Delightful Iran 2 – Upcountry
Alman, I say. I believe that the taxi driver had just asked me about my country.
Oh, Alman, he beams. Germany. His prank hammers onto my shoulder:
Yes, I've heard I many times: He and me, we are both supposed to be Aryans. Some Iranians feel very proud about that. Actually, the word Iran means Aryan country.
In the frantic local traffic, the taxi driver enthusiastically wraps one arm around my shoulder. He smiles at me brotherly and shouts again:
Two members of the master race in one car.
But I know how to dampen this mood. I say:
And northern Hindustan too – aree! And our languages – Alman, Persian, Hindi – all Indo-Aryan! Aree!
His face clouds. They never approve of the bit about the Indians.
I try to put on the safety belt, but the rambling car is not of elite race. The safety belt doesn't move an inch from its socket and cannot be used.
Now this lights up my driver's mood. He watches my futile manoeuvres with growing delight.
I fumble more, but the safety belt definitely cannot be used.
The driver thrusts one hand into the air as if to say: Forget the safety belt, who cares anyway.
Iran, he laughs, happily pointing to the broken safety belt – Iran!
Simin is in her mid-thirties. After studying psychology, she became a waitress. But she wrote stories since Quran school times and recently published her first collection of short stories. Proudly, Simin shows me the thin volume.
They write Farsi (Persian) language in Arabic letters from right to left. Only now, leafing through her book with Simin, I fully realize that they not only write from right to left – they also write from "the last page to the first". This had already confused me in a bookshop: They had presented coffee-table books seemingly lying on the back side, but then, with the title page on the back.
Don't you get a head-ache, reading everything from right to left, from back to front, I ask Simin?
No, she shrugs, you get used to it.
And was it difficult to get past the censors with your manuscript, I dare to enquire?
They kept my manuscript for three years, Simin says matter-of-factly. They omitted some paragraphs and one full story without explanation.
Simin: Well, what can you do? Let's hope things get better from here.
I stay in a small provincial guesthouse. It's nothing special. Still – as anywhere in Iran – all staff are polite, Anglophone and eagerly helpful. I have a broken shirt and a broken bag and they take care of it for a very small fee. They use their private banking cards to top-up my phone credit. I had e-mailed them for a room two days before arrival, and they kept me a room to my liking.
Every day I exchange a few friendly words with Leila, the afternoon receptionist. I learn she's married and has a little boy. On my second-to-last day she says that she would be so honoured if I visited her home for dinner.
Now in Iran, invitations come daily. But an invitation from a receptionist is new.
Well, you have a hard long job, I say. Why invite a foreigner after long hours at reception and running around the hotel?
No, it would be my very honour, she replies. Of course I have to ask my husband first. But he will allow it. He's a good man; well, usually he is.
She makes a short phone call and says: You know I work until 9 p.m. each day. Could you come to my place at 10 p.m.? I will give you a description for the taxi driver.
Oh, 10 p.m. is so late for you, I protest.
She welcomes me at her doorstep and I meet her without a headscarf for the first time. She reminds me of other Iranian ladies I saw without headscarves in their drawing rooms: Her hair is unattractively half-long, obviously not cared for, even untidy. (I have also been to homes where the ladies kept a tight head-scarf and overcoats even indoors.)
I hand Leila a box of local sweets, enriched with German chocolate. Oh look Mohammad, she says to her husband, Hans is so nice, and he brought us all these wonderful sweets.
Leila cooks a typical Iranian meal of saffron rice, kebab and cucumber salad with, of course, very good natural yoghurt on the side. In local fashion we drink dugh, a refreshing milk product. We lounge on the floor of their tiny balcony to enjoy the evening cool. She has covered the balcony floor with Persian carpets; no special carpets, she says, they're machine-made. Sitting down, she lights up a cigarette. Mohammad doesn't smoke and anyway, he goes to sleep after three bites.
Leila offers alcohol visibly proud. Quite a few Iranians try hard to prove their familiarity with western alcohol habits. They quote ten different beer brands. They keep their drinking water in a brand name whiskey bottle, even if it's impractical.
Some press their own wine from Shiraz (Syrah) grapes, which are available each autumn. But Leila has her own method: She buys medical alcohol at the pharmacy and keeps cherries in the liquid for a few weeks. Proudly she pours me a glass. It tastes like cherries in medical alcohol.
Leila, my afternoon receptionist of one week, leans back against the house wall, with cigarette, liquor and open hair; she exhales and searches for the moon above. She looks more relaxed than ever at work.
Isfahan. At the junction of Shahid Medani with Ferdosi Street, I try to cross the road. I walk two steps towards the other side and jump back in panic: Several cars I hadn't anticipated suddenly shoot towards me.
Now, now I can cross. I step onto the road – and fly back to the safety of the pavement: Several cars I hadn't even seen before race towards me.
I have rarely seen drivers so rude and with such an aggressive zest such as in Central Iran. Once in Shiraz, I observed a cripple with clutches standing in the middle of a four-lane road. For five minutes he couldn't proceed one centimetre, as cars sped around him from all angles. He might well be standing there as of today.
But now there's a gap in the traffic flow. I rush onto the street, I gain a meter or so, before I race for my life – back to my starting point; approaching cars had seemed intent on killing me. I start to tremble now because I don't see a way to continue my walk.
Suddenly I feel strong arms around my shoulder. A tall Persian body-builder, maybe 25 years of age, has taken me under his wings. Without further ado, he guides me across the street through the honking, racing, metallic stampede. We reach the distant shore unharmed, Alhamdulillah.
There we stand on the other side, smiling at each other, but obviously without one word of common language. I'd like to tell him that I did Saigon, I did Naples, I drove a car in Phnom Penh and helped local elders to cross 8-lane-roads in Jakarta. But Isfahan and Shiraz are worse. They are even worse than Tehran, because the traffic in the capital is tamed by constant traffic jams.
But I can just smile.
My body-builder smiles back jovially. He gives me a pat on the shoulder and disappears in the crowd.
The Nasir-al-Molk Mosque in Shiraz has a stunning winter praying hall with large stained-glass windows facing east. Every morning, this hall drowns in colours pouring over the carpets.
But you have to be lucky: The caretaker must be there to let you in while the sun is still very low.
And there is something else: Some portions of the stained-glass windows are covered with curtains, eliminating half of the effect. The curtains should be removed and the caretaker must be willing to collaborate. The Lonely Planet guidebook says: "You might have to tip the caretaker to open the curtains."
The old, grim caretaker is there to let me in early enough. But the curtains are drawn.
I point at the curtains. I gesture moving them away. He shakes his head angrily and walks away. I am not bold enough to hold money straight into his face. So I spend some time inside the hall which is stunning even with curtains drawn.
Two boisterous Asians arrive, probably Chinese or Korean. They shout for the caretaker. They point at the curtains. They shout Curtain, push! Curtain, push! I don't see the interaction, but a little later the caretaker sends his old wife to move the curtains to the side. Fantastic coloured light floods the room.
The Asians rummage around noisily, using beeping cameras, other beeping gadgets, shooing me out of their way repeatedly. 20 minutes later they are gone.
I stay another half an hour, basking in the coloured lights until the sun is too high too reach into the hall. When I walk out towards the street, the caretaker looks at me expectantly.
Curtain, push, he says. Curtain, push! He holds his right hand into my face, palm open.
Aramgah-e Shah-e Cheragh
The Aramgah-e Shah-e Cheragh in Shiraz is one of Iran's holiest sites. A brother of Imam Reza died here 1200 years ago. The usually well-informed Lonely Planet says that non-Muslims might be banned from entrance.
But local Muslim friends assure me that I could easily visit the Aramgah-e Shah-e Cheragh. You are Christian, they claim. We pray to the same god, they believe. Actually, they reason, Christians are the better Muslims: Christians treat nature and other people more respectfully than Muslims do. I heard that more often. They say: Just only atheists shouldn't venture into the holy shrine – they are dirty. But you, of course, you can visit Aramgah-e Shah-e Cheragh.
And I can. At the gate, I, the obvious European and assumed Christian, am welcomed with a benevolent smile. My handbag is searched though, and I have to leave my camera at the depository.
Aramgah-e Shah-e Cheragh is a fairy-tale complex of mosques, museums, mausoleums and other stately buildings around a large, orderly, paved and swept square.
I marvel at the extraordinarily rich interiors. Even more I like to sit outside. Around 4 p.m., the sun disappears behind the main building, creating welcome shadow. Uniformed caretakers roll out large numbers of carpets in the shadow next to the main shrine, right under the bulbous dome. People step out of their shoes to sit on the carpets. Some pray, bent towards Mecca with their forehead on a praying stone; but most people on the carpet just sit back and talk – groups of friends as well as cute young couples, sharing handfuls of pistachios. Teenagers do homework on the carpets; businessmen read the Holy Book or the evening paper. It is most peaceful.
I'd love to take pictures, yet I fully accept the ban on photography: Camera-toting tour groups could easily destroy the harmony of the place. But look at the locals: They snap everything with their mobile phones. They haven't heard of a ban on photography. And I also still have a camera phone with me. Nobody stops me as I unobtrusively take a few shots of my surroundings.
Women enter the Aramgah-e Shah-e Cheragh through a separate entrance, and here, inside the shrine complex, they must wear a chador. A chador is not obligatory in other public places in Iran; here at the Aramgah-e Shah-e Cheragh, ladies can rent chadors at the shrine's gate – worn bed sheets, mostly white with floral print.
That's not enough for a local lady who now walks towards the main square's carpet area. This lady wears a black lace see-through chador which looks like a designer piece from Milano. The gauzy fabric reveals tight black leggings underneath. Shedding her black polished high-heels, she joins her friends on the carpet for an afternoon chat.
From Persepolis, I call ahead to a four-star hotel in Shiraz. From the very first sentence on the phone, the receptionist sounds like my good friend, or like an older sister. Sure she has a room for me. At the end of the corridor, on a high floor, and with park view? Six nights? She will see to it. May I have a safe journey.
One afternoon later, she welcomes me with a shy, but recognising smile. You called for the park view room, she asks, no she states. Here is your key.
To be safe, I ask: According to your web-site, this room is 78 Euros, right?
Oh well, she says, don't pay Euro. Look at the newest exchange rates.
She hammers onto her calculator.
Look, better pay in Rials, then one night will equal only 35 Euros. Yes, we can bill you like that.
Her shift lasts from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. Whenever I drop my key at her desk, we exchange a smile and a friendly Salam. Occasionally, together with my key she finds a bar of Euro chocolate.
As so often in Iran, I'd like to know how she looks. But this receptionist is thickly wrapped in many layers of hejab (pious) garb. I can only see her mouth, nose, eyes and hands. No single hair. No chin. No ears. I can't guess her age. I can't say if she's slim or full-figured.
I check out. She hands me my bill with the smile of a good friend and with tears in her eyes.
This really is the essence of travel, great stuff!