S and I arrived late to the hotel in the remote town. The hotelier looked at us, a young couple, traveling without a family in the deep of night. A weary couple looking for a room. A man and a woman. No rings on our fingers—unmarried. He asked for the official documents confirming that our relationship to each other is legitimate and in keeping with the laws of the Islamic Republic—was he my husband, my brother, my uncle? No, S was not my husband, my brother, my uncle; we had no such papers. We tried to persuade him and he, a good citizen of the Republic, reported us immediately. The police picked us up, separated us, threatened to flog us, to possibly force us to marry.
This is how things should have gone. Lucky for us, this is not how they went. Despite all the legislation, this is Iran and things rarely pan out according to the letter of the law. It happened that the hotelier was obviously—and illegally—drunk, and from the same town as my (then still platonic) lover and so he agreed to give us accommodations without paperwork, at some risk to his own livelihood because even with separate rooms, as a lone, single woman, I should have arrived with permission to travel from my father, stamped by the local morality police.
S sneaked into my room in the dead of night and I nervously ushered him in, both of us looking over his shoulder. I locked the door behind him and turned up the television so our voices would not be heard. We looked at each other and smiled, smiles that spread across our faces as wide as the slices of watermelon that we had nibbled earlier that day. Finally we were alone together in a room, the fulfillment of a decade-long ambition. We were nervous with each other, touching gingerly at first, barely daring to reach out. This night together was the culmination of years of yearning, years of longing looks and “accidental” brushes against each other. Finally, the urgency of our situation overtook us and we lost our shyness. The morality police were the last thing on our minds.
This was the peak of our long courtship. My lover S and I met as small children. A few years before we fled Iran and the Revolution for the safety of London, my family had traveled from Tehran to one of Iran’s remoter provinces for a wedding. We were distantly related to his family, who lived there, and S and I spent the week together. Our families spent the days visiting the province’s natural wonders and picnicking extravagantly at any opportunity. Fourteen years ago we met again while staying with mutual family in Tehran. He had been posted there for his National Service and I had come from London for my annual visit to my roots. Although there was an immediate attraction, I never thought there was the possibility of any actual romance between us—his life in Iran felt a world away from my London existence and our meetings within the family home precluded any possibility of a physical relationship. So I contented myself with conversations that for many years encompassed everything, from politics to our mutual family to our hopes and fears for the future. Everything other than the exact nature of our feelings for each other.
In those first years when I returned home after nearly twenty years away, Iran was still in the aftershocks of Iran-Iraq War. Rafsanjani was president and society was drab, drained of money and in mourning for the estimated million souls lost in the war, including many young soldiers. In those days, my mother insisted on following the letter of the law, so anxious was she about this new Islamic society from which she had fled for her life, and she would not let me go out alone with S, not even to post a letter. My Tehrani family members, having survived the Revolution and war in the same house in Tehran, were more pragmatic, but they indulged her, sensitive to the fears that she was bringing back after decades away. She had imagined what had happened to her country from telephone conversations with family in the darkest days of the early Islamic Republic, from television reports and newspaper articles that reported the severity of the new regime, while those who stayed behind knew the actual gravity of the situation, and knew how to work the rules to survive in their now-oppressive society. They knew how to continue to live their lives; we who had been away did not.
S and I, confined to the family home on our visits, became friends, rediscovering our childhood affinity. Inside the house, watchful eyes followed our every move. All doors were kept open and if we lingered alone in a room too long, someone would walk in, bearing a tray of tea or bowls of fat roasted nuts to offer us, compelling us by gesture to join the rest of the family as they sat around the television. My aunts were glued to the latest soap on State television while my teenage cousin flicked to the Persian pop channels beamed from Los Angeles via satellite. I watched S over the years struggle to find employment in his small provincial town suffering like many in Iran from terrible unemployment. I watched him almost lose hope and consider leaving Iran but he loved his country and his family too much to think seriously of it. Eventually he found a good management job working in a strong local industry and I then watched him start an elaborate dance to dodge his family’s questions of settling down; now he was employed and establishing himself, it was natural for him to take a wife. In fact, soon it became a matter of general comment, his stubborn insistence on staying single. He became expert at sidestepping their questions, staving them off with homilies while remaining a bachelor. We grew close in a muted way. Despite his provincial life and the fact that he had never left Iran, he was open-minded and well-read, a passionate student of politics, from Plato onwards. We had lively discussions and he helped me to see a non-Occidental view of the world.
But we had no way to reach out to each other surrounded as we always were by family. While everyone slept after lunch, we would sit in puddles of sunlight in the central courtyard of the house, the fragrance of the jasmine that climbed the walls washing over us, talking and laughing while I delighted in the honey-hues of his light brown eyes and longed to enfold him in my arms. I learned, at this ripe stage in my life, restraint and a sort of modesty, and how to read between the lines, how to leave things unsaid. I learned the power of a lone touch, the resonance of metaphor. I learned to be subtle, and poetic—once, before I left Iran, I took a rose he had presented me with, the particularly fragrant damask rose from which rosewater is extracted and which in Iran is called the Mohammadi flower, and I dropped the bloom that bore my name into his bag so that he would discover its petals, half-dried and twice as fragrant, when he got home after I had gone. I wanted to say so much, but with words and caresses forbidden to me, I let the Mohammadi rose carry my feelings to him.
Slowly over the years, as Iran recovered and Mohammed Khatami swept to power, we too felt the waves of hope reflected in our relationship. Now S and I went out together, finding the private space we couldn’t find in the home out in the streets on one pretend errand after another, a testament to the loosening of the tight social controls imposed by the Islamic Republic. Going back home late at night after a movie or a meal, we would squeeze into full-to-bursting savaris (shared taxis), and there, in the back of the spluttering cab, I would find myself pinned tight against him and feel his heart beating as fast as mine. Neither of us had the courage then to cross the cultural divide that gaped between us when it came to sexual relationships, he not knowing how to make a move on an English girl and I simply lost in the sea of cultural misinformation that my old-fashioned family and the regime had fed me. He was, after all, a “good” boy; he behaved properly always, never transgressing, as far as I could see, any of the many rules that govern social relationships in Iran and I simply didn’t know if going out with girls was something that he did, whether he had even had sex in his life.
But in the back of those savaris we got so close that I felt the heat coming from him. Emboldened, I would rest my head on his shoulder. Or, with both of us squashed into the front seat, S trying not to sit on the gear stick, he had no choice but to put an arm around my shoulders, as much to stop me falling out of the car every time we took a corner at top speed. With his arm around me I would melt into him and carefully link my fingers through his, neither of us speaking or looking at each other, leaving things superficially ambiguous. It would be years before we finally kissed but those late-night journeys in the savaris left us breathless and elated.
He also started to accompany me to the local internet café where I joined all those lined up at the banks of computers to connect with the outside world. That was the beginning of another revolution that has changed so much in Iran; the ever-watched youth of Iran—a colossus in number—suddenly found in the internet two things they did not have in their everyday lives: an instant connection with the outside world, and anonymity. In a society in which most are forced to dissemble to some degree, to wear some sort of a mask in order to survive, a way to express oneself unhindered and without possible repercussion was intoxicating, and soon became addictive. In separate groups boys and girls were squeezed into the booths, giggling while tapping away. And pornography, of course, was the most popular search, any kind the limited bandwidth and censors would allow. This was before cell phones and before people had internet at home, before pornographic material started being passed around over Bluetooth and on CDs, and perhaps something about looking at this illicit material in a public space, its heady thrill, made what came after easier, made the chat rooms and the virtual dates inevitable. And the influence of pornography on the sexual imagination of the nation started right there in those internet café booths.
Then there were the chat rooms, virtual spaces in which to meet with other young people, to forge new friendships and even find sexual partners. What was impossible only five years ago, anonymity of any kind, was possible now for the price of a few tomans per hour, far from the peering glances of parents and the state. Eventually these chat room relationships spilled over into real life, thanks to the presence of that other technological tool, the cell phone. The cell phone gave the people of Iran another little chink of space in which they could have some privacy. Of course, now that Iranians are once again marching on the streets in a gruesome déjà vu of thirty-one years ago, the same technologies—the internet and cell phone—that have been used for privacy and dating are now crucial in organizing gatherings and spreading the news and images of protest to the world.
I first saw the possibilities for my love affair when visiting S’s family in the remote provincial town where they still live. One night before dinner, the two of us jumped in his car and went for a drive. Given the Sharia laws that govern Iran, there are few places where young people can go. Most live at home with their parents. Like that of American teenagers of the 1950s, most recreation takes place in cars, where there is at least a small patch of autonomy and privacy. The first time S had brought his own car to visit me in Tehran, we had been almost intoxicated by the freedom it gave us from the family. Driving around town, we would stop to buy freshly pressed pomegranate juice from a street stall or linger over bowls of traditional ice cream dotted with clots of cream, arriving home hours late, the heavy traffic of Tehran a convenient excuse. In Jordan, one of wealthy north Tehran’s more fashionable areas, I saw carloads of boys and girls, decked out and made up, cruising up and down the street, lobbing flirtations at one another and throwing balled-up pieces of paper bearing phone numbers into open car windows. That was in uptown Tehran, known for being privileged and liberal but here in S’s small conservative hometown it was surpisingly similar. We cruised the main roads and finally parked overlooking a main square. It was crowded, the streets full of cars all driving slowly, the sidewalks thick with people. It was a prime spot for seeing and being seen.
We got out, leaning against the door and talking with his sister and her husband who had joined us. Friends and acquaintances were spotted and greeted, dried sunflower seeds were shelled and eaten, all while we stood around and talked. I noticed a group of girls nearby, elaborately made up, the season’s latest fashion in headscarves perched on the back of piled up hair, their manteaus worn almost as short and tight as they were in Tehran. There was a lot of looking over in our direction and a lot of conferring before S’s cell phone started to beep furiously. After this happened a few times, I asked him why he didn’t answer, and he explained that these were not text messages but requests to connect through Bluetooth with nearby mobile phones—an ideal way in a watchful society like Iran to contact someone nearby who has caught your eye, since an open approach is impossible. Of course you run the risk of not being quite sure whose request you are accepting, and once the information has been exchanged you may still not be sure of whom you are then calling, or who is calling you—a sort of dating lottery with nothing and everything at stake at the same time.
The many elements of risk to this game make it a particularly potent one. I heard many X-rated stories in Tehran but they were limited to a minority, an uptown elite of intellectuals, liberals, artists, and journalists, financially comfortable and some with dual nationalities. The stories told of one-night hook-ups and wild parties that turned into orgies, it seemed that the liberated girls of Tehran already had a reputation; one friend in Tehran was instructed by a European journalist who was about to return to Iran on another assignment to find him a female fixer and translator, “a nice, pretty one, you know the kind of girl I mean . . .”
I also heard stories from S, who told me tales of his affairs, the way he and his friends found girlfriends and how those hook-ups took place, with a lot of duplicity and danger. He told me of a night that he had climbed into the window of a girl’s room and made love to her while her family moved about just outside, how scared he had been when her brother had knocked on the door, but there was no mistaking the rush it had given him. He freely admitted that the element of danger was what made these occasions unforgettable. I found all this rather tawdry but it was hard to deny the atmosphere of crackling sexual energy that characterized the parties I went to—although none of those turned into orgies. Tehran was, quite simply, amazingly good fun, and the sense of getting away with it added to the adrenaline rush—after all, there was always the chance that the party would be raided and just to be gathered in mixed company uncovered and in the presence of alcohol could be enough to risk a night in jail.
The sexual energy was not confined just to parties. Walking down the street as a lone woman in Tehran, it didn’t take long to have a man or two following me. Sometimes they would drive by in their cars, slowing down at the curb, calling out something suggestive, but they were not too persistent when I kept my eyes glued to the ground and ignored them. Despite so much effort by the government to remove sex from the public sphere, it seemed to be on the very air itself. When I had first returned to Iran in 1996, I had been unnerved by a young soldier winking at me on the street. Ten years later, I was combating explicit suggestions from strange men as I went about my business. Earlier, my aunts had laughed and said: “Oh before the Revolution, when we came back from the bazaar we were pinched black and blue.” They didn’t take it too seriously; in those days they had been wearing mini-skirts after all, but now that we were all encased in the hejab, I was surprised to see that not only were the men not put off by the coverings, if anything they were titillated by it. Or perhaps it wasn’t that surprising; everyone knew that in the hot summer months, many women wore their manteaus as a top rather than an outer covering, with nothing on underneath, and Iranian women certainly didn’t let the hejab stop them from looking good, piling elaborate hairstyles around their headscarves and using the flash of a well-turned ankle judiciously.
Four years ago, S and I were in Iran during the month of Moharram, the holy time during which Ashura is celebrated. I had seen images of Ashura in the Islamic Republic where it was marked lavishly, with its long processions of black-clad men flagellating themselves with chains and beating their chests. In some places, the chains wore little spikes that tore through the flesh, mortifying the body, as the chants rose rhythmically; I expected it to be a time of heightened fervor and zealotry. But mostly what felt heightened during the various festivals leading up to Ashura was the sexual tension in the air. All these gatherings, sanctioned as they were by their religious nature, were being appropriated by the young people as an opportunity to have fun on the streets, the sort of fun usually confined indoors. Even traditional families let their daughters out without keeping an eye on them and so Ashura and other religious festivals afford more freedom than usual for some.
In the week leading up to the day of Ashura, I traversed Tehran with S in his car and saw many processions as they snaked out of mosques, the chants echoing through Tehran’s noisy streets. I saw people gathered around the processions, crying with great emotion, ostensibly mourning the loss of Imam Hossein all those hundreds of years ago. I saw friends in some of these gatherings, weeping openly, when the night before, they had been partying. This was all accompanied by an unexpectedly giddy holiday atmosphere—Iran was on vacation and the streets of Tehran were clear of heavy traffic, and everywhere that S and I drove, there were roadside stalls giving away steaming hot cups of tea and traditional sweets. Mosques handed out free food and we took to joining any queues that we passed just to see what was offered.
Every night, my teenage cousin would come home from a day out with her friends bearing the fruit of their day’s labor—several different varieties of supper and a pile of phone numbers. Looking like an Islamic Audrey Hepburn in her tight black and white manteau and matching headscarf, she filled me in on her friends’ plans every night; with so many processions going on, the young people would decide which ones to attend (sometimes their decision was based on which mosque was doling out the most delicious food, sometimes on how many Basij had been seen there the night before), where they would go if it became too obviously a street party and the police arrived to try to separate men and women. When I went with them, the processions seemed to me something like a carnival, the rhythm and the beat reminded me of hip hop, and in the melee of bodies and the sizzling feeling of anticipation, I had such a strong urge to dance, that S kept anxiously imploring me not to forget myself or where I was. Even in the conservative neighborhoods of south Tehran, boys and girls were busy using the freedom that Ashura gave them to gather on the streets together to flirt and have fun.
It is tempting to see this seamless combination of Islam and flirting and dating as a symptom of the repression of the Islamic Republic, but according to one of my mother’s friends, Ashura in her day was the same. Iranians have always had an irrepressible sense of fun and growing up in 1960s Iran, girls were sheltered; in the days before mobile phones and internet chatrooms, she told me how numbers were exchanged. If eye contact was made with a handsome boy in the procession, and smiles were returned, then the boy would announce the digits of his phone number in between the chanting and chest beating, so that she could memorize it and call him later. It would go something like this: “ya Hossein—7—ya Ali—6.” In the days of the Shah’s supremacy, women had little more freedom than they do now and the necessities of chastity and modesty that haunt women still were just as strong in pre-Islamic Republic Iran.
I had always felt that Farsi, the language of Iran, was particularly suited to poetry and love, but until I went back home, I had no real appreciation of the depth of sensuality running through the Iranian soul, of the playfulness and enjoyment of life and the senses that the enforced adherence to the laws of Islam could not squash. Countless antique miniatures show a man and a woman, a tree, a flagon of wine, and a look of love. Our most famous poets—Saadi, Hafiz, Omar Khayyam—write of love, of their mistresses, of an indulgence of the senses, even in their spiritual poems. Persian culture was already a thousand years old by the time the Arabs came and the aesthetic of those who carved the mighty Persian Empire was delicate, sensuous, refined, and also practical. They built qanats, underground reservoirs that allowed them to create gardens from the bare desert, lush groves of towering trees—cypress, juniper, linden, pine—and orchards of pomegranate, pear, apple and peach, all cut through by straight canals of water, pouring into rectangular turquoise pools. The ancients called this pairadiza, and it’s still our vision of paradise.
At the same time, Iran has been in love with Islam ever since the Arabs brought it, at the end of their swords, to seventh-century Iran. The vision of Paxadise runs deep in the Iranian psyche and in our nature, love of both God and the senses live side by side. It is the way that these senses are expressed publicly that has changed since the Revolution; as one friend put it: “Before the Revolution we used to party in public and pray in private, now we party in private and pray in public.”
The Islamic Republic’s particular interpretation of Islam has done all it can to drive sensuality indoors, underground, on to the screen, to the cell phone. At the same time Iran’s devotion to Islam has, in some instances, been a boon for women. My mother, growing up in the Shah’s time, had to defy her father in order to finish high school and the thought of her going away to study at university in Tehran was not countenanced; now all my female cousins go to university as a matter of course and if it is necessary, they are allowed to live away from home in order to complete their education. For the first time, girls can leave home before they are married, and however much society and their families try to watch over their morals, there is a great deal more autonomy possible. Literacy rates have shot up since the Revolution, now among the highest in the region at around 80 percent. Some 65 percent of university entrants are now women. Before the Revolution, old-fashioned fathers balked at letting girls out into a secular society that they regarded as dissolute. Now it is this predominantly young and educated population that is pressing for more freedom and democracy, chipping away at traditional values and loosening the bonds of Sharia law. Freedom in Iran is, like everything else in this complex country, not a simple ideal; the very ideology that restricts some people enables others to realize dreams.
My own love affair brought me close up to some of the complexities that govern life in modern Iran. It would have been much easier to fall in love with a man who had been educated in the West, as I had been. A man who moved easily between Iran and the West, and held two passports and foreign bank accounts. As it was, I was besotted with my childhood friend, a young man who had no dreams of leaving Iran and couldn’t speak English. There was no possible future for us and some risk, at the very least, to our lovely and rare friendship. But the pull of the past, of the years that knitted generations of our families together, a shared history of the ancient and profound pulled me to him. And so I rushed in anyway, if you can call a decade-long courtship that makes the heroines of Jane Austen look easy, rushing.
Getting to see each other was difficult and we took any possible opportunity. When I had a chance to go on a government-organized field trip with some other journalists to the region where he lives, I managed to get him invited along and he joined our group for the three-day jaunt. Afterwards we were to travel alone to his parents’ hometown, and we hoped to grab the longed-for night together along the way. On that government-organized journey we were segregated most of the time but nonetheless we were warned by the accompanying Revolutionary Guard for sitting next to each other on the coach and at lunch (“Excuse me Miss Mohammadi, but what is the nature of your relationship with Mr. S? If you don’t mind me asking—I’m so sorry to have to ask . . .”). Curiously, three days later, he offered the use of his house for the night (“and I will tell the local Basij not to bother you”) with a nudge at S. When it came to finding a hotel where we could spend the night (checking in separately), it was more complicated a maneuver than I had imagined, but S somehow talked the hotelier round and we had our first night together, a few snatched hours in the middle of the night, with trucks rumbling by outside, the sheets cheap and scratchy.
In those hours, marked by a passion that drove the fear of being discovered out of my mind, I realized that my friend, who was now my lover, was adept at balancing the realities that you have to negotiate in the Islamic Republic, at walking the tightrope between what is lawful and what is actually possible. He knew which parts of himself to reveal to family, to friends, to colleagues, and he knew how to finally be himself, too. I marveled at the ability to wear so many different masks so seamlessly, but he had grown up under this regime and knew how to play it. I looked to him to guide me, to help me put on a mask too, though it felt so uncomfortable to me to wear, particularly in front of my family, those aunts and uncles whose love pulled me back to Iran every year.
S and I parted soon after our night of passion, I to my family home in Tehran and he to his life in the provinces. The distance that stretched between us was great and it was made almost unbridgeable by the lack of freedom afforded by the culture. So we took to talking by phone, my cell phone my ally as I dived under the covers of my bed for a little privacy, and our recently discarded inhibitions led us, quite naturally, back to the thing still on our minds: sex. I still wasn’t sure of what was considered acceptable in Iranian sexual relationships. But then one night my lover shocked me by describing in graphic detail what he would do to me were we together. Things escalated from there and afterwards I felt like the naughtiest girl in school.
A few days later I decamped to a friend’s house in the mountains and there, for the next two weeks, my lover and I enjoyed nightly bedtime chats that left us both exhausted and elated. With the uncertainty of when we would next meet always threatening to overwhelm us, this particular preoccupation not only helped us feel closer but also kept uncomfortable questions about our next meeting—and indeed our future—at bay.
That was until an innocent conversation with a friend turned my mind to darker things. M had been in Iran a year longer than me, and one day over lunch, she told me how, a few months into her trip she had received the dreaded call from the Intelligence Service. They had called her cell and said, in a polite manner guaranteed to strike terror into our Western hearts: “Please, Miss M, do grace us with the honor of your presence at such and such a time.”
M was brought up in the West and was not used to accepting things without question. After months in Iran as a lone woman, she had also acquired an aggressive stance to deflect the unwelcome attentions we faced daily here, from suggestive comments on the streets, to being felt up by strangers in crowded savaris to being stopped on mountain trails by moral police perplexed to know how a woman thought she could do anything alone (“Ladies, where is your man?” we had been asked several times on a recent hike together). So instead of simply writing down the address, she had instead challenged the speaker: “How did you get this number?”
She told me she could hear the speaker smiling. “Well, Miss M,” he declared in honeyed tones, “We are the Intelligence Service, after all.”
But the interview had been painless, she said, their intentions were quite innocent; even she could understand why she had been called in. I thought of her leaving her companion outside as she stepped into the building to present herself, the thumping of her heart as she walked down the corridor, tightening her headscarf. As children who lived through the Revolution and the early days of terror of the Islamic regime, we were both fully aware of how she could have been swallowed up by that building, her companion left outside waiting fruitlessly for her re-emergence. But instead we agreed that of course they had a right to find out what she was up to, that it was understandable, and we supported each other in the lies you tell to try and normalize your situation in this strange society that we were living in.
Sprawled on my bed that night, I answered the phone to S. He purred at me in his bedroom voice but I instead adopted a curt and formal tone that eventually discouraged his amorous outpourings and he asked me what was wrong. I recounted M’s tale and how it had awakened in me the fear that I was being watched, that our conversations were recorded, that we had used all sorts of people’s phones. My cell actually belonged to a friend of mine currently out of the country—she was sure to be arrested for my lewd behavior on her return. “I mean, what we are doing is illegal and apart from anything else can you imagine being found out and our families having to know . . .”
He had chuckled softly and told me that if the regime was going to arrest every single person who had phone sex, they would have no time left for anything else and the streets would be empty. I was stunned. It had never occurred to me that what we were doing was anything less than totally unique. I had been secretly proud of my own daring and liberated sexuality, imagining I had taught my lover a whole new way of enjoying sex. Instead, he explained to me that not only was phone sex common but it was rather fashionable right now. He laughed: “Do you think you people invented sex? You know, it’s not always so easy to get together with someone here. And cell phones, well, they are at least more private. Most people live with their parents but at least now you can shut yourself in your room with your phone. Actually, lots of girls prefer it. It gives them a way to get sexual kicks without having to lose their virginity, risk being found out or feel they have done anything too wrong . . .”
I lay then on my bed in the Islamic Republic of Iran while S whispered extravagant words of love and I imagined all those words on the ether, the sighs and moans, this removed intimacy being beamed over the country, the air thick with sex, and I was grateful at least that the trained ears of Iranian Intelligence wouldn’t find anything in my pleasure too worthy of note.
S didn’t just initiate me into intimacy the Islamic Republic way, he showed me the underground, the other reality under the superficial religiosity, one in which people seek sex as a recreation, an antidote to the constriction and boredom of living in a corrupt and repressive state. When we were together I saw the many text messages that blinked on his phone every day, dirty jokes and naughty pictures sent from friends and colleagues and I saw the CDs of pornographic pictures that made the rounds of his friends, the material passed hungrily from one to another. There were sex scandals and homemade porn videos too, members of the establishment being caught in brothels, and YouTube videos of mullahs talking dirty. A popular soap actress whose private sex tape made it on the internet was arrested and suffered a nervous breakdown, while her lover fled the country. All of these things signaled a peculiarly modern Iranian phenomenon: the interplay of repression, sexual experimentation, and the presence of technology.
The tension remains, as I found out. A single man or woman can content themselves with playing at being free—meeting a lover in a hotel, going to a wild party, having fun dinners out with friends, turning the ether blue with their X-rated endearments—but the State is always there, just beneath you, the law, its restrictions and threats spread under your feet like a net that can be swept over you at any time.
My lover was proficient at dating the Islamic Republic way, with stealth and planning. He was expert at using the time available, living in the moment. He, who for years I had suspected to be innocent, turned out to be an accomplished hunter. Trysts he knew how to handle, relationships he had less experience with. Most girls were willing to sleep with you, he said, but they also all immediately talked of marriage, mostly because there was no other viable option for seeing someone long term, and the rules of society, which valued a woman’s respectability above all else, demanded it. In small towns like his, where everyone knows everyone, it was hard to conduct an illicit relationship for long without attracting some attention, and anyway, as he once explained to me, the subterfuge went so deep that it even involved lying to the self, making it impossible to continue an affair for too long. He said to me once: “Haven’t you worked it out yet? This is Iran. Everyone here is acting in a film. Everything is changing, particularly for women who are no longer fitting their traditional roles but society hasn’t caught up, so they just do what they want and pretend they are doing something else all the while to make it palatable. They even lie to themselves. No one can deal with the grim reality, and they prefer the film anyway. There are seventy million people in this country, and they are all giving Oscar winning performances.”
In the end, I was not such a good actor. Brought up in an open society, I found the constant subterfuge exhausting. Had S lived in Tehran it would have been easier, but as it was, in order to see each other we had to mount a united offensive of lies the likes of which I had not told since being a teenager in London. The time we had alone together was short and urgent, and when I stayed with his family or he came to stay with mine, the constant searching for an opportunity to touch hands or perhaps brush lips dominated our time together. At first the stolen caresses were wildly erotic but before long, they became just plain frustrating with so little opportunity for being sated. Aside from marriage, which neither of us contemplated, there was no outlet for our feelings. We were always on guard. Once in Tehran, coming back from a day’s skiing, I embarrassed myself in front of my aunts with a thoughtless gesture. Standing in the kitchen discussing our day, I was teasing S about his sunburned ears, and in a reflexive action, I touched the back of his neck to show where he had forgotten to put sunblock. My aunts’ eyes darted sharply from his neck to my face and I withdrew my hand. Nothing was said but I knew I had given the game away, and though I have enough of my traditional upbringing still within me to have felt instantly ashamed, there was another side of me that wanted to shout out the reality of our love and not have it be anyone else’s business.
My love affair went the way of such things; I went back to London and he never called again. This was not because his ardor was suddenly cooled by the distance stretching between us, but because he was told by his boss, almost immediately following my departure, that the Intelligence Service was asking questions about him. He was told to presume that he was under surveillance and, worried for his safety, we stopped all communication. I am sure that his troubles had nothing to do with us but it didn’t matter, for whatever reason S was under investigation. With a twitch and tightening of the net of the law that lies dormant under the feet, they could get him for immorality, or at least frighten him back into being a good boy. He knew that and so did I, and so we stopped. I grappled with the loss and the fury I felt that something as simple as love should be thus broken, for no reason at all. Back in London, I delighted in the individuality I saw expressed all around me and it was all I could do not to cheer every time a pair of lovers drew close to each other on the street and kissed.
I kept silent, at least until now. This is the first time I am writing openly about my Iranian love story, before now I have held my tongue hoping that any day, any month now, I can go back to my beloved and frustrating land, that I would see again my beloved friend and perhaps caress his cheek one more time. But since the clampdown that has followed the protests around the disputed election last year, since the friends that have been threatened and jailed, since the regime has shown its brutality—and absurdity—to the world once and for all, my hopes of returning any time soon are greatly diminished and I now have the bittersweet freedom to speak, to write, to illuminate. Much like the men and women, young and old, who pour bravely into the streets of Iran, I too have lost my love and my country, and so have little left to lose.