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.