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Society | The Duality of Life in Iran

by CORRESPONDENT AT LARGE

12 Nov 2011 06:14Comments

A look behind the scenes.

ghasemi_amirali-untitled_from_coffeeshop_ladies~300~10528_20090516_UK040109_134.jpg[ society ] Life in Iran is split in halves: the half lived in the open and the half lived behind closed doors. And this duality goes deep: every man and woman in Iran leads two lives, an external life that conforms to the pressures and norms of the society and an internal life governed by the wants and needs of the person.

This is a continuation of the ways of traditional Iranian society, which has evolved into a modern, complex form of duality present at every level of social activity. At the core of the old Iranian way of living were houses that were split into andarouni (literally, "internal," and commonly confused with harem, a section of an aristocrat's castle), in which people relaxed far from public scrutiny -- women were not obliged to wear hejab, and singing and dancing was allowed. Outside this safe haven, life changed -- women were expected to be chador-clad and demure; men, formal and rigid.

The ritual of a domestic visit was a layered one; you would start at the door, which was the farthest that street vendors, gypsies, and fortune tellers could come. The next step was the hashti, an octagonal room filled with seats, where most visitors were greeted and entertained. If a person was to be allowed in further, a call was made inside the house, usually something like "Ya Allah," still common today when a stranger enters a residence. The call meant that the home's inner sanctum was about to be breached and everyone assumed the roles assigned to them by social norms; again women were clad in hejab and men became formal. The lucky guests who were allowed further than the hashti were guided to the panjdari or talar, a large room specifically designed for entertaining guests. But that was the furthest any outsider could penetrate the layers of the house; still further, behind closed doors, was the living room, centerpiece of the andarouni.

This layered approach to life allowed traditional Iranians to leave their public personas at the door and live life as they pleased inside. Over the years, despite the transformation of Iranian architecture, this notion of layered life was incorporated into Iranian society. The average Iranian is preoccupied with social standing and the image that he or she projects; this acts as an external force that shapes the way an Iranian lives outside the safe inner sanctum.

The external forces are themselves manifold: On the one hand, there is the universal communitarianism of Islam, enforced by the government, that obliges every Iranian to follow a strict set of moral and social codes -- women must wear hejab, men are prohibited from wearing ties, and so forth. The social norms and trends, on the other hand, act as a counterbalance -- you are labeled based on how you look and behave, you are expected to look hip and trendy lest you be frowned upon. For example, a bearded man is considered a Basiji unless proven otherwise, and yet without a beard a man cannot hold a significant government job. The truth is that everyone plays along. You know that if you need something done for you in a governmental bureau, you are better off wearing a beard (or bribing someone, which is another issue). So when your friends see you with your newly grown whiskers, almost all invariably ask "Mikhay vam begiri?" (You want to get a loan?), a joke that is often not far from the mark.

When I leave my house and go to work, I project a persona that is completely different from me. My colleagues never suspect who the real me is nor do I know much about them. I dress and behave very formally, despite the fact that I am quite casual by nature. Then I meet with friends and I project a fun and easygoing image, wearing trendy clothes and acting cool despite being reserved and indifferent to style inside, and then at home I am a totally different person. Most Iranians, even though they won't admit it, live such dual lives. Even now that I live outside of Iran, I see that my fellow Iranians in the diaspora are still leading dual lives. This duality is even reflected in the global media's portrayal of Iran and Iranian lives: Iran is depicted as a conservative society entangled with tradition, but the reality is that the society is moving so fast toward modernity that many desperately grasp at traditions in order to preserve their sense of identity.

This duality has consequences. It has led to a widespread sense of hypocrisy and mistrust; you can never be sure that what others say is true or not, because you don't project a very honest image yourself. Iranian society has become extremely complex, and this is evident at every layer, especially the political; the authorities, for instance, publicly demonize the West and yet behind the scenes many have or seek ties to it. Consider the case of Mahmoud Reza Khavari, former head of Bank Melli, the country's largest bank, who fled to Canada amid the multibillion-dollar embezzlement scandal that roiled the regime in recent months. While for years, Khavari projected the image of an ultra-conservative patriot and devoted follower of the Supreme Leader, all along he had a Canadian passport. Or take Morteza Agha Tehrani, the ultra-reactionary Majles deputy known as the "moral guide" for the Ahmadinejad administration; he has a U.S. green card. Despite all the animosity displayed by officials toward the West, many Iranians believe that the current government is a puppet of Britain.

The duality of Iranians lives has led them to believe that, as an ancient proverb puts it, there is always "Kasei poshte nim kase" -- there is always something going on behind the scenes.

Photos by Amirali Ghasemi

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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