Friday, May 28, 2004


There was a 6.2 earthquake 70 kilometers north of Tehran, which we felt. The house shook, and it took me about 2 seconds to get out and onto the streets. Our whole neighborhood was there. People were shaken and friendly. We all milled about for about 30 minutes before going back into our houses.

K is putting together an emergency evacuation pack. "Aren't you supposed to do that before the earthquake," my sister, an earthquake veteran, joked.

I don't mind saying that I was scared, and that I still feel a bit woozy from my fear. The earthquake occurred in the north of Iran, which has much more wood structures than any other part of Iran. A 6.2 in Tehran itself would be devastating.

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Marmulak (Lizard)

One of our stops on our travels around Iran was Khorramabad. We stopped there to visit the castle-like structure that dominates its skyline. From our short visit, I can say that Khorramabad is kind of a strange place. It is a city dominated by men. The women you do see mainly wear chadors or simple black. Even beige seems colorful. On the other hand, under the women's chadors, you can catch a glimpse of sequins, flowers, and bright, bright colors. According to our Iranian friends, most of the men from Khorramabad were sepa, pasdaran, or basigi. This means they were either volunteers or in the elite forces. This is a religious city where people take their daily prayers seriously. I say this, because as we were ascending into the castle we heard a group of men joking with each other. The older men were teasing a young man about his decision to study to become a "marmulak." Everyone, especially the young man, laughed. Later, when we were walking on the streets, we heard "Marmulak!" from a cab filled with young men. The appellation was directed at the cleric who was walking nearby.

Marmulak is the Persian word for lizard. It is also, by far, the most popular movie in Iran. It is Iran's Shrek 2. Everyone we meet in Iran is talking about the movie. "I had to wait 2 hours for a ticket," one of our young friends told us. "But it was great. The best movie of the year. No doubt."

From what I can gather, Marmulak is a series of comic sketches that poke fun at Iran's clerics. K and I tried to see it last week, but the line for tickets stretched several blocks. Last week was supposed to be the last night of the movie. The government belatedly decided to pull it from the theaters. "It is a symbolic gesture," K's nephew told me. If Khorramabadis are making jokes at the expense of the clerics, the film has already permeated every level of society.

You can get bootleg copies of the film at stores all over Iran. Some are even selling the uncensored version, which many of the people we spoke with saw. "It has 20 more minutes of uncensored comedy," K's brother told us. "You have to see it."

One should not make the mistake of thinking that just because Iranians are laughing at their clerics that they have lost their faith in Islam. Praise for the film has come from some of our most religious friends. K's sister, who is a believer, loved the movie. Iranians, I think, have lost faith in their clerical elite and in the utopian vision of an Islamic society. All well and good I think.

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Women, again

"Women would be much less sexy if they were not wearing manteaus," K's brother told us the other day. "They are so tight and sexy looking now, it would be better if the women were wearing their normal clothes."

It's hard to believe that in certain areas of Iran, women will not be dressing according to their own tastes by next summer. Things could change of course, but right now, many more young women than last summer wear their scarves low on the back of their head. (The best thing to do, it seems, is pull your hair back in a ponytail and then rest the scarf on it.)

The hemlines have come up and the waste lines have come in. It's fashionable to wear manteaus so tight that the buttons are stretched. At first I thought that women were just buying their manteaus too small or gaining weight. When I went to buy a new one a couple of months ago, the sales clerks all tried to convince me that the manteau that was too small for me was the one I should get. "It's too tight," I told them. "It looks better too tight," they responded. It was then that I finally caught on to the trend. D'oh.

On our travels we talked to many groups of young women. At one tourist spot we met a group of about 20 university students who wanted me to explain to the family we were traveling with that they were dressed conservatively because they were in university. "But they look so great," the man of the family commented. I had to agree, they did look great.

The thing I keep saying about Iranian women is that they are really fun and really different when no men are around. (They can be fun when men are around too, but not as…) One of our friends told us a story that reinforces this point. He went to Damascus last year with a tour group of about 45 people from about 12 different (mainly Western) countries.

"There were busloads of women making pilgrimages to Damascus. You could always tell when a busload of Iranian women had arrived. You could hear them laughing with each other before they got out of their buses. Then they would get out and come directly to our group and start taking pictures of us. This was a bit strange for us because we were the ones use to making the pictures," he laughed. "Within five minutes the women were all practicing their English with our group. The other women from different countries never approached us. Only the Iranian women."

We related this story to K's sisters. "Iranian women are more religious than Iranian men," they told us. "That's why we go on more pilgrimages than the men. But also we go just to be together and have fun."

Born free

"What is it like for someone who was born free to live in a country where you are not free?" K asked me.

"It's not easy," I answered.

"I am not myself here," K added.

Friday, May 14, 2004

Joop, aged 16, Netherlands

It seemed like every foreigner traveling in Iran during the past couple of weeks was either from France or the Netherlands. The French women wore their scarves either in turbans (like the clerics in Iran) or barely covering their hair. Few, if any of them, bothered with a manteau. The Dutch women, on the other hand, were much more conservative. Some of them even wore long manteaus and hoods instead of scarves. Still, they managed to look stunning.

During our spring travels we met up with a great family from the Netherlands and did some traveling together. Their son, Joop, was quite the attraction. Tall, blond, and cute, he attracted notice from Iranians of all ages. I am sure that almost every Iranian with a camera who crossed our path has a photograph of Joop. He was photographed with babies, young women, old women, young men, old men; women in chadors and women wearing their sexy manteaus. Joop has to have been the most photographed person in Iran during the last month. I doubt that more photos were taken of even Khatami. Joop handled it exceedingly well despite the fact that we Westerners are fairly squeamish about having our photos taken.

I thought that it would be impossible for us to see a taller person than Joop during our travels. He is well over 6 feet (but normal in his class in the Netherlands, can you believe that? "It's because we Dutch sleep so much," his mother told me), but with all of the Dutch tourists in Iran, we did manage to see two men who were taller.

What surprised me most about the Dutch tourists was how little they spoke with another. "We can talk when we get home." So many times we found ourselves in situations where Iranian or American tourists would have talked to each other and shared their experiences, but the Dutch were silent with one another.

The Dutch, however, speak with everyone else. Iranians seemed particularly drawn to the Dutch family we were traveling with and engaged them in all sorts of discussions. What surprised K and I the most was how many soldiers came up and talked to them. "They are not allowed to speak with foreigners," K explained. Many of the soldiers leapt into discussions about politics and culture that surprised me. It seems that Nicholas Kristof had similar experiences during his trip to Iran.

Shy no more
It is impossible to be shy in Iran. Sure, Iranians can feel shyness, but they cannot act on it. Even the shyest child has to learn to carry on a conversation. Iran is curing me of any last vestiges of shyness that may have lingered from my teen years (I think I became more shy as a teen than I was as a child.) In Iran you are expected to discuss your age, your weight, your family state, and any other bit of personal information with anyone who asks. You may be asked to dance or sing at a family gathering, and it would be terrible to say no, no matter how uncomfortable it makes you. (Not that I did not say no hundreds of times, it's just now that I have learned to play along, I have much more fun everywhere.)

It is with my new brazen personality that I embarked on our spring travels. This means that I talked to all sorts of people I would have not spoken to before. In addition, I allowed myself to be the center of attention more than once without retreating into a corner and blushing until my face felt like it would burn off.

It is fun not to be shy. I would recommend Iran as a cure for those of you facing any issues with shyness. Mind you, you'll have to stay long enough that you are no longer annoyed by all of the attention you will receive, but it will be worth it.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Mohammad, aged 12, Shiraz

May 11, 2004

Well it's been a little more than 10 days. I am currently sitting under a mulberry tree beginning this account of my spring travels. The mulberries in this tree are white, not the reddish-purple I am accustomed to. When I asked how long until they would be ripe, I was told that they were ripe now. I spent a good half hour feasting on white mulberries.

Mohammad, aged 12, Shiraz
If you have met Mohammad, aged 12, of Shiraz who is practicing his English, please email me ( I met him and so, I am certain, did every foreign tourist to Shiraz. We met at Hafez's tomb, where his father and another man were trolling for tourists who could help young Mohammad practice English. He had been studying for a year and already his English was better than that of most of the translators that I have met in Iran. As we spoke, his father urged him to get me to talk faster and ask more difficult questions. I think the conversation was more difficult for me than for Mohammad.

Hafez's tomb was really wonderful. It was packed with tourists and Shirazis alike. People surrounded the grave reciting Hafez's poems to each other. Most squatted by the grave and placed two fingers on its marble slab and whispered a quiet prayer. Mohammad told me that they were whispering verses of the Koran.

I had heard a lot about Shiraz before going there. All over Iran, Iranians told me how wonderful the people of Shiraz were. Iranians complain about each other incessantly, but when it comes to the people of Shiraz and Rasht (I haven't been there yet), they have nothing but good things to say.

I was prepped to fall in love with Shiraz, so it should be no surprise that I did. "The people here are educated," K said. "That's why they are so friendly and why they care so much for their city."

We had lunch in a really wonderful place: a restored bathhouse. Every single person in Shiraz tells you to eat there, so we did. An amazing threesome played and sang traditional music. I would have been happy to pay to see them (which we did, since the food was more expensive when the band was playing.) Children danced. People snapped their fingers. (You haven't heard fingers snapped until you have heard Iranians snap their fingers.) I told K that the whole place felt one beer away from being on its feet dancing.

I read that Hafez was offered several court postings but turned them all down because they required that he leave Shiraz. After going to Shiraz, I have a better understanding of why he would want to stay there.