First Day in Iran (Book Excerpt, Iran 2)

First Day in Tehran

Morning brought a better look at the hotel. My room was tiny and the bathroom miniscule. I practically had to stand with one foot in the toilet to take a shower. But at least there was a shower, hot water, and a couple of international channels on the TV. As I got dressed I caught a BBC News report on Iran suddenly banning the sale of Western movies and music CDs.

A couple of hours later I met up with Professor. Day One was set aside mainly for us to get acquainted, and for me to get a taste of Tehran, before leaving on our tour around the country early the next morning. I’d bought a 20-day trip, the longest the agency offered, in the hopes of seeing as much of the country as possible. We would first head west toward Iraq, then south toward the Persian Gulf, east toward Afghanistan, then back to the center and Tehran. Basically, we’d be taking a long counter-clockwise look at most of the country.

Three weeks from today we’d be back in Tehran and Professor would be dropping me off at the train station. The only time Americans are not required to have a guide in Iran is on the train, in or out. So I’d booked the longest train ride I could find – a four-day trip that’d take me from Tehran through northwestern Iran, across the mountainous border into the Kurdish areas of eastern Turkey, then all the way across Turkey to Istanbul.

After going over the tour and schedule we, thankfully, set out on foot for some of the downtown sites. There’s nothing like walking through a new city speaking English to gauge how people instinctively react to foreigners – incredulity and shock, hard stares and irritation, or pleasant surprise and looks of welcome. I was happy, and somewhat surprised, to see Iranians fall into the last category.

I started to form my first impressions of Iran as we walked past shop after shop selling ‘banned’ Western movies and music CDs. The main first impression was that what the government said, and the people did, were quite different. I even went ‘banned’ CD shopping to prove the point. From what I could see walking the streets, just because their government was off on some anti-Western rant didn’t mean the people were too.

Author with artist in Tehran

Author with artist in Tehran

The second impression was one of welcome. It’s hard to hide initial reactions and the ones here were nearly always curious and positive. None of the fear of talking to foreigners you saw in North Korea, nor the lack of safety you’d feel in Iraq. The Iranians were positively gregarious, even if I didn’t speak a hint of the local language.

This feeling of welcome had begun that morning with Professor. Unlike the guides in North Korea, whose main goals were quite obviously proselytizing, Professor was genuine and open. He’d even lived for several years in the States, so his English and inter-cultural knowledge were excellent. One of my lasting impressions of Iran is from that first morning in the hotel when I asked why he worked as a guide, instead of finding a far more lucrative position in the local oil industry.

“Because I like being able to meet foreigners and say, ‘hey, we’re not a bunch of assholes.’”

Professor knew how his country was perceived in the outside world, especially in the States, and the failure of outsiders to distinguish between the Iranian government and the Iranian people irritated him. He seemed to be on a personal quest to show the world, one tourist at a time, the difference between the Iran of the headlines, shrieking about banning Western CDs, and the reality of the country, where I could buy those same CDs at any music store in the country.

Another easy to observe point from that first walk was how many more young people there were than anyone else. When the Islamic Republic started in 1979 the government pushed hard for an expanded population – 30 years later the evidence of that growth is everywhere.

Iran’s young Baby Boom generation shook up the political establishment in the late 90s when massive demonstrations against the Islamic old guard helped elect a slate of reformers. Unfortunately, the reforms never really got off the ground, stifled by the powerful hard-line mullahs and their newly rich allies in the ‘bazaari’ merchant class. So now the youth of Iran, cowed and disappointed, have turned their focus elsewhere – outside.

Our walk that day took us as past British, German, and several other Western embassies, and showed where the energy of youth was now being spent – trying to get visas out. Whether to study, work or immigrate, young people had traded demonstrations and reform for computer skills and foreign language lessons. The government does its best to limit this flow and propagandize against it – even one of my in-flight movies the evening before had been about a group of young people abandoning their dreams of working abroad to live happily in Iran. But the number of young people waiting outside embassies, or coming up and talking to me as I toured the country, belied much success to these ‘stay home’ campaigns.

You could also see from walking around that, while certainly not the Third World, Tehran was far from rich. The sidewalks were cracked and uneven. The roads burst at the seams with cheap European and Korean cars. Pollution choked the air. Buildings, even the Foreign Ministry and other important government complexes, looked old and worn. The wan January sun, dim through the smog and grey skies, cast little warmth or cheer into the dark, busy city.

The most difficult thing to get used to that first day was the sheer insignificance of the pedestrian. Perhaps the only thing held in lower regard was the traffic signal. Crossing the street, each and every single time, becomes a game of chicken. Taking the plunge off the curb you slowly shuffle your way forward, generally in a protective clot with other lowly walkers, as cars steer around you. Traffic lanes? Ha! Cars just merge and mesh their way into any free space.

Irritating at first, it only took a few streets to realize that what the system lacked in safety it more than made up for in convenience. Rather than waiting for a light or signal, you just crossed. Rather than looking for a marked area, you just crossed anywhere you felt the urge. Rather than getting bored with your walk you could enjoy the seemingly endless thrill and excitement of nearly getting run over. The only safety feature was the sheer mass of the traffic – it often felt more like walking through a parking lot than across a street.

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