The Navigators

The 2014 winner of The Spectator’s Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for unconventional travel writing, illustrated by Carolyn Gowdy

11 January 2014

9:00 AM

11 January 2014

9:00 AM

Tehran does not welcome pedestrians. It is eight o’clock on a July evening and the sun has plunged out of the air with alarming speed; the sky is the colour of wine, and the air is thick with the scent of heat and petrol. I have long forgotten where we are going. Dust-coloured buildings spill out to the horizon, many of them protected by barbed-wire gates. In this part of town it is so unusual for people to walk on the streets at night — I am told that only fools and prostitutes do so — that the pavements are unlit, and we rely on the rippling glow of the traffic to guide us. An ancient, sour smell drifts through the door of a butcher’s shop; at the entrance stands a pyramid of sheep skulls, the blank faces neatly assembled as though awaiting instructions.

I was met at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini airport two weeks ago by Maryam, an impatient and slightly scrappy young actress who has travelled in England and Europe with her theatre group. I stay with her at her parents’ home in Tehran’s affluent northern suburbs: here sycamores line the streets, scattering the sunlight over the ground in pale crescents. The family treat me like an old friend, and I am given my own room that is filled to the ceiling with dolls and cuddly toys. All the windows are kept closed, and the apartment is entered first through an automated gate, then a coded lift, and finally two front doors. There are layered rugs, and two fat Persian cats lie on mounds of bronze cushions in the hallway; it is as if the place has been discreetly decked out as a padded cell.

Maryam’s mother is sweet and ghostly, frail from an illness which makes her look twice her age. She does not leave the house, but hobbles daily into the kitchen to prepare huge meals for the family — fried rice, stewed lamb, beans and dried limes in thick sauces flavoured with rose attar. Her daughter, bone-thin, twists restlessly around the table and often skips off to her bedroom before the rest have finished eating.

In Tehran the elevator is king. People would rather wait several minutes for an empty one than climb a single flight of stairs. On top of this we travel everywhere packed into a boiling car with the soot-flooded air streaming through the windows. The most popular cafés are inside shopping malls. Life in this city takes place underground and inside, crouched in muggy stillness behind stacked walls and entry systems.

‘What is possible in Iran? Outside, nothing. Inside, everything,’ Maryam laughs.

But the lack of air is difficult to adjust to. I am fractious and achy and hear myself complaining bitterly about the lack of ‘proper’ coffee. I can barely stay awake and at first it is all I can do to allow Maryam to herd me from one place to the next. I sense that she thinks me an absolute embarrassment and more than once I catch her slowly closing her eyes in despair after looking at me.

Still, on Friday afternoon she takes me to watch a rehearsal of her latest production, a modern drama in which she plays one of eight Lady Macbeths. On the sixth floor of a tall and featureless building, a plastic screen door conceals a group of young women stretching. They are all dressed identically in black and their heads are wrapped in turban-like cloths: they are light and beautiful as spiders. Facing away from the window that shows the traffic, I suddenly have no sense of where I am, in what century or what corner of civilisation. There are only the bold shapes against the brown papered walls, flexing and testing their limbs.

A button clicks and there is the sound of rain. The king lies on the floor in an anguished knot whilst one of his ladies stands above him, fanning herself robotically and repeating in a hollow voice: ‘Maaaaacbetttt… Maaaaacbetttt.’ Her head twists and jerks. It is chilling, this display of terrible feminine power, made all the more stunning by its transience. Once outside of this room the girls will slip back into their stifling manteaus, drape their scarves around their sticky necks and hole themselves up in their cars.

Maryam has a small house outside the city in the little village of Lavasan-e-Bozorg where she goes to write and to practise her lines. We agree to spend the day there and a proper picnic is packed: pots of vegetables and chicken, fruit and rice. I tell Maryam that in England a picnic usually consists of a bottle of cider and some fancy crisps. She looks at me in disgust and I add meekly that we sometimes have hummus. Keen to avoid further contempt, I force myself to stay awake and look out of the windows as we leave the city. The sky is grey and burnt with pollution; it casts a dull light over the streets, currently strung with black flags to commemorate the death of Ali.

I notice that an inordinate number of mosques are under construction, strapped to steel frames with their domes in plaster casts, their beams exposed and shackled. In Tehran the culture is constantly being renovated and even bricks and mortar seem uncertain, balanced on the tide of history and unable to settle. Many of the buildings are adorned with the faces of men who died during the eight-year war with Iraq, fierce reminders of an era that still hangs low over Iranian consciousness. I have been surprised to hear Maryam’s friends express support for the American invasion that toppled Saddam — but they all remember the shudder of bombs, the departure of their fathers.

‘My dad,’ Maryam announces as we pass the martyrs, ‘has a special sign on his arm. It is from an Iraqi bullet.’

I have an image of a small gold star lodged neatly in laughing Dr Jalili’s bicep; I cannot picture him contorted on a battlefield in that hideous war.

The Lavasan flat has two cool white rooms and a wall of windows. A portrait of Raymond Carver hangs on the wall and walnut trees wave outside, touching the balcony with their delicate green leaves. It is lovely. Beyond, the honey-coloured mountains are dry as chalk, utterly barren but for the telegraph poles driven like stakes into the ground.

We sit on the balcony enjoying the breeze and eating gummy saffron ice cream while Maryam’s boyfriend fries onions. Maryam tells me that the Iranian people have higher IQs than the rest of the world: ‘It’s a statistic.’ She goes on to explain, with no ill will, that ‘the main difference between Iranian people and Europeans is that Iranians love to learn. They have inquisitive minds and want to know about everything. You are not interested in politics, or anything outside what you studied.’

A little sharply, I say that I am very interested in politics and Maryam replies, ‘I don’t think so,’ closing the conversation. The saffron tastes of dust.

Mulling later over the inquisitive Iranian mind, I realise that Maryam has not asked me a single question about my life. I encountered this curious nationalism many times during my stay in Iran. Over dinner, my otherwise meltingly warm hosts would suddenly burst out with earnest proclamations about the superior Persian mind. I think it is important to Maryam to show me, and to know in herself, that Iran’s reputation has nothing to do with ordinary people, that it is western perception that is at fault. And so in her eyes her family and friends have become captured gods, kept locked within desert walls by the rest of the jealous world.

At night we drive to Tochal mountain, part of the Alborz range that stretches across the north of the country. In the winter, -Tochal is a popular skiing resort, with slopes that lean dramatically into the smoking metropolis below. On hot summer nights it is a fairground at which the city’s youth congregate to flirt and giggle. At the foot of the mountain, teenagers are engaged in a popular practice known as dor dor, which involves cruising around in cars peering through windows and picking up phone numbers. On the two-kilometre walk to the peak, the road is broken up by flashing signs for ice cream, cherry soda and coffee. Shrill lines of Persian pop comes out of jeans pockets.

Unexpectedly I am reminded of the drive-in cinema from Grease; there is the same excitement, the same blend of innocence and ostentation in the neon-pricked air. When couples form, they walk to the ice-cream parlours together or play tennis across the breezy plateau.

Flirtation on Tochal is an exacting process. Nobody is drunk, and the object of desire is viewed both at a distance and through the haze of what is at stake; adultery is technically still punishable by death here. There is a great deal of shrieking and hair oil on both sides, the night humming at a high, sugary pitch. I am desperate for fresh air and frankness, and I hint at going home. But then we climb higher and sit at the sharp edge of the road, our backs to the crowds. The city is spread out beneath us in an immense glittering sheet, the clustered highway lights like stardust reflected. From here the monstrous main road is an amber river, leading out of the city onto the horizon.

On the way home I discuss freedom with Maryam. It frustrates her that people speak of Iranian conservatism as though it comes exclusively from government quarters.

‘I do not like my government,’ she says, leaning to apply red lipstick in the wing mirror. ‘I hate them. But how can people say that everything is their fault when my own father tells me off if I let my headscarf slip when I am driving? I have many friends who are boys, and they all think I am like a whore for spending time with them.’

I cannot make this fit with Maryam’s championing of her compatriots but I say nothing; it is clear that reputation is an issue with multiple layers, fragile and interlaced. Despite protestations of liberalism and the western tastes in music and clothes of many Iranian teenagers, it seems that most boys still hope to marry virgins. After the break-up of the kind of tryst that is started on Tochal, a young man would be free to start again with a new bride of his choosing. But his girlfriend would remain a half-piece, forced to live her life in the company of her atrophied first love. I think of Lady Macbeth’s plea:

Unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty!

And between the calls of the men that drive alongside us, I begin to understand Maryam’s defensive coldness a little better.

Because it is not easy to be a woman in Iran. Later that day we go to the home of Maryam’s friend Dina to drink tea and eat bright slices of watermelon. It is immediately apparent that Dina has had a significant nose job; her nostrils are little puckers in her face, completely at odds with her wide black eyes. Iran has the dubious honour of being the nose-job capital of the world, with an estimated 200,000 rhinoplasties performed annually. The ideal is a tiny bridgeless button, but Persian bone structure often does not allow for the desired delicacy and the results can be preposterous.

I am fascinated by the way that Iranian girls flaunt not just the results of their operations but the surgery itself. They are proud not of being pretty but of being smart enough to change themselves. On Tochal many girls were out enjoying themselves with their noses in plaster and yellow bruising round their eyes, and I watched in awe as a young woman took photographs of her strapped-up face in front of the Shah’s palace. Maryam says that surgery has become such a status symbol that some girls wear plasters on their noses even when they cannot afford to have the operation. I cannot tell if she is joking. What I do know that when boys and girls are kept apart, even if only some of the time, a dangerous intensity can breed among women. I have seen it at same-sex schools, that high camaraderie that is at once joyful and cruel. It is intimacy with a dark side, egos pressed and jostling. I am certain that if I was in one of these circles of gorgeous, struggling girls, I would also have visited the surgeon.

Towards the end of my stay I spend a couple of nights with Shirin, a loose acquaintance of Maryam’s who spent several years studying in the UK. Brimming with a kind of yolky maternal warmth, Shirin feels lonely and out of place in Iran, which has turned into a dark place for her; she ‘cried for a year’ when her British visa expired. Shirin’s colleagues tell her that she should lose weight and sort her nose out. Her neighbours look upon her suspiciously because at 30 she is unmarried and lives alone, and she says she cannot tell anyone about the casual relationships she had in Britain. Again I am confused about exactly who writes Iran’s restrictive social code; people seem to be steering through narrow tunnels, unsure who it is safe to collide with.

Shirin and I curl up on the sofa to drink tea and talk about our plans for the future. I have rarely been so sincere with a stranger. On the opposite terrace a woman is hanging out her washing, stepping carefully around a tray of cherries she has left to dry in the sun. I wish I could take Shirin home with me, for I cannot see how much longer she can maintain her cheer while she suffocates. But then she says something that I will never forget: she says, ‘I do not see the future dark’, and her voice is soft with pain and longing. I am shamed by the accidental poetry of this phrase, because to me Shirin’s future had seemed dark. Her words show a remarkable resilience that is strange to me, a faith in the essential goodness of life despite the rain that comes down in cold iron sheets.

At the time of my visit, Iran was still reeling from the unexpected election victory of Hassan Rouhani, a Shia cleric who had ousted Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from his controversial eight-year presidency. Supposedly less terrifying than his predecessor, Rouhani has been the object of much hopeful analysis in the western press. But Maryam and her friends are cynical, because ultimately it is the Supreme Leader Khamenei who is in control. His face is everywhere, beaming from roadside billboards and curling posters in shabby cafés; I think of Kim Jong-il and his father smiling sweetly over their starving people. The Iranian economy is said to be on the brink of collapse, partly thanks to western sanctions which have degraded the currency and swamped the country with badly made Chinese goods. Khamenei is saviour to very few.

And yet Iran is not a dictatorship, and its culture is not restricted to a manifesto. Great flowers of life and thought blossom beyond the Ayatollah’s pronouncements. The Tehrani middle class with whom I spent my time were critical and highly educated, a little vain. In the coffee shops where groups of friends sit and smoke, it seems unbelievable that stoning still happens here, or that the legal age for a female to receive the death penalty is nine. I cannot imagine Maryam being arrested, spitting in the faces of the moral police, although her domestic circumstances could easily lead to that situation. I understand that even the worst injustice can be surreptitious, that life in Iran is mind-bendingly tiered and subtle.

There is merriment, of course, and the cynical intelligence of a largely secular people. One of Maryam’s male friends warns us, ‘You don’t want to go to Qom, many mullahs,’ and jigs about mocking the pomposity of the clergy. There is the evening we spend at a country house where men and women dance hesitantly next to one another, beautifully in time to the music; there is Maryam’s love of Shakespeare, and her boyfriend cooking lunch while she languidly rolls cigarettes. But there is something else: the systematic rape of political prisoners, police raids which force people to lie and bribe, the confused stares of the dead sheep. Perhaps one aspect will eventually wrestle the other out of existence; but I suspect that nobody here can tell which way that battle will go.

I have insisted on this night walk, craving exercise, but I quickly realise it is a mistake. I feel like I have reached the end of the earth, the absolute terminus of anything familiar. The technological beep and shimmer of the city seem like a mockery of home, and when we pass a park it is completely deserted, unusual for Tehran in high summer. Now and then the air becomes sweet, and Maryam points out the jasmine whose white flowers shine everywhere, even in the tangled knots of barbed wire. I don’t know why but I am afraid. When a dog barks loudly I stall in panic, ready to run to the road, anywhere to get away from this path.

Maryam stops and reaches back for me. There is kindness in her eyes and I realise suddenly that she is far, far stronger than anything here, stronger than all her prejudices and vanities. I see that in women like her, fierce and short of patience, lies all of Shirin’s devastating hope. She takes my arm and sets off, navigating the black night without hesitation.

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The Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize is awarded annually to the entrant best able, like the late writer, to describe a visit to a ‘foreign’ place or people. The judges were Robert Macfarlane, Miranda France, Jenny Naipaul, Mark Amory, Mary Wakefield, Lucy Vickery and Clarissa Tan. There were 126 entries from 21 countries. Six were shortlisted, including Anne Jolis, Steven McGregor, Will Nicoll and Gordon Hector; the runner-up was Misti Traya.

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  • SJ

    lol. you sound like a Persian mom or dad who took off the country only to go back and nag to neighbors and family about how awful it always is there.

    • SJ

      just sayin!