Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Salam, Tehran!

April 17-18, 2006

The flight over on Air France was better than Alitalia, but not up to Lufthansa or FinnAir. Food was excellent, service snippy – a classic stereotype of the French! Flight was crowded and uncomfortable. Big guy in a flimsy seat in front of me kept it going up and down, making me feel like I was underneath a see-saw.

Exhausted but slightly wired from jetlag and excitement, I’m in my room at the Tehran Grand Hotel, which by Iranian standards is a 4 star hotel. I’d give it two stars. Our tour leader, Jerry, was over-enthusiastic, but I have no real complaints. Elias would have a lot to say,

Getting through passport control and customs was a breeze, but for a long, slow line at the passport gate and the guard a bit officious and clearly surprised with a group of Americans coming in.

There was some confusion about our arrival time. Whoever is in charge has decided that Iran will not observe daylight time this year. Astrologers take note!

Tehran – a city of 10,000,000 -- is all lit up, with shops lining streets selling various treats. Traffic is mad, way beyond anything I ever saw in Italy, even in Morocco. Signs were of course in Farsi, most with roman transliteration, as are all the street signs. Nice practice for reading!

The air is hot, dry, and dirty, reminiscent of Mexico City. My sinuses are not happy, but it’s not terrible.

The Islamic Republic is cracking down. Western music and dancing, so I’m told, are banned in public. I here there may even be a new plan whereby men and women will have to walk on different sides of the street. Even families will be gender segregated in public strolls. How this can be made practical I can’t imagine and it’s sure to disrupt commerce something fierce. It’s too crazy, and must be a joke. More likely is the news that womens’ dress codes will get stricter next month, needing to cover more as things get much warmer around here.

The fa├žade of the hotel is lit up with garish colors, looking like a shabby version of Las Vegas. Inside it’s pleasant enough. My otherwise very ordinary room has a folded-up prayer rug on the shelf by the mirror, and as I unfurled it for evening prayer, a small clay disk flew out. I understand it’s a Shi’ite tradition to put that where your head meets the ground in the low bow of salat. Of course there’s a Qur’an by the rug, but it’s all Arabic, not unexpectedly. I brought my bi-lingual copy. A small arrow tacked up on the wall points to qibla, the direction of Mecca. My little compass and guide for that disagrees by 90 degrees.

The bathroom has a hose on a spigot next to the toilet to accommodate the “traditionalists” who clean themselves, wiping with water, as Muslims did in the days before rolls of perforated tissue. Paper is there for those of us what go for them new-fangled innovations. That reminds me: Check on local left-hand taboos.

So much for late night arrival in Tehran, after much too long a time flying.

Shob bekheyr is Persian for good night!


April 19, 2006, 7:00 AM

A fitful night’s sleep. My room is not far over a busy, noisy street. He view (north) is rather pretty, with snow-capped mountains not too far off, and a stream along the sidewalk where you would expect a gutter. Trees (maples?) are growing in the stream.


6:00 PM
Traffic here continues to amaze… traffic lanes seem to be mere recommendations and people scrape by – almost literally. Breakfast mystery meats, sandwich meats and sausage are all halal so I can devour them fearlessly, and the buffet here is pretty good.

This morning we went to the Qajar dynasty palace complex. , a number of buildings framing a beautiful, large garden. A grand marble throne with gorgeous carvings – statues of Persian princes and princesses, and fanged demons from poems by Fergowsi. Support a large marble base -- looks out from one ornate room onto the garden. Another room, used for court ceremonies is decorated mostly with pieces of mirror arranged in geometric patterns that raise into small peaks, reflecting light everywhere.

Another building, the tallest in Tehran when it was built, had then aroused some fury as the good citizen neighbors feared that the men of the royal household would look down into yards nearby and see their wives and daughters unveiled. The Shah agreed that only women would be allowed on the top two floors of his palace.

On to the Grand Bazaar of Tehran. Well, semi-grand…. It appears at first glance like the labyrinthine net of The Bazaar of Istanbul or Marakesh Souks all pressed close together, but it’s altogether much smaller and from what we saw deals mostly in household goods. That includes some very nice furnishings, and more mundane items. I got some disposable razors.

After lunch – little more than moderately interesting, but for the variety of rice preparations and a saffron & rosewater pudding for dessert – we went on to the Sa`d Abad Museum complex which used to be the Summer Palaces of the Pahlevi Shahs and their close relatives. None of the palaces is hugely impressive, but there are some nice rooms and pieces, and the grounds, overlooking Tehran from the hills to the north make a lovely park.

For all that, the highlight of the day may have been the huge mural declaring “Down With America!” Our tour guide, Reza, was very apologetic, but one of our group had wanted to see it. We assured him that such a design would fit right into a San Francisco peace march, and that we were opposed to US imperial aggression.

Doesn’t sound like much of a day, but we’re still pretty seriously jetlagged and came back to our hotel exhausted.

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