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This is How We Party: Bacchanal in the Desert

by CORRESPONDENT in Tehran

15 Sep 2011 23:02Comments
hippies+iran+iraq+border+1966.jpgTo avoid morality police, Tehran's party-goers increasingly head out of town...creating clashes of a different kind.

[ dispatch ] Four chador-wearing village women, one of them no more than 12 years old, sit stone-faced behind the driver of an overheating tour bus. It will take 14 hours to transcend the dust and desert that lie between their native oasis and Tehran, and for these women, the journey will not be a comfortable one. A thick and constant cloud of marijuana smoke emanates from the back of the bus, together with the sound of blaring trance music and the flirtatious chatter of high school-aged urban dwellers. Several girls, some as young as 17, have thrown all precautions to the wind, shedding their head scarves and asking their spiky-haired, tattooed male counterparts to light their cigarettes. A 19-year-old boy in a clingy, neon pink T-shirt produces a bottle of Smirnoff vodka. A slightly older passenger shakes his head: "Can you believe that this is Iran?"

Iran's two-culture phenomenon -- a frequent topic of discussion among pundits -- is on prominent display on this covertly organized bus trip that transports well-to-do Tehran youth to one of the most remote places in the country. Bedecked in flashy clothes and armed with iPhones, they are an eyesore among the intensely traditional inhabitants of the desert they visit. The object is not so much to sightsee as to satisfy their urge to party on the same scale as the Los Angeles-residing Persian rappers they see on YouTube and satellite TV, without worrying about parents or police. "It's almost like going abroad, but better," says one participant. "We still get to break the rules."

Save for the streetlights and the modern sewer system, the village that houses the caravanserai where the 30 youngsters sleep looks much as it did 500 years ago. As they disembark the bus and collect their various gear (one enthusiast has even hired a truck to transport his brand-new four-wheeler), the sleepy village greets them with noontime heat and the bleating of goats.

Aside from the money they earn from the occasional tourist, the villagers' main source of livelihood is dates. Wrapping around the village like a lush blanket, scores of trees cushion the oasis from miles of sun-scorched dunes. Each date tree is well looked after, fertilized and irrigated by a paved canal system that draws water from a source deep inside a nearby mountain. In the midday heat, the spring is a popular destination for the visitors, who splash around in the water with bare calves, necks, and forearms. They are forced to retreat as soon as a lorry full of local men arrive on the scene, berating the women for exposing too much skin. "You're in Iran here," they say.

Despite moments of stark culture clash, the desert dwellers are generally welcoming of their rambunctious visitors. With each of them paying at least $220 for the trip, their excursion is a welcome contribution to the economy of these forgotten desert outposts, dependent largely on agriculture and livestock. For this reason, the visitors' primary objective is organized with the utmost discretion.

Ten kilometers away from civilization, a tent is set up in the middle of the sand dunes. A well-known DJ sets up his equipment beneath the tarp, fuels up on Red Bull, and spins club music from sunset to sunrise. Around him, throngs of youngsters sway under multicolored strobe lights, ingesting alcohol and a cocktail of hallucinogens.

"Where is Ahmadinejad now?" one inebriated schoolboy screams as he sprints out into the sand and darkness, while Shakira's "Loca, Loca, Loca" blares into the night. Later, as the nighttime temperatures set in, he and two other boys vomit violently as their girlfriends, exhausted from dancing with glow sticks, huddle next to a nearby campfire. To everyone's surprise, aside from one scorpion bite and several cases of dehydration, the night passes without major incident.

Although the duration of the trip sees a brazen violation of at least a dozen laws, the revelers do not encounter any authorities until their late-night return to Tehran two days later. After disembarking the bus and discarding the last empty vodka bottle, a group of backpack-wielding travelers is accosted by two police officers, who inquire what business four young people have being out and about so late at night. The travelers point to their sleeping bags and explain they are on their way home from a trip. Fifteen minutes later, the police finally believe them.

Their return to civilization seems far removed from the relative freedom they enjoyed 48 hours earlier, when a rackety old lorry transported them deep into the sand dunes. Clutching at the creaking bars, the group had let out a collective sigh of awe as the desert sky unfolded above them. Far from the polluted city, they pointed inquiringly at the Milky Way: "What is that white stuff?" Many of them had never seen so many stars.

Photo above by Rory MacLean from his hippie bus tour: Iran-Iraq border, August 6, 1966. Homepage photo by Max Hartshorne from his 2008 blog post, heading back to Tehran from the desert.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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