Imam Khomeini airport was pretty slick. Not overdone as I imagine one sees in the Emirates, but modern and efficient with a surprisingly low hassle kind of vibe. Obtaining my visa in Mumbai had been a troublesome affair, but immigration was a piece of cake. Some of my fellow male passengers seemed pretty slick in their shiny suits, purple shirts and pointy shoes. Sort of faux Italian. They represented the moneyed classes, I suppose, as do the punters in any airport outside of the budget hubs. I was impressed after the polyester pants and jumble sale shirts of India. On the plane about half the women had been casually attired and showing off their elaborate hair-does, but headscarves were wrapped in place on arrival. Many just covered the back portion of the underlying bouffant dome, however, which looked quite funny. The faces of the fashionable women struck me as unusually beautiful, but they were very heavily made up. The other half were rather dour, buried inside wide, black chadoors (‘tent’ in Farsi); about as pretty as a sad sack of potatoes. This is not to say that pretty or happy women don’t wear chadoors but I have noticed a statistical relationship which I would confirm for you if I could quantify prettiness. On the streets I would see women who had shopping bags to carry holding their chadoors tight around them using their teeth, rather absurdly I think. I was relieved to learn, at least, that the veil and the burqa are not part of the Iranian Islamic dress code. I was still in shock from seeing women in Mumbai constrained inside metal faceguards that would befit an unrepentant witch in a medieval torture chamber. ‘Hejab’ or ‘modest dress’ is a requirement in public, but women can get away with a head scarf and smartly fitting coat that covers the ass. In recent years there have been periodic police crackdowns on even marginal violators. I saw just two unscarfed women during the trip; they were flaunting big flouncy wool hats that had the same effect as a scarf anyway. Later I saw propaganda adorning a wall that claimed (in English as well as Arabic scripted Farsi): “Hejab is a protection to the women”. Ironic, then, that an infringement may receive thirty lashes. And why, I want to know, is the multi-layered chadoor invariably black in a country where summer temperatures might reach 50 degrees celsius. That is perversely illogical. Anyway, I think we could take a more reasonable approach to the problems inherent in human sexuality. Neutering males for example. Or make men wear those spiky metal devices the Victorians invented to stop children playing with themselves. That would sort things out
Iranian men can wear almost anything in public except shorts. Sports facilities have to be enclosed to prevent a shocking exposure of hairy knees. They would never, however, be seen dead naked, even by other men. On one occasion I dropped my towel after showering and whipped on my underpants only to realise ten seconds later that my Iranian room-mate, an otherwise liberal, irreligious chap, was still facing the corner when he said: “is it over yet?” There are no urinals in Iran. It’s not done. Men have to lock themselves in cubicles every time like women. Now I know how it feels. It’s tiresome. Iranians are a curiously vain lot, a bit like the Japanese, but with more macho guys. Probably on account of the lack of social alternatives body-building is huge. Gyms are found everywhere and I visited one with my friend of the day. He was giving me the small town tour, buying me presents and just would not accept that I couldn’t stay at his place because I had a 5am train. He said he was a very handsome guy. Inside the gym other similarly thinking men were pumping weights like crazy while admiring themselves in the all round mirrors. “Do you do this for the girls?,” I asked. “We are strong men” he said. I didn’t mention that, of course, it seemed pretty gay. Maybe I was just sore because I couldn’t even lift and jerk the lightweight bar-bell. The men regularly come over as boastful, introducing themselves and immediately giving forth a tirade of personal accomplishments with barely a passing interest in your situation. Like hello, here’s my resume. I don’t get that. Additional evidence of socially sanctioned vanity is that Iran is probably the rhinoplasty capital of the world. That’s nose jobs. Both men and women partake though the women lead about 5 to 1. You can tell from all the young people walking around with taped up noses. How they can afford the operation at $4,000 I have no idea. That’s a moderate annual salary. Priorities I suppose. Still, the price is half that in the west. I’m surprised there is not more rhinoplasty tourism. Maybe I should have grabbed a quick one myself
Iranian traffic conditions verge on the suicidal. The country has one of the highest road casualty rates in the world. Mercifully, unlike India, horns are not taped down, but then signals and headlights are not used much either. I think headlights are considered rude as they spoil visual dark adaptation. Walking in Tehran would at best be described as over-exciting. One should wear red as a human traffic signal. Drivers stop only for bodies. If they run someone down they have to pay blood money. Unfortunately that factor has no influence on crazy intercity taxi drivers. At least there is lots of English signage for those foolhardy enough to attempt an overland trip with their own wheels. Buses and trains are usually modern and reliable. I took two trains; one very comfortable sleeper and one overcrowded old clunker that wound and tunneled its way through the Zagros Mountains to Dorud. The scenery on the clunker was amazing. I have never seen such awesomely twisted and folded, towering sedimentary formations in my life. And I’ve seen some. Scenery in the desert was a little drab with rare moments of splendour, like in Nevada, but the date growing oasis and adobe village I visited was magical even though the trees suffered serious fire damage three years ago after a big freeze. Weird weather from climate change puts these precarious environments at high risk.
I wanted to go skiing in the 4000m Alborz Mountains that rise imposingly to the north of Tehran but with inflation running at an average official rate of 15%, in reality much higher, prices had doubled since publication of my guide book. The economic embargo that Iran suffers under means there is no way to access foreign money. Travelers cheques, ATM cards and (with odd exception) credit cards are no use. I thought I was well enough endowed with euros and dollars to live it up a little, but my budget was suddenly halved by inflation, so I decided to forgo the skiing. This turned out to be unnecessarily cautious largely on account of amazing native generosity. Despite the embargo and economic mismanagement Iran is still a cheap place to travel, but times are hard for most of the people. The Iranian Rial goes for about 10,000 to the dollar. If the numbers were not confusing enough just from their size, everyone counts Tomans, which are ten rial. When a taxi driver presents two fingers to you he usually means 2,000 Toman but this does conveniently convert to about two dollars. You have to watch your change. Iran still has lots of oil but lacks the capacity to refine enough and so imports petrol which the government then massively subsidises to keep the economy lively. Public transport is especially cheap, unless you get stiffed in a taxi. The government also subsidises hunting, apparently providing plenty free bullets when you apply for your permit. Good luck Asiatic cheetah. It’s nice to see that Iran shares these good old American values. Of course, you might be forgiven for overlooking such aspects of cultural similarity after a visit to the former U.S. embassy, renamed (with some good reason) “the U.S. Den of Espionage”. The outside walls are adorned with murals such as a skull-headed statue of liberty and a billboard showing very unhappy American staff during the 1979 embassy hostage taking. That famous event occurred because Iranians were fearful that the embassy would be used as a base to derail their nice new “Islamic” revolution (which wasn’t really Islamic but across the board anti-Shah, originally, until it was railroaded.) After all, the embassy was headquarters for the CIA coup that toppled Mossadegh in 1951 (at the behest of BP) and brought the undelightful Shah back to power, leading ultimately, through the inexorable processes of history, to the regrettable political situation we see in Iran today and the unfortunate election of Ronald Reagan following Carter’s hostage rescue debacle
The vast majority of Iranians are gushingly friendly to foreigners, in a league of their own (along with Tibetans; it’s a playoff). Hospitality is a great tradition, although sometimes you feel that you are being taken prisoner. They are also generous to a fault. I received many freebies, gifts, helpful, unsolicited advice and warm, genuine invitations. The only problem is distinction of the genuine gift from the social display of Ta’arof; a uniquely Persian system of false offers and refusals to accept payment. On one occasion at a nice restaurant, after ordering way too much food and smoking up a hookah pipe with the no-English owner while we ‘chatted’, he refused to let me pay. We went through three cycles and I relented. He therefore either won the generosity game or lost a chunk of money due to my misunderstanding of Ta’arof; I don’t know which, but it sort of preys on your mind. Up there with India is the count of conversation starter questions from non-English speakers. Everybody immediately wants to know where you are from. Conversations often end there. If they don’t know usable English they might yell out something random they picked up like “tomorrow!”, “thank you!” or “Alex Ferguson!” This should all be charming but it can become an irritation.
The eagerness to meet foreigners shouldn’t come as a surprise given Iran’s difficult relations with other countries. Most Iranians are really ashamed of this situation. They also might have a lack of good information. Officially illegal satellite TV is common but people are eager to hear opinions from personal experience and to share theirs. I met one old guy who said something accusative about Britain’s role in the war in Afghanistan and one who gently insisted that America and Israel were the ‘terrorists’. There was also a strange but pleasant fellow who waylaid me in the bazaar and launched into fervent questioning about Scotland’s relationship to the IRA, my opinion of America’s apparent support for a two state solution in Palestine and such like, without so much as breath. I was glad that Scotland (somewhat erroneously) was not tarred with the same brush as England, which is not greatly esteemed, being America’s lap dog and all. Hardly anyone else was openly critical of the west, but they were plenty critical of their own government. Iran is a heavily propagandized country and no doubt many people, mainly the less educated, hold anti-western opinions which they would be too polite to voice, or cannot voice, not that I would be one to suppose error. There are the religious police who occasionally drag tourists off to the station for a few hours, blindfolded, in case they are spies. Give a teenager a badge… However, the vast majority of those I encountered admired western freedoms and with their rather fanciful utopian ideas of western life would jump at the chance to live there. Apart from the economic problems, life in Iran is just boring. The most commonly expressed cry of dissent was that there are no discos, secondly that there is no democracy. The no discos thing represents a real and deep resentment of abrogation of many cultural liberties we take for granted such as mixed-sex public dancing, which is illegal, period, as is pre-marital sex and, of course, consumption of alcohol (with some exception for Christians and smuggled booze moderately available). Our misconceptions were best summed up for me by a Lonely Planet author who recounted running into a massive “down with America” demo in 1984 and being invited to join in! The young protestors later took him for tea and explained that protesting was the most entertaining thing they had to do.
Personally, I don’t think western democracy and Iranian democracy are so different. In the west corporate power calls the shots and if things don’t go accordingly on election day, it appears quite possible to fix that up nowadays, as in Bush victory number two. Analogously, Iran is really run by an Islamic theocratic elite and if they don’t like the kiss count, they can fabricate results with rather more ease and with a lot less hypocrisy, as in Ahmadinejad victory number two. Things have to get very bad indeed in Iran for this to be necessary as the democratic mechanisms are so massively rigged. It saves a lot of money on political advertising and lobbying to just directly appoint tons of important officials. This is accomplished by the guardian council, a lovely bunch of guys headed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei since 1989 when the ‘father’ of the revolution Ayatollah Khomeini (he of the bushy eyebrows) went to paradise. I think I thought they were the same guy. Iranians know the difference because their images appear together everywhere, always photoshopped side by side. Khamenei is widely considered illegitimate, according to my sources, even from a theological perspective, so his image has to be constantly associated with the irreproachable Khomeini, who is now designated an honourable Iman (like saint) rather than simply a dead Ayatollah. I don’t think I found a town that didn’t have its main square renamed Imam Khomeini. He must be happy in heaven.
Iran has been through a lot of shit, with a war torn history on a par with old Europe, or pretty much everywhere, I suppose. Alexander the Great, the Mongols, Ottoman Turks, British Petroleum; all of them did a number on the country. During the eight year Iran-Iraq war, started by Saddam Hussein in a move similar to the one he pulled in Kuwait ten years later, around half a million were lost on each side while America sold arms to both. Every town you visit still has billboards of the “martyrs” from that old disaster, often with Khomeini’s face in the vicinity. He loved his martyrs, like the teenagers who volounteered to clear landmines by walking on them. You can read his brilliant quotes like: “every school with a martyr experiences no captivity”. Propaganda is often conveniently bilingual in Iran but I think they don’t realise it would be better if westerners didn’t read this stuff. There are lots of quotes from the Koran on display in bigger cities. You just can’t get enough, I guess. Most seemed too critical or micro-managerial of people’s lives to me, but maybe I should actually peruse the Koran some more. The Koran came straight off the top of Mohammad’s head, apparently, as he channeled God, and was faithfully recorded and memorized right away, unlike the contentiously sourced texts of the New Testament. This could be good, or could be bad. It all depends on Mohammad. He certainly didn’t mince his words. I preferred the more easily positive quotes of Zarathustra that I saw in the Zoroastrian temple in Yazd where the sacred flame (which you can also see) has reputedly been burning for 1,500 years. The ancient Persian Empire was entirely Zoroastrian in 500BC. The ideas behind this, the world’s oldest monotheistic religion, sounded more like some of the simple sayings of Jesus, which are easily digested. Like Christianity, there is dualism between good and evil that is ultimately resolved by the supremacy of the supreme being (Ahura Mazda). My body-building friend bought me a winged Zoroastrian symbol of the immortal spirit to hang around my neck. I like it. If I am going to get into this monotheistic stuff, I might as well go for the original.
The high end of Islamic culture is on glorious display in the cities of central Iran such as Esfahan and Shiraz (where the wine got its’ name). The first mosque I had the pleasure to enter, Lotfollah in Esfahan, is often considered the finest in Iran. It is not the biggest but the tiling and dome design leave you reeling from the beauty pouring out everywhere, on every scale. After the dozen or so Japanese tourists left I had the place entirely to myself and just sat there gob-smacked taking in the vibrant oranges and blues and glowing light. At the larger, also mind-blowing mosque across the square, the in-house Mullah (minister) came over to chat. After introductions we yelled Allah Akbar! (God is Great!) very loudly together under the immense dome and listened to the resounding echoes; half a dozen or so. He soon moved things along to comparative religion and sneakily just couldn’t understand why Christians insisted that Jesus was the Son of God, as opposed to a great Prophet; the Islamic position. I had to sympathise that it was a rather brazen attempt at oneupmanship. I mean you can’t really top that if you are playing the ‘my-gods-bigger-than-your-god’ game (unless the Father of God turned up I suppose). Unfortunately, strict monotheism requires that the game is played. There is no God but Allah. All others are false. Mohammed trumps all previous prophets. Jesus is the Way and the Light and the only way. God is all-encompassing but entirely exclusive, which must be very confusing for God. I didn’t go into all that with the Mullah because he was operating in that same paradigm, even though the Islamic position is less exclusionary, but we had a nice chat.
Also great fun are the bazaars; usually ancient, enclosed and vaulted labyrinths filled with amazing assortments of ornaments, spices, fabrics and wonderous carpets, as well as more utilitarian stuff. Persian public gardens, often water gardens with gorgeous architecture, are lovely too. I visited Iran just on the cusp of spring so they were not at their best (nor was the rest of the landscape.) In full bloom, the gardens provided great inspiration for famous poets. Iranians, they say, are a nation of poets and I enjoyed two or three recitations. Every household should have copies of the Koran and the works of Hafez. This is pretty funny because most of the old poets, including Hafez, are an irreligious lot, fatally romantic, addicted to wine, women and song. Lots of nightingales and roses season the imagery but it is basically the old familiar story; in this case from the middle ages. These poets present a sort of sophisticated popular philosophy, much as the Romantics later did in the west. Reading old English translations is not very good but I enjoyed them, particularly Omar Khayyam, a downright anti-Islamic dipsomaniac and mathematical genius. Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Bakhi (Rumi), fashionably popular in new age circles, is unusual in that he was a devout Sufi (a mystical form of Islam). He founded the whirling dervishes who would trance out spinning endlessly towards God. He didn’t write about women much but he does about wine and was totally, eh, in love with his master Shams of Tabriz who was murdered by Rumi’s jealous followers.
Out west I visited the back valleys of Khordestan where Kurdish hospitality exceeds even that of the Persians. I was invited to stay in Kurdish family homes two nights in a row. It is a very beautiful area of mountains and ancient villages. Across the high snowy ridge from my main destination, Howraman e-Takht, was Iraq; an hour to the place where Sadam gassed to death most of the population of one troublesome town in 1988; a solid 5,000 corpses. He also used poison gas on villages on the Iranian side during the war. Kurds have always had a very difficult time with surrounding powerful neighbours and their lands are now divided between Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria. The occupations, attitudes, clothing and housing of many are very traditional. Howraman was a big village with layers of houses built into the steep mountainside like steps. I did some hiking and came across great spots including, incidentally, an old house with quite a view that was used as headquarters by Kurdish separatists around 1990. Things are quiet now but the border proximity has local officials a bit twitchy. I was chatting with a new friend, a carpenter who had won asylum in London during past troubles and now split his time between there and the village, when two young rifle carrying cops on a motorbike came by and accosted me for my passport. They wanted a photocopy so I had to follow down to the station. The station cops, even the AK-armed muscle-head out front, were fairly friendly and light-hearted, but after 20 minutes I was wondering what was up. In the hall outside they engaged in extremely noisy rifle loading practice which made me nervous. Then we were joined by a Mullah, some political type looking disturbingly like Ahmadinejad and finally the police captain. There were about ten people observing my questioning while one young cop translated. The Mullah said “I love you” and everyone laughed. I signed: of course, your heart is with God. The captain couldn’t believe I earned almost 1,500 Euros a month teaching English in Japan which is about four times the salary if an Iranian high school teacher, such as was my host for that night. I said that yes, it must be very hard in Iran. They didn’t like that and said no, it wasn’t. Finally, after almost an hour they made the photocopy and the young cop showed me out. He apologized and said, oddly, “Goodbye, you have high culture.” “Eh, you too” I smiled, muttering something else. My aforementioned hosts, a delightfully warm, liberal young maths teacher and his wife, wanted to know anything and everything about life and attitudes abroad. He was particularly concerned about the image of Islam and emphasized that very few people agreed with the more extreme rhetorical postures and certainly not violence and that these attitudes are not supported by the Koran. The Kurds have had enough of violence, perhaps. It was lucky I found him. The new hotel was completely full with a movie crew from Tehran, making the most of the scenery. Unfortunately, I left a disc with all my Iran photos at the house and I’m still trying to get it back.
For a slightly more low-brow experience, sitting in a teahouse drinking chai and smoking a qalyan (hookah pipe with fruit flavoured shisha tobacco) is one of the best pleasures they have in Iran. Some of the tea houses are very old and have murals or crazy antiques. The clientele is often a bunch of affable old guys or sometimes young couples having secretive trysts or groups of hot girls smoking up like fiends. Of course, Iranian girls are usually standoffish on account of severe legal and cultural constraints (or one’s personality), but in one exceptional case a gorgeous 20 year old latched onto my young English travelling companion in the back seat of the bus and soon was fondling him and even gave him a kiss. He was too terrified somebody would report them to enjoy himself. I suppose she fancied emigrating. One lonesome soldier in Khoramabad was also not so circumspect with me. There are many old bath-houses adorned almost like mosques that have often now been converted into restaurants. Food in Iran can be good but tends to sameness – half-metre kebabs with rice, chicken on rice, half a sheep under rice, stews with…yes. Always there is a stack of unleavened bread too, in case of carbohydrate deficiency, and usually yoghourt on the side. Where do they grow all that rice? It’s a desert, practically. One town had falafel for a change but nothing else. The fizzy yoghourt drink called doogh is good. Nomads make the same thing from horse milk in Mongolia but it is alcoholic. A visit to a good restaurant won’t cost more than $10 and you can explore more varied sauces like pomegranate and garlic eggplant, usually served with the same meaty bases. The country parallels its cuisine. There is a lack of cultural breadth for a place of Iran’s size and diversity of people which ranges from (occasionally even blue-eyed) Caucasians, Turkish Azeris, Kurds and nomadic tribes to dark-skinned Arabs, though somehow they could always pin me as a foreigner from 100m. Iran could have good beach resorts but currently they are bad and of course so is the nightlife. Shops stack about fifty kinds of non-alcoholic beer just to tease. You get a bit tired of historical sites like the ruins of Persepolis, second millennium B.C. Elamite ziggurats, the Castle of the Hashishiyun assassins and mosques and gardens just because a break is in order but there is a lack of alternatives. The one time I tried hitching I was picked up by a couple of friendly, demented meth-heads which was novel but anxiety provoking. Perhaps it is better if Iran doesn’t just succumb to western modes, equally homogenized in their way, and usually decadent. On the other hand, if something doesn’t give in Iran, all the under-employed, sober, testosterone-fuelled youths are going to blow their lids, failing a nice war. I am off to Kurdish Turkey tomorrow night for spring equinox New Year festivities and I am not too sad to leave. I don’t want to see another chadoor and I need a drink. I will no doubt be joined by a small exodus of Iranians who feel the same way. That said, Iran is a unique travel experience and I would highly recommend it. I just wouldn’t want to live there.