|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
18 - 24 April 2002
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Iranian Prime Minister Mohamed Khatami addressing the masses to celebrate the Islamic revolution on 11 February in Azadeh (Freedom) Square
Flight to TehranIran is a country of many faces, as Hani Mustafa and Khaled El-Fiqi discovered when they went to attend a film festival and came back with a bagful of images
This is a country where history melts, coagulates, breaks into little granules, then rolls away with the wind, scratching the rocks of eternity, honing it into art, mundane as well as sacred, stern as well as bewildering.
Like its language, Iran is close to us, yet also apart. The more you look at an Iranian text, the more you notice the similarities with Arabic, and even words in common. Yet the two languages grew from different roots.
We all remember Khomeini's revolution in 1979. We can recall the ousted Shah leaving the country and taking refuge in Cairo. We remember the hostage crisis and the Iraq-Iran war. We are aware of Iran's links with Lebanon's Hizbullah. We are mindful of the dubious distinction George W Bush's "axis of evil" has just bestowed upon the country.
But how many of us are aware of the boom of Iranian cinema?
Ever since Abbas Kiarostami's film Where is My Friend's House? was screened at Cannes in 1987, the accolades did not stop. Kiarostami won the Golden Frond prize for his Taste of Cherries in Cannes in 1997. Samira Makhmalbaf earned a special award for her Blackboards in Cannes in 2000. Jafar Panahi took the Golden Lion in Venice in 2000 for his film The Circle. And Mohsen Makhmalbaf walked away with the UNESCO-sponsored Frederico Fellini Award for his Kandahar.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS: We knew little about Iran when we went to the Iranian interests section attached to the Swiss Embassy in Cairo, to get our visas. The first signs were not auspicious. An irritable door-keeper questioned us sternly about the purpose of our visit. After a few terse moments, we realised that he was an Iranian national who spoke the Egyptian dialect with obvious difficulty. His knotted eyebrows were a sign of concentration, not irritation. Later on, Amm Mansur, the door-keeper, warmed up to us and chatted freely about Afghanistan and the ordeal of the Afghans.
There are no direct flights to Tehran from Cairo, at least not yet, so we chose Damascus as our transit point. A religious prayer in Farsi was recited on the internal speakers during the take-off. This was to happen on all the flights we were later to take in Iran. Two-and-a-half hours after we left Damascus, our plane was cruising above Tehran. The temperature outside was 2 degrees Celsius. Luckily we had packed warm clothes, including scarves and gloves.
At Mahrabad Airport, our hosts from the Fajr International Film Festival whisked us efficiently past the long immigration lines. Our vision of Iran as a severe country began to dissipate immediately. At the airport gates, families were waiting for their relatives and friends, and almost all were bearing flowers.
FROM MONARCHY TO REPUBLIC: Once settled in our hotel, the temptation of sightseeing was great. The first attraction was Azadeh (freedom) Square, where the revolution protests started, close to Khomeini's house and three palaces that once belonged to the Shah. Pomp jostles with austerity at close quarters. The three palaces, of varying shapes and architectural designs, are splendid with the opulence of the monarchy. In contrast, Khomeini's home, located in a narrow back street of a working class area, is sparsely furnished. On the floor, his slippers lie desolately, shying away from the intrusive eyes of thousands of visitors.
people paying their respects to Khomeini, leader of the revolution, at his tomb (above); worshippers flock to the tomb of Al-Ma'ssouma, Imam Ali Ben Moussa Al-Rida's sister (left)
It takes a stretching of the imagination to make a coherent whole from the jigsaw pieces. Iran's modern history is, to say the least, tumultuous. The latter part of the Shah's reign witnessed the rise of US influence in the country's affairs, with the revolution lurking in the wings, fuelled by the widespread discontent.
The Shah's family owned many palaces in Tehran, particularly in the Sadabad area. One is the Green Palace, built for Shah Reza Khan, father of Shah Mohamed Reza. The Green Palace is of a modest size, but it is one of the oldest palaces in Tehran. The People's Palace is where the Shah spent most of his summers. It is an 11-room affair furnished with classical French-style furniture, Bohemian chandeliers, and carpets as big as swimming pools.
In Khomeini's home, visitors are allowed a glimpse of the dwelling through the glass window of the reception room. The tiny room contains the couch where he received his visitors. A raised metal bridge connects the terrace of the dwelling with the religious complex, or hoseyniyah, across the street. The hoseyniyah is a traditional Shi'ite educational facility. Khomeini used to cross the bridge to deliver political and religious speeches.
The hosyeniyah building now contains a Khomeini museum, which has a rare collection of photos of the charismatic Iranian leader. There are pictures of Khomeini as a child and as a young man. In one famous picture, he is shown descending from the plane that brought him back home from exile. The museum has some of Khomeini's letters and speeches on display. Booklets containing writings by Khomeini and other Shi'ite scholars are offered to visitors free of charge.
What is remarkable is that the Islamic Republic has kept the royal palaces fairly intact, down to the smallest details which could be deemed offensive to strict moralists. There is, for example, a statue of angels in the Green Palace. The depiction of angels is definitely frowned upon by Muslim scholars, but these ones, scantily clad as they are, meet the stare of the Islamic Republic's guests with little prudishness. The same phenomenon was to be seen in the Modern Art Museum, which has on display an impressive collection of impressionist and abstract paintings.
Friday prayers at Tehran University
ARTISTIC LICENCE: Art is an integral part of Iranian culture, and it is valued today as a legacy of the past as well as a mark of the country's vitality. A leading film company, the Farabi, has organised an international film festival to celebrate the current success of the Iranian movie industry. The Fajr Film Festival was held last February at the Modern Art Museum. The guests were mostly producers, distributors, and journalists. It was a businesslike affair. With no invitations to major film stars and directors, the festival offered culture and good marketing rather than glamour and glitz.
Khomeini's tomb by night (above); the tomb of Imam Ali Ben Moussa Al-Rida (left)
Most of the Iranian films that make it beyond the country's borders sport a rough, realistic finish, with mostly amateur actors and simple, occasionally slow-to-develop, dramatic plots. Iran produces about 80 films a year.
THE GOOD, THE UGLY: George W Bush's invocation of Iran as part of the "axis of evil" did not sit well with Iranians. The Great Satan, a once common term to refer to the United States, had elapsed from Iranian vocabulary. It has now made a quick comeback in speeches made by conservative mullahs. The rhetoric, on both sides, is culturally symptomatic. Bush's rhetorical phrase invokes two aspects, the Nazi (axis), and the Hollywood (evil). The Iranians, masters of eternal imagery, were ready with the Satan riposte. Iranian history is full of rancour against US foreign policy. In the 1950s, the Mossadeq government was overthrown just after it challenged US interests by nationalising the oil industry. Iran's deposed Shah was particularly close to Washington.
There were three nationwide celebrations in Iran last February: the Revolution Day, the Adha, and the Narouz (Farsi new year). Azadeh Square is where Tehran residents congregate to celebrate these occasions. In one recent gathering, President Khatami described Bush's remarks as politically immature, a fairly restrained label considering the level of vitriol in recent exchanges.
A HOLY SITE: At a distance of 125km from Tehran lies the city of Qom, billed as the leading religious centre for Shi'ite scholarship. It was from here that the first sparks went out to ignite the 1979 Revolution. There was a strict security presence everywhere. Journalists must obtain permits to visit almost any significant site. A key attraction is the mausoleum of Fatimah, daughter of Imam Ali Ibn Musa Al-Rida. Women there all wore black chadors. Men were mostly turbaned. Religious schools, or hawzas, were everywhere. We tried to visit the Fayzi, a major school complex not unlike Cairo's Al- Azhar, but were turned away by the manager, who objected strongly to our camera, although we had obtained a permit for the visit.
CALM STREETS: Tehran is of a size comparable to Cairo, with almost 14 million inhabitants. Yet, its streets are remarkably quiet and its traffic fairly orderly. Tehran drivers, just like their Cairene counterparts, enjoy breaking traffic rules on occasion. But unlike the Cairenes, Tehran drivers observe the traffic lights more carefully at night. Wisely, they had figured out that the nights are more dangerous because the streets are empty and cars tend to speed.
Our driver, Salam Al-Isawi, a young Iraqi who spoke fluent Farsi, has lived in Iran for the past 10 years. He pointed out that more than 90 per cent of the cars on Iranian roads are locally manufactured. A UK company had first built the production lines to assemble the Paykan automobile under the Shah. After the revolution, the production became fully domestic. During the Shah's time, Iran Khodro, the company producing this car, even sent a shipment of buses to Egypt.
Locally made cars are cheap in Iran and can be sold on hire- purchase schemes. According to Al-Isawi, most Iranians prefer to buy Paykans, because of their low price and cheap maintenance.
Gardens of one of the ousted Shah's royal palaces (left); dining room in the People's Palace (below middle); Riza Kianian receiving best actor award at the Fajr film festival (above middle); a religious lecture at the holy city of Qom (above right); Ayatollah Khomeini's former residence in Tehran (below right)
SARTORIAL SLIPPAGE: The stereotypical image of men in beards and women in all-covering black chadors is exaggerated. The women do wear head covering, but they let them slide backwards to show part of their hair, occasionally dyed in blond or red. On Wali Asr street, Tehran's longest avenue, we spotted a woman walking alone at 11pm. Our guide, Al- Isawi, was proud. "You see, this girl is walking safely alone; no one is bothering or harassing her," he said.
The next day, we witnessed an incident in which a young man in a car tried to chat up a woman walking alone. She ignored him and he quickly lost heart.
Tehrani schoolchildren at their desks (above left); couples enjoy each other's company in the Derband mountains (below left); Khaled Al-Islambuli street in Tehran, displaying the name and picture of the man who assasinated Egyptian President Anwar El-Sadat (middle); a bazaar in Tehran (right)
In Tehran, it is rare to see men and women holding hands on the street. Young lovers have to travel to the mountain resort of Derband, north of Tehran, to indulge in the modest physicality of holding hands or the draping of arms around shoulders. We saw couples enjoying moments of ambulant intimacy in the mountain promenades, the women still attired in chadors, and no police in sight. Iranian police, in fact, are not in the habit of making themselves visible. Even in Tehran, it is not easy to spot policemen. They manage to work without being intrusive.
Afghan refugees in Sawa (top and middle); and a family returning to Afghanistan by bus from Turbat Jam (above)
We went to Khalid Al-Islambuli Street. Named after the man who assassinated former Egyptian President Anwar El- Sadat, the street has triggered diplomatic difficulties between Egypt and Iran. A fracas erupted when we tried to take a photo of a large picture of Al-Islambuli, which is displayed across the length of a building on that street. A policeman materialised immediately to prevent us.
This is the most famous picture in Iran. "Journalists and photographers are here around the clock," the policeman said with a smile. "This picture is causing problems and we want to remove it so that our diplomatic relations with Egypt may improve once again," he added. The building on which the picture is displayed houses the offices of Iran's present-day spiritual guide Ali Khameini.
Compared to Cairo, there is something else besides policemen visibly missing in Tehran: Cafés. In downtown Tehran, we found only two coffee shops offering hot drinks and water pipes, or narjilas. One of these was located in a basement and decorated in traditional Iranian style. It seemed to be always packed with young Iranians of both sexes. The second was a small, glass-fronted affair that did not attract much clientele. Iranians, we were pleasantly surprised to discover, used mostly Egyptian-made tobacco in their narjila.
We were often stopped on the streets by young people asking where we came from. Most Iranians can recognise spoken Arabic, but only a few can speak the language. "We are from Egypt," we said. This always got us a warm response from the curious interlocutors, who were quick to express optimism that political ties and tourism may soon be resumed. In one such encounter, the head of Akbari Ali Akbarian, a major tourist agency, invited us to visit Mashhad, a town in the northeast.
A CITY OF TWO COLOURS: The trip to Mashhad took 14 hours by train. Mashhad is the capital of Khorasan, a province we knew nothing about. One of the main protagonists of the epic that ended in the collapse of the Umayyads and the establishment of the Abbasid dynasty was called Abu Muslim Al-Khorasani. This much we could remember from our 10th grade courses. It was perhaps an irrelevant point of reference, but it gave us heart.
In Mashhad, we visited the mausoleum of Imam Ali Ibn Musa Al-Rida. He was the eighth of the 12 Shi'ite imams. The first was Imam Ali, cousin of Prophet Mohamed. The last was the hidden imam, Al-Mahdi, who is expected to return to earth at the end of time, along with Christ. Al-Isawi, who studied theology in Qom, communicated this piece of information to us.
We could not take pictures inside the Al-Rida mausoleum because of tight security since an explosion that took place in that shrine in the 1990s. We asked our guide, Ali Marwi, about the identity of the perpetrators of the bombing. "Al- Munafiqun," was the cryptic answer he gave, using an Arabic word that means hypocrites, or double agents. The term was used widely in the early years of Islam to refer to individuals who pretended to side with Prophet Mohamed but were in fact conspiring against him.
In the night, men and women marched to the mausoleum, chanting and pounding rhythmically on their chests, evoking the eternal pains of a humanity with a burden to bear, a faith to keep, and a deliverer to yearn for. They carried flags which were black, the colour of sorrow.
In the nearby market, the mood was of a very different colour. Khorasan is a main producer of saffron. The expensive bright-yellow condiment sells well here. At tenth of its price in Cairo, saffron is one of the dominant attractions of the Mashhad shops. We bought enough of the material to cook amber-glowing rice for the next decade.
TWO BUSES AND A CAMP: Being in Mashhad offered us a rare glimpse into the ordeal of Afghan refugees. It was early in the morning at the outskirts of Mashhad and two buses were ready to carry Afghan families back to their country. But many are still hesitant to leave. Turbat Jam, a refugee camp housing about 1,300 Afghan families, is a 75-minute car ride from Mashhad. The camp was created in 1994 to house refugees from Al-Hazarah tribe who were persecuted under the Taliban. The Iranian government, the United Nations and others, including Japan, help provide basic amenities in the half- mud, half-concrete facility.
We toured the camp and met some of its inhabitants. Mahjub Hashemi, 75, said that he fled to Iran about 20 years ago at the beginning of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He had lived in the camp since it was built. He said he was not eager to return to Kabul, his hometown, for he has nothing left there. He lives in the camp with his daughter and other relations.
Mohamed Hashemi, 68, was from Bamyan. He said he was in a refugee camp inside Afghanistan from 1978 to 1980, before he came to Iran. He lives in the camp with six members of his family. Hadi Al-Husseini, 28, said that he was studying theology in Mashhad and was optimistic about Afghanistan's future. Once the situation improves there, he would be ready to return, he said.
RUFFLED MEMORIES: Our return to Cairo took us through a circuitous route, due to unfavourable weather conditions at Damascus Airport. As we sat, disoriented, waiting for delayed flights in unfamiliar airports, images of Iran went racing through our minds.
Two riding boots, giant, bronze, truncated at the knees -- perhaps the bottom part of a statue of the Shah -- still stand, bereft of their owner, at the entrance of the People's Palace; Afghan children gazing at the camera in front of a mud hut in Turbat Jam, only a leap of faith and a bus ride away from home; mourning chants that could put a film drama to shame in Mashhad; Young couples stealing moments of physical intimacy in mountain walks just outside Tehran.
Iran can distract and unnerve you. But one thing is certain: it will take your breath away.
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