Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Extremely Short Stories from Tehran

People have voiced some doubts about me accepting a work trip here, but I told myself that if a country has given the rest of the world Laleh Pourkarim, Marjane Satrapi and Mehdi Sadaghdar, then it can't be that bad at all. So let's go for it

Laleh the Swede, Marjane the cartoon character, and Mehdi the madman who starts fires for giggles
"Why have you come to Iran for just four days?" wailed Fr. Paul Lawlor, when I went to see him at St. Abraham's Church, Tehran. "You only have time for Tehran; there's nothing to see here!" I must agree that the material and natural treasures of Persia is something that is immense and not even easily covered in two weeks, but a leave quota is a leave quota and, all things considered, Iran has given me more than I had hoped to handle in just four days. So here is a rough summary of the trip, given in my habitual format of extremely short stories.

16 September: The Visa Lady

After disembarking, the first person I met in Tehran was the Visa Lady. The people at Imam Khomeini Airport had thought it suitable to plant this petite lady in front of the visa office as the coordinator, because the said lady also happened to be a thunderous sasspot who threw thrice her weight and made her presence known constantly. Walling herself into a perimeter with tape barriers, the Visa Lady was able to deal with the tourists, one by one, without any hint of being ruffled whatsoever. "You! Go to the insurance counter. You! Go and line up at the bank terminal. You! Go sit in the corner and wait!". There must have been a hundred of us, with just one Visa Lady! Occasionally she gave visa inquiries a pause and let loose a strident announcement: "Where is my pen? Somebody has taken my pen -- Give me back my pen!" Her voice sliced through the air like a scimitar, jerking awake a few tourists who were beginning to doze off in their seats, and the pen was always returned sheepishly to its rightful owner. Just the one lady, and her one pen!

17 September: The Two Mareks

The two Mareks are father and son. The son is a hardened traveller who is addicteed to biking and has arrived at Tehran after a few months cycling on the road from the Czech Republic through Romania and Turkey into Iran, and the father tags along (after much persuasion from his son Marek) for good fatherly company. We had breakfast together. Breakfast was splendid because of koloocheh, flat buns infused with cardamom and fillings of brown sugar. The other highlight is feta, which, to the great surprise and confusion of Masoud, are made from cow's milk in this country.

17 September: Masoud, the Kurdish Guy who runs the Hostel

Masoud comes from Bookan, in far west of Iran, where he grew up speaking Kurdish. He learned Farsi only after he started his undergraduate studies. His Persian friends could never believe it whenever he told them that part of his history. What a shame -- If only we spent the morning singing Xoş e Hewreman together and left the other guests no peace to eat their breakfast! He wished me luck with the presentation as I checked out to visit the Chaldeans, and I left too soon.

17 September: The Chaldeans

Click for slideshow
St. Joseph's Cathedral lies halfway between the metro stations Ferdowsi and Taleghani, and I walked there on foot after a ridiculously sumptious breakfast. Half an hour before mass, Archbishop Ramzi Garmou and five other people were chanting the rosary at the foremost pews. This went on for a while and I was scared that these were all the people that could be had in mass. Thankfully, more people joined over the hour to fill the pews, so that by communion time there were about fifty of us in the church, including the two bishops and deacons at the sanctuary. It was a Chaldean liturgy, all in Aramaic (their native as well as liturgical language), and very traditional. The women wore veils, I mean headscarves, well alright -- that was what they had to wear in the streets anyway. Communion was given in both species. The half-English liturgy sheet I had procured from the Detroit Chaldeans was helpful, even though not followed to the letter. I did not understand the homily in Aramaic, so I used the time to doodle the Archbishop of Tehran in my notebook, and then the High Altar.

Archbishop Ramzi of Tehran, Bishop Jean-Paul of Calatia, and whoever it is who is on their right; has anyone seen that dude before? No one?
Later, during lunchtime, Archbishop Ramzi Garmou said to me that the Chaldean community was native to Iraq, himself being born in Zakho, in the far north of the country. The young Youssef, seated across me, is a seminarian and was at Tel Keppe five months ago where he went to the liberated churches that had been torn up by Daesh. Bishop Jean-Paul Gobel is visiting and is seated at the head of the table as the guest of honour. A local priest who spoke only Aramaic was seated to my right, and to my left two religious sisters (whose names I struggle to recall) who spoke Italian with one another and a mix of French and English with me, using a whichever works approach. The multilingual conversation in that fine and wild lunch spanned topics from Madam Halimah Yaacob to Patriarch Louis Sako, from the Kurdish Independence Referendum to Imam Khomeini Getting A Primary School Named After Himself Again, and from Food Safety Standards in China and to Who's Winning the World Cup. In addition they seemed very interested in Singapore, and loved the picture of my Archbishop incensing Our Lady of Fatima.

The Chaldeans had icons for sale on the shelf. I had been tasked my my mother to buy them home. However, the uncle here said to me that the only guy who has the keys to the cupboard was away at Hamedan for a few days. Drat! It seems I will have to come back to Iran another day to get them.

Gift for the Chaldean community from my parish (need more gifts ugh)

17 September: Mahdi, the Carpet Guy of Tajrish

Mahdi studies Chemistry at the University of Tehran. At night he helps out at his father's carpet store, where one day he came and said "ni-hao" to me and made friends and sold me a carpet so I have something to bring back to my mother. His carpets are made of sheep wool or silk, with different weaving techniques involved. The shop has inexplicable received name-cards from diplomats and other dignitaries for some reason (did these people all have an urgent need for a carpet whenever they stop by Tajrish?). Mahdi wanted to sell two, but I bought one and left and got lost in the market and wound up at the mosque that he liked to pray in. How splendid to have your workplace and your worshipping place right next to each other! I shall enjoy Holy Cross as long as I still can.

18 September: The Watering Holes

Nobonyad Metro Station
Guy who sold me tickets to the metro was hard of thinking. Guy who sold me insurance at the airport lacked his left hand. No, that did not stop them coming out and working and greeting customers like any old fellow. I had trouble with the currency, and just let whoever was there do the math for me. 15,200 Rials... or was it Tomans? I couldn't hear the prices clearly, and the lady at the roadside restaurant laughed at me, took some of the notes from my hand, then handed me the change. Sometimes the change came in coins. Coins are so rare in this country! Termeh from Yazd sewed intricate doilies; a lady and her mother brings them to the metro at Azadi square and sells them. People sold things even on the trains and no one was there to stop them. My instincts were to ignore them, as if they were fraudulent operations, but the couple next to me took a sample insole and bought a few pairs after discussing it intently between themselves. I bought a toothbrush this way! Toys, stationery, lemon juicers, sports bags came to you in rush hour and you bought them all if you were just about to fall asleep and didn't pay attention. Even little toy guns that rattled; you could buy them in case you got bored on the plane and wanted to amuse yourself. Some bored punk came and shot my face twice with one of these annoying trinkets. The day was hot and the metro stations came equipped with what I thought of as Watering Holes, each one a big sink with water fountain taps, and us strangers huddled around for a sip. Tehran water was drinkable everywhere, and it was sweet, like how Singapore water used to be.

18 September: Walking on Streets

Walking the length of Andrazgoo Boulevard was not the most pleasant thing to do on a Sunday evening. The next day I walked to Nobonyad Square, where the roads were narrower, houses were castles and the vegetation lush and manicured. The Ambassador of Venezuela has a place to hide here, where the angry mob has not yet been able to reach. I learned that crossing the road anywhere takes you a roughly 50-50 mix of false confidence and total trust in the goodwill of strangers.

18 September: Saint Abraham's Church

PSA: In case some of you are Jesus freak like me and also happen to want to go to Iran at some point in spring or summer, I have on hand the full mass schedule covering the city; yell for it in the comments! You can choose from mass timings for liturgy in the English, French, Italian, Korean, Assyrian, or Armenian languages. Said schedule has been passed to me by the kind Fr. Paul Lawlor despite his hellishly packed schedule as the only priest of St. Abraham's Church.

St. Abraham's Church sits delightfully close to the metro station at Enghelab Square, and strangely attracts a sizeable following of Persians. Christians, or Muslims who are just visiting? It was hard to tell. The website boast many fruits borne in the community: translations of hymns and prayers to Persian, ecumenical dialogue with Shi'a leaders, artwork, masses, and receiving visiting Dominican fathers from all over the world. That and the Instagram location-based post aggregator of St. Abraham's Church would tell the story much more eloquently than I could ever do, so I leave you with them.

18 September: The Selfie Man of Azadi Square

Gilsie has introduced to me the existence of this hilarious monument. For all the hype surrounding its famed firewall, Iran has not be able to halt the scourge of the selfie.

A similar statue was unveiled the other day at Amasya in Turkey. Vandals stole his phone, so he needs a bodyguard now.

18 September: Niavaran

Niavaran was the Shah's old stomping grounds. Nicolae Ceaucescu was his buddy. His children loved looney tunes, and his wife hoarded modern artwork and pagan idols. Such used to be life in Niavaran.

The Polish scientists said that Niavaran reminded them of the palaces of Communist Poland, the sort one could still find standing in Warsaw.

19 and 20 September: Conference

Yikes! Someone caught me doing my first oral presentation ever
During lunch at the IPM Campus, Majid, Mohsen and gang pressed me into their lunchtime clique and fed me "doogh" just to see what my face looked like afterwards. They were a boisterous group whose impeccable manners and generosity sometimes betrays a primordial mischieviousness. Majid Esmaelzadeh is a Turkish guy (my guess is that it means "Azerbaijani") from Urmia who likes watching Korean drama and making jabs at Farsi speakers. Mohsen Farokhnezhad is from Mashhad and always says "excuse me" if he goes through a narrow doorway first. Salar Abbasi comes from Yazd and laughs a lot, no matter what the joke is. Majid led the group to his hideout in the back garden, where a wooden shack has been built for PhD students seeking refuge from the stresses of work. Curiously, a whiteboard has been installed inside the shack, adorned perennially with equations and diagrams.

"Doogh" turned out to be yoghurt mixed with salty water. The particular version served at lunch came with a touch of mint. Still, it's not everyone's kind of stuff, even if you were from Iran. Majid laughed at me as I chugged the drink and said that it would make me sleep like a log all afternoon. So I nodded back in agreement, and nodded off to sleep for the next two lectures.

16 to 20 September: Tiger Balm

Coming to a place where gift-giving is so much a part of the social fabric, I figured that I might as well participate.

This habit actually started with Chinese tourists in the middle east, particularly Egypt. Despite being made infamous for all kinds of bombastic shenanigans, they have also been welcomed in Egypt for bringing along handy and fun-sized capsules of ointment to give away.
Hey! We make Tiger Balm Oil here in Singapore. We're famous for that stuff!

In a fit of patriotic fervour, I bought a trove of the ointment to give away to taxi drivers and shopkeepers, etc., just anyone I could ever come across. My opinion is that it is a pretty good fit for them: Just as Tiger Balm is used by workers who can surströmming in the smelliest factories of the world, so can it soothe the senses of many a smog-choked Tehrani, or allay the anxieties of the taxi drivers who must make a living in the city's terrifying traffic conditions. I think it's worth trying if you're going there! Giving is its own reward.

The ride back to the airport took two hours. Who would have thought the airport could be located so far away from town? The uncle who drove me looked like he could use Tiger Balm very much. He got to have my remaining two jars, and my short trip to Tehran concludes here. Good bye for now.

No comments:

Post a Comment