Arfa Khanum Sherwani takes in the sights and sounds of Tehran, where the old and the new worlds meet

“Shuma Hindu hasthi, Shuma Hindu hasthi? (Are you Hindu?)” shriek two young girls from a distance. This first question thrown at me as soon as I land at the Imam Khomeini airport in Tehran leaves me completely baffled. Why on earth do they want to know my religion?

Looking at a visibly riddled me, a compatriot of the girls yells the necessary correction. “We mean are you Hindi, from India?” she asks in halting English. When I respond in the affirmative, they exclaim, bending forward and folding their hands: “India! We love India! Namaste! Welcome to Iran!”

Fleeting through the exit formalities, it was astonishing to be attended to by smiling faces framed by black chadors — an all encompassing garment worn by Iranian women. Peering through the windows of the car, on the way from the airport to hotel Laleh, I realise that contrary to the rather stereotypical notion of Iran, Tehran is a very cosmopolitan and modern city. It is a large and strikingly picturesque city with many hidden worlds to discover.

As my taxi passes through clean roads and newly-built flyovers, I adjust my reluctantly-worn headscarf (Iran is the only country in the world where every woman has to cover her head at all times, irrespective of nationality). After a quick nap in my room which had a beautiful painted wall with Saadi’s poetry on it, I head to the local market, Tajreesh. As I wander around the market, sneaking a peek into shops selling dry fruits, vegetables and utensils, I experience a wave of excitement.

In the land of Ayatollah Khomeini, a staunch opponent of global consumer culture, raging materialism is seen on the streets of Tehran, illustrating the irony of the modern Iranian society.

Despite the many lures of consumerism, I remain in the local markets to discover the real Iran — from the congested Tehran to the dusty and magnificent sites of ancient Persia.

Traffic is chock-a-block, but there is a clean and efficient subway system. Tehran is a city that never sleeps, and one can always find a place to eat.

For foreign tourists, the Milad Tower — the fourth tallest tower in the world —could be a good way to kick-start the sightseeing. It presents spectacular views from the top floors, which also house restaurants. The next stop could be the National Museum of Iran, exhibiting items dating back to the 5th Century BC. Another must visit is Sa’dabad palace, built by the Pahlavi dynasty and once inhabited by the royal family; it is now a museum.

An evening bus ride through various streets will get you acquainted with the pace of the city, and also its people. The eight-year-long Iran-Iraq war and the subsequent global alienation has broken this beautiful country, but the new roads and towering buildings give it the look of a modern metropolis in the lap of ancient Persia.

Legendary Iranian hospitality and an almost tout-free travel — though with certain restrictions — makes Iran an enjoyable destination, and leaves you with an experience you’ll remember for long.

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