Tehran through Pakistani eyes - II

Ahmed Jan travels to the Iranian capital - finding love, warmth and resilience in the face of adversity

Tehran through Pakistani eyes - II
Tehran offers a number of museums, historical sites and many other such places of interest. However my main interest was in experiencing the lives of the ordinary people – in particular their cuisine. Every morning, along with my camera and walking boots, I would leave my host’s home to explore and would return late in the evening. I set foot on the streets, used public transport and lived with ordinary people in their homes. I tasted food wherever I could, whether it was at a home, a restaurant or a roadside stall. I was impressed with the quality of hygiene and cleanliness maintained. Even in very ‘average’ areas of the metropolis, I couldn’t spot strewn garbage or plastic bags.

My favourite place to appreciate food and people alike was Panzdah-e-Khordad Street, an entrance to the famous Grand Bazaar. The pedestrian street offers restaurants and roadside takeaways. Various kebabs and pizzas, shredded mutton or chicken meat inside a sliced bread roll – such were my favourites which I thoroughly enjoyed on tree-lined roadside benches. After a busy queue, I collected my order of meat-roll with doogh, which is a yogurt-milk drink, similar to our lassi but with a minty flavour. While looking for a place to sit, I saw a couple about to finish their food. I was impressed by their mannerism: how they carefully disposed of the waste in dustbins and left the bench and the area clean for the next occupant (who happened to be me). This I noticed with others as well.

Crowded Bazaar in the evening

For my morning breakfast, I was offered Berbari bread complemented with cream, cheese, and traditional apple jam (muraba) along with black tea without milk but with a flavour of cardamom or cinnamon. Berbari is traditional bread and its huge size reminded me of something similar from Quetta, or early morning bread prepared in Peshawar’s tandoors. The same bread was also brought to Pakistan by Afghan refugees.

Tehran also offers dry fruit, nuts and sweetmeat shops. The display of showcased nuts and dry fruit reminded me of Peshawar and Quetta. My first pick was a shop where boxes of Gaz were sold, which is traditional nougat from Isfahan. It is made of tree nectar mixed with pistachio and saffron, along with rosewater. Among various products, the saleswoman helped me pick the boxes which were naturally sweetened instead of added sugar. It took me four decades to taste this delicacy once again, after my father first brought a box home in the seventies. The new taste didn’t disappoint my childhood memory. In fact it was a testament to the fact that an old recipe still retained its glory.

One peculiar thing for me was the traditional Iranian calendar which is officially used to this day. It is different to the Gregorian calendar that we are accustomed to

The Grand Bazaar is one of the oldest bazaars and tourist attractions. It is a covered market of several corridors and passages which all link with each other. Friday is a special day which should not be missed in the bazaar.

The market has several entrances but the main entrance is from the North at Sabze-Meydan located on Panzdah-e-Khordad Street. The market serves every person’s needs – from traditional brassware to contemporary electronics. Every section of the bazaar specialises in its own specific merchandise. While walking through, one cannot ignore the ceilings which have a unique attractive pattern in bricked architecture. While photographing the bazaar, I stopped to take a snap of a shop. A young shopkeeper with a big smile ushered in his friend to pose with him for the camera. Seeing this, others started to leave their shops and enter the frame of my shot. A simple photo of a single person turned out to be a laughing group of nine posing for the camera. The group ultimately had to move into the middle of the passageway to accommodate their jovial friends. We said goodbyes with smiles and laughter.

In the hustle and bustle of the bazaar amongst Iranians one can easily identify sturdy and robust Kurdish men wearing their traditional baggy pants pushing loaded carts, unconcerned with passersby. Every cart had number plates – meaning their carts were registered to work. The sheer labour of their job reminded me of Pakhtuns who often take similar roles in all the cities of Pakistan.

The Old Bazaar (left) and new mall (right) coexisting in the same locality

Apart from the Kurdish men in traditional clothing, the people of Tehran generally dress in Western clothing. Rarely did I see anyone in the city in local attire except clergy and very few women in traditional chador. Western tailored suits and shoes were a common sight. A pair of smart leather shoes cost me under £25. The same high-quality shoes would have been triple the price in the UK. Generally women’s fashion is a blend of Western and Iranian culture. Though they follow the government ‘guidance’ of covering their head, in practice it is only symbolic. Women do dress modestly but with style. Jeans and dyed hair in different shades, half covered in a headscarf are a common sight. Interestingly, cosmetic surgery like rhinoplasty, usually known as a nose job, was common and visible mostly amongst women. I was told that a nose reconstruction or ‘correction’ operation was done well under 1,000 Euros. On my flight back to Sharjah, one of the passengers had undergone the same procedure. The Iranian immigration officer looked quite puzzled and confused while repeatedly looking at the passport and then gazing at the bandaged nose of the woman who was travelling out of Iran!

One peculiar thing for me was the traditional Iranian calendar which is officially used to this day. It is different to the Gregorian calendar that we are accustomed to. Prior to my arrival to Tehran, I sent a message to my host with my arrival date and plans. My reference to dates confused him and on his request I had to denote with counting and naming the days. Iran’s New Year starts on the 21st of March of the Gregorian calendar, which is the first month and day of the New Year celebrated as Nowruz. This tradition reminded me of the festivity observed in Peshawar’s inner city – as also amongst Quetta’s Hazara community and also in the Northern Areas of Skardu, Gilgit and Hunza, where I once served. It is advisable to avoid visiting Iran on these dates as it is a closed holiday.

The new skyline being built on the northern edge of the city

As a Pakistani communicating with the locals, one notes that apart from university students, very few speak English but somehow one can still communicate – as many Persian words are similar to Urdu. Also, both languages follow a similar script and any signposting or writing is readable. The older Iranian generation from the Shah’s times can speak English clearly. I used to look for the older generation, going by their appearance and if educated they would reply in flawless English. I also happened to meet individuals who were self-taught in spoken English.

On one occasion at a restaurant, I met an elegant lady in her sixties with striking sharp features. Besides helping me with the menu she sat at my table and asked me about my views on Iran. Courteous, as their guest, I gave positive views. I could sense something making her uneasy and asked her views. In a crowded place she spoke against the government without any fear although a man in uniform was amongst the customers in the hall. There I noticed that Iran has a surprisingly open, honest society and they can often express dissenting views without any fear of reprisal. Similarly while driving past an under-construction high-rise building complex, my taxi driver pointed out the construction site and complained of corruption. On another occasion, my host again spoke against the government and their policies especially towards women. I pointed out that the revolution was a popular movement from the people themselves. Nodding with approval she replied that it was so in the time of her parents. They didn’t expect that the country would turn the way it has today.
I felt the landscape and atmosphere of Quetta, the warmth of Peshawar, along with some of the modernity of Islamabad. A country ridden with international sanctions has survived and is still thriving

Emotions were running high amongst people at the time of my visit – which I couldn’t perceive, but after I left Tehran witnessed unrest which was covered widely in Western media.

Apart from shrines and hearing the call to prayer from the masjids, I didn’t see or hear any other manifestations of religiosity. I was surprised to see a billboard poster in the underground train station advertising a ‘Black Friday’ sale which in Pakistan always becomes a controversial topic –associating Friday with the colour black. Iran, being a state based on religion, instead of becoming difficult, has progressed as a still more progressive society. One example of expressing human values regardless of religion, creed or nationality were roads in Tehran named after Nelson Mandela and Gandhi. This example cannot be matched in other countries nearby.

The presence of security and police is a common sight. However, unlike Pakistan where seeing a policeman makes us nervous, in Tehran people feel comfortable in their presence and always walk to them for assistance. I was helped and guided by them on many occasions. However, only on one occasion was I approached by a police officer who told me not to take photographs while inside the train station. His action reminded me of the Pakistani security mentality, making me smile.

Two contrasting monuments - a modern selfie statue, and the iconic Azadi Tower (Borj e Azadi) built in 1971

I was aware of Iran’s notorious road traffic but observing it myself, I found it was not as bad as Pakistan’s. I compared my understanding of British road laws and the stark contrast to Pakistani ways. In London, pedestrian crossings are marked and adhered to, while in Pakistan road travel is full of risks when the traffic doesn’t stop and continues recklessly, passing from all sides while drivers curse and honk. In Tehran, the traffic is fast but a pedestrian may jump into the road at any place and the drivers will stop without honking or trying to drive around. I was too apprehensive to take risks, though.

Iranians are very health- and safety-conscious. Only a few days before I arrived, health officials had announced a rise in the city’s pollution levels and closed all its schools. Many families with children left the city in response, and returned only when the pollution subsided with the northerly cold breeze. In comparison to all the big cities of Pakistan which are notoriously known to be health hazards, I found Tehran’s wintery days quite refreshing with clean and clear blue skies. Iran is also prone to earthquakes and I experienced one early in the morning when everyone was asleep. What impressed me the most was the evacuation procedure. As a community the entire neighbourhood without wasting time followed a systematic quick response and vacated the buildings using stairs and avoiding lifts. At the buildings’ bases, they cleared the area to avoid the possible fall of debris while driving away in cars towards open spaces and waited till they felt it safe to return.

My experience of Tehran and its people was different to what I had imagined. Having travelled and lived the entire length and breadth of Pakistan, somehow, I felt as though I was at home in Tehran. Apart from the similar written script and similarity in language, I could sense even more the similarity in architecture between Karachi and the 20th century Old Tehran. I felt the landscape and atmosphere of Quetta, the warmth of Peshawar, along with some of the modernity of Islamabad. A country ridden with international sanctions has survived and is still thriving. One can notice Tehran’s rapid infrastructure development with roads and high-rise buildings. With all such developments, the city has retained its history and evolved in modernity. Although Iran and Pakistan are geographic neighbours, they are still developmentally distant. We as Pakistanis have to cultivate people-to-people contact to come closer and learn from Iranian society.

Left with fond memories and new friends, I have the desire to return to Iran once again and explore other cities that this great country has to offer.