Monday, November 12, 2012

Barbie Wears a Chador

Fast food restaurant on Vali Asr Avenue, Tehran
By Heidi Noroozy

When I tell people I visit Iran every other year or so, two questions always crop up: “But don’t they hate Americans?” and “Do you tell people you’re Canadian?” My stock response: “If I were Canadian, I’d tell them I was American.” It’s not that Iranians have anything against Canadians. The fact is, to paraphrase Sally Field, they really, really like Americans.

In the 1970s, my Tehran-born husband spent much of his free time watching Farsi-dubbed John Wayne films at the local movie theater and Batman cartoons on TV. To this day, his dad is hooked on James Bond, especially the older versions with Sean Connery in the title role. And my mother-in-law will happily spend an idle afternoon giggling over I Love Lucy reruns. In the old days, the shah of Iran was America’s best buddy in the Middle East; Americans and their culture were everywhere.

You might think that all these cultural influences vanished after 1979, when the Islamic Revolution put an end to the monarchy. You’d be wrong. From the wide-eyed stares I get strolling down the street in Tehran, it’s clear that Americans like me have become a rare, endangered species. But we’ve left more behind than just a ransacked embassy.

You won’t find a McDonalds or Starbucks on every street corner, but the bottles of Coca-Cola, Fanta, and Sprite are the “real thing.” They’re bottled under license in a plant in Mashhad, a city in northeastern Iran. And if I get homesick for a burger and fries, my choices are nearly endless.

One of the most popular fast-food chains is Superstar, which is best described as Carl’s Jr. meets Pizza Hut. The logo even looks suspiciously like the American burger joint’s shooting star. Inside, you order your hamburgers, fries, and very cheesy pizzas at a counter, choosing menu selections from a neon sign on the wall (in Farsi, of course). You give your orders to a team of young servers in blue and yellow uniforms, complete with baseball caps.

I rarely get fast food cravings, though, even here at home. So in Tehran you’re more likely to find me at the Blue Duck, a restaurant in the upscale Tandis Center that towers above Tajrish Square. On weekends (Thursday and Friday in the Islamic Republic), they serve an east-meets-west brunch buffet, where Iranian adasi (lentil soup) and aash (a bean, grain, and herb stew) share space with American pancakes, waffles, eggs, and hash browns. The syrup is made from dates rather than maple, but the man with the spatula at the end of the counter is happy to cook you a French omelet to order.

Food isn’t the only American influence in Iran these days. Hollywood movies and TV shows are readily available, everything from Midnight in Paris to The Simpsons. Most of these are pirated and sold under the table (often quite openly on the street—just roll down your window while stuck in traffic and a black market vendor is sure to sidle up to your car). One winter trip to Iran, I happened to mention that we’d be returning home just in time for Oscar night. The next day, a relative brought over a DVD of every movie that had been nominated that year. Knowing that most of the films hadn’t even hit video yet in the States, I nevertheless watched them all—a guilty pleasure.

In the 10 years that I’ve been visiting Iran, I’ve watched the American (and other western) influences grow. On my first trip, a decent cup of coffee was rare in tea-sipping Iran. If I ordered one in a restaurant, chances were I’d get a cup of hot water and an orange packet of Nescafe. Now you can buy an excellent espresso, cappuccino, macchiato, or even a café americaine, at one of the many coffee bars that have sprung up around town.

Ad for the iPad 3 in Velanjak, Tehran
On our latest trip to Iran last April and May, I noticed a new trend: the Apple brand is everywhere, even the iPad 3, which had been released in the States only a month earlier. And is there anyone in Tehran not carrying an iPhone? Although the United States bans these products for export to Iran under the recently imposed sanctions, once they reach the Islamic Republic, they are sold legally.

The Iranian authorities are not overjoyed by these trends. Earlier this year, police closed down shops selling Barbie dolls, claiming that they were a corrupting western influence with their skimpy clothes and brash makeup. Instead, authorities introduced an Islamic version: twin dolls named Dara and Sara, who were dressed much more modestly than the Barbies (hold the lipstick). The new dolls didn’t exactly fly off the shelves.

I don’t think these western influences are going to go away. Not in the age of satellite TV and the Internet. Still, I’m curious to see what new trends will surprise me on my next trip to Iran.


  1. Heidi, it makes me smile that pizza, espresso, and cappuccino are considered American influences. In a textbook for English as a second language, published by Oxford University Press, both the words "pizza" and "cappuccino" are in a vocabulary exercise helping students see how many "English" words they know. It makes my Italian students laugh.

  2. And, to say more, I continue to be enthralled by your in-depth reports about the Iranian culture for those of us on the outside. I think you provide a service of reminding us all that people are people, wherever they are. Thank you.

  3. Thanks, Patricia! I hope my posts open up a window to this culture I love so much.

    I can't believe a textbook would claim that pizza and cappuccino are English words! The food/beverages have become well integrated into American culture by now, but their Italian roots are clear even to us. No wonder your students find that ridiculous.

  4. Thanks Heidi. Your posts about Iran are always fascinating.