I got lost every single day in Tehran. Reason: irrespective of the country you are in, male chauffeurs never ask for directions. Most of the cab drivers, hired temporarily for the Non Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit, were not from Tehran; and with no GPS devices to assist them; they were lost in the capital’s wide and oddly deserted roads. The NAM Summit was a surreal event — as much for us who accompanied the Prime Minister as part of the media delegation, as for the people of Tehran. A five-day holiday was declared so that the residents of Tehran stay away from the streets. They were in fact encouraged to leave the city during the Summit.
Over a 100,000 security men were supposedly deployed in Tehran for the Summit. Given the security challenges posed by the presence of heads of state and government and dignitaries from 120 countries, it was expected. But the large Iranian security detail was deployed for something more: to ensure that no ‘incident’ happens. ‘Incident’, in locals’ whispered parlance, is a euphemism for any act of defiance by the opposition, which would embarrass the Ahmedinejad regime.
You get a feeling of being watched all the time in Tehran; whether at the summit venue, the media centre, the hotel or even during visits to the markets. Some of my women colleagues were told to pull up their Hijabs when it slipped off their heads. Most places were out of bounds for people without NAM special permits. No one was willing to talk on-camera about politics. Off-camera, they spoke freely about the restrictive lives they led, how they longed for freedom, the choices available in the free world, the back-breaking inflation, rejection of visas to most countries, restrictions on music, subjugation of women, and a dull social life. One of the cab drivers told me: “We don't have entertainment like you have. But we have our films, we have parties, and we go north.” Like under any repressive regime, Iranians too have found their way out. The party scene has moved underground. So girls wear short skirts under their voluminous Abayas, which they discard in the private parties to jive to rock music; boys hide their music CDs and play them in basements of private villas where these parties are hosted. But they do so under a constant fear of getting busted by the Islamic regime.
Narinder Kaur Sahni, a Sikh lady who was born and brought up in Tehran says, “Sab chaley gaye…hum bhi chaley jayenge (Everyone has left. We too will leave.)” But Sukhdeep Singh (name changed), who is of Indian origin and holds an Iranian passport, says he would never want to live in any city other than Tehran. His brother has moved to Delhi and is married there. His rationale: “Here we drink water off the tap, and have never had a power cut; we know how to get around censorship, we watch Indian TV channels by using dish antennae and surf internet using proxy IP. Women have to wear the hijab but they are so free, they can walk on the streets at midnight and not face any eve-teasing. Can you get all that in Delhi?”
But Sukhdeep, like most other Iranians whom I spoke to in the media centre, either wasn’t aware or feigned ignorance that only last week, Iranian women had been barred by 36 Iranian universities from attending 77 undergraduate courses. This is when two-thirds of students entering college in Iran are women.
The people we interacted with were warm, friendly and cultured, more so when they knew you were from India. From the carpet seller in Bazar-e-Buzurg to the PhD student at the Golistan palace, everybody mentioned either Shahrukh Khan or Gandhi. At the palace, the guide patiently explained how the Peacock Throne (Takht-e-Tavoos) is actually Iranian and was brought back by the “great emperor Nadir Shah” from India. Tavoos (peacock) was actually a girl that the Qajr King Fath Ali was in love with, but couldn’t marry because she was only 11-years old. He got the peacock throne made in her honour and then married her when she attained puberty. She was one of his 40 wives.
People who have been to Tehran before the Islamic Revolution have a radically different impression of the place. Today giant government hoardings have been put up that say “Down with America.” Like the partial images seen in the mirror tile mosaics found in Persian architecture, these reflections capture only fragments of Iran.
Smita Prakash is Editor, News at Asian News International. You can follow her on twitter @smitaprakash