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Tales of Persia

An influential land of ancient secrets balanced with modern architecture and its share of complexities – Iran’s story is far more beautiful than what we hear and see

Tales of Persia

The penultimate eight days of last November will remain bright and beautiful in my memory. It was my second visit to Iran – Tehran to be specific.

Looking back, the first image that strikes me about Tehran is the unblemished roads, alleys and street corners; clean to the hilt – courtesy of midnight vacuum cleaning. Everyday at six, when I went out for morning strolls or later in the day, during my travels across the city, including the outskirts and the busy markets, cleanliness was apparent. Even the extremely busy Bazaar-e-Bozorg (Grand Market), which has a few thousand visiting it every hour, has no dirt. Most plastic bags are banned.

The second element that left me mesmerised was the infrastructure. From wide roads to well-marked small alleys, every destination had an English and Farsi (Persian) identity written at well-designated places. The construction is largely eco-friendly, with evident glass walls and energy consumption attempts, especially in the new constructions. Though the large bridges, huge MiladTV Tower (fourth-tallest in the world), several layers of roads and flyovers made the city look like a concrete cobweb, it appeared to be a well-designed and planned concrete jungle from the top of the revolving restaurant in the MiladTV Tower. From small alleys and jogging tracks, to the humongous residential downtown: it is a European city in the Middle East, with Persian atmospherics and several beautiful mosques.

Third, tradition blends with modernity – and nature adds the icing to the cake. So many exquisite mosques, several gardens (one built above an erstwhile dumping ground of garbage), lakes and a bevy of parks for elders and children across Tehran: all of these dot the city skyline and bylanes in equal measure. Traditional attire, food, courtesies, culture, music, family centricity, all with modern idioms, social media, Persian jazz, fusion dance, et al: it is indeed a nation in transition.

Fourth, the comfort with which the women travel in the city is such a great relief, especially being the father of a young lady in her 20s and with hundreds of young female students. A female researcher of Tehran University took me out for a dinner meeting with two top scholars of two universities of Iran at 8 in the evening and dropped me at nearly 12 in the night, returning alone in a cab. She said, "I have not faced any problem all my life as punishments for any harassment of women is very strict, from lashes to imprisonment to even death penalty in extreme cases of rape or murder, and the conviction rate is high. Also, society, in general, is value-oriented and shuns violence against women." The pubs are open till midnight, but they are non-alcoholic pubs with tea, coffee, non-alcoholic beer, snacks, shisha or hookah, music and dance at times.

Fifth, the education statistics are impressive – 12 million graduates among the 82 million people, more than a hundred-thousand doctorate degree holders, nearly five million students enrolled as students; according to Mehr News Agency. Completion of school education and ensuring the education of children up to the Higher Secondary level is mandatory and it is punishable by law to not be educated – with reasonable quality government education being provided for free.

Sixth, public healthcare, medical sciences research and medicinal provisions in Tehran city were impeccable. 98 per cent of total medicines of Iran is produced locally. Private expensive healthcare for those who want special services is coming up and Iran is now the leading destination of medical tourism in the Middle East. Interestingly, Iran has granted the 'visa on arrival' facility to more than a hundred nations but India does not figure in the list as "Indian government has put a lot of restrictions on Iranian citizens in acquiring Indian visa," noted by a senior diplomat.

Seventh, Iran is an Islamic State and hence, true to its ethos, there are restrictions on the attire of men and women. No bare body display, even by males; and no public display of affection (there can be a rare late-night except for a couple in love bidding goodbye after a romantic evening). All women partially cover their heads, hijaab is usual, and head to feet are covered for men and women. Though there are less variety of designs and colours in the attire, a distinct class difference is clearly visible. Our national habit of peeing against the wall is a punishable crime here, and all have to use toilets with closed doors (even males).

Eighth, facing a more severe regime of sanctions since the last month, Iranian currency is surely on a slide. And, that in return, is causing recession, gradually killing jobs, though not yet a bloodbath in the market-place. The current unemployment rate is around 11 per cent, and growing unemployment is a cause of concern and disgruntlement. Ingenuous Iranians have started trading in barter with the nations they are trading with. So, Indian basmati rice against their oil imports. Half of the cash-based trade with India is in Indian currency and the remaining half in Euros. Several bilateral banks – Iran-Venezuela Bank, United Commercial Bank of India, Iran-Japan Bank etc have come up to help people avoid dollars. Iranians, in general, understand that the US-led West has been doing injustice to them, and hence they are by and large with the government on international policy, though may have different shades of criticisms for the government on several domestic issues.

Ninth, interestingly, the family as an institution is going strong and by some persons' estimate, getting stronger in an inwardly-looking nation, called a Pariah State by the West. Along with family, social peers, engaging with technology are the other attachments of Iranian people at large. The consumption rate of government-controlled television and radio channels, Iranian cinema and theatre are on the rise.

The lady of the house calls the shots at homes, which men gracefully accept and rejoice often, and would be sadly dubbed as henpecked in India. However, as is usual with an Islamic State, gay or lesbian relations are illegal, socially shunned, and hence are totally under the wraps being severely punishable.

Finally, there is neither the extreme of a barbaric Islamic state with medieval laws and people languishing in abject poverty while the leaders regale in loathsome luxury as the West would describe; nor the other extreme of a nation with all happy healthy prosperous value-driven people with no crime, no fights, no conflicts, almost a heavenly life, as the Islamic State would like us to believe.

But surely there is a modern nation, with deep Islamic values, with educated and healthy people, having their own share of economic challenges due to sanctions and due to a growing decline in the socialistic welfare economy role of the State, with a semi-established democracy which interestingly has an important role of elections from local self-governing bodies till the Presidency, which were not suspended even during the Iran-Iraq war days. We could see no beggar on the streets of Tehran, though Afghan refugee kids were selling flowers and memorabilia. Immigrants have put up quaint small shops at designated places and the city has come to accept them for sundry small jobs. There is no fear in the eyes of the women on the streets and no fight for space as the society is respectful towards the fairer gender. We could see and feel the courtesy of every Iranian we met as Indians, and the pub-owner requesting us to sing Bollywood songs and cheering as I sang a song from Sholay on their demand. The city works hard for five days of the week and enjoys the two-day break of Thursday and Friday.

On November 23, I had gone to Tehran as a skeptic but have returned as an admirer of Persian culture, cuisine and its people.

Prof Ujjwal K Chowdhury

Prof Ujjwal K Chowdhury

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