Newsroom co-editor Tim Murphy spent a week in Iran late last year to attend a media conference. In the second of two stories, he looks at the country’s relationship with plastic surgery, technology and alcohol.

It doesn’t take long to notice the tiny strips of tape across the noses of too many young women in a crowd in Iran.

Your eye stops momentarily, dismisses the tape as some kind of injury and moves on – until the next woman and the next and the next walks by with the identical horizontal mini bandages.

Nose jobs.

Regrettably, my research into Iran had neglected to check on its status as the world’s number one nation for plastic surgery for the nose.

A quick googling revealed a Guardian story from 2013 which lists the rhinoplasty rate in Iran as internationally unchallenged – fully seven times that of the United States.

Women get the operations to maximise the beauty of their faces, often the only part of their bodies on display due to the country’s cultural and religious dress codes.

Thousands of licensed and unlicensed ‘surgeons’ conduct the operations, often to make the nose thinner and to accentuate its tip.

And no one hides the fact they’ve gone under the knife; the little tapes are everywhere.

The cost can be equivalent to that of a small secondhand car but demand remains high.

In a supposedly conservative, hermit kingdom, Axis of Evil nation, the indulgence of nose-thinning surgery seems more than a little incongruous.

But whoever said the people of a theocracy had to settle for limitations on their physical expression?

Some Iranian women wear the full length black chador, with a tight hood around their faces. They are mainly older or those working in government or conservative workplaces.

Most others wear a looser hijab scarf or a very loose scarf which just manages to hang onto the top of a ponytail at the back of the head, above a mid-length jacket, jeans or trousers.

The streets of Tehran can be strikingly glamorous amid the chadors and the clerics with men and women as brightly, fashionably turned out as any big city. In the capital, at least, it is rare to see fat or obese people other than portly older men and a few fully-shaped chadors moving like shadows down the footpath.

Who said people of a theocracy had to settle for limitations on their physical expression? Photo: Tim Murphy

The ‘highest rate of nose surgery in the world’ is not regarded as shaming. Beauty and celebrity are highly prized among the young.

Which is no different to so many other places.

“People are drastically open to Hollywood TV and movies right now,” one sharply dressed Tehrani says. “The only thing is how funny the censors are – they try to say drinks of wine are cherry juice and take out any sexual intimacy, especially anything remotely gay.”

Groups of young students and workers are glued to smart phones – there are 40 million among the 80 million Iranians – and while the internet is ‘channelled’ towards domestic and approved sites people access global social media effortlessly.

European football streams live to phone screens in a cab, say, or shop. Katy Perry, Adele and John Legend play from music sites.

Facebook and Twitter were banned after the ‘green’ protests following the 2009 election but Instagram is ubiquitous and a secure messaging app Telegram developed by two Russians and now based in Dubai is also used by half the population.

Both were temporarily blocked, at one point with agreement from Telegram, during the December-January street protests. When the authorities try to limit direct access, demand for foreign apps to work around the ban soar. A Canadian firm which offers Psiphon noticed its usual 35,000-40,000 installs a day rising to 700,000 a day during the Iran protests.

President Hassan Rouhani commented on the futility of blocking social media, noting the ban on satellite TV dishes had not stopped citizens obtaining and using them.

Economic sanctions have not stopped big global brands from a local presence. At night the bright neon signs of Nike, Smeg appliances, Samsung, Asics and some European car brands stand out.

Iran has developed two local cars in conjunction with Korean firm Kia and Hyundai. In heavy industry and in technology and consumer products, Chinese, southeast Asian and European brands are among those moving, nuclear deal allowing, into what they see as an untapped market.

Iran’s blanket ban on alcohol has created a market for non-alcoholic beer. Photo: Tim Murphy

Coke, for more than a decade barred by US regulation from selling in Iran, is now back as the real thing after a protracted dispute with a local company which filled Coke bottles with its own cola during the interregnum.

Iran has a blanket prohibition on alcohol. In hotel lobbies or at restaurant tables a lemon barley drink labelled “non-beer beer” is on offer. Those in the know say smuggled alcohol can be obtained but the taste for it seems low among locals, who can relax at cafes with traditional, shared hookah (qalyoon) water pipes. For that evening cocktail, there is the tantalising saffron icecream and carrot juice version of a spider.

Tourists have begun to increase in number since the agreement with the west over nuclear capability and sanctions in the past three years, but they are largely tour groups and seem to be mainly from France or Italy. Similarly European hotel companies are eyeing or have already launched properties in Iran, banking on a broader opening of the country. Tehran and the heritage and tourism attractions in Isfahan are safe on the streets and at major landmarks (most police states are) and the people are gracious and generous hosts. 

The country has its own bank credit cards for retail and other transactions – Visa and Mastercard not accepted other than by a special, blackmarket arrangement costing $US100 a transaction. Or to a trader who happens to have a company registered in one of the Gulf states that can complete the purchase separately.

As digitally reliant as Tehran has become it has a lasting relationship with book shops. One of the main city squares features more than a block of book shops specialising in research and study books and papers for masters and doctoral students. The regard for education, advanced degrees and ‘scientists’ (scholars or academic researchers) is palpable.Beyond the spectacular historic bazaars of Tehran and Isfahan, loaded to the arched rooftops with crafts, spices, what-not-shops, jewellers, precious handcrafts and clothing, are shopping malls to rival some of the trophy developments elsewhere in the Mideast.

At Tehran’s grand bazaar, a true labyrinth of 10km of confusing and interconnected criss-crossing alleys the ancient meets the modern in one of those delightful tourism clichés.

To exit the bazaar from a highly recommended lamb kebab restaurant deep in the middle of the complex my guide pulls out his iPhone and calls up Google Maps to decipher the tunnel grids and deliver us to daylight.

Read Tim Murphy’s first story ‘Politics, Power and Pride in Iran

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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