It was Monday morning and he had to go. He’d been sleeping on my floor for the past three nights, and I couldn’t handle the pace anymore. But recently I thought of him again.
His name was Amir, an Iranian my age studying medicine in Armenia, next door to Iran. The first Persian I’d ever met, we were in the same carriage on the rickety 14 hour train journey from Yerevan to Tbilisi, Georgia, where I was living.
It was 2010, and Iran was all over the news that week. A clearly insane Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had recently stolen his final term as president, and protests over the fraudulent election had encapsulated Tehran for months. Government forces were firing on civilians – most famously a female student called Neda was shot dead on the street, in plain view of the watching world. The future looked more than bleak, with Ahmadinejad’s hardline regime being talked about as the single biggest threat to the West.
Yet on the train Amir’s version of Iran was vastly different to the one portrayed in the media; this supposed ‘evil empire.’ He spoke of how pro-Western his generation of Iranians were, and how it was only a matter of time before the world would see a totally different Iran, one with a peaceful secular democracy. All they had to do was wait for the current crop of religious hardliners to die off, Amir said bluntly, then his generation would rise. He held great hope for the future of Iran – a genuine optimism that didn’t seem faked in the name of patriotism.
Amir told me how he had come to Armenia for a taste of the ‘Western’ life. In Yerevan, they leave the cows head out on the footpath beside the stall selling the meat. Toothless hunchbacks sell little bottles of hard liquor at shacks on street corners. Once the Rose of Stalin’s Soviet empire; now a crumbling wreck of a city. While there are many words I would use to describe Armenia, ‘western’ wouldn’t be on the list.
But then everything is relative, and for Amir Armenia represented a whole new world of freedoms. He told me of how his social life was largely underground back home; Tehran is awash with secret parties his generation have. They buy vodka from ‘dealers’ for as much as 200 dollars a bottle. These underground parties are often raided, and the punishments severe.
Judging by the way he could drink, Amir was a regular at these Persian parties. He produced a bottle of vodka on the train, and by the time we got to Tbilisi we were tanked.
He said he planned to return to Tehran the following year, to finish his studies and begin life as a radiologist. He’d had a brief career as a pop-star, and claimed to be a bit famous back home. He showed me the youtube video of his song, which was basically a greased-up poser warbling in the desert. Chris deBurgh on a budget.
While the warbling tune sounded very Arabic, Amir took great offence to being referred to as an Arab. He didn’t even like being called Iranian. He was particularly Persian. Unfortunately it was in a local bar he chose to take great offence. With a local Georgian…
He’d gotten the train to Tbilisi for the weekend to see another ‘Western’ city, and needed to find an internet cafe to book a hotel. While it’s not exactly Yerevan, Tbilisi wouldn’t be awash with high-street broadband either.
And so I made the crucial mistake of telling him he could use the internet in my apartment. Then I couldn’t get rid of him. All I wanted was sleep, all he wanted was pints. He had drank with the urgency of a man on a deadline. It struck me how prohibition of anything only further whets the appetite for the prohibited. Like drinking on Good Friday.
But now suddenly Amir’s optimistic vision for Iran’s future seems more realistic. Ahmadinejad is gone from the stage at last, presumably tucked away somewhere with a bottle of brandy watching re-runs of public executions and burning American flags.
His replacement, Hassan Rouhani, has clearly had the same PR coach as the new Pope. He’s all smiles and waves, and now he’s taken an experimental step in from the cold, signing a six month deal promising to frieze parts of Iran’s nuclear program. He’s even letting us in for a gawk at his nuclear facilities to prove he’s not a tyrant like the last fella. He’s made all sorts of promises in a six-month deal, a move everybody seems happy with, except the Israelis and the Saudis.
And they could be right. It could be a disaster, all part of a clever plan. Rouhani could be a fraud, playing the long game, lulling us all into a false sense of security before smashing a pint glass in our face. Or maybe he is sincere, and it is the beginning of this new secular democratic version of Iran that Amir hoped for.
Either way, a different Iran is coming, whether it be this time around or not. Because Amir and his secular generation are up next. The religious hardliners are running out of time, and there’s a party-loving educated pro-Western generation almost ready to rise. So maybe just for once, we should look at that glass as half full, before it smashes in our faces.
I wonder what he’s doing now, Amir, back home in Tehran. I didn’t keep in contact; he outstayed his welcome in the end, stank up my apartment and annoyed the life out of me.
But his vision for a new Iran could be on it’s way….