Tehran – A Modern Day Metropolis
A young Australian man travels to Tehran and finds it a glittering abandon under Iran’s theocratic yoke.
By Luke Hamilton
Leaving Sydney and landing at Imam Khomeini Airport in the southern outskirts of Tehran is almost guaranteed to temper most Westerners’ expectations. Iran: the cradle of civilization, the sleeping lion of the middle east, the ancient country that the West associates with the Rushdie fatwa, sabre rattling and illicit nuclear weapons programs.
I was drawn to Iran having known of its cultural and historical riches, but tonight I’m going to a party. Staring out the window of my taxi I noticed the transition moving in a northerly direction through the city. The lower classes of people reside in the south of the city and the more bourgeois in the north.
The first thing that becomes apparent upon exiting the cab is the energy of the city, whilst being chaotic it is also positive, people seem happy. From those selling flowers on the street to the Bazaaris tending their shops there’s definitely an optimism in the air.
As per custom, it would of course be terribly impolite not to go to tonight’s soiree, not that attendance is an issue. Jet-lag and culture-bounce aside, it’s guaranteed to be a savoury affair; the host is an art collector who resides in the more affluent northern part of Tehran. Who could miss it?
Iranians, as economically isolated as they are, are never to be isolated from technology or trends, disruptive technologies are no exception. I ordered a Snapp from my hotel, Iran’s equivalent of Uber. The cars aren’t luxurious; imported cars can demand a price tag up to four times that in the West due to government taxes. The Samand carting me to the party is the epitome of the type – luxurious it ain’t.
En route, the streets of Tehran are par for the course, people fill the streets, shopping, drinking tea with friends, patronising food stands that line the streets, illuminated in the gentle glow of gas lanterns. The merchants sell all sorts of Persian tastes: Jigar (charcoal liver) and what would become a favourite, Chaghale Badum, or raw almonds. Served with a liberal amount of salt, they’re irresistible and became a daily staple of mine.
This evening a stop was made at Shandiz, one of Tehran’s famous restaurants, known for its speciality Shishlik, essentially marinated lamb chops on skewers. There was no hesitation in ordering, rice with a thick delicious layer of Tahdig, mint yoghurt, Barg and Doogh. Not having alcohol on the menu seems amiss to the Westerner at first but is quickly forgotten, shortly to be over-burdened with generous servings of food. Shandiz is almost an institution, with its marble construction and high ceilings it is an architectural beauty before it is anything else.
Typically, the women are covered conservatively with the Chador or more liberally with a designer scarf – which are de rigueur– Iranian designers have cleverly manoeuvred their designs to fit within the seemingly relaxed religious laws, especially so in Tehran.
Shopping malls, if it were not for the Farsi writing on the shop fronts wouldn’t be out of place in Europe they’re modern and are impeccably well designed and kept, spotless. Unlike in the West where you often have to ask for help from a shopkeeper, they fall over you to help a potential customer, often speaking impeccable English. Leather from Tabriz, locally loomed cotton and other textiles allow designers to produce the finest haute couture.
There’s plenty of time to watch the world go by in Tehran when travelling by car, the traffic rivals any experienced by the seasoned traveller. It’s bedlam, but It’s early springtime and thanks to prevailing winds I had great visibility toward the snow-capped Alborz mountain range which borders the northern edge of the city. However, occasionally a miasma of pollution blankets the city and obscures this majestic view, something I thankfully didn’t experience in my time there.
On arrival I walked through the front door to be instantly overwhelmed by Persian hospitality. My coat is taken at the entrance and whisked away to the cloakroom. Walking into the cosy contemporary household I’m greeted by a well-dressed chap who promptly asks me what I’d like to drink in perfect English – a cocktail is chilling my hand in seconds.
Beautiful women in stylish high waisted slacks and cocktail dresses, Louboutin heels, and sans head covering – a juxtaposition from beyond these bricked walls – join well-heeled men to enquire what brings an Australian to Tehran. The sense of place was lost instantly going through that door.
The majority of the guests are all Iranian, some reside in European countries, however all feel a strong sense of their culture and identity that brings them back home. The first observation of these gregarious partygoers is that they are mostly sanguine about Iran’s future, even under the existing lacklustre reformist regime of President Rouhani. The prevailing feeling in the room was that even though Iran has come a long way since the revolution, until you remove the head of the snake – ie the clerical class loses its grip and the theocracy becomes a democracy – real reform is a pipe dream.
As the night progresses, things get loose, debauchery ensues. It’s a scene straight out of Bret Easton Ellis’ Los Angeles, but we are as far from Sunset Boulevard as one can get – geographically and demographically. This is Tehran today – a cosmopolitan metropolis somehow flourishing under the roaming glare of the world’s most infamous theocracy.