Tehran, Iran

If I had just stepped off of the plane from New York, perhaps Tehran would seem more developing world. But right now, the flashing neon lights and streets full of clothing and electronics shops are more reminiscent of Times Square. But even objectively, Tehran is a relatively clean and modern city with little trace of the Orient. You could even call Tehran progressive since many women on the street shun the traditional black chadors in favor of colored headscarves which cover far less. Today I think I even caught a rather provocative fleeting glimpse of a woman’s ear.

With few things to do on a Friday when everything is closed, I perhaps somewhat tastelessly turned the former US embassy into a tourist attraction. The most infamous event of the Islamic Revolution took place within its walls when it was stormed by “students” and its staff of 52 were taken hostage. I can vividly remember the horrors of their 500 day ordeal which dominated the news reports when I was 6 years old. You can still make out a faint emblem of the United States on the front gate of what is now called “The US Den of Espionage.” I have no idea what its now used for, but far from being open to the public, there are guards with machine guns in watchtowers above the walls. The walls themselves are covered with murals depicting some of the atrocities perpetrated by “The Great Satan” over the last 20 years, including shooting down an Iran Air passenger jet. It’s also covered with inscriptions like:

“‘We will make America face severe defeat.’ Imam Khomeini”

“America is the most hated after the occupier of Ghods [Jerusalem]”

“When America praises us we should mourn”

and simply “Down with the USA”

I thought that was the end of the political rhetoric for the day, but during the long walk back I noticed enormous numbers of people walking through barricaded streets. When I asked someone what was going on, he said “prayers.” There seemed to be something decidedly political about their prayers, since they were all carrying banners and placards depicting burning Israeli and American flags. Painted on the pavement were those same flags, continously trod upon by the thousands of people walking past.

Further towards the center, beyond hundreds of buses which had brought all these people here, there actually were prayers going on. Block after block was full of men down on their hands and knees in silent prayer — silent until the prayer leader cleric shouted something about Palestine and everyone rose, chanting with fists flying in the air. On other streets were the women’s sections, more subdued and discretely blocked from view by green sheets strung across an intersection. At the occasional interval, chants of “Down with the USA” would arise, and men held up stuffed scarecrows draped either in blue and white, or red white and blue. Thinking it unwise to respond with a prayer of my own, I walked off.