Iran was what I expected it to be, in many ways, but I learned about some very strange customs. I always thought Iran was a safe, conservative society full of fairly well-off, educated people – atleast compared to the rest of central Asia. I learned about siga, a form of legal prostitution supported by the government. It’s a system where men can pay a woman to marry her, for 1 hour, 1 week, or even 1 year, and during this rental time, the man can have sex with her without her being called a prostitute or insulting the no-sex-before-marriage custom. For women that do this, or just any ordinary girl who may have lost her virginity to a boyfriend, she can buy her virginity back, through a surgical procedure that takes less than an hour, but has a woman bed-ridden for a week or more, and may take a month or more to recover from. This is probably more expensive than the rental wife, but I don’t know the figures.
Cheaper for women is to spend money on nose jobs, and I don’t know the statistics on that but a lot of women do it. A cheap surgery can be under $1000USD, and wearing the white bandage on your nose out in public during the healing process is like an honour badge, a proud mark of being able to buy a more beautiful nose.
The eyebrows are arguably the second most important facial feature. The natural uni-brow is embraced as a traditional kind of beauty, grown only by the lucky few in the history of Persia’s great empire. Women with detached eyebrows often paint them darker and thicker, sometimes in unnatural shapes or lengths that don’t really make sense to me. Also their lipstick often spills out of the natural boundaries, and then you’re left with a lot of women who have a brightly coloured mouth under their cosmetic noses and piercing eyebrows, all carefully framed by a scarf or hijab.
Food in Iran was amazing, but I was unlucky enough to have my two worst meals within the first 24 hours of being in Iran, and this was because they weren’t typical Iranian foods. My first lunch was a $3 Turkish doner, 95% comprised of an oversized loaf of bread, and %5 shaved meat, and since I’m avoiding gluten, I ate the few scraps of meat and decided to stay away from doners unless Im back in Europe. My first breakfast was a green tea latte (quite good) and a bagel with cream cheese – the bagel was dry, fluffy bread in the shape of a circle and the cream cheese was like those pie-shaped spreadable cheese you get at hotel breakfast buffets. After that I decided to stay away from any international foods and everything was fine, except for being unable to avoid the inevitable bread that follows all meals.
All the Iranian meals I ate had that home-cooked feeling, even in a restaurant, and the sauces, pickles, spices, herbs and tea that followed them were equally delicious. Bread is always served with breakfast, lunch and dinner, and the bread type varied from home to home and city to city. You are meant to eat with your hands, usually with a piece of bread in it, or else you’re only offered a spoon and/or a fork. Knives were not part of the dining experience, even if you had a lamb shoulder or steak kebab.
Most meals were followed by an offer of fruit for desert, and now was the time for mandarins, pomegranates and apples. Strangely enough the fruits were always served on a plate with a knife, and I’ve rarely eaten fruit so often or formally.
Iranians have a word in Farsi called ‘ta-arof,’ and it refers to the kind of hospitality they offer that you cannot refuse – they insist until you either admit you’d appreciate it, or just take whatever it is to avoid the argument. When offered fruit, you’re directed ‘Eat pomegranate.’ Noone asks or cares if you want it, just eat it. If you refuse taarof, its an insult. If it is a question, like “what table would you like?” or “would you like to sit?”, then your answer is barely heard, since your host quickly refutes “no, this table is better” or “please sit here its more comfortable for you.”
Another unbreakable custom was some men’s insistence on not smiling in photos. “Real men don’t smile” I was told, and everyone kept their stone face in my selfies. I also couldn’t understand their strict rules on public behavior – unmarried or unrelated males and females cannot walk in the street together, even if they’re a meter apart on the sidewalk, but on my overnight train to Mashad I shared a 4 person sleeper cabin with 1 woman and 2 men. I could not sit on the back of my friends motorcycle and move thru traffic, but I could get into his car and drive away to anywhere we pleased. I rode one overnight bus as well, and it was the most luxurious bus I’ve ever seen. They call them VIP buses, and a single, reclining leather couch seat was on the left, and basically a loveseat sofa on the right, complete with armrests and a steward that served us snacks and tea.
Traveling times and daily routines were always a little surprising. Overnight trains and buses began in the afternoon, before sunset, and would usually arrive at their destination in the wee hours of the morning before sunrise, just in time for the first prayers of the day. The work week is Saturday to Wednesday, and staying awake til 2 am on a work day was normal, and waking up at 4 am on the weekend was also not unheard of. It’s the year 1395, and none of the months or days of the week are familiar.
I couchsurfed my whole time in Iran, so I often followed my hosts schedule or sleeping patterns. Sometimes I could nap or sleep earlier, but I enjoyed being awake from sunrise to sunset. There isn’t much to do in the evenings, since nightclubs are illegal, although Iranians are crazy about going to parks at night. The conversations I had with my couchsurf hosts were often the same, about my country, my family, my work, and my impressions of Iran. They talked to me about the same, but usually focused more on how they could get to my country, or a wife from outside, or a job in Europe, and shared their less-than-glamorous opinions of Iran. Everyone seemed to want a way out, to get any chance of escaping to the outside world, and had little hesitations about leaving Iran and never coming back. If they didn’t have the vocabulary to explain these feelings, they were still happy to use me as a means of practicing English, and then came more questions about me, my age, and my future plans for marriage and children – since every woman must have those plans.
In many ways, Iranian culture wasn’t so different from western cultures, and my first host in Tehran told me that women basically could act and do the same things we do at home. But after a few weeks of traveling alone in Iran, I realized the few things that do differentiate us are based on really strict, important customs, so it was better not to ask any questions and just conform.