Alistair Caldicott

Iranian Revelations: Shaking Minarets

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Chapter 1 - Tehran - The Beginning of the Road

"No one likes the government here," the hotel manager told me.

"I know," I replied. "It's the same in my country"

Outside it was warm, without being intrusively hot as I headed into downtown Tehran.

Not really, I sensed, the sort of place to walk around in your "I Love Salman Rushdie" t-shirt, or outwardly proclaim your deep affection for George Bush. From all angles around me I could sense dark eyes swivelling with unforgiving curiosity. Like sharp pins, they pierced the soft vulnerability of my distinctively different appearance and altogether obvious detachment from anything familiar. Hesitating, or pausing to dwell, for even the most minor moment or trivial thing, seemed to make it worse. I felt well and truly out of my depth.

Wherever you go, or even attempt to go, in Tehran the traffic stalks you. Sounds, smells, tastes - one massive collision of exhaust fumes and exhausts. It jams and swells the streets. Straightaway, it has you on your toes weaving, twisting, leaping. Early morning and the monstrous collective roar of the rush hour will not fail to disturb the most restful of peaceful sleepers. Occasionally the cacophony would be sweetened by the marginally more melodic tones of the call to prayer. I wanted to sleep off my jet lag, but Tehran had come to life.

Tehran may have dramatic surroundings, but it is mostly a sterile and featureless city. Many of its buildings have all the aesthetic value of a toilet plunger. The downtown area is dilapidated without being totally run down. From there I took a long, steady walk uphill under several cement overpasses. I passed billboards with the faces of martyrs on next to billboards advertising biscuits. I was on my way to see a building now named the US Den of Espionage, or the former US embassy to you and me.

What occurred inside this building had dramatic and profound impact on the recent history of how Iran came to be portrayed in the west. The hostage taking of 53 diplomats for well over a year by 400 Revolutionary Guards seemed to confirm the establishment of the Islamic Republic on the international stage after the 1979 revolution. A group of protesting women had distracted the guards at the front entrance while another group of students (among who today's Iranian President was strongly rumoured to be connected with) broke in through a basement window nearby.

The first thing to catch my eye on the corner of a wall lightly peppered with bullet marks, was a slogan in bright yellow and red letters; "DOWN WITH USA."

Further along various murals offer distinctive artistic interpretations on what Iran thinks about the great superpower;


Underneath a guards' watchtower, the Statue of Liberty had been tastefully painted with a morbid skeleton skull. A large stars and stripes handgun, and limp American eagles of the "Great Satan" about to crash. And in contrast, the great Ayatollah draped in the Iranian flag is decorated with white flowers as he is being worshipped.

Good and Evil side by side. It was probably best not to hang around for too long in such a pleasant place, as there's a decent chance of getting arrested for taking photos. A hard line militia loyal to the government resided in the building. I wandered around taking a few snaps with desperate indiscretion, but I didn't dwell.

To give you a rough idea of the size of Iran, the entire country is about three times the size of France and one fifth as big as the USA.

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