Falling in Love with Iran Again
In August 1979 I returned home from a walk in Kensington Gardens, with my mother and my sister, to find my father waiting for us in the corridor of our two-bedroom flat. My sister and I threw ourselves at him while my mother burst into tears. A few months earlier we had left Iran in a flurry, leaving him in Tehran to sell our possessions and follow us out to England. The Revolution was at its fervent height and we had no idea when he would join us. Although my mother said nothing to us at the time, I know now that every day their colleagues and acquaintances were called in by the Revolutionary court, many never to be seen again. The day my father left, his name was called. He has never been back.
Growing up in Iran before the Revolution, life was sweet. In Ahvaz, an oil town in the south west of the country, we attended school on the oil company’s compound and, at weekends, swam in the pool of the country club while our parents played tennis or watched the latest Hollywood movie in the adjoining cinema. My sister and I would climb onto the roof of our house and compete to see how far we could get, running from roof top to roof top, before we were caught. We rode our bikes in the drive and practised skateboarding along the patio. In the summer holidays we accompanied my father on month-long business trips around the Western world.
He was at the height of an illustrious career as a director of Iran’s oil company. We were wealthy and my mother was young, slim, beautiful and chic. Our world was one of international travel, boarding Concorde in London to jet to New York, shopping for handbags with my mother in Paris, meeting Mickey Mouse in Disney Land, boarding trams in San Francisco, devouring oversized steaks in Texas. At home in Iran the humid heat of Ahvaz didn’t bother us – we lived in an air-conditioned cocoon. A chauffeur ferried us round in our neon blue Cadillac and two old men served, at least nominally, as guards. We used to watch them at the end of their shifts, as one shuffled up to the other and leaned on a stick to exchange gossip. We neighbourhood kids called this The Changing of the Guard because we were well-travelled children, all veterans of Buckingham Palace.
But, despite the sophistication of my parents’ modern lives, I was never happier than at my grandmother’s old-fashioned house. In the spring, we chased the hordes of cousins who converged for Iranian New Year around her central courtyard. She shuffled around, a light chador sprigged with flowers always wrapped around her, her heavy gold earrings pulling at her earlobes, scolding us for knocking over the pots of geraniums that surrounded her shallow pool. At lunchtimes, 30 or 40 people sat cross-legged on the floor around the tablecloth to eat together, a noisy concerto of cousins, aunts and uncles. And in the heat of the summer we slept on the flat roof on a row of mattresses and while visiting my father’s family in Kurdistan we slept on net-draped beds in the garden. Despite a childhood in a Sussex boarding school, a youth misspent in the murky nightclubs of London and a career forged in magazine offices in Soho, I never forgot my Iranian childhood. I may be a thoroughly modern Londoner but throughout the 26 years I have lived in London, I have never ceased to long for my homeland.
Of course, my situation is not unique. Worldwide, more than 175 million people now live outside the country of their birth. That’s a huge number of exiles, each one entertaining private conflicts that have recently become increasingly political – particularly for people whose background, like mine, is Middle Eastern. Most of the time we muddle through, telling ourselves that we have the best of both worlds. But each one of us is liable, at some point, to face a choice. For Britons of Pakistani origin, as Norman Tebbit once noted, it maybe a question of choosing which cricket team to support. For me, it involves the decision to establish a permanent home in one country or the other. I have finally made up my mind – but more of that later.
The country of my birth is perhaps best known today for a nuclear programme that causes alarm. But Iran has a history of nearly 3,000 years, and once boasted the greatest empire in the world – 2,500 years ago the Persian empire stretched from Europe in the west to the Indus in the east. Invaders, who included Alexander the Great, the Muslim Arabs, Tamerlane and Genghis Khan, left deep impressions but also presented opportunities for Persian culture to assimilate what newcomers offered and emerge more Persian than ever. (Alexander the Great’s adoption of Persian dress was regarded with deep suspicion by his Greek followers.) The graceful indirectness of Persian manners reflects this instinct for survival in an insecure political landscape.
In 1979, the invasion came from within, led by revolutionaries who regarded the dictatorial Shah as a puppet of the USA, drunk on Iran’s oil riches and determined to modernise the country faster than the population could manage. Modernising meant secularising and Westernising – and Iran’s populace, mostly illiterate and devoted to Shia Islam, felt their traditional way of life mortally threatened. Meanwhile intellectuals opposed the Shah’s control of political debate and the terror of the secret police; they wanted socialism and a free society. Throughout 1978, a series of increasingly bloody demonstrations demanded the removal of the Shah and this popular movement, which encompassed a range of ideologies – most of them secular and political – became united under the leadership of the exiled Muslim cleric Ayatollah Khomeini. Eventually, the Shah and his family left and, a month later, the austere Khomeini returned triumphant to Iran.
My family and I left Iran soon after the Revolution. Khomeini’s first act on taking power was to repeal the Family Protection Law – the most progressive such law in the Middle East. Under Khomeini the legal age of marriage for girls was halved to nine. As the Revolution took hold, Iran became an Islamic Republic and Sharia law was introduced – something that many Revolutionaries had neither foreseen nor desired. Women’s rights were slowly chipped away: society became segregated and women were forced to adopt the hejab (Islamic dress). They were not allowed to appear in public with a man who was not a husband or a direct relation, could be flogged for displaying ‘incorrect’ hejab – showing strands of hair or wearing make up – and stoned to death for adultery (which, incidentally, included being raped). The bloody eight-year Iran-Iraq war which started on the heels of the Revolution in 1980, helped the regime entrench its laws enforced by the Basij (Moral Police) while the war destroyed the country’s economy and its morale.
These are the things we heard about living in exile and the fear this inspired held me in London for nearly 20 years. Nevertheless, reminders of our old way of life were always with us: baskets piled high with all varieties of fruit, though even my mother’s intrepid scouring of Middle Eastern shops failed to turn up watermelon like the ones back home, or sweet lemons, fresh white mulberries and tiny grapes bursting with flavour. She would cook fragrant Iranian rice, served with a top layer stained with saffron, stews made of walnuts and pomegranates, pastries flavoured with rosewater, cardamom and almonds. She would return from Church Street market with armfuls of herbs that we spent hours in the kitchen cleaning and on walks in Holland Park she would embarrass us by plucking vine leaves from trees to make a special dish.
WHEN I EVENTUALLY RETURNED TO IRAN IN 1996, I found the colours of the country I had left had faded. My mother and aunts had once marched around Tehran in mini dresses and flares all the colours of the rainbow, their hair spilling down their backs dyed the colour of honey, Biba eye shadows in sparkling blues and greens turning long-lashed eyes into butterflies of colour. Pucci prints had set off a background of azure skies, snow-capped mountains and lush rose gardens. The Iran I returned to, before president Khatami’s relatively liberal rule, had been bled of its colour. Sure, the domes were still turquoise, the gardens verdant and the mountains of Tehran still snow-capped. But on the streets the women were swathed in black chadors (an all covering piece of fabric that means, literally, tent) or black headscarves and loose coats. The men wore baggy trousers, pleated to obscure any outline of hip, open-necked collarless shirts and trim beards: their own version of the Islamic look, free of ties, clean-shaven faces or any other symbols of Western imperialism. The mountains were a haze behind smoky fogs of pollution. It was drab.
I found it hard to fit in. Azadeh Moaveni, whose book Lipstick Jihad chronicles her return to live Iran after growing up in California, also found it hard to reconcile her dual identity in a country that was more Islamic Republic than the Persia of exiles’ dreams; her book is subtitled ‘A Memoir of Growing up Iranian in America and American in Iran’. But my struggles smoothed out with time, over several trips, as I got used to the reality of modern Iran and loosened my grip on my memories. I fell in love with my country at last: the grace of the culture, the elaborate courtesies, the beauty of the language and the poetry in the Iranian soul. I discovered my Iranian self, a creature infinitely more modest, polite, generous and refined than the woman who strides around London in low-cut tops and huffs at tourists on the Tube. Aunts and uncles cocooned me in affection and I rediscovered the cousins I had chased around that yard. Every time I came back to London, I felt bereft, and lost for as long as it took to slip back into my British persona. And my British self was necessarily stronger than my Iranian self: I wasn’t sure how to happily reconcile the two.
It is a theme that haunts most ‘hyphenated Iranians’ – the Anglo- or American-Iranians – that I have met: how do we define ourselves in a world where the two identities seem so opposed? An American organisation, Iranian Alliances Across Borders, every year holds a conference which brings together Iranians from all over the world to discuss these issues, share experiences and help build bridges between the two cultures to which we all belong. When the Shah’s daughter Leila Pahlavi killed herself in a London hotel room in 2000, supposedly suffering from depression and unable to reconcile herself to exile, a wave of sympathy rippled through our community, regardless of our political sympathies.
I understand now that to be ‘hyphenated’ means changing how I regard myself as Iranian, changing my own prejudices of what that means. And Iran too is changing. Now, at the end of Khatami’s time in power, there are freedoms taken for granted that were once unimaginable. Iran’s army of young people (70% of the 68 million population is under 30) are now mostly dressed in jeans and the boys sport long gelled hair and clean-shaved faces. And the girls are a riot of colour once more: vividly painted faces, elaborate hairstyles at the back of which hang beautiful scraps of chiffon or cotton, nodding to the still obligatory headscarf. Coats that once grazed ankles are now short and tight and skim the thighs. Underneath, hipsters reveal bellybuttons and bare ankles and toes are on display; a far cry from the days when women used gloves and opaque tights to cover any bare flesh. And in Tehran, Shiraz, Tabriz, Esfahan… even the small towns where these new butterflies flutter in all their colourful glory, no one has officially endorsed the change. Despite the bravado, wearing nail varnish remains a political act in Iran. The shock victory in JUNE by the ultra-conservative new president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad heralds a tougher period for these feisty Islamic fashionistas. But knowing the spirit that rules Iran’s youthful majority, I would be very surprised if these hard won freedoms were easily relinquished.
Iran today is caught between its ancient traditions and modern desires, a repressive religious regime and a young population clamouring for freedom. The Iranian language is full of poetic turns and elaborate courtesies, an emotional language made for love, yet the people that speak it can be imprisoned for loving in any way other than within the sanctity of marriage.
On my most recent visit back in February, a trip across the capital was enough to show this clash. In one of the towering skyscrapers inching up the skirts of the mountain in the north of Tehran, I attended a cousin’s lunch party. Her husband is one of the architects transforming (some say ruining) the city and they live in one of his penthouses. Along with exquisite Persian carpets, there are Eames chairs, a plasma screen television and a cappuccino machine. Despite the Islamic Republic’s ban on alcohol, we drink vodka punch, made with Iranian sour cherries. Before lunch is served, the women dance to the latest in illegal Persian pop, imported from Los Angeles (or Tehrangeles, as Iranians call it, in homage to the huge numbers of exiles living there). The conversation revolves around dieting, children and the relative merits of certain private fitness instructors.
But south Tehran, downtown, is like a different planet. There are no skyscrapers or chic boutiques, shops are old fashioned and cars ancient. There are few women on the streets and those I see are invariably wrapped tightly in a black chador, hair entirely tucked away from view, faces devoid of make up. Southern Tehran is poor, religious and a hotbed of conservatism.
Between those two worlds, in the new European-style cafés of central Tehran I meet a crowd of intellectuals and artists. Here the frustration of the average Iranian meets a buoyant sense of possibility. Everyone, it seems, is examining Iran, its social oddities, its politics, how to express the culture and live with the contradictions. More than a decade and a half after the end of the debilitating war, Iran is now enjoying its most artistically fertile period since the Revolution and I find great hope in the undiminished spirit of those engaging with the issues facing Iran with wit, creativity and passion. I realise that living inside Iran illuminates truths unknown to the outside world: despite the Islamic regime, Iran operates a sort of democracy with MPs elected to parliament and everywhere, there is free political debate, something that under the Shah was impossible and is a distant dream in many neighbouring Arab states. Everywhere women are pushing the boundaries of public life and creating successful careers, sitting in the Majlis (parliament), running NGOs, winning Olympic medals, editing magazines, creating art works, opening cafés, playing football and fighting for human rights. After all Shirin Ebadi may have lost her position as judge after the revolution in 1979 but she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for her humanitarian work in Iran. I realise that the Western image of Iran is more inaccurate than ever, scratch the surface of modern Iran and you find a country sizzling with energy.
And for some of us who have spent decades longing for a place to call home, the seeds of that longing are finally bearing fruit as we leave behind the sun-drenched dreams of an Iran long past and live instead with the reality of this beloved, difficult place. I can finally draw on the best that my Iranian and British sides have given me and I know that I am lucky to have both.
I have become one of the many hyphenated Iranians vowing to set up a permanent home in Iran, to bring back the sense of infinite possibility that our Western upbringing has given us. I know I will miss my friends in England and I know there will be times when, entangled in a web of bureaucracy or scared by a visit from the Moral Police, I may regret my decision. I know that, accustomed as I am to an easy life of freedom and consumerism in the West there will be times when life in Iran will seem impossibly constrained. But I also know that however hard it is to live here, the challenges and tensions governing Iranian life make it the most stimulating place in the world to be.