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April 12, 2008

Report from Tehran

Tehran is an interesting city. In effect it is in two parts, the North, nestling in the foothills of the Zagros Mountains, and the South, sprawling across the lowlands. The late Shah of Persia once decreed, and paid for it with his throne, that those in the south, in fact, anyone outside the city North of a certain part of Tehran, were peasants and not deserving of any "modern" amenity. Today, 29 years after the deposition of the Shah, the city is growing - it accommodates 12 million by day and drops back to 8 million at night - a little chaotic due to the absence, until recently, of any form of traffic planning and a largely absent public transport system.

That said, all of these issues are being addressed and development is being put into the Metro systems - currently only about 4 km in length - and into sorting out the roads. Traffic here is a nightmare for anyone used to the UK or European lane discipline, adherence to rules of driving and the "give way" courtesy. In Tehran it is everyman (or woman) for himself. Want to turn left but you're in the right hand lane? No problem, indicator on, swing into any gap and go for it. Leap and Dodge those who don't give way and then just force into the traffic on the other side until you can resume your journey. It results in remarkably few bumps we have noted ... So they must have a system - but its a mystery to us! I remember a phrase from my childhood that describes the pedestrians very accurately - "Honkentootenleapendodgers". There are only two types of pedestrian here - the quick and nimble - or the take a taxi and ride across!

The Iranians are nice people. We were welcomed and are being treated with the utmost courtesy. In fact this is something the Iranians are absolutely punctilious about, their tradition is that a guest is a sacred trust. They look after any guest and expect the guest to follow the rules of courtesy in return. It is a model of the Biblical treatment of guests, one found elsewhere in the Middle East, but probably nowhere as strictly observed as here.

Our Western idea of the Iranians rather suggests an unreasonable bunch of fanatics, in fact that is far from the truth. As with anywhere there are fanatics - I could easily find a number in the UK - and what we tend to forget is that they have borders with Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Armenia and Iraq. This is the home of the ancient Persian Empire, once part of Babylon and there are buildings and traditions here that link directly back to the time of Moses. They do have a culture different to ours, but you should expect that. Interestingly you do not see the men wandering about in the sort of "Islamic" dress so beloved of the migrant population in the UK, and the women are stunning. Some do wear the full burkha, but most don't unless they are visiting or working in a government establishment. And one thing I do notice in particular is the courtesy that young people and children show to their elders, to strangers and their parents. Nor do you see drunkenness in the streets - even though alcohol is obtainable.

They certainly do have some "old fashioned" laws, but these are not a barbaric people, they are a proud people and they have as little time for the Mujaheddin, Taliban and Al Qaeda as we do.

Perhaps what is needed is for us in the West to take another look at our "moral values" which cause such a problem between our regimes and theirs and see what, in our society, could be improved by adopting ideas from theirs before we try to impose some of our failures on them.

Posted by The Gray Monk at April 12, 2008 08:33 AM

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The traffic you describe in Teheran takes Mausi back to a holiday she spent in Italy with her family in the early seventies. As in Teheran lanes were for guidance only meaning that as many cars as would find enough space would be driving next to each other. Indicators were for the faint hearted only. If you wanted to go across several lanes you just hooted and went. The hoot alerted everyone else to watch out for some crazy manoeuvre. The only drawback was that everyone seemed to hoot all the time. Mausi distinctly remembers that the big roundabout in Verona caused beads of sweat to form on her father's forehead. All the time he was afraid someone would bump into his Opel Commodore. But all went well. As long as you didn't stop and went with the current you were relatively safe.

Posted by: Mausi at April 13, 2008 12:11 PM

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