Monthly Archives: September 2014

Until at the end of a predetermined contractual timeframe do us part

The official conservative and Islamic character of Iran only thinly veils (ha!) what really goes on in private. We met a Canadian-Iranian when we were arriving at Tehran airport. He was insistent that you’d find the best and wildest parties in the world in Iran, they’re just hard to find because they happen behind closed doors.

Then there’s this, a government report which reported that in a country where adultery is punished by stoning, more than 80% of young people reported being sexually active outside of marriage. 17% identified as gay. The surprising bit isn’t the findings of the report but that a government agency was prepared to talk about it openly and even that they proposed a solution, though not for young gay Iranian’s sadly.

The concern wasn’t the fact of the sex (nor the potential for unwanted pregnancies nor STDs) it was just that it was happening without religious sanction. Their solution was sigheh, an ancient religious custom wherein a cleric sanctions a temporary marriage for a predefined period of time and within it sex is acceptable. Sometimes a dowry is involved too. You can extend the period of the segheh but the default assumption is that it will lapse. And you can have multiple segheh over your lifetime, though women are expected to wait for two menstrual cycles in between to make paternity certain.

This mocktail menu seems a bit hopeful when you read than 80% of young Iranians have sex outside marriage.
This mocktail menu seems a bit hopeful when you read than 80% of young Iranians have sex outside marriage.

Segheh dates back to the time of Muhammed who is understood to have sanctioned it for his followers. It has historically been used by men on pilgrimages, including by clerics themselves. And it was seen as a legitimate way for a widow to find a new husband who could financially support her. Segheh was adopted by Shiite Muslims, but is forbidden by Sunni.

Over time use of segheh has evolved, and attitudes towards it in modern Iran are confusing. The government accepts and even encourages it. In the 1990s President Rafsanjani encouraged it as an alternative to “Western promiscuity” and now it seems the government thinks it is an anti-dote to teen sex.

Some liberal Iranians see segheh as a way to have relationships that might be commonplace in the West, but need legal cover in Iran. It’s a convenient way to live in a de facto partnership without fearing the wrath of the morality police, or that your landlord will dob you in to them if you don’t pay rent on time. Now there’s even a dating website to shack up in a segheh for a while. You can filter results by how much a man’s car is worth or the ‘veil status’ of a woman (whether she wears a chador and how much hair she shows). Apparently the site has a hundred thousand members, but only one in ten are female.

Elsewhere, in more conservative circles segheh is condemned. Not all clerics will give their blessing to these temporary marriages. Plus women who enter into segheh are often stigmatised as promiscuous, or even prostitutes, and it may be harder for them to find a permanent partner in a more conventional marriage afterwards.

Several of these attitudes and practices speak to the key themes we’re beginning to observe in our time in Iran:

  • there is a conservative Islamic orthodoxy, but people we meet seem liberal and would probably be more comfortable living in the West than many Pakistanis we met, or indeed Chinese
  • the codification of Islamic law gives ways to wiggle around it that might not be available if it were just a cultural norm to which you were expected to conform (see headscarf wear in Tehran, and now ways to have sex without being married)
  • Iran is confusing and complex, and there are a lot of things about it which are surprising – who knew their approach to marriage is arguably more flexible than ours at home?

Appropriate number of lamb chops

You know that feeling when you order lamb chops and you’re really enjoying them and then you look down and they’re basically gone? It’s the worst.

Screen Shot 2014-09-29 at 11.40.11 AM

Fortunately an excellent restaurant in Isfahan called Sharzhad has a cure. They just serve you lots and lots of lamb chops. So instead you end up with the deeply satisfactory feeling of looking down and realising you have heaps still to eat. Little garlic yoghurt on the side, flat bread soaking up any escaping juices below. Sure, an alcoholic beverage would have been a worthwhile addition, but failing that the fresh orange juice was pretty good.

All round excellent.

Isfahan has all that

In the late sixteenth century the Iranian capital of Qazvin was under threat from invaders. So Shah Abbas was like, “Right we need to move our capital to somewhere in the middle of Iran”. He chose Isfahan and made it awesome.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Today, Isfahan holds many of the very best things Iran has to offer tourists: a splendorous central square, an excellent carpet producing tradition, enchantingly ordered Persian gardens, breathtaking Mosques and a place that will fix you ten tender lamb chops for cheap. It also has a sweet nuclear reactor, but that’s not so much for visiting. It’s as liberal as Tehran (hence the return of angry birds sculpted eyebrows) but it’s got less pollution, calmer traffic, and an appreciable centre in Imam square.

It’s hip to be in the square

Imam square is a massive central plaza, lined with arched arcades housing carpet and handicraft stores interrupted only by palaces and Mosques. In the evenings horse-drawn carriages clack around the periphery and fountains chirp in the centre. It really is a magic place, and it is massive. Imam square is second only to the square of vanishing protestors Tiananmen Square for size in the world. But where Tiananmen is flanked by austere communist architecture and you have to pass through a metal detector to get in, Imam square is alive with people relaxing. Persian carpets are unfurled as picnic blankets and girls just old enough to wear hejab practice volleyball in between.

Kashan to Isfahan, with stops and a small girl in between

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

We took advantage of traveling as a foursome and hired a car to get us from Kashan to Isfahan. Along the way we visited Abyaneh and Natanz.

Abyaneh is decked out in ocher coloured clay houses. It sits in the foothills on a mountain range, trying desperately to hide from the sun and sandstorms which mark the Iranian desert. We wandered around for a couple of hours enjoying the quiet ambiance and ridiculously blue skies. Old women dried masses of apples on the roofs of their aging homes.

Natanz is noteworthy for two reasons. First, it’s the site of an underground uranium enrichment plant. Second, it’s got a killer Mosque. We only visited the latter, because we weren’t that keen on being arrested. The Mosque had massive arches and intricate tiling. It is especially impressive when you consider that it has the same scale as many of the great European cathedrals, but was built centuries before.

In between we did our best to entertain Fatima the daughter of our driver. Fatima wanted to spend her day clambering over her mum, grabbing at the gear stick and generally lurching about the car. Fair enough, I probably would have wanted the same when I was two and a bit. But, for obvious reasons, we weren’t wild about her mischief making, so we’d scoop her up into the back seat to try and keep her amused. Glasses were a big attraction. And, despite small ineffectual hands, she managed to get to grips with fruit ninja remarkably quickly, and with much squealing. We weren’t expecting to babysit on our journey, but on balance we thought it was nice to be able to support a young mum who has presumably few opportunities for employment. And Fatima was helluva cute.


We bumped into Hussein in the main square of Isfahan. He was a spry eighty four year old who liked talking to tourists and remembering his travels to Europe some sixty years ago. He had a grandson completing his PhD in Melbourne, he said, so he knew about New Zealand. His eyes sparkled with pride as he talked about other relations who had managed to escape Iran: a daughter who had “won green card” and now lives in Dallas, a son-in-law selling Iranian rugs in Tokyo.

His English was sound but he wanted to prove proficiency, so we went through a slightly absurd exercise where he listed parts in an internal combustion engine and then rattling off a definition. It’s not like we would have been able to correct him, but he seemed to be satisfied that we were impressed.

We passed the evening with Hussein, visiting family shops so he could show off his connections to us and hope we might buy something. We also visited his ninety year old friend, still working retail peddling pumps and sneakers to fashionable young women. He was trying to teach his friend English though he was some distance from describing car engines.

We ate dinner together and then he took us to see a kind of traditional exercise class. He used to be hurling himself around like that too, he said, until he was wounded when fighting in the Iran-Iraq war.

At the end of the night we had an awkward conversation about whether and how much Hussein should be paid as our guide, which took a little off the gloss of the experience, but overall we were still happy with the chats we’d had. He seemed worldly enough to understand a little about us and about what we might be interested in. He wasn’t phased when we said we have no religion, for example: “My grandfather and father and I Muslims,” he said, “but now I think I am believing in big bang seen through telescope Hubble. Through telescope they see no paradise.”

And so we chatted about Iran before and after the revolution. He wasn’t a fan of the changes. The Shah was a good ruler, he thought, and America would have let him have nuclear power without complaint if he had stayed in charge. The mullahs he said, used to be respected and greeted kindly in the street. Now they are respected out of fear alone. His key message was that many Iranians – he says 90% – do not want the government fate which has become them. Young women, he said, will signal to each other to tighten their headscarf when the morality police are about in much the same way that New Zealand drivers flash their lights to warn of a speed camera.

I didn’t get to ask how the regime is sustained if it is so unpopular. I suspect partly out of fear, but partly because the opposition is actually less widespread than Hussein imagines. I understand that in the relatively liberal cities, like Tehran and Isfahan, the revolution was never as popular as the more conservative rural areas.

When we asked an especially “good question” Hussein would pause to take us away from the stream of pedestrians and offer a warning. It seemed unreal that a kindly and slightly doddery old man would still be fearful enough to tell us that, if the secret police asked we should say only that he told us stories about the buildings. He was fearful though so we never took his photo. But we will remember him well.

Date night, and other great travel surprises in Iran


  • With the weekend falling Thursday/Friday here, Thursday night is like our Saturday night. Well at least in the sense of holy day eve, if not occasion for drunken rampage. Shopkeepers put out bowls of delicious fresh dates on little tables by the pavement . They’re for any passerby to enjoy as they choose; a contribution to their community. One I ate was so sweet it tasted like it’d just been removed from a sticky pudding.
  • Not only can you drink the water from the tap in Iran, there are taps in public spaces that offer chilled drinking water to anyone who might be passing by. In the heat of the day they’re a godsend.
  • Public toilets are also common, free and (mostly) tolerable. They tend to be in the 3 out of five points range. One point for each of: running water, soap, toilet paper, western style, cleanliness.
  • People are quick to offer to help here, when they see you pondering your next turn, hunched over a map. Many will go beyond just giving you instructions and will walk you to your chosen destination.
  • I bought an Iranian sim card at the airport for about five bucks. It came with 1gb of data and a so far inexhaustible amount of calling.
  • Yesterday was ‘tourist day’ which apparently happens once a year. Our hotel lavished discounts on us as a result. Bonus.

The gene lives on – Iran edition

Haters gonna continue to hate. But I am going to continue my efforts to record photographs with redheads in unlikely places. You might recall there was this girl in Colombia. And then there was this young boy visiting a garden on the outskirts of Kashan with his family who I think were from Tehran. Almost everyone has black hair here, jet black at that. But this guy had an auburn shade pretty similar to my own. Unlike myself, he also had awesome red hair eyebrows.


Reports of the death of red hair are very much exaggerated.

Kashan – town of gendered knockers

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Kashan is a small town between Tehran and Ishfahan. Wikipedia claims it only receives a thousand foreign tourists a year, but it deserves many more. We spent two very enjoyable days wandering in its bazaar which is atmospheric, but smaller and less intense than those in the big cities, and visiting the many historical houses and Mosques. Our hotel was a restored traditional home and it was gorgeous. The only frustration was the pool was decorative, and not for swimming. Such things are not easily compatible with Iranian dress code.

In a trend I understand is likely to continue whenever we’re outside the more liberal cities the number of women wearing the chador rather than more modern Iranian fashion probably climbed above 90%. It seemed like a nod to Kashan’s history of gender separation and seclusion which also showed up in its door knockers.

Doors to traditional houses had two knockers, one long and skinny and one short and wide. Their different shapes mean they produce different sounds. Women would use the shorter knocker and men the longer, then those inside would know which gender of person should answer the door.

Policy wonk digest – Iran

  • Iran executes the second largest number of people in the world (after China). There were more than three hundred executions last year.
  • There are some unusual opportunities for reprieves for death row inmates. You are likely to have your sentence commuted if you manage to memorise the Quoran. Family of victims of murder can also choose to pardon offenders, which they tend to do at the last minute when the noose is literally around the neck. Blood money paid from the family of the offender to the family of the victim is has a significant influence on pardons.
  • Iranian weeks and years are organised differently to ours. Weekends are Thursday/Friday with the Muslim holy day placed like our Sunday.
  • Date wise, today is 4 Mehr 1393. The calendar counts from when Muhammed migrated to Mecca. The twelve months correspond to signs of the zodiac. Each year begins with the autumnal equinox (20 or 21 March).
  • We’ve read that as well as the strict dress code for women, it is also illegal for men to wear neck ties. We can’t validate this, but we can say we’ve seen no one in a tie and none on sale in shops.
  • The morality police crack down on women not correctly wearing hejab at the beginning of each summer, when the oppressive heat might incline them to show just a little more skin.
  • Bus drivers have a gadget installed in their vehicles that records their speed. They have to stop every 100km to submit results to police to prove they’ve not been speeding. This seems overly frequent, but these counters are a very interesting idea and I wonder whey they haven’t had wider application.

On a magic carpet ride

I’d never really taken any shine to carpets before. But after we first went through the ritual of a carpet showing Tehran – cups of tea, carpets shaken out so their colours shine, and an enthusiastic sales pitch – I had a feeling we wouldn’t be leaving this part of the world without one.

The best examples are stunning. They’re delicate but vibrant and they’re so so intricate. They’re miles away from the rugs you might see on the walls of a cheap Turkish restaurant. Many are largely made of silk. Their colour changes when you look from different directions. The good ones are hand woven, their production can take up to a year.

It also helped that we’re currently traveling with Fi’s parents who have met us for ten days in Iran. They’re headed home well before us and have generously agreed to act as our couriers (in a strictly non drug mule sense). This provides a rare opportunity to buy things and not lug the around in our backpacks forever more. They’ve also bought carpets in Turkey before; their advice gave us added confidence in decision making. Their impression is that the process of buying is more laid back in Iran, the sellers are more up front about pricing and that their sales pitch is softer. Certainly our negotiating experience was very satisfactory.


We visited several stores to see their wares and slowly narrowed down our preferences to a combination of size, colour and style that seemed impossible to match to a real life carpet. Then we visited one store that had many we liked and browsing turned to buying.

I don’t mind telling you we significantly exceeded the budget we’d sketched in our heads. I could tell it was going downhill when Fiona told me “I’ve been inspired” and then, with reference to a particularly stunning carpet “this is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.”

We ended up with two carpets. One, the main object of Fi’s affection, comes from Qom, the city of Iran’s conservative religious establishment. “Qom produces two things,” said our salesman, “carpets and mullahs. And only one of them is useful.” It has a wonderful deep blue which shimmers like a sapphire. The other, from Ishfahan, is larger with a mix of rusty red, blue and white.

Fi woke up saying she hadn’t been able to sleep because she was excited about our carpets. We don’t know where our next home will be, nor when we’ll reach it but buying something for it was still an enjoyable process. About the most control we have over the construction of our own space in these parts is moving the (inevitably) single beds together in boxy hotel rooms.