20 Apr 2017
Hotel Laleh, target
In 1971, the Tehran Inter-Continental Hotel was one of many Western-style establishments (along with a Hyatt, a Hilton, and a Sheraton) to cater for American interests in Iran. The traveller could enjoy a burger and a beer, drink champagne in the French restaurant on the top floor, and sleep in a room as regular and anonymous as anything in Dallas.
In 1979, with the revolution, it was confiscated, renamed to Laleh (meaning tulip, the symbol of martyrdom), and purged of Western influences. The bikini-clad air hostesses disappeared from the swimming pool, into which the wine cellar was emptied. The carpet at the entrance had an American flag pattern, upon which visitors were expected to wipe their feet. The lobby was adorned with a mural declaring “Down with USA“.
And the windows were used for target practice by the local revolutionary militia.
Hotel Laleh, survivor
The bullet holes are still visible near the kitchen of the French restaurant, but the mural and the entrance mat have gone. After decades of neglect the rooms have been refurbished, the piano player in the lobby has returned to tinkle out Broadway tunes, and Western tourists are again made welcome.
The array of flagpoles at the entrance display flags from all over the world – with the notable exception of America and the UK – and drinks are served in glassware marked “Inter-Continental Hotels”. Sadly, wine no longer fills them, and the only beer available is the 0.0% malt drink, often pineapple or peach or apple flavoured.
Laleh Hotel, my Tehran home
I love the Laleh. I’ve stayed there four times now, and despite the narrow 70’s style rooms, the down at heel restaurants, and the interesting breakfast buffet (where you may fill your bowl with “kind of flakes”), it never ceases to charm me in its quirky elegance.
There is a carpet shop in the lobby – “overpriced junk aimed at Russians”, declared our tour leader, and to be honest, a carpet with Day-Glo weave fails to charm me – but the bookshop is excellent, the decor distinctly Persian, and there is an absolute gem of a Persian restaurant, all curlicues and mirrors.
Location, location, location
Of course, our Persian carpet expert guide has selected this hotel for its proximity to the National Carpet Museum, but there is also an enormous park, a supermarket and shopping mall over the road, and a bazaar which comes alive every night.
The views from the rooms are expansive. On either side, snow-capped mountains are visible, and from the upper floors, the sprawl of modern Tehran is apparent. The view to the north shows mountains up to 4 000 metres high, but the outlook to the south is over nearby Laleh Park, with central Tehran beyond.
Laleh Park is the perfect antidote to eyes starved of greenery after a day or two of airline travel, and it is a delightful place to meet Iranians at play. Picnic parties sprawl under the trees, children chase each other across the grass, badminton, table tennis, and football games spring up on the walkways, and couples sit on the benches, their hands entwined in defiance of the morals police.
Cats prowl in the bushes, and gardeners work in the flower beds. Streams of water and fountains are everywhere. Kiosks sell refreshments, and there is nothing more delightful than to gaze upon the Persians parading, an ice cream slowly melting in one’s hand.
Spend an hour here, and it is plain that Iranians are as casual and peaceful as any other people. Friendly, playful, welcoming, they give the lie to the myths of the “Axis of Evil” we in the West are fed.