Sunday, July 02, 2006

Museums And Roundabouts

Tehran, despite being the capital city, is not a particularly touristy city. It has only been the capital for 250 years during the gradual decline from empire to today's Islamic Republic. Before then it was quite an unimportant provincial trading centre and has recently mushroomed into a huge metropolis. Therefore the city has no real sights as such, but it makes up for its lack of heritage by having a dazzling array of museums to suit all tastes and inclinations. It has a great archaeology museum with artefacts dating back as far as the 6th millennium B.C. (as well as the requisite statues, clay pots and ancient domestic flotsam); a carpet museum; ceramics museum; national jewels museum, with more glitter and gold than you can shake a jewelled sceptre at (including the world’s largest pink diamond in the world); various royal ex-residences; and plenty of fine arts galleries. So, whilst waiting for my Azerbaijani visa I've been frequenting the odd one or two that have piqued my interest (when I've managed to get out of bed in time that is). One that I quite wanted to visit, but couldn't due to its being closed for repairs, was the Azadi (freedom) monument. That didn't bother me too much as I wanted to see the monument itself rather than the museum inside. Iranians love roundabouts. It suits their (lack of) driving style (they would never be able to stay still in front of a red light if they saw an inch of free road in front of them). Some countries, like the USA, have no roundabouts at all, but here in Iran they’re everywhere. But bare, round lawns would hurt their aesthetic sensibilities, so every roundabout in the country has some piece of public sculpture in the middle. It doesn't matter what it is as long as there’s something there. I've seen a Mayan pyramid, statues of doves in flight, giant, concrete sunflowers, strange geometric motifs, and plenty of water features, but the Azadi monument is the mother of them all. Standing 45m tall, like a white, inverted Y, the undeniably graceful structure dominates the western entrance to the city and would make a nice picnic spot if it wasn't also the main transport junction of the city.

The man at the Azadi museum was very apologetic about the closure and, upon learning that I was foreign, launched into a litany about how such a thing wouldn't be allowed to happen in Europe and how under this regime things don’t work properly. Barely a day goes by without a mundane encounter being peppered with complaints against the mullahs (taxi drivers are particularly forthcoming, though hoteliers, shopkeepers and even policemen join in too). One would perhaps expect people to be more cautious of voicing their opinions for fear of getting into trouble from Big Brother (one travelling couple I met haven't updated their blog because they are worried that the authorities might be monitoring them), but it is impossible to quell the discontent of the masses, who are generally well-educated, often have family or friends abroad, and yet are unable to find decent jobs. As so very often happens, the dislike of the ruling autocracy has little to do with ideology and democracy and more to do with economics. Well, that and the inability of young men to be able to change girlfriends every day "like you do in Europe" (unfortunately their view of life in the West is based on raunchy music videos and American soaps).

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