More Tehran Exploration
Sep 25, 2008
|The 18 members of the group that are going with me through Iran and Central Asia have been filtering in to Tehran during the last 24 hours. One of them, Loren Dolman, arrived in Tehran a couple of days early like I did. I discovered we are both avid photographers. Thus, while the rest of the group used the morning to recover from their jetlag, being well rested we hired a taxi to shuttle us to a few sites around the city. First we drove north to the Shohada Museum that is dedicated to the “martyrs” of the Iran-Iraqi war, a gruesome 8 year war in the early 90’s that cost both sides several hundred thousand lives, many of them in their early and mid-teens.
Most of the museum collection simply photo portraits and a handful of personal items of the honored dead. However, there were a few sculptures and combat photos that communicated the horror of the whole sordid affair.
As we were leaving, a group of 20 female high school students arrived with their teacher. The teacher was very friendly to us. This served as a signal to the female students that is was okay to pose for photographs which they did, some more enthusiastically than others.
The old American Embassy compound where 54 American diplomatic staff were held hostage for 444 days beginning in 11/79 was right across the street. The place has been renamed the American Den of Espionage and houses a hard-line militia group. In 2005, I did a slow drive-by of the compound but didn’t get a very good look. There is a sporadically enforced regulation against taking photos of the exterior of the walls which display anti-American slogans and murals. Some days tourists photograph it without incident; on other days, police and undercover agents intervene and confiscate film. I’m not clear on what they confiscate now that 99% of all photos taken are captured electronically.
The front wall of the compound extends for a very long city block. The western end where we started is just wall looking like it looked when the place functioned as an embassy and as its new name suggests, a place where American officials, all too often, devised plots to try to control the course of Iranian politics.
Our taxi driver seemed a little spacey at first but it soon became apparent that he understood what we were trying to accomplish photographically. He told us to go ahead and do our walk and he would meet us at the end of the block where the good photo material would come to an end.
As you reach the mid-point of the wall you began to see murals and slogans reflecting anti-American sentiment. We were only steps away from these paintings and began snapping a few photos to test the waters. It wasn’t long before a slight man in a shabby suit approached us and told us we should not be taking photos. He did not appear to serve in any official capacity. Then again, there are many Iranians that who don’t have the “official capacity” look but have its authority.
We ceased shooting and looked over our shoulders to see what our minder was going to do next. He kept looking our way but eventually disappeared in the opposite direction.
We resumed shooting but I was a bit rattled, still uncertain about how seriously to take the warning we received. As a result, I made some poor choices in my camera settings and few of my pictures turned out to be suitable for making museum quality prints.
As we approached the main gate at the end of the block our driver came over and joined us leaving the taxi double parked across the street. All of sudden the gates opened and a car with two officials came driving out of the compound. Our driver had a brief but friendly conversation with them presumably to convince them that we were harmless. They were all smiles and returned my wave as they pulled into the street.
If some day you find yourself in Tehran and you decide you want to try your hand at photographing this site, I recommend that you be open but unobtrusive about what you are doing and only cease and desist when it appears that someone is coming to whack you.
Our final objective for the morning was the Azadi Monument on the west edge of town. On extended trips like this one, my senses tend to be dulled by all the monuments I see along the way. However, the Azadi, to my eye, is one of the more aesthetically pleasant monuments in the world. The monument celebrates the 2,500 year anniversary of the Persian Empire.
On the way there I realized that we would be passing close to the unfinished Malid Tower which appeared to be nearing completion when I was here three years ago. I asked the driver to pass by the Tower on the way to Azadi. We were on a busy expressway when it first came into full view but he worked his way over to a narrow shoulder where we could take photos while squeezed against the guard rail. A tangle of electrical wires crossed between us and the Tower.
The Tower sits majestically on a high spot in the Tehran Valley. The driver circled around the hill trying to find an entrance that would take us up the hill. After talking to a road construction crew he turned toward an unfinished road that was trafficked by trucks hauling construction equipment and materials to the top of the hill. He drove boldly up the road to a point where we had a great view of the tower and the adjacent Convention Center that is also under construction.
Construction workers gave us odd looks as we stepped out of the taxi and began shooting. Good as our vantage point was, we were shooting directly into the sun. The driver understood our problem and agreed to pass through a gate that led deeper into the construction zone and hopefully to the opposite side of the Tower.
As we proceeded it became apparent that we had stretched our luck too thin. A hard-hatted project manager came rushing out of a construction office cabin emphatically shouting at our driver to get hell off of his mountain. We made a hasty retreat and proceeded to Azadi. The one thing I am certain of is that there will not be, as the hotel employees told me yesterday, an Inaugural Opening of the Tower next week. The place is months away from completion, maybe years, given the pace at which other modern day Iranian public works projects have proceeded. (In early 2009, I learned that the tower’s viewing platform and restaurant did indeed open in October of 2008 contrary to my prediction. However, the adjacent convention center and luxury hotel are still under construction).
As we approached the Azadi, the driver again pulled to the shoulder of a busy road about 800 meters away from the monument roundabout. He had fortuitously stopped near a pedestrian overpass above the road and we walked up on the bridge and began to shoot.
We then drove to the monumental roundabout that surrounds the monument. The roundabout has eight unmarked lanes of traffic with rare breaks in the flow. I decided it would be fun to try to cross these eight lanes in order to reach the interior of the roundabout and have an unobstructed view of the monument. Sure enough, each lane gave way to me as I crossed although I had a close call at the seventh lane. The return crossing was fortunately less harrowing and we were soon heading back to the hotel.
Our group of 18 assembled for the first time for lunch and afterwards we drove three blocks to the National Museum. Being a Thursday afternoon during Ramadan, the museum was scheduled to close at 1500 rather than the normal 1700. However, our Iranian guide said he had arranged for us to stay until 1600. As 3 PM approached, the museum staff reneged on their promise and we summarily tossed out. The hour we had there at least allowed us to view the museum’s key pieces: Persepolis carvings, the double bull’s head, the Salt Man and other items that make you realize that you are indeed standing close to the cradle of civilization.
We took a 40 minute bus ride to the north side of the city where there are affluent suburbs and markets more upscale than the central bazaar. Affluent Iranians were busily shopping mostly for foodstuffs for use in preparation of the evening Ramadan meal.
The north end of town is between a one and two thousand feet higher than central Tehran and noticeably cooler. However, the rancid air quality and particulate dust still leave you feeling dusty and grimy within minutes after you begin walking through congested streets.
Our Iranian guide, Mahmood, is the same guide I had here in 2005 and is a thoughtful, knowledgeable and likeable fellow. In answer to my question of percent of Iranians observe the Ramadan fast (not eating between sunrise and sunset for 30 consecutive days), he said he guessed it was only about 10 percent. This is lower than I would have guessed but not surprising to me. People, however, are discreet about their daytime food consumption. Restaurants are not open and picnics are not allowed in parks until nightfall.
We are scheduled to have a picnic lunch in a park tomorrow before our flight to Shiraz. However, government authorities advised Mahmood that the “no daytime picnics during Ramadan” applied to infidels as well as believers. Thus, we will eat our lunch on the bus as we drive to the airport with the curtains drawn.
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