Delightful Iran – Tehran
Before flying to the Middle East, I had met many highly educated Persians in social networks. They all spoke excellent English. That had left me with a wrong impression.
Because now I stand on the streets of Tehran between three taxi drivers – and none of them understands my destination. Not even a street name. I feel stuck. It is my very first day in Iran and so far I haven't looked much into my Farsi (Persian) phrase book.
A well-dressed passer-by sees the westerner with three local drivers and stops. I am easy to recognise as a foreigner. What's the matter, the stranger asks in good English, can I be of any help to you?
Oh thank you, I say, I would like to go to the Gandhi Shopping Centre on Gandhi Avenue. Could you translate that?
He explains my destination and they seem to know the place.
Could you help me fix the price, I ask the stranger? In Tehran you better agree upon the price first.
The stranger talks a bit in Farsi (Persian) and starts handing out bank notes to a driver.
Stop, stop, I call – please let *me* pay. I just need to fix the price, but I can pay for myself.
The passer-by keeps on handing out bills: Don't worry, he says, I take care. He produces even more bills.
I try to step between him and the happily receiving taxi driver. Please, I plead, please let's at least *share* the price.
No no, shouts the stranger. He hands a last bank note to the driver and starts running away. You can start now, the stranger calls from afar, already half a block away, I paid the full fare and he knows the way – oh, and welcome to Iran. He disappears around the corner.
I had met Shirin on Facebook. She had told me that she has a boyfriend, but that she would like to meet me for a walk or so. With her compact car, she picks me up at the hotel and we drive to Artists Park.
Many books have reported the Iranians' love for their old poets like Rumi, Hafez, Khayyam or Saadi. And Shirin is addicted too. Actually, she has a poetry app on her phone and now we can do a fall-e Hafez the modern way: The app will chose a random Hafez poem and we will see what it says about the future.
And look how Shirin's eyes light up when the result appears: Oh, she gushes, that's a *fine* poem. Hafez is doing a good job again. The beam in Shirin's cat-like, black Persian eyes lights even more: And see – there's my name in it – even in the first line! That's very good. (Actually, Shirin also means sweet.)
The poem, she says, is about a wind that blows across Persia. It touches a man's hair in the north and brings his thoughts to his beloved in the far south.
But Shirin isn't sure about how to deduct a prediction from this poem.
Anyway, she assures, Hafez' predictions are usually good. He won't embarrass readers with a bad prediction.
So Good to See You
The Musee Film Iran has two stylish cafeterias. In the midday heat, I try the air-con coffee shop first. For once in Tehran, they have a good-looking coffee machine, so I order a latte macchiato.
The latte arrives and is delicious. I wonder if Asghar Farhadi, Iran's amazing, Oscar-winning movie director had had coffees here.
The slick young waitress in her tight black dress and tight headscarf reappears. She lands a piece of chocolate cake in front of me. I hadn't ordered this, I think silently.
It's on the house, the waitress says in good English. Her black eyes smile warmly: So good to see you here.
A young Tehran couple wants to meet me. They had asked me to suggest a venue and I had requested any traditional tea house with seating on carpet platforms. I had meant a tea-house for locals; but now they take me to the Ferdowsi International Grand Hotel, one of the most expensive lodgings in all of Tehran, an oil-rich city of 18 million. The Ferdowsi has a built-in tea-house that caters to the most upmarket tour groups and maybe Sheikhs.
I can't let them pay here. My friends are in their mid-twenties, just started working life.
For me, Iran offers excellent value for money. For the young Tehranis, the Ferdowsi Hotel must be outrageously expensive. Also, the Ferdowsi's tea-house looks very formal and quite soon, it seems, a traditional band will drown everything in music.
I make one of my mistakes.
Please let me invite you for dinner, I say. I am not sure if they understand this certain meaning of invite. So I drive the nail even deeper: Please let me pay the bill later. I am on holidays and I am happy to meet new friends; I would like to celebrate that by inviting you.
They freeze. They lose their casual attitude and stiffen. The easy rapport we had while walking down the street is gone – for good.
Delicious food arrives, and then the traditional band turns on the amplifiers, rendering all conversation impossible.
We agree to end our meeting. They stiffen more and look at me reproachfully: Please. Can we ask you a favour? Could you let *us* check the bill please? It's our custom. This is Iran, you know.
So they pay, we say hurried good-byes and have no more contact whatsoever.
Honeymoon in Tehran
Azadeh Moaveni's Tehran memoirs are some of the most entertaining Hot Country Reading I came across this side of Adiga, Nwaubani and Lapcharoensap. In Lipstick Jihad and then, Honeymoon in Tehran, the former Time magazine journalist covers the years 2000 through 2007; but I felt her volumes also applied to my Tehran experience of late 2012.
In this upper midrange Tehran hotel, I call my receptionists Soraya and Farah Diba. The young ladies ooze sophistication in their slick black business dresses; their headscarves are mere fashion accessories, revealing strands and more strands of full, jet-black hair. Large, black, feline eyes, articulated nose and high cheek-bones. They are always there to recommend a taxi price to Tajrish or to reserve a long-distance bus seat.
Actually, I am just waiting for that. I lounge on a comfortable lobby couch and the lady I call Soraya has been on the phone for more than ten minutes now. She should book me a VIP seat to Kashan. Now she smiles at me: Please wait another minute, sir, I will get your seat soon; then she handles another hotel guest.
Most Iranians book their bus seats online, but it's not possible for a foreigner. Apart from that, independent travel in the country poses no problem whatsoever; actually Iran is a most delightful destination. Later on, I even extend my visa at a local police building, but that's another story.
Soraya calls: I got your booking fixed. And it's a window seat on the left, as desired. Should I get you a taxi to Terminal Jonoob right away?
The porter heaves my luggage into the taxi trunk and we weave into the malstroem of Tehran traffic towards the southern bus terminal.
I feel heart-broken to leave Tehran, and a good destination feels just like that upon good-bye. I had booked five days in the capital and then extended to three more. And I could still stay another week. I had wandered bazaars and atmospheric quarters for days. I had admired sophisticated museums and the Shah's breathtakingly modern hillside palaces, all kept in meticulous order by the mullah regime. I strolled Persian parks and enjoyed sunset from Milad Tower, from an open-air platform about 250 meters above Iran's vast capital. I went a mere 15 kilometers north by metro to reach the stunning, barren Alborz mountains, where I hiked on good trails among 4000 meters high peaks and stopped extensively in atmospheric tea houses. I went 40 kilometers by metro in the other direction and explored the colossal Khomeini shrine and the war martyrs' cemetery. I grew to love the strong Persian sense for beauty and public space.
As my vehicle crawls down Vali Asr Avenue, I think that Tehran is great for a western traveller: many first-rate attractions, and no tourists. Locals, of course, see it differently.
The taxi driver offers me peanuts.
What a great place to visit Iran looks like. As a lover of the food from that region, you've more than whet my appetite.