I left Kashan in the morning and checked in my super boutique hotel. It was situated next to all the embassies (French included, but I wasn’t allowed to take pictures. I got rather told off when trying to take the mega-building that is the Russian embassy. Trying to enter in there would be like trying to breaking into Fort Knox!).
My first visit was the Treasury of National Jewels, owned by the Central Bank. The Safavid, Qajar and Pahlavi monarchs adorned themselves and their belongings with an outstanding range of priceless gems and precious metals, making this collection of bling quite jaw-dropping. Star pieces include the Globe of Jewels and the Peacock Throne. The largest yellow diamond is kept there whereas the largest ruby belongs to the British Crown. I was shown around by an English-speaking guide and whilst I wasn’t allowed to take pictures I took some snaps of postcards to give you an idea of the jewels!
As I left the building I was so thirsty but finding anywhere to sit down for a drink proved to be difficult because of Ramadan, even in hotels. I resorted to buying some cold drinks from a cafe where the owners were more than happy to sell them to me but I wasn’t allowed to sit down. He however told me I could sit in the park round the corner! The rules regarding Ramadan in Iran are quite lax despite it being an Islamic Republic – the vast majority of Iranians do not respect it and I did notice some people stuffing their faces with chips hidden in little alleys or in the few restaurants that served food! In addition, there is apparently an exception to the rule: if you are 50km away from your home town you are considered a traveller and you are therefore exempt from fasting. You can also compensate for not having done Ramadan by giving donations (financial or foods) to charity… I noticed that there are a lot of convenient ‘exceptions’!
I then headed over to the US Den of Espionage, the ex-US embassy that was one of the major focus points of the 1979 revolution. Students stormed the building and took 52 American personnel hostage for 444 days (non-American staff had been free to leave). The reason was that the Shah had left Iran to seek medical treatment abroad, including the USA. However revolutionaries wanted the Shah to come back to be trialled for various crimes ranging from corruption to torture. President Carter signed off a rescue mission which failed due to helicopters crashing after getting caught up in a sand storm.
The siege finished over a year after when the Shah died and an agreement was drawn up in Algeria, a neutral negotiator. Under the Algeria Manifesto, the US were not to involve themselves in any manner in Iranian politics and Iran were to safely release the hostages. It is to be noted that no hostages or students were injured – the US marines used tear gas but no bullets, and the Americans were allowed to celebrate Christmas and Easter for instance. As much as this was undoubtedly a severe agression if not an act of war from the Iranians, I find it amazing that no one was injured during those 444 gruelling days.
During the hostage situation, American personnel tried to destroy as much information as they could as you can see from the picture below. However, dedicated revolutionaries painstakingly spent years reconstructing the shredded documents and some confidential information was brought to light about US involvement in Iran and in the Middle-East. For those who are interested, there is a film called Argo that recounts the events and according to our factual and neutral guide it is 90% accurate. I think I will watch it again when I am back!
The building and its surrounding walls are plastered with anti-western graffitis and propaganda, specifically anti-American and anti-Israel. What I found fascinating when speaking to Iranians is the disconnection between the people we met and the politics and news we get in Europe . Undoubtedly Iran-US relations are complicated, but I did not meet a single Iranian that held a personal grudge against Americans, British or Israelis. The government propaganda and conservatism seem very much at odds with what I witnessed when travelling.
I got the feeling that Iran is split: it is a mix of the past and the future, from conservatism to openness. There is undoubtedly some conservatives who support the government and this is reflected in their approach to Islam, from the strict dress code for women to how religiously they follow Ramadan. I expected those who are more conservative to be of an older generation, however that is not the case, perhaps it is a matter of background and education. Upholding traditions and history is partly what makes Iran a beautiful and interesting place to visit.
The government not only feeds the anti-western sentiment through state-sponsored street-art, but also through cinema for instance. One Iranian amused me when she described how western films were heavily edited – for example headscarfs are poorly added and photoshopped, including in scenes when they are sleeping! Scenes of unmarried couples holding hands are deleted, and any dialogue between a man and women will be changed so that the main topic is of a respectable marriage.
The past if also very present in the mausoleums for the dead of the Iraq-Iran war, instigated by Iraq in 1980 and that lasted eight years. Indeed, there are photos of very young men plastered in every city. It is sad to see that some of those men were actually young boys, enticed by love, pride and duty for their country to become martyrs.
On the other side of the spectrum are liberals, looking towards the future, who wear a lose headscarf (Hejab) not covering much hair, manage to have access to Western news, who are welcoming to foreigners, wanting to end their country’s isolation, may it be political, financial and cultural. Many of the restaurants we went to were run by women whilst the waiters, cleaning staff and other employees were men. Women have a place in society and in that respect Iran is certainly a lot more advanced than their other Middle Eastern neighbours. Despite sanctions and embargoes, Iranians get on with their lives and are joyful and friendly.
I cannot recommend Iran more. I hope you have enjoyed my travels as much as I did! I have some fantastic memories and lots of souvenirs (so much so that I had had to buy another suitcase!) and I can say that this was the trip of a lifetime. I am looking forward to see you all in person to tell you more about it!
In the next post I have indicated some books, addresses and general tips that I recommend if you do (and I do hope you do!) one day visit this beautiful country.