11/29/2008

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.

3 comments:

Andrew said...

Dude this is a sweet story. I wish I could travel like you do.

Cyd said...

Amazing. I'm glad to see you're traveling again. Miss ya Joey

Ryan n Jess said...

What's up cous-in-law? Sounds like some pretty crazy and fun adventures!!! I feel like I'm reading directly from a book I recently read "The Children of Jihad" you'll have to check it out and tell me how accurate it is.