You want exotic. You want desert. You want frothing fundamentalists.
But instead Tehran gives you an elegant city of skyscrapers, framed by sapphire blue mountains. It gives you a warm, passionate and gentle people who will stop at the roadside and wave at you.
In February 2016, I had the privilege to fly across Asia to the Middle East as part of a programme organised by the National University of Singapore (NUS). Titled the ‘Civilisation of Iran Study Trip’, the itinerary on the ground was designed by Dr Ahouie and Mr. Mirani (our coordinating hosts). We were whizzed on a dazzling, eclectic survey of Tehran in the ridiculously short span of a week.
It was a bruising programme: we would start the day at 9am, and have no personal time to rest nor relax nor reflect until the end of the day, usually 9 or 10pm. This amounted to an average of about ten to twelve hours a day engaging our brains and our interpersonal skills: with our hosts, with each other, with the physical environment, with the intellectual environment around us. It was a fully immersive and comprehensive experience. It required an insatiable curiosity and stamina. The intellectual pace was breath-taking.
The first few days were a fantastic shock. Fresh off the plane, we were kicked about five hours out of joint due to the differing timezones of Singapore and Tehran. Bleary and disoriented, we were treated to that initiation all unseasoned visitors to the country get: a three-hour long visa grind, courtesy of nonchalant immigration officials. (“Ah, yes, you….”Remembers pile of Singaporean passports thrown to one side. Scribbles ’70 EURO’ on a piece of paper “Pay THIS over THERE. GO.”)
We were then whisked almost straight away to a six-hour introduction of Iran: from its geographical borders, to its political circumstances; from its historical lineages to its cultural dimensions. 10pm into the first day and we had been overwhelmingly dazzled.
The next few days in Iran proved to be no less intense. Our hosts were happily and madly determined to show us that Iran was not the “rogue nation” it had so often been caricatured as. We attended numerous academic conferences on Shia Islam and Persian culture. We were invited to press conferences at publishing houses. We listened to lectures by clerics with doctorates and deanships. In silenced awe, we witnessed our very own Professor Syed Farid Alatas duke it out with the leading, preeminent intellectuals of Tehran. Our guides: three Masters students from the Faculty of World Studies at the University of Tehran, took us to museums, libraries and bazaars. In one memorable instance, we even wandered into a sleek shopping centre – which could have been the sibling of nex at Serangoon, or Vivocity at Harbourfront. Across uncountable cups of tea, we shared our shy curiosity with each other’s cultures, histories and life experiences.
“What,” Mohammed, a Palestinian Studies major (and an old, dear friend I had first met in Istanbul) asked sardonically “did you expect this place to be a desert?”
“You haven’t seen any camels here, have you?”
Iranian humour can be hilariously dry and deadpan.
No, we did not see any camels. Tehran is a metropolis replete with glassy skyscrapers, set like a rough, dusty gem at the foot of the great Elbruz mountain range, at the crossroads of many trade routes from Asia to Europe and/or Africa.
Tehran disappoints. You want the fundamentalists. You want the frightened, abused women. It is, after all, part of the narrative, and part of the adventure you read about in Western media.
But Tehran disappoints. It is a modern city, waking from a decade-long, sanction-imposed slumber. Tehran has always been a dusty, defiant city. It survives. Its palette is a stimulating, eclectic spectrum of the colour desert-dust, studded with flashes of skyscraper steel. I read Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong and Singapore in its serrated horizon and cluttered gridlines.
Tehran disappoints. You look for the enraged mobs. You look for the mad mullah. Instead you see a gentle, kind and curious people. One evening we are stopped by a gruff, bearded man on a motorbike, demanding to speak to our guides. When his words are translated, the old man breaks into a grin. He had stopped to wish us visitors to Tehran a warm welcome, and hoped that we would enjoy our time here. You want an autocracy under an iron fist. Instead we land in the midst of a fevered election campaign, the streets aswirl with posters and flyers telling you to vote for this or that party. You want a mad mullah, frothing in his fundamentalist angst. Instead you attend a thoughtful, enjoyable lecture by a cleric on the historical coexistence of science and faith.
You studied about the Iranian revolution in junior college, in the context of Islamic fundamentalism. You watched Affleck’s Argo and remember only the part where they all drank alcohol to celebrate escaping Iranian airspace (and repeated ‘argofuckyourself’, sniggering, for the next week or so). You read Persepolis I and II and steeled yourself for Cultural Encounters.
Tehran disappoints. You didn’t get to run away from yelling mobs. You weren’t arrested. You picked up election posters and flyers as souvenirs. You listened to the quiet frustration of young Iranians stuck in an economically and politically isolated country. But you also listened to their hopes and aspirations. You were invited to their homes, you were welcomed warmly to their city. Some disappointments are incredibly pleasant.
What is Tehran? Tehran is itself and its own people, and we are the illusions we choose to imbibe.
An earlier version of this post was published in a student-run publication, The Cinnamon Roll, which you can read again here. This is my most recent post for the publication, after almost a one-year hiatus.