Tehran. Not Exactly Middle East
The first thing I notice about Tehran is the airport is not in a bad state. For a country supposedly crippled by sanctions and isolation for over a decade, one would expect some signs of disrepair. But the terminal is refreshingly new and comfortably cool. The immigration officer is armed with scanners and technology, there are wide screen TVs, Samsung and LG neon boards advertising the latest in cell phones in the arrival lounge. It takes thirty minutes to get done with immigration, baggage claim and customs. My telephoto lens gets a polite cursory look and then we are out. I worry about the books in my luggage given my experiences of travel in the Middle East but printed material doesn’t excite custom officers the same way it does in Dubai and Riyadh.
As we step beyond the arrivals hall towards the passenger pickup point, the heat finally announces its presence. Not as bad as a Jeddah August, more like a warm Karachi or Islamabad night in the summer. Late September, post the rains, the dry heat is replaced by a chilled reception as Tehran welcomes visitors and winter months.
Half an hour into the journey towards the hotel you notice that you are heading towards a distant horizon of glimmering lights, masquerading as stars. Not the brilliantly lit sky line of Dubai, nor the bright sodium nights of a mega city, more like a necklace of sparsely set diamonds arranged across a mountain range. As you finally take the exit from the express way into the city, the city reinforces your initial impressions. The infrastructure is decent, the urban coverage huge and despite the neon signs in Farsi, this doesn’t look like any city in Middle East.
Welcome to Tehran.
My first memory of Tehran is reading about the Iranian revolution in my teens. James Clavell’s Whirlwind left a dramatic impression of the revolution and Iran on my young mind. In later years as I flirted with becoming an oil analyst, the Iranian heavy crude appeared to be a blend worthy of interest. Decent pumping capacity yet, paradoxically, with limited influence on oil price. It was only when the deal on sanctions went through in early 2015 that the specter of excess Iranian crude hitting the market supposedly started moving prices.
The Tehran I witnessed twice this year, didn’t tie in with the impressions I had carried in my mind. It was a pleasant surprise. Rather than a dull and dreary city, I found a wonderland alive and awash in color. I was expecting Lagos and Nigeria, primarily due to the media coverage of Iran and all things Iranian. The city I saw was closer to Amman, Jordan or even a European counterpart.
Admittedly two visits comprising all of 5 days is not enough to form a valid opinion. But the two visits did bring one word that does justice to Tehran. The city is alive. As alive as one road side band playing live music during rush hour traffic to vibrant roadside cafes with sisha and nine different flavors of coffee; from multicolored pedestrians on the roads to the fashionable half covered hijabs (head scarves); from commercial real estate construction sites – tall steel towers promising a brighter future to apartments complexes dug out of the mountains on the road to Dizin.
On the way back home at the airport, Emirates’ business class is full with passengers from China, Japan and India. There are a few Iranian couples off to catch a few day’s break in Dubai and beyond but the US$ 2,000 seats are packed with deal makers all waiting to cash in on the upcoming Iranian boom. On both trips spread across a month, I couldn’t get a room in the newer, more recent and in demand hotels and had to settle for the old Sheraton. Where ever you look in the city, you will see at least one large construction project going up in your neighborhood, if not more. Not state sponsored infrastructure but commercial and residential real estate. In the road leading upto Hotel Huma, I counted four.
Tehran is not just color and growth – the city has its set of growing pains. Traffic is a nightmare in the evening rush hour. On good days you need 90 minutes to make to the IKA international airport outside the city in the evening. On bad, it may take twice as much. With a day time population of twenty two million including 8 million commuters, Tehran also suffers from the fashionable problem of smog and air pollution during the summer months. The air is better near the mountains and the north, or so tell me Rahman, our driver. But for a city that traces it routes all the back to 7,000 years, despite all of its challenges, it is remarkably fresh and clean. Mulberry lined boulevards and a mix of old and new neighbourhoods make it stand out as a city that really isn’t like any other city in the Middle East.
The younger generation smiles rather than frowns when they see you and that is all the information you ever needed to know about Iran. The restaurants are full, the streets glowing with fall colors, there is hope in the air. The kids have reason to be happy and optimistic; greater nations have been built on less.