Two friends and I wanted to visit the bazaar in Tehran while we were there. (He is a historian of Islamic philosophy; she was — unfortunately, she died some years ago, far too young — an anthropologist with a focus on the Middle East. At the time, they were on research leave in Pakistan from their American university.) Bazaars — like the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul and Khan al-Khalili in Cairo — are culturally fascinating places. But, although none of us was really much of a shopper, we also thought it might be nice to have something from Iran.
We persuaded the powers-that-were to line up a car and a driver for us. (It quickly became obvious that the driver was working for the Iranian Foreign Ministry and that he was assigned, in part, to keep an eye on us.)
In the event, our shopping experience was fairly disappointing, as souvenir-hunting goes. The driver didn’t take us to a fascinating medieval bazaar — Tehran is, on the whole, a very modern city; it wasn’t overly extensive or significant in the classical, medieval period — but, rather, to a souvenir shop located across the street from the former embassy of the United States. And that was both surprising and absolutely fascinating.
First, though, the souvenir shop: It must have been the most desirable location possible back in the day, when the embassy was in operation. (Tehran’s was the largest American embassy in the Middle East, in its heyday.) Now, though, it was quite forlorn. There were a couple of German tourists in the largish shop but nobody else, until we entered. The shopkeeper heard us speaking English among ourselves and asked whether we were Americans. When we answered “Yes,” he almost danced with excitement. “You’re back!” he said. “Not really,” we responded, cautioning him not to get his hopes up. Not wanting to disappoint him entirely, though, I bought a little plate with an image of the Zoroastrian deity Ahura Mazda on it, bearing the inscription “Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds.” (See above.)
Then we went out to look at the former embassy, which has evidently been turned into a kind of museum focused on the evils of the United States and which was emblazoned with anti-American slogans in both Persian and English — including the ever-fresh “Death to America!” as well as anti-American murals (featuring such charming elements as the Statue of Liberty with a skull for a head, and so forth). I’m not much of a photographer, but I snapped a few pictures — and then had to defend myself against a guard who wanted to confiscate my camera. (As it is, I no longer know where the photos are, anyway, so that was a lot of shouting and tension with not much to show for it.)
You can read the account here of a British woman who actually gained access to the former embassy and who provides some helpful photographs: