The Only Way is Amman
I went to Iran last summer but have been too busy worrying about inter-library loans to remind people. I had a great time and learnt some things.
I received my visa after a morning of queuing in the basement of the Iranian consulate in London. This was mainly thanks to the cleaning lady who knocked on an important-looking door and asked why it was taking so long. The next day I landed in Tehran.
My first impression of Tehran, as is most people’s, was the roads. In my case it was thanks to the airport driver swerving over to the hard shoulder from the fast lane of the motorway to show me a photo of him skiing. The various gasps, screeches and beeps made it a bonding experience. Indeed it got me my very first Iranian friend. Though the photo was a bit dull.
For the duration of my stay I was billeted in student dorms in the foothills of the looming Alborz mountains. Situated in North Tehran, the wealthy end. I was there along with several hundred students from around the world (and five other Brits), at the expense of the generous Iranian government.
On my second day, fresh-faced and eager to please, I agreed to be interviewed by a couple of student journalists. My face subsequently appeared in the university newspaper under the headline: “It was poetry that I drove me to study Persian”, with the subtitle: “Persian is more a beautiful language than English”. So in the space of one day I had not only picked up the medal for Pretentious Prat of the Year but also the much-coveted Ayatollah Khamanei Award for Treachery.
Everyday we had language classes in the mornings and cultural visits in the afternoons. These ranged from the bizarre (watching a 3D documentary about dinosaurs dubbed into Persian at the national planetarium), to the customary trips to Ayatollah Khomeini’s house; interspersed with visits to various Shahs’ palaces (including the unmissable National Tableware Museum) and breathtaking views from the top of Tehran’s various towers.
In our precious free time we were allowed to go out and explore. For this we had to get a form signed by two different officials who would invariably be either asleep or absent. Then, once liberated, we were at the mercy of a people so feared by Western media that it was all I could do to avoid being brainwashed by their national pastimes of drinking tea, reciting poetry, picnicking, volleyball and Instagram.
You cannot go to Iran without embarking on some sort of mystical journey. For me this was coming to grips with the currency, which involved periods of separation, union and then complete annihilation when I still couldn’t tell my rials from my tomans. For a certain French friend of mine this meant climbing half way up a mountain in the pitch black, with nought but a commandeered shovel to fend off stray dogs, in search of a shaman who was rumoured to live close by in fields of his own herbal delights. He was eventually saved by an elderly Iranian man, returning from a day’s hiking with a bag of walnuts in one hand and a small axe in the other. Suffice as to say when he returned there was definitely something herbal about him.
I learnt the Persian for “Oedipus Complex”, and how to say “that bloke’s an absolute ****”. I learnt that rice and kebab (with accompanying doogh salty yoghurt drink) is a meal fit for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I learnt that (according to one of the weekly publicity flyers posted in our dorm) since the 1979 revolution Iran has had the fasting growing economy in the world.
After a particularly heated taxi ride to Darband (a popular tea-drinking and shisha-smoking spot, and gateway to the Alborz), I learnt how to say: “no we agreed on 50 tomans, let go of my hand. Please don’t punch me”. I even risked a parting shot with the recently learnt, “piss off you ****er”.
At the Grand Bazaar I learnt that no matter which way you turn, all roads lead to women’s underwear stalls. This won’t do for souvenirs, I would grumble to myself, and take a sharp left hoping to catch fate off guard. Frilly knickers. Dam it.
I learnt that there is a mosque in Isfahan with shaking minarets. There is even a man whose job it is to prove this every hour to the wary crowds below. This ancient city is packed full of cultural and religious monuments to Iran’s past. We had one and a half days to soak it up, with an eight hour bus trip either end. So naturally, after whizzing round the various, beautifully ordained 17th century mosques, palaces and bridges we headed straight for the Aquarium and Reptile house. “You can have too much of rich heritage,” the trip organisers seemed to think.
No trip to Iran would be complete without a visit to a building site. After driving round dirt tracks for an hour it was finally explained to us, with no hint of irony, that we were witnessing the construction of the next wonder of the world:
I learnt that it pays to have a few lines of Persian poetry up your sleeve. In a moment of panic I agreed to be a guest on a live TV show called Irani-ha (= Iranians – the plural suffix in Persian still makes me chuckle). In a short segment about foreigners learning Persian, I (and several other students) was invited on to present myself to camera, answer a few questions and then recite a poem.
The host only mentioned the poetry bit a minute before going live. The tens of millions of Iranians watching at 11.30pm must have been on the edge of their seats, as a fidgety Englishman painfully racked his brain for a suitable snippet from Saadi. Thankfully I managed to come up with a garbled response. I got my round of applause, a well-done cup of carrot ice cream and a thank-you selfie, before being driven home.
My Iranian experience ended in style at the closing ceremony for the language course. It was almost three hours of videos of us students pointing at pretty ceramics and smiling next to ancient bridges. Interestingly, they had chosen the Game of Thrones theme tune for the backing music. The entire room was in hysterics which provoked much hushed discussion from the confused dignitaries seated in the front rows.
The head of the Saadi Foundation thanked the world and its various deities that we had chosen to study Persian. He then graced us with some socio-politcal commentary, asking the audience “you can’t walk down a street in America without being stabbed to death, how many people have you seen stabbed whilst you’ve been in Iran?”. Much nodding from the dignitaries. He closed the evening by reading several of his own poems. It was at the end of this evening that I learnt the useful expression: “**** Saadi Foundation”.
I was only in Iran for a short time but it had a lasting impression. Hiking in the Alborz mountains as the sun rose over Tehran, and eating biriani as the sun set over Maydan Naqshi-Jahan in Isfahan, were two unforgettable moments.
Just as the bus was about to leave for the airport one of the teachers appeared, eyes red with tears, to say farewell to the Syrian students among us, ‘the war will soon be over and Syria will return, more glorious than before’. The whole bus burst into tears. The teacher left, than returned after a few seconds and looked me straight in the eye, ‘have a nice flight back to London James’. Ouch.