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Tehran bazaar. Photo by N. Kasraian

Hidden treasure
Discovering South Tehran

By Saba Ghadrboland
December 8, 2000
The Iranian

Let's face it. South Tehran has a reputation which is about as good as Southeast DC, South Central LA, or the Parisian banlieues. These are not the places you take visiting relatives. However, if you are in Tehran and looking to get away from the trendy, Westernized feeling of the uptown areas without leaving the city, hop a cab and head toward the south of the city.

A few days before my trip to Iran this last summer, a friend gave me a list of must-see places and mentioned that South Tehran was interesting, while adding the caveat that the "chic relatives" might not allow me to go there.

South Tehran has thought to be more traditional, somewhat seedy in places, dirty, and more polluted than the rest of the capital. People living in the northern districts and the suburbs generally look down at South Tehran, and it is usually the last place they would show off.

Tehran is a vast and rapidly-changing city. Its post-modern architecture is represented in strange shapes, large highways looping around the city toward suburban areas, upscale shopping centers, cafes (or "coffee shops" as they are called in Persian), pizza parlors, and lots of traffic. It is very modern and Westernized - almost New York City-like. At least, in some parts.

As you head south, the high-rise apartment buildings framed by the snow-capped Alborz mountains drift away as the highway ends, the streets narrow, and the architecture becomes older, smaller - almost crouched.

As the majority of the shop signs change from Latin to Arabic script, it is worth noting that "Bank Melli" (National Bank) retains the Latin script, and if you look closely, you can see the eerie shadow of the words "Imperial Bank of Persia" on the building. During the Qajar period (1795-1925 A.D.), the Iranian capital was moved from Shiraz (the capital during the brief Zand period which loosely controlled the majority of the country between 1750 and 1795) to Tehran (built along the ancient city of Ray).

South Tehran was the major place of imperial activities until the earlier part of the 20th century. Thus, it holds historical treasures and links to the past. One such link is Golestan Palace in Khordad Square, the palace of the 19th century kings. Not only are the buildings and mosaics a relief from the post-modern high rises for anyone interested in architectural history, the Palace also is home to several museums, such as the Ethnological Museum, an interesting collection displaying the peoples of Iran. Late 19th century and early 20th century photography is also on display.

For those who like to shop or just people-watch, the Tehran bazaar is a must. It's also a nice break from the American-style malls and the French-style hypermarkets with large neon Aiwa and Kia signs uptown. Again, the architecture is very interesting. Intricate curves, arches, and passageways are filled with every imaginable salable item.

Here, one sees more of the heart-breaking little boys who are selling packs of sterile bandages for 200 tomans (roughly 30 cents). If you take a few seconds out of your shopping spree to talk with them, you might just learn some interesting things. I would suggest buying a few packs of band-aids. They are not going to burn a hole in your pocket, and they really are good band-aids! However, don't try to give more money than they are asking in an act of charity. These little guys have their pride and expect you to respect their work.

If you are in the bazaar at lunch time, ask around for the best chelo kabab joint: there are as many as there are varieties of foodstuffs in American supermarkets . But if you want a good seat, you'll have to get there before azan (the call to prayer), which rings throughout the bazaar at 12 noon or 1 pm depending on the season.

Finally, do visit the Azari Coffeehouse in Rah-Ahan Square. You must call in advance for reservations (tel: 537-3665), and for the equivalent of just few dollars per person, you have a whole evening's worth of traditional entertainment, atmosphere, and food. The coffeehouse is set up like a large, old-style Iranian house, with andarouni (inner section) and biruni (outer section). The seats are large raised platforms covered in carpets on which a groups will sit together.

The walls are decorated with paintings depicting Persian epic literature. Waiters dress in 19th century clothing and bring sweet dates and tiny glasses of dark tea in continuous succession. The entertainment consists of traditional and folk music: from the zoor-khaneh (traditional gym) singer to regional music from Kurdistan and Azarbaijan.

Traditional foods like Dizi and Ab-gusht, Sangak bread, Mast-o-Moosir (shallot-yogurt dip) and Doogh (yoghurt drink) are served in clay dishes. It is said that the Dizi is baked right in the clay serving pots, a very traditional way of making it, which makes it very good. However, don't expect a low-fat option unless you want to eat only bread and dates. After dinner, there is more tea and dates, fruit, and strawberry and banana-flavored qalyoun (hookah) for those who choose to indulge for a few more tomans.

The most memorable thing about this coffeehouse, however, is a tiny old man with a long white beard who will tell your fortune. He claims to be a dervish and one gets the feeling that a lot of the history of the city, and of Iran in general, runs through his veins.

South Tehran has an old-world feel which the rest of Tehran has already lost in its frenzied quest for modernization. The two faces of Tehran remind the traveler of Iran's position in the world: neither East nor West, neither ancient nor modern, neither here nor there.

However, as a traveler, the most rewarding thing about my visits to South Tehran came on a relentlessly hot evening. I was walking on the southern section of Vali Asr Avenue, drowning myself in the variety of sights and sounds around me.

My cousin, modern suburbanite and uptowner, who has never been outside of Iran, turned to her husband and said, "it's funny that it took our relatives coming all the way from America to get us to come to this part of the city. Before, I was always afraid of coming here because I thought that people's values were backward and that the streets were dirty. But now I see that it's a wonderfully intriguing place with a lot of neat things to do, see, and learn. We should come down here more often."

It gave me a warm feeling to realize that I had been a little part of breaking a stereotype that divides the people of just one city in land that is truly neither here nor there.

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