Several weeks before this trip, I ¨met¨ a young Iranian, Mehrdad, on identica, a microblogging community. That was pure coincidence: I noticed him mentioning he lived in Mashhad and couldn´t help myself and told him I´d be in Mashhad in a few weeks. The answer was ¨wow!¨ and a suggestion it might be nice to meet. Thus an idea was born.
Gradually I found other contacts in Iran via identica, either involved in development of Free Open Source Software (FOSS), or users and evangelists of FOSS. Five of them were also members of the Mashhad Linux Users Group (Linux is an operating system, like Windows, except it´s Open Source). Since I´m involved in FOSS myself, I thought it would be nice to meet with Iranian FOSS people. In the end, it turned out too complicated to set up a meeting in every city we would visit (and our program was way too busy fro that), but Mehrdad kindly organized a meet-up in Mashhad, where according to our itinerary we would have a full day. I left the meeting time to Mehrdad; we were to meet at 19:00 which was perfect for me, since I could do almost the whole day program that way.
And so, a few minutes before seven, I sit in the lobby of our Pardis hotel; just a few minutes after, three young men walk in — I recognize Mehrdad immediately from his identica avatar: a photo of himself. Being already used to Iranian customs with respect to shaking hands (especially after our experience in Yazd), I don´t initiate any handshakes, and only one of the young men shakes my hand in greeting. The three came together because they live in another part of the city; Mohammad lives in the same neighborhood as the hotel and arrives a little later on his own. When we´re complete, Majid suddenly asks me what my age is — 59, I say, and counter that now they´ll all have to tell me their ages as well, which gives me a chance to write down their ages and names: Majid, 23; Mohammad, 24; Mehrdad, 23 and Morteza, the youngest at 22. Three of them are still studying, Majid has just graduated and will have to go into military service (for 18 months) soon; Mohammad also has a job — he´s a bit down today since he failed a very hard exam this morning.
After a little chatting about my trip, we get to ¨business¨ and I explain what I´m really interested in hearing about: how they manage here in Iran to download, contribute to and use FOSS, limited by filtering of some sites by the Iranian government on the one hand, and US export regulations on the other. That story is told elsewhere, on my development blog. They also gently grill me about my involvement in FOSS, and usage of Linux (so far mainly for websites).
When the subject is more or less exhausted, Mohammad proposes we go somewhere else to have drinks. We walk a little down the street to where he can easily flag down a taxi (he knows the neighborhood, and thus knows where to get a taxi); ¨I hope you´ll get me back to my hotel¨, I say — just joking because I´m absolutely sure the polite Iranians would not even think of not doing that. Then a car stops, and we all pile in: three of us in the back, two on the passenger seat in front. The car door on my side doesn´t have any lining, it´s practically falling apart, and the whole car is very rickety, seemingly held together with bits of wire. Nevertheless it quickly and safely takes us to another neighborhood where we get off at a corner and walk again a little down the street. I´m really enjoying this part, since we´ve only been transported by bus through the city so far — I don´t feel I´ve really ¨been¨ in a city unless I´ve walked along its streets.
They´re taking me to a juice bar. Little stores where you can buy a big glass of freshly squeezed juice are quite common in Iran, just like elsewhere in the Middle East. But this place is different, an upmarket version of these little juice shops: it´s bright and shiny, roomy, with tables and chairs to sit on, a menu with subtitles in English on each table. The choice is enormous, juices, smoothies and other fruit-based products (¨no sugar added¨) and ingredients are quite varied, too. The menu even has an email address for information, but curiously no website address (I later find they do have one though there isn’t much information there). I opt for a wheat-grass-and-banana smoothie, which turns out to be delicious. Two of the boys now send an update to identica from their mobile phones, to let others know that we´re sitting here. Over drinks we chat on about the software situation in Iran — as it turns out, quite similar to that in China with its ¨Great Firewall¨, where knowledgeable people can easily get around the blocks, and copyright still means almost nothing: for instance, you can get a copy of Windows for about one dollar here.
Drinks finished, I try to buy the round for them, but that is resolutely refused: I´m their guest, period. Then the taxi ritual is performed again, and this time a much better car takes us back to my hotel: they tell me the quality of the taxis is dependent on the neighborhood where they cruise around. Back at the hotel, I say I´d like a picture of all of us together, which poses a little problem: the two people behind the reception desk are occupied, and no one else is in view in the hall. Magically, just in time, our guide Noyan appears from the elevator: I introduce them to each other, and he willingly takes our picture: I leave the arrangement to my hosts, which turns out just a little formal. When they take their leave, I´m somewhat surprised to get three handshakes.
All in all — and impressed yet again by the hospitality of the Iranians — I enjoyed our meet-up very much, and I think the story about Open Source Software development in Iran is a story worth telling, because, indeed, Freedom matters!