IRAN: THE DOOR OPENS
As relations with Iran thaw, a visit still requires caution
“It is the dream of every woman in Iran to wear her hair free,” says Azadeh, as the plane rises above Istanbul on its way to Shiraz in southern Iran. When Azadeh boarded the plane in London, before the brief Istanbul stopover, she was wearing a figure-hugging mini-dress, leggings and ankle boots, hair cascading over her shoulders. Now her chestnut mane is piled high under a headscarf and she’s buttoned into a loose-fitting frock coat.
“Every woman?” I ask, referring to one sitting across the aisle in a black chador, a garment that covers her from head to toe. “Well, most women,” replies Azadeh. “About 60 Iranian women were wearing their hair loose before reboarding this plane,” she says. “Now there isn’t one. Don’t tell me we have a choice,” she adds, before turning to check who is sitting in the rows behind her. “Is everything all right?” I ask. “Yes,” she replies, “but you have to be careful.”
Being careful strikes a chord. When I told my Londonbased family and friends I was planning to visit Iran, they showed concern. The British Foreign Office had still to change its advice against all but essential travel to the country. Several days before departure, I fret about whether to declare my occupation. No, advise fellow journalists, you could be deported. Should I hibernate my Linked-in profile in case officials Google me during the arrival procedure? “That’s a good idea,” is the reply.
I get little comfort from reading page 27 in the Lonely Planet’s Iran guidebook, “If you do overstay, even by a few hours, expect to be detained.” It all sounds a little threatening, especially as my visa-on-arrival is for a maximum of 15 days and yet my fixed flight times ensure I’m in the country for 15 days and three hours. Then there are the little anxieties about packing. Should I leave shorts and T-shirts at home? Is alcohol-based aftershave forbidden when there’s a blanket ban on alcohol?
Several days later, I’m in Iran’s third largest city, Isfahan, exploring Imam Square, a little befuddled by the summer heat but with a clear recollection of my arrival. I had blundered. Every overseas tourist needs travel insurance and a certificate to prove it. I had left the paperwork behind. “You need the certificate,” the official said sternly. It was 3.30am and I was convinced deportation would be a whisker away. Tentatively I replied, “We can visit the certificate online.” The official nodded and smiled. “Welcome to Iran.”
The next morning as I wait in the hotel lobby, I notice a man scrutinising everyone who arrives and leaves the hotel. Maybe he enjoys people watching? “Maybe he’s from the secret police,” says a fellow traveller with a wry smile.
But today, in Imam Square, women and children are paddling in an expansive pool, where fountains cool the air. It’s 7.30am, 42C and everyone is laughing as they dodge jets of water. Next to the pool, a group of schoolchildren and their teacher, all dressed in black chadors, approach me. “Where are you from?” asks the teacher. “London,” I reply. Not missing a beat, the children chorus, “London!” When an old man whose job it is to service the fountains walks by and says, “London good country, my sister live there,” the children repeat, “London good country.”
In the literature, Imam Square garners all the superlatives, from exquisite to incomparable. At 512m long and 163m wide, it is the second largest square on earth — only Tiananmen Square in Beijing is bigger. Two 17th-century mosques embellished with blue tiles — the massive Masjed-e Shah and the more intimate Masjed-e Sheikh Lotfollah — adorn this magnificent space. Opposite the smaller mosque is the Kakh-e Ali Qapu, a six-storey palace with an elevated terrace that has views revealing just how beautiful Isfahan is with its tree-lined boulevards and fountain-filled parks.
A lap around the square is equivalent to walking 1.5km — enough to sharpen the appetite. And by noon, it’s time to retreat from the heat into the nearby airconditioned Bastani Traditional Restaurant, where the interiors have more stained glass than any art deco brasserie in Paris. Here, the diners sit cross-legged on carpeted divans and though it’s five days into Ramadan, the month when observant Muslims abstain from drinking and eating between sunrise and sunset, Iranian women are enjoying dizi, a robust stew of lamb, potatoes, beans and tomato, flavoured with turmeric and lime. I’m puzzled. Fatima, my guide, laughs. “Not everyone follows Ramadan,” she says. “In fact, I would say only about 40 per cent of the people.” As a group of women diners leaves the restaurant, they smile and ask if I would like to take their photograph. They pose gracefully and leave.
“Did you notice their noses,” Fatima asks. “Four of them have had cosmetic surgery,” she adds. “They all have the same nose as [actor] Negar Foroozandeh. You see it everywhere.” Between 60-70 per cent of Iranian women between 18 and 30 years have had rhinoplasty, Fatima reveals. “Look out for the little bandage on women’s noses. They are not ashamed; they wear it with pride. It also gives them status.”
Ten minutes later in the bazaar, we spot a telltale plaster on the nose of a young woman, who happily agrees to be photographed. She confides the surgeon charged $US2400 ($3260) — a considerable sum in a country where a World Bank report in 2013 estimated the average monthly income was $US570. When I ask Fatima for further explanation, she says, “In Iran, women can only show their faces … it is our one window.”
Later I return to the hotel lobby and recognise the same man sitting in the same chair. But this time, he has a cage in which a small crested bird is singing. It’s a Persian nightingale or torghe. He feeds it a seed the size of a rice grain and I laugh at my friend’s earlier suspicions.
Isfahan, I suspect, is a city where many visitors would like to linger, but it’s time to return to Shiraz airport and discover whether my three-hour overstay is a problem. As I join the immigration queue, I chat with an Iranian family. The husband, an engineer, his wife and their 16year-old daughter are flying to Britain to visit relatives in Manchester. I sail through immigration, but not every member of the family arrives in the departure lounge — only the mother and daughter. “They’ve arrested my husband. He is their guarantee we will return,” the wife tells me, tears streaming down her face.
As soon as we take off, mother and daughter remove their headscarves. Carefully folding them, the mother says, “Every day this scarf reminds me of what I want most — the right to be free.”
Did I feel safe in Iran? Yes, even walking the streets and parks at night. When I return, will I be riddled with doubts? No, but I will dress as ordained, remember not to criticise the country’s religious leaders in public and leave the alcohol at home.
Entrance to Sheikh Lotfollah mosque in Imam Square, Isfahan, top; diners at Bastani Traditional Restaurant, above left; spice stall at Isfahan bazaar, above right