Panic in Tehran

"We will make America face a severe defeat". No, really, what are you trying to say?


Imagine this: you arrive at Tehran International Airport after staying at a remote mountain village in Iran (just near the nuclear facility) where you have no internet access. After driving 3 ½ hours, you finally open the last 2 days’ worth of emails to read this from your travel agent: “Karen, we have a little snag as Emirates cancelled your seat on the 2am flight to New York. They are overbooked…[the rest fades into panic and is says simply: blah blah blah].” Heart pounding, you wonder if you are deeply screwed. 

Thank God, the next email from her read: “Never mind my email below. Emirates gave us the 2am flight…” Wheeeee-ew. A seriously close call. And that’s not where it ended, either. At check-in the woman wasn’t going to give me a boarding pass unless I could tell her my zip code in New York! Seriously! Once again, my trusty iPhone saved the day as there was an email from my hotel there, including their full address. I think this woman was reasonably clueless, though, since she asked me whether JFK (New York’s largest airport) was in the US or not. Errr…is this a trick question? 

For the last day or so I stayed at the remote mountain town of Abyaneh, nestled at the foot of the mountains, with a gorgeous view of the village. For the past week, I have spent my days winding my way back north from Shiraz to Tehran via road, which takes some considerable time. Tomorrow is my last journey of around 4 hours back to Tehran International airport to jet off to my next destination. 

I’m pondering the question about whether I’ll return to Iran, the main reason for which seems to visit my new dad, Ariya, and his family. However, I don’t feel the urge to return in the same way I did with Greece or New York, where I just can’t seem to get enough. This visit has probably resolved my curiosity about Middle Eastern destinations and, with the exception of Jordan (the Dead Sea, Petra, visiting the nomads in the Wadi Rum) and Beirut, I’m glad I don’t have another 2 or 3 weeks making my way back through to southern Turkey the way I’d originally planned. 

In about an hour, I fly to New York via Dubai, nestled contentedly in the bosom of Emirates Business Class. I’ll spend 4 nights in the West Village in New York (where I stayed in January), and possibly wander to Washington DC to meet some World Bank bods before winging my way on 28 April to Miami for some key meetings, and then heading to the Caribbean on 1 May. I am having a fairly strong hankering for the pancakes and eggs Benedict at my favourite little eatery in the West Village, plus some decent coffee (rare in New York, but available nonetheless at The Place, which also boasts incredibly friendly service). 

I’ve been asked to review some documents for the deal I’ll be working on, which I’m happy to do as it at least slightly lowers the risk that I’ll look like a moron when I turn up at these Miami meetings. However, I’ve just spotted a proposed transaction timetable and, having queried its tightness on the last round of reviews, I see that it has stretched out to the end of November. I’m wondering if this means that they will now need me to stay until then, and suspect it’s at least an indication they’ll need me for another month or two of work, potentially keeping me there through the dreaded hurricane season. 

On one hand, great – the timetable is more realistic. On the other hand, I’m really missing home and my precious pooches! I can’t even conceive of being away from them for another 7 months; the nearly 2 I’ve been away feels like long enough. Nine months is a very very long time in the life of a dog. Mum told me that she, my brother and his wife went to the Blue Mountains with the dogs last week, to a house we rent often. When the dogs arrived, they waited impatiently to get into the house and, when the door was opened, sped to the room I usually sleep in, only to find me absent. I have promised to take Mum and the dogs there for a couple of weeks when I (finally) return to Australia. 

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I thought I’d use this last post to show you some photos I like that haven’t really fitted anywhere else, and give you a quick rundown of some observations about Iran before I wing my way to the familiar New York (I can’t really think of bigger contrasts than between this tiny mountain town and New York!) And so I may as well begin with my favourite subject… 

Loos – as you’d expect, there are mostly the hole-in-the-ground Asian loos here, and toilet paper is sparse (I brought my own stash from Greece, which has often come in handy, even in hotel rooms, where replacing the paper seems rather lower on the priority list than I’m used to). In one hotel room, I was amused to see the supplied loo roll was a patchwork of paper, picked from remnants of toilet rolls, the remains wound by hand onto a single roll to let them live another day. Happily, all my hotels have had Western loos, so a little pre-planning and personal discipline leads to much happier outcomes. The loos always have a hose, usually attached to hot and cold taps, which is Iran’s substitute for toilet paper. I cannot figure out for the life of me how I am meant to use it without sloshing water all over the place (including on my clothes), and women in particular must need to virtually undress almost completely from the waist down in order to use them. Bathrooms – a pair of non-slip rubber slippers invariably sit at the door of the bathroom, needed because, in many bathrooms, there is no separation between the shower and the rest of the bathroom. This of course leads to the loo paper getting wet as the water sprays mercilessly around the bathroom, which is of course less of an issue than having none at all. Moslems are incredibly clean people, and regular washing (always under running water) is a key part of their belief system. However, this means that plugs for basins simply don’t make an appearance in bathrooms, making washing clothes in the basin slightly more challenging as the sudsy water slurps its way down the drain before you’re quite done with it. 

Food – kebabs are the food of choice in Iran, available in all restaurants I’ve been to. The reason they are so popular is that they create an enormous amount of smoke when cooked in the home, leading to Iranians heading out on the town in order to get their regular supply. Yogurt mixed with garlic is also a popular menu item, although I find the yoghurt too sour for my taste. As with Turkey, a savoury drinking yoghurt is also very popular during meals. Many restaurants have a buffet offering salads, mainly cut up veges like tomato, lettuce, cucumber plus coleslaw and pasta-based salads, the ever-present yogurt and thousand island dressings being very popular. Glad wrap is hugely important, covering the buffet items, often arriving on even the hot dishes. Rice is the main dish of choice, and butter is usually mixed into it; the remainder of dishes are really more accompaniments to the rice rather than the main event, which we are used to. Often when I cook rice, I think I’ve failed if I get a crisp crust at the bottom; however, here it’s a treat and often served separately with meals (and quite tasty too – I must do this more often). Flat breads are served at every meal, and I’ve become rather fond of flat bread, cream cheese and cherry or carrot jams at breakfast. For most meals, I’ve usually searched out the specialty dishes of the region, which are almost always a “stew” type thing, often accompanied by a soup of barley and veges, lentils. Coffee is nowhere near as popular as tea, which is offered at every turn. If you do find coffee, I’d be shocked if it were espresso, as Nescafe is all I’ve seen. Rather than napkins, tissues are everywhere and used to wipe oneself for almost every purpose, including at the dinner table. Pizzas are incredibly popular but, with such goodies as ham being a no-no, are piled with light, grey-tinged meats that seems to have some resemblance to ham and sausage, but sadly only in the seeing and not the tasting. There is no base of tomato paste (something I don’t understand the reason for), but it is served with tomato sauce and sometimes mayonnaise, which does improve on its bland taste. I do wonder what Iranians would think of the genuine Italian version, although they probably wouldn’t like it. I ordered a pizza last night and, not only was it not worth it taste-wise (I asked for meat and vegies, and the vegies included corn and – rather oddly lettuce) but, around 30 mins later, it came back to haunt me in a mad dash to the loo. 

Picnics – are quite the thing here, with families of locals pulling up any piece of available ground next to even a busy road to lay out their rug, set up their little tents (like the ones we take to the beach) and picnic away Ingenuity – in a country that has extremes in weather (the town I am in can have temperatures as low as -15, and has high as 50) numerous clever (and rather ancient) solutions have been used, including mud domes used as refrigerators and to store fresh water. Many homes are, like ancient palaces, divided into different floors or buildings for summer and winter, which is particularly prevalent in this village. The cleverest are the “wind towers” or “badgirs”, which catch any tiny breeze, shooting it down a chimney-like tunnel, into the house to cool it down: essentially, ancient air conditioners. 

Driving – without a shadow of a doubt, Iranians are the worst drivers I’ve ever seen (beating even the Greeks and the Italians) and, even if it were legal for me to rent a car here (it isn’t) I would never even think of it. Road divider lines are irrelevant, and traffic merges by the sheer determination of each driver who, despite the usual politeness of Iranians, hustle their way in as if there were no tomorrow. Crossing the road is an exercise in steely determination; the only time I did this myself, I was exhilarated by the time I reached the other side. Otherwise, I cross with locals, keeping them between me and the lumps of metal hurling toward me. Motor bikes carrying as many as three adults (none of whom wear helmets, despite the proximity to certain death) commonly speed along beside cars. The cars are usually old, with some Peugots, made in Iran of course, Kias and Hyundai’s in the mix. 

Banks – are everywhere, with little internet banking or ATM’s being utilised. In larger cities, it’s common to see 3 different banks on one block, and there seems to be at least one every few steps. Money-changing, however, is not generally done in banks, but specialist money changers who, without much ado (apart from inspecting your US dollars, euros or pounds to ensure there are no tears or other offensive marks) hand you plenty of rials. Iranian currency is very confusing. 10,000 rials is worth a measly US$1, and notes seem to go as low as 200 rials, which even here seem irrelevant. Of course, to make it worse, Iranians refer to an old currency system called tomans, which seems to knock one zero off the rials. 

Ayatollah Khomeini: a cool dude – pictures of spiritual leaders – or “Imams” are everywhere, and no-one is more popular than the Ayatollah Khomeini . At the domestic airport, a large advertisement displays pictures of Khomeini and another Imam (perhaps his successor Khameini, just to be as confusing as possible), declaring “This revolution is not recognised in anywhere in the world without Imam Khomeini’s name”. So, while in the West, he is regarded as something of a nutcase, I have heard not a bad word said about him here. 

The people – are generally friendly once you make a connection with them. Visitors are constantly stopped and asked “Where are you from?”, “Welcome to Iran” and “How do you like Iran?”. This is a country that knows it has a serious image problem, and even though many dislike America and its policies in the Middle East and with respect to Iran (nuclear energy, anyone?), love Americans. They are even reluctant to apply government policies negative to Americans; one American tourist I’ve met here was stopped at the airport for 40 mins of (ultimately apologetic) questioning before being allowed to enter Iran. 

The Iranian Identity – I’ve mentioned in another post that, although Iranians are Moslem, they are most certainly not Arabs. Many Iranians are descended from Aryans (where the name Iran is derived from) and are extremely proud of this heritage. Despite being invaded by numerous nations over the centuries, including the Turks and the Greeks, they have maintained their own identity by, as Ariya says, bending with their invaders and then seeping their culture back in until it stood alone once again. When the Arabs invaded, and introduced Islam, it was taken up by the people, but still they didn’t become Arabs, and remain to this day fiercely and proudly Iranian.  



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2 responses to “Panic in Tehran

  1. Jaleh

    Dear Karen,
    It’s so nice reading what you saw and felt in Iran… Thanks for writing!
    I was in Shiraz, Yesterday came back and read your weblog…
    Hope to see you again… You are always welcomed here!

  2. Where are the NYC shots?? Central Park? the food? I’m waiting!

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