Haleh Anvari

Three days to the elections.

The North American team is on the trail of Ayatollah Khomeini’s family for interviews. The Norwegians want to talk to people in the arts. We go to the house of a famous theater director who has recently staged The Blood Wedding by the Spanish writer Lorca. It’s a tale of love, hope, and betrayal with a lot of old resentments and revenge. It received a great deal of attention from the audiences here. It must have touched a nerve with them. There are many women in the play who perform in Spanish-style clothes cleverly manipulated to observe the Islamic cover. After a few minutes you are no longer aware of the lack of visible manes on the actresses. There were also many scenes that required men and women to dance together or embrace one another. In Iran, unrelated men and women may not touch. If you want to stage a play, you have to get around these problems somehow. The director explained to the reporters how he managed to do this by the use of the Spanish shawls the women wore, which would be used as a connecting device for the actors. The Indian filmmakers for years got around the same cultural restrictions by inventing the indirect kiss: Boy kisses apple, throws it at girl, both dancing very improbably around a tree. The girl catches it and plants her kiss on the apple. The connection is made and the sensibilities of the more conservative viewer remain intact. Nowadays, the Indian TV shows we receive from satellite dishes illegally perched on top of our roofs indicate that indirect is out. Most of the girls are in wet saris, and they receive their kisses full on the lips.

I went into “The Fray” at the bottom of the “Diary” today to see how the entries were received. I guess one thing we all have, Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, is an ego in need of pampering.

Hello, hecklers. Are we having fun yet? Two things were immediately obvious, both those who wrote expressing interest in this week’s Diary and those who were disgusted by it show how little information there really is about life in the arch-villain of the world, the Islamic republic. Whether you are into this or not, I sure hope I give you a little more of an idea.

The second point was a bit of a puzzle. You all seem to think I’m a man. Why? Should I be flattered by this or dismayed? “Walks like a man, writes like a man.” I guess I should have made it clear because my name is foreign. But the United States is the land of immigrants, all with colorful and different names. It is also the land of equality for all, including women, right? So why assume the male gender for me automatically. Hey people, have you been caught out? Did you think women in Iran were shrouded and locked away, Taliban-style? It’s always the first thing that strikes foreign reporters on their first visit to Iran, the confident sassy Iranian woman. Whether she wears the chador, the long black veil, which more traditional women wear, or the long coat worn over Western clothes, with a scarf Queen-at-Sandringham-style, she is a far cry from her counterparts in strict Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia, with whom we are often confused. I guess I should also point out: We are not Arabs.

Actually it’s not the average Western person’s fault to think about us the way they do. I blame it on the press. When Iran became an Islamic state, the most visually obvious thing was the change in the code of dress for women. Whenever the reporters want to show they are in Iran they use the covered women, usually the ones in the black chadors; that image shows the chasm between our two cultures with greater force. Unfortunately it also reinforces the clichés.

I give you an example: We went to an art gallery to interview the owner because he was the first to exhibit a foreign artist’s work in Iran. The photographer decided that just taking a picture of him next to the paintings would be boring—he needed to show more obviously he had taken this picture in Iran. What will immediately tell the reader where he was? Women in their hejab. Unfortunately, by the time he decided to take his pictures it was lunch time and there were no visitors left in the gallery. So we had to “fix” it. I had to go into the street and ask some women to come and help us out. No shy wallflowers, the women I talked to came into the gallery, took a painting each and posed for him outside, with a view of the Alborz mountains in the background. I guess the mountains could have been anywhere in the world, too, but with our scarves and long coats, we made the image complete: We are the trademark of revolutionary Iran.

Later we went to a newsstand to do some vox pops on the press and their role in the elections. The reporter wanted to interview a man who was buying a paper. I explained who we were and what we wanted. Would he answer some questions? “No,” came the reply. Why not? “I don’t want any trouble,” he said. Before I could fully translate his sentence, a woman at the other end of the stand put up her hand and said in Farsi, “I will. You can interview me.” And so we did. We actually got a lot more than we’d bargained for.

She gave us a full frontal assault on the political system in the past 20 years. Would she vote? Of course. A few other people were gathering round. Foreigners are always of interest here. A man said what’s the point of voting, it won’t change anything. The woman laid into him. That’s exactly what the conservatives want. To discourage you from exercising your right for change. We left the circle of debate as it was really heating up. We had to run to another interview on the other side of town. The men were still being lectured by the woman on the power of the plebiscite as we drove away. She didn’t seem too oppressed to me even in her hejab. She knew exactly what forces were trying to keep her down. Don’t they say recognizing the problem is halfway to solving it?