It is overwhelming — the feeling I have entering Tehran after time away. The instant familiarity is not just physical — the smell, the dusty dryness of the air, the sound of cars, and water gushing down deep gutters — it’s also visual; everyone looks like me, or my brother, or my aunts and uncles. It’s like being at a big family gathering.
At first, Tehran unravels itself from the window of my taxi like a dystopian black-and-white film in shades of grey. The dull, muted, ill-fitting suits; the black chadors and headscarves and dark manteaus; the sombre colours of mourning cherished by the Islamic Republic. We come to a halt, thrust into endless traffic. Noxious fumes seep in, oozing down from the sepia clouds of pollution that stick to the city and coat the nose and mouth like glue. The car is now a quivering metal cage in which I’m a prisoner to the ugly, gaudy architecture that assaults this town like a baseball bat to the face; a mishmash of bad taste and ostentation. Concrete monstrosities embellished with childlike plastic primary colours; faux-Grecian and Roman flourishes and columns; marble cladding and unflinching brutalist blocks.
When colour comes into vision, like so much in Tehran, it is immediate and intense. Lurid war murals and propaganda posters; ruby pomegranates; mountains of green herbs; yellow melons and the heaps of fruit that tumble out of grocery store boxes, ignited fluorescent by megawatt bulbs dangling above.
I am on Vali Asr Street, the country’s most imposing road, lined on either side by thousands of sycamore trees. Vali Asr proudly shoots up from the train station that is crowned by a beautiful 1930s nationalist building, through which travellers from all corners of the country — Kurds, Lors, Azeris, Baluchis, Turkmens, Arabs — and itinerants, gypsies and workers stream. Here are the southern bowels of the city, the rough edges that fringe urban life. Prostitutes work from cheap hostels and brothels; old men lounge in opium dens, families queue at the fresh fruit juice stalls and in the backstreets, derelict buildings are squatted by Afghan labourers amid mounds of rubble and rubbish, next to parks strewn with needles.
Old Tehran clings to life around the bazaar, near where my father was born and where the barrow boys still shout affectionate insults to each other as they weave through anarchic lanes of motorbikes; where hawkers have been rooted to the same spot for decades with their goods neatly splayed out at their feet and cobblers and butchers offer pertinent political analysis.
An ageing relative takes me around the crumbling, twisting alleys he once called home, and relives the tales of local thugs and crooks, of famous whorehouses and madams. I eat where he has always eaten, in a corner of the bazaar where truckers and labourers eat dizi, a peasant dish of meat juice, potatoes and beans served with lamb’s fat that melts into the delicious mess, tearing sangak bread that smells of the hot stones on which it was baked. Then I order a glass of black tea in a tea house that allows me entry, despite its no-women policy, where I’m shown fraying photos of sharp-suited gangsters long dead, and newspaper clippings of famous wrestlers that once sat where I sit, on a plastic chair at a wooden table next to a row of glass hookah pipes.
Vali Asr stretches northwards, bisecting the city for 12 miles until it hits the foothills of the Alborz mountain range. And here I feel real joy, cocooned under its green canopy speckled with dust and sticky sap. I walk the length of this road and watch the layers of Tehran unpeel before me; the religious neighbourhoods, the students, artists, the nouveaus, the bazaaris, the hezbollahis, the park next to the theatre where gay guys cruise. Past Banksy-esque graffiti, past flocks of flirting boys and girls who parade their street style as though on a catwalk. And in the north of the city, the obnoxious rich kids pose in their fast cars, living their bubble lives.
I glimpse the spectacle of an Ashura ceremony, where the poetry of Shia Islam is found in a passion play and rhythmic beating. I marvel at a rockabilly with a quiff selling Edith Piaf CDs. I sit in a hidden garden under a fig tree eavesdropping on people whispering gossip. Finally, I shake off the city and escape to the mountains, walking through the village of Darrakeh, past a big restaurant that was once my school, past a donkey laden with bags of flour, past the icy streams. I stop off for a bowl of mulberries dripping purple juice down my chin. I climb further until — there she is, spread out before me in her valley that stretches to more mountains and then desert. And I look at her and I know: I am home.
British-Iranian Ramita Navai is a reporter for Channel 4’s Unreported World. Her first book, City of Lies, won a Royal Society of Literature Jerwood Award in 2012. ramitanavai.com
Published in the Jan/Feb 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)