Monday, June 09, 2008


It may be better in Iran than the West, depending on what you are looking for.
Just as many Iranians leave and find themselves in new and unfamiliar lands so different than the ones they had imagined before their departure, our western perceptions of Iran are fatally limited, lacking texture and color. We are all guilty of believing the myths about the other, and for the young Iranian stepping into their new lives and can be an extreme letdown.

Iran bursts with so much possibility that one can become exhausted with anticipation. There is a unique brand of chaos best witnessed in Tehran at night. Pulsating traffic jams, make it impossible to move, but provide young people the opportunity to flirt between car windows, trading SMS messages and suggestive glances. You may be offered to buy beer from a guy on a motorbike; a small thing to us, but Islam's take on alcohol makes drinking more thrilling than it ever was in high school. Strangers spark conversations with each other, covering all conceivable topics. Contrary to popular belief, no subject is off limits. Ultimately, it's never boring, with the potential for every sort of imaginable encounter looming around all corners. It is a place that, although officially very repressed emotionally, sexually and creatively, feels alive and vital in the most meaningful way: in terms of human energy.

When they go abroad, especially to the US, many young Iranians are simply bored by the pace of social interaction. Sure, they can drink when and where they want, but so what? Baywatch made an incredible impression on the Islamic Republic and realizing that it's not really like that here can be difficult to swallow.

The courting of the opposite sex, for example, takes on a much greater sense of urgency when a mutual attraction is uncovered. The where, when and how become imperative, and as one of my cousins memorably told me, "Haji, it's like a jungle here. You must be ready and act fast. Get her or someone else will."

When I returned to San Francisco recently I was invited to join the birthday party of another recent Iranian arrival. His girlfriend had called me last minute and told me to meet the group at 7:30 the next evening at Asia SF, a famous restaurant and club that does an all Asian, all transsexual song and dance routine every night. Interesting choice, I thought.

The group consisted of eight people, five of whom had come from Iran to study at UC Berkeley. We drank and laughed, and I loved watching their unsure interaction with the performers. Is it ok to be turned on by these people? was the look on most of their faces. They were a bit shell shocked, I think, by this completely sanctioned sin fest, but not unwilling to participate.

Somehow, though, it seemed boring compared to a night out in Iran, where everything exists as it does here, but in a much rawer, un-institutionalized form. There is no system of public dialogue for hedonism or alternative sexual expression although it exists of course; another example of repression, but also another possibility for true experience.

Just a couple of weeks earlier late one evening in Tehran, I was driving the streets with a good friend Saeed. I find Iran to be most alive when the sun goes down. We were headed north on Valiasr Street, named after the Hidden Imam, an avenue that runs from Tehran deep south to the posh neighborhoods at the foothills of the Alboorz Mountains. At the large intersection still known as "The Peacock Throne" young prostitutes stood around waiting for customers and hopping into the cars of johns, speeding off to locations unknown. A real problem here, but no one seems to be doing much about it.

I started to assume that every girl was working and would sometimes ask, "Is she one, too?" Locals seemed to have developed a radar for them. Saeed laughed at my naiveté. Sometimes, though, when he would point one out I'd tell him, "Maybe. But that one's a guy." Tranny spotting is not yet their forte. (Jason Rezaian, "Iran's Brain Drain More of a Flow, Really," The Warwick Review 1.3, September 2007)

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