I grew up in downtown Tehran. As a little girl, that was not something I was particularly proud of. When I told someone who was from “bala-e-shahr” that I came from down town Tehran or belong to “payeen-e-shahr” as a child, I always was very conscious of the hint of disapproval thrown at me in a very subtle Persian style, such as an almost indistinct murmur, condemning shake of head or the general Iranian clucking, the most common expression of discontent. Payeen-e-Shahr stood in great contrast to bala-e-shahr where everything was modern, chic and glamorous. However, since Iranians are very status-conscious in general, the downtown was developing rapidly, as well. The old brick-patterned houses with Persian-styled gardens were disappearing and were being replaced by multi-storied, grey-glassed, modern apartment buildings. When I was 9 years old, living in an apartment with an open style kitchen symbolised modernism and fashionable taste. There were only two traditional Persian houses in the street on which I lived, standing parallel to each other, sharing a wall. One of them was the house I grew up in.
The house I grew up in was a brick house, fashioned with stone blocks and raw bricks and complete with an indoor garden containing rose and jasmine plants, trees of pomegranates, berries, grape vine and a central pool (sometimes) filled with gold fishes. My mother loves gardening and so our garden held all sorts of plants, sometimes imported all the way from India on our yearly trip. I remember the elaborate ritual she followed in irrigating the garden by running water. An old American Rambler, famously known in Iran as Aria owned by our landlord stood in the inner courtyard (hayat) surrounding the garden, my father always said, “behtareen gadi hai” (it is an amazing car).
We moved into a small apartment with open-styled kitchen a few years later. It is almost a decade since I left Tehran to pursue further studies. Last year, while I was in London, I befriended an amazing Iranian boy. Having an Iranian friend has its advantages, one of them is being fed generously. During one of our usual breakfast sessions when I was being fed through phases of “tarof” (ancient ritual of Iranian civility and deference) where I politely declared having eaten enough, only to accelerate my host’s reaction of piling more food on my plate, that I asked him where he lived in Tehran. He laughed off the question and refused to answer. I knew that he must come from up-town; that was confirmed only later through his Facebook profile. His refusal was to avoid embarrassment on my behalf. This incident remains a pleasant memory, one that reminds me of him and his act as typical expression of the Persian culture of humility where greatness is expressed through utter modesty.
However, this incident also further validated my childhood interpretation of Tehran as a city divided along financial lines and reminded me how growing up in an old Persian house in the downtown was quite a challenging experience. Throughout my childhood, I wished for an apartment in one of those glass buildings that surrounded my old house. My teenage years taught me to learn to accept where I came from and by my early teens, it was easier to invite friends over for lunch. It was almost an act of rebellion, to move away from the riches and materialistic lifestyle. But growing up in payeen-e-shahr did more than that to me, it was only later that I realised how the downtown symbolises for me the heart of the Orient, how the Persian architecture draws my attention and how everything feels relatively more authentic and original than the rest of the Tehran, at least for me. When I remember our old inner courtyard and garden, I am reminded of the following lines from Shahnameh of Ferdowsi:
If the garden’s walls are pulled down
Then there would be no difference between it and the wilderness [beyond]
Take care not to destroy its walls
And not to dishearten or weaken Iranians
If you do, then raiding and pillaging will follow
And also the battle-cries of riders and the din of war
Risk not the safety of the Iranians’ wives, children, and lands
by bad policies and plans