Arriving in Tehran you could tell we were somewhere quite different. Many of the women joining us on the hop from Dubai changed their clothing before we landed. As we taxied to the terminal we past aging 747s, born of another era in aviation but still operating in Iran where economic sanctions have stopped carriers being able to buy new airplanes.
The airport was small when you consider Tehran is the biggest city in West Asia. Its fifteen million people sprawl over foothills of the Alborz mountains which separate Iran’s deserts from the Caspian sea. It feels like a big city, sure, but it doesn’t feel frantic, except when you’re midstream in traffic and a taxi comes reversing, full tilt, up a one way street.
It’s smoggy and traffic is congested, but the city streets are clean and there are fewer beggars than you’d fine in most world capitals. In fact, the leafy northern suburbs wouldn’t be out of place anywhere in Western Europe. There are neat palaces to visit, a gem collection that makes the British Crown jewels look impoverished, and fine museums showcasing Persia’s important role in history. And in little ways the city hints at the political and cultural quirks that have really drawn us to Iran: the cars are almost all Peugeot because a local manufacturing license gets around sanctions, there’s occasional anti-American symbolism plastered on walls, and, somewhere, hidden in plain sight, morality police crack down on women showing too much fringe.
This country seems full of contradictions. The twists and turns of its modern history suggest a penchant for liberalism, and fierce sense of nationalism that comes out as religion. Or religion that comes out as nationalism. Women here seem at once freer and more restricted than those we met in Pakistan. It feels more modern and more held back than I was expecting. I’m yet to decide whether the apparent contradictions are genuine, or just a product of our misunderstanding.