Colours, flowers, fountains and gardens are not enough to hold me back too long from the raw hurly burly of the streets and bazaars. I am a guy lost in the labyrinth of life, as lost as we were the other day searching Tehran’s unmistakable landmark the Milad Tower. Milad was quite high in Tehmineh’s mirror-list. Opened in 2009, the 1427 feet tower offers a bird’s eye-view of Tehran from a 360 degree corridor. I did see that stunning view, but not in the same evening when we set out for it. That’s because on that evening Sayad yelled at Tahmineh for her “unbearable habit” of directing him as he drove and then he completely lost his way in central Tehran.
We start pretty late for Milad Tower. Sayad is determined to take me to his English learning class before we head for Milad. He has already informed his teacher and classmates about me via Whatsapp, and they are very keen to meet the Musafir from Hindustan. OMG. I find it difficult to speak before strangers even in Kolkata, and this is Tehran. I prepare myself for a disaster, clench my teeth and enter the school. It’s housed in a big three storey building, bustling with students going in and coming out of classes in large batches. Sayad takes me to his classroom. The class has begun. We enter. The teacher gives me a brief, simple but warm welcome. She can’t be more than 30. Stunningly beautiful. Dressed in a gray suit and a silver Rusari. I notice her delicate pink long quivering pianist’s fingers, as she introduces me to her students and adds, “However, we will continue with the class. The kind Musafir from Hind will learn English with us today.”
But the students have a thousand queries. They seem to be between 18 and 30. It’s a coeducational school, and there’s no segregation between boys and girls in the classroom. They are working hard to learn English.
Iran is changing in front of my eyes. The powers that breed in the West in their unbridled greed for oil and a myriad other geo-strategic calculations may be strangling Iran; the Iranians are looking outside with great empathy and expectations. I don’t see the ‘stranglehold of the Mullah regime’ anywhere in this class. And even if there is such a stranglehold at a level which is beyond my touristic gaze, the Iranian youth are determined to carve out in the walls of restrictions their little but extremely important niches of freedom. This is what that strikes me everywhere in Iran, at every step, in dresses, in education, in religious practices, in the nitty-gritties of everyday life. The whole of Iran is a hyperactive beehive collecting the honey of freedom drop by drop.
That is why perhaps the freedom that the Iranians have earned by dint of determination reflects so unmistakably on one of the most modern indicators of development. The United Nations Human Development Index (HDI) informs us that between 1980 and 2012, a period that coincides exactly with the post Inquilab-i-Islami Iran, “Iran has made considerable progress when measured over the past 32 years… Iran’s annual growth in its HDI was over double the global average… During the period 1980-2012 Iran’s policy interventions were both significant and appropriate to produce improvement in human development” This index takes into account ‘long and healthy life, access to knowledge, and a decent standard of living’ of various countries. Unprecedented development in the three most important fields of life: health, education and standard of living. This despite the ruthless economic blockade of Iran by the West. This despite the eight long years of war, between 1980 and 1988, with Iraq under Saddam Hussein, who as we all know was, at that point of time, the beloved buddy of both the US and the Soviet Union at the same time.
The imprint of that war I notice in every city and village I visit, the kind of which I have never seen any other country: Strange signboards along the streets. On each is a face, with two sets of dates underneath. Clearly the dates of the person’s birth and death. What’s this Sayad? He informs me these are pictures of the people killed in the Iraq War. Every city and village thus remembers the martyrs of the war. A jingoistic propaganda by the government to keep Iranians incited against so called national enemies? Yes, it is possible to see it that way also. But then this is not the proud display of, say, armoured tanks and fighter planes captured from enemy soldiers. Instead it is more likely to ignite the memory of the deep wounds of losing dear ones, which in effect impresses upon people the senseless brutality of war, and strengthens an anti-war position among them. Can’t this be seen in that light too?
Be as it may, in that evening in that English teaching class I come face to face with an Iran, that is moving ahead, and moving ahead from within. I deeply believe that such a progress from within is impossible for a nation that is chained to medieval darkness.
And we argue over this point as we criss-cross central Tehran in Sayad’s old creaking and squeaking Peugeot Sedan, for couple of hours, in eye-burning pollution, as his obstinacy refuses to let Tehmineh guide him to Milad Tower. And in these two hours I see the fresco of ‘Muslim countries’ painted on my minds’ walls crush to dust. Adele is screaming at the top of her voice through the car speakers: ‘Sometimes it lasts in love but sometimes it hurts instead’. Tehmineh with her shrill cracked voice has joined in. Her two hands, clenched, thrown up in the air. Her head thrown back. The Rusari (head scarf) displaced. Her henna-dyed hair flowing over the backrest. Sayad, in the driver’s seat is swinging his body and slapping his thigh with the beat. I, a Musafir, some 20 years older, from far away Hind, reclining in the back seat, am trying to fit that moment in my mind’s pre-painted picture of Iran. It doesn’t fit. In front of me is a 3D picture of a young couple enjoying life to the hilt, a picture that beats all borders of time and space.
But my heart freezes for a moment. It flashes across my mind that I am not the only one who is watching what I am watching. So is the CIA, the Mosad, the MI6, and god knows who else. For them this young couple, and millions more like them across Iran, bubbling with life, are just an ‘opportunity’. An opportunity to incite ‘revolt’, to export democracy, to wreck the ‘Mullah Regime’. They are just pawns in the hands of people who devastate nations over candle-lit dinner. Why do I see it coming to Iran? I retreat into Pablo Neruda:
“And one morning all that was burning,
one morning the bonfires
leapt out of the earth
devouring human beings —
and from then on fire,
gunpowder from then on,
and from then on blood.
Bandits with planes and Moors,
bandits with finger-rings and duchesses,
bandits with black friars spattering blessings
came through the sky to kill children
and the blood of children ran through the streets
without fuss, like children’s blood.
Jackals that the jackals would despise,
stones that the dry thistle would bite on and spit out,
vipers that the vipers would abominate!”
I can see the Jackals and the Trumps coming. May I be more wrong than ever before?
Sayad turns down Adele’s high octaves as we argue. Both Sayad and Tehmineh are convinced that Iran has gone to dogs under the ‘Mullah regime’. I point out to them that both of them are the children of the Islamic Revolution, and that at this very moment they are not appearing to me to be two young people lost in the dark labyrinth of fanaticism.
That propaganda-drawn fresco in my mind’s wall takes severe beatings again and again all across Iran.
It takes a severe beating when my journalist’s eyes do not miss that the first thing Shima does on entering home every time is to literally throw her Rusari away. Then she brews tea. Then we begin our adda. (Adda is an untranslatable Bengali term, which means friends and family sitting together animatedly gossiping for hours on every imaginable topic under the sun. In an adda a student of history, like me for example, will without batting an eyelid talk of the latest theories of quantum physics, while a painter will try to convince me about what he believes were the real reasons for the fall of the Mughal empire! Adda is a quintessential Bengali trait. The day you start considering this to be a horrendous wastage of time, you have ceased to be a Bengali.) I, Shima and her graphic designer artist husband Mehdi, my host in Tabriz. That was our evening routine during my stay at their small single bedroom apartment in Tabriz, in northern Iran.
It takes a severe beating when Faizeh and Somayeh, two friends of a friend, take leave from office to take me around Nishabour, in Eastern Iran, because my friend has suddenly got stuck in Tehran; or when two of their friends Malihe and Elnaz come to keep the Musafir company in the evening so that he is not bored, and then feeds him Iranian pizza for dinner.
Indeed that propaganda painted pictures also takes a severe beating when I spend a good part of my overnight train journey from Tabriz to Tehran chatting with Prof. Fakr, formerly of Tabriz University, who is an ardent supporter of the Islamic regime and who rushes off to offer Namaz, as the train comes to a halt at a ‘Namaz Stop’!
Photo Credit : Nilanjan Hajra