Neither Ahvaz nor the entire province of Khuzestan had ever ranked very high on my list of places to visit in Iran. But I figured I wanted to eventually see everywhere in the country, and it was Nowruz (pretty much the only visitable time in Ahvaz), so I might as well go ahead and see it. Maybe it was the calm water, maybe the friendly people, or maybe the carefree bandari (port) culture, but Ahvaz had character. It had soul. And it turned out to be one of my favorite cities in Iran.
Khorramshahr and Abadan
I headed straight to the nearby city of Khorramshahr upon arrival. As we drove along the Arvand Rood, the driver asked me, “See that white truck driving across the river?” I saw it. “That’s Iraq.” I knew that Khorramshahr had been one of the first cities ravaged by Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war and was left virtually a ghost town in the years that followed. What I didn’t realize was just how unnervingly close it was to the border.
I briefly stopped at the Jam’e Mosque whose bullet-ridden mosaic facade still bears the scars of the brutal 8-year war. Then I stopped at the Holy Defense Museum (in Persian, the Iran-Iraq war is referred to as defâye moqadas, the holy defense), dedicated to the estimated one million lives lost in the war. Walking through the memorial and seeing the belongings of men young and old was absolutely heart-wrenching, thought-provoking, and humbling. On the surrounding grounds was a good deal of artillery which was now being ridden like toys by children with no concept or memory of this ruthless war or its consequences.
As we drove through Abadan on the way back to Ahvaz, I enjoyed an unforgettable sunset. I watched the rays of orange and yellow glisten off the water as the sun melted into the lagoon just around the Shadegan Wildlife Refuge.
Ahvaz: the City of Bridges
The next day, I spent some time exploring Ahvaz, ‘the city of bridges.’ A total of eight, the most famous are the White Bridge (the symbol of Ahvaz built by a German engineer and his wife), the Black Bridge (or Railway Bridge), and the Seventh Bridge which has a beautiful artificial waterfall and is particularly picturesque at night. Walking along the Karun River, the city was alive with people out picnicking, strolling, or taking a ride on the boats.
Ahvaz: Lashkar Abad
I was told that I couldn’t miss the street food in an area of Ahvaz called Lashkar Abad, and it turned out to be one of my greatest memories. This long street has falafel, samosa, and rotisserie chicken stands on either side, and cars tailgate down playing loud bandari music.
On a street full of the same type of restaurants, there was one that was especially crowded, so I decided it had to be good. (A quick note to germaphobes: don’t go to Lashkar Abad!) I popped in front of the cashier and said “One!”, and he promptly gave me a baguette. Then in true American fashion, I hopped to the back of the line and watched as people clawed and pushed their way around to fill their sandwich first. I was so mesmerized that I decided to just observe the goings-on. I ended up near the cook who was busy deep frying as quickly as he possibly could to satisfy the hungry mob. Sensing my amateur status, he suddenly turned to me and said, “Give me your bread. You’ve been waiting a while.” (Actually, I hadn’t.) I handed it to him and he grabbed it with his bare hands, stuffed it full of falafel, and shoved it back in my direction so I could move to the other side and pile it high with toppings.
Maybe it was the extra germs from having been handled by several pairs of bare (and surely unwashed) hands, but it was the single most delicious falafel sandwich I’ve had to this day. So I didn’t stop there. As long as I was in the south, I had to try their samosas. With just the right kick of spice, they didn’t disappoint either. As I was taking in my surroundings and trying to find a taxi, it started to gently rain. A perfect end to the evening.
4 things to know about Ahvazis
1. They love their Ray-Bans. It’s kind of a joke in Iran that Ahvazis and Abadanis won’t even let you in their cities without a slick pair.
2. They passionately support the Brazilian national soccer team. I saw so many Brazilian flags while I was in the region that I started to doubt where I was. And then there was the Brazilian soccer team-themed falafel stand in Lashkar Abad which proudly claimed to have two branches: #1 in Lashkar Abad and #2 in São Paulo! And just in case you need proof:
3. For having endured so many hardships during the war, they are a remarkably cheerful bunch. These night owls seem to spend a lot of time outdoors picnicking, camping, and smoking hookah in parks. Almost every car plays music at full blast, and most of the passengers are dancing inside. My first night in the hotel, I woke up at 3:30 am to the blaring sounds of bandari music. When I peaked out of the window, I noticed a few cars had stopped, and the people, including a bride and groom, had gotten out and were dancing in the middle of the street.
4. On the opposite side of the spectrum, they are also hot-tempered (at least in my experience). I witnessed four fights in the four days I was there. The one that caused me the most alarm was in Lashkar Abad when one guy went after another with a glass bottle and then threw basically anything else he could get his hands on.
When to visit
Ahvaz gets a bad rap because it suffers a great deal from horrific dust storms, choking pollution, and scorching heat. If you plan to go, do so in mid-March around the Persian New Year. The weather is absolutely superb at that time, and flowers are blooming, making for beautiful scenery. Don’t even think about going in the summer when the sun is most unforgiving and temperatures reach an unfathomable 125°F!