Iran’s new cultural revolution

This wasn’t the way it was supposed to be in Iran. As soon as I got into my friend Fatemi’s ancient Hillman Hunter, he turned up the Jennifer Lopez CD. “You like her?” he asked. I didn’t have time to say I was surprised by his taste in banned Western music, because his mobile was bleating. A text. In Pinglish, a combination of Persian and English. “Sorry,” he muttered, looking down to text back. “Anyway I’m thinking of having plastic surgery on my nose, what do you… why are you looking so surprised?”

By Andy Round

Surprised. I was in a state of shock. In just five minutes all my preconceptions of Iranian people were dissolving into the gridlocked smog of downtown Tehran. Where was the veiled repression, ultra conservatism and angry placard waving? Not in Fatemi’s car, that’s for sure. As we lurched through the downtown traffic it was clear Fatemi’s major concerns centred on getting a decent satellite dish, removing a bump on this nose and buying a new mobile. This was not what I expected.

Before you visit Iran you have to realise there is a new revolution taking place and it’s driven by youthful impatience. The sound of text messaging is drowning out the strident voices of traditional leaders while pizza parlours and Internet cafés are setting up shop near the building-high posters that commemorate the dead of the Iraq-Iran war.

There is a generation of Iranian born after the 1979 Islamic Revolution that is coming of age with new hopes for the future. This was summed up for me over lunch in the southern city of Isfahan. An Iranian teenage girl invited me to join her friends for tea. “What did you think Iran would be like before you arrived? Were your worried about coming over? Do you believe what they say about us on CNN?” There was a genuine warmth in her questions.

This woman was simply curious not provocative. Like her friends she wore a chador over her dyed hair, laughed easily, spoke three languages and had a pieced nose. She was also strangely interested in David Beckham’s new haircut. She’d seen it on (banned) satellite TV recently. “I don’t know about it,” I admitted. “Ah, we are more up to date with current affairs than you then,” she laughed.

The fume-filled air of Tehran is simply the gateway to another Iran for me. The capital’s carpet museum is astonishing with its prehistoric threads; the art museum surprising with its Andy Warhols; Ayatollah Khomeini’s former home is humbling and the Shah’s overwhelming in its opulence, but outside the city are places begging to be explored. It’s a big country with a big heart. If you’re limited in time, like I was, visit Shiraz and Isfahan.

After taking tea and talking Beckham with the bright-haired ladies of Isfahan, it was time to sightsee. A good starting point is Imam Square, a mere 500 by 160 metres, this giant area is home to hundreds of shops sheltering in archways. Unsurprisingly it’s a Unesco World Heritage Site. We’d driven past it earlier in the morning and seen it packed with people praying, talking and chanting as loudspeakers blared out tinny messages. Now it was peaceful save for a few stack-heeled women shopping and a flutter of abandoned pamphlets

We kicked our way across the square towards the Masjed-é-Emam. Now I’ve seen some mosques in my time, but nothing compares to this. Like others in the city every inch of its surface was covered with pale blue tiles that appear to change colour with the daylight. The massive entrance humbles you with its vaulting religious ambition and the elaborate warren of vaulted sanctuaries, lavish decoration and stunning tilework bewilder you with visions of Koran calligraphy. Despite the riot of elaboration the building enjoys an astonishing sense of tranquillity.

My tour guide was an enthusiastic man and anxious that I took in everything the city had to offer. We raced off to the Ali Ghapu Palace an 18th century pavilion weighed down with astonishing wooden fretwork and impressive friezes then on to Chehel Sotun Park for a stroll around some surprisingly orderly gardens and European-looking water features. By the time we drove to the ‘shaking minaret’ mosque I was suffering from sightseeing fatigue. Still, there was a small man waiting for me, keen to relieve me of a dollar.

When we arrived the building looked like any other small mosque you would see on the outskirts of a Middle Eastern town, small, boxy and with two minarets. The man raced up inside one of tiny towers and re-emerged at the top of the tiny gallery. Pulling himself outside the tower, he hung from the roof and began to push and then pull the plastered minaret. It soon began to sway dangerously from side to side to the accompaniment of a sinister grinding sound. “Isn’t this incredibly dangerous?” I asked the guide. “Yes, probably. They stopped swinging the other minaret a few years ago because cracks had started to show.” Well, that’s OK then. It was time for a nice cup of tea. Isfahan is famous for the ancient bridges that span its river. Pick any bridge and you find an inevitable teashop hiding in its arches. They are great places to people watch and if I were you I’d pick a window seat in which to enjoy some strong tea and some fragrant shisha.

A couple of days later I was in Shiraz for the highlight of my trip. This beautiful southern city surrounded by snow-capped mountains was providing a temporary home to a lonely tourist coach when we arrived, so I got up early with my guide to beat them to the main reason we were all here, Persepolis.

Anywhere else in the world and this ancient site would be surrounded by souvenir sellers and packed with tourists wheezing over ancient stones. Not in Iran. This place was deserted except for a man handing out photocopied entry tickets. The fact that I was virtually alone made it even more haunting.

Before Alexander the Great burned it to the ground this 125,000 square metre city was ruled by 500 BC Persian emperors who controlled an empire of 28 countries. You can see the Abyssinians, Afghans, Greeks, Arabs, Indians all paying homage to the Persian ruler Darius in the giant wall reliefs that surround the ruins. In some places the stone looks freshly hued, there are life-size lions devouring bulls, images of captured kings, two-metre high emperors battling spirits and hundreds of rows of columns topped with double-headed eagles.

It was truly awe-inspiring and I was grateful for my guide to reveal the stories behind the polished carvings. One of the most astonishing was that the ruins had only been rediscovered in the 1930s. Apparently, there are other wonderful cities in the mountains around Shiraz just waiting to be unearthed. This city it seems is just the tip of a giant archaeological iceberg. Down the road from Persepolis are four giant tombs cut from a soaring cliff known as Naghsh-é Rostam. We stopped the car to gawp at the intricate designs that snaked up the rock.

In a city cafe near Shiraz University we smoked shisha and drank tea. A group of Iranian girls heard my English accent and came over. What did I think of Iran? Did I believe what I saw on CNN? The now familiar litany had begun. Iranians are surrounded by some of the most incredible history in the world, but the younger generation at least seems completely focused on present and future. As if to prove a point I heard one of the girl’s mobile bleep. It was another incoming text message.

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