Little Tehran

A growing Iranian community
takes root in Finchley.
By Shyam Bhatia

Credit: Wiki Commons
Credit: Wiki Commons

Little Tehran is an affectionate epithet used to describe a fast-changing corner of North London formerly identified with Eastern European Jews, Japanese and South Asians living cheek by jowl with the majority community of white English locals.

Minorities in Finchley are traditionally associated with local synagogues and Jewish schools, alongside Japanese letting agents, a Japanese school in Finch- ley, plus a Japanese hospital in nearby Hendon and an expanding mosque on Finchley High Road. They supplement Turks, Albanians, Indians, Greeks and Poles who also run local businesses.

Now, Iranians have started to make up another diaspora group in what was Margaret Thatcher’s constituency halfway between Hampstead and Edgware.

Fresh smells of hot naan bread and glittering Farsi shop signs along Ballards Lane in central Finchley are part of this new demography. So too is the pop group of Iranian teens who perform weekly in a local church.

Iranians manage restaurants, sweet shops, cafes, bakeries, greengrocers, a currency exchange bureau, two butchers and even a shop of home decorations that have sprung up like magic in the past 24 months. Some owners and managers live in apartments within the swanky Kingsway tower block at one end of Ballards Lane. Others have bought or rented larger properties nearby.

All belong to a larger community of Iranians, both Muslims and Christians, who fled their country when the Pahlavi dynasty of royals headed by the Shah was overthrown by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979.

Quite a few send their children to Finchley’s Hadaf Persian School on Woodhouse Road that offers weekly Persian language lessons to more than 100 students.

Iranian Christians attend their weekly Sunday morning service at premises hired from St Paul’s Anglican Church on Long Lane connecting Finchley Central with East Finchley.

The vicar in charge of St Paul’s, Rev Nicholas Pye, hires his church to Iranian evangelists every Sunday morning and to Romanian Christians every Sunday evening. “I have heard that Iranians in this part of the world make up some ten per cent of all Iranians living in the UK”, he observes.

One of the priests associated with this Iranian church of North London is Father Fereydoun. He preaches Sunday services in Farsi and explains how many of his constituents previously lived in Ealing, West London, before moving to Finchley.

Why so many Iranians have moved to Finchley is explained by a church worshipper standing nearby. Aamir, a 43-year-old computer programmer, says, “The answer is simple. Finchley is green, clean and comparatively cheap.”

Aamir’s family is from Isfahan. His friend Honey, a 42-year-old cake maker who was born in North Tehran, adds another reason for Finchley’s popularity. “We know this is a safe area, probably because of the Jews. We know where you have Jews, you always have safety.”

Five minutes walk away from St Paul’s, another Iranian takes credit for making this part of London popular with his community. Darius is the 40-year-old owner of the N’sun coffee shop on Ballards Lane.

He himself is a Muslim and has his roots in the city of Isfahan, famous for its 16th century Al Qapu Palace built for Shah Abbas, the 17th century Imam Shah mosque and the massive Naqsh-e-Jahan square where aristocrats devised the Persian ball game of chovgam played on horseback and believed to be the precursor of Polo.

“Our city of Isfahan is famous for its copper workers who make huge copper trays and copper vats inlaid with silver. Inside these vats we create our legendary local dishes that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. In my grandmother’s time, we had a woman cook who made rice mixed with lamb flavoured with turmeric and small green seeds known as ‘mosh.’

“Back in those days, you ate oily food because those who worked in nearby farms needed the extra energy. The new generation avoids oily food because of the high cholesterol. They believe if you eat oily food, you get a heart attack.

Darius’s professional expertise includes computer technology and his first business in Finchley was a computer shop, later transformed into a cafe. But his nostalgia for home cooking prompted him to persuade friends to purchase an abandoned Lloyds Bank premises and transform it into a bakery.

He was helped by his younger brother Cyrus, an aspiring TV journalist who used his media skills on a UK-based Iranian TV channel to appeal to fellow Iranians in the diaspora to create a Finchley outlet selling traditional Iranian food. His on-screen plea resulted in the opening of the Tavozov bakery owned by the Yunah family. Their highly successful business attracts Iranians from all over London.

They arrive every day in their vehicles to purchase sheets of freshly produced naan bread and other delicacies, including soups, salads and a special pickled dish of pomegranates and berries that arrives every Tuesday on a flight from Tehran.

Close to Tavozov is the home decorations shop, Homelike, that specialises in silver and silk embroidered table cloths from Yazd, handcrafted knives from Zanjan, boxes of Backgammon and traditional ‘Laleh’ lamps given as wedding gifts.

“There is no other shop like ours”, says Farshad Abdul, the young 25-year-old son of the owner. “You need to be from Iran to understand our favourite national colours of black and gold.”

Across the road from Homelike is the Rex sweets and confectionary shop owned by the Reza family. Further away are recently opened ‘Farsi’ restaurants, the Nawroz cafe, two butchers and the Mother restaurant specialising in soups and kebab wraps. Situated in between is the immensely popular Milani cafe, also owned by an Iranian who locals refer to as ‘Uncle’.

One of the women who helps out at the cafe was born in London, long after the Islamic Revolution. Maryam has heard of Khomeini, knows nothing about the Shah and has never visited the country where her parents were born. Little Tehran in Finchley is a long way from Iran but for her, it offers a living link to an ancestral homeland she has only ever heard about and never actually seen.

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