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 that differ in Farsi compared to 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.