In my ongoing effort to find new and inventive ways to worry the crap out of my poor mother, I finally boarded a flight to Shiraz in Southern Iran on the Arabian take on Easyjet. After numerous payments to an extortionist sponsor in Tehran, an endless Sisyphusian battle with Iranian bureaucracy and a sizeable donation to furry-faced Armadinajad, I’d managed to secure a visa for a two week stint in the dark beating heart of the Evil Axis.
There’s no poetic way of putting it – after just 5 minutes of sitting on the runway, we’d barely gotten through the pre-flight prayer and it was brown trousers time. Minutes from takeoff, a fellow at the back of the plane suddenly started hollering something about God with half a dozen others. Embarrassingly, it was enough to induce a mini-panic attack – my heart raced and the colour must have visibly drained from my face since my fellow passengers (in a four-row radius) began cracking up. Apparently, it’s not uncommon for folks to get some jazz-chanting going when they’re keyed up – especially on flights or at a concert or celebration. Shouting on a plane is alarming anywhere – but especially when done in a Middle Eastern language en route to Iran. I eventually laughed along, but damn Iran – you scary!
After two hours of back-to-back Roadrunner cartoons I disembarked into the 40c heat – certainly no friend of my feeble gingery skin. I’d landed mid-afternoon in what had been dubbed the City of Roses, the City of Love, yet it seemed to be completely abandoned. Everything was closed and everyone thus far had charged me exactly 10x what I was quoted. A celebrated and academic city of sophistication? What a dive!… I made a beeline for my hotel, resigned myself to appearing in Al-Qaeda’s next ‘Foreign Infidel Beheading Special’ and awaited my inevitable kidnapping. If I was lucky, perhaps I could squeeze in a couple of tourist sights between bombings.
Despite the oppressive heat, Sharia law forbids men to don shorts, sleeveless tops and frowns upon jeans. I took this also to mean that I couldn’t wear my usual travel attire: my chickensuit – lest I fall foul (!) of the moral police… And so, dressed to the nines, I emerged after sunset to mingle with some locals amidst the hustle and bustle of the ornate Vakil Bazaar. Suddenly, things became clearer – easygoing Iranians take a 5-hour siesta in the blistering afternoons (and, confusingly, talk about money in a different system to what’s printed on the notes).
As I explored the endless maze of stores (and power-walked through the women’s underwear section I’d predictably chanced upon), I was warmly welcomed by dozens of curious Iranians. Aside from a child with a toy AK, no-one seemed to want to blow me up or even rip me off. Instead, everyone offered to pay for things, buy me dinner or share chai! One trader chased me down a dark side alley… to return my change! So, where were all the ‘death to America’ types?!
Wandering around Shiraz, it was obvious that Persians love shopping and were all hardcore picnicers – they like nothing more than socialising and eating in the park of an evening. They all adore poetry, especially when read aloud, whilst fast-food joints and ice-cream parlours were to be found on every corner. In fairness, with nightclubs, live gigs and alcohol outlawed, and with a smoking ban affecting shisha cafes, there was little else to do – though the locals still had a great time.
In England, we worship celebrities such as Kerry Katona. In scholarly Shiraz, 14th-century poets are widely-loved heroes – everyone has a copy of Hafez’s verses at home and hundreds gather at his mausoleum every day and evening. When I visited, I watched as local students opened books of his poetry at random to read some personal guidance on life or their future. One girl helped interpret a page I’d chosen and it said I ‘shouldn’t be so trusting’…
Yet I needn’t have been worried, as – by day two – the Islamic Republic was turning out to be probably the friendliest, most hospitable country I’d ever visited. Everywhere I went, curious men fought to elicit my opinions on their homeland (“What is your idea of Iran?!”) whilst shy, inquisitive children ran up and performed hit-and-run recitals of English phrases. And although women sparking conversations with strange men was somewhat against social etiquette, it was so clear sometimes that they were absolutely bursting to say ‘salaam’ – and so, generally, I’d relieve the pressure and say ‘hi’, which either led to giggling or another long line of questioning.
I don’t think I’d ever been stared at by so many beautiful women in my life, at least not whilst awake. However, I reckon it was my exotic ‘novelty factor’ rather than my Adonis-like figure and winning personality. Indeed, I imagine that seeing my orange buffont atop my pasty, lanky frame stroll past would be the equivalent of spotting an Eskimo on Oxford Street – I’d stare too!
For probably the first time in all of my globetrotting, these conversations never led into tiresome sales pitches. Refreshingly, for my cynical old self, offers of tea were actually offers of tea! Not once was I conned into visiting a bloody carpet shop, as per most other Lonely Planet beaten trails. Perhaps blame the lack of visitors, but these un-jaded Iranians had obviously not recognised the surely limitless potential for cheating me out of a few tourist dollars.
Next day, I bussed it to Iran’s premier World Heritage Site, the 2500-year-old ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire – Persepolis. Two students adopted me on the bus and showed me around the breathtaking grandeur and fabulous ruins of the ancient ‘City of the Persians’.
After another morning of being guided around some magnificently intricate and splendid mosques, it was time to move on to the more conservative desert town of Yazd. The humidity rose as our bus speedily headed into a landscape that resembled the roadrunner cartoons I’d been subjected to earlier. (At one point, we stopped at a police check point which seemed to feature a ‘scarecrow cop car’!)
With more women wearing black chadors, it was obvious that this was a more traditional stronghold, though the prevalence of Islamic dress was still lower than expected, and not too dissimilar to my hometown in Britain. Headscarves remained compulsory nationwide, though there always seemed to be a workaround. Wigs and makeup were popular, for instance, allowing women to show some hair. Loopholes existed elsewhere too – gents were tee-total by law but could buy 0.0% faux-beer in order to feel manly. And despite the internet being heavily censored, Iranians love blogging and so many know how to hop over the firewall.
I was up at 5am to join some Eastern Europeans in a hire taxi to mesmerising Kharanaq – an ancient desert village that had been occupied for 4000 years and abandoned in the 1970s. After some breakfast, we saw an ice-house and a castle in nearby Meybod. However, the main attractions around holy Yazd were probably those related to Zoroastrianism – the world’s first monotheistic religion. The Ateshkadeh Eternal Flame had been burning for centuries – fuelled by wood which is replaced several times a day, but most impressive were the ominous Towers of Silence.
Dakhma are circular, raised structures used for the disposal of bodies. Shortly after death, bodies are placed on top and exposed to the sun and birds of prey (similar to Tibetan sky burials [very graphic pictures]). The two eerie towers we visited in the desert were no longer in use as post-revolution Iran frowned upon the dissection of corpses. Also, the community itself decided that the towers were becoming too near to population centres that the system was outdated. Nowadays, Zoroastrians are buried in a nearby cemetery with graves lined with wood to prevent contact with the earth. Hoping to avoid an existential crisis over it all, I returned to the hotel for the usual afternoon siesta.
Later, I linked up with a Dutch guy to meet a local doctor who’d kindly insisted we join her for dinner and a traditional music concert. As she showered us with gifts, food and hospitality, I admitted that such a welcome would never be offered from strangers in Britain. She gave us a crash-course in the complicated world of tarof and other Persian quirks and cultural traditions.
I was reminded that the ‘thumbs up’ gesture is the equivalent of the middle finger in Iran, yet somehow I was unable to stop doing it. Maybe I was overcompensating for my lack of Persian with excessive body language, but – from day one – I seemed to have ‘thumbs up Tourettes’ and couldn’t stop ending conversations with a big ‘fuck you’. It must be quite weird for locals to have a foreigner in your taxi happily hand over the cash, bid you farewell and smilingly offer up a big ‘go-fuck-yourself’ upon exiting. (And hitch-hiking must be an absolute nightmare!)
Surprisingly, quite a few people I chatted with were happy to talk politics. Beyond the stereotypes and endless reports of nuclear ambitions, oppression and Armadinajad’s latest drivel, there lies a largely enlightened and often liberal populace who are equally mortified by their government’s idiocy on the world stage. As the (now somewhat overshadowed) failed 2009 uprising suggested, they’re tiring of the Islamic Revolutionaries who solidified their power after the Iran-Iraq war. State TV and billboards remind citizens every single day of the brutal conflict – it drained the country’s resources and half-a-million lives (including teenagers convinced to walk through mine-fields to become martyrs). However, the TV tributes, flags and martyr photos lining roads in every city will not legitimise the ruling council forever and the resistance often flares up. Though I was probably predestined to meet more open, progressive types, it appears most are nostalgic for the days of democratically elected Mohammad Mosaddegh, who was overthrown by the CIA and Britain/BP in the 1950s [video of US/Iran history].
Although there remains some well-justified suspicion of particularly the British (‘Uncle Napoleonism’), Iranians much more readily align themselves with Western thinking than the culture of neighbouring Arab countries. I could definitely feel a common mindset that was lacking in my home city of Hong Kong. Persians remain proud of their European roots and will deny they are Arab with the same fervour in which my native Black Country folk reject being Brummies – and both are correct to do so.
On my final day is sweltering Yazd, I paid a visit to a tedious plumbing museum but also a traditional Zoorkhaneh gym (‘House of Strength’) – home to an ancient brand of folk wrestling known as Varzesh-e Bastani. Within a 1-metre deep octagonal pit, Iranian gents compete with each other to showcase various feats of strength, flexibility and ritual often involving wooden clubs. I wasn’t lucky enough to catch a show and thankfully my sole challenger during my visit was a small boy who promptly raided my backpack and posed with my sunglasses. Obviously, I’d have to wow the locals with my muscular vigour next time.
My next stop would be one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Capital of old Persia and home to some of the world’s most magnificent architecture – Esfahan. To say the mosques lining the huge Imam Square were a veritable Magic Eye image of detail, intricacy and splendour would be an understatement. The abstract designs, colours, symmetry and Arabic script – devoid of any identifiable pictures – give Islamic architecture a timeless quality. Some of the centuries-old mosques took decades to complete and were mathematically perfect bar some small, deliberate symmetry errors inserted to show the artist’s humbleness before God (photos of Esfahan).
I went to a shisha café and pondered how criminal it was that so few tourists visit Iran – though also appreciated being ‘let in’ on the secret. The country was so full of potential and should be teeming with visitors though, with its reputation and exasperating visa process, Armadinajad’s promise of 20 million tourists by 2020 remains as hilarious as his PhD in traffic management.
The following day I saw the exquisite Vank Catheral in the Armenian Quarter and then the Jameh Mosque. The afternoon was contrasted with a visit to the terribly outdated Natural History Museum – which featured jarred foetuses and very poor taxidermy, not to mention a highly unconvincing diplodocus forlornly guarding the entrance.
The mosques I had visited were rarely used for prayer and charged an entrance fee – which leads me to my biggest surprise about Iran. Amazingly, most Iranians seemed relatively nonchalant about Islam – like British people’s attitudes to Christianity, faith appeared to be a personal thing and not always visibly practised. I recalled how life stopped five times a day in Egypt as people dropped out of their cars on the highway to hit the floor in prayer. In Shia Iran, I saw no such mass devotion and the call to prayer loudspeakers barely registered in comparison to other Muslim countries. Most will claim to be Muslim but one fellow I met estimated that only about a fifth of young people pray or go to mosque. He went on to say he was religious “but not Taliban”, (another saddening reminder of how wary Iranians are of stereotyping by outsiders).
The more secular and progressive youth actually make up the majority of the country (since contraception was banned for two decades and the population doubled). Women are also a force to be reckoned with and are not as repressed as we may presume – it is a mixed bag. Unlike some Muslim countries, women may vote, drive, retain financial independence in marriage, hold property and over 60% of current university students are female. However, women still make up only about a fifth of the workforce, their testimony in court is worth half a man’s, whilst revolutionary fruitloop and general all-round war-mongering pervert Khomeini reduced the age of consent for females to 9 years. When paired with Nik?? al-Mut‘ah (Islamic ‘temporary marriage’), this effectively legalised prostitution/rape of young girls.
Although Iran – along with the US – remains a non-signatory of the UN’s ‘Cedaw’ Women’s Bill of Rights, such rights are discussed often and Iranian women remain a feisty, powerful thorn in the ruling body’s side. They regularly push the boundaries in politics, dress and etiquette, even when the government enacts nationwide crackdowns to distract from other internal issues such as petrol prices.
As for other matters on the human rights and civil liberties front – nothing is black-and-white. Although we’re invited to lump ‘axis’ countries together, Iran is certainly not comparable to a dictatorship like Zimbabwe or totalitarian state such as N.Korea, nor even Burma. It is granted that per capita executions top the charts, whilst censorship trumps free speech and stoning against men and women remains a shameful, archaic scar on the Sharia justice system. However, it’s absurd to dismiss an entire country in favour of, say, the US or China, both of whom practice state execution, have shot their own citizens, killed civilians, tortured and fashioned questionable human rights records themselves. Iran just has worse PR and less strategic power. To have ‘us’, we need a ‘them’ – and Iran is flavour of the month.
I finished my trip with two landmarks in the sprawling capital of Tehran. The renamed Azadhi Freedom Tower was obviously laden with irony, though I figured it bore only as much incongruity as the Statue of Liberty or Hu Jintao’s redundant lip service to human rights. I also (maybe foolishly) risked a few photos at the clumsily renamed US Den of Espionage – previously the US Embassy. Today, it is home to a government sponsored militant group and the anti-American murals outside were also paid for by the state. It was the only ant-Western sentiment I ever saw.
And so the most fascinating and extraordinary holiday I can remember finished how it began – with one of the locals scaring the shit out of me. My airport taxi driver jabbed at his knock-off smartphone dictionary and leaned over to randomly present me with an English word: ‘BOMB’. So… Was there a bomb on board? One at the airport? Or was he just pleased to see me? I never found out, and he pointed at it without malice or humour so I just reckoned it to be a mistake… And, suffice to say, the only explosive thing I’d experienced throughout my wonderful fortnight of discovery was my usual bout of traveller’s diarrhoea.
On that inappropriate note, I will leave you with a few more links below and bid you all a splendid summer until my next ‘travel spam’ from a country that is full of contradictions and surprises. Throughout August, I’ll be continuing with my ‘Wild West Road Trip’ in the Land of the Free, the US – so stay tuned and thanks for reading this far!
- My own photos in full.
- Amazing pictures of Iran – Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.
- Images of censorship in Iran.
- A glimpse of Iran before the Islamic revolution.
- Streaming PBS documentary on travelling in Iran, and a similar BBC one.
- Bit-torrent links for other documentaries including award-winning Persepolis (info), BBC’s Iran & Britain and acclaimed Prostitution Under the Veil.
- Images from 2009’s Green Revolution – Part 1 and Part 2.