2010
03.13

SYNOPSIS:  I went to Shushtar, my next base for a few days, and met Roya.  I am still struggling with the dress code and had a brush with the secret police, I think.  Secret Police?  May be and may be not.

He walked straight into the restaurant – well, more like a local eatery, definitely not a touristy restaurant – and straight to my table and asked me the ever notorious question:  Where are you from?  The difference was that he was not just a guy sitting next to me or crossing my path on the street who was curious.  He made a direct pass for me.  In his white shirt and with his notebook in hand he looked official and different from all the guys or the women, who had been asking me this very question. And when I said Germany/Almani, he said OK, and left.  As straight as he had come in, he went out.  No polite little chit chat, no hello and no good-bye, no what’s your name.  That’s why I think he was from the secret police.  And if that’s all he needed to know, it’s fine with me.  Where are you from?  Seems easy enough, but it is of course, a tricky question for me.  I answered the question of my nationality, not where I was from.  But then, where does that question start?  By birth I am from Halle.  By growing up, I am from Dresden.  By living and working I am from Michigan.  But he did not specify.  And so my answer worked.   And there is only one thing that matters:  He was satisfied.

That was in Shushtar.  That’s where I arrived this afternoon to another day of 35 degrees Celsius.  It is an ancient town and I will be spending a few days here meeting Nicola and doing a day trip to see the UNESCO world monument of Choca Zanbil among other things.  As predicted, my baggy Kurdish-male looking outfit on which I worked so hard to make it Iran appropriate, drew looks from every woman and was the laughing stock of every guy.  Wherever there was a group of two or three guys – and they seem to be everywhere – I got giggles, stares, surprised looks, and comments.  I figured as much.  That’s why in the afternoon, I decided to go all the way and at least be more comfortable.  I wore my tailored shawal-kamiz.  With its red pants it was probably just about as good as sitting in a display window in the red-light district of Amsterdam, but what the heck!  Whether they laugh about the Kurdish pants or my red pants, it’s all the same to me and that is:  making me uncomfortable.  But I am getting used to it.

I am sorry if I am bothering you with all this clothing stuff and if I seem to be going in circles with it.  I am stuck and I am going in circles!  After ten days in Iran I have not yet figured out how to dress so that I can survive the heat and be left alone.  I will always look foreign.  But I would like to reach a level of just being accepted as a foreigner rather than ridiculed.  Only my brown ankle-long overcoat works.  But not in these temperatures!  I noticed that groups of foreigners have none of that to deal with.  They come and go in their buses, they are an isolated entity, different and outside of commentary.  I ran into a German group in Kermanshah and the women all looked a bit awkward and different, yet they were protected by their numbers, their Iranian guide and their German men.  I wonder if getting an Iranian-style mantle is the only way.  Lonely Planet recommends getting one…

I had to think about the mind frame behind this situation.  Obviously, the government has succeeded in creating a dress code which is so uniform that even the slightest variation is understood as an affront.  This can be used by Iranians to make provocative statements – and I think it is being used in exactly that way in larger cities.  How short can that mantle be?  How tight can that mantle be?  And how much color can there be before there is an official objection.  In the west we have read about the “fashion police”.  Women are publicly asked to adjust their clothes or even pulled into the station to show whether they are wearing bras!  I have seen none of this and not heard of it either.  But then, I have not asked much.  I have to find somebody who speaks English well enough and who trusts me enough to engage in this sort of conversation.

What is surprising is the ridicule.  I would understand the staring in this context if it were a curious staring or even an envious one.  What I cannot place is the obnoxious dimension of it.  Do these kids and these adults not realize how narrow their minds have become if they react to anything different this way?  In East Germany we had been unified in certain ways, too.  I remember looking longingly and with envy at anything that came from outside of our enforced norms.  How different all these worlds are.  In the States we are trained to appreciate difference and variety as an enriching factor of a wide spectrum of expressions.    Here it is one size for all.

In Andimesh at the bus station I met a group of female university students.  They asked the ever same question:  Where are you from?  Where are you going?  Lucky I, one of the students was on her way to Shushtar, the same town that was my goal.  I don’t know how I would have found my way around without her.  I thought that one bus would end where the next would start.  But far from it.  We had to take a bus to Dezful.  In Dezful we had to take a taxi across town and there, instead of a minibus a shuttle taxi was our best option.  Roya lead on and all I had to do was follow.  In Shushtar, her father picked her up and the two of them dropped me off at my hotel.  Smooth sailing all along.  Not surprisingly, Roya declared that she would come to the hotel at 9 AM in the morning to show me around Shushtar.  I did not ask for that, nor did she leave me much of an option to decline.  Her English is minimal, but she has a translator function in her cell phone!  She is pulling phrases out of that which helped us to communicate.  I guess, I know what I am doing tomorrow.

Since I have no new photos for the day, I am posting three signs that you might enjoy.  On some government buildings, I have found Quranic quotes.  If nothing else is translated in this country, those signs thankfully were.  More typically, they are found on walls of mosque courtyards and on shrines.  Throughout town, there are political posters.  Many are not translated.  But the one I found puzzled me.  I am not sure how to interpret it.  Perhaps, you can figure it out.  It is about the martyrs.  But the one I got a kick out of as an art historian was the one that advertized a ceramic and sculpting studio.  It is good to know for those who enroll, that it has the approval of the highest authorities.

Good night.