A young Iranian friend at work slipped into a small room off his office to pray one afternoon, as he does several times each day. He emerged from the little office with a smile and a sigh, and proceeded to log onto a computer.
"Now," he told me, "It's time to go to the chat room!"
To me, this symbolizes the tradition-meets-modernity side of Iran, best seen through its youth.
My friend then motioned for me to come over and look at some jokes he had dug up on the Internet. They weren't dirty, but they weren't squeaky clean either. Anyway, we had a laugh.
A young female acquaintance, at an office I visited one afternoon, slinked over to me out of spontaneous need to bond with a sister — she'd just had her highlights done and was feeling in a particularly girly mood.
She wanted to discuss boys, love, and dating, so we leaned into each other and shared our thoughts on the subject until a male colleague approached us, looking for a little conversation himself. I just told him, look, this is girl talk over here. He laughed and backed off.
My female friend then took me over to her computer to show me pictures from a family wedding. Since the parties after wedding ceremonies are segregated, the women can doll themselves up. Even though they end up just doing this for each other, they do it with gusto nonetheless. I marveled at shots of revealing strappy tops, lots of make-up, and manes of shiny hair. Probably like nothing you've ever seen from Iran.
It’s kind of surreal, all of this regular interaction, when there is a nuclear showdown going on, major animosity between the U.S. and Iran, and a host of other dark geopolitical issues dominating headlines.
But these days, Iranians are not sitting around debating these issues and burning American flags. In fact, my perception on my recent trip was that many people are tired of talking and hearing about nuclear energy and mutual grievances.
In fact, at a major soccer game while I was in Iran, at half time, fans of one team screamed "death to America!" Fans on the other side, instead of echoing the sentiment, as they reportedly usually do, just shouted back "Death to [the other team]!"
Then, one side of the stadium bellowed, "nuclear energy is our right," while the other side responded "Nuclear energy —," and I won't finish the sentence here, because it wouldn't be appropriate, as it was rather vulgar. But trust me, this was an uncharacteristic display of sarcasm, and definitely not the state-sponsored message.
I will add that most Iranians do think nuclear energy is their right, and some probably think nuclear weapons are their right too, since so many other countries have them, but there are, it seemed to me, much more pressing issues on their minds. The economy, for one — officials won't say it, but analysts and real people will. Inflation is about 30 percent; there is a lot of underemployment, doctors working as taxi drivers, and that kind of thing. A lot of people work more than one job to make ends meet. There is a sense of unpredictability that courses through everything, and certainly effects the economy and the choices people make about investing money or buying homes.
Oddly, all this said, the shopping centers are always full. Presumably, a lot of the people are window-shopping. But young people told me they don't have bars or discos or even many cafes to hang out in, and dating isn't allowed, so the mall becomes an outing. One young woman told me that even if Iranian women don't have the money for essentials, they do love to splurge on outfits that they can wear comfortably in the privacy of their homes or friends' homes. One young man told me the same goes for boys! They want to be cool, and they respond to retail therapy. One guy told me that when he broke up with his girlfriend he blew his whole salary on clothes.
On this trip, I really wanted to know more about what Iranians are into, so I decided to look into the plastic surgery craze. I had heard that young women were getting nose jobs in droves, but I had no idea that women as young as 20 were getting multiple cosmetic surgeries — cheek implants, lip jobs, and the list goes on.
Men, too, are getting nose jobs. Some say it's about a fascination with Western images of beauty as seen on satellite TV. Others point to a more general malaise that makes people obsess about their looks. Obviously, people in the West are doing this too, but it seems more widespread in Iran. Perhaps, this is because in the West, people try to hide the fact that they have had surgery, but in Iran, they flaunt it.
A lot of other things go on there too, as the tension between Iran and the West builds. Embryonic stem cell research is happening in Iran, because Islam has a different definition of life, and when it begins. Sex change operations are permissible, because the Quran doesn't ban them. It goes on.
None of this is to say that people are oblivious to politics — far from it. They follow the twists and turns, but in terms of where Iran is headed, the future remains a mystery, even to those who live there.
Iran is a country of many subtleties and contradictions, at least when viewed through the eyes of a Westerner. As a German journalist, whom I met in Tehran, put it, "I have been coming to this place for 20 years. With each visit, I feel I understand it less."
Amy Kellogg is a London-based correspondent for FOX News Channel (FNC). She joined FNC in 1999 as a Moscow-based correspondent. You can read her complete bio here.
Amy Kellogg currently serves as a Senior Foreign Affairs Correspondent based in Milan, Italy. She joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in 1999 as a Moscow-based correspondent. Follow her on Twitter: @amykelloggfox