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Amir Chakmak Mosque at Yazd

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Ebrat Museum

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Imamzadeh Mahruq Mosque

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Chandliers and Ceiling of Imamzadeh  Mosque

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Zoroastrian Fire Temple in Yazd

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Bronze Mountaineer Statue ,Darband Stream

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by Eleanora Vio

[dropcap color=”#000000″ type=””]P[/dropcap]eople aboard the plane drain the last sips of wine and the hostesses check that no trace has remained of other haram activities they were engaged in. TV screens are turned off, and magazines are stripped off the passengers’ hands and thrown away.

Just as the speakers play the Morning Prayer, women take out their manteu (Iranian-style coats) and hijab. With a skilful movement they adjust their headscarves and let their dyed hair locks pop out carelessly. Once the hair is hidden in accordance to the Islamic precepts (is it, really?), they pass to the make-up.

At first I don’t get why good-looking women should put on so much foundation, eye shadow, eyeliner and lipstick, as if they wanted to conceal their facial features. But, as soon as I cover my hair, surely in a much clumsier way than my Iranian peers, and I look at my new self in the mirror, I can’t but miss the beauty case I left in Cairo.

The road from the airport to South Tehran, where Hotel Firouzeh is located, is unexpectedly quiet. I was told that even for me, used to live in the maze of streets and cars of Cairo, it would be hard to cope with the pollution and traffic congestion of Tehran. But, looking out of the taxi window at that time of the day when people normally start their vehicles and go to work, a different scenario deploys before my eyes.

“Nowruz is the best period of the year,” the taxi driver says smiling from the rear-view mirror. “Tehran citizens wait impatiently for this national holiday to run away from the city and rest in the countryside with their beloved ones.”

“I am an exception,” the driver adds. “I am one of those few who wait for the others to leave to take a breath and finally enjoy my hometown.”

Nowruz is a pre-Islamic festivity, which means “New Day.” It represents in fact the new day that starts the year and, precisely, the exact astronomical beginning of the spring.

Roughly at 8 in the morning I get to the hotel and am warmly welcomed by “the attraction of the place,” as my guidebook defines him, such as Firouzeh manager, Mousavi. Although it is amusing to observe a character of times gone by like him, wearing a threadbare livery, entertaining young backpackers with witty anecdotes, I opt for a short nap.

A couple of hours later, I sit in the old-fashioned living room at Firouzeh and make an unpleasant discovery: breakfast doesn’t include coffee. I can’t believe it. As no one apart from Mousavi speaks English there, and even the simplest body language seems idle, I march to the kitchen and I spell out the word “C-O-F-F-E-E”.

The waiter apologises and tries to explain that Iranians don’t drink coffee. They are tea drinkers. While I stuff my mouth with fresh Iranian traditional bread and delicious carrot jam, I slowly nod my head. “Never mind,” I whisper not entirely convinced.

The Zoroastrian fire temples in Tehran are not as famous as their Southern cousins from Yazd, but Mr Mousavi insists that, if I want to feel Nowruz spirit fully, I should at least cast a quick look in there. Although Nowruz has become part of every Iranian’s life, and today it is deemed to be the most important holiday in the Islamic Republic, its roots lay in the oldest, but highly discriminated, religious belief of the country.

Adrian temple is a century old and lies in the core of the Islamic city, not far from Imam Khomeini Square where the national holiday of the Martyrdom of Fatima (Prophet Mohamed’s daughter) is being celebrated, nearby the main Armenian school – another target of the authoritarianism of the regime.

After walking up the marble steps heading to the entrance of the temple, you can’t but notice the giant reproductions of the Seven S’s (Haft Sin) items typical of Nowruz. Displayed in the bright white porch are sabzeh (wheat barley or lentils), samanu (sweet pudding), senjed (dried fruit of the oleaster tree), sir (garlic), sib (apples), somaq (sumac berries), serkeh (vinegar), and all together wish the temple guests a splendid new year.

Inside, the temple is more intimate than a mosque – where people, besides praying, gather with friends and kids in convivial symposia, but less spiritual than a church – where lights are dim and people stare at the golden altar and the solemn priest from the bombastic voice.

Displayed, there’s neither luxurious items and velvet tiles nor excerpts from the sacred Avesta texts. It would look like a town hall if it weren’t for a central pulpit, in the middle of which a Zoroastrian priest maintains the “Holy Fire” alive. One “who sacrifices unto fire with fuel in his hand is given happiness” is the main principle Zoroastrians believe in.

I read that to benefit from the firepower I should sprinkle holy ash on my forehead, and so I do. With my new greyish skin complexion, I walk backwards to the main entrance of the temple, as I am afraid I would break the magic spell if I turned my back to the Fire, and I step out of there.

The sky is getting dusky and it feels like it might be raining soon. I start flipping through the guidebook pages to look for the nearest place to visit. A couple of blocks away stands the Ebrat Museum. Its description sounds creepy at the least but… A thunder rumbles loudly and I speed up my pace towards the main iron gate.

Ebrat Museum used to be one of the main prisons of Shah Pahlavi’s secret police, the dreadful Savak. Besides his firm intention to turn Iran into a secular and Westernised country, the Shah was well known for the iron fist against his opponents – from political activists, to intellectuals and Islamic figures. In particular, the abuses and tortures carried out in these secret dungeons from 1974 to 1979 are still taken as a remarkable example of groundless cruelty.

The museum consists of a five-storey circular building. Each of its cells looks out onto a corridor surrounded by iron bars, and the wax likenesses of the detainees hang up there with hands and feet scuffed tight. While the prisoners’ inmates were being tortured indoors, they were publicly displayed and humiliated outdoors and their bodies, after being abused repetitiously, were exposed to the freezing winter and the boiling summer.

The tour guide exhorts us to hurry up but I decide to walk at the back of the line to be able to pause a bit longer on each of the dreadful rooms. Each of the tiny cubicles puts up a torture method carried out by the inscrutable jailers. Upside down bodies hang up from the ceiling. Some detainees were kept for days within wooden boxes the size of a birdcage, whilst others were tied on hot cots and “toasted” until they confessed their crimes. Most of them have amputated limps and different grades of burnings.

The upper floors host the detention cells where thousand inmates were either kept in solitary confinement and starved to death, or piled up brutally on the bare stone. The museum tour takes us along corridors whose walls are covered by the portraits of those who had been detained in hell for years, and often didn’t make it out of there.

Suddenly, the old guide interrupts his speech and points at a faded picture behind him: “Can you recognise this boy?” he asks smiling sadly. Abd Azaziban, number 84222, is him. We all stand still, incapable of emitting a single sound, until a woman in the back starts cursing the Shah and blessing Imam Khomeini, her “life-saviour.”

The tour is finished. If those brutal scenes are still stuck in my mind, I can’t forget that the Islamic propaganda machine has used this piece of tragic history for its own purposes. Why aren’t the atrocities committed by the Islamic Republic’s forefather displayed, too?!

While I sit on the bus traveling on the longest road in Tehran, such as the 18 km long Valiasr Street, I consider the fact that, since I got in the Islamic Republic of Iran, I haven’t done anything Islamic.

I get off at the end of the route in Tajrish Square, which is in the middle between a crown of snow-clad mountains and the huge colourful Mosque of Imamzadeh. I don’t hesitate a second and I head instead towards the entrance of that majestic worship place.

I’m not an expert when it comes to Islamic architecture and design but this mosque is stunning. Blue and white mosaic tiles – and a few images of Imams Khomeini and Khamenei – cover its perimeter and hundred threads of lumens link the opposite walls. In the middle of the outer yard there are the black marbled tombs of the Iranian nuclear scientists who have been recently murdered. People mourn them loudly.

I am so absorbed by the surrounding view that I don’t realise that a chubby woman dragged me into a cloakroom and is now wrapping up a flowery chador (head to toe veil) all around my body. At the end she smiles and insists that I look at myself in the mirror. I look ridiculous at the least.

After stumbling over and over upon the piece of cloth I’m wearing, I finally make it to the women’s side of the mosque. I take a little while to adjust my eyes to the sparkling silver tiles that upholster the walls and the giant chandeliers that swing above my head.

I push from one and the other side to get rid of the women blocking my path, and I finally enter the tiny room where the remains of Saleh, a son of the Twelver Shia Imam, Musa al-Khadim, are contained. His golden and green shrine is unreachable, as there are dozens of broken-hearted women stretching their arms to touch it or kiss it. They not only mourn the Shia martyr but also implore Saleh to heal the pain of their beloved ones.

Instinctively I lower my gaze and I improvise a prayer for my own relatives. When I’m done, I look at my watch and I realise that I have a meeting for dinner in less than 30 minutes. I smile sympathetically at the weeping women around me and I run out of the mosque.

Riccardo is waiting for me in front of the bronze Mountaineer Statue standing in Darband Square, one of the main starting routes taken by hikers for reaching the central Alborz Range, at 1800 meters above sea level.

The steep winding path passing through restaurants, cafes and hooka (shisha) lounges, and by the Darband River and other streams, is spectacular. The street vendors keep offering us lavashak, a red sweet with different shapes and grades of sourness, but after the umpteenth bit, as my tongue is lobster red, I stutter the forbidden words: Na, merci. (No, thanks)

I’ve been walking since this morning and after this unexpected hike I beg Riccardo to pick any random place and get some rest. “No worries. Here we are,” he says pleased of his cautious choice. We take off our shoes and sit down on one of the lifted up tables scattered in this fairy environment.

Darband, with its perfect combination between wildness and comfort, has become the favourite ran-away location for groups, families and couples willing to take a break from the city. Women loosen their headscarves and laugh and smoke together with men, and children splash into the puddles and run after each other in the forest.

As the time to order comes, Riccardo asks me to go with him and check the speciality of the day. I almost have a heart attack as I realise that I forgot to tell him that I’m vegetarian and he shows me a long selection of cow entrails I can choose from. “You know what? A green salad will be more than enough for me,” I tell him trying to be as more convincing as I can.

He insists that I share a heart – yes, a heart! – with him but, nonchalantly, I tell him that after so much strolling across Tehran I feel more tired than hungry and I just need time to rest.

Whilst Riccardo savours his meal, I take some time to reflect over the day that has just passed by.

Tehran is a city of contradictions. It avoids simplistic definitions and combines contrasting nuances into a charming but unsettling environment. Tehran is to be discovered day by day, and to be dug deep into its surface. Tehran is a special and unique place.

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