Editor’s Note: Australian photographer Bryan Freeman travelled to Iran for the first time with his Tehran-born wife. This five part series recounts in his own words the highlights of his travels, often told with humour, and as seen through his camera lens.
The first morning I woke up in Tehran, I heard a sheep baa-ing somewhere. I looked out the window but couldn’t see it anywhere – “it” being the outskirts of the city. I thought maybe someone had it in the back of a truck and was taking it somewhere else. I promptly forgot all about it.
Our trip to Iran started as much the same as any trip overseas from Australia, with a very long and tiring plane journey. On arrival in Tehran at my in-laws’ house, we were offered tea in small glass ‘cups’ along with lots of sugar. If there’s one thing Persians love, it is sugar and they have many different forms of it, some even with saffron attached to large sugar crystals which you dip into your tea and stir.
Downtown Tehran, they spotted the (obvious) tourist in their city
My wife, Maryam, went out on the first day to get something or other done, as we were having a big fat Iranian wedding in a week or so. I got bored of being at home, almost alone, so I grabbed the camera and went for a walk. Being a fair haired blue-eyed gent about town on my own for the first time was rather interesting to say the least. Many people stopped and gawked at me, mostly because they only see fair haired people on TV and there I was, boldly going where no fair-haired man had gone in the not so recent past.
A few people asked me, by pointing and gestures, if they wanted me to hand over the Canon DSLR and take my photo, to which I politely smiled and said “Nah, merci”. This led people to believe I could speak more Persian than I could and they would launch into a spiel to which I would again, politely smile and say, “Farsi baladnistam” (I don’t speak Farsi). They would then leave me to go on my merry way.
Not straying too far from my new home lest I got lost, I spied a vanishing point that just had to be captured. I got down on one knee (it looked better down low) and I fired off a few shots. At that precise moment, a young woman was walking past me and stared daggers at me. I figured she must’ve thought I was taking pictures of her butt, but as I didn’t have a super-wide angle lens I thought, you gotta be kidding me! So I looked away as if nothing had happened.
Where the sheep was slaughtered and where I ‘learnt’ how not to cross the roads
As I walked past another shop, some young guys were staring at me so I said, “Salaam” (Hello) to which they replied, “Salaam, chetori?” (Hello, how are you?) I responded “Koobum merci” (I am fine thanks), this being the absolute limit of my Farsi, and I continued on my merry way. The woman who had thought I was taking photos of her butt heard all this. She looked back at me and as we approached the next intersection she let fly with a torrent of what I can only imagine were not very nice words. I raised my hands and said, “Farsi baladnistam, Farsi baladnistam” (I don’t speak Farsi). After repeating it five times, she eventually realised I had no idea what she was saying and walked off in a huff! I learned how to win friends and influence people in Tehran on my first day out and about.
I then crossed the road, making the mistake of looking at the drivers of the vehicles bearing down on me. They continue to barrel towards me, and if I didn’t move it wasn’t their fault as I had seen them.
When crossing a road in Iran, never ever make eye contact with the vehicle barrelling towards you. Glance nonchalantly around, stare at the sky, at your feet, at the other side of the road and pray to god you’ll make it across alive because you’ll need all the help you can get out there!
It is seriously scary and it’s probably best to have a native with you holding your hand the first few dozen times you attempt to cross a road in Iran. I did make it across alive and was walking back home when I spied the sheep I had heard earlier that morning. It had lost a lot of blood and most of its entrails, which were sitting steaming in the gutter. Two men were attempting to finish skinning it and making a sow’s ear of it, so to speak. I walked on past this scenery a bit quicker than I had crossed the road to see one of Maryam’s brothers walking towards me with a very worried look on his face. They thought I had got lost and were about to send out a search party to look for me.
We all went inside and had a nice hot cup of tea, with lots of sugar, and maybe some pistachios. I related the details of my half hour walk to Maryam who translated it for her family. They all said the woman with the big butt was paranoid and not very nice, and that was no way for her to treat a visitor to their country.
And the sheep? Apparently it’s an old Iranian tradition. When you have visitors from far away, you buy a sheep, kill it and barbecue it. No, my in-laws hadn’t done this for Maryam and myself and we never found out who it was for. Pity, I don’t mind a bit of barbecued lamb!
Photographs are copyright Bryan Freeman – All rights reserved.
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