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Tehran, Paris of the East?

Editor’s note: Diyana Ishak was a fall researcher at FP. She’s blogging from Iran this week, as time allows. Scott Peterson/Getty Images Want to get a real sense of a country’s people? Go to a beauty salon. Last weekend, my Iranian friend drove me, her aunt, and her grandmother to a back alley in central ...

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Editor’s note: Diyana Ishak was a fall researcher at FP. She’s blogging from Iran this week, as time allows.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images

Want to get a real sense of a country’s people? Go to a beauty salon.

Last weekend, my Iranian friend drove me, her aunt, and her grandmother to a back alley in central Tehran, where we walked into an apartment that had been converted into a makeshift beauty salon.

The place was chock full of Iranian women primping for the New Year. (The most popular services seemed to be full-face threading and blond highlights.) After much unsuccessful cajoling to get my eyebrows tattooed (another popular trend), I opted for a safer package. While I was getting my hair done and my eyebrows threaded, a coiffured lady in her 60s waxed philosophical about the cultural differences between London and Tehran.

In London, she said, one can get away with anything, but not in Tehran. Here, appearances are incredibly important. Every detail of one’s self is scrutinized by others.

An intense physical consciousness is quintessentially Persian, my friend later explained to me. It goes beyond appearances to a strong sense of pride in having what Iranians see as their superior culture and history. You could call Iranians the French of the Middle East.

The analogy applies to politics, too. I asked a middle-aged Iranian man I encountered (not in the beauty salon), “How do you feel about what’s happening between Iran and the United States?”

With Gaulle-like prickliness, he answered: “Other countries telling Iran not to develop nuclear weapons is bullying. We do not oppose nuclear technology, even though most Iranians do not agree with the regime. But we have an even deeper mistrust for the United States. When it comes down to it, most Iranians would rather side with Iran than with the United States.”

The sentiment seems common here. True, many in Iran are not happy with the regime (according to my friend’s exaggerated estimate, 100 percent are fed up), and pine for the cultural freedoms and modern outlook they once enjoyed under the Shah. But ever since former President Khatami’s foiled attempt at reform, however, many Iranians have calculated that getting involved in politics just isn’t worth the trouble. They’re keeping their heads down at the moment, but I sense that Iranians believe they can make their great country again someday. They want to do so themselves, though, not via Western meddling.

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