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Published: August 2nd 2010
In the care of the kings of hospitality
It is safe to say that my time in Bushehr
had refreshed me; the warm hospitality; a clean environment; the unexpected social gatherings; time away from paid hotels, the dirt and concrete pillows and the unknown content/cleanliness of bedding. It was also a holiday away from my own ‘holiday’ the not-really-doing-anything in particular; the lack of any need to do ‘tourist’ stuff. It was great.
But my visa was for a month only and I was already beyond the half way point, so regardless of the genuine (or not) invitations to stay longer I had to continue my journey north bound to the ‘deeply historic’ (Lonely Planet) city of Shushtar
. But before I left, 'Fatima's' sister ‘Farahnaz’
surprised me by a farewell gift of an embroidered colourful ‘ethnic’ bag which although I was never ever
going to wear had alongside some nice tea bags a handwritten poem by Hafez which started: ‘In the name of God, That day of friendship when we met - Recall; Recall those days of fond regret, Recall. As bitter poison grief my palate sours: The sound: “Be it sweet!” at feasts of ours, Recall...’
This was a
touching gift from somebody I had gotten to know despite the confines of being married and the religious precepts she subscribed to.
Her father - the local singing star - knew a lot of people and before I headed north made some phone calls to assist me. He arranged for somebody to pick me up when I arrived in Ahvez
and then drive me northwards to Shushtar
- or at least that was what I thought was going to happen. I was in the hands of others and didn’t really grasp the details.
Fatima, Farahnaz and her husband took me to the bus station in Bushehr and despite the coach being late by an hour, finally got on my way, receiving three kisses on the cheek from Farahnaz’s husband. I felt like one of the family.
The bus was pretty hot on board. At first I thought it was just me; so I moved, fiddled with the air vent and then noticed the few people on board were fetching water with disturbing regularity. The air conditioning clear wasn’t working but seven hours later I was still alive and in Ahvez
at the side of the road, receiving
my backpack. Looking about me I next see a bloke in a white t-shirt approach me who then calls my name. We shake hands and I follow him to his car, dump my backpack in the boot and then we drive - to where I know not. He’s clearly a friend of Fatima’s father so I can only presume that I’m either going to stay with him that night or he’s going to drive me to Shushtar
. He does neither; he drops me off at another bus station puts me in a share taxi, amzingly pays the fare before shaking my hand goodbye. This
is Iranian hospitality.
Squeezed into the back of a Renault share taxi, my fellow passengers are bemused by my presence - but curious, as we try to interact in Farsi and English. Upon arrival in Shushtar it’s now dusk and as I get out of a taxi a man on a motorbike comes alongside and he motions for me to get on. I say my goodbyes, Khodahafez
. And get onto the back of this guy’s motorbike with my big backpack. We then speed through the busy streets of Shushtar - all the while I’m utterly
trusting of people and accept what will be. We soon arrive at some kind of furniture store and I’m led in with my bags. Two guys shake my hand - they look like they are the owners; they get on their mobiles. As we sit around on comfy show room settees and couches a young white bloke turns up - this is Hamid, or ‘Hamid’ -and knows Fatima’s father. He is part Georgian, speaks English and is here to take me wherever I want to go. So despite offers of a motorbike Hamid walks with me to the nearest hotel. Along the way he makes phone calls and seems preoccupied before he suddenly offers to put me up in his house. He began to show me hi mobile phone with pictures of foreigners who he had picked up in the town and who had stayed with him. Or so he said, how could I be sure? I was reluctant to take up his offer; exhaustion - after a long day of travel I just wanted to shower and sleep and this guy looked like he wanted to talk (lots) and I didn’t feel that I had the energy. Secondly after
having spent time with an Iranian family and being on my very best behaviour I wanted my own space. Lastly, didn’t really know this guy, he seemed a little bit pushy; distracted on his phone and who knows what kind of house he kept?
I ended up staying at the hotel opposite his house; I’m not sure how I made that decision because there was a funeral party going on - yes funerals are party time here in Iran. The music was booming in the hotel and kids were running around everywhere. It was 40 US Dollars - something I found out the following morning - but I had my own room, en suit shower and my very own dysfunctional air conditioning ‘system’. I checked in and took a shower then went foraging for food, but I couldn’t find anything so I gave Hamid a ring. He seemed delighted to hear from me and he came out from his house to greet me. We then walked to a falafel place, shaking hands along the way; Hamid seemed to be a well-known person in the town. With sadness he told me that his Iranian father had suddenly died of a
heart attack 3 months earlier and he was now running his business operations including the local cinema. Yes, local cinema and he was only 27 years old.
Falafel and Hezbollah wannabes
The falafel place was tiny, messy and grubby but it was supremely cheap. I watched the young guy behind the counter dip rolled up balls of falafel into a bowl of hot oil, which he then cooked. Fitting them inside a long roll I added my own salad of tomatoes, onions and lettuce - as I ate it went everywhere. Two young men then came in - students and tried their best not to stare at me - they asked Hamid who I was and how come he knew me. They then asked me about England’s loss to Germany (again) and what did I think of Israel? Slight non-sequitur and I had been dreading this moment because I wasn’t sure of my own opinions. Would I have to defend Israel’s right to exist and also question Iran’s interest in the Israel-Palestine issued by its funding and supporting a terrorist organization such as Hezbollah? I sensed they were looking to justify their view of a ‘Zionist-Crusaders’ but (for
once) I didn’t take the bait, I was too tired. So I feigned to not really know anything about it, but I asked them about Hezbollah - and did they support Israel? The obvious answers came back.
As we said our goodbyes - mine was through a fake smile Hamid surprised me even more by saying that he did not agree with the students. He supported Israel because they were a successful country and had become prosperous from nothing in the desert. He would like to visit Israel one day. Such pragmatism and lack of ideology was refreshing to hear in Iran.
We meandered back to Hamid’s house and my hotel; it was late, nearly 10 pm and I was weary from all the travel yet Hamid insisted on showing me the nearby Band-e-Mizan
. This is a Sassanid era weir which divides the river to the ancient watermills. At the water’s edge cars parked on the sand, family picnics in progress and groups of swimmers and waders. As we walked atop the ancient walls of the weir Hamid asked me if I wanted to go for a swim. He seemed so excited that I thought to myself that
a) I had just met this guy and who wanted me to stay with him and b) was he a psycho who was going to drown me? He seemed too innocent and child-like to be trustworthy - it was an instinctive reaction. I declined the offer, I didn’t know what was under the water so he took off his shirt and from a height he jumped in regardless. He then got back up and declared how much he loved swimming - yeh I could see that! He then jumped in again.
Back at his house we sat on the carpet floor and drank tea, watched TV and Mr Bean. Bean must be one of the biggest British entertainment exports since The Beatles and Charlie Chaplin. Even though I find it quite naff and cheesy, they love this stuff. Hamid said his Georgian side of the family had been living in Iran for hundreds of years; but when his mother entered the room with her headscarf on, I was surprised by how strange it looked to see a white woman with an Islamic headscarf.
I couldn’t keep awake any longer and despite Hamid earnestly requesting me to stay and
even offering me what looked like the VIP room I explained that I had already paid for my room. I crossed the road to the hotel but the gates were shut and Hamid had to make a phone call for someone to open them for me. More bullshit was the air-con ‘system’ not working properly and so I had to call someone up to get them to fix it. I also had a violent and one-sided battle with a large cockroach in the bathroom in the morning - these things simply won’t die and even manage to do the backstroke on water; but I won in the end.
The next morning I visited the remains of the city’s ancient watermills - a technology that was apparently introduced by captured Roman legionnaires - although now they looked like giant waterslides pouring into a big water pool. President Ahmadinijad had visited the city only a week before to support the bid for UNESCO World Heritage status. But a guide scornfully told me that he didn’t actually visit the mills itself.
It was uncomfortably hot by 11 am so rather inevitably I called Hamid to see if the offer of staying with
him was still there. Of course it was. But to avoid the heat of the day we stayed indoors for the afternoon and lay about on the carpeted living room, chatting, taking naps, eating melon, drinking endless glasses of tea and having lunch with his family (a noodle/spaghetti and tomato sauce combination which was actually quite filling). Hamid didn’t want to stay in Iran - he felt that he was wasting his life and so he asked a lot of questions about England and Europe. He confessed that he didn’t really like Iranian girls very much and that he ctually preferred European girls; for aesthetic or moral/cultural reasons I’m not sure.
Then, in the late afternoon Hamid asked me if I wanted to go for a swim at the Band-e-Mizan and this time I brought my swimming trunks. On a promontory above the river is a brick structure called Kola Ferangi
which looks like an ancient lighthouse - another example of how historic Shushtar is. Down by the rive I was the focus of many curious people who asked Hamid where I was from, why I was here, how did I like Iran etc. Two white guys (Hamid with
his hairy rug of a Georgian chest) then jumped into the initially cold water and swam alongside the weirs; Hamid was loving it; he kept asking me how I liked it and I admitted it was very refreshing and I asked him how clean the water was, so he took a mouthful of water - he said it was very clean. Moments later I swam past something white in the water - a fully feathered dead chicken was floating in the water next to me. I was a bit startled and also had to stop myself from laughing and also gulping down any water. Hamid didn’t seem at all perturbed and told me casually that the chicken was probably used by the local fishermen as bait to attract fish. By this time, Hamid was referring to me as ‘my friend’, so for example: ‘my friend would you like to go my cinema?’ and I replied, ‘Yes, that sounds like a fun thing to do’.
From the outside it didn’t look like a cinema but it had a sweet shop and an actual screen inside and this was Hamid’s place. As he collected ticket stubs, boys with hair gelled up
and nifty clothes sat on chairs outside the screening room waiting for girls to come along. Then they would go in the movie together and sit with each other. As school classes were segregated and the any congress of the opposite sex outside of marriage was seen as morally dubious this was the alternative (and a bloody clever one too). Nothing untoward happened in the darkened screen itself but it was breaking rules which seemed only right and natural to be done by teenagers.
The film was in Iranian so I couldn’t understand what was going on so I pestered Hamid into taking me to other sights around the city - I’d been promised all day long. So he arranged for one of his spiky hair mates to take a motorbike and to take me around to a few of the places. So sat on the back of this Wild One’s motorbike we proceed to speed through the city with reckless (yet controlled) abandon. It was a pretty cool way to see the city but despite the promise of some sights we simply went from shop to shop and then bazaar picking up and dropping off things. So, I
only got a picture with the Jameh mosque with its leaning minaret and 9th Century remnants before we were back at the cinema. Amusing as this seemed to be, I didn’t plan on staying another day in Shushtar so I told Hamid that with the lateness of the day I was going to walk to the other sights. This clearly wouldn’t do for Hamid and so he fetched the bike himself and off we went to the Qal’eh Salosel
- the Salosel Castle. The remains - atop a cliff-hill was until fairly recently a fortress where Roman Emperor Valerian
was meant to have been kept prisoner by Shapur I
. Defeated at the Battle of Edessa in 259 AD he was the only Roman Emperor to have been captured alive. According to some accounts he was systematically insulted and force-fed a soup of molten gold.
Holding on to the back of Hamid’s motorbike, we sped through the gates of the Salosel Castle like Steve McQueen in the Great Escape. It was deserted but a guard eventually found us and despite the lateness of the day opened up the gate to the underground vaults and tunnels; the place where Valerian was
meant to have been kept prisoner. It was very atmospheric. Hamid and I then noticed some closed gates and using a generic padlock key managed to open it. We climbed down the dark steps and dozens of bats fluttered off their perches. Further below were the underground chambers of the Sassanid castle with rooms and servants quarters. Hamid urged me to get a move on as he had to get back to the cinema; in fact Hamid seemed to be buckling under the pressure of being my host. He kept receiving calls on his mobile phone; his mother asking him where he was; the underlings at the cinema panicking; and yet here he was escorting me around a dusty old castle which he’d probably been to hundreds of times already. I couldn’t help thinking why.
Back at the cinema a friend of Hamid’s had arrived. Mr Ali was about 40 years of age, unmarried and a local basketball coach at the university, who by the way were national champions. He had heard from Hamid that a foreign tourist was here and so he wanted to show me around the city in his car, Hamid insisted that Mr Ali was
‘a very nice and kind man’, however the renowned Iranian hospitality that I had experienced so far now showed itself to be almost non-negotiable.
I was tired but agreed to go along as one or two more sights would have completed my trip to Shushtar. Our first stop at night was the Mostofi House a charming little house with a palm-treed courtyard and a restaurant. Next to that was the wonderfully evocative remains of Valerian’s Bridge which was built by captured Roman soldiers and originally had 45 arches before floods and rebellions took parts of it away about 100 years ago. I listened politely as Hamid interpreted Mr Ali’s history lesson - to which I already knew most from my Lonely Planet guidebook. It’s at this point that I would reveal things Mr Ali showed me but which would probably get him and others into very serious trouble.
By this time I was incredibly tired and a little bit narky, I wanted to go to bed but Mr Ali was unimpressed and joked about how feeble I was and how I should wake up. Hamid by this time was interpreting for both of us and seemed very tired
but as Mr Ali promised this would be the last place I stayed with it.
For such a small city of only 66,000 people there was such a lot of history and ancient monuments to see, I just wish I had managed to see them during the day, instead of waiting it out at Hamid’s house. The wonderfully flood-lit 11-arched ancient Lashgar Bridge
was once the entrance to the city itself and defended for two years against the Arab invaders in the 7th Century.
Mr Ali was becoming tiresome. I didn’t like the constant prodding - almost-manhandling (he was unmarried too), nor his demanding interpretation from Hamid who was also dog-tired and had no doubt seen all of this stuff before. Yet, Mr Ali wanted to show us mosques, shrines and residential blocks of former European workers of a sugar factory (!!!) The last straw was the visit to a Zurkhaneh
- ‘house of strength’ - in itself something very unique to Iran - a sort of ancient gymnastics class accompanied by drumming, chanting of Sufi and Persian poetry and dervish whirling. It was interesting for 15 minutes or so but I was so tired that I told
Hamid I would be waiting outside by the car. I waited and waited; eventually Hamid came out and told me that Mr Ali thought I was being disrespectful. I explained to Hamid that I needed to sleep and I hadn’t asked to be taken around the city by him. Mr Ali eventually came out and we ended on good terms, something about Iran changing by the time I would return. We stopped off at our favourite falafel place and Mr Ali paid for our food and drinks.
The next morning I planned to go to Shush by taxi but Hamid offered to take me in his car for the same price - well really it was his mother that made this proposal - I was hoping he might want to take me out of the goodness of his heart. But I suppose I’d gotten my fair share of Hamid’s good- naturedness. Along for the ride was Hamid’s half brother - your typically bored teenager in the endless school holidays. First stop was Choqa Zanbil
a brick ziggurat basically a sort of pyramid, tiered temple that was built to look like a mountain by an ancient Elamite
kingdom in the
13th Century BC.
It was incredibly hot as we walked around the site - it must have been 100 degrees Fahrenheit and humid too; I don’t think I’ve experienced such heat before and as we resorted to using the car seat cover as protect from the sun I was amazed at the archaeologists at work in the pits. Despite this I still managed to get up close to the ziggurat and to see that it was made of red bricks; inscribed upon each brick in a strip around the temple was the world’s first alphabet in cuneiform and dedicating the temple to Inshushinak, the chief god of the Elamtie pantheon. That it had lasted this long was staggering but even more so was coming across an Elamite child’s footprint preserved on a tile - three millennia ago.
I’d like to have spent more time at the ziggurat but the heat was so oppressive we retreated back to the car and sped off towards Shush. It was once known as Susa - the Winter capital of the Achaemenids’ Persian empire along with Persepolis - the Summer capital. There’s very little left except archaeology according to my guide so I
didn’t bother checking it out but the museum was pretty interesting with lots of sculpture such as a giant bullhead capital and glazed tiles of Persian kings. Most interesting of all was the Tomb of Daniel - semi mythical Jewish figure from the Bible - yes he of the Lion’s den fame and was meant to be a faithful satrap
to Persian king Darius I (522-486 BC). For some reason Muslims as well as the odd Jewish pilgrim worship here despite not having much to do with Islam. When we turned up we happened to witness the local police getting physical with someone. Inside the shrine were men sitting about on carpets and then suddenly the caretaker points out some bloke laying down to two uniformed police, with whom they shout at him. He then gets up and they escort him to the exit, according to Hamid, his crime was to sleep in the shrine, perhaps he was a vagrant although he was young and looked clean enough. However, at the gates he gave some understandable back-chat and the police then shouted at him and hit with their rubber truncheons on the backside and neck. We were very close to
the action and Hamid and I were both shocked at the ease with which the police physically assaulted a member of the public. Hamid tutted and so did I. Hamid asked aloud about what if this man had lost his job or had no home to live in, what was his crime to lay his head down at the shrine? Hamid seemed to be the most reasonable and level-headed person I’d met in Iran so far.
Hamid next agreed to drive me to Dezful where we went to another falafel place to have something to eat. Interestingly, the proprietor was a Bangladeshi who had been living in Iran for 20 years, I thought he might have spoken English but he didn’t and Hamid interpreted for me. Hamid’s half-brother went out and 20 minutes later had brought back something in a black bag that was moving. He then pulled out a live pigeon that was tied up by its feet and Hamid told me that he would sell this for a profit in Shushtar. He then put the bird back in the bag as if it was some kind of object, it made me smile and some of odd simplicities
here in Iran. As we left the falafel place, the owner some questions about where I was going to and with whom. He told me that he thought that I was brave travelling on my own - but I dismissed his compliment because I was not travelling into the unknown but merely following others and their guide they had written.
Hamid drove me one last way of the journey to a taxi station and there we finally said out goodbyes. I felt like I had been with Hamid for a month rather than a couple of days; and I had to smile about how we had met - through the random connections of Fatima’s father. My next step was to take a taxi to a share taxi stop a couple of kilometres away and then northbound again.
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