For one moment, in Iran, I was Cinderella at the ball.
I swished my voluminous floor-length skirts around my legs, admired the glittering soft-gold tunic laden with sequinned motifs and golden thread and twitched at errant hairs slipping loose from the delicately transparent tulle headscarf, as my two fairy godmothers looked on in satisfaction at their handiwork.
As we descended from our castle and I attempted an elegant slide into my motorised carriage, my fairy godfather assured me I would not be the only woman arrayed in the gypsy-like traditional tribal dress of the Qash’qai nomads, a central Iranian nomadic tribe with Azeri-Turkish origins.
He suggested a 1000 camel dowry (minimum, I said) for the marriage offers that, now I was a beautiful Qash’qai woman, would roll in.
My Cinderella story is set in Shiraz but has its origins in my first moments in Iran.
I was in the passport stamping queue at the Turkmenistan border, when one of the group of businessmen passing through customs let me in front of him. I’d been eyeing the group wondering just how offensive my makeshift Iranian outfit was to them (aesthetically, if not religiously, it was extremely offensive), but it was of less importance to them than how I would get to the next town and where I’d stay that night.
After taking me to Mashad and before putting me in a taxi to the guesthouse I was staying in, the man who’d become my fairy godfather told me that if I was in Shiraz on the 20th of the month he would take me to his relative’s wedding.
Because this is Iran ‘fairy godfather’ and ‘fairy godmother’ are the only way I’m going to describe my Persian friends, it is still effectively a police state after all.
So on the 20th of the month I was standing in his sister’s living room, swishing. My Australian friend Dan, who’d been spontaneously invited along too, was bravely trying not to laugh at the ridiculous spectacle of me in the several-sizes-too-big costume, while my Iranian friends gushed over my sudden, startling conversion to Qash’qai woman.
We arrived at the wedding around 8pm – almost unfashionably early by Iranian standards as dinner was only served at midnight – and I was half glad, half put out to see that the majority of the women were decked out in glorious tribal costume. Half glad because I wouldn’t have to brazen the evening out and half put out because I certainly wasn’t the belle at this ball.
For formal occasions Qash’qai men favour suits and rifles, slung casually on their backs or used as a leaning pole, but the women are like a glittering cloud of bejewelled butterflies, clad in bright blues and reds, greens and purples, and all covered head to toe in sequins.
It was a drag queen’s dreamland.
The bride and groom’s arrival was heralded by shrieked ululations from the women who led them, dancing, to the dais in front of the DJ where they would have a quick dinner and then pose for photos with every one of the hundreds of guests. The bride was Qash’qai – most of the guests were relatives – and looked exhausted in her white western-style dress.
From my perspective it seemed as though this party was one for the girls: they danced, gossiped in the segregated women’s section and were plainly having a good time.
Dan later told me the party on the man’s side was just as interesting, but instead of dancing it involved the water bottle of Grey Goose vodka my fairy godfather’s brother-in-law had brought along.
I got to talking with a cousin of the groom, who wasn’t a member of the tribe. She was of the typical Persian cut: beautiful eyes halo’d by long lashes, bee sting lips painted bright red and, in this private setting, wearing a knee-length sleeveless little black dress.
And also typically of almost all the young, English-speaking Iranians I met, she turned the conversation to politics.
“I want to be free,” she said, talking about the parties and weddings she’d been to that had been broken up by the morality police for not being segregated or having banned substances (booze), and how much she disliked the dress and social restrictions that rule Iran’s public face.
I asked my fairy godfather later about the morality police and he said the morality police wouldn’t have bothered with this wedding because it was so far out in the country (two hours drive from town) and the nomads, not being true Fars people, had a little more leeway than the average Persian. “They’re a little scared of us,” he said, although I never found out why.
Around 1am the younger men found the courage to dance instead of wistfully looking on from their semi-circle around the women dancers, and the party slowly started to break up.
An hour later, tired and stuffed to the gills with kebab and Coca Cola, I swished out behind my fairy godfamily to the carriage.