I’ve never been the most stylish person in the world, but next to many women in Tehran, I felt positively daggy.

One thing about many Iranian women (and men for that matter), especially in Tehran, is their beautiful sense of style. Fashion and looks are a high stakes game in Iran; many women’s manteaux are crafted from chic high quality fabrics, designer sunglasses and handbags are must haves. Hijabs are also of high quality material and carefully sit atop well coiffed hair, slipping back as far as possible on their heads as the law will let them get away with.

Men sport designer jeans and shirts, sunglasses and shoes. And it is common place to see bandaged noses. At first I wonder how so many people had broken their nasal region, until I read in my Lonely Planet that nose jobs (and many other kinds of plastic surgery) are commonplace in Iran. In fact some who have been known to wear a bandage even if they haven’t had surgery; it’s a status symbol of sorts.

So wandering around the megalopolis of Tehran I felt a little frumpy… actually a lot frumpy. Conspicuous by my lack of makeup and surgical scars, I didn’t even bother to try to fit in. I didn’t need to anyhow, I’m happy with who I am.

Row of parked motorbikes in Tehran

Motorbikes parked against the fence of Shahr Park, Tehran

Tehran is really easy to get around if you discover the joy of the Metro. Not only is it cheap and efficient, it takes you out of the pollution. And you can buy everything from underwear to your vegetables from the hawkers who jump on in between stops.

But of course the best way to see a city, and by far my favourite is on foot.

I wandered over to and then down Khayem Ave, passing the bathroom ware shops and motor repair shops. Finding the entrance I walked down the steep ramp into the depths of the rabbit warren.

First getting distracted by the kitchenware shops I resist the urge to buy cheap, but superfluous to need, kitchen gadgets. Moving on and turning left I found myself under the original high vaulted mosaic ceiling, that now looks incongruous with the ghastly fluoro plastic from China. Winding my way into the fabric department, I found shop after shop filled with bright patterned bolts of fabric, interspersed with stalls filled with various kinds of black chador fabric; who knew there could be so many different kinds of black?

A quick stop at a hole in the wall for the oddest falafel I have ever eaten; the consistency of mashed potato and lacking in flavour, made better by a slightly spicy sauce. I sat on a small red plastic stool outside a shop filled with plastic wrapped rolls of leather. Hunger satiated, I moved on, dodging the men and boys hauling handcarts groaning under the weight of large boxes, heavy sacks and carpets piled high, I came to the shoe department. Shoes of all shapes and sizes, colours and materials, shoe laces, polish and the heady smell of chemicals.

Around the corner into menswear and then onto sewing accessories, buttons, buckles and rolls of designer brands’ labels for stitching into knock offs. And then suddenly I found myself back in the sunlight, into the cacophonous Tehrani traffic.

Cafe sign in Tehran

Zhivan Cafe on Khark St, Tehran

Walking down the street I found sewing machine shop, after sewing machine shop; old ones, new ones, industrial machines and machines for home. Finally realising I was back on Khayem Street, I headed for Gol-e Reziah cafe. Somewhere I knew serves decent coffee to ease the caffeine withdrawal pain in my head. I can also recommend Zhivan Cafe on Kahk St and either of the cafes at the Cinema Museum.

The traffic had returned from its Eid holiday, filling the streets and polluting the air and leaving its taste sitting in the back of my throat.

It still amazes me the things people will put onto the back of their motorbikes. I watched two men strapping small shelves, maybe 70mm wide, a metre high and filling 80 percent of the seat area; multiple rolls of carpets balanced precariously across the back; and entire families.

And when dodging well laden motorbikes on the footpath gets too much, duck into a park. They are wonderful all over Iran, Tehran no exception. Attractions in themselves, they’re a great place to sit and watch the world go by while eating ice cream.

Tehran is also full of museums, but I’m not a big fan of museums. The Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art is worth a look though, and the Cinema Museum is beautiful. But there is one museum of a rather different nature I visited.

The Ebrat Museum: billed as a place that “promotes useful knowledge about political prisoners and Anti Sabotage Joint Committee of Mohammad Reza Shah through excellence in Scholarly Research, Publication, Cultural products and Translation” – it was a rather discombobulating experience.

First a very interestingly edited and poorly subtitled video of former prisoners explaining the brutal practices of the Savak (Shah’s secret police pre-revolution). It doesn’t provide context of the time, the political situation or the pretenses under which they were arrested.

Füsball table in Mellat Park, Tehran

Füsball table in Mellat Park, Tehran

Next a walk through the cells and then into the panopticon to find a mannequin hanging crucified, mouth agape, tongue and teeth in grotesque detail and red foot prints on the floor… follow the bloody prints to the next exhibit… mannequins being tortured by larger mannequins with tiny heads… follow the bloody prints to the next and so on and so on. Mug shots of former prisoners line a couple of cell wings; name plaques line the entry walls detailing all the former prisoners.

There are a couple of old limos with mannequins of the Shah’s main men on display as well. There is no doubt the Savak were brutal. But all I could think about is the brutal torture that happens to this day in Evin Prison on the other end of the city… I didn’t mention that out loud. And just as I was walking out a complimentary foil wrapped cake and a drink, the same kind as you get on the intercity buses is on offer.

The museum was a reminder that this country has always had troubles, but despite that the people have remained hospitable and interested in strangers. There are plenty of these people I will never forget. My friends’ family in Tabriz, Parisa and her family in Shiraz, Ehsan and his hipster friends in Esfahan, and the young shop assistant in the Tehran book store who had “a few questions” for me.

The first was what I thought about Iran (the most common question asked of foreigners), the next was about studying and working abroad and which country I thought was better (another very common question), but the last one was different.

He wanted to what I thought about marrying a foreign girl… was it okay?

I told him if he met a girl and fell in love that it didn’t matter she was from. He seemed to like that answer. I hope he gets the chance to study and fall in love in a far off land.

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