Suddenly, everyone wants to go to Iran. Here's what I found.

The World
Shoppers at the grand bazaar in Tehran.

Shoppers at the grand bazaar in Tehran.

Marco Werman

EDITOR'S NOTE: PRI The World's Marco Werman and Matthew Bell are in Iran for a series of stories. Here is one dispatch.

I awoke on this Tuesday, and that quadrennial exercise in politics, the New Hampshire primary, was, for the first time in ages, not on my mind.

Instead, I was thinking about Tehran’s grand bazaar, where I was headed this morning. It is grand, vast and labyrinthine. You could get lost if you didn’t have a guide, though like any bazaar, if you just walk a straight line, you should eventually pop out the other side.

Kazem, the tea man in Tehran Bazaar.

Kazem, the tea man in Tehran Bazaar.

Credit:

Marco Werman

I didn’t have to though, and just followed my government minder to the Darwish Tea House. It’s a unique tea stand. I took rights and lefts, and then a right down a short hall to an exit, and there, almost as an afterthought, was a closet of a cafe. No tables. Just a counter behind which stood Kazem, the tea man. Darwish has been here for 97 years. Kazem looks as if he could have weathered all those years. But it had been his now-ailing father who ran it, and before that a close family friend, who started it.

When Kazem learned I was from America, he shook my hand warmly, pressed a commemorative souvenir Darwish Tea House coin in my other hand and said, “Welcome to Iran!”

His tea stall he explained is “the only place in the bazaar where people come to drink tea in my style.” And what is that style exactly?  

“My father is a follower of mysticism, and mysticism is the only common thing among all the people in the world."

He then proceeded to tell me about his adoration for freedom fighters, including Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr.

Which prompted my memory that today is the New Hampshire primary. By the time I exited the bazaar, news had come of the first precincts’ votes at midnight.

Are Iranians following? Some undoubtedly, but there’s another ballot count going on here right now, and if you’re a culture vulture, you know it’s happening at the 34th Fajr International Film Festival.

Poster for the Fajr Film Festival in Tehran.

Poster for the Fajr Film Festival in Tehran.

Credit:

Marco Werman

Crowd at the Milad convention center in Tehran.

Crowd at the Milad convention center in Tehran.

Credit:

Marco Werman

I didn’t come to Tehran for the festival. But it was a good excuse to go to the awe-inspiring Milad convention center and tower which dominates the Tehran skyline. Milad is the venue for the film festival, a kind Cannes Palais du Festival, without the beach, but with the snowcapped Alborz mountains providing a pretty dramatic alternative.

Today was day nine of the festival, and on Thursday, the finalists will be announced by the seven-member jury that will choose from 11 feature films and 11 documentaries.

“The films are really about the current social issues in society,” I was told by a 30-something Iranian director named Amir. “They’re about what the people are used to living with in Iran.”

One film that screened last night, “The Dragon Arrives” is a complete departure from any genre seen before at the festival. Amir described it as “surrealism.”

He believes its toughest competition will be a film by 25 year-old director Saeid Rustai called “Life + 1 Day.”

So while they're counting ballots in NH, here in Tehran they’re counting the finalists at the Fajr Film Festival, with very little attention being directed at that state whose motto "live free or die” might actually be warmly embraced by many Iranians.

Actually, there was a lot of consternation in the media here when Republican candidate Ted Cruz said, if elected, he'd reject the nuclear deal with Iran.  He’s not the only candidate who’s said something like that. Just the latest.

You could say that kind of thing does not do big box office in Tehran.

Golestan Palace in Tehran.

Golestan Palace in Tehran.

Credit:

Matthew Bell