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Sunday, 19 October 2014

Remembering Laleh-zar street in Tehran.

Time moves quickly and sometimes you get caught up in a time warp and don't realize the passing of years or the way you've evolved.  It happened to me.  

We moved to College Hills neighborhood in Glendale when my son was six months old.  For 27 years I took the same route day after day to reach our home.  One day, recently, as I drove in my immediate neighborhood, I found myself thinking that after all these years,  I still don't know the names of the little side streets that cross Glenoaks Bld, the main artery I use to come home. It might be more shocking if I tell you that for a decade or so I worked as a real estate broker in Glendale.  Hah! 

I left Iran because of the Islamic Revolution in 1978, and haven't been back to Tehran.  But I can still see in my mind's eye the neighborhood's that we frequented in Tehran and hear all the hustle and bustle.

When I was young often we walked from grandma's home to ours.  I had invented a game to play by myself. When I was alone I would shut my eyes and visualize all the shops we passed on our way home.  I was thrilled that I could remember all the stores from one end of the street to the other in the right order.  

Grandma  lived in an apartment on the new part of Lalaeh-zar street in Tehran. The old Laleh-zar was built in the 1870s, by the order of Shah Nasser-edin who  traveled to Europe and became dazzled by the European architecture. Returning home he ordained to build a street with the same look of what he had seen in Europe.  That's how Laleh-zar, which means "fields of tulips,"came alive.  

Today on the Internet I see pictures of the remains of the old mansions built for the wealthy people in the early days when the streets was built.  But when I was growing up in Tehran, Laleh-zar that had become a commercial distric and where we shopped for clothing and household items had a stark contrast to the imposing street that the Shah had envisioned.  It was a narrow two lane street with a jumble of filthy store-front businesses.  

The new Laleh-zar, where grandma lived, was the continuation of the same street built about 40 or 50 years later, in 1920s.  Some of the buildings had Art-deco style.  I remember the style of the buildings maybe because we lived there for two years or it might be because I have a photographic memory.  We moved to another neighborhood when I was five.  Of  course at the time I had no idea about the style,  but today when I look back I can tell that the Art-Deco motives like rounded balconies or geometric bas-relieves were dominant. 

We often walked from grandma's home back to ours which was behind Russian Embassy.  It took us around half an hour or maybe more. To get to our home we crossed few streets. The longest stretch was avenue Manucherry, after which we would pass the British Embassy and then entered into our residential area. 

The French school of Jean D'ark that was run by the French nuns was situated at the back of an alley that crossed Manucherry.  Sometimes on our way we met the French nuns with their funny, many sided bonnets.  They had a serious air with stone faces.   Watching the nuns I'd sigh with relief that I was not one of their students.  I had heard that they were very strict.  I was sent to another Catholic school run by Armenian nuns, who seemed to be kinder than the French.

My mother had lived in the neighborhood before she got married, therefore she new most of the business owners along the route.  Another factor that made Mom to know most business owners was that her brother owned a radio and gramophone repair shop on Manucherry avenue. 

Manucherry was a hub for luggage stores.  There were several of them. It was where you went to buy any kind of bag. There were also jewelers, shoe repair shops, dairy shops, dry-cleaners and a famous store for household items.  

When we entered a store, Mom usually engaged in a small talk with the shopkeeper.  I would smile within, because I was happy that Mom had a good local business relationships.  We were Christians living side by side with Muslims.  Even at that age, without an understanding of what racism was, I had realized how we Armenians were welcomed in Muslim societies.

Now that I've brought you to this corner of the town, I'd like to describe more of the sights on our way home.   Manucherry street dead ended into Ferdowsi Ave., right across from British Embassy which was walled all around.  

From Manucherry street we made right onto Ferdowsi avenue, which was a main artery and was named after a famous poet. Ferdowsi Ave. was a tourist destination.   It was the street where you could find the best Persian carpet dealers.  There were also antique and money exchange stores that primarily were Jewish-owned.  

After we walked a short distance on Ferdowsi Avenue we made a left onto a street, situated on the north side  of the British embassy.  On one corner, there, men had made a place to pee.  Yes, you heard me right.  Men peed in the street.  The wall and the sidewalk was  all stained and blackened.  It was sickening.  We never crossed onto that side.

I'm not sure how I can still see in my mind the cityscapes of my childhood in details and then not relay, as an adult, to my immediate neighborhood?  Is it because there was no need to know the street names since I drive on auto-pilot? Or was it because I didn't walk along the streets?  The answer is beyond me. 

Pictures of old Laleh-zar

Lalezar Street: Champs-Élysées of Iran

FRIDAY, JUNE 7, 2013
Compiled By: Firouzeh Mirrazavi
Deputy Editor of Iran Review
The Lalezar Street in the Iranian capital city, Tehran, has been of special significance to Iranian and foreign residents of Tehran since the old times.
Even for many people who have only seen the modern version of this street, Lalezar has a special value as being representative of the true identity of Tehran.
Lalezar contains all of the various dimensions of a capital city: modern Lalezar, political Lalezar, tourist Lalezar, commercial Lalezar, and Lalezar as narrator of the story of Tehran and Tehran people have been among the most important characteristics of this street from many years ago up to the present time.
Nasser-ed-din Shah of Qajar dynasty was encouraged by his prime minister, Mirza Hossein Khan Sepahsalar, to take a trip to Europe in 1873.
The king was given warm and enthusiastic welcome in Europe, especially in the French capital city, Paris, and his arrival was celebrated by holding of a special ceremony in Paris’ Champs-Élysées Avenue during which a group of elephants accompanied the Iranian Shah’s entourage.
The ceremony had such a profound impact on the Iranian king that once back from Paris, he decided to create a street similar to Champs-Élysées in the Iranian capital city. As a result, he ordered construction of Lalezar Street at the Lalezar Garden.
In fact, according to that plan, two new streets – namely Lalezar and Bagh-e Vahsh (the present-day Sa'di Avenue) were supposed to be constructed on two sides of the garden.
Finally, toward the end of Nasser-ed-Din Shah’s rule – that is, around 1892 – the garden was sold for 900,000 rials because Tehran had already revoked the famous Tobacco Régie (monopoly) contract as a result of which the Iraniangovernment had to pay remuneration to the London-based Imperial Tobacco Corporation of Persia despite the fact that the Treasury was actually empty.
The first modern Iranian hotel called the “Grand Hotel” was later built on a premium plot of land which belonged to the grandchildren of Fat’hali Shah.
As time went by, Lalezar Street became a hub of the Iranian cultural activities and everything which stood for that culture ranging from the unique architectural style of buildings to cafés, theaters and modern stores.
Later developments such as the introduction of the first horse-drawn carriage to the street, the beginning of electricity supply to buildings situated along the street, and the construction of the first tram line along Lalezar, brought further prosperity to this street. Even the first telegraph line was first made operational in this street.
One of the most beautiful relics of Lalezar is the garden attributed to Mirza Ebrahim Khan Amin Os-Soltan, who was in charge of Nasser-ed-din Shah’s coffeehouse and was also the father of Ali Asghar Khan Atabak Amin Os-Soltan.
Only 9,000 square meters of the garden exists now, which has been fortunately registered as a national heritage so as to help the property out of the way of harm.
This magnificent building, which stands at the end of Ettehadiyeh Deadlock, has a green gate and was once the location of the famous Iranian TV series “Dear Uncle Napoleon,” which was made by Iranian director Nasser Taqvai based on a story by Iraj Pezeshkzad.
The existing buildings of movie theaters Sara, Iran, Rex (whose name was changed to Laleh after the Islamic Revolution), Jahan (World), Shahrzad (Scheherazade), and Nader as well as Nasr and Pars theaters along with the building of Grand Hotel and part of the aforesaid magnificent garden with the building constructed in it by Mirza Ebrahim Khan Amin Os-Soltan are the last remnants of Tehran’s Champs-Élysées.
Even now, one can see on apparently deserted buildings of the past such a vivid relics as tilework, unique brick façades and plaster works by masters of that time, which are traces of the past history of Tehran’s most famous street.
After Iran was occupied by the Allies and Reza Shah was overthrown, Lalezar became a place where at every sundown, hundreds of cars roamed along the street flaunting the wealth of their owners.
By and by, Lalezar met the same fate as Champs-Élysées in Paris and Bond Street in London. The swarm of people on that street clearly proved that the Iranian modern class is burgeoning.
Although Istanbul, Mokhber-od-dowleh and Shah Abad streets were regular venues for demonstrations and other political gatherings, Lalezar also got gradually involved in politics though artistic activities for which the street was a hub.
It was during the same period that religious groups that saw domination of secular leftist and rightist political groups on Lalezar Street became more active and took control of Hedayat Mosque (that had been dedicated to public use by the family of Mokhber-od-dowleh).
The mosque stood between the old and new parts of Lalezar Street. As a result, the first modernist political cleric, Ayatollah Mahmoud Taleqani, chose the mosque as the main venue to deliver his famous sermons.
His sermons were attended by political figures ranging from Commander Fakher Hekmat, to Mozaffar Baqaei, Hossein Makki, Mehdi Bazargan and Dr. Sahabi.
They paid no attention to cafés around the mosque and the first cabarets of Tehran which had started to work at Melli (National) Alley of Lalezar. Of course, those places were closed down during religious mourning days of the two lunar months of Moharram and Ramadan.
It is true, therefore, that Lalezar has served as a criterion and urban measure of social developments in Tehran, which has likewise undergone a lot of change since its construction up to the present time.
Lalezar can be considered a symbol of modernity in Tehran. Although Nasseriyeh (the present-day Nasser Khosrow) Street was the first street to be built in Tehran according to urban environment standards and European concepts, Lalezar was the first street to be built according to European and modern style.
If you are willing to have a mental picture of Lalezar Street, we would suggest that you pay a visit to Ghazali Cinema Township where the late Iranian director, Ali Hatami, has built the Lalezar Street anew.


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