There is something special about visiting a large city. Especially when that city is the third most populated city in the Middle East, and one of the largest intellectual, cultural and historical hubs of the region. Tehran is definitely a city with a life of its own. A city with strong character. A city that will leave any traveler with a long list of impressions.
But this will not be a story of how I came to Iran and saw all my Western stereotypes shatter before my eyes. I assume that most people already know that the media portrayal of Iran is not an accurate one, and I therefore find it unnecessary to base any story from Tehran on such accounts. Instead, I want to describe what I saw and experienced. Some of my sillier moments will be mentioned, but other than that, I prefer to refrain from comparing Iran to its Western media image.
So here are some of my impressions from my 2 week stay in Tehran.
The funny thing is that the city doesn’t feel crowded. And yet, downtown Tehran is the home of about 9 million people (population of Sweden: 9.5 million), 16 million if you include the city’s suburbs. The highways are wide and many, and cars swoosh by in literally any possible direction (my personal favorite: reverse driving on highways!).
The sidewalks may never be completely empty before 1am, but they are also never overly populated. Despite the swarms of street vendors, selling anything from teapots and sweets to chessboards and clothes, occupying the better parts of the narrow sidewalks, I was never bumped into. Not even during school pick-up hour (as I like to call it), when mothers flock to the schools like bees to a beehive to locate their little ones in the humming masses on the school yard. Personal distance was kept, despite the limited space.
Plus, everything is so beautiful that I simply never had time to notice the crowds. Commercial TVs and large neon signs are not common here. But on good days, you can see the snow-covered mountains that surround the city (especially well viewed from Milad Tower). Trees decorate almost every single street, and parks are common and easy to find. Did I mention the wall decorations, tiles and painted highways? Although the majority of city houses are grey, there are plenty of wall paintings to make up for it. Paintings of mountains, heroes, birds, and Islamic patterns. Schools painted with books, mathematical patterns or balloons. Highways and tunnels decorated with bright paintings, lights or sparkling tiles. You can find color and art in practically any corner of the city.
I even loved the cars*. They may be old – most cars in Tehran have probably been out and about since the 1980s – but they are extremely charming. I am very fascinated by rearview mirror decorations, and I saw some very interesting ones in Tehran! Everything from bright orange rosaries and the evil eye, to Christmas tree air fresheners and dangling photos (of the driver when he was young, of a child, or even of a dog). And this is also where I would be the most observed. “Foreign,” my friend would declare when I didn’t join in on the mandatory taxi small talk. “Aha!,” the driver would nod in comprehension and shoot me a curious glance in the rearview mirror.
Tehran is also one of those cities that is filled with surprises. A sudden peach tree. A spontaneous ferris wheel. Parks with flowers, well groomed lawns, chess boards, fountains and green and yellow benches (and trashcans). A little bakery with a window display filled with pastries shaped like frogs, dogs, and other animals. An ice cream shop. An unexpected golden or blue dome, towering over the small, box-like residential houses. Trucks loaded with tangerines, grapes, or pomegranates. Loud voices yelling in megaphones, proclaiming what I thought was political or religious propaganda, but actually turned out to be prices of fruits (one of many things that made me feel silly during my trip in this very welcoming and fruit loving country).
And of course, the one thing that will make any foreigner feel ashamed: the glamorous Tehran fashion styles. Like many tourists before me, I came to Iran with the largest and blackest clothing items that I could find in my closet. And like many tourists before me, I was totally outshone by the colorful and trendy styles of the women and men in Tehran. I cannot even count the number of Iranian fashionistas and “hipsters” that I spotted in the streets. Young men in round glasses, long hair and moustaches. Women sporting square sunglasses, bright scarves, baggy (or very tight) pants and white sneakers. My hosts tried desperately to improve my grandma-styled outfits, but soon gave up, having accomplished nothing but a deep sigh. I am sorry for my poor fashion sense, Iran. You put me and H&M to shame.
Oh, and did I forget to mention the most important part of life in Tehran? The tea. I had no less than 10 cups of tea on any given day, and although I found this slightly overwhelming at first (I don’t actually like tea), I am proud to say that during the last few days of my stay, I came to really love all the tea times. And the sugar cubes that came with them. I spent a significant portion of my trip sitting on rugs, leaning against beautifully embroidered pillows, enjoying tea and listening to Iranian music or conversations in Farsi (my speaking reached a level close to fluency: I now know the words for almost every single food and fruit, AND their colors. And how to decline additional cups of tea). Now that I have left Iran, life just doesn’t feel the same without tea.
And lastly: let’s not forget the food. That will need a post of its own. I stayed with an Afghan-Iranian family, and therefore got to experience the food of two worlds. Sometimes a combination. The glorious Afghan-Iranian cuisine. Rice in masses, delicious warm bread, chicken stews and the occasional ashak and bolani. And since we are talking about the house where I stayed – I must mention the bathroom slippers. The bathroom slippers (often in bright colors like pink, red or blue) that lie waiting for the next visitor in the shower rooms and restrooms. I miss them now. I really don’t know why I haven’t used bathroom slippers before.
So there it is. The real and living Tehran, seen from the eyes of a Swede. Although the traffic sometimes scared me, I absolutely loved everything about this city. It is a city of highway art, parks, cars, fashion, fruits, tea, food and bathroom slippers. It’s a city of surprises, friendly glances and welcoming waves. I would recommend any curious traveler a visit to Tehran, and I would absolutely love to go back soon again.
Until next time!
*I will admit that the reason that I traveled so much by car was due to a small mistake during my first bus ride in the city. I had hopped on the wrong end of the bus, and landed in the men’s section. Although the bus riders were perfectly friendly (and amused), my friend was too embarrassed to ever take me on a bus again. Embarrassed of himself, that is. For instructing me to enter the wrong bus door. So instead we took cars, where we traveled easily with both men and women.
All photos taken by me and my iPhone.