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food / travel

Couchsurfing In Tehran, How Foreign Crashers Help Iranians Escape

Travel for Iranians is hard, which is why the young have found hosting foreigners is a way to explore the world vicariously. The latest twist to the private breaking of Iran's myriad restrictions.

A birthday party in Tehran
A birthday party in Tehran
Sandra Keil

TEHRAN — Looking around you see heavy doses of makeup and carefully coiffed hair, jeans and some mini skirts that really are too short. Western music is played almost exclusively on the high-tech sound system, and the pictures on the wall would almost certainly not meet the approval of the morality police. Home-brewed booze with a very high alcohol content — an anise schnapps — is being served liberally. Men and women socialize freely, and some flirt shamelessly.

All of this is nothing terribly exceptional for a party, except that it's not happening in the West and is instead being hosted by two friends, Yara and Leyan*, in Tehran. Right in the capital of the Islamic Republic of Iran, where such things are not only forbidden but are demonized and punishable by law. And yet it's happening. Privately. Even tourists can experience this secret Mideast world, via Couchsurfing.

Couchsurfing is a social network that connects people from all over the world, allowing guests to find hosts willing to offer free places to sleep in private homes. It allows a much more intimate experience for travelers and hosts, crossing geographic and social boundaries that more conventional tourists would be less likely to experience.

The practice is legal in Iran, if not some of the activity that goes behind the privacy of four walls. The government isn't enthusiastic about it, but it doesn't forbid it. Which is why the Couchsurfing Internet page for Iran can be used without a filter.

Just how many Iranians participate isn't clear. Contacts usually happen through Facebook. That social network is officially forbidden, but there are enough apps available to easily circumvent the ban. President Hassan Rouhani, in power since 2013, has tweeted that it's clear the Iranian authorities are less radical than they were during the days of Rouhani’s predecessor, avowed hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

A difficult travel destination

But Iran remains a difficult destination, a country with an extremely bad reputation because of its morality police and other watchdogs, not to mention its arbitrary justice system, its nuclear ambitions, its liberally applied death penalty and hostility toward Israel. Anybody who travels there should be absolutely clear that in so doing they are supporting the regime of the mullahs.

But Couchsurfing nevertheless offers rich opportunities for discovering Iran and the daily life of Iranians. And it's obviously an inexpensive way to travel. But those choosing this travel strategy should be prepared to improvise at all times. The first Facebook contact with Omidin Tehran comes to mind, in fact.

Omid enjoys guiding Western Couchsurfers through his hometown. But shortly before my arrival, Omid wrote via Facebook that he couldn't make it, that something had come up. So he promised to send two girlfriends, who turn out to be Yara and Leyan, hostesses of the party described above, and where the first Couchsurfing night is reserved.

Both the women are wearing headscarves, as is compulsory, but not the way you would think Iranians would wear them. Their hair is visible, and the women wear the scarves more like a stylish accessory that casually covers the back of their heads. Not everyone approves of this, and the morality police frequently stop passersby and check their identity when they believe civilians aren't dressed with the requisite modesty.

Yara is undaunted. "Iranian law does say that a woman must wear a headscarf when she leaves the house, so we wear them," she says. "But the law doesn't say exactly how they must be worn. So we wear them the way we want."

They also live the way they want at home. They host private parties to which Couchsurfers are cordially invited and that offer insight into what lies behind the country's religious facade.

Vicarious adventures

Omid shows up at the party later. The slim student says he particularly enjoys visitors from Germany. He hasn't been there yet, but he's a big fan of the Bayern München soccer team — Bundesliga games can also be watched in Iran.

Traveling is not a simple matter for Iranians. Men must serve in the army before they can be issued a passport. Women can only leave the country with the permission of their fathers or husbands. But it's precisely such constraints that make Couchsurfing so interesting to young Iranians.

Through Couchsurfing, they can learn about other countries and people they've long been reading about but have yet to experience personally. So the widening of horizons takes place on both sides.

"I dream of traveling to Europe, but I don't have the money," Omid says. "Through Couchsurfing I get to know so many different people from all over the world. I guide them through the city and show them my favorite restaurants. Meeting Europeans allows me to get a little bit of a feel for Europe." He would love to be able to invite people home, but he still lives with his parents and they don't want any guests in their small apartment.

At Yara and Leyan's, the guests are slowly leaving and the women start to get the place ready for sleeping. They're going to spend the night on the black leather sofa in the living room and leave their comfortable beds to the guests. Their apartment is not furnished in a traditional Iranian style. In fact, it's very European — nothing oriental, not even a Persian rug.

Couchsurfing is popular not only in Tehran but also in the southern city of Shiraz. The city of 1.5 million residents is known for its parks, which is why it is also known as the "Garden of Iran." Here, Marjaan is happy to play hostess to female Couchsurfers.

Only a bit of sun shines into the 23-year-old's room. As she does every day, Marjaan sits at her desk bent over a piece of paper and draws. Nudes. She wants to become an artist, and she best expresses herself by painting naked bodies. She hangs every finished work on the built-in closet doors so that she has an overview of her work. The works mostly feature shapely female bodies.

Marjaan still lives with her parents, who follow Islamic tradition. Male Couchsurfers are thus taboo, but from time to time she is allowed to receive some female travelers.

Couchsurfing without a couch

There is neither a bed nor couch in Marjaan's room because all the space is reserved for her art. So Marjaan's visitors have to sleep on the floor. This is not particularly unusual. Even Marjaan's parents don't have a bed. After turning off the TV at night, they lie down on the rug, without mattresses, to sleep.

Marjaan is very Western in her sensibilities. She enjoys reading forbidden literature, listening to music that is also outlawed, and dressing in a freer and more modern way than most Iranian women. "But I still have to obey my parents' strict rules," she says. "That means I can't travel alone and can't have a boyfriend. Sex before marriage is impossible anyway."

But even in her parents' conservative household, there is room for openness. The family welcomes Western Couchsurfers, entertains them, and enjoys sitting with them on the carpet asking questions.

"What do you think of Marjaan's nude art work?" Marjaan's father asks cautiously. "Would your parents approve if you created such art?" He listens with patience and respect, not letting on that he doesn't find it normal for women to paint other women naked.

Marjaan's mother speaks no English, but she participates with friendly gestures. From time to time, she serves little snacks she makes in her modern kitchen. The TV remains on the whole time. Proudly, Marjaan's parents relate that they can even get the German ZDF channel.

Marjaan views the Couchsurfers visits as a kind of pleasant distraction from the grayness of her everyday life. The visits make it possible for her to hear stories from all over the world, to discuss Western literature, to load music that's not available in Iran onto her computer. And she's planning to travel: She hides money in her room, has managed to obtain a passport, and dreams of visiting Europe.

Dreaming of a free Iran

Daryaa from Isfahan left Iran a couple of years ago and studies in England. But she sometimes returns to visit her family. Isfahan is a modern university city in the middle of the country. It is also something like the center of the Iranian atomic industry with its official research reactors and all manner of less official nuclear installations.

Daryaa's brother and father live in a large apartment in Isfahan and enjoy receiving international visitors. Many of the antiques in the apartment are from Europe, and the place is tastefully decorated with the occasional Persian ornament and typical Persian carpets.

Behnam, one of Daryaa's friends, is a musician who took part in No One Knows AboutPersian Cats, a film about Iran's underground music scene that won a 2009 prize in Cannes. Behnam lives for music, but he can't freely share his passion with others. Because of his role in the movie, he was even imprisoned for a short time. Yet he doesn't want to leave his country and live far away from his family.

So he tries to live his life quietly and unobtrusively. Now and then he meets up with Daryaa and others in the basement of a friend's house, where they play rock music — secretly, because that too is officially forbidden in Iran.

Everybody enjoys these underground concerts. They sit on comfortable sofas, drink home-brewed alcohol, and dream of one day being able to give a rock concert on Imam Square. In the heart of Isfahan, with an audience of hundreds of thousands. And nobody would be arrested for their musical tastes. Behnam hopes he'll live to see that, in a free Iran.

*The names of those mentioned and quoted in this story were changed for their protection.

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