Zoe Mendelson is traveling the world, talking to friends and strangers about the messy, wonderful business of love. Our series Love in Far Off Lands tracks her journey, highlighting the best of her encounters.
It was a Thursday night in Istanbul and I was sitting on a patio at a going away party with three Persian cousins: two men living in Istanbul for graduate school and a woman living there who works as a journalist. I didn’t want to turn playtime into work time but the opportunity seemed too ripe to relinquish. How often do Americans actually meet Iranians? How often do we get to share a beer and actually try to understand each other? I had no idea what I was in for.
I told them that I was writing about dating cultures in different countries. They agreed to interviews but definitely, absolutely did not want me to use their names; they said it could end up preventing them from re-entering Iran at all. Deal. They laughed because dating is illegal in Iran.
“Iranian rules are based on Islamic rules. So it’s forbidden by law, informal dating when you’re not married. But you know, everything forbidden is more interesting.”
I asked how dating is different for them in Istanbul than it is back home and both men instantly replied that it was way easier to date back home in Iran.
“Maybe people are much more in the mood?” One said and laughed, but then added more seriously, “Maybe they feel more freely. When you’re in a closed place and you’re under pressure, you want to experience something that is illegal.” The other chimed in, “Yes, I have had 15 girlfriends and I’m only 30! And I had many one-night stands in Iran. But here, it’s much harder to get girls.”
I asked if girls in Iran have sex before marriage and one of the men speculated that 10 or 15 years ago only 10 percent of girls would, but that now the percentage is probably closer to 90. I was genuinely shocked, and tried to play it off like I wasn’t such an ignorant American thinking that Persian women were just bundled up virginal victims. And then things got even realer.
The woman chimed in, “In Iran it’s hard core. People think they’re so repressed. But because they are so repressed, they go to extremes to compensate. Have you seen what Iranian girls look like? They’re totally dressed up and made up and with the hair… they take advantage of things more. They’ve got like three boyfriends, they’re always screwing around… it’s like intense. It’s like orgies and shit. Seriously.”
I was dumbfounded. “Three boyfriends?” I asked. “Yes! More!” Replied one of the men, “They’re always lying!” he said, feigning spite, and then in a high-pitched voice said, “I love you. I love you. You’re the only man for me.” The other man laughed and nodded.
“How do they do that, if there’s no bars —“ I started to ask. They were starting to catch on to my astonishment and were all smiling.
“There are bars; they’re just at home. Everything is private. We make our own vodka. In the capital city, in Tehran, it’s like drugs and orgies,” one of the men explained.
“Orgies?!” I asked. “Like really?!” And they all nodded yes. At this point they were all grinning because they must know how misconceived the rest of the world’s vision of life in Iran is. The woman said she hadn’t been to any but she had heard about plenty. Then one of the guys with a knowing smirk said that yes, parties sometimes do turn into orgies. I pointed out that he was smiling and he laughed.
I thought they might be putting me on, but a Spaniard I met later who had just come from Iran verified all of this and beyond.
“Yes well, if everyone drinks so much so much and there’s a lot of drugs…” He explained that since Tehran is so close to Afghanistan, which produces a huge amount of drugs, “Iran is the gateway of drugs to the West. You can get anything you want.”
The female cousin mused: “Iranians are very influenced by American culture. They’re obsessed. Illegally, of course, but everyone’s on to it. Movies, TV, everything. Anything that’s out there. And they overdo it. They say, ‘Oh, Americans have sex casually, lets have sex casually times 10.’” Both men agreed. I was floored.
I was genuinely shocked, and tried to play it off like I wasn’t such an ignorant American thinking that Persian women were just bundled up virginal victims. And then things got even realer.
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