More than Mahmoud

The Guardian’s Iran correspondent, Robert Tait, was kicked out of the country last week. His final dispatch paints an appropriately complex picture of the Islamic Republic:

The scenes of boisterous revelry would not have been out of place in a crowded nightclub. In time to a throbbing beat, men and women of varying ages danced with a sensuality and abandon at odds with their surroundings.

For this frivolity was taking place not on a dancefloor, but in the passageway of an Iranian bus on a seemingly humdrum cultural excursion from Tehran to the western city of Hamedan.

Denied a more appropriate venue by rigid Islamic regulations which forbid dancing in public, the passengers turned the coach into a travelling disco.

Drawing the curtains to keep their illicit activities hidden from onlookers, women discarded their obligatory overcoats and hijabs before letting their hair down for an uninhibited knees-up.

The tumultuous scenes were a graphic and defiant demonstration of the national passion for dancing, which – contrary to common stereotypes – Iranians perform with a grace and subtle eroticism beyond most westerners.

But the unlikely setting was also deeply symbolic of modern Iran, where much of real life takes place behind closed curtains and where what you see on the surface is often not what you get.

To the outside world, Iran is a religiously devout Islamic republic in the grip of a rigidly ascetic revolutionary ideology. But that image conceals a multitude of surprises and wells of pent-up energy.

Such insights gained from surreptitious glimpses beneath the surface of this bewildering and contradictory country will be lost to me from now on.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

Site by Common