Note: Author spent 16 days in Iran in August 2007. This article is part of the series that describes his experience in Iran.
On the third day of our visit to Iran, I, my wife and my relative Mina, a young woman, took a taxi to Enghelab (revolution) square by Tehran University. There are many bookstores there that are frequented by book lovers. That brought some old memories back. My wife told us how she had been arrested in the very same spot years back during the early years of revolution. Perhaps that was a moment for her to reconcile with the past? I had my own event to remember. I spent a month in Iran during the summer of 1978. While there, I participated in a demonstration in front of Tehran University to protest the closure of the popular newspaper Ayandegan. This was perhaps the last mass protest by the opposition forces. A huge crowd had gathered in front of the university. But this peaceful protest came under brutal attack right from the beginning. The only thing that I remember is we were suddenly caught in a barrage of stones and rocks. I was a casualty in the first wave of attacks - doesn't look good on my resume J I took a hit on my forehead and was rushed to the hospital. I had to wait more than an hour to get my 17 stitches, since during that time many more injured came in who were in much worse shape. The rest is history...
Anyway, we visited a few of the bookstores, and bought a load of books. We then headed to a travel agency near the square since we needed to make a change our itinerary. When we came out, my wife said she was thirsty. We decided to cross the square to get water. Just as we were about to enter the square, two women covered in black veils suddenly blocked our way and told Mina "can we have a word with you?" - apparently these were the Zeinab sisters (aka the morality police) blocking our way to water, as Yazid had once done to Imam Hussain J
We were totally taken off guard! Some more than the others - but don't look at me!! Before I could do or say anything, a male police officer approached and took me by the elbow (frankly I don't remember if he took my by the elbow or somewhere else, if anywhere at all. I was too shocked to remember it all!) and guided me away from the Zeinab sisters. He then asked me who the woman was. I told him she is my relative and she's guiding us since we are travelers. He asked what we were doing there. I told him: "agency...travel...tickets...change," stuttering badly. I had lost it all at the first sighting of an Islamic Republic's policeman! It was a very hot Tehran summer day. It must have been in the 150+ Fahrenheit, getting close to hell's temperature! The policeman showed some mercy. He said, "Don't worry. They'll have a few words with her and she will then join you. And please go wait there in the shade. No reason to stay in the sun."
Morality police in Tehran (file photo)
That was a big relief and quite nice of him! I went and stood in the shade by a store and tried to put myself back together. My wife joined me a minute later. She said one of the Zeinab sisters started talking to her and once she found out she was visiting from U.S., she waned to hear how good things were there. Then the other sister showed up behind the first and started telling her that my wife's sleeves were also too short. The first sister had however ignored her...
The policeman showed up again. He told me to go stand by his car and wait till he comes. My heart started pounding! Holly shit! He's going to take me in. May be it was because of the short sleeves shirt I was wearing. May be it was the past still hunting me? I remembered all my friends and colleagues had advised me against traveling to Iran, especially since several Iranian-Americans had been arrested recently. I had even written a piece about this myself. Bad mistake! As if I had put a "hit me" sign on my back! As I was walking towards the police car, my whole life was parading in front of my eyes. I had no choice now but to tell them "I did wrong; I ate shit."
As I was getting close to the car, my wife came following me. I could tell she was worried. I told her to stay away since he had only asked me. A few minutes later, which seemed like a year to me, the policeman approached the car. Once he got there, another woman came to talk to her. She and her friend had been stopped by Zeinab sisters right after us, and her friend had been taken to the police van. The policeman turned around and harshly told her: "I told you to go."
With this, I prepared myself to get into the car. He then turned to me and said: "Your relative is being taken to the center where she has to sign this statement." He then offered me the statement to read for it myself. I took a sigh of relief. He wasn't after me J I then started gathering myself together so I could negotiate with him. I told him she is a nice person and we weren't really aware of this. He said the rules were few months old and that he's an officer and is obliged to enforce them. He also said if my relative signs the statement and doesn't make a fuss about freedom and democracy, there won't be any problems and she'll be released. I told him she isn't into these things! He then asked me where we were visiting from. I told him from the United States. He said: "Oh, when you said you are a visitor, I thought you are visiting from Qom or Shabdolazim (Shahr Ray - a suburb of Tehran). These two religious towns were the last two places someone would think we were from, and believe me people in Iran can spot visitors from abroad from a mile away. So he was clearly pulling my leg now and having fun doing it. He asked how long I've been abroad. When I said thirty years, he commented that I speak Persian fluently. I told him that's because I'm Iranian. He then fired back and asked if I'd completed my military service! I don't know if he was fishing or just having fun, or maybe both? I told him I have exemption. I then once again asked him if he could let my relative go since it doesn't look good for us to return home alone. He said they've already taken her to the station! It was only then that I realized my negotiations were completely fruitless since she was long gone!
I asked him where she was taken so we could go there. He said Arg station. But he added that we should go home and she'll also be sent home from the station. He finished by saying, in English, "Apology!"
I and my wife took a taxi home without any delay. I then rushed upstairs and asked for my Mina's cell number and called her. She answered right away and told me she was heading back to Enghelab since the police had told her we would be waiting for her there!
I put the phone done. I was furious now, but at the same time powerless. I just kept pacing the room. Fifteen minutes later Mina arrived to tell us the rest of the story. She said after the first sister took her to the van, the second one came and said she is with visitors from U.S. and asked that she be let go. The first sister said this wouldn't be fair to the other two women in the van. Those women however said that's ok with them. However, this didn't satisfy that sister and she still kept Mina there. Then at the station, they basically stitched her dress on the side by about an inch. That reinstituted the lost morality! They then told her to go back to Enghelab where we would be waiting for her. She had even asked them to call and confirm this, which they said they would. She then had noticed they were talking their prayer and lunch break instead. And I thought we could trust the Zeinab sisters J
Well, all was well now. Except perhaps for the fact that I was now being tormented by my wife. She was telling me I used to make a lot of noise before, and then with this small episode had fallen all apart! I tried my best to cover it up, but it didn't seem to work. Something precious was taken away from me during this whole episode which I don't think I'll be able to recover from. I don't think I'll ever be taken very seriously as a man!!
But on a good note, I should say we all picked up another memorable event on Enghelab square. Needless to say, we avoided Enghelab, the square and the word, for the rest of our trip J
Previous Part: 16 days in Iran: Welcome to Tehran!
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