‘Is Iran a police state?’ I asked Ali, our excellent guide. He hesitated. The organisers of our tour of Iran asked us not to name anyone we would like to meet there as we are requested to do on our visa application. Any meetings should be arranged through our guide. So we told Ali that we had been invited to take lunch or dinner with our son’s aunt and cousins-in-law. He looked concerned.
‘Could they come to our hotel?’ I gave him the email address and telephone number. Tehran is a sprawling city and our hotel was on the periphery. In the end, after a long drive to a restaurant, he arranged for us to see them there as it was close to where they lived. Did he choose it because of this? They arrived and tentatively approached our table to stand just behind Ali. The aunt came with a grandson to translate. She was so delighted to see us, to hear news of her relatives and took all the photos I brought her. When I sat down I noted the bones from seven chops stacked on Ali’s plate- did he need all that meat to calm his nerves?
We did leave our hotels and wander around the streets outside. Though there are few foreign tourists, nobody paid much attention. The only colour in the streets came from the neon lights in constant agitation. Everyone wore toned down greys, browns, occasionally dark greens or blues. All was discreet, but here and there bright colours and patterns even embroidery peeped out from under the women’s drab outer garments. So the lively colours everywhere in the bazaars – from rolls of even garish material to bright dresses and sexy stockings – were transported into the private sphere to delight family and friends – and prospective spouses, I assume.
Iran is a nation of picnickers. Open space, even on the grass dividing two busy streets, could host a family seated on a rug with small paraffin stove and every sort of portable food on dishes around them. Parks would be dotted with picnicking families on holidays or evenings. Sometimes there were entertainers, like the man singing on the bridge in Isfahan. No woman
would be allowed to do that. In a bazaar I took some white frothy lace concoctions, one strung up above another, to be lampshades. No, I was informed. They are little girls’ dresses. Later I saw them, the main spots of cheerfulness, in the parks. By the time they were nine or ten the little girls wore scarves and dowdy dresses. The two ayatollahs – they looked over us from numerous billboards and inside every mosque and many shops and offices – would approve.
The streets were lined with shops displaying their shoes, clothes, brooms and household wares in the street. There were few glass shop fronts. One, which I didn’t manage to photograph, displayed over-the-top crimson and gold-leaf Louis XIV baroque chairs, the only upholstery I saw except inside our hotels.
My lasting impression is of a family-loving people who have turned their backs on any involvement in their country’s future. There is this $40 per adult (monthly?) payment, we were told, from the petroleum money. Universities, plenty of educated people but little industry as far as I could see.
‘Is Iran a theocracy?’ I asked Ali.
‘Yes,’ without hesitation. Our excellent tutor gave us one talk on our first day in the Shiraz hotel, but after that could only talk to us on the bus or as we walked along, or occasionally in small groups in a hotel garden. Ali said that he would have to get permission for lectures from the relevant government office. He obviously didn’t want them to follow us – or him. He told us little about himself. About fifty, not married and no children, he lived alone in Tehran. During the years of revolution and the war with Iraq, he was sent to study in Britain. He loved his country and his wealth of knowledge was amazing.
A police state?
‘Well, …’ and he turned away without answering.