Surprising City II

Couple Rollerskate
in Taleqani Park
March 27, 2011

My final days around Tehran have confirmed it: I really do like this city.

Yesterday, I made a return trip to my favorite book and art supply store, the one I found closed when I dropped in a few days prior. On this visit not only were they open, I even found a few items worth buying. I tend not to pick up souvenirs while out on the road but these things I had to have.

I selected three calligraphy pens with nibs of varying width. Each was carved from a dry reed. I prefer to use pens with metal nibs and internal chambers that hold the ink inside. But, these hand-carved pens are the traditional implement for writing calligraphy and they look quite cool, themselves.

Bookstore Open
I was even happier to find the best instruction manual I've ever seen for my favorite script of Arabic calligraphy. Secrets of Nastaliq uses illustrations overlaying shapes of each letter atop forms found in nature. Cute pictures include a portrayal of the letter 'ain as a falcon's head with wings spanning out to adjoining letters as well as a rendition of the long letter sin paralleling the arch of a horse's back. I was reminded of the time my calligraphy teacher, Junaid Sahib, exhorted me to, "Think egg--not sun," when describing the proper shape of a letter during a lesson in Lahore several years ago. Now I have an entire book filled with such mnemonic tricks.

I find these representations far preferable to those in a traditional calligraphy guide. Standard directions would measure dimensions of letters with rigid geometric specification. Square dots equivalent to one stroke of the pen are stacked and placed in a way that gauge length and slope. This method is precise, but the shape of a letter isn't as easy to visualize in the mind's eye. Or, maybe I just like my new book of animal pictures because I can seldom understand every nuance of the text that accompanies standard guides. Arabic calligraphy instruction books tend to be written in languages including Arabic, Farsi, and Urdu--none of which I have native level fluency in.

I don't really have room for the large book in my tiny knapsack; perhaps I'll ship it home. Hmm... now that the weather is warming up maybe I could send that off in a parcel along with my winter coat and caps to further reduce the bulk in my knapsack.

Though I've mostly been out exploring on my own, I have been somewhat sociable. I got in touch with one of the Tehranis I met through CouchSurfing over my first visit to Iran three years ago. Saber was in town for only one of the days I've been in town; we were lucky to manage to connect.

David and Saber
at Cafe Gramophone
I proposed we meet at a basement hookah lounge that I remembered enjoying on that first trip. The location was easy to find again: Karim Khan Traditional Teahouse is just across the street from Sarkis Cathedral, the center of the Armenian Christian community. After a mint-flavored bowl of tobacco and a cup of mint tea each, we continued to catch up at a nearby coffeehouse opened by one of Saber's friends. Upstairs and across the street from Daneshgu Park, Gramophone Cafe had the standard Iranian cafe menu of mochas, cappucinos, and ice cream. The standard Iranian cafe clientele of well-dressed twenty-somethings clutching recent models of smartphones laughed and lingered at tables throughout.

Small world that it is, Saber mentioned that he knew a couple other people from Seattle in addition to me. Did I happen to know them? They were both interested in Middle Eastern languages so he had shared language exchanges in Farsi and English on-line with each. I asked their names, not presuming I'd actually know either. But, small world that this is, I did happen to know both. One was a professor in my department as an undergradate student, the other a classmate from first-year Hindi. I've resisted signing up for Facebook yet still can't seem to escape being one-degree removed from everybody else on the planet.

It was good to catch up and hear his news over the years since we met. Thanks for the coffee, Saber!

Azadi Monument at Sunset
I've been contemplating if the Tehran that I've been enjoying is just that of the city's elites: the moneyed set who also have homes abroad. These thoughts came as I was enjoying the sun set beyond the balcony of yet another hipster coffee shop: this one above the art gallery in Tehran Garden.

I haven't spent long enough here to judge, but don't think what I like about the city is strictly its bourgeois side. Tehran's abundant well-maintained parks filled with picnicking families, its simple teahouses filled with old men smoking hookah pipes, and its fabulous (if yet work-in-progress) metro system are elements of the city equally accessible to all.

I probably won't make another trip to Iran for many years. But, I'm sure I'll be happy to get out and explore this city again whenever I do.