At a family gathering in the northwest of Tehran I was caught in a heavy downpour of farsi. I gave up any hope of taking shelter and turned my face to the sky, already soaked to the bone. As the waters rose, we dove in collectively and were swept away in a flood of nostalgia, memories crackling bright overhead, and flurries of laughter mixed with eddies of remembrance. As the vortex swirled it surfaced childhood stories, recollections of strength and togetherness, kindnesses and hardships. Though scattered to the wind, my new family is bound up in this wonderful tempest. Four generations holding and creating memories at once. I am submerged and still I breathe - with greater strength, purpose, and understanding.
Finally free of jet lag and beginning to appreciate the long days, we stayed in, working, typing, corresponding all day. The drapes filtered the yellow light of day, shifting from cool to warm along with the moods of the sun. We were scheduled to leave at five pm and feeling a bit like we might be squandering the day indoors, barefoot, trundling between kitchen, couch and bathroom.
As the time approached we got ourselves together and hopped into a taxi with Shirin's cousin heading for Tajrish Market. Traffic again presented its magic trick of shoving three lanes of cars perpendicularly at one another and having them both emerge on the other side unscathed and at speed.
At the market we stepped down into a century old building full of historical details and a bewildering array of pickled preparations, produce, and sundries. It was calmer than Tehran Bazaar. The pace was commensurate with the feeling produced by the cooling breeze swirling down off the mountains to the north.
We came across an old school barber shop and knowing I'd been wanting to shave my head for days I paused outside their doors. The green trim and cold fluorescent lights set a tone but the men at work inside, and the proprietor perched on a stool in the doorway cemented the mood. Barber shops have always felt like long established clubs and I was weary of asserting any right to membership. I tend to cut my own hair but the few times I've crossed the threshold have always been memorable and worth the imagined social risk.
I almost passed by but for Shirin's gentle prodding and my own budding realization that moments like that are for the taking. Warmly welcomed, my request was translated and received with a knowing nod and I landed in a green chair that was so well worn it seemed to disappear beneath me a moment later. The barber plucked the clippers from their hook in a dark recess under the counter, snapped them on and scraped them over my head with a force better suited to some sort of carpentry, or paint removal. I quickly got used to it.
I offered my best phrase in farsi "I can't speak farsi well," and his reply left me stumped. Crestfallen, I used my next best phrase, "I don't know farsi." Shirin and her cousin engaged him for a moment and he learned that I'm Tanzanian, and the news ping-pongs between the other men in the shop while he looked down at me quizzically but with even greater warmth.
After he made a few aesthetic decisions and tidied up my facial hair, I was ushered to a sink where he proceeded to rinse my head in water that oscillated from hot to tepid, his open palms scoured my scalp and rubbed my face and jaw. There is something quite powerful about human touch. A stranger's hands embraced my head with care and power under warm flowing water that began to run down my neck and soak my shirt. The sensory experience was deeply grounding and I felt like I was finally in Tehran. It was a baptism of sorts, an admission into the church of humanity, and it put into stark relief the often detached and abstemious social practices in the US.
Perhaps he sensed the transformation. We shook hands, his eyes locked to mine, and this man suddenly felt like family. Is this his gift? The shop now seems like a new anchor point in the city, welcoming in spite of the cold lights and eroded decor. In this propitious moment, we stepped into the sunshine at the base of an extraordinary mosque.
With my shirt still drying in the sunshine I removed my shoes and checked them before entering the mind altering brilliance of Imam Zadeh Saleh. The mosque was strewn with supplicant figures below and resplendent with millions of faceted mirrors above. Every wall and ceiling and column surface presented a dazzling fractured face and the effect was unearthly. It was solemn and quiet and deeply moving.
Though the place is entirely mirrored and full of reflection, it occurred to me that in gazing upon it you can never see yourself. Your image is dissolved by the facets and never reassembles. It becomes a part of the community. And the space itself, solemn and still as it is, comes alive through the movements of the faithful. As they walk and pray, their sprinkled images ricochet through the room and it begins to breathe as though alive. It is highly reminiscent of moonlight on the surface of an ocean, the light trickling and dancing in unknowable patterns imbuing the space with peacefulness.
I'd never seen anything like it but I get the strong feeling I'll be similarly moved again during this trip. Outside the sun was sharp, feet were washed in the fountain, cars and busses careened through the roundabout, and the mountains were looming without threat, held by the warming light and darkening sky. While still bustling, the whole area felt settled and somehow peaceful. I'm guessing it's a reflection of my growing familiarity and ease with this place that I'm beginning to read it as comforting.
We sat and sipped tea before another taxi wound us up the slope to Bam-e-Tehran, the roof of Tehran. The elevated viewpoint, scratched into the mountainside, allowed us, and countless others, some much needed context. From the northern mountains we could see the grand city stretching out into the smoggy distance. Hills to the east, setting sun to the west, and the sparks of streetlights twinkling on below.
Our mountain assembly was made up of tourists and locals alike. Couples strolled among families and larger groups of friends up the broad walkway as the view of the city morphed with the changing contours of the valley. Darkness fell and the distinct warm and dusty hues of Tehran were overcome by the anonymizing force of city lights. It started to look like any other overlook but for the bungee jumping, restaurants, street food, billboards and those solitary men strolling with an arm tucked easily behind their back.
I needed the air up here. I needed to be dwarfed by the landscape and get a sense of place, and on this day of quiet reflection and transformation I felt serene and deeply happy to share it with my love.
Dinner called and our cousin shepherded us via taxi to a lovely outdoor spot where we met friends for schnitzel, trout, and fine conversation. The temperature was so perfect it never called attention to itself. The fountain burbled and the tea flowed and I realized how overrated alcohol is.
We bundled into yet another taxi, six in the car including the driver, and the party continued. The cabby joked about the foreigner in their midst while being offered sandwiches by our cousin, and the general good feeling of the day seemed indestructible. We said goodbye and walked in the door at 1am surprised at how rich a day that began at 5pm could be.
Tehran Bazaar was the order of the day. We looked at a map and tried to get our bearings before setting off into the midday sun. We headed to the metro station at Haft-e Tir and descended the stairs into the rush of semi-cool, semi-fresh air bursting from the tunnels below. Street musicians offered up a soundtrack that gradually faded into the murmur of people vying for position at the ticket counter, at the turnstiles, on the platform, and in the cars. It was warm but not too warm, crowded but not claustrophobic.
The train slipped into the darkness and I considered my position several stories underground, in an unknown darkness, below a city that promised to find me lost no matter where I eventually emerged. But I wasn't alone. I had a solid bearing in my wife who strikes out into the melee to learn, to expand her map and deepen her capability. It occurred to me that if I were compelled to nest, the trick would be to make a nest as wide as the world, and to be at home in it.
We emerged in Emam Khomeini Square and spun south toward Golestan Palace… which was closed. We are developing a good track record for visiting closed palaces. I wonder which set of gates we will see tomorrow.
Moving on toward the bazaar we located a bustling falafel shop and grabbed a couple of sandwiches. They were working nonstop with a constant crowd pressing in from all directions. It was popular for a reason. The falafel was fresh and hot, tucked into newly made bread with crisp vegetables and a tangy sauce.
We took our prizes to a shady area by a fountain and made a mess of them before buying a cup of tea from a vendor who strolled through the park with his dispenser strapped to a luggage cart.
After lunch it was on to Tehran Bazaar, an immense market sheltered from the sun by a sometimes intricate, sometimes makeshift, generally stunning roofing system. The sunlight filters into the dusty upper reaches and disperses through skylights, air conditioners, cables and signs, setting the place aglow.
The market takes on staggering proportions and is thrumming with visual detail. My processors couldn't keep up and what often appeared as just another storefront, upon a second glance would reveal itself as an entirely new corridor vanishing into the distance with its own character and theme, ablaze with gold frippery or clad with a quarter mile of undergarments.
We walked for a long time before emerging onto the roasting sidewalk to make our way back on the periphery. The street was peppered with 125cc motorcycles and men loading trucks and carts with various goods between shaded sips of tea. With your eyes closed you could make out what each store might be selling as the aromas gathered in fragrant puddles outside the doors.
We walked back to the metro and headed home planning to go out once again for dinner but we underestimated the effect the bazaar had on us. Exhausted, we decided to call it a day.
Tender and slightly worried about my gastrointestinal fortitude, my full nesting instinct kicked in this morning. I was perfectly ok tucked into the couch with a book while the light outside leaned and stretched with time. I was not the traveler I was hoping to be. Tehran was waiting outside and I cut up a mango and peeled through another chapter.
Shirin was out on an errand and for the first time I found myself alone and the walls of the apartment grew thicker, insulating me from the heat, the people, the wayward cars, the cats, the verbal rifts that lay in wait. I was disappointed in myself for being in this shell. It wasn't like other times I'd ventured abroad. Like Singapore, full of tangible curiosity, burgeoning friendships, and youthful leaps into misadventures like rupturing an eardrum while wake boarding in the brown waters on the Malaysian border: or Iceland, when a backlit throng of horses crested a hill and drew a curtain of dust over the sun and myriad waterfalls fell to the valley floor as we gathered the sheep in autumn: or New Zealand when I rented a motorcycle and traced a line up along the Tasman coast and down the Pacific, communing with giant trees and frigid undertows in the cool bright south sea sun.
I'm a different person now and I credit the loss of my father with my invigorated unconscious desire for known comforts to be at an arm's length. But I don't want to stay this way. I'm a toddler now at just over three years since one of the brackets which contained my known universe fell away. I'm a distinctly new person but still convinced I'm the same, still convinced the loss will gradually fade and I will re-emerge as a stronger version of my former self.
In reality I will probably always be a changed man and the key is to embrace the transformation and become something new, someone stronger. I am more empathetic now but the surplus of feeling has left a crack in the door for fear to slide in and get comfortable. So I'm navigating that now and deeply curious about who I will become.
It is a reflection of the blessed circumstances of my life that I find myself loved by Shirin at such a time. Her love is the reason the future has cracked open and options are becoming rich and meaningful and clear.
She coaxed me into the sunlight and dusty breeze of the day and we set off with a plan scribbled on some paper and a distant restaurant as our goal. We walked and caught a taxi, to another taxi using the subtle and efficient system of naming your destination as the cabs drift by. If the driver cares to give you a lift a slight nod and the car drifts to a stop. If your destinations do not match the driver's eyes shift forward and the engine hums dismissively and you cease to exist for a split second, until you turn and speak your dreams through the next window.
We found a small gallery tucked into a hillside and circled the dark stone floor for awhile, escaping back onto the street under the glare of a spray painted yellow wall proclaiming "ART IS DEAD." This had offended someone's sensibilities enough that the entire thing had been roughly blacked out in spray paint but was still legible. The palimpsest was delicious however trite.
Eventually we wound up in an urban park/zoo that promised Ibex and other wondrous creatures. It lay a few stories under the street level in a green, terraced canyon that almost silenced the city above. The displays were a bit dated and the animal enclosures slightly dark, but earnest and bright sculptures of animals adorned the park and redressed the situation. It felt like an example of what happens when the ravages of time meet a utopian vision that could only have held water in decades past. But it was a nice shady oasis in the heat of the day and drew many people into its manicured folds.
We walked on, and on, and managed to get stuck in rush hour before bouncing between three different taxi stands and eventually getting ripped off by a driver who may have heard us speaking ingilisee and decided tourist prices were in order. Ironically he preceded overcharging us by saying "It's on the house," a traditional gesture when asked the cost of something.
With some time to kill we found a shady area and settled onto a bench surrounded by a gang of feral cats. I fell in love with one and dubbed him "koochooloo" as he attacked a cheese puff at our feet. He seemed to have the buoyant curiosity a kitten should have. All his colleagues were jaded street cats, highly skeptical and perched ghostlike at regular intervals in the bushes. Our kitten's ebullience soon found him stick up a tree and mewing for help. "Rescuing" him was a good distraction while we waited for the restaurant to open.
Finally at our destination and surrounded by a richly detailed and warmly lit interior, we ate and talked and reflected about the trip. It seems we are both now emerging from jet lag into our proper selves again.
The cab ride home was a nice counterpoint to getting hustled earlier. He drove in wide circles trying to find our place and was genuinely embarrassed and nice about the whole thing. It was a lovely day out and I feel emboldened and excited at the prospect of more encounters.
I'll never forget what we witnessed earlier, in the lambent light of dusk, a man dancing in the street, a mango in each palm, his frame gilt by the golden halo of the sun setting behind his swaying head. Gold sun, golden fruit, golden moment.
Due to the passing of a certain imam on this day of some distant year, the first two places we decide to visit today are closed. Much respect. Milad tower is closed unless you are down to drop some serious cash on the spinning restaurant and dizzying views… so lets go get Deezy instead. Working man's food. Clay pot stew of the highest order. I can't wait!
Well, yes I can wait I guess. Along with 60-70 others who pass the time chatting curbside in the afternoon shade for their turn into the cozy, old school, flavor emporium. Our family and new friends are deeply generous and warm and the bright conversation is wide ranging and engaging.
It is the most pleasant hour and a half I've ever spent working up an appetite and expectation and the food did not disappoint. Salad shirazi, dough, deezy, torshy, and farsi surround sound. The only low point was my body retaliating for the sudden shift in climate and culinary environments.
Home and rested once again, we decide to strike out toward the Museum of Cinema as night falls. We take a hired taxi through the serpentine city streets and once on the freeway, nearly flatten a random pedestrian who decided crossing a highway in the dark was somehow sensible. Perhaps it was, he survived, just. Looking across lanes I spot a dark lump in traffic and see a family of three, in black, on a motorcycle with the only helmet securely strapped over the brake light, rendering them invisible. It seems like every excursion onto Tehran's streets offers similar moments that shake my safe sensibilities… and yet it works because those who ply their trade here know that weaving clump of people in the darkness is to be expected and avoided.
We re-enter the labyrinth of one way streets in North Tehran and spend the evening outside in a lovely park with trees that seem to hang from the dark sky. We explore a beautifully adorned building and wind up at the cafe catching a string of notes that emerge from the trees as a lone trumpeter plays a ballad.
At one point I'm left alone with a new friend who speaks little english, still more than my farsi, and the silence descends. I try asking questions, gesturing, communicating, but feel woefully unprepared. It stings because he is a confident man with a world of ideas and information and I'm stuck without the tools to learn from him. I have yet to know, as an adult, the wonders of being multi-lingual. I'm stuck at the beginning with a hill to climb and with a mountain of respect for those who take on another language and put in the work to thrive. As Shirin says, it's like learning another way of being. I'm envious.
I wasn't as present as I might have been tonight as I kept watch over my trembling tummy. We made it home and I dove back into Ted Simon's books Jupiter's Travels, and Dreaming of Jupiter. I'm refreshing my memory of one, and chasing it with the other, written 27 years later. Somehow his perspective informs my own, particularly in the moments when I feel less confident.
On another note, I found out today that my friend has arranged for us to ride dirt bikes on a military compound next week. I am beyond excited at the prospect.
Up at 5:30am yet again but I've accepted that my strategy is to lay low while the jet lag wears off and then emerge fully into Tehran. As it stands we head out for two or three hours as evening approaches. Depending on the location and amount of sunlight, temperatures can swing by ten degrees from block to block, 90 to 100 and back. As we make our way toward Haft-e Tir, a large open area at the heart of Tehran, we see:
a cat perched on the edge of a blue dumpster,
a street-side cobbler using his leather shaping tools to repair a friend's soccer ball,
a canary in full song near an air conditioner,
Cool air pours onto the street from chilled storefronts and offers some relief to passersby. Haft-e Tir is packed and the sidewalk is a dance floor. Lead or follow, but always improvise and stay on your toes. Shirin teaches me the finer points of street crossing so my dancing feet don't partner up with an oncoming car.
We turn to follow a major thoroughfare with the sun blaring down and glancing up off the tiled walkway. Something seems wrong. My breathing is becoming a bit labored but I assume it's residual jet lag or anxiety and keep walking. Now it is getting hard to breathe through my nose and I feel like I can't quite extract enough oxygen with each breath. I try different things and soon realize this isn't mental but physiological.
We are on our way to a park but reach a bookstore and decide to check it out. Within minutes by breathing returns to normal and I feel fine. I realize that the level of the street, the number of cars, the heat and lack of breeze, all serve to create a caustic stew of low lying fumes that for some reason I succumbed to. I wondered how everyone else seemed to be faring so well.
In the bookstore there was an interesting confluence of figures in the bio section as books about Obama, Ghandi, and Bin Laden nestled together. Upstairs was a warmly lit cafe and a resident DJ playing uncommonly serene music.
We stepped back out onto the street and continued. The semi-fresh, air-conditioned air in my lungs held me until we turned off and wandered down to a lovely urban garden, Parke Honarmandan.
As the sun retreated, this cool green landscape provided shelter for elderly men playing backgammon, young couples, concrete soccer, outdoor ping-pong, grand sculptures, family picnics, feral cats, smokers, musicians, vendors, and a motley crew of extras that my fume addled brain neglected to draw into sharp enough focus to adequately describe.
We walked into the edifice on the south end and entered a series of photo galleries, browsed the gift shop, and ate in the cafe, disappointed that the garden side tables were all taken. Nevertheless, it was lovely.
Walking back we discussed some horrific current events and I tried to understand why it is that people are capable of harming each other in such brutal ways. This conversation took place as the sky grew stained with the deep blue of night and the air, now sweeter, flowed in eddies at the perfect temperature. I recalled two children we saw earlier, begging on the sidewalk, their faces coarsely disfigured by burns. I only saw one child and my imagination assigned the same fate to the other, unable to grasp why else they would be paired on the fume filled streets of Haft-e Tir.
When we re-emerged onto the thoroughfare, my breathing reacted to the thick air and I resigned myself to inhale deeply, to acclimatize, to get on with it. Walking back we smelled then saw fresh corn, grilling on silver-red embers, at the foot of a man seated on the curb. I only have to remember the glowing heat and charred corn and the smell comes back to me. It seemed a balm to my suffering lungs. Too many days on the California coast being force-fed Pacific breeze has made me tender.
We took a cab home and the driver maneuvered as if a leaf in a stream, flowing from side to side and, remarkably, every other leaf on the road knew the current too. We washed up on Malek Street and trotted home safe and sound, another micro-adventure complete.
Our sleep is recovering itself but taking different paths. My wife makes hers up in the mornings and I rise at 5 and steal time in the afternoons. I creep out into the rising heat of the day and try to process my feelings with a cigarette and a stray cat.
I find myself breathing and stepping lightly in a new land. Like a spirit wanting to remain undetected until I gain a deeper understanding of my surroundings. The irony of this is my trepidation makes understanding harder to come by. I sit still as an owl when people emerge from the building and they walk by without noticing the man perched under the palm in a plastic chair.
It is hard to shake the nervousness that accompanies being surrounded by an unfamiliar language and the certainty that around every corner is a sight that breathes absolutely free of memory or nostalgia. Perhaps it is the people who soften that blow. Perhaps the human condition is a shared fulcrum from which these encounters pivot, and understanding radiates from there.
For now I share the unnerved comportment of this stray cat who shares the shade of this palm and finds respite from the heat. The only difference is she has real concerns.
Later today we will walk the streets of Tehran once again and land in a lovely book store. It will be after 7pm and the temperature will have cooled to 100 degrees. We will stalk the perimeter of the cafe waiting for a table to clear and I'll thumb through volumes clinging to picture and design as I begin to relish my newfound illiteracy.
We will sip mint lemonade, reminisce, and make careful plans for the days when our sleep banks are full again, and synchronized.
Night begins to soak into the city without displacing the heat of the day. We amble home and visit family who carefully reconstruct all our plans. We eat and watch an old sitcom miraculously streamed in from the states, and we take a tired comfort in it.
We are thrilled to be here but lingering work pressures and tenacious jet lag are veiling our experience. In a couple of days we will be rising together, relaxed and with a world of new corners to turn.
After a fitful night of sleep in the Dubai airport hotel, we wandered into the sleek cold light of the vast terminal in search of coffee and something to fuel our final leap into Iran. I was optimistic and calm about getting into Tehran but the inverted sleep cycle and lack of hydration had me feeling the familiar tingles of anxiety that can precede a panic attack. I've been trying to keep my feelings near the surface so they don't quietly assemble and surprise me. I think I've done a good job at this but vigilance is a double edged sword… it monitors that which should be monitored while attending to things that should be ignored. It leaves you in a loop of only almost being fine.
At any rate, we boarded the plane and began to hear more Farsi. In less than two hours we'd land at Imam Khomeini International Airport but for now the white haze outside the window held up a brilliant blue dome of sky. We spun our tiny thread of noise and fumes as we hurtled through the atmosphere with several hundred other souls and in no time the desert appeared below. The mystery began to mount but so did my sense of calm. As we descended I had expected to see the mountains but then realized the airport must lay to the south. Our wheels touched down and the plane pirouetted onto a taxiway as a songbird found a sliver of shade under a runway marker.
At immigration we entered our separate lines and while all the Iranians were expedited through, foreign nationals had their patience tested. Mind you, this doesn't take anything more than knowing others are being seen faster than you. Never mind that the line we were in was pretty efficient in isolation, the fact that it was slower was enough to irritate some fellow travelers. I used their entitled sense of discomfort as my entertainment and before I knew it, it was my turn to be scrutinized.
Fingerprints were the order of the day since it was my first visit to Iran. My nearly non-existent Farsi was still enough to bring a few smiles to the young officers who tried earnestly to look stern and officious. At one point a group of seven came together to discuss the best way to proceed and soon enough my fingers were being firmly pressed, one at a time, onto a scanner, as an officer taught a rookie the ropes. We arm wrestled a bit as I figured out where the scanner worked best and tried maneuvering while the young man forced my hand into varying corners of the screen. There was no tension in the embrace however. I got the feeling we were both quietly enjoying it.
Once through we gathered our luggage and floated through the gates and into Iran proper, and by this I mean the loving embrace of relatives replete with flowers and food and generosity. We walked for only a few seconds before being treated to chocolate cake and melon juice in preparation for the long drive. I was in the land of taarof but this was an unfair fight. At a loss without local money, we couldn't enter into the dance of generous offers and counter offers and polite refusals with any seriousness. So it was we tasted chocolate and fresh cold juices and struck out into the reverberating sun to drive into Tehran.
I was curious to see if the driving was as bad as I've been led to believe. From a western perspective the driving is terrible. But that is often the problem with western perspectives, they are as narrow as the lanes in which they'd have you keep your car. The driving in Tehran is deeply improvisatory. These drivers aren't bad… they are really good. For a system this fluid (in which lane markings are strictly decorative) to work at all, a level of attention and awareness that surpasses anything I've seen in the west needs to be firmly in place.
Certainly there are accidents, among the highest rates in the world, but the fact that there aren't 30 times more crashes is due to the skill and, weirdly, the egolessness of the drivers. Don't get me wrong, the egos and the "me first" sensibilities are what drive this whole system, but critically, there is a point at which the ego evaporates and people acknowledge when they didn't get into a space first, and the other person moves in, and the system works. In the west, the ego persists entirely too long and if you unveiled this system in San Francisco, everyone would immediately crash into everyone else while pinning several thousand pedestrians in between the cars and life as they knew it would grind to a halt. It's just a different system… so I guess I understand why people who openly acknowledge that the rate of accidents is so high, also have a sense of pride about the driving here.
It offers pedestrians a thrill too as I learned when we took a stroll to the grocery store. Confidence is key because you might as well be a motorcycle or a car. Your presence isn't treated any differently and crossing the street becomes an intoxicating mix of prediction, reaction, assertion, urgency, and patience. It's an equal mix of fun and terror at first and you end up laughing at the fluidity of it all just so you'll dare cross the next street when the time comes.
Tehran was shrouded in a cloak of its own devising. The smog created by the cars and clung to the city and mixed with the weather generated by nearby mountains to drape the city in a sticky warm haze. The city began to reveal itself, a syncopated mixture of tunnels and towers, colors and construction, brimming with humanity and history.
Our relatives offered ice cream (by offered I mean put it in our hands) and then swept us off to a late lunch, thereby insuring an afternoon nap. It is nearly midnight as I write this and I have no desire to eat whatsoever. I'm being beaten down with deliciousness. I wonder what tomorrow will bring.
Tomorrow isn't even here and we are upstairs chatting with young friends about motorcycles and droughts, cell phones and self love. More fruit, and the offer of food, but the need for sleep takes over and we are ready for bed. Not even a full day in Tehran but still a very full day. Kheili.