Written by koshkha on 22 Mar, 2009
They say that cameras never lie but most people would agree they have the power to mislead. How often have you seen television news coverage of what looks like an intimidating crowd of religious fanatics, their fists raised in the air, the eyes rolled back…Read More
They say that cameras never lie but most people would agree they have the power to mislead. How often have you seen television news coverage of what looks like an intimidating crowd of religious fanatics, their fists raised in the air, the eyes rolled back in religious fervour, chanting something you assume must be rather aggressive and unpleasant?When we found ourselves outside a shrine in central Tehran on a holy day we got caught up in such an event. The sight of marching gangs of men singing in the square filled us with a mix of fascination and fear. There's always the little nagging voice at the back of your head saying "Watch out! This could turn nasty" and as I tackled the ethical dilemma of whether to get my camera out or not, the voice was getting rather insistent. "You have no idea what's going on here, maybe it's time to turn tail and get out".Fortunately I ignored the voice but I'll admit I kept back from the crowd and left it to the men folk of our group to go off and explore. I didn't think my western interpretation of the Iranian dress code was going to endear me to a large crowd of religiously excited worshipers. As we stood at the edge of the square listening to the singing, we could hear the echoes of more groups heading our way, working their route through the bazaar towards us. Group by group the men came streaming into the square. In most cases there were one or two younger men at the front carrying large banners. Behind the flag carriers there were often holy men in long black robes with black turbans on their heads followed by dozens of men of all ages, mostly dressed in black. Not religious black mind you - mostly normal black shirts and black leather jackets. As they entered the square each group raised their voices and found a space to gather together. Singing at their own pace and often out of time with the other groups, they gave it their all. Their arms were flying; punching the air or open palmed then slapping their chests or clapping their hands, they beat out a rhythm to accompany their words. As each group took its place, another group with their flags and their holy men came down the steps and took their place in the square and struck up their songs. The cacophony of voices and melodies grew and grew until we were humming along, tapping our feet and itching to punch the air in support.Of course we hadn't a clue what they were singing but it was a sound of rejoicing and praising rather than anger or distress. Women standing near us at the outskirts of the square saw our cameras and encouraged us to take photos - either of them and their children or of the singing men. They offered us food - dates, small cakes, even handfuls of pistachios were pressed upon us. They made it clear that nobody would mind us taking photos and that we were extremely welcome to stay and enjoy the fun and the celebrations, even if we had no idea what was going on. Women and their husbands came over and asked where were we from and what had brought us to the square to join the festivities. We waxed lyrical about what a beautiful place the shrine was and how honoured we were to be included in their event and they seemed more than happy with the responses.Whilst the men did all the singing, black-chador wearing ladies gathered across the square holding large banners covered in calligraphy. Not being allowed to sing wasn't going to stop them from expressing a written opinion on this important day. We stayed for about 30 minutes taking photos, talking to the locals and having a very jolly time. We'd learned some important lessons about not jumping to conclusions; that fists can be raised in joy as well as anger, that eyes roll back in ecstasy as well as ire and that beating your chest can sometimes just be a great substitute for beating a drum and isn't about some primitive form of self-flagellation. Close
Written by koshkha on 18 Mar, 2009
Throughout our tour of Iran we'd been in and out of mosques and shrines, sometimes several times per day. We'd learned to recognise the architectural styles and the functions of different parts of a mosque. We'd seen old, new and everything in between but we…Read More
Throughout our tour of Iran we'd been in and out of mosques and shrines, sometimes several times per day. We'd learned to recognise the architectural styles and the functions of different parts of a mosque. We'd seen old, new and everything in between but we had almost always had the places to ourselves and we rarely came across 'real' locals going about their normal worship in these mosques. There were often school parties of earnest and eager young girls in matching uniforms. They flocked around the ladies in our group to indulge their curiosity about such exotic foreigners by asking hundred of questions; where did we come from, were we married, did we have children, and (with giggles and lowered eyes) did we know the footballer Cristiano Ronaldo……..? Such is the curiosity of school girls everywhere. On our last day in Tehran we were thwarted in most of our touristy plans by finding that all the attractions were closed for a religious holiday. In a stroke of what might be thought of as genius but equally as 'pretty bleeding obvious' our guide decided that we should go and visit a shrine and this time he knew that it wouldn't be empty. It's logical isn't it? It's a religious holiday so let's go and do something religious.I wish I could tell you the name of the shrine but I don't have any idea where it was or who was buried there. It didn't really matter because what I want to write about is not the detailed description of the building or the history of the dead person - instead I'd like to use this experience to illustrate the friendliness of the local people. We walked through the narrow alleyways of a small market until we came to a square with the shrine to one side. It was absolutely packed with people - men to one side, women to the other. Our group split into two parts and the men headed straight in whilst we womenfolk headed off to get suitably dressed. If you still fondly remember dressing up for the school nativity play with your mother's spare tablecloth draped around your head and body, then you'll know exactly what to do in a Shi'a shrine. Passing behind a curtain we found a large bin filled with 'chadors-for-borrowing'. You'd expect perhaps that these might be black but they aren't – typically a temporary chador is white with a little flowery design, exactly like your mother's table cloth.We ferreted around in the bins, trying to find appropriately sized chadors. Now you might imagine that 'one size fits all' and that's true. But if you don't want to trip over and kill yourself you don't want one that's too long and if you don't want to flash your feet and lower lets, you'll want one that's long enough. Once you've found an appropriately sized cloth, then there's almost always a friendly lady nearby who'd love to help you drape it just right. Since we tended to go into such places with our small back packs in place, the overall effect was often hunch-backed.On this occasion one of the lady wardens from the shrine caught site of us and leapt through the crowd to come welcome us. She grabbed me by the hand and started to ask me lots of questions. Where as I from, where had I been, why had I come to Iran? She gathered our shoes and pushed off to the front of the line to hand them over to the shoe-minders and then taking my hand again and asking the others to "stay close" she pushed through the throng of worshippers. I felt like Moses crossing the Red Sea as the wave of ladies parted to let us through. Yes, they were there to worship but watching a bunch of European ladies was part of the day's entertainment. With her feather duster in hand, the warden waved everyone out of our way and took us into the shrine by the exit.The feather dusters are the weapons of choice for shrine wardens. It's not considered appropriate to go round touching strangers in holy places so these ladies carry a stick about a foot and a half long with either lots of feathers or fluffy stuff on the end. They can remove the odd speck of dust from the pristine shrines or just 'dust' people out of the way. It wouldn't be right to get heavy handed and move people on by force so they just flick lightly and everyone moves on.As I mentioned she took us in through the exit and pushed us forward to the holiest part of the shrine. All around us the walls were covered in intricate patterns of tiny mirrors. Ornate chandeliers hung from the ceiling, it was as if the entire place was sponsored by Swarovski. Getting us the best places by the edge of the tomb she pushed us forward to make sure we got a good view, chatting and smiling and asking where I'd been and what I'd liked. It wasn't hard to be enthusiastic. She said we'd seen more of her country than she had and wanted to know all about how we got there, who else was in our group, where were our husbands, how old were we and so on. All the while she dusted the locals out of our way until we got back to the shoe stand.Stepping to the front she called excitedly to her friend. "Come quickly, these are the English people. They've been all over Iran". Her friend rushed over with our shoes "I just LOVE your culture" she gushed and then listed all her favourite English writers and all her favourite Dickens novels. She told us she longed to go to Stratford on Avon, London, the Lake District and once again I had to tell all about where we'd been, what we'd seen, how much we thought the Iranian people were really lovely and welcoming and kind. The smiles were broad and genuine With our shoes returned and our chadors removed and bundled back into the bin we waved goodbye and headed back into the square where our next unexpected experience was about to begin. Close
Most big cities have one or more iconic buildings that serve as an instantly recognisable symbol of that city. These are the buildings that the foreign correspondents stand in front of when making their reports on the television news. If it's Sydney they'll have the…Read More
Most big cities have one or more iconic buildings that serve as an instantly recognisable symbol of that city. These are the buildings that the foreign correspondents stand in front of when making their reports on the television news. If it's Sydney they'll have the Opera House over their shoulders, if it's Moscow they'll be standing by the cathedral on Red Square and if it's Tehran, you can pretty much bet the Azadi Monument will be in the frame. It's big, it's white, it's a very distinctive funky shape like a giant piece of marble origami - what more could you ask for in a symbolic building?The Azadi Monument was built in 1971 as part of the old Shah's commemorations of the 2500th anniversary of the Persian Empire. I'm not quite sure which version of the Empire he was thinking of as the first Persian Empire of Darius, Xerxes and co was surely a lot earlier than that. The Shah named it the Shahyad tower (or the Remembrance of the Shahs tower) but then he was never a man given to modesty. We had already heard that in the days of his rule he had several blocks of apartments built near the airport and laid out so that the spelled 'Long Live the Shah' when viewed from planes coming into land. How the mighty are brought down to earth!After the Revolution of 1979, the tower was renamed the Azadi Tower or Azadi Monument. Azadi is a Farsi word meaning freedom or liberty and with this renaming, a classic symbol of the old-style Persia was reborn as the representation of the newly 'liberated' Iran. The tower stands 45 or 50 m high depending on which websites you read and who you trust. I personally can't tell just by looking which is correct – but I can say it's big, imposing and really rather funky. My guidebook to Iran says it a couple of different historical architectural styles but they are totally different from the styles that Wikipedia claims – in their case it's apparently a combination of Sassanid and Islamic styles. I don't know who's right and I don't really care. I just think it's rather attractive. It looks a bit like someone took a power station cooling tower, sliced up the sides and folded the bottom section sort of inside out and then covered it in white marble. It's not the Taj Mahal and it doesn't claim to be, but if you want one of the rare examples of rather gorgeous 1970s architecture (not a period known for beauty), the Azadi Monument is a classic.The tower was designed by Hossein Amanat, an architect who won a design competition. The irony of this is that Amanat is a member of the Bahai Faith which is the most persecuted religion in current day Iran. The religious elite will turn a blind eye to Christians and even the tiny number of local Jewish communities, but they reserve their worst ire for the alleged heresy of the Bahais. This makes the continued presence of the monument even more remarkable as Amanat blended Bahai symbolism into his design.We'd seen the tower a few times because it's on the main route into town from Tehran airport. Our visit was another of the 'things to do when there's nothing to do' events of our last day in the city. We'd just failed to get into the Azadi Stadium and I think our driver and guide were looking for something that we couldn't fail to get a good look at. Accordingly the bus pulled up and we poured out onto the side of the road with just one challenge ahead of us; how to get across six lanes of speeding traffic between us and the tower.I'm pretty brave; I've crossed roads all over the world almost always without fear (though maybe not in Ho Chi Minh City). As road-crossing challenges go, this was a big one. Normally crossings are tricky because they involve 27 different types of vehicle all moving at different speeds, all different sizes and mostly driven by people who are looking the other way. Dodging camels, donkey carts, bicycles, rickshaws, mopeds and car on a busy street is tricky but the chances are that nothing's moving very fast and you won't get hit very hard. Getting the monument was very different because it stands on manicured lawns in the middle of a very large roundabout. It's not a roundabout where people slow down though – six lanes of traffic are thundering towards you and there's no alternative other than to put your head down and run for it. There are no underpasses or traffic controls – it's really a case of putting your trust in whatever god you believe in and going for it.We watched a few of our party – the more sprightly ones and those in running shoes – go first and worked out that the best technique was to go halfway and then stop, check again and make a second burst. So that's what we did – almost collapsing with relief on the lawns once we got there. You can see in my photo that I look immensely relieved to still be in one piece.The lawns around the monument would make a lovely picnic spot - if you like picnicking on roundabouts. There are a row of fountains on the main route to the centre of the tower although during our visit they were empty. In retrospect I really can't believe I came away from the Azadi with only a few photographs – I should have fired off scores of shots of this amazing building. Standing directly under the tower you can look up at the intricate ribbed design that reminded me of one of fashion designer Issey Mikake's folded and pleated dresses.In theory there's a museum in the basement of the tower but in practice on a day when everything was closed, we couldn't figure out how to get in. And to be fair, this really is a building to look at from the outside rather than the inside.We strolled around, chatted with the locals, took some photos and generally did everything we could to put off the inevitability of having to get back to the bus. But eventually we had no choice – we couldn't stay there forever and so we headed off to run the gauntlet of the Tehran traffic once again. Close
Written by koshkha on 16 Mar, 2009
With a day to spare and all the obvious attractions closed for a religious holiday, we found ourselves clutching at straws for things to do on out last day in Tehran. We'd been up the mountain to try to get the cable car and failed.…Read More
With a day to spare and all the obvious attractions closed for a religious holiday, we found ourselves clutching at straws for things to do on out last day in Tehran. We'd been up the mountain to try to get the cable car and failed. We'd been to a shrine and had a jolly time with the parading locals; we'd had a slap-up lunch in a swanky restaurant and we'd even played chicken on the six-lane highway surrounding the Azadi Tower. There must surely be sometime REALLY futile that we could try to round off the day. And sure enough there was. One of our tour group was an obsessive football fan on a personal mission to see as many international football stadiums as possible. He carried with him a small photo album with photos which his long-suffering wife had taken of him standing on the great pitches of the world. He decided that it would be a real feather in his cap if he could get into the national stadium in Tehran and get his photo taken on the hallowed grounds of the Azadi Stadium. He was planning to hop in a taxi, wife in tow, and go to the stadium. But we - with literally nothing better to do - all decided that his mission would become our mission. All for one and one for all! We would commandeer our bus, driver, local guide and tour leader for a wild-goose chase and try to make his dream come true.It was a sunny afternoon in Tehran when we set off in search of football history. Iran had narrowly failed to qualify for the 2006 World Cup earlier that year and rumour had it that the 'powers that be' had knobbled the team. When they'd won their second-to-last qualifying game, the rejoicing in the streets of Tehran had been so joyous and so spontaneous that women had been seen throwing off their headscarves. The government were terrified that qualification might mean something really serious - a glimpse of ankle, a hint of flesh, who knows, maybe even full-scale rebellion. It was too big a risk to take and the Revolutionary Guard heaved a sigh of relief when the team went down in their final game and qualification slipped from their grasp.As we and our bus thundered along the roads of western Tehran it soon became apparent that no tour group had ever requested a trip to the National Stadium before and we were making Tourist History in our own way. Neither the guide nor the driver had a clue where they were going. We could see the stadium tantalisingly in the distance but we circled it for several loops before we found a gate where we could get in.Driving round and round the car park our hopes started to rise. Firstly the car parks were open - a good sign. Secondly, there were lots of cars - which suggested a fair chance that something was going on in the stadium and our chances of getting in would be enhanced. But again, local knowledge let us down - where was the actual entrance?We parked up and headed for what appeared to be some kind of VIP entrance with our stadium-obsessed tour-mate and our rather nervous guide leading the way. We all trotted along behind for want of anything more exciting to do until the guide advised us that turning up mob-handed wasn't the best approach and we were despatched back to the bus.As time stretched by we felt more and more optimistic that he'd get in. His wife sat on the bus tut-ing and shaking her head and muttering about him being 'the cross I have to bear' and swearing 'This is the last time he does this to me'. Eventually after about 15 minutes, the pair returned without success. There were just too many men with machine guns and too few with a sense of humour or a sense of compassion. We never found out what was going on in the stadium that day but clearly a man with a football dream and a slick line in persuasion had met his match. We commiserated and headed back to the city with our heads filled with what might have been. A fitting end to a day of getting very little done but doing it in a good spirit. Close
Written by koshkha on 15 Mar, 2009
One thing that many people will find hard to believe is that Tehran is one of those cities where you could - if you chose - spend your morning in the museums and your afternoon on the ski slopes. Tehran is situated at the foot…Read More
One thing that many people will find hard to believe is that Tehran is one of those cities where you could - if you chose - spend your morning in the museums and your afternoon on the ski slopes. Tehran is situated at the foot of the Alborz mountain range, the highest mountains in the Middle East. These loom, sometimes rather menacingly, often rather prettily above the city. Except of course when the pollution is so bad that they just disappear and you wouldn't even know they were there.On our final day in Iran we found ourselves with time to kill. Our flights had been postponed giving us an extra day in the city but what we'd not realised was that the delights on offer for this last day were to be limited. Every museum or attraction was closed for the same reason that our flights had been put back - it was one of Iran's many holy days. It's always the birthday or death anniversary of a long-dead imam, or saint, or his wife/brother/dog or whatever and Iran has bank holidays with a startling frequency. Our guides decided that we'd go up to the mountains and take the cable car to the highest point where we ought to be able to take some great photos. What they hadn't counted on was that everyone ELSE in the city also thought it would be a great day to go up the mountains and it was the unofficial first day of the ski-ing season. We were there in November, and whilst the city itself was still bright and sunny, the snow was already settling on the highest peaks of the Alborz.So we hopped back in the bus and started to wind our way up the roads out of the city and up the mountain side. Iranian drivers are dreadful at the best of times but wealthy Iranians with skiing in their minds behave like utter loons. Our bus was a small one but as we got closer to the mountains, it was harder and harder to get round the corners for all the cars double parked on the corners. Eventually the driver gave up, deposited us on the side of the street and left us to walk the rest of the way.There was an option to take a bus to the cable-car but we were all feeling fit and healthy and the lines were long so we walked. It was a lovely day and the views were great. As we got closer to the centre of all the action and excitement it became clear that this seemed to be THE place to be on a bank holiday. There were dozens of stalls selling all manner of fast food (including bizarrely, what appeared to be roasted beetroots). There were assorted amusements on offer and all of Tehran was dressed up and looking for a good time. Some of the ladies were using the excuse of skiing to wear rather more risqué clothing than normal - out with the traditional manteau that reaches to mid-thing and in with butt skimming ski-jackets. Headscarves had been replaced with wooly hats or just pulling up the hoods of their coats. But lest you get the impression that Tehran girls go casual when looking for some snow-fun, most appeared to have spent hours with a trowel putting their make up on so thick that it looked as if it would crack. The girls who were there to have fun rather than to ski had pushed their scarves back as far as possible after teasing their hair up into beehives. The young lads were dressed in black leather and denim with gravity defying hairdos that wouldn't have been out of place in a re-enactment of Grease or Westside Story. They looked very funny and very serious but it was clear that they were all there to have a good time.Whilst we waited for the rest of our party to arrive on the bus, we loitered amongst the snack stands and stalls selling all sorts of junk, chatting with the locals who wanted to practice their English. Then our guide arrived, gathered everyone together and we took off to find the cable car. Disaster! The line was already snaking back and forth and extending well outside the cordoned off area. With many of us being British, we calmly joined the queue - after all, that's what we Brits do. See a queue, join it! After about 40 minutes, during which we'd gone nowhere fast, the guides decided to call it a day and to give up. They rationalised that by the time we got to the front of the line and up the mountainside, it would be time to come back again and there would most likely be an equally ridiculous queue to get back down again. With some regrets, we gave up and left the line. Heading back to our bus we had another pleasant walk, plenty of time to take photos of the city and to exchange pleasantries with the people walking in the opposite direction, snowboards strapped to their backs and looking forward to a few hours on the slopes. We all agreed that it didn't really matter that we'd completely failed to do what we set out to do - it had still been a bit of fun, a chance to get out of the smog of the city and an opportunity to mingle with the bright young things of Tehran's well-heeled neighbourhoods. Did we tell them they had hours of lines ahead of them? Of course not. Why spoil a perfectly pleasant day out. Close
~~ A Land of Faces~~When you visit Iran there are faces looking down at you wherever you go on the streets and in the hotels and restaurants. In a land obsessed with martyrdom, every street corner and every roundabout seems to be decorated with images…Read More
~~ A Land of Faces~~When you visit Iran there are faces looking down at you wherever you go on the streets and in the hotels and restaurants. In a land obsessed with martyrdom, every street corner and every roundabout seems to be decorated with images of the martyrs - mostly those who died during the Revolution or the Iran-Iraq war. But one or two faces stand out from the others and become instantly recognisable and the most prominent amongst these is undoubtedly the face of Ayatollah Khomeini. Ruhollah Musawi Khomeini was the man considered to have been the architect of the Iranian Revolution. It's suggested you can date any picture of him by his look - from early pictures where he's darkly scowling and looking like an old-testament prophet, to the later post-death portraits where he's portrayed as more of a kindly old grandfatherly figure. ~~Khomeini - the very potted history~~This is a review about his tomb so I'm going to use that as justification to not over-egg the pudding on covering his history. Love him or hate him it's impossible to deny Khomeini's impact on the history of the region and the wider world. When the old Shah took flight in 1979, Khomeini returned to Iran from exile in Paris just a couple of weeks later. Crowds lined the streets to give him an ecstatic welcome and support his changes to a more Islamic way of life. The following year Saddam Hussein invaded Iran kicking off the long, bloody and ultimately pretty pointless Iran-Iraq war. Key events of Khomeini's rule included the American Embassy siege that ran for 444 days, the fatwah on Salman Rushdie for 'The Satanic Verses' (surely one of history's most extreme book reviews), and the US shooting down of an IranAir jet with 250 passengers on board. More importantly for the people of Iran, his rule brought about a harsh and strictly controlled way of life - dress codes, rules about what you could and couldn't do, and wide-ranging restrictions on personally freedoms. ~~A death stranger than life~~His death in June 1989 led to some of the most bizarre scenes I can ever recall seeing on TV. The funeral procession through the streets of Tehran caused mass hysteria, his body being dragged into the seething crowds, hungry to pull just a scrap of cloth from his shroud as holy relics. I remember watching the events live on TV and thinking that his body was probably the first recognisably REAL corpse I'd ever seen on television. And now, nearly 20 years after his death, the cult of Khomeini continues to draw crowds to one of the most bizarre tourist attractions in this land of bizarre tourist attractions - the Mausoleum of Ayatollah Khomeini. ~~Finding the Mausoleum~~The Mausoleum is in the south of the city, just off the road to the holy city of Qom and not far from the new airport. It's very much a 'work in progress' and with an alleged budget of $2 billion to spend, there must still be a long way to go. They are building a complex that will cover 5000 acres and include not just the mausoleum, but also a university, a seminary, lots of shops, a multiplex cinema and a strip club (OK, I made up the bit about the cinema and the club but you get the idea). It will be the largest Moslem shrine anywhere in the world - but I can't help wondering if it's going to take longer to finish than the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. And having seen how the other shrines in Iran don't tend to stint on decoration, it will take a very long time to cover one this big in suitably gaudy sparkly bling and lots of nice tiling. We arrived on the first afternoon of our tour of Iran, following an overnight flight and a brief nap at the hotel and a quick lunch. Nothing can really prepare you for how strange this place is. I lived near to Manchester's Trafford Centre whilst it was being built and we used to joke about it looking like a mosque. Well the strange thing is that the Khomeini's mausoleum looks not entirely unlike the Trafford Centre (without the indoor ski-centre, obviously). When you arrive there's a massive car and coach park that attests to just what a major draw this place is on high days and holy days. Allegedly there's parking for 20,000 cars and I can believe it. If you could imagine turning up at your country's largest shopping mall and finding the car park empty, that's a bit like the scene when we arrived in the middle of the afternoon on a very quiet day. We parked the bus and found just a few other vehicles and a smattering of strange little tents. Apparently it's quite the done thing to take a pilgrimage to see the mausoleum and to spend the night in your tent in the car park - a bit like Glastonbury without the mud. ~~ Getting in and what you'll find ~~There are two entrances to the mausoleum, one for ladies, and the other for gents. We split up accordingly and took off our shoes and handed them over to the shoe-man who gave us the biggest smile and welcome. When we returned, not only did he remember us (OK, we weren't exactly hard to spot as outsiders) but he knew which shoes went with which person. Imagine being able to do that - not the most useful of skills I'll admit but we were impressed. Passing through the ladies-only curtain, we were given a rub-down search and our bags were X-rayed and then we were sent on our way with yet more smiles and welcomes. I don't really know what I was expecting but it wasn't what I found. The main building was enormous and almost empty - lots of concrete and metal pillars and zillions of glass chandeliers. It had all the atmosphere of a 1970s shopping centre crossed with a cattle market. I've seen aircraft hangers with more of a buzz about them. The whole place looked like a slightly-tidied-up building site. Some readers may be old enough to remember the 'onyx-age' - a period of my childhood when the world went crazy for heavy onyx ashtrays and other onyx tat. Well imagine acres of onyx flooring and you are getting close to the sense of OTT-ness about this place. Obviously expensive but frankly very tacky. The main action is around the glass-sided room that holds the tombs of Khomeini and his son. I went into the ladies enclosure to see what was going on, feeling a bit concerned to be intruding on something of such religious importance to the other people there. However, as we later discovered throughout Iran, nobody minds you being there and most people just want to make sure you get the best view. Up close to the tomb-room, we watched ladies praying and pushing money and letters through openings in the walls and windows. Looking up to the ceiling above the tombs, there are stained glass windows decorated with 72 tulips which symbolise the 72 martyrs who fought and died with Khomeini in Kerbala. Please forgive me but I don't know anything about that particular event and I'm lacking the imagination to make something up. Other symbolism includes the four towers each of which is 91m high, reflecting the age at which Khomeini died. After we left the main building we went for a wander but weren't really sure what we were looking at. Most of the people we passed smiled and many welcomed us to their country. The braver (younger) ones asked us where we came from and discussed Manchester United which is exactly what happens everywhere you go in the world these days. Apparently Khomeini said before he died that he didn't want his tomb to be a sombre or sad place and he asked for shops and restaurants to be there so that visitors could enjoy themselves during their visit. Let's be honest, it's not exactly the London Eye, but I have to say that everyone DID seem to be having a good time on their day trip to visit the father of post-revolution Iran. And whilst it's not architecturally brilliant, is far from finished and is frankly not beautiful in any way I can think of, it's undeniably an interesting experience to get in amongst the locals at a place that means so much to them. Close
When you visit Iran there’s one thing you can’t fail to spot – it is a country with a fixation on death and martyrdom; a country where no matter where you go, you are never very far from reminders of the Iran-Iraq war – or…Read More
When you visit Iran there’s one thing you can’t fail to spot – it is a country with a fixation on death and martyrdom; a country where no matter where you go, you are never very far from reminders of the Iran-Iraq war – or as the Iranians call it, ‘the Imposed War’. The war ran for just short of eight years from September 1980 to August 1988 and is recognised as the longest ‘conventional’ war of the 20th Century. Nearly twenty years after it ended, the memories are still very fresh in Iran. I’ll admit I was a little taken aback after an overnight flight to Tehran that the ‘highlights’ of day one were to be a tad fixated on death and destruction – a trip firstly to the tomb of Ayatollah Khomeini before we popped round the corner to the Behesht-e-Zahra Cemetery to see the memorials to the martyrs of the Iran-Iraq war as well as those killed during the 1979 revolution. I started to think about how different my life in England had been from the life I might have had if I’d been born in Iran and to look at what mattered to me in 1980 – the year that the war started. Was I even aware of the Iran-Iraq war? Could I have found the countries on a map or known who stood for what? When I asked myself what I could confidently recall of the events of 1980 I didn’t get much further than the Moscow Olympics and the widespread international boycott over Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan – an invasion of Afghanistan? That sounds all too familiar doesn’t it? I checked out Wikipedia for the highlights of 1980 and I found that lots of other things I remembered had happened that year; Robin Cousins skated to gold in Lake Placid; the Iranian Embassy siege ended with spectacular SAS activity; IRA prisoners went on hunger strikes in the Maze prison; strikes in the Gdansk shipyards led to the formation of Solidarity; Ronald Reagan became President and John Lennon was shot. Those are the things I remembered – not the Iraqi invasion of Iran. I would have been hard pushed to tell you who invaded whom. The more I read up about the Iran-Iraq War the more I realised I couldn’t write a review of the Martyrs Cemetery without giving some background to the conflict that killed so many in the 1980s. To discuss the cemetery without putting the conflict into context would be a mistake.~Background to Conflict~ One of the biggest sparks for Iraq’s invasion was the Iranian Revolution of 1979. This led to the downfall of the Shah - who fled into exile - and the return from exile of the hard-line cleric Ayatollah Khomeini. Khomeini returned in triumph and set up the Islamic Republic of Iran, much to the dismay of some of the more secularist groups who had supported the revolution. The Shah had been quite a popular figure with Western governments and the revolution had shaken western confidence in Iran. The country’s reputation with the USA went downhill rapidly when a large group of Iranian radicals invaded the American Embassy in Tehran and laid siege to it for 444 days, demanding the USA send the Shah back to Iran to stand trial. Over the border in Iraq, Saddam Hussein must have thought he was in a great position to exploit Western concerns and get the international community on his side. Iran was the pariah country that nobody wanted to invite to their party. The armed forces were weakened in the aftermath of the revolution, officers loyal to the Shah had been kicked out, military equipment previously sourced from the USA was almost unusable due to lack of spare parts. Hussein expected a walkover. On September 18th 1980 he declared the Shatt al-Arab waterway to be Iraqi property and launched an invasion of Iran four days later boldly declaring he’d be in Tehran within 3 days. Almost eight years later, Iran had spent more than a trillion dollars defending their country. When the UN Security Council finally brokered a ceasefire neither side had made any significant land gains. It must surely go down in history as one of the most pointless wars of all time. ~ How many died? ~ The figures vary widely depending on who you ask but Iran probably lost around a million people – about 2% of the total population. 100,000 Iranians were killed by chemical weapons alone and Iran still bitterly resents the involvement of western companies and countries in helping Hussein to develop his chemical weapons capabilities. Iran has a finely developed and very large chip on its national shoulder. ~ The Martyrs Cemetery ~ The Behesht-e-Zahra cemetery lies about half an hour south-west of the centre of Tehran and just off the Tehran to Qom highway. As is often the case with large cemeteries, it’s both a peaceful and very moving place. The Martyr's Cemetery is just one section of the Behesht-e-Zahra but it's the part most tourists are likely to see. Leaving our bus in the main car park we walked for about 5 minutes along tidy tree-lined boulevards until we came to two large monuments – one to the army and the other to the navy. The army memorial consists of four high walls – two pairs of slabs meeting at right angles and covered in names of the dead. These are also set in the same shape as a monument at Mecca, apparently a well-used format for Islamic monuments. On the ground surrounding the slabs are hundreds of tidy little tombs set in the floor. The naval monument by contrast is – if it’s not too disrespectful to say it – a bit funny. It’s a large ship set on top of carved waves. It looks for all the world as if you could put a coin in a slot and watch the ship move up and down like a child’s attraction in the lobby of a supermarket. Walking through the army monument we came to the main area of the martyrs' graves. Many people may have seen these on TV reports but I hadn’t and I didn’t know what to expect. There are thousands of gravestones – some of them very plain and bearing nothing more than a carved impression of a dove and the word ‘unknown’ in Farsi. More typically though, the graves have metal and glass display cases mounted above them, looking not unlike miniature telephone booths. These cases have been filled by the family and friends of the dead men – usually with a few photographs, perhaps some artificial flowers, a lace doily or two and maybe a copy of the Koran. Sometimes a personal letter from the parents or other loved ones are there – other times there may be some item that was important to the dead man, a favourite book or a photo of his motorbike. The photographs are very moving and very dated, often taken at the big events in the young lives of the dead – graduation ceremonies, family weddings, birthday parties. Some are wearing dreadful sweaters knitted by loving mothers and grandmothers the type that went back in the drawer as soon as grandma went home and the photos had been taken. The cemetery is an active site of pilgrimage for the families, some of whom visit the graves every day or every weekend. You may see some local children offering to wash the graves for the families for a few pennies and even elderly men who can be hired to say the right prayers for your relatives. For these people a few strange looking tourists are of no interest. ~ The Rosewater Tomb ~ We were led to one special tomb. Of course they are all special to someone but this has become a rather bizarre place of pilgrimage. It looks no different from the others but is always surrounded by visitors because it's believed that this tomb weeps rosewater. If you touch it it’s always wet and it smells of roses. It’s really very strange and our local tour guide – normally very cynical and reluctant to get involved in any sort of superstition - totally believed in the authenticity of the tomb. Whilst we stood watching (and sniffing) local mourners passed round sweets and cakes, shyly offering them to us and including us in their visit. Very moved, we headed back to the bus – watching out for young men on motorbikes practicing their technique on the slopes and gravel pathways like skateboarders. We stopped for tea and to buy more date cakes to share with the locals who were sitting around the tea urn before we headed back to the city – moved and somewhat subdued and very conscious that for Iran, there will always be space for more martyrs and sadly, plenty willing to take those spaces and gain their route to paradise. Close
Written by Esteeve on 10 Nov, 2000
Usually mostaqim (straight ahead) will do the trick.
In order to hail a taxi anywhere in Iran, one must stand by the roadside and as taxis slow down and roll by, you must yell out the direction in which you wish to travel. If the…Read More
Usually mostaqim (straight ahead) will do the trick.
In order to hail a taxi anywhere in Iran, one must stand by the roadside and as taxis slow down and roll by, you must yell out the direction in which you wish to travel. If the driver is going in that direction he will stop. If not, he will continue rolling on his way looking for other passengers.
For the foreigner unaccustomed to the Iranian procedures of hailing a cab, one might consider practicing by shouting out places that almost no taxi will go, just to get the hang of talking to moving vehicles.
Most of the taxis only travel along the main routes throughout the city and are not willing to stray from the beaten path. It just isn't worth it for them to do so -- unless you are willing to pay for what it would cost five passengers going in your direction. If you are unable to find a taxi willing to go to your destination, much like metro systems around the world and similar to changing subway trains, you will have to change taxis at every major meydan (traffic circle) and each time you will need to hail another taxi in a similar fashion.
Upon hailing a taxi, if you are the only passenger, or one of two, the driver will crawl along the road honking at potential passengers standing by the roadside. If he does spot some passengers, you quickly find your already tight space becoming even tighter. For a New Yorker, the first time this happens, one is a bit shocked and befuddled that complete strangers are jumping into your taxi. But after a few times and after you yourself jump into near-capacity taxis, it ceases to be a problem.
The experience of riding in a taxi in Iran is not to be missed. The cars most often used as taxis are the Iranian made Paykan, which are no larger than the Japanese econoboxes of the 1970s and no more powerful than your average John Deer lawn mower.
It may be argued that the taxis, which I suspect present the most opportunities for people to find second or third jobs, make a significant contribution to Tehran's pollution problems. However, until the much talked about and not nearly finished Tehran subway system becomes a reality, these taxis effectively take the place of an elaborate metro system; they go along all main roads and routes.
Three passengers in the back and two in the front passenger seat is the rule, not the exception; well, actually one in the front passenger seat and the second person performing a balancing act of sitting half-on the seat and half-on the gearbox.
With all of the weight, it is amazing that these Paykans have survived for so many years. They move like molasses and often I feared that adding another 600 pounds of dead weight in the form of five fare-paying passengers might drive the cars into a long past-due retirement in car heaven. No such fate has befallen them. For all the complaints one might have about the Paykan, the most important thing for its owners and for that matter the nation, the majority of which drive these just slightly less than limousinesque wheels, is that it runs.
Coming from New York and accustomed to paying $1.50 just to sit in a behemoth and odor-enhanced yellow Chevrolet taxi, even when traveling with an Iranian friend, rare was the occasion that our combined fare was more than the basic New York rate. When taking a taxi from the ancient ruins of Persepolis back to Shiraz, a 60 kilometer ride, the fare for two people was 800 tomans ($2.60 at the official exchange rate).
Of course, I was cognizant of the fact that for the average Iranian, the amount I spent on taxis was not a mere drop in the bucket, and had I not been traveling without an Iranian, I'm certain that the fares might have inflated as soon as I squeezed myself into the car. But as their normal rates stand, they are reasonable and occasionally negotiable. Even if the fare is reasonable, many passengers still feign objections to the quoted rate and it seems that almost no ride would be complete without a good deal of haggling.
The insides of most taxis are as basic as can be, complete with nonexistent window handles. On few occasions I was requested to close the featherweight door more gently, because my arm is accustomed to heaving closed the heavier doors of American land yachts, cars the size of which would have difficulty passing through the narrow kuche's (alleys) of Tehran without snagging the hood ornament or a chrome bumper.
While entering the other lanes, most drivers appear not to pay attention to whether they cut off on-coming traffic and expect others to look out for them. If anything, Iranian drivers must be extremely attentive when at the wheel, especially at night when many drivers operate without headlights or only use their tiny fog lights. Some of those who do use their headlights have tinted them with either a shade of purple or green.
However, with all of these dangers a driver must face on any given day, I saw only one or two accidents. I suspect that because most cars in Iran have a top speed of 60 mph, and because drivers must be especially attentive, fewer serious accidents occur. And for all the times in a day when a driver may be cut off by an inattentive driver, rarely do drivers become agitated or come to blows with one another.
They take it all in stride.
(This article previously appeared in the November 1995 edition of the netzine, The Iranian which can be found at www.iranian.com. Prices mentioned refer to a US$/Toman exchange rate of 1:300. Since 1995 the toman has further depreciated and travelers should anticipate paying a higher amount.)
Written by baroudeur2004 on 25 Sep, 2007
I had met Moshen, a lovely Iranian guy through a chatting website and I had decided to meet him since he seemed trustworthy. He was a graphic designer student about to finish his studies and we quickly became friends after I arrived in Tehran. Moshen…Read More
I had met Moshen, a lovely Iranian guy through a chatting website and I had decided to meet him since he seemed trustworthy. He was a graphic designer student about to finish his studies and we quickly became friends after I arrived in Tehran. Moshen showed me the main sights of Tehran with his car during my three days in Tehran and introduced me to his family living in a spacious modern flat in a middle-class neighbourhood in North Tehran. I learnt later that Moshen's father was a strong supporter of the Shah and disliked the current Islamic Regime because it failed its ideals. That is why I was asked so many questions about the King of Belgium and the current Belgian political system when I met him. One day, I asked Moshen to show me the most open-minded areas of North Tehran (because I was staying in a mostly fundamentalist area in South Tehran and I had barely seen any young Iranians aiming for a change in the way the country was ruled). Moshen thus decided to drive me to Jamshidieh Park, close to the Alborz Mountains in North Tehran where, according to him, I would see unmarried couples wandering together hands in hands and barely covered young women.We met several friends of Moshen in the park and after having drunk a tea in a teahouse overlooking Tehran, it started becoming dark, so Moshen and I left the park to go to a so-called Italian restaurant near Vali-ye Asr Avenue where we ate a thick pizza. Unfortunately, time went quickly by and I had to get back to my hostel before it closed for the night. There is an unofficial curfew in South Tehran, meaning that after 10pm everything is closed and one might wonder what a tourist is doing in such an area at night.Moshen and I went down Vali-ye Asr avenue towards South Tehran in his white Fiat-like car. Moshen had put an American music tape in his radio and we both listened to the loud music. Just after we crossed the imaginary border between North and South Tehran, we noticed a small traffic-jam. I could swear I saw Moshen becoming pale; he started panicking, quickly removed the music tape out of the radio and hid it under my seat. He then told me to remain quiet and not to say anything. He had seen the Bassijis. The Bassjis, are a voluntary paramilitary force subordinate to the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution. They patrol the city streets (usually in the hot spots of the city at night) and are allowed to arrest anyone who does not comply with the Islamic rules. Moshen slowed down. He was hoping that the Bassijis would let us go without asking us further questions. That was when I realized that the Bassijis were there. The guardians of the Revolution —all bearded men with khaki fatigues and Kalashnikov guns—noticed Moshen and me. They could not miss us because of my blonde hair and white skin. They asked Moshen to stop his car and get out of it. They told me in Farsi to stay put; Moshen translated for me. He was sweating because he knew that there were illegal music tapes in his car. The Bassijis had a quick look at the car but did not notice the t Close
Written by Esteeve on 11 Nov, 2000
To escape the crush of humanity in the city center, as well as to take a break from the watchful eyes of the keepers of the faith, the komitehs, many Tehranis seek refuge in an area in the northern part of the city called Darake.…Read More
To escape the crush of humanity in the city center, as well as to take a break from the watchful eyes of the keepers of the faith, the komitehs, many Tehranis seek refuge in an area in the northern part of the city called Darake.
What is Darake? It is an area in the north-eastern part of Tehran which consists of a village and numerous trails into the mountains above. The trails are what draws the crowds, though for various reasons. They lead into the mountains and all along the trail are fast moving streams and waterfalls created by thousands of years of melting snow, making its way down to the base of the mountains to where Tehran lies.
The trail is extremely popular among Tehranis, especially younger ones. Only infrequently do the komitehs venture up into this area and knowledge of that fact leads a number of young women to gather in the more secluded parts of the trails, dispense with their roohsaris (head scarves) and enjoy the sunshine. For many of them it is a place where they may catch they eye of a potential suitor and pass a phone number.
For those not interested in that, ignore that paragraph.
Along the trail are several chaikhanes (tea houses) where one can rest, sit on a rope bed, and sip some piping hot tea. What to eat with your tea? Well, besides a number of common Iranian nibblies one will find an abundance of shahtoot, or mulberries. The shahtoot are large, plump and delicious. You will of course eat them using your fingers, turning your fingertips a shade of purple.
On your way up the trail you will come across a number of Afghan workers leading mules up the narrow paths, each mule saddled with fully loaded burlap sacks of shahtoot. Clearly shahtoot are the fruit of preference in this area, though it should be said that Iranians love just about any kind of fruit.
When you have had enough of hiking you can stop just about anywhere along the trail, position yourself on some of the large rocks that lie beside the stream and dip your feet into the ice cold water. It is extremely cold water but exhilarating.
It is best to start out for Darake early in the morning, before the sun rises too high in the sky. If you go early and on a Friday (everyone's day off), you will find that you are not alone. You will see hundreds of Tehranis taking a break from city life and will doubtless get a chance to meet and speak to many of them.