They have tinder in iran

unexpected tales from the middle east

In truth I'd asked the question more as a joke than a genuine query. Along with synagogues, laughter workshops and Hooters restaurants, Tinder was the last thing I’d expected to find in one of the world’s staunchest Islamic republics.

Nadia’s response, however, seemed genuine enough. ‘Ah I hate this app…’ she groaned, munching through a salad as we dined in Tehran’s only vegetarian restaurant. ‘It is so stupid. My sister is on it. She is going on, like, five dates every week. Why can’t people just talk to each other? Tinder is for losers…’

Generally I don’t much care for it when people, even if only by inference, out me as a loser. Impolite I tend to think it. It was our first night in Iran, and Nadia, our bubbly 28 year-old tour leader, was to be showing us around her country for the next two weeks on Intrepid’s Iran Adventure.

Fortunately for Nadia, I was much too piqued by her answer to air any protest against this loser-dom of mine. What, I could only wonder, trying to meld the little I knew about Iran with the lot I knew about online dating, was an app like Tinder doing in a place like this? A place where alcohol was illegal, Facebook and Instagram were banned, sex outside marriage was sex outside the law, and a strand of hair protruding from a woman’s hejab could get her locked up by ‘morality police’? Glancing about the scene with renewed interest, I took a tentative sip of my first non-alcoholic beer and wondered how many of the patrons here were on Tinder dates. Non-alcoholic beer, I decided, sucked.

A LITTLE BIT OF history repeating

The Islamic Republic of Iran as we (think we) know it basically came to be because of BP.

During the early 20th century, British Petroleum – then known as the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company – had set up shop in the country under a contract that gave Iran four British pounds for every ton of crude oil exported. Unsurprisingly, plenty of Iranians thought this a bum deal, and, in 1951, Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh – Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister (and Time Magazine’s Man of the Year) – nationalised the company and expelled the British on fears they might conspire to oust him.

His hunch wasn’t off. In 1953, Churchill, in cahoots with US President Eisenhower, Iran’s royal family, the CIA, and millions in bribe money, pulled off a coup that would see the septuagenarian live out his final 14 years under house arrest. Shah Mohammad Reza – pro-Western, pro-women’s rights, profligate spender – was reinstalled, only to flee 26 years later amid festering opposition and the return of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a conservative Shiite cleric he’d exiled 13 years prior.

Under Khomeini’s reign as ‘Supreme Leader’, women and girls were stripped of their rights, those deemed criminals were sentenced to barbaric punishments and power was entrenched with the Imams. Iran became a theocracy.

And the rest, as they say, is history. But 43 years on, it’s a history that, on many counts, persists into the present for everyday Iranians. Similar to Cuba, Iran, under Western-emplaced embargoes and an obdurate leadership, has remained in something of a time warp. Since 1979, few Western imports have entered Iran, and the major resource to leave has been, funnily enough, Iranians themselves.

On our way back from the restaurant we walk past the former US embassy. It was here where, in 1979, in an act hailed by Khomeini as heroic, hardline students held 52 diplomats hostage for 444 days. Known to Iranians these days as the ‘US Den of Espionage’ – it was also where the CIA plotted their overthrow of Mossadegh – the compound now serves as headquarters of the Sepah, a conservative militia group dedicated to defending the revolution. Inscriptions like ‘Down with USA’ and ‘We will make the US face a severe defeat’ adorn the outer walls, the Farsi script considerately translated into English (just in case the Statue of Liberty drawn as a skeleton didn’t get the point across). There aren’t any Americans in our group (contrary to popular belief, they are permitted to travel escorted in Iran), but a few among us are curious about Nadia’s take on Iranian-US relations. Or lack thereof.

‘Many people don’t seem to know this,’ she begins, sounding like she might have had this conversation before, ‘but in the wake of September 11, relations between Iran and the US were the best they’d been in a long time.’ Even in the dim light of the street, Nadia catches me baulk. If there’s one thing I do know about Iran’s recent history, it’s that the country was one of the three George Bush Jr. used in constellating his ‘Axis of Evil’.

‘It’s true,’ Nadia says. ‘When President Bush was making his plans to attack Iraq, he came to Iran for information. Iran shared its intelligence with America. That’s why Iranians were so angry when Bush then called us evil. They felt betrayed. And this is why Ahmadinejad got elected. People were afraid that America was going to attack us.’

In speculating on the reliability of this account, it occurs to me that the truth of what Nadia is claiming is largely irrelevant. If what she’s just outlined is what Iranians believed at the time, the election of former hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad does, in a weird way, kinda make sense. World over, voters who are scared and angry tend to vote in leaders who talk tough. ‘One thing I really want you all to understand,’ Nadia continues, ‘is that when you hear of Iranians hating America or whatever, please know that this is just our government talking about the American government. Ordinary Iranian people don’t hate ordinary American people. Think about it: How can you hate someone for where they come from? Nobody gets to choose where they are born.’ She glances up at the hollow-eyed skull of the Statue of Liberty peering down on us. ‘Actually,’ she says, her voice a little hushed, ‘many Iranians would really love to live in America. You know why?’ We all lean in, scarcely believing a real-life Iranian is about to concede a point to The Great Satan. ‘Hollywood,’ she answers, grinning. ‘Many of the American films that get smuggled in here have had all the blasphemous bits – the violence and swearing and sex – cut out. So the image everyday Iranians get is that America is a place where everything is safe and everybody is rich; where all the people are beautiful and nice to each other.’

We all lean back. ‘I know this isn’t true,’ says Nadia, ‘but I like Americans anyway. They are very nice at tipping.’

sliding doors

The next day, still in Tehran, our group heads underground to take the metro to the Golestan Palace and National Jewels Museum.

A relatively recent addition to the city, this extensive subterranean train network offers commuters a safe, cheap and efficient alternative to the smoggy, horn-happy bedlam that is Tehrani traffic.

After purchasing our tickets and ushering us through the turnstiles, Nadia calls our group for a team huddle. Because Iran’s subway platforms and train carriages are segregated by gender, she explains, we’re going to have to split up. Us males will board here, while her and the women will have to board one door down. In the women’s carriage.

Within a few minutes our train arrives. Us men board and, as per Nadia’s instructions, shuffle down the carriage. By the time we reach where the male and female compartments join, Nadia and the women are already there, caged off from us by an arrangement of metal bars.

As the train starts to wheeze in ready for departure, we all notice a slight buzz kick up by the doors. It’s a scene that’s been seen in every subway station around the world: two young guys have dashed into the carriage at the last second and, planting themselves in the entrance, are urging on some straggling friend of theirs. For a few seconds, as the doors begin to hiss, each grabs a handle and holds them open. Their exhortations grow louder as their struggles become more pronounced…and then, suddenly, in spite of their friend’s failing to show, both slide inside and let the doors clamp shut. Looking relieved, they peer in our direction… and their expressions change.

Following their gaze, it doesn’t take long for us to figure out what’s happened. The latecomer, in his rush to make the train, has bolted into the carriage closest to him – and it’s the women’s one. There is now an adult Iranian man, in a confined space, with women, in public, in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The entire carriage falls to a hush as the supposed gravity of the situation sets in.

Uh-oh, I think. What now? Immediate arrest by undercover? Death by firing squad? Public hanging?

Happily, none of these things. Instead, in glancing around and realising his blunder, the miscreant turns wide-eyed, then crimson, looks about, and hurries over to the partition as if hoping there might be a gap big enough to wiggle through. His friends, both of whom are now standing beside us, taunt and jab at him through the cage, highly amused by his predicament. The other men in the carriage smirk; the women in theirs cover their mouths and giggle. Nadia, who tends to make an impression on men, sidles up to the guy and whispers something that makes him turn redder still and his friends laugh all the more. Finally, with eyes to the floor like an 8 year-old who’s been dragged into a female change room by his mother, the guy shuffles bashfully to the door and pulls his jumper up over his face. By this stage, however, it’s clear that he too is laughing.

after the revolution
comes the revolution

The story commonly told by Iranians these days is that those who backed Khomeini’s return in the 1979 Revolution generally didn’t know what they were in for.

From his exile in Paris, the Ayatollah, with his impassioned railing against Shah’s venality, secularism, and toadying to the West, came to embody the most vocal and viable figure of opposition. To the extent that everyday Iranians envisioned what might transpire Post-revolution did at all, it was generally assumed that power would be handed to the parliament, justice to the courts and petroleum to the people. Democracy, law and prosperity would follow.

This version, of course, could simply be a case of historical revisionism. Though, again, the truth of the account is arguably less important than what it indicates: that your average Iranian resents the government’s intrusion in their lives. Time and again throughout the trip, people in my group were approached by courteous and inquisitive locals who, after inquiring where we were from and what we thought of their country, would quickly confide a disdain of their government.

One afternoon, at Si-o-seh pol Bridge in Esfahan, an elderly gent ambled over to a German friend and I, introduced himself and, in learning that Stefan is German, immediately declared his fondness for beer. He’d been a fighter pilot in the Iran-Iraq war, he explained, and had once travelled to Munich for training – where he’d attended Oktoberfest. German beer was so ‘sehr gut’ that it had inspired him to start home-brewing. While Stefan and I unfortunately had to decline his invitation to join him for a few frothies, we were both astonished by this mild-mannered former army officer’s flouting of one of Iran’s biggest no-nos. Wasn’t he scared of the $2,000 fines issued for alcohol consumption, I asked? Or the 70 lashes? He snorted and mutters something, the gist of which is, ‘I risked my life for this country. Nobody tells me what I can’t do in my own home.’ Another time, at a border control point, a stern looking official took my passport, flicked through its pages, examined my visa, and handed it back. ‘Australia,’ he said, pleased. ‘I envy your freedoms.’

It’s not hard to see why many Iranians might. For all his economic mismanagement and brutal crack downs on political dissidents, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s rule had overseen land reforms, reigned in the power of the clerics and done much to put females on the same legal and social footing as men. Girls were granted the same access to education as boys; the legal marrying age was raised to 15 (and then 18); women were granted the right to vote and divorce and were encouraged to work outside the home.

Under the form of Sharia law introduced by Khomeini, many of these advances (and more) were repealed within a matter of months. Women were phased out of employment and positions of power; wearing hejab was made compulsory; the age at which a girl could be married off was lowered to nine (it’s since been raised to 13); polygamy was lauded and virginity championed to the extent that tampons were banned. Since this time, Iranian women have gradually regained many of their rights and freedoms, but inequalities and double standards between the sexes persist.

keeping the faith

The mullah we’re due to meet, Nadia advises us on our way to the mosque, is considered a ‘moderate’.

He completed a Masters Degree in the UK, so speaks perfect English, and is well acquainted with Western culture. Our group is an inquisitive lot, and I don’t envy this guy as he sits down to field our interrogations. Though, then again, nor can I imagine a more important job for a representative of his faith than explaining its precepts to curious outsiders. Anything that helps bridge the Islam-West divide, right?

We’ve arrived for our meeting a little late – the mullah has prayer time to attend in 20 minutes – so everybody’s less concerned with working up to the heavy questions than they are getting them answered. We’ve barely gotten past introductions when someone in our group asks about a woman’s right to divorce. They’ve heard that men can divorce wives at will, but that for women it’s virtually impossible. With the air befitting someone comfortable with their authority, the mullah listens to the question, nods thoughtfully, and calmly rearranges his cloak. Not so, he eventually advises. Three situations exist under which Iranian women can divorce their husbands: If he’s found to be sterile; if he’s found to be using drugs or alcohol; or if he’s abusive and found to be psychologically disturbed. We all nod, if only from habit. It’s a disturbing caveat, that ‘and’. In essence, if a guy’s unfortunate enough to suffer from a psychological condition that manifests itself in violent outbursts, he’s on his own. If, on the other hand, he’s sane of mind but just likes getting violent from time to time…well, whatevs.

‘What about infidelity?’ someone else jumps in. ‘Could you tell us about these temporary marriages?’

Nadia had briefed us a few days before about the institution of temporary marriages, but it was almost too bewildering to believe. Prostitution is illegal in Iran, but if an Iranian man – be he married or single – meets a woman he’d like to spend some ‘alone time’ with, a mullah can sanction a ‘temporary marriage’ between them. The conditions of this marriage might stipulate it lasting only lasting a day or two – and, as his wife, she’ll be entitled to some compensation (that’s been settled upon in advance) – but hey, at least he’s not committing any sin. Our mullah, who’s starting to look slightly fed up with our line of inquiry, reiterates all this.

‘Can a woman take a temporary husband?’ someone – (okay, I) – ask.


‘…Why not?’

Our mullah rises, rearranging his cloak about him. ‘I appreciate that things are different in the West,’ he answers, pointedly, ‘but we believe there are some fundamental differences between the genders. We believe that men and women are born with different responsibilities, different rights, different… needs.’ And, with that, our intercultural dialogue is over. The mullah thanks us for our time, hands us each a sweet, and excuses himself for prayer.

above the snow line

On my final full day in Iran, a few days after our tour’s finished, I decide to go snowboarding.

Tehran’s outskirts are mountains: climactic peaks that soar to over 4,000 metres above sea level. During the winter months, from November to mid-May, more than 20 ski lifts open up around the country. But that’s another story. Suffice to say that, on the two-hour journey it takes to reach Tochal’s summit, I get chatting to a local guy named Arash.

Like me, Arash is 32. And, like many of the Iranian guys I’ve met these past three weeks, he’s well-educated, thoughtful, proficient in English, and looking to leave Iran. In his case, for Canada. ‘It’s not that I don’t love my country,’ he insists, ‘I really do. But, as a young person, there just isn’t much for me here.’

Arash and his wife are musicians. He plays and teaches piano; she the violin. They’re both Brahms tragics and, earlier in the year, after months of paperwork and being given the runaround by obfuscating bureaucrats, had finally received permission to give their first public performance.

‘It’s not like it was Slipknot we were wanting to play,’ Arash laughs. ‘Just Brahms!’

The main problem, says Arash, was his wife. The powers that be disapprove of women performing in front of audiences that may contain men. Supposedly it’s just too sexy.

‘It was just Brahms we were playing, not Beyoncé,’ he laughs again – though this time it’s hollow ‘It’s not like she was playing in her underwear. She still had to wear her hejab.’ He pauses and looks at me meaningfully. ‘Do you know how hard it is to play violin with a scarf around your shoulders?’

Out of all the policies and laws I’ve learnt about during my time in Iran – the gender apartheid, the Iman-endorsed adulteries, the choice of jail or a state-sponsored sex change homosexuals must face – it's, for some reason I just can’t sound, the issues faced by Arash and his wife that sadden me the most. Sounds crazy, right? No respectable human rights charter could ever rank the right to play the violin unfettered by cloth before the right to love who you love. And yet, all I arrive at, over and again, is the sheer incongruity of the equation: a young couple are looking to leave their home country for their love of Brahms.

The telecabin Arash and I are sharing has now risen above the snow line. Tiny figures can be spied drawing clean lines on distant slopes. A few days before, when I’d asked Nadia how it was that skiing was one of the few public sports permitted to women in Iran, the understated simplicity of her answer – that skiwear was 'not very skimpy' – had made me chuckle. Now, as our telecabin pulls into the top station and Arash and I clamber out with our gear, the levelling effect of this edict dawns on me. Suddenly, instead of the dreary blacks and browns favoured by suits and hejabs, we're in a crowd of garish over-pants and bright puffy jackets; of Polaroid sunnies and cheery beanies and designer stubble and snowball fights. Suddenly, at 2,000 metres above Tehran, we could be above a snow line anywhere. Speedsters fly past. Beginners flail. Women wobble and giggle and shriek for their partners’ hands. Young guys and girls stand around, posturing with cigarettes, laughing and flirting. The open frivolity of the scene strikes me as something I'd not seen in Iran. As something I’d not come to expect from Iran. Up here, I realise, where it’s the climate that determines what you wear, everyone is covered equally. Everyone is in hejab.

‘So what's the deal, Arash?' I ask, thinking how 'un-Iranian' the whole thing is; how fated the regime's hold must be among a crowd like this. 'Are things going to change?'

Arash clips into his skis and peers down the slope. ‘Consider the countries around us,’ he says. ‘To our east is Afghanistan and Pakistan; to our west Iraq and Syria. To our south we have Saudi Arabia. Our government might be conservative, but at least they are strong and united. If the alternative is Al Qaeda, ISIS, the Taliban or Saudi Arabia’s version of Shariah law in Iran, then I prefer our Imans. Things here will change, I know that. Many things have. But change here can only happen gradually. Whenever things change quickly here there is always a backlash, and then they go back to worse than before.’

The writer traveled on Intrepid's 15-day Iran Adventure tour, which includes 17 meals, accommodation, lots of activities and the wisdom of an expert Iranian Leader. For more information, check out Intrepid Travel's small group adventures.