Breathing out in Tehran

From the back of my taxi in Tehran (that's Jaleh on the right in the front seat)

My flight to Tehran was uneventful, except for a man who wanted my seat since he prefers to sit at the aisle.  Naturally, I refused, having requested an aisle seat myself, but I thought it odd that he dispatched the flight attendant to ask me to move since I was sitting in my allocated the seat, and we were in comfy business class.

Turkish Airlines is, like so many things I encountered in Istanbul, very good, easily rivalling Qantas. I know – something I didn’t expect either.  I’ll have to let you know if the same can be said of Iran Air, which I fly tomorrow night to reach Shiraz.

Before I get off the subject of Istanbul, I really have to encourage you to visit.  It is a most extraordinary and beautiful place and also incredibly clean, which I only noticed on my last day.  There are things I didn’t expect to love – like the sound of the call to prayer, which is so often positioned in Western media as a creepy sinister backdrop to a story on radical Muslims, but in reality is haunting and extremely beautiful: each time I heard it I stopped and enjoyed it.  I am hoping to return either later this year, or early next year.  I also performed an additional “picking up Turkish men” test and went and sat again in a park next to a cute boy.  Within 5 mins he was chatting to me, so this appears a fail-safe method to gain – errr – “company” in Istanbul.  I don’t plan to repeat my experiment in Iran.

We landed in Tehran at around 2.00am local time (Tehran is 1 1/2 hours ahead of Istanbul; I’m now 5 /2 hours behind Sydney), and all I could think was to get that darn head scarf on before they realised I was a fraud and I was denied entry!  Passport Control was reasonably fast, mainly because I was at the front, and then down to collect the luggage which took forever.  Tehran Airport is as modern as any I’ve seen, and at last I was able to see first hand how women dressed and related to men.  And you know what?  Apart from the head scarves and the ubiquitous wearing of the shapeless jackets to at least mid-thigh, and even though I know there are rules (eg unrelated men and women are not meant to touch in public) nothing seemed different!  In fact, I got a little more culture shock reaching Istanbul and seeing my first troup of chador-clad women scuttle past.  When I visited my lovely friends at the carpet place, they joked about the women in Iran, with one of the guys calling them “Black Moslem Ninjas” at the same time as confessing that he had fantasies about some of the women behind those things, esp the ones where only their eyes are visible (very mysterious!).

My bag eventually turned up, and I found my driver.  As we scuttled through to the car, everything seemed pretty similar to stuff I’d seen – a mix of new and old cars (but mainly old), with nifty Farsi numbers on their number plates, in a multi-storey car park, and signs in both English and Farsi all the way into Tehran.  The drive to the hotel took around an hour, and there were a few hair-raising moments so I knew I was going to need nerves of steel on those roads!

My lovely Tehran guide, Jaleh, adorned in her Day 2 outfit - a light, flowy black kaftan

I reached the hotel at 4.00am, feeling like a bit of a snooze I must confess.  The manager and porter stirred from their sleep and a confused manager didn’t even know I had a booking! Oh goodie, I thought.  Lost in Tehran.

Eventually, he turned a page and found my name, and the porter showed me to my room, and held his hand out for a tip…odd, since I had no Iranian Rials, and had arrived at this ungodly hour.  I had no choice but to do nothing, feel bad, and the empty hand headed out the door with the rest of him.

Breakfast was flat bread and jam, cream cheese and cooked eggs (no bacon, of course) and a choice of tea or Nescafe (I picked the latter).  My guide and the same driver collected me at 11.00am and we headed to the Museum, a palace, lunch and the jewellery museum. The jewellery museum is Iran’s answer to the Crown Jewels, and was overwhelming – wars have been fought over this particular stash of loot, and it’s owned by the Central Bank and locked underground.  One must pass armed guards and security, and no photos allowed at all.  However, the amount of jewellery in this place was incredible – I couldn’t even try to put value on a 106carat uncut pink diamond, or a world globe standing over 1m off the ground depicting the earth made of rubies, emeralds and gold (yes Australia was there).

Traditional Iranian stews at lunch (the one on the left is lovely)

At lunch, the food was great – I do love Middle Eastern flavours, and I ordered enough to have leftovers for dinner.  On our way out, there it was: the first “Asian toilet” (ie hole in the ground) of my trip.  Oh goodie.  Thank God I was carrying my own supply of toilet paper, as suggested by the best guide books.

The Iranian people are very friendly: at almost every destination, my guide was asked where I am from.  She reports that tourism was up until about a year ago, when demonstrations once again dragged the numbers down.  Most tourists come from Germany and other parts of Europe.

Outside the former US Embassy, where the hostages were kept for over a year. Image taken "on the move" - just behind the tree limb is the Statue of Liberty "skull head"

Tehran itself is well known to be Iran’s pulsating heart, if also its least attractive destination.  The traffic is bad and I’ve already had a couple of near misses crossing the road as the drivers weave everywhere and have no regard for walk signs.  Every street seems to be named after Iranian martyrs of some description, and there are plenty of wall murals depicting various versions of “down with America!” including one great one outside the former US Embassy, scene of the Iranian hostage crisis, and now named the “Den of Spies”.  This painting is of a Statue of Liberty with a skull head.

The locals discovered some of the US’s “secrets” after they left and they are displayed for a handful of days each year in early February. The Iranians hate this place [for a correction please see Jaleh’s comment below!), especially since they regard that the Americans, having installed the Shah, controlled him from here, which is why they took the hostages to try and avoid another US puppet to make his way into power (not that I’m endorsing such behaviour, you understand).  Soon after this was the Islamic Revolution, where women made their way from highly educated and fashionable into their head scarves and chadors.  However, given how people felt about the Shah and US and UK attempts to control the country, the Islamic Revolution was welcomed and Ayatollah Khomeni is regarded as a hero.

UN Sanctions (people outside Iran  aren’t happy about plans to develop nuclear power), of course, impact modern Iran: you cannot use credit cards here, and even my mobile is picking up no signal (I assume because there are no roaming deals with Iranian mobile phone providers).  Money from overseas must be channelled through bank accounts held by individuals in places such as Turkey and Germany.

My guide and I discuss this, and she says that after the Islamic Revolution when Iraq attacked Iran, the US and Europe sided with Iraq (probably because Saddam was such a good kisser) and this left the Iranians feeling very angry.

Sanctions and being mad at the US don’t stop the major currency being the US dollar, though, as inflation sits at around 25% in Iran.  Of course, Iranian rials are used day to day, but my tour for example is being paid for in USD.  Plus, although their multiplexes show mainly Iranian films, this doesn’t stop Iranians from buying pirated copies of latest release American movies for USD1 a pop.

Red hot spunks on the streets of Tehran

All day, my head scarf has been given me the shits.  Today has been warm, and you can imagine how much a head scarf detracts from comfort levels, let alone when it’s constantly slipping off your head (apparently cotton are the best for stick-ability).  Men here seem to wear what they want – their dress is as you would find anywhere.  I’ve been keenly observing women’s dress, which ranges from the black Muslim ninja look to the very fashionable, with make-up and all.  The main rule seems to be don’t display flesh or female curves and bumps, and hair needs to be covered.  Jaleh, my lovely tour guide, wears tight jeans, a cotton jacket that goes just around 1/3 of the way down her thighs, plus a long headscarf that she adjusts constantly.  Yes, she says, she hates it and flings it off whenever she travels outside Iran.  I ask how opportunities are for women: they occupy 60% of the places in University, and she believes have many opportunities.  She is bothered by the mass media portrayal of Iran – she says many things are very different to what the rest of the world believes.

There is one good thing about wearing a head scarf, though: my next hair appointment is well overdue and the scarf covers a multitude of sins until I can have my wig restored to its natural colour!

Tehran glamour

One of the first things I noticed was that there are no women in any advertising here.  Jaleh confirms that this is because it’s prohibited; women should not be looked at for their faces or bodies but appreciated for their behaviour and minds and it would be wrong to use a woman’s image to sell.

Today, I have not felt the least bit threatened, except when navigating the busy roads and engaging in near-misses with bumper bars.  I am delighted to report that even some of the guide books (which suggest not looking directly into a man’s eyes) are just plain wrong and there seems to be what we would consider reasonably “normal” public  interaction between the sexes.

I’ll sign off now, and apologise for no photos.  I accidentally erased all my photos from my final day in Istanbul, and my first day here so will try and upload some within the next couple of days so you can see for yourself.



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2 responses to “Breathing out in Tehran

  1. Jaleh

    My dear Karen,
    First of all I want to thank you for being so kind…
    And then…
    1. The former US Embassy isn’t occupied by a radical group, Now It’s a cultural center and as you said a museum that shows the documents.
    2. Iranian don’t hate that place now. They didn’t like it during the revolution.
    Have a nice time in Iran!

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