25.06.2012 - 29.06.2012 34 °C
First, a few thoughts on Iran
A man opens something as rare as a restaurant that does not serve kebab in Tehran. Not only the food, but also the interior is tastefully different to the usual Tehran style, making the place popular and successful with wealthy locals and expats alike. One day some men enter his restaurant. He can immediately see who they are and before they have spoken he knows what they want. The Revolutionary Guard has seen that his restaurant is doing well, in their eyes too well, and is asking him for an extra "tax". He can either pay or close. Rather than paying, he chooses to close his restaurant and return to the Western country where he also holds citizenship.
The Revolutionary Guard
Outside one of the banks close to the Tehran bazaar, it's busy, very busy. The Iranian currency, the rial, has fallen in value yet again and people are understandably worried. There is a law to prevent people from taking advantage of this - currency exchange can only take place in certain designated state offices. Still dozens of men on the street are calling: "Change money? US dollars?" as we pass. The policemen standing just some ten metres away are turning a blind eye. It is obvious that this is not a priority for the law enforcement, which is odd given that it affects the state economy.
Should, however, a woman walk past those same policemen or, if she is very unlucky, the Revolutionary Guard, without a head scarf or wearing inappropriate clothes, they will interfere immediately and she is risking lashes for her crime. We have seen regular road blocks where "Basiji", the morality police, are spot-checking citizens for dress code violations. Inevitably women are the main target of these checks. The morailty police are generally young men, swaggering in their green uniforms and enjoying wielding power. A woman is also in serious trouble if she rides a bike - women are not allowed to do so as some apparently think it is too revealing. If she wants to get a passport, she needs the signature of her father until she's married, then her husband thereafter. If she has neither, a brother or a male cousin will do.
Why are the police spending so much time enforcing the moral and dress code, stifling successful business (lining their pockets with extra taxes is more understandable), and yet turning a blind eye to serious infringements of the laws that govern their economy? These are true stories: we ate in the restaurant and spoke to the owner who is closing his business rather than paying the Revolutionary Guard bribes; we walked through the crowd of blackmarket money dealers in central Tehran and past the police car parked just twenty metres further down the road; and we have lost count of the number of morality police road blocks we have passed by. When a regime sets up such significant enforcement machinery to keep itself in place, that machine needs fed; nowhere is that clearer than in Iran.
Freedom in Iran is, as everyone knows, severely limited. Women and men suffer as a consequence. Still, many things that are banned are going on behind closed doors. Iranians keep track of news through banned satellite dishes and VPNs allow them to acces blocked sites on the censored internet. Unmarried men and women flirt in car queues on a Thursday night, have parties with alcohol as long as it is kept a secret, and cuddle up in the corners of parks at the week-end. However, even with our limited time in the country we hear stories that make our blood boil. It is a tragedy and an incredible waste. A country with so many resources (not only the oil) is wasting so much potential because so many resources are being spent on suppressing, controlling and terrorising. And it gets even worse as more and more skilled people leave seeking freedom elsewhere - Iran suffers from the biggest brain drain in the world. The millions of Iranians who have left the country tend to be well educated and disproportionately successful in the lands to which they emigrate. What could these people be doing for the Iranian economy if they had stayed?
Despite all this, the people in Iran are warm and friendly and often very sophisticated. We cannot describe the enormous positive attention we have received during our stay. We have been approached by so many people, many strangers in the streets, who are appalled and embarrassed by their government's actions and who want to ensure that we like their country. They are asking us, even though they are afraid to be too outspoken, to tell our friends that "we are not like our government- Iranians are friendly". Hence we leave this country being overwhelmed and positively surprised by the friendly people, the awesome sights, the rich culture (in how many countries can people cite poetry?) and beauty, but frustrated by the waste and lack of freedom that affects its citizens.
We would recommend everyone to visit. The main concern people may have is safety. We have never felt unsafe (we've made sure to follow written and unwritten rules, and to avoid taking photos where it seemed to be a bad idea) and in addition to seeing and experiencing some amazing things, we feel like just us being tourists there meant something to a lot of people. Being a tourist in Iran is completely different from being a citizen. If and when things change for the better in Iran, it will no doubt become a huge tourist nation.
Last few days in Iran
After our tour of Iran, it felt great to come "home" to Eric in Tehran. On the agenda was some Tehran sightseeing, some welcome relaxing time and, of course, the purchase of a Persian carpet.
We did some independent sightseeing on Wednesday, with mixed success. Tehran is so huge that just trying to convince a taxi driver to take us all the way to the centre of town was a task. We finally found a taxi to take us but ended up finding many of the museums we wanted to visit were closed. We saw the National Museum, which contained some incredible artefacts displayed in an unbelievably unimaginative way. Rows and rows of plain glass cabinets contained an eclectic mix of displays: a completely intact water pot from 5000 BC here, a 1700 year old mummified head - discovered intact, beard and all, in a salt mine - there.
We tried to go to the Ebrat museum, which was the torture centre of the Shah's government before 1979, and now an important piece of anti-shah propaganda. Unfortunately, it was closed but we enjoyed the photo display outside: the leaders of the current regime had been photographed on visits to the museum looking suitably appalled at the treatment of prisoners. We wondered if they had perhaps taken any tips for questioning techniques from the displays. Unsurprisingly, there is no public exhibition of the methods employed against enemies of the state in the Iranian prisons of today.
On Thursday, we met up with Eric's Farsi teacher, Chokou, outside the Swedish Embassy, ready to start our tour around Tehran. Chokou is a lovely lady and we had a great time with her as our tour guide. We started down at the bazaar which is simply huge.
A very busy bazaar
Having seen quite a few bazaars we didn't linger too long and instead walked outside to the mosque that connects to the market area. The bazaaris is historically a very wealthy, powerful and conservative group. They have been instrumental in several of Iran's revolutions to date, the most recent the 1979 revolution. These revolutions have started on the square between the Tehran bazaar and the Bazaar mosque, on a Friday after the prayer, with the bazaaris marching out of the gates, demanding change.
Chokou and Helena outside the Bazaar mosque
One wonders whether the bazaari could start yet another revolution from this square. History would say yes. However, the power of the bazaaris has diminished over the last years due to competition from supermarkets and being squeezed by the current government. What is more, less and less people go to the mosques as they find the sermons too political. It is ironic that one consequence of a religious regime is that people become less, and not more, religious. Finally, there are so many more powerful ways to communicate today with social media, as the Arab Spring has proved. Despite the regime's efforts of creating a "Clean Internet", the people find their way around it.
The square between the Tehran bazaar and the Bazaar mosque has seen the birth of several Iranian revolutions
Our closest encounter with Iranian police so far (and this shows how fortunate we have been) was a police woman dressed in a full length black chawdor with a red sash, positioned outside the bazaar. She followed us and our guide around the square, obviously eavesdropping on what our guide was telling us. When she spoke it was only to ask our guide the random question if she had been in Esfahan, to which our guide gave a short reply and we then left.
We visited the Golestan palace where the shahs used to receive dignitaries and guests. It was interesting, but nowhere as impressive as sights we have seen in Esfahan.
We also stopped at two former embassies. The UK embassy was stormed by the Revolutionary Guard as late as November 2011 and resulted in a rupture in diplomatic relations between Iran and the UK. One can only imagine the terror for those working at the embassy during the assault. At the time we were worried that it would affect Grant's chances to get a visa, but luckily it didn't. It did, however, mean that Eric lost a huge part of his local football team!
The gates of the British Embassy - not much to see since we had to take this shot clandestinely from across the street
Next up - the American Embassy, or "the US Den of Espionage" as it is officially called today.Everyone has heard of the American Embassy in Tehran and the diplomats taken hostage in the aftermath of the 1979 revolution and held for 444 days, which saw a failed attempt by the US to free the hostages. It was also from this embassy that the US planned and supported the coup in 1953 (meaning the regime's new name for the building is not so far fetched!!). Today it is home to the Revolutionary Guard.
Only after Chokou had asked the guards inside if we could take some photos did we snap away. This is one of the few places in Tehran where you still can see this type of anti-American rhetoric. Most of it was removed during the former President Khatami's rule. We must emphasise that we met no-one in our time here that expressed anti-American views, but the murals are an interesting picture of US-Iranian tensions at government level.
Outside the American Emb... Sorry, the US Den of Espionage
The Defaced Great Seal of the United States
And this pretty much sums it up
And when in Persia, do as the Persians and get a nice rug. Thanks to Eric's contacts, we saw a trustworthy carpet salesman and after some time in his "den" we found the one!
A few cups of tea later - proud owners of a Persian carpet
What better way to end our stay in Iran? It's been fantastic and it wouldn't have been possible without Eric, who was, as expected, an amazing host, and also our Iranian friends Ali and Fatemeh and family, who showed us such extraordinary hospitality.
"Every day you don't have kebab is a victory", Eric claims - after two weeks in Iran we understood why. Here at dinner in Tehran