Friday, April 2, 2010

Day 10: Tehran

Since I enjoyed my day yesterday so much, I decided to get up extra early this morning to start my trip. It was hard getting up around 6:30 AM, but I decided to take a few last photos around the hotel I stayed in. I must say, during my trip I’ve had exceptional luck staying in very nice hotels, and this time the Kowsal hotel was no different.

The rooms were clean, the food was great, and the staff was, for the most part, very courteous. As I was leaving I had a brief chat with the doorman who taught me how to say “merci” which is thank you in Persian. I definitely kept this in mind. This guy was very nice, unlike the doorman last night who seemed irritated by me. I figured it was because I was a woman traveling alone (more on that later).

I decided my trip should begin at one of Tehran’s most recognizable locations: the Azadi Tower and Square. After a short walk, I hopped on the Tehran Metro which is apparently the Middle East’s longest metro system. On board this fairly empty train car, another woman sat next to me and asked where I was from. When I explained to her that I was a student from UNC, she looked so surprised and explained that she graduated from Duke not long ago! Small world! She introduced herself as Samira and said she was meeting a friend at the Azadi Square. Since I was also heading there, she said she would love to show me around, even though I was a Tarheel!

Once we emerged from the metro, we began our short walk to Azadi Square. Along the way, Samira mentioned that since she wears contacts, her eyes get really irritated due to the massive amount of pollution in Tehran. I thought this was very interesting since I have never considered the more immediate effects of pollution.

Further along, we passed a very tall structure off in the distance called the Milad Tower that was just recently opened in 2008. Samira explained that although that was the tallest structure in Iran, it’s not nearly as beautiful as Azadi Tower and once we got there, I couldn't question her on that.

During our stay there, I chatted with Samira. She was extremely well versed on Iranian history. She explained to me that "Azadi" is Persian for "freedom". This square was constructed in the 1970s as an anniversary gift to the Persian Empire and a “gateway” to Iran, and for this reason it has now become the symbol of the country’s revival. She also mentioned that Iranian history and civilization goes back to nearly 4500 BC and that it has had more civilizations than any other place on Earth!

I also remembered the doorman back at my hotel who was a little rude to me and I asked Samira what the deal with that was. She grudgingly explained to me that a lot of women are treated like that by some, more "traditional," people. She said that after the Muslim take over of Iran, the women were subjected to the strict Islamic laws regarding women. She continued to say that although the treatment of women can sometimes be kind of harsh, it isn't as bad as some other countries in the Mid-East and that they are steadily getting better due to the young, more reformist, population of Iran.

After her history lessons, Samira’s friend arrived and she had to take off. I couldn’t thank her enough for the very captivating and free information. I walked to a nearby outdoor cafĂ© to slip out of the crowded square. Sitting there, I remembered Samira talk about how Azadi Square was one of the big places for protesting during the 2009 presidential elections. I wanted to learn more about the political state of Tehran and the rest of the country, so I headed to Tehran University hoping to find some students willing to talk. After my trek, I was lucky enough to find some students relaxing and who were very eager to talk about their political views in Tehran.

One of the young men in the group, named Sa'id, was probably the most talkative. The thing he said that I found most interesting was that during the protests the Iranian government blatantly censored a lot of media such as the social web sites Twitter and other blog sites! I can't imagine having so little freedom. The student even told me that a lot of international reporters were being detained, stripped of their information, and deported. The worst part is that the government still claims there is freedom of the press in Iran! Even more depressing was how he told me that the current regime apparently killed some young men who were participating in a peaceful rally.

(Slogan for protesters during 2009 elections)

Since it was getting late, I decided I should get going. After all, my next destination is Mecca and I am going to need a plan to get inside.