Sunday, March 14, 2010

Persian adventures

Tehran in the smog

My name is dangerously politically subversive in Iran: "Go Green" is the slogan of the opposition, most famously demonstrated when Iranian international football players were forced to retire after wearing green armbands in support of the opposition. Our local representative jokingly suggested that I become "Mr Red" during my visit (in favour of Ahmadinejad's colour) before quietly asserting that most of Iran is Green anyway.

This fitted in with our outsider perception of Iran: a country riven by a battle for control between conservatives and ultra-conservatives, with the latter violently suppressing the former after stealing an election. Protesters and police battle in the streets and religious authorities restrict freedoms. In reality it was pretty much the only political conversation (apart from one comment about inflation having gone up as a result of Ahmadinejad's election) that I had in a pleasant country populated by some of the most friendly and welcoming people that I have encountered. Having been to Saudi Arabia, I was well-prepared for the Western construct and narrative of Iran to be challenged, and was not disappointed.

So, to Tehran. Arriving very early in the morning (to my first half-hour timezone), I breezed through the controls at the airport and it quickly became clear that the country is not the theocratic police state of reputation, but one of the charmingly-shambolic countries who have come into money that the Western (and particularly oil industry) traveller encounters on a regular basis. Ordered disorder reigned in most areas, best demonstrated by the amusing and enjoyable chaos that is traffic in Tehran: I can best describe it as being in a shoal of metal herring all fighting and squeezing for space in a narrow, overcrowded river. Junctions, roundabouts, and even traffic lights are a case of ignore the rules and just go for it. Have you seen that advert where futuristic (computer-controlled) cars barrel through a crossroads at full speed without crashing? It's like that in Tehran but at lower speed, with more cars, and with humans and horns instead of technology.

Having made it in one piece to my hotel, I enjoyed a few days in Tehran. This is a BIG (more than 12 million people) modern city with all that you would expect from that: traffic, noise, pollution, hustle, bustle, and jostle. Many of those things are in my mind (as a city lover) positives, by the way. When the sun rose on that first morning, I saw the fantastic setting that, to me, defined Tehran. Steep snow-topped mountains bounded the city to the northern side, with the city draped on the lower reaches and sloping down to plains. This instantly elevated the place above other cities in the region: virtually everywhere else that I have been in the Middle East (Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha, Dammam/Khobar, Bahrain) has been a featureless cookie-cutter city on a flat plain surrounded by endless expanses of baking sand. These places are sprinkled with an ostentatious array of architecture and tall buildings, as if to make up for their inherent lack of interest or character. A little bit of help from geography can go a long way, and Tehran has benefitted such that the majority of modern architectural dick-swinging can be avoided. A bewildering array of highways criss-cross the slopes and divide the city into neighbourhoods teeming with shops, restaurants, interesting terrain, and parks. True, it isn't necessarily beautiful, and there is not a wealth of sites of tourist interest, but there was more Eastern mystique and romance in Tehran than any of its neighbours to the south.

I have, however, done the country a disservice by talking of the city first. Cliche has Iran as a country of polite, welcoming, and friendly people, which I can only confirm. The people whom I was with went out of their way to make things easy for me, to show me around, and to show me the positive side of Iran. Sure, some of this was bound to be because I am an outsider and was involved in the oil industry, but in meetings the companies showed hospitality (always tea, coffee, fruit, biscuits etc) which I sensed was the norm there. Ethnically, the people were a bit less homogenous than the Arabic states nearby, with clear differences between the features of people that showed they share ancestors with cultures as diverse as Mediterranean, Turkish, Arabic, Central Asian, and South Asian. Often perceived as stroppy isolationists, Iran has surely contributed significantly to that reputation but they have not been helped out by the US-led sanctions which have made development difficult. I was there as a person with technical knowledge, and people were keen to suck up as much information as they could when it was available; "are sanctions a problem for you to do business with us" was a familiar question. Most of the time they were trying to shove more food or beverages down my throat.

Iran is of course an Islamic country (and a fairly hardline one at that) which brought the customs and etiquette associated with the religion. When I arrived my host said "two important rules: do not drink alcohol and do not shake a woman's hand". This was not a surprise, having been to other countries nearby, but there were major contrasts which were refreshing. In Saudi Arabia, I have seen very few women on the streets, and when I did they were clad head to toe in robes such that even their eyes are hidden behind netted fabric; in Iran the women were vibrant, sassy members of society. Yes, they wore veils but in a way that paid only lip service to Islamic customs: striking and often beautiful women would be wearing loose shawls (imagine your gran going to the shops) that hid none of their face and little of their hair. Women can drive, work and go out in public alone; in the company that we work with I would guess that a third of the people there were women. Sure, I bet they get paid less and they had to sit separately from the men, but this was light years ahead of what I have seen in neighbouring countries. The locals assured me that, in the home, there is only one person in charge in an Iranian family and it is not the husband.

The food was excellent, but I have to admit that I am kebabbed-out after just a week in the country. These were the staple food and were vastly superior to the end-of-the-night stuff that we have in the UK: chicken, lamb, or beef simply grilled over charcoal served with vegetables and rice or bread. Portions were huge, and often preceded by a large salad, olives, and a bowl of soup or yoghurt; I have a decent appetite but frankly could not keep up with the locals and they clearly thought that I was starving myself when I was comfortably-full. Highlights included wonderful grilled lamb cutlets and a non-kebab meal of traditional stewed meat and vine-leaf vegetable parcels. In common with the Arabic people, the Iranians do not enjoy spicy food very much, so it was amusing to see the locals suffering through what I thought was pretty mild food when we went to an Indian restaurant.

Towards the mountains

A couple of other high points included a trip up the mountains and a meeting with a Brazilian footballer. The literal high point of the visit was a trip (via cable car) up the ridge of mountains to the north of Tehran. The city starts at a decent height (around 1000m above sea level) but the ridge of mountains steeply climbs up an additional 3000m to tower over the city. This meant that after around 30 minutes of ascent, I was on the tallest mountain that I have ever been on, surrounded by skiers at 12,000 feet. Tochal is seemingly the fourth-highest ski slope in the world, and it was bizarre to be walking amongst skiers and snow not an hour after leaving the sweaty, dusty heat of the city below. The view should have been magnificent, but the blanket of smog that covered the city most of the time that I was there was in force that day.

One evening in the lobby of my hotel, whilst waiting to go out for dinner, I got chatting with a guy. Through his poor English, we exchanged the usual pleasantries of name, nationality, and occupation: me as a geologist from Scotland and him as a footballer from Brazil. Hang on, what? Further chat revealed that he was Fernando Baiano, a name which rang a bell with me, and was in Iran for (as I understand) the Asian Champions League with his current team from the UAE. A check of Wikipedia later revealed that he was probably familiar to me through a relatively illustrious career and list of clubs including Corinthians, Flamengo, Wolfsburg, and Celta Vigo. He seems to have scored in not far off half of his matches during his career, including almost 30 for Celta Vigo which is where I must have seen him playing European games against British teams. Certainly a more interesting encounter than the usual salesmen or oil guys...

After Tehran came a day in the desert of the south-west in the area bordering Iraq. To be honest, there wasn't much to this region other than a sprawling, ugly, industrial city (Ahvaz) surrounded by a seemingly endless scorching desert. It reminded me of the other Gulf states because it was essentially the same. Sure, the desert was a little greener because of the rivers that enter the nearby Gulf, and it was interesting to be within (unfortunate choice of phrase alert) shooting distance of Iraq and Kuwait, but in all honesty it was a relief to get away from the heat and ugliness for a final day in Tehran.

And so home, laden with pistachio nuts donated by my Iranian hosts. Iran was interesting, confusing, noisy and fun. The people were lovely; you could do worse than consider a trip there to stop in Tehran before moving on to (the amazing-looking) Shiraz and Persepolis. Don't believe everything that you read about Iran.

I have put some photos up on Flickr here.

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3 Comments:

Blogger Nev 360 said...

Alternative holiday material?

10:13 pm  
Blogger Simon Varwell said...

Fascinating stuff. I wonder I Baiano's written a blog post, or at least told his team-mates, about meeting a Scottish geologist?

6:45 am  
Blogger swishfish said...

Niall: for sure. Definitely off the beaten track and not overwhelmed by foreigners at all. I don't think I saw another Westerner whilst I was there. I went nowhere near the hotspots like Shiraz etc. though, so it may be different there.

The language/culture barrier is higher than many countries, so not being ferried around and translated for by a local will certainly make things more challenging. A master traveller like you will be fine though. Plus it is one of those rubbish currencies so 1 million IRR is under £70. You feel rich there.

8:56 am  

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