The Vacant Lot
The search for a kickabout in Iran is complicated by religion and gender politics
Ali has only been in the United States a year but he speaks perfect English. "Satellite TV — Friends, Chandler, Monica — that's how we all learn English," he explains matter-of-factly, running his hands through long wavy hair. "Now, onto the football!" He scribbles Farsi soccer terms and the phonetic equivalents into my notebook. "You must look for a dough-lay-year. It is a ball special to Iran. Children buy 25c rubber balls from drugstores and rip them open, stuffing them inside each other so the rubber gets thicker and the ball gets heavier." He draws a picture of a ball next to the word. Then he writes out a list of phonetic sentences that we can use later: "Do you know where we can find soccer?" "Can I play with you guys?" "Is it ok if she plays too?"
When I tell my mom we're going to Iran, she says, "No, you are not." Luke's grandma says, "Turkey's a beautiful country — why don't you go there?" And Luke's aunt tells me over the dinner table, "You know, over there, they stone women for adultery. When you try to play, what do you think they will do to you?"
Three friends and I had come up with a plan to travel the world playing and filming pick-up games and writing about the experience. Luke and I played, Ryan and Ferg filmed. Ali had heard the four of us wanted to go to Iran and got in touch with Luke via Facebook. We never really expected to be able to go. We made a few phone calls just to see — just to rule it out so we wouldn't always wonder if we could've gone to Iran. The first two tour groups that came up after we Googled "Iran +travel+ agency" told us "no" right away. They could take us to museums, to the Towers of Silence and the Zoroastrian Fire Temple but they could not let us wander the streets filming pick-up games. For that, we would need a press visa. Rick Steves — travel writer and TV personality extraordinaire — barely got approved for one. There was no way the Iranian government would give them to four kids who'd only made school documentaries about ferret-lover clubs and college sports teams.
The last company we called wasn't really a company. It was just a guy, an anthropology professor in San Francisco who helped people get to Iran because he wanted them to know the country the way he did.
Jerry said "sure, sure" and "of course" as I explained our film and what we wanted to do. "Well, you know," he sniffed, "the people of Iran love their football." And yes, we would have to go with a tour guide, and yes, we had to have a set itinerary approved by the government… but one does not always have to follow the itinerary. "I will call Ahmadreza — he is the head of an Iranian tour company. I will see…"
A month later we land in the Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airport. Ahmadreza, as it turns out, has a son who considers himself Manchester United's number one fan. A series of emails with the subject line "The Sports Enthusiasts" ended in a visa and the implicit understanding that these four Americans were coming to look for soccer. There would be the appearance of a tour and we would be assigned a guide. "Everything depends on who you get as your guide," Jerry said. "Not only must you trust him but he must trust you."
Like every other female on the flight, I'd wrapped my hair in a scarf 15 minutes before touchdown. (Ferg and I had watched How-to-Wear-Hijab videos on YouTube.) Over jeans, I'm wearing a long-sleeve shirtdress I bought at Target. Ferg is wearing a fitted, navy-blue trench coat. We feel rather impressed with ourselves by how much we've managed to look like everyone else. This is important to us — we always want to belong.
Standing in line at customs, I'm nervous. When it's my turn in front of the glass booth to face the customs officer, I smile up at him even though this is exactly what I told myself not to do: Persian Odysseys, the book I'd read on Iranian customs, said women aren't supposed to make eye contact with strangers. I quickly look down at my feet… until he begins to speak and then I forget again and look right into his surprisingly apologetic face. "I am very sorry but we must take your fingerprints," he says. "It is stupid, I know, but your country does it to us, so we must do it to you."
Before we left, I imagined our guide — the man who'd be helping us skirt Iranian law — as a roguish rule-breaker, provocative grin and stance. He'd grab our bags from the carousel with an authoritative, casual swoop. A buzzed head, old faded t-shirt, you'd be able to see right away that he was a player, good on the field.
But the man standing before us, with four roses and a clipboard, is thin and rather frail-looking. His shoulders are narrow. He's wearing a Tommy Hilfiger polo shirt and jeans, and to be honest, he looks like somebody who'd scare easily. He has wavy brown hair, big green eyes, a big nose, and expensive glasses. I smile at him, feeling guilty for my disappointment. He waltzes towards us, bent slightly forward, arms crossed in front of his chest, fingers grasping the sides of his arms. His chin moves side to side as he talks, an involuntary no: "Welcome to Iran. I am Atef."
Atef leads us over to a man standing on the curb. "This will be our driver, Saeed." Ryan and Luke shake his hand and Ferg and I wave. Saeed has the kind of face you trust: grey eyebrows and moustache, brown eyes, bashful smile. He hurries off to retrieve his taxi and we wave goodbye to the adventure-tour Americans. Then Atef asks, "So, what would you like to do while you are here?"
I study his face, looking for football, for some awareness that that is why we are here. I'm thinking of the San Fran professor, how he repeatedly urged us to follow the unspoken way of doing things in Iran. Maybe what Atef wants is a conversational commitment to an itinerary none of us intend to follow.
"Football," I say, casually, quickly, lobbing out the word.
"Football?" he says with a half-laugh, a polite sort of bluff — unsure, it seems, if the American is making a joke that doesn't translate.
Atef knows nothing about the football.
Ryan, Ferg, and Luke turn and look at me. I am the one who set this up; I am the one whose fault it will be if we spend the week inside museums.
"Ahmadreza, Ahmadreza," I say. "The head of the tour company—he knows about the football."
"Ahmadreza? I do not know any Ahmadreza."
I pull out the chart of phone numbers we'd made for ourselves and point to his name, hoping I'm just butchering the pronunciation so badly he can't recognise it. He shakes his head and looks up at me. "I do not think this person exists."
Our taxi is a slime green VW van with big rectangular windows. There's great light, coming in on all sides, reflecting off the white vinyl seats. Over the past three years, the four of us have reversed down main highways in Trinidad and Peru, wrecked a taxi in China and hydroplaned during a violent storm across a mud road in the Amazon, but we've never seen anything like the scene on the streets of Tehran. It's a kind of communal dance — an old woman walks into the centre of the road and holds up her hand with the authority of a traffic cop, cars screeching to a halt in front of her; motorcycles cant like sailboats in high wind as they zoom in between the taxis; wide boulevards converge upon each other, old Peugeots all going in different directions. Tehran has fourteen million people and it feels like they're all out on the street.
Drivers move at the same speed as those on foot and everyone talks to each other, screaming over the loud sounds of construction. There are tall buildings the same colour as the heavy smog that blocks the view of the Alborz Mountains. I stare out at the women who pass by, some clad in the full chador, some wearing skimpy, brightly-colored scarves that seem provocative, accessories to brightly-colored faces, rouge streaked across cheeks, thick liner defining red lips. I see some of the thinnest, most aggressively plucked eyebrows I've seen in my life. Even more startling are the bandaged noses that keep passing by. Luke, keeper of a wide collection of random facts, told me Iran was the nose job capital of the world but I hadn't really believed him. But the bandaged noses, which, according to Luke, are status symbols for the wealthy, are as frequent as the police who plug up the street. I see a female officer in a long robe usher a woman wearing high heels into the back of a green and white squad car. "That's the Morality Police," Atef tells us. The Morality Police is the arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which patrol the streets, enforcing the Islamic code of behavior, cracking down on Western-style clothing and hairdos. But the Tehran youth, like youth everywhere, risk the crackdowns, attempting to get away with as much as they can.
I brace my knees against the seat in front of me. Lonely Planet warned that visible signs of Iranian football fever were almost non-existent — this is because the government puts the fields behind brick walls. So every time we drive by a wall I sit up very straight and try to see, annoyed that we might be zooming past games, people I'll never know playing behind walls I can't get behind.
Iranians have a reputation for being the most courteous people in the world, never wanting to disappoint a guest, never wanting to tell you no; maybe this is why Atef decides he's willing to let us look for games. It helps that Saeed was a player. From the driver's seat he speaks in fast, enthusiastic Farsi that Atef thinly translates: "Saeed grew up playing in the streets. He loves football."
Saeed tells us that nowadays, the alley games are dying out, traffic and construction eliminating the small, safe places where you could play. Nearly every country we go to we hear this — people frowning, voices thickly nostalgic, speaking of old ways and games that disappear. But there are still fields, and after 20 years of driving the city, he knows where to find them.
On the first field he shows us there are some young kids practising. This is not the kind of soccer we look for but we get out and watch anyway. The boys wear their shorts very high, shirts tucked in, and for some reason this makes them look innocent, swaddled. Saeed frowns, knowing this isn't what we're after. We follow him inside a great brick building.
Men, presumably dads, stand in the entrance, watching young boys dribble soccer balls around cones. The cavernous ceilings echo the sound of feet drumming against wooden floor. One of the onlookers — he reminds me of Jack Arnold, Kevin's dad from the Wonder Years — looks at us with interest and then speaks to Atef, who does not translate the conversation.
Mr Arnold comes and stands beside me. "My English is no good," he says shyly, waving his hands. "But it is an honour to have you in our gym."
"Thank you," I say, my mind racing with possibility. I struggle to come up with the Farsi word Ali had taught us for pickup. Cringing, knowing my pronunciation will be terrible, I ask, "Do you know where we can find goal-coo-chick?"
His head jerks back in surprise. "No, no one plays on the street anymore — we scoop them off the streets and teach them here." He says this with a frown, like he's feeling a little embarrassed, even though he's never been embarrassed of this before. He doesn't like not being able to help us. He stands there, eyebrows furrowed, trying to think if there is anything he has forgotten. "There is a game — in Southern Tehran, around midnight. Unbelievable stuff, tricks you haven't seen anywhere."
"It is too late," Atef's voice says from behind me. "As your host, I cannot permit you to go there."
Once Atef has walked away, the man scratches behind his ear and we stand together in silence. Then he says, "Of all the gyms in all the world, I find it incredible that you have walked into ours." It sounds like Casablanca and gin joints and fate. I lean my head against the brick wall of the gym and think about that. Probably, I'll never see him again, and probably, this meeting changes nothing. I don't like it when you can only know someone for 10 minutes.
As we leave the gym, I catch the end of a conversation between Ryan and Ferg and one of the dads. "You come to my home, I will give you special alcohol," he tells them. He glances around and whispers, "Iran is the largest prison on earth... please tell the world."
Our next stop is a synthetic field in the center of Tehran. Luke doesn't want me to play. We've been having this fight for the past two weeks and he continues it now. "They've already come to a decision on this," he says. "Are you going to try change national policy this week?"
"But they haven't come to a decision — it's against the law for women to wear toenail polish, but women still do wear toenail polish."
"It's against the law for you to play — it's illegal."
He's right; it's against the law. But there's a giant fissure between the government's laws and people's actions and beliefs, and not every law is enforced.
A policeman walks up behind us so I don't push it and Luke is the only one who tries to get on.
It's a game of teenage boys, same as any group of teenage boys — a little arrogant, a little thrilled with their sudden independence. One kid's T-shirt has a Star of David stitched next to a swastika. Part of me thinks, holy shit. But the other part of me thinks he's just a 14-year-old kid trying to show how cool and defiant he is, not unlike an American teenager who stitches an Anarchy patch on his backpack.
Joining a game is about picking your moment. You don't want to go up to them when they're in the middle of the action. You wait for a window of opportunity — when teams are switching halves or taking a break or when someone's just skyrocketed the ball and is now off to chase it. When Luke sees two kids sit down, jiggling their calves and gulping down water, he takes off, jogging up to the game. He's learned how to say, "Can I play?" in 15 languages but the boys know what he wants before he asks, grabbing his shoulder, introducing themselves, and sticking him on a team, all without a word from Luke.
Ryan films the game, while Ferg films me watching the game. They goof around — not great soccer players, just happy ones. Watching them play, I don't see any staunch adherence to rules; I don't think they'd care if I play.
Luke blasts a shot and the keeper deflects it away, right to the feet of another guy who finishes it soundly into the back of the net. The guy sprints at Luke, jumping onto his back and celebrating wildly, legs wrapped around Luke's waist, arms flying high in the air.
When we are back in the van, Luke sits next to me, loose and relaxed as the smoggy-Tehran air blows in through the windows. Iran, for Luke, is a changed place. When you play, you get to know people in a way that isn't possible from the sideline. His blond hair, damp from effort, sticks straight up and his face is red and sweaty: he's happy. And in this state of happiness, I know he's less convinced the world's going to end if I try to play.
When we arrive at a field on the eastern side of Tehran, close to the neighborhood Saeed grew up in, I stand next to Luke and say, "I could try to play."
He doesn't flinch. "We can ask," he concedes.
We begin to walk up to the gate but I hesitate at the last second and stride as fast as I can back up to Atef, who hasn't gotten out of the van, "Do you think it's OK if I ask if I can play?"
"Why are you asking me?" he says, smiling.
I laugh uncomfortably and stammer, "I mean, will I offend them if I ask to play?"
"Sure you may ask, but I do not know what they will say. Maybe they say no, maybe they say yes," he says shrugging, not getting out, as though staying in the car might ward off implication.
Holding onto my hijab, I run to catch up with Luke, who is standing outside the fence. He looks nervous. It's not easy to approach strangers in a foreign language.
When the ball goes out of play, he speaks his learned sentence: "Can I play?"
The players — a mix of old and young — welcome him to the field, their hands waving him forward. He walks half way out, and says, flustered, in English, as though he's forgotten they speak Farsi, "Can she play too?"
His question is swallowed by a general excitement. Men from both teams are hanging onto Luke's arm and kids along the sideline are yelling what we'll find out later means, "Golden-haired man!"
He tries again, this time pointing at me: "Can she play too?" I shuffle forward.
"Yes, yes," they answer, but I hang back, waiting to make sure they understand.
An old man wearing a nylon warm-up suit jogs up to me and hands me a green bib. (Funny how all over the world, in every country we visit, teams are divided with these same silly bibs, little shrunken basketball jerseys.) I'm nervous putting it on. I pull it over my head, imagining myself accidentally pulling down the headscarf and my hair spilling out. So worried about the head hole, I manage to overlook the armholes. A man strides over to me and lifts the bib so that my left arm goes through the appropriate hole. An Iranian man just helped me get dressed, I think to myself as the game begins.
The players grew up on neighbouring alleys and have played together for 25 years. Everywhere we travel, the field seems to be the place where people are most themselves, and here, on the eastern side of Tehran, this feels especially true. When a man on my team scores a diving header, he sprints around the field, mimicking the celebrations of the professional players, pretending he is going to take off his shirt; of course, he doesn't. He jumps into the arms of a teammate who then falls down. I didn't expect horseplay, I don't know why not.
The Iranians pass the ball to me more than anyone had in any other country. Even when I make no attempt to put myself in any sort of advantageous position, still, they pass it to me. If they are scandalized by my presence, they're careful not to show it. The old man in the nylon jumpsuit who helped me with my pinny appears delighted by me, like I'm the most interesting teammate he's had since the revolution, as if this game and my presence remind him of the past — a freer past perhaps. I imagine him in the park, playing with his daughters. If he lived in the United States, he'd be the kind of dad who did not miss a single game. He'd be in the bleachers, clapping until his hands hurt, walking out of the stadium holding his daughter's shoulder. He cheers whenever I do something good, or even when I try and fail to find him with a pass. He seems to be wanting this for me, happy at the chance to see an exercising of freedom which, in his lifetime, had been taken away.
When the game ends, the players take a picture. They don't ask me to be a part of it. I watch from a few feet away as the Iranians wrap their arms around Luke's neck, joking with him, smiling happily for the camera. They're still kind to me, smiling and nodding in my direction — saying something to me, although Atef doesn't translate. He is rigid along the sideline, arms crossed in front of his chest. It's raining, and he is cold, wet, and distinctly uncomfortable with our cameras and my presence on the field.
Later that night, while I'm lying in bed in the hotel room, I think about a woman in full chador who walked by the field. What did she think, seeing me? She was definitely looking — I thought I saw a smile. But maybe I didn't. Maybe she was thinking, who does that American think she is, coming into her country and brazenly joining in, breaking the laws that prevent her from playing? The chasm between these two possibilities bothers me. It feels wrong to play with men when it's not ok for the Iranian women to do the same; it feels like an unfair privilege. I didn't want to play just because Iranians can't say no.
The next morning we visit the main bazaar in the center of Tehran. Beneath a vaulted stone ceiling, as vendors pedal hand-knotted rugs, designer jeans, spices, electronics, and copper hookahs, we follow behind Atef. There are benefits to a guide: he is able to tell us that the electronic sign flashing Farsi script advertises bridal gowns for sale, and that's the kind of detail we miss while we're roaming other countries on our own. But I don't like being led around. I drift as far as possible away from our guide, out on my own.
In the rug alley, vendors attempt to seduce us into their shops. Not wanting to lead anybody on, I leave and lean over the railing of the balcony, staring down below at the people drifting through the open corridor.
A handsome man with wavy hair, brown eyes, and a stubbled face strolls up to me. In English, he says, "Soccer — it is soccer you want, correct?"
I nod, my hands rapping against the ball I'm holding, worried that this will somehow end with rugs.
He leans down on the rail, pointing across the way. "There — there is a fire station," he says, exhaling cigarette smoke. "In the afternoons, they play until there is a fire." He smiles at me. "Follow me," he says, as Atef comes darting up, panicked.
"You... I always lose you!"
Standing in the opening of the station I'm again a bystander as the firemen talk to Luke. In Italy, this also happened, but while the Italians treated me like the destroyer-of-man-space, the Iranians seem only shy, respectful. They glance briefly at me before their gazes flutter away. Luke and the firemen talk Champions League and handballs and goals-of-the-century, acting it all out in what looks like an enthusiastic game of charades, when Atef, who'd been talking on the cell phone in the corner, comes walking back toward us. I can see from the hang of his face that something in that phone call has made things change.
Before the call, I'd go as far as to say he was buoyant; the mixture of indifference and anxiety that had plagued him since we'd arrived and inquired about soccer had momentarily lifted. Atef didn't like soccer, he told us that the first day when he'd crossed his legs like an academic, pushed his glasses up on his nose, and sneered disdainfully at the game. I'd thought to myself, "Great, we managed to land the one 26 year old in the country who doesn't like football."
But the firehouse was different for him. In Iran, Atef had explained, it is an honour to be a fireman. The majority are former professional athletes who, once past their prime, receive the position as a gift from the government. So there Atef was, hanging out with the gods of his country. Huge men, men out of fables. And you could tell he thought it was cool.
Now Atef is walking toward us incredibly slowly, as though he is making giant decisions over the course of his 25-yard walk, trying to figure out what he will tell us and how much he will tell us. He's got doom on his face.
"You have been reported to the government," he says.
Atef, Saeed and I sit down together on the bench. Atef is clammy, wiped-out. He doesn't know what to do. He doesn't want to ruin this for us. So he just sits with his legs crossed, biting his fingernails as Luke and the firemen begin to play.
Firemen are government officials so there's no chance I could play with them but sitting on a bench outside the station, I don't even feel like trying. Atef's not sure what happened or why we got in trouble. It could be because of our cameras; it could be because I played. I feel naive, like I may have ruined the trip for everyone. We spent US$11,000 we didn't have in order to come here and Atef's face says we aren't taking our footage with us. Maybe he's just letting us film now because he knows we won't get to keep the tapes anyway. Everybody told us not to come and we didn't care. We didn't believe them. But I never really understood that we could end up with nothing.
I sit on the sideline in the courtyard, sipping tea, watching the light bend down the narrow alleyway, breaking against a gold mosque. Three 1940s-style Mercedes fire trucks are parked in a row. A row of lockers line the wall, red helmets and black jackets with iridescent stripes around the sleeves hung onto hooks, boots scattered below. On the other side of the field, men in old-fashioned leather jackets lean against tilted motorcycles, smoking cigarettes, eyes tracking the ball.
They are playing with the doliar, the ball Ali told us about in the very beginning, when Iran was still a distant dream. It is purple, tiny, and light, and I only see how difficult it is to control when it is in front of Luke. While his touch is normally perfect, he struggles with the mini-balloon.
When shots fly high, they land on top of the fire trucks. The men heave themselves up the ladder with the speed and familiarity of any fireman, tossing the ball back down to the game.
When Luke has the ball, one guy calls for a pass: "George Bush! George Bush!"
Luke, startled, sends it him, a smiling guy who is big and bulky, brimming with muscles and jokes.
The next time the bulky man has the ball, Luke, with the same casual grace with which he'd serve a through ball, calls out, "Ahmadinejad, Ahmadinejad."
Loud, loud laughter sounds across the field. The bulky guy slaps his hand against his leg, grinning hugely and pointing at Luke as if to say, "Touché."
The station chief watches the action from the doorway of his office, his thumb under his chin, his index finger against his lips. Although he has consented to the game, you can tell he's not a man who lets things slip by.
Luke blasts a shot, which deflects off a defender's leg and rockets into the fire station window, which shatters loudly. We've made it to 23 countries without breaking anything and I regret that this first happens on the property of the Iranian government. I look straight to the chief to gauge his reaction. I don't know what I expected, maybe a frown, a flash of regret for allowing us to play. I didn't expect him to be looking back at me, face full of pleasure as he studies the worry on mine. When our eyes meet, he glances away and walks back into his office with his hands in his pockets, clearly unbothered about the window.
Dusk sneaks in and I know our time is limited. Our cameras can't cope with the dark and Atef can't cope with us being out in the dark. I sit on the bench, itching for interviews, but afraid that this will be too much for Atef.
"Atef," I say, my voice meek. "Do you think we could do just a couple interviews? Just soccer questions?"
While Ferg films the game and Luke plays, Ryan and I nab one of the guys on the bench and take him to a quiet spot behind the fire trucks. We ask him nothing about Iran or the United States, only what soccer means to him. He's an animated guy, open and nostalgic; he grew up playing with his brothers, he wants to play forever. As he speaks, Atef turns to me. "You know, I must tell them that the government will be reviewing your tapes."
I nod, knowing this is the end of it.
Atef walks over to the office. I watch the chief stand up and wave his hands: the international sign to stop. The game ends. The chief whistles over the man we've been talking to. He's silhouetted from the light of the office and I can see his arms flail. He clasps his forehead and talks frantically to Atef. They call Ryan into the office; I follow. "The man wants you to erase the interview tape," Atef explains. "He fears he will lose his job. A fireman is a government official you know. You are American. It is not good."
We erase the tapes, Ryan doing it as quickly as he can, hands fumbling.
On the court, Luke stands in the dark with the other firemen, laughing, clasping each other's arms. None of the Iranians speak English and Luke cannot speak Farsi but you would never know it. This is what the game can do; this is why we're making our movie.
By now it is dark and Atef's distress is at its peak. In the van, he gets phone call after phone call and we lean over the seats and listen. We're so used to listening to languages we can't understand that we've developed a habit of guessing, almost believing we know what's being said from the rush of words and the flinch of the face.
"What's happening?" I ask.
His eyes dart toward mine as he lets out a disbelieving laugh and then sits quietly as though I have not asked him anything.
Finally he says, "We will have to go to the government. They want to see your tapes. I fear they will take them."
The rest of the drive home Atef stares out the window. I feel awful about what we've put him through. At one point, he smiles. "I did not want to be a tour guide forever. It is fine."
Back at the hotel, we are planning to meet Bahram, a friend of Ali. Although meeting him is outside the standard tour group itinerary, it so pales in comparison to our illicit soccer games that Atef seems fine with it, too wasted to protest. He eyes Bahram, as though assessing whether this is someone who might help him control us. As he leans against the reception desk, he seems relieved to have someone to dish us off on.
Bahram looks like a mad scientist — black hair in cottonball-like poofs, wild, enthusiastic hands, round eyeglasses. It is easy to see why Ali and Bahram are friends. Both have a strange mix of rocket scientist intelligence and surfer-cool-lax. Both give off the distinct feel of happiness: they are keen to see, to hear, to taste, to live.
Bahram tells us, "Atef told me not to tell you but you're not going to be allowed to film anymore. And he said I'm not to let you leave the hotel." Bahram just waves his hands, unfazed. I'll learn that Bahram loves Tehran, the hulking puzzle of a city; and that these occasional blockades that pop up are nothing more than small obstacles, annoyances he manages to skirt, almost enjoying the maze as he navigates the ins and outs and shortcuts and ways around.
He sits down on the couch. "I will make you a doliar," he says. "It has been a long time. To tell the truth, Ali was always the one who made the ball."
Bahram and Ryan head to a drugstore in search of the twenty-five cent balls and then to Bahram's house to make the ball. I feel envious of Ryan as I imagine him inside Bahram's home, drinking tea with his mother or shaking hands with his father as the rest of us sit inside our sterile hotel rooms. Luke watches an Iranian soccer game on the TV, captivated and impressed. Ferg sorts tapes as she listens to the news. We'd packed double the number of tapes we thought we'd need. For the rest of the trip, Ferg stays up late, making back-up copies in case the government takes the originals.
I lay on the bed, watching the news ticker on the bottom of the screen. Every second piece of news is about the United States. I am fascinated by the presentation, contrasted to the stories American media presents to Americans. In the van, while we drove past murals that said things like "DEATH TO THE USA," we talked to Atef about US/Iran tensions, about all that was at the root of it — the oil, the US embassy, nuclear energy, Israel. He told us about the airplane crash of 1988, when a US missile brought down a plane of 290 Iranian civilians. We'd heard of this, just barely, but we understood it as a terrible mistake. Atef turned back in the van toward us, "It was not an accident."
When we drove by a mural of the United States flag, the fifty-stars replaced with fifty skulls, we wanted to turn back and drive by it again so that we could film this symbol of the tension between our two countries. Saeed would not turn back. He spoke in fast, emotional Farsi, and Atef translated, "That mural is not how we feel. If you film that, people will think we do not like America. The government paints that, not us. And the men you see who chant 'Death to the US,' they are scooped up from the poor neighbourhoods and paid to chant it — it is not real. It is not how we feel. Please, I beg of you, do not film that sign." We didn't film the sign.
Around 8pm, Bahram and Ryan arrive back at the hotel. Anxious to see beyond the tour-guide-approved Iran, we ask him where we should eat. It is risky to go out, to walk by the man sitting behind the hotel desk, and in retrospect, it seems brash and arrogant to disobey Atef's do-not-go-out mandate. But we do go, Bahram dropping us off at his favourite restaurant before racing off to chemistry cram sessions. "You will like this place," he says, waving his frenetic hands and darting off into the night.
The restaurant is a tiny room lit by candles. The Italian menu is scrawled onto a chalkboard, and the plates of lasagna and bowls of minestrone are passed down a staircase from a woman in a floral smock. There are four or five tables, occupied by groups of friends, men with Latin-lover hair and women with red lipstick whose scarves fall lower and lower as the night goes on. In the two weeks before we left, I read Persepolis, Lipstick Jihad and Reading Lolita in Tehran, books about Iranian lives that unfolded away from the streets, in the privacy of home. Seeing these flashes of hair as the women lean forward across the table — they are little glimpses into the world I know I will not see.
The next morning, we take off for Yazd, two days ahead of our itinerary. Atef is anxious to get us out of Tehran. At the airport, Atef, Luke and Ryan head to men's security, while Ferg and I branch off to the women's. We stick our camera bags and the soccer ball on the conveyer belt, experiencing the familiar airport-security-nerves: will they open our camera bags? Will they see our tapes and if they do, will they care? We've each got several tapes crammed into our pockets as we walk through the screening monitor, hoping we won't beep. A woman in chador summons us through and there is no blaring sound of alert like the one I hear in my imagination. The conveyer belt spits out both our bags and our ball. I pick up our gear and am starting to feel the relief of having once again made it through security when the officer walks up to me and reaches for the ball.
She spins the ball in her hands and I wait to hear what we've done wrong. She walks briskly around the side of the x-ray machine — and then tosses the ball to the other security guard, who attempts to trap it with her chador-engulfed thigh. They giggle together. Here we are in the Tehran airport, and two fifty-year-old women, government security officials, are juggling the ball and giggling. I feel like I'm in a surreal version of that Nike commercial where the Brazil national team does tricks through the terminal. All over the world, from the ghettos of Argentina to the border control in Togo, the ball has done this. It has the effect of a cute puppy, people stopping to touch it, to play with it, to smile at you like you are lucky.
As we wait at the gate, a very old woman walks toward us, hunched over at the waist, one foot moving at a time. She comes right up to me and her stoop puts her eyes an inch from my own. Breathing heavily, she says, "Where are you from?"
"The United States," I say, my smile unsure.
"Ah!" she says, smiling. Grasping my hands between hers, she says, "Welcome to our country."
Welcome to our country. People keep telling us this and it's no flimsy welcome-to-our-country, no polite offering. They absolutely mean it.
Yazd is in the middle of nowhere. Desert stretches out in all directions. Except for the slow whistle of the wind towers — badgirs they are called, and they look like bell towers without a bell; they catch hold of the wind and keep the buildings cool — Yazd is incredibly quiet. A small boy, maybe four years old, kicks a ball against the wall. Two teenagers, barefoot on a motorcycle, draw aimless figure eights in the dust. I call out, "Football" and tap my knuckles against the ball. They slow, standing up on the pegs. The kid in an orange t-shirt and MC Hammer pants dismounts, grabs two bricks from the rubble on a nearby lot and begins to make goals. I lean against the wall and watch Luke and the guys play until dark.
It takes seven hours to cover the 300km back to Tehran. We listen to music, first Atef's ("It is western music — it is forbidden," he boasts), and then ours, because Atef tells us, "I want to hear young American music — my western songs are from my other guests… but they are, well, older." We play our favorite, The National, and all five of us are quiet as we listen to the lyrics and watch the small towns, civilizations from the past, appear on the horizon and then pass.
As we enter the outskirts of the city, all along the grassy banks and sandy medians of the main highway, every 15 yards or so, there are families, eating cheese and sitting on blankets with legs folded beneath them. "On Fridays, we take our picnics," Atef explains. We pass one family after another. The sun is 5pm soft and the city feels calm. I hang onto this calm, even as my mind starts moving toward tomorrow, toward our meeting with the Iranian government.
That night I meet Bahram and his friend in the lobby of our hotel. Ferg has stayed up the past three nights, setting her alarm to go off every hour, dubbing tape after tape — our plan is to leave a copy of the footage here in Iran in case the government takes the originals.
"Hi," I say as I reach for my new friend's hand and then stop, hand freezing mid-air as I remember the no-touching policy in Iran. I sway awkwardly, hand now embracing my other arm. "Ok, should we go up?" I say, meaning to my room to get the tapes. Bahram and his friends look briefly at each other and start to follow me upstairs until the desk manager surges up from his chair and around the counter, face red, head shaking violently from side to side: "I am sorry. It is impossible. Room, no. I am sorry."
"Sorry," I say. "So sorry." I get up from the couch and run up the stairs, taking them two at a time, face burning as I realize the implications. I am an American hussy who just tried to take two men up to my room.
After retrieving the tapes, I give them over to Bahram, my hands clumsy, guilty. I've never been a troublemaker. I've never flirted with danger. I can still remember the time I let Tiffany Price copy my sixth grade grammar homework: indescribable panic. So now, here, shanghaiing my new Iranian friend, planning subterfuge, I am jumpy. I feel like a drug smuggler. I worry that the man behind the desk will report us. I imagine two men banging at Bahram's front door, raiding his home, tearing at his stacks of chemistry papers, in search of contraband.
Bahram stuffs the tapes into his satchel and we bow awkwardly towards each other, standing on the steps of the entrance. Ferg comes down the stairs as they are about to leave and without thinking, reaches toward Bahram for a hug. He looks miserably uncomfortable with his head smushed against her chest. "Uh, I'm sorry," he says, "but this is illegal in our country." Red patches creep up Ferg's neck.
"Tell Ali I say hello — and to come back to Iran," Bahram calls out as he heads down the street with our dubs.
Bahram gone, the desk manager stops us before we could get upstairs. He says, "There is a field — a few streets away. They play late into the night — 1 or 2am."
I'm moved by this but also confused. Does he know what we are doing? That we are filming soccer? We won't go out and play tonight — there's too much at risk — but his willingness to let us go makes it clear that he has no plans to turn us in. Like everyone else, he just wants to help.
"Thank you," I say.
Later, Luke and I sit in the lobby with the man from behind the desk and the two guys who wait the tables at breakfast, watching Barcelona play Real Madrid.
Packing our tapes the next morning we eat flatbread and prep each other on what to say. "We are twenty-something-year-olds, making a small college documentary; we want to show our pictures of Iran to our friends."
An hour later, we enter the tour agency office. Old posters of China and India are tacked to the walls. "Who is Gwendolyn?" asks a man sitting in the corner desk.
I raise my hand. "So you are the one I have been emailing with," he says. "I am Ahmadreza." Ahmadreza. The head of the tour company that Atef professed no knowledge of.
I look to Atef.
"Ah, Ahmadreza… I knew only his last name."
"How have you liked your time in Iran?" Ahmadreza continues.
Luke, Ryan and Ferg speak up, helping me gush. We talk about the civilizations scattered across the desert, stuff out of the imagination. About the dolmas Atef's mother made for us and the beautiful arches and sideways light of Yazd. Then we are out of chatter and wait to see what's going to happen to us.
"It was a misunderstanding," Ahmadreza says.
He shakes hands and walks out of the office. Soon we are exiting the building, silent and hesitantly excited, walking fast down the tree-lined boulevards until we are far enough away from the office to feel safe enough to ask, "Atef, was that it?"
He smiles his first big smile all week — we can see his gums — and says, "That was it. We shall go for ice cream."
Two days earlier, while we sat in an internet café, I received an email from a friend of a friend of a friend, an Iranian woman named Niloofar who used to play for the national team. I'd emailed her on the off chance she could meet us for a game.
We are licking nutmeg ice cream when I bring it up to Atef, hopeful that because the meeting — the review of tapes, the assessment of the Americans — passed without incident, he will be okay with this idea. But when he nods his head and says, "All right," it is more like we have just broken him down so completely he can no longer muster any resistance.
The field where Niloofar asks us to meet her, the last we'll see in Iran, is an elevated chunk of Tehran with a hazy skyline backdrop. We arrive before Niloofar and climb up on a wall with a vantage point of all of Tehran. Three young guys stand nonchalantly on the overhang, hands in their pockets, backs to the city, ignoring the straight drop behind them.
Ferg spots two women approaching, one carrying a ball in her arms. Across the square, we smile at each other. Niloofar has green eyes, long eyelashes and boyish mannerisms (a wide stance, hand fiddling with her wristwatch). Her friend is stunning: bright purple headscarf, highly arched eyebrows, delicate cheekbones, bright red lipstick, long manicured fingernails. "This is my best friend," Niloofar says of the woman whose features are so striking it's like her face breaks the rules. And it does — the plucked eyebrows, the bronzer, the lipstick, the purple hijab worn far enough back to reveal a few inches of shiny hair — none of it is allowed.
"Will you play?" I ask.
Niloofar laughs and translates, and the woman in purple shakes her finger. "She likes to watch," Niloofar says.
As two other girls approach, Atef stands 15 yards away, his arms around his binder. There are still men playing on the field and I know we won't have much time so I ask to start the interviews right away. It's reverse order — normally we play and then talk, and once we've played, the word "interview" doesn't feel right. You're just talking to another player. But if we wait until after the game, I worry we won't be able to talk to them at all.
Atef is disapproving and miserable as he translates our questions, saying, "OK, is that all?" after every question. We learn that Niloofar got her moves from watching YouTube videos of Ronaldinho; that her favourite player is David Beckham; that she grew up playing in the streets with her brothers; that all she wants is to play.
When the men finish their game, we take over the field. The guys linger outside the chainlink fence and watch.
"We must wait until they go away," Niloofar says as we make a goal out of shopping bags. No matter how slow we go, the men will not leave, so Niloofar explains that we will pretend to leave. We exit the field as though we have decided not to play after all and wait around the corner until the men disappear. Then we head back onto the field.
The women undo their manteaus but the field owner comes out, shaking his head and finger. They re-button their manteaus reluctantly. I didn't really think they would be good. Two of them played on the Iranian national team but in a country where women's soccer seems barely allowed, I didn't think that would mean much.
But, again, I'm wrong. They juggle the ball without spin; they go for the meg; they send through-balls. Every touch is clean. One way or another, they've found a way to not only play but to play well.
When the game ends, it begins to pour, lightning bolts sharp and dramatic across the top of Tehran. We hug goodbye and exchange email addresses. In the van, Atef asks if I had a good time.
"Yes," I answer, grateful. "Thank you so much."
"I would've been too nervous and ruined your fun," he says shrugging, smiling bashfully. "So I waited here."
Our final morning, we pack our belongings, spreading the tapes between us, stuffing them in underwear, side pockets and the insides of running shoes. We drift through security. I am pent-up with nerves as I watch careful inspections of bags, but no one examines the inside of ours. An hour later, we board our plane and the women begin removing their hijabs as they walk down the aisle, hair spilling out over shoulders.
15 hours later, we pick up our bags and head for United States customs.
Reaching the front of the line, the security guy looks down at our passports and our tickets and makes a choking sound. "Iran?" he says. "Why in hell would you want to go there?"
"Tourism?" Ryan says.
He snorts: "Go to line six."
So we walk to line six to join dark-skinned people with darker beards waiting for American officials to press their fingers against glass.