Tehran, the pounding heart of the Islamic Republic of Iran, is not a top travelling destination due to many circumstances. Some of those are totally political but there are some that have to do with stereotypes. Whenever I mention being in Iran I get agitated questions: You went where, Iraq? Is it safe? Is it clean? Is it civilized?
And I can’t explain enough how rich and different my experience of the country was. While a cab was taking me away from the airport, I was staring through the window: gleaming domes, greenish back light of mosques, neat shop signs in ‘dancing’ Arabic script. As every other megapolis the city was still bursting with life when the sun went down– busy highways, crowded streets with people going out, running their errands. So apparently this is how it goes in the center of Axis of evil.
Celebrating being Shah-free
Arriving into a country at times of major celebrations is always an exciting coincidence. I can’t tell if I had a stroke of good luck to visit Iran when it marked an important period in its history – 30 year anniversary of Islamic revolution. The revolution occurred in February 1979 – the Iranian people tired of westernisation and foreign influences encouraged by Shah chose Imam Khomeini as their leader and spiritual guide and toppled down the Pahlavi monarchy.
You could feel the solemn atmosphere of the holiday in the air. The national hero and country savior Imam Khomeini frowned down at you from almost every corner. His portraits frequently accompanied by straightforward messages such as ‘the tyrant was overthrown’ and ‘Israel must be wiped out from the earth’, these were the main street decoration. It´s impossible to miss the significance of Imam Khomeini in Iran- you will land in Imam Khomeini International Airport stroll down the streets and avenues that bear his name, more over you will carry his image with you in your wallet as his picture is printed on Iranian money (rials).
There is no celebration without entertainment, right? To get a feel of the atmosphere I decided to go to the cinema. Fajr International Film Festival usually held at that time (each February) invited people to see movies about Revolutionary heroes and Iran-Iraqi war martyrs. The movie that I picked appeared to be sheer propaganda but don’t get me wrong, Fajr is a really respectable festival, Oscar-winning Farhadi’s ‘Separation’ was first to be screened at Fajr.
The 11th of February is the key occasion – the Islamic Revolution Victory Day: for 30 years people would gather in the main Azadi square, march with banners and chant somewhat terrifying slogans – crying out threats to Israel and the US.
When I told my Iranian friends I would go take part in it, their reaction was simple – ‘well, it might be interesting for a foreigner, but we’d rather sleep two extra hours’. Moving slowly in the midst of the crowd early in the morning next day I understood how it all made sense. The march turned out to be a quite tiresome experience.
The February of 2009 was also the time of Muslim holy month, Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar. The tenth day of Muharram, called Ashura, is the saddest period of mourning over the death of Imam Hossein, his family and companions.
Black cloth covered a lot of houses as the whole city wore an austere mask of grief. It seemed like the battle in Karbala that took place in 680A.D happened only yesterday. The people exchanged messages offering their condolences to one another, the local newspapers and magazines carried articles on this event, the television broadcasted TV series based on Imam Hossein’s life and the galleries displayed the samples of new graphic novels for kids about Imam Hossein’s martyrdom.
The entire nation would be completely devastated by sorrow on the 40th day of Imam Hossein’s death, named Arba’, which is a public holiday (more accurately to say day of rest). Don’t even attempt to switch on the TV that day – pretty much on every channel you would see the live stream from Karbala where thousands of pilgrims, men as well as women, are shedding their tears, lamenting.
An interesting thing to notice is that if we scan through the Iranian calendar we will come across many dates honouring the death of hazrats (saints) and shahids (martyrs) which perfectly fits into a phrase my friend once said to me: “We don’t celebrate, we bemoan”. But Iranians in their majority are in no way gloomy, stern and intimidating religious fanatics. I tend to think about this part of Iranian culture as a dark shroud covering up something beautiful and colourful. This shroud is the first thing a traveller might face but all you need to do is lift it up and explore.