British Embassy Tehran

On a serious note… the attacks by protesters against the British Embassy in Tehran has brought home to me again that I ought to do something with the large amount of photo material that I have still in my archive from Iran. These include pictures I have taken of the Residence of the British Embassy, which was able to take by invitation of the Embassy members one day in 2008, to document the historic relevance of the building and the artifacts that have been collected over the time by the various inhabitants of the Residence. I have sorted through the material and plan to publish them in the form of a book soon, but as a teaser I am publishing here the two drawings my children made of the building after a school visit by the British School Tehran to the premises.

My daughter Madelene's painting of the Residence when she was in year 4 of the British School Tehran, in 2008

My son Tristan's painting of the Residence, its garden and pool, when he was in year 3 of the British School Tehran, in 2008.

Seeb nadere dar Iran? (part 2)

But now to Mirdamad. Usefully, the building is located on Mirdamad street, at the cross-roads with Wali Asar, Tehran’s – and possibly the world’s – longest street. Dozens of years ago, this used to be a wonderful spot. Old black and white pictures from the 1960s show people wandering up Wali Asar from Mirdamad, no doubt on their way to one of the many parks alongside this long and busy road. But this is definitely a thing of the past, as everyone can witness when trying to brave the nerve-wracking traffic there. Since everyone wants to hit Wali Asar to either go north or south, and since Mirdamad is nowadays a three-line city highway leading straight to said Wali Asar, traffic jams are not only a regular possibility, they are an absolute certainty. If you are unhappy enough to drive to Paytakht – actually, there is no other way, really – then you will despair trying to find a parking space. There are no multi-story parking lots. If you don’t find a free space, and you haven’t got the nerves to swerve madly across the road to turn around and try again looking on the other side, you will suddenly find yourself on Wali Asar, in traffic that hasn’t moved for an hour or so, going the wrong way. If you however do find a parking space, then you have to run, because you will either find yourself parked in two or three levels deep when you come back – no chance to make any appointment after that, better to go home right away; if you can, that is – or the police will already be waiting. For it is not allowed to park there at all.

This all means that one rarely has the leisure to amble through the Paytakht shops with lots of time at ones hands. I always arrived with cold sweat on my forehead, hurried and unnerved from the traffic, hoping that the shop that existed last week is still there. It is a sad fact that the competition in Mirdamad is so tough and the rents so high that the shop where you bought your laptop a week ago might already be gone by the next. With one exception: the Apple Shop. Now, there is obviously no Apple Shop in Tehran, the sanctions definitely take care of that. But there are several shops that resell Apple products in Mirdamad, and one of them, located on the ground floor, even has helpful English-speaking staff with some knowledge of maintenance and service. It was to this stall that I directed my path.

I had a small problem with my laptop, which was awkward not only because it was new, but also the latest model. For some reason, it didn’t want to start up, and after long sessions with the non-certified Apple service staff at Mirdamad I managed to isolate the problem. They couldn’t do much about it – after all, they had never really undergone any sort of training, nor did they have the required tools – but they were Genius enough to tell me what had gone wrong with my hard disk. Basically, a strong magnet had confused its mental abilities and meant that it needed urgent exchanging.

No such thing was easily possible in Iran, so I wandered about the shop and looked around to see what other goodies were available there. In the 15m2 the shop occupied there was hardly any space for the two shop assistants, let alone customers, but there were still three other Apple fans waiting behind me, squeezed in the space between the door and the wall. I navigated around them and found myself in front of a large pile of boxes with MacBooks. There must have been about 50 of them, all neatly piled on top of each other. Next to them, two large boxes containing the iPod boom boxes, and hanging next to them every possible gadget that you could want to make your Pod do the things they could in “the free world” – broadcast to your car radio, blast Jamiroquai right into the centre of your ear, hide your gadget in funky but otherwise useless cases, and get charged with mobile replacement chargers (only US standard). And so on and so on. In between, the shop owners had piled up printers of all sorts, mobile phones, cameras, displays – anything that either was a computer or could be used to further outfit one. It was astonishing and depressing at the same time.

I had nearly forgotten about my parking predicament, but then suddenly the afternoon tea carrier came into the shop and I remembered that I had a few other things to do that week and couldn’t be sure if I would make it home before midnight if I got swept up by the afternoon rush hour. So I left, but not without a brisk walk to the other three floors of the building, just to see what else there was. In a way, it was more of the same – shop fronts after shop fronts filled up with the latest machinery in the electronic realm, plus cameras, mobile phones, mobile phones, more mobile phones. Later, I would discover a fairly decent camera dealer in Mirdamad as well, and astonishingly both him and the Apple Shop managed to stay in business for the entire two years I lived in Iran. When I walked back down to ground floor level, I quickly noticed also a fast food shop with a bench in front, which was the only place where I saw a woman. The entire place was dominated by male shoppers, shop assistants, and tea carriers, and it was only here that I saw a couple slowly eating a burger, probably waiting for someone else coming back from a shopping spree, holding up a few Nokias and a new laptop in his hand. The hunger for technology in Iran seemed to be insatiable from a Mirdamad perspective – and in fact, the country is one of the most active on the Internet, especially when counting the number of bloggers and social media users. The State, however, shackles access to the Internet, and thus it is hard to get a proper image how advanced the country actually is in this field. Given unlimited and uninhibited access, my guess is that Iranian web use would top any other country in the Middle East.

By the way, I made it home that day, but only because I argued hard with both a police man and a construction worker, who apparently had started work on yet another house construction while I was having fun in Mirdamad Mega Techno Shopping Complex.

Seeb nadere dar Iran?

Name a place on earth without an Apple Shop, official or non-official? Well, what about Tehran! But not so, my friend. There is a small but fervent community of Apple disciples in Iran, and buying the latest iPhone or iPad, while not exactly cheap, is definitely possible without too much sweat. Most definitely, if you happen to live in Tehran; it’s harder in the province, such as Isfahan or Shiraz – but not impossible.

In fact, I figured this out during one of my infrequent but regular trips to Mirdamad, a central location in Northern Tehran, which is synonymous with a giant five-floor shopping centre that is called Paytakht and sports any kind of technical equipment you could possibly need or want. There is nothing you cannot get there, or if you can’t, they’ll get it for you within the week. How, that has to remain their secret, but let’s say that most of the dozens of shop owners at Mirdamad regularly travel to Dubai, where taxes are unknown and Apple products as much bought for fashion and prestige reasons as for practical use. And so it happens that the latest iPad2 can appear faster on the coffee table of a wealthy Northern Tehran citizen than in the sweaty hands of a, say, Scandinavian Apple fan.

When I lived in Iran, iPhones were just becoming popular and there were only a few around in the country. And yet, the early adopters – and salespeople – of Mirdamad had already brought over a first set of iPhones from the Emirates, despite the fact that they could not legally be operated in Iran – or at least not if you wanted to telephone with them – and thus had to be jailbreaked (or is it jailbroken?) to work with the local Government provider. One has to know that until 2008, the Iranian Government had a tap on all new phones that entered the country, and required every owner of a phone to register its IMEI number with the relevant ministry. Which meant that most mobile phone users there used phone bricks the size of, well, bricks, in other words the same style of phone that was popular everywhere else in the world until the early 2000s. In any case, the iPhone were an instant hit, despite the resale price, without contract, of 1,000 USD – or 1,000 greens, as Iranians call their currency, the Dinar, when speaking to the farangi (foreigners). Most confusingly, they themselves usually use the term Toman, which is the name of the ancient currency that predates the Dinar, and because 1 Toman is 10 Dinar, all calculations in Toman have to be divided by 10.

But I don’t want to talk too much out of my league, since I don’t know enough about the mobile phone business, nor about currencies. Instead, I wanted to write a bit about my experience with the Mirdamad mega-techno-shop. Incidentally, I was reminded of this when reading today’s obituary by Radio Free Europe (RFE) of Steve Jobs with reference to Iran:

Steve Jobs Remembered In Iran

People from all over the world, including Iran, are mourning the death of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.

Many Iranians have expressed sadness over Jobs’ death on social-media sites by reposting a video with Persian subtitles of a famous speech given in 2005 at Stanford University, and sharing news stories and pictures of the Apple innovator.

Iranians are fond of Apple products, which reach them despite the sanctions the Islamic Republic is facing over its sensitive nuclear work….

Letter from Denmark, 8 August 2009

Dear all,

Five weeks in after our exit from Iran, and two weeks into our stay in Denmark, I feel I owe several of you an update on our adventures. I also use the opportunity to apologise for not having answered many individual messages and responses, but we’re still a bit in holiday mood and I can’t push myself too much to write lengthy messages. I’ll try to remedy this over the next weeks, promise. Or will call.

In the past month or so, we have spent two weeks in Israel, several days in Austria, a few days in Munich and Wittenberg (a small town in Eastern Germany, famed notably for Mr Luther having pinned his world-changing theses to the local church there some 500 years ago), and two weeks in Denmark, just two dozen miles north of Copenhagen.

From all of these places, there are individual stories to tell, and I want to do so over the next couple of weeks in a few separate Letters. However, let’s roll up these last days backwards.

We are currently living in a tent on a camp site not far from the Øresund (Ø pronounced like the German or Turkish Õ, if that is of any help for native English speakers), the part of the Baltic sea that abuts the Seeland part of Denmark in the East. The place is called Nivå (Å being pronounced like some sort of hollow A, a mix between O and A, I understand).

We have everything we need – a family-sized tent, electricity, Internet, go-carts, a rented car, and an overpriced shop nearby, not to mention loads of bugs and ever-changing company from the classic nations of camping: the Netherlands, Germany, occasionally France, Sweden and Norway. Spotted some Brits, a Spaniard and an Italian family today as well – but they are traditionally transitory, going further East the next day. And, obviously, it’s full with Danish campers. In fact, they are the majority – it seems, many Danes spend their summers driving from camp site to camp site in their own country, which is a heart-warming thing to witness, because truly: Denmark is beautiful.

If ever we doubted why we came here – and we did, every time we made a purchase and realised that buying a standard Austrian wine costs 4 times as much as “at home”, or when filling up the car could nearly run up to as much as the price of a used car in other countries – we were vindicated by the great Danish country-side. Copenhagen is a relaxed capital city, and it seems that one can have a great time there – but honestly, so far we haven’t really bothered. Rather, we walked the sandy Baltic beaches, jumped into icy-cold lakes, hiked on dark forest paths, and paddled canoes along Mangrove-style water channels that lie so still and quiet that it comes as a beautiful shock when large herons rise from the trees to disappear into the sky, majestically pushing out their wings.

So far to the romantic. All in all, we really like it here, and we are working on mastering the Four Main Perceived Disadvantages as we go along: majestic prices, great taxes, a very special language and a bit of unusual weather. As for the latter, we so far had only one really rainy day, with the remainder warm and sunny, sometimes even hot. We marveled at the fact that it was possible to feel as hot in Denmark at 27C as it was in Israel or Iran at 42C. Must be something about the humidity. We were worried that summer is over here end of July, but so far we have been proven wrong. Remark, one of the main dailies, “Berlingske Tidenden,” ran a headline the other day that climate change was actually benefiting Denmark, what with all the tourism income it could expect. Runs somewhat counter to our declared interest in the country as a forerunner in the fight against climate change and CO2 emissions. Brilliant.

As for other news, we have spent the first two weeks intermittently with the search for accommodation. From Tehran, the options seemed to be endless, and terribly enticing – the pictures shown on the websites offered brick structures with clear and clean Scandinavian design inside, white floor-boarding, large gardens, terraces with fruit trees in abundance – Karen Blixen heaven. However, once we mastered the art of dividing the prices by 7 to get to the “real” Euros – times tables coming in handy here – we were in for a shock.

Having adjusted our expectations somewhat – after all, we’re here to set up a business – we managed to find a house that could be described as Scandinavian Modern, with a lovely large garden, in an area that is in walking distance to a large park, 3 km away from the sea, and in cycling distance to the next larger town to cater for our Vienna-educated caffeine addiction in the form of a local “Kaffeehaus.” The school run is a bit of a challenge – either 7 km by bike through the woods, or changing the bus twice, or going by bike 3 km to the next train station and then straight to the school – but we’ll manage. Copenhagen is a mere 15 minutes away, by a car that we have chosen not to buy for the first year or so. There is even an inexpensive hotel nearby, in case you want to visit – although we will have a guest room, too. The place is called Kongens Lyngby.

The main drawback so far is that we have a) no contract yet – it is being drawn up according to Danish law as we speak (or so they say), and b) we can only move in on 1 September. That leaves us with several options as to where we will be staying in the meantime. Obviously, it is already a very mad idea to move to a different country without any ties to it and live in a tent until finding a house. Add to this the fact that we will need to get registered with the Danish authorities asap, so as to qualify for health insurance and non-international rates at the school the children are to attend as of next Wednesday (a considerable difference in DKK, let it be said). Hence, we are somewhat under pressure to get going. The question is currently unresolved. However, we wanted an adventure, and there you go.

Tristan and Madelene are adapting very well to the new situation. As expected, they love to be by the sea, to paddle a canoe across the lakes, and to move into a house with a garden where they can pull the pears off before they are ripe and bounce on the giant trampoline until they feel sick or bump violently into each other. They are even looking forward to their new school, somewhat. Quotes:

Tristan: “When is school starting again?”
Alex: “Next Wednesday!”
Tristan: “Oh no…. but Madelene, do you know that in year six, you will have swimming classes!?”
Madelene: “Oh no….”

Georgina and myself are trying to relax – not from Iran anymore, but rather from having to parent these two lil’ ones 24/7 for the last 490 hours, night times not included. Relaxing is not exactly our strength, as some of you might know. Quote:

Georgina: “You know, we’ve had a lot to do these last weeks to learn again to just do nothing: look at the sea, marvel at the landscape, enjoy the holidays… not really sure if we are good at it!”
Alex: No Comment.

So far, little thought has gone into what we are going to do next, with reference to our self-employment and the business we are intending to start. Georgina is also under pressure to get going with her distance degree, which has been a bit dormant over the last two months, owing to the big changes. Since we left Israel, I am only sporadically following the news from Iran, which is practically always depressing, as we expected it to be. Occasionally, Iranian colleagues send over messages reflecting the latest events, but all in all I cannot see the larger picture anymore. In Israel, however, I made some interesting observations with regard to Iran and the link – if one can call it a link – between these two countries. These, I will share in a next epistle.

Up to then – farvel!

The Nitzsche Creatures