The first thing you confirm almost as soon as you land in Tehran is that everything you’ve heard about the exceptional courtesy and warmth of the Iranians is true. In the week I spent in that country, I didn’t encounter a single frown. It was smiles all the way. The second turns out to be a little more tricky. The dress code in the Islamic Republic of Iran is happily not as draconian as it is in, say, Saudi Arabia. It states that you have to be modest at all times, and the head needs to be covered. For an Indian, all that is simple enough. Our desi salwaar-kameez, or a long kurta and pants combo, works just fine. And your standard dupatta is perfectly adequate as the head-dress, but, oh, how I struggled with it: unless you are naturally adept, or practiced, the darn thing keeps slipping. I spent a lot of my time in Iran just adjusting my head-gear!
The other lot, of course, was spent in a darkened auditorium. As part of the five-member jury at the 33rd Tehran International Short Film Festival, our job was to watch 78 films to zero in on the ones we could award. The first pleasant surprise came with the venue of our screenings. Instead of the bustling mall with its many theatres, the jury sittings were scheduled in an audi just behind the lovely Glass Museum building. It was called, appropriately, the Abbas Kiarostami Memorial Cinema theatre, in honour of the great Iranian director who died earlier this year. That he was a highly beloved auteur was evident all around us: the festival ran a retrospective of his work, and his name came up in the numerous conversations we had with Tehran’s film people.
Tehran is ringed by mountains, and it can be bitterly cold in the height of winter, but in mid-November, the weather is mild. We are in the downtown area, which is a snarl of excruciatingly slow-moving traffic and diesel exhaust. Our cab driver has music on, and it is a collection of ‘60s and ‘70s American top of the pops. Light my fire pouring out from a creaky music system in the middle of trafficked Tehran is an experience.
We become tourists in the ancient city of Yazd, a 50-minute plane ride away from Tehran. We land at well past 10 pm, dump our bags at Hotel Garden Moshir, with its pomegranate trees and sparkling fountains, and head out to a village about 45-minute bus ride away. Yazd is a desert town, and it seems to be on the edge of nowhere — the sand dunes glistening, the moon so bright and so close through a telescope that it truly looks like a doodh ki katori. We walk into a shadowy caravanserai dating back to the Sassanian period, which used to be a pit-stop for camels and merchants back in the day. The structure is now a tourist attraction, with its Ali-Baba-and-40-Thieves ambience, low slung cots covered by worn but intricately woven beautiful carpets, and tall steaming kettles of black tea.
Yazd is not as well known as Ishfahan or Shiraz, but we immediately succumb to its charms. We pack it all in: one of the most eye-catching mosques in Iran with its tall minarets, a bustling marketplace which rings the Amir Chakhmaq complex (we quickly pick up some lovely cotton Yazdi dyes and colours), a water museum, a wind-catcher (a structure that uses wind to cool water, which is further circulated in channels to cool buildings), and the famous Zoroastrian Temple of Fire.
Then we whiz back to Tehran, and tick off the museums: the Glass Museum with its astonishing array of glass ornaments and utensils and bowls and jugs, the Art Museum which gives us an instant look-see into both ancient and modern art, the Jewellery Museum where you can get blinded by all the precious gems. Tehran is also the hub of some of the most atmospheric cafes I’ve been to: I fall for the cosy, informal Café Nazdik; the salads, burgers, pasta are hearty and you can top those up by non-alcoholic beer (no booze in Iran), or a minty yogurt drink called ‘doogh’, (much like our chaach).
We walk to the crowded main bazaar and its corridors, with its overflowing tiny shops. I snaffle some fresh figs and young almonds, choosing amongst the nutty riches, heaped in mounds. And then we head to Sipah Salar, with its rows of handcrafted shoe shops. I buy two pairs, pack them in my bulging bag, groaning with dried fruits and boxes of mithai — so much like what we have and yet subtly different — and some precious Iranian saffron bought hastily at the airport, and grin all the way back home.