Teheran bis ... 21/09 - 26/09
We arrive early in the morning in Tehran. We knock on the door of the hotel for an hour. The guard eventually opens the door, in a very bad mood: "No room before 14 PM! Come Back!" The effect of fasting? Who cares we rush to the Embassy of Turkmenistan. On the way Sylvie finally admits one advantage to the Islamic law: The subway is very crowded and the mixed cars are packed only with men, Sylvie therefore spontaneously chooses the car reserved to women.
"Fill out this form, provide 1 picture, pay 50 $ and be back at 16PM to pick up your visas." This is a normal procedure but the journey from the hotel to the embassy takes an hour every time, and we don’t feel like waiting 7 hours here. At 16PM we finally have our visas!
As we seek a taxi to get to the bus stop, a Peugeot 206 stops and a young woman asks us if we need help. The question is not unusual, everyday Iranians ask us if we do not have a problem. But this time, Nahid offers to drop us at the bus terminal but then on the way she asks if we wish to stop at her place for a cup of tea. And of course we never say no to such invitation …
This is the beginning of a wonderful encounter. After we helped Nahid getting into her house through the balcony (she forgot her keys), we have tea, fruit and cakes. Her husband, Bijan, arrives an hour later. After the conservative families of Isfahan, the not so religious young couple in Shiraz and the two quite open-minded students in Shiraz, we discover a new facet of the Iranian population. Nahid is a housewife and took English classes to pass the IELTS, a degree in English required to emigrate to Australia. Bijan is a real estate developer together with his brother Pejman. They live in a small apartment in the northern part of Tehran. The north of the city is built on the foothills of the Alborz mountains, much cooler and less polluted than the center of Tehran ... It’s of course a rich neighborhood. All three want to emigrate to Australia to escape the constraints imposed by the religious regime of Khameni.
They offer us to stay in their home for a few days. They are waiting for their visas for Australia and have therefore stopped working. We hesitate a little and then accept the offer. We take Bijan’s large 4x4 to pick up our stuff at the hotel. To get to the center of Tehran is every time a nightmare. The traffic is heavy and the cars are bumper to bumper even on the main 4 lane roads. On the way we meet Jalal, Nahid’s English teacher. His English is perfect, he even has a strong accent from Manchester even though it never went to England.
The next day is a day of mourning. Muslims commemorate the death of Imam Ali, one of the 12 imams. All shops are closed and the streets are empty, all believers spent the night at the mosque praying, crying and beating their chest as a sign of mourning. Ben tries to learn the Farsi alphabet thanks to Nahid. He is so happy to be able to read the words in the street even though most of the time it is too difficult because of the stylized letters. We walk in a park on the heights of Tehran, it is a bit cooler than at Nahid and Bijan’s. At the entrance, a sign warns the walkers: "It is forbidden to play a musical instrument and to walk a dog." Dogs are considered as unclean and if you can have one at home, you face trouble with the police if you go out on the streets. People who stroll here belong to a certain social class. The colorful scarves reveal complex coiffures and strong make-up. Under the coats, you can distinguish European clothes. We meet two friends of Nahid and Bijan, two sisters. One of them is also preparing the IELTS to emigrate to Australia. It looks like we have found the young rebels of Tehran!
The two sisters together with Pejman join us for lunch. It is in Ramadan, and the only place where you can get lunch is at home. It is forbidden to drink or eat in the street. Nahid has prepared a lamb stew, with potatoes and lentils together with a huge plate of rice with saffron and a salad. The food is really important for Iranians and we can say that they definitely know and enjoy cooking food. We appreciate Nahid’s homemade food all the more since it has been difficult for us to find cooked food during Ramadan.
We then join Pejman and Nahid to visit their neighbours. These neighbours are very religious and prepared food for the whole neighbourhood as a gesture of charity. Cool! We return with big bowls of vegetable soup, rice pudding and halva. We knew halva made of sesame but this one is made with flour, oil, sugar, and rose essence... You get a crumbly, brown paste with a taste of caramel, it’s delicious!
In the evening we meet Nahid's mother, her sister and our son, Hossein. They are very religious, and fast, Nahid's mother wears the Chador and Hossein is supporting Ahmadinejad’s regime while his aunt and two uncles are against. He believes that the situation could end up like the one in Iraq or Afghanistan if the Americans start interfering. He does not really agree with the government but sees it as a lesser evil. We are surprised by this split within the same family. Apart from these differences in political and religious views, they get along very well and there is great affection between them. Hossein is doing his military service (2 years) but he is not learning how to fight but supporting the mullahs in teaching religion to the soldiers. Those who are with the mullahs (or Ahouns) are somehow protected from higher ranked officers. Hossein knows how this things work! Tomorrow he must return to his barrack but he is a normal 21 years old and you can feels he wants just want to have some fun. Unfortunately, there are few opportunities: alcohol is banned even at home, there are no nightclubs, and if the music is too loud, the police will arrive... Bijan and Pejman play in a band but because it is rock music, they are not allowed to give concerts or even play outside. People listen to music at full volume in their cars but at their own risk as the religious police can check the type of CDs you are carrying. Satellite television is banned but the majority of the population in Tehran has it. As Bijan says: "The police sometimes confiscate satellite dishes but we just buy another one the next day".
Hossein does not play any music instrument but loves the qalyan or Narghile.
We also had a great experience when we were invited to a traditional restaurant just outside of Tehran. The city is so big that he took us more than an hour to reach its limits. The restaurant was very interesting for us: this is where the rich youth of Tehran tries to get some fun. The scarves can barely conceal the extravagant hairstyles and blond dyed hair. We also finally understand why so many girls have a strip on their nose ... Cosmetic surgery! Pejman says there are more nose jobs in Tehran than in Los Angeles!
Sitting in a courtyard, we eat delicious shashliks (lamb chops) and kebabs (lamb kebabs). The meat melts in the mouth, nothing to do with the kebabs we ate before. The price is not the same either. 10 euros flat, 5 times more than what we are accustomed to. But since we are their guests, Bijan, Nahid and Pejman refuse that we pay anything despite our protests.
Hossein finishes before everyone else, he cannot help thinking about his qalyan! Bijan and Pejman drink in private (although it is prohibited) but they do not smoke. Hossein on the contrary being a good Muslim, does not drink but smokes! We smoke a little but seeing Hossein having so much pleasure smoking we quickly leave the narghile to him. We return to Tehran to the sound of Pink Floyd at full volume in the 4x4. It's far from our crazy nights in London but still good fun...
The next day, we again have to face the terrific traffic to visit Golestan Palace. The government has taken measures to reduce traffic: Taxis, buses and some special cars (doctors etc.) are allowed in the centre between 7 am and 5 pm and the rest of the cars are allowed based on Odd and Even license plates depending on the day. That still leaves way to many people. Some people believe that the Iran-Iraq war is the main reason for the delay in public transport development. There are only 5 short tube lines for 14 million people, buses are irregular which is why everyone travels by taxi (collective or private). There are no quotas for taxis so it’s a total mayhem in the streets. According to some statistics, 1,000 new cars are released each day in the streets of Tehran.
Hossein is joining us at the Palace. He is very enthusiastic and says he wants to spend more time with us to practise his French. We sincerely hope that one day he will get his visa and realize his dream of coming to France.
As we walk Nahid draws our attention to a small green and white van parked in the street. It’s the religious police (which has been merged with the regular police), they stop women and lecture them if they don’t respect the hejab. Nahid is lucky, they did not see her: she is barefoot in her sandals, has painted nails, and her hair is too apparent. Women can be taken to the police station if they don’t cooperate and comply with the hejab.
The Golestan is a big complex made of several palaces built by different Shahs around a large garden. The interior belongs to another era: the walls are covered with small pieces of mirrors.
We then visit the bazaar. We have already seen several bazaars and that one is no match. Nahid use to live in the bazaar with her parents. People are so conservative in the bazaar that her parents, fearing people talking, insisted that she wears the Chador.
We then return to the house by van and bus. On the way, Nahid buys some Halim and potato donuts with saffron. Iranians eat Halim for breakfast. It is a kind of porridge made with wheat flour, milk and very thin pieces of turkey, it is very filling. You can add several toppings like sugar, sesame, or cinnamon.
The next day we visit Niyavaran palace. It is a large park with several palaces built by the last two Shahs. One of the palaces is rather extravagant with its dazzling walls of mirrors. The other is more interesting, less flashy, that is where the last Shah, Mohammed Reza, lived with his family. We visit the living room, dining room where the last given dinner was in honour of “General de Gaulle” ...
Our favourite part remains the exhibit on the Omidvar brothers. Two Iranians brother, that travelled 7 years around the world on a motorbike and then a 2CV. But this was 50 years ago! Their equipment was similar to ours (Bags etc.). But travel conditions were much more difficult. The cultural differences were certainly much more exacerbated than in the current era of globalization.
Thursday is the equivalent of Saturday in Iran. Everyone does his shopping and the city is more congested than usual. Unfortunately the day we chose to post our packages. It takes us 1h to get to the post station whereas it should only take 10 min! There are many people at the counter with big packages: older couples, young girls sending packages to England, Australia, and the United States, mothers stuffing bags with food and DVDs (at lest 50). People are trying to send their children to study abroad and when they do they usually don’t come back.
We come back home at a snail pace, we are so exhausted by the heat and pollution that we decide to spend the afternoon at home. Nahid, Bijan and Pejman have invited some friends for the evening: Neda (that we met at the park with her sister) arrives in the afternoon with her husband and their son. Jalal, the English teacher, turns up with his wife and daughter. Hossein also managed to free himself by telling his superior that he wants to take part in the big protest the following day. As a matter of fact during the last Friday of Ramazan (month of Ramadan), a lot of Iranians protest in the street against the occupation of Palestine by Israel (Actually they never say “Israel” they always say “Israel occupying regime”). They burn Israeli flags and shout "Down with Israel". Hossein has actually no intention of joining them, but he just wants to spend some time with us.
Bijan and his brother improvise a rock concert. Bijan drums occupy most of the bedroom, the rest is occupied by the guests, we close the windows and we’re on!
To spend more time with her guests, Nahid has ordered several dishes at a famous restaurant: two kinds of kebabs (minced meat and filet), fesenjun (crushed wall nuts, chicken and pomegranate juice), tatchine (rice cake stuffed with chicken) and a mountain of saffron rice. For dessert we have, faludeh, ice saffron on a bed of frozen rice vermicelli. That evening was one of our best times in Iran both for the food and for the people. Nahid and Bijan’s philosophy professor joins us later that evening. He reads and explains poetry from Hafez and Khayyam, Nahid translates for Ben. Sylvie shows Hossein French poems on the Internet. Hossein explains that French poetry had a great influence on the structure of poetry in Iran. Pejman is also a great musician and start playing some traditional musical instrument, we don’t remember the name but it is a large wooden circle covered by a stretched skin with a lot of rings hanging around it. Everyone begins to sing Hafez’ poems!
Friday, is D (Departure) day. Despite Bijan calling the train station to find out about our bicycle, we still don’t know if we can take the bikes in the train. Nahid therefore decides to come with us to the station and convince them. On the way we stop at Nahid's mother for breakfast. She really wanted to invite us for a meal before we left. She lives in a new apartment with Nahid’s sister and Hossein. Nahid’s sister married a man she did not love under her parents’ pressure. They unfortunately separated a few years after Hossein’s birth but her parents still refuse she divorces him because of hearsays. In Iran, girls need their father's consent to get married. Nobody could tell us if this was an official law or just a rule of society based on an interpretation of the Coran.
The apartment is much more traditional, no tables, just carpets and large cushions to sleep on. We eat on the floor on a plastic tablecloth. They all laugh at Ben’s lack of suppleness. It is not that easy to eat sitting cross-legged. Hossein and his mother fast: breakfast at 4 am before Azan, the call for pray, and dinner after eftar, sunset. The grandmother does not fast because of her age. There are only 3 us eating with Nahid under the gaze of the others. It's a bit embarrassing for us who are used not to start eating until everyone is served. This morning, breakfast consists of soft cheese with cumin, flat bread, butter, walnuts, dates, and cherries in syrup, all washed down with tea. There are also small chocolates and noticing our delighted faces, the grandmother offers us the whole bag of chocolates!
She just returned two weeks ago from a pilgrimage to Mecca with her daughter. She brought some gifts back for her family and insists on Sylvie accepting a scarf as a souvenir.
Today is Friday, Sunday for Iranians. The streets are empty even though there will be a demonstration against Israel. At 9am, we see a lot of police posted at the corners of the streets. The railway station is at the opposite of our host’s home, south, but it only takes half an hour. Under normal circumstances, it would take almost 2 hours! Nahid and Hossein are very helpful. We meet the train station manager: "Be there 1/2h before departure, I will help you." We cross again Tehran and its deserted streets, with Arabic music blasting in Nahid’s small Peugeot 206.
Despite the political situation, Iranians always smile and are in a good spirit. With all these constrains put on them, they have developed a sense of adaptation, they resist each in their own way: girls release their headscarves and put a lot of make-up, men try to find some alcohol (or even make their own wine!). They are always welcoming foreigners, by tradition of course, but maybe also to fight against the bad reputation that their country has abroad. How many times have we been asked in the street: "What do you think of Iran?". It was the same feeling we had in Serbia where they put a lot of effort in being nice to foreigners to reduce the bad reputation their country had/has due to the war.
The political system is so centralized that Iranians know that there is little chance for things to change at the next elections in May 2009. Abroad we mainly know their President but in fact, the country is controlled by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khameini (since 1989) and the Guardian Council, 6 jurists and 6 religious men (mullahs). The supreme leader is elected by the Council. In return, he chooses the 6 mullahs and the Chief of Justice who then appoints the 6 Jurists (that’s how he stays in the family). Candidates to the Presidency and the Parliament can be rejected by the supreme leader. 2000 out of 8000 candidates were excluded from the last election. Basically the president just follows what his being told and even if he tried to change things, his hands are tied; this is what happened to Khatami, the previous president. At least that is what we understood from our discussions.
We say goodbye to the entire family, hoping to see them in Australia! Of course we will keep a wonderful memory of Iran!
At the train station we meet Rassoul and his wife Delaram, two cyclists from Tehran that we met on “voyage forum”. Unfortunately we can only chat for an hour and they already have to leave.
Putting the bikes in the train is usually a real pain but this time it goes like a dream. The actual head of the train station comes in person to ensure that everything goes well. He tells the train manager to open a whole 4 person compartment so that we can put our bicycle in and lock it! He also insists that he moves us to a compartment for us alone, luxury! The train is made in China, it is quite luxurious and also includes dinner, breakfast and TV. We sleep like a log!