Iran Part 3: Into Tehran
This post follows Part 2: The Heart of Persia
Kashan and Qom
Kashan, a city of of a quarter of a million people halfway between Isfahan and Tehran, has a enchanting bazaar and several centuries-old merchants homes that have been converted into traditional hotels and restaurants. I made the mistake of choosing a highly-rated but modern hotel on the outskirts of town, so missed out on the chance to to stay at one of these beautiful homes with courtyard gardens, fountains, and stained glass windows. Next time!
I noticed that my itinerary only had me in Tehran for one night, so at the suggestion of a friend who had been to Iran recently, I changed my itinerary to spend an additional night in the capital. On the way there, we stopped at Qom, the second most important holy city in Iran, after Mashad, and the site of the holy shrine of Fatima Masumeh, or Fatima The Innocent, an important figure in Shia Islam. While all the other mosques I visited were virtually empty of worshipers and have become tourist attractions primarily, this shrine was full of activity. It attracts Shia imams and other students from all over the Shia world—Pakistan, Iraq, India primarily.
I felt a little out of sorts at the shrine, not only because I was the only Westerner there among the many worshipers and students, but because I know these places are prime targets for terrorists. I know I shouldn’t have been nervous, given Iran’s reputation for keeping trouble from entering its borders, and the incredibly small chance of something like that happening on the morning I was there, but the security pat down was so basic that I didn’t have confidence in the staff’s ability to keep a bomber out. In fact, the same guy who took my entrance ticket did the pat down.
I kept my jitters to myself. In the huge courtyard, an English speaking Iranian imam came out to meet us and give a tour around the mosque. I was not able to enter the actual shrine because I’m not Muslim, but around it I saw dozens of imams, robed and heads covered with white turbans—forgive me if I’m getting the terminology wrong–crossing here and there across the courtyards like college students crossing the college green between classes.
The imam led us to the international visitors center, a sort of living room located off the back courtyard. Taking our shoes off, we entered the ornately decorated room lined with small couches and chairs with and coffee tables. The wall was covered in pastel floral carvings around a recess with three Corinthian columns and green drapes.
A young man in a suit came out and offered us tea and cookies. Through Amir, he asked me if I’d do a quick interview with the tourism authority here to talk about my impressions of Iran. I said yes, but only if my image wasn’t going to be used on national TV or anything as propaganda (I asked Amir that, because the guy didn’t speak English). Amir said that there was nothing to worry about so I agreed to it. This concern was heightened after being handed a sheet of paper with a message from the Ayatollah himself. The translated letter, with Khameni’s serious countenance superimposed between two columns of print, declared that the Iran doesn’t deserve its image as an international pariah and that the U.S. and other Western countries are not blameless in the current state of affairs.
We drank our tea and ate our sweets while I fielded a few questions from the man in the suit: How are you enjoying your time? What have you seen? Why did you choose Iran?, etc. I was happy that the interviewer didn’t show up—he was busy somewhere else around the mosque. We headed out shortly thereafter and were back on our way to Tehran.
Approaching the capital I began to see more and more signs of military activity. Radar stations, guard towers, trucks full of soldiers moving across the arid hills on both sides of the highway. We eventually passed the huge international airport, where I’d be flying out in a few days, and the enormous, unfinished shrine of Ayatollah Khomeni.
The traffic began to get thicker, and the block apartment buildings soon dotted the landscape. The layout of Tehran is significant; it’s built on an enormous, slightly sloping hill that ends rather abrubtly at the Alborz Mountains, which provide an stage-like backdrop for the city below. During my visit in December, the mountains were covered in snow and clouds and a little bit of haze from air pollution.
As I expected, the city was crowded and the traffic chaotic. The enormous traffic circles were thronged with cars and pedestrians bravely navigating the moving thicket of steel and rubber.
In my first week in Iran, I only saw one anti-American sign—in Shiraz aside a government watchtower overlooking a government-owned building. But in Tehran these signs were more prevalent and obvious. For example, I saw a huge billboard, almost the size of a basketball court, hanging over a busy traffic circle. It depicted American soldiers hoisting the Stars and Stripes in the manner of the famous image by Joe Rosenthal of Marines at Iwo Jima. But instead of a raising the flag on a mountain, the Marines were standing above the bloodied bodies of wounded and dead civilians in Middle Eastern dress. The image was as graphic as it was unsettling. The men and women depicted in the rubble were covered in blood and human carcasses of and rib cages littered the foreground. At the lower left of the billboard was the title of the work, “The Story of a Flag, 2015, ‘Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima’. Amir had never seen the billboard but guessed it was an advertisement for a exhibition somewhere.
This billboard was not the only anti-American art I saw while in Tehran. The other was the graffiti on the walls of the former American embassy in Tehran. There were also banners explaining that the takeover of the embassy in 1979 was justified because of its role as a “den of spying”.
Propped rather menacingly above the walls and between two Iranian flags is the wreckage of an American military helicopter that crashed in the Iranian desert during a rescue attempt in 1980. I imagine that the families of the soldiers killed during that attempt would find that exhibition rather distasteful, as I did. We tried to enter the grounds to see the museum, but were rebuffed by the guards who told us that the museum wasn’t open.
Tehran was not all hatred towards Americans. Aside from those the huge billboard and the embassy graffiti, I found the people of the capital to be just as nice as those in the provinces.
I later spent a few hours at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMOCA). Built in 1978, one year before the Islamic Revolution, TMOCA is a holdover from the days when Iran was much more connected to the Western world, when the Shah and his wife were using Iran’s immense oil wealth to collect paintings by the likes of Monet and Pissaro.
The museum is situated in central Tehran on the edge of a park crawling with stray cats, some so bold that they sit right next to you to silently beg for food. Outside the front door of the museum is a very busy street crossable by walking a quarter a mile away to the next light or by risking life and limb by jaywalking in the real-life game of Frogger that millions of Iranians engage in every day
Iranian architect Kamran Diba combined modernist and traditional Persian elements into the museum’s Brutalist design. From the outside the museum looks like a string of half-buried beige concrete bunkers poking out of the ground. These “bunkers” are about 15 feet high, taking the form of the centuries-old wind towers that I saw all over over central Iran. Because the roofs are sloped in the shape of a quarter circle, taken together the towers look like a set of wave tops above floating above the grass.
Inside, the museum is built around a central atrium, resembling an underground metro station encased in concrete. There’s a spiral ramp, leading down into the dark basement of the museum, where the majority of the exhibits are located. On three of the four walls on the main level hung splashes of color in the form of works by Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns. Downstairs there was a huge exhibit displaying the works of Iranian artist Farideh Lashai, who fell out of favor with the Shah’s dynasty in the early 1970s, emigrated to the United States, and then returned to Iran in the late 1980s. In my opinion the main event was the small exhibit showing works of European impressionist painters.
Those of you who are accustomed to having all the information you need to navigate and understand a museum, such as an information desk or a map, will be utterly confused upon entering TMOCA. Besides the guy sitting behind the book store desk, or the workers at the really nice cafe in the first floor, no one spoke more than five words of English.
The museum wasn’t crowded—it was a Tuesday afternoon–but the visitors who were there were generally young female students in modern dress. I spotted them snapping photos and posing for selfies with themselves and their friends.
As is the case with almost anywhere you go in Iran, looming above the central atrium were pictures of the two ayatollahs –as if to remind liberal minded artists of whom is really running the show.
The mountains overlooking Tehran hide a very cool neighborhood called Darband, which consists basically of a path leading up into a mountain valley. Along both sides of this walkway are restaurants and cafes built on terraces into the rocky hillsides. There are also shops selling all varieties of candied fruit and cho ghondr, or beet root.
Despite the traffic and the crowds and the higher prices, I liked Tehran. It had cool cafes, restaurants, and a lively arts and theater scene. I especially liked the northern section of the city, which occupies higher ground and thus has lower air pollution. It’s also the has a bit more wealth than the gritty southern part, so the architecture was more beautiful and the streets cleaner. The street scenes rivaled that of a European city in many respects.
I was up at 3:30 the last morning for my ride to the airport—one of the worst things that one can do while traveling. You get no sleep the night before, wake up in a complete daze, and are sentenced to a long flight without having had much sleep.
As I made my way down the dark and deserted streets, I had time for reflection about my time in Iran. I remember feeling nervous about coming to Iran in the first place—I hesitated to go even after booking my tour. For a time, I let the concerns of others get the best of me, but eventually I decided to follow my instincts and go with it.
Iran is full of warm and inviting people who love Americans and want their government to improve relations with the rest of the world. For anyone contemplating a trip there, go. It’s a chance to see history in the making and to learn a ton in the process. Just keep your nose clean, follow the rules of the tour group, and you’ll have a wonderful time. It is my hope that the next time I go, our relationship with Iran will have improved a bit and some of the fear that I and my loved ones felt won’t be a big thing anymore.
I hope you enjoyed my account of my trip. See my next post about the food experiences I enjoyed in Iran, ranging from family dinners to visits to food workshops, factories, and stores. Thanks for reading!