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Saturday, 18 September 2010

In Search of Gay Tehran

Iran,TehranImage by mohammadali via Flickr

 

Source: Tehran Bureau

By Correspondent

The air was dry at Behesht-e Zahra, and the sun nearly sealed my manteau to my skin. My great-aunt rocked as her daughters' hands rested on her shoulders and back. She mourned over the plot of desert dirt where her husband would be laid. A homeless woman walked through the funeral, almost over the grave, begging. The man who would deliver the sermon sat behind us and sang, wailing from the perspective of the deceased about how much he would miss his wife and children, and how he longed to be close to them again.

The death was unlike any I'd experienced with my family in the United States. Seven days of gathering and mourning at the widow's house, nothing but black clothes for forty days. And although my grandmother insisted that I didn't have to participate, I chose to so I could understand.

That trip to Iran was more personal than journalistic. Iran never left my parents' hearts or homes, and although I grew up in Los Angeles, I still felt like it was Tehrangeles. But this hybrid upbringing didn't satisfy me. The Revolution of 1979 sucked almost anything progressive or Western out of the country, including my parents. I couldn't get it out of my head that one decision -- their decision to leave -- was why my life was completely different than what it could have been.


If that summer in 2008 I had known what I know now, I might have taken my stay in Tehran more seriously. But I couldn't have known then that I was yards away from where Neda Agha-Soltan would be buried, and where thousands would be chased away while attempting to honor her. I couldn't have known then that when I returned things wouldn't be the same, or that I might not be able to return safely at all.

Though I have hundreds more, many of my questions were answered when I was in Iran. If I grew up there, I wondered, how would I live? Would I have social outlets and how would I find them? In Iran, circumstances are tougher for people with my profile -- female, young, and homosexual -- than for most other demographics. It turned out that in Iran I could still be each of these things, but with varying degrees of visibility and boldness. Though it's tough to be young and rebellious in Iran, and oppressive to be a woman, homosexuality is a crime sometimes punishable by death. So, trying to find the gay scene became my focus.

In searching for a place to fit in, my go-out-and-find-it method wasn't going to work. I wasn't permitted to go anywhere without a companion, whether it was my grandmother or her sister's sheltered daughter. I was a smoker at the time and often sat by the large central fountain at the foot of my grandmother's apartment building, thinking of ways to get where I wanted to go. One day, I had nothing to light my cigarette with, so I asked the doorman if he had a light. Another guy in the lobby turned and asked me where I was from, presumably because of my embarrassing accent in Farsi. His name was Babak, a lanky, smiley guy in glasses who looked hip enough to steer me in the right direction.

Since age 15, he lived in Canada, but had moved back to Iran in his mid-20s to continue with school. He told me all about how to get around government website blocks -- Facebook, YouTube, and similar social networking sites are generally inaccessible -- and how Tehran's wealthy youth party harder than we do in the West. I asked where I could go to socialize with young people and he pointed toward the foot of the mountains just streets north of us, to a spot called Bam-e Tehran. Some nights, cars lined the street from the mountain's lot. Some people went for exercise, tea with a view at one of the cafés up the path, or play places for their kids. Others went for the warm cloak of summer's night, the privacy.

I agreed to go hiking with him the following day, initially because I was hoping to get some hints about gay communities from him, but ultimately because I enjoyed his company. He would do Daffy Duck impressions of Ahmadinejad speeches and then remind me sternly, in okay English, that Iran was beautiful.

I never got to go hiking with Babak because I was unaware when I made my plans that I was being brazen. While I was asleep, he came by my grandmother's place to find out if I was ready to hike. The fact that I, a young lady, so quickly made a male friend struck her as promiscuous, and she abruptly asked him to leave. In this instance, "Grandma, I'm gay," or an explanation of Western ease wasn't going to cut it. This was the first time I felt claustrophobic, a little like I'd lost my voice.

If I couldn't go out with the only friend I'd made, the next step was to get my laid-back relatives to accompany me. My 40-something aunt and uncle agreed to take me to Darband, another spot similar to Bam-e Tehran. Its restaurants and food stands, located along a walking trail, were built into the mountainside. Teas, meats, desserts, and hookah were offered on beds if you removed your shoes to recline. But a woman would not be served hookah without the company of a man.

On my way toward the mountain from the dirt lot, two police officers, a man and woman, stopped me. They asked that I follow the policewoman to a van. Inside the vehicle, there were two girls. One looked modest and terrified. The other, with very pink makeup and a short manteau, was smiling -- I later found out, because she knew her Dubai passport would likely get her released. My "short" coat was what got me stopped, but after the second time I was stopped by police weeks later, I came to believe that it had more to do with how curvy I was. Many women in Iran remain ultra-thin so they can wear tight coats, but my tight coat revealed a full figure -- and that was uncomfortable.

But like Dubai Girl, I was released after the policewoman took down information from my American passport. She was, surprisingly, a soft-faced, kind woman who smiled whenever I mispronounced a word. I wondered, without resolution, what drew her to the very belief systems that denied her rights.
As I left the van, the scared girl said in Farsi, "You're lucky you aren't from here."

A few days later, I accompanied my grandmother to her mani-pedi appointment at a salon. From the street, a white trellis led the way through foliage and down stairs to the patio area of a small, half-hidden building. Here, just steps from the busy thoroughfare, uncovered women laughed and clapped. The employees danced freely to pass the time between clients, tossing around jokes amid cigarette puffs. They were loud and unabashed -- behavior that would get them reprimanded in public.

Inside, the clients were also uncovered, but they seemed slightly more insecure as they looked around and sized each other up. Every one of them, as far as I could tell, had a nose job or proudly wore the fresh bandage. I looked past the overemphasis on beauty, the wedding-style makeup women wore for just an errand. There wasn't much for others to see but their faces and hands.

The woman painting my grandmother's fingernails told me that I should get a nose job to make my nose beautiful. "According to who?" I asked. I turned to the woman with a bandage on her nose sitting to my right and asked about the popularity of nose jobs, trying to prompt her to explain her own. She said that it is a status symbol, and proudly explained that she chose the "fantasy" nose option from a list. The shape I made out from her bandage suggested a nose Michael Jackson would have considered.

This wasn't the last time someone suggested I repair my nose. I heard it from cousins, uncles, and aunts as if it was no more drastic than suggesting I get bangs. I realized over time that their suggestions were not out of the ordinary, that this was a fundamentally different culture. One in which my suggestion to lie in the grass prompted somewhat hysterical laughter from my older cousin, Shabnam, who said it was improper behavior for two women. A culture in which my uncle's friend felt comfortable saying to me after meeting me for the second time, "Did you get fatter from the last time I saw you? I see it in your face." Where three quarters of bus space is reserved for men and women must sit in the back, as they do in prayer, so that the men are facing away from them. I was the one out of place.

At a family gathering during which my nose was not a conversation starter, I tried to nudge my cousin Shirin to tell me where I could find a counterculture. She confirmed Babak's stories of ecstasy and sex parties among the wealthy youth, and left it at that. But then another cousin said, offhandedly, that gay people were rumored to gather at a particular café on certain evenings. Shirin added that she had seen homosexuals at this one museum.

I could not convince Shabnam to go to what she called "the gay café." But she was happy to take me to the museum if I went out one night with her and one of her male friends to ease her mom's mind. I didn't mind because I was curious to see how people my age entertained themselves on a weekend night, aside from partying or hiking and dining in the mountains.

Many young men drive or walk down Vali Asr hitting on women who have dolled up and turned out in search of a reaction. Guys will slow down in their cars or flash their high beams to get girls' attention and shout things like "Hey lady, are you married yet?" -- a jab at the cultural norm of marrying young. The absence of clubs or bars doesn't change how young men and women behave, it just forces them to find different environments that allow them at least some freedom of expression. The Internet and satellite cable allows them to see what goes on outside of Iran, and they desperately want in.

The young men and women wear knockoff Diesel brand clothing, eat Munchchips, and dine at fast food places with names like Superstar (a cross between McDonald's and Carl's Jr.). They find illegally copied video games and films just months after they are released abroad. And one cannot forget the ketchup. They put it on everything, even in place of marinara sauce on pizza. Billboards dedicated to ketchup were visible throughout Tehran.

It was a traffic-packed fiasco on Vali Asr that night, but I wasn't bothered. I felt a surge in my chest as I saw the young women pulling their head scarves back a little, revealing their up-dos and collarbones. They matched scarves to purses and shoes, showing off whatever they could. And the boys hung out of windows for a smile back. That had to suffice, because even a simple embrace in public could humiliate the girl or get the guy arrested.

Later that week, Shabnam took me to the museum, near the center of Tehran. On its steps and lawn, people picnicked, played sports, or took part in small theatrical performances. Inside were various exhibits -- mostly art by university students -- a vegetarian café, and a gift shop where pins of Bjork and René Magritte's The Treachery of Images were sold. The 20-something women that swarmed the place wore bright colors and mismatched layers and patterns. The men, who weren't forced to cover up, grew their hair or beards long. They were the "artists," and they found a community here.

As I circled the building, I saw two men holding hands on a bench. On another, a girl leaned back while her presumed girlfriend sensually played with her hair. In daylight, in public. They seemed almost at ease, but every so often would look up to see who, if anyone, was staring. It was thrilling to watch these small acts of rebellion. I felt like I was in on a secret, and there was something unmistakably romantic in the way they risked their lives to touch.

Toward the end of my trip, I stayed with my father's brother and his wife, Leila. She had spent her teen years in London, so she was open-minded and spoke great English. I decided that she would be my best bet for the café; though I didn't disclose my sexuality, I said that I was very curious. She explained that she didn't know much about the gay scene, but that male prostitution was a problem. Late at night, she said, young and desperate boys would wait in the park for older men with money to come around. I never saw it for myself.

The café felt more like San Francisco or New York City, with its black-and-white tiles and glass tables. Canvas photos of Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, John Lennon, and Jim Morrison hung on the walls. Ten or so men and women huddled talking and smoking inside. My aunt took a seat and I went to the server and in a low whisper asked him if this was where gay men and women came. After staring at my face, my hair, my hands, he said, "Yes."

So, I made it to "the gay café" after all. I felt like I could have been in any city. I felt at ease. Although I had my own lighter, I used the opportunity to ask two women sitting alongside each other if either had one. I wanted to see their body language, attitude, and how they responded. I got the same warm acknowledgment as I would have in any other gay-friendly place -- a sort of "we're in this together" vibe.

Since I left Tehran, I have wanted badly to return and continue my exploration. But because of the Green Movement and the role social networking has played, the Iranian government is paying attention to the Internet. So everything I do openly here in the U.S., I am, in a way, also doing openly in Iran. Every time my mother sees my Facebook photo, one of me and my girlfriend, she turns red. "They'll kill you if you go to Iran," she insists. I tell her I've made it private. But her concerns are real. My Twitter account is public -- for journalists, social networking is now part of the job, and making it private defeats its purpose of sharing information. Even the stories I choose to tell, and how I choose to tell them, can work against me as they live online. There is only so much I can do personally and professionally to protect myself. Eventually, I will have to make the choice between doing what I need to do here and having the option of going back.

Some of the names and descriptions have been changed.

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