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Life in Tehran

By Syma Sayyah, Tehran


It is getting really cold here, we had snow last Friday but Tehran traffic is as hot as ever. Life has been quite hectic for me these past few weeks. In the past three weeks or so, I have done the followings:

We went to Kish Island, very attractive holiday resort in the Persian Gulf, for the formal opening of a new store. There were nearly 80 others, as the guests of the owners. The treatment was lavish.

What struck me most was the fact both on departure from Tehran and Kish the Iran Air flight was only 15 minutes behind schedule. This was indeed a pleasant surprise. A couple of years ago, during a business trip to Bandar Abbas, our return flight was delayed for nearly nine hours.

At Kish airport, we were met by the Iran Air staff who directed us to a nice new hotel in the center of Island. We checked in; our luggage was brought over for us; the hotel staff were courteous and friendly, and I hated to think how much the rooms were costing our hosts for the two nights that we stayed there. The rooms were small, but neat, each with a small fridge and a big TV which showed some satellite channels as well. We did not know if it was picking up the signals which were sent from the other Persian Gulf States or what!

The weather was great and the shops were open until about 10:30 or 11:00 in the evening. The women in our party did not get to swim, although some men did manage to go scuba-diving. Instead we walked the shores late in the evening which was absolutely great. The shore is soft and the water clear, and sometimes there was enough light for us to see the fish swimming the night away.

The island is becoming a pensioners' retreat, and many well off people have thought or are thinking of making it their retirement home. Although I must admit that between May and October life is quite a challenge there due to humidity and heat. But it is great for winter months.

Kish is one of the few places in Iran where traffic regulations are strictly enforced. Taxis are frequent and cheap. You can go form anywhere to anywhere for between 6,000 Rials to 16,000 Rials, less than two dollars, and that's for a long trip, to the airport, say. We hired a taxi and went around the island and the fare came up to 80,000 Rials, which is equivalent of $10.00, for the whole two hours.

We dinned at three different restaurants, all of them with live bands playing old and new Iranian pop songs. On the first night we went to this place where we were welcomed with the lovely sound of saxophone, which took me back to my younger days and I became quite nostalgic. On the second night, the main event of the program, we were taken to a very cozy and nice place, except that it was too bright. The orchestra was supposed to be great. The singers had good voices but they looked more like shop-keepers than pop-singers, if you know what I mean.

Earlier on that day, we went to a famous place, the local branch of an important chain from Mashhad (North Eastern part of Iran) the food was really good and too much. These couple of days, despite the fact that we escaped breakfast, we ate so much that I thought I would not touch food for at least three weeks. We spent most of our free time walking around and window shopping, except for the odds and ends that we needed at home and could never find the time to go and buy them in Tehran. My main purchases were items for the kitchen, plus some gift chocolates and a digital clock. On the last day we were given a set of crystal glasses and a brand-marked wheeled shopping bag which came in very handy.

The airport at departure time was quite a mad house, so be prepared if you happen to go there, but the fact that the plane took off more or less on time made up for it.

If we were to pay for everything ourselves, it would have come to about US$500.- for the two of us for a long weekend, which is a substantial sum for an average household income.


Was mum's day; she had to have an eye operation which we knew would come soon. Her operation was carried out in a very nice clean new eye clinic, where the staff seemed quite efficient and polite. I met a young lady heart specialist there who had to attend to my mother during the operation because of a small complication that had been brought under control. She came to see my mum a couple of times during her recovery and assured us that all was well, and said that she would be on call should there be a need.

The eye surgeon came later as well and chatted with her which we appreciated a lot. I was the only person who accompanied my mother unlike her neighbor on the other bed whose daughters and their husbands were there. The staff politely reminded them that only one person was to stay with the patient. They kept saying yes, yes, yes, but at all times at least two of them, and once all four of them, were there in the room. The funny thing was that they were all well groomed and seemed educated and professionals and the mother was a very sweet lady herself. I failed to understand if this was ignorance, selfishness, or disrespect for authority.

My mum is diabetic so there is a serious danger that she may not gain her sight.

Sunday & Tuesday

I go to work in the mornings. I work for an NGO which is involved in training other NGOs who are here. The training is especially aimed at the youths, in particular for agencies dealing with the environment. It is very interesting and although it is not long that I have been working here as a volunteer, I have learnt a lot, met many interesting people, have noted how much is being done in Iran. There are nearly 2,500 NGO in Iran - amazing. Obviously many of them are not effective or really active but there are many, mainly organized by ordinary people who are both very active and effective.

We had a forum last week and those who came introduced themselves and their organizations. It was indeed thrilling. Simply because they are doing so much with so little, well I should know since we are the same. We are desperate to get some new equipment in order to utilize our time more effectively. We just learned that a company is going to donate a new computer to us which is just absolutely great. Since the one we are using is an old one that someone once said should be taken to a museum - but it works so it can't be that bad. The only thing is that almost all volunteers, except two, are women. I guess this is not the international average but in general the picture is the same everywhere, so we hear.

Anyhow after work, I go to my yoga class and it is wonderful. Our teacher is simply first class. We are a small group who have done yoga together for more than five years now and through the years we have become good friends and meet socially too. There are other students in this private class, but the teacher always seems to sense the general tempo and gives the instruction accordingly. After a long day or busy or difficult day it is so good to relax and do yourself good through yoga.


Is the day when I catch up with my reading, visiting friends, looking after the house or do work for another NGO and organizations that I am involved with. It could be quite hectic or it could be easy and quite at home.


I have been looking forward to my Wednesday's art classes - history of art and art critique. I truly like them and feel that I am learning a lot, even if I can't remember many of the dates and the facts off the top of my head later. This week was no exception. We were doing the Egyptian period and the different dynasties and their differences with respect to art. No wonder that we spend a big chunk of the class's time on the tombs and the artifacts left in them and what they symbolized.

But the most interesting new subject we looked at was the school of thought that considers archeological exploration of these tombs as a kind of spiritual theft as the tombs were not ever meant to be reopened. This may be seen just like the other type of theft, by those who found their way into the tombs in order to steal what was left within them, items left there for the dead person's K [spirit]. Such a thought had never crossed my mind. It was so enlightening. It did not matter that one agreed with this idea or not, but the fact that it makes you think was so overwhelming.

Our instructor is a university professor who knows his subject very well but above all seems to enjoy teaching, and that is the most important thing. There are more women than men in both classes. Mainly artists or present or former art students attend, but we have participants from many non-art backgrounds as well, which makes the class even more interesting.

In our art critique class we are learning how to look at an art work, what constitutes art, what factors to consider - the role of the artist and the critic, the importance of the material. What we see consciously and what we do not see subconsciously. We learn that language is biased and it should not be considered innocent. We discuss the psychological effects of one's background as the artist or an on-looker, or a critic.

This week, we began looking at three different theories of art critique, and will continue with that next week, comparing their respective merits. We also discussed that not only the artists should dare to break the boundaries, but this responsibility falls on the critic's shoulders too.

Such activities keep our spirit alive and we continue to manage our lives.


I have tried to catch up with my reading. I finished Noam Chomsky's Understanding Power and started reading the Guardian Weekly and its Le Monde Diplomatique supplement. I had to stop to get ready to meet some friends who had thrown a birthday party for me, but not before learning that one of the pipes had burst. Now we have to have the builders and plumbers in for a week or so. Everything will be covered in dust and there won't be any peace and quiet at home. But I guess this is life and we must take it as it comes. They say it is not what you have, it is what you do with it that counts. So we try to take it easy and pray that the costs will not bankrupt us completely.

All of the above actually took place during last few weeks and the reason that I am sharing it with you is for those of you who wonder what life is like here, to have a window - mine of course in this case. But another reason is to tell all those dear ones who ask me why I live here: Where else in this world could I have been involved with so much, outside the family, which would be enjoyable and meaningful and make me feel that I made a difference?

About the author:
Syma Sayyah is a retired business executive and marketing manager who worked for an international business in Iran. She has an MBA from Edinburgh University. She may be reached at

... Payvand News - 12/27/02 ... --

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