All my fears were for nothing it seemed. I was waved through immigration with only a cursory glance at my passport, my baggage arrived on time and I walked out of the customs hall with nothing more than some curious glances at my surfboard and into the waiting courtesy bus from the hotel, along with a tourist from America. At the hotel I met my fellow companions, French film-maker Marion, and Ben, a body boarder from Cornwall. Missing from our group was our trip organizer and photographer Stuart Butler. It appeared he’d missed his flight and we would be left to our own devices in a land we knew little about. The adventure had begun.
I felt safe walking down the main streets of Tehran, even the famously dangerous and chaotic traffic of the capital seemed subdued by Ramadan. The one opportunity we had to travel before we lost our swell window happened to land during Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting where Muslims refrain from eating or drinking from sunrise to sunset. Travellers are exempt from fasting but it does make finding restaurants open and willing to serve food challenging. To escape the heat we went for a walk in one of the many local parks where we met an old shoe-maker, Mohammed, who wanted to practice his fluent English and French with Marion and I. Unbelieving when we tried to explain what it was we hoped to do, find surf in Iran, he showed us a picture in a magazine of a woman surfing asking is that what we do? The surfing world had even filtered into the land-locked capital of the Islamic Republic!
We ate kababs and drank tea sitting on Persian carpets surrounded by young cosmopolitan Tehranis, women in glamorous headscarves perched on beehive hair-dos, wearing tight-fitting belted coats over skinny jeans (a dress code that stays just within the law), and families picnicking in the park after sundown with girls playing volleyball with their fathers and brothers. This place was full of surprise where nothing was quite what it seemed. It’s been a little over 30 years since the revolution, and post-revolution Iran is first and foremost, a theocracy, with Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appointed for life, overriding all other authorities. He is regarded by his supporters as being incapable of error, and only answerable to God. For the ordinary people of Iran, family life is supremely important and education (for girls and boys) is highly regarded. Ironically the level of attendance of girls at third-level education has rocketed post-revolution. Women are allowed to vote, drive, buy property, sit in parliament, and to work. In reality though, post-revolutionary Iran also saw women’s right decline in many positions; banned from the judiciary (too emotional) with the imposition of a strict dress code and being treated as second-class citizens under many of the fundamentalist interpretations of Islamic law. But still Iranian women continue to assert their rights and chip away at the oppressive regime—wearing a defiant splash of red lipstick, making visionary movies, becoming experts at interpreting the law, and winning the Nobel Peace Prize.
CHABAHAR, GATEWAY TO IRAN'S SOUTHEASTERN COAST
The next day we took a two-hour flight to the south-eastern coastline, which borders Pakistan, to Iran’s largest ocean port and free-trade zone, Chabahar.
It’s a surprisingly big and developed town on the fringes of Iran in the middle of a desert landscape which is straight out of the Dune series, with a crumbling range of ‘Mars mountains’ and cliffs pock-marked with cave and pinnacles. I pointed in excitement at camel- crossing signs and a herd I saw cruising by the roadside but, as the coming days revealed, they’re the Iranian equivalent of sheep in New Zealand. There used to be camel caravans between all the cities with rest stops every 30 miles for the camels. Women of the house always rode on top of the camel in a special, decorated palanquin while the men had to walk or ride a donkey.
Arriving at Chabahar and we thought we might be camping out in the wilderness, but we pulled up to a three star hotel with sea views. The Iranian tour company were clearly keen to impress their first surf tourists. Arman, our guide, found a ‘Ramadan-free’ restaurant for the less devout as it made communicating with the women very challenging through a male interpreter. Abdullah said most women would not be allowed to speak directly and freely with another man they didn’t know and especially not without a chaperone.
THROUGH THE VEIL
The nature of the coast around southeast Iran means that the local winds are generally light but it catches a good part of the swell breaking primarily on powerful beach breaks with a few potential point-break set-ups.
The boss of the tour company showed us some photos from his recon missions along the coast before our arrival. He explained we had come a little too late, having missed the big swell season at the height of summer when he insists the waves get up to 15 feet. Now it was in the three-foot range and we were going to scour the coast. In the early morning we found a little beach outside Chabahar, not far past a military checkpoint. The wind stayed light and glassy until after 10am, the waves still broke close to shore and were difficult to catch—with very short rides and strong undercurrents—but I felt more comfortable in my custom hijab surfwear today without a crowd watching. I wore a long- sleeved black rashvest, with t-shirt over it. Black boardies with leggings underneath and a lycra hijab made by a Dutch company who design sportswear for Muslim women—I didn’t have to worry about sunburn!