Homecoming: Finding my home on the other side of the world

During the break, I had the opportunity to travel with my family to visit my paternal grandmother, who lives in Tehran. Despite the fact that I was born in Canada, and am only half Persian, I consider my Middle Eastern identity to be a huge part of who I am. I’ve been to Iran many times before, and whenever I’m away, I miss it.

It’s a completely different way of life there. Some parts are overwhelmingly bad (see: public restrooms) while others are overwhelmingly good, like the beauty of the early morning prayer call. Either way, I consider myself lucky to be able to see the inner workings of such a reclusive country.

This is a place called Tajrish Bazaar. It’s one of two of the city’s main marketplaces, and it sells fruits, spices, religious paraphernalia, fabric, carpets and more. After 5 p.m., it turns into total anarchy. Tehran is a city of over eight million people, and during the evening prayer call, it feels like all of them are flooding the narrow passageways of Tajrish. Each little shop sells essentially the same thing.

Iranian society is a deeply religious one. The government proudly declares itself a theocratic republic, meaning. Depending on the time of day, it’s more entertaining just to people-watch.

Iran is a deeply religious theocratic republic, meaning every law is passed with Islam in mind. The highest seat of power in the country is occupied by a man named Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a Shi’ite cleric otherwise known as the Supreme Leader.

Every aspect of public life in Iran is guided by Sharia law. Men and women must be separated, women must cover their hair and alcohol is strictly forbidden. The punishments for breaking these laws can be harsh, but I think that’s already been discussed at length by most media outlets.

Tehran is the most relaxed city in the country when it comes to things like that. You’ll often find people flouting the law without a second thought. Women proudly walk down the street with their hijabs barely covering their heads, people buy alcohol on the black market and everyone uses a VPN service to access Facebook. I guess that shows that people are the same everywhere you go, even if the rules are different.

Dundas Square has its moments of chaos, but Toronto is nothing like Tehran. As I said before, the city is overwhelming, and I think this photo accurately captures how dizzying it can all be.

Eight million people. When you consider the wider metropolitan area, that number jumps to around 16 million. The traffic is unbearable, and I’ve found myself sitting in a car for two hours on a trip that should have taken 20 minutes. You learn pretty quickly what time of day is best for car travel, and when you should just stay home.

Heavy smog is another ubiquitous aspect of life in Tehran. On the day I took this photo, strong winds from the night before had blown most of the smog away, leaving for an extremely rare view of the mountains.
Once you get away from Tehran, you’ll find a different way of life for other Iranians. People set up shop on the side of long stretches of highway and sell tea, fruit or religious trinkets out of their cars.

This is Namak Lake, a salt lake located roughly one hour away from Tehran. It’s the remainder of an ancient lake formed during the late Jurassic period. I can only describe it as an endless expanse of mud punctuated by rough-looking piles of salt and dirt. That doesn’t sound too exceptional, I know, but it’s just something you have to experience in person.

I often ask myself if I would be okay with living in Iran, as a woman. While I’ve never been bothered by wearing the hijab or maintaining a careful distance from men in public, I think things would eventually get on my nerves. I have no doubt that the laws aimed at women are not, in fact, for our “protection,” as the government says they are. However, the country as a whole has so many other things to see and do that are important to me. So, I swallow my pride and cover my hair.

One of the saddest things about Tehran is how low the quality of life is for everyday Iranians. Sure, you have a handful of “Rich Kids of Tehran,” but almost everyone else in the city has a bit of a tragic backstory. In terms of the economy, things haven’t been booming for a while, but the sanctions imposed by the United States over the last few years have been nothing short of crippling.

Tehran has really modernized itself in the last decade. More public parks are springing up, which is a welcome change from the smog and garbage that permeates the rest of the city. In a few years, who knows what the city will look like?