a toast to tehran

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Embracing the Diaspora. The Islamic Revolution and its aftermath sent tens of thousands Iranian away from their homeland to seek new lives abroad. Most went to the United States but also to Canada, Germany and France.

Tehran is an easy contender for the title as the most misrepresented city in the world.

Partly as a result of decades long US sanctions, media sensationalism and the occasional name confusion with a war-ravaged neighbouring Arab country, the world’s image of Iran is sadly twisted, misinformed and plain wrong. Iran or, from the 1979 revolution onwards, the Islamic Republic of Iran is not what people imagine it to be.

Visitors to Iran’s huge and sprawling capital Tehran will be quickly amazed to discover a clean, beautiful and varied city that is friendly, modern and surprisingly very safe.

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Despite Iran’s famous Islamic rules on dress codes, you will find on any given street or home in Tehran, a city of 15 million people, less chadors and more fashionable and looser headscarves than in Kuala Lumpur, less or no niqab and burka compared to London and even arguably less beards than in Berlin.

Set against the timeline of Iran’s 3,000 year long and mainly glorious history, Tehran is a relatively young capital city. In 1776 Agha Mohammad Khan, a king of the Qajar Dynasty chose it as his seat of power due to Tehran’s pivotal location near to the historic Persian homelands on the Iranian Plateau and close to the new Persian dominions in the Central Asian steppes  and the Mountains of the Caucasus.

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Although Tehran is not far from the desert and has an arid climate don’t expect to find an oasis town of date palms and plodding camels. Instead it is a city of well-lit parks with statues of famous poets and broad pedestrian friendly boulevards lined with tall trees that turn lime green in spring, emerald when the days are warm, golden yellow in fall and leafless when the city is blanketed with winter snow.

Tehran is modern and appears for the most parts brown and frozen in time circa 1970s. However, amidst its mainly boxy low-rise buildings there are some fine surviving examples of fin de siecle French architecture and old houses of astonishing grace and beauty.

Tehran is a city that belongs nominally and geographically but not mentally in the Middle East. Despite deriving its religion, writing script and 40% of its vocabulary from the Arabs, Iranians are an Indo-European race whose language suffused with the poetries of Ferdowsi, Hafez, Omar Khayyam and Rumi is believed by many to be the most beautiful-sounding and elegant in the world.

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Text and photographs copyright Kerk Boon Leng October 2016

10 thoughts on “a toast to tehran

  1. You’re killing me, Kerk! It appears you visited the spider’s hidden Queen before her frontman dropped by last week for a chat. The historian in you, Kerk, is just as mysterious as her master who ‘misrepresents’ her beauty by design. The pyramidal structure of the Iranian parliament is a hint. Tel-Aviv, will be your magnum opus.

    • Thanks Tom as always for the insights and for teaching me the art of understanding the “real” history of inter-nations relations and discourse.

  2. I haven’t commented yet, but i have read and love every post! What unique perspective you provide. Makes me want to head there!!! Your pictures are so beautiful, I am always intrigue by the dynamics of your photography and the cultural aspect of your site. Such comprehensive view. Offers a good insight of whats its like travelling in the area. I only wish i could write and take photos like you. Proving even lawyers can have fun. So stunning.Looking at your site is a good way to spend a few hours..to have a second cup of coffee.😊 You are awesome in real life as you are on your blog.
    Thank you so much Kerk. I love your site and hope we’re able to meet somewhere in the world…discovering new locations…to eat one meal in every country. Be safe and thank you again for sharing.

    • Dear Audrey, thank you, thank you so much for your kind words and appreciation. I try my best each time I travel to pay tribute to the places I see and the images of lives I am fortunate to encounter. On this earth of 7 billion human souls, everyone we meet is fate and a privilege we ought not to take for granted. Speaking of that we should meet for coffee and talk about your next trip to somewhere you have never been.

  3. Finally you visited the land of milk and honey, once the proud and magnificient Persian Empire in ancient times…yet was also once the pariah of the modern world. The clashing of ethnic cultures, fundamentalism vs liberalism, the dilemma of westernisation, all which exist, weaved together by an undercurrent of revolution and age old aspirations of glory & freedom. The hearts of the young is growing ever stronger in this nation. Splendid and sophisticated people indeed. Not to mention that Iran has always produced the fairest of maidens. Wish I was there with you bro.

    • Hi Aiden, I observe that of all the ancient cultures the Persians have the most recognisable affinity with the Chinese. The arts, philosophy and poetry of Iran have similarities with the Chinese due to the Silk Road and perhaps other historical contacts and events. I guess that the Hazara people of Iran and the Tajiks of Xinjiang are living examples of such cross-fertilization. I haven’t had the opportunity to know more about Iranian films but if you do know of any masterpiece I should watch then please do alert me. Thanks !

      • Hi Kerk, Thank you for remembering me for my obsession with world cinema..especially those from troubled / third world nations where freedom of expression is precious. The way the artistic mind works under oppression, woe and tribulation in search of redemption through alternative forms of visualisation and sound (as a release/oulet) is always fascinating. For Iran, it may be best to first get into the works of one Abbas Kiarostami, considered to be one of the best filmmakers in the world. His most notable works – Taste of Cherry will be good to begin with, a deserved winner of the Palme D’or. Personal favourite, I would like you to watch Where the Wind will carry us, a more personal work exploring ideas concerning life & death, with subtle references to the poems of Omar Khayyam and other classical Iranian poets. Another one would be Offside directed by Jafar Panahi, banned upon release in Iran, it is a social satire against the oppression of women in the Khomeini-era. Yes, there’s much to talk about in regards to the historical links between Iran and Northern Chinese tribes, this I will leave til our next beer session whenever you are free brother 🙂

  4. Persia as it used to be called had a very high standard of living and the food was and still is today of the highest gourmet level. Looks like as usual you nice shoots of the beautiful Iranian ladies………………
    thanks Kerk

    • Dear Heinz, I have to agree with you. Iranian cuisine is certainly one of the world’s finest. The flavours are delicate and the ingredients fresh. However, there is a popular breakfast dish called kale pache that I will never again try even if you hold a gun to my head. Kale pache is to Iranians what Bak kut teh is to Malaysians. It is made from whole sheep’s head with the brains, eyes and tongue and the hooves intact. Enjoy!

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