The first mistake I made was to leave my visa on the plane. I was queuing up at immigration, ruffling through my backpack for my file, only to realise in horror that I had left it on my seat. This is it, I thought, all the way here for nothing. Perhaps it was fear, or recklessness, or extreme doses of both, but I sprinted back to the plane — my hijab threatening to fly off my head (my first time putting it on had been mere minutes ago) — and I ran right into a genial Iranian airport staff who looked at me more with curiousity than consternation. I tried to explain to him what happened, but he did not understand English, and gave me directions via hand-signs. They led me into the departing hall, and as I made my way to the airline counter, I was stared at by numerous Iranians dressed in dull monochrome colours who must have wondered where this strange, brightly-dressed girl emerged from. It turned out to be a wrong move. I was not supposed to be there, the airport security officers said. Where had I been before? They demanded to know. I tried to explain everything — the visa, the man, the flight — but things are harder to craft in hand-signs when the bravado you have is utterly usurped by fear. I would like to think my enthusastic hand-signing efforts paid off, coupled with the fact that I must have looked entirely comical; it was like playing charades with a bunch of unamused strangers. They let me off and retrieved my file from the plane. Not a good start to the trip. But I got my visa, and that was all that mattered.
In some ways, Tehran was anti-climatic. All that had been espoused in the media fed into a sense of apprehension before I arrived (the episode at the airport did not help either). How glad I was to be proven so wrong. Normalcy pervaded the city, and since tourists were few and far between, we received a whole lot of kind and cheerful attention everywhere we went. Huge men on even larger motorbikes would drive up to us along the sidewalks just to welcome us to Iran. Teenagers scrambled to take photos with us, of us, for us. It was overflowing with hospitality one might think it was all part of a huge conspiracy of the Iranians to smother us with kindness.
How could a nation be so misunderstood? The students from the University of Tehran I interacted with were an intelligent, humorous, good-natured bunch, keen to defend their nation’s history, and for good reason. The mass fixation and distaste many outside of Iran have towards the nation are rooted in their miconceptions of the Islamic Republic established after the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The possession of nuclear weapons, the requirement for women to wear the hijab, the virulent ex-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his theatrical threats and antics, the list goes on. We have appropriated and memorialised Iran in soundbites, chosen because they allow us to frame the nation in a particular way that suits how we would like to remember it. We forget that Iran’s history stems from way before 1979; it is the birthplace of one of the world’s oldest civilization. Persian culture continues to permeate the city, and the Iranians inherit this historical legacy with pride.
To know Iran is akin to peeling through many layers, and finding something new each time. The political and politicised image of Iran is known to many. But it is the layers beneath that which reveal the unadulterated Iran. Take food, for instance. I never knew I could humanely consume so much bread in so many different forms — the barbari, sangak, lavash, taftan — and still crave for more. I had them dipped in honey, smothered with cream cheese, soaked in lentils stew, coated with cherry jam, wrapped with grilled koobideh (ground meat mixed with herbs and spices and grilled over open flame), and even on its own right out of a clay oven. Bread is the sustenance of life in Iran, and throughout the day, it is a common sight to see Iranians carrying stacks of freshly baked bread as they head on to wherever they need to go. Then there is the black tea, brewed in teapots or samovars, poured into miniature glass cups, and enjoyed with sugar cubes and sweet pastries. There are fewer simple pleasures than sitting with friends in traditional Persian teahouses, sipping tea between bites of local confectioneries and bouts of shisha. Food does not merely tease and delight the palate; it reveals the everyday life of a people.
A trip to Tehran would be incomplete without visiting the Tehran Bazaar — the lifeblood of the Iranians. Its modern setting traces back to the Qajar Dynasty, and on any given day, the bazaar is packed to the brim with Iranians shopping for wares. The way it is organized helps the shopper to navigate the labryinth of alleways and corridors, but even then, it takes experience to find my way around here. I would have been hopelessly lost had it not been for my Iranian guide, and even then, she professed that she knew the bazaar well only because she grew up in Tehran. Most of the goods here are locally made, but I could not help noticing the presence of shops selling imitation goods. From fake Nike sneakers to Louis Vuitton bags, these cheap imports from China were giving locally produced goods a run for their money, as younger Iranians are increasingly drawn to the allure of Western brands.
I do not profess to know a lot about Iran. I knew little about it before I went, and there remained more to know after I left. Travelling in Tehran offered me a glimpse of Iran, but there are many other sites yet traversed, many different sights yet to see. As I took a ski lift up Shemshak in the Alborz mountain range, I was awed by the majesty of the mountain and the serenity it offered. Nature has a way of humbling the human spirit and making human actions appear immature at times, naive even. The best, perhaps the only, way to truly know a nation is to immerse oneself in it, and to never cease to wander, wander and wonder.