Monday, April 15, 2013

Photos uploaded

If you're on Facebook, you can find four albums of photos, plus two videos. If you're not on Facebook, you can follow this link:

Better to use Facebook if you can, though. First of all, I wasn't able to upload the videos to Picasa. But more important, I realized the whole point of maintaining my Iranian friends' anonymity would be compromised if I posted photos of them in a place where anyone can look, so I've removed all photos of the people I met from the non-Facebook album.

Saturday, April 13, 2013


It's been a very long day, but at least I managed to get a bit of sleep in airplanes and on airport floors. I made it back to Oxford late afternoon and have managed to unpack, shower, say some hellos, and have a nice dinner. The bus ride from Stansted back to Oxford was rainy rainy but the rain let up to allow me to walk home unmolested. And really, it's nice to be back. I think my soul is coloured in shades of green, brown, and gray, rather than the bright blue and beige that have dominated the past month. And while the sunshine and the dryness made for a very welcome holiday, I know I more properly belong in the damp and the cold. Iran is a spectacularly beautiful country, but the bus ride home reminded me that the English countryside is also very beautiful in its modest way. Mid-sized English towns, on the other hand, are generally hideously ugly, as are a good number of the people who populate them. Fortunately, Oxford is not your average mid-sized English town. Also, I really like English people, even if (or maybe partly because) their characters lack the sunny friendliness of Iranians. As early in my trip as the Tehran airport, I could recognize who were the English people sharing my travel itinerary, not so much because of any physiognomy that distinguishes them from other Europeans, but because of the expressions of anxiety and/or embarrassment that are permanently inscribed on their faces. And let's be honest, being alive is a somewhat awkward predicament to find oneself in, so the English are on to something there.

And my oh my, the women's hair and bums! Even though it's still fairly chilly in England, people look under-dressed. The ideas of Sayyid Qutb, a central figure in the Muslim Brotherhood as well as a seminal influence on al-Qaeda and a theorist of Islamist anti-Semitism (and, it should be noted, neither Iranian nor Shi'ite), were significantly shaped by a two-year spell in the United States in the late 1940's. He was repelled by the materialism, superficiality, and lewdness of American society, and was particularly disgusted by what he perceived as the licentiousness of American women. Without having a jot more sympathy for Qutbism, I have slightly more insight into how Western women might appear to someone who comes from a place where women dress far more conservatively. Although, as I think I've noted before, the requirement to wear the hejab and manto (not only do women have to cover their hair and throats, but they're also required to wear some sort of long jacket that covers their bottoms and, at least in theory, disguises their figure) hardly prevent Iranian women from looking very elegant, they are one more layer from nakedness than Western women. I wouldn't say it's titillating in any erotic sense when, behind closed doors, women in Iran remove the hejab and manto, but these restrictions do make hair more alluring. In Iran, Salome has one veil more than she has over here.

Although really, like with Ethiopia, it's really more strange how not strange it is to return. Despite a month-long immersion in the Islamic Republic, there's not really been any reverse culture shock upon my return.

But let's turn the clock back, since I last posted four days before the end of my time in Iran. The first of those days finally saw me exploring Yazd, a visit I'd deferred with a day-trip out of town and a desert detour while I waited for the rain to let up. Yazd is an ancient city--indeed, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world--and its old centre is pretty much intact. Esfahan and Shiraz are essentially big, bustling, modern Iranian cities with some remarkable monuments scattered about, whereas the centre of Yazd has resisted modernization. Even the people are more conservative: most Yazdi women wear the black full-body covering of the chador (chador is the Farsi word for "tent") rather than the skimpy hejab. As I learned over the course of a day of running around trying to catch all the sights, Yazd is less remarkable for the sights themselves as for the city those sights are situated in. The old city is built of beige mud bricks and stone with high walls hemming in narrow alleys that lead between old estates and through bazaars. A lot of the traditional Yazdi houses still exist, and many of them have been converted into hotels and restaurants, which meant I got to enjoy the leafy open courtyards of two or three traditional homes.

Set in the middle of the desert, Yazd is also remarkable for its adaptations to its environment. The two most notable features of Yazdi engineering are the qanat and the badgir. Qanats are underground irrigation channels that direct water from wells and springs to the gardens and homes of the city. A rather poorly curated Water Museum filled in the picture on qanats somewhat. More visible are the wind towers called badgirs, which punctuate the city skyline. These clever devices catch even the slightest breeze and direct it downward into the building below, serving as an efficient air-conditioning unit for the pre-electrical age (they're also mercifully a lot less noisy than A/C).

Even though, as I said, the city as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts, some of the parts are pretty neat. Yazd is at the heart of Iranian Zoroastrianism, and retains proportionally the largest Zoroastrian population in Iran. Once the dominant religion in Iran, Zoroastrians have been pushed out of Iran since the earliest Arab invasions in the 7th century, and today most Zoroastrians live in India, where they're known as Parsis. But Iran remains an important pilgrimage destination for Zoroastrians, and a main draw for pilgrims is the Ateshkadeh of Yazd, a fire that's been burning continuously since about 470 AD, a fact that's all the more remarkable when you bear in mind that it's had to move several times over the course of the somewhat uneven tolerance of various Muslim rulers of Iran. It's nothing hugely remarkable in itself--basically a large brazier with some burning logs--but knowing its back-story makes it quite a sight. I don't know a whole lot about Zoroastrianism (and I won't bore you with what little I know) but the fire is a symbol of purification.

But by far the highlight of my time in Yazd was a visit to the local zurkhaneh. Literally "house of strength" (just as chaykhaneh is a teahouse), it's basically a gym where men build muscle and fitness through various feats of strength, but with a ritualized element that has strong mystical-spiritual overtones. In other words, it's yoga for meatheads. And like yoga, the zurkhaneh has a very ancient pedigree. The hour-long session was propelled by a guy in a box above the lowered pit where the action took place (judging from his physique, he also got down and dirty with the workouts on a regular basis), who sang hauntingly beautiful songs and hammered out rhythms on a drum, occasionally engaging the exercising men in various forms of call-and-response. The workout involved various push-up like exercises and stretches, as well as a lot of spinning in dizzyingly fast circles (the drumbeat would accelerate to push the men to spin faster) and feats of strength involving massive wooden clubs. One guy juggled these clubs, each of which must have weighed twenty or thirty pounds, throwing them well above his head.

The men of the zurkhaneh ranged in age from early twenties to late middle age, and in physique from flabby-average to Beefcake McHunk. It was interesting to observe the nature of this community. It wouldn't be heretical to describe the devotion to the zurkhaneh as religious: people didn't simply gather here for a workout, they gathered to humbly give themselves to something far larger than them. But unlike religious ritual or yoga, this was a deeply masculine endeavour, possibly the most unequivocally masculine activity I've ever observed. The sort of thing that must populate the sweatiest dreams of Robert Bly and Harvey Mansfield. This was a community where men gathered to enact and exercise their manliness, and found support and edification in the company of other men. And it was all in deadly earnest. For the most part--and I speak from my experience travelling in various countries as much as from my experience in the West--men being men together is generally a jocular affair, as if it's impossible to be a man without making fun of something. But the zurkhaneh is a fully serious devotion (and I think "devotion" is exactly the right word) to manliness as a higher, spiritual ideal.

So that was Yazd. I was joined for part of the day by a Danish guy I met in my traditional-house-cum-hotel's shady courtyard:

"Where are you from?"
"Canada. But I live in England."
"Really? Me too."
"Oh yeah? What city?"

Turns out Pelle's doing a Master's degree in Middle Eastern literature (focusing on Iraqi Jewish writers, so Iran's a holiday rather than research), and I'll probably see him again before long.

The following day was mostly gobbled up by a ten-hour bus ride from Yazd back to Tehran. Speaking of gobbling, long-haul bus rides normally provide some sort of food, but it's usually nasty enough that I've learned to bring my own provisions. I'm particularly glad I did so this time, as the nasty meal was hamburger, which I had to decline. Instead, I got to indulge one of my prime passions for Iranian food. Befitting a country of refined and delicate culture, Iran is a major producer and exporter of a number of luxury foods with delicate, subtle flavours. I think I've already praised the uses Iranians make of aubergine/eggplant (or "egg planet," as a menu in a Kerman restaurant put it), but Iran is also the world's largest producer of caviar (that's right, more than Russia), saffron, honey, and oh my sweet Lord, pistachios. Toward the end of my time in Iran, I became a huge pistachio fiend. When pistachios sit down to write their history, they will commemorate with particular horror the Great Pistachio Holocaust of 2013, which took place on a bus going from Yazd to Tehran. Pistachios, which are not cheap even in Iran, come in two varieties here: au naturel, and lightly salted and flavoured with lemon. I'm not sure which I prefer, but I brought a huge bag of the lemon-flavoured kind home with me, figuring it would be harder to find in Oxford.

Tehran seemed to know I'd be leaving Iran soon and made an extra effort to ensure that I didn't leave without getting a strong impression of Iranian hospitality. From my bus, I went to the metro where my attempt to buy a ticket failed because the ticket guy was so pleased to see me that he came out from behind his glass booth, escorted me to the ticket barrier, and buzzed me through, wishing me a happy stay in Iran. On both of the trains I had to take to my hotel, strangers started up conversations with me, asking me how I liked Iran and how I liked Canada and how they hoped I would have a very happy stay in Iran. Luckily, I have no trouble at all telling all these friendly people that I've had a wonderful time in their country and that I love Iran and its people.

My second-to-last day in Iran included a trip out to the south of the city to visit two sites of central importance to the Islamic Republic. The first was the Behesht-e Zahra, Iran's largest cemetery. There are actually quite a number of Iranian notables buried there, but most interesting to me is that it's the final resting place of about 200,000 casualties of the Iran-Iraq War. Each one has a glass box above the gravestone, containing a picture of the (usually) young man (some of these guys are just kids) along with a few mementos. The scale is hard to describe, although the figure above should give some spur to your imagination. It was deeply moving to pass among these monuments, spending a few minutes each with a dozen or so victims of the war. Even on the train out to Behesht-e Zahra, vendors were hawking flowers, and there were many more flower sellers outside the metro station. A quarter-century after the end of the war, these grave sites still get very regular traffic, and I couldn't help but feel like an ignorant interloper as I passed black-clad women weeping in front of photos of teenage boys or, in one case, a man maybe a decade older than me (and so presumably a veteran of the war) sitting mutely in front of one of the graves with a stupefied look on his face.

And right next to the Behesht-e Zahra--and indeed, an extension of it--is the Holy Shrine of Imam Khomeini. This is where the man himself is buried, and was the site of the largest funeral in human history. I'm not quite sure why, but twenty-four years after that funeral, the mausoleum looks like a construction site, with scaffolding and dug-up concrete everywhere. It's also very, very big. The site itself is not unlike other Shi'a mausolea that I've visited, including the green-lit coffin behind glass covered with heavy diagonal metal bars that mourners can grip as they circulate around it.

And the people here are as friendly as everywhere else in Iran. The soldier patting me down at security seemed more interested in where I was from than in whether I had any deadly weapons on me (don't worry, I didn't), and the guy at the bag check was greatly amused at my presence. Inside, I was approached by Mohsen, whose real name I might as well used because, of all the Iranians I've written about in this blog, he is easily the most unimpeachable character from the regime's perspective. Dressed as a religious student, he was soft-spoken and polite, and wanted to know why I'd chosen to come here. I explained (truthfully) that I want to understand Iran and that Khomeini has had a profound influence on the shape of modern Iran. We got to chatting and I learned that he'd studied aerospace engineering for four years but was now studying religion in Qom--the centre of religious scholarship in Iran, and indeed the city where Khomeini studied and taught--because he wanted to deepen his religious understanding. He spoke haltingly, and his cheek quivered with religious awe as he spoke about the great men one can meet in Qom: a central feature of Shi'a practice is to look to an esteemed authority, or marja, as a model for one's own religious development. He was very keen to invite me to his home that evening but unfortunately I already had plans, so instead we just exchanged e-mail addresses. He expressed the hope that we would meet again, and also took it as a good sign that our first meeting had occurred at such a "high quality place."

That evening I met up with a woman we'll call Mina, who's a friend of a friend in England, and who currently lives in England but has been home in Iran for a month for No Ruz and its aftermath. Mina's an artist, and it's a shame that our schedules failed to coincide until my second-to-last day in Iran as she could have provided a really interesting opening on to the art scene in Tehran. As it stands, I got only a glimpse, but it was great fun meeting her, and I imagine we'll see each other again before long. Unlike so many of the aspiring emigrants I've met in Iran, Mina loves Iran and Tehran and feels so much happier here than she does in England (Shirin, who I met three weeks earlier and saw again the following day, also said her ideal life would involve spending significant time in Iran: those who are able to get out seem able to be happier being in Iran than those who don't have the choice not to be there). Mina finds she's more creative when she's in Tehran and generally finds the Tehran art scene more vibrant and inspiring than what's going on in London. I only got a brief insight into what she meant later in the evening (Iranians seem to stay up late: the parents I've been with don't even put their children down until close to midnight) when we dropped by the home/studio of her friend, call him Morteza. Morteza and Mina are friends from art school in Tehran, and while Morteza had a decent career going as a painter, he got drawn in to animation a couple years ago and now works on animated short films obsessively. We interrupted him and his two colleagues for a couple of hours before they returned to their all-nighter, getting their latest ready for submission to Venice and Cannes. What I saw of his work was truly breathtaking: gunning for Venice and Cannes strikes me as not at all hubristic.

I also ended what I think must be the longest spell I've gone without alcohol since I was nineteen. I had a couple offers of alcohol earlier in my visit, but that was during Lent, when I'd sworn off drink. But Morteza offered me some aragh, a vodka-like spirit that he gets on the black market much the way one might get illegal drugs here. The stuff came in an unlabelled two-litre plastic container, which made it look dodgy indeed. It didn't taste great, but vodka never does, and it didn't taste bad. I imagine it could be a great hit in the West: just a label marked "Iranian liquor" would have to earn some decent sales figures.

I hadn't had a drink since 12 February, so I was a cheap drunk, but I was also pleased to find I didn't feel the least bit hung over the next day, even though I'd also not had a lot of sleep. I met Shirin fairly early, who kindly drove me out to the north of the city for a bit of a stroll even though she had various family commitments the rest of the day. We went up to Bam-e Tehran, in the foothills of the Alborz Mountains, which gave a panoramic overview of the city, which sprawled all the way to the horizon.

Because of family commitments, Shirin wasn't able to join me for my last outing in Iran, although she was a great help in making it possible. When I was in Tehran three weeks earlier, I noticed that the Iranshahr Theatre in the lovely Artists' Park was putting on a production of The Cherry Orchard after No Ruz. I love theatre in general, and I get a kick out of seeing how it's done in various places I visit. And so I added Tehran to a list of cities where I've gone to the theatre even though I don't speak the local language, a list that includes Calcutta, Bangkok, Prague, Kyoto, and an ancient Greek amphitheatre in Northern Cyprus. Shirin worked out dates, times, and ticket availability for me, and my only regret (besides the fact that she couldn't then join me) is that the production clashed with the football match I was also hoping to see. Often Friday football matches in the 100,000-seat Azadi Stadium take place in the afternoon, but this Friday's was in the evening, and much as Iranian football madness appeals, Chekhov in Farsi appealed even more.

The most interesting discovery was that Iran is in many ways more suited to Chekhov than Britain or North America. I've generally been disappointed by both productions and translations of Chekhov that I've seen in the English-speaking world because they don't seem able to capture his Russianness. The English tend to turn his plays into late Victorian costume dramas where the characters just happen to have funny names, and the Americans, well, I'm not quite sure what the Americans think they're doing. A few years ago I saw a production of The Cherry Orchard at the Old Vic in London as part of The Bridge Project, a collaboration between Kevin Spacey and Sam Mendes that brings together actors from both sides of the Atlantic. I was fortunate to attend a pre-show talk, and, not having seen the show yet, asked Rebecca Hall (who was playing Anya) what work they'd done to come to grips with the Russianness of the play. She dismissed the question, saying that she thought Chekhov's work was universal, and that they were interested in bringing out the universal themes of the play rather than anything specifically Russian. I agreed, but noted that Tennessee Williams's work is also universal, and that a Russian theatre troupe doing a production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof without having any understanding of the American South would have a hard time of it. She didn't know what to say to that.

So setting that self-aggrandizing aside aside, I was interested to find that Russianness comes much more naturally to Iranians, to the point that they didn't really need to simulate Russianness at all, but could just be Iranians. In particular, and distinct from Anglophone cultures, Russians and Iranians are both very demonstrative, almost sometimes histrionic, while also being very formal. For Anglophones, being formal and being emotionally demonstrative are often perceived as opposites, but the characters of The Cherry Orchard are both at the same time. Seeing that combination realized on the Tehran stage also helped me see something about Chekhov that I hadn't fully appreciated before.

The production wasn't flawless. In particular, it generally lacked the bustle and urgency that's simmering behind the seeming banality on the surface. In all but the second act of The Cherry Orchard, people are buzzing about busily just offstage, but I never felt that buzz in this production. Also--and I don't know enough about Iranian theatre to understand the reasoning behind this decision--the play was cut ferociously: the character of Sharlotta Ivanovna was cut out of the play altogether, and we got through four acts of Chekhov in about one hundred minutes. On the other hand, the design was simple and elegant with ingenious use made of an upstage cupboard, and it's always a great pleasure to watch actors who know exactly what their bodies are doing. There was such fine physical control in these performances that every twitch of a finger communicated something clearly.

Also amusing was the fact that the stage was flanked by large portraits of Khomeini and Khamenei on either side of the proscenium arch. I expect that's the only time in my life when Khomeini and Lopakhin will simultaneously occupy my field of vision.

And after the show, I had a bite to eat and then headed out to the airport for my 4:30am flight, figuring I could try to get a bit of sleep at the airport. I managed to survive a whole month on Iranian roads, although my cab driver out to the airport did his best to kill me. Considering how he was driving, I'm still not quite sure how he failed.

And so here we are at the end. I've had a wonderful time, learned a lot, and met a lot of really lovely people, many of whom I hope and expect to remain in contact with for years to come. I've also found myself thinking through a number of comparisons during my time in Iran, of which I'll share three.

Iran is like Ethiopia. Both are stunningly beautiful countries, set high on mountain plateaus, with deserts and forests to please the eye (although, with apologies to Iran, Ethiopia definitely wins on the stunning natural beauty front). Both support my theory that people who live at higher altitudes tend to be very good-looking (granted that the Andes and Papua New Guinea are exceptions, but besides Iran and Ethiopia, think of the Caucasus, Afghanistan, or the Himalayas). And both sit at the edges of the world that was known to pre-modern Europe, and have a history that occasionally intersects European history and occasionally runs its own course, making their ancient sites particularly intriguing to visit.

Iran is like China. Both are ancient and proud civilizations with strong traditions of education and poetry that have repeatedly been conquered by outside invaders (both have had Mongol visitors) only to absorb those invaders, who learn to adopt the superior and refined culture of the conquered people. And if the ayatollahs have any sense, they might also learn from the Chinese how an autocratic government can strengthen its own position by opening the country in ways that make life easier for its people.

Iran is like the United States. Both are car cultures in which people treat cheap oil as their birthright. Both seem also to be deeply divided societies, where an educated, liberal middle class finds itself at odds with a less educated and more religiously devout class that's drawn to populist politics. (On the topic of religion, an interesting study reveals that about 45% of Americans claim to attend some sort of religious service once a week or more, a figure that compares with many Arab countries, whereas the figure for Iran is 27%. My guess is that this lower figure for Iranians comes because of, rather than in spite of, the Islamic government: in Iran, religion is closely allied to the state, and if you're not a fan of the state, you're likely to feel less enthusiasm for the state-mandated religion as well.) The people of both countries also have well-earned reputations for friendliness and warmth.

But above all, Iran is like Iran and like nowhere else on Earth, and that's precisely the reason I wanted to visit. Comparisons can be interesting, but they also risk diminishing the uniqueness of a place. And I barely scratched the surface of this place. A month was nothing like enough: I didn't see the north, I didn't see the Kurdish and Lorish regions in the west, I didn't visit the Persian Gulf or the Caspian Sea, nor did I visit Mashhad and Khorasan in the northeast. I guess I'll just have to come back sometime.

I'll try to put up photos on facebook tomorrow, and set up a Picasa gallery for those who aren't of the facebook persuasion, and I'll post a link on this site once it's done. But now I really really must sleep.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Deserts and Rain

Iran sits at the convergence of the Arabian, Indian, and Eurasian
continental plates, and as a result it experiences frequent
earthquakes (the historic city of Bam, along with its Unesco World
Heritage-listed citadel, was flattened ten years ago, with over
30,000 dead), hosts two massive mountain ranges, and, in the rain
shadow of these mountain ranges, has two vast deserts, the  Dasht-e
Kavir in the centre-north of the country and the Dasht-e Lut in the
southeast. This week was supposed to be my week of deserts, and I
visited both. And so naturally this week was also the only time
during my visit to Iran that I experienced any significant rainfall
(there was some drizzle and snow flurries in the Alamut Valley but
that was both light and brief). Jalal, my guide in Kerman, told me
that Kerman averages seven days of rain in a year (I remarked that
Oxford averages that many days of rain in a week). Over the course
of my day with Jalal, I found that he was a bit prone to
exaggeration, but I was certainly in some arid country this week,
and it was surreal indeed to see rain tipping down on brown,
featureless landscapes. I suppose all but the driest deserts get a
bit of rain from time to time and I should count myself all the
luckier that I got to experience this meteorological anomaly.
Besides which, people in this part of the world need rain more than
I need sunshine, and there are more of them than there are of me
(since when was I a utilitarian?), so I really can't complain.

The main purpose for my visit to Kerman, in the southeast of Iran,
was to take a trip out to the Kaluts, a stretch of the Dasht-e Lut
desert with famously beautiful towers of sandy rock. It was also my
most expensive day in Iran because tourists are required to take a
guide with them to the Kaluts, and since I was unable to find anyone
to share the costs with, I paid for Jalal's services on my own. He
spoke decent English, but had also lived ten years in Germany and
was near-fluent in German, so we agreed the tour would go better in
German (my German's better than his English), besides which it was
good practice for my German.

Spending a day with a guide is always a chancy proposition: it's not
just the quality of the guiding that matters in a one-on-one
situation, but also how well your personalities match. It started
inauspiciously enough, with Jalal expressing interest in the fact
that I teach philosophy, and explaining that he has an interest in
philosophy as well, not the kind of philosophy you find in books,
but his own philosophy. My mother is an autobiography scholar, and
has remarked on how that seems to license people to tell her their
life story. Similarly, it seems my ten years of philosophical
training qualified me to hear Jalal tell me his view of life, the
universe, and everything, but certainly didn't qualify me to have
any views of my own, which were generally dismissed about half a
sentence in. It was a lot of stuff about how you don't know if
you'll be alive tomorrow so don't take anything for granted, a line
of thought that would have been less unnerving if it weren't being
preached to me by a guy zipping about on Iranian roads--we passed
two roadside accidents that morning. More interesting was the
stories of the near-death experience that had brought about this
revelation in Jalal, but because it was this experience rather than
anything you can read in books that had given him his philosophy,
none of my book-learning amounted to a hill of beans. It took a fair
amount of work to get him to see that, if I couldn't learn anything
of any genuine value by attending to what the people who wrote books
had to say, I couldn't learn anything of any genuine value by
attending to what he had to say either.

But fortunately the philosophy seminar had ended by the time we
reached that Kaluts, and for the most part, Jalal was a pretty good
guy and not a bad companion for the day. As we crossed over some
mountains, the landscape got emptier and emptier (there was no rain
in the Kaluts when I visited and there probably hadn't been in
years), and eventually the car pulled off the road in one of the
hottest deserts on earth. The weather wasn't too bad on the day I
visited, but deeper into the Kaluts there's a spot that's recorded
the hottest ever land surface temperature at 70 degrees Celsius (or
104 degrees if you believe Jalal--that's degrees Celsius, mind--an
exaggeration that makes my blood boil).

Despite what I've said about Jalal, it's to his great credit that he
recognized that what I most wanted to do was to find a spot where I
could be alone and quiet and I didn't even need to say anything to
him to have him allow me to do that, and find a perch of his own a
few hundred metres away. The Kaluts consists of grey pebbly sand
punctuated with massive reddish-brown icebergs of rock jutting
heavenward. As I looked out toward the horizon, these rock towers
became smaller and smaller and fewer and fewer until there was just
a vast, grey emptiness. I felt like I was standing at the edge of
the world. And even though (or rather because) this landscape was so
emphatically inhospitable to life of any kind, I felt a magnetic
attraction: it took some will power not to just start walking out
toward the horizon. I thought of the opening chapter of Moby-Dick,
in which the narrator talks about the powerful attraction of the
sea. I thought of Pascal's line about our smallness in the vastness
of space and time: "The eternal silence of these infinite spaces
frightens me." I thought about how prophets and saints had taken
refuge in the desert, and I thought about how a bit more time out
here could silence thought. Sadly, as the wind picked up, we needed
to head back to the car and back to Kerman (sandstorms are very
dangerous things to be caught in), but my hour staring out in the
nothing of the Kaluts was one of the most entrancing of my time in

The following morning, I took in what sights Kerman itself had to
offer under sporadic showers. My first stop was the Museum of the
Holy Defence, commemorating the Iran-Iraq war. A series of exhibits
started with documents dating back a century showing treaties that
settled the border between Iran and Iraq before providing photos,
documents (mostly illegible to me, of course, although some of the
treaties were in French), and materiel from the war. The placards
were obviously propagandistic--apparently there was a lot of
manliness and self-denial on the part of Iran's soldiers and
citizenry--but there's no denying that this war was crushingly
awful, and not of Iran's choosing. One irony of the war is that
Saddam Hussein was trying to take advantage of Iran's internal chaos
after the revolution, but one consequence of the invasion is that it
helped solidify the revolution and consolidate Khomeini's position.
Nothing like an external enemy to get a people to rally together.

Next stop was Kerman's old and sprawling bazaar, which also featured
a charming old bathhouse (now a museum with waxwork bathers) and a
small but exquisite mosque.

And by early afternoon I was on a bus to Yazd, again, driving
through semi-desert landscapes in pouring rain. As we approached
Yazd I had my first encounter with the kind of Iranian officialdom
that people imagine when they imagine Iran as a dangerous place to
visit. At a military checkpoint I was questioned by a soldier in a
surgical mask who then hauled me off the bus, searched my luggage
and looked through my camera's photos (on the bright side he helped
me discover there's a function on my camera that allows me to look
at past photos without popping open the lens), and interrogated me a
bit more about my profession, purpose in visiting Iran, etc.

There are military checkpoints all over Iran, but most of them are
very tame affairs. One consequence of having a military draft is
that most of the soldiers I see here are lanky nineteen-year-olds
trying their best to have a good time during an annoying
interruption to their lives. At the road check returning to Shiraz
from my Sizdah Be Dar outing with Alireza a few days earlier, the
young soldiers were simply high-fiving the motorists as they passed
through. But the guy at this roach check had the musculature and
grim efficiency of a career soldier. There's good reason that road
checks coming up from the southeast are different. About 85% of the
opiates that enter Europe pass through the deserts of eastern Iran
from Afghanistan and Pakistan before making their way northwest
toward Turkey and the Caucasus. Apparently there are even "homing
camels" with drugs surgically implanted in their humps who are then
set loose in the desert to find their way back to their druglord
owners on the Iranian side of the border. Why, on a bus full of
Iranians, the white guy should come under the most suspicion is
another question, and I think my interrogation had very little to do
with drugs. But it was all over in about twenty minutes and no harm
done, except for my fellow passengers, and the driver who seemed
irritated that we were now behind schedule. Geez, sorry.

Yazd is an ancient desert city that's apparently great to walk
around (the very thing I intend to do once I've sent off this blog),
but when I awoke the following morning (I arrived from Kerman at
night) it was tipping down with rain. Not very auspicious for a
walking tour. Fortunately I got adopted by a pair of Polish guys
who'd arranged a tour to some of the sights outside of town and were
looking for other tourists to share the cost. It seemed like a good
day to spend in a car, so I said why not. We took in some fairly
interesting sights in the 1800-year-old mud brick town of Meybod
before heading on toward the Zoroastrian pilgrimage site of Chak
Chak. But we never made it to Chak Chak. Part of the way along the
road we came across another car that was trapped in a river that had
started gushing across the road under the heavy rain. I suppose
deserts also don't have the orderly drainage systems of places that
experience more rain. And indeed, seeing the desert rain was really
more of a highlight than Chak Chak would have been. Dozens of
waterfalls cascaded off a nearby mountain. The cracked brown earth
was slowly turning to mud. And the road was blocked by a river. So
we turned back and went to Kharanaq. This village is also over 1000
years old and now a ghost town. It was hugely fun running around the
old alleyways and into crumbling mud-brick buildings, with the only
downside being that the mud had made it very slippery and limited
exploration options. But I can well imagine that Kharanaq could host
a future Hide-and-Go-Seek World Cup (speaking of which, look up on
YouTube--I can't give a link right now because YouTube is blocked--
the Monty Python sketch about the Hide-and-Go-Seek finals at the
Olympics: it's one of my favourites).

I'd planned to go out to the oasis village of Garmeh the next day,
but I decided to go out that same evening since it might be better
to wait for the weather to clear in Yazd. Garmeh's out in the middle
of the Dasht-e Kavir, but even so, we drove out there under heavy
rain, and the desert itself had experienced rain all that day. But
fortunately by morning the rain had stopped and the desert had gone
back to behaving like a desert.

I stayed at Ateshooni, a desert guesthouse run by Maziar (whose real
name I might as well use since he's readily identifiable), a huge
bear of a man with a bushy grey beard and ponytail, a booming deep
voice, and baggy clothes, all of which made him out to be the model
of an ageing hippie. I shared the guesthouse with a French couple
and a group of four--three Iranians and the Italian husband of one
of the Iranians--and spent the day seeing bits of desert with them.
In the morning we went out to a salt lake--not actually a lake, but
a white expanse of salt at the bed of what had presumably once been
a lake. Because the deserts of my Canadian imagination are as often
polar as tropical, it was easy to imagine this white expanse as the
ice pack on the Arctic Ocean, the more so because the previous day's
rain had left the salt quite moist. Naturally, I had to get a photo
of myself pretending to take a slap shot.

In the afternoon, we drove out to the sand dunes around Mesr and
Farahzad, which looked right out of a Hollywood movie. I got to take
a bumpy fifteen minute camel ride and then sat with my companions
atop a sand dune above the village of Farahzad and watched the sun
set. The only thing that would have made it more pleasant is if the
mosquitoes from the irrigated fields below didn't make their evening
commute up to the sand dunes and start attacking me just as the sun
was setting.

But fortunately there was a refuge. Felix and Pauline, the French
couple, were staying the night in Farahzad, and before the rest of
us left, Maziar put on a performance for us inside the mosquito-free
guesthouse. Maziar doesn't just look the part of the ageing hippie,
he also has the musicianship to go along with it, with drums and
digeridoo no less. But most entrancing for me was a performance he
put on with a pair of clay jugs, flicking, tapping, banging, and
cupping his hand over their apertures to make an impressive variety
of gently muted, hollow sounds. He played it all in a mesmerizing
rhythm that was startlingly musical and unlike anything I'd heard

The Iranian/Italian foursome were driving back to Yazd that night
and offered me a lift, which was gratefully received. We also took a
fifteen-minute break in the middle of the desert night to gaze up at
the stars surrounded by total blackness. They were an interesting
bunch. The three Iranians had all studied film in Tehran, and one of
them had gone on to further film study in Bologna, where she'd met
her husband. For those of you who don't already know this, Iran is
famous for its critically-acclaimed films. Asghar Faradi's A
Separation recently won a much-deserved Oscar, and figures such as
Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf have won all sorts of
international prizes (the Palme d'Or in Cannes in the case of
Kiarostami). This lot certainly seemed like serious filmmakers (one
had been working as a cinematographer on a new film by Oscar nominee
Majid Majidi), and Felix was also a documentary filmmaker, so I felt
like a bit of a wimp clicking away all day with my hand-held camera
while they all took professional care in lining up their fuck-off
big cameras to get the best shots possible.

Also interesting is that both of the women were called Azadeh, which
means "liberty." They were both born in 1979, and apparently a lot
of children born in the years following the revolution were given
this name (Azad for boys), so that you can generally guess the age
of an Azadeh or Azad within a couple of years. Needless to say,
their parents' early enthusiasm for the overthrow of the shah didn't
translate into any love of Ahmadinejad or Khamenei among this crowd.

Speaking of which, I mentioned earlier that there are images of
Khomeini all over Iran. Khamenei is just as omnipresent--either
photographed with Khomeini, or twin portraits on the walls of
eateries or bus stations or wherever else. But whereas Khomeini has
the grim appearance befitting a man willing to be ruthless in
implementing his vision for Iran, Khamenei generally has the shit-
eating grin of a man who can't believe his luck that he's been
elevated to the position of Supreme Leader. And well he should: up
until a year before Khomeini's death, the likely successor seemed to
be Hussein-Ali Montazeri. That he fell out with Khomeini is one of
the great tragedies of modern Iran, as Montazeri was a moderate who
would have likely led Iran in a much different, and healthier,
direction than the one it's taken. Khamenei, by contrast, was
rapidly promoted up the ranks of the ulema (the Muslim clergy) so
that he could be appointed Supreme Leader on Khomeini's death, and
his relatively unimpressive status as a scholar of Islam only
reinforced the politicization of an office that was supposed to be
above the political fray. As for Montazeri, he spent most of the
rest of his life under house arrest, and died in 2009 (of old age)
after providing spiritual and moral support for the Green Movement
that rose up after the (almost certainly) rigged elections that year.

Final side note: when one of the Azadehs said the 2009 elections
were rigged (I didn't start this conversation: I'm taking care not
to broach the subject of politics unless someone else broaches it
first), the other two Iranians disputed this, saying that just
because they and their middle-class Tehrani friends all hated
Ahmadinejad didn't mean that he didn't have huge support from the
poor and rural voters. It's certainly true that Ahmadinejad's
populist appeal resonates more with the kind of people who lack the
education to express it to me in English, but from what I've read,
the 2009 election results were suspicious for a number of reasons.
For instance, there was a surprising uniformity in the tallies
across regions of Iran, without even expected spikes in support for
particular candidates in their home districts. And the results were
also announced suspiciously quickly and ratified by Khamenei with
even more suspicious rapidity. We'll probably never know the whole
truth of what happened in 2009. But it does seem that many of the
Iranians who supported Moussavi or other reform candidates in 2009
aren't even going to bother to vote this June, since they're now
convinced that their votes won't count.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Sharing Shiraz

In an earlier post, I noted that Esfahan is known as "half the world." It seems the other half descends on Shiraz for the No Ruz holiday. This is the time that Iranians all go on holiday and Shiraz and Esfahan are the two top destinations of choice (one reason I dashed down to Esfahan as soon as I arrived in Iran, in order to beat the No Ruz rush). It would have been difficult to avoid both Shiraz and Esfahan for the whole of No Ruz, so I bit the bullet and spent the tail end of the holiday here.

Shiraz and Shirazis have the reputation in Iran that Italy and Italians have in Europe: a beautiful, cultured place with a laid-back lifestyle and a population with a deep love for the finer things in life (and so I thank my lucky stars I live with two Italians in Oxford). I'll confess I didn't develop a deep love of Shiraz during my time here, but see the previous paragraph: half the people in the city weren't Shirazis, and every noteworthy site was sardine-packed with Iranian tourists. Still, I can see why the place has its appeal: it's greener than most Iranian cities, and notable for its gardens. The Persian garden has such a distinguished tradition that thirteen of them--including the Bagh-e Eram in Shiraz--are jointly designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, although, to be honest, I think the rest of the world has caught up: the Bagh-e Eram was indeed lovely, but besides its distinguished history, I wouldn't necessarily rank it above the VanDusen Gardens in Vancouver (although not necessarily below either).

I decided I'd done enough couchsurfing for one trip and stayed in a really lovely boutique hotel in the old part of Shiraz, but still met up with a few people through couchsurfing: before realizing I needed a bed of my own, I'd sent out an open request on couchsurfing and was invited to meet more people than I had time for. My first was also my favourite. We'll call him Alireza (judging from the calls of impatient mothers, half the boys in Iran are called Alireza; the other half are called Mohsen). He's an artist and also teaches art and art history at the university in Shiraz. He designs jewellery and also does various kinds of painting, sculpture, and mixed media work. And I was genuinely impressed (as opposed to just politely curious) when I visited his studio. The most exciting project, to my mind, is one that's still in progress and I'm sworn to secrecy. But I also bought a couple pairs of earrings (Simona, I don't know if you're reading this, but consider your request for Iranian earrings met) which he sculpts out of brass and shapes to form calligraphic words from Iranian poems.

Homosexuality is so illegal in Iran that it's punishable by death. I wouldn't want to invite anyone to incriminate himself, besides which cultural differences can make the gaydar a little wonky, but by any normal standard--from the effeminate gait to the flamboyant dress sense--Alireza is as gay as No Ruz. This is just one way in which he differs from most other people I've met in Iran. He's also the only Iranian I've conversed with about Kafka and Chekhov, Manet and Foucault. He also has a puckish wit, and is generally fabulous. But I'll talk more about him in a bit. I'll try to remain chronological here.

My first full day in Shiraz (I first met Alireza the evening after I'd arrived on the night bus from Ahvaz) I met up with another couchsurfer, who we'll call Danial. He'd offered to put me up and I'm glad I was feeling couch-weary enough that I opted for the hotel instead. I spent a good deal of my day with him trying to figure out why he irritated me so much. He was friendly and well-mannered enough, and granted he wasn't the most interesting human being in the world and there was a bit of a language barrier, but I found myself unreasonably annoyed with him. The biggest fault was that he kept touching me. Again, nothing creepy or aggressive, but it was maybe precisely the vagueness of it that annoyed me. It was as if he couldn't talk to me without gently brushing his hand against my arm in a way that almost made me wish he'd just get a firmer grip on me. Iranians in general have a closer conception of personal space (at least the men--in general it's not okay to even touch women here) but Danial was the first person to whom I felt compelled to explain--twice--as politely as I could the cultural differences about personal space in our respective countries. And not even because he was necessarily more invasive of that personal space, but because there was something mysteriously irritating about the way he did it. He also had this weird vacant stare. It was as if he was possessed by an absent-minded alien.

And all of this is very nasty of me because, like I said, he didn't actually do anything wrong, and indeed worked very hard to show me a good time. We spent the morning seeing a couple of the major sights in Shiraz, most notably the Karim Khan Citadel, an imposing fortress that stands smack in the middle of Shiraz. Despite being an ancient and important city in Iran's history, Shiraz was only briefly the capital, during the short-lived 18th century Zand dynasty, and its founder Karim Khan did a lot to build or rebuild bits of the city.

But luck struck around midday when a friend of Danial's called to ask him if he wanted to go to Pasargadae, the ancient capital of Cyrus II, and a two-hour drive out of Shiraz. I was planning to see it on a full-day tour that included Persepolis, but this offer saved me both time and money, and had the added karmic benefit that, as the day wore on, Danial became less irritating to me. It probably helped that he had two friends with him, so that I wasn't the focal point of his fuzzy attention.

Western history and historiography begins with Herodotus' Histories, which deal with the rise to dominance of the Persian Empire, and the Persians' wars with the Greeks. And between Pasargadae and later Persepolis, I've seen the heart of the largest empire the world had known at that time. The Achaemenid Dynasty rose from a local power to a global empire with the conquests of Cyrus in the middle of the sixth century BC. His great successor, Darius, moved the capital to Persepolis, and what with the plunders of Alexander the Great, there isn't a whole lot left of Pasargadae, but the austerity of the place is moving in itself. It's set in the middle of a broad wind-swept plain, and the lack of other large buildings adds to the feeling of desolation around Cyrus's imposing tomb. It was still No Ruz when I visited, so the hordes of tourists diminished the feeling of desolation somewhat, but the plain is vast enough that I could still feel the loneliness of the dead king.

The following day (we're at Monday now) was fairly low-key but involved visits to two major shrines. In the morning I dropped by the Aramgah-e Shah-e Cheragh, which houses the mausoleum of Sayyed Mir Ahmad, one of the brothers of Imam Reza (the 8th imam of Shi'a Islam, and the only one buried in Iran), who was killed here in 835 AD. The history of Shi'a Islam is marked by martyrdom: its founders and leaders rejected the compromises with politics and power made by the Sunni caliphs, and the caliphs tended to respond by bringing the heavy hands of politics and power down on the Shi'a founders and leaders. Despite the obsession with martyrdom in Shi'a Islam, it's worth noting that, with the glaring exception of Hezbollah's 1983 attack on the US Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983, almost all suicide attacks by Islamist terrorists have been carried out by Sunni Muslims, and not Shi'ites. But that said, martyrdom is a big deal in Shi'a Islam, as it the perpetual sense of victimhood. A deep strain of grief and aggrievedness runs through Shi'a Islam, and they continue to wait for the return of the 12th Imam who will restore a long-lost justice to the world.

All by way of introduction to my first visit to a Shi'a shrine. The Shah-e Cheragh is massive, with a huge open courtyard lined with fountains and trees and covered in carpets where the faithful can relax in the shade. (One of the things I've noticed about Muslims is that they seem to be far more relaxed about their places of worship. Mosques are richly carpeted but there are no chairs or pews, so people tend to sit or kneel on the ground. And while people obviously do a lot of praying in mosques, mosques seem also to double as community gathering places--far more than churches do--so that it's perfectly normal for a group of men (probably true of the women as well, but they're normally on the far side of a curtain from me) just to lounge about on the floor and gossip while others pray around them.) While the courtyard and domes were tiled with the characteristic blue-and-turquoise that make Iranian mosques so easy on the eyes (it only occurred to me here that our word "turquoise" is derived from "Turkey," a point which the Iranians resent, since Iran is a more important source of turquoise than Turkey), the present mausoleum was built during the 19th century Qajar dynasty, when people had an unfortunate obsession with mirrors and glitter. Walking into the shrine was like opening a door into a massive disco ball, and the Qajar era was in general about on an aesthetic plane with the disco era.

In the middle of the mausoleum sits the tomb itself, behind a cage and under green light, and the faithful crowd around to touch it, press their heads against it, pray against it, take photos of themselves and their children in front of it. Unfortunately, their reverence for Sayyad Mir Ahmad doesn't extend to reverence for their fellow human beings, and I often felt like an inconvenient pylon that had to be casually thrust aside so that others could get to where they were going quicker. But despite the frantic busyness of the place, there was a sense of deep reverence. While there was pushing and shoving and clicking cameras five metres from the tomb, at the tomb itself people seemed to connect with something that will have to remain mostly a mystery to secular souls like myself. And the grief at Sayyad Mir Ahmad's martyrdom was also apparent. In particular, I saw a woman sobbing loudly outside the mausoleum.

Perhaps even more sacred to Iranians, I visited the tomb of Hafez in the afternoon. Hafez, who lived in the 14th century, is generally regarded as the greatest of Iranian poets, and has a place in Iranian literature something akin to Shakespeare's in English. There's an Iranian saying that every house must have a Qur'an and a copy of Hafez's poetry, and in many Iranian homes I think the order of priority is the reverse of what I listed here. I've been trying to read some of Hafez in translation, with limited success. It seems pretty, and there's lots of nice stuff involving nightingales and roses and wine and the love of life and the sorrow of death, but I don't think he translates well. My friend Eddie told me a nice line, which I think comes from a Chinese monk struggling with translations of the Buddhist suttas: reading literature in translation is like swallowing the rice another man has chewed for you. I think there's a lot of variation in who translates well. I've been charmed and astonished by some of the translations of Rumi in the same collection, although Rumi has the further advantage of having come into vogue more recently in the West, which makes the translations more recent and more accessible. The Hafez translations are as much as two hundred years old and there's a little too much thou-ing and loveth-ing. But thinking of Hafez's nightingales, it occurred to me that I'd probably have a similarly hard time reading Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale" in translation: I'd see that there were some nice thoughts in there, but that poem only sings because of the way its very precise word choices fit into its very subtle meter, and I don't think you can translate that. By contrast, I imagine I could get most of the power of Shelley's "Ozymandias" in a translation.

So anyway, Hafez's tomb is set in a graceful garden befitting of the man. Again, No Ruz made it a bit of a madhouse, but that was part of the interest, in a way. Like the Shah-e Cheragh, I saw people crowding around Hafez's tomb so that they could lay a hand on it, and I even saw a man sitting by the tomb and weeping openly. It made me wish I had better translations, or better Farsi.

I'd agreed to meet a third couchsurfer at the shrine of Hafez, call her Negar. She'd written to say she couldn't host me but was keen to meet and talk with a real philosopher. She was generally nervous and embarrassed, but despite her limited English seemed keen to get right into philosophy. She'd heard that some people wanted to argue that God didn't exist: what made them think that? Okay, starting with the light questions, then. So I ran through a bit of Dawkins and a bit of Hume, suggesting that the Argument from Evil struck me as a lot more compelling than the New Atheism. But how can people go on living if they don't believe in God, she asked. I tried out a bit of Camus on that one, with his line about how there's only one genuine philosophical problem and that is suicide. Because, she said, if she didn't believe in God, she thought she'd want to kill herself. Nervous laughter. Actually, she had tried to kill herself ten years ago, with pills, but it didn't work. Nervous laughter. In an instant, my philosophical training got replaced by my Toronto Distress Centre training and Dawkins and Hume got replaced by Eckhart Tolle and the Buddha (who remained nameless for fear of turning someone off by preaching an alien religion). By the end of the conversation I felt I'd given her a few things to think about, but I also came away thinking that my philosophical training really doesn't prepare me for the sorts of questions that most ordinary people think of as most philosophically pressing.

And yesterday (Tuesday) was Sizdah Be Dar, which marks the end of the No Ruz holiday. The tradition is for everyone to get out of town and into nature (did I mention already how much I love the No Ruz traditions?), and I managed to secure an invitation to join Alireza and a couple of his friends on a jaunt out of town to the area around Firuz Abad, notable for some Sassanid ruins. Because the rest of Shiraz had the same get-out-of-town plans as us, Alireza insisted (probably rightly) that we needed a very early start, so at 5:30am, I was picked up in a creaky old car that was held together by chewing gum and a prayer. (As it happened, we nearly didn't make it back into town. Toward the end of the day, we had problems with the fan belt (identifying the part of the car that had a problem is the extent of my knowledge of auto mechanics), but Iranian kindness to strangers doesn't just extend to foreigners. Within a couple minutes, two separate vehicles had pulled over to the side of the road and a couple Samaritans were busily on their backs fiddling around underneath the car and grubbying their hands tinkering under the hood.)

The day trip took in a couple Sassanid monuments, the most impressive being Ardashir's Palace, an 1800-year-old castle that reminded me of nothing quite so much as the ruined castles I used to run around in England and Wales, albeit with more arches and fewer spiral staircases. But my eight-year-old self took great pleasure running about this citadel of one of Rome's great foes. The Sassanids were early innovators in dome architecture, and indeed, the domes of mosques owe a great deal to Sassanid influence. Unfortunately, the invading Arabs of the 7th century were also dead set on eradicating all pre-Islamic seats of power and religion, so that the ruin of Ardashir's Palace is about the only half-decent instance of Sassanid architecture left.

But sightseeing was only a small part of Sizdah Be Dar. The main event was the picnic and barbeque. Being a vegetarian limits the pleasures of a barbeque somewhat, but Alireza was very accommodating in making sure there was enough of the right food for me and including me in the fun. We found a patch of dirt a bit off the road (Iranians seem to love roadside picnics, and you even see people rolling out picnic blankets on the green median on dual carriageways), rolled out the picnic blankets, started a fire (here I was a bit more helpful: judging from his firemaking skills, Alireza didn't grow up in the Pacific Northwest), heaped some coals over it, and soon bits of marinated chicken were sizzling away on skewers. And after eating our fill, we all lay back on our picnic blankets and napped in the shade. If that's not the way to see out a two-week holiday, I don't know what is.

It was also a very jolly gathering, and even though Alireza was the only one of the three with any English, the other two were also keen to include me and were hugely encouraging of any limited Farsi I could contribute to the proceedings. Iranians have a lot of jokes about people from different regions, each with its own stereotypes, but no one comes in for more good-natured ribbing than the Qazvinis, who--so the stereotype goes--are all gay. Lots of oh-so-funny jokes about how it's unsafe to bend over to pick up something you drop on the sidewalk in Qazvin. But it was particularly weird hearing the same Qazvin jokes I've heard all over Iran from a bunch of guys at least two of whom were rather flamboyant cheerleaders for Team Qazvin.

And today was Persepolis. Given the tourist hordes everywhere in Shiraz, I thought it would be wise to hold off seeing Iran's premier tourist attraction until after the holiday was over. Persepolis was the capital of Darius the Great, probably the greatest of Persia's emperors, although most famous in the West for losing to a plucky Greek force at Marathon, thereby ending Persia's bid for dominance over the Greeks. But judging from the bas reliefs at Persepolis, the Greeks were pretty much the only people in the ancient world not paying tribute to Darius and his descendants. One of the most famous monuments in Persepolis is the Apadana Staircase, which represents in bas relief delegations from 23 different nations coming to pay tribute to the Persian emperor, from places as far-flung as Ethiopia (and to think, last year I was in Aksum, the capital from which those ambassadors likely departed!).

To be honest, the sculptures in Persepolis aren't as impressive as the Parthenon Marbles: the figures in these friezes are stiff compared to the flowing vitality of Greek sculpture. But the sheer size of Persepolis is breathtaking. Even in its ruined state (compliments of Alexander the Great) you get a sense of a gargantuan palace complex that was designed--and very successfully so--to awe all visitors with the impression that they had reached the heart of the greatest empire on Earth.

The visit to Persepolis was complemented by a brief visit to nearby Naqsh-e Rostam, where four Persian emperors, including Darius, are buried. Their mausolea are halfway up a cliff, and it's still a mystery to me how the coffins were carried up there and then sealed behind stone slabs (later busted up and pillaged by Alexander, bane to Persia), and my not-worth-the-money guide had no real clue either. (I wish guides could admit when they don't know the answer to something rather than throw a lot of unhelpful bullshit my way). But halfway up that cliff, with columns and friezes to announce the grandeur of the kings that are buried there, you really do get a powerful sense of desolation and the deaths of kings.

And finally we reach the present. This afternoon was fairly low-key, although it included a late afternoon visit to the exquisite Nasir-al-Molk mosque, made all the more exquisite by the fact that the No Ruz hordes have now moved on, and I had it mostly to myself in the gentle light of the late afternoon.

Wandering home reminded me how much I like street life in Iranian cities. As the evening sets in, lights come on in all the little streetside shops where they sell clothes and sweets and household wares and various other things. And as the heat of the day subsides, Iranians flock into the street in good spirits, wandering up and down, either to go shopping (I get the impression that Iran is a nation of shopaholics) or simply to be in the presence of others.

And tomorrow I hope I'll be on a bus to Kerman. It seems the headaches of No Ruz travel aren't entirely over. Because the weekend in Iran (don't quote me on this, but I think this is true of all Muslim countries) falls on a Thursday and Friday, a lot of Iranians have extended their time off work/school until after the weekend, so the next few days are still busy ones for travel. I was told a couple days ago that all the buses to Kerman are booked for a week but that it's often possible to get a spare seat if I just show up on the day. Here's hoping. So far my luck in Iran has been phenomenal, although I suppose that also means it would only be fair if it failed this time.

One of the features of travelling in places like Ethiopia and Iran is that I meet travellers far more hardcore than myself. At the Chahar Shanbe-soori party in Esfahan I met four Poles who were hitchhiking from Poland to Singapore, determined on principle not to pay for either travel or accommodation just to prove how far one could get on the kindness of strangers. But sharing my dormitory in Shiraz I met a Taiwanese guy who's now two-and-a-half years into a cycling trip. He started in Alaska and cycled down to Argentina, then flew to Spain and cycled up to Norway, flew to Cape Town and then cycled up through most of Africa and is now on his way home and hoping to reach Taiwan by the end of the year. I imagine returning to ordinary life will involve an incredibly difficult adjustment period for him.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

I've been Shushed

I've now arrived in Shiraz, fabled city of poetry and wine, although only the former has any kind of a foothold anymore. This after a couple really lovely days in Khuzestan, the southwestern province of Iran. Khuzestan is at the heart of Iran's oil production, and it was largely in an attempt to seize the Khuzestan oil fields that Saddam Hussein launched the disastrous Iran-Iraq war in 1980. That war has left a deep scar on Iran--about half a million Iranian soldiers plus another 100,000 civilians killed--in a war that bears close resemblance to the First World War not only in its utter pointlessness and devastation, but also in its methods, including trench warfare and poison gas. The Iraqis were much better armed than the Iranians (this was back when Saddam was thought to be an ally to the United States), but the Iranians took advantage of their superiority in numbers, using teenagers intoxicated with religion and nationalism to clear minefields by simply walking into them. All over Iran, one sees placards and streetside posters showing the faces of the shahid, or martyrs, of this war. But Khuzestan was hardest hit, and the region still hasn't fully recovered from the devastation.

My last blog entry ended with the worry that I was heading to Ahvaz on a night bus and was going to arrive in an unfamiliar and apparently unappealing city in the middle of the night. As it happens, Iranian hospitality rose to new levels of insanity when a complete stranger came out to meet my bus at four in the morning. I can imagine my parents might do something like that if it was absolutely necessary, but I'm not sure I could stretch such a request beyond close ties of consanguinity. But to explain how this act of generosity came to pass, let's rewind to my last morning in Qazvin (imagine spelling that on a triple word score in Scrabble).

Ali, my host in Qazvin, is not only a black belt in hapkido, he's also a student of the setar, an Iranian instrument not to be mistaken with the Indian sitar: the sitar apparently evolved from the setar, but has far more strings (se = "three" and tar = "string," although a fourth string was added a couple centuries ago, while the Indian sitar can have as many as twenty strings). That morning, as part of the general No Ruz visiting and paying respects, we went to visit his setar teacher, who also happens to be a highly respected setar maker, shipping his creations to such far-flung places as Canada and Australia. I got to visit his basement workshop, where setars in various stages of creation reminded me of Michelangelo's figures emerging from the blocks of marble: here just a bit of rough-hewn wood, there a gourd-like resonating chamber waiting for a neck, and so on. And I also got to hear him play, which was a real treat. I love watching gifted musicians play. Not just for the music itself, but for watching them, and the way they get lost in the music. A look of deep concentration crossed the setar teacher's face (let's call him Hossein) with a little furrow between his eyebrows and a slight sneer on the right side of his face that arched with his eyebrows at moments of emphasis. And his breathing followed the phrasing of the music, taking in a sharp breath at the beginning of each phrase, as if he needed that extra air in order to say what he was about to say. What I admire about musicians in particular--maybe dancers get this too--is the way that performing seems to transport them to a place that's too meditative for words. It reminds me of a passage in Zhuangzi where he says that the net is for catching the fish--once you've caught the fish you no longer need the net--and the snare is for catching the rabbit--once you've caught the rabbit you no longer need the snare--and similarly words are for catching the Dao. "Where is the man who has got beyond words?" he asks. "I'd like to have a word with him."

Anyway, Ali's family and Hossein were all concerned at the thought of my arriving in Ahvaz in the middle of the night. Apparently, any kind of hardship that comes as a consequence of lacking hospitality is an unthinkable evil in Iran, so Hossein got on the phone to a student in Ahvaz, asking if he'd mind picking me up from the bus terminal in Ahvaz and letting me get some sleep at his place before the day gets underway. And so I emerged from a bus in the middle of the night to be greeted by Ahmad (again, not his real name), who carted me off to his house and lay me down on a mattress in his study.

I'd already connected with a couchsurfing host in Shushtar, an hour north of Ahvaz, so my plan had been simply to get a few hours of sleep, thank Ahmad profusely, and then head for the bus terminal. Ahvaz and his wife (call her Neda) had other plans, however. After a tasty breakfast, they proposed a day's excursion, where they and their eight-year-old Ahura (I'll use his real name because I think it's delightful that they named their son after Ahura Mazda, the ancient god of Zoroastrianism, which was the dominant religion in Iran for the thousand-plus years the preceded the arrival of Islam) would accompany me to the major sights of Choqa Zanbil, Shush, and Shushtar. They hadn't been themselves in four years, so it was an outing for them as much as for me. It was also tremendously efficient from my perspective.

Choqa Zanbil is southwestern Iran's piece de resistance, a 3300-year-old Elamite ziggurat, which was lost beneath desert sands for over 2500 years after the Elamites' defeat by the Assyrians in 640 BC, rediscovered by accident only in the 1930's during a British aerial survey looking for oil. One consequence of its only recent excavation is that it's marvellously well preserved, where the individual bricks stand out clearly as if they'd been lain down only a century ago. And yet the whole thing dates back literally to the time before Iran was Iran: the country gets its name from the Aryan tribes that swept down from the north late in the second millennium BC. Toby and Niklas, my German hiking companions in the Alamut Valley, remarked that they'd had a couple awkward conversations in which Iranians enthusiastically explained that they and the Germans both belonged to the Aryan races. It's strange to think that, 3000-odd years ago, the area was lush and forested, as it now stands in a sun-baked arid plain. Even during the Elamites' tenure, the region started to dry up, evidence for which is provided by ingenious water channels that brought water to the site from rivers as far as 45km away.

One downside to a site so ancient is that it's really hard to get inside the mindset. In the mosques of Isfahan, it's not at all difficult to fathom the love of God that might motivate a people to build such monuments. But Choqa Zanbil's sacrificial altars and mountain-mimicking structure represent an understanding of the universe that's too alien from my own to really get into the spirit of things. But it could also be that I just didn't spend enough time there. There's something to be said for travelling independently: when I'm in the company of others, I think I go at a somewhat faster pace. Like my first visit to Nashq-e Jahan Square in Isfahan, I left Choqa Zanbil feeling unsaturated, as if I hadn't fully absorbed what I'd seen.

Next stop was Shush, known as Susa in English, and a major city in ancient Persia, known both from the Bible (Esther and Daniel were both residents here, and the Tomb of Daniel still stands in the city, although of much more recent vintage) and from Greek histories. It went into decline after being sacked by Alexander the Great, and indeed, there's not a whole lot to stimulate the imagination here (but I should see Persepolis sometime in the next few days!), besides the bases of what must have been enormous columns, and a semi-preserved double-horse capital. By far the most impressive-looking structure in Shush is the Chateau de Morgan, a massive desert fortress built a bit over a century ago by the French Archaeological Service to keep themselves and their excavated booty safe from unruly local tribesfolk.

And the last visit of the day was to Shushtar, deservedly famous for its incredible watermills. The town sits on a river, and a series of dams and tunnels were dug in the rock, sending water shooting through channels at high speeds, which then spun mills for grinding flour and the like, before cascading out in impressive fashion into the river below and continuing on its gentle course. It's hard to describe, but a google image search should do the trick, although it won't come with the sound of roaring water. I've never seen anything like it: it would be mind-boggling if built a couple centuries ago, and it's even more so for dating back to the time of Darius the Great, although the main waterworks were built during the Sassanid dynasty in the third century AD. If ancient engineering genius like this makes you think of the Romans, you wouldn't be far off the mark. The Sassanids defeated a Roman army at Edessa in 259, giving Valerian the dubious distinction of being the only Roman emperor to be captured alive (accounts differ, but it seems his fate included being force-fed a soup of molten gold to punish him for his greed and ambition), and captured Roman legionnaries were pressed into service in helping build the watermills.

So all in all, an excellent day of sightseeing with a lovely family. Things took a turn for the odd, however, on the visit to Shushtar. You'll recall that I'd already contacted a couchsurfing host in Shushtar. When it was clear that Ahmad and his family genuinely wanted to go on a day trip with me, I contacted the host--call him Hamid--and told him that I didn't need a host in Shushtar after all, but thanks for the offer. He texted back to say it would still be nice to meet me and so arranged to meet up with us at the watermills in Shushtar. Hamid's in his early twenties, and like every second educated Iranian I've met, studies engineering. He and his family recently moved to Karaj, near Tehran, but he's from Shushtar originally and is back for the holidays. So Hamid, Ahmad, and I (Neda and Ahura went shopping instead) wandered about the watermills for half an hour, and then Hamid asked me what my plan was for the evening. I was a bit perplexed by this question as I thought it was pretty clear I was going back to Ahvaz with Ahmad and his family, and said as much. But he said I should stick around and spend the night in Shushtar. Generally I think "always say 'yes'" is a good policy in travel, and in life in general--and I suppose it turned out not to be a bad call on this occasion--but I said "yes" more out of not knowing what else to say. There were enough cultural and linguistic barriers for me not to be sure if this was okay with Ahmad, but he insisted it would be fine, so I left him to drive Neda and Ahura back to Ahvaz while I stayed on with Hamid, carrying only my Lonely Planet guide and what I had in my pockets.

What was strange is that it wasn't entirely clear to me why Hamid wanted me to stay. Because he was visiting Shushtar himself, he couldn't put me up, and when I told him that two things I really needed to do were check e-mail (a friend in Oxford had been deliberating about joining me and I needed to know what her plans were--turns out securing a visa was too complicated on short notice during No Ruz, so I'll be on my own for the whole trip) and have a shower, and both of these requests were met with a worried look. As was the fact that I was a vegetarian, even though falafel and veggie pizza are pretty readily available street foods in a pinch. As was the fact that I didn't want a late night. The evening's activities involved visiting the local mosque--which is actually very old but a bit run-down and unexciting from an architectural perspective, although it was interesting to sit in the back with Hamid during the evening prayers--and then going down to the river and smoking a hookah with a friend of his. At around 11pm, he told me there were two options: he could drop me at the house of a friend who lives with his parents where they could set me up with a mattress, or I could hang out with him and his friends at a friend's place and sleep on the floor, which would be a lot more fun. I told him that I was really tired (remember, I'd taken a night bus the previous night), besides which I still really needed to check my e-mail, and a worried look crossed his face. "Are you sure you don't just want to go to my friend's apartment?" "It's very important that I check e-mail." It seems this first option wasn't actually an option at all, and we ended up at his friend's place, although he was decent enough to run home and grab his laptop and a wireless internet device so that I could check e-mail, although I had to insist pretty strenuously in order for this to happen.

The friend's place looked more like a squat--and indeed, it probably was--where, besides the obligatory Persian carpet on the floor, it was just a bare set of walls on a semi-constructed apartment building. The party consisted of Hamid and four of five of his friends, all young guys who were friendly enough albeit a little rough around the edges. The whole place had the feel of some sort of den of sin, and if we'd been anywhere but Iran, I'm sure the place would have been thick with marijuana smoke and drug paraphernalia. As it was, the only illegal substance on the premises was vodka (I was glad that I wasn't going to be riding on the back of Hamid's motorbike again until morning), and Lent or no, I didn't feel the least bit tempted to partake. But I did manage to check my e-mail and then escape to a windowless room off the main room and curl up and try to get a bit of sleep.

The others, it seems, stayed up till about 5am and were a bit worse for wear the next morning, but nevertheless managed to deliver a spectacular end to a rather strange visit to Shushtar. What I couldn't see in the dead of night was that this apartment building overlooked a deep canyon dropping into the river, and we climbed up onto the roof for breakfast, surveying a scene of lazy tropical bliss, with the river gently flowing past palm trees, and a turtle greeting the morning sun down by the riverbank.

The other anxiety that had gnawed at me since I'd left Ahmad was whether I'd just committed a horrendous faux pas. Was it a grievous insult that I'd ditched Ahmad and his family at the end of a day that they'd showed me such generosity? Would I be welcome back in Ahvaz, and would it be very awkward when I got back? All these anxieties evaporated like morning dew with a text message after breakfast from Ahmad, urging me to get back to Ahvaz as soon as I could because they really wanted to spend more time with me. So I got Hamid to drop me at the shared taxi station and I was back in Ahvaz before noon.

Ahmad is a civil engineer by profession (see what I mean about educated Iranians and engineering?) but he's very cultured: besides the strong interest in the setar (I got to hear him play too, which was a treat), he has a well-stocked library of Western and Iranian classics. He was particularly thrilled to learn that I was a philosopher (I feel like a bit of a cheat, as a number of people have been delighted to meet an "Oxford professor" here, and even though I insist that it's just a one-year post and not a professorship, the subtle differences in rank that separate me from Timothy Williamson seem to be lost on most people), as he has quite an extensive library of philosophical works. I now have a photo of me holding a Farsi translation of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations! He's also a vegetarian, which made my own dietary preferences a point of common bonding rather than an inconvenience (even though the concept of vegetarianism seems alien in Iran, I've now met two vegetarians here from a fairly small sample). Ahmad speaks only halting English and his wife Neda speaks almost none, but there was so much good will and jollity on all sides that we had a wonderful time together--both on the day trip and upon my return to Ahvaz--that dredging through dictionaries was part of the fun. Neda is almost always smiling and has an infectuous laugh that reminds me of Rolie, my ex-landlady/friend in Toronto (it's one of the funny things about this world that there seems only to be a certain number of faces and characteristics, which get recycled in the strangest places). So we spent the afternoon chatting, eating, and with a short break for me to play soccer on the computer against Ahura. In what seemed to me a bit of an unfair match-up, I was forced to play Canada while he played Barcelona (in Ethiopia, the English Premiership was all the rage, but it seems like Messi and Barca are the favourites in Iran), but some stout defending from the Canadians kept it to a 1-0 decision.

We then had a picnic by the river before sending me off on another night bus to Shiraz. Partly because of a very early arrival and partly because I felt I wanted a bit of a break from the couchsurfing whirlwind, I've booked myself into a hotel here, and so far no regrets. Because of the recent depreciation of the Iranian Rial, prices are considerably lower than what my guide book led me to expect, and coupled with the huge generosity I've benefitted from so far, I've stayed way way under budget on this trip, to the point that I feel I've got money to burn. A single room in this hotel costs only $18 anyway, so I'm hardly bankrupting myself. It's in the old part of the city (the one downside to the place is that it's nested in such a maze of alleys that I may never find my way back!), and is in an old traditional building, where my room faces onto a courtyard with a fountain where they serve three meals a day. And the room has all sorts of amenities I've got used to not expecting, like a seat toilet, toilet paper, a towel, and soap! Yes, living the life of luxury. Now I ought to get out and see a bit of Shiraz.

I also went on for the first time in a couple of weeks to see what's been happening in the world of hockey, and the answer seems to be "a lot": not only have the Pittsburgh Penguins not lost in a month, but they've also recently secured the services of Jarome Iginla, not to mention Brenden Morrow and Douglas Murray. How has this not been the talk of the Iranian teahouses? Pittsburgh versus anyone else is starting to look a lot like, well, a soccer game between Barcelona and Team Canada.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

In the footsteps of the Assassins

In the early twelfth century, Hassan-e Sabbah, a leader of the Ismaili Shiite sect (and so a despised minority within a despised minority within Islam) set up shop in the Alamut Valley, a rugged gash in the precipitous Alborz Mountains in the north of Iran. Sabbah and his followers built a number of castles in the valley that were near impregnable: getting into the valley is hard enough as it is, let alone storming a clifftop castle, especially one that has massive water cisterns and food stores than can endure sieges for years. From this hideout, Sabbah sent out mercenaries to take down political and religious opponents. All sorts of legends have formed about Sabbah and his followers since, mostly fabricated by his enemies. The most famous (and most likely untrue) is that Sabbah won the die-hard loyalty of his soldiers by getting them stoned on hashish and then enticing them with images of gardens and virgins that would await them in the life to come. Thus they earned the name of "Hashish-iyun," which has come down in English as "assassin." And hence the Alamut Valley is also evocatively known as the Valley of the Assassins.

(Quick aside about language differences: last time I mentioned that Farsi has far more words for different family relations than English. Another word we have no direct equivalent for in English is fedayin. Mohammed, who you'll remember as Mohsen's digital arts professor in Isfahan, tried explaining the nature of Sabbah's soldiers when I told him I was planning to visit the Alamut Valley.

Mohammed: They were... what's the English word for fedayin?
Me (checking my phrase book): I'm afraid it's not in my dictionary.
Mohammed: Well, they were loyal soldiers. Do you have a word for "loyal soldiers"?
Me: I think we just say "loyal soldiers."
Mohammed: But I mean soldiers who would be willing to die for their leader if he tells them to.
Me: "Very loyal soldiers"?

End of quick aside.)

Unfortunately for future generations of tourists, the Mongol warlord Hulagu Khan (grandson of Genghis) decided to raze the castles of the Alamut Valley in 1256 after they were betrayed from the inside, making sure that no other holdouts against his dominance would be able to take refuge there. As a result, the Alamut Valley is more a hiking destination than a site of historical curiosities, although Alamut Castle above the village of Gazor Khan is still open for a bit of exploration, with helpful signs guiding visitors through the excavated rubble.

But much as it would be amazing to visit castles in this area, the hiking alone makes it worthwhile. In fact, just getting to Gazor Khan was an adventure, taking a shared taxi along a series of switchbacks over a mountain pass (still snow on the hills around us) and down into the valley, surrounded on either side by towering mountains (from Gazor Khan there are particularly good views of the towering Alam Kuh, at 4848m, Iran's second tallest mountain). I arrived in the village in mid-afternoon, which left time enough for a wander up to Alamut Castle, which also afforded views of the surrounding landscape, giving me an opportunity to ponder hiking options for the following day. Gazor Khan is itself a bit above 2000m, and it was chilly with occasional flurries of snow. There was no heat in my little hotel dorm room the first night (turns out all you have to do is ask the guy who runs the place to pour some kerosene into the massive stove in the corner, but he won't volunteer to do this just because some shivering tourists find the two blankets plus their own clothes to be insufficient), and I didn't sleep well at all.

As with so many things in Iran so far (knock on wood), I had phenomenal luck in the Alamut Valley. Late that evening, a couple young Germans, Toby and Niklas, arrived, which meant I'd have company for hiking the following day, always a safer bet, especially when you're in a valley without mobile reception. The next morning, Gazor Khan was wreathed in dense fog, which bode very ill indeed, but by late morning the fog lifted and by the end of the day there wasn't a cloud in the sky.

And that meant some really spectacular hiking. It's not just because I'm a hiking snob that I started the day feeling a bit nonplussed: besides the cloud cover blocking off the mountaintops, the landscape in the Alamut Valley is mostly a rather unattractive combination of soft dirt, grass, and shrubs: nothing like the loveliness of Corsica or the forests of the Pacific Northwest. But the day kept getting better: the path we followed (more on which in a moment) led through valleys and canyons, up spurs and onto ridges, across meadows studded with little lakes, and as the clouds lifted we found ourselves surrounded by spectacular snowy peaks and a long view down the valley, dotted with tiny mountainside villages. And just getting out of the noise and traffic-choked air of the Iranian cities was a distinct pleasure. As far as I can tell, Iranian tourists love the outdoors fine, but they love cars even more, and rarely wander more than a ten-minute walk from their cars, which left Toby, Niklas, and I to enjoy an eight-hour hike almost totally alone (I'm a bit of a hybrid introvert-extrovert, and Iranian hospitality has been shortchanging my introvert side of late).

There weren't really any trails to speak of, besides occasional tracks used by shepherds and their flocks, which left the three of us to improvise our day hike, which is a risky proposition when you bear in mind that the area is pocked with deep canyons and ridges rise up to obstruct a clear view of whether the route you've chosen will ultimately be traversable. The maps I found in the guest books (see next paragraph) provided some rough clues, but there was a lot of guesswork involved. In the end the whole thing went fine except for one little stretch right at the end when we thought we were in the clear, but our chosen route forced us to scramble for about 10 or 20 metres along a steep slope of dirt and loose stones, offering almost nothing by way of holds and a very unappealing slide into a crevasse if the ground gave way. It was a bit harrowing, but we got through okay. And I was very pleased that my fear of heights didn't paralyze me. I was very aware that the sort of panic that often seizes me in these sorts of situations could make the traverse very bad indeed (not just because I don't like being afraid, but also because the fear can stop me from doing what I need to do), but I managed to keep my head and get to the other side in one piece. I think it helped a lot that two other people were there with me: if I'd thought no one would know where I was if I fell, I might have been in quite a panic!

By far the best thing about our hostelry in Gazor Khan was the three-volume guest book that our host presented us with. The books date back nearly a decade, and while there are a few "thanks for the lovely stay" formalities, they've evolved into a compendium of travellers' lore. Most immediately useful is that many people gave descriptions and drew maps of hikes they took (I photographed some pages that proved useful reference maps on the day hike), but there were also hilarious and horrific anecdotes from people's travels, art of various sorts, quasi-philosophical musings, wry remarks about our host and the bizarre goings-on in the village square that the hotel overlooks, and even some charming limericks. About half the book was in English with the other half in a smattering of European languages plus a bit of Farsi (lucky for me, French and German seemed to be the other two dominant languages). I spent a couple hours on my first evening reading through these books and could easily have spent a couple more.

Despite the pleasures of the Alamut Valley, I decided to head back to Qazvin the morning after the day hike (i.e. this morning). Toby and Niklas had to get back, and I figured (a) I wasn't going to top that day's hike, (b) a second day's hike on my own in unfamiliar territory might be tempting fate, and (c) I don't have enough time to see all of what I want to see in Iran anyway, so best move on and see what I can.

And now I've come to the end of a day of being shown around Qazvin by my host here, who we'll call Ali. Ali's an engineering student whose English is better than his German but was delighted to find someone he could practice his German with. Ali loves Germans and Germany and hopes to study there in the future. He says he likes how orderly they are, and indeed, he tucks in his shirt, doesn't have a hair out of place, has a black belt in hapkido, and tidy collections of stamps and foreign currency, and generally exhibits a love of order. But for all that, he's also incredibly warm, with a huge smile, and an enthusiasm for pretty much everything.

So here's a bit of a paradox about Iranian hospitality. On one hand, it's not just supremely warm, but also supremely helpful: I've not only been stuffed on healthy food and sweets and welcomed into the hearts of various family and friends of Ali's, but Ali has also helped me organize an onward bus and helped me take care of other little things, and his family packed food for me to take to the Alamut Valley and even gave me a shirt as a No Ruz gift (fortunately I also had an Oxford t-shirt to give to Ali)! But on the other hand, because Iranian hospitality requires going above and beyond, it can be a bit wearing for the guest as well as the host. For instance, I didn't really have any strong desire to spend an extra day in Qazvin, but I was given such a hard sell by Ali who wanted to show me around that I couldn't really say no, especially given how kind he'd been. So we shuttled busily between activities (after the cold sleepless night followed by a long day of hiking and a bit too much sun, I'm also exhausted today, which has maybe strained my patience), doing our best to fall in love with a city that's frankly only so-so from a tourist perspective. Qazvin has twice been a capital of Iran, but most of its significant buildings were razed by later monarchs who didn't think highly of their Qazvin-based predecessors, so it has nothing on the glories of Isfahan. The highlight for me was the Aminiha Hosseiniyeh, a Qajar-era mansion that's open to the public. (A Hosseiniyeh, by the way, is a place of commemoration for the martyrdom of Hossein, the defining moment in the history of Shi'a Islam, where annual passion plays re-enact the events, and mourners apparently wail and gnash teeth as if it had happened yesterday. I'm sadly in Iran at the wrong time of year, but it's apparently about as intense a theatrical experience as one can encounter: Peter Brook is just one of a number of European stage directors to take a keen interest in it. And this mansion is a Hosseiniyeh because it's now used to stage a passion play every year.) Unlike Golestan Palace in Tehran, this place was tasteful and well-proportioned, giving an overall impression of graceful living. We were joined by an unassuming middle-aged guy who apologized for his broken English and took a keen interest in showing us various rooms in the place. It was only toward the end of my visit when I asked whether the mansion was publicly-owned or private that I learned that this friendly stranger was actually the owner of the mansion, which had been in his family for over a century! He then invited us into his office for a cup of tea before wishing us farewell and a happy new year.

The days ahead look a bit dodgy. Both long-distance travel and accommodation are heavily booked during No Ruz, and the only way I can get south is a long-haul bus tomorrow afternoon that will get me to the southwestern city of Ahvaz at four in the morning (apparently these middle-of-the-night arrivals aren't unusual for long-haul buses in Iran, for reasons I can't fathom). I want to get up to either Shushtar or Shush (more on which hopefully in the next blog!) but right now it seems the best I can do is a really kind couchsurfer who can offer me a friend's floor as soon as I can get the first bus in the morning out of Ahvaz. I guess there are worse fates than spending a couple hours in the middle of the night in a bus terminal, but I don't look forward to it!

I've been charmed getting familiar with the Iranian custom of ta'arof, another semi-untranslatable word that we simply don't have the formality to have a word for in English. It's a system of formalized politeness, which, among other things, involves taxi drivers refusing to accept money for the cab fare, and you having to insist several times before they accept (they're not actually offering the ride for free, but it would be rude of them not to seem to make the offer). But ta'arof was front and centre today as I wandered about town with Ali and a friend of his. At every doorway, we all had to stop and insist the other go first, saying befarmayid, befarmayid (something like "please, I insist"--I got good enough at this that I didn't actually go through the door first on all occasions), and the person who ultimately does go through first has to say bebakhshid (excuse me) as they accept the offer.