Street Surprises; Bougainvillea by the Sea

What we most want to avoid is making a scene.

We have been warned repeatedly by Iranian officials that we must be careful. We can never tell exactly what that means. Our Iranian translator helps us with some of the subtleties. Taking pictures in a city park, for example, is forbidden. Taking pictures on the sidewalk next to the park is not. But different factions in Iranian society enforce Islamic law differently.

One official at the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance warns us darkly of the dangers of taking our female translator on excursions outside Tehran. He insists, in fact, that we go with a translator he has selected. The difference turns out to be that his translator, who barely speaks English, pays half the $200 fee to the official. But since the same official is the only one who can stamp and seal our film so we can take it out of the country, he has us.

A few months earlier, our translator had watched an American reporter and his translator get "arrested" by an unidentified group of plainclothes men that detained the pair for five hours. The Americans had been interviewing people in front of a mosque in a conservative section of Tehran.

We get a different kind of surprise. We stop people on Tehran sidewalks for random interviews. Many speak quite frankly, even when that means criticizing their own government more harshly than the official "Great Satan," America. We just try not to attract crowds.

In a crisp black chador framing red lipstick and dark mascara, one onlooker steps up and volunteers a litany of complaints about the difficulty of being a woman in Iran today. As the complaints become tales of harassment "for the crime of being beautiful,'' the interview begins to feel strange. A crowd is forming. A shopkeeper steps out to deliver a harangue about American meddling in Iranian affairs. (Many Iranians are convinced that the US stage-manages everything that happens in their country.)

Besides, he says, that was not a woman we had been interviewing.

What?

It turns out that beneath the makeup and headscarf was a transvestite, one who had been often arrested and occasionally beaten by security patrols.

In Manhattan or West Los Angeles, who would bat an eye? But revolutionary Iran is the last place on earth I would expect to mistake a man for a woman.

At 5 the next morning, we pick up our unofficial, if officially chosen, guide and head for the hills.

We leave Tehran for the Caspian coast. The Elborz Mountains rise like Canadian Rockies from the Kavir Desert. The dry summer heat gives way to brisk alpine air and snowbanks on the shady side of the slopes.

We drive up the switchbacks of the stark mountains that sheltered the Assassin sect 800 years ago, through long tunnels and past great dams that were the ambitious public works of the last shah.

The north slope is steeper. Clouds push up from the Caspian shore like froth against the lip of a bowl. We drop into the microclimate of the Caspian Basin.

The rain is relentless. Waves roll up against the beach, every year at a higher water level, eating at the front row of beach houses.

We drive from town to town along the coast. They are sprinkled with the posh beach homes of Tehran professionals. The Grand Hotel Ramsar sits like a dilapidated Biltmore among palms and bougainvillea in the foothills above the sea.

We follow the Rustamabad Valley back into the mountains. Some houses here still have thatched roofs. The vast network of rice paddies is patched into a complex of fast-flowing irrigation trenches delicately molded from mud.

We crawl out of the moist Caspian climate into olive orchards and beyond. The wind roars. The dry towns are essays in earth tones. But the open fronts of the shops display a richer, cleaner, livelier public commerce than in the former Soviet Union to the north.

It is late when we return to Tehran. Our assigned translator takes our film to the apartment of the ministry official to seal and stamp. And pays the $100 cut.

Few officials, even in the former Soviet Union, would be so brazen.

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