Other than the steady stream of cars that silently pulled up to the Kermanis’ front door, there was no indication of the scene transpiring inside the darkened house. For their daughter Leila’s seventeenth birthday, the Kermanis were throwing a “mixed party,” which meant both boys and girls would attend and dance together to Western music, both activities officially banned by the regime.
Inside, the atmosphere was more Japanese hostess bar than a teenager’s birthday party: a disco ball flashed against the walls, as erotically dressed girls and bored-looking young men prowled about self-consciously, oppressed by the pressure to have wild, illicit fun. Staging and attending such an event involved such elaborate subterfuge that nothing less would do. Leila worked the room in a white halter top that glowed in the flashing strobe light, trying unsuccessfully to lighten the edgy mood.
Everyone scanned the room furtively, carefully blase, holding distracted conversations. The heels were high, the skirts short, and the corners dark. In shadowy corners, shots were taken, hash was smoked. A Toni Braxton song came on, filling the makeshift dance floor with couples swaying in close embrace—an intimacy out of place in an Iranian family home, especially with Mrs. Kermani yards away in the kitchen, clucking orders to the maid preparing birthday cake. Toni Braxton went over well. So well that the song, “Unbreak My Heart,” was played three more times, and each time, the embraces got a little tighter.
I, spinster chaperone, sat in the kitchen with Mrs. Kermani, who cast forlorn, helpless glances at the spectacle in her living room. I don’t know what’s wrong with these kids, she sighed. Poor Mrs. Kermani. Five years ago, she had fretted over raising a daughter in a grim, socially oppressive society. Now, she seemed aware that social permissiveness carried its own knot of worries—strained sexual relations, drinking and drugs, a new range of emotional pitfalls. When I was a teenager, we would dance all night, she mused, fiddling with the stack of dessert forks. They’re dancing, just slow dancing, I said. She gave me the Iranian parental your-generation-is-weird look, and I gave her the your-generation-made-the-revolution look.
Around midnight, Mrs. Kermani began finding quiet rooms where worried parents could be pacified on the phone. While she called taxis, the girls scrambled to pull pants under their miniskirts. The cloakroom was strewn with slipdresses, for coming, and veils and roopoosh, for going. Leila looked exhausted; she didn’t sparkle or preen, as she might have, given that she was beautiful and young, that it was her birthday, and that she had just presided over the most glamorous party of the season. As she shut the door, a girl in five-inch heels traipsing toward a waiting car turned her head back, and cried “Happy moharram!” in a tinny voice.
Three years ago, parties such as this were unthinkable. President Khatami’s election made them commonplace. Elite Tehranis threw parties where waiters in starched white shirts circulated cocktails in gleaming crystal. Less status-conscious Iranians gathered as frequently, though they drank homemade vodka instead and were comfortable sitting on cushions. Everyone celebrated this newfound freedom in whatever way made sense to their lives. Trendy teenagers hung disco balls over their parties. Shiny, exposed, pedicured toes. Political arguments in the backseats of taxis. Young families picnicking with music in the Alborz foothills. Small freedoms, admittedly, that appeared inconsequential from the outside, but here they were felt deeply. They were the difference between suffocating, and breathing very, very heavily.
As Kimia and I drove home that night, careening down the wide expressway that connected north Tehran to downtown, I wondered how many more of such parties I could stand. All the laconic airs, the premeditated exposure of so much flesh. It hadn’t been a birthday party so much as a pushing and shoving match with the Islamic Republic; a cultural rebellion waged indoors against the regime’s rigid codes of behavior. Those codes banned young men and women from interacting casually together, attending soccer matches, studying at the library.
When they were finally permitted a few free hours in each other’s company, they scarcely knew what to do, or how to behave. They had never developed a sense of what normal behavior between the sexes looked like; not only were they lacking a template, they found the prospect of normality unsatisfying. Instead, they sought to contrast the oppressive morality outside with amplified decadence behind closed doors, staking out their personal lives as the one realm in which they could define their individuality, and exercise their free will. The realm where the system tried to intrude, but ultimately could not control. The Islamic Republic does not control me; see it in the layers of makeup I apply to my face, the tightness of my jeans, the wantonness of my sex life, the Ecstasy I drop.