SYNOPSIS:  First impressions of Teheran – Strolling through the Bazaar – Dinner at Akbar’s House.  How a rainy day turned out to be more than a memorable 2nd birthday of Mohammed.

What scriptures are responsible for this, I don’t know.  It is news to even many Muslims, but there are two birthday celebrations for Mohammed in the Islamic world.  One was last Thursday for the Sunnis – I was in Tartus; one was today for the Shias – I am in Teheran; that means I can celebrate it twice.

On holidays museums and many stores are closed, many people are off work.  But since in Iran people are getting ready for their New Year celebration in two weeks – the ancient Zoroastrian festival of the summer solstice is shining through here – stores were open for the buying frenzy of the locals.  The souq – they prefer the word bazaar – was so crammed that for the first time I put my backpack in front of me to protect my valuables and hung on for dear life as I was being pushed along by thousands of shoppers moving through the narrow, slippery alleys.  I decided that after the souqs in Damascus and Aleppo any further souq experience is just going to spoil it.  Teheran’s souq as it stands today is less than 200 years old and lacks the charm and the flair these two Syrian souqs possess.  I am not there for the shopping, and after an hour, I had enough and got out into the pouring rain.

Perhaps, I should have stayed inside just to escape the rain, but there was no telling for how long it would rain and so I faced it and got back to my hotel in the afternoon soaked through to my bones again.  I guess, in every country I have to have one of these experiences.  But I have to say that since Lebanon I got very lucky with the overall weather.  My budget hotel sports an amazing array of services.  There was a wall heater and I could get my clothes dried and myself warmed up in under an hour.  I have a refrigerator, an ancient small TV, my own shower and a shared bathroom with a European toilet – believe me that is important.  The local toilets are the squatters and they take getting used to.  So far, I have been able to avoid them almost entirely.

In the afternoon I was supposed to meet my travel agent – the man who is responsible for me while in Iran.  Iran has different rules as far as foreign visitors are concerned.  American citizens currently can only travel with a pre-arranged group or as individuals with a government approved travel agent and a predetermined itinerary.  That means that a car, a driver and a guide has to be paid for.  This can be costly.  European visitors may come as individuals and travel freely, but they have to be sponsored by either an agency or a family.  This sponsorship entails that the sponsors know about your whereabouts.  This can be seen in two ways – control or protection.  In the end it is really a bit of both.  I don’t mind it.  But if I would get sick or if anything were to happen to me, my sponsoring agent would help me through.   Just in case this is confusing, I am traveling as a German.  Even after all these years in America, I only have a green card for America and still a German passport.  So, in this case this came in handy.  As far as the Iranians are concerned, I am German.  When people ask, I will from now on only say that I am German for the simple fact that if I say that I am from America and I am walking around by myself, something does not add up.  And, I don’t want to draw the suspicion of anyone.  Due to the holiday my meeting with Mozaffar, the travel agent, did not happen.  I have to plan tomorrow for this.  That’s what happens with holidays.  They slow you down.  I am glad, I am not in a rush.

The highlight of the day was a phone call from Akbar and his wife Parvin, whom I met on the plane yesterday – to come to their house for dinner.  They arranged with the hotel desk that a taxi would come for me – paid for – which took me to their house.  I had gotten a sense that Akbar and Parvin were well off and I expected a nice apartment somewhere north.  But when I drove up to a gated villa compound, I was much surprised.  Akbar must be, as we like to say in America, a “big shot”.

We spent a most wonderful evening together.  There are three grown children.  One studies in London and Akbar skyped him so I could say hello.  The other studies civil engineering at the university in Teheran.  I met him briefly.  He is the youngest and still lives at home.  But he left for a date shortly after I arrived.  And there is their daughter Salmone who came with her husband.  Salmone studies English at the university and her husband owns and operates three hotels in the North.  Akbar himself seems to do just about everything:  He is in the helicopter business, but also in the carpet business, is the president of a corporation and has branches and houses in Dubai and Esfahan and perhaps elsewhere.  Needless to say that their home was amazing.  Furniture, decoration, sculptures, carpets, the piano (Maria, it was from London.  I know you always care about the pianos) all were carefully appointed.  For my personal taste there was too much gold.  But I have come to understand that this is very much a local preference.  The more gold and the more glitter, the better.

As much as the home radiated wealth, it did not lose its charm and livability.   What I liked the most was that despite all the wealth, nobody in the family was pretentious.  I had to think of Nisreen in Dubai who radiated an air of entitlement, demand and superiority towards people whom she perceives to be the serving class and below her social status.  She would call a worker at her high rise to carry up my suitcase; she would snap her fingers to have the garbage of her car disposed by an Indian worker at a drive through.  I had just offered to dispose the garbage but she would not have it.  Even though Nisreen respected me as an equal, it was hard for me to hear her talk about and see her deal with the “lower classes”.

Perhaps, it is my East German upbringing:  I don’t respect or disrespect people for their class and or their wealth.  I respect them for who they are.  I took Akbar and Parvin’s wealth in stride and related to them on a personal level.   I am not easily impressed by money and glitz.  There has to be more.  Akbar and Parvin went out of their way last night to drive me to my hotel.  That was two hours of their time at night.  I am sure they were tired.  That deeply impressed me.  I am not sure I would have done the same for a stranger at the Detroit airport.  Perhaps, from now on I will.  I loved Parvin for her gentle nature and a face that was full of compassion.  She asked me if I had a scarf – on the plane I was still uncovered.  When I told her that I had one but was thinking of getting one like hers – it seemed to fit so well, did not slip, and fell over her shoulders front and back, she replied:  Oh no, that would be way too hot for you!  But isn’t it hot for you, too?  I asked.  Yes, she smiled and then shrug it off.  She worried about me being hot but she herself had to be hot every day.

Even though Parvin had a servant from Afghanistan who helped her in the kitchen, she spent a good hour in the kitchen herself preparing a delicious feast of fish, chicken, saffron rice, and crispy bread.  Her demeanor is so sweet and humble and modest – I already noticed and loved that about her in the airplane.  Both of them were sitting next to me in the economy class after all, even though they most likely and easily could have afforded first class.  But what a waste of money that is for a two hour flight and with a service-oriented airline like Emirates.  I liked this balance between wealth and common sense, between status and modesty.  I felt utterly comfortable in their house and with them as people.

If that was not enough, Akbar insisted that I computed all of their private cell phone numbers into my phone – remember that Hassan in Tartus gave me a phone for local SIM cards – and I had to promise to call them in case I needed any help, anywhere in Iran, and at any time!   Of course, they reiterated their invitation to stay at their house instead of my hotel.  And, I declined again.  Don’t ask me, why.  I just cannot abuse their kindness.  Perhaps, at the end of my stay in Iran, I will take them up on this.  Right now, I am just overwhelmed by so much generosity, trust, warmth, acceptance, and hospitality.

I stayed until nearly midnight and was taken back home by a driver.  What a welcome to Iran!

Good night.