merchants simply stopped selling their goods or put impossible price tags on them, because they no longer knew what the real price of anything was. And from one day to the next various voices in the government began speaking in that peculiar cacophony that is Iranian politics. One fellow brayed that they would close down the Hormuz strait; when the Americans and Europeans didn’t blink, another fellow said that this talk of closing the Strait was rubbish. The price of gold kept going up, while the head of the Central Bank pouted and said he wasn’t feeling too well and would stay home for a while.
Then the bottom really fell out about a week later. Because of the American pressure, the Europeans too finally signed off on the Iran sanctions and froze the assets of the Iranian Central Bank in Europe. By then I’d given up. It was like someone had piled all my money together, thrown some cow dung on top of it for fuel, then set the whole heap on fire. There was nothing to do but laugh about it. You can argue for or against economic sanctions, but the reality on the ground is specific. It is also, you might say, vertical. The fellow who could buy chocolate yesterday can no longer buy chocolate, and the fellow who could buy bread can no longer buy bread. The pensioner rushes to the bank to find out that his pension for this month, too, will not be paid. And the millions of Iranians with one foot in the old country and one abroad suddenly find themselves criminalized on both ends; if, for instance, somehow (after going through countless hoops and much breath-holding) you manage to move your own money, say, to the United States because you have debts to pay or a child to support in college, you are eventually likely to get the kind of call suitable for a Kafka novel from an American financial agent.
In the meantime, the Iranian government decided to throw all the money-changers off the streets and announced that holding onto U.S. dollar bills is a crime punishable with a jail sentence. In this world of getting it from both ends (Iranians happen to call it ’having the chainsaw half way up your behind,’ hurts either way), the chaos gorges on itself and multiplies. Grain imports, for instance, are held up for weeks in the Persian Gulf because money transfers can no longer be made and people openly start to talk about starvation being on the horizon. And yet you are still left wondering whether, in an oil and gas and mineral rich country like Iran where so much money is simply ’in the air’—a place where, after the steep customs tax, brand new Porsches are still regularly pre-sold by the dozens at the starting price of $700,000—the stranglehold of economic sanctions will make much of a difference to those who control and thrive on the black-market.
As the fallout in Tehran from the new American pressures was in full swing, there were two new developments: the Iranian film director, Asghar Farhadi, won the Best Foreign Film award at the Golden Globes and was immediately also nominated for two Oscars, and yet another Iranian nuclear Scientist was bumped off on the streets of Tehran.
I looked hard at one photograph of that scientist, posing next to his child in a pram, and felt heartsick. He was just one of several scientists assassinated in the past few years. Newspapers will only mention that another Iranian scientist was killed in the race against Iran and its nuclear ambitions. That scientist will be faceless. Just an Iranian scientist. Just an Iranian. Nothing else enters that exchange.
Therein lies the rub for every Iranian, no matter on what end of the political spectrum. Iranians do have faces, they have thoughts and passions, they go to the theater, they read books, they watch films, they fight against each other, they pray, they don’t pray. They drink alcohol and they don’t. Many of them prefer to wear a veil and many of them despise it. They are, in the end, complicated and layered and textured, like anybody else. Yet their various portrayals in the West over the last three decades have been anything but. Iranian artists, among others, probably carry some of this blame. Especially in the last 15 years, while the visual artists, filmmakers, and memoirists have been cleverly cleaning house in the international circuit, there has been a real divide between their efforts and the multi-layered country they propose to portray. The carefully calibrated reductive nature of much of these works usually diminishes the complexities of an ancient people to nothing more than a dubious obsession with a woman’s veil or a quaint image of the village or the hard partying of Tehran’s rich set who represent nobody, not even themselves.
Now, in this vacuous muddle of political chic and seasoned disingenuousness enters Asghar Farhadi. Farhadi makes films for Iranians, not film festivals, but wins at those festivals anyway because his themes are universal and the issues he raises are real. This year’s Golden Globe winner, and in hard running for the Oscar, is A Separation. The film is about the struggling marriage of an Iranian couple, with their daughter caught in the middle. But like much of Farhadi’s previous films, all of them equally accomplished, the themes of money, class, betrayal, innate humanity, and having to make enormously hard choices are never far from the surface.
I was still ruined, however. Farhadi’s win at the Golden Globes did not alleviate my financial woes. Bread got even more expensive. And one day when I went to buy a cup of espresso, the fellow wanted to charge me the equivalent of 3 U.S. dollars (an egregious sum for coffee in Tehran), saying that soon there would not be any coffee to be had at all. And so I declined the coffee and had tea at a cheap teahouse instead. When Majed came back from Baluchistan he was bone tired. He’d been living the equivalent of the life of a U.S. Marine Recon in the midst of war for a week, but mostly catching Pakistani livestock and poor Afghans pouring over the border to head to Tehran for work. We laughed a little over my money problems and the bigger calamity to come for everybody else, and we talked about Farhadi’s win at the Globes. Then Majed pointed to the highway we were driving on and said, “You see all this here? Next time you come, none of it will be around. We’re going back to square one, the dark ages. Back to war and shortage, like the old days.”
Funny thing, waiting for a war. You wish for it to never come. At the same time you quietly hope that it comes quickly so you can get it over with and be able to breathe again. There is a moment in A Separation where the daughter of the couple is asked by the judge if she has finally chosen which of her parents she is going to live with. It is a scene of unbearable clarity and tension. It is the world of partings and of things simply just not working out in the end. We don’t, thankfully, get to see the daughter’s decision in the movie. Life is far more complicated that way. For Iranians. And for everybody else.