Our family of five, along with nearly 800 other passengers, were aboard the Emirates’ double decker A-380, having departed from New York’s JFK on the night of winter solstice 12 hours earlier and expecting to arrive in Dubai within an hour. We noted that, unlike in the past, the Persian Gulf on the navigation screen simply had no name designation, factual or fallacious. Looking down however, we were ecstatic to witness the snow-capped, extinct volcanic Mt Damavand, elevation 18,500 ft, eternally standing high and proud to safeguard the motherland Iran. The fact that we had to fly over the whole of Iran all the way southbound, wait in transit at Dubai airport for five arduous hours, and then backtrack north to land at the Tehran Airport, had given us a twilight sense of dÃ©jÃ vu. It was a reassuring and soothing feeling to leave behind the unfriendly, desolate and barren Arabian desert south of the Persian Gulf and enter the snow capped mountains, forests and prairie lands of Iran. After many worries due in part to the recent passage of a US law against Iranians traveling home, we felt a fuzzy feeling of comfort to be home and warmly welcomed.
The rapid processing of our passports and collection of our luggage at Tehran airport was followed by the sweet reality of finding ourselves in talkative relatives’ cars, while driving home on empty superhighways at dawn. Staying with our niece, her real estate tycoon spouse and their two children in their third floor ultramodern four bedroom condo in northeast Tehran was a special treat, as they took the famous 24/7 warm Persian hospitality to the next level. On our second evening, they threw an all-out family party in the building’s concealed community room, 2,500 square feet in size, where they catered with Persian cuisine, desert and refreshments, accompanied by music and entertainment. Our wishful hope to avoid repetitive gatherings so we could instead go sightseeing morning to midnight did not materialise, as we saw the same family members and close-knit friends repeatedly at lunch and dinner in the coming days. The honoured guests were our ageing parents, loved, hugged and kissed by all, especially the dozen or more grandchildren and great grandchildren present, including four born in the US.
The next day, we were drawn back to the Palladium, an upscale shopping mall which differs from anything we had previously seen in the US or in Europe. The giant ornamental Christmas tree and the serenading Santa Claus at the grand main entrance, the boutiques, the fast food court, and the exquisite restaurants are unparalleled. Only the very affluent in Iran can afford these prices, but for Western visitors the prices are akin to the cost of an average restaurant meal. The supermarkets had a vast array of Persian and Western products and staff politely offered assorted samples, which themselves almost amounted to a full meal. Anywhere one went the surreal sensation of the perennial tales of Scheherazade and the One Thousand and One Arabian Nights could be felt. Located in the foothills of the snowcapped Alborz mountain range one can find my family’s home for the past 60 years, my primary and secondary schools, as well as my alma mater, the National University. Are these are within a short walk from the mall. In fact, we visited the house, now a modern four story building. We then spend the afternoon hiking for a couple of hours along the nostalgically narrow alleys of Darkeh and the Haft Howz-Palang chal trail and stopped to rest, sip tea and consume sweets topped with the freshly baked flat taftoon bread in a wooden cabin next to the foaming river. As we listened to a nostalgic song by Sivash Shajarian (circa early 1970s), we tasted sangak, barbari, Yazdi and lavash breads, various type of feta cheese made from Persian lamb’s milk, and fresh vegetables topped with Shirazi salad. We found my father in a serene trance hiking towards a shelter a few hours up the mountain where he decided to stay overnight. Later, the trip to the Tochal Hotel ski resort, located at 13,000ft above sea level, topped off the excursion.
When our family friend took us to enjoy a live show at the Kourosh Mall & Entertainment Complex west of Tehran, we were in awe at its modernity: 14 movie theatres (3,000 seats), many fine restaurants, a 750 seat live theatre, and six floors of underground valet parking! The show, a live comic musical interspersed with sexual and political innuendoes, was captivating, even for our children who only have a rudimentary knowledge of Persian language.
One shivering evening, we had dinner at Park-e Aab-o-Aatash (“Water & Fire” Park) where we must have crossed the various floors of the Nature Bridge spanning across a major superhighway to connect two hilly parks. The multi-level Pol-e Tabi’at (“Nature Bridge”) was designed by a young female architect, Leila Araghian.
Although Tehran now spans over 2,500 square miles, at an elevation of over 5000 feet, and has 12 million residents and nearly 10 million vehicles, it still holds dearly onto its hidden jewels such as pristine springs, ‘qanats’, and tree lined streets. We stayed in Darrous and Yousef-Abad, in the heart of these leafy neighbourhoods. We even took a one day tour of the historic quarters of Tehran, when we visited the Golestan Palace, a few historic private homes now turned into museums (such as Moghaddam House and Negarestan Palace) and the major Caravanserai along the silk road where we indulged in the best abgousht, the traditional winter lamb-legume stew, in a traditional setting with its distinctly Persian geometrical turquoise blue tiles. What was noteworthy was the discovery of a seven thousand year old female skeleton right outside this site which is now on display at the national museum in Tehran.
Since we had already visited Esfahan, Kashan, and Natanz (our ancestral hometown) last year, we opted to see Shiraz this time. We overruled our initial intent to avoid the ailing aviation in Iran, by booking tickets with the Aseman Airline and flying aboard a nearly 40 year old Boeing 727. Despite the aircraft’s dilapidated appearance, our 90 minute journey to and from Shiraz encompassed the warmest hospitality by flight attendants and the smoothest takeoff and landing I ever experienced.
Shiraz has been acclaimed since antiquity, not only by the Persians but, equally importantly, by Oriental and Western visitors, as the City of Bulbul (the Persian nightingale), red dry wine, citrus blossoms, rose, narenj (sour orange), citrus and intoxicating blossom gardens, and above all, Persian classical poetry. When we checked into our hotel, the Grand Shiraz, next to the city’s northern entrance arch, Darvazeh Qur’an, we were initially told by the receptionist that our two room suite was on the back of the building facing a muddy hillside. Upon further request by one of the children with a funny foreign Persian accent, harmonious with the native’s love for foreigners, she lit up and exclaimed that the hotel’s best suite on the top floor, which faces south overlooking the entire city, was vacant. As precious as the other historical sites in Shiraz are, the tomb of 14th century poet and Sufi mystic, Khwaju Kermani, is also located there, carved into the womb of the mountain.
The $100 (USD) a night suite and delicious breakfast at this five star hotel exceeded all our expectations and surpassed many similar western hotels. We hired a large chauffeured SUV for three days and visited all the major historical sites, including Persepolis, Pasargadae, the resting shrine of Cyrus the Great, Naghsh-e Rostam, the mausoleums of the famous Persian Kings of the Achaemenid dynasty, as well as Eram and other gardens, the Sa’adi and Hafez mausoleums, palaces, mosques, museums, the grand Vakil Bazaar and the Vakil public bathhouse (now converted into an anthropological museum containing a great many wax statutes of Persian luminaries who lived centuries ago), the Shah Cheragh Shrine complex with its ubiquitous and intricate geometrical mirrors and colourful miniature calligraphically designed tiles and courtyards, and Narenjestan-e Qavaam. Although these archeological sites only date back a mere three millennia, there are multiple other ancient sites in Iran, the earliest of which (stone arrows found on the western Zagros range) are believed to be some 17,000 years old.
We had dinner at two traditional restaurants, Haftkhan and Shahrzeh, both of which we recommend highly. The food with a Shirazi twist was simply divine and the ambiance with Persian music played live in the background was intoxicating. The local hymns and the dinner spread out on the floor in front of us led to all those present singing and dancing. Strangely, a Jewish family with two daughters sitting next to us were the most conservatively dressed out of all those present, perhaps wishing to avoid the Vice and Virtue Guards which we never saw throughout our journey. A few days before our return, our three children disappeared and after a few hours we heard from them via cell phone. They were sipping tea and biting onto local pasties at an upscale villa in the Shemshak’s ski resort, an hour away from Tehran.
Our consensus was that if we had to live in Iran, Shiraz faced no serious rivalry from any other city, especially not from the overcrowded and polluted Tehran. We further decided that if and when we return to Iran in the future, we would spend little time in Tehran and instead visit as many other provincial towns and cities as we could in order to deepen and broaden our appreciation for the diversity of Iran’s natural beauty and its people. The nostalgic village of Kandelous, tucked into a valley between mountains along the Caspian Sea, has inextricably remained in everyone’s mind.
Our departure from Iran, scheduled for 4am, did not deter crowds of friends and family from stopping by for yet one last lavish supper. Everyone wept during our departure. After almost forty hours of no sleep, we returned home to New York. Although we carried three framed carpets home with us, our remaining five pieces of luggage were mysteriously delayed for five days after the Transportation Security Administration had carefully inspected them (and inserted a note to let us know). Irrespective of governments everywhere that have emerged and disappeared since antiquity, peoples’ aspirations in life remain the same: to survive with dignity and to secure their children’s future. Our family has been fortunate to pass on our Persian heritage and American way of life. And yet, we are not fully certain whether it is a subconscious force or simply our ancestral homeland with its diverse people, that more intimately draws us to Iran above all other places. We recommend this experience to everyone, especially those born Iran and now living abroad. Traveling between two homes, one always leaves behind a piece of their heart in the motherland. Notwithstanding our love for our homeland Iran, we also hold a special place in our hearts for our beloved adoptive home – the great and beautiful America, where we have spent most our lives and where we have raised our children. And last but not least, I ask you to watch one of the last interviews with the late Harvard Professor Richard Fry, the protÃ©gÃ© to Iranologist Professor Arthur Pope, and to read about Howard Baskerville. Here is a quandary to resolve: Could we allow the late Richard Fry to fulfil his final wish of being laid to rest in his mentor Arthur Pope’s shrine, alongside the Zayandeh Rud river, in Esfahan?Tags: Middle-East
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This post was written by David Rahni