Patricia Baker PhD really digs Iranian history, the older the better. In fact, her passion for history is inversely proportional to her concern with the here and now, or the living, breathing people that populate it. Patricia Baker PhD was doubtless a perfectly lovely and benign lady who spent her life swooning over Islamic ceramics and shunning the company of people, the messy things that they are. Unfortunately she is also the main author of our Bradt guidebook, which does a splendid job of detailing every brick of historical importance, but is of no use to a traveller looking to connect with a more contemporary side of Iran.
According to our guidebook “no visit to Esfahan would be complete without visiting the Masjed-e Jame” and, exhibiting slight symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome, we went there in a last-ditch attempt to bolster our tourist credentials and earn Patricia’s approval.
Zahra approached us as we were sitting on a bench, failing to find the mosque which, according to the map, we should be sitting on top of. A slight girl wrapped in a flowing black chador strode purposefully towards me, followed by a short veiled woman and an energetic man with a loping stride.
“Hello, sorry, what is your name?”
Only her small hands and the brown oval of her face were visible from under the black veil, but judging by her easy smile, confident command of English and the western cut of her father’s suit she did not hail from the conservative circles. She introduced her parents, Mohammed and Fatemah and, after exchanging the usual pleasantries, invited us to her family home for lunch. Eager to gain insight into everyday Iranian life with the additional bonus of an English translator, we happily accepted.
Zahra Sadeghi was on the verge of turning sixteen, a high school student who wished to study medicine at university. English lessons in Iranian school are rudimentary at best, mostly focusing on grammar and a couple of stock phrases, so she took extra English classes and made a habit of adopting tourists for a day or two, exchanging a pleasant family meal for a couple of hours’ conversation.
Her family had a small house in the suburbs of Esfahan, which they had built themselves, and as we pulled into the street following their car the roar of our bike attracted some of the neighboring children into the courtyard.
In a traditional Iranian house life revolves around a big room that serves as a living room, dining room and, if need be, as a bedroom. The floor was covered wall to wall with Persian carpets and large pillows lined the walls, with a flat screen TV, nowadays almost an obligatory part of the inventory, standing in the corner. We made ourselves comfortable on the floor and sipped sweet tea, the focal point of every Iranian social interaction. Fatemah began preparing lunch and the men started discussing the dark arts of motorcycle maintenance. Looking around the room I saw a framed photograph of Zahra’s grandfather as a young man, surveying the room with melancholy eyes. He must have gone to a professional photographer to have the portrait taken and I notice that he chose to wear a brown suit and a tie for this important occasion. He has a clean-shaven face, except for a meticulously groomed mustache.
Such mundane details tell volumes about Iranian history. In post-revolution Iran neckties are viewed by the ruling clergy as a symbol of the “depraved West” and it is forbidden to wear them in governmental buildings. It is not explicitly forbidden to wear one in public spaces, but doing so would make for quite a political statement. In Iran, sartorial choices are often loaded with subtext. With men, their position on the conservative – liberal spectrum can often be gauged by the clothes they wear and the state of their facial hair, with bushy beards the domains of clerics and Hezbollahi types, a clean-shaven face the mark of the Westernized elite and the vast majority opting for a noncommittal stubble.
The politicized nature of personal appearance is felt most strongly by Iranian women. All women over the age of nine are required by law to adhere to the Islamic dress code or hijab, which conceals female curves and covers the hair and body, except for the face and hands. In practice, this leaves some room for interpretation. In Tehran, most women wear colourful headscarves and tightly tailored manteaus (long overcoats) that teeter on the verge of Islamic propriety, sometimes topped off with elaborate makeup and downright hysterical manicures. While such “westernized” interpretations of hijab are mostly tolerated these days as long as they tick all the boxes, the morality police still prowls the streets, on the lookout for slipping headscarves and inappropriate hemlines. Once out of Tehran, black chadors still reign supreme and remain one of the most recognizable symbols of Iran.
Once at home, Zahra took off her own chador, under which she wore a black tunic and black slacks, and exchanged her tight black headscarf for a bright blue one, which she slung casually across her shoulders. Her mother had exchanged her traditional chador for a lighter one with a fine black and white print. They kept their heads covered because of my father’s presence. Zahra explained that she usually only wore her black chador for the Friday prayer at the mosque and preferred to wear colours, “especially yellow”. But we had arrived to Iran during the month of Muharram, in which Shi’a muslims mourn the death of Imam Hussein. In the ten days leading up to Ashura, the anniversary of his death, everyone wears black. Showing me pictures from a family holiday I see her aunties and cousins in colourful coats and scarves laughing at the camera, her uncle doting on his newborn baby, and kids rolling down sand dunes and collapsing in giggles at the bottom.
When lunch was ready Zahra and her mother spread a white plastic tablecloth on the carpet, on which they set a basket of naan, a bowl of vegetable stew, a gigantic platter of rice and onion quarters, which are eaten raw. Zahra had changed her headscarf again, now wearing a light silk scarf in bright yellow and orange. She had tied it under her chin, insisting that her blue scarf was impractical while eating. I nodded sagely and dipped the end of my long shawl into the soup three minutes later.
After lunch the girl I had seen on the street upon our arrival dropped by with her younger sister in tow in order to get a better look at the foreigners. She was eleven years old and had proudly changed into her best chador for us, made of black silk with a silver pattern on her sleeves. Zahra had told me earlier that most girls look forward to receiving their first chador and often play dress-up with their mothers’ scarves much like European girls like to totter around in their mothers’ stilettos.
Before we leave I wish Zahra a happy birthday – she will be celebrating her sixteenth birthday the next day and I wonder whether laws prohibiting dancing and mixed-sex parties might soon become a concern for her. Zahra does not mind having to cover up – she grew up in the Islamic republic and for her wearing hijab is a fact of life that she willingly accepts as a devout Muslim. But the veiling of women is a matter of politics as much as religion, and as a smart and determined girl bound for a good university a first taste of reformist ideas might make her reconsider her position.
Many women wear the veil voluntarily, and would continue to do so even if the laws enforcing hijab were lifted. However, a considerable amount of women consider it a necessary evil and an invasion of their personal rights. As I boarded my flight from Doha to Tehran the week before, only a couple of women had their heads covered, most wearing their silk scarves around the neck. The moment the plane hit the tarmac at Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran, the women, almost in unison, reached up and draped the scarves over their hair.
In the afternoon I went for a ramble down the noisy Chahar Bagh road, wrestling with a cup of bastani, the delicious Iranian ice cream with a slightly chewy consistency that requires expert spoon-handling. I was heading for the Siose bridge, another apparent must-see, which now stretches over a dry riverbed. Particia Baker PhD dutifully outlined the history of this Saffavid-era marvel, yet I felt that I was failing her again. Staring at the admittedly pretty bridge I still found the people walking it much more interesting than the bricks under their feet. Groups of young men were enjoying the evening sun, an old man in a grey suit walked across at a glacial pace and kids played hide and seek under the bridge, where the Zayandeh river used to flow.
It’s a shame that I never got to see the Jameh mosque. I have no doubt that it’s everything a Friday mosque is supposed to be, and more. But I felt that my visit to Esfahan was made much more complete by the afternoon spent in Zahra’s company than it would have been had I spent it looking at fountains and minarets.
It was early in the afternoon and there was still time for redemption – we could drive back to the mosque, or perhaps go look at a “possibly Seljuk mid 12th century” minaret around the corner.
But we had a date with Monsieur Ali, a french-speaking Iranian who, smitten by my father’s white beard and broken French instantly pronounced him to be ”un homme très gentil et très jolie” and insisted that we join him at his mosque for the evening’s mourning ceremony.
It was a small mosque, he said, and relatively new. The minarets were not an architectural wonder and the tiles had zero historical value. And there were people! Real living, breathing people, who gathered there every evening during the month of Muharram to mourn the death of Imam Hossein*. Patricia Baker PhD would not approve.
* If you have no idea what I’m talking about tune in for the next installment, in which I will let my anthropological freak flag fly by rambling at excessive length about Shi’a mourning ceremonies, the “cult of martyrdom” in past and contemporary Iranian society and the discomfort of being an atheist at religious ceremonies.