Tehran – Bristling & Bustling & Ever a Surprise (Many Times)

Tehran – Bristling & Bustling & Ever a Surprise (Many Times)

As I make my way out of the terminal at Khomeini airport in Tehran, I am startled to see two placards bearing my name. One is held by a stylishly veiled lady who holds it discreetly near her waist while the other is held aloft by a burly man. I have to make a split-second decision as to which one would escort me into town.  This is my first trip to Iran, first of the several I would make over the next few years, and I was not sure of the status of women in this Islamic state. Yet, something in me tells me to go with the lady, rather than the representative from the conference organizers – he had a few other names as well, on the placard and that’s how I know.  

I smile and nod at the lady and the two of us make our way out of the terminal. She can hardly speak English, but somehow conveys to me that she is the wife of Professor Eskandari of Tehran University. Her husband has sent her to fetch me. We make our way to the taxi stand, get into a Payka and crawl through the traffic snarls for which Tehran is notorious. Mt. Damavand, the snow-peak that has lured countless mountaineers with its lofty disdain large behind elegant apartment blocks.

Haleh’s English is rudimentary, but her smile makes up for the long silences. After about an hour, we arrive at her fortified apartment where she punches her abracadabra to open the gates.  As soon as we enter her well-appointed but rather small apartment, she discards her chador and scarf to reveal her Levi jeans and Dolce & Gabbana T-shirt. Her hair is dyed russet, not with henna but with L’Oreal. Like most well-heeled Iranian women, she wears the latest fashion gear under her chador. And boy, isn’t she beautiful?

Her two teenage boys, both tall and handsome, vacate their room and offer their desktop for me to give finishing touches to my presentation for the conference. I will be leaving for Shiraz that same night and my session at the conference is on the day of my return.  I had no idea I would return to this hospitable country repeatedly and therefore, had arranged to visit its best sites on my very first visit.

Haleh knows I am vegetarian and has boiled a huge cauldron of broad beans for my meal. After I finish my work, we set out for the local market. I don’t need to buy anything, but what better way to kill the 8 hours before my night flight to Shiraz?  Haleh has donned a fashionable black manteau over her jeans.  A chiffon scarf  is draped over her auburn hair. I feel like a dowdy in my chador picked up at Nizamuddin Basti expressly for this visit.

The bazar is not very different from our markets except that it is covered in skylight studded arches. Everything from dry-fruits to household goods and bales of fabric, is available. We saunter through the alleys where she picks up a few things and then we emerge into a fashionable street that hawks designer labels. I am particularly fascinated by the display window of a hair-dresser. This is post-revolution Iran where mullahs hold sway.  Women are not allowed to display their tresses which must be tucked into the scarf lest it arouse the base instincts of any male passer-by. Yet hair-dressers offering different hairstyles and colours have to display their wares if they are to do business. So they have found an ingenious way out.

The shop window displays a few hundred female crowns, the faces plastered over with a sticker that bears the number and brand specifications of the particular colour adorning the hair-do. The faces are fully hidden but the hair-styles and colours are displayed. The saloon is doing brisk business. And although the women who emerge from it are all covered from head to toe, I presume they are gorgeous in their latest hair-dos and colours.

My flight to Shiraz is late at night, yet Eskandari escorts me all the way to the airport and sees me off. The flight is further delayed by two hours and I land at Shiraz well past midnight. I wonder how I am going to reach the Shiraz University hostel at this hour of the night. That is where Eskandari has booked me. There are two taxis at the airport and as I come out of the terminal, the first one is already taken. I hurriedly get into the second one and we are driving off as a male passenger blocks its path. The driver turns around, but before he can react, the gentleman has already opened the front door and seated himself next to the driver. I protest in English, but the passenger turns and gesticulates saying something in rapid Persian. I presume he says this is the last taxi available at the airport this evening and he has no option but to share the ride with me. I resign myself to the situation and stare out of the window in gloomy silence, wondering how all this would end.

I am relieved when the gentleman gets off at a hotel on the way. The taxi drops me off outside the formidable gates of the university well past midnight.  But then, seeing that the gate is locked, the driver jumps over the fence and in a while, comes back with the caretaker of the hostel. The elderly caretaker opens the gate for me, carefully locks it again and escorts me to the hostel some distance away.  Surprise, surprise, when we reach the hostel, he gestures for me to wait. As I fidget uncertainly, he brings back a flask from which pours a glass of tea and hands me a lump of sugar which I drop into the glass. He goes to open my room.  

During the next few days I discover the Iranian way of drinking sweetened tea. You hold the lump of sugar between your teeth and suck the black liquid through the sugar cube. It takes some practice, but quite enjoyable.