We took Tehran’s nearly brand new subway into the city to experience the bazaar. (If you want to see a video overview of the bazaar–though the quality is not so great–go here.) The cars are remarkably clean and roomy, especially if you are, as I am, used to the subway in New York City, though the size of the crowd during rush hour seems not so different. Oddly, subway cars are not segregated by sex the way buses are. If you take a bus in Tehran, there are sections reserved for men and women. At least this is what I have heard; we did not actually take a bus within the city. On the buses we took between cities, the sexes were not required to sit separately. In the subway, while there are cars reserved exclusively for women, women are not required to use those cars. The man sitting next to my wife heard us speaking English and asked her where I was from. When she told him New York, he asked her if she thought the stress there was greater than in Iran. I don’t remember what she told him, but he started talking about the tension boiling beneath the surface in Iran, how people move through their lives “normally,” so that on the surface everything appears calm, but that they have no real hope for the future. He was talking specifically, if I remember correctly, about the young people in Iran, though his words did seem to capture something I felt throughout my visit in the mood of the people as a whole, to the degree that one can get anything resembling a sense of the mood of a people on a two week visit.
We entered the bazaar through a mosque, which was very quiet and had a fountain, and as we walked around, I was struck by the way the lighting colored how I looked at the merchandise. It really made me wonder about the quality of what people were selling, even though, in general, I can’t imagine it’s all that bad, given how many people shop there. My wife says the Turks–the ethnic Turks who live in Iran, not Turks from Turkey–have a lock on all the businesses there, though I someone told me that the strength of the bazaar as the central place of commerce in Tehran is waning now that more businesses are being set up outside its purview. It’s crowded and covered–it is the precursor of our shopping malls–and just about anything you can imagine is sold there, from safes and telephones to sledgehammers and bras.
On each street, you might find three or four stores selling the same thing, and whatever that thing is–for example, the shirts in the photo below–you would probably have passed on a different street three or four other stalls selling them as well. In other words, there is lots and lots of duplication, and my guess would be that the same group–probably a family–owns some significant portion of all the stores selling the same merchandise.
Another aspect of the bazaar worth noting is the architecture, though I learned only a very little about it from Sarah, my brother-in-law’s wife, who is herself an architect. Throughout the bazaar, there are points where different passages meet at a central hub, and these hubs became places–if I remember correctly what Sarah told me–where the people responsible for the physical structure of the bazaar itself would show off a little bit, and so they decorated the archways with ornate plasterwork that, according to Sarah, you normally would have seen only in a palace. I forget how many hundreds of years old she told me the example below is.
Walking to the bazaar gave me my first taste of just how profoundly I stood out as a foreigner. As soon as the money-changers saw me, without hearing a word of English from my mouth, they went from calling out in Persian–though I heard one or two hawking in Arabic and another one in what sounded like German–to asking me specifically “Do you have dollars?” It was odd to feel again like I had felt when I first arrived in South Korea in 1988, both the thrill of being the center of attention and the desire not to be noticed, though there is a very clear difference too. I was in Iran with family; and while the country was certainly new to me, to the degree that I have been hanging out with Iranians for the past 15+ years, the culture and much the manner of daily interaction between people was not; so there was a part of me that didn’t feel as much like an outsider as I otherwise would have.
I didn’t find anything in the bazaar that I wanted to buy, though; I hadn’t been there long enough. I did enjoy watching just how comfortable my son was in his mother’s country; he is fluent in Persian and he has been in Iran enough times that he feels at home speaking with people and falls very comfortably into a native-like intonation, though his body language–to my eyes anyway–remains distinctly American. Other interesting things I saw: men pushing or pulling impossibly overladen trolleys along the paths and calling out “Agha bepah,” which translates loosely as, “Sir, watch out!”–though my guess is it’s more like, “Out of the way, you!” I almost got run over the first time because I didn’t realize the guy was talking to me. And motorcycles running back and forth among the people and people getting out of their way as if they were just a different kind of pedestrian. I wish I had been quicker with my camera. One of the guys on a motorcycle had in his lap either a sheep or a goat–I think the former–and the animal was light brown and struggling. Almost certainly, he was taking it to be slaughtered.
When we were ready to leave the bazaar, we walked out onto the streets of Tehran, which were hot and crowded and under construction, and were filled with the smell of car exhaust that we only seemed able to escape at the foot of the mountains in Darakeh, where my brother-in-law lived. Our plan was to go to Golestan Palace, which is supposed to be gorgeous because of the mirror work that appears in it. As we walked, sweating through the heat, to look for this place–for some reason, we thought it was in walking distance from the bazaar; it was not–Sarah stopped at a mosque to ask directions; and as we walked away from the mosque, a short, bald man, with a narrow ring of gray hair lining the edge of his scalp, striding purposefully with a briefcase in his hand, waited till he was a couple of steps past me before calling out “Hello! Welcome to my country!” in a loud, clear, barely accented voice. I turned around, but he did not; he kept on walking as if he had not said a word. This happened several times, and I was struck that none of the people who greeted me, despite the fact that they seemed happy to see me–I don’t know if happy is the precise word, but you could hear enthusiasm in their voices as they called out–seemed interested in doing so to my face. (This was not always the case, but it was my experience on this day.)
Unfortunately, the Golestan Palace was closed for the holiday of Layla tul Mehraj, and it was interesting how very few people knew it was a holiday, which commemorates the journey of the Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Jerusalem, his ascension into the seven heavens, and his return in the same night. So we decided to take a taxi to the restaurant where my brother-in-law and his fiance wanted to treat us for lunch, and this, my first taxi ride in Iran, was quite an experience. We found an empty taxi waiting at the curb outside the palace gates, and as soon as we were all seated, and the driver knew where we wanted to go, he backed up–we assumed–to pull into the one-way flow of traffic that would take us to the main drag. Instead of doing so, however, he kept on backing up, not even looking over his shoulder, just glancing into his rearview mirror out of what seemed like the corner of his eye, and he drove this way for about a block, until he reached the intersection he wanted, put the car into drive and took us without further incident to our destination. (Getting a taxi from the restaurant back to the subway was similarly interesting. There were five of us, including my son, which meant that we would occupy the whole taxi; but the driver we hired had someone else to take along as well, and so while I got into the front seat–I was too big to fit in the back with everyone else–this other passenger got into the car with the driver on the driver’s side, and we drove that way, the additional passenger holding a phone to the driver’s ear so he could carry on a conversation about the party he had been to the previous night.)
The restaurant, Sonati Azari, was lovely.
Pictures from Shahnameh, the Book of Kings, (Iran’s national epic) adorned the walls. (There are lots of sites with old translations of Shahnameh on the web; the most recent version is Dick Davis’ Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings, which is the only contemporary translation covering the entire poem. There’s a cool comics version of one of the most famous stories in the text that you can check out here. If you would like to read an excerpt from the translation that I am working on, go here. I published this excerpt as part of a special, Iranian literature edition of the online journal ArteNews. It’s worth taking a look at.) I recognized Rostam killing the Deeveh Sefid (White Demon); Rostam and Esfandiyar; Rostam and Sohrab. (One translation of the story of Rostam and Sohrab, which would make very interesting reading next to the story of Oedipus, is here. In the 19th century, Matthew Arnold did a wonderful translation of the story, and Jerome Clinton published a 20th century version of the tale in blank verse as The Tragedy of Sohrab and Rostam. These are all stories, though especially Sohrab and Rostam, that resonate in Iran today; Sohrab and Rostam is perhaps the best-known story of the Shahnameh.) I also saw one illustration of the portion of Shahnameh that I am working on translating, the story of Zahhak, the first truly evil king in the epic, and of Feraydoun, the man whose destiny it is to defeat Zahhak and rule in his place. Zahhak’s villainy comes in part from the fact that he has to feed the serpents growing out of his shoulders human brains every night; so he basically needs to murder two people a day in order to stay alive. The serpents got there because Eblis, the name given in the text to the Zoroastrian version of the devil (who usually goes by Ahriman), tricked Zahhak into allowing himself to be kissed on the shoulders, and when Eblis kissed him there, the serpents appeared. Unfortunately, there is no version of this story on the web, and my own translation is not yet up either.
The food was absolutely delicious. We ate “ab gusht,” a stew that is, for those of you who know, similar to the dish called cholent made by Eastern European Jews. I have eaten ab gusht here in the States–and there is, actually, a funny story about the first time I had it from when my wife and I were first married and I could count on one hand the words in Persian that I understood. Maryam left me the recipe so that I could prepare dinner. It is a simple enough dish to make; more or less, you dump all the ingredients into a slow cooker and let them stew for a long time. So early that afternoon, I read through the ingredients, put them in the slow cooker, turned it on and started to go about the rest of my day. Then it occurred to me that I had not added any water to the pot. So I went back to check the list of ingredients, but water did not appear anywhere on it. It did not make sense to me that there should be no water in the stew, so I added a little, not wanting to not follow the recipe my wife had left me, and then left the food to cook. At this point I should add–for those of you who might be thinking that it should have been common sense for me to add a lot more water than I did; I was making a stew after all–that I am, in fact, a good cook, but I was preparing a dish from another country and my wife at the time had been getting on my case about my habit of preparing food without a recipe; I was, therefore, determined to follow her recipe to the letter so as to avoid any mistakes. Well, when my wife came home and she checked on the food, it was, of course, nothing like a stew. She asked me if I had put any water in, and when I told her “just a little,” she asked me why not. When I told her that water was not in the recipe she left me, she looked at me like I was an idiot and said, “Of course it is! It’s written right there on top of the page, Ab Gusht. Ab! Ab means water!”
Anyway, in Sonati Azari, we had ab gusht prepared the traditional way, which is called dizi. They bring your portion in a very hot clay pot, which you need to pick up with a piece of bread so you can pour the broth into a bowl. Then, with the pestle they have provided, you mash the meat, beans and everything else. You soak pieces of bread in the broth–we had “noon sangak,” bread cooked on a stone–and eat that separately from the mashed meat, which you scoop up with other pieces of bread. Or you can spoon the mash into the broth. However you eat it, it is delicious, and I am sorry I did not take any pictures of it.
After dinner, Sarah asked me what I thought of Iran, if it was different from what I’d expected. In a way, of course, this was an unfair question. I had only been in Iran for two days and had not had the chance to see very much or to talk to anyone other than family; and since I have been hearing about and seeing pictures of Iran for the entire time I have known my wife, it’s not as if my image of the country is limited to what we see here in the mainstream media. So I did not feel the initial shock of foreignness that someone else might have felt, and I was not seeing what I saw entirely within the Western-defined context that someone without my experience of Iranians might have brought with them. Nonetheless, even after two days, there was one thing that had made a very strong impression: women. That women have to cover themselves in the way that they do, that Sarah, my wife, my mother-in-law and all the women in the family, and all the other women whom I met during our first few days of getting ready for Navid and Sarah’s wedding, had to cover themselves if they wanted to walk out the door, even just to put the garbage out; that all the women I saw in the street were covered, some more than others, in ways dictated by the government to hide their hair, their arms more or less above the elbows, their legs more or less above the knees, and their figures–and this covering, of course, becomes culturally a metaphorical covering of so much else, of the life that is lived “behind the veil,” so to speak; indeed, you could argue that the leading of a double life, one public, the other private, is a central component of Iranian culture; but to develop that idea would require a much longer post that I don’t really feel qualified to write. Anyway, the fact that every woman I saw in public wore either a chador (the long black garment that covers them from head to foot) or the combination of head scarf and manteau, which is the raincoat like jacket that Iranian women wear, made a very strong impression on me, though I was surprised at what that initial impression was, because it had less to do with the situation of women in Iran than with how we in the US–and by “we” I mean the general public and the mainstream media–portray and are led to think about that situation.
We have made so much of Iran’s requirement that women wear the hejab and manteau–though the image we usually see in the media is of a woman in a chador–that it has become a symbol of all that we see as evil in Iran’s treatment of women. When I talk to my students about what they think the chador means, they portray it as a symbol of women’s virtual enslavement when, in fact–and let me be clear that I am not defending Iran’s policy in this regard–nothing could be farther from the truth. (At least in Iran; in other Muslim countries, such as Saudi Arabia, and certainly Afghanistan under the Taliban, the situation is very, very different.) For example, more than half of all college students in Iran are women; women are professionals, own their own businesses, hold political office, and even run for president. Not that there are not also tremendous restrictions placed on women’s lives, not that women are not, in many ways, both legally and as a matter of tradition, second class citizens in Iran, but they are not the enslaved people that we in the US often perceive them as being. In other words, we have made the hejab/chador so central to our understanding of women’s status–and correlated it so strongly with a violation of our own values of personal freedom and freedom of choice in all things–that we have allowed ourselves to reduce the women of Iran, in our perception of them, to the more or less blank slate that we think the hejab/chador makes within its own context: powerless, blank slates that can do nothing but accept what the men who run Iran–from the government to their fathers, brothers, husbands and sons–impose on them. In this way, we do to them–through a kind of blind, bleeding heart liberalism–precisely what we so deeply criticize the Islamic Republic for doing.