“Why are you going to Iran???” “Coz I want to.” “But why? You’ve really gone cuckoo. Just look at the current global political scenario!!!” “I’m going because I want to go that extra mile. Cross that extra river. Go beyond perceptions and expectations. Learn for myself what really is out there.” “You’ve gone cuckoo, period!”
Salam. I’m off to Iran. It was not an easy task explaining my choice of holiday that year:) But, hey, who cares. I’m going where my heart wants me to go. I want to walk through the ruins of Xerxes’ Persepolis, wonder at the beauty of Esfahan and smile and play with Kurdish children before it is all too late. Before it all becomes another Baghdad, Kabul or Burma. Come along with me?
The first thing that strikes one about Tehran is that it breaks many stereotypes. And the biggest stereotype it brings to dust is the misconception we have of the Iranian woman being all draped and subdued into secondary shadows. Instead their faces are painted in picture perfect makeup, their hair bleached and coiffured, their bodies dressed in tight fitting knee length jackets. They all look like beautiful peacocks, strutting away, each act and expression enacted for full effect. Couples walking hand in hand, gazing into each others eyes at street corners. The art of flirtation perfected. The average Iranian woman is strong, intelligent, educated and refreshingly forward. It is only the old and the poor that are draped in black chadors. Including me! I looked more backward and conservative than everyone else on the street, wrapped in my black abaya and head scarf, till I eventually got myself a trendy black manteau from one of the many boutiques. “You look like an Iranian!” “Merci.”
I like Tehran. I expected it to be noisy, run down, chaotic and dirty. But it is just like any other big world city instead, with wide boulevards, rickety side lanes, elegant Victorian edifices, faceless apartment blocks, crowded old bazaars, plane trees, and huge squares with fountains sparkling in the dusky sun. And as night sets, the lights in its trees are lit and all its people in all their finery step into its folds, laughing, smiling, talking. The streets are lined with shops selling the latest cell phones, electronic gadgets from all over the world, and wonderfully glamorous evening gowns for the private parties that are a much common occurrence amongst the elite. Movie halls screen commercial Iranian action films and dubbed Bollywood song and dance flicks, whilst countless eateries offer pizzas, burgers and chips.
The muezzin calls for the evening prayers, but no one appears to notice. For all its political and religious bindings, Tehran revels in being the rebel. But in a politically and religiously correct way. It is a tough line to follow. Living a double life in its most literal sense. And if you can understand that, you can understand Tehran, and even Iran, to some extent.
Tehran’s history as a capital city dates back to 1795, when the newly victorious Qajar Shah Aga Mohammed Khan declared the dusty town of 15,000 his capital. Museums, palaces, bazaars and mosques are the mirror of a nation’s history and soul and Tehran has its own fair share of them. The cream of the crop have to be the National Museum with its Persepolis collection and the “Salt Man”, the Jewels Museum, the Reza Abbasi Museum, the Glass and Ceramics Museum, the Carpet Museum, and the Sa’d Abad Museum Complex. The Salt Man is an intriguing exhibit with a remarkably intact skull with white hair and beard, plus a leather boot with the foot still in it. Interesting viewing. The remains are believed to be those of a 3rd or 4th Century salt miner.
The Golestan Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of those “To Do” things in Tehran. It was built by the Qajar Shahs and includes several buildings set around a formal garden. The Marble Throne Verandah, a ceremonial hall containing a massive alabaster throne, is the highlight and is simply beautiful. Covered in glass with inlaid doors and stained glass windows, it is like being inside a diamond. It all just glitters and glimmers around oneself. The walls and the roof breaking into patterns and reflections and light. And No Photography Allowed.
Qajar art is a unique combination of Persian and European forms. The gardens and columns are Moorish. The tiles and glasswork Persian. And now and then a mystifying juxtaposition occurs with a semi-nude woman on a painted tile surrounded by Islamic blue tile covered with geometric patterns.
Ok, so I have a fetish for museums. I spent much of my first two days wandering through these treasure troves in a daze, marveling at all the Persian art on display, alternating it with visiting the chaotic Tehran bazaar, and laughing and chatting with the women in the mosques as they posed for me and did their namaaz at the same time. I ate McDonald cloned burgers in the company of Americanized Iranian young men with fancy hairstyles and gorged myself with street side kebabs sharing tables with Iranian women who were on social outings with their friends and daughters. I watched the fountains twinkle in the brightly lit night as countless people swarmed around me, their laughter echoing happily in the dark, and I felt at home, and safe.
I was in Iran and all the perceptions were happily falling apart.