Published: December 6th 2012December 5th 2012
No doubt about it, Iran suffers from a chronic image problem. Having a top dog like Mahmoud Ahmadinajad doesn't help. He does for Iran's international profile what Donald Trump does for the hair replacement industry. The rest of the population is guilty by association.
Tell someone you're going to Iran and the only sound you're likely to hear is their jaws hitting the floor. Couple that with a blank stare and there is no need to read between the lines to decipher what they think of the idea?
We accounted this to a western populace misguided by a prejudiced media but like our visit to Yemen 5 years earlier, we began questioning ourselves when other people from this region debated our sanity. One congenial young flight attendant from Turkish Airlines commented;
"Please. At least don't tell me you're flying Iran Air".
"We're flying Iran Air".
Throwing his hands in the air he then disgorged a raft of grizzly stats on the above airline's safety record, the sort of stats you should only be informed of after touchdown. He was right. Flying Iran Air is like comedy capers for all the wrong reasons.
did the visa application process help settle the increasing apprehensions. Obtaining that Iranian stamp is like a game of beaurocratic snakes and ladders, one step forward and two steps back.
But here we were exiting our Iran Air flight in Tehran. With a sense of descending into purgatory and no escape clause for a fortnight, we approached Iranian immigration.
I'd obviously taken a deal of the negatives on board as I found myself fiddling with my passport like a set of worry beads. We had our visas. We weren't trying to secret in anything illegal. I'm fairly certain we weren't considered enemies of the state or sitting on any Iranian ledger of undesirables.
Yet. I viewed those shadowy figures behind the glass partitions of the immigration desk as some other worldly thought police looking for any reason to whisk us away to be held incommunicado as our plans went up in an "I Dream of Jeannie" puff of smoke.
Frame by frame we shuffled towards Checkpoint Charlie Iran style until it was our turn.We were the only people in the foreigners queue as the immigration officer broke the international code of conduct for his profession by
The sheep throat cutter. He seemed to enjoy his work
smiling. The silence cracking thump of his stamp was followed by;
"Welcome to Iran Ms Colvin. Welcome to Iran Mr Yeates (he struggled with the pronunciation on that one). Enjoy your visit".
We were in Iran.
Q AND A
The stereotype that Iran's population is a ship of Islamic fundamentalist fools caked with a burning hatred of the US, Israel and all things west could not be further removed from reality. Ok, so the anti Semite part does hold some weight. (go to end of blog for related joke). Other than that........
Iranians themselves are the focus of why the country's reputation occupies such a lowly pedestal on the global stage. There lies the paradox because the people on Main Street are the most welcoming I've come across anywhere, daylight second. Proud, warm, and curious, if sometimes overwhelming. As a visitor you are treated as a gift from Allah himself. Open armed hospitality only plays second fiddle to oil as the national industry.
People would take their lives in their hands to zig zag across maniacal traffic for the simple pleasure of welcoming you to their country. No sub text. No
hidden agendas. They simply want to interact with somebody who has made the effort to visit their plot of turf, even when some of their English is the rough equivalent to my Farsi, ie zero.
Most conversations would be Q and A sessions, the normal ice breaker; "Where are you from"? Then; "What do you think of Iran"? Scratching a little deeper they would enquire into occupations, marriage and a dicey topic;
"How many children do you have"?
Oh oh. The idea of not passing on your bloodlines is an alien concept. Tell someone in the Middle East or the Gulf Region you have no children and you will receive the same blank stares you received from westerners when they found out you were coming to Iran. So;
Sorry Isabella, Oliver and Mia, for the past few weeks you've morphed from godchildren to immediate family. You're also studying fashion design, IT and law respectively. Congratulations and good luck with the careers we have chosen for you.
THREADS AND NOSE JOBS
I tried to placate Penny on the prospect of having to don a head covering;
"C'mon darling. Look on the
bright side. A bad hijab day has to be preferable to a bad hair day". She couldn't see the funny side but our confidence was given a pulse at Dubai airport. We met the most charming Iranian family returning home and they informed us that a simple headscarf matched with comfy western threads covering major body parts would work. The best advice? Look at what other ladies are wearing and follow suit. DONE!
A majority of Iranian females, particularly those in the more mature age bracket, prefer the basic black chador, leaving everything to the imagination. The bride was never going down that path so it was over to Iran's other feminine half:
Young fashionistas push boundaries on minimum dress codes, almost challenging the morality police (yes, they do exist) to step in. Head scarves regularly slip way behind blurred demarcation lines on the crowns of heads. Body hugging pants and tailored coats creeping no further than the cusp of the derrière round out the picture.
A lot of them are outright sexy. If the organisers of Miss Universe ever decide level the playing field and include chadors as a compulsory accessory in the swimsuit section, look
out universe, Iran is coming.
Now take a closer look at these ladies' faces and notice all those cute as a button ski jump noses. Have another peek around the crowd and spot a few gals sporting plaster over their snouts. Nose jobs, and not solely for the fairer sex, are all the rage in Iran. Lonely Planet reckons you can get a blower reconstruction here for around a $1000. That's if you don't mind Abdul the Butcher having a dig with his crusty scalpel and run the risk of finishing up like Michael Jackson in his twilight years. To play it safe, a lot of the ladies seek out a surgeon with a few foreign certificates lining the walls and are prepared to fess up around 4 times that amount - roughly the equivalent of the average annual salary.
Having committed that much coin it's little wonder they don't want to cover it up.
Iran looks better for their vanity.
SHEEP'S HEAD SOUP
It's possible to eat well here but it can be a challenge. A dining culture hasn't taken root so restaurants are thin on the ground.
When you do stumble onto one, deciphering the menu takes you into new territory;
How about the "metalled hens". Maybe you prefer "pot maded of stone hurtt". Or perhaps you fancy the"rice butt barbrry meat".
On public holidays, which we landed on consecutive days, forget it. EVERYTHING is closed. If not for the generosity of people on the street we could have starved.
Come breakfast and a traditional hotel day starter of boiled eggs, feta, cucumber and flat bread can wear thin. So we hit the depths of Esfahan on a normal working day in search of variety. An hour later - Nothing. Nada. Zilch.
We approached a couple of sage looking gentlemen, who through happenstance had a smattering of English. A few enquiries and within seconds an 8 man council had formed to debate the possibilities. Finally they came to a conclusion;
"Restaurants open tonight."
"That's very reassuring sir but we are a might peckish now. Tonight is 10 hours away".
Back to the council meeting, vigorous debating and gesticulating was proceeded by who should have the privilege of closing their shop and having us to their home for breakfast.
No, please. It's not that important".
"But I have head of sheep. You like head of sheep soup"?
Funny about that. When I woke up that morning I had a real hankering for sheep's head soup, especially with the eyes floating and glaring up at me.
Have a stab at what we finished up eating. If I never see another cucumber at breakfast it won't be long enough.
IS IT SAFE?
In a word, ABSOLUTELY, at least from the safety concerns westerners are referring to when they ask; "Is it safe"?
The chances of being targeted simply because you are a tourist are negligible.What there's definitely no hope of is falling victim to alcohol fuelled violence. Just try getting a Shiraz in Shiraz.
The largest risk is external with the "heathen" west threatening to send a few booms booms across Iran's bow.
Internally of course, the biggest safety drama is the ubiquitous traffic threat. Crossing the road, particularly in Tehran, takes on the same adventure as any place where traffic lights are viewed as a suggestion only.
Motor bike riders especially act as if intersections don't exist. We
A few cows didn't fair too well either.
saw one guy plough straight through a red light and score a bulls eye on the side of a van.These guys treat pedestrians as the bottom of the feeding chain, a game of chicken with the odds heavily stacked in their favour.
If the government is on the hunt for a few austerity measures to save a rial or two, they should look no further than laying off the guys who paint pedestrian crossings. Apart from labour costs they would also save on paint. Any line on a road in this country is like a human coccyx - they exist but no one is quite sure why.
Apart from those concerns, tell em Mr Roosevelt;
"You have nothing to fear but fear itself".
BLOOD IN THE STREETS
Tasua is a public holiday in Iran. It's also a day you don't want to be a sheep.
We stepped out into light drizzle as red tinted water trickled down the road looking like a Jackson Pollock painting.
It took two minutes to uncover the culprits. At regular intervals were sheep in various stages of sacrifice.
Stage (1). Tethered to a tree,
blissfully unaware that the day was only ever going to end in tears.
Stage (2) Laying in a gutter, jugular veins a distant memory, some still twitching.
Stage (3) Slung up in trees being skinned.
Stage (4) The finished product still hanging in those trees and ready for the BBQ.
If you are queasy, Tasua isn't a great day to be outdoors. Penny the vegetarian was riveted in a way that people were glued watching 9/11 unfold. Mortified but unable to take her eyes away.
This entire day was right out of left field. We watched mesmerised as devotees went through their paces in choreographed routines in a polar opposite fashion to that of Christians celebrating Easter or Christmas.
Walking the streets and we were stopped dozens of times to have our hands shaken, welcomed, given food, offered rides and generally treated as celebrities.Tasua was the kind of day we can't stick in a photo album but it was a day from another world indelibly ensconced in the memory banks.
Zurkhaneh is an ancient sport peculiar to Iran. It's literal translation is "house of strength". The
layman's description sounded something like an aborted genre of wrestling.
With visions of creative pseudonyms, good guys and bad guys, a square ring and some good old fashioned WWF theatrics, albeit with a Persian twist, off we strode. Well, off I strode. Penny took some convincing.
Contrary to my preconceptions, Zurkhaneh is anything but "professional" wrestling. No Hossein The Butcher using all his underhanded tactics to pummel poor Mahmoud The Likeable into submission. No brain busters, sleeper holds, full nelsons or even a sly, desperate squirrel grip. Zurkhaneh has history and tradition tattooed all over it's existence.
The Yazd version is set inside an ancient water reservoir under a mud brick dome the shape of a giant egg. Entering the subterranean gym, the body odour is thick enough to grab a fist full from the air. A small sunken ring is surrounded by an array of buffed-up training implements that wouldn't look out of place in an S and M torture chamber. The participants, all men of course, came in every shape and size, aged from 7 to 70 and all sporting knee length shorts made of a batik patterned fabric held in place by thick leather
This isn't so much a contest as an 80's aerobics workout, an 1180's aerobics workout. It's as if nothing has been altered for a thousand years.The 45 minute session is conducted to the beat and chants of 2 bongo wielding guys on a pulpit. They worked up a sweat equivalent to the participants in the ring.
Coming to Iran? Don't miss this opportunity for another snippet into Iran's rich cultural tapestry.
DEAD POET'S SOCIETY
Esfahan is the Super Bowl of Iran's tourist destinations. It's been dealt a royal flush in terms of attractions. A lively bazaar, buzzing Armenian quarter, historic bridges (over a river with no water), Persian gardens, UNESCO listed square and dazzling mosques. Esfahan is the prime mover in the nation's rich history.
Lingering in Immam Square and surrounded by millennia of history, we would be approached dozens of times by enthusiastic citizens all eager to assume the role of quasi tour guide. Any question from us would uncork a Wikipedia like array of stats on what we were seeing. Mr Main Stream's in depth knowledge of the surroundings was impressive in the extreme. Never have I come across
Put your hands on your head. Tasua ritual.
people so well versed and so genuinely proud of their culture and this Persian culture is at the heart of an Iranian's sense of identity.
How many countries, for example, have a poet as just about the most venerated citizen of its history? It's said that every Iranian home has a copy of Hafez's poetry and that everybody can rattle off verbatim their favourite lines from his works. His shrine in Shiraz is a virtual pilgrimage site.
That sort of immortality in Australia is normally reserved for someone who scored a double century against England in the cricket or kicked the winning goal in the grand final.
I'm not bemoaning our reverence to sporting heroes but the contrast made me feel like I was somewhere orbiting another sun.
I'VE GOTTA DO SOME STRETCHING.
Scenically, Dasht-e Kavir has its moments. For starters, its snow capped mountains can turn a head. The lands fanning out from those mountains are classified as desert but save for a 45 klm stretch, you won't see rolling Sahara type sand dunes.The desert of Dasht-e Kavir is rock infested and sports an all over tan baked by an unrelenting
sun then frozen by night. It's an environment neutralised by nature yet full of near intangible character that draws in visitors like mosquitos to a nude in the swamp at sunset.
It's a cruel environment but that didn't prevent hardy Persians from taking root. Settlements ranging from tiny hamlets to bustling towns punctuate the terrain. One of those just happens to be one of the oldest occupied towns on the planet. Toudeshk Cho has a population of around 700 and its haphazard array of mud brick dwellings is typical of the region's villages.
As a young boy in this village, Mohammad believed the world began and ended in Toudeshk Cho. One day he began noticing, on the highway, men on bicycles, men of a different colour, men of a different language, men coming from somewhere else, then going somewhere else after sleeping the night in tents. Mohammad's curiosity was piqued. The world stretched beyond his village.
A dream was spawned, a dream consigned from a Persian's intrinsic sense of duty to welcome guests. Mohammad dreamt of hosting foreign travellers, to provide them with shelter and food. To learn about the world outside Toudeshk Cho.
of the early days didn't even know the meaning of the alien word "hello". Today, at 27, he speaks a more than respectable self taught English and his "crazyboyinthedesert" operation has hosted in the vicinity of 3,500 travellers in the family home.
Mohammad will never top the world's rich list doing what he does but not everyone dreams of a BMW or muscled up flat screen TVs. Mohammad is "fulfilling his duty" and loving it whilst providing a modest living at the same time. Win/Win.
Staying with "crazyboyinthedesert" is a window into traditional Iranian desert village life. A mattress on the floor and eating home made Iranian food with the family also on the floor.
As insightful as those pair of days were, the dining part drove in a home truth. I need to start doing some stretching. Cross legged to upright was a painful reality check.
MONKEY ON THEIR BACKS
Iran is a country waiting to happen but they remain stuck in quick sand and marginalised by a monkey on their back, a monkey the size of a silverback.
The current regime's bomb shelter mentality and draconian fundamental social standards
are strangling a potentially great nation.
Arts, music, film and culture all percolate just below the surface but are neutralised in a deep freeze, chronically shackled by stiff, archaic sensoring controls. Even this "poisonous" blog site is considered rebellious enough to be blocked by government filters.
Iranians have seen plenty they would prefer not to have seen and their pattern of flight is at best hazy. Yet they continue to plod along, smiling and welcoming visitors like us despite being crushed by international sanctions from countries like ours.
Did somebody say tolerance? Enough tolerance to indicate, with a touch of flexibility from its government, that the nation's pious Muslims should be able to coexist amicably with the more secular section of the population aka the Turkey model.
If not, Iran is also a revolution waiting to happen.
SUGAR AND SPICE AND ALL THINGS NICE? NOPE.
Iran is much more than a trophy passport stamp. It's not sugar and spice and all things nice. There are glossier, trendier and easier places to visit on this planet. But it is a life confirming experience, the opposite end of the spectrum to comfortably humdrum.
Nowhere have I been so embraced by the locals, locals who have every reason not to do so.
One of these asked me to unveil the truth about his people in my travel blog. To try and dispel the myth of fundamental extremists consumed with plotting the downfall of Satan America.I didn't have the heart to tell him my travel blog has a reading audience of around 6. I hope those 6 of you have at least been partially convinced.
That's a start.
A witty little Jewish joke from a chap in the Esfahan bazaar. Q. Why do Jewish people have such large noses?
A. Because air is free.
My Turn At Last
Travelling through the Middle East I rarely get a glimpse into the life of the local women. Either they are too shy to speak with me, they don't speak any English or like me they are unsure of the protocol.
Being a tourist I am usually afforded privileges or exemptions that local women are denied, for example, eating in restaurants with men, talking publicly to males etc so women don't often
cross paths with me.
Coming to Iran I knew I would be required to wear a headscarf and a long jacket or loose dress to cover the head and the butt. As we were lining up at the check in counter of Iran Airlines in Dubai (a very run down patched together airline) the women around me were dressed in sheer tops, wearing no head scarfs, sprouting big hair dos, wearing plenty of makeup and high heels the size of stilts (maybe not that big). By the time we moved to our boarding gate however, these stylish women had vanished and all I could see were women dressed in knee length jackets, scarfs covering part of the hair and for some a full chador. The women covered up as per the law required them but clearly on their own terms. I immediately thought I liked their spunk.
Iran proved to be a destination with so many contradictions. The women are well educated, independent and quite stylish under the coats and scarves. Most drive their own car, socialise and do just about everything women of the west do.
Like the male population they too are curious about us
and willingly approached us to engage in conversation, ask questions about our place of origin, where we are travelling to and above all to offer their hospitality and contact details if we needed anything. They are the most hospitable people I have encountered. It made the visit to Iran all the more interesting by getting to know the women and even becoming friends with some Iranian women.
So my thoughts in having to cover up and wear a head scarf the entire duration. Firstly the weather has been cool, single digits to low teens, so a scarf has kept my ears warm, and the jacket would have been worn also because of the cold. I really couldn't complain about having a bad hair day because it didn't matter it was always covered. On the down side, the scarf must make the head sweat more, so I found my hair got greasy quicker . On the plus side, I imagine the incidence of head lice is probably low since the scarf is worn by girls from an early age.
Food on the other hand is a little more mysterious. We come across very few restaurants in Iran, and even
fewer serving traditional Iranian food. We were also here during Tosua and Ashura, a two day festival where everything is closed. (ie) restaurants, money exchangers, tourist sites etc. so finding a meal proved difficult. After living off potato crisps for two days we accepted the invitation of a taxi driver to eat with his family one evening. His family had an abundance of rice and beans and fortunately were happy to share it with us.
The other scarce commodity is money. The official bank rate is 12,000 rials to an American dollar. However, no one changes money at the bank, it is all done at money exchangers (when they are open) which gets you a rate at least three times that of the bank. Even when they are open it is not uncommon for them not to change money until the official rate is published each day around 11am.
So travelling around the country we were constantly in search of money exchangers and food but we were never lonely. On the up side, Iran is a very affordable country so you don't need to change a lot of money to get by.
The people of Iran have
The people's mosque
been extraordinary; the traffic is chaotic and dangerous with absolutely no road rules being adhered to and crossing the road is taking your own life in your hands. The money changers have given us a great rate.... when they are open and all in all we leave with fantastic memories having met some wonderful people and gained a few new friends.
There are more photos below