Tag: Iran

Von den Zagros-Bergen in die Alpen – Teil 2: Vorsichtige Roboter

Fatemeh und Maryam forschen in ihrer Heimat Iran auf dem Gebiet der Robotik. Für ein Kooperationsprojekt ihrer Hochschule mit der ZHAW School of Engineering haben sie drei Monate in Winterthur verbracht. Im zweiten Teil unseres Interviews stellen sie ihre Arbeit vor.

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Von den Zagros-Bergen in die Alpen – Teil 1: Wo geht’s hier nach Heidi-Land?

Fatemeh und Maryam forschen in ihrer Heimat Iran auf dem Gebiet der Robotik. Für ein Kooperationsprojekt ihrer Hochschule mit der ZHAW School of Engineering haben sie drei Monate in Winterthur verbracht. Wir haben sie zu ihren Erlebnissen und Erfahrungen interviewt.

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Iran, isn’t that the country at the axis of evil? – Part 4

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.

Tehran at Night, a «Milky Way» consisting of at least 20 million stars (the very bright «star» at the right corner is the illumination of the famous Azadi football stadium, the fifth largest stadium in the world).

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.

Bizarre traffic situation in Tehran. Normally there is a constant traffic volume in the city centre around the Bazaar area. Although in this zone the traffic is limited to commercial vehicles and in some days only vehicles with even or odd numbers on the number plate, traffic is enormous. Experienced Tehran drivers usually have two license plates… On the far-left side you see a motorcycle driver using some free space to take the road in the opposite direction.

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.

The Snapp application

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.

Women only compartments in Tehran’s metro. (Source: Real Iran

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.

This is one of the entrances to Tehran Bazaar at the main trading hours. You can buy everything there. But be warned: If you are not accompanied by a local you can easily get lost in that 10km of different alleys.

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).

Can you find Aladdin’s magic lamp in this shop? You never know…

Maybe I am destroying some illusions now, but Iranian women are likely to wear the same underneath as in Europe (please take a look at the «goods» displayed)

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.

As I said, you can get everything at Tehran Bazaar, the business-minded shop owners don’t leave out any opportunity to make their shops attractive to the crowd…

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.

The Kourosh Complex in Tehran: More than 500 business units on 17 floors. Kourosh Complex is the best choice for those who want to experience best brands and the widest variety of products and services.

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.

Chelo Kabab (Kabab with rice) including various kinds of Kabab

Just one more part to come!

Iran, isn’t that the country at the axis of evil? – Part 3

My Sabbatical at Science and Research Branch of Islamic Azad University (SRBIAU) in Tehran – by Wernher van de Venn

Part 3: The Science and Research Branch of Islamic Azad University

The SRBIAU is located on a mountain in Tehran (about 2000m high) from here you have a tremendous view over the entire city and the weather up here is usually very clean (and mostly windy). You can see the haze of the city and the sea of houses spreading nearly infinite from the mountains base.

Great view from SRBIAU / Faculty of Engineering down to the city of Tehran. On the front in the middle you see the big mosque with the new cable car passing nearby (pole in front of mosque). Right in front of the mosque there is a wonderful viewpoint with some small gardens and waters and the big round shaped Central Library building on the left hand side of the mosque.

Just imagine: a whole mountain for the University, there is lots of space and new buildings arise everywhere. There is even enough place to build a big mosque halfway up the mountain. The downside of locating a university at a mountain is of course that you have to go up there every day. So, there are about 50 Busses transporting lecturers and students in a constant stream up and downwards at a snail’s pace of about 10 to 15 km/h both ways. They can’t even go down faster because of safety reasons. As of course in Iran no one would pay any attention to a road sign with a speed limitation, there are intentionally build-in huge bumps in the road which make it absolutely impossible to go faster without risking to damage your car or bus severely. It takes about 20 Minutes from the main entrance to the Ebn-e-Sina building. I was told that despite of all safety measures sometimes accidents happen. Once a bus driver got a heart attack during going down the hill. The bus was only stopped some meters before the abyss due to a dirt wall left over from construction works. Especially in Winter the «SRBIAU mountain» is usually covered with snow and the passage gets even more dangerous. There are days when you can’t go up or down by car (yeah, let’s have some days off…). At the moment, a new cable car is being installed, so it will be much easier and safer in the future. It is said to be finished during my Sabbatical stay. An Austrian company is building it and hopefully two Austrian weeks equal to two Swiss weeks… Maybe they could build a ski-slope additionally, that would be another good reason to study at SRBIAU (I’m going to suggest this to the SRBIAU president when he’s the first to test the cable car).

Building the cable car. It looks more like a battlefield than a construction site as we know it in Europe. In Iran things procced slowly but constantly and the cable car will be a big progress in terms of safety, speed and capacity. I guess the commissioning of the cable car will be “as usual”: first the main engineer and his family have to take a test-ride and if they survive than the president of the university will have a trial ☺ (It is said that in former times this procedure was done in testing railway bridges in Iran. The engineers and their families had to stand under the bridge when the very first train crossed. Maybe a good idea for the bachelor projects of ZHAW students???).

Indeed, some 10 kilometres to the east from SRBIAU hill and still in Tehran, there is a big skiing resort called Tochal with chair lifts and descents from about 3800 to 1900 metres. I’ve heard that in Winter even guests from Switzerland enjoy the relaxed atmosphere which does not very much differ from some well-known ski resorts in Europe (except of the cost and the «Flying Hirsch» at the après ski bar of course).

Ok, back to our visit to SRBAIU: I really don’t know if the risk of suffering from a heart attack in Iran significantly differs between men and women but at present I feel more safe to go up with the only female bus driver here… Although she does not look like she is very gingerly treating the bus (especially when she wears that pilot style sunglasses), her driving style is much more smooth and balanced than that of her male colleagues.

The only female bus driver at SRBIAU. She looks extremely cool when she wears her pilot style sunglasses (red arrow) and her driving style does inspire much more confidence to me than that of her male colleagues.

So, let’s have a trip up the hill to the Ebn-e-Sina building and my office… After managing to enter the bus with my preferred driver and taking place, we first have to pass the entrance control. Although there are many very important looking men in uniform, with intentionally or unintentionally three-day growth, everything is highly automated. Every car which is allowed to pass has a special light-blue SRBIAU-mark at the windscreen and a camera based vision system opens the gate to the «heaven of knowledge».

Entrance control highly automated and secured by lots of security personnel. Also, the first road bump to pass.

The «race» up the hill begins. Of course, the bus is severely at a disadvantage compared to the cars but when it comes to road bottlenecks due to the continuing building activities on the way to the top, the car drivers are well advised to either take over very quickly (and taking care not to run into the frequently arising bumps and other «little» obstacles) or to stay behind the bus in a secure distance and wait for another chance. In any case it is not good to compete with the bus the hard way because even my preferred female «bus pilot» would not cut back at all. Second race challenge is the first 180 degree turn of the serpentine road. In the first sunlight of the morning the artificial shaped mountain terrain looks more than being on a recreation trip instead of being on a campus of a university.

The first 180 degree turn in our race up the hill. Please notice the under-motorised student car trying quickly to take over on the far-left side of the road to not risk any interference with bus.

The next station is the central library building. Here we stop to drop or pick up students and lecturers going to or coming from the central library. This is also the first station of the new cable car.

The central library, one of the most representative buildings of the SRBIAU. It has a floor space of 42,466 square meters, a land space of 8,592 square meters and altogether 8 floors

The journey goes on and we pass the viewpoint and the cable car station near the central library. I always wonder if the poles are high enough to let the busses pass when the cable car is in operation. We will see…

The view point with its central dome and surrounding small gardens and waters. A nice place to rest and have a look on the city of Tehran. The cable car is crossing the street at that point and runs via the mosque on the other side further up the hill.

We are already half-way to the Ebn-e-Sina building. Next station is the Fath sports complex. You can’t see it from the street in its entire size. It provides over a total floor space of 3,505 square meters including a 1,700 square metres hall with 1000 seats for handball, volleyball, football, basketball as well as adequate spaces with courts for squash, weightlifting, archery, wrestling and combat sports. A separate indoor swimming pool with a floor space of 2,555 square meters including sauna, pool and jacuzzi is located in an additional building. The outdoor facilities surround the buildings and cover a total space of 40,000 square meters including courts and grounds for soccer, volleyball and handball all equipped with seating space for fans, changing rooms, showers, etc.

The Fath sport complex. From the street, you only see one building of the wide spread and multifaceted sports arena. I was told that due to the height of the complex it is possible to have a special altitude training for professional athletes.

Just again a 180 degree turn and we are on our way to Ebn-e-Sina. As you can see in the pictures, the Azad University is keen to keep the campus in a good shape. It is not easy to maintain the wide area with lots of roads, buildings and green spaces within. Especially in late spring and summer when the sun shines merciless, the sky is cloudless and no rain will fall for weeks, all the green spaces must be watered constantly. And the water must be transported from down the hill to the top. There is a of course an irrigation system for the main spaces, but spaces like we see in the following picture must be watered by hand and with water trucks. So, during summer in the morning you can see usually lots of workers with green skirts spreading the precious water over the green spaces and plants. There is always a smell of the rising damp in the air like we know it from after a summer rain.

Turn off to Ebn-e-Sina building. The morning sun stands low but already heating up the air. On the top of the hill (top left of the road sign) you see the Farhikhtegan Hotel, a big hotel complex for students and guests. It is not the lens of my camera, but the windows of the bus are not clean, so please apologize for the water stains.

When we reach Ebn-e-Sina the bus begins to empty quickly. No one wants to stay longer than necessary in the curtain covered but hot and stifling interior. Usually a constant wind is blowing at 2000 meters and brings some fresh air, but even then, it is very warm. So everyone, including me, moves quickly into the airconditioned buildings.

The Ebn-e-Sina Entrance Hall. I am usually one of the first of the staff in the building. Only the entrance control and my friend, the floor manager, who serves at least every two hours fresh tea to me, are present.

My office at SRBIAU. Although there is a huge shortage of space, the head of my department managed to provide me with an ample office. The crossbeam in front of the window belongs to a structure which runs through the whole building and makes it earthquake-resistant.

Not only the security control at the entrance is fully automated, also the canteen is. You can order your lunch for as many days as you want (or as much money you have) via web interface (unfortunately only available in farsi, so that I always needed a translator). You then go to the canteen and just hold you RFID card to the reader and in a snatch, you get a diversified and rich meal, of course mostly with rice. The prices are very moderate. For a full lunch with rice, meat, chicken or fish, salad or vegetables, some bread and yoghurt you pay about 5 Swiss Francs and it is really good. Just take care about Ramadan (for those who don’t know Ramadan: it is the Islamic month of fasting). If no meal is available and even nothing to drink and the canteen is closed it is very likely that you are in Ramadan. You are not allowed to eat, drink and smoke then (and some other things I don’t mention here) from sunrise to sunset, the particular times are indicated by the «Asan», best-known as the singing of the Muezzin on the minaret. To make it a little bit easier to meet the right time you can download apps for Ramadan which play the Asan to indicate when you are allowed to eat and when not. One has to be especially careful at public places or buildings not to eat, drink or smoke during daytime. After sunset (more precise after Asan in the evening), it is very usual that you meet with friends and family for the joint dinner the so called «Iftar».

You may say that’s easy, you can eat and drink during the night. But Ramadan in summer is very arduous, especially when you can’t drink for about 16 hours. All the people you see in the streets or at university look exhausted and lethargic during that time. And it is no wonder that as soon as Ramadan begins, all people long for the end of this time.

Ok., that’s the official version and you are well advised to keep the rules in public life… Inofficially it looks again a little bit different and that makes of course the difference between what is told us in Europe about people in Iran and how they really are. After five days of fasting during the mandatory times of the day (because the Mensa was closed and even my friend the floor-manager just showed up every day but without the usual two-hourly tea…), I was invited to the house of my friends in one of the best parts of the city. I arrived at about 1 pm and when I came in, I was immediately asked if I want to have lunch. Of course, I wanted to show that I respect the rules of Ramadan and answered proudly: «No thank you very much, but it’s Ramadan and I’m fasting», expecting that they were at least a little bit impressed. To my great surprise the whole family was not impressed at all, but laughed loudly at my answer. Since I obviously looked a bit confused, I was explained, after what seemed to me to be half an hour of laughing: of course, you have to keep the rules of Ramadan in the public, but at home in the family, who cares? Ok. lesson learned… people like you and me! After a short and unofficial research, I learned that about 80% of the people in Iran are not really fasting in that time. Have I just found another parallel to living in Europe?

… more to come.

Iran, isn’t that the country at the axis of evil? – Part 2

My Sabbatical at Science and Research Branch of Islamic Azad University (SRBIAU) in Tehran – by Wernher van de Venn

Part 2: Leisure and Culture in Iran

Biking in Tehran. That’s real friendship: my friend Mehdi bought a new bike carrier for his car just to show me all good trails in and around Tehran (he himself has no bike…)

And of course, there is the leisure and culture program. I am constantly fully booked because I get invitations from friends and relatives and we go and see everything in Tehran and try it out. For instance, I brought my mountain bike from Switzerland with me and we explore all bike parks and routes in and around Tehran, and although mountain biking isn’t as popular in Iran as it is in Switzerland, there are many good and challenging bike trails!

One of my favourite bike trails became the route down from Emamzadeh Davood. Emamzadeh Davood is a village with the mausoleum of Davood-ebne Emad and is located on 2650 Meters in the mountain region north west of Tehran. On weekends (Thursdays and Fridays, yes, it’s like Saturdays and Sundays in Europe) the small village of about 200 inhabitants is crowded by 2000 or more pilgrims mostly from Tehran. The (offroad-)route down to Tehran is a wonderful but physically very demanding 14km downhill (with a little 1km uphill in the beginning) with its endpoint about two kilometres away from my apartment. When I go down there I am totally beaten-up and dirty at the end, but it is so fantastic.

Emamzadeh Davood in the Tehran mountain region, a shot from my helmet cam. The small golden tower in the middle of the town is the tomb of Davood-ebne Emad. The people there live exclusively from (pilgrimage-)tourism. You have to pay if you want to go into the village and the village itself is just a big bazaar (as we know it from Lourdes).

The trail is not always very trustworthy, but great nature

Wild dogs at full speed included

Last weekend we have been at the Caspian Sea visiting relatives from my friends who are rice farmers. Amu Maschti (uncle Maschti) and his wife San Amu (wife of uncle, I really don’t know her first name because all people just call her San Amu, even me, after lunch and dinner I used to say: «San Amu, daste schoma dart nakone»). And there is really no doubt who wears the breeches at home… Amu Maschti is the nice and friendly head of his big family and all people get up on their feet when he enters the room (including me), but one thousand Amu Maschtis couldn’t compete with one word from San Amu.

My friend Mehdi and me at Amu Maschtis home. Traditionally you sit on the floor covered with beautiful carpets and can rest your back at a «poschti». Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served on the floor on the so called the «sofre» which is a kind of oversized tablecloth covering the valuable carpets during eating.

The meals are awesome (as everywhere in Iran). San Amu and her «team» (which are all the wives of Amu Maschtis sons plus some female relatives) have the kitchen under full control. No male is allowed to enter the kitchen, not for religious reasons, but solely because males would destroy the magic skills of women to prepare the food (isn’t that feministic?). It is a tradition in this region of Iran to serve duck when visitors come. Ok not only visitors but the whole family is present and with family I don’t mean family as we know it in Europe, a close family member is also the neighbour of the brother of the grandson of Amu Maschtis third degree cousin. So please guess how many ducks died on that day… And, due to the fact that my friend Mehdi doesn’t like duck, also one chicken lost its life. The day after we saw little chicks running after a duck mother and when I asked what happened, I was told that their mother was unfortunately close to the kitchen the day before.

Under Amu Maschtis competent supervision and not dressed appropriately, I was allowed to do my first trials as rice farmer. It is not as easy as it looks, especially the walking in that sticky mud, but as I was told it is very good for the skin at the feet to get stuck in the mud all day long.

By the way, not only that I was for the first time in my life wading through a rice field and planting rice (in my pyjama pants!), I was also, for the first time of my life, experiencing another endeavour which you would not expect to find in Iran… Amol, the home of Amu Maschti is not far away from the Caspian seaside with some of the tourist beaches. 20 years ago, I remember the beach was strictly separated in men’s and women’s parts with large protecting shields reaching far into the water of the Caspian Sea. You couldn’t do anything else but swimming, there was no real beach-life nor some ice-cream seller. Today men and women are allowed to use the same part of the beach together, you can get ice-cream and all the things you «really need» at a beach, there is nearly no difference to a beach anywhere else in the world, including… a jetski rental!

Mehdi and me at the Caspian seaside

My friend Mehdi is a passionate jetski rider, what do I say, no he is jetski pilot. From the beach, the waves do not look very big, but if you are bombing with high-speed across the sea, each of these small waves becomes a launching ramp for the jetski. In the end, I can’t even say what is harder, the tremendous back pain from bending down and pushing rice plants into the water covered soil in Amu Maschtis rice fields, or the even more tremendous back pain from the high-speed jetski-mania taking off at every small wave and clashing down on the water as if it is concrete. Unintentionally falling off in tight turns included… Fortunately, I did not have a camera with me, because firstly it would have gone overboard anyway on the first wave and secondly, I won’t have to explain these awkward falling-off-scenes later on.

The city of Tehran is tremendously huge (officially about 15 million inhabitants, but unofficially in the range of 18 to 20 million, who counts…) and there is much to discover: Of course, the bazaar of Tehran, one of the largest in the middle East (I could never find out alone), museums and the National Library, shopping malls and recreation parks, restaurants and tea and coffee houses (nothing about Starbucks, here is the real tea and coffee scene). There is really nothing that does not exist here (even what should not exist, according to our opinion in Europe). Don’t let me go into too much details, you could be arrested as confidants… ☺

… more to come.

Iran, isn’t that the country at the axis of evil? – Part 1

My Sabbatical at Science and Research Branch of Islamic Azad University (SRBIAU) in Tehran – by Wernher van de Venn

Part 1: What the hell I’m doing here?

First of all, please don’t be scared… yes, I’m in Iran, one country of the so called «axis of evil» and it is great here, I love it. Not because it is evil, but because it is right the opposite. Maybe another little detail, you might have noticed in the headline, it is not a typing error it is intentionally: people here don’t say «Teheran» like we do it in Europe, they say «Tehran» and I will use it this way in the blog (it’s nearly the same as when Germans say «Züricher Hochschule» instead of «Zürcher Hochschule», you almost immediately recognize the foreigner).

View over Tehran from my apartment window (the big tower in the background at the far-left corner is Milad Tower, 435 meters, sixth-tallest tower of the world, revolving restaurant at the top, you can see the haze of the city, actual outside temperature: about 38 degrees)

But let me start from the beginning. So, what the hell I’m doing here?
As the headline already mentions, I’m doing my Sabbatical and according to my Sabbatical proposal, I am here, amongst others, to prepare students and lecturer exchange with the SRBIAU. For that purpose, we are currently signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between ZHAW School of Engineering and SRBIAU. From the School of Engineering it is already so far revised and must now be crosschecked from here. As I learned some days ago, the document is being examined by the central university administration at Azad University. However, no problems are expected. It can only take a bit longer because ZHAW is not on the list of recognized universities of the Iranian Ministry of Education (we really should go for it, but that is a topic of university policy…). As I also learned from Dr. Hamidreza Ghaffarzadeh, Director General, International Relations at SRBIAU, it should take only two weeks to get the things done, however he added in a short sub-clause and with a wink: «Of course I mean Iranian two weeks…»

The SRBIAU main entrance (left, with SRBIAU logo, can you find any similarities?) and the three buildings of the central organisation (right)

And another thing I learned very quickly here is, that every document, every presentation and every conference begins with the words «In the name of God». That is of course very unusual to us but in the end it is nothing else than a much more gracefully form of «Dear Ladies and Gentlemen» or the worst term in some of our documents: «To whom it may concern…». So please, what I want to say is, if you are in Iran you have to have a different view at things, not in a negative way but in a way to understand the culture and the origin of the people and the civilisation here. We are mostly taught from the media in Europe (and USA) to see things happening in near East in a strange and mostly negative way («the axis of evil»). Turn out the positive sides and everything looks a lot more friendly (as it really is in Iran). Here people don’t just say thank you if you do them a favour or if you hand over the tea or coffee, they say «daste schoma dart nakone», that means ‘may your hand never ache’. Speaking of «friendly» and «hospitality»: I will come to that later but I already want to stress the fact at this stage that these words have a very special meaning here, especially towards people from other countries. Some of my very, very, very,… best friends are Iranians (so I do not have to mention that my lovely wife is of course… Iranian too).

To come back to the point: We will also continue to promote R&D cooperation between ZHAW and SRBIAU here. My contact with the SRBIAU had come about cooperation in EU projects and recently started cooperation in possible new projects. In addition, we have already prepared and carried out two international conferences on the topic of Industry 4.0 in Tehran (the first one in August 2016 and the second one at the end of February 2017, which was also the start of my Sabbatical at the SRBIAU). The third international conference on Industry 4.0 is currently being planned for July 2017.

During the second conference, we had invited high-level representatives of the European Commission, which have promised Iran the greatest possible support in participating in Horizon 2020 and the upcoming framework programs. There is also an official paper of the EC on cooperation with Iran, since the sanctions of the EU against Iran are revoked. So, I’m happy to be back in the right place at the right time. We are currently in the process of analysing the upcoming EU calls and planning in which projects we would like to cooperate.

The second international conference on Industry 4.0 in Tehran, line up of the speakers (please note that I’m carefully located with the Swiss flag in front, in the middle, between the Rumanian and the Greece Flag, you see Dr. Erastos Filos representing the EC, Directorate-General Research and Innovation, on the right-hand side of Dr. Filos you see Prof. Dr. Abdolla Jassbi, he was head of the Azad University for 30 years and Iranian presidential candidate in 1993)

Furthermore, I am giving some seminars on the subject of Industry 4.0 and also on the submission of EU proposals, since in Iran the EU apparatus and modus operandi are (of course, after years of isolation) pretty unknown. Additionally, I am still looking after a student project and have many meetings with colleagues and students, who all want to talk to me because it does not happen frequently (☺ ☺) that someone from Europe is doing his Sabbatical in Iran. I also had a presentation at the venerable University of Tehran, one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in near East. It turned out that even the University of Tehran wants to sign a MoU with ZHAW.

… more to come.

Faculty of Engineering with its Mensa in the round tower above the entrance

Block C of Ibn-e-Sina Building (my new home after 2 months in the faculty of Engineering). The building consists of 3 Blocks and is one of the biggest of SRBIAU.