Sex & the Islamic City

The diary of a love affair in Iran.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Sex and the Islamic City: part 11

Finally I am sitting on a bus heading west. After mounting a united offensive of untruths, my lover and I have managed to convince both our families that my visit to Kurdistan is purely for work and that, for the two days we have decided it is safe for me to visit, I will in fact be in another town on the other side of the mountains that he lives by. For reasons that took me a while to understand, my lover has persuaded me that to stay for more than two days will be too suspicious so I have agreed to arrive on Tuesday morning so that we have until Thursday alone, at which point, when he finishes work at lunchtime for the weekend, I can return with him to his home town and family.

I am so excited by the prospect of having time alone with him that I happily ignore its brevity. I know that he will have to go to work every day and that in truth we will only have the afternoons and evenings but after three weeks of separation and having only ever spent one whole night together, we are intoxicated by the idea of two days in a row alone, with no one else to disturb us. I know that I will have to stay indoors for the duration, never leaving his house in case I am seen (‘You ok with being a prisoner, English?’ he asks me, and I sigh happily, ‘Prisoner of love, how romantic…’) but I can’t imagine anything I want more right now than to spend my days waiting for him to come home and make love to me. Who needs fresh air when you have earth-moving sex?

So here I am on a bus that will spend the next 12 hours winding across Iran to arrive early tomorrow morning in the main square of his town. I have solicited the help of K, one of my male cousins, to take me to the bus station, a place so vast and filled with smoke and noise that it feels impossible for a girl to negotiate alone. K is a body builder and likes to wear shirts that show off his muscles (much to the delight of my senile grandmother who has lost her inhibitions – and indeed mind – to the point that she openly fondles his chest when he comes to visit, wreathed in kittenish smiles all the while) so I feel safe with him in such places. He also showers himself in very spicy aftershave so provides protection from the smoke that way too. Tehran’s four bus stations, each located in a different corner of town for easy access to the four corners of the country, are extraordinary places, filled with men shouting out various destinations in a voice and manner reminiscent of race track bookies. All is, seemingly, chaos, but K weaves his way through to buy me two tickets (‘to make sure you get to sit alone and are comfortable,’ he tells me) and delivers me – moving in the fog of All Spice – to a bus that bears no sign or indication of its destination, bar the fact that the driver and his helpers are all Kurdish.

Finally we set off. Minutes pass like hours, I look at my watch every few seconds, it seems. I have never known time to pass so slowly. I ring my lover to tell him we have set off. ‘Ring me when you have stopped for supper,’ he instructs, ‘Then I will be able to work out when you will get here.’ He is at his parents’ house so we cannot talk but the excitement that bubbles in his voice is enough to make me smile for the duration of the journey. Which is just as well for I am too restless to sleep and in the one moment I drop off, the bus driver decides to tune into the soap opera that has gripped the whole nation and I have to surrender to the noise and watch too. When it is over I can no longer sleep so I stuff my iPod headphones into my ears and watch several episodes of Lost, so drawn in that when we draw up at a service station in the middle of nowhere and I am obliged to leave the bus, I blink to find myself back in Iran.

And it soon becomes clear that I really am in Iran. My life in Tehran has protected me from the realities of the Islamic Republic recently. But here, in the middle of the night, in the middle of the wilderness, I start to realise why my lover was so anxious that I shouldn’t make this journey in secret. I am a young woman alone and as such am like some rare exotic species. The place, a vast restaurant lit with neon lights and filled with bustle, has men pouring in and out, and the only women I see are enveloped in black chadors (the voluminous fabric that covers women from head to toe) and are attached firmly to their men. On a previous bus journey an older lone woman had befriended me so that, during our nocturnal stop, we had not been alone. But tonight no such companion offered herself and I was left to gingerly pick my way through the crowds on my own to find the washrooms.

Reader let me tell you that next to these crow-like women wrapped in yards of black fabric, I look like a tropical flower, with my navy silk headscarf splashed with flowers of fuchsia, turquoise and cream, navy manteau falling in folds to my knees (my one concession to my journey was to swap the skin-tight manteau I wear in Tehran which skims my bum with this looser, longer version for ease of travel) and white linen Armani palazzo pants over towering wedge sandals through which peek out tanned toes with their fuchsia nail varnish so bright it is almost fluorescent. I am even wearing eyeliner and mascara, so keen am I to step off the bus looking glamorous for my lover, who has most recently seen me only in ‘on the road’ mode, in trainers and covered in dust.

But standing here at this service station in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere, I am attracting a lot of attention and my Nars Schiap nail varnish, which made so much sense when I purchased it in Selfridges, suddenly doesn’t seem like the best idea. I want to get back on the bus but it is locked and the driver and his team lost somewhere in the neon, so I find a seat outside at the end of the row and sit down gingerly, training my eyes to the ground. Even I have learnt by now that were I to return any of the looks the passing men throw me, I could be in real danger of being seriously propositioned. These are not sophisticated people and for them a lone woman looking back at a man can only mean one thing: acquiescing to sex.

It is with relief that an uneventful 30 minutes later I get back on the bus. The remaining five hours pass in a mix of restless sleep and restless waking until finally I recognise the orange and green neon palm trees that grace the main square of his hometown, just as light is beginning to streak the dark sky. I begin to thrill, I know he is here, just now waking up to sneak out quietly from the family home to meet me in the town an hour away where he works. I wash out my mouth, check my make up in the mirror and put on some lip gloss. I see the driver watching me in the mirror and I shrug: he definitely thinks I am a whore now. After this, every time I look up I catch his eye in the mirror so I am forced to keep my gaze fixed out of the window on the mountains and the valleys we are winding through. My heart sings to be back in my lover’s golden country and at the thought that any minute I may see his car overtaking us. Then my phone rings, it is him and it turns out he has only just set out, meaning he is at least 20 minutes behind us. He tells me where to alight from the bus and says, ‘I will get there as quickly as I can English, don’t worry, I won’t let you stand there alone too long.’

But how long is too long? Suddenly I am in a panic. When we were last in his town, he often wouldn’t let me get out of the car alone, so dangerously forward are the men there. Now I was going to be standing in the main square at 6 in the morning, all florid in fuchsia and turquoise in high heels with kohl-rimmed eyes, all alone. I was convinced that even 15 minutes was long enough for me to be kidnapped and raped and equally convinced that if he speeded up his journey, he would fall off the mountain and kill himself. The anxiety gets more acute as the bus stops and I get off and take myself to the side of the road, reaching into my bag to find my phone. As I stand up, phone in hand, my lover pulls up beside me, and I am sure the beam of my smile eclipses the new-born sun in that moment. I jump in. ‘But how did you get here so quickly?’ I ask. He looks tired, there are still pillow marks on his face. He beams back at me. ‘I told you I wouldn’t let you stand here alone.’

Oh yes he did. And as our smiles meet and we both laugh out loud in delight, I feel he couldn’t be more of a hero than if he had arrived on a white charger.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Sex and the Islamic City: part 10

There are many differences between East and West that have become clichés over time. I used to think that the fabled Eastern fatalism was almost as much of a myth as Western ‘can do’ but after three months in Iran, I am not so sure.

My lover and I are separated as much, I am beginning to think, by culture as by the vast distance and soaring mountains that stand between my life in Tehran and his in the border town in the west of Iran where he works. The Islamic regime’s Sharia (Islamic) law makes our relationship illegal, worthy of flogging and possibly jail, while the culture refuses to accept that we should want to love each other outside of the bonds of marriage. Our different upbringing – his in the lap of his huge family in their ancient homeland of Kurdistan, mine torn away from my people and instead entrusted to the care of Christian evangelists in drizzly Sussex – means that the one thing we cannot talk to each other about is the future. Since meeting my lover eight years ago while we were both staying with mutual family in Tehran, he in town for one year of his National Service and me in town for a three-week visit to my roots, I have been constantly amazed by our ability to talk about everything. To cut across differences in language, culture and upbringing to find in each other a twin heart and matched brain.

Our courtship took place slowly and, though I knew immediately that we had a special attraction, I never thought there was the possibility of any actual romance between us. In reality we had first met as small children. About a year before we left Iran, my family had spent a week in Kurdistan for a wedding, and we had hooked up with his family to hire a bus to take the legion of our combined numbers sightseeing, a gaggle of joking adults and tumbling children. History hasn’t recorded what my lover and I said to each other then, but if future relations are anything to go by, I may have stroked his head while he regarded me with serious brown eyes before breaking into a wide smile.

Despite the lack of memory of our first meeting, our subsequent meetings as adults are burnt into our brains. Talking now about the last eight years, we discover that we both remember every touch and glance that passed between us. Somehow these glances turned into fluttering touches and somehow that all culminated in a conversation that took place over the phone after my last trip. We were finally left in no doubt as to our feelings for each other and, while at first I found it extraordinary to be discussing with the man of whom I had resigned all hope of a physical relationship, the fact that yes, I wanted to sleep with him, I soon was revelling in the fact that we really could talk about anything.

But now, our physical relationship consummated, and the conflagration of desire so uncontrollable in us both, we suddenly stumble at what should be the simplest conversation. ‘What now?’ I want to say, ‘How can we arrange our lives to be together?’ But he, presuming that I will one day soon return to London, occasionally refers to the future only in terms of my visits. ‘Listen my love,’ he says, ‘When we next see each other is up to you, how quickly you can come back.’

‘Come back for what?’ I say nastily, hurt he isn’t asking me to stay. ‘Come back so I can be in Tehran and you can be there and we can not see each other?’

He sighs but says nothing. In reality I know he admires my independence and respects my dedication to my career too much to contemplate asking me to stay. ‘Imagine you living in my town English,’ he said once, ‘you would be like a prisoner here.’

But since falling so hard for him I have started to wonder about the meaning of freedom and I have found myself contemplating the possibility of life as a provincial Iranian wife. Though I have no great desire for marriage, even I realise that this is the only way we can be together, either in his country which won’t allow us any other form of open contact, or in mine where he would not be granted leave to stay any other way. But marriage is a scary word in any language so instead I turn my agile Western mind to solving the immediate problem of our current separation. My lover’s Eastern heart may be adept at surrendering to the frustrations and limitations of his life (‘But this is the way it is English,’ he says repeatedly, ‘we have to accept our situation. I mind as much as you do, but what can we do?’), but I cannot. I am a problem-solver of the type so beloved of US corporate management gurus. And so before long, I come up with a plan, one that will withstand the scrutiny of both our families, particularly my suspicious aunts, and have me on a bus to Kurdistan within days with everyone’s blessing.

I tell him my idea. For a moment he is silent and I hold my breath: ‘OK, now you are going to tell me all the ways in which my perfect plan is, in fact, impossible.’

Him: ‘Actually English, it is a perfect plan. Well done,’ I can hear he is impressed, ‘you are smarter than me.’

Me: ‘Clearly. Now, how long shall I stay?’

Him: ‘Love of my life, my beautiful flower, why don’t you stay for ever?’

Me: ‘Do you know, I think I will.’

And for that moment, as we smiled down the phone at each other, thrilling at our imminent meeting and feeling triumphant at outwitting the conventions of the Islamic Republic, in that one moment, we said all we needed to about the future.

Sex and the Islamic City: part 9

I have now been apart from my lover for three weeks and I am losing my mind a little. I know this because a note of desperation is creeping into our conversations and I am finding the phone calls, even when they go on for two hours and climax in a, er, climax, to be increasingly unsatisfying. On Thursdays and Fridays when he is back with his parents and cannot talk to me, I find the days almost unbearably hard to get through. I am fighting myself to control my need of him and, on the occasions when we talk, the fact that he cannot give me an answer as to when we will meet again grates on my nerves. I don’t say anything though, because I know that it is not in his hands, he cannot get time off work and he lives too far away to come to Tehran for the day and a half that constitutes his weekend.

But it is not in my nature to be so accepting and there is a small part of me, growing ever bigger, that wants to scream that there must be something he can do, that he can’t just be helpless in the face of all the forces that keep us apart. And because this is how my mind is set, it is becoming harder not to feel somehow rejected by his inability to change the world we are living in so that we can be together.

One morning he rings me. It is unexpected, usually he never rings while he is at work. ‘I sneaked out for ten minutes to talk to you,’ he says, ‘I am missing you so badly English, I was desperate to hear your voice.’ I ask him whether he knows yet if he can get time off work to come and see me, and he says it is unlikely. ‘Well,’ I declare dramatically, ‘If you can’t come and see me then I will come to you!’

‘I know you will,’ he says quietly. And as soon as he says that I also realise that, yes, of course I will. It’s just that I hadn’t known myself until he said so, and I am surprised that he knows me so well. Then I remember my gentle friend who has spent eight years getting on a bus for twelve hours at a time just to come and sit next to me for three days. My sweet friend with his soft Kurdish accent who has spent years patiently helping me find the right words, listening hard to what I am trying to say in my broken Farsi, and understanding me anyway when I fail. My lovely friend who has always been the one to ring me in London when I have gone AWOL for months and kind of forgotten him, the one who sends the email saying I miss you, I am waiting for you. The one who has sat and patiently waited for me to return as promised months turned into years without ever complaining or holding me to account. So I remember all this and I feel moved by our little story… until my tender thoughts are interrupted by him saying: ‘You know of course that you can’t come?’

I say nothing but my silence speaks volumes. ‘Please my love,’ he pleads, ‘You know I wish it of God to see you again, but think about it. For you to get up and come here, be on a bus overnight for twelve hours, to lie to everyone about where you are going. Do you think it’s wise?’

Me: ‘Well, I can see it’s risky and I don’t like that I have to lie but what’s the difference with you lying about coming to see me?’

Him: ‘Darling of my heart, if something happens to me on my way to Tehran, it’s not particularly suspicious that I am coming there, I have many friends there. But if you lie and say you are going, I don’t know, to the country to your friends, then you get on a bus to here, several hundred kilometres in the wrong direction, and something happens, what then? Who else could you have been going to see?’

I ponder his point. It is a good one.

Him: ‘My love, my life, don’t let’s risk everything, what we have had, what we can have in the future. If, may God not will it, something was to happen to you on the way – and you know the mountain roads are dangerous and you are a woman alone – and everyone was to find out about us…’ He doesn’t finish because it is beyond both our imaginations, the horror and shame of being discovered in our affair by our families.

I agree with him. I hate to admit it but as usual my lover has pointed out difficulties beyond the reach of a mind used to moving freely in the world and being autonomous. I hang up, feeling hopeless and deeply rebellious at the same time. My 17-year-old self would have thought nothing of getting on that bus, but 15 years later, I have seen more of life and am becoming cautious. I don’t wish to be the cause of the disgrace of my family, the skeleton forever threatening to fall out of the closet of both our tribes, souring a family relationship that has been sweet for generations and which, like a web, spreads out to include some of the people I most respect and care about in Iran. Unlike my 17-year-old self, I now accept that, for all my individualism, I do not operate in a vacuum, I come from a context that has meaning in this country, the country where I am from and where, after all, I am living right now.

In Iran you have a wealth of contexts. Not only are you Iranian, but you have an ethnicity within that – my lover is Kurdish, my friend M is Turkish – that often comes with its own language and culture and, like a Russian doll, sits within your overall Iranianess. Depending on the rootedness of your family, you will also have a place, the place where you are born is forever the part of the country you are associated with, ‘you are a child of Wherever’ we say. And then of course there is your family, the most important definition of all. Your family, and how it has conducted itself in the past, can make or break your life, especially as a woman. The behaviour of every member of that unit has a bearing on the whole, both for good and bad, and when it comes to marriage, you cease to be an individual.

Marriage is the joining of two families and many love matches have been frustrated by the existence of a drug addict brother or the known existence of a past lover or fiancé. A good marriage for her child is still the goal of every mother in Iran. While things are changing, and the soaring divorce rate and rising age for marriage – young men take much longer to set themselves up in a decent life, with jobs being so hard to find, and young women usually want their men to be able to support them royally even if they themselves work – have made palatable many things that were in the past unacceptable, Iran is still far away from being a country where I can openly have a relationship with my lover, where our affair won’t cause heartache and distress to our families and won’t in the future affect my lover’s chances of finding a decent wife and saddle me with a ‘reputation’.

Of course, since I am an outsider my cautiousness is for my lover, but in fact, I am still Iranian enough for this form of social control to affect me. And though I know Iran will surely change and the bonds will surely loosen, I know this won’t happen quickly enough for my lover and I to be open about our love affair.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Sex & The Islamic City: part 8

In these days of war and international threat, life in Iran has taken an even stranger turn than usual. Inflation is raging, every day my aunts come back from the grocer with news that chicken has doubled in price or today tomatoes have become unaffordable. Evry day we seem to be saying goodbye to our wealthy friends who are leaving in droves for second homes in Canada, the UK and Dubai. Those who can't leave but have the resources are transferring their assets out of the country. But ordinary Iranians who have no choice but to stay here and face whatever comes instead are too busy enjoying themselves to even comment, busy having fun with increasing urgency.

They don’t talk about war or sanctions but instead plan parties and holidays; the cult of bi khial is taking on epidemic proportions. It is only within the foreign community that these things are discussed, among the diplomats, foreign correspondents and hyphenated Iranians like me (British-Iranian or American-Iranian). We stand around sipping fine wines safe within the walls of embassy compounds revelling in diplomatic immunity, wondering what will happen. We can do this because we all have a choice, we can decide to leave. We all have other passports, other lives, other homes and other bank accounts with foreign currency waiting for us in our other countries. Ordinary Iranians, for better or worse, have to live with whatever happens, and since what will happen is not in their hands, ordinary Iranians choose to not to take anything very seriously, instead pouring their energy into diversions. And as I soon found out, one of the biggest diversions of all is sex.

My lover called me late one evening and instead of discussing the possible threat of war, I asked how the passeggiata had been. ‘Well,’ he said with a note of pride, ‘it was interesting tonight. I was in a really bad mood and I got so many looks! I could have got lots of new “friends” tonight…’

I have seen this small town passeggiata for myself and it is a vibrant scene, with boys gelled to perfection and girls made up as if for a wedding. I have also noticed the looks that pass between boys and girls, having been on the receiving end of several of them myself. Being English by upbringing, I have a habit of looking people in the eye and so when the passeggiata boys threw me those looks, I looked back, noticing a crescendo effect in the suggestiveness of the looks that came back. So I learnt to drop my gaze and adopt a degree of Islamic modesty at this late point in my life.

Me: ‘What do you mean looks? What do you mean friends?’

Him: ‘Well, you know, girls look at you to let you know they fancy you and you can start something with them.’

Me: ‘Oh, and did you want to start anything tonight??’

Him: ‘Listen, English, since you have been in the country I haven’t started anything new. I don’t want to. Because I am in love with you so even though I know you will leave, I can’t get interested in anyone else.’

That’s when he explained to me what a loose concept fidelity has become in Iran. By the rules of engagement here, he is perfectly free to pick up other girls – we are not married, I am not with him and soon, I will be on the other side of the world, with no future decided between us. So I had to appreciate his forbearance.

Me: ‘OK, thanks. So tell me how it works?’

In Iran, where all contact between the sexes is tightly controlled by both the family and the Islamic regime, people – young people but by no means is this behaviour just restricted to the young – have found their way around the rules and, particularly now that the mobile phone and internet chat room have given boys and girls a private domain of their own, have carved a new social code that is anathema to the courting rituals understood by their parents. As ways to meet the opposite sex are thin on the ground, the contact possible on the street is precious. So in my lover’s small town, the passeggiata is the time to meet members of the opposite sex. I say ‘meet’ but in reality what happens is a mere exchange of glances; just two are enough to let you know if a girl is interested, says my lover. ‘She looks at you in a certain way and you look at her and then she may do something that indicates she likes you. You know a small smile or, well, a look…’

I ask him to be more precise but he struggles to explain. It seems you just have to be there.

Once the interest has been established then the man will follow the girl and her friends until an opportunity presents itself to speak. ‘Of course in small towns it is hard to go up to someone and speak to them. But in a crowded shop or something, then you can approach them and give them your phone number.’

Me: ‘What, just like that?’

Him: ‘You’ll say something like, I have something I need to say to you, I can’t tell you here, may I give you my number?’

Me: ‘What, and she just takes it?’

Him: ‘God no. You know how it is here. Girls are supposed to be modest so she will at least pretend she doesn’t understand you so you go back and forth a bit until she takes your number. Of course a few don’t bother pretending, they are just up for it.’

Me: ‘Hmm…’

He went to on to tell me that in his town, you can’t always approach people and so you have to pass the girl in question a note as you pass her in a narrow alley or some such place. ‘Actually,’ he says, ‘this way is the most fun. It’s not even about the girl, but just about the hunt, about managing to make the contact, give the number. It’s quite exciting.’

I am amazed by the thought of my lover and his friends out every evening hunting the narrow streets.

Him: ‘Well, so you give her the number and she does the honour of calling you.’

Me: ‘And you don’t even know her name or she yours?’

Him: ‘No, but you chat on the phone and get to know each other a bit and then look for an opportunity to be alone. Of course it’s easy for me because I have my own house, so usually after about two or three phone calls, I invite them round if I still fancy them.’

I say nothing. Rather unreasonably, I am burning up with jealousy of every girl in his town.

He goes on: ‘You both know you want to meet up for sex, but you have to pretend. You say things like, let’s be somewhere where we can talk comfortably, or some girls like bullshit like, please come over so we can read poetry together.’

Me: ‘Poetry!’

Him: ‘Well, you know, Hafez, Sa’adi, Maulana. So they come over though you have to persuade them a bit cos they can’t be seen to be too easy. And you should see them, English, they come all scared of being spotted and then sit on the other side of the sofa and some don’t even take off their headscarf or manteau. You can tell perfectly well they aren’t really virgins or religious but they have to pretend till the last moment in order to preserve their honour. And the smaller the town, the more they talk of marriage. You kiss them and they immediately say you should go round for a formal courtship. I always tell them straight away this isn’t about marriage but it’s like they just have to keep on pretending. And you know, what’s worse is that they want you to pretend. They want you to lie to them, to tell them you are in love with them and you can’t live without them. Even though you both know you will probably never see each other again after you have fucked. Mostly it’s like that.’

Me: ‘Can you be bothered to do all this?’ My lover is one of the most honest and straightforward people I know.

Him: ‘No, I can’t really do the bullshit, which means lots of times it doesn’t work out for me. Which I prefer – you know there have been times when I am inside some girl and she is still trying to pretend that we are reading poetry!’

Me: ‘Darling, don’t you think this is a bit, well, messed up?’

Him: ‘My love, this is Iran. Haven’t you worked it out yet? Everyone here is acting in a film. Everything is changing, particularly for women who are no longer into their traditional roles but society hasn’t caught up, so they just do what they want and pretend they are doing something else all the while to make it palatable. They even lie to themselves. No one can deal with reality, and they prefer the film anyway. There are 70 million people in this country, English, and they are all giving Oscar winning performances.’

Me: ‘But not you?’

Him: ‘Oh I can act too. But, darling of my heart, with you I don’t have to, I can be myself. That’s why you are my best friend.’

And I realise in this world of pretence and deception, where in order to survive you have to lie to your family, friends, lovers and even to yourself, this is the biggest gift he can give me – his real, honest self.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Sex and the Islamic City: part 7

Living in Tehran is not exactly like living in London, where I have a variety of ways to entertain myself any given minute of the day (nearly). It may be that a simple desire to go for a swim here is attended by the hassle of finding a pool which allows women to swim on the day and time I wish to go (of course swimming pools are strictly segregated); and going out to the latest hot restaurant, movie or concert may mean having to stay dressed in my manteau and headscarf throughout the evening, but at least there are some options. At least, of an evening when my date comes to pick me up to escort me to a party, I feel safe in the knowledge that the doorman of my very posh tower block is not going to ring the religious police to report me for being alone with a man, and as for his opinion of me – this foreign Iranian who only ever has gentlemen callers – I care not a jot.

The cultural life of Tehran is surprisingly rich, with private views of art, secret screenings of controversial documentaries and movies, underground rock concerts, officially sanctioned classical concerts, and even illegal fashion shows on offer almost every night, as long as you know the right people. Alternatively you can get on the party circuit with Tehran’s rich and beautiful, those expensively-suited men and their glossy, whippet thin wives who live in penthouse suites of marble towers or behind the walls of sprawling villas in the north of Tehran in the lap of the mountains. If this isn’t your scene then you can penetrate the circle of foreign journalists, diplomats and NGO workers with their unkempt hair who observe life in the city with a wry detachment always amusing to a girl missing the dry British sense of humour and longing to party in jeans with a face bare of the thick make up that is de rigueur in society here.

When I get bored during the day, I slick on some lipstick and ring my most glamorous cousin who screeches up at the gates in her huge white SUV, a pair of outsize Chanel sunglasses perched atop expensively blonde hair and the season’s latest silk headscarf knotted loosely at her throat. She takes me off to a number of very shiny shopping malls in the north of Tehran where we browse designer boutiques and drink coffee in wannabee coffee shops called things like Starcups. We swap gossip about the family, discuss the best shape for me to train my eyebrows into and laugh at the fashionistas who have taken the summer’s tanned look a little too far and are glowing bright orange. She drops me off when she has to pick up her son from his round of classes, always leaving me with a party invite. I love my cousin and I enjoy dipping into her Yummy Mummy routine once in a while, but after attending several of her parties, I feel life is too short for the vapid conversation and explicit competition that characterises the interaction of these Yummies when they are gathered together with their husbands.

Life in my lover’s town couldn’t be more different. With a population of 100,000 people, the quickest walk through town is delayed by hundreds of stops to ask after the health of my lover’s legion of acquaintances. With no recreation on offer, not even a cinema in town, come the early evening when the summer weather has cooled, everyone pours into the streets. Gangs of girls congregate and gangs of boys dawdle and they throng the bazaar and coffee shops and parks. It is a nightly passeggiata of which the Italians would be proud, and, despite the paucity of the entertainment on offer, everyone is determined to enjoy themselves.

While I was staying with my lover’s family, the Friday night passeggiata was the most extravagant of the week. Friday being the Sabbath here, and my lover’s home town being set in beautiful mountain country, it is traditional for families to spend Friday out of town, enjoying the multi-generational, elaborate picnics I remember so fondly from my childhood. Just after dawn we would start packing the car with essentials: a samovar and tea pot, a few pans full of saffron lemon chicken to kebab, rice and herbs, quantities of flat bread, flasks of water, the yoghurt drink so good at sending you off on an afternoon nap, and a few Persian carpets and cushions to sit on. The whole family would pack into several cars and by the time the sun was up in the sky, we would be breakfasting under a tree in golden fields. An excursion would follow, perhaps to an ancient fortress so neglected we would be the only people there (it’s hard to imagine a 2,500-year old fortress in Europe begin thus ignored) after which we – the young people – would maybe climb a mountain, my lover and I racing to get away from his brother in law and younger brother to steal a kiss. Panoramic views and cool breezes would greet us at the top, and we would spot where his parents and the other women of the family had gathered to start cooking lunch before racing back down, avoiding the locusts and the geckos, to join them.

Lounging on the carpets in the embrace of a venerable walnut tree, we would be fed steaming hot rice stained with saffron and chicken kebabed on an open fire. Afterwards, we would all lie back and doze, my lover lying on one carpet between his brother, father and brother-in-laws while I shared my carpet with his sisters and mother and little nephews and although I would be careful not to look at him too much, lying there under the walnut tree in acres of gold with folds of mountains stretching away, watching butterflies swoop and my lover sleep on a beautiful carpet in the middle of his tribe, was enough to make me feel content with my lot.

Back from our old fashioned day, my lover would then bundle me into the car and insist we go on passeggiata. Usually these days were long and I wanted nothing other than to sit in front of the television with more tea chuckling at inanities with his mother, but he would insist and we would arrive where a handful of cars were parked overlooking a main square and a park. It was crowded, the streets full of cars for once driving very slowly instead of the usual breakneck speed and the pavements thick with people. The first time he took me to this spot he explained that this patch belonged to just a handful of families who came here every Friday, since it was a prime spot for seeing and being seen.

Me: ‘But look, why are we here? Aren’t you tired? I really need to be at home having a shower…’

Him: ‘Patience, English, I’ll tell you why I insisted later…’

I acquiesced and, joined by his sisters and their husbands, we stood about by the car, greeting friends who drove up and crunching sunflower seeds. I noticed that he was not keeping his distance from me as he usually did, standing so close to me as we talked that I could feel his breath on my face. After having to fight all my instincts to be close to him all day, this sudden public intimacy was intoxicating. It was also puzzling, until I noticed how all the other girls gathered around were looking at us.

When no one was within earshot, I leaned into him and asked what was going on.

Him: ‘See how everyone is looking? Now they are all going to think I have found a fiancée and not told anyone. It’ll be the week’s headline news for all the gossips. It’s just too irresistible.’

Me: ‘So you are using me to get everyone off your back?’

Him: ‘You know how the big topic in town is why I don’t take a wife? Let’s give them something to talk about.’

Me: ‘What about your reputation?’

Him: ‘Well English, you are our honoured foreign guest, and all the gossips will be frustrated once word reaches my parents and they laugh and say that you are like a sister to me.’

Me: ‘Am I like a sister to you?’

Him: ‘Darling of my heart… Shall I kiss you right here right now? Would that answer your question?’

Me: ‘Oh yes please…’

And as we leaned into each other, locked into each other’s eyes, the cars and the lights and the jealous girls melted away and for one delirious moment we nearly broke every rule and convention and law and kissed right there and then. Of course our lips never actually met but the fire between us was burning so bright it must have dazzled anyone paying attention. And we looked at each other and laughed. After all, what could they say when I was his honoured guest and like a sister to him…

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Saturday, December 02, 2006

Sex & The Islamic City: part 6

A few days ago I ran away from my family’s Sad Flat with the daily round of teenage tantrums and old lady smells to take up residence in one of Tehran’s most distinguished tower blocks. With its doorman, 24-hour security, tinkling fountains in the front garden and clocks announcing the time in Tehran, London and New York in the lobby, it is clear this skyscraper’s spiritual home is Manhattan. However, unlike the Park Towers of Manhattan our Tehrani towers are not just known by their street numbers. Oh no, the delicacy of the Iranian sensibility is evident even in the midst of these most modern of edifices: our towers are called things like ‘Tower of Light’, ‘Tower of Shadow’, ‘The White Tower’, ‘Tower of Rain’ and most common of all are names of flowers. All over the north of Tehran bloom skyscrapers such as Lily Tower, Tower of Poppies, Tulip Towers, and my current favourite, The Fragrance of Roses Tower. Most famous of all is the Kooh-i-Noor Tower, ‘The Mountain of Light Tower’, named after the famous Iranian diamond the Kooh-i-Noor which now resides in the Tower of London (maybe it’s time for a rethink? Tower of Crows or Jewel Tower might do) as part of the British Crown Jewels.

Life in my tower is easy and comfortable. In the few days I have been here I have been seduced by life as lived by those northern Tehrani ladies who have plenty of money and nothing much to do. In London I may be a poverty-stricken writer, but here I am quite well off, at least for the purposes of daily life. I think nothing of spending the equivalent of £10 on a pretty silk headscarf and blowing £40 on treating a bunch of friends to dinner in a fashionable restaurant when a little further south, people struggle to live on £60 a month.

But regardless, I ask my doorman to call me a cab wherever I want to go, thinking nothing of spending up to £2 a trip on private taxis when I could instead line up at the end of the street shouting out my destination to passing savaris who load up to full capacity with people going the same way, and who cost on average 10 pence per trip. Now that I am here alone, and it is hot, savaris have lost the appeal they used to have when my then-platonic lover visited me in Tehran on previous trips.

A few years ago, we were able to hit the town alone for the first time in all the eight years we have known each other, a testament to the loosening of the tight social controls imposed by the Islamic Republic. Going back to the Sad Flat late at night after a movie or a meal, we would squeeze into full-to-bursting savaris, and there, in the back of the spluttering cab, I would find myself pinned tight against my lover and feel his heart beating as fast as mine. In those days, though we had declared our love for each other, neither of us had the courage to cross the huge cultural divide that yawned between us when it came to sexual relationships, he not knowing how he was supposed to make a move on an English girl and I simply lost in the sea of cultural misinformation that my old-fashioned family and the regime had fed me.

But in the back of those savaris we at last got close enough to allow our bodies to communicate directly. Pinned against him I felt the heat coming from his body and I rested my head on his shoulder. Or, with both of us squashed into the front seat, my lover trying not to sit on the gear stick, he had no choice but to put an arm around my shoulders, as much to stop me falling out of the car every time we took a corner at top speed as anything else. (These savaris are invariably old Paykans, an Iranian car now sadly discontinued but which are famous for their tenacity. It is said you can repair a Paykan with anything; one of my uncles once completed an eight-hour long journey in a Paykan held together by the skin of some persimmon fruit.) With his arm around me I would melt into my lover and carefully link my fingers through his and we would caress each other surreptitiously without saying anything or looking at each other directly, still leaving things superficially ambiguous.

It was more than two years before we finally kissed but it was the late-night journeys in the savaris that lit those particular fires.

Now, on my own in Tehran and suffering from the heat of the summer, I have no desire to become the object of some stranger’s fumbling attentions in a crowded savari. So I spend my money on private cabs with air conditioning on the increasingly rare occasions when I go out. Sitting up in my tower I have been overwhelmed by a desire not to break out of my bubble. With the trees and the fountain below me and the mountains right in front, I can happily spend my whole day watching the light change on the mountains, spotting the different butterflies swooping outside my tenth floor window, waiting for that time at the end of the day when Tehran’s strange flock of green parrots go rampaging through the skies, after which I switch to another room with its panoramic views west to watch the sun put on its nightly show of colour as it sets behind the mountains, all the time drinking endless cups of strong black tea which I have taken to sucking through a sugar cube held in my teeth. When I get hungry I pick up the phone and order some food to be delivered from the best restaurants in town; if I need groceries I ring the grocer who sends a man round; if I decide to travel out of town for the weekend, I ring the travel agent who books my plane ticket and sends it round in a cab. With the heat outside feeling unbearable, the thought of donning coat and headscarf to run a few chores is too bothersome, not to mention negotiating the legion of cars that end up following me down the street as I stride around, a single woman. The men in the cars – and even the ones who pass comment as they walk by – have so far proved themselves to be harmless, but it all conspires to make a girl stay locked up in her tower.

And, like a fairytale princess, I await my lover, who wakes me every day from my afternoon slumbers with, well, a phone call rather than a kiss. After all, this is modern life in the Islamic Republic of Iran, he lives many miles away from the bright lights of Tehran and the whole culture conspires to keep us apart. And so, like all good fairytales, we know we will have to overcome many obstacles before we reach our happy ending. It’s just that with all the internal and international uncertainties that govern life here, we also know that, like in all good fairytales, hundreds of years may pass before the evil forces that keep us apart can be defeated for good.

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Monday, November 27, 2006

Sex & The Islamic City: part 5

It was not long after my separation from my lover that we first had phone sex. I had been back in Tehran staying with my aunts in the Sad Flat for a few days when everyone went out to a wedding and I volunteered to stay home and look after my grandmother for the evening. She being happily off in la-la land, my lover took the opportunity to ring. The night before, in a studiously casual tone (in case my aunts were within hearing range, which they almost always are), I had told him of their plans to go out, saying, ‘Oh and guess who is getting married…’ He immediately understood and I knew he would ring me. And so he did. And we luxuriated in an uninhibited conversation for the first time in days, relieved at least to be able to be ourselves, even if we couldn’t be together.

Our lack of inhibitions led, quite naturally, onto the thing still on our minds: our mind-blowing sex. It was a small step from discussing our amazement at our athletic and mutual pleasure to partaking of the pleasure itself. Years ago I was in love with a man who lived in the most south-westerly corner of Europe and we endured frequent long separations. So I was necessarily used to the occasional bonding moment over the phone and though this was on my mind as I chatted to my lover, I still wasn’t sure of what was considered acceptable in Iranian sexual relationships. Yet again my lover shocked me by launching first into some frankly blue talk, describing in graphic detail what he would like to do to me were we together. Things escalated from there and afterwards I felt like the naughtiest girl in school: phone sex in the Islamic Republic, imagine that.

A few days later I decamped to a friend’s house in the country and there, for the next two weeks, my lover and I enjoyed nightly intimate bedtime chats that left us both exhausted and elated. With the uncertainty of when we would next meet always threatening to overwhelm us, this particular preoccupation not only helped us feel closer but also kept uncomfortable questions about our next meeting – and indeed our future – at bay.

It wasn’t until an innocent conversation with a friend turned my mind to darker things that we paused in our nocturnal activities. My friend M has been in Iran 5 months longer than me, and one day over lunch, she told me how, a few months into her trip she had received the call we all dread: from the Intelligence Service of the Islamic Republic of Iran. They had called her mobile and said, in an elaborately polite manner guaranteed to strike terror into our Western hearts: ‘Please, Miss M, do grace us with the honour of your presence at such and such a time.’

M is a feisty girl by nature. What’s more, she has been brought up in the West and is not used to accepting things without question. After a few months of being in Iran as a lone woman, she has also acquired an aggressive manner designed to deflect the unwelcome attentions women here face daily, from suggestive comments on the streets, to being felt up by strangers on crowded savaris (shared taxis) to being stopped on mountain trails by moral police dying to know how a woman thought she could do anything alone (‘Ladies, where is your man?’ we had been asked several times on a recent hike together). So instead of simply writing down the address which she had to grace with the honour of her presence, she instead challenged the speaker: ‘How did you get this number?’

She told me she could hear the speaker smiling. ‘Well, Miss M,’ it had declared in honeyed tones, suppressing a laugh, ‘We are the intelligence service, after all.’

She told me the interview had been painless, that their intentions were quite innocent, even that she could understand why she had been hauled in, bearing in mind her family history and the work she was engaged in. She skated over what must have been the terror of leaving her companion outside as she stepped into the building to present herself, not mentioning the thumping of her heart as she walked down the corridor adjusting ever tighter her headscarf; she didn’t have to tell me. As children who lived through the Revolution and familiar with the early days of terror of the Islamic regime, we both were fully aware of how easily she could have been swallowed up by that building, her companion left outside waiting fruitlessly for her re-emergence, of how she could have that day joined the ranks of the ‘disappeared’. But no, we agreed that of course they had a right to find out what she was up to, that it was understandable, and we supported each other in the lies you tell to try and normalise your situation in this strange society that we are living in.

Lying sprawled on my bed that night, I answered the phone to my lover. ‘Salaam English,’ he purred in his bedroom voice.

I tried to head him off. ‘Salaam to you,’ I said curtly, using the formal ‘you’ to try to put him off. It had the opposite effect.

‘Janam,’ he exclaimed with relish, ‘my life, my darling heart, what are you doing?’

Me: ‘Oh no. Listen, no more of that.’

Him: ‘Of what, darling of my heart? May I die for you…’

Me: ‘Stop the Iranian stuff. I am serious.’ We had long since decided that the elaborate and flowery terms of affection that colour the Farsi language – mostly all about sacrificing yourself for the beloved in some form or other – were perfect for love and we used them liberally.

Him: ‘OK, English, what’s up?’

I recounted M’s tale and how it had awakened in me the awareness that probably I was being watched, that our conversations were recorded, that we had used all sorts of people’s phones to have sex including my mobile which in reality belonged to a friend of mine currently in the States and how she was sure to be arrested and flogged for my lewd behaviour on her return. ‘I mean, what we are doing is illegal and apart from anything else can you imagine being found out and our families having to know…’ I finished with a flourish.

He chuckled softly. ‘Listen my darling,’ he said, ‘if the regime was going to go round arresting every single person who has phone sex, they would have no time left for anything else and you can bet the streets would be empty.’

I was stunned into silence. It had never occurred to me that what we were doing was anything less than totally unique. I had been secretly proud of my own daring and liberated sexuality, imagining I had taught my lover a whole new way of enjoying sex.

Me: ‘Do you mean you have done this before?’

Him: ‘My love, my life, darling of my heart… Of course I have.’

Me: ‘Oh… often?’

Him: ‘English, do you think you people invented sex? You know, it’s not always so easy to get together with someone here. And mobiles, well, they are at least more private. Most people live with their parents but at least now you can shut yourself in your room with your mobile.’

Me: ‘Oh…’ I am crestfallen.

Him: ‘Actually, lots of girls prefer it. It gives them a way to get sexual kicks without having to lose their virginity, risk being found out or feel they have done anything too wrong. In fact, recently it has become very fashionable…’

So I lie on my bed in the Islamic Republic of Iran while my lover whispers extravagant words of love and I imagine all those words on the ether, the sighs and moans, this removed intimacy being beamed over the country, the air thick with sex, and I am grateful at least that the trained ears of Iranian Intelligence won’t find anything in my pleasure too worthy of note. So I turn over in bed and sigh into the phone:

‘Darling of my heart… May I die for you…’

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Thursday, November 23, 2006

Sex and the Islamic City: part 4

My lover and I have taken to talking in bed. Since I live in Iran in the Sad Flat with a hundred relatives and share a room with one of my aunts, I go to bed earlier than everyone else (luckily they stay up preternaturally late) and dive under the covers with my mobile phone. Luckily for me mobiles are plentiful enough that even I have managed to get one for the duration of my visit, and again luckily for me, the reception under the covers is quite good, unlike in the rest of Tehran. If I didn’t have the mobile, our conversations would have to be limited to times I could call him from a phone box or the rare nights when my aunts all go out. Since he is a family friend, and since it has already been noted – and brought to my attention – that his visits to see me in Tehran over the last few years are regarded as somewhat inappropriate, there is no way I could speak to him from the landline every night, nor could he ring me openly.

Iranian families being what they are, should he call on the landline, I would only get handed the phone once he had made the ritualistic round of enquiries after everyone’s health and even then, someone could easily hang up the phone before it got to me, and of course I could never openly protest, nor could he ever openly ask to speak to me. And if we did manage to speak, our conversation would have to be light and appropriate: I would have to restrict myself to asking after the health of every member of his family, telling him what I have done only in terms of how much fun it was and how much he was missed, and this sort of ritualistic communication has never been satisfying to us.

Thanks to the wonders of technology, though, we can speak almost as often as we like. I say almost because after all I live with family, and even under the covers, I am aware that they are aware that I am on the phone to someone. Every minute that I am not in the communal spaces of the flat, my absence is quietly noted. While he is in his own house in the border town where he works during the week, my lover is free to speak as he will and he enjoys being deliberately salacious knowing I have to be conservative in my response. Come the weekends (here that means a half day on Thursday and all of Friday off), he goes back to his family home where the concept of private space is so alien that he doesn’t even have a room. His family’s living quarters are arranged around a huge sitting/dining room with open plan kitchen, opening to a long balcony at the end, with the four bedrooms opening off this main room. On the nights he is home, my lover sleeps here, making up a bed on the floor. His parents, sister and brother occupy three of the bedrooms and all doors remain open so every excursion to the bathroom or into the kitchen for water is likely to awaken his parents who are the lightest of sleepers.

For the few weeks I was recently the guest of his family, I preferred to sleep outside on the balcony, to enjoy the fresh mountain air of the balmy summer nights. I would wake every morning at 5 with the bright sunlight and sneak quietly into the sitting room to find him waiting for me. I would walk the length of the room to the door leading to the bathroom, checking to see if his parents were asleep, all the time followed by his questioning eyes. And then, pretending I was on my way back from the bathroom, I would stop by his bedding, stoop down and give him a lightening quick kiss on the lips, before retiring back out onto the balcony to sleep a few more hours. His little brother decided to join me there after a couple of nights, adding another obstacle to the already dangerous course I negotiated every morning.

We couldn’t take too many chances. I love his family and would have been mortified at the disrespect to them my actions would imply had we been caught, and he seemed to possess a sixth sense about people’s movements and the possibilities of being seen in ways I would never have considered. For example, sitting in his sister’s room side by side by the computer, as we often did, I would begin to run my foot up and down his leg, safe in the knowledge that the desk obscured our legs from the rest of the house. He, however, knew that the mirror that was behind us on his sister’s dressing table would probably, at some angle, reflect what we were doing and beam it into the sitting room, and would therefore stop me. Something I would never have thought of.

On my last morning in their house, I woke up to have breakfast with him at 6 as he prepared to leave for work, before the rest of the house was awake. We snuck into a corner of the kitchen where I was sure there was no way anyone who suddenly appeared could see us, but before taking me in his arms, he walked out to the sitting room from where the tiles of the wall opposite us were visible, to check how much they reflected. They were glazed black tiles and indeed were busy reflecting our liaison to the exact spot where his parents would emerge from their bedroom. We found another spot for a quick embrace, but neither of us was relaxed by now and I was too amazed by his foresight to concentrate.

It was our last morning and we knew we would not get another chance to be alone all day, that later in the full glare of the family we would have to part with a handshake and would have to contain our sadness. So we found our corner and we kissed and hugged each other tight, attempting to put into those short, wordless actions all that was meaningful between us.

Here in the Islamic Republic of Iran, in this culture that is fed by feeling, run by a regime that has ritualised religious fervour and passion to fever pitch, I have had to learn to quell floods of desire with mere drops of satisfaction and to find my love answered with the subtlest of glances. And I have learnt to have it be enough, the vastness of our love expressed in a quick kiss, a longing look, a whisper under the covers – in the absence of freedom, I have finally had to learn to be content with my lot.

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