There is a sense of unease that comes with travelling to Tehran, ruled by a system dominated by conservative mullahs. But actual experiences are always more pleasurable than clichéd instincts. The capital of Iran is a huge metropolis of 12.3 million people who represent one-fifth of its population and 50 per cent of its industry.
With a backdrop of the snow-brushed Elburz mountains, Tehran could be the most beautiful city in Iran, but it is not. That title goes to Isfahan. Tehran received a fatal blow when, during the rule of Mohammed Reza Shah, parts of the older palaces and buildings were razed to make way for structures that came up later in the 1950s and 1960s. Today, ugly high-rises ruin the view and, as Indian ambassador Manbir Singh realises in his palatial house and grounds, the neighbourhood.
The most important street in Tehran is the Vali-e-asr that runs from the Tajrish locality in the north to the main railway station in the south. Tajrish is where the city’s affluent population lives; it is relatively pollution free and perceptibly cooler in the summer.
For this reason, perhaps, it was the site of a palace complex built by the Shah Dynasty, which was deposed by the Islamic revolution in 1979. The Sadabad palace complex has some 18 villas, which were used by the founder of the dynasty, Reza Shah and his son Mohammed Reza and their families. Today it houses museums and government buildings. Imam Khomeini’s place in a neighbouring area comprises of a single room divided by a curtain, with a short walk to a mosque.
North of Tajrish is Darband, at the foot of a mountain of the same name. This leads to a popular hiking trail and a ski lift that leads to a set of ski slopes on the northern slopes of the Elburz mountains.
At the place where the hiking trails begin are small shops and hookah lounges that also serve as restaurants called ghavekhane sonnati, where Tehran youth unwind a little, but always too much for the conservative Basij militia personnel. At a restaurant built into the mountain, there are recliners where you can sit picnic-style on rugs and feast on chelo kebabs, grilled fish and khoresht stew served with buttered rice and Iranian naan. For starters there are salads, feta cheese and yoghurt and for accompaniments, doogh (somewhat like our chaanch), non-alcoholic beer and Zam Zam cola. (A friend swears that a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label, delivered at the door costs $42, less than what it costs in New Delhi, but you must be very, very careful.) After the meal and a cup of tea, the hookah is a must and it is not unusual to see hijab-clad beauties puffing away.
The sacred veil
The women’s dress varies from the all enveloping black chador that covers them from head to toe, to a mélange of styles that involve trousers, an over garment or manteaux and a hijab that covers the hair. Just how tight the manteaux are and how much of the hair is actually covered is a matter of discretion. Unlike her Arab counterpart, the Tehran woman is not housebound. Chador, hijab and all, she is visible at the workplace whether as a cleaning lady or a research officer in a think-tank; member of Parliament or Basij (paramilitary) officer.
Despite the monstrously huge metropolis they live in, the Tehranis are unfailingly polite. Not for them the frenetic aggression of the Dilliwala. There’s a sophisticated culture spawned by the scores of universities, theatres, art galleries and cafes manifest in a vibrant art, cinema and literature scene. But though Iran’s secular culture is highly developed, it is under strain.
The Islamic Republic does not officially ban music, cinema or art. But censorship and, worse, self-censorship, is the order of the day.
Home of art
World-class film directors like Abbas Kiarostami, Samira Makhmalbaf, Saman Salvar and Jafar Panahi are no longer lionised in their own country the way they are in Cannes, Venice and Locarno. Iran’s modern art collection, housed in the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, is the best outside of Europe and the US. But when I searched the galleries for Monet, Pissarro, Van Gogh, Diego Rivera, Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Munch and a score of other world-famous artists it is reputed to have, I found nothing: only painting after painting depicting the Islamic Revolution and a few pieces of brilliant Iranian modern art.
I asked a curator where the other paintings were and his response was: “They have been locked away since the Revolution and are displayed only once a year for a period of a month.”
No visit to Tehran can be complete without a trip to its Grand Bazaar, the world’s largest. Something akin to the enclosed bazaars of India, but cleaner and larger, the Grand Bazaar is split into many corridors each specialising in different goods. At the carpet market within the Bazaar you can buy large hall-sized carpets to smaller rugs and kilims, which can cost anywhere, up to $ 10,000, but do haggle.
If you don’t have money, don’t worry, as Mohammed of Asil Carpets told me: “Take the carpet and send the money to my account in Germany.” I did neither and opted instead for a cheap kilim from the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee shop, a little like our Cottage Industries Emporium.