Porn, adultery and cups of Iranian tea

Our hotel owner in Yazd had an admirable determination to learn about the culture of his guests. When we met him Hussein (yes, another one) he was hunched over a notebook furiously taking town phrases from a German tourist.

Then his attention turned to us. He wanted to pour tea and learn English slang. “Shall I be mother?” he asked, looking as much for validation of his language as our teacups. I explained that was English idiom but the phrase had pretty much lost its currency after the 1950s. “Ah,” he said “Shakespearean English”. Nope.

When we couldn’t produce a list of wrote-learnable slang on demand he tried a different approach. He wanted to know whether we thought it was okay for his staff to nap in the dormitory in the afternoons. Probably, but that wouldn’t happen at home. And then why western women are prepared to share the dorm with western men, but not Iranians. Iranian men are less of a known quantity, I explained diplomatically.

His follow up was poignant: “Western people do not look down on Iranians?” I suggested that people who travel to Iran almost certainly don’t, and that’s why we come. But the things we hear about Iran in the west are not flattering: burqas and bombs.

Hussein was keenly aware of the hypocrisy of other countries having nuclear weapons and demanding Iran not. I had to explain that existing nuclear powers were, for the most part, committed to avoiding using their arsenal, and weren’t confident Iran would do the same. It was hard to do this while sustaining the idea that the west doesn’t look down on Iranians. My refuge, a frequent one in Iran, was that the west sees a distinction between the Iranian government and its people. That’s a familiar idea for many Iranians, because they don’t like their government much, either. It’d be better if no one had the bomb, we agreed.

My honesty probably led him on. Next he wanted to know what subjects were off limits when he traded tea for English conversation. The classic trifecta didn’t seem to apply. Religion and politics are probably exactly the sorts of things that tourists to Iran want to talk about. Sex though, personal questions especially, should be off limits we said.

“Maybe I am curious and I want to know whether things I have seen on porno are true,” he said. Oh boy, I thought, what have I gotten us into? But I took a deep breath and resolved to use the conversation as slightly absurd practise for when any future offspring might inquire.

It turned out the porn he’d seen was American Pie. That was good insofar as his questions weren’t crazy. But bad because I couldn’t dismiss the kinds of things he was asking about completely out of hand. So, responding to Hussein, I said:

  • The average age to have sex for the first time is seventeen and most people do before they are married
  • Yes, some people find people to have sex with on the internet
  • Yes, some people do sleep with someone and wake up the next morning not knowing their name
  • No, if you come home to find your wife with another man, you can’t call the police, and if you do they won’t arrest anyone
  • Most marriages have some kind of infidelity and many end in divorce

It was inconceivable to Hussein that adultery would happen in the context of ‘love marriages’ where he didn’t see a need. And more inconceivable that something punishable by stoning in Iran has no sanction under our laws. But he was prepared to accept that different countries had different laws. In fact, he thought that was reason for foreigners to respect those of Iran. For example he said “sixty to seventy per cent of women want to wear hejab so we make a law”. Shades of Colin Craig.

I wasn’t going to be distracted by the question of whether those women genuinely choose to cover their heads. I went straight for the democratic liberalist jugular: “We let people make choices for themselves” I explained, “and so long as the choices are free, and don’t cause others harm, our laws generally don’t stop them.”

Hussein was bemused by this explanation, but I think he got it. And I honestly don’t think he’d heard an argument rooted in choice before. I think maybe he thought casual sex was as much an imperative in western society as wearing hejab in Iran.

Back in our room my Facebook was alight with news that the Australian government had just banned women with covered heads from its parliamentary galleries. Fresh from fighting the good fight for liberalism I was like: what the actual hell. Unless there’s been a rash of people hiding water balloons under their chadors that I’m not aware of the ban seems unconscionable. And even then…

For whatever implausible security incursion it is supposed to guard against it will do a hell of a lot more damage when it inevitably wiggles its way into Islamic media. For guys like Hussein it’s going to imply all over again that foreigners really do look down on him and his culture and that their laws are laced with hypocrisy. I felt like I owed him an apology.

 

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