Iran Journal, Part 2: Tehran

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(Host) City life in Iran is a pastiche of old traditions and youthful energy, tranquility and pandemonium. With a population of 12 million, Tehran is an assault on the senses, from the quiet, leafy parks to the raucous chaos of the streets, to the bazaars with their pungent herbs and colorful carpets. The imprint of Iran’s Islamic government is everywhere, but underneath lies a much older culture.

In Part 2 of his Iran Journal, VPR’s Steve Zind continues his search for his Iranian roots in Iran’s capital.

(Sound of women clapping and singing.)

(Zind) Iran is a nation of young people. Seventy percent of Iranians are under 30. They gather is segregated groups: boys and girls standing at separate lines at pay phones and at movie theatres. They gather in the squares where some girls clap and sing as boys hover within flirting distance.

Women in Iran are required to wear the hejab, the Islamic form of dress. It can be a scarf and a manteau, which is a trench coat worn over pants, or the familiar chador – the black cloak that covers the head and drapes over the entire body. Only the hands and face are visible. The chador doesn’t have any buttons; a woman holds it closed with a hand on the inside and clenches it between her teeth. Law dictates that a woman’s hair and the shape of her body must be concealed.

In Tehran’s Laleh Park, sidewalks meander through rows of dark green cypress trees and past roiling fountains and flowerbeds full of pink and red roses. Women stroll holding hands. Sometimes men walk hand in hand. Young couples sit on shady benches out of sight of the police on the streets. In Iran women are forbidden to associate with men who aren’t related to them.

(Sound of call to prayer in Laleh Park.)

(Zind) The hypnotic call to prayer and muttered religious exhortations rattle from loudspeakers in the park. Old men sit on park benches, their heads bowed as if praying. But they are sleeping.

When my grandfather, Mohammad Ali Zand, was born here in 1845, Tehran was a small provincial outpost. Today it is one of the world’s most populous cities.

The lack of traffic lights must be an acknowledgement of the futility of trying to control the country’s drivers. Iran has the highest traffic fatality rate in the world. The streets are mechanized mosh pits of snarling horns, swerving cars, caterwauling motorbikes and close calls.

Motorbikes, often with three or four passengers, even cars, routinely use the sidewalk. I learn to look both ways before I step from my hotel.

The streets are packed with tiny stores. Clothing shops sell hats and shirts with the logos of American sports team. Stores carry makeup, jewelry and the stylish clothing that women wear when they’re in their homes.

There are kebab stands with skewered lamb cooking over charcoal, fruit vendors sell tempting red crescents of watermelon, bins of pistachios, roasted seeds and glistening dates spill from the shops.

For centuries the bazaars have been Iran’s centers of commerce. Narrow shafts of sunlight fall through holes in the high arched ceilings and create a perpetual dusk inside the bazaars. Shoppers wander through labyrinths of criss-crossing passageways.

You can find nearly anything here – from cheap plastic house wares to expensive Persian rugs.

(Carpet dealer) “Very old, very old. See the classic design for the Tabriz, for the Kashan or Ardakan?”

(Zind) The carpet dealers invite you into their stalls.

(Carpet dealer) “Salaam, Salaam. Merci, merci.” (Thump of carpets being unrolled.)

(Zind) They unroll carpet after carpet. Each one lands with a dull thud on the one before it.

(Carpet dealer) “Blue, blue, blue. Okay, I have! 240 x 150 – is it a good size? Blue?”

(Zind) Merchants in the bazaar sell dried flowers and herbs and ocher colored powders used for medicine. People still burn the bitter smelling seeds of a plant called aspand to ward off the evil eye. As a village doctor more than a century ago, my grandfather might have used these herbs in his practice.

In the afternoons, the shops close and the bazaar is quiet except for the songbirds in their cages. The merchants lie napping inside their stalls.

It seems the centuries have brushed lightly past the bazaars. They are part of an old Iran that lies underneath newer realities that we see from the outside: the stern mullahs and the harsh official rhetoric. None of these qualities are evident in the people I meet. I sense in their warmth and in the timeless rhythm of the bazaars an unchanging culture that is beyond politics. It is an Iran that my ancestors would recognize.

(Host) Wednesday in his “Iran Journal,” Steve Zind visits a small mountain village where his family lived 300 years ago.

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