Why you should care

Because people are people.

Haley Cohen is a journalist based in Buenos Aires, where she is The Economist’s correspondent for Argentina and Uruguay.

After elbowing my way through Tajrish Bazaar, where Tehran’s residents jostle for the best pistachios, steaks and advieh, I crossed the street to Imāmzādeh Sāleh Mausoleum. I was nine days into an 11-day educational tour of Iran, and as I stuffed my shoes into a plastic bag, draped myself in a chador and stepped across the threshold into the women’s prayer space, it occurred to me that it was the first time since arriving that I had been alone.

All American travelers to Iran must be accompanied by tour guides who double as informants to the Ministry of Information, and ours never strayed far. A kindly 20-something basketball fan from Iran’s south, he even chaperoned me on a jog I took along Isfahan’s picturesque riverside in jeans and dress shoes, as he hadn’t packed athletic clothes.

Now, in the crowded prayer hall, I was free to wander. Weaving my way through groups of women sitting cross-legged in circles on the carpeted floor, I walked up to one of the mausoleum’s glittering walls. It was fully covered in mosaics fashioned from small mirror fragments — a style called ayeneh kari that became popular in the 17th century, when many of the mirrors being carted to Iran from Europe would shatter during the journey. Later, the Iranians decided they liked the look, and started cracking them on purpose.

Modern Iranians have inherited this resourceful spirit, creatively adapting to their circumstances. The result, like the glassy walls, is a hodgepodge — a multifaceted realm where the leadership’s harsh ideology is often at odds with the beliefs and behaviors of regular Iranians, but somehow, the thing continues to work.

When asked where I was from, I was timid. Eyes downcast, I would softly respond, “America,” as if it were a dirty confession.

Nothing could have prepared me for the incongruities I encountered in my short visit. I was never concerned for my safety, as many friends and family members were. “Say you’re from Canada,” was a common entreaty, as was, “Dye your hair — or, better yet, wear a burqa” (I’m pasty, blonde and light-eyed). But I didn’t expect to be treated well, either.

After all, this was a country we Americans had subjected to three decades of strict sanctions and economic strangulation, and later designated part of the “axis of evil.” I had seen pictures of the anti-American murals in Tehran and watched news clips of Iranians chanting “Down with the USA.” Over the course of two weeks, I anticipated I would have at least a few hostile encounters.

So at first, when Iranians asked where I was from, I was timid. Eyes downcast, I would softly respond, “America,” as if it were a dirty confession. Then I would look up, waiting for their faces to crinkle with anger or disdain, bracing for a diatribe about American imperialism.

It never came.

In Shiraz, a dusty city in Iran’s south, elementary school girls with Despicable Me backpacks and Barbie lunch boxes shouted, “We love you!” as we jointly walked through a tiled shrine to 13th-century poet Sa’di. A wizened grocer filled bags with orange sodas for our parched crew, and repeatedly refused to let us pay him a cent. In Tehran’s Laleh Park, young Iranians in polo shirts and skinny jeans lured some of our group’s members into a pingpong match by insisting, “America? We love America!” before gleefully trouncing us.

The Iranians we met were not only outgoing and kind, but also far more candid than I had anticipated, given the government’s affinity for imprisoning people. One religious leader admitted his children were on Facebook, a site that is blocked by the government and only accessible via a virtual private network (VPN). A government minister spoke of the popularity of Twitter, another blocked site. Though drinking is illegal, people talk about alcohol-soaked house parties, and Iranian youths say drugs are easy to come by. “Do you like marijuana?” asked an artist I met in passing. When I responded indifferently, he shrugged as if disappointed, popped some headphones into his iPhone and played me his favorite Radiohead song.

He pointed to a twin towers mural: “That depicts our belief that 9/11 was perpetrated by the American government itself.”

The most shocking example of Iran’s enigma came the last day of our trip, when our tour group was welcomed into the former U.S. embassy in Tehran. Tourists are rarely allowed in the building, where 52 U.S. citizens were held hostage for more than a year starting in 1979. We wondered why the government was making an exception for us — a group of more than 20 Americans. Now an anti-American propaganda museum, the building’s contents are not exactly the stuff of diplomatic dreams. With nuclear negotiations between the U.S. and Iran still ongoing, it struck us as curious that we would be blithely ushered in.

Outside the compound’s iron gates looms a peeling billboard of an Iranian soldier stomping on shattered American and Israeli flags. Inside, visitors are greeted by a sign engraved with a quote from Imam Khomeini: “We will make America suffer a severe defeat.” Under that sign, our group was collected by a Basiji guide who merrily led us around the grounds. “Ah,” he said with a smile, pointing to a colorful mural of the twin towers. “That depicts our belief that 9/11 was perpetrated by the American government itself.” When we were done perusing the posters of distorted Uncle Sams and cases full of books with titles like Fall of a Center of Deceit, he thanked us for listening to him and shook the hands of our male members. (His piety prevented him from touching the women.)

As I walked down the stairs past a warped Statue of Liberty, trying to make sense of what I had just experienced, I thought of the mausoleum’s glassy walls. If you face the mirrors, what stares back is a disjointed version of your own reflection. You might see five pairs of lips, noses where hairlines should be and no eyes at all. Move slightly and everything shifts. The pieces never fully align, and they never will. But trying to make them do so is captivating.

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