A Teacup in Tehran - By Caroline Fakhri

 

 

Resplendent Caroline with husband and son

Giroft

I awoke on that first morning to the gentle shadows made by the banana trees in the garden. I was surprised it was already light, I checked the clock, 5am, how could that be? Its November! But Giroft lies a long way south of Tehran and far enough to the east, in the one time zone of the vast country of Iran, meaning daylight comes early here, even in late autumn.

I loved the house and the garden from the beginning. The garden, which was not particularly large, overflowed with citrus trees, oranges, lemons, grapefruits and tangerines. The branches of the trees were weighed down with fruit, just the right height for Dominic to pick, but for me the the beauty of the garden lay in the tall banana trees, with their elegant fronds, which swayed, even in the slightest of breezes, appearing to caress the air. In the early morning light they cast delicate shadows across the covers of my bed and lulled me back to sleep as the cool morning air came in to touch my cheek.

Dominic roamed around the garden to his heart’s content, picking, peeling and eating tangerines straight from the trees. The garden led out onto a narrow road from where there was an unobscured view to the nearby mountains. There was no passing traffic, just peace and quiet all day, with only the rumble of a tractor in the distance, from time to time.

There was nothing particularly special about the house, a very basic, one storey building, with three bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen and bathroom. There was nothing luxurious about any of it either but I loved being there because from the moment I arrived I felt the house welcome me.

The house was situated just outside the town of Giroft, a small town, some 650 metres above sea level, a low altitude compared to other Iranian towns, many of which sit on the high Iranian plateau which dominates a large part of the interior landscape. Giroft lies about 1370 kilometres south east of Tehran. It sits on a vast fertile plain south of the Jebel Barez mountain chain, on the banks of the Halil. Giroft can become extremely hot in the summer months, with temperatures reaching as high as 50 degrees centigrade. Winters are moderate, never getting much below 10 degrees centigrade, although it has been known to snow.

The area is farmed extensively. In the low-lying hotter areas dates grow plentifully and higher up citrus trees flourish, producing large quantities of fruit which finds its way to the markets and shops of Tehran and other cities. Due to the mountainous nature of the area the climate is perfect for growing grapes, almonds and walnuts as well. Despite the great summer heat the climate is too dry to grow tropical fruit trees successfully and the beautiful palms in the garden only produced very small bananas if you were lucky.

One cool morning we ventured into the mountains, taking the path of a dry rocky riverbed. It was a bumpy ride sitting in the back of a battered old Nissan truck but we could feel the cooling breezes which became cooler as we climbed higher into the mountains. As the truck twisted and turned we soon lost sight of the town and the homestead where we were staying. The sky was bright blue and despite the early hour and breeze the sun was already hot on our faces. As we climbed higher, the fruit trees came into view and as far as the eye could see was an orange-speckled sea of green, panning out in front of us. We felt far away from human life, all we could hear was the rustling of the leaves and dry grasses, coupled with the occasional squawk of a bird, as our truck broke their silence. The air was thick with the scent of citrus. 

Kashan and Ghamsar

We stopped in Kashan for a few hours as there are some interesting historical sites to visit, especially the bathhouse, in the Finn Gardens, where Amir Kabir, a prime minister during the reign of the Qajars, a ruling dynasty in nineteenth century Iran was murdered. The Finn Gardens are typical of the formal gardens that were once very fashionable in Iran and are still very much loved and visited today. The gardens often contain similar elements, such as running water and fountains that provide a beautiful oasis in an otherwise inhospitable landscape. The water, which is directed along purpose built gullies, not only waters the flowers but provides cooling breezes during the long hot summers months.

Throughout its history Iran has always been very ingenious in using what nature has given them to make life comfortable. These formal gardens usually contain an abundance of roses, a flower that thrives in the hot summers and the cold winters and tall poplar and plane trees that provided shade for the original owners of these gardens and now for the many visitors.

Next to the town of Kashan is the village of Ghamsar, famous for it roses and rosewater. Only one variety of rose is used in the making of rosewater; it is called the Mohammady rose, pink in colour, looks a little bit like a wild rose, with delicate light green leaves. The roses bloom once a year in late Spring, around about May and when they flower the air becomes thick with their scent and sea of pink presents itself as far as the eye can see.

One May we took a day trip to Ghamsar from Tehran to experience the rosewater making process first hand We set off at about five am, before the sun had risen and the day was still at its coolest. Having stopped on the way for breakfast we arrived about 9:00am where we saw the women already busy at work in the rose gardens. The sun beating down from a cloudless sky was quite remorseless even at that hour, helping the roses to release their scent. We watched mesmerised by the brightly coloured scarf glad heads of the women as they worked tirelessly under the hot sun picking the rose heads from the prickly rose bushes. Before long we looked for shelter from the sun and found a shady balcony where we sat cross legged on patterned Persian carpets and opened our flask of tea.

Laying back, drinking tea and taking in the Mohammady rose perfume was bliss but as the day grew hotter we realised you can have too much of a good thing. As the scent became overpowering we decided to take ourselves off for a walk into the surrounding countryside until it was time for lunch.

After our lunch, provided as part of the trip, we spread ourselves out on the carpets and snoozed away the hottest part of the day in readiness for the afternoon where we would see the rosewater making process both traditionally and industrially.

The methods of both are similar in that the rose heads are put into a large container then sealed. The container is heated from underneath so that the water with the roses heads in boils. A pipe leads out of said container and is inserted into another container which stands in cold water. As the water with the roses in boils the steam rises up the pipe then down another pipe into the container standing in cold water. When the steam reaches the cold container it condenses and drips down into the container itself. The condensed steam becomes the rosewater.

The history of making rosewater in Ghamsar dates back two and a half thousand years. Each year the Kaaba, The House of God in Mecca, the holiest place for Muslims, is washed with rosewater from Ghamsar*.

Rosewater is also used as a perfume, a cleanser and in cooking. As well as rosewater rose oil is also made; it is very expensive and is the base for many perfumes.

* Arabic language Al Arabiya reports that Al Ka'aba was washed with "materials of high value: water from the holly spring Zimzim mixed with rose water. The annual duty was fulfilled (September, 2018) by Prince Khaled al Faisal Counselor of the Custodian of the Two Holly Mosques and Prince of the Region of Holly Makkah on the behalf of the Custodian of the Two Holly Mosques King Salman Bin Abdel Aziz" "The door of the Ka'aba was opened after the dawn prayer and Prince Khaled prayed two rak'ahs at the exact place where the Prophet Mohamed prayed, after which the washing of the Ka'aba with the washing mixture of water from Zimzim, rose water and Oud wood water began" the text further explains ceremony of washing continues with drying. (Note of the edditor)

Two moody boys amidst the rose water distillery in Ghamsar in the 90s.

Garden Museum Fereshteh

Just recently Iran has found itself in the headlines again and as usual for all the wrong reasons. During the last forty years since the Iranian Revolution, there have been very few times when we have seen or heard anything positive about the country. So many of the images, beamed into our sitting rooms, via our TV screens or emblazoned on the front pages of our newspapers, are of angry, black clad men and women, thronging the streets, shaking their fists and still after all these years, shouting ‘Death to America.’ But there are many faces to Iran, which are rarely seen, if ever, that are beautiful. Tree lined streets, flower filled parks, ancient monuments that could tell a thousand stories, vast deserts and soaring mountains, blanketed in snow in winter and baked bare in the searing summer heat. To the north of the country is the gentle climate of the Caspian Sea coast as lush and green as the interior desert is brown; to the Persian sea coast where the landscape transforms into row upon row of date palms and further inland orange and lemon groves thrive. Iran is a vast country with a magnificent landscape with treasures, as old as time itself. On a return journey in September (2019) I found a little treasure, in the fashionable suburb of Fereshteh*.

The tea terrace at Garden Museum Fereshteh

The Iranian Art and photography Garden Museum. Fereshteh Tehran

The Museum is in the residential area of Fereshteh in the North of the City, where even in the searing heat of July and August a cool breeze ruffles the leaves of the tall Sycamore trees that line the twisting streets and alleyways. Once a village, this beautiful neighbourhood is now part of the sprawling metropolis that Tehran has become, especially since the Revolution,1979, which saw people flock from the countryside to the cities desperately looking for jobs and a better way of life; Tehran has become overcrowded and unmanageable, traffic now clogs the streets, the exhaust fumes choke the air.

But Fereshteh has managed to preserve its slightly rural feel and as a result it is highly sort after and prohibitively expensive. Not difficult to see why as you wander along the narrow back streets, every so often getting a glimpse into the gardens of the rich and famous; the well manicured lawns look surprisingly green for a city that might not have had rain since the Spring. But here money is no object and water appears to be in plentiful supply. Sprinklers whizz round lifting the heavy air, creating a welcome coolness. It is amongst these windy roads and alleys that I came upon the Iranian Art and Photography Garden Museum.

My brother in Law, Sohrub, invited me to go on a tour of the northern slopes of the City on the back of his motorbike and as much as the prospect of riding pillion in Tehran traffic frightened me I couldn’t resist this opportunity. Tehran’s traffic is fast and dangerous with many, if not most people, flouting the traffic regulations.

We pulled away into the late morning traffic onto one of the main arteries going North; being a Thursday, the beginning of the weekend, the roads were perhaps not as busy as usual. The great Alborz mountains, not yet snow covered on their peeks, glowered down at us, the sky above them bright blue, not a cloud in sight and surprisingly, smog free due to a few days of wind which had cleared everything away.

I clung on tightly, not only to Sohrub but to my head scarf which the wind threatened to whip off at any minute leaving me bareheaded, not advisable in the Islamic Republic. Sohrub wove us in and out of traffic and as the road climbed higher the temperature dropped so by the time we arrived in Fereshteh and took the winding roads at a slower pace the heat of the late morning was slightly more bearable.

Just when I thought the twists and turns would never stop we drew up outside the imposing wrought iron gates that guard the entrance to the Garden Museum and there behind the railings, I could see the beautifully laid out gardens of a traditional Iranian house from a bygone era. So many of the traditional houses, built around a garden, where several generations would live together, have long gone, knocked down and replaced with characterless concrete blocks.

On entering the gardens the distant traffic sounds faded away completely giving way to the sound of running water in the miniature channels around the garden, the rustling leaves and the singing birds. A paradise on earth as Persian gardens have been referred to by writers and poets for hundreds of years or more. We walked along the straight tree lined pathways (the formality, a feature of traditional Persian gardens) beside the water (another feature) making our way towards the house, built in 1931 during the Pahlavi Dynasty, opening as a museum in 2008.

After the hot dusty ride we were in need of some refreshment, so we found ourselves a table under a tall Plane tree, right next to the cool blue water of the small pool, on the terrace of the open air cafe. I could tell by the amount of highlighted hair that the women had allowed to escape from their headscarves or in some cases allowed the scarf to slip of completely that these were the well heeled of Tehran whiling away the time in these beautiful surroundings. Anyone under forty has never known anything except the constraints of this harsh government and the regulations regarding behaviour in public and are rebelling in any small way they can.

We ordered tea, which I knew by Iran standards would be an exorbitant price, but my pounds go a long way in Iran and it was worth it to be able to sit here and drink in the magical atmosphere. We sat looking towards the mountains, their peeks visible between the trees.

After the tea we went into the museum itself, a long low-rise building designed sympathetically to blend in with its surroundings. Inside is a treasure trove of Iranian handicrafts, antiques and carpets; traditional furnishings, earthenware and paraphernalia depicting a more traditional way of life. On the far side, paintings and framed photographs line the railings. Last but not least the gardens are dotted with models of famous Iranian historical monuments such as 33 Bridges in Esphahan, Gonbad-e-Qabus, in the town of the same name, and Shahyat Tower now Azadi Tower in Tehran. The models were commissioned in Italy for the huge celebration of 2500 years of Persian Empire which took place in October 1971, in the desert near to the ancient site of Persopolis outside the city of Shiraz. A tiny example of the money and detail lavished on this event. The models which are made from concrete resin and polyester and painted with oils were sadly never used and now stand forlornly if a little incongruously on the lawns of the garden museum.

For me the beauty of this place is the garden in all its detail and the tea terrace the perfect place to drink an Iranian glass of tea.

Address of the Garden Museum. Tehran, Fereshteh, Professor Hesabi Street (Opposite Professor Hesabi Museum)

*Fereshteh means fairy in Persian. (Note of the Editor)

Food Shopping in Iran or A Foodie’sParadise

Life is changing rapidly in Iran and until not long ago there were still very few supermarkets. Although Iran now has supermarkets selling every culinary requirement, the majority of people still buy from the small independently owned stores. From the shops selling only dairy produce to the bakery that sells only one type of bread, there are many types, and to the pastry shops selling myriad cakes and pastries, food shopping in Iran is still a sensory delight thanks to these independent shops that still thrive all over the country, each shop specialising in one product.

Step foot into a greengrocers and be overwhelmed by the sights and smells that await you from the piles of bright red pomegranates in autumn to the bunches of sweet green and black grapes in summer cascading over the wooden boxes, to the bright oranges and yellows in winter when piles of tangerines, mandarins and lemons fill the counters.

Drift into a fruit and nut emporium and be surprised by the sheer variety or come across a grocery shop and be greeted by the pungent aroma of freshly bottled pickles long before you actually enter the Aladdin’s cave of epicurean delights where packs of dried fruit, dried Mohammady rose heads and bottles of distilled herbs and rose water jostle for a place in the front row. Around every corner a scene awaits to delight the food shopper even if only purchasing a few vegetables to add to a lunch when unexpected guests arrive. Never underestimate the power of food and how it plays upon our hearts and senses as we lovingly prepare a favourite dish.

In Iran as elsewhere in the world, food is so much more than something to fill our bellies. It nourishes us in every way possible starting with the harvesting of the produce to the point when we serve it up as a delicious steaming meal to warm us through in winter to cooling dishes for the summer.

The magic is that there is still plenty of room for the independent grocers’ shop and herbalist in every Iranian town and city.

Find your way to the nearest herbalist and prepare to be dazzled by their knowledge. The herbalist rules over his shop with its brimming sacks of herbs and spices, row upon row of lotions and potions and phials and packets of amazing remedies something for every ailment you can think of.

Each herbal grocer is not only a shopkeeper but a herbalist full of the knowledge and wisdom of the healing powers of the herbs and spices he sells whether you are looking for a quick fix for that hellish toothache until you can visit the dentist or looking for long term treatment for an annoying allergy which just won’t budge with conventional medicine.

If it’s something for your hair you need look no further than the corner herbalist shop where you can find remedies for lacklustre hair, falling hair, greying hair and any other hair condition that you are not happy with. Just ask and something will be found from hair gel to shampoo to conditioner, all made from natural products.

For the rest of the body return to the grocers where you can purchase rough tough pumice stones made from black volcanic rock to get even the most calloused feet into shape and wash clothes of almost every colour ranging from smooth cloth to industrial roughness to slough away accumulated dirt and dead skin. Enabling you to come out of the shower pink and glowing from head to toe.

So forget Harrods, forget Selfridges and John Lewis beauty department and go straight to an Iranian grocers and herbalist to ensure you glow from the inside out and from the outside in.

26 November 


TeaDrinking in Iran

Circa 1985

Tea Time, a very British tradition, so much so that when I met up with my Iranian brother in law in Turkey, thirty odd years ago, in an attempt to help him obtain a visa in order to come to the UK, I explained every delay that came about at the British Embassy as, ‘Oh it must be teatime”. “What do you mean”, he asked on several of these occasions, ‘You will see when you get to England’, was my reply’, and he saw.

There was the time when we waited for a bus at Brent Cross, the bus was delayed leaving. I saw the bus driver and conductor drinking tea, they are still on their tea break I explained to my brother in law. There were many other places in subsequent years where I showed him how, the hurly burly of life stopped, for a while, for teatime.

Circa 2016

More recently, TeaTime became my nick name when I was working in Greece*. In the heat of summer, most of my Greek work colleagues were sipping ice coffee and the like but I would order tea, ‘ice tea,’ they asked, ‘Oh no, hot tea,’ I replied.

From time immemorial

In Iran you are never far physically or metaphorically from your next cup of tea.....

...... or so I thought until I was shown the practice of taroof, refusing things out of politeness. One evening I made the mistake of refusing the second cup of tea, offered by the hostess, after all its only polite and then in the same spirit the hostess would offer again and I was at liberty to accept without offending anyone but the second offer was intercepted by my Mother in Law when she said, ‘oh she isn’t refusing out of politeness, she doesn't taroof, she means she doesn’t want another cup of tea.’ The tray passed me by, quickly, to the next guest. That was my chance gone because I wasn’t bold enough, then, to say I am quite able to speak for myself, actually I do want another cup of tea. In Iran tea is very much the drink of the nation and is drunk from morning till night, regardless of class or ethnic background. The whole tea serving process is quite a sophisticated affair, no teabags dunked in large mugs of boiling water with milk and/or sugar added to taste but a much slower process where loose tea is used, brewed in a teapot to perfection, a golden honey colour, atop a samovar or kettle and then served in delicate glasses placed on porcelain saucers.

Most Iranians drink their tea sweet. Sugar is added to the first glass of the day and thereafter is usually drunk without sugar but through hard sugar lumps popped straight into the mouth. The patterned china saucer accompanying the glass is sometimes used to cool the tea, the tea is then drunk straight from the saucer, but only with close friends and family, not in polite company.

Tea is drunk throughout the day, rain or shine, summer or winter, with friends and family, served to guests on arrival and throughout the evening, especially after the dinner, at weddings, at funerals, at birthday parties, mourning events such as Muharram ( see other article) at business meetings and to seal a business deal and after a day of fasting, during the month of Ramadan, where the tea is accompanied by dates or nabot, 1) “the uniquely Persian sticks of crystallised sugar tinged yellow with saffron”. Tea really is the best drink of the day.

(1) Frank Gardener, Ultimatum P10, Penguin

*Later changed to TeaCup - reason mysteriously forgotten (note of the editor) 

4 Nobember 2019

سعادت آباد آتی ساز


Elahe Heydari in her studio by @carolinefakhri

Art in Iran

Little is known outside of Iran about its art and artists, especially since the Revolution in 1979 forty years ago; since then foreign travel in and out of the country has been severely limited.

So on a recent trip I was privileged to be given access to not only an Iranian artist’s recent paintings but also to visit her in her home where she has a studio and runs art classes for children. Elahe Heydari, who was born in 1968 in Tehran, started painting at a young age and has continued to do so ever since selling and exhibiting her art both in Iran and abroad.

She had her first solo exhibition in 1997 at the Mansoureh Hosseini Gallery and her first group exhibitions also in 1997 both in Tehran. Since then Elahe has exhibited outside of Iran including India, Portugal and London.

Over the years Elahe’s style has changed and she has experimented with different mediums such as oils and charcoal. When I visited she showed me her latest paintings, a set of mouthless portraits of women. When I asked if the mouthless women represented the lost voice of women in Iran she insisted this was not the case, she just didn’t like painting mouths. For me though the portraits made me think of the repression women have faced in Iran since the country turned into an Islamic Republic all those years ago. Above all I am pleased to see that art and female artists are thriving and more importantly exhibiting their work in the Islamic Republic.


@carolinefakhri

Muharram in Iran

The streets are thronged with people and the atmosphere has a carnival like air about it but this is no joyful celebration, this is the mourning month of Muharram when the Shi’a Moslems, majority in Iran, commemorate the death, some1400 years ago, of the third Imam in a line of twelve, Imam Hussein.

From the first of the Arabic month of Muharram, followed in Iran for religious dates, the build up to Ashura and Tasura is palpable. The only music broadcast anywhere and everywhere is a lament to Hussein’s death. Stands are set up in the streets offering free, sharbat, a sugary drink, tea, biscuits and fruit and as the days go by whole meals including rice and different types of stews.

Ashura and Tasura fall on the tenth and eleventh of Muharram, the days of the battle when Imam Hussein was slain on the plains of Karbala; the days beforehand are a build up to this event,

Men and women young and old fill the streets to see the spectacle of the processions; the men beat their chests with chains as loud drums and melodious chants fill the air.

@carolinefakhri


Open Air dining in the Islamic Republic of Iran

Open Air dining in the Islamic Republic of Iran We drove up the Imam Khomeini Express Way to the relative cool of Farah-zad so we could eat in the open air, sitting cross legged or lounging on benches covered in traditional Persian carpets.

Although the place was busy we parked with ease guided into a parking space by an employee of the restaurant, the nearest thing to valet parking one might find in Iran.

Our hosts chose a restaurant called Fakhteh, a slightly unfortunate translation for turtle dove, and also a slightly strange name, in my opinion, for a restaurant.

First impressions were good. Coloured lights adorn the outside and a fountain surrounded by plants with water cascading over three levels awaits you at the entrance. We skirted around the fountain, down the steep steps onto a terrace with numerous seating areas, some occupied already with diners, each one secluded by tall plants which gave one the feeling of being in your very own garden, giving me the opportunity to remove the compulsory hijab, a requirement for all women in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

We took our shoes off, clambered up onto the benches and propped ourselves up on the cushions, very much resembling a scene from the Persian Empire days, strangely, being replicated in a TV serial broadcast on the screen above our heads, soundless, because it is the mourning month of Muharram, when Imam Hussein, the eighth Imam in a line of twelve Imams, was killed on the desert plains of Karbala, Iraq, 1400 years ago.

Comfortably seated we perused the menu and chose succulent chicken kebabs, white fluffy rice, mirza-ghasemi (an aubergine dish laced with garlic from the Caspian Sea coast of Iran) barley soup to start, which was on the house, all accompanied by freshly baked flat bread. We drank doug, a yogurt drink - alcohol is prohibited in Iran - finishing off with pots of tea accompanied by delicate pastry rolls filled with vanilla cream and crystallised sugar on sticks.

The service was slick and food absolutely delicious.

8 September 2019

Dinner at Fakhteh Restaurant, Farahzad, Iran by @carolinefakhri


Arjill Frooshey. (Fruit and nut shops) in Iran

Arjill, the collective noun in Farsi for dried fruit and nuts of which, in Iran, there is such an abundance there are shops dedicated to selling only this. Once upon a time my Father in Law owned such a shop, situated in a prime location, in Tehran, opposite a maternity hospital and next door to a cinema. My Father in Law supplied cinema goers with bags of pistachios, sunflower seeds or Japanese seeds, for them to munch their way through whilst watching the film. The only problem was these seeds, still in their husks, were discarded by the consumers of said seeds, creating a floor covering that one had to plow through on the way out of the cinema, almost like kicking through a carpet of dry autumnal leaves in London.

Visitors to the hospital opposite bought bags of walnuts to give to new mothers in a bid to increase their energy levels and help them produce copious amounts of milk for their new born babies. My Father in Law also sold tins of compote, fruit in a manageable form for recovering invalids. That was forty or so years ago and shops like my Father in Law’s still exist selling a myriad of nuts straight from rough coarse sacks arranged on the floor with other produce stacked on shelves around the shop, all the way up to the ceiling, optimising every last centimetre of space.

This time in Iran I visited an arjill frooshey situated in the busy thoroughfare of Sattar Khan in the West of Tehran, Ayoub. Ayoub is as sophisticated as my Father in Law’s shop was simple. It still has the fruit and nuts displayed loose, now no longer in sacks but in large metal containers depicting scenes from Iran’s ancient past, the warriors of the Empire and guardians of the palace at Persepolis. Ayoub is a large, brightly lit shop, so crammed with mouth watering goodies it is hard to choose. Attentive staff package up your goods of choice into beautifully designed carrier bags and boxes making them the perfect gift for friends and family.

A visit to an arjill frooshy is a definite must on a trip to Iran.