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Discovering Iran

Children today experience a Tehran that's different in every respect, a soot-gray sea of concrete and asphalt punctuated by idle cranes. Rows of dispirited housing blocks stretch to the horizon. The bridle paths of Vanak have given way to traffic-choked roundabouts. Tehran's population has quadrupled to 16 million since the revolution, overwhelming the city's infrastructure to a shocking degree: during the evening rush it can take hours to drive two miles across town. On bad days, the pollution stings the lungs; after a rainfall, sidewalks are coated with sticky residue from the oil in the air.

But Tehran does hold pockets of tranquillity. Leila and I spend a morning in Darakeh, in the foothills of north Tehran, where a rushing brook cuts through a ravine crisscrossed by hiking trails. Along the path we're joined by dozens of young couples holding hands—up here there are no authorities to keep watch, and several women have even removed their head scarves. We spot one couple pitching a tent in the woods while tea brews on a Coleman stove and a portable stereo quietly plays Dylan. An old man and his donkey appear on the path, hauling a snack cart of dried fruit. As the sun crests the ridge we stop at a trailside chaykhuneh (teahouse) for wood oven–baked eggs and lavash bread.

From Darakeh's hills the grime of Tehran seems light-years away. The brook runs clear as a Colorado stream. In fact, this same water is funneled into the city by a series of underground channels. (The manipulation of water, one of Iran's most precious resources, is a testament to Persian ingenuity.) The streams reemerge as canals, or jub, that run beside major boulevards. The water produces a cooling effect in summer and nourishes the plane trees alongside it. On muddy days the canals turn the color of chocolate milk, like a Willy Wonka fantasy. But when the water runs clear, the jub and rows of trees bestow a grace on the avenues of north Tehran.

Despite the exodus of so many wealthy Tehranis after 1979, there is still a visible upper class here, and a palpable divide between the moneyed and the working poor. The latter—deeply religious and reliably pro-regime—dominate Tehran's south side. The more affluent and secular north side might as well be a separate nation. Here one sees traces of the sophisticated, Europeanized city that was envisioned in the thirties by Shah Reza Pahlavi. The northern reaches of Val-ye-Asr Avenue are lined with jewelry shops and clothing stores. At the popular north Tehran restaurant Nayeb, customers are greeted by a white-gloved doorman and serenaded by a pianist. One evening, Farhad and Maryam take us to a California-style shopping plaza, replete with (counterfeit) Esprit and Levi's boutiques, a mahogany-walled "pub" serving smoothies in lieu of beer, and a trendy sushi bar. Over spicy tuna rolls, Leila and I survey the room and count seven women with plastered noses—in Tehran, rhinoplasty bandages are proudly exhibited as status symbols.

The real nexus of Tehran's wealth, however, is not in the north but in the sprawling Tehran Bazaar, on the south side. Billions of rials pass through the bazaar's humble stalls, representing a third of all commercial and retail trade in Iran. (The conservative bazari hold great political power, and were a driving force behind the Islamic revolution.) On a busy Saturday we plunge head-long into the bazaar, led by my mother-in-law, who seems to have every nook hardwired into her brain. It's like watching a kid dominate a Nintendo game. Expertly dodging mule carts and speeding wheelbarrows, Monir guides us to her favorite spice dealers, haberdashers, and goldsmiths. Leila ogles a necklace.

"That's Italian," the jeweler says in Farsi. "Funny, it doesn't look Italian," Leila says. "No, not from Italy," he explains. "Italian means 'best quality.'" Monir, unblinking, wangles a 50 percent discount. (It's then that I realize how fortunate I am to be shopping with my in-laws; without such help, an outsider could be hopelessly fleeced.)

A chaii vendor trudges past, carrying two buckets roped to a stick, one containing a samovar, the other full of cups and sugar cubes. (Iranians like to hold a cube between their teeth while sipping tea.) At the rear of the bazaar is the famous carpet showroom, where a fine cloud of dust is kicked up by the clap of unfurling rugs. Most patterns are traditional and stunningly beautiful. Alongside those are woven illustrations—designed for European tourists—depicting the Last Supper, Napoleon on his horse, and Kate and Leo on the prow of the Titanic.

Westerners are conditioned to imagine Iran as a joyless place. "Isn't it illegal to laugh in public there?" an acquaintance in New York had asked. Before Leila corrected him—"No, you idiot"—I caught myself wondering if it were true. How could we know better?News reports paint a grim picture: stern-faced women in mourning-black chadors, wild-eyed men howling for their martyr Hossein. From that distance, one would believe Iranians are a gloomy and severe lot.

How reaffirming, then, to visit the tomb of the 14th-century poet Hafez, in Shiraz, Iran's most soulful city. The tomb is surrounded by rose gardens and pomegranate groves; on this moonlit evening a jubilant crowd has gathered to hear recitations of Hafez's lusty verse about wine, dancing, and nightingales. And if two of those three are currently against the law, that hardly diminishes the mood. The audience hoots at the bawdiest double entendres, and joins in unison at the most exuberant lines. As preschoolers dart among the rosebushes and old men laugh over a backgammon game, I watch one couple exchange a swoonworthy kiss.

Leila and I get delightfully lost in the jumble of Old Shiraz. Along dusty back lanes we come upon a dilapidated mansion, its timbered roof caved in, century-old frescoes peeling off the walls. Several families of Afghani refugees have taken up residence on the sagging upper floors. Above us, the women wash clothes in a vast, cracked iron cauldron while their children play soccer in the courtyard.

On a sweltering morning we drive across the red-clay desert outside Shiraz to the ruins of Persepolis, the magnificent palace complex conceived by Darius the Great in 518 b.c. Persepolis is renowned not just for its grandeur—sweeping staircases, towering sculptures of winged lions and bulls—but for its graceful synthesis of foreign elements. The Achaemenids of ancient Persia were a remarkably catholic people, noted for their tolerance of other cultures. An endless stream of foreign guests were received at Persepolis, including Egyptians, Syrians, Babylonians, Ethiopians, and Cappadocians. These and other peoples were respectfully depicted in evocative bas-reliefs—clad in their native dress, astride camels, goats, and stallions, bearing gifts of elephant tusks, honeycombs, and lion skins from their distant homelands. The tableau is a stirring reminder of an age when Iran was literally at the center of the world.

In 1971, the shah staged an extravagant celebration at Persepolis in honor of its 2,500th "anniversary." He invited scores of world leaders to pay tribute, just as Darius had done in his day. Untold millions were spent on the party, at which (in accordance with the shah's tastes) guests ate food flown in from Paris and sipped champagne in Baccarat flutes. As a bid to shore up the Pahlavis' legitimacy and to rally "Persian pride," the party was a bust and only further alienated the people from the monarchy. Within a decade the shah would be deposed, and the glories of imperial Persia would be rejected by many as symbols of corruption. The more ardent revolutionaries hoped to purge Iran not only of Western influences but of its Persian (i.e., pre-Islamic) past; hard-liners even proposed bulldozing the ruins at Persepolis.

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