Hidden in Plain Sight: Uncovering Iranian Nightlife and Underground
Iran has a nightlife. Yes, it’s true, even though the country has no bars or clubs, and alcohol is forbidden. Every country has its own definition of what a good time is, and it was exciting to discover what that meant in Tehran. I searched for a sort of underground scene in the capital city, and what I found was what I could have never imagined.
A long paved road goes up the mountains to the north of Tehran, where the air is crisp and fresh. A lift at the very top takes visitors to one of the most popular places in the city to ski during the winter. In the spring and summer months, hundreds of people, young and old, come daily for an evening walk up the lower part of the mountain. There are stops for tea, chips, juice, ice cream and other snack foods along the path, and at the top, which is a 30 to 45 minute walk, there is a playground for children. Some nights in the summer, a large screen is set up and films are shown for free.
My grandmother lived within walking distance of the entrance to Bam-e-Tehran, and evening walks were our favorite way to talk about my impressions of Iran and for her to catch me up on stories from my mother’s youth. By the time we reached the top, night-time had fallen, and we would stand in silence as I absorbed the view of all of Tehran’s city lights stretched out below me.
Gandhi Shopping Center
On the top level of the shopping center, there are several coffee shops side by side. The decor ranges from open, clean-cut and trendy to small, crowded rooms with bookshelves and wall posters displaying art or honoring “Che” and playing old French music.
The crowd that gathers here are college students, artists, musicians or professors. As my uncle once put it, this row of cafes is a place for “intellectuals” to hang out.
He and his wife are professors, and they had some of their first dates in these coffee shops. It was also a familiar, comfortable environment for them because they knew many of the regulars and the cafe owners. In addition to that, they would sometimes run into their students, who were always like friends to them.
The calm seclusion was a nice change from the hectic and crowded city. It was the perfect place to read, unwind and drink Turkish coffee. Sometimes, for a moment, the ambiance made me forget where I was.
Somewhere deep in the city lies hidden a small café full of young adults huddled together and enjoying a smoke. The black and white walls and floors combined with the clear glass tables gave me the feeling of being in an art studio. Canvases covered one wall, with pictures of icons such as Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon.
This café was often spoken about by my cousins as a place to be avoided on certain weeknights because, according to them, the “gay people” take it over at that time. I decided that I needed to see this place for myself, but my cousins declined, saying that if they were spotted there, people would start talking about them.
In the end, I convinced my most liberal aunt to take me there one night. I was both happy and scared for the people I saw; they deserved a place to feel comfortable and meet others like themselves, but they were putting their lives in danger by daring to go to such cafés.
(Names have been changed to protect the safety of the owners and patrons of this establishment.)
The Artists’ House
This museum was easily one of my favorite places in all of Tehran. It sold and exhibited local art as well as books, jewelry, pottery and films. They had a café on the west end of the building and the most delicious, affordable vegetarian restaurant on the east end. In front of the entrance was a large, gorgeous fountain and, on selected nights, theater performances were held in front of it. Behind the building was a large park full of young and old artists sitting, talking, playing badminton, having picnics or just taking a walk.
The female artists that hung out there created a very interesting and unique style out of the coat and headscarf Iranian women were required to wear. They would don baggy or wide-legged pants under a long, colorful, oversized long-sleeved shirt. They would carry messenger bags in place of purses and decorate them with pins of Björk’s face, or the name of the band Portishead. They cut short, 1920s-esque bangs that they could argue, if the police asked, cannot be pinned back. The Artists House piqued my interest and helped me understand one way in which some of Iran’s youth copes with censorship.
Although it took a bit of digging, it wasn’t hard to find a place for subcultures in Tehran. There was something endearing about how the parks and mountains would be crowded until midnight with friends and families making dinner, smoking hookah and just enjoying themselves. It seems as if some Americans have forgotten how fun a mountain stroll or a picnic could be, but the Iranians love both, and it grounds them.