Last Day in Tehran

This morning, I split a cab with my Portuguese friend Tiago to south Tehran. After a quick stop at an old Armenian church, we headed on foot towards our actual goal, the former US Embassy.

Tiago wasn't quite as excited as I was to see what is known as the "U.S. Den of Espionage," but within a few minutes we were both having an adrenaline rush. It started when Tiago snapped a photo of a giant Hezbollah sign near the compound and some guy came up and grabbed his arm. It seemed like he was motioning for us to delete our photos and pay him cash; we were a bit rattled and just kept walking. Again he tried to stop Tiago, yelling something in Farsi while grabbing for his arm, then he focused his attention on me. He did the same with me and my camera, but I followed Tiago's lead and shook free of his grip, taking off down the street.

We thought we'd gotten away until a cop car pulled in front of us halfway along the old embassy wall. Our angry friend was sitting in the back, his finger pointed right at us. They all got out and asked to see our passports among other things I didn't understand. But unlike our hard-liner friend, the police were very reasonable and polite, simply asking us to leave and not photograph the embassy. Not wanting to head off without a photo, we spent the next twenty minutes sneaking shots from across the street and walking by the graffitied wall shooting pictures, sometimes from the hip.

The results of the shameful US intervention in Iran is reflected in about a dozen written slogans on the embassy walls, some laughable and others scary. Most have been there for almost thirty years. It takes only the most basic knowledge of Iran's recent history to understand the source of frustration: from this building, CIA operatives planned the overthrow of Mohammad Mossadeq and his democratically elected government so that the hated Shah could be reinstated and, more importantly, the oil industry denationalized. Heavy U.S. influence over Mohammad Reza continued to emanate from this building until the Revolution, after which students stormed its gates in 1980 to take its American diplomats hostage for a year and half. Perhaps they were worried that history might repeat itself and the Shah be reinstated yet again. Today it's occupied by the Sepah militia, one of three Iranian military branches, according to Khalil. I noticed that the U.S. Embassy seal was still recognizably there, though clearly brutalized.

We kept looking over our shoulders a few minutes after leaving Taleqani street and boarding a subway car, although I'm sure there was no need. The Tehran metro was about as nice as any I've taken. After a short ride, we surfaced not far from the Golestan Palace and bought our separate passes for the old complex's various rooms and museums. Opulence was the the key word as we wound through the Qajar chambers, lavishly tiled with mirrors and gold. Opulence and decadence. Everywhere I looked was something almost vomit-inducing, from the Ivory Room to the Room of Mirrors, glitter and jewels everywhere. In a royal palace this is to be expected, but as the Qajar rulers broke the national bank on fine architecture and bought up heaps of mediocre European art to display in private museums, their country outside the guarded walls was deteriorating in poverty. 

We entered the bazaar late in the afternoon and took little time to get lost in its maze. Swarms of shoppers and bazaaris filled the narrow corridors, broken up by the passing of the occasional transport cart, overladen with goods and forcing people to make way at the last second or be crushed. We popped into a restaurant looking for anything tasty--anything other than kebab--but when shown a menu in the form of four rows of sliced meat, two chicken, two lamb, we opted to keep looking around. We'd already had quite a lot of kebab.

On the west end of the bazaar we found Khayyam, a restaurant built in a chunk of what used to be the Seyyed Nasreddin Mosque--across the street the same mosque still functions, but the building of Khayyam Street cut the mosque in two. On a carpet next to us sat four young Iranians, two couples, happily sipping on water pipes. They invited us to join them, and we ended up spending the next hour chatting through Milad, the one guy who happened to speak English. Within minutes we were friends, as evidenced by the gifts (cute stuffed animals) they handed us, complete with personalized cards, as we sat in a circle around the shisha. Part of me suspects the little gifts might have been intended for someone else, but Iranian hospitality seemed to have called for the giving of gifts. Mine was a brown bear that said "I love you." We all left Khayyam and headed for the bazaar together.

We passed through Imam Khomeini mosque, built within the bazaar itself, and explored until the shops started to close. Having received so many gifts during my short visit--I'll have to check a bag (that was itself a gift) on the flight home--my shopping had been done for me. Later in the night we said goodbye to our new friends and headed back to the hotel. I had to pack and take care of some last-second business before heading to the airport just after midnight.


A Night Out in Tehran

Back in Tehran, I checked into the Esteghlal Hotel and collapsed on the bed, exhausted. I've spent the past few days and nights trying to suck the life out of short stopover in Iran--even if it's meant near insomnia. Today I took a needed break, saving some energy for the night.

For dinner, the group reunited for a final banquet at yet another extravagant restaurant, with live Iranian music beating in the background. The servers walked out balancing giant trays stacked with our familiar main course: kebab. Having eaten nothing but kebab since landing almost a week ago, I can say with authority that these particular chicken and lamb slices were top-notch. I'm was grateful at not having to look at the bill.

Mid-meal, another Iranian TV crew pulled me aside for a repeat of the interview I'd had in Esfahan. They spoke with several of us, and then we enjoyed our final minutes together before returning to all corners of the earth; at my particular table sat a Malay, a Singaporean, an Iranian, a Turk, and a Dane. The conference was officially over, certificates awarded, souvenirs packed, and most left fat and happy, wallets bulging with business cards. I said some goodbyes before meeting up with an old Iranian friend for a night out on the town.

Since there are absolutely no pubs or nightclubs to speak of in Tehran, a night out is actually a night in. But it is a fact that many Iranians do like to party, and no laws are going to stop them. For the the less wealthy/unconnected, alcohol is as unattainable as it is illegal, but even these go out on the town: youth go out in droves on Thursday nights, most hanging out on the streets sipping tea and coffee. As my Iranian friend happens to be quite well-connected, however, our party took place behind the closed doors of a private apartment on the ritzy slopes of northern Tehran. Picture Syriana's opening scene. A table was stacked with alcohol, smuggled from Armenia, while well-dressed boys and girls trickled in, the girls mostly undressing just past the door. Following routine procedure, the police showed up mid-way through the night. The music was quickly shut off, people spoke in worried whispers, half the guests put on their jackets and half the girls rushed to put their scarves back on while all milled about the door, waiting. I wondered With a single word the music was blasting once again, coats were re-hung, hijabs thrown off; the cops had been sent away with loaded pockets and the party would continue, late into the night.


The Jewel of Persia

According to an old rhyme repeated by several of my hosts today, "Esfahan is half the world." Although an infant compared to the other great cities of Persia, Esfahan was beautified by the Saffavid Shah Abbas in the 16th century, given a plenitude of mosques, palaces, gardens and pretty bridges that remain today.

Arriving on a charter plane this morning, we received a red carpet greeting, complete with small, colorfully dressed children smiling and holding out flowers for their guests. I almost had to pinch myself. Without wasting too much time, we loaded onto the bus for another speedy session of sightseeing.

We began with a visit to the grounds of an old Armenian Christian church. Shah Abbas had relocated the Armenians to Esfahan so they could contribute as artisans on city projects. In the attached museum were some dusty relics, ancient Bibles, and some morbid memorabilia from the Armenian genocide in Turkey.

About a dozen bridges span the Zayandeh River that runs through the city, half of them from medieval times. My favorite was the Pol-e Si-o-Seh, or Bridge of 33 Arches. Only having a few minutes to check it out in the afternoon, I returned late that night to find the bridge illuminated and still humming with pedestrian traffic, its waterside teahouses and arched walkways filled with mostly young loiterers. 

An hour before sunset, we arrived at the Chehel Sotun Palace, a giant reception hall surrounded by manicured gardens built by Abbas II. Its thin wooden pillars are at least ten meters tall, supporting a giant carved wooden roof covered in exotic colorful frescoes, a combination that makes it appear to belong much further to the east. But as I walked through the gardens I realized my sunlight was fast disappearing. I had yet to reach the main attraction: Imam Square. Again I escaped the group and made it on foot to the opening of the giant complex.

When I arrived, panting, at the mosque's grand entrance, the brilliant blue tile of Imam Mosque was still reflecting the warm light of the sunset. As impressive as its bright colors was its sheer immensity, the inside roof hovering 40 meters above the ground.

As I wandered alone, several people approached to ask the perennial question sequence of my visit to Iran: 1) Where are you from? 2) How do you find Iran? 3) What do Americans think of Iran? In my short experience, the answer to the first question most often earned a look of surprise, the answer to the second a warm smile, and the third a laugh at hearing that a few of my friends fear for my life in this country.

All seemed eager to speak with an American. Among the questioners tonight was a crew from Iran TV. Alireza, a new Esfahani friend, recognized the TV host and was excited to see her in the flesh: "She's famous!" She interviewed me in front of the fountains in the dead center of Imam Square. And of course, before asking a few other questions, she followed the above sequence.

Alireza showed me around the bazaar, as colorful as any I've seen, its arching vaulted roofs disappearing into the distance ahead. He bought me a strange yogurt with a bizarre consistency, a famous Esfahani treat. He insisted it was delicious as I nodded in convincing agreement. We talked about jobs, homes, families, and dreams, and as in almost all of my more extensive conversations here, we concluded that it sucks that our countries are so much at odds politically. Hailing from a conservative home, even by Iranian standards, Alireza expressed his own desire for change within his country, echoing several others I'd spoken with: "Obama!" he laughed, "Yes we can!"

I made it back to the hotel before midnight to try and get a few minutes of internet time before yet another abbreviated sleep. The program had said our departure was at 8:00am, but I'm guessing they simply didn't have the heart to tell us, until tonight, that it's actually 4:30am that we set out for Tehran. Not sure at the moment what comes next, or even where I'll sleep. The important thing is that I do sleep, at least for four hours.

Tomorrow in Tehran.


Kish, Shiraz & Persepolis

Kish Island was developed by the Shah as Iran's very own Vegas. It's been a prime vacation spot for Iranians for years, but unless you're all about duty free goods, lavish hotels and restaurants, and an exclusive (foreigners only) co-ed section of beach, don't go out of your way to visit. We arrived late in the evening before being treated to a grandiose banquet. I had heard of our place before I knew we were staying there; the Darius Hotel is famous for its ancient architecture, designed to look as elegantly immense as if Darius himself had built it. This time I enjoyed about seven or eight full hours checked into five-star luxury before taking to the road again.

After being whisked to the island's zoo and treated to--randomly enough--a dolphin show, we checked out Kish Island's prime archeological site, where I spent some time underground in the ancient ruins of Harireh. An extensive network of cisterns was built here over a thousand years ago, providing the island's only source of water. I broke loose from the group again to explore the cool dark tunnels before surfacing into the humid heat of the sun-drenched island.

We took a short flight over a slice of the Persian Gulf, landing outside Shiraz, city of flowers and nightingales. Upon arrival, our Iranian hosts literally rolled out the red carpet for us at the airport. Traditionally dressed children--possibly hand-picked for their unbelievable cuteness--stood by with flowers. 

With barely enough time to pinch myself, we were jetting towards Persepolis, ancient capital of Persia, an hour to the northeast. In a race against the setting sun, I sprinted the kilometer from the parking lot to the ten-meter high man-made platform of the city, which lifted its ruins above the golden plain to the west. I did my best to catch the last light of day in some pictures of the spectacular site. Even though the vast majority of the stones in Persepolis have crumbled to the ground, it takes little imagination to see what this city once was. Perhaps in retaliation for the burning of Athens, Alexander the Great destroyed it when he passed through Persia. Still, busts and reliefs of lions, horses, eagles, and kings can be seen almost everywhere you look, and the stonework is delicate, smooth, and artful on an enormous scale.

Here at the supposed birthplace of the Iranian monarchy also appears the remnants of its demise some 2500 years later: rows of tent poles and tatters are all that is left of the Shah's ridiculously opulent party back in the 70s, when he invited dignitaries from all over the world, much as Cyrus had brought them here to the Gate of All Nations, to celebrate the millenia of Persian monarchy. He spent millions on the most expensive of imported luxuries, even tiling some of the tent floors with marble for the single event. Of course, the Shah's popularity, at the time already very low, never bounced back after the party and just years later the monarchy was dead.

Back in Shiraz, after yet another feast, I explored the city in what little time I had. I walked around the ancient city wall, explored the night market, and paid a visit to the tomb of Iran's greatest poet, Hafez. I met a bunch of cool kids hanging out in the market, most of them surprised to hear I was from the USA. It's clear that not a good number of Americans find their way to Shiraz. At one point, away from the crowds and getting harassed by an old beggar, I handed a note to get him to leave me alone. A full minute later I realized I'd just given him money from Qatar instead of Iran, meaning the note was worth a good deal more than I'd intended to give; I turned around to find him holding the strange currency under a street light, enchanted by the mystery of its worth. I approached from the side and snatched it out of his hand, slipping him a more appropriate amount. He yelled some nonsense at my back as I walked away, relieved, and caught a cab to the hotel. I think he was actually trying to chase me down, but he was old enough that a brisk walk was too much for him to handle.

Shiraz is known as the "city of mysteries and secrets," and I feel as though I haven't even scratched the surface here. But the whirlwind tour must continue: tomorrow in Esfahan.