Iran: Police State?

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I never thought that Iran would be dangerous in the way others assume it to be. That is, I knew that, unlike other countries in the Middle East, it is plagued neither by civil war, sectarian violence nor terrorism.   However, I did imagine it to be a police state where any slight misstep could have drastic consequences.

I had read about Iran’s dreaded morality police. I pictured them stalking the streets, ready to pounce any woman revealing too much skin or couple holding hands. In a country that forbids so many mundane acts—from using Facebook to touching someone of the opposite sex—I feared I might unintentionally break a law and incite the ire of the authorities. Only I—a dual citizen of the U.S. and Uruguay traveling on a Uruguayan passport—would likely wind up, like the American hikersin prison on charges of espionage.

To protect myself, I resolved to be as vigilant as possible. I had a seamstress make me several loose tunic-style shirts—known in Iran as manteaus—that would comply with the Islamic dress code. I rehearsed wearing a headscarf so that it covered every wisp of hair and inch of skin below my chin. I warned friends I would not be using Facebook or updating my blog during my trip so as not to access any websites blocked by the government. I promised myself I would refuse any illegal beverages and dodge any questions about my political views.

I also decided it would be prudent not to advertise my U.S. citizenship, especially while traveling on a different passport. When I contacted Iranians through the website Couchsurfing, as a way to meet people once I arrived, I made only indirect references to my nationality, saying I lived in Colombia, but had grown up in the U.S. One Couchsurfer, ecstatic to hear I had any link to the U.S., begged me to bring him an American flag in my suitcase. Horrified, I shunned his request and worried he might be a spy for the Iranian government.

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Reality set in once I arrived in Tehran. As I walked off the plane with my headscarf snugly wound around my hair, I caught sight of the snaking line of foreign tourists at the first immigration checkpoint. Nausea overcame me as I pictured the interrogation to which I might soon be subjected.

Trembling, I joined the line and watched with surprise as each foreigner passed mechanically through without any unusual questioning. When it was my turn, the immigration officer, jaded and sweaty, only looked up at me for a moment, apparently amused to discover a passport he had never before seen. He chuckled to himself and let me pass.  I breathed a sigh of relief.

Only then did I become aware of the Iranian women gliding through the second immigration line. A few hobbled by in full-body black chadors secured by a wad of fabric between their teeth. However, many others flaunted bright-colored manteaus with tight sashes and headscarves that hovered airily around their necks, exposing lustrous locks of hair. Their faces glistened from thick layers of makeup, their feet adorned with outlandishly stylish shoes. These women exuded confidence. If their outfits violated the dress code, they did not seem to notice or care.

Their complete tranquility bewildered me. Shouldn’t they be terrified of breaking the law?

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Once in Tehran, I broached the topic of illegal activity with my Iranian hosts, a married couple introduced to me over Facebook by a Colombian friend. How is it, I asked them, that they have Facebook accounts? Isn’t Facebook illegal in Iran?

The husband laughed. “Everyone in Iran is on Facebook. Even the Supreme Leader!”

Now I was really confused. “Aren’t they afraid of getting caught?”

“No, of course not!”

When I asked his wife to preview the manteaus I had brought with me—each several sizes larger than necessary to ensure they would be wide enough to conform to the dress code—she laughed at me too.

“These are too conservative!” she cried out. “Why didn’t you bring something tighter and more fashionable?” I blushed, recalling the women at the airport.

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As the days passed, it became increasingly apparent to me that the rules I had been so concerned about obeying were regularly flouted by Iranians.

Despite the prohibition on satellite television, nearly every home we visited during our two-week stay streamed in foreign television channels via an illegal satellite. The preferred channel among the families we met was a Persian-language version of MTV broadcast from Los Angeles. Our hosts— among them timid chador-wearing mothers and grandmothers— seemed unfazed by the wild dancing and glittery halter-tops of the women on the screen.

Our home visits also revealed another common form of illegal activity: drinking alcohol. Many Iranians were eager to share with us the wine or arak they had prepared in their basements or procured from a smuggler. When I questioned them about the risks of consuming alcohol, they shrugged. Sure, sometimes people get arrested for it. But, then, the next day, they are let go. It’s not a big deal.  I thought back to my college days, when most of my friends under 21 drank without fear of arrest and wondered whether perhaps it was not so different.

Then there were the dozens of Iranians we met with I-Phones. While the Iranian government does not prohibit Apple products, U.S. sanctions forbid their importation into Iran. And yet, often, it seemed that, everywhere I looked, there was an Iranian texting or talking on his I-Phone or photographing with an I-Pad. Most had the latest models and ridiculed me for my outdated phone.

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Contrary to what I had imagined, I noticed no secret police lurking in the shadows scrutinizing my every move and saw no one get arrested. I was never questioned or even asked for identification by a police officer. The only time a police officer did approach me he asked if I felt safe and then walked away.

Still, I kept my promise to be as cautious as possible. I tried not to advertise my ties to the Great Satan, as the Iranian government calls the U.S., and, when politics came up in conversation, I would hold my tongue, despite my intense curiosity to ask Iranians what they thought about the political situation.

It was not until the end of our trip that I summoned the courage to ask some new friends the questions I had most wanted to know.

“Is it ok to talk about politics? Is it very sensitive?”

“Of course!” one replied. “Everyone talks about politics. No subject is taboo here.”

“What about the Couchsurfer who asked me to bring him an American flag? Do you think he was a spy for the government?”

“No!” another scolded me. “Iranians love the U.S.  I’m sure he genuinely wanted the flag.”

Then, he paused and said: “Why didn’t you do it? I would have done it. When I traveled to the U.S., I brought back a LGBT flag.”

I was stunned. In a country where homosexuality is punished by hanging, my new friend had no qualms about smuggling in a rainbow flag in support of gay rights.

In Iran, the surprises never end.

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7 thoughts on “Iran: Police State?

  1. Great story. Especially the last part about getting an lgbt flag. Astonishing!
    I’d always heard how homosexuals are killed in Iran.
    Iran is weirdly shrugged off as a dangerous country. I think it’s comparable to any other developed Arab state like UAE or Qatar.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting! I think you make a good comparison to the Arab Gulf States. Precisely what I hoped to show through this piece is that much of the behavior we find so abhorrent in Iran is similar to behavior by other countries we regard as acceptable travel destinations.

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