By JACQUELINE PEREIRA
Seductive head-scarves slip to reveal wispy, dyed locks competing with bright lipsticks. Centuries-old engineering expertise connects a bustling, sprawling metropolis. Rows of Coca-Cola cans line rickety wooden shelves, while German and Italian kitchenware poses prominently in swanky showrooms.
The many faces of Tehran – the capital of an international outcaste state? I realised that I had arrived poorly armed. I knew that talks to lift US sanctions were on-going, that women were not allowed to show their hair or reveal their body shapes, and that Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran was – though compelling – a little dated.
Expecting a revolution-ravaged and conservative culture, I was instead greeted by a captivating modern society rooted in a city that has hosted a variety of communities and religions over the last 7,000 years. Iran, known as Persia until 1935, is one of the early cradles of civilisation, with a history dating back to 4000BC. Conquerors, from prehistoric marauders and medieval caliphs to invading Mongols and all-powerful ayatollahs, have all left a lasting impression on the land.
The country’s most interesting facet – its people – further refines and enhances this intriguing legacy. Aloof yet curious, opinionated yet friendly, unyielding yet accommodating, the people of Tehran are not only defiantly proud of their centuries-old culture, they open a fascinating window into a past that fortifies their present.
And the city turns out to be surprisingly engaging. Iran’s pride flies in its flags. Billowing in the wind, silky smooth and vibrantly coloured, they decorate the many bridges crossing the city’s constantly clogged highways. I was there during Iran’s triumphs in the 2015 FIVB World League volleyball matches, when fervent fans celebrated victories uninhibitedly. Groups of motorcyclists without helmets and packed cars without air conditioning streamed out of the Azadi Stadium with Iranian flags of every size swirling in the gridlocked traffic accompanied by cheers and honks of pride.
Depending on who speaks to you, the capital’s teeming population ranges from the eight million it houses every night to the 14 million who travel into it daily. When the sprawling metropolis is viewed from the top of the 435m Milad Tower in Kuye Nasr Hills, the sight seems surreal. Like the multitude of citizens patiently queuing to see their city from the top of the world’s sixth-tallest telecom tower (Menara KL is 7th), built in 2007.
At street level too, queues are common, especially during Ramadan. The city’s denizens prepare to break fast at around 8.30pm, but single files form outside traditional bakeries at least an hour earlier. It is not uncommon to see people walking away, juggling large slabs of piping hot bread ranging from the thin and flaky lavash to the stretchy sangyeh, usually baked on a bed of small stones.
Another unanticipated revelation was Persian food. Louisa Shafia, author of The New Persian Kitchen, describes this cuisine’s yet-to-be widely discovered delights as “a lush garden in the desert”. Think jewelled rice, glistening kebabs and thick stews. Imagine dishes flavoured with fruit and juice, rather than spice, each layered with flavour, texture and history.
Fresh and dried fruit such as pomegranate and peach, as well as walnuts, almonds and pistachios, feature in their meat and rice dishes, as well as in desserts. As it was fasting month, the sweet shops were elbow-deep in mounds of zulbia and bamieh, both versions of deep-fried, saffron-infused batter drenched in rose syrup. Another classic seasonal Persian indulgence was zholeh zard – saffron rice pudding for special events. The friendly shopkeepers, while remaining unsmiling, gruntingly indulged perennial photo requests, while they slogged to keep up with demand.
All roads in Tehran lead to Darband. Located in the Alborz foothills, this site is renowned for its restaurants, majestic mountain views and fresh, cool air. Our Iranian hosts plied us with platefuls of perfectly grilled kebabs, tart herb salads and dreamy saffron ice-cream, as well as non-alcoholic, fruity German beer. Conversations surrounding the communal breaking-fast ritual also revealed nuggets of naughtiness. I heard that Tehran’s best parties are held indoors in private homes away from prying eyes.
Meanwhile, a crowded street of the old Shemiran village of Darband on the Alborz range bustled with a night market. Everything from marinated fresh kebab meat to stacks of glistening lavashak, also known as fruit leather, was for sale. A chador-clad woman stopped unsuspecting visitors to tell them their future.
A city of this size with its cramped living quarters means that many citizens prefer the outdoors. Drivers often park along roads and highways as families grab their rugs and baskets, trooping off to picnic in one of Tehran’s 800 parks. Its Grand Bazaar also draws up to two million visitors daily. Located in the city’s more fundamentalist-sympathetic south, for centuries this 20sqkm site of more than 200,000 vendors has been the city’s pulse.
Philosophy and politics are hotly debated in Iran. And, despite sanctions, its economy is second only to Saudi Arabia in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The Grand Bazaar trades in every imaginable item – from intricately woven carpets to diamante-encrusted, backless gowns. A man attached himself to us as we entered the space, spouting questions. When a store proprietor brusquely ejected a shrieking female shopper after an argument, our inquisitor rushed over to the gathering melee.
Time for some serenity. A short walk across a water-featured and tree-shaded zone, we arrived at the Golestan Palace, Tehran’s oldest historic monument. One of 17 Iranian Unesco World Heritage sites, this former royal Qajar complex is a masterpiece, integrating earlier Persian crafts and architecture with Western influences. Though its large garden must have been better manicured in its heyday, ornate old-empire gift displays, opulent mirrored halls, and strikingly original design more than compensate.
Ambling back, still revelling in the beauty of a long-gone era, we were called over by an elderly gentleman sitting on a bench. The 71-year-old shoemaker spends his afternoons at the Palace gardens, brushing up his English. He asked us to help him translate a page of the novel he was reading and write down the meaning of difficult words in a well-worn Winnie the Pooh notebook. In return for our time, he answered our every question, finally blessing us with happiness as we parted ways.
While the sights and sounds of teeming Tehran are exhilarating, the people spoke to us, in more ways than one. The beefy cook at Neda Kebab House revealing the secret to a good kebab. The 10 serious men began their Zoorkhaneh rituals earlier at a traditional Iranian gym to accommodate our presence.
Tehran, a tiny village in the 9th century, was named one of 2014’s top tourist destinations. The city offers so much more than just ancient history and religious fervour. It has not been left behind by sanctions, time or propaganda.
Quite the contrary, Tehran offers new horizons to the mind, even if shielded behind a veil. And that is seductive to any traveller.
This article was originally published in Life Inspired, out every second and fourth Sunday of the month, and distributed exclusively with The Sunday Star to selected areas in the Klang Valley. The next issue will be out on Aug 9.