7 days in Tehran
7 days in Tehran
Recollections and Considerations from a unique trip to Tehran in November 2010
Flying over the Caspian Sea on the flight from Tehran to Heathrow I found myself recalling thousands of moments.
What a journey of mind and body – from ignorance to the beginnings of understanding from uncertainty and even fear to - relief, surprise and then joy. Iran or as we decided the rebranding needed to be – Persia, was mystical, magical, bold, strong, modern and ancient, invigorating and intriguing. The intelligent, funny, warm, generous and beautiful people, the modernity of city life, the pace, the ingenuity of living with sanctions and other restrictions and the fresh uniquely delicious food. I am struggling to capture all my thoughts and feelings about Iran.
The phone call came out of the blue,
“Hello, is that Tina from think? This is Sepehr Tarverdian and I would like to invite you to be a guest speaker at the 2nd World Advertising Conference to be held in Tehran on the 4th and 5th of November 2010. You would be the first ever woman speaker at the event - would you like to attend?”
My first reaction was confusion – IRAN! People didn’t just call you on your mobile phone from IRAN How interesting – I was very curious to know more. On finding out more about the event and talking with speakers who had been in 2009, I knew I wanted to go.
What a unique opportunity – how exciting. Then, some of the realities kicked in –
What would it be like working as a woman in the Islamic Republic of Iran?
What would I have to wear? How would I have to behave?
I pondered these questions on face book and was bombarded with concern from friends and loved ones about the percieved dangers – They said things like “ Tina, did you know that in Iran.....
“ they stone people to death” “ they cut off peoples hands” “ they oppress women and round them up on the streets for wearing the wrong clothes”
“Are you SURE you want to go to Iran Tina?” “You are bound to slip up and do or say something wrong and then you will be arrested” “You shouldn’t go as going says that you endorse the regime that oppresses women” “Tina, you might get blown up or kidnapped....are you sure it is safe?”
or, simply - “ You are going where? Tehran? Tehran in Iran? Are you mad!!”
My growing concerns about culture and safety were not salved by the various briefings and emails regarding what to wear and say and do whilst there. Lets face it, It would be tough enough to give a sixty minute presentation in front of 800 people most of whom only speak Farsi in a strange country but to also consider managing the wearing of a Hijab (Head Scarf) and NOT talking about – Religion, Politics, Sex or Alcohol whilst remembering NOT to shake men’s hands....this could be a major challenge!!
The briefings that came from our sponsor in Iran didn’t seem to make me feel much better either. For example, the other speakers (all men), were invited to speak in some of the other areas of Iran but not me, the note I received said ..
“ I hope you can understand that in provinces we can not have a lady speaker, as they are traditional, and are not like the mega cities like Tehran”
I wanted to be really sure that I understood the history and culture, wore the right clothes and behaved respectfully
So, I went on the internet and Googled – ‘Iran woman’s fashion’ and hit images – quite a mix, I went to Daunt Books on Marlybone Road, where I always go before I travel somewhere new, and bought the best guidebook to Iran I could find. Next, I asked all my friends and family for their views on Iran and finally I went to a fashion store on the Edgware Road that specialised in Islamic dress and asked them what I should wear in Iran.
I was sold a black shiny polyester bonnet and a long black polyester mega dress – this was to be topped off with a black polyester scarf with some token bobbles of colour on the edge.
Going to the shop and putting on the Hijab for the first time was an experience that will stay with me for the rest of my life. I bounced into the shop on a sunny day wearing a cerise pink top, green cropped trousers and pink pumps – my peroxide blond hair spiked up, as I had been wearing it since rebelling at turning 40. The shop-keeper didn’t look happy to see me ( was it fear or loathing?) he gave me the three items of black clothing. I went to the changing room to try them on.
As I emerged from the changing room I felt like I had disappeared!
What was that feeling...vanity? No longer could I have the elements of the brand of 'me' on display to express what I wanted to about myself – Hair gone under a black bonnet and scarf – colourful clothes gone under a black shapeless cover all ..... so, all that was on show were my face and my hands and from my research I knew that in Iran I couldn’t wear the purple coloured nail polish I was wearing either...
I have kept the clothes I bought to share with other Western Women, as the experience is emotional and cannot easily be shared in words ....the disappearing. I found my shoulders and head slumping... I wanted to be quiet ....(not some thing that comes naturally to me normally!)
I also felt, ‘ well, if face is all I have, what shall I do with that!! ?’
And immediately went on to experiment with jewel coloured eye shadows, black kohl eyeliner and fake eyelashes. I’ve never worn that much make up before but it felt like a critically important expression of me ...a way to show I was alive and still the vibrant, creative, nutty.... me!
A few days after I had purchased my wardrobe for Iran I received a note from Noolie, the fiancé of our sponsor. She said that there was to be a cocktail party on the first night with the VIP guests of the conference.
A cocktail party with no alcohol? And no cocktail dresses?
I asked Noolie what should wear I and mysteriously the message came back on face book that I was to were long black socks and a coat! ….Urm...this was going to be harder than I thought.
I found my concern about how women were perceived in Iran deepen when I received the note from Sepehr explaining who would be meeting me at the airport it simply said...
“there would be my lady employee an English speaking girl, brunette with a boy who will be in the airport for you to pick you up and take you to hotel”
The lady employee – the English speaking girl ‘he’ was referring to turned out to have a name, she was Sherin, a professional and intelligent woman with three science degrees including Bio-Chemistry and Physics and it was Sherin who was to help unravel the complexities of Tehran for the rest of the trip.
Sherin’s perfect English and white-hot intellect enabled her to explain the history and politics of Iran – a country she loves, in a clear and neutral manner. Sherin answered all of my questions and explained how she felt about being a professional woman working and living in T ehran.
Her views were mixed!
During the weeks before I left, I continued to take on board all of the conflicting thoughts and comments of others and gathered information from books and the internet but finally gave it all up and decided that the only way to unravel the questions I had was simply to go and find out for myself.
Having moved to England from Northern Ireland in the 1980s I knew what it was like to be continually defending a place you love from critics, ignorant of the reality. Often friends in England would say,
“Oh, I bet you’re glad you have left Belfast --- it must have been terrible!”...I would sigh and work on repairing their damaged understanding with a fresh, clean dressing of personal experience to counter their views – but it rarely healed their mis-conceptions.
As a result of this experience I work hard to reject the embedded prejudices I have in my own mind when travelling to places I have never been. It’s not easy to do. We do not often consider the years of sediment that has built up in each of our brains connected to various places, peoples and regimes.
Within one hour of taking off on Iran Air we were landing again in Hamburg to refuel. We didn’t know why at first but were soon to learn that it was due to UK sanctions against Iran. Iran Air was forbidden to refuel in Heathrow and as a result had to take on a small amount of fuel and fly to Hamburg to take on the full fuel load for the five-hour flight to Tehran. On the flip side BMI flights out of Tehran had to fly to Dubai to refuel as Iran has reciprocated the arrangement.
All this seems to accomplish is a delay of around two hours for travellers. It made me feel like I was watching two children bickering –
“ You can’t refuel at MY airport!” “Ok then you can’t refuel at mine then, either... so there”
Perhaps I am being very naïve about international relations and sanctions, but really.... What were those measures achieving on either side?
We were still flying from Tehran to London and London to Tehran....
So, in the face of all the concerns and even critisms of my peers and family I travelled to Tehran. Arriving in the early hours of the morning IKA airport looked like any other global international airport. I’m not sure why but that was a total surprise. It was clean and moden, efficient and safe. The differences however soon became apparent. I had put on my head scarf before disembarking ( I had to) It was fascinating to see the variety of ways to wear a scarf and the colours from Black Chador to lime green silk and all the women in coats some black some fitted some loose – all under the ever watchful four eyes of the images of the late Aitolah Komenie and Ali Khamenei his successor.
I immediately found myself being embarrassed at the predjuices I had held about Iran and the people.
It didn’t take too long for the shame of my ignorance to give way to forgiveness of myself as I began to experience and understand the extent to which the media had manipulated my views in the West and when I watched local TV I realised the same was happening in Iran too. I had an urge to defend the country and that feeling reminded me very much of my childhood growing up in Northern Ireland in the 1970s both Catholic and Protestant mistrusted each other and this was fuelled by provocative media interpretations by each side of every word and deed.
One Morning, whilst drinking delicious fresh juice and eating plump walnuts (I didn’t realise walnuts could be moist and juicy!), I saw on the ‘news’ that Britain had launched a ‘soft’ war on Iran. It was, apparently the anniversary of the storming of the American Embassy my initial thought was concern, here I was in Tehran and there on the local TV station were images of people protesting in the streets by burning British and American Flags.
Day to day in the city was a whirl of emotions and excitement - on the one hand Tehran was like any other city - a bit more smog (due to the fact that they have to make their own petrol and it is all leaded). It was thrilling to look up from the city streets to see the mountain peaks covered in snow. Unlike many famous cities we dont have images of Theran in our minds - When we think of Theran what comes to mind? I don't know why but I was continually surprised to see all the contemporary infrastructure you would expect in a capital city. Great Roads and offices, smart shops with designer goods and Global Brands. We visited the bustling busy markets that sold everything from fruit and veg to toys and clothes. I had "I would like an illuminated copy of the Koran" written in Farsie on a piece of paper and used it to find a bookshop to buy a copy of the Koran. Nothing strange at all about a girl from Belfast wandering the streets of Tehran trying to purchase a copy of the Koran! I showed my peice of paper to one or two people and was soon warmly given directions to a mysterious and wonderful book shop where I was shown many excellent examples and I purchased on in English and one in Farsie. In the markets a surprise was the number of stalls selling very sexy underwear - I was soon to understand. We were invited to a few private partys where the young people have a polar response to the restrictions they live with every day - the women go to extremes - they let their hair down literally - short skirts, lots of make up - hair on display - no covering ...actually as little covering as they could! and as much booze as you like! How interesting!
You can feel the frustration of the young people who just want to live with out the restrictions - they are intelligent and fun loving humans and enjoy expressing their individuality. Again the contrasts in IRAN suprise and confuse. Leaving the party the women all cover again and as we move into the street I notice a bus going by with all the men in the front seats and all the women at the back of the bus. It made me think about Rosa Parks who in Alabama took a stand for black people by refusing to give up her seat. She said "When that white driver stepped back toward us, when he waved his hand and ordered us up and out of our seats, I felt a determination cover my body like a quilt on a winter night." I wish that a thousand Rosa Parks in Iran would all move to the front of the bus! what would happen. There were many many times I could feel the rebel in me want to tear off my head scarf and scream ...but I was a guest and I was also very ignorant of many things. I would love to go back to Persia and learn more.
Iran, confusing and clear, beautiful and ugly, sweet and sour, intelligent and ignorant, open yet closed ...certainly made me literally take a leaf out of my own book