Peel Another Layer
Trip Start Feb 04, 2007
107Trip End Mar 09, 2008
Map your own trip!
Show trip route
Our fantastic hotel (Firouzeh) is located in the car spare parts district on busy Amir Kabir Street. It is noisy, dirty, crowded, polluted and teeming with cars and motorbikes all trying to overtake each other irrespective of lane markings. [Later I discover that this is not just our district, but the city of Tehran in general] .
Standing helplessly on the edge of the road after repeated failed attempts to cross I am at a loss. The lights and pedestrian crossing markings are just for show - nobody really uses them. I simply can't cross this road. I am only 10 metres from the hotel - which I can quite clearly see - but I just can't get home. I am starting to become disconcerted. I am sweating. I am nervous. How can I not cross this road? It has been about 10 minutes. The problem is that multiple lanes are going one way and despite the one way street there is a bus lane going the opposite way. I stand in the bus lane (as there are fewer buses) but as the traffic ignores lane markings and the motorbikes are trying to race the cars everyone is encroaching into the bus lane too - and beeping me because I am standing there. To avoid being bludgeoned by 20 approaching motorbikes I step backwards unaware that I have stepped directly into the path of a speeding bus which swerves and honks - a lot. I sweat some more and suck in my breath to ensure I am taking up less space on the road. This is completely and utterly hopeless.
Tehran is a little less conservative than Tabriz. It is the country's capital and, we have heard, is just so big and so heavily populated it is much harder to enforce the rules of the state. [Although they do give it a good go]. We had been forewarned "In Tehran, people have parties where boys and girls even dance with each other". We noticed that the mandatory head coverings were a little less Mother Teresa and a little more 'I Dream of Jeannie'. High pony tails, excessive eye make-up, fashionable clothing and skimpier headscarves. However, this is predominantly restricted to the northern affluent district and there are still loads of chadors all over the rest of Tehran.
I questioned why such young, childlike girls were wearing headscarves in the street when I had believed it was something that was required only from puberty. The response suprised me. The marrying age for females in Iran is 9 and for males is 14. So of course, all female children (yes, children) must wear a veil from this marriagable age. Of course, just to be quite clear on this - this is to ensure that the child in question does not bring about any deviant thoughts to any males who might be wandering by and thinking them a little too seductive for their own good.
Is this for real?
I think I am failing dismally in my role here as a quiet, agreeable and opinionless female.
He also explained to us that supporters of the 1979 Revolution today reaped the rewards of a well-paid Government job. Once working for the Government, your family was then also entitled to a Government position. There is no other way to achieve a Goverment role than via nepotism. This leaves a very wealthy and contented few and a very unhappy, young majority. He further explained why there was 5 major banks on every block down the main streets of Tehran: to employ these Government workers, of course. We have since walked into a few banks and seen zillions of people reading the newspapers, drinking cay and wandering around doing hardly anything with great inefficiency and it is starting to become clearer. In fact, he hoped that the US would intervene aggressively because he felt there was no other way out of the current situation.
After a noisy few days in Tehran we decided to head out of town. All arrangements were made by our incredibly devoted hotelier - Mr Mousavi who then went on to explain about how he didn't think that the 4 wives many Islamic men had taken in Iran actually worked. He seemed fairly happy with his own lone wife of 6 years and he mentioned that he thought the Western style of just one wife seemed to work a little better. I was a little confused by his descriptions of the extra wives wealthy Iranian men can take on a short-term basis.
"It is about USD$200 to $300 each month for a 3 month arrangement which is registered with the government. Sometimes they pay the girl's rent also".
"Erm, is this a prostitute?"
"Of course not. This is just a short term wife"...
"I was standing at the edge of the fire (hell) and the majority of the people going in were women." - Prophet Mohammed
Iran is confusing but I am still completely smitten with the honesty and the incredible hospitality we have met at every single turn. I actually feel a little bad for Iranians who are eventually able to travel as they would be taken advantage of and duped all over the world - unaware that the rest of the world is not like Iran.
* * *
Tehran, as a city, is an unattractive grimy polluted hole. Somehow, we have had a blast here and had to tear ourselves away.
Accommodation? How about a hotelier who arranges your onward ticket, and when struggling with availability indicates you can keep your room until 3 or 4pm with no extra charge. Try that at the Hyatt.
It would be quite possible to earn a good living as a foreign tourist by taking 1,000,000 rial ($100) and throwing it on the ground. The rush to return money to you would leave you with about 2m as the locals topped up what they found just to ensure that weren't out of pocket and left with any bad impression of Iran.
On arriving here the bus company had brought a great evil to bear on my backpack: I thought it had 'merely' been flooded with icy water, but it was some sort of dark, vile bus juice and it was soaked from top to bottom, base to apex. It was about 10pm, we had no hotel booking, I now had a somewhat dubious quality of possessions - and now I had someone chirrupping in my ear touting a taxi and a hotel. I was somewhat curt and direct in my response: late night bus stations generally not being places to meet new friends and my response reflected this.
Of course, this is Iran. He was neither taxi driver nor tout, he was an English language student passing by. Really. I apologised profusely, but was still left concerned that that night that it was not enough. He would have little understanding of the world's bus station rorts to understand my caution. While my trust radar was extended after our joys in Tabriz, I was not about to extend its application to the location most prized by shonky dealers hitting tired foreigners the world over. Despite vigorous protestations, he proceeded to pay part of our fare to the driver, smiled and said "Welcome to Iran. It is important to me you have only the best time here." And then disappeared into the night.
This is not like any place on earth.
Our taxi driver got cheerfully lost here, our 15 minute trip turning into an hour. Our map has Roman script he can't read. There are so few tourists that the Lonely Planetted hotels are not yet known at all (let alone memorised from scrappy photocopies in drivers' pockets as you find elsewhere). We stopped on street corners and met helpful locals and all figured it out together. And, duly chastened by my earlier lack of trust - appropriately confirmed by the fact he asked for nothing above the agreed far despite driving the very long way around (8km journey became 20+...) - when I tipped a couple of dollars extra for his service he opened his big eyes quite wide and gave me a stubbly hug.
Settling into the hotel and taking my backpack apart to survey the damage there was momentary heart failure at the realisation that Iran, being off the international bank network, is a place where you need to carry your entire month's spending in US Dollar cash. Cash that I cunningly secrete in an obscured zip segment in the lining of my bag. Can anyone see where this is going? In my fervour to survey possibly terminal financial problems at this juncture, I then managed to slam my thumb in the heavy steel door to the bathroom. There are a great many words in the English language that rhyme with 'duck', but oddly I did not feel a need to select from a wide range in order to express my sentiments.
The Glad ziplock pack, now 8 months old, had held and ably done its job. The hotel manager, Mr Musavi, had sent a boy up so that my laundry could commence immediately. Somehow, I was still having a good time.
The next day in Tehran I spent in my room. I had torn and thus discarded a pair of pants staying with our friends in Tabriz (quite a social faux pas to have the 20cm of man thigh showing that I did, but it was unavoidable), I had bus juiced the current pants pretty extensively (still had to carry that soaking pack...), and now both the two backups were also being washed. I was pantsless and alone. And while in many countries I could have donned Claude's sarong to head down to breakfast, I was mindful of the impressions of the West that could be confirmed had I elected to do so here.
We had met our man at the markets. In retrospect, he would probably have quite liked to guide us gently to the odd carpet store. But the soft sell is so soft that they actually forget to sell at all, and we ended up visting a tea house. He was 31, and engaged to be married - but - he confided, "I have never even had a girlfriend, such are our prohibitions, and I know this to be odd. It is, isn't it?" Ten conversations now, 6 days here, and every single one starts the same way. And bear in mind that this is the supposedly more free and liberal capital about which the country folk spoke in hushed tones.
We spoke of revolutions in other countries. No real understanding of the fact that there was now one united Germany, nor how it came to pass. We were the same age - but he had never heard of any problems in China in 1989 around Tiananmen Square. I guess in Running Your Controlling Regime 101 they advise you against reporting anything that may give encouragement. He was the second person to refer to China - today - as the "egalitarian society and workers utopia". (They are an Iranian ally, so the sun always shines on that reporting.)
Again, we saw a quaking fear of surveillance. What we thought may be a nervous disposition in our Tabrizi friends, what we thought may be an anomaly among the next couple of people, is turning into a near universal habit of looking over your shoulder to check who may see you talking with a foreigner. Like a fool, I was speaking in normal tones and uttered the words "Ayatollah Khomenei" and quickly had his hand over my mouth and I was very aware of every surrounding table peering over. Our travels in Germany took us through the East German Stasi Museum: the history we pictured there seems to remain as daily life for a great many people here.
(For reference: "Article 513, The punishment for insulting or criticizing, Islam, the Prophet Mohammed, his entire family, or his representatives known as Imams is death by hanging in public").
But not all of course. Our Tehrani friend got us to look more critically at the city we had ambled through without absorbing. "Look at all the banks." Its a good point, there are a disproportionate number of banks: it makes Martin Place look like country NSW after the branch closures. Street after street has six or eight grand stone buildings in a row. Bank Melli. Bank Mellat. Bank of Iran. The Jewels Museum is located in the basement of Bank Melli on a major street: we walked in and couldn't find it. The guard directed us to the next grand Bank Melli about 50m down the street.
And of course there's more.
We were having tea with our friend at about 11:30. "Look for all the buses at around 3p.m.," he sneered, "as the upper people go off to ra-ra sessions to hear how they are furthering the Revolution". If you are not looking for it, its easy to walk past it - its just traffic in a busy city - but once you look for it, then sure enough at 3pm buses full of well suited men are drawing away from the pillars of capital.
The jobs are basically hereditary. At the time of the revolution in 1979-80, if you had said the right things then you could score a very sweet job at the Oil Ministry or the Ministry of Economics. Like all governments based on shaky precepts, injecting new ideas and talent comes a distant eighth compared with injecting trusted cadres who don't rock the very nice boat, to the point that any retiring man will hope to have left two of his children in his position. With oil at $85 a barrel this logic stacks up.
Of course, this is also creating a disincentive for anything that even roughly resembles study at school. A good proportion of those we spoke to made some kind of comment that those in the ministries could only aspire to incompetence - they would have to break through illiteracy first. "What a dilemma, a lucrative no-work job but they are too stupid to even be able to enjoy reading the paper". I understand his sentiment, but must report I have seen a few open newspapers :)
This man, following all the others, also seized on his president's "wipe Israel off the map" comment with utter disdain, but notably for different reasons. Many people regarded it as just a stupid thing to say - something that draws a great big bullseye on Iran. In this Tehrani's view it was much more that Israel has good schools and hospitals - why destroy the only place that is properly developed? He would much rather someone copy Israel. Not the kind of insight I expected to hear.
I realise these blog entries are turning into News Roundup, but that's the fun of the trip here. The sights are OK (just), but its people charging up and saying hello, enquiring nervously if we like Iranian people, getting all apoplectic about their plight, pouring 11 cups of tea into us and no bill ever showing up: this is defining our visit. Not for everyone, I understand. But there are so few tourists here it would seem that a disproportionate amount are being scared away.
I think we are having a great experience because we are a couple and we are seen as young. This means that young people talk with us. Because I am a male it is OK for them to yell out greetings and generally get involved. And because Claude isn't, she represents a tantalising chance for contact with women (non Muslims don't count in application of the harsh socialising laws).
After a week - and a very consistent week of hospitality and stories - I had thought we were beyond being surprised. Silly me.
Our Tehrani teahouse acquaintance did not want to stop talking. He had a point to make. "This isn't Baghdad you know." Wink. "We won't all start killing each other if the government gets hit from outside. We are one people here." Claude and I did an absolute double take and feigned that we had missed his point. So he traced a wide arc with his finger until it made a final vertical descent into the map. "They just need to make sure they hit enough of them that we can do the rest" (Them usually refers to secret police).
I am so glad Claude was there to hear it. Its unprecedented, and even to us barely believable for a citizen to hope for the missiles to rain down. But there you have it. Form your own judgment.
This does need to be balanced with the genuine fear we have encountered, usually among middle aged educated women, that Iran will be bombed from the Arabian to the Caspian, leaving nothing unscorched. There is a fear of hundreds of thousands of US troops pouring in to their country which not even our friend above would want. I certainly have an appreciation that precisely worded speeches from the US leadership could have an immensely positive effect here. Senator McCain singing "Bomb Bomb Bomb, Bomb Bomb Iran" to the tune of the Beach Boys 'Barbara Ann' surprisingly does not have that effect. The same policy enunciated as "the actions of a government suppressing the freedoms of its people will result in a missile for the Council of Guardians and the Secret Police" would have a markedly different effect. (Sanctions against the Revolutionary Guard that were announced while we were there actually sends a good message that the outside world knows who the bad guys are.)
Not that anyone would see or hear it. The news is wacky. The locals are savvy enough to know that when their leadership has said something good, they show the tape. When their leadership has said something stupid, they tend to show the footage without the audio and talk about the coming global triumph of the Iranian people.
Two cities. One week. Quite an impression. We are now burning to get on the road and see if what we have seen is universal or an anomaly. Astounding.
Where I stayed