This is series of several posts about my first visit to Iran. On the 2nd of June (12 Khordad) 2011 I arrived at Imam Khomeini International Airport (IKA) flying with now-defunct British Midland Airways, arriving at almost 4am.
I stayed at the Laleh Hotel which is roughly in the centre of Tehran. I had emailed them about a week before and made a reservation. I wanted to visit Iran for about three weeks. In addition to Tehran I wanted to see Esfahan, Shiraz, and Masuleh (mentioned in book 3 of Ahmad Saffar Moqaddam‘s series)..
My knowledge and understanding of Iran was very limited. I didn’t know what to expect. The travel advice from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was downbeat, particularly urging me not to take photographs in public places. However it didn’t quite ring true – it seemed to be written with a political message rather than as bona fide advice. I decided I would cautiously ignore the FCO’s advice, take a small camera, take some photographs, and see what happened. However I would endeavour not to take photographs of government buildings, which would likely invite the scrutiny of the police, as it sometimes does in the United Kingdom.
Years later, at Dehkhoda, when discussing my previous visits to Iran, I struggled to find an exact translation of the word perception because often words have slightly different meanings. So for those who can Persian, in my view, perception is a composite of the following: درک، خیال، احساس، دریافت، تصور، فکر،اندیشه، پندار، ایده. Each of those words have a circumambient meaning for perception.
My perception of Iran was mostly formed through what I had seen in newspapers, some brief looking online, looking at a sheet map and seeing how big Iran is, and leafing through the Dr Moqaddam’s books. We use the adage ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ in English. My translation to Persian: یک تصویر ارزش هزار واژه را دارد /ye tas’vir ar’zesh’e he’zār vā’zhe ra dār’ad/.
As I didn’t know what Iran would be like, I turned the thought upside down and considered what Iran might not be like. I didn’t perceive that Iran was a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma like Russia supposedly was according to Winston Churchill. Nor did I perceive that Iran was ‘inscrutable’, as China is sometimes pejoratively described. I didn’t think it was like European countries, nor quite like Far Eastern countries. But nor did I think it was quite like other countries in the Middle East. So I had a slowly forming idea that Iran was unique. Not that other countries are not unique, but is there really much difference between France and Italy beyond language and food tastes? Well of course there is, but those countries have a common heritage for thousands of years. An Italian, while noticing the differences, would not feel that France is excessively foreign.
I had met very few Iranians before. The tutors, both Iranian, were polite and friendly and welcoming, they made jokes and laughed, they talked fondly about Iran. They weren’t ‘mysterious’ people.
In this series of posts about my first visit I won’t dwell too long on any one feature or city or landmark. This is about my first experience in Iran rather than a complete guide to any of these places. So please keep in mind the superficial nature of these ‘first visit’ posts are due to my own ignorance most of the time, and also to the purpose I have mentioned.
Out and about
My first foray into Iran was a walk from the Laleh Hotel meandering through Laleh Park, down Kargar Street to Tehran Railway Station. I wanted to know where the railway station was located as I planned to take a train from Tehran to Esfahan.
Laleh Park was peaceful. It was well laid out with many pathways, and a large pond and fountain somewhere near the middle. There were crows in the trees and on the ground, people sat on benches talking, cats here and there were watching from vantage points or reclining in their demesnes. The grass was cut, the paths clean and tidy. There was a small mosque, public lavatories (no charge), and drinking water fountains dispensing cooled water. Lamentably and spitefully, drinking water fountains have long since ‘disappeared’ from many or most parks in the United Kingdom. Meanwhile in May 2018 near The Mall in London I bought a half litre bottle of water for the rip-off price of £2. What used to be provided as a public service is now a private sector gravy train.
Kargar Street was noisy. I learned in about two minutes that Iranians like to sound their horn when driving. Perhaps it is mandatory in the Iranian equivalent of the Highway Code. Crossing roads was fraught with danger and frankly it annoyed me. It seemed that almost no driver stopped at crossings, instead they manoeuvred to get around the obstacles that in London are known as pedestrians. The general plan I adopted was to cross when some other people crossed (and the larger the group the better), and hopefully no driver would try to mow down a herd of pedestrians.
Tehran is a big city, and distances on maps can be deceiving. This was a longer walk than I anticipated, but not unpleasant. I passed some of the major roads which I would later get to know well – Keshavarz Boulevard, Enqelab Avenue, and Jomhuri Avenue. I could feel that I was walking downhill all the way – Tehran is more or less built on the south side of a mountain.
Kargar Street, like most major roads in Tehran, is full of shops. I stopped in a coffee shop, which I can’t remember the name of, and had a coffee and a cake. Both were very good. I will write a much longer article about the differences between Tehran and London high streets later, but one characteristic conspicuous by its absence was the bland repetitiveness of so many London streets. In London (and the United Kingdom generally) there are far too many chain shops, particularly mobile phone and coffee shops, and this leads to blandness and lack of choice for the consumer. Most chain coffee shops in London are dull with the same unvarying corporate appearance and what passes for decoration, the products while averagely good are actually fairly dull and homogeneous, and the staff are interchangeable. This is not the case in Tehran. One-off coffee shops abound everywhere. The coffee is better prepared, the selection of cakes and nibbles is wider, and the service is better. Who would have thought it? Not me, evidently. This is the benefit of first-hand experience.
When I reached my destination I had a brief look inside to familiarise myself, then took a taxi back to Laleh Hotel.
Another day I walked the opposite direction, up to Tajrish, via Dr Fatemi Street and Vali Asr Street. This again was a long walk, and uphill all the way. I was rather distracted by the walk so didn’t take any photographs. I passed Dehkhoda. At that time it appeared as just another building, but later was to find an eternal place in my heart.
I wandered around the bazaar, no doubt sticking out like an obvious westerner sore thumb. I took some more photographs – nobody told me not to. One or two people said ‘hello!’, one or two people eyed me curiously, but for the most part I was ignored. The bazaar is not a museum – it’s a major shopping area. Customers were busy looking and buying, and the bazaaris were busy selling. Compare the photograph below of the bazaar with how it looks at the time of Āshura.
One day I ventured onto the Tehran Metro, or Tube as I can’t help but call it. My first day on the Metro coincided with a holiday so it was uncharacteristically quiet. Another day I saw how busy it usually is.
The first thing I noticed was how modern the Tehran Metro is. I am proud of London’s Tube and its history, it being the first underground railway system in the world and its obvious success. In Iran the Metro system only began in 1999, and so doesn’t have over 150 years of legacy work to maintain. Some surveys had been done in the 1970s, initial work was begun, but then came the Iran-Iraq war (called the Imposed War in Iran), and all work on the Metro stopped.
The second thing noticeable was how cheap it is (let’s be honest – everyone is horrified by London Tube prices and in no way can it termed ‘good value’). One can buy paper tickets, but a Metro pass offers better value. These are similar to Oyster cards in London.
The third thing evident was the carriages are tall and have proper air conditioning. One could say this is essential in Tehran where the temperature in the summer months is on average much higher than in London.
Tube maps were in Persian and English. Next stations were announced automatically. Station signs show the direction of travel with the final destination. The stations were spotlessly clean, well lit, and modern. The platforms were wide, and most have seating along the entire length. Ferdowsi Station had murals depicting stories from the Shahnameh. I don’t know quite what I was expecting, but this wasn’t it. This wasn’t a minimal bare-bones level of functionality. Some serious thought had been put into this.
Women passengers can use any part of the train, but there is also a women-only section. Nobody likes to be jostled on the tube when the trains are busy, and no doubt this alleviates this issue to some extent.
Tehran Grand Bazaar
This is the biggest bazaar in Iran. It’s easy to get lost here, and I did. The passageways seem to go on forever. Turn a corner and there is another long passageway. One can pretty much buy anything in the bazaar: food, toys, household essentials, office equipment, clothing, shoes, cloth, … The choice is the widest, and if they really don’t have it a bazaari will know where to get it and who from. It was an endless hustle and bustle of buyers and sellers, and porters pushing trollies.
I can hardly do justice to the Grand Bazaar in this post, and my first visit was in the for of an acclimatisation. Later, when I had learned to speak Persian to a more useful level, my experiences were far better.
Niavaran Museum Complex
Niavaran is a palace complex in northern Tehran, within about an hour’s walk from Tajrish. It was used by both the Qajjar and Pahlavi dynasties. Today it is a park and museum complex.
The main mansion while well built is in my view rather plain, some may call it modern. I think that was the purpose – to show that Iran was modern and modernising. So although it has aspects of older architecture reminiscent of the columns of Chehel Sotun in Esfahan, it is not exactly a pastiche. Inside it is very large, well appointed and decorated.
The Saheb Qaranie is another rather plain building. While appearing to be very modern, it is actually built in the Qajjar era, apparently 1850. There are many petroglyphs and sculptures in the gardens all around the buildings.
The Ahmad Shahi pavilion, also from the Qajjar era, was far more pleasing to my eye. But I seem to prefer older buildings anyway as they have more history.
You can read more about Niavaran here. If you can read Persian.
This is another large palace and park complex in north Tehran, located very close to Tajrish. Like Niavaran, this complex was used by the Qajjar and the Pahlavi dynasties. Because the air here is both clean and cooler, this is a popular destination for Tehranis.
On the tree lined road below, a young guard asked me if I could spare a cigarette. I don’t smoke, which he didn’t seem to comprehend. Lighting up cancer sticks is not my idea of fun.
The reasons why the Shahs built their palaces up here in the foothills of the mountains are very practical. Firstly the land was available without too much arm-twisting, secondly for the same reasons Tehranis go there today the air is cooler. In summer months central Tehran is hot. And in the Qajjar era ubiquitous and effective air conditioning was still a long way off. Elsewhere in Iran wind catchers (بادگیر) /bād’gir/ served this purpose and are architectural marvels by themselves. For the Tehran aristocracy, the area north of Tehran was close enough and cool enough.
You can read more about Sa’adabad here (English).
This modern tower was built in 1972 during the Pahlavi Era, and at that time was known as the Shah Memorial Tower. It was intended as a symbol of Iran for those arriving at Mehrabab International Airport which is very close by. After the Islamic Revolution in 1979 it was renamed to the Freedom Tower (ā’zā’di in Persian means freedom). Today it is still a symbol of Iran, and Tehran in particular.
The tower itself sits in a large square (appropriately named Azadi Square) surrounded by a busy road with several lanes of traffic. There are pedestrian crossings where one can hope for the best and reach what is effectively an island surrounded by a river of cars. I later nicknamed these crossings ‘places to get run over’.
There are lifts to the top of the tower where there is a gallery showing artwork. Openings like arrow slits offer views over Tehran and beyond on clear days. There was still a little snow on the mountains to the north. In the basement there is a museum. At night the tower is lit up with lights which change colour every few seconds.
Milad Tower is another symbol of modern Tehran, opening in 2008. It is now the sixth tallest tower in the world. There are shops and cafes on the ground floors, but the dome floors are naturally more interesting. There are cafes and coffee shops, art exhibitions, a revolving restaurant which I have not yet tried, and open air observation areas.
The first time I went to Milad Tower I bought a ticket using my bad Persian, the ticket seller spoke English and corrected me! The air was quite hazy, but in the second photograph one can just see a smattering of snow on the mountain to the right. On clear days the views are fantastic.
It’s a very worthwhile experience to visit the dome floors, but particularly so when the air is clear.
I spent a few hours walking around Tehran, absorbing the general ambience of the city. Murals have a prominent place in Tehran (and elsewhere), particularly with reference to the Iran-Iraq war.
A few words on spoken Persian
When I undertook my first visit to Iran I had a very limited amount of Persian under my cummerbund*. So I was surprised at first, even perturbed, to hear some of the pronunciations for words which I thought I would not get wrong. Tehran is usually pronounced teh’roon, ‘meydan’ (the word for square) is rendered as mey’doon. Both of these words are spelt with the equivalent of the letter ‘a’, so logically I was expecting an ‘a’ sound. This difference of pronunciation is not laziness; one cannot, for example, compare this difference to the lazy and detestable English pronunciation and contraction of the words “isn’t it” to “innit”. But Tehranis, and indeed most Iranians, do make these changes in spoken Persian. Another thing which I immediately noticed and noted was the word for ‘it is’: است /ast/. How could I get that wrong? In spoken Persian this becomes ‘ay’.
*The word cummerbund is a compound of two Persian words: کمر /ka’mar/, and بند /band/. ka’mar means waist or middle, and band is the present tense root of the verb بستن /ba’stan/ meaning to close or to shut or to latch… It may have entered English usage via India, as Persian is an Indo-European language. However the word has long existed in Persian. It is found in the Shahnameh numerous times, written about 1,000 years ago.
Tehran is a big city. It has a population larger than greater London but with a smaller area, and this explains why the traffic is so concentrated. It is in many respects a very modern city. While it easy to think from afar that Tehran is a big spread of concrete, it has many superb parks with free public amenities.
The south of Tehran is the oldest part. Central Tehran was heavily developed especially during the Qajjar and Pahlavi eras, and so most government buildings and major embassies are in this part of the city. The north of Tehran was once gardens and large houses, and was a retreat for the wealthy. Today the north is built upon, old houses are forever disappearing and with them their history. In their place are new multi-storey blocks of flats.
Nobody was unfriendly towards me. Some people were mildly curious. Everybody was polite. Tehranis on average drive badly. My Persian was not sufficient and I quickly realised that I needed to learn a lot more. In addition, I wanted to learn more.