Reporter's Notebook: Inside Iran

In my last entry I described a restaurant in Tehran that had a large display of miniature flags beside the salad bar — only the Stars and Stripes were missing. The management was very apologetic, but frankly, if they hadn’t brought it up, I wouldn’t have noticed!

It turns out many restaurants and hotels in Tehran have these flag displays, sans Stars and Stripes.

We had lunch at a place one day where the maitre d’ asked my cameraman, “Where’s she from?”

The cameraman shot back, “What’s it to you? You won’t have her flag anyway.”

We had a laugh after that. I told my cameraman I wasn't sure I wanted them to plant an American flag in the center of our table in the middle of Tehran!

Next a waiter came to our table with a plate of bread and caviar and presented it to me with a little speech and a lot of flourish: “For you, as our special guest, the best Iranian caviar. Sorry we don’t have your flag.”

I love caviar and was touched. I told my cameraman I couldn’t quite imagine a random Iranian in the United States getting red carpet treatment like this in a restaurant. He just kind of rolled his eyes and said, “Amy, they do the caviar show for EVERY foreigner who comes to this restaurant.”

Iranians do have a generous spirit of hospitality and gift-giving, something they are very proud of and something I had heard much about before my trip. I figured I should be prepared to give some gifts myself, so I went shopping.

What do you take from London, where I live, to Iran, as gifts for people you don’t even know? My crew in Iran would be all-male. I thought, music, but a CD might be considered immoral and could offend, or worse, land me or the recipient in trouble. Then I thought, something quintessentially British, or a gift from Harrods, but that might be too imperial. The new government has cracked down on ties, because they are too Western, even though most Iranian men wear business suits, which look pretty Western to me. I thought about gift sets with cologne and aftershave, but do men in the Islamic Republic of Iran shave? And maybe cologne would be suggestive. I pretty much gave up.

It turns out I could have brought whatever I wanted because no one so much as peeked inside my suitcase when I arrived in Tehran, and frankly, anything goes when it comes to most young Iranians. By the way, all the men in my crew were clean-shaven!

You can buy anything you want in Iran if you’ve got the cash: bootleg Hollywood films before they are out in the States, iPods, vodka. In the Holy Shi’ite City of Qom (Iran’s Vatican), at the shrine of Fatemah (the sister of one of Shia Islam's most important imams), wedged between stalls selling prayer beads and the elaborately carved pieces of stone that Shi’ites press their heads to when they pray, sits a store that sells eye-catching evening wear.

It is a society of contradictions and a lot of “gee whiz!” moments.

For example, in the first flag-festooned restaurant I visited, there was a display of glamorous women that would make heads turn in any world capital. I couldn’t eat my food because my mouth was permanently open in shock!

The minimum dress code for women in Iran is a coat over pants and a scarf on the head. The women in this restaurant were all minimalists. The coats were barely more than blazers. The pants or jeans, in most cases looked as if they were painted on very fit bodies. The headscarves were barely covering hair that was, in half the cases, bleached blond. All of this set on bold stiletto heels.

I asked my fixer if we could film the parade of babes, as we all started calling them amongst ourselves. In the future I will always instruct my cameraman to capture the babe! We couldn’t in this restaurant where the clients were flaunting it so brazenly. Another foreign network tried it once. The police came the next day and shut the place down. Thus, I can only bring you mental images.

A woman with a band-aid on her nose walked by our table. My fixer told me, “Look, she’s just had a nose job.”

He went on to tell me that Iran is one of the nose job capitals of the world, and that’s not all. A full plastic surgery menu is on offer. We also learned, if a panel of clergy decides someone is “sick,” that someone can have a sex change operation. Homosexuality, however, is considered a crime.

Flaunting the post-op band-aid is a status symbol. You see many bandaged noses in Tehran.

And the make-up! At this restaurant, the girls wore more than a TV anchorwomen. People subsequently told me that when your face is really all you are supposed to display, you spend a lot of time on it.

It’s theoretically illegal to wear make-up in Iran, and I’m told there was a day when the religious, morality police would scrape lipstick off offenders with razor blades. While those days appear to be over, many in Iran worry that the new president will try to turn back the clock.

Private and public lives are entirely separate in Iran, and people say they won’t ever let the regime interfere in their private lives again. Those private lives of course vary, as they do in most cultures. Some people throw wild parties. Others entertain in segregated settings. There are dinner parties where the men and women sit all together, but the women keep their heads covered, and there are mixed gatherings without a headscarf in sight.

On my last night in Tehran, I went with my crew, their wives and families to a traditional restaurant. On weekend nights (the Iranian weekend is Thursday and Friday) families who can afford it go out for dinner all together. They bring the kids, no matter how young, no matter how late.

The place was hopping with live Persian music, people running around with camcorders, sitting on the floor on carpets, eating, drinking (juice), smoking water pipes, clapping — kids being kids.

I sat next to a very religious woman who was telling me all about her family, her mother, grandmother (who had 20 children!) and her faith. The Virgin Mary is a saint in Islam, which treats Jesus as a prophet. Mary is popular with Muslims. The woman next to me was nearly in tears as she told me how much she loved Mary, when suddenly, a two-year-old girl at our table made a distracting ruckus. She had jumped up on the bench and was pointing to an old Persian painting with a warrior on a horse galloping through the desert. “Shrek! Shrek!” she shrieked. I didn’t quite get it. The religious woman framed in her serious chador explained, “the baby thinks that warrior on the horse up there looks like Shrek and his donkey,” and she burst into laughter!

Amy Kellogg is an international correspondent based in FNC's London bureau.