To Pahlavi’s Iran, and back

May 17, 2020

Dr Ajaz Anwar reminisces about his travel to Tehran

Since my bourse was without a travel grant, it was with great difficulty that I was eventually able to buy myself a PIA ticket to Tehran, costing Rs 1,600 (when one US dollar was equivalent to Rs 11). My friends took me to the airport to make sure I didn’t slip back. After seeing our boarding passes, the air hostesses in their freshly introduced uniform which comprised bell-bottom trousers designed by a famous French couturier, welcomed everyone with rather mechanical smiles. Finding my way through the narrow aisles I reached my allotted seat along the window.

As the plane took off, I saw Lahore in its true colours. The canal was flowing in a straight line. As the plane gained height it passed through clouds that seemed to be made of cotton. It dived then and circled the city. The symmetrically designed Model Town was clearly visible, with its numerous bungalows. Further on, rickshaws, tongas and taxies could be seen plying, punctuated by a few buses.

The plane took a turn towards the newly founded Iqbal Town. I saw some vegetable farms and wildlife still surviving there. A turbulent turn opened the vista of Mian Mir’s shrine and the tomb of Nadira Begum, Dara Shikoh’s wife. Further ahead lay the World Heritage-listed Shalamar Bagh with its fountains.

The Wright Brothers’ flying machine took us over the Walled City. The Clock Tower of the City railway station had just announced 5 post meridiem, and the glow of the sun was already assuming a yellowish hue. The bulbous marble domes of the Badshahi Masjid also appeared cream-ish.

I had wanted the plane to keep circling the city but it quickly moved upwards. Now everything outside appeared dark.

It was a Fokker plane that took us to Islamabad. During the flight a sumptuous dinner was served with finest cutlery of Pak-Alam brand. I was allowed a night’s stay at the PIA-owned Intercontinental Hotel in Rawalpindi. The following morning, I was taken to the airport on the airline’s bus for onwards flight to Tehran aboard a Boeing. A man in blue uniform asked me as to how much money I had on me. When I declared that I had Rs 100, he took the red currency note and gave me a blue one in exchange for it.

Having settled in my allotted seat I opened my passport which had been marked “Left Pakistan.” All eyes were now focused on the airhostess who was pushing a trolley, the “Duty-Free” trolley. Here the valid currencies were the pound and the dollar. Upon inquiry, I was told that only Pakistani cigarettes could be had against rupees. I took out the blue note that the Customs’ man had given me against the red one.

I was told that it was illegal to carry more than Rs 20; however, I was bestowed with five packets costing the legal limit. As for the change, I am sure the airhostess only pretended to have laundered my money. “Hum se wapas maanga na gia/Aap se wapas dia na gia!

The passengers had unfastened their seatbelts. Though all had embarked from Islamabad, the whole of Pakistan seemed to have occupied the plane. From the continuing chatter one could clearly make out the various regional dialects. The few foreigners too had learnt some Urdu words during their stay here, such as achha (okay), mehrbaani (kind of you) and shukria (thanks). Some Pakistanis seated beside them had found it convenient to communicate with them through yes, thank you, sorry, no, good. I, too, wanted to summon the lady who had usurped my blue note, and tell her that she was no good, but how could I? She appeared a throughbred Lahorite. It was more like a ‘permit’ plane because many indulged in duty-free drinks.

When we landed at the Mehrabad International Airport, my big black suitcase looked suspicious to a Customs’ official. I was immediately ordered to open it. Ignoring my water colours he marked it OK with a white chalk. Art had not caught the attention of crime syndicates back then, I must say!

A taxi took four of us passengers to an expensive hotel, named Coleridge, in an upscale area, and charged all of us separately, in full. As I had gained two hours in local time, I took a walk to the city. While roaming through Maidan-e-Sipah, I saw a Pakistani flag fluttering over a building. It was our embassy. It was closed, because of it being a Friday. However, the staff present there was very courteous and told me to shift to the Musafirkhana-e-Shirazi nearby, which was cheaper and more centrally located.

After shifting there the next morning, I had all the time to explore the city like Marco Polo. Pistachios bloom in November in Iran. Munching them raw, I must have walked miles and miles along the neat and safe sidewalks, till a double-decker found me and stopped by. It was heading towards Danish Gah e Tehran. Upon disembarking at the university, the security staff was kind enough to guide me to Shoba e Hunar Haye Zeba (the department of fine arts). Prof Pervaiz Pakbaaz, a sculptor, welcomed me and introduced me to his students. Together we enjoyed a lunch of chalo kebab, an Iranian national dish comprising plain rice with a huge barbecued kebab and a butter cake.

I returned the following day and showed them my water colours depicting streetscapes of Lahore. “But why are you going to Turkey?” he asked me, implying that I should look for a job there.

Iran seemed quite progressive and prosperous back then. Conditions seemed to have changed when I travelled the length and breadth of the country after completing my doctoral studies in 1978; when the Iranian Revolution was brewing.

An Iranian, slightly familiar with English, befriended me. He showed me the famous covered bazaar of Tehran with its separate domes for each shop, infinite in number, the likes of which are found also in Aleppo, Damascus and Istanbul. (Perhaps, London’s Crystal Palace of the 1850s, and remotely the Tollinton of Lahore were inspired by it).

Taxis were very cheap and easily available for every destination. I hailed one and asked to be taken to Rah e Aahan (the railway station). The station turned out to be very neat and clean, and so were its toilets. Using sign language, I asked a very tall and burlesque man if he could look after my luggage while I answered the call of Nature. He bowed in compliance. When I returned, I found him still on guard. “Teshekkur mi kunam,” was my entire Persian vocabulary; I rained it upon him.

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Iran appeared very modern to the outsiders, but it had a big class gradient — atop the pyramid some people were very rich while the common people were below the poverty line. Mass urbanisation was a contributing factor. All along the railway lines and highways, countless villages were seen abandoned, with dwellings crumbling and no inhabitants. People seemed unable to make ends meet by tilling the very fertile lands.

I saw no Persian wheel there. The people flocked to bigger cities like Tehran, Shiraz, and Isfahan to look for menial jobs resulting in big slums around these cities. These people were very conservative and religious.

The privileged lived in posh residences, dressed in revealing designer apparel and commuted in expensive cars.

Dr Mohammad Mosaddegh had been removed and Reza Shah had been reinstated for the liquid gold i.e. oil. History tells us that the 35th prime minister of Iran had nationalised the Persian oil, thus he had to be removed under the imperialist agenda. The recently de-classified CIA files tell us that the Iranian prime minister was removed by doling out huge sums of money to be used whichever way to ensure the nationalist leader’s exit. It is said that holding a can of oil the leader had wept while addressing the press in 1951.

The entire technical staff of the Anglo-Persian oil company had left Abadan which had the world’s biggest refineries. Whatever oil the Iranians managed to produce was not allowed to be exported due to the joint embargo of the British and Americans. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries upped their production to make up for the shortage. Reza Shah had to flee to Baghdad and then Rome. Iran was, thus, crippled economically. The politicians and the clergy were available to conspire. A coup removed Dr Mosaddegh in 1953 and many of his companions were killed by firing squads. He spent the rest of his life in house arrest where he was buried after his death in 1967.

The Shah who had been reinstated in 1953, ruled with cruelty. The return of the Ayatollah in 1979 was facilitated by Mosaddegh sympathisers. What followed was a repeat of French Revolution. The events took a surprising turn the causes of which may be revealed through some more de-classified files.

Though I had intended to spend more time exploring the streets of Tehran, I spotted a luxury bus of Mihan Tours ready to leave for Istanbul and boarded it, just in time. I distinctly remember my volunteering Iranian guide handing me a paper bag through the window of the already moving vehicle. It contained some grapes,

(This dispatch is dedicated to Prof Perviz Pakbaaz, a sculptor at the


The writer is a painter, a founding member of Lahore Conservation Society and Punjab Artists’ Association, and a former director of NCA Art Gallery. He can be reached at [email protected]

To Pahlavi’s Iran, and back