Calling a burger joint in uptown Tehran "Bobby Sands" after an IRA hunger striker, might seem a little tasteless. But in Iran they take martyrdom very seriously, so paying homage to a man who died on a hunger strike by plastering his face across a greasy takeaway isn't completely out of place.
The burger shack, founded in 1982 – the year after Sands's death – is almost as famous in Iran as the man it's named after which, you may be surprised to learn, is pretty famous. Even with my butchered Farsi, people knew exactly who I was on about when I mentioned Sands. "Ah Babbi Sandz! Good man," people would say.
Basically, if you say "Ireland" in Iran, you are met with blank stares. But, say "Babbi Sandz" to the over 50s and you'll get free taxi rides, free meals and even the odd tear. Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, Iran's Supreme Leader, recently venerated Sands on Twitter.
Tired of what they felt were oppressive internationally focused regimes, in 1979 Iranians revolted against their western backed Shah and declared themselves the Islamic Republic of Iran. At the same time, the troubles in Northern Ireland raged on with IRA prisoners protesting their treatment in the infamous H-Block prison by carrying out "dirty protests", refusing to wear their prison uniforms, and eventually going on hunger strike.
Both groups shared vaguely similar revolutionary ideas, so when IRA member Bobby Sands died in 1981 after 66 days on hunger strike, Iranians in their thousands held a moment's silence for a man they'd never met. At that moment, a 27-year-old from Belfast who'd never been outside of Ireland became another martyr of the Iranian revolution.
After Sands' death, Iran's young revolutionaries felt changing the address of the British Embassy from Winston Churchill Boulevard to "Babbisandz Street" – complete with phonetic spelling – was more in keeping with their revolutionary ideals.
Embassy staff, fearing all official correspondence would be sent to the "British Embassy, Babbisandz Street, Tehran" bricked up the old entrance and smashed through an existing wall to a side-street, creating the new Ferdozi Street address. I guess Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, no fan of Irish republicanism, really didn't want to send her letters to a street named after a dead IRA prisoner.
Sands, who came from the Belfast ghettos would definitely have looked out of place in the area of his eponymous burger joint. While the restaurant looks like the sort of place you'd stumble into after happy hour at an Irish themed pub, it's nestled in a salubrious, tree-lined street that has more of a soccer mom feel than a revolutionary one.
The shack's bright orange interior only adds to the irony. Orange is a colour associated with Unionism in Northern Ireland, something Sands – coming from the other side of the conflict – was fighting against.
Inside, the neon signs glare down with loads of different burger options all served with walnuts and a huge choice of condiments. Friendly Mohammed, owner of Bobby Sands Burgers chatted to me about opening his kiosk in 1982, the year after Sands' death. "Bobby Sands was a great man and I wanted to honour his memory," he said. "In Iran we think highly of the sacrifice Bobby Sands made for his people. Our goal is to honour him and show respect for his courage," he said while flipping burgers in the tiny orange room.
While Mohammed talked IRA martyrdom, I looked up at Sands, smiling down at me from every corner. Beside the burger menu, behind the grill, above the fridge, Sands seemed even more out of place than the Coca Cola logos – many American brands are subject to sanctions but some manage to make it through.
The "holy martyr" in Shia Islam is almost as old as the religion itself, with millions flocking every year to Karbala, Iraq, to remember Husayn the religion's first martyr who died in the 7th Century. Since the Islamic revolution there has been a resurgence in martyr veneration on an epic scale. Pictures of martyrs line most boulevards and city squares – a phenomena almost as widespread as advertising in the west. Parks are dedicated to them, and having a martyr is the family will benefit future generations.
During the Iran – Iraq war this intensified, with streets were renamed to remember those who died. And Sands, despite being thousands of miles away, was no treated no differently.
Well into his 60s, Mohammed was part of Iran's revolutionary generation, who linked people like Sands with the Islamic revolution's martyrs. As his staff flipped burgers on grills plastered with Sands's face, Mohammed took me aside and I asked him whether he thought it was right to remember a man who died on hunger strike through the medium of fast food. He completely ignored my question and kept talking about "the brave martyr" who was "a credit to the Irish people, an honourable man – a man a nation should remember".
Despite the weird walnut burgers and strange spiced soups, the food wasn't awful. In a country where martyrs images are as mundane as clothing ads, it's not surprising that Iranians reached out to others they felt fitted the martyr ideal. Maybe Bobby Sands' lonely veneration in a Tehran burger shack isn't as strange as it seems.
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