No Airbags, the label in the back of the grey Peugeot taxi read. We die like men.
Reza finds the incredulous look on my face amusing and starts to laugh. “Haven’t you heard about the Tehran traffic Mr. Chandra?” he asks. I remembered the Lonely Planet guidebook mentioning a word or two about the Tehran traffic. The extract reads: Iranian driving is unpredictable and it’s on the road – or crossing it – that you’re most likely to be in danger. There’s little you can do to control this beyond asking your driver to slow down (yavash tar boro!) or taking a train.
A World Health Organization report ranks Iran fourth in the road traffic death rate index, citing over 30 deaths per 100,000 people, and a study by a local agency estimated that Iranians ‘wasted’ over a billion hours annually stuck in traffic jams. Forget everything you have learnt about road rules, it goes on to say. None of it applies. It is an unusual statistic for a country where the Sharia Law, which supersedes anything and everything else, in its most fundamental form bans alcohol.
“I have,” I reply meekly. Even for the peeved exaggeration the label provoked, I would learn over time that the statement wasn’t entirely off the mark.
It is easy to exaggerate a city’s characteristic, especially if it is so well documented. You wouldn’t encounter it as soon as you land in Tehran, for between the airport and the city lies the vast emptiness of Persia’s dull, brown deserts through which we drive in an ageing Peugeot, as the lyrics of a Homayoun Shajarian album plays in the car’s radio. Barsa, the driver, exhibits the first signs of Iranian hospitality that I would get accustomed to over the period of my stay.
For a country portrayed by the irrational American-driven media as ‘dangerous’ and one that signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty to gain acceptance, any misgivings I may have inadvertently had over Iran’s capability to produce nuclear weapons were soon put to rest. After all, the array of adjectives that greeted me as soon as I’d let friends know I was heading to Iran ranged from bordering mental to insane. Delighted would they be to find out that Barsa opens our conversation by admitting that he’d watched Sholay twenty-five times, and that Iran is a country where Amithabh Bachchan is more revered than Brad Pitt. And he goes on to mention Deewar, Amar Akbar Anthony …
But it hasn’t always been this way – Iran was once a secular, modern, liberal state ruled by the Shah who was generous with his policies and wealth. Western greed on Iran’s natural resources triggered the use of economic hitmen to overthrow the Shah. The casual tourist wouldn’t realize this, and it wasn’t until our conversation is interrupted, as we pass through the shrine of Ayatollah Khomeini, the Global Face of Shia Islam and one responsible for the motives behind the revolution when the liberal Shah was overthrown by the extremists, converting a once modern and secular state into that bound by the chains of the Sharia Law, that we touched up on the subject. Hundreds and thousands fled Iran seeking better livelihoods west thereafter.
“Did your family not want to flee the country after the revolution?” I asked Barsa as the topic surfaced.
“No, it was very expensive.” I learnt that ‘agents’ who promised to smuggle the citizens to Europe and Canada charged in excess of USD 15000 per passport. I vividly recalled the narratives of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.
I was determined to experience Tehran outside the spells conjured on it by the Western media, especially at a time when the country was offering to accept the need to open up its economy. The embargo had meant that one had to land in Iran with cash because, as my local contact had eloquently conveyed via email, “in Iran, credit card means no money.”
I’d obviously spent too much time watching CNN as I’d mentally framed Tehran to be inclined towards the charitable, as against the profitable as we drive through the Milad Tower, the world’s sixth tallest extant tower housing a revolving restaurant on top, easily distinguishable in Tehran’s skyline amidst the backdrop of the Alborz Mountains. Less modern but a more relevant structure is the Azadi Tower, or the Freedom Tower. Built using white marble from the neighboring Isfahan province in 1971 to commemorate 2500 years of the Persian Empire, it was initially named the Shahyad, in honor of the Shah, but was renamed Azadi after the Shah was overthrown.
Later that evening, I walk through through the streets around Ferdxowsi Square, the financial hub of Tehran that had capitalized on opportunities the embargo had presented – money exchange and Hawala, to exchange Dollars and Euros for Rials . Iran’s inaccessibility to the international financial market had skyrocketed the use of Hawala for people to transfer money between countries.
After all, the array of adjectives that greeted me as soon as I’d let friends know I was heading to Iran ranged from bordering mental to insane. Delighted would they be to find out that Barsa opens our conversation by admitting that he’d watched Sholay twenty-five times, and that Iran is a country where Amithabh Bachchan is more revered than Brad Pitt.
As I walk glancing through the official currency exchange outlets on Ferdowsi Street, I noticed a few of them selling leftover currency to traders who hold fistful of currencies in lanes surrounding the square, selling them at discounted rates for commission. Around lunch time, every day, a few hundred traders would crowd the junction, shout and exchange currency. Trade restrictions and inflation had meant that the Rial had weakened and transactions are quantified in Toman – a super unit of the original currency equating to ten rials.
But a mood of anti-climax hangs around Ferdowsi Square. I meet Reza, an IT Engineer who drives around taxi during his spare time. I gather, as I get to know him, that most Iranians have multiple professions to boost income, in between jibes he aims at his sister – amidst laughter – because he worked in his brother-in-law’s firm and rarely attended to it, while still drawing a monthly income.
Tehran is and isn’t what the media portrays it to be. It isn’t unsafe. It isn’t a nuclear nation. It isn’t infiltrated with terrorists. It is dusty. It is hot, although the snow capped Alborz Mountains seem oblivious to the heat. The traffic is a nightmare. And the history and culture is every bit as pure and pristine as I had always believed it to be.
For instance, walking through the Golestan Palace gives you a sense of the grandeur that the Persian Empire once oozed. Built during the rule of the Qajar dynasty, and renovated several times over the course of the next few centuries, the King’s Court inside the palace showcases gifts received by the emperors from kingdoms afar. If not anything else, it is a testament to the power the Empire once held, consequently bringing to light the strong bi-lateral relationships it had with other powerful empires.
A school field trip to the museum invokes the first traces of noise in an otherwise silent setting. My trail within the palace overlaps with theirs on more than one occasion, prompting one of their teachers – presumably after being pressed by a few students – to ask me where I was from. Before I could answer, one of the student mutters “Bangladesh?”. “India,” I reply, with a smile.
Glancing through the portraits of the emperors that adorn the many walls of the palace offer an insight as to where the modern day Iranian gets his or her sense of style. Iranians are stylish. They dress well, and appear more modern than their stereotypical contemporaries. Their weekend routine is very typical of a cosmopolitan – the bazaars and the cinemas are crowed come Friday afternoon, despite Iranian movies having to pass through the Sharia censor. Renowned Iranian Director Majid Majidi had a fatwa issued against him for making a movie on the Prophet. So was AR Rahman, for composing the music.
Iranians love to eat, and when I was offered a meal by a generous host I’d befriended, I was told, on attesting myself a vegetarian, much to my dismay and not so much surprise, that “in Iran, you find vegetables only around the meat.” Two glasses of freshly squeezed orange juice from a street side vendor on Imam Khomeini Square would constitute a significant part of my diet that week.
When I sampled Indian food at Cingari one day, I was introduced to the Persian Calendar. Iranians follow the Persian Calendar, and Nawrooz, the Persian New Year, was two weeks away. 18-12-1394, the date in the receipt I received read. So, it was the year 1365 in Iran when I was born, I mentally note.Another afternoon, Reza compels me to try Iranian cuisine, and perhaps the only vegetarian dish he’s aware of, at a traditional Iranian Tea House, named Azari, near the Tehran Railway station.
The smell of flavored tobacco greets me as I enter the tea-house and cross through a renovated brick facade to enter the courtyard where food is served. Visitors are asked to remove their shoes and are made to be seated in carpets laid out on top of large divans. The waiters soon load the space in front of you with bread, dizi (meat stew) and for the vegetarian – Kashk-e-Bademjan, fried eggplant mashed and mixed with chutney, consumed between several glasses of traditional Iranian chaai.
The following evening, we drive to the aristocratic suburbs of Northern Tehran through Valiasr Street, one of the longest streets in the Middle East which runs through the heart of Tehran. The “Roof of Tehran”, lying on the slopes of the Alborz Mountains, offers a panoramic view of the monstrously large city housing over 8 million residents. The Tehran elite go for their evening walks through the lanes that curve through the slopes, busy engaged in deep conversations.
“What are they talking about?” I ask Reza.
“What else! They are discussing where to go next, and what property to buy abroad,” he says. “Really?” I ask.
I take the opportunity to enlighten Reza on the paramount successes of Parsi businessmen in India, those who migrated from Iran to setup renowned business houses in Mumbai. Parsis, originally Zoroastrians, were persecuted in large numbers during the rule of the Qajar dynasty. Zoroastrians were the majority in Iran, before the rampant spread of Islamic influence changed the face of the empire. Many fled to India.
“Unofficially,” I add, while attempting to throw a more positive light to the subject, “the first cricket team from India to visit English shores to play cricket was privately organized by the Parsis. It was a team of Parsis that sailed to England in the 1870s.”
“Mr. Chandra,” he says with a hint of seriousness in his voice. “Did you know that one of Iran’s most successful businessman wanted to buy a neighboring country?”. I contemplated the thought with disbelief as I watched the sun set over the distant Tehran skyline.