Iran is not what you think
From the start, Iran wasn't what we assumed. On the train ride to Mashhad, our fixer disappeared for about an hour. Upon his return, he apologized and explained that he had picked up a woman who had taken him to her cabin for a quickie. His promiscuity wasn't unusual. We were repeatedly flirted with or propositioned by women. The desk clerks at our hotel asked our fixer about our long beards, which we had grown out in order to blend in in rural Afghanistan. "Are your friends fanatics?" they wanted to know. "Would they spend the night with us?"
Along with our beards, we had acquired the traditional "shalwar kameez" white robes worn by conservative Afghans. Our fixer suggested we had a unique opportunity to smuggle ourselves into the "haram"(forbidden) section of the Imam Reza shrine so we could check out the stunning Timurid architecture. If anyone talked to us, our fixer advised we pretend not to understand them. Muslims come from all over the world to pray there, so we could pretend to speak a different language. Worshipers circled the tomb of the 9th century Shia martyr Ali al-Ridha seemingly in a trance, but whenever someone spent too long in the center, an attendant lightly dipped a pink feather duster strung from a pole onto the offender to ask him to move on.
Two incidents stood out for me.
At our hotel in Tehran, we overheard a European couple complaining to the desk clerks that they had been robbed of 1,200 euros the night before. The clerks repeatedly entreated them to report the loss to the police, but the Europeans were understandably hesitant. The next day, I encountered the pair in the elevator. "You won't believe what happened," the wife told me. "We went to the police, and they gave us 1,200 euros." There was a law that foreign tourists had to be made whole if they suffered a financial loss due to crime. Iranians we talked to were surprised that it wasn't the same in the West.
We flew from Tehran to Istanbul. At our last security checkpoint in Iran, airport security personnel ordered us to remove our baggage from the conveyor belt leading to the X-ray machine. Great, I thought, we're going to be detained. "You are guests in our country," the airport official advised us. "It would be rude to subject you to a search." We were Americans, citizens of the Great Satan, at Ayatollah Khomeini International Airport!
Not everything was sweetness and light.
There is always a sense of tension that comes with lawbreaking and its potentially grave consequences. For the most part, however, we followed the rules. Most of the people we saw obeyed them, too, but just barely. Many women wore tightfitting manteaus and barely covered their hair.
When our Turkish Airlines flight lifted up from Tehran, many of the women on board dumped their chadors, revealing skin, sexy outfits and makeup. People smiled. Flight attendants began serving beer. This is what Iran would feel like if Iran's government, which is not popular, were to go away tomorrow.
Trump's latest actions and America's myopic foreign policy, however, ensure that the religious government will probably remain in place for the foreseeable future.
Ted Rall, the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of "Francis: The People's Pope." He is on Twitter @TedRall. You can support Ted's hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.
----Copyright 2020 Creators Syndicate, Inc.