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Pictures by ROGER ALLEN

A BOY and girl are flirting on the Tehran underground. The girl stands in the carriage marked "Women Only".

She is separated from the boy by a pair of transparent swing doors. The thinnest of lines between them. Lines crossed at their peril.

"Here everything happens as long as it's hidden," says Ramin, a 26-year-old computer engineer.

"If you want alcohol, there are people who deliver to your door. If you want sex, there are women happy to oblige. If you want to watch satellite TV, you put your dish discreetly on your roof. You just don't draw attention. That is the line you must not to cross."

His fellow passengers look curiously at us. We are obvious 'farangees' - foreigners. Not many come to Iran these days. The nuclear showdown has seen to that. So have accusations that this 2,500-year-old civilisation sponsors international terrorism.

It captured our innocent British sailors. Its President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad has called for the obliteration of Israel. It is a global bogeyman, a place echoing to chants of "Death to America", "Death to Great Britain".

It is likely to become Gordon Brown's biggest overseas challenge, yet so little is really known. And the truth, like so many Persian lives, lies hidden.

A country of 74 million people with a capital of 14 million souls. A place of lush greenery and vast deserts, of broad rivers and seas. A land where 70 per cent of the population is under the age of 30. Oil-rich, gasrich, yet with rampant inflation. Sophisticated cities and mud-brick villages. Literacy rates to rival ours, universities where women outnumber men and a state religion which is the State, ever-present, ever-watchful. Ever conscious of "hat-e-ghermez" ... a red line which governs everything.

The underground train, air-conditioned, spotlessly clean, where somehow your mobile phone still works, stops beneath the Tehran bazaar. This ancient market is, after Cairo, the second largest in the Middle East. Its shopkeepers are wealthy men whose shopfronts are entrances to industries. He may look like a locksmith, but he will have factories, monopolies and power which comes with them.

These merchants are conservative. Their wealth accounts for 80 per cent of the nation's money and their support for Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 brought down the Shah. They play their cards chest-close.

We pass a shop selling combat jackets and the shopkeeper, a good-looking man aged about 40 steps forward.

"Where are you from?" "England," I reply. He laughs. "Oh, you want to be a hostage. OK, don't worry, we'll play with you a little bit, make you a suit perhaps - and then let you go."

I ask him if he stocks any military wear. "What kind?" he inquires.

"British Navy uniforms," I reply. "Unfortunately no," he says. "But I know where you can find them."

He leans forwards and whispers: "In President Ahmedinejad's bedroom. He likes his wife to dress up for him." He bursts out laughing. Good-natured. Just a joke. No harm meant. And certainly no one listening uninvited.

Elsewhere there are black swathes of material for the women's enveloping chadors. "Made in Korea", the best quality. Garish underwear. Blue bras with feathers, ideal for a life where everything happens as long as it's hidden.

The jewellery stores and carpet shops are doing particularly well. With inflation at more than 20 per cent, people have taken their money out of the banks and invested in safer deals. Carpets cost 70 per cent more than last year. Gold goes under the mattress and the richest buy property. Land prices have doubled in little more than a year. It's a Klondike - if you have a few bob to start.

A beggar sits in the gutter. Ali, our guide, says he is a heroin addict, one of more than a million. Opium and Iran are no strangers. But the evergrowing harvest from Afghanistan has wrought terrible misery here. The Islamic Republic has spent hundreds of millions of pounds building walls along its remote Eastern borders.

It seizes more opiates than any other country in the world, some 300 tonnes last year, 40 per cent of trafficked drugs compared with five to 10 per cent in the US and Europe.

Yet the dope still does deadly damage. To its users and to the hundreds of young soldiers killed by traffickers on frontiers where, they say "Iranian mothers kiss their sons goodbye."

Outside the bazaar, the traffic is teeming. It is the worst in the world, three-lane highways where cars clog 10 abreast. Snarling, pinching, grinding traffic which makes each journey fives times longer. It gets worse every year despite the President's muchvaunted PhD in traffic management.

Further out in the affluent suburbs, the three-storey Tandis Mall opens its marbled walkways to designer paradise. Versace, D&G, Hermes, Gucci, the Rayban store. Puma, Burberry and a Baskin-Robbins.

The girls here wear their silk scarves way back on their heads, sunglasses atop huge hair. Challenging, almond eyes, full make-up. High heels, tight linen coats - longsleeved as the law demands - but above the knee. All this is a kind of defiance, despite the crackdown by the Hejab police.

At the Mall entrance, four men and a woman check for Islamic correctness. Most of the shoppers simply re-adjust their scarves and walk on, but one 24-year-old tells the religious coppers where to go - and is arrested immediately. She begins to protest while another girl pleads with us to record all this.

Roger, the photographer, takes three pictures of the tussle before a thug of a policeman grabs him, ripping the ribboned Press Card from his neck.

He tries to wrestle away the camera, yelling that we are spies and should be taken to "Spy Police Headquarters."

He radios for back-up and two minutes later six policemen arrive, led by a colonel. He reads our official Information Ministry letter requesting full police cooperation, smiles, and apologises despite the thug's ranting. He tells Roger to delete the three offending frames.

Once done, he salutes. But the woman is still pushed into a squad car and taken away.

"She will be kept in a cell overnight, I think," Ali says. "Her parents will be summoned and they will have to sign a promise that she will behave. If she doesn't, she may be banned from the city." Punishment for crossing the line. Next morning we soar above Tehran on the longest ski lift in the world, a 40-minute ride which takes us to the peak of Mount Tochal. It is baking hot, but the place is full of skiers.

Pandora, a 24-year-old student, snowboards past, her long blonde hair flying round her fur-fringed hood. "There's a freedom here," she says. "An escape from the city. From the pollution. From everything. Up here you could be in St Moritz, heaven."

Maryam, 25, a psychiatrist, says this is where she comes to clear her own mind. A tall, bearded guy stops me to say all the young people want more freedom, more give-and-take.

"We surf the net, we watch MTV. We are no different from others. The West paints us as the enemy, but we are more Westernised than they know."

It is a speech I hear often. "Persians are not Arabs. We are Indo-Europeans like you."

They are the original Aryans. Many brown eyes, but blue and green and grey eyes too. And Manijeh, an old friend, tells me she has bad dreams of walking in the street without her scarf and how frightened she is to be caught like this.

"It is one many women have," she says. "When I lived in England people said they'd sometimes had nightmares of walking naked in public. Here it is walking without a scarf."

A policeman tries to tell Roger which people to photograph. Only the PC ones - but he gives up, laughing.

And down below we visit Dr Javad Pourjabar in his surgery. He makes pounds 120,000 a year performing nose-jobs, breast implants, liposuction. "Revirginising" - giving unmarried girls back their virginities - is also widely practised, though the doctor does not admit to that.

THERE'S a pile of photo albums testifying to his skill. Large noses made dainty. Eyelids raised. Rice bellies flattened. He examines a chadored woman while her husband stands in attention.

On the wall is a cartoon drawn by a grateful ex-patient. It depicts Mona Lisa with a stonking schnozzle.

Most patients are 20-25 years old. Men now account for 40 per cent of his work, and there are more plastic surgeons here than in Los Angeles.

He also treats foreigners. pounds 400 to pounds 1,500 a nose, pounds 200 for breasts.

We end the night with some body-builders. Their art goes back millennia, the House of Strength is their temple. They gather in an octagonal pit, doing pressups, wielding 35-kilo clubs to a relentless drum-beat and chants from Persian poetry.

It is part sport, part theatre and part religious worship.

Saeed Jafar, a 68-year-old, looks like a general, but is a car mechanic. Next to him, in an Italian soccer vest, is Nasser Lavizani, 60, who is a general. There are men in their 40s and lads in their 20s, an easy blend of friends.

The walls are a shrine to Islamic saints and strongmen past. Women may not enter.

Next day we drive to the Caspian, switchback madness as thousands of families leave the city, tearing through ravine roads to the sea.

There are meadows of wild tulips and fruit blossom, where young couples, deep in each other's eyes, sit over smoking hubble-bubbles.

And later we swim in a turquoise sea while head-scarved women paddle timidly by the shore. Watchful, as ever, of over-stepping the line.

So little is known of this country yet the truth, like so many Iranian lives, lies hidden

A girl is led away for arguing with religious police ... now she faces banishment

I wake up in terror, dreaming I have been caught outside without a scar f


CHAOS: Tehran's appalling traffic jams; NEWS: Blair and Brown in the papers; BARRIERS: Separate carriages for men and women on underground; ESCAPE: Pandora finds freedom in the snow; CHIC: But headscarves are the law
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Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jul 16, 2007
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