A Tourist in Tehran
By Sylvain Cheze
The women adjust their headscarves as the plane descends into Imam Khomeini Airport. The landscape outside is dry, much like the flight: Turkish Airlines does not serve alcohol on its Tehran service. For most nationalities, it is surprisingly easy to enter Iran nowadays: a visa can be obtained on arrival with just a hotel booking and medical insurance. It is more complicated for visitors from the US, UK and a few other countries who cannot yet travel independently there. The whole visa procurement process takes 30 minutes. Welcome to Iran, says the immigration official, as he hands me my passport. I am going to hear that phrase many times over the coming week.
I have arrived in the country at short notice on a frequent flyer ticket that was due to expire and with only a vague travel plan. Consequently, I am surprised to discover that it is Nowruz, the Persian new year. Images of apples, sprouts, garlic, coins, goldfish and other symbols of beauty, health, love, patience, spring and prosperity are everywhere. Hotels, trains and planes are booked up too. The highway from the airport into Tehran resembles a motor rally at times, with drivers using the full width of the road to compete for position. Pedestrians consider that they have right of way; at one point, my taxi becomes part of a chevron of cars braking suddenly to allow a couple pushing a stroller to cross the highway. The man glares impertinently at the cars as if they have been rude to him.
Few are likely to call Tehran a beautiful city (many residents might of course beg to differ). First impressions are those of a flat grey mass of buildings softened only by the snow-capped Alborz mountains in the background.
The Metro is modern and, at 25 cents a ride, cheap. There are separate coaches for women at the front and back of the trains, although they can ride in mixed ones too. A section of the platform is partitioned for women as well. Signs inform commuters not to sit on the floor of the carriages.
The Museum of the Holy War is rarely mentioned in tourist brochures. “Why would you want to go there?”, the hotel receptionist asks, implying “let’s move on from that chapter in history.” Images cycling through banks of media screens convey the surging power of the crowd in the 1979 Revolution. However, equally insightful is that most of the space is dedicated to the war with Iraq in the early 1980s. The exhibits are well laid out: there are lifelike wax models, holograms that follow visitors down the passages and countless individual photographic exhibits, each with something personal: a pen, eyeglasses, a prayer cloth, a transistor radio. One exhibit has a certificate from Oklahoma State University. It is a poignant tribute to the thousands who perished in that conflict. For a moment, one puts aside the context of the times: this is you and me, not a bunch of fanatics.
Indeed, the concept of martyrdom is powerful in Iran and images of the dead line public spaces all over the country. On the promenade outside the museum, there are five cars in individual glass boxes, all shrouded in a swath of cloth and red roses. Each represents a nuclear scientist assassinated, usually while commuting to work across Tehran. A line of rockets displayed on the embankment opposite the museum adds a stark reminder of the current reality.
The youth in Tehran are stylish and self-indulgent and as much into popular culture as those anywhere else. Almost every young male has a styled hairdo. For the older generation, a drab grey suit is considered casual wear. There are no neckties evident, as the Revolution forbade or at least discouraged them as a symbol of decadence.
Golestan Palace is one of a few sites worth visiting in Tehran. As it is a public holiday, there is a long queue to enter, and there are few foreigners. Golestan was the residence of the Qajar kings, who ruled between 1795 and 1925 and declared Tehran as the capital of Iran. It was also used by the Pahlavis for the coronations of Reza Shah and his son Mohammed Reza Pahlavi (although they built their own palace on the hillside above Tehran, in a cooler, more amenable climate). The palace has lots of mirrored rooms, latticed windows, marble inlays and glittering tiles wherever possible. I find it garish and glitzy, and the acclaimed rose gardens in the courtyard look worn out. If anything, seeing this gives some understanding about why Iranians eventually revolted against the opulence and exclusion that this and succeeding eras represented.Enquiries about the former American embassy are telling. “We would rather move on from that episode in our history,” every Iranian I speak to tells me. “No need to waste your time visiting it”. Nonetheless, given the history of almost 40 years, the idea is compelling. The murals on the wall are faded and a torn banner across the main gate flaps in the wind. I am surprised at the ordinariness of the embassy building is, which resembles a 1950s-high school.
I have spent a day longer in Tehran than planned because the train to Shiraz was fully booked over the holidays. It takes most of a morning to navigate the ticketing process at Tehran railway station; as it turns out, there is an agency outside the building that handles ticketing. There seems to be someone in almost every situation who speaks English and they are always very helpful. Train tickets are relatively cheap: about US$35 overnight on the modern sleeper express from Tehran to Shiraz.
Every woman in Iran is compelled by law to wear a veil in public: at first, this takes some getting used to, but it begins to seem a little less unusual after the first day. There is often a continual effort needed to keep the veil in place: for some, it appears to be a comforting mask; for others, it is worn stylishly, pushed to the limit at the back of the head and accompanied by trendy shoes, jackets, trousers and sunglasses. Nonetheless, I see no overt religious conduct in public. People seem respectful but not fanatical. However, almost none of the public slogans are in English, so it is hard to develop much understanding about the realities of life in Iran and of course risky to form judgements from a fleeting visit.
Azadi Tower is Tehran’s most iconic symbol and was the Shah’s endeavour to commemorate 2,500 years of Persian civilisation. The building is crumbling and being restored. The ticket clerk presents a uniformed guide who speaks English, a service apparently included. The guide explains that the design is a fusion of architecture from the Sassanid and Achaemenid eras blended with post-Islamic style. It is a stark, bold structure, not something easily warmed to.
On the square below the tower, a concert is about to start but is interrupted by the noon call to prayer. A large square carpet is rolled out. Those who want to participate do so; most continue doing what they have been doing, hanging about on the lawns around the tower. It is hot and the sunlight is dazzling, reflecting off concrete at every turn and adding to the structure’s harsh ambience.
I retreat into the air-conditioned sanctity of the metro and head north to Tajrish, the highlands of Tehran and the wealthy northern suburbs where the Shah built his new palace. Indeed, it is much cooler up there, which must be particularly significant when temperatures reach 45 degrees Celsius in summer. The Imamzadeh Saleh mosque at Tajrish Square is a calm respite and welcoming to all. People can pray at their own pace and, if necessary, make phone calls while in the mosque. The same personal discretion applies to selfies, although it is always either boys or girls together. Most shops in the bazaar next to the mosque are closed for the holidays, but the food market is buzzing: the vegetables are some of the nicest looking I have ever seen. Outside, whenever police appear, Kurdish hawkers, with their dark exotic looks and distinctive baggy trousers, roll their goods into a bundle in a single movement and shrink away, only to return minutes later.
Later that afternoon, I return to midtown, to Tabiat Bridge, one of Tehran’s proudest modern structures. Designed by young architect Leila Araghian, it offers dramatic views of the city, an uncommon opportunity in the generally bland landscape of Tehran. Iran is a country where people promenading seems to be an important part of socialising and Tabiat is a perfect venue for that.
As sunset approaches, I take a taxi across the city to Midan Tower, Tehran’s highest point. Unfortunately, the public holiday means that many locals have had the same idea, and the long queues for the elevators are likely to last well beyond the setting sun and into the night. The view from the bottom is good enough anyway and I have by now seen a lot of Tehran from on high. There is a shopping centre and food court at the base of the tower. At sunset, a call to prayer comes over the loudspeakers and I expect people to react in an appropriately spiritual fashion. A taxi driver lays out a prayer mat next to his car, but most people simply raise their voices to be heard over the broadcast, keep calm and carry on.