by Anna Jonas
It is October 2013 and I am on my flight from Istanbul to Tehran, Iran, to begin my internship at the Austrian Cultural Forum. As soon as the plane starts to descend, women begin to fix their hair, getting their scarves from their purses and covering their perfect hair-dos. I watch them, trying not to seem like a complete amateur. Slowly, I too, begin to wrap my black scarf around my head and continue to pull it around until I think it is positioned perfectly on my forehead. Arriving at Imam Khomeini International Airport at 1 a.m., I pass through immigration relatively quickly and a friendly officer welcomes me to Iran. In the arrival hall, I try to spot a person holding a sign with my name – apparently there is no one waiting for me yet. This gives me some time to rest. Looking for a place to sit, I quickly spot a small café that looks familiar. Although everything is written in Farsi, it looks very much like something one would call a McCafé. I watch the people walking by – families, businessmen and women in chadors. The majority of women, though, wear tight trousers, high heels and scarves that merely cover the very backs of their heads. Finally, my driver spots me through the crowds, “Salam, and welcome to Tehran, Ms. Jonas!”
What I learned quickly was that my biggest day-to-day challenges would not be meeting the cultural norms, but rather getting from A to B in a city with the population of 15 million (where traffic rules are not necessarily binding) and communicating without knowing a single word of Farsi. On top of that, I had to familiarize myself with Taarof, which is the Persian concept of politeness based on a complicated set of unwritten rules on behavioral norms. (Don’t be surprised if your taxi driver tells you at the end that the ride was for free – this is just a polite way of asking for more tips.)
Working at the Austrian Cultural Forum offered a great advantage of being close to many young Iranians attending the German language school. The people I met in the city were mainly students from various social and religious backgrounds. What I had in common with those born and raised in Iran impressed me more than all the differences in our lifestyles. My friends in Tehran talked about their new courses at university, met in cafés to chat and have coffee, and loved to party on weekends. Thus, my Iranian social life was not much different from my European one – attending Zumba classes, taking weekend trips and enjoying Tehran’s cafés and restaurants were regular parts of my weekly schedule. In addition to that, I adopted a new Iranian motto, “Khaste nabashi,” which is the Taarof phrase literally meaning, “I hope you are not tired/Don’t get tired.”
One day, a good friend told me, “Don’t be blinded by what might seem like a ‘normal’ life that you’re living here at the moment.” While not always visible, the political system is present in all aspects of daily life. Although Iranians take advantage of their freedoms as far and as much as they can, they sooner or later come across certain limits. Young Iranians celebrate and have drinks on the weekends, but this happens behind closed doors. Iranian women wear their scarves at the backs of their heads, but on an unlucky day, a policeman might come up to them and tell them to “dress properly.” Young couples do live together in apartments before they get married, but they would do better not to let too many people know. Asking my friends about their opinions on the Iranian political regime, I received varying responses. Some people saw hope in the recently elected Hassan Rouhani administration, while others viewed it only as a matter of alternating more “liberal” and more “restrictive” legislative periods. However, both secular and religious individuals I spoke to were highly critical of the regime. The politicized Shiite Islam in the Islamic Republic had nothing to do with their own Muslim beliefs is what they always told me.
Considering such critical voices and the Arab uprisings surrounding Iran, one question continues to arise: Why are such movements not present in Iran at the moment? “We are tired of revolutions,” many Iranians would tell me. The outcomes of 1979 and the violent defeat of the ‘Green Revolution’ in 2009 were horrifying examples of Iranian uprisings and revolutions. Only recently, five young Iranians were punished for putting their version of Pharrell Williams’ song, “Happy,” online. Meanwhile, conservative factions attack women for dressing improperly. It remains to be seen how long the critical masses will stay silent or whether there will be gradual change from the bottom. Until then, Khaste Nabashi!