For tourists searching for a quick and free slice of traditional Iran there’s the Tajrish Traditional Bazaar (Bazar-e-Tajrish), in the heart of north Tehran, which is closer to the city’s top hotels than the more famous Grand Bazaar of Tehran in the city’s center. It’s size and variety is only a tiny slice of the Grand Bazaar, but Tajrish is less congested and the air is cooler and less polluted than central Tehran.
Quaint passageways rebuilt from hundreds of years ago – open 9 am to 9 pm seven days a week – are home to merchants of of food, electronics, clothes, gold and silver jewelry, religious artifacts, artwork and household goods, all next to each other, in no particular order, lit by a combination of incandescent and daylight sneaking in through the roof.
You got giant heaps of saffron sold next to Rolex watches (Swiss inspiration but Guangzhou replication, of course), next to Italian shoes (of Guangzhou’s best fake leather) next to Nike clothes (again Guangzhou, probably). Actually, the entire bazaar is filled with top European and American brands replicated in China, as is the case in the rest of Iran.
Tajrish Bazaar is great for people watching. These old alleys pull in every walk of life and its exact opposite, from the heavily hijabed women in black chadors to the Botoxed bottle blondes, in heels and giant Gucci sunglasses, their obligatory but perfunctory hijab so thin, it’s practically invisible from afar.
The old and the young, the seemingly well-off and the apparently poor, the supposed sinful and the ostensible archetypes of piety – robes, turbans and all – they all come and go, some searching, some darting by, seemingly miffed at the slow-walking visitors, a la the employed New Yorkers on the city’s Fifth Avenue.
You hear all kinds of languages, like on a Ridley Scott film set; Arabic, Turkish, English, Persian in multiple dialects.
When I hear Arabic, I end up meeting two young Iraqi brothers studying in Tehran. Their elderly father doesn’t have much to say about Iraq, except, “it’s too close to Daesh” – which suddenly reminds me that this entire time I haven’t worried once about pickpockets or bag-snatchers or terrorist attacks, all of which are much more common in European tourist destinations.
Here in Iran, people carry other burdens, always with an eye on the supposed advantages of the other. Most are eager to share their philosophy at the first opportunity.
“From morning on we’re all consumed with social stresses because the Iranian is obsessed with reputation,” complains H.R. Asgari of VIP Saffron, between handing customers free cups of saffron water and rapid swipes of the next customer’s bank card.
“Every single moment we have to worry about how I’m being thought of in the neighborhood, in the family, as well as the guy who just walked in. … Westerners don’t have this problem. They couldn’t care less what others think of them and that’s why you look so much younger than your age.”
In the bazaar there’s plenty of opportunity to contemplate existentialism. You got Asgari’s fancy store brimming with valuable saffron and then sitting on the ground outside is a skeleton of a man whose entire enterprise consists of weighing people, at 500 tomans (15 cents USD) a pop.
How did the the saffron merchant get rich and the old man with just an old pharmacy scale? Did one attract wealth with his positive attitude, like they teach at the prosperous-life seminars? If so, then why is the rich man complaining and the poor man is sending me off with a smile?
“Please come back anytime; I’m always here,” the old man tells me grinning avuncularly, his eyes discolored by disease but sparkling with life. “And God bless you.”
Tajrish, formerly an ancient village at the foot of the Alborz mountains, consists of Tajrish Square on the west and the Qods Square on the east, both major bus and taxi destinations. The Qods Square (which is really a three-way without anything in the middle) is also home to Tajrish Metro Station, the northernmost and the terminus station of Line 1. The Tajrish Bazaar is walking distance between the two squares.
What to Buy
Souvenirs, like woven, metal and sculpted handcrafts at Ijadi Handicraft – perhaps the only solid objects in the entire bazaar not made in China. “All the foreign tour [guides] bring their tourists here,” Ijadi informs.
There are the traditional medicine shops – knowns as atari – selling every kind of dried goods and plant extract for every imaginable ailment, diagnosis free of charge. Just walk in and say what’s hurting (or which body part is not performing optimally when called upon by a loved one); a helpful English speaker is usually somewhere nearby to help translate.
At the atari, there’s always gol gavzaban, a dried flower for an anti-depression brew, which as many Iranians attest, really does work.
There’s saffron-tinged nabat, rock candy taken as a general sweetener of hot drinks, but also prescribed for colds, gas and diarrhea.
Also there’s plenty of pistachios and myriad kinds of dried fruits that one can used to delay or avoid another hotel meal.
Fresh Fruit at Tajrish Bazaar
If a fresh fruit or vegetable is available in Iran, it can surely be found at Tajrish Bazaar. It’s the equivalent of Barcelona’s Boca Grande for fruit. The merchants, known for charging premium prices, are also full of quick comebacks.
“We call these jalapenos,” I tell my companion as I examine one heap of the peppers, among heaps of many other kinds of pepper, in the section of the bazaar known as the Takieh.
“We call them jalapenos too,” the seller pipes in urgenty, bag in hand, impatient for the next sale.
“Really? I bet you haven’t got habaneros, though,” I say.
“What’s habanero?” he frowns, but then quickly adds, “Come back tomorrow; it’ll have habaneros too.”
Every alley of the bazaar ends at the mausoleum of Emamzadeh Saleh, a brother of Iman Reza. It provides a different quieter view of Tehran life.