It’s after midnight and I’m still on the bus to Tehran. My telephone didn’t beep at all yet and I’ve nowhere to go when I get there. I’m frantically text-messaging three people – all of the people I met in Tabriz, my only contacts in the country – Do you know anyone in Tehran?
The bus breaks down.
A new bus comes. Strangers herd me onto it.
A man attempts to speak with me in halting English. I discover he, like most other people from the East Azerbaijan region of Iran, can speak Turkish – albeit a very different sounding Turkish than what the locals call ‘Istanbul Turkish’ – the kind I’m learning. I ask if he knows of a cheap hotel? What kind of place? He asks. “The cheapest”, I tell him. He says something I don’t understand and writes a phone number on a card for me.
I get off the bus. People scutter off, leaving me with the taxi drivers, who crowd around me – “taxi madam, taxi madam, taxi madam…” I run away, pretending I have somewhere to run to. It’s the Day of Ashura and everything’s closed. I find a large, drab cafe with people smoking water-pipe in the corner. The guy behind the counter speaks Turkish and I ask again about a place to sleep – the cheapest. He says something I don’t understand and shakes his head. I ask where I am, am I near the centre? He shakes his head. How do I get there? “Taxi”. Is there a bus? He shakes his head, looking sympathetic.
I go back to the taxi rank. Immediately they surround me like a pack of hyenas, leering over me. I ask about the price to the centre and try to do the math – tomans into rials into dollars into pounds. It sounds expensive. I look at the men’s faces and decide I don’t trust them. What to do, what to do? One thing I’ve learned over three years of travelling is this: if you’re panicking, sit down and drink a tea.
I find a kiosk with a couple of tables close to the taxi rank and sit down. Just then, text messages begin rolling in. I asked Milad to put a message on the Tehran Couchsurfing group for me, and apparently news is getting around that there’s some unfortunate (stupid) tourist stuck in Tehran without a host. There are people awake in this city after all. Unfortunately, my phone credit has run out.
A man wanders over and asks in a much politer manner if I’d like a taxi. I tell him maybe, but I don’t know where I’m going yet. He lends me his phone and I call the guy who sent the last message – a friend of a friend of a friend I met once in Tabriz. Soon, this mystery person on the phone is arranging a host for me close to the centre, while haggling a price with the taxi driver and attempting to top up my phone credit remotely.
Azadeh answers the door at 3am. She makes tea and we begin a conversation that will run over three days and cover every topic from cultural stereotypes, through the nature of existence, to women’s roles in marriage and the soaring trend of nose jobs in Tehran.
Azadeh, whose name means Freedom, is a stunningly beautiful young Iranian woman with her own flat, close to the centre of town. It’s extremely rare for a young, unmarried Iranian woman to live alone. Azadeh tells me she’s been warned by friends not to host men from Couchsurfing, because people will talk. “But what can I do?” She asks me. “I want to host people, and most of the people coming are men.”
I spend a week in Tehran, moving hosts twice in order to meet more people and see different parts of the city. I stay with an English teacher in his forties, who lives with his parents and hosts people in the basement room, despite his mother’s disapproval. Every inch of the room, including the ceiling, is plastered in big touristic pictures of Iran. Later, I stay with a young film-maker who shares a flat with his male friend. The flat has one bedroom, which neither of them sleep in, and almost no furniture. Both of the guys lie on the carpet by the fire in the lounge, rolling up their mattresses and blankets each morning.
The smog in Tehran drives me crazy. I remember reading somewhere that it’s the most polluted city in the world, but I didn’t really believe it before now. Walking the streets of the city involves holding my breath as much as possible, and a barrage of questions from curious Iranians who just want to know – “Where are you from?”, “Where are you going?”, but above all – “Why did you come to Iran?”
After hours of wandering in search of the perfect Writing Cafe, I eventually find a small pizza bar with some tables. They don’t have coffee, but the woman goes to the shop and buys small sachets of 3 in 1 Nescafe for me. I’ve boycotted Nescafe for years and I don’t take sugar or milk, but anyway, I sit with my laptop and drink two of these in quick succession. I pour the sachet into my paper cup of hot water, atop a small round flimsy plastic tray. I watch the grey powder bubble under and stir it in with the transparent plastic knife she gave me. It’s hard to find places to write in Iran.
I’ve already been in this dilemma several times before I remember Cafe Romance. When Lisa and Sara came to Tehran a year ago, it was their favourite place to go in the city and they both mentioned it in their blogs. I write to them for directions and eventually find the place. I can see why they liked it so much. I meet one of the twins they befriended, who’s still working there. He remembers Sara and Lisa well and tells me he misses them dearly, especially Sara, who helped him with some relationship problems he was going through. Bless.
The gender-segregation in Iran is really something else. Actually, I’d call it gender-apartheid. Buses and metros have women-only sections, where men are not allowed. Women are allowed into other spaces, which are mixed gender, but I quickly take up the idea that it’s safer and more comfortable to travel in the women’s areas, unless I’m with a male friend. If I lived in Iran, I could imagine myself becoming a Separatist Feminist very fast. More on that in a later post.
My greatest discovery while in Tehran is the women-only park in the North of the city. Here, women can remove their hijabs (head-scarves) and bare their hair to the wind. Internet sources report that the government has even planted trees and shrubbery around the park in such a manner as to obscure the view from a helicopter flying overhead. Such are the lengths Iranian men might apparently go to in order to catch a glimpse of a lock or two of hair.