Astara

An Iranian Tijuana? So What?

The new Atlantic magazine has an intriguing dispatch about how "Iranians line up daily to cross the Astara River to buy and sell jeans, chickens, bras, laptops—and often sex and schnapps and heroin." Their destination -- the Azerbaijani town of Astara -- amounts to "the Tijuana of the Caspian," according to journalist Peter Savodnik, who wrote the piece.

Savodnik writes, among other things, that "Iranians find the Azerbaijanis’ mildly ironic attitude toward Islam a welcome relief from the stern theocracy of the ayatollahs."

That particular sentence is where my skepticism kicked in. Strictly speaking, Savodnik probably should have swapped out "Iranians find ..." in favor of "Iranians who visit Astara find ..." or "Iranians I interviewed in Astara said they find ..."

Once activated, my skepticism stayed busy. If we're going to accept that Astara is Iran's Tijuana, then I think we need to ask ourselves how much a foreigner could learn about the U.S. by visiting Tijuana and documenting the gringo debauchery. Maybe not much. Maybe nothing. Maybe a lot.

I'm reminded of a roadtrip in 1994. We'd just crossed from Utah to Nevada when we pulled up to a casino in the town of Wendover. There, in a Nevada parking lot with a large contingent of cars bearing Utah plates, my intuition told me I was learning some sweeping hypocritical truth about straitlaced Utah that couldn't be learned in Utah itself. I was sure of it. But was I right?

Regardless of how clear the view is through the window of our world's Astaras, Tijuanas, and Wendovers, there are several bits of the Atlantic piece that I will tuck away:

* An Azerbaijani cabbie's report "that the crowds lining up for entry to Astara have surged since June, when hundreds of thousands of Iranians protested the allegedly rigged reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad."

* Savodnik's deft sentence: "Astara doesn’t scream so much as strongly hint at the possibility of sin."

* A quote Savodnik attributes to an unnamed Azerbaijani Ministry of Foreign Affairs official: "it’s common knowledge that the Iranians want the border shut down."

That last one is especially interesting. Because the border is open, after all. Any guess as to why Iran can't -- or won't --shut the border would be, well, just a guess.

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