I am at the family home of Nadir, a young Iranian journalist I met in Tehran. Abroad, I had read newspaper reports about the trip to the Vatican. I remembered the Pope, in stunning red velvet and gold, chatting amicably with the mullah Shia Islamic priest in the Sistine Chapel. Khatami looked equally striking in the full medieval robes and black turban reserved for sayyeds descendants of the Prophet Mohammad.
He is talking about the alcohol in my glass. That was the only drink I had during my stay in the Islamic Republic of Iran. It was my first trip to Iran since , when I lived there for a year as a small child with my Iranian father and American mother.
From the even the earliest days of the Islamic Revolution in , Iranian Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians were allowed to distill and drink alcohol. And ever since, they have been selling it illicitly to the Muslim majority. As with narcotics and hallucinogens in the western world, so with alcohol in Iran — a reliable source is everything. Nadir knew of occasional cases from his job at the newspaper. It was hard to enjoy my drink.
On the other hand, it is illegal to sell opium in Iran, but legal to use it. My grandfather was probably addicted, although one cousin insists opium is not necessarily addictive, but cheap and calming, and a traditional evening pastime for old people in the village. My father still says it is the most wonderful thing he has ever smelled. The reason the fundamentalist government seems to have settled for a prohibition on sale — but not use — is that it could not possibly hope to stop the practice.
Compare marijuana and prostitution in so many western countries. There were simply too many elderly habitual users in villages across Iran. Opium is. The first time you try it, you vomit. My cousin Sohrab has tried it four times, each attempt resulting in a fit of vomiting followed by insomnia.
After a while, opium users develop thick leathery skin and hoarse, husky voices. And there is also heroin. Normal executions take place inside prisons. It took place in the street outside the house of the convicted man. Mehdi had nightmares for weeks. We were drinking tea and eating tiny chickpea-flour cookies.
Revolution brought a complete conversion to sharia Islamic law. After several months in Iran, however, I disagreed. Another lawyer friend took me to the courthouse where she used to work. We attended a hearing. It was a criminal case of kidnapping and assault, committed by one family against another, part of a long-standing feud between the two. In Islamic law, a crime is not considered an act against public order, as in common law systems.
Rather it is an act against the victim and his or her family. In Islamic law, therefore, parties are allowed to settle out of court. In the case I heard, the judge was more of a mediator than a judge — aware that any ruling by him would be resented by the losing side.
The two families had been in court against each other many times before. Retaliation was inevitable. The judge urged the families to come to an agreement outside the courtroom. Ultimately they did so. The case was dropped. In the west, common law jurisdictions have only recently begun introducing procedures to allow the victim more control and participation in his or her own case.
Victims often feel neglected and marginalised during criminal proceedings. This is a problem Islamic law does not have. Islamic criminal law also has very strict evidential requirements. Which is a point rarely mentioned by the western media, which tends to focus exclusively on Islamic criminal penalties like the removal of a hand for theft — a penalty only carried out in the early days of the Revolution in Iran.
Adultery, for instance, can only be proven by testimony from four reliable people who witnessed the sex act itself. Since the penalty for making unsubstantiated claims of adultery is a whipping, entirely fabricated accusations are rare. Even if the necessary four witnesses are found, there are still mitigating circumstances.
Should either adulterous party lack sexual access to his or her spouse, the penalty is reduced from death to a whipping. If the parties had sexual access to their spouses and are convicted, the technical penalty is stoning. Or a version of stoning. In most cases, they do dig themselves out and escape. From then on, they are legitimately free. There is another, simpler way to avoid prosecution altogether — sigheh, or temporary marriage. This works as a defence against the charge of adultery, provided that the woman is not already married.
Sunni Muslims consider it tantamount to prostitution, but in Shia Islamic law, one can contract to be married for a pre-established period of time — anything from an hour to 99 years. The marriage expires at the end of this period, and imposes fewer rights and responsibilities along the way. Any child conceived is deemed legitimate.
The father must support him or her until adulthood. These temporary marriages are legal but not socially acceptable. Temporary marriages are hushed-up affairs. According to one cousin, the usual strategy for adulterous couples who have been discovered is to claim a temporary marriage. It is a convenient story because the formal requirements for temporary marriage contracts are so lax. The parties may perform the acts of contractual formation as well as the marriage ceremony by themselves.
Neither witnesses nor registration of the contract are required. Technically, men can have up to four wives and an unlimited number of temporary marriages. However, polygamy and temporary marriage are considered scandalous in Iran.
Women can have one husband at a time, either permanent or temporary. In practice, having a temporary marriage effectively precludes a woman from ever securing a permanent one. There are other devices for thwarting fanaticism. Bribery, for instance. That is their 70 lashes! Many stylishly clean-shaven teenaged boys have had harsh encounters with the morals police. According to Islamic law, Muslim men should only trim their facial hair with scissors, producing what looks like two-day stubble by western standards. They visit websites that would make westerners squirm with embarrassment.
One evening, my cousins and I were eating pizza in full hijab Islamic dress, with face and hands exposed among a crowd of trendy North Tehrani teenagers. Then the morals police arrived on their motorcycles. They had batons in hand, and one was carrying a sharpened stick. The first few were wearing jackets over their green uniforms, so that they were able to beat a few more young men with their batons before people realised who they were.
Out of some sense of chivalry, they only pursued the boys. But they beat them only because they looked fashionably western and were eating pizza. Most of the teenagers got away. The crowd scattered as kids sprinted in all directions. But a few were caught and taken away in the morals police van — to have names registered, parents called, whippings threatened and bribes paid.
If this was not the first offence, those arrested could also be blacklisted and prevented from ever attending university. To avoid the morals police, teenagers go skiing and hiking, hoping to escape fundamentalism at high altitudes. They are not always successful. The one time I went skiing in the Alborz mountains north of Tehran , I spotted the mountain division of the morals police patrolling the slopes on skis. Desperate teenagers also sneak out of their homes and meet in parks around dawn on Friday mornings, the one time of week when the morals police, being devoutly religious, are at the mosque.
The kids come prepared. Prohibition sexualises everything. Acts I had never thought of as sexual took on new significance while I was in Iran. Sitting on a seat that an unrelated man has just left is taboo because you can feel the lukewarm heat from his bottom on yours.
Riding a bicycle is no simple task in roossari headscarf and manteau trenchcoat-like robe. And it is a high-risk activity for a young woman because there is a danger of breaking her hymen. Unsurprisingly, most unmarried young Iranian women do not have pre-marital sex.
This makes sense, given that young people do not have their own flats. For most, it is impossible both financially and socially.