Insights from Tehran

By Choo Ruizhi

In the face of all extremist expectations, Tehran is a cliché.

The programme, as designed by Dr Ahouie and Mr. Mirani (our coordinating hosts), was designed to show us as diverse a set of spaces as possible of Tehran, in the ridiculously short span of a week. It was a bruising programme: we would start the day at 9am, and have no personal time to rest nor relax nor reflect until the end of the day, usually 9 or 10pm. That amounted to an average of about ten to twelve hours a day engaging our brains and our interpersonal skills: with our hosts, with each other, with the physical environment, with the intellectual environment around us. It was a fully immersive and comprehensive experience, and/but it requires an insatiable curiosity and stamina on the part of the participant in this programme. Despite the photographs of all the happy people, the intellectual pace was breath-taking.

The first few days were a fantastic shock: fresh off the plane, and kicked about five hours out of joint due to the vast distance from Singapore to Tehran, we were treated to that initiation all unseasoned visitors to the country get: a three-hour long visa grind, courtesy of nonchalant immigration officials. (“Ah, yes, you….” Remembers pile of Singaporean passports thrown to one side. Scribbles ’70 EURO’ on a piece of paper “Pay THIS over THERE. GO.”) We were then whisked almost straight away to a six-hour introduction to Iran: from its geographical; to its political; to its historical; to its cultural to even its filmic contexts. We had been adequately dazed and dazzled by then.

The next few days in Iran proved to be no less intense. Our hosts were happily and madly determined to show us that Iran was not the “rogue nation” it had so often been caricatured as. We attended numerous academic conferences on Shia Islam and Persian culture. We were whisked to press conferences at publishing houses; listened to lectures by clerics with doctorates and deanships. In silenced awe, we witnessed our very own Professor Syed Farid Alatas duke it out with the leading, preeminent intellectuals of Tehran. Our guides: three Masters students from the Faculty of World Studies at the University of Tehran, took us to museums, libraries – and in one memorable instance, a sleek shopping centre – which could have been the sibling of nex at Serangoon, or Vivocity at Harbourfront. Across uncountable cups of tea, we shared our shy curiosity with each other’s cultures, histories and life experiences.

“What, did you expect this place to be a desert? You haven’t seen any camels here, have you?” Mohammad Hosseini, a Palestinian Studies Masters student (who had successfully concluded his thesis defence the day we arrived), dryly asked us. No, we did not see any camels. Tehran is a metropolis replete with glassy skyscrapers, set like a rough, dusty gem at the foot of the great Elbruz mountain range, at the crossroads of many trade routes from Asia to Europe and/or Africa.

Tehran is a cliché, but not in the way you would expect. It is a modern city, waking from a decade-long, sanction-imposed slumber. Tehran has always been a dusty, defiant city. It survives. Its palette is a stimulating, eclectic spectrum of the colour desert-dust, studded with flashes of skyscraper steel. I read Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong and Singapore in its serrated horizon and cluttered gridlines.

Tehran is a cliché, but not in the way you would expect. Its people are gentle, kind and curious. One evening we are stopped by a gruff, bearded man on a motorbike, demanding to speak to our guides. When his words are translated, the old man breaks into a grin. He had stopped to wish us visitors to Tehran a warm welcome, and hoped that we would enjoy our time here.

What is Tehran? Tehran is itself and its own people, and we are the illusions we choose to imbibe.