Tehran, Iran

(For more context, consider first reading the entry from Mashhad.)

Tehran is not my kind of city, and for most Iranians I talked to who weren’t from there, it’s more a necessity than a pleasure of life for them. This city/metropolitan area of 9/16 million is one of the larger ones in the world, comparable to New York (8/20 million) and feeling a whole lot like it in terms of sheer population. An expansive metro runs all over the city, completely packed at all hours of the day, making getting around town feel a whole lot more like going to work. It’s worse on the roads too, as traffic has made Tehran one of the most air-polluted cities in the world; the days before our arrival (which thankfully coincided with rain to clear it up), the air was so polluted that schools were closed and depending on who you ask, between 400 and 1000 people actually died of pollution-related causes. That’s absolutely crazy. There are actually some plans to move the capital of Iran to another city in the future because of this.

(Speaking of New York, in my Tehran hostel, I randomly met someone who turned out to be a friend of a friend. I didn’t know him before, and they’re coworkers in New York. What can I say other than to repeat myself… it’s a small world. This isn’t the first time I’ve had such weird run ins.)

For me, visiting Tehran wasn’t really necessary (though it was for Tom and his visa extension, and I tagged along), but an intriguing little add-on for the sake of its importance to Iran.

Tehran, as the capital and representative of the country’s government in news media, is always talked about in an antagonistic manner, hardline and conservative, strict particularly on women. But as I was expecting (albeit a little too early, in conservative Mashhad), many young people themselves flout this narrative. Plenty of women walk around in body-hugging coats and jeans rather than tent-like chadors, wearing makeup to the extreme, pulling their hijabs loose scarves lightly draped over their heads as far back as possible to the point where they practically aren’t wearing them. Even stranger still, as we also saw in other cities, lots of women (and even men) sport a curious-looking bandage on their noses, a sign they’ve either had or want to pretend they’ve had plastic surgery.

There’s a more varied and upscale restaurant and cafe scene here, too, with more choice beyond typical Iranian food — though we did choose Iranian food, since it seemed done better here than elsewhere. And in the cafes in particular, we could see further “moral defiance”: women openly smoking and singing in public. Gasp! I’m genuinely impressed.

But of course, this is still Iran. The government still portrays the country the way it wants to.

The past regimes portrayed their might with wealth. We paid a visit to the National Treasury of Jewellery, located inside a bank vault. (Sadly, no cameras or phones allowed.) Easily the most extravagant collection of anything I’ve ever seen, and likely one of the most extraordinary collections of jewellery in the world, every item inside was covered in expensive stuff. Brooches, necklaces, outfits, crowns, candlesticks, boxes, dishes, ladles (probably pretty impractical), hookah pipes, swords, beds, thrones, an umbrella (I can’t imagine that ever being durable enough to be worthy of supporting so many expensive things), even a globe — all slathered in gold and dotted with precious stones of all colours and diamonds. So many stones and diamonds, in fact, that there were just piles of them leftover as an afterthought in some of the display cases. And some of the wearable things were so overloaded to the point of not really being pretty or elegant at all, just a way to flash wealth. With such a vast array of wearable items though, picking outfits each day must have taken quite some time! And I have to wonder, some of those things were probably laboured on for ages only to be used once, then forgotten…

The current regime, on the other hand, chooses to portray itself as fighters for justice.

It seems that in their eyes, the Iranian Islamic Revolution hasn’t ended. I’ve already touched on this stuff in the Mashhad entry, but in addition to all that, all over the country and especially in Tehran, pictures of martyrs still adorn walls and billboards, and banners on street lamps continue to push for the fight against so-called American imperialism.

The centre of all of this is in the former American Embassy, closed since 1979. The exterior is an unsubtle hint of what it is now: the outer wall is covered in anti-American graffiti commissioned by the Iranian government, and the courtyard now a temporary exhibit for the third annual Down With America poster contest, proudly linked to “Hezbollah Cyber” if you look on the website, which was QR-code linked on every poster displayed. You gotta admit, some of those entries are pretty cute and clever. And while they rightfully point out the double-standards of America (and just plain overdo it at other times), it doesn’t take much more than a second to realise that this is a pot-kettle-black situation.

The embassy building itself has long been closed to the public — until just a mere month and a half ago, that is! It’s now turned into a free museum, and a friendly but serious old man guided us through. Taking us to the top floor of the building, he took us through rooms that were clearly used for spying purposes: a glass room lined with tin foil, metres-thick doors only openable based on the weight of the person, a place for secret intel to be transmitted anonymously, telephone eavesdropping equipment, blueprints of the shah’s palace (bearing in mind that the Americans had propped up this shah as a puppet, against the previous democratically-elected government). There are even classified documents shredded during the hostage crisis that the Iranian students who took over the embassy managed to painstakingly reassemble: they’re still classified in the US. Clearly, this was not some innocuous embassy, and the evidence is damning.

Our guide explained everything in the gravest manner possible. According to him, everything America does is for one of two reasons: money or Israel. (He really, really kept hammering on that point, attempting to link every significant event or grievance to one of the two reasons. Bit of a stretch sometimes, especially when he started spouting off some really weird, random conspiracy theories I had never heard of.) We passed through a hallway full of posters depicting how “this is what democracy in America looks like”: bombings and bloody victims in the Middle East, injustices against black people, the impunity of shooting down an Iranian passenger plane over Iranian airspace (and the awarding of a medal to the navy captain who ordered the strike). This… is all true.

Continuing, our guide called the embassy storming a wholly necessary event to root out spying. And in the benevolence of the hostage-takers, all embassy staff who were women or black were eventually released (and as a condition, used in a propaganda video against the American government, praising the Islamic Revolution). We passed through another hallway of posters praising Iran’s achievements, in scientific and technological endeavours, along with the freedom of its people. Outside were also the remains of a downed American helicopter and some more spying equipment found after the embassy takeover.

Iran has now not had any relationship at all with the United States since 1979. In the meantime, Iran’s version of human rights and democracy (underneath the absolute power of the Supreme Leader/ayatollah) has involved highly restricted freedom of speech, arresting protestors, extensive use of torture, restriction of movement for men who haven’t completed military service or paid the fine for not doing so, and denying equal rights to women (can’t attend sporting matches “since men are wearing shorts”, can’t perform in public if there are men present, can’t break the dress code, list goes on), to name a few examples. And of course, the act of storming a foreign embassy and taking hostages (and state support for it) is hardly a moral thing, even despite the circumstances.

It’s not helping when America keeps giving Iran “moral ammunition”, so to speak, to cover up for their own problems, but at this same time, it’s now approaching 40 years and it’s hard to see this demonisation and focusing on past grudges holding much weight with the younger generation.

It doesn’t. Through the many conversations I’ve had with Iranians, whether people on buses or in stations or in restaurants or offering me a cup of tea, they’re frustrated. Sure, while most seemed to love America yet some of them aren’t fans of America in the slightest, regardless of their opinion, many expressed to me a desire to move to America (better upward mobility, better passport), and expressed extreme pessimism about the state of their country. They acknowledge that their government has made them safe from terrorism, but are frustrated by the theocracy. One man I met went on to curse (in English) the still-flying Muharram flags and a woman in a chador, after she had passed us by. Even to me, that was a little over the top. About the spying that led to the hostage crisis, he said, “Who cares? Everyone spies on everyone.”

It can’t all be that bad. At the same time, I met other Iranians who had moved back from abroad back to Iran. They simply enjoy the lifestyle here. Even those who told me they wished to gain American citizenship also mentioned the possibility of coming back to Iran after. I may not be a fan of Tehran due to its massive crowds, but it does have its charms, as does the rest of the country. Much of the youth in cities are highly educated and worldly in their outlook, with a creative class that has led to some impressive architecture and open spaces. (I mean, there are Iranian hipsters. That says a lot.) Things are cheaper, food is great, social life buzzes in cafes and teahouses and streets and bazaars, entertainment abounds if you look in the right places, nature ranging from the sea to snowy mountains to deserts to lush hills are all in close range. If you’re willing to put up with a fair few inconveniences and an intrusive government, there can be an appealing quality of life.

But that can’t survive if all of the youth want to leave and do so, and if Iran further isolates itself. Other countries isolating it doesn’t help either: look at Canada, for example. Our government chose to completely break off relations with Iran all of a sudden in 2012, closing the embassy and kicking out the Iranian one from Ottawa. Not that relations were ever good in the first place: for one, Canada played a significant role in the 1979 hostage crisis, rescuing six escaped embassy staff in a complicated ruse involving a fake film, real Canadian passports, and major risk to the Canadians who harboured the Americans. (You may recognise this as the plot of the film Argo, which apparently took a lot of creative license and understated Canadian involvement, to much criticism. I can’t say for sure, I haven’t watched it yet!) And Iran also tortured an Iranian-Canadian female journalist, Zahra Kazemi, to death in 2003 and never took responsibility. But why break things off in 2012, to the benefit of no one (and detriment to Iranians looking to Canada) especially as such a bit-player in global affairs, when nothing happened? Who knows.

Our current government is now trying to restart relations. There’s a long road ahead, and Canada still has many qualms about Iran that won’t be settled even if fences are mended. On the other hand, much of the Iranian people want change. They’ll get there someday, I hope. Perhaps in the meantime, we can strive to be an example of that change, engaging with those with a hope to take part, and keep the door open.

For a more in-depth look inside the former US embassy of Iran, check these pages out.

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