There is a teahouse overlooking Imam Square - the centre of Shah Abbas' 17th century Esfahan. The stairs are steep, the two rooms dark and covered wall-to-wall in Persian rugs. There is an outside terrace area and everyone has chosen the al fresco option. Not surprising given the fine view of the Imam Mosque at the far end of the square, the fountain in the middle, the small yet exquisite mosque built for Shah Abbas' harem to the left, and the numerous arches which are lit up at night.
As we walk in the first thing I see are water pipes - bubbling contraptions on which people are puffing. We are offered a pipe with our tea. We decline: They look frightening. Difficult to know which part to put in your mouth and very uncool to ask. The tea is the usual cinnamon and saffron mix, and some overly sweet white chewy things with pistachios on top are also served.
We have picked up a random student from the square. His name is Masood and he is eager to practice his English. He studies engineering at a local university. He wants to know what we think about Iran. We tell him we think it is a fascinating country with friendly people. He keeps questioning so we also tell him that we do not like the gender apartheid. He explains that it is a matter of religion. This provides a fine opening for the intriguing theme of sexual relations. Does Masood have a girlfriend? No. Does he want one? Yes, but his parents will find him someone to marry soon enough.
There is an Iranian couple sitting close to us flirting with each other. We use them as Exhibit A. Boyfriend and girlfriend or husband and wife? Mahsood calls over to them in Farsi. They get up and come to sit with us. They are boyfriend and girlfriend. But that is not allowed, we exclaim. They explain that they are going to get married soon. Masood adds that some people are more religious than others. We attempt to show solidarity with the couple by saying that that it is normal in our countries to have boy/girlfriends. The girl says yes, but that is because there are no rules in your countries.
We laugh and say that there are plenty of rules (especially in Australia), just not necessarily directed at discouraging sexual relations. I give an example of Australian traffic rules. A man from New Zealand who is sitting nearby laughs and calls out that if Aussie traffic rules applied in Iran, 70% of Esfahan drivers and 95% of Tehran drivers would be locked up.
We start talking to the New Zealander and his beautiful Iranian wife. They say that Iranians may give the appearance of being conservative but you should see what they get up to behind closed doors. I try hard to imagine the rural familes with whom we had interacted cutting loose. The Iranian woman laughed. No. Inhouse parties in Tehran and Esfahan. They had been to one such party the previous night. Drugs everywhere: pills and opium all over the floor. Girls in bikinis (presumably no headscarf). And the couple had gone with their toddler. Masood agrees that these parties are common. Police raids happen every two to three months, and the parties just shift. A far cry from the home life we had seen in the countryside. Does Masood go to these parties? Sometimes, he said sheepishly, but he does not take pills.
The young Iranian couple say goodbye and leave our table. After they have gone, Masood says that the girl is with the boy because he is rich. Once the money has dried up, she will move on. If that is what he thinks of girls with boyfriends, it is not surprising that he is choosing not to have one. Also, it might be permitted for a girl to have a boyfriend in Iran, but it is perhaps not advisable if she wants to marry later.
Teahouse conversation is illuminating. Move over bars and pubs - no loud music or beer goggles...copious amounts of tea and the odd water pipe can also be effective social lubricants!