Posts Tagged ‘Tehran’


Tehran’s grooviest taxi driver

September 21, 2008


After collecting out Uzbek visas from the consulate, we went on a mission to Karaj, some 40km west of Tehran, where there is apparently a reservoir. It took us about an hour and a half to reach Karaj, on two tubes and then the double decker suburb commuter train. We were travelling at around 1pm, presumably a post-noon Ramadan prayers rush hour, because all the tubes and trains were packed.

Lesson 6: If you’re a woman, NEVER get into the mixed sex carriages during rush hour. You’ll quickly find that many hands use the crammed space as an excuse to occupy rather inappropriate places. Opt for the women only carriage, usually the first on the train.

Once we arrived in Karaj, we went looking for a taxi who would take us up to the reservoir (about an hour’s drive). With the indispensable use of the Lonely Planet phrasebook, we managed to convey our destination and agree on a price.

With all five of us crammed in and ready to go, our driver, Davod, chose a CD and off we went… And what a CD! It began with some hard core/electronic German music, slightly reminiscent of Rammstein. The music then progressed to some more hip-hop/house beats (a la BomfunkMcs), and then into drum and base. As Davod blasted out some hip tunes as we drove into the Alborz mountains, we bounced around in the back, grooving to the unexpected underground sounds of the hip youth. Then Enrique Inglesias remixes started rolling out, stil as loud and still as pumping. I have never in my life given Enrique more than a single though, but these tunes were phat! We bobbed up and down in our seats, swaying with the music and the curvey roads that wound up the mountain.

We never got to the reservoir because i think Davod got bored, so we stopped next to the river instead. We had planned to picknick, but the rubbish and pollution on the sight killed all our appetites. After about 10 minutes, we jumped back in the boogey-mobile and buzzed back down the hill.

The whole trip couldn’t have lasted more than two hours, but it was well fun. Especially to be able to experience the musical tastes of some young bloke, who obviously craved some rocking and rebelling in his life: in addition to the music, there were various skull and crossbone badges and stickers on his dashboard. Obviously, he was aware of the unfavoured nature of his pleasures, because every time we passed the police, he turned the blasting beats right down; only to blast them out again once we were a safe distance away from the authorities.

I wish i’d been able to give him a present of some more music to add to his collection… I could imagine how ace stuff like the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Guns’ and Roses, and Aphex Twin would have blown him away… Just like he did for us in his disco-on-wheels; literally a ride that i’m sure none of us will forget.


Uzbekistan visa in Tehran

September 21, 2008

The process of collecting an Uzbek visa in Tehran should have been easy, considering that we had applied for a letter of invitation and received a collection notification. We used the company STANtours, which i would highly recommend: fast (7-14 days, we got ours in 7), friendly and do not demand hotel bookings alongside.

However, trying to find the embassy was very difficult, and rendered the whole process much more stressful. Unlike several other embassies that are situated in the centre of town, the Uzbek, and incidentally, Turkmen, embassies are to the far north of Tehran, an area not reached by the metro. Luckily, we had found a hand-drawn map in the guest book of our hostel (Mashhad hostel on Amir Kabir street, also recommended), which was very helpful once we found our bearings. From the metro station Mirdamad (last stop at northern end of Line 1, the red line), take a bus towards Noubaniad. From there, you can follow the jpg image of the map that we used: SEE BELOW¬†(sorry to the cartographers for disseminating this information without your permission, but considering that you left it in order to help others in the first place, i don’t think you’ be very bothered. Thank you, it was infinitely useful, and hopefully will be to many others).

Lesson 5: Uzbek visas are issued at the Consulate, not the Embassy.

A one-month visa costs $75 and is processed the same day, in less than an hour. You need two passport photos. Unlike other visas, where they give you a certain period of validity (1-3 months) during which you can enter and stay however long is permitted by the visa, the Uzbek visa issued in Tehran are quite strict about entry and exit dates, so its better to know approximately the date of entry. If you’re planning on traveling overland through Turkmenistan (in which case you’ll probably be wanting a Turkmen transit visa), your best bet is to make the beginning of the Uzbek visa overlap with the end of your Iranian visa, in case you are refused a Turkmen transit visa. That way, if you cannot travel through Turkmenistan, at least you have the option of flying directly to Tashkent.



Art and Authority

September 21, 2008
20/09/08It was J’s birthday yesterday. The thing he most desired was a cold beer, so we trekked down to the Armenian Club for a late lunch, thinking that would be our best bet. Unfortunately, the only beer on the menu was non-alcoholic, and so our celebratory meal consisted in a sober session accompanied by some mediocre spaghetti, a slightly disappointing but no doubt memorable birthday.

One of the things that we hadn’t expected was the extent of complete shutdown that the city entered on Fridays. Everything was shut, from shops to restaurants to internet cafes,and the roads were quiet. Again, this could have been exacerbated due to Ramadan, but I do get the feeling that all year round, Fridays are a day reserved for rest and worship.

One of the few things that was open was the Museum of Contemporary Art, situated inside Park Laleh. Now here was some life. The park was filled with families and couples, lounging in the grass, playing badminton, strumming Spanish guitars… A pleasant dose of liveliness after the relative desertion of other parts of the city.

The exhibition in the museum was the fourth Annual Iran Typography Exhibition, which meant that all of the pieces on display were calligraphical. There were hundreds of pieces on display, most of them computerized or graphically designed, all of them directly and explicitly religious. The content of the pieces was recurrent throughout the exhibition, as all of the words used were Koranic and referred to Allah. Therefore, all variations were in the form that the words took. The most common words phrases were: ‘Allah’, ‘bismillah alrahman alrahim’ (in the name of God, the most benevolent and most merciful; the opening verse of the Koran); and then variations of the 99 names for Allah (‘alhaqq’, the truth; ‘alawwal’, the first; ‘alakhir’, the last; ‘malik almuluk’, king of kings; etc).

The redundancy could have been boring (and I admit that by the end it was slightly) but for the most part the artists’ stylistic choices in colour, font, contrast etc (note that im obviously not an artist with such limited descriptive words!) made the exhibition very interesting. One of the works that has stuck in my mind set the phrase ‘bismillah alrahman alrahim’ in the form of birds, drawn in white against a blue background. Others listed words and varied the thickness and length of their letters in order to create other patterns or words in a more layered/subliminal fashion.

What fascinated me the most about the exhibition was the notion the because the substantive choices were so limited, the style and form had to be worked on in even greater lengths in order to render each piece unique and enable innovative expression. For the most part, I would say that the artists’ succeeded in doing so.

Obviously, this genre of art is very compatible with the exigencies of the Islamic regime, because the subject matter is completely controlled. In fact, to me, the exhibition felt like a collection of modern Islamic art, in that it followed the conventions of traditional Islamic art (the use of calligraphy and abstract geometrical patterns for the purpose of praise) but through cutting edge means, including state of the art computer design software. I wondered to what extent this exhibition determined the platform of graphic design artists. Were there other such high-profile annual exhibitions in which design artists (or any artists for that matter) were NOT bound to religious dictates? Perhaps, but the lack of any permanent collection in the museum made me unable to answer that question.

I have to admit that throughout I was eagerly seeking signs of dissidence, of divergence from the imposed model. And although i did not find them in substance, i feel that the proliferation of forms and colours was the key to individuality, and that therein lied the potential for subversion. I did not interpret the pieces in the exhibition as expressions of worship. I felt that it was the externalization of individual artistic desires and impulses through the imposed paradigm of worship. As a spectator, I sensed that the more often than not, the words were secondary to the form, mere vehicles through which other feelings could be delivered. In many pieces i felt disillusionment, perhaps frustration. In some i felt a desire to escape, to move far beyond the dictates.

There were, notwithstanding, some through which i felt strong faith; that cannot be denied. But this was not the majority, and I came out of the museum feeling like I had just been in a sort of zoo, where animals are obliged to perform outside their dispositions in order to please the audience. I felt that a burning artistic desire was being shackled.



September 20, 2008

Lesson 4: Internet cafes (coffeenets) are few and far between in southern Tehran. They also close at 3pm on Thursdays and do not open again until Saturday morning…


Tehran: Initial Impressions

September 20, 2008

Toilets in train station: unexpectedly spotless and squeaky clean.

The first two people we met (taxi driver and hotel manager) were vocally critical of Iran. In the words of the former: ”Mullah, no good”. The hotel manager, Ali, also spoke with disdain about the religious authorities, lamented the absence of discos and whiskey, and even went as far to say that he missed the days of the Shah. They also praised the countries in the world that are so often met with so much disapproval in the Middle East: the US and UK.
We later discussed such overt dissidence and uncommon appreciation for the West, and wondered whether they were their true opinions, or whether they were saying those things to either flatter us or provoke debate. Obviously, the history of Western intervention in Iran (CIA-supported coup of democratically elected government of Mossadeq in the 1960’s; proppoing up the Shah’s brutal regime thereafter…) is reason for distrust and disdain. But, thinking about more contemporary reasons for which the US and the UK are so despised in the wider Middle East, namely support for Israeli occupation of Palestine and the invasion of Iraq, I realized that the view from Iran on such issues is bound to differ. On the former, despite the rhetoric of the Iranian government, I do not think that there is the same amount of identification with the Palestinian cause in Iran as in Arab countries (despite the fact that in many of these, such identification is largely rhetorical and substance-less). Culturally, religiously and linguistically, Iranians are distant from Palestinians, and therefore probably do not see the Israeli occupation as threatening their larger community, as is often the perception from an Arab perspective. I am as yet unaware of the extent to which the the disdain of the Iranian government for Israel is shared by the Iranian population, but I think that the whole issue is more a question of geopolitics than identity. Secondly, the US-led invasion of Iraq, which was seen as an infringement on a collective Arab or Sunni Muslim sovereignty, was in many ways positive for Iran: it toppled the man/regime with whom Iran had engaged in a brutal 8-year war (an end in itself), and thereby shifted the balance of power in the region in their favour.
And then of course it is simultaneously very possible that Iranians are tired of the impositions of their government. But is it dangerous to be so vocal about such views? I would guess that despite the fact that the security apparatus undoubtedly flexes its muscles when appropriate, most often with higher profile individuals (academics, activists, bloggers), the circle of fear surrounding the expression of dissidence in certain situations (ie to foreigners) is weakening…

Tehran bazaar is a combination of Souq al Hamidiyya in Damascus, the suave shopping district of San Remo in Italy and Ikea: beautiful old arches/ elaborate wooden windows/colourful mosque domes lurking round every corner, sheltering endless alleys of gold and silversmiths, watch retailers, fake designer clothing and the most stylish range of kitchen and housing supplies Ive ever seen! It is brilliant and bustling, and does not disappoint.

And yet Tehran is quieter and more low-key than I expected, which is probably because its Ramadan. But also, I feel it is much LESS alien to me than i expected it to be. I think it has something to do with my expectations of Iran being built on images of a staunch ‘Big Brother’ state, complete with massive posters of Imam Khomeini on every street corner, huge Soviet-style buildings and a strong police presence. Instead, in southern Tehran the buildings hardly exceed 2 or 3 stories, the police are few and far between and the political propaganda is not overtly omnipresent (although this could have something to do with having spent the past 9 months in Beirut, where political posters outnumber consumer advertising and there is a tank on every other street corner).
I suppose that Tehran does not live up to its reputation in the Western imagination as the steely capital of the demonised Islamic Republic. Nor does it strike me as overly conservative: alongside the many women in chadors, we have spotted Hermes scarves, Gucci and Dior sunglasses, nose-jobs, exaggerated fringes escaping from hijabs, dramatic make-up and long/spikey hair on men. I feel frumpy with my oversized salwar kameez and tatty black scarf, while my scruffy, untied Doc Martens have received more looks of disapproval than any amount of hair/lower arm/ankle that has peeked out from my clothing.

Its funny, because we claim to be aware of the impact of media distortion on the perception of Otherness. We fashion ourselves as ones who are able to deconstruct the discourses and power relations that inform the way that we think about distant cultures. We feel confident in your non-essentialist view of any religion or ethnic group. And yet, the extent to which we are taken aback by the way in which an encountered ‘reality’ differs from what we have been exposed to betrays the inescapability of our construction. Which is not a bad thing, because it is healthy to be reminded of our bias, our partiality, our preferences, and how those influence the way that we not only see Otherness but also how we behave in its presence.

For me, that is one of the most valuable aspects of directly encountering difference: it makes us as much aware of aspects of the Other as much as what characterises the self. I learned this the hard way, during a difficult year spent studying Arabic in Egypt. It is a reflection that i hope i will never forget, because by recognizing my own agency in experiencing foreignness, I will be less likely to react angrily to the difficulties that will inevitably be faced in that encounter, and look inside for solutions rather than attributing blame outside.


last minute packing, as always…

September 13, 2008

My flight leaves from Nice airport at 3pm. It’s now 1 and i still havent packed my bag. Predictable.

The initial ‘leg’ of this journey is infact a false one: it takes me from Nice (where i’ve been for the last 10 days visiting my mum and stepdad) back to Beirut, from where the real games begin. However, it is nonetheless stressful, and will take over 12 hours and 2 stop overs (Paris and Budapest)…

I should arrive there at 4am tomorrow (Sunday). Just enough time for me to go to my friend’s house, take a quick nap, shower, and pick up my big backpack, before heading out to Damascus round noon with J and Caro.

In Damascus, we will meet up with Di and Jeevs, who have gone on ahead of us in order to buy the train tickets to Tehran. Our train is scheduled to leave at 8am on Monday morning. The train is 2350 km long, and taks over 50 hours.

Route: From Damascus, it takes us north into Aleppo, and then further up into Turkey. From there we turn east and run along into Kurdistan, till we reach lake Van. I think then we have to take a shotr ferry. Then back on the train till the Iranian border, where we cross at Razi. And then we descend south-easterly into Tehran.

For a detailed timetable, see here.

So that’s the first stage… Quite hectic, but that only increases the excitement.