Wednesday, October 4, 2017

I need to preface this post with two things (in no particular order):

1. I get giddy as a school girl when I see flocks of sheep. Maybe the reason is simple, like, I just love animals. Maybe it’s because when I was a child and we’d go from Mashhad to Neyshabur, my favorite thing was to spot flocks of sheep along the way. Maybe it’s because there’s no sound I love more than the sound of their bells as they graze. In fact, when I’m in my dad’s hometown of Taleghan and hear the bells, I drop everything and close my eyes to take it all in. If I’m being honest, ‘flocks of sheep’ was almost my letter ‘F’ in this series. Seriously. But I thought you, reader aziz, might get bored of my many, many, (many) pictures of flocks of sheep. And so, as you may know, I made it ‘F is for Farsi’ instead.

2. Have you heard of yârâneh? In a nutshell, it’s a subsidy of around 450,000 Rials (45,000 Tomans) granted by the government to every Iranian citizen. Many claim theirs. Nobody I know does. This last presidential election in May saw two main contenders (there were others, but it basically boiled down to these two): the incumbent Hasan Rouhani and cleric Ebrahim Raisi. One of Raisi’s campaign promises was to raise yârâneh to 2,000,000 Rials (or 200,000 Tomans). President Rouhani is now serving his second term. 

(Ok, maybe I need to add a third):

3. While I was in grad school for TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages- yes, that’s a degree), I didn’t have any actual teaching experience, so to remedy that, I started out as a volunteer teacher… for Persian. It wasn’t so much the language that counted as it was actually standing in front of a group of people, trying to put into practice all that theory I was learning. Not to digress too far, one day, I heard that there would be a free screening of the documentary The Bakhtiari Alphabet at one of the universities, and I thought it would be a great opportunity for my Persian class to learn about some Iranian culture (not that there was a lack of opportunity otherwise in the DC area, but still, this one was unique). After watching the trailer on YouTube, I was personally super excited to see it and told my class the date and time all too enthusiastically.

None of them showed up.

But that wasn’t about to put a damper on my time. To say that I enjoyed the film is putting it lightly. It was an extremely well made, inspiring, and fascinating account of the life and seasonal migration of the Bakhtiari nomadic tribe, from the landscapes to the hardships to their education. I bought a copy of the DVD for future reference and went on my way thinking my class totally missed out. 

(Aaaaaaand now we can finally get to the story.)

It was some 17 years ago that I visited the Qashqai tribe near Shiraz, and that was an unforgettable experience. But I remember that they were there specifically for tourists to learn about their lifestyle, have dinner with them, see their clay oven where they artfully popped in one round piece of dough after another.

In my opinion, the Bakhtiari seem less accessible, maybe because fewer tourists visit that region than somewhere like Shiraz. So when a holiday was coming up in Iran, I decided to head to the Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari province in southwest Iran and join a tour to visit the Bakhtiari nomads, a subgroup of the Lurs. After leaving our base in Shahr-e Kord, the bus wound its way through Zardkuh mountains in the Zagros Range. It was truly one of the most spectacular and breathtaking landscapes I’ve seen in Iran to this day: vast open plains, rolling green hills, snow-capped mountains, and a cool breeze, relieving me from Tehran’s scorching sun. Stone lions symbolizing the bravery of these people dotted the hillside. And to top it all off, there were all the flocks of sheep I could have possibly asked for. And I knew the Bakhtiari had more a-waitin’! 

Stone lion | Bakhtiari | nomad | Chaharmahal | Iran
Stone lions of the Bakhtiari 

We were on a mission to find them post-kooch (migration). Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari has harsh winters, so during this time, they kooch to the Khuzestan province where temperatures are milder. These winter quarters are known as their gheshlâgh. During the summer when Khuzestan becomes entirely too hot, they kooch to Chaharmahal o Bakhtiari, their yeylâgh, or summer quarters.

Soon enough, tents and people also entered into view. Only, the women were in all black. This was contrary to their usual bright scarves and colorful sweeping skirts I had seen in the film and in pictures. Maybe it was just the women from that tent, I thought to myself. But tent after tent after tent, I noticed the same thing. We finally stopped at one and unloaded off the bus, to what I imagined was the horror of the older gentleman who was tending to his (OMG!) flock of sheep. He came towards us, as curious about us as we were about him.  

Bakhtiari nomads | Iran
Bakhtiari man and his sheep

Khaste nabâshid,” the tour guide said.

Salâmat bâshid, befarmâeed,” he replied. He was wearing a blue button down shirt (how very un-Bakhtiari-like), but he did have the round skull cap made of wool (now we’re talkin’).  

Bakhtiari nomads | Iran
Bakhtiari home

Bakhtiari nomads | Iran
Bakhtiari sheep

No sooner were we uninvited city-dwellers off the bus than we were welcomed into this Bakhtiari nomad’s tent for some (what else?) tea. The tent was not so much a tent as it was stone walls covered with a thin tarp to let some light shine through. The living room area was covered in different rugs, and poshti (thick pillows used to lean back on when you are sitting on the floor) were spread against the walls. Colorful tassels hanging off of blue beads handwoven onto a ribbon were strung around the walls like streamers. A small kitchen area was curtained off to the side.

Bakhtiari nomads | Iran
Tassels inside the tent

Bakhtiari nomads | Iran
Yeylagh of the Bakhtiari

Once people started making their way inside, I escaped back out to take pictures of the sheep and goats. While I was busy with the animals and stalking one adorable black and white goat in particular, I heard the answer to my question. 

“Why are you all wearing black?” a tour mate asked one of the women.

“One of our elders passed away recently,” she replied as she watched her son run over to a baby goat. “We’re still in mourning.”

Bakhtiari nomads | Iran
The women were in mourning, so they wore black

Bakhtiari nomads | Iran
The goat I was stalking

Bakhtiari nomads | Iran
A close-up of said goat

To the side, some of the men were talking to the older gentleman who welcomed us. He was explaining their migration, when one of them suddenly asked, “Do you get your yârâneh?” I was shocked by question so much that I forgot about the sheep…but then again, Iranians are curiously very open when speaking about financial matters (something the American in me still has a hard time grasping). 

Baleh (yes),” he answered.

“Who did you vote for?” the same man asked.


“How ya like that, huh!” exclaimed one of the women with a big smile on her face.

We eventually all gathered in the tent and shared some piping hot black tea and simple, good company. It was around this time when I heard a motorcycle park outside and a younger Bakhtiari gentleman walk in to the surprise of these unexpected guests. He was donning the traditional clothes: a wool cap, wide-leg baggy pants, and a long, cream-colored wool vest with black stripes at the top, almost resembling piano keys. This vest, as I learned, is actually rather pricey, starting at upwards of 10 million Rials (roughly $250-$300, but in Rials it’s quite a hefty price). What really got me, though, was that out of his left shirt pocket, his giant Samsung (Galaxy? Note? It was big enough to be a Note) was sticking out…in a case and all. I guess despite their traditional lifestyle, even the Bakhtiari have kept up with (or maybe can’t escape from) technology in the 21st century. I don’t remember any cell phones in The Bakhtiari Alphabet. 

Bakhtiari nomads | Iran
Bakhtiari man

Bakhtiari nomads | Iran
Bakhtiari man in traditional clothes inside the tent

This yeylâgh area was incredibly peaceful, and the weather couldn’t have been more perfect. I wandered away from the group deeper into the plains to be in the presence of the sheep and goats and surround myself with nothing but the sound of their bells and bahs. How amazing that there are still people like this in the world who live on the move. As a westerner and someone who has pretty much always been in an urban area, it’s easy for me to become absorbed in that lifestyle (which I wonder what they think about). In many ways, I think they are the lucky ones. 

If you can get your hands on a copy of The Bakhtiari Alphabet or just see it somewhere, definitely do. In the meantime, check out the trailer. 


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Bakhtiari Nomads | Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari | Iran

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

I’m waiting for my friend outside Hasan Abad metro station in southern Tehran just taking in my surroundings. People are rushing downstairs to catch the train, and every few minutes a large crowd comes hurrying up to exit. A man sitting at the top of the stairs is selling various goodies: HiBye chocolate-filled cookies, Naderi layered snack cakes, strawberry wafers. It’s a scorching hot day in July and I can’t help but wish he had ice cold water instead. I have a 500 toman note in my wallet which is convenient because vendors always ask for change. Then I remember the price of water has been raised to 700 tomans. Where’s Florian?

A new wave of people comes out of the metro, and it’s easy to spot his blonde hair. We immediately attract attention because we’re exchanging hellos in English and I’m carrying a large camera case. But mostly, it’s his blonde hair, the telltale sign of a khâreji (foreigner). They stare at him and then eye me for a couple of seconds before looking down at my camera and eventually walking by. We head out and walk a few blocks down Imam Khomeini Street, dodging motorcycles creeping up behind us on the sidewalk and speaking a few notches louder than normal to be able to hear each other over the traffic. 

“Why did you bring a jacket?” I ask Florian. “Aren’t you hot?”

“I needed something to put my belongings in. I’ve been looking for a small bag of sorts, but I haven’t found the right one yet.” 

We haven’t been walking 5 minutes and I’m already sweating up a storm. I shouldn’t have worn this manteau today. I totally underestimated how hot it was. I bought it at the Jom’e Bazaar from Atefe Naderi whose designs and handprinted textile stamps are always adorable. The one I’m wearing has a tipped-over jug on one side and a fish swimming out on the other. “When you wear it, it looks like the vessel is trying to collect the fish again,” she told me when I was trying it on. Note to self: this manteau is entirely too heavy for this time of year.

I try to focus on the house numbers and not look at Florian’s jacket, which just encourages more beads of sweat on my forehead. “We should be close,” I tell him as we continue down the street. “It’s number 249.”

“I hope they’re open,” he says. “You know I’ve gone to the Holy Defense Museum three times, and each time they’ve been closed!”

“That happened to me too. I went on a Friday during Ramadan, which was the worst possible time. They don’t update their hours. But I called this place, and they said they’re open until 1 today.”

We finally arrive at #249, and I look up at the blue tiles above it: Muze Moghadam (Moghadam Museum), it says in Persian calligraphy.

Moghadam Musem | Tehran | Iran
The museum's peaceful garden

We buy tickets and walk in, and I suddenly feel as though everything’s gone quiet and I’ve stepped through a portal into a peaceful zen garden. The sound of trickling water, a small pond with lily pads, stone steps going across it. To the left is a castle-like building with an entrance that looks strangely as if it’s inhabited by a hobbit. To the right, a courtyard and staircase leading to another building. Am I still in Tehran?

Moghadam Musem | Tehran | Iran

Moghadam Musem | Tehran | Iran

Mohsen Moghadam was the son of a mayor during Naser al-Din Shah Qajar’s time, and this was his house. After studying painting in Switzerland, he returned to Iran to study history and archaeology before setting off to travel again. Along with his French wife, they turned their home into a museum with objects and textiles that they collected.

Moghadam Musem | Tehran | Iran
The stone bases of the arches are similar to Chehel Sotun in Esfahan

Moghadam Musem | Tehran | Iran
The bathhouse

Moghadam Musem | Tehran | Iran
A window faces the garden and pool area

Moghadam Musem | Tehran | Iran
This side looks like something you'd find in Morocco

We make our way around, starting in the courtyard, the hamâm (bathhouse), museum, garden, pool, “hobbit castle”, and shell room. I love the arches which seem more suited for Morocco than Iran. I especially appreciate the details around the light switches. What a great idea! 

Moghadam Musem | Tehran | Iran
Details of the light switches

Moghadam Musem | Tehran | Iran
I like the idea of framing light switches

But the greatest part is the tiles. Moghadam Museum is brimming with tiles and mosaics, each one more beautiful than the next, with a different face or pattern bulging out. I find it so inspiring that I’m determined to one day decorate my own home the same way (I don’t know where I’ll get the tiles from, but I have time to figure that out).

Moghadam Musem | Tehran | Iran
Tiles of the bathhouse

Moghadam Musem | Tehran | Iran
Bench in the courtyard

Moghadam Musem | Tehran | Iran
I love the fact that an attempt was made to draw in the rest of this tile

Moghadam Musem | Tehran | Iran
Tiles depicting a Qajar family

Moghadam Musem | Tehran | Iran
Tiles embedded in the walls

Moghadam Musem | Tehran | Iran
Khorshid Khanum (Miss Sunshine) detail on the fireplace

Moghadam Musem | Tehran | Iran
To drink or not to drink?

Moghadam Musem | Tehran | Iran
Shell room

Florian and I take a seat on the staircase in the shade to catch up with each other about work and our latest adventures, all the while trying to prolong our tranquil little escape into this hidden gem and delay our reentry into the hubbub of the lovable beast that is Tehran.

I’m enjoying the atmosphere (and company) so much that I forget how hot it is or that I desperately need a drink of water. I'm simply basking in contentment and wondering how it is that more people don't visit or know about this museum. Much like Qeshm being overshadowed by Shiraz and Esfahan, Moghadam Museum is dwarfed by the likes of Golestan Palace and Sa'ad Abad Complex. But I figure that's what makes this tucked-away treasure all the more special-the fact that it's somewhat secluded from the masses.

Moghadam Musem | Tehran | Iran
Thanks to Florian for capturing a photo of me that I like :) 

It’s too bad the cafe is closed because it would be the perfect spot for a cool drink, I think to myself. But I’ll be back. Spring would be a nice time…when the trees are full of blossoms and temperatures are milder and more pleasant. 

Yes. I’ll come back in the spring. 


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A hidden gem in Tehran | Moghadam Museum | Tehran | Iran

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

**Update: this post was chosen as one of 5 top posts from September 2017 for Lonely Planet Pathfinders!**

My first encounter with Tehran’s District 12 (my favorite area of the city) was actually on Lâlezâr Street. My mom and I needed a lamp, and we were told that the lamp and chandelier stores were on Lâlezâr. 

“Lâlezâr?” she asked as if surely she had misheard. “You mean the old Lâlezâr? Huh, that’s strange.” 

Tehran of the 50s, 60s, and 70s, the Tehran of my parents (and even before that), has always fascinated me. A different regime and smaller population made it a different world, one that I’ve longed to see only because it seems so inconceivable compared to the Tehran I know now. Growing up, my mom always talked about Lâlezâr in particular: the cinemas she and her friends and family would go to, the cafes she and my dad went to on their secret dates, the horse-drawn carriages, the shops where she used to buy sewing supplies and buttons. It was even the place where my khâleh (maternal aunt) met my dad when my parents were still dating. It all seemed so romantic to me. Even the name had a mysterious beauty… Lâlezâr (‘field of tulips’). And I would be lying if I didn’t say that one of my fantasies is to have a Midnight in Paris moment: I’d stand on the corner of Lâlezâr at 12am and wait for one of those horse-drawn carriages to magically appear, pick me up, and transport me back to old Tehran. Well-dressed men in suits and hats, women with their hair done, high heels and skirts cinched at the waist, classic Chryslers and other American cars on the road, no traffic… 

Cafe Pars | Lalezar | Tehran | Iran
Cafe Pars

Lâlezâr was born after Naser al-Din Shah Qajar visited the Champs-Élysées in Paris in 1873 and wanted to recreate this vast and stylish avenue in Iran. It became the first modern, straight street in Tehran (before that, streets had always been paved as an afterthought, so they would twist and turn around already constructed buildings. This type of construction is still sometimes true today.) It was the site of all the hippest cafes, cabarets, theaters, and cinemas in the capital. Basically, it was Tehran’s center of culture.

When my mom and I arrived to shop for a lamp, all the romantic images that I held in my head of Lâlezâr were shattered. There were no cafes, definitely no cabarets, and only remnants of theaters and cinemas. On the street level, there were lamp stores as far as the eye could see. Above them, abandoned buildings, broken windows, and beautiful balcony doors that made me wonder when the last time was that anyone had opened them. The steady buzz of motorcycles left me entranced as we wove through the parked motorcycles lining the sides of the street. 

“This is not the Lâlezâr I remember,” my mom said in disbelief.

Lalezar | Tehran | Iran
Architecture of Lalezar

Lalezar | Tehran | Iran
Architecture of Lalezar

Lalezar | Tehran | Iran
Mosaics and beautiful details are still on the old buildings

Lalezar | Tehran | Iran

Lalezar | Tehran | Iran

Lalezar | Tehran | Iran
Once a hotel, this building has seen better days

Lalezar | Tehran | Iran
Once a hotel, this building has seen better days

Lalezar | Tehran | Iran

It might have been unlike anything I had imagined, but I absolutely loved it. So a while later, I joined a tour on a freezing winter morning to learn about its history.

Now nicknamed “the graveyard of theaters,” Lâlezâr used to house twenty-something cinemas and theaters (the exact number now escapes me), some of the most famous of which were Rex, Cristal, Iran, Metro (which used to be under ground), and Laleh, among others. The challenge now is finding all of them! They're small theaters, many with no signs, so it's easy to miss them. If you go to the movies at Kourosh Cineplex, each of its 14 modern theaters are named after one of the cinemas of Lâlezâr. 

Cinema Cristal | Lalezar | Tehran | Iran
Cinema Cristal

Cinema Iran | Lalezar | Tehran | Iran
Cinema Iran

Cinema Laleh | Lalezar | Tehran | Iran
Cinema Laleh

Cinema Rex | Lalezar | Tehran | Iran
Cinema Rex

Cinema Sahar | Lalezar | Tehran | Iran
Cinema Sahar

Cinema | Lalezar | Tehran | Iran

Cinema | Lalezar | Tehran | Iran

Lalezar | Tehran | Iran
This Metropole sign reminds me of NYC

Tehran Theater | Lalezar | Tehran | Iran
Tehran Theater

Lalezar | Cinema | Tehran | Iran
Cinema Metro was under ground

The home of renowned writer Sadegh Hedayat is just off of Lalezar. Though closed, you can pull yourself up over the door to get a peek in the courtyard. Ettehadieh House, an early 20th-century-style mansion where the popular 1976 TV series My Uncle Napoleon (based on the book by Iraj Pezeshkzad) was filmed is also located here. While on my tour, it was being renovated to become a cafe (at least that’s what I've heard), as many of the old mansions in Tehran have. You’ll also find Grand Hotel (the most important of its time) here and the former cabaret, Moulin Rouge.

Sadegh Hedayat home | Tehran | Lalezar | Iran
Courtyard of Sadegh Hedayat's home

Lalezar | Tehran | Iran
This is said to be the building of the former Moulin Rouge

An old sign for 'Rika Tailor'

Lalezar | Tehran | Iran
The famous 'Kucheh Berlan'

But even though present-day Lâlezâr is only a shell of its former self, its charm is undeniable. I make it a point to say hello every so often, almost like a pilgrimage. “You’re going to Lâlezâr?” my friends and family ask me. “Why? There’s nothing to see there.” But I beg to differ. It’s not just another street in Tehran for me. It’s a living entity that has witnessed things I have only dreamed of. It knew my parents back when my siblings and I didn’t yet exist. It knew them as young university students madly in love. There’s no horse and carriage to take me back, but I instead rely on my imagination. As I walk up and down the street, I pause to look at the broken windows and old signs, imagining which of these stores my mom bought buttons from. What was her favorite store on Kucheh Berlan (Berlin Alley)? Which cafe did she and my dad go to on a date? Where did they sit? What did they drink? What did they talk about? 

Cafe Pars | Lalezar | Tehran | Iran
I imagine my parents sitting behind this window of Cafe Pars

When I pass Cafe Pars on the corner of Jomhuri and Lâlezâr, I can see them sitting at a table behind the window, holding hands, gazing into each other’s eyes, and maybe sipping on a café glacé. As for their conversation, that will forever stay in the heart of Lâlezâr. 


Lalezar | Tehran | Iran | Iran A-Z

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