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Iran: Nostalgic for the Future

posted: 2 March, 2015

White men stood and sat and stared at the cashier who, from beyond a frontier of bullet-proof glass, totted up the morning’s takings. Not bad at all… I also sat, unfolding and folding my arms, regularly cross-referencing the number on my deli-counter ticket with red digital readout on the wall opposite. My phone, confiscated by armed guardsmen two hours earlier, sat alone its cubby-hole, ignoring what were bound to be important emails and urgent calls.

An elderly lady was wheeled toward the too-narrow waiting room door but could not enter. Unable to help, the room looked away and at its tickets, ashamed as she retreated down the ramp and the three awkward steps, back to wherever she had come from. The door frame was the least of her worries. She was late. She would have to come back the following day at the correct time – no exceptions. Then it would be her turn to wait and to pay, as each applicant must, at the visa processing department of the Iranian Consulate, Dubai.

I can’t say I was looking forward to visiting Iran. I was definitely curious, though, and I wanted to see for myself what I’d previously only seen on the news or on Season 3 of Homeland. And I’d been wrong before about foreign lands, but Iran… this was going to be very different.

For many Westerners, Iran is terra incognita – a blank in our mental map onto which we have sketched different dragons through the centuries. Inasmuch as we know anything about it at all, Iran is a scary, intolerant, and often violent nation at odds with its neighbours and at the throats of its many enemies. But if this roomful of business wonks were at all daunted you’d never tell, so twitchingly desperate were we to escape this room, passports in hand, free at last to travel.

The flight from Dubai to Iran is short; a striking reminder of how, not so very long ago, Tehran was itself a commercial, financial and cultural oasis. What would remain of this place? Did the people remember? Would I find evidence of a less foreign and more human Iran lurking behind my preconceptions? My luggage and I passed beyond security and into a waiting car.

If there is a picturesque airport-to-city road anywhere in the world, I haven’t travelled on it. In this way, at least, Tehran is like anywhere else. It takes around an hour by car to get to the Esteghlal International Hotel (formerly known as the Royal Tehran Hilton), and there is very little to see – miles of infertile land dotted with scruffy farmhouses, abandoned and sometimes burned-out cars, and the occasional exciting display of military ordnance.

Entering the city is a sudden occurrence – scrubland gives way to a flyover and then down into a city of over 8 million. The city itself is sometimes old Delhi, frequently Beijing, then it’s the East End of Glasgow. It’s often low-rise and clearly (dangerously) handmade. But then it’s also monumental, concrete, brutal and Soviet. It’s clearly poor, mostly brown and rather dusty, but not backward or agricultural. It’s a proper city.

Alborz Mountains

The Alborz Mountain range to Tehran’s North

The north of the Tehran is sheltered by the Alborz Mountains where the wealthy ski and enjoy some of best restaurants the city has to offer. Yes, in case you though the place was entirely on its knees as a result of international sanctions, there are indeed wealthy Iranians. And there is a sizeable middle-class too. And they enjoy pretty much the same sorts of things you do – movies, good food, music, shopping. And in the same way that the British aren’t defined by their politicians, it is also true for Iranians.

I was there for all of three days – not much more than a long weekend and I was working almost the entire time – yet it was long enough to get very real sense of pent-up energy. Iranians are often brilliantly entrepreneurial, and whatever success has come their way is almost comically implausible – and massively impressive.

For example, take the guy I met who decided he wanted to launch Zara in Tehran. Inditex, Zara’s owners, wouldn’t return his calls or reply to his emails. Fair enough, you might think. Who does he think he is? Move on. Find another brand.


Stradivarius. Now Open!

Not him, though. I have no idea how (and I’m not sure I want to know, either), but after years of trying he has managed to get a regular supply of old-season Zara stock into Iran. Not only that, he’s getting the whole Inditex portfolio – Massimo Dutti, Stradivarius, Bershka, and Pull & Bear – and is selling all this in a beautiful store modelled on Zara with fittings manufactured by a cousin, in what is the best mall in Tehran. He couldn’t wait any more. He just went out and did it.

In Iran, where the simple act of going to a shopping mall is an act of political defiance, this guy built what is the best – and admittedly only – Inditex department store in the world. I was just so impressed.

It is a sincere hope shared by millions of Iranians that their waiting may soon be over. July 1st 2015 is the deadline for reaching an agreement that would see Iran roll back parts of its nuclear programme in return for relief from some sanctions. Expectations are high; not least among the retailers I met who have heroically hacked out a living, then a business, and then an industry in defiance of their situation.

Iranians feel like it’s their turn now – they’re at the front of the queue. No more waiting, they’ve paid the price, they’re ready.

Joseph Leftwich

For more photos please see our Pinterest Travel Diary