Welcome To Tehran
Although probably a long way removed from the usual submissions that appear on this site, I thought readers might enjoy learning about a country that little is known about, with few having had the privilege of visiting, let alone living in. The following essay was written on my first arrival into Iran back in mid 2013, and where I subsequently lived for 3 years, finally leaving in 2015. It is an introductory piece to a monthly blog that I wrote whilst there, commenting on some aspects of Tehran society.
Persia, the very name conjures up exotic visions of lost civilisations with stunning Islamic architecture, conquering hoards, carpets, wine, and poets such as Omar Khayyam telling tales from The Rubaiyat. Although one can no longer officially enjoy wine in Iran, the modern day name for Persia, one can still become intoxicated by her beauty and drawn to the warmth of her people … and as we were to find, wine and alcohol is still freely available, if you know who to talk to!
Welcome to the land of forbidden pleasures and regulated misery – the Islamic Republic of Iran.
It was therefore with some trepidation that I stood awaiting my turn in the immigration queue at Imam Khomeini International airport in Tehran. As I handed over my very conspicuously maroon British passport, I had visions of being immediately marched off to a side room and being interrogated for a lengthy period and then probably interned forever! It had taken me close to a year to get my visa granted, as being a Brit, we are persona non-grata to the government of Iran, better known as The Committee. But it seems that since the election of the new President Rohani, things may genuinely have started to change, as almost immediately after the election, I received an email from the government who were pleased to inform me that my visa had been granted.
In the event, I need not have worried, as I was greeted by a smiling face and a “Welcome to Iran” by the immigration official as he quickly stamped my passport and that was that, we were through and free to collect our baggage – that was the first surprise. The airport was relatively modern and seemed to work well, with no baggage or taxi touts.
We were met by Alireza (we subsequently learned that everybody’s name is Ali something!) who was to be our minder, translator, driver and what we were to learn, general factotum go-to guy. The reason for him having been appointed to this important role was that he spoke good English having studied an MBA in London. He had worked in Amsterdam for several years, so even understood a little of my colleague’s Afrikaans.
We exited the arrivals hall and drove the close to what felt like 100 kms into Tehran on a good toll road highway, but was probably in reality less than that, but only felt that far due to the crazy and voluminous amount of traffic. All along the route, there was new construction – always a sign of a growing economy. In direct juxtaposition of all this new development were the huge numbers of Hillman Hunters, a 60 year old UK designed car that up until recently were still being manufactured in Iran under the brand name of Paykan. This type of local vehicle production is mirrored in India where the Hindustan Ambassador, based on the early 1950’s Morris Oxford, forming the backbone of the many taxi fleet. We were dropped off at our apartment that was to be our home for the next few months in Velenjak District 1, an area that we were told was the best part of the city in the north, high up on the foothills of Alborz Mountains overlooking much of Tehran below us. We were left for a couple of hours to unpack and freshen up before being collected again to visit the market and get a general orientation of our immediate area.
Everywhere we went, we were greeted by curious stares – westerners are still a rarity here; the city was bustling with people going about their day-to-day activities and it seemed all so very normal, quite unlike what we from the west had been brainwashed to expect. This did not look like a city that was experiencing massive and crippling international sanctions, as all the shops that we passed were well stocked, albeit perhaps with goods that appeared to be largely fakes and knock-offs. Admittedly grocery stores although having good levels of stock, the range was severely limited. Everywhere we looked, life appeared totally normal and quite unlike our expectations. We visited the local bazaar, and passed shops selling strange and exotic smelling spices and herbal remedies, but it was the fruit sellers that really caught our attention as the fruit on display was fresh and far more wholesome looking than the fruit that we get back home.
We saw women in all states of dress, from those fully covered in the legally required black chador to the less well covered. The common denominator seeming to be trousers or jeans and a short jacket similar to a short raincoat (a manteau) and a token headscarf, or hijab covering very little of their hair. What was common however was that virtually all of them were well made up and bizarrely they had all apparently been to the same eyebrow-waxing saloon, who had then pencilled in exaggerated revised eyebrows. In addition, there seems to be a preoccupation amongst the women for having nose jobs, as we see many with post surgery dressings on their noses.
We see boys and girls openly holding hands in the street, which under the strict Islamic laws that are supposedly in place here is illegal, as are apparently most things approaching what we in the west would think of as normal. However Iranians seem to be quite open in flouting the strict Islamic laws imposed on them by the Ayatollahs and Mullahs who claim authority from Allah himself. It is a testament to the Iranian population and human nature to openly defy those laws and are in one way or another forcing their government to accept the reality of the 21st century, refusing to be subjugated.
One hears stories about Tehran traffic as being some of the worst in the world, a claim to which I can now verify. It apparently moves in at least five different directions at once, with little or no adherence to any known rules governing it – traffic lights are clearly optional! From what we could establish on this our first foray, the rules seems to be small gives way to big, but everybody seemed to just get on with it with no obvious manifestations of road rage and surprisingly very little use of a car hooter. The city apparently has the highest number of traffic accidents anywhere in the world, which is not surprising. Crossing the street on foot requires nerves of steel and an absolute blind faith in human nature as cars, trucks, buses, and motorcycles never stop to give you a second to sneak in between them. Thus, you have only two choices: either you spend all your time waiting for someone to have pity for you (which will rarely happen!) and let you cross the street, or close your eyes, go and keep praying.
“Where are you from”, is the common question that we keep being asked, at least by those who are keen to try out their English – a rare language here and one that is normally asked by the women, one sees signs at ‘language schools’ offering to help “we can help fix your broken English”. When we respond that we are from South Africa, few believe us as we are not black, as perception says that all people from the African continent have to be black! This apparent lack of English ability is surprising as all road signs and direction boards are bi-lingual in Farsi and English, with most up-market restaurants having menus in both languages, although the many fast food outlets are exclusively in Farsi.
Today being Friday and the Sabbath here in the Muslim world, we visit Shah Mohammed Reza old Palace complex – Saadabad, consisting of his original palace, summer palace and many other buildings that supported his luxurious and extravagant lifestyle in a vast park of I suspect several hundred acres. As is the case in many similar non-tourist countries around the world the exhibits were poorly signposted and maintained.
We had to queue for close to 45 minutes before the park opened, which resulted in us being the only foreigners amongst the several hundred locals that evidently come to the park to relax amongst the cool walkways, lawns and fountains. Some bring picnics, letting their children run free, giving them some respite from the apartment style living that is common to many Tehran family, others just to walk with their families every Friday. But once again we were the object of curiosity with several keen to try out their English and wanting to have their photos taken with us … we are beginning to feel quite the celebrities. Westerners truly are a rarity here, in fact in the week that we have been here I can only recall seeing one other – and that was in the diplomatic area. One might be concerned by this, but the reality is that everybody that we have met, from officials to taxi drivers, shop keepers, to the men and women in the street have been genuinely pleased to see us. At every interaction people are openly welcoming and keen to hear our perceptions of Iran. It becomes very difficult to equate this very genuine warmth with the west’s propaganda of the country being a part of the Axis of Evil with designs to wipe out the west. The only physical manifestation of that we have seen is the occasional large coloured murals painted on the side of buildings, proclaiming “Down with the USA” or, decrying in some way “The Great Satan” along with other anti-American slogans. The walls surrounding the former US Embassy, laughingly known as “The U.S. Den of Espionage.” are decorated with equally anti American slogans.
In general, this country has to be one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented countries by the U.S. government and western media. The term “Axis of Evil” has been widely adopted because of former President Ahmedinejat’s insistence on the right to have nuclear technology, his hate speeches against the U.S. and Israel and support of international terrorist organizations. Consequently, there is a common perception that Iran is the number one enemy of the U.S. One most certainly does not get that impression from talking to the ordinary man on the street, who struggle to maintain a degree of ‘normality’ in their daily lives, in this globally isolated corner of the Middle East as nobody that we have met supports this reactionary fundamentalist viewpoint.
The feeling that the average man-in-the-street has about his / her government is less than complementary with most eager for change and normality. According to Iran’s Islamic Culture and Guidance Ministry official poll of 2001, only 10% of Iranians were happy with the country’s situation. The rest called for moderate (66%) or drastic (23%) changes. These figures are astonishing considering the indoctrination since 1979 and the fact that 48% of Iranians believed they could not express criticism of the regime without being afraid of repercussions in the same poll. Although few are prepared to talk about it, many still remember with fear the persecution of many anti government demonstrators in the 1980’s, when the dreaded Revolutionary Guard killed thousands of them, along with an equal number of political prisoners. I suspect that these percentages are in fact far higher now some 12 years down the line allied to the ever tightening of sanctions.
The west’s perception that all Iranians are terrorists and religious fundamentalists could not be further from the truth; in fact today was only the second time that I have heard the Adhan (the call to prayer) since I have been here and evidently very few actually attend even the Friday prayer, which is the most holy of all prayers in the Muslim week.
The reality is however very different; the same poll referred to above, indicated that only 6% of Iranians agree with the statement that “Religion and Faith are one of the best ways of overcoming obstacles in life”, Close on two thirds admit that they rarely or never participate in the Friday Prayer! This is yet another of the many paradoxes of Iran where ayatollahs and mullahs rule the country but majority of the Iranian population apparently live an almost secular and quite westernized lifestyle, albeit behind closed doors. Again I suspect that this figure is probably even higher now; with certainly the younger folk believing that real meaningful change is now only a matter of time, particularly under the new President Rouhani.
There are many other misconceptions about Iran as well. The one that annoys Iranians is that most Westerners believe that Iranians are Arabs, which they are not! Persian is the official language of Iran, not Farsi which is merely one of its dialects. What Iranians share with the Arab world is a location in the Middle East, an alphabet of the Arabic origin (with some subtle differences) and religion – Islam. However, being a Muslim in Iran has a different meaning than in most other Arab countries of the Middle East as most here are of the Shi’a sect, with only a very small minority being Sunni, who are the majority in the Arabian Peninsula.
Today we visited one of our company’s largest distributors in the Bazaar Bozorg, the largest bazaar in Tehran, containing over 60,000 little shops and holes in the wall. Unlike many large covered Middle Eastern bazaars such as Istanbul or Damascus, there wasn’t a tourist in sight, merely 2 million odd Tehran daily shoppers going about their usual daily shopping so one got a real feel for everyday life. Thankfully we had a guide, otherwise I’m sure we would have become easily lost in the dozens of narrow intersecting alleyways, stairs, and little hidden courtyards. We were taken to lunch in a local restaurant that had been serving kebabs for over 150 years by our distributor who apparently knew everybody in both the restaurant and the bazaar. We therefore ended up having lunch with the Mayor … although Boris Johnson he was not!
The hospitality of these people is ridiculous, every little shop we enter wanting to give us a drink, an ice cream, a cake, a biscuit or similar and then take you to lunch … in fact the lunch thing is becoming a bit of an issue as the only food that we have been served thus far is rice and kebabs – not exactly light lunchtime dining and I battle to eat the huge portions that are presented. It also plays havoc with our planning and scheduling to achieve everything that we have set out to do in a day, all compounded of course by the horrendous Tehran traffic in a huge and sprawling smog enveloped city of close to 22 million people.
Although I have worked for my company for over 25 years in some very obscure parts of the world, walking around the small alleys and streets today talking to the ordinary small business owners and people in the street, I was reminded by how incredibly privileged I am to get to be able to do this – and get paid for it! Although tourism is strictly speaking ‘possible’ here, the reality is quite different; as a tourist one would be herded from one sight to another in an air-conditioned coach and never get to meet and talk with ordinary folk as we are doing in a society that has been closed to the west for over 30 years.
We were working in the far southern suburbs of Tehran yesterday, a relatively poor area and home to one of the many holy shrines that dot the city. A shrine for the Shi’a is a burial place of one or more of their Imam’s. This is yet another example of the many differences between the Sunni and Shi’a sects, with the former believing that authority rests with a leader chosen by the community of those who follow the ethical / religious Muslim path and the latter believing that religious and political authority rests in the hands of the Imams exclusively.
We were fortunate enough to be able to go into the shrine itself, although not take photos in the inner sanctum, passing through the various ornate burial rooms covered in mirrors, with architecture similar to that of India. All were filled with the faithful praying, sometimes loudly, others quietly in a corner; all however retreating out of the room backwards as a sign of respect to the particular Imam buried there.
This is yet another difference between the two sects; the primary one of course being that the Shi’a believe that The Prophet Mohammad (“peace be upon him”) specified that his cousin and son-in-law, Ali, would be his successor. The authority of Prophet Mohammad (“PBAH”) is believed to be passed on in direct blood lineage through Ali. There are also additional and significant differences in interpretation of the Holy Qur’an as well as recognition or rejection of certain traditions and customs.
It is ironic that both Iran and its hated enemy Iraq, with whom they fought a bloody war between 1980 to 1988, costing more than a million Iranian lives over 8 years, both share the same religion, namely Shi’a. Also, in addition to the three traditionally holiest places of Islam, Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem located in Saudi Arabia and Israel respectively, the holiest of the Shi’a shrines where their Imams are buried, are located in Najaf and Karbala, both in Iraq. Most Iranians are vociferous in their condemnation of Saddam Hussein, who was initially supported in general by the west and in particular by US, Germany and France in obtaining chemical weapons, resulting in one Iranian town near the Iraqi border being totally wiped out.
Although the area that we visited is relatively poor, the shrine itself was huge and beautiful, as are apparently many of the many shrines around the country. Evidently the Iranian government spends a lot of money on their construction and / or restoration as they do mosques, the latter to which we can attest, as we have seen many that are undergoing repair and / or restoration. Sadly however this lavish expenditure often results in neglecting the needs of the living. The Shah is therefore fondly remembered by many for his many positive reforms and heavy investment in infrastructure and education. In the 1970’s Tehran was known along with Beirut in Lebanon as ‘The Paris of the Middle East’. Many of his reforms such as granting voting rights to women, nationalizing forests, granting land to workers and profit-sharing to industrial workers are contrasted with the mullahs’ attempts to either take these rights away or to control them.
This does not mean that the corruption of the Shah’s government and his strong pro-Western views are forgotten. However, the very same people who point out to the Shah’s mistakes are quick to comment that modern Iranian theocracy is even more corrupt and less responsive to its people.
Yesterday was a public holiday – Martyr’s Day, evidently the anniversary of the death and martyrdom of one of the most revered Imam’s, revered sufficiently to warrant his own public holiday. Regretfully as our business knows no holidays, we predictably worked! We did however have the opportunity of being able to visit one of the shrines in one of the poorer parts of the city where a religious ceremony was taking place to celebrate the day. The ceremony consisted on a lot of chanting and self flagellation by the faithful all dressed in black and wearing black headbands; I have seen similar exhibitions of this in Shi’a dominated Bahrain, where they normally take to the streets and bring traffic to a halt for hours. Here at least it was kept within the confines of the shrine itself, with the premises well maintained and set in park-like grounds and undergoing a lot of building maintenance. Again as a westerner, I was welcomed by the faithful who were praying there, I find this open welcome totally different and refreshing as opposed to their southern Arab neighbours, where as an infidel I would most certainly not be welcome in their Mosque or holy ground during prayer time.
I feel very much adrift here with regard to language, as I am used to speaking Arabic and can get by in that language, generally making myself understood and being able to participate in simple conversations. However I cannot seem to get my head or tongue around Farsi, as I have no point of reference and find myself responding automatically in Arabic which merely gets me blank looks – I might as well stick to English … Note to self, buy a Farsi phrase book when I get back to Dubai!
Another Friday and being on my own (my colleague is on a week’s home leave) I decided to do the cultural thing today and visited the Niavaran Cultural Historical complex on the outskirts of the city. I received very detailed instructions from Alireza who was quite concerned that I wanted to do the excursion by myself, “how will you make yourself understood” he asked. “Because you’ll write it down in Farsi“ I said “and tell me how much I must pay the taxi” I added. I did however omit to get him to write down my home address in Farsi, so that was a bit of a challenge in getting the taxi driver to understand where to take me coming back! Fortunately taxis are so prolific here one will never wait more than a few minutes for one. Fortunately I did at least know the residential area and recognised the streets once we got near, so was able to direct the driver to our apartment.
This is another example of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’ Palaces, but this one was in fact his own private residence where he and his family lived until they left the country to go into exile. Whilst the main public rooms were decidedly grand, I found the children’s bedrooms surprisingly small and intimate, each with their own en-suite bathroom and rather ordinary. We got a real insight into the man on visiting his small private office, plainly decorated and adorned with pictures that his children had drawn, many pictures of his wife and himself with the children, his achievements at football and his very obvious pride at his flying abilities. One got the feeling that behind all the glamour and pomp, he was a real family man and enjoyed the time that he was able to spend with his family.
Once again the complex, whilst better maintained and signposted than the previous one we had visited, was well patronised by Iranian families, who were obviously keen to see how the Shah had really lived, coming for a day out to enjoy the lovely park-like grounds. Apart from one Chinese girl I saw no other foreigners. I was therefore once again the object of curiosity with several people asking where I was from and what did I think of Iran … I continue to be struck by the very genuine warmth of these people and have to say that the longer I spend here the more the place grows on me, mainly because of the people.
As I sat in the airport lounge awaiting my flight back to Dubai, I mentally reviewed the six weeks that I have spent here and can honestly say that I shall take warm and fond memories away with me of this fascinating country. Above all, I will remember the warmth of its people, who to a person, were genuinely welcoming and open in their greetings to me. It’s not often that I leave a country with sadness and am already looking forward to returning once again … this time to explore the country in more detail, as I shall be moving here for at least the next 2 years or more.
Postscript: As the aircraft reached its cruising altitude and the seat belt light was switched off, it was obviously the signal for the Iranian women on the flight to make the transition to true western dress. As they all disappeared off to the bathrooms, each emerging a few moments later, minus their manteaux and concealing headscarf’s – now the very epitome of a well dressed western woman.
The author cannot be contacted.