/ 31 March 2024

The City of God – and contradiction

Mujahid Safodien 0050 (1)
Mosaic of values: Life in urban Iran – as experienced in Khaju Bridge (top and left) and Naqsh-e Jahan Square (above) – is in bright contrast to the strongman politics of the Iranian government. Photos: Mujahid Safodien/Middle East African News Agency

Few places mangle the ideas of a Westerner so spectacularly as Tehran. 

On the Tabi’at Bridge (Farsi for “bridge of nature”), the sun begins to set behind the scaffolded, half-built buildings in the city centre. The only reminder of military antagonism is the cheerful young air force conscripts, buttoned up in light blue, who saunter on its wide walkway.

Hugging the bridge are stretches of park filled with lush trees and benches. Young friendship groups, retreating from the day’s work or studies, are gathered around, enjoying the calm dusk on picnic blankets. 

This is not the Iran of CNN; the Iran of global perception or even the Iran that its government would prefer to be portrayed. 

Since the revolution in 1979, Iran has exuded a strongman attitude, directed by strict Sharia law. Its reputation for repression, crackdowns on human rights and iron-fisted geopolitics is undeniably deserved.

But what is most striking about the country — particularly its urban areas — is just how far society has drifted from the state. 

Many of its people, themselves religious, embrace their human experience unencumbered by the inflexibility of their leaders. In short: they don’t believe God resides in the draconian politics that bear his name.

Isfahan — Iran’s third-biggest city — offers a similar realisation. Unlike its steel counterpart in the capital, Khaju Bridge is built of pure rock and runs over a dry riverbed. Candles are placed in its archways which imbue every crevice with a warm amber glow. 

Couples meet coyly around pillars; children run around; a man rides his bicycle back and forth in tight patterns, à la John Nash.

It’s easy to lose yourself in such a scene. Inhaling the gaiety of it all, the newcomer becomes what American novelist David Foster Wallace described as the “giant floating eyeball” — enmeshed, but paradoxically completely detached.

At Isfahan’s centre is the famed Naqsh-e Jahan Square — formerly and colloquially known as the Shah Square, built between 1598 and 1629 and listed as a Unesco World Heritage Sight. Its giant centrepiece fountain is surrounded by four distinct buildings: the Shah Mosque, Ali Qapu Palace, the Lotfollah Mosque and the Imperial Bazaar.

All were built during the Safavid era, the empire that arose after the Muslim conquest of Persia in the seventh century and which historians largely consider as the cradle of modern Iranian history.

The Shah Mosque is the architectural pinnacle of that history. It was built using the four-iwan style — a design technique that was coming into vogue in the Islamic world at the time and is characterised by huge archways at the entrances.

There are millions of pieces of mosaic, in every shade of blue and turquoise, immaculately plastered around the massive structure. Their colour shining off the water feature creates the most picturesque postcard imaginable. 

Much like the two bridges, the inescapable observation is simply that life is happening. Thousands of people happily intertwined in the shared serenity of their surroundings.

To the outsider, it belies the dominant motif of the country: the tussle of two Irans. 

At the executive level, it is a country that is everything Western media says it is: authoritarian, conservative and domineering. In the years since the revolution, the Islamic Republic has barely wavered off its axis of principles. The fall of the Berlin wall, strangling embargoes, a heinous war with Saddam Hussein, internal pressure; nothing has moved the needle on the fundamentalist ideals that govern its people.

But many of those people have clearly grown tired of what they view as an archaic way of life. So much so that they pretend it doesn’t exist. 

Young people in Tehran stay out late with friends, enter into sexual relationships and get up to the general mischief that young adults should. There’s even a healthy street racing scene that draws huge crowds every Friday — the holiest of days.

To many, there’s an unspoken agreement that politicians and religious leaders will be allowed to play their games in their high towers. That everybody below plays by the same rules does not necessarily follow. 

Reclining on a bench in the square, I got chatting to an affable twenty-something. When it came time to say goodbye, he whipped out his phone, flicked on his VPN and added me as a friend on Facebook. To him and his peers, banning apps has about the same effect as regulating oxygen. (X is also banned.) 

Given its incendiary role in the Arab Spring, that’s not surprising. What is interesting is that Instagram is legal and everyone, from the ice cream store at Tabi’at Bridge to the foreign ministry, has a presence on it. A bill was mooted in 2021 to restrict the platform but almost everyone who isn’t a hardline conservative agrees that it’s a bad idea.

For much of the modern youth, the advertised anti-Americanism is another appendage their generation is happy to toss out. Sure, former president Donald Trump supplied the butt for plenty of jokes but that’s hardly unique to Iran or the Middle East.

And yet the death of Mahsa Amini — in police custody in 2022 after being arrested for opposing the mandated hijab — is an agonising reminder that choosing to exist outside of the law does not spare you its oppressions.

Male visitors and residents alike are inoculated from the harshest ramifications of an imbalanced society.  

On a warm night we — a group of journalists — dressed up and headed towards one of Tehran’s main after-hours districts. Walking around the centre of the city, we bumped into a stumbling braggart who enthusiastically showed off his alcohol-filled water bottle. Its nose-hair-eviscerating fetor was so potent that cops a block away would probably have seen through the deception.

A little further on we found the unmistakable, sickly sweet smell of flavoured shisha tobacco wafting through a grate. Through it, we could see figures gesticulating through clouds of smoke; probably filling their cups with substances that necessitated this gathering taking place underground. 

We excitedly shuffled to the door before a thick palm stretched out to greet us. The doorman turned that hand to his head, made a wrapping gesture around it, before completing the sequence with a shoeing motion. 

We were stupefied. He spoke no English and we no Farsi, but in a few coarse hand signals, his message was clear to everyone — we could not enter with a woman among us.

It wasn’t the rule that shocked us, but rather the loathsome menace of the doorman. The look of utter disgust on his face. The indignation that our female companion had tried to breach his sanctuary. 

It’s in such moments that the foreignness of a different value system is truly felt. In their aftermath, you surrender to the fact that you cannot comprehend the nuances of such dissimilar cultures or hope to understand them. 

We had to talk our companion out of her insistence on walking back to the hotel to “save our evening”, promising her we no longer had any interest in going into the place.

Back on the bright main road, we found a mocktail lounge on a veranda surrounded by luminescent artificial grass (and not accessed by a cellar door). Tangy fruit concoctions and the chatty, young, handsome men and women all around us soon returned our good mood. 

Once again we were in our microcosm of comfort.

A palpable restlessness pervades Iran. It is a country like no other but, just like any other, it is a product of its past and the inescapable realities of its present.