Salam and 'merci' from Iran

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June 17th 2010
Published: June 20th 2010
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16 June 2010
Salam from Iran!

Get this: I’m actually watching the BBC hospital drama ‘Casualty ’ in my room in Tehran. This is just one of many strange and wonderful things I’ve experienced since I arrived in the Islamic Republic of Iran.


But firstly nearly everyone who I've told about my trip to Iran has looked at me aghast and replied: “Iran? Isn’t it dangerous?”. Barring a dodgy (separatist)part of south eastern Iran in the province of Sistan Baluchestan it’s perfectly safe - think of it as a part of London’s, say Kensel Green, being “a bit dodge”.

That's not to say that Iran does have a definite image problem. It's a member of the ‘Axis of Evil’ - according to the Bush administration, then it’s the whole Islamic theocracy of a government (the enforced wearing of the veil for women, the banning of alcohol, Western music, ties and even 'decadent' Western hairstyles such as the beloved mullet, etcetera), or the we- want-a-nuclear-option-because-we-think-that’s-what-the-Middle-East-needs-right-now - and being caught lying about it. And then in that same context of religiosity and nuclear bombs its own president (Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) suggests that Israel should be wiped off the map.

More recently it’s the detention and subsequent humiliation of British sailors (mock executions etc.) and a bunch of American postgraduate students who aparently hiked across the border by accident and who have been in prison without charge for over a year.

When I arrived it was the one year anniversary of protests against the dodgy Presidential elections which Ahmadinejad controversially won. The crackdown last year was very harsh (which also involved a French woman being arrested and put on trial for taking photos) and so Iran is in the news for all the wrong reasons.

What have the Iranians ever done for us?

But I think that’s what is so intriguing about the place - what lies behind the news headlines and Axis of Evil? On a travel level it’s an overland route to home by visiting countries I’ve both never been to and know little about and here’s a starter on why Iran (Persia) should be on everyone’s holiday list. This is what Persian civilisation has given ‘us’ the West which is taken from Jason Burke's Mirrors of the Unseen (2006), pp. 6-9....
...the banker's cheque; tile world's first postal service (‘Neither snow nor rain nor beat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds’ Herodotus Fifth Century BC describing Persia's Achaemenid mail couriers); the first international charter of human rights; the first modern astronomical observatory; the first calculating machine; the decimal fraction; the algorithm; the windmill and the waterwheel; chain mail - unknown even to the Romans until their fateful encounter with the Parthian cataphracti - the Parthian shot; the bullfight; the etymological origins of 'paradise', 'magic', and 'scarlet';the dome built over the squinch, and all the glories of architecture enabled thereby; the flying buttress; most of the world's finest carpets and miniature paintings, the earliest ceramic glazes, and the origins of delftware and majolica; the 'Arabic' numerals; the 'Arab' horse;

the Shiraz grape; the carrot; the domesticated rose and, via the empire of the Ottomans, the tulip; the conversion of the godless Mongols to Islam; the Gypsies, according to a tradition of Bahram Gur, the Sasanian king who introduced them to Europe from India; the Baha'I faith; the Koh-i no or diamond of the English crown jewels;

the purple gown of high ecclesiastical office and the tradition of the royal crown; the gardens of the Alhambra and Cordoba; the Taj Mahal; the earliest stained glass; the founding motto of the United Nations; the cult of the Assassins and their Indian derivation, the Thuggees;

the octagonal castles of Sicily; Persian cats; Persian blinds; the subterranean Mithreaeums of the Roman Empire and, raised over their ruins, many of the holiest sites in Europe; the Phrygian cap; Zoroaster; the three Magi (said to have set out from the Iranian city of Qom, and whose bones today rest in Cologne Cathedral);

the Virgin birth, the date for Christmas, Christmas lights and the tradition of Christmas trees and, come to think of it, the very foundations of Christian eschatology - heaven and hell, the idea of messianic redemption, angelology, and the sacramental use of wine;

the oceanic mystical literature and poetry of Sana'i, Attar, Rumi, Nizami, Shabestari, Sa'adi, Jami, Hafez, Ferdowsi, and of course Omar Khayyam, and from it, the symbolic themes and motifs of Persian Sufism - responsible not only for the pseudoPersian poetry of Arnold, Shelley, and Tennyson and Fitzgerald's exuberant renderings of the Rubayyat, but also, some say, for the curiously antinomian streak to be found in the works of Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Cervantes, Aesop, Ibsen, Blake, Milton, Shelley, Goethe, Nietzsche, Novalis, Vigny, Hugo, Lamartine, Schlegel, Thomas Moore, Emerson, Whitman, Dag Hantrnarskjold, C. S. Lewis, Graves, Ted Hughes, Doris Lessing, and Robert Bly, to name a few; the Thousand and One Nights (one of the first books to have been translated from Persian into Arabic) and their beguiling narrator, Shahrazad; chess; tennis it seems likely, and certainly polo...

As we flew over Iran I looked out over the landscape and all I could see was arid and barren plains of dried up rivers and brooding mountains. How could so much civilization come from this I wondered?


The green uniformed man at Immigration couldn’t tell me what was going on let alone questions of civilizations. As he scanned my passport, typed in my visa details and did it again and again. I thought all that time and money to get a visa into this pariah and I’m now going to be rejected on a technicality or my surname was missing an ‘h’.

A sudden stamp and a shove of my passport was the sign that I was free to enter. Those toilets first; foul and with dodgy pipes coming out of a smashed hole (this a brand new airport built by the Turks). I claimed my baggage all the while repelled by the people literally pushing past me, or standing too close and touching me or even worse in this Brit’s eyes jumping the queue and hitting me with their luggage trolley. It almost made me homesick for London’s Heathrow.

Money, Currency, Dosh, Rial... Tomans?

A change of money now: Euros into Iranian Rial with which I had to be careful on three separate accounts. Firstly, the money changer might take advantage of skewing the rate of 12,675 Rials to 1 Euro and secondly by giving me less or confusing me by calculating it into Tomans. Confusingly people will calculate prices in Tomans even though the currency is denominated in Rials on the note. One Toman is worth 10 Rials and so it’s a bit like them asking for 10 cents when they really want a bloody Euro. It’s taken me a while already to sort that one out in my head. So the taxi into the airport cost 25,000 Tomans, 250,000 Rial in notes, or rather 19 Euros.

Oh and lastly, international sanctions placed on Iran because of the whole we- want-a-nuclear-option-because-we-think-that’s-what-the-Middle-East-needs-right-now type deal has meant that ATMS are unavailable to non-Iranian bank accounts. Travellers cheques are not an option either, so that means carrying hard cold cash around with me - enough to keep me going in Iran for the month of my visa. Remind me again: why am I going to Iran? Not to worry however, I had the same deal in Burma and this time I’ve taken enough with me (I took a flight and had too many lovely Mandalay beers with John G that made me have a mad last couple of days) and then some.

That’s not the only idiosyncrasy of Persia (despite the term being used for millennia the Iran has been used since the 1930s and said to derive from the word Aryan) - the taxi ride from the airport was inter-esting to say the least. I turned to my side to pull on my seat belt, yep that’s right there wasn’t one. And then I just held on as the driver wove in and out of traffic without indicating along with everone lse. Cars made turns into us and motorbikes jumped in front and no one kept to any lane. Madness; only occasionally did someone do something really stupid did they get a beep or a few words of castigation.


Less idiosyncratic and much more deadly were the fumes of the city. The pollution is horrific, this is a city of 15 million people and the roads are chockerblock with cars under a thick cloud of smog. My skin and lungs were immediately affected so I closed the window - my only access to air con.

My hotel was located down an alleyway which had what looked like a medieval open sewer running down the middle of it and mechanics shops with tyres and oil lying around. Young men on motorcycles nearly hit me as they sped down the narrow passage oblivious to pedestrians or their own safety. I couldn’t check in till 2pm so I planned to go the Post Office and mail my two layer Bergaus jacket that has done me so well over the past 18 months. It was a pain to carry I didn’t see how reason for needing it in the Middle East in summer. A young man came into the office and after speaking to the proprietor in Farsi spoke to me in English if I needed any help. I was wearing shorts as it was about 35 degrees and hot but he told me that t-shirts were becoming more common but that shorts were not worn so I should change into long trousers. Bloody hell I thought. I later learned later that jeans weren't really worn either and for reasons of assimilation I stuck to the linen trousers I’d bought from British India - the shop, not the Raj.

Daniel turned out to be a German PhD student who was writing his thesis on Azeri Sufi mystics and their relationship to the secular state in 15th-16th Century Azerbaijan. This is what the German education system produces, you can study for as long as you want without having to pay any fees for years on end and still not come out with a degree to your name - but you can be an expert on something. No wonder he was bitter about having to pay 500 Euros recently to extend his year, they the Germans are finally going towards the European degree system. But I was lucky to have this over-educated fella that day because he took me to the post office and over two separate desks and an hour later of gossiping in Farsi I got my jacket posted for 210,000 Rial (21,000 Tomans - argh!) which is about 16 Euros.

I was later introduced to Lawrenz a tall, blond and hairless fellow student who was also studying on the same similar project. We went out for some food in a restaurant which served us kebab chicken and beef on a plate of buttered rice and two fried tomatoes. It wasn’t particularly nice or awful just a bit bland really and for the first time in a long time I longed for some proper green vegetable.

I then spent the next couple of hours walking around the city. Crossing the road is dangerous as it’s dog-eat-dog, so you basically have to make two steps then another two then another two until you’re across, all the while looking both ways. I seemed to get the hang of it pretty quickly; I’m still here aren’t I?

We went antique shopping as it was their last day in the city before going back to Germany. Lawrenze had studied Arabic at university and was a fluent reader and speaker but he said he wasn’t a very good Farsi speaker. Well, stone me, he was fluent as a rapper on speed when talking to shop keepers. It was really amazing to see him perusing over 70 years old and 200 year old calligraphic verses and cracking jokes with the owners - both enchanted with his Farsi but also his white aryanness and blond hair. He admitted to me that it became a hassle when so many people wanted to talk to you when all you really wanted to do was to walk down a street or buy something. I have to admit I felt bloody embarrassed at being so mono-linguistic but it’s also at times like those that drive me to doing something about it. It wasn’t lost on Lawrenze that he was studying a language and a country where you couldn’t buy a beer, go to a nightclub or get laid (without marriage). Interestingly, Daniel was on the hunt for some Iranian rap music - pretty much banned for a whole multitude of reasons no doubt - too Western, too American, too decadent and too bloody political no doubt. Its places like Iran that make you realise the real freedoms we have in the West are taken for granted. But also how ‘human rights’ often prosaic are at the heart of our existences.

My first day in Tehran was becoming quite the introduction it seemed. I had to get to grips with a few Persian words too. Salam - which is hello and basically the short version of the Arabic expression salam alleykom - Peace be with you - thank you - merci - goodbye kho daa haa fez - how much is it? - chande?.

That night I slept on a single bed that had a mattress on but was pretty much flat. Yep, slept on the hard floor pretty much. I think it’s good for your back; I’m not sure.

Day Two in Tehran and heart break

My second day started in the courtyard and speaking to the manager in sign language, pidgin English and pidgin Farsi : I asked for ‘sob haa nee’ - breakfast and ‘chaa’ - tea by which I got tea with no milk but plenty of sugar cubes; oh and a packaged muffin too.

Then a woman in a veil approached me and asked in an English accent if I was a tourist. I was taken aback because I’d noticed her in the kitchen but seeing as she was in a veil I assumed she was Iranian and thus averted my eyes in case any kind of eyes across a room moment compromised a woman in this strict Islamic culture.

She was very chatty and almost instantly revealed that she was here visiting her kids. Uh-oh I said, don’t tell me it’s some kind of Daily Mail story of East meets West and ex-husband runs off with the kids. Well, apparently, it was a very messy divorce and many court cases in both countries and it was only in March that she’d gotten rights to see her kids. (Under Iranian law, children of divorced parents—even if they were born outside of Iran—are under the sole custody of their father, regardless of what a foreign court may decide). We discussed her veil and how it was illegal not to wear one by punishment of flogging. Nice. I had noticed in the street how every second woman wore a chador, a head to toe black cloak that only revealed face and hands. The other half wore a veil, some tight, some loose and some of those wearing thick makeup and lipstick. All wore a sort of coat that covered their arses. Seriously, faces were all that were on offer to a young curious man such as myself. And I suppose if your face is all you can show you might as well make it up.

'R' promised to show me a different side to Iran and Tehran and took me to northern Tehran where she was visiting a friend and the rich people lived; it was here that styles were more liberal and frequently took the piss of the religious authorities. So off we went dodging the traffic, receiving looks all the time, a white woman in a veil and white male. We stopped at a shop to buy some baklava - a traditional thing here is to bring a gift when you visit somebody. We then got on the newly built and extensive Metro; modern but not sleekly modern, but it was super cheap (for a daily ticket it cost something like 1.50 Euros).

We got to the end of the line before she then put me on a shared taxi van toTajrish Squarewhere I got off to a bustle of veils and make up. Tehran is surrounded by quite beautiful mountains capped by scrapes of snow - it’s here that very cheap and very good skiing can be got and I would seriously come back to have a go during the Winter.

I went for a walk towards the mountains and I passed plenty of high rises and middle class abodes but nothing like Notting Hill or Belgravia. At the top I took a rest and a pizza - the latter is quite a novelty in Iran, it’s nearly mostly kebab kebab kebab. A young woman wearing jeans and plenty of makeup was sat with what I presume was her lover and whispered to each other eyed me up suspiciously as I sat and ordered and a Tosca pizza. After twenty minutes or so a thin crust pizza came out with salami and two sachets of tomato ketchup. I wasn’t sure what they wanted me to do with it, but it wasn’t going on my pizza. Anyway that filled me up nicely up towards and I entered the S’ad Abad complex of palaces and houses set in parkland at the foot of the mountains. There’s not much to tell apart from these were the palaces built by the last rulers of Iran, the father and son duo of the Shah Pahlavi who ruled since coup d’etat in the 1930s. It was the rule of the last Shah which set in motion the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The next day I visited the centre of the revolution - the American Embassy which was stormed and its diplomats held hostage for over 400 days in order to prevent any counter move against the revolution (as had happened in 1958). It had all of the famous murals on its walls, ‘Death to America - down with Isreal’ etc. Good to know somethings never change.

Later that day I took a Metro to the bus station and then a a bus southwards to Kashan and away from the pollution and hectic roads of Tehran.

Additional photos below
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22nd June 2010

Really cool to read you blog! So many new things... Are you in a state of constant amazement and loving it (getting back to purpose of travelling according to er, me)? And persian cats, of course, now I'll have to go there too, sometime.
22nd June 2010

I am in constant amazement, this is one seriously interesting country and culture. I haven't had time to read or write much because of it all.
26th May 2012

You haven't seen enough of Iran
However you have become familiar with some parts of Iran, yet you have a lot to see my dear friend. As Iran is an ancient country in all of its cities even villages you can meet unexpected adventures and monuments. By the way I loved your Blog
2nd June 2012

Thanks very much for your comments! I realise I only saw a fraction of Iran but the government only gives one month visas and it's difficult to renew in situ. Believe me I'd love to visit again; one of the highlights of my entire trip was Iran!

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