Travel

Mullahs, Skateparks, and Designer Knock-Offs: Inside Modern Iran

It's a million things at once. A country where vastly different understandings of the world live side by side.

by Roya Azadi
29 November 2016, 5:55pm

Shah Mosque in Naqsh-e-jahan Square, Esfahan

Both of my parents are originally from Iran, but we never lived there. We'd sometimes travel back to visit family when I was little, but those trips became less and less frequent as we all got older. In time, being Iranian came to feel like part of my history, rather than my identity. Earlier this year, I realised it'd been 15 years since I'd been there.

So you could say this trip was an attempt to "get back to my roots," as lame as that sounds. I can't think of a better way to put it. I wanted to understand Iran—to find out whether the filtered view we get from the outside is realistic. And it is, but in so many ways, it is not. Iran is a conflicted place, it's a million things at once. A country where vastly different understandings of the world live side-by-side.

Tehran

Take how women are meant to dress. Of course, all around the world, women's bodies are a political site. But during the past 100 years in Iran, hair coverings have alternately been banned and enforced, depending on who was in power at the time. In Tehran, the country's capital, you'll see a young woman dressed in fully western clothes—save for her roosari—standing on a train platform beside another woman in a full-length chador.

I think part of the reason why Tehran, in particular, is so full of contradictions, is because everyone is packed in together so tightly. The city's metro population is 16 million people, 12,500 people per square kilometre. That's three times the density of London. When I arrived in Tehran, one of the first things I was told was "never get into a car between 4 PM and 9 PM" because the traffic is so terrible. It's estimated 25 people die every day because of the pollution.

Somewhere on the road through the Alborz Mountains

Many of the people who've streamed into Tehran over the past 30 years have come from the countryside, attempting to escape economic hardship. The government is attempting to relocate some 5 million people of out the city, offering up generous financial incentives and other solutions. On the radial highways leading out of Tehran, you'll pass small just-add-water towns stuck into the hillsides. They are an odd, almost ghostly sight.

A restaurant in the Alborz Mountains on the road between Tehran and Sari. Whatever it lacked in customer service, food quality, and cutlery, it made up for by being entirely made of marble.

Vakil Bazaar in Shiraz

Shiraz is one of Iran's most-ancient cities. Bazaar-e Vakil is its oldest bazaar, dating back to the 11th century—although the current iteration was built in the 1760s. Being born and raised in New Zealand, where my dad owned track pants older than most of the country's architecture, I was deeply moved by the thought of my ancestors walking those same halls for centuries. The second most impressive thing was the spice display.

An actual real, not fake Zara in Shiraz

After decades of consumerism being touted as a particularly Western evil, with no place on pious Iranian soil, it seems Iran has learned the lesson parents of young women the world around could have told them—neither individual nor government, neither international sanctions nor declining GDP can get between a young women and her fashion.

Somewhere between Shiraz and Esfehan

It was never my intention to travel by road across Iran, but rather a consequence of my own disorganisation. Forgetting how much time they wasted, the buses were surprisingly luxurious. They even handed out snack packs that I would rate at a three pizza slices out of five for quality, and five pizza slices out of five for quantity.

Esfahan

Esfahan was once a Silk Road city so cosmopolitan people would say, "Esfehan is half the world." In a square so old it was under construction while the Roman Empire was still a thing, I came across a gang of middle schoolers pulling some impressive long-haul wheelies. They made fun of my Farsi accent, and then invited me to hang out with them in the square after school. Ali (on the left) wants to be an astronaut, Hussein (on the right) wants to be a pro dirt bike rider.

Esfahan, Bekhradi Historical House

This 17th-century private residence was built during the Safavid-era and recently turned sexy boutique hotel. It was where I lived out my own orientalist fantasy, until I realised that, back in the day, I probably would've been the one doing the grape-feeding.

Esfahan, Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque in Naqsh-e-jahan Square

In the 18th century, the capital of the empire was moved from Esfahan to Tehran, letting the famed "glittering city" languish into a provincial backwater. This had the unintended effect of protecting many of the Esfahan's ancient monuments, which today are inspiring a new wave of Iranian architects and artists to restore both buildings and the city's international reputation. I did my best to find out how it would be possible that a culture so obsessed with symmetry could allow a mosque dome to be off-centre. If anyone knows, please email me.

Ab-o Atash Skatepark, Tehran

Rollerblading is alive and well at Ab-o Atash, one of the only skateparks in Tehran. It's also home to a quickly growing skate and BMX scene. When I was there, businessmen on their way home from work hung over the fence, applauding the skaters who managed to land a trick.

Tehran, Tajrish Bazaar

These pop-up shrines are everywhere in Tehran during the holy month of Muharram—always glowing in the holy colour of green. They're the annual commemoration of those who died during the 1980's Iran-Iraq war: a territory conflict that cost more than 1 million lives on both sides, more or less bankrupted both countries, and continues to have a profound effect on the socio-economic development of Iran 30 years on.

Tehran, Grand Bazaar

A portrait of a country with no copyright laws: A cut-and-paste George Clooney sells a little-known brand of Iranian electric shavers from a billboard. A row of alcoved stores in the bazaar sell stacks of H&M, Louis Vuitton, and Adidas branded plastic shopping bags. An entire tunnel of stalls sell only rolls of clothing tags: Gucci, Versace, and "Made in China" as far as the eye can see. I tried to buy a few Chanel tags, but they only sell by the kilo.

Tehran, Gol-e Rezaieh Cafe

For 70 years, Gol-e Rezaieh has been the Tehran equivalent of Paris' Le Select or Cafe de Flore—a favourite of intellectuals, artists, and writers, including Sadegh Hedayat (oft referred to as Iran's Kafka, his magnum opus The Blind Owl was banned because it had the habit of making its readers suicidal). Upon closer inspection of the framed pictures on the walls, an inexplicable number of them seem to be of the UK band Queen. Mariah Carey's greatest hits were on high rotation through the speakers.

Tehran, Darband

We Iranians are a people in love with the ornate. Not even minced meat can escape our decorative fury.

Filband, Mazandaran Province

Driving through mountain scenes that looked like they'd been stolen from Switzerland, it was nearly three hours to Filband, the famed "village above the clouds." Like beautiful villages the world over, Filband is a place where vacation home owners' dreams of architecture come true, and architects' nightmares of vacation homes are realised.

Filband, Mazandaran Province

Iranians love to picnic. In a country that's been plagued by insane heat, civil unrest, and various other forms of catastrophe for literally thousands of years, getting a little goddamn peace and quiet away from it all is a long-standing national priority. There is no distance too far, no mountain too high, no amount of kebab and coal to drag from the car that's too much.

Tehran in the mid 70s

I came across this photo when I was in Iran. That's my 18- or 19-year-old mom on the right, her only sister and best bud on the left. Both of them were renowned for their beauty and their brains. As it turns out, though, Mom can also add "weirdo legend" to her résumé—I found out that when she was seven she had a pet rooster she named "Colonel Jesus."

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Shiraz

No longer a building, not yet apartment blocks in Shiraz

Shiraz, Mosque-e Vakil

Esfahan, Chehel Sotoun

Tehran

Tehran

Esfehan

Shiraz, Vakil Bazaar

The author with her new best friend at Vakil Bazaar