Tehran Undercover



I look like somebody who has come to pay a visit to her friend at her home. Every detail of my appearance supports this façade, sending a message I’m trying to convey as I walk down the deserted alley.

I recheck the building number and the unit by referring to the text message saved on my mobile. I am at the right place. I ring the bell, the door opens and I climb the stairs. I am curious and rather slow, like somebody who has stepped into an unfamiliar building. After I close the door I am no longer that somebody who has come to pay a visit to her friend in her home. Now, I am a first-time customer. I ring the bell for unit number 2. The door opens and the smiling landlady asks if I am there for the dress show. No, I say, I’ve come for the café.


A Café Without The Veil

The landlady had turned a section of her house into a café-restaurant, taking advantage of its peculiar architectural layout. She also rents out one room in her three-bedroom house to people who design dresses or work with other handicrafts. I remove the shawl from my head, hang up my overcoat, and sit behind the table. A round dining table for six is in front of me. Around it sit a few people chatting cordially. One is drinking tea. Another is eating hot beans. The table next to the heater appears to be warm. Next to me there is a set of comfortable armchairs for four, along with an old, short-legged coffee table. The landlady puts the menu in front of me. It is neatly typed, with very average prices. A glass of tea for 4,000 tomans (a little over a dollar and a half) and a toasted sandwich for 6,000 tomans (around two and a half dollars). Coffee, latte and herbal tea are also served. I get the Wi-Fi password and describe to the host how a friend of mine told me about her idea and I was eager to pay a visit. “I’ve always enjoyed cooking for others,” the landlady says. “I once told friends that instead of going to a restaurant, let’s go to my home; I’ll cook for you but I will charge you. That went very well so it prompted me to rearrange my home in less than a month and make it into what you see now.”

Her underground café-restaurant has a name. It also has a hidden and private page on Facebook, with about 100 followers made up of her close friends and acquaintances. They are allowed to bring a couple of their own friends along. The unusual layout of the house allows the clients using the room designated for crafts to come and go easily without a glimpse of the restaurant or its service. “I have a lot of artist friends,” she says. “Most of them have always had difficulties in presenting their work. Renting a showroom or a gallery in art houses and shops is not easy. They would prefer to present their work with the least number of middlemen. That is why my place is very convenient for my friends and their friends.”

Isn’t she worried about the neighbours? I ask her. That they might learn about it? Or create problems? “Here people look after each other,” she answers. “Why should anybody object when the clients and their friends don’t bother the neighbours?” She adds that the building does not have a large number of units, and all the neighbours are long-time owners. These neighbors buy art as well. Furthermore, she does not advertise and is not seeking to increase her income. Don’t put a picture or the address anywhere, she stresses again. And I reassure her again and leave her to carry on. I look at some other clients around the table. The girls are without manteaux and head coverings. I finish my tea, put the money on the table and leave the house. I close the door and look exactly like somebody who is leaving her friend’s home, after a few hours of free and intimate companionship.


Home Cinema With a Taste of Home-Brewed Beer

I have been invited to a private film club started by a few of my cineaste friends. They have leased a house with big walls and have set up a video projector. Comfortable chairs and armchairs are arranged around the big hall. They have set up a private page on Facebook for close friends and people they trust. They show movies on specific days of the week, and of course without censorship. At the beginning of the week, they inform their members of the movie schedule for the coming week. Each screening is organised in a simple way:  members who want to attend say so, pay the entrance fee, and that is that. The entrance fee for each show is 10,000 (four dollars) and the house — or underground theatre — seats around 30.

I get there half an hour before the show starts. A few people are already there. On a dining table at the corner, there are single-use cups and a few bottles of Delster, a bubbly non-alcoholic malt drink. When I open the bottle, the smell of beer attacks my nostrils. I look at the snacks on the table. A friend of mine, one of the people who runs the club, notices my surprise, smiles and approaches me: “Eearly on, a few people brought in things to eat. Sometimes a couple of our friends brought vodka to the movie. So we decided to increase the entrance fee a bit, buy home-brewed beer and put it on the table next to various snacks. The amount is limited so that people won’t get drunk.”

About 20 people were now gathered in the theater. The movie starts without much delay. I sit silently and watch the movie for two hours, sipping the home-brewed beer and furtively glancing at people. When the film is over and the lights are turned on, small groups gather and exchange pleasantries. I approach a group of three who are smoking and chatting. I say that this is my first time and I have just joined the club. One member says, “For us, this is just like a cinema. Every time we are worried that they might break in and arrest us…but this worry has kept us from revealing anything, anywhere.” Her friend adds, “Don’t you think it is worth it to pay 10 tomans, watch an uncensored movie and drink beer as well?”

The people who have rented this big house use the rooms as their offices. The pay the rent by revenues from the film club. As I leave the theatre, having watched the movie and feeling a little tipsy, I think to myself: maybe it is not such a bad idea to bring a tub of popcorn next time.


Home Gallery

A painter friend of mine sends me a text message to tell me that she and a few others have put on a private group show and that I am invited to the opening. Following the directions in the text message, I end up in front of a plaque and a numbered bell panel, but no gallery name. Again, I am in a house with an odd layout, this time used to display works of art. Professional lighting illuminates paintings hanging on the walls. I am curious to talk to the person responsible for this home gallery. It has been operating for two years. “How did you come up with the idea?” I ask her. “Censorship,” she answers and laughs. Then she recounts how there was no place to present certain daring ideas and how some modern performance arts are plagued by censorship and cannot be performed in official and legal locations. Then, with patience, she shows me pictures and videos from the gallery’s previous shows.

She adds that the gallery has hosted a few shows featuring nude art and they have been very professional and charming. Do they sell, I ask? They do. As she describes it, the process for the artist is no different from that of legal art centres, except that surveillance and censorship are absent. “The fact that this is a private and underground place definitely affects the attendance but not so much as to persuade the artists to bid it farewell.”

Somebody next to us tells about another house that puts on private shows and sells artworks. “Every few months there is an auction. Many visual artists present their work. There are things to eat and drink and they sell the works the same night.” I get the phone number for the house to ask about future shows.

In the past when they said “underground” they were referring to music. Now it is not just music or just underground. You can find cafés, dress shows and movies theatres, or even nude art shows, behind the walls of houses in Tehran and, one suspects, other big cities. Adventures go on behind the walls of this city. If you go behind a wall and enter a corridor, a new world might dawn on you. It is like there is another city breathing in the bowels of the greater Tehran. Tehran prime. A city with its own arts, its own economy, its own people. No censorship and no inkling of any political protest action. It’s a place that just wants to live outside the limits.


*Written by Layla Jalili

*Interviewed by Afsaneh Salehi

*Special thanks to Shahnaz Moradi for sharing her story


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