Notes on the Iran/Persia Conflict: A Travelogue -- Part Two

This is part two of seven. See also: Part One: Tourism is not a dirty word.

Getting of the plane, I remembered Communist Bulgaria and post-Communist Uzbekistan..."Why are your papers in order!?!" The guy at passport control looked at the visa and stamped the passport, then took me to get fingerprinted. The fear passed when he gave me and the other American a refreshing towelette to wipe off the ink...We went downstairs and met the tour guide, who took us to the moneychanger, who took my sixty bucks and gave me back nearly half a million ryals...

A quarter millennium ago, Tehran was a large village of around fifteen thousand people. All that changed in 1798, when Aqa Muhammad, the first Qajar [pronounced: Ka-JAR] Shah, moved the capitol there from Shiraz several hundred miles to the south. The reason that he didn't like Shraz, which, as we shall see, is a pretty nice place, is actually quite understandable. Years before, the Afsharid Shah Rukh had cut his balls off, and then the Zand hereditary Prime Minister Karim Khan had him locked up in a dungeon for years. Who wouldn't have wanted a new start?

Since the Qajars moved in, Tehran has changed long beyond recognition. The village has become a city, and the city a megalopolis. The city grew like wildfire under the Qajar and Palhavi Shahs, then even more under the Islamic republic.

Driving in from the airport, which is over an hour away from the city, one can see the sprawl. Even at four thirty in the morning, the traffic is heavy, and there are almost no traffic lights. We are two people short. United Airlines has fucked up yet again, but that's par for the course. Getting up after three hours sleep, we have breakfast introduce ourselves to each other ['Hi, I'm a famous actress, don't you remember me in..." Holy shit! I do -- cool] and go get on the bus to see the officially authorized sites, which means palaces and museums.

One must always remember that Iran was always also Persia, and the small national archeological museum, where we see relics Persepolis and a few pots and pans, plus statues of long dead pagan princes. Interesting stuff, then we head out to the Qajar palaces, which are in the old part of town.

The Qajars, who ruled from 1795 to 1925, are the fount of all Persia/Iran's troubles. They had heard stories of the great wealth and beauty of the European west, and later on, Shah Nasir Al-Din actually went there and was thunderstruck with the pomp and circumstance of European courts. So he raised taxes to crippling levels, even among Muslims, and later started selling off the country's natural resources in order to build more splendiferous palaces and plant more formal gardens and parks.

These people weren't as dumb as they seemed. They weren't babies being bamboozled out of inheritance. They were thrilled with the income that the future BP was sending them for the oil that was drilled and refined at the company's expense.

The result was a bit on the kitsch side. The paintings on the walls look like a cross between Russian Icons and the tops of old cigar boxes. They also used lots of broken glass. The Pahlavis, Reza Khan and his son, The Shah, abandoned these and built more modern digs. These are much nicer to the modern eye, although that autographed photo of Adolph Hitler prominently displayed in the foyer near the Shah's office is clearly disconcerting.

Outside, of course there's a park, with lots of people hanging out in the shade, and it's here that I first heard the first dissenting declaration by the local citizenry, "I want the Shah back!" said an old woman.

Palace museums aside, everything is up to date in Tehran. McDonalds is nowhere to be seen, but Nokia is, and a trip to a typical shopping mall shows that underneath the officially required outerwear, women like sexy. There's lots of heavy makeup and evidence of nose-jobs. I also noticed people wearing necklaces with the zoroastrian Ormizad symbol on it. Shi'a Moslems are more laid back on some things than Sunnis, especially in the arts, where the human form is not taboo as it is in some Arab countries (Iran is NOT Arab). Art is heroic, both poetry and pictures are treasured even more than in the west.

After three days, two of which were partly dedicated to recovering from jet-lag, we went to the "domestic" airport and boarded a plane to our next destination, Shriaz.