One of the Iran trip surprises on a tour of Iran is the huge class and culture differences you see on the streets. The way the people dress tells you everything.
In the West, it’s difficult to instantly tell who is liberal and who is conservative or who is poor and who is rich.
But here, liberals and conversavatives have their separate ways of dressing.
The stereotype, of course, is that everyone in Iran is religious and conservative. But Iran is not a monolith.
Also, there is a huge chasm between the upper and lower classes, now greater than ever. You notice it even on short walks through Tehran’s neighborhoods.
Here’s a story about one such stroll in Tehran:
Iran trip surprises on a stroll in Tehran
It’s impossible to just walk for the sake of walking in the wealthy northern Tehran. There’s so much irony, I can’t stop taking snapshots and scratching my head.
Iran trip surprises are everywhere. What in the heck happened here? I’ve been asking during my first stroll here in five years.
Saeideh and I are sweating our way up a steep incline toward what 40 years ago used to be the tiny village of Sohanak in the slopes of the incredible Alborz mountains skirting northern Tehran.
There wasn’t anything here but farms, chickens, mud shacks and modest weekend villas.
Now it’s home to expensive high rises and the occasional poor who eke out a living on the sidewalks.
It’s also home to both the traditional who tend to be religious and the Iranians who identify with all things Western.
Iran trip surprises: Fashionable “bacon”
At a mall called Platinum Complex, I can’t find any Persian store names or Farsi script. Names like Cafe Viuna and Prague Cafe Pastry all appear in Roman characters.
At Patiss Cafe & Bakery, the girl behind the counter greets us by rattling off a list of sandwiches: “Bacon turkey, bacon with tomatoes, bacon and cheese …”
I’m confused. “You’re really selling bacon here? It’s an Islamic country.”
She laughs. “Oh, it’s all beef. We just call it bacon.”
Iran trip surprises: Sandwich that costs 1/3 of worker’s daily wage
The menu is entirely in English and all the prices are conveniently missing three zeros. A “Rustic Ham snack” goes for 72, which means 72,000 tomans (about $2.50 USD).
72,000 tomans is – and this is perhaps the primary reason behind the political unrest here – more than a third of an unskilled worker’s minimum wage for an entire day.
The woman sitting at the table behind us at Patiss is not covering her hair. Then I see other young women walk by with their headscarves down and hanging on their shoulders.
“With all the protests going on, nobody cares anymore,” one of them tells us.
Two fashions, two worlds
Then I see a girl wrapped up in layers of black hijab, giving me an angry eye the instant I snap a pic.
Nearby, on the grass, sits another young woman with salon-colored red hair and matching manteau, something that would not find favor with the authorities.
She is posing for a product ad on Instagram. Happily nods at my request to take a snapshot.
All this is happening directly across the street from a branch of Azadi University, where students enter through segregated male and female entrances and so much as sneezing without hijab could end in a lifetime expulsion.
Permanently affixed above the university’s gate is a smiling portrait of Qasem Soleimani, the general who was assassinated by a United States airstrike in 2020. The entire university is named after him. It’s impossible to walk any major street in Iran without seeing his portraits over and over.
Another one of my Iran trip surprises: the 20,000,000,000 apartment
Further up the hill, we ask the caretaker at a new high-rise about the apartment prices.
The cheapest is a 4-bedroom on the first floor for 20 billion tomans. Yes, 20 billion, or about $700,000 USD, in a nation where only the luckiest office worker might make $400 a month.
“You mean you now need $700,000 to have an apartment in Tehran?” I ask Saeideh.
She laughs. “Come on. You know that this is not the most expensive neighborhood,” she says.
The caretaker is curious about my ignorance.
“Where are you from?”
He shakes his head when I tell him. “You are kidding, right?” He says he can’t believe that we returned to Iran. We hear this all the time. The poor economy has turned the preferred route of travel to the outside of Iran.
“God is good”
On the same street, a shoe shiner toils on the sidewalk.
Yunes Khaleghzadeh, a native of the area, charges 10,000 (about 27 cents USD) to polish shoes and 35,000 ($1.20 USD) for repairs.
Where is your shop? I ask.
He laughs. “This is my shop,” he responds with nary of sarcasm or anger. “At night, I put my stuff in that store over there and go home.”
Why don’t you have your own store?
“I don’t know. That’s how things worked out. It’s fine. God is good,” he says.
Further up the hill, we enter “Haj Hasan Dairy Cafe”, signage again in Roman characters.
A kilo of cheese goes for 190,000 tomans. A kilo of honey is $350,000, two-and-a-half times a worker’s daily wage.
“Why do you have the name of the store in Roman characters? There can’t be that many people here who don’t read Farsi,” I ask the proprietor.
“It’s fashionable,” he says.
Searching for the old in Tehran
We go hunting for what might be left of the old Sohanak structures. It’s like fishing for needles in a haystack.
There’s an old mosque with a poplar tree that must be at least six meters in diameter.
There are portraits of martyrs here and there, of course; a common sight all over Iran.
nostalgia in iran – triggered by sight of old homes
A few old quaint old buildings sit in the shadows of the new high-rises, the sight of which instantly excites me.
When I see buildings this old, I remember my childhood.
Even in this concrete jungle, it is still possible to find beauty. Saeideh goes all googly eyed at the sight of a tailor’s shop draped with grapevines and flowers.
“Look how clean the sidewalk is. Someone here cares about their place here,” she says.
The incredible rise in property prices – it’s now at least 20 million times the pre-Revolution prices 43 years ago – has led to some comical construction, like this building that can’t be more than three meters in width:
Or check out this old hut surviving in the shadows of the high-rises.
That’s someone’s home. Probably someone grateful to have a home at all. But if he owns the land, well, he’s a billionaire!
Finally, we reach the end of the construction to where the bare hills begin.
From here, Tehran and its 10- or 15- or 20-million people – nobody really knows – spreads below us under a permanent haze of pollution.
Tehran’s insatiable growth
Then we see a hand-written metal sign addressed to the “dear mountain gobblers”. We can’t tell if it’s being serious or making fun of this crazy time. There’s no contact info. Who wrote it?
“Of attention to the dear mountain gobblers,
Here, at the height of 1900 meters above Tehran,
The city hall is issuing building permits.
I’m sure many are hurrying up, ironies notwithstanding.