A Week in Iran - Part 1

Yoginder Sikand

Posted Sep 11, 2007      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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by Yoginder Sikand

I’ve just returned from a week in Iran…..I had a most interesting time and I must say that of all the countries I’ve visited, Iran is certainly among the best! It’s so utterly different from what the Western and even the Indian media makes it out to be…..So, I thought I’d share my experiences with you….Here’s the first installment……Hopefully, it will tempt you to visit this wonderful country!

Flying over vast stretches of barren mountains and sandy wastelands for almost three hours, the plane began descending towards Tehran. I peered out of the window eagerly, hoping to catch a glimpse of Tehran’s suburbs, but all I could see were large uncultivated mounds that rolled on without interruption far into the horizon. The Imam Khomeini International Airport looked desolate and abandoned from inside the aircraft when we landed. There was little apparent movement. Just two planes—both Iranian—were parked on the vast tarmac. I was disconcerted.

Five minutes later, we were inside the terminal building. Contrary to what I had feared, it was, by Indian standards, swank and immaculate and bubbling with activity. I had expected to be greeted with swarms of somber-looking burkha clad women and grave-faced men sporting bushy beards—for that is what the media effectively reduces Iran to—but I was in for a pleasant shock. A friendly woman guard, neatly dressed in a blue coat and a matching hair covering, greeted me as I passed through Customs. ‘Welcome to Iran’, she said with a cheerful smile.

Beyond the visitors’ gate, I saw men, all dressed in Western attire, and women, only a few in all-enveloping black chadors but clearly outnumbered by those in Western-style knee-length coats, with colourful scarves tied loosely around their heads, excitedly waving at their friends and relatives whom they had come to receive. Huge billboards, decorated with neon lights, covered vast stretches of walls, imploring prospective customers to purchase the latest foreign gadgets. In just five minutes the image that I had built in my mind about Iran, based on what I had read in the newspapers and what television stations consistently spew out, was completely shattered.

I was in Tehran at the invitation of a Shia religious organization to attend a conference on the notion of messianism in different religions. A cardinal tenet of the Shia form of Islam, to which the vast majority of Iranians adhere, is belief in a messiah, known as the Mahdi, who is said to have entered a cave while an infant many centuries ago and who is expected to reppear to herald the end of the world. I had heard of the conference through the Internet, and although I am no expert in messianism, I decided to apply for it, hardly expecting my application to be approved. But, to my surprise, it was, and the organizers had even been so gracious as to send me the tickets and to arrange for me to stay, along with the other participants, in a fancy hotel in Tehran’s posh northern district.

My hosts had sent a car to pick me up at the airport. Ali, a student at a Shia seminary, was at the exit to receive me. Like most other Iranians, Ali knew little English, but we managed a minimal conversation by using words common to both Farsi and Urdu. ‘Maqam-e Imam’, Ali announced to me as the car sped down the smooth six-lane road towards Tehran, located almost eighty kilometers away from the airport.

‘Ayatollah Khomeini’, he explained when I asked him what that meant.

I still had no clue as to where we were heading.

Twenty minutes later a massive building stretching almost a kilometer from one end to the other emerged into view. As we grew closer, I noticed its five massive gilded domes, several slender minarets, and literally hundreds of rooms that were built around its several vast courtyards. An exchange of a few Urdu-Farsi words with Ali thereupon informed me that we had arrived at the mausoleum of Ayatollah Khomeini.

For many Iranians, this mausoleum, which, seventeen years after work on it began, has yet to be completed, is a major centre of pilgrimage. Families stretched on patches of grass under trees and in the vast square at the entrance of the shrine, sipping tea, counting beads, reading books or sleeping oblivious to the din around. Boys and girls played hide-and-seek, shrieking with delight. It was hardly the gloomy graveyard I thought it might be.

Inside, soft woolen Persian carpets stretched from one end of a stadium-like building to the other. It was crowded with pilgrims, men and women, clutching the silver grills of the mausoleum and offering blessings on the soul of the departed Ayatollah. There were separate sections for men and women, but these were not hermetically sealed off, and both could see each other from either side of a low curtain. The Ayatollah’s grave was simple and modest, reflecting his own austere lifestyle. Next to it was the equally modest grave of his son Mustafa. The graves were covered by a silver canopy on top and by green glass windows on all sides. Currency notes lay strewn in piles inside along the windows, the gift of pious pilgrims.

Ali finished his prayers and then beckoned me back to the car. It took us barely half an hour to reach the hotel, located more than forty kilometers away. The broad road was as smooth as an airport tarmac, and the traffic impressively organized. The wastelands abruptly gave way to a forest of buildings as we passed through a toll-gate. This, explained Ali, was south Tehran, where most of the poor of this megapolis of more than 14 million people live. Yet, it struck me as remarkably middle-class by Indian standards, with no evident sign of desperate poverty. The buildings here were modest but neat, the roads wide, and the numerous gardens we passed by well manicured. People seemed well-dressed and well-fed, too. As we drove towards north Tehran, the buildings grew progressively taller, bigger and more ‘modern’. Brightly-decorated shops and boutiques ran along streets lined with majestic Chinar trees. Residential areas appeared that hosted massive bungalows guarded by high walls. This could have been any European city.

The plush five-star Estaghlal Hotel were we had been put up was an enormous structure, many floors high. Hung on the wall at the entrance to greet visitors was a framed poster that announced in clumsy English, ‘Dear Guest, In order to observe the Iranian and Islamic values, it will be pleased to follow the Islamic hijab and moralities’. This slogan appeared below an image of a demure young woman with a black hijab or head scarf draped around her head but leaving her face showing, with a crimson setting sun in the background. Presumably, the poster addressed itself to women, who were expected to wear ‘Islamic hijab’, although Islam requires that men, too, be dressed modestly, which is what the Islamic concept of hijab is about.

Accordingly, at the Hotel Estaghlal, as everywhere else in Iran, women were required to wear ‘Islamic hijab’, but no such strictures seemed to apply to men, all of whom, with the exception of religious clerics and a few Kurds whom I saw in their traditional baggy trousers, wore Western dress. But even here, the women are free to interpret the stricture about ‘Islamic dress’ within broad limits. Women from the poorer classes or from more pious families are more likely to be dressed in the full chador than are other women. Of the former sort, only a few were visible at the Hotel Esteghlal. Most of the women guests and visitors in the hotel, obviously from rich families, had made their own innovations in the ‘Islamic hijab’ that the law requires, draping their heads loosely with colourful scarves and wearing fashionable pastel hued coats and stilettos. Some, obviously seeking to circumvent the law altogether, had streaked their hair golden and let it provocatively fall well below their scarves onto their faces. Others wore such tight fitting coats that they miserably (and probably deliberately) failed to perform their supposed function of concealing the outline of the body. Not a few sat at tables in the lobby heavily powdered and their eyebrows neatly plucked, puffing away at slender cigarettes along with their male companions. Sombre pictures of Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khameini and pious quotations from the Prophet Muhammad and Imam Ali slung on the walls of the opulently decorated lobby made for a surreal contrast.

I headed for my well-appointed room. The mellifluous call to prayer floated up from a mosque below.  I traced a line of men heading towards the mosque. But, even at prayer time, there were others who were loitering on the streets, speeding in their fancy cars or sipping tea at roadside cafés. Contrary to what I had imagined, there were no vigilantes rounding up people who failed to attend mosque services on time. In this, and in so many other respects, Iran was clearly not quite what the media had made me expect it to be.