It is pretty easy to discover ancient Iran in London, as quite a lot of it is sitting at the British Museum. Modern Iran presents more of a conundrum.
There are actually huge numbers of Iranians living in London (upwards of 70,000). Trouble is, it’s quite hard to spot them, to the extent that you can live next door to one for twenty years without realising. They blend in, you see.
As they are self-confessed snobs, they do tend to gather in the (slightly) posher postcode areas (Bromley, Ealing, Finchley), which may explain also why the highest concentration of Iranian shops and restaurants is to be found in Kensington High Street. It is a very Iranian trait to open an identical business next door to a thriving shop or restaurant, which is why you will often find little clusters of Persian cafés or grocery shops in London.
There are in fact more than a dozen Iranian restaurants around town: Hafez in Hereford Road was one of the originals and remains one of the best, and Alounak in Westbourne Grove is perennially popular. Vegetarians beware: when Iranians go out to eat, they are usually in search of kebabs: conversely, if you happen to be a carnivore, you are in for a real treat. And there are perhaps upwards of 15 Persian supermarkets, usually rather sweetly known as Super This or Super That. Our own shop may be known as Persepolis in English, but in Farsi it is called Super Takhte Jamshid, which is the Persian name for the ancient palace.
The best time to meet London’s Iranian community is during the Persian New Year, Nowrooz, when even the most reticent ex-pat becomes enthused by the sights and sounds and tastes of home. The festival takes place at the time of the Spring equinox, and comprises many ancient Zoroastrian customs (growing wheat grass, jumping over fire).
Iranians not only shop, eat out and socialise more at this time, but there are a whole series of events around town, from pop concerts (yes, I do mean pop) to bonfire and picnic parties in London’s parks. We usually organise story-telling events for the New Year, wherein we turn the shop into a chai-khaneh (tea-house) for the evening.
“Tashrif biarin!” which is Persian for “Do pop in for a cuppa next time you’re passing!”.
Do you have a favourite place for exploring Iraninan culture in London? Let us know in the comments below!