It is early morning in the residential block near Eshraghi street, about a half an hour’s drive from downtown Tehran. The colour of the gated concrete houses of Ranjbar Tari Alley match the gloomy overcast sky above. Apart from the barks of a house dog in the distance, the alley is quiet. Peugeot cars are parked in front of some of the metal gates. Judging by the thick layer of dust, they have been parked for a while. Phrases in Faarsi are spray painted on few of the walls in black. Some religious. Some rebellious.
Every now and then, burkha-clad ladies pass me by, walking briskly while her child, with colourful schoolbag and neatly combed hair, half jog along, try to keep up with her. The bread shop at the corner of the street is easily the busiest place in the neighbourhood. Three young men, dressed in white uniforms work with doughs of flour, while their early morning patrons wait patiently in a queue. I watch as they beat the dough, give it the oblong naan shape, put them on a grill plate and shove it into the rusty oven in the back.
On the far end of the street, someone is selling watermelons out of the back of a pick-up truck. Another truck stands in front of the vegetable shop from which sacks of fresh onions and potatoes are being unloaded. Next door, the sidewalk in front of the neighbourhood kebab joint is being washed down by one of the employees with a hose.
I walk along the sidewalk till I reach the busy main road. The bus station is crowded with office goers. Swarms of cars ply the roads along with trucks, buses and motorcycles. Far from this organised chaos, in the distance, partially obstructed by clouds, stand the snow-capped peaks of Alborz.
Alborz is to Iran what Fuji is to Japan. They hold it in very high esteem and it has also found a place on the currency notes. The early Persians believed that the sun, moon and stars revolved around the mountain, creating day and night.
I cross the road and walk on towards the Sabalan Metro Station. I pass shops, shutters of which are either closed shut or gingerly being opened by shopkeepers. A man wearing a long overcoat passes me by in a hurry, leaving a cloud-trail of cigarette smoke in his wake, almost like the steam engine of a train.
On the buildings are pictures of martyrs of the Iran-Iraq war. Most of them look like they were in their late teens and early twenties. It is said that the war had cost close to a million lives, both sides of the border combined. A significant portion of them, innocent civilians. Like most disputes in the region, the seeds of this dispute too were planted deep underneath the soil. In 1980, Saddam’s Iraq, backed by the same countries that would eventually attack his country, hunt him down and hang him, invaded Iran to seize control of one of its most valuable oil reserve. The war continued for over eight long years, until the UN brokered a ceasefire.
The war may have ended but the scars still remain. Iran and the West still don’t get along. The murals on the walls of the former US embassy in Taleghani still portray their resentment. The streets however, have calmed down. Peace has returned. The smiles have returned.
But smiles are often deceiving. The sanctions imposed upon the country have affected its growth. Its oil production has gone down due to the unavailability of modern machinery. Its bank balances have been frozen. Iranian Rials have taken a nose dive. Unemployment is on the rise.
Outside the Sabalan station, there are lines of vendors selling different kinds of fruits and nuts. A couple of people sit on the pavement, their backs resting against the station walls, smoking cigarettes and reading newspapers. There is a queue of yellow taxis along the sidewalk to the right of the station gate; their drivers frantically shouting out their routes. These shared taxis, much like the Metro trains and buses, are one of the cheapest and the most convenient ways to get around Tehran.
Inside, the station is teeming with people. People going in, people coming out. The electronic doors closing and opening with each swipe of the ticket. Sounds of footsteps, announcements and metallic sounds are ringing in the air. To my left is the ticket counter manned by a couple of station employees. Like in most offices and businesses in the country, the proceedings are being overseen by Iran’s Supreme Religious Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini. A portrait of him hangs on the back wall.
It was him who rallied up support and toppled the 2500-year-old monarchy by ousting the Shah to establish the Islamic Republic that we know today. He and his followers believed, for good reason I might add, that the Shah was a puppet in the hands of the USA and UK. His policies and conduct, according to them, were un-Islamic. So, when the mantle passed over in 1979, “God’s Government” was established. Islamic system of education, law, dress codes and censorship propagated by that government, are pretty much still in place.
Iran of today however, particularly Tehran, is a lot more liberal than many other Islamic countries in its neighbourhood. You would find young ladies sitting on the metro trains, hand in hand with their male companions, engrossed in hushed conversations; their colourful designer hijabs just about covering the crown of their heads. Branded clothes, latest iPhones and watches are not uncommon sights. Despite the sanctions, it seems the people have found a way to get their hands on the latest in world fashion and electronics.
“People buy it in places like Singapore and Dubai and then legally ship them to Iran. They are then resold in the stores here at a premium.” Afroz, the manager of my hostel had told me the day before over a cup of evening tea.
The sanctions, it seems have only increased the prices on account of the inconvenience.
About an hour and a half long metro ride away is the mausoleum of the Ayatollah. Located near the highway connecting Qom and Tehran, its huge golden dome and minarets cannot be missed. If you are heading to Tehran from the airport or vice versa, you will most probably pass it on your way. The mausoleum is open at all hours to accommodate all pilgrims.
The concrete path leading from the metro station to the mausoleum is lined with palm trees and fountains.
Much of the insides and the main gates of the mausoleum are currently under renovation but still the scaffoldings do not take anything away from the grandeur of the place. Inside, the humungous carpeted prayer hall is decorated with intricately designed columns, ceilings and walls. In the middle lies the Ayatollah, in a shrine surrounded by ornate glass windows and grilled casing called zarih. It is draped in the Islamic holy colour of green and shimmering gold. Pilgrims peek inside through the windows, saying a quiet prayer, paying homage. Many sit around the hall or wander in complete silence and awe.
The Ayatollah died in 1989 of a heart attack and his funeral was a massive event. Millions of people came out to pay respect and say their final good byes. Things took an ugly turn when his hearse was forcibly stopped and his coffin was taken out and passed on by the mourners, over their heads. In the middle of all the madness, the body fell out and people tore away pieces of his shroud to keep as relics. The police were helpless and reinforcements were called for. Eventually, his half naked body had to be taken away to his final resting place on a helicopter.
Outside, the sun is beating down. The morning clouds are long gone and have been replaced by a sky so bright that it can make your eyes bleed. The concrete pathway is so hot that I can feel it through the soles of my boots. Waves of heat distortions make the path ahead look much longer and scarier. The warm stuffy air is making matters worse.
I need a drink, I decide.
I buy a chilled bottle of Alis, which is a minty yoghurt drink and find a seat on a park bench in the shade, overlooking the fountains, next to a policeman with a buzzing walkie talkie.
I receive an acknowledgement nod and then an ear to ear smile as I take the seat and before my second sip, I learn that he is from Qom and his father was a policeman too. Few more sips in, I am receiving great recommendations.
“Take the metro to Tajrish. Go in the morning. Take bus from Tajrish. Say Darband. Cold. Very nice.” He says.
“It’s cold?” I ask.
“Very cold.” He says nodding. His walkie talkie still buzzing frantically with distorted voices.
“Will I need a jacket?”
I pantomime myself wearing a heavy windcheater. “You know…A Jacket?”
For some reason, he finds that funny and starts laughing.
“No, no. Not so cold.” He says, before breaking into another laugh.
He finishes his laugh which is then followed by a few silent moments. I can see that he is struggling to keep a straight face.
I take a long sip, biding my time, trying to let the moment pass. It was obviously a very silly question.
And just when I thought he was done, he breaks out laughing again.
“No.. no, jacket!” He mumbles, laughing uncontrollably and shaking his head. His face, blood red. His eyes, watering.
I think I broke that poor policeman.