Saturday, June 7, 2008


“Whenever I have a lot of money, I have the overwhelming desire to go to a prostitute.”

We were sitting on a bench in a small park in Tehran. A moment earlier, I’d discreetly slipped Afshin a thick fold of bills. What I paid him for his services was a lot of money – about two months’ salary in his government job. Was he making a joke about visiting one of the city’s prostitutes, or just trying to shock me? There was nothing in his voice or his expression that gave me any clue.

For three weeks I’d been trying to make sense of Afshin. At 26 He embodied a fascinating blend of sincere religious sentiment, pride in his country’s pre-Islamic history, and enthusiasm about many things modern and relatively new to Iran – from shaking hands with women to text messaging. His knowledge of Tehran’s history and his ability to find glimpses here and there of 19th century Qajar-era architecture kindled in me an appreciation of a city that had, until then, seemed charmless.

I doubt that Afshin has ever visited a prostitute. After I paid him we went to an orphanage where he donated some of the money. He told me he was fulfilling a promise he’d made to God as a sort of penance for his recent divorce.

Afshin disapproves of his country’s leaders, but he admires their perseverance in the face of international pressure and sanctions. He boasts of the Iranian ingenuity that created the valiant little eggbeater of a car, the Paykan, which chug-a-lugs the country’s most precious natural resource like there’s no tomorrow. He's proud of their nuclear program, but he invariably refers to Iran as a Third World country.

He confides in me that he wants to visit Israel, the nation his government so bitterly denounces. He wants to read the forbidden book, The Satanic Verses, whose author was marked for death by Ayotollah Khomeini in a 1989 fatwa. I admire Afshin’s desire to see these things for himself and make up his own mind, but as a resident of the Islamic Republic of Iran, neither his travel nor his literary tastes will be easily satisfied.

When we leave the orphanage Afshin opens a fresh pack of French Gitanes, letting the cellophane wrapper flutter to the ground and I tap a tiny cigarette from my pack of Iranian Bahmans. As we stroll along the shaded sidewalks of Vali Asr Boulevard, Afshin casts appreciative glances at the young women we pass.

Flirting and romance are everywhere in Tehran - in the parks, streets, sidewalks and tea houses. In a culture and political system that discourages, sometimes forcefully, the mingling of unmarried young men and women, public courtship is carried on with a subtlety that can only be marveled at. A grazing touch carries the heat of a caress. A quick glance passes for a smoldering gaze.

Once Afshin made an admiring comment about the figure of Khanom Jamshidi, the friendly and efficient young woman who works at a government office we visited. Like all government employed women, Khanom Jamshidi dressed rather severely and I could only venture a guess as to the beauty or lack thereof beneath her shapeless manteau and the rusari that covered her hair and framed her pleasant face. I laughed at Afshin’s suggestion. “No,” he protested. “Believe me, one learns how to know these things!”

One evening we rode in a car across town with two young women acquaintances. Afshin made a point of squeezing into the passenger side front seat with one of the woman. For the duration of the ride he proceeded to flirt with her in a surprisingly profane way that belied his natural politeness and his sly charm. I had the impression that flirting in such an overt way was something unfamiliar and novel to him.

His neatly trimmed beard gives Afshin a rakish look. In Iran a beard is a statement. It marks a man as religious, conservative and likely a supporter of the government. The beard is a turn-off for secular minded women, who, naturally, make up the larger part of Afshin’s potential girlfriend pool. Yet he keeps it. I joke with him that he can kiss President Ahmadinejad, but he can’t kiss the girls on Vali Asr.

He did, in fact, kiss Iran’s president.

They met at a public ceremony of some sort. Afshin shook the president’s hand and asked if he could kiss him Middle Eastern style. As their cheeks brushed Afshin whispered a quick prayer in Ahmadinejad’s ear. Before he moved on, Ahmadinejad said to Afshin, “I hope we will meet again.”

Afshin has a girlfriend with whom he is intimate. Because he’s having sex outside of marriage he feels the need to square himself with his religion. To do this he avails himself of a unique aspect of Shia Islam called the sigeh, or temporary marriage. It’s essentially a contract between a man and a woman. It can last a day or many years and is entered into with a series of vows and a promised dowry from the man. Afshin gives his girlfriend a flower as a symbolic dowry. Typically their sigeh lasts for six months and they renew it by mutual agreement. The sigeh contract can include any conditions agreed upon by both parties. Afshin also gives his girlfriend 10 percent of his earnings.

Last year, Iran’s Interior Minister encouraged sigeh as a way for Iran’s young people to satisfy their physical needs because the cost of getting married is so prohibitive. I suspect he was talking strictly about a man’s physical needs. There’s still a premium placed on virginity and the double standard of many Iranian men is such that they’ll look for a more chaste woman when it’s time to get married. The institution of sigeh is also abused by some men who take advantage of impoverished women, essentially paying them for sex.

Sigeh is not common. When I tell Iranian friends about Afshin’s sigeh, they react disapprovingly. They say he's cynically invoking a religious justification in order to clear his conscience and satisfy his sexual needs. But Afshin is an observant Muslim in many other ways, too.

“This is where I was standing when the bullet hit.”

We were just inside one of the gates of University of Tehran, Afshin faced me and pressed his back against a stone pillar. “Here.” He indicated a place on the pillar just a few inches to once side of his temple. “It was a rubber bullet, but imagine!” he says, shivering as he recalls the incident.

I thought of what Afshin had told me about the student demonstrations he took part in here in 1999. Tear gas, billy clubs and rubber bullets. The students had barricaded themselves behind the rolled up carpets that thousands of prayer-goers knelt on every Friday. They had, Afshin said – lowering his voice as if to brace me for the shock - even burned posters of Iran’s Supreme Leader.

Afshin had been 19 at the time. It’s hard to imagine that he would participate in anything of the kind today.

He introduced me to a friend who is a member of the morals police known as the Basij. This young man would have been among those who helped storm the university, beating students like Afshin, and ending the demonstrations.

The melodramatically polite language of Persian conversation, which seems so over-furnished and indirect to Westerners, spills over into Afshin’s English. He lavishes me with praise, and declares his undying friendship. Yet in spite of this effusiveness, his words always seemed measured. For all his warmth, there’s a guarded aspect to Afshin. Somewhere, beneath the excessive greetings and leave-takings, the ‘gorbanet shoma”s (I sacrifice for you) and other ritualistic courtesies of Iranian social and business intercourse, an individual’s true nature and intent lie obscured.

Thinking of his friendship with the Basij, his kiss on the cheek of Ahmadinejad, his student protest days, his secret sigeh, his beard, and his desire to visit Israel and read Rushdie’s banned book, I sensed in Afshin a chameleon. He's equipped with all the cleverness and instincts necessary to survive in a culture where advancement is a matter of who you know and how much you genuflect to authority - and there's always a feeling that someone might be watching, listening. I think of the words of the late Iranian poet, Ahmad Shamlou:

They smell your breath
lest you have said: I love you,
They smell your heart:
These are strange times, my dear.