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


  1. This is a lovely article. I keep racking my brains trying to remember my experiences on Lalezar Ave. in the 1970's, but sadly none come to mind. A quick check on Google Maps shows Lalezar to be sort of parallel to Ferdowsi & to the east of it. I remember Ferdowsi, I believe it used to have one of the two (Kourosh being the other) then modern mall-like shopping complexes in Tehran.
    I do remember my parents talking about some of the cultural details, such as cabarets & film theatres.
    And speaking of film theatres, I vividly remember watching several films in Tehran & Esfahan; from Hollywood & Europe (France, Italy) & India. Most of these films were dubbed in Persian, and I always needed someone to translate. It was clear that Iranians were very fond of movies; sort of similar in that respect to Americans & Indians. Their tastes were quite eclectic, and they not only appreciated major Hollywood stars such as Clint Eastwood (saw Persian dubbed "High Plains Drifter" somewhere in Tehran); but also more European stars such as Anthony Quinn & Alain Delon. Additionally, they also saw and were knowledgeable about Hindi Cinema; and could recall & speak about Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand & Vyjayanthimala.
    BTW --- Esfahan used to have sort of a "Main Ave" near the exquisite Naqsh-e Jahan square; filled with film theatres.
    Last but not least, my parents although already married at that time; probably had a few (can I say dates) on Lalezar Ave :) :)

    1. Thank you for your comment, Samir! You're so right, Iranians really had a penchant for those movies with Clint Eastwood and other Hollywood stars. My mom always talked about going to the movies with her brother to see those kinds of films. And to this day, when Iranians want to say a man is good-looking, they compare him to Alain Delon. Just the other day, my dad was talking about someone and said, "This guy thought he was Alain Delon!" Hahaha
      You are so lucky to have experienced Lalezar in its heyday- even if you can't remember much now :) Didn't know Esfahan had a similar street. Thanks for that tip. I'll have to look in to that :)


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