Exuberant cordiality and strictest rules of behavior, subtle high culture and brute religiosity: In Iran met BRIGITTE author Tania Kibermani’s lived contradiction – and breathtaking beauty.
As much as the country appealed to me, I was a bit blümerant before this trip. The Iran side of the Foreign Office reads about as reassuring as the anesthesia risk sheet before an operation: Behavior rules, clothing regulations, safety instructions, strict photography bans.
With a stack of kerchiefs in the luggage – on the top without I should not enter! – I’m off to Tehran, which looks like a flea market box that someone dumped in the mountains. There’s something of everything here: a bunch of used Schröddel here, some new something brand new there, in between a few ornate pieces of jewelry, and out of the dull gray stands the Azadi Tower, the landmark of the over-eight-million metropolis in the Iranian highlands.
“Welcome to Iran” – boundless warmth on every corner
Visually, Teheran does not knock me out of my shoes, but I am immediately greeted by such an unbounded cordiality that the corners of my mouth are hurting from the smile on my face the first day. I hear 100 times: “Welcome to Iran !”
I am being watched curiously by families, interviewed by groups of women on the street according to their origin, the number of children and other life data and again and again put into the picture for selfies. As if the Tehran had nothing more to do than to correct the dark image of their country with perfect consummate behavior.
Here I also meet photographer Samaneh Khosravi, who as an Iranian is very familiar with language and rules of the game. As the roads are almost always clogged, we take the subway – in the bangling women’s compartment, where under the hand with hottest lingerie, disposable razors and stockings is traded. We want to Darband, in the very north of the city. Why do we have to go that far, just to eat, I ask. “Because that’s what Tehran’s all do,” says Samaneh.
If you want to understand the Iranians, you have to eat with them
When we finally climb on foot the narrow and steeper and steeper road, next to a mighty torrent raging, I understand why: in the middle of the mountains, a true food course is made. Like swallows’ nests, countless brightly lit restaurants stick side by side on the bare rock.
Most of them are decorated with flowers, carpets and lamps so that you almost overlook the displays in the display cases: artful tableaux of grilled vegetables, meat and rice in all variations, monumental pistachio hills, pickled fruit arranged in colors and lavashak, the most bizarre candy which I have ever tasted, a hellish, PVC-like, just square-foot mat made of pressed plums and pomegranates.
People like to eat in many cultures, but I have never experienced such a passionately greedy bunch of people. If you want to understand the Iranians, you have to eat with them. Because the food combines country-specific preferences: those for sociability, for example (Iranians are most in large groups on the way) and for opulence (in Iran it must be a lot – whether it is buildings, furniture or food). And where alcohol is banned, food can be quite a drug.
Magic-sounding names: Isfahan, Persepolis, Shiraz …
The next day we travel south. Isfahan, Persepolis, Shiraz: magical-sounding names. But first Qom, holy city. Although only about 150 kilometers away from Tehran, there is hardly any trace of the joie de vivre here. Because of the shrine of Fatima Masuma, daughter of the 7th and sister of the 8th Imam, Qom is one of the most important places of pilgrimage, whereby the Twelfth-Shiism, a flow of uncomplicated Islam, is so complex that its explanation goes beyond the scope of this story would.
From here, the later revolutionary leader Khomeini preached against the Shah, and around the gold-shradded shrine mosque black chadors and serious, turban-bearing mullahs of the theological college dominate the streets.
I’m looking for an inconspicuous corner to smoke. On the edge of the main square in front of the mosque, an elderly gentleman pampers, I join in, we smile at each other. Immediately rushes a zealous uniform carrier and means to me strictly that I do not have to smoke here. The Lord may continue to smoke unmolested. Not me. Because I am a woman. And no equal opportunities officer far and wide to complain about.
How do warmth of heart, subtle high culture and draconian punishments fit together?
Throughout this journey my brain is working at full speed. I ask myself: what is faith, to respect other culture and therefore necessarily? And where does the pounding begin? Who thinks here really medieval, and under what headgear lives on the other hand very liberal ideas? How do warmth of heart, subtle high culture and draconian punishments such as flogging and months of imprisonment fit together for blasphemy? And how do I get along with my European chassis on the Islamic-Shiite ways? At times, I feverishly, and Samaneh and I discuss each other’s heads every day.
Secretly, I admire the serenity with which they can be modern and at the same time religious, see the dark side of their homeland and still love Iran so deeply.
Breathtaking architecture: symmetry combined with king-size ornamentation
I understand that a tad better than we arrive in Isfahan at the latest. How incredibly beautiful it is here! As we enter the Imam Square through a side street, I immediately get a gasp of breath: finely chiseled mosques and palaces tiled with lush patterns sit enthroned on all four sides of this magnificent composition of water features and meadows where families can stroll or picnic among tens of tupperware instead of cars, horse-drawn carriages are driving here. In front of the arcades of the bazaar, which completely frames the square, one of the largest in the world, small groups of architecture students sit and draw. This width, this symmetry with simultaneous king-size ornamentation makes me sigh every few minutes entranced.
In Isfahan also begins the kingdom of the Persian tile. I confess: I have a strong tile passion and share with the Iranians the hot love for the pattern. And everything here is without exception decorated, painted and decorated, from the dome roof to the teacup.
In the bazaar I finally get into a buying frenzy
In the bazaar, I’ll turn it all over: Everywhere is worked, copper cans are hammered and then decorated with the finest enamel, fabrics are printed and embroidered, carpets knotted, in between spice up spices and sweets. From every material and every imaginable technique masterpieces are created here, and they are so shamefully cheap that Samaneh has to admonish me again and again: “Remember, this must be in the suitcase!” Nevertheless, she helps me after an hour bag hauling.
Incidentally, in goods exchange situations Iran is not always haggling, unlike Arab countries. There is a wonderful social game called Taarof, a courtesy ballet, for example when paying. The choreography: offer – offer is waved friendly – offer again – the opposite wavers, makes only weak resistance – perseverance – the opposite takes sighing the coal and goes down in thank hymns.
There is only a breather from the ornament in the Armenian quarter
As we make a fuss in one of the small cafes in the bazaar, we come up with an architectural student in the conversation, whose bright blue hair lolled out under her very loosely behind the back hanging Hijab. Despite being only 19 years old, she talks about calm casualness and chats in accent-free English: “Sure, people sometimes look at me weirdly, but I’ve never got any trouble because of my hair or tattoos.” She lives with her mother and grandma, has a “boyfriend” without being married to him – which is usually not allowed in Iran either.
I like Isfahan better by the minute. Very nice also that the Armenians have a big community here. The stone-colored, Armenian quarter with its many restaurants and cafés seems a bit more European and leaves us a few hours breather from the ornament.
Persepolis and Shiraz: Scandinavian design has never been farther away than here
The next stop on our journey is a childhood dream for me: Persepolis. From afar I can see the pillars stretching into the blue sky and almost howl. Walking between the monumental palace ruins, I carefully run my fingers over the inscriptions. 2500 years of high culture, reliefs, on which envoys of all peoples shake hands, and everything is of such a grandiosity, that I can tear myself then only with difficulty, when the plant closes at sunset and the museum guard drove us away.
If I still believed in Isfahan, the maximum of décor has been achieved, I am standing in front of Synapsenkollaps in Shiraz, just 500 kilometers to the south: In the Nasir al-Molk Mosque, it is not just tiles, artfully nested cubes, but also the colorful glass windows who immerse the space in a psychedelic color noise. Scandinavian design has never been further away than here.
Today, red water is bubbling out of the wells
As everywhere in Shi’a, Shiraz is celebrating the anniversary of Imams Hussein’s death. On the one hand I feel a bit queasy when I see the black flagged streets, buildings and fountains, from which today red water gushes to recall the martyrdom of the 3rd Imam.
I have never experienced such a brutal religiosity: men scourge themselves to the beat of a drum with chains, women beat themselves with the palm of the hand on the chest, Samaneh is silent, withdrawn into himself. But in the fray, I am always invited to cookies, drinks and selfies. People want to share their party with me, and suddenly it seems to me arrogant to reject that, just because I do not feel such religiosity.
So should you go to Iran? Absolutely! Not only to experience exuberant cordiality, to see buildings of bloodcurdling beauty and to enjoy the term “feeding orgasm”, but above all to learn something: about hospitality, about courage and about gratitude – for example, that of myself may decide what I wear on my head.
Tanias Travel Tips for Iran
Come and get there
Individual travel is not a problem in Iran, but more comfortable are group travel. From 8 to 20 November 2019, the “Friends of Cultural Travel” again offers the “Women in Iran” tour, in which the BRIGITTE team took part. 12 nights incl. Flight, half board , visa, transfers and sightseeing from 2948 Euro ( www.freundeskreis-kulturreisen.de ).
Marlik Hotel. Do not be fooled by the blocky exterior design – inside there are all the more borders and pillars! Filmkulissenhafte lobby, in the rooms a daring mixture of ornament and Formica, there is a spa, and centrally located. DZ / F from 65 Euro (Tehran, 61, Somayeh Street corner South Mofatteh Street, Tel. 21 88 32 80 01, www.marlikhotel.ir ).
Kojeen Lake you in Iran Hostel. In the sympathetic and simple accommodation with a café, you can not only spend the night, but above all, come into contact with locals – the organization has set itself the goal of meeting the “Iranophobia” in exchange. Highly recommended! DZ / F from 28 Euro (Tehran, 2, Vahdati-Manesh (3rd) Dead End, South Kheradmand St., Karimkhan Ave, Tel. 21 88 83 22 66, www.seeyouiniran.org ).
Abbasi Hotel. The old caravanserai in Isfahan boasts an enchanted courtyard, tearoom and hundreds of niches. If the term “1001 nights” fits anywhere, then here! DZ / F from 100 Euro (Isfahan, Amadegah Street, Tel. 31 32 22 60 10, www.abbasihotel.ir ).
Karimkhan Hotel. With many traditional details lovingly furnished, the house in Shiraz is centrally located between the bazaar and the fairy-tale Eram garden. Adorable: the tearoom with the colorful glass windows! DZ / F from 43 Euro (Shiraz, Roodaki St., Tel. 71 32 33 50 01, www.karimkhanhotel.ir ).
Diamond Cafe. In the vicinity of the Tehran university meets here the modern youth, the coffee is fantastic, the breakfast delicious and the ice cream portions (about 4 euros) more than lush. Very nice courtyard to sit! (Tehran, 33, Fallahpour St.)
Darband. In the north of Tehran one restaurant follows the other, there are sweets and treats, meat and fish, and because of the fresh air (!) It is a popular destination for locals. From here you can also make hiking tours. Definitely take firm shoes – the way is steep, and the torrent ensures proper wetness underfoot! (Take the subway to Tajrish, then take a taxi to Darband, from the small square with the Mountaineering Monument the only road uphill.)
Naghsh-e-Jahan Restaurant. In the middle of the bazaar of Isfahan is this beautiful, traditional restaurant on the first floor. Here is fed between hand-painted walls on carpet-decorated divans, terrific is the special kebab plate for 2 persons (16 euros) – definitely order different sauces! (At the Lotfollah Mosque at the Imam Square in the bazaar, keep left, at the second fountain place then up the stairs on the left.)
Hermes Restaurant and Café. If, after days of ornamental overkill and traditional fare, you long for something cool and appreciate a mix of Persian and Italian cuisine, then you are in this stylish shop near the Vank Cathedral in the Armenian district of Isfahan precisely. The “spicy chicken” salad (about 6 euros) is great (Isfahan, Jolfa Square Alley, near Nazar St, tel. 31 36 29 33 49).
Restaurant Kateh Mas. In the cavernous vault of a former hammam in Shiraz you sit at long wooden tables, and the great kitchen is a bit more spicy for Iranian standards. Especially recommended: the butter-soft-boiled lamb with rice and sesame paste for about 8 euros (Shiraz, Lotf Ali Khan St., Tel 71 32 23 18 18).
Tajrish bazaar. The little brother of the Grand Bazaar is located in the tidier north of Tehran, is not quite so vile, it is more arts and crafts offered – and on every corner there are restaurants and snacks. Right at the bazaar is the Imamzadeh-Saleh Shrine, a very popular pilgrimage site that you can also visit (Tajrish Square).
Sa’dabad Palace. Although it has 18 (!) Magnificent buildings to offer, yet the former summer residence of the Persian Shah is not as crowded as the equally worth seeing Golestan Palace. A highlight: the miniature painting museum (from Tajrish Square about 800 m walk through the Sa’adabadstreet).
Vank Cathedral. It goes without saying that one must visit the Imam Square and the bazaar in Isfahan, but not less worth seeing is the Armenian quarter with the Byzantine Savior Cathedral and the many lively, surprisingly European-seeming cafes around (Isfahan, district Jolfa , Vank Church Alley).
Persepolis. The monumental capital of the Persian empire is so incredibly grandiose that all I can say is that you have to see! (About 60 km from Shiraz, from there you can take bus tours or shared taxis.)
Pink mosque. In Iran there are certainly no shortage of fantastic mosques, but the most beautiful one is the Nasir al-Molk Mosque in Shiraz with its millions of mosaics and the color-coded glass windows. Admission: 3 euros (Shiraz, Lotf Ali Khan Street).
Hafez and Saadi mausoleums. In Shiraz, the most famous poets of the country rest in picturesque, spacious gardens, where you can stroll wonderfully and in bookstores can also buy very nice editions of their works in German and English. Iratet for 4 euroseasons (Shiraz, thedorf Garnierürtin, theatteriden ausgewähltenampf Hinzu edited by the author) (Shirüben, 420 Garnier iPatterhoff Planetenmuseum).
Anyone interested in the lives of women in Iran should refer to the photo book “Among Women” by photographer Samaneh Khosravi! (96 p., 29.95 euros, Kerber Verlag, www.samaneh.de )
Good to know
For women: without headscarf no entry. The clothing must cover wrists and ankles, the value of the rear part twice. So pack the longest and most sack-like thing you have. Open shoes are no problem. NEVER take photos of police, demonstrations or public institutions. Buy locally some sweets that you can offer if you are fed by hospitable Iranians – which is guaranteed to be the case. Treat yourself to a taxi in Tehran, which is incredibly cheap with an average of five euros for a ride through the city. The money, however, is adventurous: about 50 000 rials equal one euro. As an everyday currency, the Iranians have introduced the Toman, where you simply cancel a Rial zero. Prices, such as bazaars, are usually awarded in Toman.
Sufficient cash! On the ground there is almost no way to get money, as well as you can pay by credit card.
The country code of Iran is 00 98. At Tehran airport you get for 10 euros an Iranian SIM card with credit, which lasts for 2 weeks stay; otherwise it costs 2.99 per minute from the German to the Iranian network.
VIDEO TIP: Women protest with forbidden dance
The Nasir al-Molk Mosque in Shiraz is ornately decorated with countless tiles
On the cliffs of the Elburs the Tehran Mile Darband nestles at 1700 vertical meters
The poet Saadi was born around 1200 in Shiraz, where he is also buried - in the midst of a magnificent park.
Around the tomb of Ali-Abou To visit Hamza in Shiraz, women must wear chador. There are flowered items in front of the entrance.
The Nasir al-Molk mosque is also known as the "Pink Mosque" and is popular with tourists and wedding couples alike due to its stained glass windows.
Once upon a time Capital of the Persian Empire: Persepolis