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.