Tehran Is A Poem — Art And Uncertainty In The Iranian Capital

Young Iranians in Nahjul Balagha
Young Iranians in Nahjul Balagha
Fariba Hachtroudi

TEHRAN â€" Repeating something Ayatollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic, said years ago â€" long before Iran's latest clash with Saudi Arabia â€" Moussa reveals much about the current mindselt in the streets and cafés of the Iranian capital: "With the Great Satan we could forgive and forget," he says. "But with the Ibn Sauds, never!"

Back then, the "Great Satan" was obviously the United States. But for Moussa, 28, that would actually be France, where he lived until he was 18. He laments France's "pro-Israeli and hawkish" policy, its media, its "Jewish lobby and Arab jihadists," and so on.

He's also "ill at ease with Iran," tarring both countries with the same brush. "Rulers, and especially the mollahs, are manipulating us with disinformation. Everything's decided in advance. French President Hollande knows who finances the jihadists…" His obsessional monologue is interrupted by the arrival of a taxi.

Welcome to Tehran, capital city of an effervescent Islamic Republic. The cab driver isn’t any more affable than Moussa. "The French have destroyed Libya like the Americans destroyed Iraq. They're selling their soul to Saudi Arabia and their football to Qatar." What does he think about Syria? "Assad is a murderous dictator. Baghdadi the leader of ISIS is a crazy monster. Our mollahs should let the Arabs kill each other."

With a glance at the rearview mirror, the driver reenters the fray. "Napoleon stole land and his archeologists pillaged Susa before blowing it up," he says, promising to send us a book on that topic. "But I'll go light a candle in front of the French embassy for the victims of the Paris attacks," he adds, his voice suddenly solemn.

The driver, perhaps without knowing it, echoes the ideas of newspaper editorialist Said Alikhani who quoted Molière’s Tartuffe to condemn the Paris killings while denouncing "the responsibility borne by the West and France in the Middle East crisis."

Cultural contradictions

In the distance, beyond the monstrous midday traffic, is the Milad Tower, a shining beacon above busy shopping centers that are testament to the huge role consumerism also plays in Iran's two-tiered society. The structure stretches 435 meters into the sky. Near the top is a restaurant offering its well-off customers a panoramic view of the city. It also offers "gold-covered desserts sold for astronomical prices," the tax driver, recalling a scandal involving $250-dollar gold-sprinkled ice creams, grumbles.

The West, France, the crisis: the cab driver's words, like those of Moussa, are a mixture of resentment and confusion, a meeting point between conspiracy theory and the Iranian form of maktub (it is written). They reveal the angst felt by part of the Iranian population, particularly its disoriented youth, as it tries to make sense of market-oriented globalization, money as a universal value, and the regional geopolitical situation.

At a downtown bakery-cafe called Natalie, three young Tehranis â€" Mahshid, Farzaneh and Ali â€" meet for a drink. Mahshid is a stylist, Farzaneh an IT engineer, and Ali an engineer. The women cover their silky hair with just the hint of a veil. They're in their 30s, members of the "children of the revolution" generation. Mahshid is divorced and lives alone, like many of her single friends. Their fight for freedom, in all its forms including sexual, has been ongoing for years.

Farzaneh comes from a traditional family, but she makes no secret of her open relationship with her boyfriend. The hypocrisy of the so-called temporary mariage â€" a religious-marriage contract that can last from one hour to 99 years â€" disgusts her. As a non-practicing believer, her God differs from the one her parents believe in. If the morality militia, which has kept a low profile since Hassan Rouhani’s election in June 2013, shows up at her home, she'll read the following verse from the Koran: "Marriage is a matter for a couple before God, who blesses them."

Ali's father died on the battlefield during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988). He's proud of his dad, a national hero, but rejects the cult of martyrdom and shuns religious ceremonies, including "gospelized" ones. Ali pull out his smartphone and plays a video of a singer in a crowded small-town mosque. The voice is beautiful. The crowd is entranced. The supervising mollah smiles to the angels. But for Ali it rings false. The same goes for Mahshid. All she sees are "cretinized youths for whom freedom comes down to "sex, alcohol and videos' and who make amends to God by donating money," she says.

They also talk about Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar, when worshipers commemorate the martyr of imam Hussein, grandson of the prophet Muhammad and third holiest imam for Shia Muslims. "The trend consists of bereavement headdress and ash-colored hair in honor of the martyrs that we later wash in mixed-gender swimming pools, before going to amusement arcades or posh nightclubs," Ali explains. Such establishments are forbidden by law. "But everybody knows about them," he says, showing us pictures of slicked-haired young men eyeing up girls who've had their mouths and noses redone.

Can the new generation impose its choices of the country’s leaders? The feelings are mixed. "Rouhani openly criticizes the devastating effects of coersion, and yet poets, filmmakers and journalists are being arrested on a regular basis," says Farzaneh. She acknolwedges, nevertheless, that, "Cultural activities continue regardless, and the arts market is booming."

In Tehran, arthouse cinemas, theater plays and concerts â€" though without female voices â€" are everywhere despite the censorship. Poetry circles (hotbeds of dissent) or lectures on "philosophy and mental health," with programs that include Epicurus, Montaigne and Schopenhauer, are sold out. Talented verse writers lambaste "sellouts and thieves to the motherland" even if it gets them arrested.

Helping hands

The population doesn't delude itself with regards to government corruption and ineptitude. People expect and continue to demand help from the state. But they also come up with their own solutions to problems such as drug addiction, homelessness, prostitution (of both sexes), AIDS and child poverty.

The association Vira, based in Ilam in Iran’s Kurdish province, is one example. Librarian Navab Kord and his group of volunteers have launched a reading program for children in a garden allocated by the local authority. Stories and poetry, photography workshops and film screenings are offered to the 700 program participants. Among them is an illiterate farmer who, thanks to his son, can recite by heart 60 pages of Ferdowski’s epic poem Shahnameh (The Book of Kings), one of the founding works of Iranian culture and literature.

Another example is the Rouyesheh Now school, south of Tehran, rebuilt with a bare-bones budget by the municipality. Fatemeh Massaeli, a retired teacher and passionate proponent of all things public, leads this mixed school with 207 pupils. State-employed teachers ensure that the diplomas are officially recognized, while private donors provide for the children's material needs. The headmaster hopes now to get permission from the ministry to launch specialized technical workshops to provide training for children who have to work.

The school is located just a stone’s throw from the park where homeless people spread out their rags in the sunlight. Guant-faced drug addicts in withdrawal puff on cigarettes. At lunch time, they go and eat at the "refrigerators for the homeless" that the association's volunteers fill up every day. As for the children, they go and sell food in the metro.

Tehra's Abb-O-Atash park â€" Photo: Majid Saeedi/TNS/ZUMA

Sitting on the terrace of a cafe in uptown Tehran, Irandokht Salehi, a tall, thin and resolute environmental activist, speaks passionately about air and water, subjects she's studying, and education, which she sees as "the key to everything." She has just completed an ecological teaching program for children. "Ecology Minister Masoumeh Ebtekar has the file on her desk. We'll see if it leads to anything," Irandokht says.

Moving messages

The cab crosses Suhrawardi Avenue, on to Jihad Street until Motahari Street. These three names alone could sum up the current events in today’s Iran, with its synthesis of Persian civilization and Shia Islam. Suhrawardi, a 12th century thinker and "illumination" philosopher used to teach the interior metamorphosis of man through knowledge. To the word jihad, we need only add another term, akbar (great) to meet the philosopher’s Shia gnosis, or spiritual knowledge, which is that the only true fight is against the ego.

Slogans that appear on passing cars â€" of love, philosophy, religion â€" reveal much about the Iranian mindset and outlook. "Now that you're gone, what am I to do with my memories of you?" reads a beautiful love message engraved above the licence plate of a van. Others aren't so delicate:

"To hell with you if you don't like me."

"Don't honk, I’m tired."

"Mankind is condemned to freedom."

"Yazid, you bastard!" â€" in reference to the Sunni caliph responsible for the martyr of imam Hussein.

Contradictions and paradoxes, absurdity and sophistication stand alongside one another in the "Persian street" in a confusion that is sometimes fatal, sometimes joyful. "For thousands of years our cultural resistance has been our protection against all invaders, and Anahita is the mother goddess of our wisdom," said one of the poets we met.

In Iran, poetry will always have the final word.

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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