Reading Tehran

June 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

Tehran is like nothing I’ve ever seen. The streets feel surreal; I feel as if I’m walking around an extremely detailed and life-like movie set, replete with extras in chadors and Louis Vuitton scarves, terrifying traffic, and a foreign script on seemingly every surface. It’s the Farsi that leads me to believe I’m in an illusion, and that nothing is real. Perhaps because I’ve only ever visited countries that use the same script that I do (Phoenician), but I will seemingly never tire of seeing that lazy, tailed lettering on storefronts, street signs, graffitied walls, on the sides of fences where old Qoranic verses greet passersby with the question “With Gods will, what else do you need?” on the neon signs indicating “harooj” or “exit”, even on the side of Coke bottles and Pepsi cans–all the daily intrusions of text onto image leave me exclaiming with wonder at the beauty of it all. It’s like being on sensory overload. It’s almost too much to take in. The people don’t even seem to make sense visually in the public space. It’s as if they’re simply moveable dots, punctuating the epic poem written across Tehran’s flat surfaces, half of which is deftly authored by the government–proclaiming everything from the names of martyrs to a calligraphied “May God Protect You” on the side of the highway–while the other half is a composite of the verses of seven million tehroonis, each contributing to their own lines to the national Persian epic.

Of course, there is more to Iran than just Farsi–even though so far it is my favorite part! Perhaps adding to the movie-set quality, I feel as if I get to play dress-up every time I walk out of my hotel room. “Wearing hijab” or abiding my appropriate Islamic dress has been the quickest transition I’ve ever made. I finally figured out how to wear my roosari (“headscarf” in Farsi) without having to fidget with it every few minutes, and I’m quickly getting used to seeing my face framed in black silk instead of my wavy brown hair–the effect of the scarf is instant and completely transformative. I feel at once anonymous and seen on the streets, almost as if we’re all in on the same secret–all the women, that is–and we give each other encouraging smiles when a scarf slips, or when we catch each other adjusting our scarves in mirrors and store windows. It helps one feel less American and more and more “native”, as if we can share in the same, shared public experience. Speaking of wearing hijab, the best part of the day came at the end, after in-depth tours of Golestan Palace and the State’s Crown Jewels collection, our guide, Bahman (my new favorite Persian) took all of us women–Patty, Rebecca, Amanda and I, and the men (Tom, Chuck, and Gabriel)–to a true Iranian department store to shop for manteaus. Yaas was almost like a Persian “Target”, identical to “El Corte Ingles” in Zaz (Zaragoza, Spain), boasting a grocery store on the first level, home appliances on level two, and finally women’s wear on level three. There we searched through racks and racks of varying manteaus, which resemble a shirt-dress that can be anything from just below hip level to mid-thigh or down to the knee, with long sleeves and usually some form of belt–but nothing that would be tight enough to show too much figure. So, of course, the four of us walk away with almost identical manteaus, all in shades of tan, camel or light beige. Now we even blend on the streets of Tehran, perhaps adding our own punctuation to the enormous textual landscape.

The sights we saw today were, in a word, glittering. We first visited Golestan Palace, used by the Qajar kings (shah, in Farsi) and the succeeding Pahlavis. Rulers from both these dynasties had a fascination with travel and visiting foreign royals in addition to fierce pride for their country, leading to a palace that is neither eastern nor western, but an experience entirely unique. The interior of the palace was almost fully covered in small tiles of mirrored glass. The effect is alarming–it’s kind of like stepping into the interior of a diamond, or a disco ball. After that we ate lunch (oh my god, Persian food is the best) and hurried off to the State’s Crown Jewels collection, housing the largest pink diamond in existence (182 carats, called “The Sea of Light”) the crowns of famed royals, a useable, life-sized globe made entirely of precious stones (emeralds, rubies and diamonds) and gold, with Iran set in diamonds. We saw gifts of foreign dignitaries, entire swords encrusted with diamonds and rubies–it was magical. As we make our way through this Persian epic, winding our way between history and the present with incredible ease, I feel beyond thankful that I have the chance to visit this place. The distance between dream and reality is still vast–Iranian reality feels like an illusion, a movie, just surreal–but the more I’m here, I have the feeling I’ll be able to sound out the words of a national identity, and maybe one day really understand it.

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