Khuda Hafez For Now

On one of my final days in Tehran before the holidays, a friend of mine invited me to a dinner with some of his colleagues at the Azari Restaurant. This is a hundred-year old, restored traditional Iranian tea house or ghahve-khane in South Tehran that hosts live music bands and was established during the time of Reza Shah Pahlavi. As I arrived and located my party, I took off my shoes to climb into the large, carpeted divan characteristic of traditional restaurants here and greeted the fellow guests before sitting down.

I started to get acquainted with my neighbour for the night, a prominent Malaysian scholar at the National University of Singapore, who was married to an Iranian woman and visiting Iran for a couple of weeks with his family. We engaged in a very interesting conversation about the Middle East and his field of study, which partly involves Islam and the Sunni-Shia conflict. According to him, there needs to be much more focus on the fundamentals of this matter, in order to raise awareness about the lack of basis for extreme views on either side which have partly led to the violence and destruction plaguing the Middle East. This resonated strongly with me, as in my opinion it’s this same absence of awareness that has led to tensions between some Arab and Persian populations, an issue intertwined with the Sunni-Shia one.

As we continued our chat, the band started preparing their live set and my eyes fell upon our host. My friend, Hamid-Reza, is the epitome of Middle Eastern hospitality; he spent the entire night rushing between our table and the reception, coordinating all of our orders and making sure everyone had what they needed before even thinking of sitting down and touching his food. He relaxed at long last, just as the live music began with a range of captivating Iranian instruments, the names of which I still only know a shameful few. After the first song came to an end, one of the band members asked the restaurant patrons where they were from. Several tables began shouting out their regions or cities: Mazandaran (northern Iran); Kurdistan (north-Western Iran); Khuzestan (southern Iran); Khorasan (central Iran), and so forth. The band then proceeded to play traditional songs from all of the mentioned regions, to the enthused clapping and singing along of the diners.

Taking in the cheerful atmosphere and listening to the sounds of the chords and drums, I looked around at the paintings hung on the walls. One depicted a scene from an old traditional tea-house with men gathered around smoking water pipes, or ghalyoun in Farsi. Another showed a fierce battle between the esteemed hero Rostam and one of his arch-nemeses, the Div-e-Sepid or White Demon, from ‘The Seven Labours of Rostam’ in Firdowsi’s epic poem the Shahname. In that moment, with the enthralling music playing in the background, I genuinely felt as though I was in a land frozen in time, or an orientalist’s dream. I must admit, before coming to Iran myself, I was guilty of mysticising the country. Back in London, I would ask every Iranian I met just what it was like, as if it was some imagined, far-off planet. Not until I moved here did I really appreciate the fact that while there are indeed countless magical elements to it, Iran was just another country with people going about their normal lives every day. I think that the inability to truly visualise that reality, or relate to the country and its people, is what leads many in the region and elsewhere to oversimplified or misguided views – being caught between negative media portrayals and other-worldly imaginings. It’s something that I personally didn’t fully comprehend before spending time in Iran, coming to realise that at the heart of it the everyday lives, concerns and desires of people here are not much different to what they are anywhere else. It’s the combination of the magical and the commonplace that I’ve found here, however, for instance while walking through the remains of Persepolis or witnessing the simple kindness of strangers, that has truly endeared me to the country.

With exams and essays done and dusted, and my packing at various stages of completion, everything is pretty much ready for my departure from Tehran tonight. I’ve had my little farewell-for-now party; I’ve said goodbye to my fruit and veg vendours and those at my local corner shop and dry cleaners; and the next three Farsi Harry Potter books have been purchased and packed, to support my language progress in its inevitable summer decline. I’ve grown quite fond of Harry, Ron and Hermione’s Iranian alter-egos. What I will really miss and can’t exactly bid farewell to is the city and country itself: the charm and joviality of its people; the view of its majestic mountains unceasingly watching over the capital from the north; and the constant prospect of adventure and travel just around the corner. Nonetheless, I am excited to see my family and friends for the next three months, and am already looking forward to returning to a more mildly-weathered, potentially sanctions-lifted Iran.


Go North and Prosper

When there’s a public holiday and a simultaneous long weekend in Iran, the thing to do is travel. Some will go back to their home cities to visit family, while others will travel around various regions for tourism and leisure. More recently it’s become significantly harder for lower income families to meet the travel expenses for every holiday, but it’s still a generally widespread practice among Iranians. Unless you’re going back home, the choice of destination will usually depend on the time of year. The northern region of Iran is the most popular for the spring and summer months. With a long weekend upon us, a couple of friends and I decided we’d like to jump on the bandwagon and also get out of town for a few days. The weather in Tehran has been stiflingly hot, and we figured a change of scenery might also jumpstart us into much-needed study mode. I myself haven’t been able to shake the feeling that my summer holidays have already started since classes came to an end, even though exams are right around the corner – starting with Farsi tomorrow.

We decided to go to Ramsar, a highly-acclaimed city in north Iran known for its natural beauty, where a friend helped us arrange a villa. The only problem with the fact that everyone travels for long weekends in Iran, however, is that everyone travels for long weekends in Iran. In the run-up to our trip, we’d been hearing horror stories from all sides about the unspeakable traffic queues to be expected on the road to Shumal (northern Iran). Our journey, which should typically take some four hours by car, was projected by some to take up to 14. We were even advised not to go on several occasions, especially after one of the four roads leading north was closed by traffic police. Not to be discouraged, in typical foreigner fashion we planned to beat the system, staying up on Wednesday night to hit the road at 4am in the belief that we’d be among the few who had thought to travel at such a late/early hour. How wrong we were.

Even before hitting the first wall of traffic, our taxi driver conceded that we had probably picked the best time considering we had to wait until one of our friends’ work day ended; nonetheless, he had no doubt we would get gridlocked. In fact, he mentioned that although his wife has over countless years suggesting going north for long weekends, he never once agreed because of the prohibitive traffic. I apologised that we had now caused him to potentially face this nightmare, moreover with us as his company rather than his family.

Upon leaving Tehran, the traffic began to thicken, going through sporadic starts and stops. Since it was a novelty for me and I was adrenaline-pumped as I usually am when staying up, it was actually a fascinating scene to be a part of: it felt like we were in a thousands-strong convoy all heading to a common destination, like a festival. Looking at the vehicles around us, some loaded to the hilt with luggage on the roof, there was a variety of different moods within them. Some housed families that were all fast asleep save the unfortunate driver of the car; others had passengers that were laughing and dancing, starting their weekend celebrations on the road; others still held silent, livid-looking bunches observing the traffic ahead. There were also cross-city buses sharing the road filled with forward-thinking passengers – this was our first choice of travel before realising all the buses to Ramsar were fully booked weeks in advance. At periodic intervals, some had stopped to erect their tents on the side of the road and have picnics. Elderly men were walking around in their hiking gear (the north is famous for its stunning hiking trails), while groups of friends took selfies in front of valley rivers and other spectacular landscapes. Restaurants, corner shops and street food vendors dotted the way and remained open at all hours to supply weary travellers on the road, livening the atmosphere and adding to the sense of our joint migration. Street merchants circled the cars with flowers and CDs, while others were waving around the lovely Iranian incense known as Esfand, or wild rue. Though I was sure that those who regularly endure this must find it extremely tiring and tedious, I was enjoying the surrounding atmosphere.

By the time the worst of the traffic subsided and dawn had fully broken, my friends had fallen asleep leaving just the taxi driver and I – and what honestly seemed to be the rest of Tehran’s population behind and ahead of us – to wind through the magnificent mountains ringing the road north. This gave me ample time to think and, with the holidays fast approaching, reflect on my time here so far and whether I’ve at least partly achieved what I set out to. The main question on my mind was whether jumping into the unknown has been worth leaving a steady and rewarding job, worrying my mother that I was one step further from settling down and providing her with children to play with, and potentially placing me on several watch-lists on my side of the region.

I came here wanting to immerse myself in the local culture, learn the language and gain a deeper understanding of the people here, hopefully taking some of that back with me to confront some of the stereotypes. I began evaluating my progress in those fields. While my exam tomorrow will probably give a more accurate assessment, I’m quite happy with my level of Farsi. Due to the close proximity between Arabic and Farsi and the intensive nature of the language course I’m enrolled in, when I now come to speak Arabic with family, friends or Arabs I’ve met in Iran, I actually sometimes find myself mixing Farsi words into my speech. Moreover, at times I subconsciously express the Farsi pronunciation for words with identical spellings but different pronunciations in the two languages. It seems I’ve created a very special brand of ‘Farabic’, and have definitely noticed a couple of curious stares from native Arabic speakers when it happens. Nevertheless, I will hopefully work out these little quirks in time.

Furthermore, during my time here I’ve met and befriended some truly wonderful people. This was highlighted by a gathering I had for my birthday a week ago, where I realised I was going to really miss my friends throughout the summer holidays. A couple had made me a beautiful scrap-book containing pictures of our many travels around Iran, reminding me of all our adventures and filling me with anticipation to continue these upon our return. Based upon others that I’ve been to here, my gathering was unique in that it hosted Iranians from widely different social backgrounds, but all united in their good nature and kind-heartedness. On that note, after hearing from her daughter Donya, who has become a good friend of mine, that I planned to have people over, my neighbour insisted on making me a variety of mouth-watering dishes. Considering my sorry cooking skills – the improving of which was another goal of moving here and living alone, still in progress – her kind offer along with the help of friends who came early thankfully enabled me to feed my guests very well, while constantly correcting compliments on ‘my’ wonderful cooking.

As for the aim of taking back a more accurate view of this country and its people, while I’m quite certain I’m not changing the world I very much hope that this blog, as well as my numerous conversations and fielding of questions from people back home, is going a short way towards achieving this goal. I’m very aware of the unique opportunity I have with my experience in Iran, and am anxious not to waste it when there are so many people in the region with the wrong idea. It’s quite a strange feeling knowing I’ll be leaving for three months. I feel like I’ve been in somewhat of a bubble here – granted, one I’ve thoroughly enjoyed – and am eager to see what it will be like to return after the summer sojourn. I very much hope my Farsi will hold up, and plan to seek out as many Iranians as possible to practice during the holiday, as well as keep up with my Farsi Harry Potter series (I’ve now reached Harry Potter o Zendaniye Azkaban).

Taking it back to the road just as the sight of the gloriously green mountains and splendid nature jerked me out of my thoughts, the north was absolutely beautiful (pictured). We ate delicious food (with the proximity to the Caspian Sea, a northern specialty is fish – my favourite), rode a cable car to a mountain peak where we could view the exquisite coastal city below, and had a spontaneous (and in retrospect quite perilous) mini-hike where we scrambled up a steep mountain hill, a couple of us wearing sandals. Although I would probably not willingly choose to spend all that time in traffic again and sooner kidnap my working friends to leave before the official start of a long weekend, I definitely plan to go back and explore further cities along the Caspian coast. Unfortunately not much studying was done, but I comforted myself with the knowledge that I spent the whole weekend speaking with locals in Farsi and will therefore be fine for my first exam. While I self-answered my abovementioned travel contemplations about coming to Iran with ringing positivity, I guess we’ll find out the answer to this one tomorrow.