Photo by Max-Jakob Beer on Unsplash

This article is a preview from the Autumn 2019 edition of New Humanist

I am standing high on one of the pillars of silence – the massive stone towers where the Zoroastrians used to leave their dead to the vultures – looking down on the desert city of Yazd in the heart of the Iranian plateau. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been; Yazd’s mud-brick walls offer secret passages at every twisting turn and, like all Iranian cities, its beating heart is the bazaar. I walk through its magnificent cool brick-vaulted colonnades, unchanged since Marco Polo, who followed the Silk Road this way too.

Over six weeks filming in Iran for a BBC documentary series about the history and culture of the Persians, from Shiraz in the south-west to Mashhad in the north-east, the bazaar was always calling me back. It epitomises Persian identity: proud of its history but always absorbing the new into its own traditions.

Part of the appeal is the “slow” consumption idea. Thinking, touching, talking to the seller and deciding why you need the thing. In Isfahan the Safavid Shah built a grand covered bazaar around a massive public green. Traditional crafts such as leatherware, carpets and miniature painting thrive here. I watch one metalsmith at work creating delicately patterned samovars and lamps, a skill passed down still by master to teenage apprentice.

In Shiraz, city of poets and roses, vendors weigh out dried rosebuds, purple-blue borage petals, and spice mixes from layered contour-line piles of ground cumin, turmeric and cinnamon. But ubiquitous, too, are wildly coloured extruded snacks in foil packets, tacky plastic toys and some kitsch carpets with images of baroque Western paintings. The bazaar sells everything people want to buy. Including washing machines, fridges and TVs.

Then there are the clothes. Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique, who wrote about the tyranny of consumerism for the American housewife, would have nodded knowingly at the fabric stalls selling 50 kinds of black chador material. But I hadn’t anticipated the sheer boldness of bazaar displays. In a nation with a legal dress code for women, I walk in my headscarf past aisles packed with sexy feathered and buckled underwear, wondering, “Who will buy?”

Fashion fills the arcades too. Everywhere I see Iranians old and young taking selfies to post on Instagram like their counterparts anywhere else in the world.

I had to buy pyjamas for a sequence we were filming about the Persian origin of the word – it’s from the words for leg garment and the clothing allowance given to imperial soldiers. The shop I chose had a lovely selection of pure cotton patterned pyjama bottoms, laid over the counter in a delicate overlapping rainbow of colours. Sourced in Bangladesh, the shopkeeper told me – a mother running the stall with her daughter, I guessed. The fun was in choosing from the lace-trimmed camisoles in toning colours to make your own set. Why did the experience fill me with such delight?

At the heart was the social connection of it all. When the heat of the day declines, the bazaars come alive again in the evening with all generations finding their own places to go. Iran has its super-fancy malls – the Palladium in North Tehran has a definite Beverly Hills vibe – but they are the exception. I can’t help but compare Iran favourably to what’s corrupted India’s bazaar culture, which saw extreme Western-style consumption, including malls and fast-food brands, flood the nation’s cities in the early 2000s, with little regulation around construction and pollution, and the consequent health crises, including obesity.

It’s easy to be sentimental as an outsider about traditional bazaar shopping, which is undoubtedly time-consuming. But the epidemic of anxiety and loneliness in the West does seem to have a real link to the isolating impact of online consumerism. Iran has its own social and social-media problems – few people are rich, child obesity is noticeable; its theocratic leadership has so far resisted efforts by many ordinary Iranians to loosen the restrictions on their daily lives – but the strong binding sense of life is built around daily public interactions and family bonds, which contrasts strongly with the time-poor frenzy of the average Western city-dweller’s existence.

Back in Britain my local department store had announced it was finally closing after 106 years, the latest casualty of a national epidemic on the high street. People were coming in to commiserate with the staff. Returning from Iran, I wondered if what we are mourning is what they’ve never lost.