"We like you. Do you want to come to the desert with us?" two young men ask.
I had met them moments earlier in the bazaar in Yazd where they'd recommended a nearby restaurant. Our brief conversation had prompted an offer to take me to the desert. Of course I say yes. I am not exactly sure what this invitation entails but I will soon find out.
That evening I am picked up by a group of eight Iranians in a large 4x4. They are aged between 25 and 35, attractive, well-dressed people. The women wear loose head scarves. Half of them speak English with me, the other half smile and pat me on the back.
I squeeze into the backseat next to the food supplies and a qalyun—an Iranian tobacco pipe. The group is excited and, as we fly along a desert road, they sing loudly and joyously. Music blares from the stereo and there is a feeling of freedom that cannot be fully appreciated by a person from my context: Living in Australia, I had never had my right to party restricted. Despite all this, I'm tight with nervous adrenaline. I'm not sure if what we are about to do is legal.
You've probably read about the Islamic Republic of Iran's strict laws and customs governing dress codes, socializing with the opposite gender, live music, art, and creativity, alcohol, and parties. Booze of any sort is not legally available. There are no official nightclubs or bars. In May 2014, a group of young Iranians were arrested after a video of them dancing to the Pharrell Williams song "Happy" was uploaded to Youtube. The video was condemned by the government as "a vulgar clip which hurt public chastity," and the offenders were given 91 lashes and sentenced to jail time.
Despite stories of persecution like that, I had heard that some young Iranians risk arrest just to cut loose for a few hours. That's exactly what this group of friends was about to do, with me in tow.
The car stops at a nondescript point beside a long stretch of sand dunes. Reza, the driver, eyes the sharp, sandy slope and steps on the accelerator.
"Watch out Marc Antony," Sara shouts at me.
The car whips up the incline. My head flies backwards as my body lurches forward and I can feel a crack in my neck. The Iranians are screaming with joy and fear and adrenaline and the car is firing up the slope and I've fallen to the floor. Then the car is on the other side of the slope and skidding across flat desert and the Iranians are cheering. The moon is high and full, and the sky is turning hues of red and orange and purple. We rattle and bump and fishtail across the desert plain until we reach a lake that is swarming with hundreds of diving swallows. The sun is setting and I am entranced by the shifting temperature of fading heat, warm sands, and cool night breezes.
As the sunlight fades we start a fire in the heart of the desert. The girls shed their chadors, and shake loose their beautifully-maintained hair. They change into sleeveless tops and tights, and it feels strange that I'm allowed to see them like this. Home-brewed arak and non-alcoholic beer is served in plastic cups. Sara and Reza sing in sonorous wails. Those of us feeling the effects of the alcohol start to dance.
Sara and Reza are a couple and they are enthusiastic to talk to me about their country.
"My father will not allow me to have a boyfriend," Sara says. "I only met Reza through my friend. He is her cousin and I met him at her family outings. It is very difficult to meet people."
They are passionate about their Persian history and are proud that Iran has maintained a Persian culture despite centuries of different regimes, religions, and ethnicities ruling the country. Neither of them are happy with modern-day Iran. Sara is disdainful of the treatment of women for many reasons, including the chadors.
"It is too hot in the summer with this," she tells me, pointing to her discarded scarf.
Reza speaks of the mandatory two years of military service Iranian men face after they turn 18: "Everyone tries not to. I am sick. I got a doctor to say so." He taps his head, implying he faked a mental illness, and shows me the scars on his upper arm that were part of his story.
"We want to leave Iran and go to Europe or America," Sara tells me. "There is only opportunity in Iran for people who follow the government and the strict religion. We seem to be going backwards."
Reza agrees with her. "We would like to travel but we are on a list of countries whose citizens are likely to overstay visas or try to stay in a country," he says. "We can't get visas anywhere."
It is not the first time I have heard this in Iran. Many Iranians I met expressed their desire to travel outside of the country and their frustration at not being able to. Sara and Reza are both studying engineering and German in the hope that education will take them abroad.
It wasn't always like this. Sara and Reza would only have to talk to their parents to hear about a much more liberal Iran, before the revolution of 1979. Nowadays, within Iran, there are many who still support the conservative Islamic theocracy, but there are also sections of society who want reform. However, the ruthless way the 2009 freedom movement was suppressed has left reformist Iranians convinced that there will never be change in Iran.
I am left with the impression that Sara and Reza feel trapped within their own country. They want reform but they don't know how to achieve it, and they want to be free but they can't leave.
Headlights emerge over a blackened sand dune and I am convinced it is the religious police. It turns out to be more revelers. One of the new cars has a powerful stereo system and we all start to dance to electronic versions of Iranian songs. The majority of people are not experienced drinkers so it doesn't take much for them to be rolling drunk.
It would turn out that this evening wasn't my only chance to party with Iranians. During my trip, I would be invited to two weddings, segregated by gender, where it was common for the men to be drunk on arak supplied by the host. I would be offered hashish and opium and get drunk on alcohol bought from "dealers." I learned that within Iran, there are a huge number of different ethnicities and religions, and that attitudes towards customs and laws can often be defined by these different social groups. Iranian lives can be governed as much by the judgement of their family and society as the fear of the police or the government. However, in every city I traveled to there were opportunities to escape these laws and traditions. It very quickly became clear to me that many Iranian citizens lead two lives: one public and one private.
As the party dies down, we sit around the campfire and drink coffee. Reza has his head in Sara's lap and she strokes his hair. I think about how society can try to restrict freedoms but people find ways to circumvent laws and traditions that prevent them from being happy. I think about these people and their desire to be social and to be in contact with each other; their affection for each other and for me. I am kissed on the neck and touched and hugged and everyone is happy just to be free and in the desert and away from what they believe is an oppressive society. I think on the risks they have taken to be together tonight and how it must enrich their appreciation for the little things in life.
Mark Isaacs is the author of The Undesirables, which chronicled his time working at Australia's refugee processing center on Nauru. Read more of his writing on displaced peoples here.
Illustrations by Michael Dockery