Rice & Rosewater: A Meander Through Central Iran

by kfo290

Before arriving in Tehran, I prepare myself for the worst. Iranians in other cities tend to greet the name of the capital with a barely concealed shudder, expressions of distaste, and a deluge of cautionary advice. Please don’t go on the Tehran metro, my new friends in Rasht beg me, voices heavy with concern. So hectic and crowded is the underground system, they say, that I would do better to avoid it entirely. And the traffic! They lament. And the people! But when I arrive in the eight-million-strong metropolis in the early afternoon, I am pleasantly surprised. From my vantage point on the side of a highway bridge to the northwest of the sprawling city, the view is hardly apocalyptic. The urban conglomeration stretches inoffensively into the distance to the east and south, while to my north, the ragged peaks of the Alborz fill the skyline.

True, a haze of pollution lies smudgily over the buildings like a dirty tablecloth, but given that Tehran is one of the most polluted cities on earth, I had been expecting worse. Colourful pastoral murals—the result of a citywide “beautification” drive—skate, implausibly, across the surface of nearby apartment blocks. Tehran is covered in such murals: doves flit across blue skies, happy hijab-ed children skip to school, green hills roll across urban wasteland. When the walls are not inscribed with a fantasyland of peace and fecundity, they are adorned with portraits of shahid (“martyrs,” as the soldiers lost in the Iran-Iraq war are known), invective against the United States and Israel, or quotations from the Quran. The Supreme Leaders, Ayatollahs Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Khamenei, gaze down from the walls of public and private enterprise: the former stern under forbidding eyebrows, chin lowered malevolently; the latter almost sweet by comparison, a knowing twinkle in his eye. Un-sanctioned street art is a rare find.

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Ducking into a metro station, I buy a ticket and board the train in an orderly fashion, occasioning inquisitive excitement in the women’s carriage and a flurry of questions and advice. Despite the fact that the metro carries an estimated 2 million passengers per day, the ride is smooth and swift, the train hardly crowded. Compared to the New York subway, this is bliss.

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While not quite the monstrous people-eating metropolis some Iranians would have you believe, Tehran is a city I’d rather not be alone in. And it was my good fortune to be hosted in the center of the downtown area by a lanky, loquacious Shirazi by the name of Ali. Having just returned to Iran after attaining a Master’s degree in Germany, Ali himself was just finding his feet in Tehran and I caught him mid-apartment hunt. With his parents due to arrive in the city in the next few days (to secure a flat), Ali wasn’t sure whether he could host anyone at all—let alone find space for me along with his other guests; a German guy called Philippe was already sleeping in the lounge, and Julien (the Swiss friend I entered Iran with) was expected to show up the following day. To say Ali’s apartment was postage-stamp sized is only a slight overstatement. Three guests—and an impending parental visit—was a daunting prospect.

Yet, true to Iranian form (all praise the Persian mehman navaz, or guest hospitality), Ali welcomed me warmly, with a heaping plate of pasta. In the evening, after the stuffy, acrid heat of the day had abated, Philippe, Ali and I set off to smoke qalyan (shisha) in a neighborhood spot, along with a female friend whose deconstructed hijab made me feel like a grandmother. Having tried and failed to secure a table at two nearby establishments (one closed for Ramazan, the other open only to male patrons), we eventually settled down, cross-legged, in a carpeted nook next to a bubbling fountain in a café packed with young Tehranis cutting loose. Two qalyans, tea, dates and conversation makes for a long evening; it was 1am by the time we got home, 2am by the time Ali had prepared kuku (delicious pan-fried potato-egg patties), and 3am by the time we rolled into bed.

At 8am the next morning, after Philippe and I had cleared away our bedding in the living room and Ali had bought bread for breakfast, the doorbell rang. We were coming to the tail end of our meal (lavash, cheese, jam, cherries, tea) and Ali jumped up with alarm. His parents, a relatively conservative elderly couple from Shiraz, had arrived earlier that expected, before Philippe and I could prudently vacate the apartment. Ali swiftly swept his place clean (his parents expect him to be fasting for Ramazan), I rustled up a hijab (the parents have not been informed that a single woman is sleeping in their son’s house), and Philippe, unperturbed, stolidly continues to munch his lavash.

Ali is understandably worried about his parents’ reaction to the somewhat unorthodox situation, but he needn’t have been. His mother, sternly garbed in a black chador, and his diminutive father (who, like the father of Amir in Rasht, prefers not to shake my hand) are exhausted from their long bus ride but perfectly welcoming. They pepper us with questions, with Ali acting as translator, and quickly assume that Philippe and I are a married couple from Germany. You must ask them to find you a German wife! Ali’s mother tells him, chortling—which I take to be a positive review of my own Germanic wifeliness. They press us to accept some deep-fried Ramazan pastries dripping with syrup, before retiring to bed.

Philippe and I head out for the day, and by the time we return, Ali’s parents have gracefully deferred to us—the guests—and decamped to Ali’s sister’s house. The next day, Julien arrives, and we travellers sleep three in a row in Ali’s tiny lounge. The week unfolds with a pleasant daily rhythm: a morning wander to fetch provisions from various neighborhood stores (we quickly establish our preferred bakeries for nan-e sangak and barbari), followed by a big breakfast of bread, cheese, spreads and fruit (we have all developed a penchant for the country’s melons), and hot dusty days exploring the city, broken by relaxing stints in the city’s numerous green spaces.

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Tehran, contrary to many reports, is blessed with many parks, and we nap in quite a few of them—our favorite being Laleh Park, a magical combination of fields and groves, fountains and avenues, a twenty minute walk from Ali’s apartment. Tehranis flock to Laleh in the afternoon, and the park offers not only succour to souls strung-out by the city, but also an endless plethora of social tableaux. On our first visit we stumble across a field criss-crossed with slack-lines, peopled by Tehran’s version of alternative climber dude-bros. On an adjacent lawn, mixed groups of teenagers play with hacky-sack and Frisbee. An enterprising gaggle of girls are flinging a tyre tube to each other with intense concentration and no little skill. Among the trees, young couples flirt and groups of students meet for unofficial seminars that stretch late into the evening.

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When we arrive home, exhausted by a day spent dodging insane motorists and talking to curious Tehranis, Ali takes it upon himself to acquaint us with the food of Persia. He feeds us saffron rice studded with barberries (small, sour red berries akin to a tiny dried cranberry), attempts to perfect his tahdigh (crisp-bottomed rice), and concocts a delicious, richly spiced ghormeh sabzi (a lamb and herb stew, loaded with parsley, coriander and fenugreek and given an extra zing by the addition of several dried limes, which is quoted to me by many Iranians as their favourite local dish).

We are staying in the downtown area, midway between Tehran’s two poles: the affluent, leafy North, crawling up into the clearer air at the foot of the Alborz, and the poorer, more conservative South—connected by the central artery of Valiasr Street. Philippe and I venture into the north to take in the opulence of the last Shah’s palace—left eerily full of personal belongings when Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi and Queen Farah fled from the Revolutionary forces in 1979. Giant animal soft-toys flop disconsolately in the children’s rooms, and Farah’s exquisite, international clothing collection is arrayed across chandelier-lit chambers in an almost indecently intimate display. Oddly, all of the Shah’s clan seem to have harboured a predilection for large, fluffy boots.

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Scouting the neighbourhood for comestibles, we are invited for lunch at the home of an elderly gentleman who spent the preceding decades in England and Canada. As he shows us to his home, he sweeps his hand sadly over the winding lanes and semi-hidden mansions that make up the prosperous Niavaran neighbourhood; the entire area, he says, used to be farmland, and owned by his family. We make small talk in his spacious apartment with his son—a tattooed art student/sport fisherman just returned from British Columbia—before tucking into a huge meal of chicken, rice, bread, salad, yoghurt and watermelon.

A few evenings later, we make our way back northwards, to Darband—a popular walking spot on the lower reaches of Mount Tochal, which towers over Tehran—and pick our way up the winding path that passes tea-houses and restaurants. The men at stalls selling lavosheck (tart fruit leather) and vinegared lima beans aggressively tout their wares, but we make our way high into the cool air of the mountains, before settling down at a café to smoke a qalyan.

Darband is known as a spot where young Tehranis flock to socialize freely, away from the restrictions of the city and—although the mountain path is quiet in the hours leading up to iftar (Ramazan’s evening meal)—we soon receive warning that police are on the ascent. The whispered alarm, transmitted quickly up the hill, causes a brief flurry of concern as our qalyan, tea and dates are whisked judiciously away. When no officers appear—only a lone mullah, stalking unconcernedly up the path, passes by—our pipe is returned.

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As we descend through the darkness, past crowds of Tehranis setting off up the hill, we pass a morality squad, complete with a severe-looking female hijab enforcer, tightly wrapped in her chador. Tugging my shirtsleeves to my wrists, I hurry on.

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Tehran, like any major city, is a locus of liberal thought and a hub of independent students. Here, unlike in other cities in Iran, it is not unusual for an unmarried woman to take an apartment for herself, or for young people to live away from their parents. A sense of boundary-pushing pulses through the city: women wear their hijabs hooked daintily on high buns, loose tendrils of hair escaping the flimsy fabric. I hear a rumour (unsubstantiated) that cleavage has even been seen in the city limits—ostensibly in protest of the rigid attire restrictions. Make-up is applied like war paint, and on the women’s section of a crowded bus in northern Tehran, the majority of passengers have gone under the knife—if only for the ubiquitous nose job. Perky, adolescent, and oddly American snub-noses point sharply in my direction as I board.

Men sell American-flag house trousers on the metro, and even the contemporary art exhibits we go to see—at the Tehran Museum Of Contemporary Art and cooperative space The Iranian Artists’ Forum—seem to be gesturing, obliquely but unmistakably, to a critique of the credos of the ruling regime: nudes shimmer behind abstract form; Iranian masculinity is subtly deconstructed; the silencing of women under the guise of tradition is skillfully, sensitively examined.

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But Iranian women are not, of course, silent. Many of them are highly educated, and most women I’ve spoken with are passionately opinionated. One morning, Philippe and I accompany Ali to an English class he is teaching: the attendees are mostly female, aged between 24 and 65. The lone male is an eager, thoughtful teenager, known to the class as “the kid.”

The session is dedicated to an analysis of the film Frida (the 2002 Frida Kahlo biopic, starring Salma Hayek), and Ali has prepared discussion questions on the social and political issues raised by the film (which include but are not limited to such content as lesbianism, machismo, revolution, communism, the connection between art and life and pain, the nuances of romantic relationships). The comments—made during an impassioned and rowdy debate—were not so different to those I might have expected from a similar class in any other country. The detractions and nuances of married life were much debated, while one woman’s musings on the drawbacks of children drew fire from other quarters.

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On my final day in Tehran, Ali and I take the metro almost to its southern-most limit, to visit the Behesht-e Zahra Cemetery, resting place of many of the “martyrs” of the Iran-Iraq war whose portraits fill the city. It’s a Friday—Iran’s weekend—and the cemetery is relatively quiet. Small groups of mourners cluster around graves. A lone chador-clad woman prostrates herself on the resting place of her martyred son. We wander through the rows of dead young men, some unidentified, others strung with religious and nationalist symbols. A funeral for the mother of one of the martyrs is taking place on the outer reaches of the field of soldiers. The funeral crier wails into the still, hot air, women listening implacably from the shade of a gazebo. The graves are strewn with rice and petals—offerings scooped painstakingly into runic patterns on the dusty, unresponsive stone.

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Opposite the cemetery is the palatial structure housing the grave of Iran’s first Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini. We walk for what seems like miles in the blistering sun simply to reach the entrance, where I clad myself becomingly in a paisley pastel chador and we pass through the gauze veil into the inner chamber. Vaulted ceilings decorated in delicate pastel hues arch high above a golden cage sheltering the remains of the irascible religious leader. An unearthly green light glints off the gold. People sprawl across intricately patterned carpets, oddly small against the enormity of the dome. Here, all is peace and calm and beauty.

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It is strangely easy to forget the turbulent birth of the Islamic Republic among the warmth of its citizens, the ostensive normality of the city streets, and the beautiful serenity of the country’s Islamic architecture. Having been lulled into a false sense of comfort, small reminders jolt me back into an awareness of the volatility of the regime. So it was on my final day in Tehran. Leaving Khomeini’s tomb, Ali and I make our way to the Artists’ Forum, a lovely cooperative space for creatives that attracts a fabulously attired, hipster-esque clientele (the Tehran intelligentsia, I suppose). Set in a leafy park in the center of the city, the gallery could be in New York or Montreal or Berlin. But—of course—it’s not.

To get there, we walk past the old American Embassy—now known as The Den of Espionage, and slung with catchy slogans like “Down with USA,” and “Nuclear Issue is an Excuse.” Having enjoyed the gallery’s current exhibition, I do some googling later, and stumble across a chilling article. Two years ago, I read, the park in which the Artists’ Forum is situated was grotesquely transformed into a gallows for two petty thieves. Shaken, I close my browser, reminding myself that in Iran, nothing is quite what it seems.

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But grisly histories and ominous undertones are easy to overlook, especially outside the bounds of Tehran (one reason, perhaps, why tour groups of American and British citizens are given only limited time in—and restricted access to—the capital).

My next stop, Kashan, is a flat, aesthetically pleasing city reclining nonchalantly at the edge of the desert. A gorgeous bazaar, complete with astoundingly beautiful caravanserai, sits at the heart of the old town—an area which also happens to house a very cheap mosaferkhane (guest house) run by an initially cantankerous but ultimately very friendly Kurdish man (by the time I leave, Ali and I are fast friends. He has taken to calling me sister, and feeding me juicy slices of honey melon).

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Having anticipated a few days of solitary exploration after the social whirlwind of Tehran, I am soon disappointed. On my first afternoon in the city, a young Afghan scurries to waylay me as I gape up at the Agha Bozorg mosque (no longer in use, thus mercifully chador- and entry fee-free). Mehdi, an eager student of English, ostensibly wants my opinion on an article he’s written about the cultivation of happiness—but really he just wants to hang out. I am quickly whisked off to the city’s landscaping jewel, Fin Garden (a UNESCO World Heritage Site boasting fountains, water features, lush groves, fancy garden sheds and a historic assassination spot in an old bathhouse), before being escorted back into town, debriefed on the finer points of bread preparation (one must always brush down the underside of one’s barbari, it turns out), and finally bade goodbye.

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Lonesomeness continues to evade me; the next day I accompany a Catalan couple to the nearby, almost-deserted redbrick village of Abyaneh (population: 305). The village is remote, its inhabitants—who speak an old version of Farsi—rapidly dwindling. Wrinkled old women in colourful local dress sway slowly past us on donkeys of a similarly vintage; groves of walnut, apple and apricot trees crowd the green river valley. On the way back to Kashan, we pass several anti-aircraft guns, and what looks like a nuclear power station.

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Having watched the sun go down in a blaze of glory over the domed mud rooftops of the bazaar, we’re invited to dine with a visiting Pakistani businessman. We settle into the courtyard of a restaurant housed in one of Kashan’s traditional houses (the first Iranian restaurant I’ve yet visited), and are brought heaping platters of saffron rice, flatbread, chicken and lamb kebab, and kashke bademjan (a grilled-eggplant dip drizzled with kashk, a creamy fermented milk product).

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Esfahan, a three-hour bus ride from Kashan, is Iran’s most-visited city—the first place I’ve seen in Iran that bears some indication of the tourism hurricane that could be unleashed on the country should the political situation change. Many of the international tourists I spot here are from various Asian countries—and locals, nonsensically, keep asking if I’m from China (which makes a refreshing, if somewhat confusing, change from the otherwise ubiquitous “Aleman?”). Esfahan’s big attraction comes in the form of Naqsh-e Jahan Square—a massive urban planning initiative (courtesy of Shah Abbas, “the Great,” who began the ambitious construction in 1602), studded with lawns and fountains and lined with exquisite palaces and mosques.

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The bazaar that leads off from the northern edge of the square houses a number of friendly carpet-weavers and metal-workers, while the sadly depleted Zayandeh River to the south of the square is straddled by several beautiful arcaded bridges—prime spots to witness Esfahanis cooling off. An old church in the center of the historic Armenian quarter offers a pleasant alternative to mosque-hopping, as does an ancient Zoroastrian fire temple, perched on a craggy acropolis overlooking the city.

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Fortunately, I am saved from creepy people-watching, somewhat insipid sightseeing and an overpriced dorm-room by Ahmed—a student of Architectural Preservation who offers to host me in the middle of my stay. As the evening call to prayer rings out across Esfahan, we are smoking a very illegal (but increasingly popular) joint in the mountains high above the bright lights of the city, and making friends with bat-eared Turkmenian foxes (or was it a golden jackal?).

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Ahmed’s parents are fasting, but that doesn’t stop them from plying me with food. Each morning, I am fed bread with cheese and home-made jams (the sweet, syrupy mulberry is a revelation), and at other meals am treated to such delights as buttery saffron pilav studded with raisins and lentils, tahdigh with spiced tomato chicken, and an extremely tangy village yoghurt loaded with herbs. Ahmed’s father has a talebi (honey melon) obsession, and there are about six huge globes in the house at any given time. Fresh talebi juice, I discover, is even better with a hint of rosewater.

On my last evening, we meet Ahmed’s amigos at a hipster café tucked into a courtyard of the bazaar. Among the fancy caffeinated brews (Turkish coffee with cardamom appealed) and the extensive sharbat list (“dog-rose goat-willow” anyone?), I spot an old friend: kombucha. I order it just for the novelty factor of sampling the favorite beverage of the New York yoga-and-kale set in an obscure corner of Iran. “It’s like mushrooms. Fermented?” one friend tells me. “I heard it cures cancer.” Laughing, I tell him that I heard that too.

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Outside, Naqsh-e Jahan Square is filling with people. It’s the night before Al-Quds day—a holiday held on the last Friday of Ramazan, dedicated to protesting against the plight of the Palestinian people at the hands of Israel—and the faithful are scurrying to mosque. The next morning, hardline protesters surge down Tehran’s streets, in a vitriolic display that seems rooted more in hatred for Israel than heartfelt condolence for Palestine. American, British, Israeli and Saudi flags are burning in the capital, as I chug slowly out of Esfahan, headed for the desert.

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