iran 10: tehran … politics, shrines, and martyrs

tehranamericaIran has a complicated relationship with the rest of the world. Whilst on one hand it has been labeled as an “axis of evil” by the West, the war with Iraq lasted for eight years and claimed hundreds of thousands of lives as trench warfare and poison gas were used for the first time since the First World War. Yet Iran’s only retaliation to it all is a couple of banners and a handful of painted wall murals outside the now ex-United States of America embassy in Tehran, and a Martyrs Cemetery where young, impish school children sing songs and pay homage to their country’s dead heroes. It makes you wonder.

As the world ostracizes this ancient nation nestled between Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran itself carries about its own business as usual. It has a largely flawless infrastructure throughout its vast expanse, a wonderfully rich heritage, and an educated and graceful people with ready smiles and laughter. “Iran good?” is the question asked by everyone you meet. There is such an eagerness to be accepted. To be liked. To be understood.

The country is, for the most part, a cash economy at present as a result of the various embargoes and sanctions imposed on it. Credit cards and travelers cheques don’t work here. Just plain cold hard cash. And for tourists, preferably in US Dollars or Euros. Yet there is no currency black market. One can change forex at certain bank branches, money changing shops, jewelers, carpet shops or in the streets.

I had spent my first two days in Iran in the Tehran of art, beauty, and bazaars. I now wanted to see the Tehran that was the country’s response to its modern history and the global arena. So, before I caught my flight back home, I picked up my camera, a few thousand Rials and took the metro to visit the Holy Shrine of Imam Khomeini and the Martyrs Cemetery.

The resting place of Imam Khomeini aka Ayatollah Khomeini is around 35 kilometers south of Tehran, and on the main road to Qom, Iran’s second holiest city after Mashad. The shrine is one of the largest Islamic complexes in the world. When I reached the shrine in the late afternoon, it was full of the faithful wrapped in chadors floating around the dimly-lit interiors, kneeling on the floors, circumambulating the tomb, murmuring verses from the Koran, and tying green ribbons on the lattice. The devotion to the Imam literally palpable.

Ayatollah Khomeini (24 September, 1902 – 3 June, 1989) was a senior Shia Muslim cleric, Islamic philosopher, and the political leader of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran which saw the overthrow of the last Shah of Iran. Following the Revolution, Khomeini became the country’s supreme leader, the paramount political figure of the new Islamic Republic, until his death. He was named Time’s Man of the Year in 1979 and also one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the 20th Century. Interestingly, he was also a Sufi poet with published works.

My next and last stop in Iran was the Behesht-e Zahra, the main military cemetery for those who died in the Iran-Iraq war. The cemetery was beautiful. Calm and serene. I know, it sounds kind of strange to describe a war cemetery with such words. But death is not mourned at these infinite rows of flower-draped tombs. But rather celebrated, with flags, banners, and children singing songs. These are the country’s heroes, and they have not been allowed to be forgotten. The faces smiling from the pictures placed on the tombs are still alive. The dreams and ideals of the activists still ablaze.

Wandering around, I found myself suddenly bombarded from all sides by scores of young school girls screaming “I love you” and flashing Victory signs with their little hands. Their eyes laughing with mischief. The laughter pouring over their faces. Wherever I turned I was overtaken by the pitter-patter of their feet. “My name is Fatima.” “Your name?” “Iran good good good?” “I love you! I love you!” And then they would break into guileless, honest laughter. The guards would raise their fingers, touch their foreheads in greeting. The relatives, in stilted English, would try and explain, blaming the West’s seesawing attitudes almost apologetically, of what had happened to their dead.

This is Iran. Warm. Unpretentious. Sensitive. Polite. And independent.

And the fact is that by ostracizing Iran, it is paradoxically the rest of the world that is losing out. We are losing out on a slice of humanity’s rich cultural heritage and its people’s sincere warmth and affection despite everything. Every journey has a lesson to impart. My trip to Iran taught me that by building walls we only isolate ourselves. And by reaching out and accepting the different, we learn how similar we all are. And how beautiful are the differences. ❤

Metro station, Tehran.

The Ayatollah Khomeini shrine with the faithful.

The Martyrs’ cemetery pays tribute to the millions who died in the Iran-Iraq war (22 September, 1980 – 20 August, 1988). A group of school girls were on a school trip to the cemetery, singing prayers for the dead, the day I visited.

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Note: I travelled to Iran in October 2007 for two weeks. Iran has been one of my most memorable travels to date. I am republishing the series comprising 10 posts till this mid-June. Refreshing my personal memories. This is the tenth and last post in the series—on Tehran and seeing it from a political lens, namely, its relationship with the West, and its political martyrs and shrines. Hope you have enjoyed the series. 🙂

iran 9: nain, abyaneh, kashan—travelling through the desert


I’ll be leaving in a couple of days; I have been in Iran for two weeks now. How easily we are able to change our habits. Two weeks and I now feel uncomfortable going out in public without my hejab, kebabs have become my staple diet, and salams and merci come easily. One more week here and I would be all chadored, going na na every time someone wanted to take a picture of me.

Travelling through miles of desert is an extraordinary experience. It also teaches you not to be fussy. Bathrooms are invariably behind a sand dune, at a little booth in a caravanserai, or in a thicket. So when you emerge you learn to check your front and backside as well so that there are no twigs sticking out of your hejab. It gives a whole new angle to the “going to the ladies” ritual.

There are two main deserts in Iran—Dasht-e Kavir and Dasht-e Lut—and they are both dotted with tiny little towns built around ancient mosques. Nain is the most charming with its carpets and 9th Century Jameh mosque decorated with stunning yet simple stucco-work. Continue reading

iran 8: esfahan nesf-e Jahan, esfahan is half the world


Esfahan is like a fabled town straight out of a medieval story with its ethereal mosques, opulent palaces, picturesque bridges and fabulous bazaars, all set around the most beautiful square in the world, the Maidaan Naqsh-e Jahan.

Naqsh-e Jahan meaning “pattern of the world” owes its splendour to the vision of Shah Abbas the Great. Began in 1602 as the centerpiece of the Shah’s new capital, the square was designed to house the finest architectural jewels of the Safavid Empire. Measuring 512 meters long and 163 meters wide, it is the second largest square in the world after Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Royal equestrian arts and polo games were once put on show here for the Shah and his court. Continue reading

iran 7: the desert city of yazd


I am nearing Yazd. The landscape is stunning. Towering, barren, sedimentary mountains streaked with iron oxides flank both sides of the road. It has been a long day, driving through hundreds of miles of arid wilderness. As I wind my way through the burgeoning city, millions of street lights twinkle in the darkness in warm welcome.

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Yazd is one of those not-to-be missed, no-matter-what, highlights of Iran. Wedged between two desolate deserts, it has long been a prosperous staging post on the caravan route between Esfahan and Central Asia. The city was an important center for Iran’s pre-Islamic religion, Zoroastrianism, and still has the largest Zoroastrian population in the country at 12,000. Continue reading

iran 6: shiraz, the heartland of persian culture


Drink until the turbans are all unbound,
Drink until the house like the world turns around.
~ Hafez, Sufi poet (14th Century)

I’m in Shiraz, the heartland of Persian culture. Shiraz was one of the most important cities in the medieval Islamic world and the capital of the Zand Dynasty from 1747 to 1779. Through its many artists and scholars the city earned a reputation for being the “House of Learning” and was synonymous with education, nightingales, poetry, roses. and at one time, red wine. It is home to one of the oldest universities dating to the 7th Century AD. Two of the world’s greatest poets, Hafez and Saadi are buried here. Continue reading

iran 5: the city of darius I, esther and avicenna—hamedan


Hamedan (also spelt Hamadan) is one of those cities where you can stroll through 2,500 years of history in a single afternoon. Cuneiform tablets of Darius I and Xerxes I proclaiming their kingship, Esther’s tomb, Avicenna’s 11th Century mausoleum, and a European style street plan with elegant squares designed in 1929 by German engineer Karl Frisch make up the Hamedan of today. And amidst this eclectic mix of history live a people with a traditionally deep-seated respect for knowledge and the sciences. Education is very highly regarded in Iran and literacy is around 80 percent. More than 60 percent of university students are women. Continue reading