Thursday, March 24, 2016

Tehran Calling

My recent visit to Tehran left me speechless. I went along with my colleague to explore business opportunities in the wake of sanctions removal but ended up falling in love with the city.

Visa process in Karachi required few personal appearances; most of the people I came across at Iranian Embassy were going on pilgrimage. It is perquisite to go through a medical check at designated lab, in a way it was good way to make sure visitors are not exporting diseases. Embassy’s Commercial & Economic Consular was cooperative enough to get us business visa in less than three working days.

Alburz Mountain view from Esteghlal Hotel
We took connecting flight via Dubai, as plane was approaching Tehran, we saw women putting on scarf and trench coats. It is mandatory for local as well as foreign female visitors to follow dress code.
Tehran international airport looked descent, before heading to hotel we got currency exchanged. Tehran is disconnected from international banking network, as foreigners we could not use ATM or credit cards. We ended up carrying only cash; US Dollar and Euros are acceptable, 1 USD is equivalent of approx. 34,000 Iranian Rial. However people also use unofficial unit of currency called Toman, generally prices of goods are in Toman ‘one Toman equals 10 Rials’.

We checked into luxury hotel located on crossroad of Chamran and Valisar road in North of Tehran “Persian Esteghlal International Hotel”. Before 1979 revolution, it was part of Hilton hotel chains, later took over by government and changed to Esteghlal ‘meaning independence’. Hotel location is scenic; one can see ice caped Alborz Mountains from the window. Rooms looked clean; however elevators were pretty old and slow. Internet communication was also slow and most of the social networking sites were not accessible.

Road infrastructure is well developed; one may find overhead roads and tunnels. On our way, taxi driver drove through famous Tohid Tunnel; it is about 3 kilometers long, third longest urban tunnel in Middle East, was built in about 30 months. Roads are surrounded with cherry trees and we saw green landscaping all around. Over 250 thousand gardeners are working for Tehran local government. People in Tehran love outdoors, there are various parks and public spaces all around the city. Town planning looked impressive, there are drain channels all across the city, garbage is collected twice a day and huge garbage bins are placed everywhere in the city. Generally people seemed to be hygiene conscious. 
Tehran Metro Bus

Tohid Tunnel

Millet Park
15 Sitting Men Sculpture
Millet Park
In the hotel lobby we saw European with ski equipment; later we got to know that Tochal is the most famous resort mainly known for ski, located on Alborz Mountain. There is a 12 km long ridgeline and the highest peak is approx. 13,000 feet. A gondola lift runs from Tehran to Tochal Ski Resort and to Tochal hotel and resort.

Tehran has got metro as well as underground network of trains, however still struggles with traffic jams. City is surrounded with mountains, hardly any outlet for fresh air to pass through; smoke generated by cars seems to be one of the major health issues.
Traffic Jam in Tehran
City has various landmark buildings such as Milad Tower, 7th tallest tv tower in the world , with mall and  a revolving restaurant . Other major landmark site is Azadi Tower or square, it played key role during revolution.
Milad Tower
Azadi Tower
Street names are very interesting, came across names such as Africa, Argentine, Gandhi, Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Iqbal Lahori Street.
During our informal discussion we got to know Allama Iqbal known as Iqbal E Lahori, one of the most read poets in Iran. Children read about Iqbal and recite his poetry. He is so famous even in the midst of revolution crowd used to recite Iqbal ‘poetic work such as Az Zabur I Ajam’ during processions. Even Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei at times recites Iqbal during his speeches. Someone also shared that in Mashad there is Iqbal E Lahori Institute of Higher Studies offering degrees in social sciences and engineering. In Iran Iqbal is well placed along with Rumi or Hafez . To honor Iqbal, on the eve 100th anniversary, on 9th Nov 1977 a special postage was also issued in Iran.
Iqbal Lahori Street - Tehran

100 yr Anniversary Postal Stamp
On the roads we came across cars only from Korea and France, brands such as Peugeot, Kia, Hyundai, Iran Khodro and Saipa, all locally made. Iran is the 18th largest car manufacturing country in the world, with export contribution of approx. USD 1 bill per year. Sanctions encouraged Iran to localize the production.

Iran has history of over 5,000 years; besides Muslim identity they are proud of their historic culture. They celebrate Nauroz ‘to welcome spring’ with zeal, it has historic Persian or Zoroastrian origin, celebrations stretch around two weeks, begining from 21st March. On first day people also visit Pasargadae ‘Cyrus the Great’s tomb’ located near the city of Shiraz.
Cyrus the Great Tomb
We came across many Iranian Indian graduates, we were informed annually over 8,000 students go to Indian universities for higher education. Also informed that Indian relationship with Iran is well rooted, investment on infrastructure projects such as Chabahar Port ‘located in southeast of Iran’ and road networks development is major hallmark along with barter trade.
Flowers and gardens have special place in Tehran, we saw many flower shops all across the city. On occasions people exchange flowers, we saw people receiving friends and relatives with flowers at airport.
Iranian food is not spicy but delicious, mainly Chullu Kababs, one of the best we ended up eating at Tehran Bazar ‘ a flea market’ . Dough ‘Lassi’ with different flavors is very popular, overall dairy product segment is well developed.
Chullu Kabab

Dough - Mint Lassi
 At Tehran Bazar traditional goods are sold however walking streets are so clean and surrounded by beautiful buildings with ceramic and art work. Iranians generally wear pant shirt along with coat however we came across Kurd minority labors in Shalwar and small shirt. Armenian minorities along with Jews are also part of around 10 million population of Tehran and they enjoy religious freedom, churches and synagogues are easily found in Tehran.
Tehran Bazar
 Street arts in public spaces make city an open art public gallery, sculpture, ceramic work and paintings found all around Tehran. One of the most inspiring structure is Tabiat Bridge ‘pedestrian bridge' developed by 26 year old female architect, it connects two parks.
Tabiat Bridge

Street Art
Art at Milad Tower

Art at Milad Tower
During our discussion we were informed about interesting facts about revolution, bulk of development witnessed during post revolution and even women were empowered i.e., passing of law related to full insurance compensation to a female driver and other rights.
Former president Ahmadi Nijad ‘a traffic engineer by profession’ came with an idea of making Tehran a signal free through U turns and diversions. State has functioning welfare system, heavy subsidies offered to public. Major shareholding in petrochemical complexes and government organizations rest with low income families through distribution of Justice Shares ‘as per estimates Justice Shares are valued approx. USD 36 billion’
We interacted with major petrochemical organization in Tehran and majority of the executives we met were women. From executives to shopkeepers or even taxi drivers, women found in every walks of the life.
During our discussions we were surprised to hear about the popularity of former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, her mother was Iranian Kurdish origin from Esfahan.
On our way we came across few beggars from Pakistani part of Balochistan. Iran has substantial Afghan refugee population as well.
General Iranian population is not well versed with English however older generation speaks French. Persian language is well developed and literature from world over is translated in Persian.
European and Chinese businessmen are flocking to Tehran; days are not far when Tehran will regain its due place among the finest cities of the world. Also days are not far when Pakistan will reconnect with neighboring Iran on business, culture and historic grounds.

P.S: You can also access my colleague's letter titled 'Iqbal in Tehran' published in Daily Dawn on 24th March 2016 in  Letters section  . Click following title 'web link'