Friday, February 1, 2008

"In Iran everything is possible and everything is impossible."

-Woman in a restaurant

It's someone's job in Iran to go through every magazine sold here and black out offending photos. I looked through a copy of National Geographic the other day. A photo of a person standing naked in a wash basin with their back to the camera was covered in black magic marker. For some reason a photo on an earlier page featuring bare breasted women in body paint wasn't. A big sticker was placed over the cover photo of a yoga magazine to hide a woman who was wearing a bathing suit.

An Iranian friend of mine was arrested once for wearing a short sleeve shirt. He spent a night in jail. He was arrested twice more, both times for wearing bright colored shirts. The way he dressed was considered un-Islamic. That was many years ago. "Now change is happening so quickly in Iran," he told me, "The best man of today is the worst man of tomorrow." My friend is a very modern, enlightened person and he's not a devout Muslim, but when he weighs Iran's social or cultural changes, he views them through the prism of his religion.

My friend told me about something he witnessed just recently as he walked past a mosque in Shiraz. A young woman was standing on the sidewalk outside the mosque. She was wearing a tight manteau that revealed her figure, her scarf was worn back and her hair was exposed. A man came out of the mosque. He'd just finished praying. He said to the girl, "We will kill you."


One night I attended a concert of Persian classical music, Sufi spiritual music as it's described to me.

Several hundred people stand outside a central Tehran concert hall called Tawlareh Vahdat waiting for the performance to begin. The show is sold out. The people are beautifully dressed. Women with their long hair gathered under colorful scarves, their makeup accentuating their dark features. Some of the men have long hair and neatly trimmed beards. Others are wearing sharp sport coats. There is laughter and the murmur of happy conversation. People greet each other in the warm Iranian way; a handshake a slight bow, maybe a hand placed over a heart. Women shaking hands with men in public - that's something relatively new.

When the gates swing open, though, the men and women must separate. They aren't permitted to enter through the same gate. The women, for some reason, have their bags checked. My companion is concerned about the camera she carries in her bag, so I take it through the men's entrance. On the other side of the gate, only a few feet from where we'd been standing together before we entered, couples, families and friends reunite. The brief separation feels like an odd ritual from a past that no longer exists.

We walk under tall pines, past boxes planted with dusky lavender and into the concert hall where a domed ceiling rises high, glittering above the three-tiered balcony.

When the lights dim and the curtains open, there are twelve musicians and eight singers on stage. A man and a woman sit in the center. She is dressed in white. The musicians wear black. There is a small violin section on one side, and on the other side a group of soloists, including a violinist, an oud player, and a man playing a tar - a stringed instrument with a small body and long, slender neck. There are two men playing round flat drums called dafs. They hold them aloft in front of them and beat with their finger tips. The drums seem to float as they play.

The man and woman in the center are the lead singers. Women aren't permitted to perform solo in front of mixed audiences in Iran. The music is transcendent and cinematic. The instruments and voices rise and fall together, with long instrumentals - frenetic string work dissolves into meditative solos.

At the end of the concert the musicians and singers all take up dafs. Another group of daf players rises from the orchestra pit. The drumming fills the hall and you're transported. Here for a moment, with these amazing performers, there's a feeling of pleasure and happiness beyond trouble.