Prisons and Cheese Houses

Last weekend, my friend Alice suggested that we go visit Zendan-e Ghasr, or ‘Palace Prison’. One of the oldest prisons in Iran (pictured), it was built in 1790 during the Qajar era in the form of a palace, hence its name, by a Russian architect named Nikolai Markov. In 2008, the prison was permanently shut down and turned into a museum for the public.

Walking through the beautiful gardens, we found ourselves at one of the museum entrances, where we were helped by a security guard who encouraged us to join one of the tours that were about to start. We happily obliged and were subsequently linked with a group to be shown around the general prison halls and cells, some of which housed recreations of their former inmates in various forms. Sombre music accompanied a few of the long halls, creating a poignant and somewhat eerie feel. One of the most touching aspects of the museum was a room where old videos were been played showing former political prisoners being reunited with their families and loved ones on January 16, 1979 – the day the Shah left the country post-revolution.

Following the general prison tour, we were dropped off at the political prison across the courtyard and received by a solemn man seemingly in his seventies or early eighties. A small man in a crisp suit with a stern, heavily-lined face, our guide gave the impression that he had walked those halls hundreds of times. He proceeded to show us around the political prison, giving us (from what I understood) in-depth, detailed snippets about what prison life was like in its heyday. For instance, according to him, the inmates had devised their own system by which all food packages brought by their visitors would be shared among all. As a large number of the political prison population came from very distant regions across Iran, years could go by without them receiving any family or friends as visitors. Therefore, this system was intended to spare their feelings and forge a more equal atmosphere of solidarity. The visiting room itself was a fascinating feature. It consisted of a moderately-sized, partitioned hall which prisoners and visitors had to shout across to communicate with each other. According to our guide, and verified by the very loud tapes being played overhead re-constructing the conditions, it was utter mayhem. Towards the end of the tour, our austere but occasionally smiling guide informed us with a barely perceptible flicker in his eye that he himself had been incarcerated for four and a half years in the political prison for speaking and writing against the regime of the Shah, roughly six years prior to the 1979 revolution. He then pointed out his very own mug-shot photo among the dozens plastered to the wall near the exit.

We stepped outside the dark, concrete prison to a radically different atmosphere. There was an exhibition and fair going on that week, and after wandering the street markets set up in the large museum courtyards and eating some falafel, Alice and I sat down to watch a demonstration of Kurdish and Khorasani (central Iranian) dancing on the stage. We then left the museum complex and realised that even a short prison stay had taken it out of us, so decided to go somewhere a bit more cheery. Parchak Cheese House in Abbasabad provided the perfect alternative. After some walking, getting lost and caught up in what seemed to be a brewing sandstorm, we decided to get a couple of shared taxis to reach our destination. Shared taxis are one of the most common forms of transport in big cities here. They offer extremely low rates for relatively long distances; many are just average people looking to make some extra money during tough financial straits. For me, shared taxis provide a particular advantage in the form of Farsi practice. It’s quite commonplace for the drivers and passengers to strike up a conversation about politics, social issues, a nearby manic motorbike driver, and so forth. So sometimes just a short ride can have both my practice and my current affairs on the street sorted.

Back to the present. After witnessing a minor scuffle over territory rights between another taxi driver and the one whose car we had just entered – apparently our driver was on the other’s turf, but we completely sided with our guy, a jovial old man – we headed up Vali Asr, the Middle East’s longest street (17.9km). We alighted at the Cheese House and entered the comfortable, aesthetically-pleasing setting. Another friend joined us and we sat down to unwind with some lovely cheese, saffron tea and soft music in the background, as I grilled my friend about when I could acquire the leaked Game of Thrones episodes from him. When we came to leave, however, I discovered that my wallet was nowhere to be found. Having gone through the customary panic and periodic bag-search, I realised that I must have either left it in the taxi or dropped it on the street as I stepped out. We had been dropped off by the taxi at a relatively early hour (around 8pm), leaving plenty of time for other passengers to be picked up after us – and while I wanted to stay optimistic, most of my friends as well as the police who I later called informed me that it was most probably gone. I knew it wasn’t the end of the world, but was still quite distressed as my wallet contained some important items such as my British driving license, my Saudi ID card, my University of Tehran student card (which can only be replaced once), as well as a large sum of Iranian toumans – considerably more than I would usually carry on me as I had just exchanged some pounds. There was a silver lining though: friends of mine as well as the police told me that while most times the money and actual wallet are taken, the documents may be placed in a post box to be eventually reunited with their owner. This did give me some fragile hope, but it still left me in a jam money-wise.

I spent that night and the next dreading the transnational bureaucratic labyrinth I would likely have to manoeuvre to start getting my documents back, as well as figuring out how to deal with my financial situation for the next couple of weeks before leaving Iran for summer holidays. A friend had lent me money so I was set for the coming few days, but the constant mental replay of my momentary yet silly mistake, which had placed me in quite a thorny position, was getting me down. Nonetheless, while at university on Saturday (the first day of the week here), I received a call from a sweet-voiced woman, asking me if I had lost a wallet, and didn’t I want to get it back? I couldn’t stop myself from jumping up and down, ignoring the stares I was getting, and tried to calm myself enough to speak to the woman. She was the wife of the taxi driver, and as it happened, they had been trying to get through to me since they had come across the wallet. First, they had called my university, which couldn’t give out students’ personal information no matter the circumstances. Next, they had gone to my bank to obtain my phone number; unfortunately, the number they had on record was evidently wrong, as I had registered in my first week in Iran and was still getting confused between 4 and 6 (the only two numbers written differently in Farsi than in Arabic script). Finally, they had found a doctor’s note in my wallet from a recent visit, and after calling the doctor’s office and explaining the situation, she thankfully gave them my correct number.

Upon hearing all of this, I was truly taken aback and overjoyed by the effort these strangers had gone to in order to find me as soon as possible. We arranged to meet at the appropriately-named Seyyed Khandan locality (‘seyyed’ is a noble title, and ‘khandan’ means laughing or smiling – the area is named after an Iranian religious scholar); a friend of mine kindly drove me there. I quickly located the cheery-faced taxi driver who was waving my wallet outside the window and hurtled myself out of the car to go meet him. My friend and I then profusely thanked him, to which he calmly replied that he had done nothing more than the right thing, and that no thanks were required. It took me quite some time to convince him to accept the box of pastries I had got for them, as he kept insisting they weren’t deserved. I begged to differ, and tried to express in Farsi how moved I was that they had gone out of their way to locate me, on top of the fact that he had been waiting for me by the side of the road for almost an hour at peak traffic (meaning highest earning) times. ‘Faith in humanity restored’ is a phrase I will definitely have to learn in, or possibly import into, Farsi.

Why Are You Here?

This is, by far, the question that my khareji (foreign) friends and I get asked the most here by Iranians. It comes, I think, not from a lack of pride in or love for their country, but rather out of simple curiosity as to why it was chosen out of all others – and moreover, what we think of it now that we’re here. The interest is more acute the further away from Tehran you get, especially in more remote regions. Given the overwhelmingly negative media attention Iran receives from most other countries, as well as the relative decrease in tourism since the revolution, this is hardly surprising. I actually sometimes ask myself the same question (usually when waking up for my 8am class or during exam times). It never takes me long to find my reason again though.

Apart from the in-country travel opportunities, the unique experience and of course the culinary features, needless to say what makes a country is its people. Having had several Iranian friends in London, I already knew that friendliness and generosity featured highly among them, which encouraged me to go to the source and learn more about this culture. To state the obvious, you meet all kinds of people in Iran just like anywhere else. But I find a great way to observe and understand societies to be during the most mundane of tasks. The daily commute and inner city travel provide perfect opportunities for this. I’d therefore like to use these as an analogy for my hitherto impressions of Iranian society.

One of the things that strikes me the most, pretty much since my first week in Tehran, is how frequently people ask each other for directions. Pedestrians asking fellow pedestrians, drivers of moving cars rolling their windows down to ask an adjacent car, and so forth. This isn’t too significant in and of itself (Tehran is an enormous city), but what I find most interesting is the attention and care with which people respond. The majority of my experience has shown me that people are perfectly happy to stop whatever they are doing and provide the most thorough directions possible, indeed giving the impression that they find it valuable to help others as much as they can. I’ve also come across situations where, after one was unable to get proper directions from someone else (yes, I was the ‘someone else’ in most cases), another person would overhear what’s going on, join in and offer their help. Regularly being the enquirer myself, I’ve even been escorted to my point B many a time, when it’s within walking distance. Compared to a city like London for example, where although most of the time you’ll get the help you need but feel acutely aware that you’re wasting precious time out of somebody else’s day, I find this attitude and communal spirit really remarkable. It’s an outlook I’ve rarely seen in other places, and in my opinion is something that really adds to the charm of the country.

Another example of this shared compassion can be found on the Tehran bus route. While it can sometimes be a struggle getting on the bus, especially at peak times, small acts of kindness ensue after everyone is safely inside. Other than the customary offering of seats to the elderly, for instance, if a standing passenger is carrying seemingly heavy wares, often times someone else who’s managed to find a seat will offer and insist on holding the baggage on their lap. I’ve repeatedly had this encounter when I myself have a heavy load and am working hard not to sway as the bus navigates the Tehran traffic. While some might view this to be unexceptional, I myself have never seen such forward kindness and consideration between absolute strangers and find it truly endearing.

Moving on to the metro. When I’m alone, I don’t usually get curious looks or questions and am thought to be local. When I’m with foreign friends, however – especially when it’s just a couple of us – on many occasions I’m assumed to be their translator, and people proceed to ask me questions about them (where are they from; what are they doing here, etc.). In my first few months, I remember quietly chuckling at others’ horrified faces after hearing my level of Farsi and before realising that these poor foreigners thankfully don’t have to rely on my translating services. Nonetheless, it’s not only foreigners that get approached or contacted on the metro. The aforementioned communal spirit extends underground, as total strangers engage in conversation about any topic under the sun, sometimes prompted by a simple question or a random comment. To compare with London again, it’s the polar opposite of the perennial effort to avoid meeting each others’ eyes on the tube. Of course, even here, many tired commuters look like they would sooner jump off than have to engage in conversation. In my experience though and in line with the great emphasis on hospitality in Iranian culture, they would happily oblige if approached. Even though I’m sometimes so exhausted after a long day that I may fit into the jumper category, this is an aspect I genuinely admire about the culture here. The lack of boundaries can be intimidating to those accustomed to the sharp delineation of personal space (it took some getting used to for me to be perfectly frank), however at the core of this behaviour I find a very comforting, encouraging sense of camaraderie and communality.

When I was back in London and first came up with the idea, I made my decision to move to Iran relatively quickly considering the change it entailed. In my first couple of weeks here, faced with the teeming metropolis that is Tehran, the language barrier and lifestyle adjustment, and the feeling of isolation that came with my first time alone in a country where I basically knew no one, I must admit I second-guessed my decision on several occasions. Even before I started making friends, however, the kindness with which others welcomed me, and furthermore just observing the compassion and goodwill with which many ordinary Iranians treated each other, ensured me that I would soon feel at home and come to cherish this place. When people here ask me what I think of their country, it’s very hard to express all of this. But my favourite aspect, and what has truly made my experience so far, is the people.

Step One

It took me quite a while to finally decide to start this blog. I never saw myself as a blogger, or someone who’d have interesting enough things to say to constantly update a blog. This viewpoint remained even after I moved to a country that is quite literally at the centre of global attention nowadays, while still being shrouded in mystery for many.

However after being here for the better part of a year, I decided that it might be time to face my fear of the blogosphere (mainly that I would let the blog shrivel and die before the eyes of the world.. Alright, probably not the whole world) and start sharing my experiences. Last night a friend of mine in Saudi helped me reach this conclusion (thank you Lama) by telling me that I’ve probably just become too used to life here to realise that while I may no longer find novelty in my experiences, what I have to say may still be interesting to those on the outside who have no idea what it’s like on the inside. So last night, adrenaline pumping, I decided to get to work… Only to find my internet was down. After having slept on it and woken up even more resolute in my decision, then sitting through seven hours of class eagerly anticipating a post-class session in a coffee shop with high-speed internet access, I stepped out of my campus in southern Tehran only to find a heavy thunderstorm commencing after a beautifully sunny day. A friend of mine kindly offered her dorm room right across the road for me to write in, where I am currently sat. I realise I may have bored any readers out there already, but this long tale of not-so-trying trials and tribulations is my way of saying I’m very happy to finally be doing this.

It all started last year, when I was residing in London and working at LSE’s Middle East Centre. I had always had a modest interest in Iran, having studied some Iranian history and completed an elementary course in Farsi at SOAS, University of London. The more I would hear about this country from the news, friends or in my work, however, the more my interest was piqued. It is no secret that negative stereotypes abound from within the Arab world towards Iran (and vice versa). While I never lent any credence to these, such unfounded opinions only enhanced my desire to actually set foot in the country, see what I found and perhaps even work towards dispelling some of those misconceptions in my part of the world. Going on my eighth month in Tehran, I’m confident that moving here was the best decision of my life so far.

Before leaving to Iran in September 2014, I was warned by many to be wary of people’s reactions to me as a Saudi national given the state and history of the two countries’ relations. My mother was the most vocal in this respect; while harbouring no bias towards the country or its people in the slightest, she was just being a mother, indeed one that is aware of current affairs and rising tensions in the ever-turbulent Middle East.

Nonetheless, during my time here so far I can confidently say that I have experienced neither bigoted statements nor any kind of negative reaction whatsoever. What I have found instead is kind hospitality, from my colleagues at the University of Tehran, to taxi drivers, to passersby on the street who mistake me for an Iranian while asking for directions (you don’t want to be getting those from me). In the place of the judgmental or scathing remarks which many feared, there is only boundless, good-natured curiosity, as I am usually the first Saudi Arabian that many meet, save those who have travelled there for pilgrimage. To be sure, the only other Saudis I’ve come into contact here are those at the embassy. I truly hope this will change, as my time here has shown me just how much the country has to offer, from magnificent nature to a spirited population – not to mention, of course, the food. Travelling around Iran and marking off my map is one of my favourite things to do in between (and sometimes – sorry UofT – in place of) university days. Every new city or region I see only makes me more eager to go onto the next, as the natural landscapes and sheer cultural variation between regions in Iran gives you the feeling of visiting several countries in one.

I know that many from my region may not understand my decision or my point of view towards this country. Tensions between Iran and most GCC states have never been so high, at least not in my lifetime. Nevertheless, I don’t believe that reason enough to harpoon potential socio-cultural relations between entire populations, or add oil to the fire. I came here wanting to learn the truth about a country that many still see as a no-go zone. My Saudi nationality egged me on even more, in my hope and belief that the good nature of people should and will always trump politics. I’ve been in no way disappointed.

I believe that’s enough rambling for my first post. This also happens to be the night before a university-organised trip to Shiraz and Kish Island, so – anticipating less than ideal internet connectivity – hopefully I will be back soon with some good material. As mentioned profusely at the start, I am a newbie to this scene and relatively hopeless with technology in general, so please bear with me. Also, if any readers have suggestions about a particular aspect they would like to hear about Iran, please do mention it in the comment section and I will endeavour to serve, to the best of my knowledge.