My Sabbatical at Science and Research Branch of Islamic Azad University (SRBIAU) in Tehran – by Wernher van de Venn
Part 4: Inside the big city
Unfortunately, I have to start this blog with the saddest news that can happen to a country in the world: On June 7th, 2017 (our chronology), two terrible terrorist attacks of the «Islamic State» (IS) were committed in Tehran nearly at the same time in the early morning hours. The terror attacks occurred in the month of Ramadan and were perpetrated on government buildings in the city centre (near Baharestan place) and the tomb of the late leader of the Iranian revolution Ayatollah Khomeini. Again, I would like to express my deepest sympathy to the country and the people of Iran because of these awful attacks. No country in the world has deserved that innocent people have to give their lives for the goals of that insane and mentally retarded terrorists.
Fortunately, Iranian people did not let those attacks get them down, as expected by the terrorists. Although this was a severe attack against government and one of their religious centres and there was a great mourning about these events, live went on as usual several days later. Of course, the places have been widely closed for police investigations and some inconveniences had to be accepted (for instance my friend Mehdi has his company near Baharestan place and the entire region there was inaccessible for nearly one week).
One of the most difficult questions for average European people is the question about the reason why Muslims can do this to each other. I won’t comment here on this but just an explanation for people who are not familiar with the Muslim religion: Iran is a predominantly Shiite country and the IS terrorists are Sunnites. Both the doctrines of Islam struggle with a centuries-old dispute of the succession of the Prophet Muhammad (to put it very roughly). We should not react with a lack of understanding, because we had the same problem in Europe not long ago: Catholics and Protestants have tortured to death, insulted and offended each other in the past centuries – only very slowly tolerance and acceptance finally grew in the 20th century.
Although it is not easy to change the subject after this very sad news, please let me come back to the topic of my blog part 4, «Inside the big city». Did I already mention that Tehran is big? Okay, «big» may not be the right expression for that. Compared to a city in Switzerland or Germany it is tremendously large. 15 Million people living in the city and estimated 20 Million in its larger metropolitan area, whereas the borders are melting. Tehran is not only the most populated city in Iran but also the biggest in Western Asia and has the second-largest metropolitan area in the Middle East (only beaten by Cairo).
When you arrive by airplane at the international Imam Khomeini Airport (IKA), it feels like you have been flying over a sea of houses for at least one hour. In the night, it is even better: millions of stars are not above you, but beneath you.
Such a large city naturally holds many attractions for foreign visitors. One of the first wonders of Tehran is how the traffic flows in the city. There is a constant high traffic volume at any time but when it comes to the rush hours it is even worse. For a route which takes under normal traffic conditions about 15 minutes to go, you have to calculate at least one hour or more if you won’t be late. And that, despite the drivers in Tehran are very creative, especially concerning circumventing traffic rules, as we know them in Europe. One of the simplest exercises for drivers in Tehran is to make a six-lane track from a three-lane track. You can easily imagine that the cars move very close in these situations and you better don’t lean out of the window or put your arm out, because motorcyclists use even the smallest gaps between the cars to overtake and get faster. Because of the very narrow space conditions, Tehran motorcyclists have to have almost acrobatic skills to manoeuvre their motorcycle by weight shifting and wild steering movements through the tightly standing cars. My friend (he is also a very good motorcyclist) calls this «motorcycle-dancing». The art is, of course, not to touch the cars; should it happen anyway, the car drivers do not have the ghost of a chance to do anything about it. It is impossible to get off and run after the motorcycles, because first you can hardly open the door of the car and second it is much too dangerous to get off, since at any time another motorcyclist can quickly show up and use the same gap for his drive. By the way, it is possible in Tehran to drive a motorbike alone, or with two, three or even four people at the same time. Of course, any combination of passengers and loads is also possible. For example, it is quite usual that a whole refrigerator with freezer unit is transported using the motorcycle.
All this results of course in frequently bizarre traffic situations in which every European car driver (perhaps excluding the Italians) would certainly break out into intense sweat after less than 10 minutes (and not only because of the high outside temperatures). Usually pedestrians are very much at risk everywhere they go. Crossing the street is a real horror. Although there are zebras on the roads, there would be no driver to brake for pedestrians at all. So, it is only possible to cross a road if you pluck up all your courage and use the slightest gaps in the flowing traffic to escape the cars and reach the other side of the road. Of course, you have to calculate your destination at the other side of the road, because you have to join the flow of the cars to some extend (it is like you cross a river, you cannot expect to go on the shortest line from one bank to the other). In my first time in Iran, I had to learn this properly. Usually my friend or mother-in-law took my hand and crossed the street with me. Well, from the outside you cannot see who is leading whom, but please imagine this picture, embarrassing… Meanwhile I have learned it and although it is dangerous, it is somehow a bit fun and adventure to curtly escape the cars. In any case, you always feel like a kind of hero if you reach the other side of the street alive. Nowadays there are some bridges for pedestrians to span the big city roads. This makes it especially easier for older people. But in general, even walking on the sidewalks is not without risk, Motorcyclists can show up everywhere. So, in Iran you better be prepared for everything.
Next big thing is trying out public transport. Tehran has lots of Taxis (just in case: every car is a taxi), Busses and up to now five different metro lines (two will follow in the coming years). Using taxis is very easy, either you go for an official city taxi (yellow or green cars) which is the safest way for foreigners (but also the most expensive), or you go for one of the numerous private taxi drivers waiting to pick you up everywhere in the city. You need not do anything special to get one, if you are just standing around at the street with a slightly helpless facial expression, immediately a car will approach and the driver will ask you where you want to go. It is usually not as expensive as the official taxis, but in the end mostly a matter of negotiation. So, if you are not a good negotiator (and most Europeans are not very good in negotiating compared to Iranians) you could end up losing money. And of course, there is another possibility: «Snapp». Snapp is the Iranian version of the Uber App. As Uber is an American company and the American sanctions against Iran are still in force you can’t use any American software or application here. So, some Iranian guys decided to do their own application and it works at least as good as Uber: if you are registered just a few touches and slides on your smartphone are sufficient to have a car form every place in the city to every other place in less than 10 Minutes.
Well and bus and metro ride: Tehran has an easy to access bus and metro system. If you want to go by bus or metro it is a good advice to get a bus and metro RFID card beforehand at one of the numerous counters in the city and load it with a certain amount of money. With that you are able to use all busses and metro lines in the entire city just by accessing the gates with your card. The fare will be automatically charged to the card. Busses usually follow the main streets and go every 5 Minutes (don’t take care of the timetables if there are some) on the main city lines. So, if you want to go anywhere it is advisable to plan your route and changing points beforehand. As the line net is not as dense as maybe in Switzerland, you have to be prepared for some walking. Don’t be confused: Busses are looking old and not very clean from the outside, inside they are usually very clean, but sometimes a little bit worn out. And, in some cases you can see German stickers such as: «Bitte nicht an die Türen lehnen» oder «Bitte während der Fahrt festhalten», so you know where the busses are from.
The metro is likewise very easy to access. There are five metro lines and a lot of metro stations throughout the entire city. With one of the available metro apps it is very easy to find your way through the city and the changing stations.
However, just a slight warning: Although busses and metros are very easy to access they are a little bit special to use for Europeans. It is especially fun in the rush hours. If you think there is absolutely no room for just a fly to enter the bus or metro it can happen, that about 5 people enter the compartment at the next station and make physical contact just a little bit more intense. That’s bad and if you suffer from claustrophobia it is not advisable to use the bus or metro lines during rush hours. Good thing is, that you cannot fall whatever strange kind of braking or bumping the bus or metro does.
And of course the most strange thing to Europeans: there are separate accesses for women and men. Although there are (usually) signs on the stations (men’s entry and women’s entry) it is not really sure that the busses or metros stop at the right place. So occasionally it happens to a male foreigner (like me) to enter the women’s compartment by mistake. This is not a problem (because you don’t get arrested or something for this) but it is really embarrassing to hear that more or less loud «eeeeeeeeeeeeehhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh» from the women which is always an alarm signal for me to quickly change the compartment (in busses usually men are sitting in the back and women in the front). The passage between the women’s and men’s compartment is usually blocked in the inside of the bus or metro, so you have to leave and enter the next compartment quick enough, which is a major problem during rush hour. By the way: if a woman enters the men’s compartment that is not a problem! So usually during rush hour the men’s compartments are more crowded than the women’s compartments.
And above all, of course, the people here: such openness, friendliness and cordiality are hardly seen in any other country in the world. I get always friendly(!) addressed and also people who do not know me are very worried about my welfare, want to take me to the mountains, invite me to their home, etc… This is phenomenal. Many people in Tehran speak very good English, some even German and those who don’t, even manage to tell you everything using self-explanatory gestures. And Tehran is one of the safest cities in the world, you can go out at any time and any place in the night without any fear. The metro of Tehran is said to be one of the cleanest metros in the world and that’s true, even a spoiled Swiss resident like me has nothing to complain about.
The Tehran Bazaar… of course, if Europeans think of the «Orient» almost the first thing which comes to their sense is: «They have Bazaars». To us it’s a kind of magic what happens there. Carpets (flying carpets?) and Aladdin’s magic lamp, gold and precious fabrics, all kinds of goods and all kinds of sweets, spices and foods and of course: You can’t buy anything there without negotiating about the price for at least one hour on average.
Yes, you can find all that on the Tehran Bazaar. And again, Tehran Bazaar is the largest of its kind in the world with shops, banks, mosques and guest houses. The Bazaar area is divided into different sections mainly applying to the kind of goods you can buy there. I haven’t been everywhere, but it is said that the different Bazaar alleys cover a total distance of about 10 km. The Bazaar area is accessible by a lot of different entrances, some of which are closed and guarded in the evening. The main trading hours are between 5 pm and 7 pm. If you go there during the main trading hours you will experience the real magic of the Orient. Lots of small shops selling everything you can imagine, lots of people buying and negotiating. You can look everything without being forced to buy (of course sometimes you are asked «Where are you from?» and sooner than you can imagine you will be involved in a very kind and respectful conversation).
As the inner region is not accessible for lorries or cars you have legions of simple workers pulling small wheeled vehicles loaded (mostly overloaded) with all kinds of goods. They are fighting the crowd to get to their destinations and usually the bow wave of people they push aside to be able to move forward pushes you out of their way. It is amazing. Even outside of the inner Bazaar area there are shops, booths and simple street sales with all kind of goods. You really can get everything. A special area of the Bazaar is dedicated to gold, precious metal and jewellery. If you go there, you feel like you are in Aladdin’s treasure cave.
Of course, you can find in Tehran also right the opposite to the traditional Bazaar. It is just as interesting as the Bazaar to visit the shopping malls. And there are a lot of them in Tehran. The largest of them are, as in Europe, pure consumer temples, the only difference here is, that everything is at least one size larger, even more glittering and fancy (that is true even for the people who go there). There will be another superlative in Tehran in a few months: they are at present building the world’s largest shopping mall in the west part of the city. It is tremendously large and it is about to get ready soon. At a speed of 50 km/h it takes 5 Minutes to pass the entire area by car.
I could continue the list of attractions in Tehran almost endlessly. There is also Tabiat Bridge (an architectural masterpiece), the Milat Tower, many parks and, and, and … The best way to explore is to come and see Tehran when you are just around. Tehran is always worth a visit.
Just a last word for this part of the blog from my side, up to now I didn’t mention something about the Iranian cuisine. This is of course a serious offense and I would like to make up for it at this point. The Iranian cuisine is one of the best in the world. I have never been to any other country in the world from which I could claim that all the existing dishes taste very good to me (native Iranians will probably ask: «Kaleh Pacheh also?», of course, Kaleh Pacheh!). When I’m in Iran I always very quickly gain about 3 to 5 kilos weight. On one hand, of course because of the unbelievable hospitality of the Iranians but on the other hand also because every meal tastes so great. Iranian rice for instance is very special. It is always basmati rice and the Iranian method of cooking differs very much from other nations. After the special cooking method, the Iranian rice is so light and loose that you can eat each rice grain individually, nothing sticks or is clumpy. It would never happen to an Iranian to rape the beautiful rice to a Risotto (please forgive me the expression, I like Risotto also). Mostly it will even be enriched by saffron and in the bottom part of the pot the rice is intentionally cooked until it is crunchy, that is called «Tahdig» (from farsi ‘tah’, that means bottom, and ‘dig’, that means pot) and served as a special delicacy.
For me, I know the Persian dishes by now very well, but for someone who is the first time in Iran the choice of the lunch or dinner could be a major problem. For this reason, I give some suggestions of good meals from which I think everyone should taste if he or she comes to Iran:
All kinds of Kabab (not Kebab, that’s Turkish, here it’s Kabab; that is grilled meat: beef, lamb or chicken) usually served with bread or rice:
- Kabab Koobideh (Kabab – usually beef – with bread)
- Djudje Kabab (Chicken Kabab)
- Kabab Barg (Lamb Kabab)
- Chelo Kabab (Rice with Kabab, sometimes different kinds of Kabab)
- Schischlik (grilled lamb from spit with saffron rice, my personal Kabab favourite)
Traditional (non-Kabab) dishes:
- Abgoosht (literally translated: «meat water», a stew with lamb, chickpeas, white beans, onion, potatoes, tomatoes, turmeric, and dried lime. It is served altogether usually in a very hot stone pot. First you eat the soup which covers the stew together with bread, after that you have to grind the meat and the other ingredients with a pestle by hand and eat it together with bread. If you eat it for the first time please let the locals show you how to do it. This is my long-time favourite).
- Zereshk Polo ba Morgh (Iranian Saffron rice with barberries and chicken, very good!)
- Ghormeh Sabzi (a traditional Iranian dish everyone loves in Iran, green herb stew with lamb, it’s said that men always get it when they visit their mother in law, also very good!)
- Baghali Polo (Iranian Rice with Dill and Fava Beans)
- Fesenjan (chicken stew made with chicken breasts or thighs, slowly cooked with ground toasted walnuts and pomegranate molasses, needs getting used to but then very good)
- Ash e Reshteh (Noodle and Bean Soup)
For drinking you should in any case taste Doogh. Doogh is a refreshing drink that is made of yogurt and water. Sometimes it is enriched with mint and/or water with gas.
Just one more part to come!