Friday, June 28, 2013

Tehran: the Final Chapter

Fourteen days and seven cities later, I was back where I started, in Tehran. Only now, I had vanished most of the preconceived notions I had arrived with. I no longer expected authorities to check my paperwork on every corner. I did not stress over whether or not my head scarf remained firmly in place. If it fell off, I simply replaced it, no harm, no foul. I had grown comfortable enough with navigating the streets and bazaars (even the treacherous crossing of major streets) that I no longer felt the need to have a guide around to keep me out of trouble.

This last one came in the most handy as Yasna was now scheduled to do another tour and I was assigned to a local guide. The new guide, who shall remain nameless, seemed like a nice enough guy and he was certainly trying. Unfortunately, as good a person as he may have been, as a guide, he was worth 0 riyals. He spoke next to no English, had no sense of direction and had the uncanny ability to answer each and every question that he actually understood incorrectly. It was not long before I politely ditched him and spent my final days in Tehran on my own.

My first stop was the Iranian Artist's Park. This is the city's bohemian area with artist's workshops, galleries, a gift shop and most importantly, a vegetarian restaurant.  A 100% vegetarian restaurant!!  I had been here once before, with Yasna, on my first evening but that was before my eggplant overload. Now, I dreamt of veggie burgers. 

A couple of hours after stepping foot in Tehran, I was biting into a patty of deliciousness and watching pink-colored men and women jump and yell "Boop, boop, boop" from one end of the park to the other.  Performance art or bizarre ritual?  Who cares?  Did I mention that the veggie burger came with some killer fries?

By the time I returned to the hotel, Yasna was setting off for a city visit with her new tourist. Realizing that this was my last chance at touring with a knowledgeable guide, I invited myself along and ended up going to a couple of museums.

The first was the Museum of Glassware and Ceramics, housed in the former Egyptian embassy. The exhibitions were nicely presented but I was primarily left wondering how the Egyptians managed to snag (and eventually lose) such a swanky building.

A little further down the street was the National Museum of Iran, home to an impressive archeological collection, featuring items such as:
A 1,700 year old Salt Man.

Parthian prince named Shami.

Some Achaemenid sculptures

And various pieces brought over from Persepolis.
As much as I enjoyed the solitude of the desert and the charms of the small Iranian villages, it felt so good to be in a big city with a subway system, a multitude of restaurants and excellent museums.  My favorite of all was one in which photography was strictly prohibited, the National Jewels Museum, which was conveniently housed in the Central Bank.  The displays included jewel encrusted crowns, hookahs, thrones and everything else you could think of. The Persian kings put today's rappers to shame when it comes to displaying the bling.

No jewels, but I did get a photo of Persian eggs.

Another must-do is the Unesco-recognized Golestan Palace, a Qajar-era compound which now houses eight separate museums.  The blend of Persian and European art and architectural styles makes it unique and the courtyard setting makes it a great place to stroll around, even if you don't choose to go into each and every museum (which I didn't, mainly because you have to buy individual tickets for each one).

Of course, there is always some tacky tourist opting to play dress-up in Qajar-era clothing.

The Milad Tower in the northern part of the city.  I only saw it in passing.
In order to get to the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (or MOCA), I walked through the Park-e-Laleh, a truly lovely urban oasis.

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The MOCA was another one of those museums that does not allow photography, not that you would be able to capture its riches even if it did.  The museum, designed by Queen Farah's (the Shah of Iran's wife) cousin was once the envy of the region.  Its collection is considered the most valuable collection of western modern art outside of Europe and the US and includes works by Picasso, Van Gogh, Miro, Dali, Pollack, Magritte, Matisse, Monet, Munch, Warhol, etcetera and etcetera.  Sadly, the current regime has deemed the collection to be too decadent for Islamic eyes and has locked it all away.  The exhibits I saw, many of them quite good, were all works by Iranian artists, none of which touched on any topic that could be considered taboo.

I spoke for awhile to a young artist who bemoaned the current state of affairs.  He told me of a recent exhibition that was boycotted and eventually shut down because there was a Toulouse-Lautrec portrait of a woman without a headscarf.  Yet, he seemed hopeful that the future would bring with it a more open and tolerant society, one where individuals could speak their mind and express themselves without fear of reprisal.

I hope with all my heart that he is right.  This is a young society (the majority of the population is under the age of 35) that is very much aware of what is happening culturally and politically in the rest of the world, yet their own government is denying them the right to participate.  I have to believe that the countless people, young and old, who I heard expressing a hope for reform are correct.  These people are not the demons that the western media makes them out to be.  To the contrary, they are among the kindest people I have ever encountered.  The world needs a chance to see this with their own eyes.

What quickly became my favorite hangout: the Gole Rezaieh cafe.

And this brings me to the last of my FAQ's.

FAQ #9: Now that you have been there, would you go back?

A: One of these things is not like the other. All the others were questions I heard prior to visiting Iran. This one, obviously, is one I have been hearing since, mainly from people I am trying to persuade to do the same trip I did. The answer in one word or less: Yes.

By far, the highlight was meeting the Iranian people. Their warmth and hospitality goes far beyond anything I have experienced anywhere in my travels. I hope I have been able to capture a bit of their spirit and of the beauty of this country in this blog.  But please, don't take it from me...go.  Go and see it for yourself.  Despite all the hassles with the visas, the head scarves, the lack of alcohol, it is so totally worth it.  Go. You will be glad that you did.


  1. Having been to Iran in the past, your blog did not present to me any new facts about the country but what I enjoyed the most was your excellent photography. You have a very good eye for composition and seem to be able to locate geometry in any scene you come upon. I am so looking forward to my trip to the west this Sept. I just want to make sure that my first adventure wasn't a mirage. "Those that wander are not always lost"......regards.....Bob DeCoteau (Boston) Go Sox

  2. Thanks for the kind words, Robert. It is easy to take good pictures in a country as beautiful as Iran. Enjoy your return visit.