Life is stunningly normal despite Islamic restrictions on residents, vistiors alike


January 06, 1991|By Gelareh Asayesh | Gelareh Asayesh,Sun Staff Correspondent

TEHRAN, Iran -- The warning comes over the intercom as the jet is preparing its descent: "Ladies and gentlemen, the import of alcohol and doubtful magazines is strictly prohibited. These items must be turned over to us."

Up on the screen, Richard Gere and Julia Roberts are sharing a bath in the movie "Pretty Woman." In the aisles, stewardesses push carts carrying free wine.

Below, under the full autumn moon, another world awaits. It is the Islamic Republic of Iran, where magazines like Cosmopolitan and movies like "Pretty Woman" are banned, where taking a drink could get you whipped.

This is the country that hasgenerated headlines throughout the last 11 years, ever since a popular revolution turned Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi's monarchy into a 20th-century theocracy. This is the land where the Koran is supposed to rule, where prostitutes have occasionally been stoned, where roving revolutionary committees known as the komitehs can whisk women away for showing their hair.

No wonder women adjust their scarves as they step off the Austrian Airlines jet onto the tarmac in the cool darkness.


An Iran Air shuttle bus whisks the travelers to the austere and capacious reception lounge of Tehran's Mehrabad International Airport. They line up, rumpled, blinking, under the fluorescent lights. It is 3 a.m.

"Are my stockings too thin?" a woman asks. She is wearing sheer pantyhose. Officially, only opaque hose are tolerated.

"I put thick socks on in the airplane," another remarks.

She turns to admonish her daughter, who is returning to the country after an absence of 14 years: "Don't smile. Don't draw attention to yourself."

One by one, the travelers pass through check points where bearded clerks in glass cubicles take passports and check them against long lists of names. The men barely acknowledge the nervous hellos and thank-yous that open and close each transaction.

A quote from the Koran in ornate golden Arabic lettering decorates the customs lounge: "In the name of God, the benevolent and merciful."

Revolutionary Guards in green army fatigues -- the Sepah -- lounge here and there. They are nonchalant young men who rarely smile or laugh. They avoid eye contact with women.

On one wall are grouped three photographs: religious leader Ayatollah Ali Hoseini Khamenei, Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and in the center, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the source of their legitimacy. It is a ubiquitous trinity, seen everywhere in Iran.

Customs agents content themselves with a few questions, cursory glances at the bags, and the ordeal is over.

The double doors open onto a press of welcoming, noisy Iranians greeting passengers with tears and laughter and sheafs of red and orange gladioli.

Dark-eyed, ebullient children in bright clothing provide the only other splashes of color amid the mass of grays, browns and blacks. Women's faces are bare of makeup. We are inside Iran.


Newcomers to Iran, unnerved by stories of revolutionary excess and televised images of chanting crowds, aren't quite sure what to expect here. The answer is the unexpected: Iran is characterized by a stunning degree of normality.

More than a decade of war, upheaval and violence has left its mark on the country's 55 million people. They greet life with fatalism and wry humor, bitter cynicism alternating with lurking hope. They have the air of a people who have weathered a dreadful storm, and finding themselves scarred but alive, are proud at having survived.

And they are self-absorbed, the way people often are who have endured a great ordeal. The No. 1 topic in Iran is Iran. Visitors' opinions are eagerly solicited. The whole country is engaged in a continuous dialogue over what life is like here.

The consensus seems to be that the country is a mess but that things are getting better.

Despite desperate economic problems, social schisms and the persistent insecurity peculiar to living under revolutionary rule, life goes on in Iran. And with gusto.

Strip away the abundant trappings of revolutionary Islam, and beneath is a society as diverse, as vibrant, complicated and conflicted as any in the West.

Despite soaring inflation, the stores are full of goods and shoppers. In many cities, shops stay open until 10 p.m. or later. They display bounties including Erector sets and designer shoes, corn flakes and saffron, prayer rugs and wedding dresses, Prell shampoo and -- as part of a government attempt to curb the soaring birthrate -- condoms.

Airline tickets to domestic destinations, as well as foreign cities from Beijing to Nice, are available, though at a premium. And the government reported attracting 45,000 foreign tourists in the past six months from countries such as Germany, Italy and Japan.

While the Sepah and the neighborhood komitehs still police compliance with Islamic codes, inside their homes Iranians drink homemade liquor and watch bootlegged Western videos. One Tehrani said he had watched all of last year's Oscar-nominated films.

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