Category Archives: Iran

The slippery slope to freedom in Iran

My article about skiing in Iran was published in Spiked in April 2009.

In the cafe at Shemshak with my instructor (right) and his brother and friend.
In the cafe at Shemshak with my instructor (right) and his brother and friend.

It was midnight in Tehran when a sexy young Swede named Viktor knocked on my door and invited me to the world’s third highest ski resort. I said ‘alrighty’ and went back to bed.

Iran has skiing? That’s the thing about visiting Iran: it abounds in surprises, most of which are pleasant. Here is one of my favourites: in the women-only section of Tehran’s metro, female hawkers sell lacy neon bras. All sizes.

Iran’s outward presentation to the world, a land of deserts, mullahs and nuclear power stations, is misleading. Yes, it looks like an Islamic Republic because of the compulsory headscarves and the mosques aplenty – but it doesn’t feel like one. Talk to a young Iranian and they’ll tell you lots of things, but they probably won’t mention Allah. Or Bush or Obama. While walking and talking with a self-declared ‘Alpine-ist’ in Tehran, I cooed at a pretty mosque and asked him the name. In a mock serious tone he replied: ‘That is Mosque Number Nine-Hundred-and-Ninety-Nine.’

Skiing was introduced to Iran by a pair of German railway engineers in 1938. Apart from the eight years when it was banned following the Islamic Revolution of 1979, it’s always been hugely popular. But like everything else in Iranian society, the sport gets tangled up in politics and religion. When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005, he promised a return to Islamic revolutionary values. He therefore began issuing orders on the Islamic way to ski.

I had a fun cabin ride back to the base of Tochal with these guys.

Jessica Mudditt, fourth from left, with skiers in Iran.

Under the country’s previous leader, Mohammad Khatami, women had discarded Islamic dress in favour of snow-gear, the barriers separating male and female skiers were removed, and men and women were permitted to share gondolas and ski lifts. Ahmadinejad stopped short of completely reversing all this, but he did demand that gondolas and lifts be segregated. A heavy presence of mountain police are meant to ensure that Islamic values aren’t eroded on the slopes, but as no one has thought to equip them with skis, the job of enforcement is somewhat difficult.

Needless to say, Ahmadinejad isn’t popular among skiing folk. But he doesn’t seem to be popular anywhere. In one month, I did not meet a single person who claims to support him. In Esfahan, an elderly man suggested Ahmadinejad may have made a better engineer, which I assume means he doesn’t think much of his people skills. Others described him as a ‘small man’ or a plain old ‘bad man’. The president must be growing sensitive to the negative feedback as the general elections loom, because in January 2009 he reversed his segregated gondolas and lifts policy. It was a small triumph for sport over politics and religion. If former premier and pro-reform candidate, Hossein Mousavi, beats Ahmadinejad in the contest for the presidency in June, skiers and snowboarders can look forward to more commonsense and less diktats. They might even get the pre-Revolution lifts replaced.

However, things are actually more complicated than this. When a humble president in Iran tells a mountain to jump, the mountain doesn’t necessarily ask how high. The mountains know that Iran is a theocracy, which means that Ahmadinejad – a mere civil leader – can afford to be ignored. If, on the other hand, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameni concerned himself with skiing, orders would be orders. And so it is that each of the three ski resorts close to Tehran react to the politico-religious decrees with their own force (or lack) of personality.

Take Dizin, the largest ski resort and the official home of Iranian skiing. It’s the cowardly giant, a mere instrument of government policy. ‘It is for government’, surmised a skier flatly – essentially meaning it is for government to regulate as it sees fit. Tochal, the smallest (but highest) resort is also regarded by many as being ‘for government’, but it’s got a bit of attitude. The gondolas were segregated, but the slopes never were.

Ski girl
Freedom on the slopes.

Shemshak, whose steep slopes attract Iran’s best skiers, is completely defiant. It is owned and managed by the people of Shemshak village, and they have consistently refused to follow any governmental decree on skiing. When the ban on skiing was introduced, it remained open. When Dizin’s slopes were segregated, Shemshak continued with business as usual. Women are more likely to ski or snowboard with their bare hair flying in the wind because policing, on the highest runs at least, is far less vigorous. Said one young skier: ‘[Shemshak’s management] have their own rules and the government can’t change them. They have power and they never listen to anyone.’ It is also rumoured to have a thumping night life.

Skiing in Iran is an interesting experience. As a first-timer I can’t compare the conditions with anywhere else – so I asked Viktor the Swede, who is a total die-hard, to compare Iran’s slopes with the Alps: ‘In the Alps you have to be the absolutely first one there to get the “free” runs in the morning – or you have to walk or hike to the avalanche-prone areas. In Iran you get those amazing runs just by the slopes three or four days after a dump, which is unbelievable!’ Viktor also enjoyed the fact that because of Iran’s geographical position, the sun goes up earlier and down later – so skiing days last longer. And of course it’s a whole lot cheaper than the Alps (or pretty much anywhere else) at around £25 for a day’s ski hire and lift pass.

But what made it interesting to me were the people I met. Those in the snow were by far the most outspokenly critical of their government and society. I can only speculate whether the confidence I observed is a characteristic common to the wealthy elite, or if the freedom on the slopes makes the hassles of Tehran feel a world away.

In the café at Tochal Telecabin, a girl told me that she’s gay. She assumed I was too, because I wear a ring on my thumb – this is a secret code in Iran. She asked whether being a lesbian is ‘yuck’ in my country, because in Iran, she said, ‘it is not okay’. This is an understatement: in Iran it carries the death penalty. Her face brightened when I told her about the mardi gras. Then it was her turn to reassure me; I could take off my headscarf and manteau (a loose-fitting tunic that extends to the wrists and knees). I was getting used to a bewildering variety of statements in relation to how I was supposed to dress – it all depends on who you ask.

That’s if you can ask. My inability to speak the language provided some inevitable comedy. For example, there was a bit of a hiccup when I arrived at the ski slopes with the Swede – I had failed to hire skis at the base. Sighing the sighs of the truly forlorn, I got back in the ski lift and decided to try my luck at the next station, where I saw a group of girls throwing snowballs. After disembarking, I pointed at my feet without skis and looked agitated. I was whisked off to the emergency room. We stopped along the way to collect the doctor, who was playing table-tennis. I have no idea how his ridiculous toupee stayed in place but there was no time to find out – he seemed positively cheerful that I had interrupted his match. When he realised I just needed skis he gave me his telephone number. In my diary I had noted, ‘Another Hossein’.

Ski couple
Young Iranians in snowgear.

I did eventually manage to get hold of a snowboard, and an instructor to boot – an energetic little man that hopped around me like a ferret. Our common vocabulary was unfortunately limited to ‘okay’ and ‘hubay’ (‘good’ in Farsi). Still, he fastened my boots and got me to my feet. I gripped his mittens as he ran down the hill next to my spiralling snowboard. But despite his best efforts, I fell on my bum a lot because I wasn’t able to ‘argkjob’ (still a mystery). We met at Dizin the following day, and this time his brother and a friend joined us in tackling the beginner’s run on skis. His friend spoke a bit of English, which I wrongly assumed would be useful. He ignored my teacher and used the best part of his energies trying to chat me up. This included playing a little joke of pretending to ‘lose the brakes’ – and oops – ramming into me. At the time I didn’t find it funny.

The next day, as I was contemplating the stiffness in my legs while standing outside Iran’s first Debenhams, I met another skier. She was 27, very pretty and working as a promoter of Lego’s educational range. As she caressed the high heels she’d bought for $50, she said: ‘This government tries to configure its people. But the young generation do what they want; they wear anything they want.’

This must have been part bravado, because the official punishment for women who fail to observe ‘modest dress’ (otherwise known as ‘hejab’) is a public flogging. Yet it is true that in Tehran, respect for such laws are slipping as fast as the carelessly knotted headscarves. The pretty young skier told me: ‘It’s really nice not to wear the headscarf while skiing. Many women have problems with the headscarf. If I had the choice I would never wear it. Never!’

For young Iranians, the ski slopes are a ‘free place’ away from prying eyes, where they can be a little bit more normal. My new companion told me that she worries about her generation because she believes they are ‘using their energy in a bad way’. She is referring to the rampant drug use amongst Iranian youth, attributing the problem to the widespread ennui that results from a lack of choices: ‘Young people go and do drugs in someone’s house. They do this because they have nowhere else to go and they’re depressed.’ She went silent, then added: ‘Because they don’t have freedom.’

Because the street was busy and noisy, we continued our conversation in her parked car. After 20 minutes, however, a policeman banged his fists on the boot of her car. ‘He wants to charge us for staying here’, she explained. My companion looked stressed so I thanked her for her time and got out. I stared at the policeman, wondering whether he’d ever known the freedom one feels whilst skiing.

Iranian Photography Now: an interview with the editor


Iranian Photography Now is edited by Rose Issa,  an independent curator and producer of contemporary visual arts and film from the Middle East and North Africa, and the Director of Beyond Art Productions.  I met with her to discuss her latest project. 

The luminous hardback contains the works of 36 photographers, some very well known, such as Amirali Ghasemi, Abbas Kowsari and Parastou Forouhar, whilst others are emerging.  Around half of its contributors  currently live in Iran, and others are in the United States, Europe and Dubai.  A significant number travel back and forth.  Iranian Photography Now includes a diverse range of approaches to photography, including (but not limited to) photojournalism, montage, industrial photography and advertising.  

What links these different approaches together, says Issa, is their ability to reflect life in Iran.  In his foreward, Homi Bhabha, Professor of English and American Literature and Language and Director of the Humanities Centre, Harvard University, attests to the common overriding sense of urgency found in the works.  He says: “Photographic practice in the West – or at least in the European-American axis that has dominated the history of the medium until relatively recently – sometimes lacks this urgent quality…”

Issa also felt the need to fill a void in the market.  She said: “There was no documentation whatsoever, despite the hype and with everybody opening galleries on Iranian photography.  I thought it was my duty to do this, so that from now on other people can produce books.”

Despite a lack of documentation, photography has been a part of artistic practices in Iran for the last 150 years.  The Shah himself was a keen photographer and it was especially popular among the Armenian population before becoming more mainstream.  Contemporary photography, however, developed during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88.  Issa explained: “Villages were destroyed and people were dying.  Others wanted to document that and many photographers went to war zones.”

Iranian Photography Now has been distributed on a small scale in Iran, and Issa would be happy for it to be translated into Farsi by an Iranian publisher.  But in Iran generally, the heavy censorship laws make it difficult to send and receive books, and is the main reason why documentation in Iran is rare.  And it necessarily restricts the access of Iranian artists to the international market.  But although Issa is very happy that works are still being lent to British institutions, she said she is not surprised that Iran closes its doors when western policies try to dictate what Iran should do.

At any rate, Issa believes that art doesn’t depend on institutions or governments.  She said: “Whether the British or Iranians want it or not, there are always artists who want to show their work.  It depends on the goodwill and the desire of others wanting to give visibility to artists, and for artists themselves to produce good work.”

Parastou Forouhar is undoubtedly one such artist.  An image from her series Swanrider (2004) depicts a woman floating on a lake on an enormous plastic swan, her black chador draped over her hands which are outstretched around its neck.  It is hauntingly beautiful.  Forouhar’s parents were assassinated in their Tehran apartment in 1998, an event which, she says caused: “political correctness and democratic coexistence to lose their meaning in my daily life.” 

But when I ask whether the photography in the book reflects the darkness of a country in turmoil, Issa says no. 

On the Swanrider series, Issa says: “There is nothing pessimistic in Forouhar’s artwork. It’s an expression of her grief, joy, pleasure – combined.  She is somebody who loves her country, despite the fact that the government doesn’t let her go back and commemorate her parents’ death.”

As the book’s editor, Issa sought to chose works that reflect life.  And, she says: “Life is full of love and death and dramas. Life is rich in events.  I hope this book is rich in events. I could have gone much more abstract and selected conceptual work.  But I was always interested in showing how life is reflected in work, and vice versa.”

Issa has been working with Iranian artists for the last 15 years (or a tenth of the time that photography has been practiced in Iran), and she is well aware of the many talents that remain “unexploited and unexplored.”  By publishing Iranian Photography Now, Issa is playing her part in improving the visibility of Iranian photographers.  And her message to curators or journalists is to continue this process.  “Go and discover them,” she says.

Click here to buy Iranian Photography Now on Amazon