Published: July 27th 2010July 23rd 2010
I’d finished with Shiraz and so the plan was to continue on my journey in Iran. I wanted to head north but the only option was an overnight bus journey that was ten hours long.I can't sleep on buses, something to do with being in an upright position. I also dislike being sleepy and grumpy the next day and so many other things... so Fatima suggested we go to her home town instead. I hadn't planned on going to Bushehr but that sort of appealed - there's way too much planning involved in my trip so far. Here's to the unplanned...
I had arranged to meet Fatima at the bus station in Shiraz but as they never seem to be in the centre of town I had to get a taxi from my guesthouse. The taxi driver was either having a really
bad day or he was a malevolent bastard - or both; either way it was an entertainment of sorts.
Looking more like a harassed student who’d been up all night studying for his physics exam rather then a taxi driver, he unilaterally chose to avoid the busy main streets and put his foot down through narrow alleyways.
Showing little inclination to stop for any pedestrians or other cars and despite people walking in front of him he sped up to the entrance of an alley way and very nearly struck a small child that a mother was holding onto. As her mother dragged her out of the way I looked back and saw the little girl break into tears; so I braved a tut - three of them - but he simply raised his hand as if to say it was her fault. 'Bastard' I thought - there goes you tip sir! (as if I EVER tip taxi drivers - who are universal robbers)
More alleyways, nearly hitting oncoming cars in the alleyways and refusing to slow the hell down. I was bewildered by his aggressive driving. But then we came to a mosque and an oncoming car refused to move in between. So we sat there as they both drivers shouted at each other as people looked at them both and encouraged one of them to move. We were there five minutes as they argued about who had the right of way and who should reverse and let the other through. Luckily I was still
on schedule so I didn’t take sides; my taxi driver won in the end (as if I ever doubted he would).
At the bus station I went to the bus counter where a young guy with spiky gelled hair greeted me with a “hi!” - which rather surprised and pleased me. It's usually a face of complete indifference or fear here in Iran when buying something. As I bought the ticket I noticed that he had a bandage on his nose - that of the nose-job variety. It’s popular to get one done in Iran - relatively inexpensive, and a fashionable accessory regardless of whether you’ve had one or not. Contradictions in Iran are a bloody cliché man.
Fatima soon appeared - but what I mean is she 'glided' in with female elegance that Persian girls do so well here - whether they are forced into dressing this way is another matter. I'm talking elegant headscarf, smart trousers and jacket - a lady. We were then placed at the front of the coach - essentially the VIP seats - whether we liked them or not. We then drove through more desert and mountains; some of the passes being
quite dramatic and passing the odd 500 year old bridge - too much history this country. Bandar Bushehr: A province and an ancient city refounded in 1734 with a name said to mean ‘Father of Towns’ from the Arabic abu and the Persian shahr. The founder of the modern city-port in 1734 was Nadir Shah (1688-1747), who seized the Persian throne in 1736. He intended the port to be the principal naval base for the Persian Navy.
Seven hours later and we are met by Fatima’s sister and her brother-in-law who take us into Bushehr. Fatima’s father is out of town so I can’t stay with the family that night so we look for accommodation in Bushehr itself. Unfortunately everywhere we went seemed to be booked out. Fatima wasn’t happy either as she was asked by nosey old men in the street how she knew me. So I am forced to go to a ‘mid-price’ hotel in the end (20 US dollars) and we say our goodbyes until tomorrow.
At dusk I ventured out of the air conditioning room (in reality a noisy wind machine that looked like it had been shot to pieces) and into the
city itself. It’s warm and humid out and despite the shower I’ve just had I’m already in need of another one. I walk to the sea and sit down under some palm trees along a broadwalk and watch young Iranian couples sitting together. The Persian Gulf I think to myself. I then go to yet another Iranian fast food burger joint because I can’t read anything here, because it’s all in Arabic script. I order the ‘hamburger’ which for the first time is in fact a hamburger in a bun. Amazing. I then walk to an internet cafe (coffeenet) to do the usual but but it was very slow so I couldn't upload any photos to the blog; nor was Facebook accessible or the BBC News website.
Walking down the busy pedestrianised street with shops open and family’s strolling together young men on motorcyclists rev their motors and force people to move out of the way. Despite it being illegal and a huge nuisance everywhere in Iran, motorcyclists do what they want. I then got to the market section of the town which was brightly lit at night and lively. I bought some delicious plums and some apples much
to the amusement of the local kids.
That night I slept ok. The pillows were stuffed with non-soft stuff so I inflated my travel pillow - which has become one of the most useful accoutrements I’ve brought with me on my travels. Glastonbury...Burma...Iran...it has come in very handy indeed. Day 2 in Bushehr
The next morning I was picked up by Fatima and her father who quickly told me to pack up my bags and check out - I was now their guest. Then we go for a drive where Fatima’s father asks lots of questions through the interpretation of Fatima. He points out places along the drive - the now defunct British consulate and then the big statue of the local war hero Raiis Ali Delvari
who ‘fought the British’. For the first time in a long time I’m lost for words; I know nothing about this local hero, nor a ‘war’ with the British - if indeed there was a war?
We then drive further on and pass the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant which employs 2,000 Russians. I ask about their presence in the city and they are apparently disliked by the locals because and
I quote, ‘they are cold, mean and stingy with money’
. Fatima’s brother in law works with them and never warmed to them. We then got to the fishing boats in the dock and a few people came up to Fatima’s dad and shook his hand. Then a car stops and a man gets out to show him how he’s playing one of his songs from a cassette in the car. Fatima’s dad is a singer and a sort of a local music pop star here in the region; it’s fascinating to watch how locals react towards him of course he likes the attention and is the personification of niceness. Fatima tells me that he’s very well liked in the city.
“If you lift up Khomeini's beard, you will find MADE IN ENGLAND written under his chin.” The Shah
We look for a place to have some tea and we stop somewhere to ask and a fisherman tells us to follow him in his car; we are having tea at his place. Sat in his living room, immaculately clean, carpeted, upholstered sofas; the tea is brought out, fresh fruit, cakes, chocolates. The fisherman was no longer at sea -
retired - and he had plenty of questions for me about my travels, Iran, the economy, the government - about England. Then perhaps unwisely I brought up the subject of the Iran-Iraq War because he was in his late 40s he looks like he might have had a role.
He told me that he was a soldier for four years against the Iraqis and that said cryptically that ‘we sacrificed a lot’. What I remember most was how hurt he felt that Iran had the Arab world and the west against them in the 8 year struggle. This he couldn’t understand and I didn’t feel it was my place to perhaps offer an explanation; I did however quote former US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger who said that it was a pity both Iraq and Iran couldn’t both lose the war. Mute silence at that one. Despite all facts to the contrary and smacking of conspiracy theories, he claimed that Saddam Hussein (who made a surprise grab for Iran’s oil rich provinces in the midst of the upheaval during the Islamic Revolution) was a ‘puppet of the west’. I responded by saying that Iranians loved conspiracies, that nothing was
how it appeared to be.
He didn’t disagree and then warming to his subject of England claimed that Ayatollah Khomeini was an agent of the British and it was they who had caused the removal of the Shah and the creation of the Islamic Revolution. It seemed to defy all logic, but amazingly there is a whole item on this from Wikipedia:
BBC Persian journalist Hossein Shahidi has talked about "the deep-rooted belief" among Iranians "that Britain is behind every move in Iran," and in particular that the BBC radio is "credited with, or accused of, having brought about the downfall of" both Pahlavi kings, a survey of Iranian expatriates in Southern California found the leading explanation for the 1979 revolution to be foreign plots, as did a recent survey in Isfahan. Some Iranian observers (living outside Iran) have commented on how Iranians hostile to the revolution appeared to feel more comfortable blaming outside forces than their own compatriots.
I would further add that many Iranians believe Britain is still a powerful figure in the world; I would argue that it is no longer powerful yet in a strange way it is flattering that they us as such.
After a pleasant enough 45 minutes we say our goodbyes and as we leave the compound I think to myself how civilised it is to visit people in their homes and also what a privilege it is to have guests - both of these things are valued in Iran.
More driving around the city and then we pass an ‘English graveyard’ and so I immediately ask to stop so I can have a look. It is derelict and the gates are closed but I jump over anyway and check out the grave stones which
are all broken and clearly the place has been forgotten about. According to the sign inside however in which Fatima translated for me:
”This place is called the English graveyard which belongs to the English officers and soldiers in 1233 AH and 1235 AH and the First World War. There are also some Armenians buried in this graveyard. It is important to say that these people were killed in the war against Sarhang Baqer Kane Tangestani in Resher Castle and also by the surprise attack of the Ali Rais Delvari”
Fatima’s father told me that the graves had been desecrated in this way after the Revolution. Clearly I needed to find out who these people were and why they were here. It turns out to be mildly fascinating stuff (to a Brit at least). During the Anglo-Persian War of 1856-1857
- basically a war of retaliation for the 1856 occupation of Heart, Afghanistan by the Persians (all part of the Great Game between Britain and Russia). It seems things might have been sorted out diplomatically had the Persians not made accusations of misconduct made against the British minister in Tehran. Apparently they claimed he was having it off
with the sister of one of the Shah’s principle wives. Anyway, in 1856 a force of 2300 British soldiers and 3400 Indian sepoys stormed the old fort at Reshire (also called Rishahr or Rashir) before Bushehr surrendered to the British on December 9, 1856. It was occupied by the British again in 1915, the second time due to German intrigue, most notably by Wilhelm Wassmuss. The giant statue I had seen in the city earlier that day had been Talistani - who had fought against the occupation in 1915.
We drove back to the city and the family home which was hidden down an alleyway off a side street. It is surrounded (as is everyone’s houses here it seems) by high fences which hides them away from prying eyes. The car squeezed through the alleyway whilst the gate was opened and we entered the courtyard. I was introduced to the Fatima’s mother and her sister in law - who were both head-scarved but Fatima being the rebel she is, took hers off straight away. Lunch was soon served, sat around a picnic sheet on the floor, it was varied and quite a sight mainly because lunch is the biggest
meal of the day in Iran. Don’t I know it! Obtaining a decent cooked breakfast has been an enigma.
After lunch we sit in the presenting living room and it is there that Fatima’s sister ‘Farahnaz’ conducts a sort of interview. Farahnaz is also an English teacher so not only was she practicing her excellent English but wanted to know about my travels, what I did with my life, my plans (good questions) and life in the UK. Fatima and Farahnaz clearly weren’t that similar to each other, in terms of religion they both clashed - particularly in the belief in God. It was interesting to be able to ask quite sensitive questions particularly about marriage. Her friend’s brother became her husband after a few months of finding out whether they wanted the same things in life. It didn’t sound very romantic but it wasn’t ‘arranged’, merely pragmatic.
There is a party that night in someone’s house and Fatima, her father and I are invited along. I’m unsure about how much to write about what happened this particular night without fear of incriminating good people with the authorities in Iran. Let’s just say I think it was
one of the most enjoyable nights I’ve ever had and rarely do I use the word ‘delightful’ but I will here; it seems utterly appropriate.
Firstly one guy asked me if I would like to join him tomorrow morning at 6 am for a game of football with some others. I politely declined even though I was tempted. After looking at both Fatima and I together on the couch, he made his own conclusions and told me that I ‘could be arrested anytime’. I thought this was a very provocative thing to say - but he explained that that was why he hated the regime, there was no security or ‘peace of mind’ - his only temporary security was inside their homes, away from prying eyes. A professor sits next to me and with a constant smile and jovial way about him has just come from an 18 hour shift. We talk quite frankly about religion and the government, the mullahs, the Revolutionary Guards and about stoning. He had witnessed the stoning of a woman for adultery about 10 years previously in the desert near Yazd. He was disgusted at the barbarity of the act but also the local
people, he insisted it was something alien to Iran.
Clearly the Iranian middle class is very well educated and it was simply amazing to be asked genuinely and in fluent English too my opinion on: ‘What is the future of Iran’ by a Professor of all things! For a businessman to ask me what I thought about Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’ thesis on geopolitics and Huntingdon’s ‘Clash of Civilisations’ essay. Only in Iran! More was to come where I was told proudly that football had come to Iran via Bushehr with the English (1915). Then there were toasts to ‘secularism, liberalism, and democracy’ - and cheers too. There were contentions that ‘revolution’ was not needed to change the status quo in Iran but ‘reform’, an incredibly tolerant view point in view of the repression on a day to day level.
The TV was on during this, and some bloke with a perm and a moustache is on playing music. ‘Do you know who it is?’ I’m asked. ‘Haven’t the foggiest idea’ I say. ‘It is Yanni! The greatest! It is live at the Acropolis’. Nope. Anyway, in between weird new age music this makes me smile very hard.
The volume is suddenly turned up for everyone to listen and up opens the American drawl of Yanni: Everything great that has ever happened to humanity since the beginning, has begun with a single thought in someone's mind and if anyone of us is capable of such a great thought then all of us has the same capacity, capability, because we are all the same.”
And then there is applause in the video. Afterwards another clip of Yanni telling an anecdote of an astronaut looking at earth from space and not being able to make out different countries because he could not see the borders; because there were no borders, that we were all human beings. It was strangely touching and especially so because I was in Iran. But I don’t think Yanni’s music is for me.
The party went on until about 1 am but by that time Fatima was motioning for the door, so I left with lots of handshakes, smiles, ‘please visit us again’
and a camaraderie that I’ve never experienced before. I’m sure we both obtained something from the brief encounter of cultures.
The next couple of days were hanging out in the
house - avoiding the 48 degree heat outside - eating and more eating. Fatima’s sister Farahnaz was an English teacher at a local language institute so I offered to come along and help with her class one evening. But first Fatima and I visited her old workplace - another English language institute - a ramshackle non-descript building. In the reception she was greeted warmly by the female staff but as I put my hand out to a woman she simply ignored me. Confused and embarrassed I turned away to look at the book shelves which was full of abridged versions of novels by Dickens and dog-eared business magazines. I was then introduced to the manager who in his very American spoken English asked me, ‘what’s up!?’ - Which startled me because there’s not really a correct answer to that rhetorical question! But this was no time to look perturbed or start changing adopted idioms.
He seemed delighted that I was offering my native English services and in his office we got talking about what I was doing in Iran and Bushehr. What became quite clear however was that he wanted my ass in his own class that was starting
soon. Farahnaz was in another institute teaching English so there followed some delicate negotiations between him and Fatima. It was soon agreed that I could do it and so in the meantime we talked about Iran, politics, how he had lived in Sweden but was now looking into immigrating to Canada (or maybe England - I told him the place was full). He told me that things were tough now in Iran and they were getting tougher; English classes at schools were poor and people were forced to send their children to English language institutes like this. Despite the size of the building every room was filled with children learning English late into the evening. English language magazines sent from abroad had been found to have delicate images cut out by the censors on arrival, as well as mentions of boyfriends etc. We all agreed about how ridiculous it all was. All the while in the corner of the room was a TV monitor with CCTV footage of classrooms - it was good for monitoring quality of lessons he told me. I noticed that all class rooms are segregated between girls and boys.
Then the woman at reception who
had refused to shake my hand entered the office and explained to Fatima that she was sorry but that her faith meant she couldn’t shake the hand of a man who wasn’t her husband. I accepted the apology but I was genuinely upset by the embarrassment this custom seemed to cause - how do you know who’s shaking hands and who’s not? Anyway, I was on a steep learning curve in this place; I was soon in a tiny classroom with the manager and a room full of young ladies. The manager sat at his desk and in surprisingly fast American English told them that they were to discuss a subject for the class and opened it up to them. Something called ‘Concord’ was eventually settled upon which is an annual entrance examination to university here in Iran. I was then introduced and told to conduct the discussion. A room full of headscarved girls whose eyes are all upon you and whose mouths are turning into smiles...it’s quite a sight. But I jumped right in and as they were busy studying for this big exam that began the following week they had plenty of complaints. Five exams over 3 days
on differing subjects like Physics, Persian Literature, Mathematics etc. The stress of this event clearly was clearly getting to them and I sympathized with them; failure did not mean re-sits or re-marks - that was it until the following year. I told them about the system of modules and remarks in the U.K. as it seemed an unfair system, and then it was over - twenty minutes of cultural exchange a knock on the door and Fatima removing me and me waving goodbye.
We walked further down the street to another English language institute and Farahnaz’s workplace. Her classroom was full of boys aged 11 up to 1 years old and after introducing me she got me to ask them questions in English and for them to answer in English. They were not her best group apparently but they still managed to answer me about what did they like to do after school, what was their favourite meal, who was in their family, etc. The room exploded into laughter (which engulfed Fatima and Farahnaz also) when I asked one kid about who was in his family and he replied, ‘my mother is fish’.
I was soon off again to
another classroom, this time to a teacher called ‘Chris’ and his class of eighteen year old males. Chris was Iranian but brought up in Texas so he called me and others ‘pal’ and ‘buddy’, and said things like ‘no problem, man’ - he was clearly much more fluent in English and the coolio of the place. As he sat slouched on his chair with his open shirt he directed that I take his class and basically let me ask questions and let them ask me questions. It was so much fun; England’s exit from the football World Cup came up immediately which allowed me to tell them about how overpaid English footballers are and how they have more loyalty towards their club than their country. One cheeky fella asked me pointedly ‘why have you come to the Islamic Republic of Iran?’ I noted the Islamic bit which was intended. I asked them about what they wanted to do with their English language skills, most of them said to travel, to do business etc. They seemed in awe of my travels, the ease of my travels mostly. Inevitably they of course asked me what I thought about Iran but politics was
nipped in the bud by Chris and rightly so, it wasn’t the right place for it. Finally after about 40 minutes Fatima motioned for us to go but the cheeky fella begged to ask one last question which was ‘is the lady next to you your girlfriend?’. We made a swift escape, but both of us on the way back to the house both agreed what a terribly fun couple of hours it had been and I wish I had taken some photos. I can heartily recommend visiting some English language classes to any who wish to go to any in Iran.
The reason we were rushing was because Fatima’s father loves to party and we were again invited to another house. Things were merry and as we sat on the roof of the apartment building Fatima’s father and a musician playing sitar performed lots of Iranian folk songs. Fatima’s father has a great and pure singing voice and it was awesome to hear him singing to poems by Sa’di and Ferdosi, many hundreds of years told. It was great fun and even the local millionaire turned up drunk as a skunk with his two ‘female companions’- who also
happened to be smoking! Ooh er! Plenty of strange looks from people sat around. Fatima told me she is a very good dancer and her father asked me to come up and dance to one of the songs, which she did and very elegantly. Unfortunately I was too enchanted to actually take photos or film any of it. I suppose that’s what my memory is meant to be for. The millionaire had once proposed to Fatima so he kept asking her who I was and why she was with me; it was all rather strange but very entertaining too.
The days I spent with Fatima’s family in Bushehr were pretty special on many levels. I think I got some idea on Iranian family life, culture, music and political climate. People are fed up with what is going on and it was tremendous to actually hear that as opposed to me just presuming it. Lastly, Bushehr showed me that unplanned travel is often the best and how travel experiences are ultimately about the people you meet and not the photos you take.
I'd had a wonderful time in Bushehr - it's too bloody hot in the summer months - stupidly, insanely hot but I was very glad indeed to have made that unplanned journey south.