A trip to Iran offers a reminder that people are not their governments and governments aren’t always their people.
There are images on the walls of the small circular recess, only we can’t make them out in the darkness. We peer anyway – my partner John, our Tehrani friend Reza and I. A man at the entry sold us tickets despite it being well past sunset, but we are getting the feeling that the museum has closed for the night.
Qasr was first a palace, then a prison and finally a museum, though right now it is nothing but eerie cavernous rooms bathed in shadows and the hint of display cases. Reza, ever the committed host, insists it is open, and uses the torch app on his phone so he can translate the information placards on the wall for us.
He tells us how Qasr was transformed into a prison in the 1920s during the reign of Reza Shah Pahlavi. It became the first Iranian prison to meet international standards, and was the first prison taken over by the revolutionists in 1979. There are pictures, he adds, and we squint in the gloam of his phone to make them out.
Suddenly a figure appears in the darkened archway. He is tall and dressed in Pahlavi-era guard clothes, a silent apparition. He tosses his cloak off his shoulders and hollers something in Persian behind him, Reza translating softly.
‘Lights! There are no lights! Why are the lights off?’
The museum bursts into light with the power of a thousand industrial-strength fluorescent tubes, and we are momentarily blinded.
It is early 2016 and we are in Iran so that I can research my second novel. Some of my characters are Iranians seeking asylum, and while my day job working with asylum seekers gives me insight into their experience in Australia, I want to explore the difference between public perceptions of life in Iran and the lived reality.
This, I am discovering, is far more complex than I had originally thought. An Iranian friend once told me that if you can understand Iran you are either a prophet or a genius. It is a country of contradictions, of authoritarian rule that is both feared and flaunted. Of a hardliner ruling elite and a populace peppered with some of the most progressive liberal values I have ever encountered.
The Iran of their understanding is a brutal one, a patchwork of horrors cobbled together from afar.
Before I left Australia, friends and family were stricken with panic. The Iran of their understanding is a brutal one, a patchwork of horrors cobbled together from afar. It is George W. Bush posturing his way through his Axis of Evil speech. It is Ben Affleck saving the US hostages from the rabid decontextualised hordes in Argo. It is a half-remembered The Simpsons reference to the ‘Ayatollah Assahola’. An online plea from Amnesty International to sign a petition for journalists imprisoned and tortured by the regime. The thousands of asylum seekers piled onto boats desperate to reach Australia, now languishing in various forms of detention.
This is the Iran my loved ones know. ‘Why would you want to go there?’ they asked.
Now that we have light we are free to wander the museum properly. There are two sections and we are in the original building used to house low-risk criminals. It is at this point that we first notice the prisoners. Dressed in the striped uniform and hats of cartoon jailbirds, they wander the halls paying us little attention.
Is this meant to be some kind of immersive theatre experience? We stroll down a wing of the prison where the cells remain intact. In one, a group of prisoners sit chatting and laughing. They look at us with interest. One of them asks where we are from, nodding ambivalently when we tell him Australia before turning back to his conversation.
At the solitary confinement cells we talk for a while with a moustachioed young man who tells us about his character, a political prisoner who was once high up in the pre-revolution government before running afoul of the Shah.
At the solitary confinement cells we talk for a while with a man who tells us about his character, a political prisoner who was once high up in the pre-revolution government.
Another young man dressed in jeans and leather jacket runs past, wheeling anxiously into a cell a few spaces down. Moments later he emerges dressed in his prison costume, bursting into a breathless monologue about how he is on a hunger strike to protest his unjust imprisonment.
As he staggers about the place, the moustachioed prisoner rolls his eyes and grins. He explains that they are rehearsing a play for the upcoming celebrations marking the anniversary of the revolution and that tonight they’re holding a preview. An audience will commence their tour shortly and it seems we have been let in by mistake. There is a performance, it seems, but we are not part of it.
A few weeks earlier we were welcomed at immigration by a beaming young officer with a plaster across the bridge of his nose, the first of many we are to see in this country of nose jobs and glamour. We have arrived in the country with Reza’s sister Mojdeh – my friend and colleague – her chief role being to act as cultural translator for the first half of our trip before passing the baton to Reza.
Back in Iran for the first time in three years, Mojdeh is vibrant, bursting with information and facts. Among other things, she delights in pointing out nose jobs. The immigration officer wishes us an enjoyable time in Iran with a sincerity I’m not accustomed to at immigration.
This is the first of the incredible Iranian hospitality we are to experience over the near month of our stay. Iranian hospitality is limitless, overwhelming and endearing. As we travel around the country, our hosts – whether it is grandparents, siblings, friends of friends, couch-surfing patrons – are constantly anxious that we are comfortable, well fed, enjoying ourselves, and never too hot or too cold.
I didn’t expect the cold – not the snow-capped mountains nor the bone-aching temperatures. This is entirely my fault, stemming from my inability to understand geography. I assumed other things too, convinced the country’s conservative dress code required the purchasing of a large number of shapeless, sack-like shirt-dresses and bland, heavy headscarves. Instead I find myself surrounded by chicly dressed urbanites, their elegant manteaus and chiffon scarves putting me to shame as I plod the streets like a dowdy village crone.
As John and I wander, host-free for the first time in weeks, strangers stop us to check we are okay, that we aren’t lost, that we are enjoying Iran. I comment on this when a young English teacher helps us navigate our way out of the metro. ‘It’s because we know how the world sees us,’ she tells me. ‘We hate that people think we are terrorists or bad people.’
‘We know how the world sees us,’ she tells me. ‘We hate that people think we are terrorists or bad people.’
I hesitate when people ask where we are from, ashamed of my country’s treatment of asylum seekers. Not long before we arrived in Tehran, the Australian foreign minister met with her Iranian counterpart to discuss once more the forced return of Iranian asylum seekers, only to be told Iran would not accept anyone who did not return voluntarily.
‘We wouldn’t judge you for that,’ one of Reza’s friends tells me forgivingly. ‘We know you are not your government.’
It is the same everywhere – crossing Tehran’s gridlocked streets, wandering the gnarled pomegranate fields of the tiniest villages, at an ancient desert caravanserai. We are welcomed.
We leave the original Qasr building and enter a second prison built solely to house political prisoners. It is night now, dark and still, and knowing that we are voyeurs of a play not meant for us does not make it any less spooky.
The cells here are much smaller, with tiny peepholes the only visual in or out. I press my face against one, peering in, then stifle a scream because there is a flesh and blood mullah staring back at me, his dark eyes blinking dolefully.
Reza and John mock me gently, and I refuse to look in anymore, instead pretending to be fascinated with the architecture. We stop in a corridor where a long timeline marks the key political events in Iran’s complicated recent history that resulted in the imprisonment of ‘traitors’ or ‘double agents’: Reza Shah’s campaign for modernisation from the 1920s onwards; his forced abdication during WWII following British and Soviet occupation, and succession by his son Mohammad Reza Shah; Prime Minister Mosaddeq’s move to nationalise Iran’s oil industry in the 1950s and the initial failure of a CIA/British-backed coup to oust him, which saw the new Shah flee to Rome; renewal and success of the coup, leading to the overthrow of the elected government and the return of the Shah from exile; the growth of SAVAK, the Shah’s secret police who oversaw the imprisonment and suppression of political dissenters; the Shah’s final exile after the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and the birth under Ayatollah Khomeini of the world’s only constitutional theocracy; the subsequent detaining and execution of many of the Shah’s civil and military personnel, communists and Bahá’í.
Reza translates each note and the tour group soon catches us up. They continue past us, curious and whispering. As they disappear around a corner, the stragglers beckon for us to keep up. We don’t, and a woman places a hand on her friend’s in consolation.
‘They’re not with us,’ she says, Reza translating. ‘They’re American.’
So we too join the performance, playing the parts of the oblivious, divisive Americans.
There seems to be a pervasive misconception that Iranians hate the West. I hear it in Australia when I tell people I work with asylum seekers, and when I mentioned my plans to travel to Iran. That Iranians spend substantial amounts of time plotting the downfall of the West, burning flags and decorating their public spaces with anti-American graffiti.
There seems to be a pervasive misconception that Iranians hate the West.
The regular proclamations of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did nothing to dissuade this misconception: that America orchestrated September 11; that the Holocaust is a myth; that homosexuals don’t exist in Iran.
So with the determined fervour of a cryptozoologist, I search for anti-Western sentiments wherever I can in Tehran, camera trained and ready. I spot some anti-US graffiti sprawled across the walls of the former US Embassy, renamed by the government the ‘US Den of Spies’ following the hostage crisis in late 1979.
When I announce I want to visit the site, I am met with looks of embarrassment and discomfort from Mojdeh and Reza’s family. ‘Why would you want to see that?’ they ask me. ‘That’s not how most Iranians feel.’
The country is instead speedily prioritising tourism, with visas on arrival now available to many countries, the resuming of direct international flights and street signs in dual Persian/English. And despite a history riddled with distrust and conflict on both sides, most people are focused on a future in which they see Iranian ties with the rest of the world as a logical and important thing.
The Ahmadinejad years, where relationships with the West were increasingly strained, are widely seen as a period of political stagnation and economic regression, and Iranians can easily rattle off the many damages he did to the country. In the desert city of Yazd I meet a man whose eyes still fill with angry tears when he recalls the university-funding cuts implemented by Ahmadinejad, which meant his son could no longer claim the scholarship allowing him to study medicine.
Others have never really come to terms with the violence he unleashed upon his own people in the days following the 2009 election, referring to the millions protesting across the country as ‘dust and dirt’.
We exit the corridor into the exercise yard, silhouetted by life-sized inmate cut-outs. The still night is punctured by the slamming doors and rattling chains of the distant tour. John and I cackle nervously, the way people do in horror movies before they are violently killed or possessed by the tortured souls of the long undead.
We hurry inside again, and find ourselves surrounded by busy people in modern dress. They are the production crew: a bespectacled, scarfed man has the look of stressed-out directors everywhere. He snaps at us, his body language heavily suggesting that we are ruining his show.
As he strides away the makeup artist explains to us that the tour is about to arrive. He asks why we are here. Unsure if he means Iran or his set, we shrug and try to look American.
They decide we can join this part of the show, ushering us down a corridor. This, they explain, is where the prisoners spent their final night before being executed. Each cell houses a different actor – a brooding politician, a pacing woman with blood on her hands, another shrieking hysterically over letters spread across the floor. Because we are catching up with the tour we have no time to stop so the whole thing appears as snatches and glimpses of unexplained horror.
We arrive, panting, at the tour group who are obligingly sardining themselves into a large holding cell. Here, the makeup artist explains, the audience has been locked into a cell to experience what it is like to wait for death.
The dead are everywhere in Iran. Lining the streets in place of advertising, staring peacefully back from the side of apartment blocks, their youthful faces trapped in a time just before war made martyrs of them.
For many the portraits are a constant reminder of the sacrifice and sorrow wrought across the 1980s by the eight-year-long Iran–Iraq War, but others more cynical dismiss them as another attempt by the government to manipulate nationalism and loyalty from the people.
This mistrust of government is pervasive, sitting alongside a widespread frustration that the outside world so erroneously mistakes those in power as representative of the people. It is not just the pugilistic rhetoric of the previous government that people despise but the very real injury the now-eased economic sanctions caused the general population.
Those the sanctions were supposed to impact the greatest were the ones who profited the most: a small pocket of corrupt, well-connected people in government, business and the mullahs, while the small business owners and bazaar workers struggled to put food on the table.
The mullahs, in particular, are widely mistrusted, something everyone is keen to inform us. After such reverence for these mullahs before the Islamic revolution, many now see them as a collective symbol of corruption and nepotism. Even Ayatollah Khomeini, leader of the revolution, is a target of ire.
The mullahs, in particular, are widely mistrusted, something everyone is keen to inform us.
When I ask why his shrine had been built out near the airport in the middle of nowhere, I am met with a gruff laugh: ‘Because that’s where we dump all our rubbish.’
Another conservative religious man we meet on our travels sums it up like this: ‘Iran good, mullah bad.’
This is not to gloss over the persecution or human rights abuses, for they are there, documented and abhorred both within and outside the country. Persecution of homosexuality, religious minorities, stateless Kurds and document-less Afghan refugees. The inequality of women enshrined in law, from limited divorce rights to the permissions required once married to work or travel abroad.
But how this is lived – I don’t know what I expected. A more visible subjugation? A Hunger Games-esque dreary half-life? People fled – Manus and Nauru tell us this – but others stayed, either because they had no choice or because they wanted to fight, pushing up against the barriers of oppression actively and creatively.
It is this active defiance that I did not expect, another incorrect assumption on my behalf. The Green Movement in 2009 saw millions of Iranians from all walks of life take to the streets to protest the rigging of a second election delivered to Ahmadinejad at the loss of reformist favourite Mir-Hossein Mousavi.
Retribution followed, and this led to a surge in boats attempting to reach Australia.
Yet I meet many others who made the decision to stay and keep the rage alive. We spend a dinner party talking with fed-up 20-somethings who spent the months prior to the 2013 elections talking with strangers in cafes, convincing them their vote mattered and delivering victory to the more progressive Hassan Rouhani.
And the resistance is varied too, in acts both big and small. Black market alcohol is widely available as are the illegal satellite dishes that connect the country to non-state sanctioned stations. Regular sweeps clear them from the rooftops, but people simply buy them back off the black market the next day.
Across the country people engage in daily acts of subversion, from the angle of their headscarf to the VPN that hosts their anonymous political blog. It is a constant reminder that people are not their government and their government does not always speak for them.
It is a constant reminder that people are not their government and their government does not always speak for them.
My assumptions fall away one by one. I begin to see the country in all its dimensions, fuller and more complex than I ever imagined. I take pictures, the evidence I hope that will help me when I return to Australia and try to break down the unconscious prejudices of so many people I know.
Of Persepolis, the ancient capital of the Achaemenid Empire, where travelling Englishmen chiselled their names into the 2400-year-old bas-relief Gate of All Nations – L’Col Malcolm J Meade HBM Consul-General 1898 and Mrs Meade – and where locals lay before the gates to stop the revolutionists from bulldozing the ruins into history.
Of extravagant meals shared with the families of friends of friends, paired with sweet red wine where our host raised his glass defiantly and told us that no one, least of all the government, would tell him how to live his life. Of me, amid the golden dome of Mashad’s holiest mosque, a laughing passer-by helping me straighten my sheet-like chador as I stumble and trip on its edge.
All these photos I collect, later showing them to the Iranian refugee and asylum seeker women I work with back in Melbourne’s outer north, whose treatment by their government was so horrific that it was preferable for them to board unsafe boats, spend years in offshore detention, then languish indefinitely in the community in visa-less limbo.
‘See,’ they tell me, urgently and insistently. ‘See the real Iran? The one that is not our government – the one that we love and miss. This is the Iran you need to know.’
Alone again, we make our way towards the exit. The makeup artist reappears, his arms flapping. The tour will be arriving shortly for the final act and we need to clear the space. When the tour walks down the final row of cells, he tells us, the prisoners will all come out and there’s a big song and dance number. Do we want to see it?
I am outvoted so we politely decline, and suddenly the whole panicky production team appears. We are raced down the corridor, the makeup artist and director leading the way, pale-faced actors peeping out of the cells as we run past.
‘Stay in your cells,’ the director cries. ‘They’re no one.’
We burst through the exit and are now alone. Outside the air is crisp and sharp, and for a moment nothing seems real. I blink and the world refocuses before me.