Archive for the ‘On the road’ Category

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Turkmenistan: through the looking glass

October 23, 2008

Borders rarely delineate cultures. Since attending university, I have come to conceive of nations as, for the most part, artificially constructed entities, especially postcolonial states. It only takes one glance at a map of Africa to deduce that the continent was divvied up among the imperial powers using the contents of an adolescent’s pencil case.

Consequently, populations have always found themselves split according to these inorganic divisions, and history has been stained with the blood of millions caught on the wrong sides of geopolitical rifts. The shallowness of national boundaries often translates into the presence of the same ethnic groups on either sides of national borders, creating transitional areas between countries that reduces the starkness of crossing borders: it is rare that one feels complete cultural difference from one side of a border to another. With those ideas in mind and past experience to support them, I found the abrupt changes that constituted crossing the border from Iran into Turkmenistan gobsmacking.

We crossed over the border at Bajgiran, some 200 km from Mashhad. Unfortunately, we arrived at the border at 3:45, 15 minutes after closing time, and had to spend the night in the remote border town, which, with its middle-of-nowhere calm and crisp mountain air, was pleasant. We awoke at 6am the next morning, ready to catch the border opening at 7:30. Instead of braving the 20 minute march uphill to the border post with our backpacks, Di and I thumbed down a passing lorry and hitched a ride up, while our stubborn companions faced the incline ahead. Our saviour was a chatty trucker from north-western Iran, who was happy to spare us the sweat of the climb and also offered us some sustenance for the crossing: apples and toffee.

The crossing itself was quick and painless. The most amusing aspect of the experience was the face-off between the Iranian and Turkmen customs offices: facing outwards from the inner wall of the former, the obligatory photographs of Khomeini and Khameini projected their stale stares across into no man’s land, while a poised, iconic portrait of Turkmenbashi returned their imposing gaze. The juxtaposition of the faces gave a preliminary insight into the potency of the Turkmenbashi personality cult. It also highlighted the irony of absolutism, in that it accentuated the geographical limitations of the totalitarian. It was a parody of national hegemony, in which the leaders of each regime were reduced to the egotistical, melodramatic competitors of an American wrestling match. I could almost here the stereotyped television voice laden with forced suspense spouting: ”In this corner, the deceased yet timeless self-proclaimed leader of the Turkmen people! In the other corner, the quasi-twin-named tag-team of the twentieth century’s most influential Shi’a clerics!”

My amusement was suspended by the realisation that a single step through a set of white gates could lead to hair freedom. After walking past the line that demarcated the border into Turkmen territory, I subtly slipped off the scarf hat had covered my head for the previous three weeks, and felt slightly risqué doing so. At the same time, I reflected on the spatial arbitrariness of morals; how in five metres, one could cross from indecency to acceptability with no other reason than property.

After passing through Turkmen immigration and customs, which included a not-so-thorough medical check, we had o wait for over an hour for a mini-bus to arrive, which would take us the remaining 20-odd kilometres into Ashgabat. The soldiers were very strict, they would not allow us to even venture over to the area where the trucks were coming out of customs in order to ask for a ride. Heeding to the subservience required by the circumstances, we obediently waited.

Finally the minibus arrived, and we began our descent into Ashgabat. No amount of nominal change of territory could have prepared us for what we saw: a woman crossing the road in Ashghabat: in a short sleeved, knee-length dress. We all turned around at each other in mutual shock! Really, apart from the odd white marble buildig, the first thing that struck us most was the way in which the women were dressed. The stood grouped on roadsides in bright, solid coloured dresses, in blues and reds and purples, accompanied with green, yellow and brown patterned head-wraps. The contrast of these scenes compared to those that we had left in the holy city of Mashhad the day before was shockingly stark. From women hunched under opaque tents (‘chador’ literally means ‘tent’) to women standing tall, straight-backed and proud in technicolour glory.

The amazement did not cease there, but grew exponentially as we discovered more and more of the capital. The starkness of the difference in people’s appearances was compounded by the intensely grandiose characteristics of the architecture and sanitized, fairy tale-like town planning. Vastly wide, perfectly straight roads bypassed tall, white, almost colonial style buildings, each as perfect and poised as the next, none too close to the other. Every now and then, the eye would be accosted by a glimmer, and your attention would be drawn to one of the many gold-plated statues that grace the entrances of public buildings and banks, or constitute statues in their own right.

The many monuments immortalizing Turkmenbashi, who died from a heart-attack in 2006, are ostentatious and have a futuristic, sci-fi quality to them. The most bizarre is probably the Arch of Neutrality, which resembles a a huge rocket ready for lift-off, adorned with a golden statue of leader that rotates to be constantly facing the sun. At night, it is lit up with an ever-changing array of garish colours: fluorescent green, pink and blue fade into one another, and reinforce the impression that the rocket is bound to take flight at any given second.

In our first venturing around the city, we happened to fall upon a military parade, which we later realised was the rehearsal for the seventeenth anniversary of Turkmen independence from the USSR. Watching it from atop the Arch of Neutrality, we felt as if we were experiencing a true example of totalitarian regime, a small-scale reenactment of the images of Maoist China or Nazi Germany, until Caro pertinently reminded us that military parades are infact still quite common in the twenty-first century and not only in North Korea, but for Bastille Day in France and national independence days for many other non-dictatorships. Our romanticisation aside, our amusement shifted to the hectic disorganization of the soldiers instead of taking every single incident to be part of the ideologue’s landscape, which, in the context, was admittedly difficult.

The sudden and immediate bizarennes of my first few hours in Turkmenistan, and especially the contract of the cultural landscape with that of Iran, made me feel like I had fallen down that deep, dark rabbit hole, and had emerged in some odd parallel universe. Unfortunately, due to our transit visa that meant our time in the country was severely restricted to 4 days and other rules like an 11 ‘clock curfew for foreigners, I didn’t have the chance to see any other sides to Turkmenistan that challenged the initial impression of a country drowned by personality cult.

The most marking incident outside of Ashgabat was when we were stopped on the highway in the middle of the Karakum desert, because the new president was visiting the inauguration of a new town 100 km away. Firstly, we flet that stranding a handful of truck-drivers and families in the middle of the desert was a slightly excessive security measure. Then later we drove past the new village, which was surrounded by a perimeter of Turkmen flags, and the sparkling new buildings were wrapped up in big blue and white bows… Again, I wondered when I had slipped through the rabbit hole.

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Alamut

October 12, 2008

9/10/08, Gazor Khan, Alamut Castle

A crag. A mammoth shard of warped rock sticking near-vertically into the sky, and the valley like a vast basin below. Emptiness that arrests both breath and imagination, set against distant rolling peaks. The wispy, ashen clouds hovering closely overhead, betraying the altitude. A freak feat of nature that imposes itself on the entire valley, dominating the landscape. Its cracks and crevices a hundred eyes peering around, surveilling the space.

This is the location that Hassan Ibn As-Sabbah, twelfth century leader of the Ismaili Shi’a resistance to the Sunni caliphate of Baghdad and architect of the army of the assassins, chose as the seat of his ideological empire. The story of Hassan Ibn As-Sabbah, like the scenery which encourages a certain suspension of disbelief, is a fitting combination of fact, legend and lore. In the 1930s, Slovenian author Vladimir Bartol wrote the most modern rendition of the tale in his book Alamut, which, at the time, was framed as a metaphorical critique of the rise of fascism in Europe. Perched amongst those fabled cliffs and hillsides, I reran the story over and over in my head, and realised that it would be impossible to separate the myth from the reality.

Reputed around the region as the holder of the key to the gates of Paradise, Hassan Ibn As-Sabbah was a herbalist, philosopher and conflict mastermind who harnessed the intoxicating effects of hashish in order to build himself an army of followers. Among them was a small, elite force of expertly trained and absolutely dedicated assassins. Alongside his military tactics, Hassan created a series of luxurious gardens in hidden valleys behind the castle, which he filled with exotic plants, tame wild-animals (panthers, leopards), and a collection of beautiful, exquisitely manicured and groomed adolescent women. They were to bee the houris, and the gardens were to be Paradise.

The absolute dedication of the ‘hashishioun’ (from where the word ‘assassin’ is derived) to the cause of bringing down the Caliphate was ensured by Hassan drugging a select few with hash, and then transporting them in their sleep to his secret gardens. When they awoke, they were surrounded with all the indulgences of paradise: milk, honey, immaculate young women playing unearthly music and doting on them. They were allowed to taste such pleasures for a few hours, after which they were drugged again, then transported back to the castle. When they awoke there, they believed they had been in paradise. Therefore, the rumour of Hassan as the bearer of the keys to Paradise flourished. Moreover, having savoured the delights of the afterlife, they no longer feared losing their own lives, they no longer feared sacrificing themselves for the cause, confident of the other-worldly pleasures that awaited them on the other side of mortality…

As I sat gazing at themysical scenery with the tale of dark enchantment buzzing in my mind, I wondered: What did this rock say to Hassan? What did he feel as he gazed up at its sublime majesty and strength? Immense empowerment? Illusions of invincibility? Either way, a pertinent place for a man of such twisted brilliance, where natural grandeur complements unbridled human ambition.

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Every piece tells a story

October 12, 2008

7/10/08, Bam

In the evening, so as to avoid the sweltering heat of Iran’s southeaster desert, we went for a wander in town of Bam towards the Arg, the historic site of old city. I say ‘town’, but really, even five years on from the quake, Bam is still no more than an accumulation of innumerable construction sights wedged between dense date palm groves. I did not see a single building that predated the quake: you can tell because all buildings have been rebuilt with a quake-proof steel frame, which provides the vertical and horizontal support for each floor and every staircase. Each wall is diagonally dissected with another piece of steel that links the top right-hand corner to the bottom left. It is in the spaces between these steel rods that bricks are inserted, which means that from the outside you see the steel supports and the bricks filling the gaps between. The steel structures line the roadsides in different phases of construction. Some, like those already described, have been completed with bricks. Others exhibit no further construction at all, just gaping structures; the preliminary stage of a Meccano project whose young architect got distracted by something else, and was therefore never finished.

Yet even these structures are not the most prevalent: the majority of shops that line the streets of Bam are housed in metal containers, the kinds used to transport cargo on ships. From mechanics to car part retailers, from barbers and clothes outlets to grocery and spice shops: all the commercial activities of a town have been compartamentalised into roadside boxes of iron. Even Bam’s bazaar, which in other Iranian cities is housed under the ornate arches and covered-alleys of the old town, has been temporarily reconstructed in a web of shops and services set out in these containers. Their heavy metal doors hang open off their hinges, hovering some 30 centimetres off the ground like so many suspended hopes for a swift retrieval of normalcy. The containers heat up like furnaces in the desert sun, and I cannot imagine how they have been the seats of various business activities for all these years. I suppose, though, that necessity is as much the mother of resilience as invention.

I wondered how, five years after the disaster, people were still living such makeshift lives. Accounts of the causes of this differ. On one hand, in the immediate aftermath of the quake, the Iranian government was simultaneously accused of not having done enough to prevent the high death toll (ie not investing in quake-proof infrastructure), and of embezzling aid money. Frustrated bloggers vented their anger at the regime’s prioritization of other causes instead of the welfare of Iranians:

I want to know how many thousands of people dead under the rubble would have lived if all this money that our rulers have spent in the last few decades on Palestine, Lebanon and Bosnia, had been spent on the sort of safety measures that are the north in other earthquake zones.”http://eehum.com, 30/12/2003

 

Moreover, the Iranian Red Crescent indicated that it had only received some $2 million dollars out of the $12 million donated to them for relief assistance. The remaining $10 million could not be accounted for or located. Nasrin Alavi, author of We are Iran,claims that this is a consequence of bureaucratic chaos and state corruption.

On the other hand, Akbar voiced his satisfaction with the efforts of the powers that be. He claimed that the Iranian government were funding most of Bam’s reconstruction, and seemed grateful to them for doing so: ‘We couldn’t do it without them’. His comments, however, indicated that he considered the government’s involvement as a favour rather than a duty. Yet in the context, they seemed more like the necessary optimism required in order to continue life in a post-natural disaster environment than a detached evaluation of the situation.

* * *

The Arg e-Bam. The mud-brick town in its state of post-quake dilapidation, proudly bearing the bandages of reconstruction (scaffolding, JCBs and hard hat-clad construction workers), is a humbling sight. On one hand, there is are the inklings of its past grandeur: its sheer size, covering about 1 square kilometres; the majestic stature of the citadel watching over the town beneath; the fruit-bearing palm trees that remain standing in crumbled courtyards. One knows one is treading in the dust of a powerful, proud city. On the other hand, there is the destruction. The hands of immense and immortal natural forces have created an infinitely different town from that which was the result of human endeavours. Piles of rubble where once there stood public baths; gaping holes in place of winding market streets; cracked, disintegrating walls instead of robust ramparts.

Before and after photographs at the entrance of the site give a real sense of the scale of the damage caused by the earthquake. Seeing the consequences of Mother Nature on this one town made me wonder how many other places had suffered similar fates over the eons… It made me contemplate the impermanence and relative futility of humanity in the face of such force. It consolidated the notion that with a single twitch of the vast planetary skin, all we have is literally reducible to dust.

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Gambling and Gays in Esfahan

October 11, 2008

This is a piece written by J.

1/10/08
A few minutes on the Si-O-Seh bridge.
Iran’s Esfahan, ‘half the world’ as a sixteenth Century poem once claimed. Home to high Islamic art, the world’s second biggest public square and the Bazaar-e-Bozorg, one of the world’s finest. For me however, most striking about Esfahan is its vegetation. To access Esfahan from any of Iran’s other major cities, Shiraz, Qom, Tehran, Yazd, the drive takes you through endless hours of barren desert, huge swathes of flatness, punctuated only occasionally by foreboding mountains, that, unweathered by rain, stick up from the earth like jagged shards of glass, smashed by the gods in a evening of Shiraz fueled frivolity. In contrast to its surroundings, Esfahan is a veritable oasis of greenery. Every street is lined left, right and centre with trees, the parks house an abundance of bushes and shrubs and each square, despite being a traffic island, is colourfully decorated with red, violet, orange and yellow blooms. Esfahan’s green blessing is based much on its location next to the Zagros mountains, that at over 4000m collect masses of snow in winter, and then generously release the spoils through the long dry summer, filling the Zayandeh river and keeping Esfahan supplied with the most precious resource in a desert.
The large river that runs through Esfahan is the centre-piece of the city. Shah’s and princes alike have brought it upon themselves to bridge this precious life-line, between the Sassanians in the third Century AD through to Shah Abbas II in the seventeenth century, and modern day city planners seeking to relief the burden of thousands of new vehicles of the roads, eleven bridges span the Zayandeh’s width.

 

At the end of Esfahan’s main drag, is the Si-O-Seh bridge, a early seventeenth century offering from Shah Abbas I. The bridge is over 200 metres long, and two stories high. The lower level acts as a low-level dam, holding some of the Zayandeh’s waters toward the end of the dry summer when even the Zagros mountains have used up their supplies. Above the low level dam, arches support the second story – a walkway that carries people about 4 metres above the waters below.

 

Last week saw the end of Ramadan, Eid-al-Fitr, a national holiday in the Islamic Republic of Iran. People, after 30 days of fasting, were finally able to enjoy the pleasures of daytime nourishment, and the picnic, a family-favourite in Iran, was very much on the menu for most. Armed with shesha pipes, hot-water flasks, gas-burners and skewers laden with meat, Esfahani’s were out in force to their city’s parks, spreading blankets, throwing balls, strolling aimlessly. For aimless strolling, there is no better places than the Si-O-Seh bridge, 200 metres of archways and viewing points, the river below and the mountains above, and thus its a very popular place. These factors combined, its also a great place for people watching, a past-time that all backpackers love to pursue after long days following dubious quality maps, seeking out hidden treasures and providing, for the hundredth time a day, an answer to the ubiquitous question ‘What’s your idea about Iran?’.

So people watching I was, on the Si-O-Seh bridge, when I noticed a crowd of men gathering, shouting excitedly and pushing each other around. After straining to get close and using my vertical advantage over the majority of the Iranian population, I ascertained that what was going on here was a game of cup and ball. The ring-leader, having three cups in front of him, places a small ball under one, mixes the cups with great speed and then invites punters to choose the cup which conceals the ball. Having been a fool for this kind of supposedly easy money before, I was in no rush to reach into my pocket and place any dough in the the bread-maker, but, wanting to figure out exactly how my 19 year old self managed to be conned out of 100 Euros all those years ago, I joined the masses of Iranian gentlemen.

Seconds later, there is a smack on my back, fearing a bag-snatcher, I turn and get an ear full from a young boy who screams something which although I don’t understand, is obviously a warning. The police. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, gambling is up there with alcohol and bare flesh in terms of social unacceptability, a sure-fire symbol of western-decadence that will lead offenders to incarceration and physical punishments. The amassed group suddenly turns on it heels, hats are pulled down, hands go into pockets and by-standers assume the face of an aimless stroller. If the seen was made into a film, they would be whistling to the skies too.

All this done with good reason as from both sides of the bridge, come running groups of khaki-green clad young men, waving around thick black batons, and stamping heavy black boots. Once I had safely assumed position away from the action, the sadist in me whips out the camera, hoping to catch a few shots of the regime in all its violence. The second the police arrive, the magician, having collected his winnings, turns on his heels, evading the strong arm of the state, slips between one archway then throws himself off the bridge, down into the swallow waters beneath. I don’t know what became of that man. By the time I could get a view, all that remained was displaced sediment and a lone shoe, bobbing up and down in the water. If he jumped, broke something and went under; if he jumped in and swam away; if he jumped in and out and fled, I’m not sure. The drop is about 4-5 metres, the water less than a metre deep, the distance from the middle of the bridge where he jumped and the edge of the water about 100 metres, the number of police after him (although none brave enough to leap) about 20. For his daring alone, I hope he got away.

Back on the bridge, more people had gathered to see what the fuss was all about. A tall man, wearing a sharp suit and dark sunglasses, approached me and asked something. Embarrassed, because I do find it embarrassing to not be able to speak the language, I told him ‘Farsi balad nistam’ (I don’t speak Farsi).

‘Oh’ he replied. ‘Am you Ok?’

‘Yes, I’m fine thanks, but he’s not’ I said, mimicking the actions of our magic man.

‘No, I am you K’

‘Sorry, what?’

‘I am a K’.

‘Oh, I see… You are a what?’

‘Gay.’

‘Right!’

‘And you?’

‘No, sorry I’m not.’

In the Islamic Republic of Iran, homosexuality is punishable by death, it is against God. The president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmedinajad, on a trip to the United States, told a group of American students that in Iran, categorically, there are no homosexuals. Such stringent prohibition and draconian counter-measures surely have driven the majority of Iranian homosexuals into hidden places away from the every watching gaze of the religious establishment and their thuggish police. With the exception of, apparently, this man who was propositioning me in the middle of the busiest bridge in town, on one of the busiest days of the year. I wonder now what he initially said in Farsi. Was that a proposition too or was it only once he realised that I was a foreigner that he felt free to be quite so forward? If I was in that moment again, and I had the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had asked the guy about his experience as a homosexual in Iran. I wish I could speak Farsi and could have a proper conversation with him. Alas, the last words we shared were these:

‘No, gay?’

‘No I’m not.’

‘Oh, gay, it very good, very good!’

In those few minutes on the Si-O-Seh bridge, during Eid-al-Fitr 1387, I saw two aspects of Iran, two realities that show that despite government pronouncements and religious fatwas and 30 years of revolutionary activity, there is an incredible variety of ‘non-sanctioned’ activity in this country, bubbling just beneath the surface.

 

 

 

 

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Badgirs and bed-ridden in Yazd

September 25, 2008

24/09/08

Yesterday, after getting all our onward visa business sorted, we finally left Tehran on the night train to Yazd. We arrived at 5am and went straight to the hostel that we had called beforehand in order to reserve some rooms, the Amir Chakmak Hostel, which has a fantastic rooftop view of the Amir Chakmak monument. After sleeping for a few extra hours and going for a whlesome brekkie at the Vali Traditional Hotel (buffet with cheese, eggs, veggies, fresh bread, jams, tea and juice all for $1.5!), 4/5 of us embarked upon the Lonely Planet’s ‘Get lost in Yazd tour’. Di stayed in the hotel because she was feeling unwell after.

Sleepy, dusty,yellow Yazd is a world away from bustling and sprawling Tehran. The houses in the old town are made of stone and mud, and wandering through the capillary alleys that snake between them is like being transported back over 1000 years in history. It reminded me of an intact version of the ancient old town of Siwa, the oasis in the desert of Western Egypt near the Libyan border, which was destroyed in a freak thunderstorm in the 1960s and now frames the new town like the melted backdrop of a Dali painting. And though the old town of Yazd is still very much inhabited, its streets are quiet and deserted, the stillness only infrequently disturbed by a passing motorcycle or a fleeting gaggle of kids on bicycles or running with a football.

Yazd is famous for its badgirs, or windtowers which represent the earliest form of air conditioning. They are cuboid structures that exceed the height of the building by over 5 metres, with slits on the side to channel air in and out of the house via different compartments. One compartment funnels the air from outside downwards, past a basin of water which cools the air before it arrives in the house, thereby colling the house. But when the air inside the house is heated, it rises through a separate channel which expulses it back outside. They are structures that leave me in awe of the brilliance of the pre-industrial, pre-technological human mind, mostly because of its ability to benefit from nature without destroying it. Why can’t modern air con be as eco-friendly?

Another interesting characteristic of Yazd is its history of providing water to a settlement in the middle of the desert. The Yazd Water Museum has an interesting collection of tools and photographs that illustrate the traditional methods used to channel water from the surrounding mountains down into the valley. These consist of underground waterways called qanats, which were dug as a slight incline so as to produce a natural flow downwards. The qanat are made to lead to an underground reservoir, which is built with a domed roof and some badgirs so as to cool the water. Some of the photos in the museum are very impressive and humbling, and show little old men dressed in white caps and shrouds (burial outfits in case the channel collapses and they are buried underground) scrunched in these minuscule channels, with only a hand-held, fat-fueled candle for light.

Scattered throughout the town are magnificent mosques with turquoise-tiled domes and minarets which stand out in striking contrast to the mud-walls and roofs that surround them. The Jameh mosque is particularly exceptional, with its minarets that tower 48m above its majestic entrance. The walls and ceiling of the carpeted prayer area under the dome are equally astounding, covered in mosaics of various shades of blue, white and green, which alternate between abstract geometric and floral designs to calligraphical spreads of the 99 names of Allah.

At one point on the walking tour, you come to a building called the Hosseniya. It is not distinguishable from those around it, an unless you were told it was there, you’d probably walk by without a second thought. But if you enter its nondescript metal gate and climb up through the crumbling arches and stairways, you find yourself on a rooftop from which you can savour views of the whole old town. Various minarets and mosque domes sparkle above the rounded rooftops, interspersed by badgirs and framed by the mountains in the distance.

Unfortunately, when we returned to the hotel, Di was still in a dodgy state, and getting progressively worse. She hadn’t managed to keep any food or drink down all day, and combined with the heat and stress of travel, was risking dehydration. We convinced her that it would be a good idea to call a doctor, who came and after a single looked at her decided to hook her up to an IV drip. This took Di quite some convincing, as she has a veritable phobia of anything needle- or syringe-related. But when faced with the prospect of potentially having to be checked into a hospital if she didn’t improve by noon the next day, she relented and accepted the treatment. The manager of the hotel and his brother were of unparalleled help through the entire ordeal, offering broken but thorough translations between us and the doctor, who didn’t speak any English. Without an instant’s hesitation, they nailed a nail above her bed from which the IV bottle would hang, collected all 3 Persian-English dictionaries in the building in order to assist with the translation, and, after the doctor left, cooked her a huge dish of rice and potatoes (which she unfortunately vomited up not long after).

Di was hooked up to the IV drip for about 3 hours, and suffered from severe bouts of dizziness and nausea throughout. It was worrying seeing her in such an ill and distressed state, and knowing that the whole experience was rendered more stressful by her being in a cheap hostel with communal toilets some 20 metres down the hall from her room (very far for one suffering from diarrhea and vomiting) and in a foreign country where none of us was proficient in the language. Alhamdulillah, by the time the second bottle of glucose was flowing through her, she was feeling better and starting to nodd off. The manager came to remove the IV from her arm, assuring us that he had had adequate training in basic medical tasks during his time as a soldier in the Iran-Iraq war. He was incredibly gentle when removing the tape from her arm, repeating the words ‘sorry, sorry, sorry’ each time a single hair was pulled taught by the tape. Afterwards, he took her blood pressure, offered us some dates, and told us not to hesitate if we needed anything throughout the night, he would be awake to help us.

Today, Di is a million times better that she was yesterday. We have come to the Silk Road Hotel to chill in their beautiful shaded courtyard, drink some mint tea and feed Di some rice, so that she regains her strength. This communal space is much lovelier than the sun-exposed rooftop of our hotel and the bathrooms cleaner. But the hospitality of the staff here does not come near the diligent, caring attitudes of those back in the Amir Chakmak. It is truly thanks to them that she is as well as she is now. They serve as a valuable reminder for every budget traveler that the measure of a hostel should not be judged by its gardens or furnishings, but by the extent to which you are made to feel as at home as possible, despite the unfortunate eventualities and strangeness that results from roaming far from home.

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Tehran’s grooviest taxi driver

September 21, 2008

21/09/08

After collecting out Uzbek visas from the consulate, we went on a mission to Karaj, some 40km west of Tehran, where there is apparently a reservoir. It took us about an hour and a half to reach Karaj, on two tubes and then the double decker suburb commuter train. We were travelling at around 1pm, presumably a post-noon Ramadan prayers rush hour, because all the tubes and trains were packed.

Lesson 6: If you’re a woman, NEVER get into the mixed sex carriages during rush hour. You’ll quickly find that many hands use the crammed space as an excuse to occupy rather inappropriate places. Opt for the women only carriage, usually the first on the train.

Once we arrived in Karaj, we went looking for a taxi who would take us up to the reservoir (about an hour’s drive). With the indispensable use of the Lonely Planet phrasebook, we managed to convey our destination and agree on a price.

With all five of us crammed in and ready to go, our driver, Davod, chose a CD and off we went… And what a CD! It began with some hard core/electronic German music, slightly reminiscent of Rammstein. The music then progressed to some more hip-hop/house beats (a la BomfunkMcs), and then into drum and base. As Davod blasted out some hip tunes as we drove into the Alborz mountains, we bounced around in the back, grooving to the unexpected underground sounds of the hip youth. Then Enrique Inglesias remixes started rolling out, stil as loud and still as pumping. I have never in my life given Enrique more than a single though, but these tunes were phat! We bobbed up and down in our seats, swaying with the music and the curvey roads that wound up the mountain.

We never got to the reservoir because i think Davod got bored, so we stopped next to the river instead. We had planned to picknick, but the rubbish and pollution on the sight killed all our appetites. After about 10 minutes, we jumped back in the boogey-mobile and buzzed back down the hill.

The whole trip couldn’t have lasted more than two hours, but it was well fun. Especially to be able to experience the musical tastes of some young bloke, who obviously craved some rocking and rebelling in his life: in addition to the music, there were various skull and crossbone badges and stickers on his dashboard. Obviously, he was aware of the unfavoured nature of his pleasures, because every time we passed the police, he turned the blasting beats right down; only to blast them out again once we were a safe distance away from the authorities.

I wish i’d been able to give him a present of some more music to add to his collection… I could imagine how ace stuff like the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Guns’ and Roses, and Aphex Twin would have blown him away… Just like he did for us in his disco-on-wheels; literally a ride that i’m sure none of us will forget.

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Tehran: Initial Impressions

September 20, 2008

Toilets in train station: unexpectedly spotless and squeaky clean.

The first two people we met (taxi driver and hotel manager) were vocally critical of Iran. In the words of the former: ”Mullah, no good”. The hotel manager, Ali, also spoke with disdain about the religious authorities, lamented the absence of discos and whiskey, and even went as far to say that he missed the days of the Shah. They also praised the countries in the world that are so often met with so much disapproval in the Middle East: the US and UK.
We later discussed such overt dissidence and uncommon appreciation for the West, and wondered whether they were their true opinions, or whether they were saying those things to either flatter us or provoke debate. Obviously, the history of Western intervention in Iran (CIA-supported coup of democratically elected government of Mossadeq in the 1960’s; proppoing up the Shah’s brutal regime thereafter…) is reason for distrust and disdain. But, thinking about more contemporary reasons for which the US and the UK are so despised in the wider Middle East, namely support for Israeli occupation of Palestine and the invasion of Iraq, I realized that the view from Iran on such issues is bound to differ. On the former, despite the rhetoric of the Iranian government, I do not think that there is the same amount of identification with the Palestinian cause in Iran as in Arab countries (despite the fact that in many of these, such identification is largely rhetorical and substance-less). Culturally, religiously and linguistically, Iranians are distant from Palestinians, and therefore probably do not see the Israeli occupation as threatening their larger community, as is often the perception from an Arab perspective. I am as yet unaware of the extent to which the the disdain of the Iranian government for Israel is shared by the Iranian population, but I think that the whole issue is more a question of geopolitics than identity. Secondly, the US-led invasion of Iraq, which was seen as an infringement on a collective Arab or Sunni Muslim sovereignty, was in many ways positive for Iran: it toppled the man/regime with whom Iran had engaged in a brutal 8-year war (an end in itself), and thereby shifted the balance of power in the region in their favour.
And then of course it is simultaneously very possible that Iranians are tired of the impositions of their government. But is it dangerous to be so vocal about such views? I would guess that despite the fact that the security apparatus undoubtedly flexes its muscles when appropriate, most often with higher profile individuals (academics, activists, bloggers), the circle of fear surrounding the expression of dissidence in certain situations (ie to foreigners) is weakening…

Tehran bazaar is a combination of Souq al Hamidiyya in Damascus, the suave shopping district of San Remo in Italy and Ikea: beautiful old arches/ elaborate wooden windows/colourful mosque domes lurking round every corner, sheltering endless alleys of gold and silversmiths, watch retailers, fake designer clothing and the most stylish range of kitchen and housing supplies Ive ever seen! It is brilliant and bustling, and does not disappoint.

And yet Tehran is quieter and more low-key than I expected, which is probably because its Ramadan. But also, I feel it is much LESS alien to me than i expected it to be. I think it has something to do with my expectations of Iran being built on images of a staunch ‘Big Brother’ state, complete with massive posters of Imam Khomeini on every street corner, huge Soviet-style buildings and a strong police presence. Instead, in southern Tehran the buildings hardly exceed 2 or 3 stories, the police are few and far between and the political propaganda is not overtly omnipresent (although this could have something to do with having spent the past 9 months in Beirut, where political posters outnumber consumer advertising and there is a tank on every other street corner).
I suppose that Tehran does not live up to its reputation in the Western imagination as the steely capital of the demonised Islamic Republic. Nor does it strike me as overly conservative: alongside the many women in chadors, we have spotted Hermes scarves, Gucci and Dior sunglasses, nose-jobs, exaggerated fringes escaping from hijabs, dramatic make-up and long/spikey hair on men. I feel frumpy with my oversized salwar kameez and tatty black scarf, while my scruffy, untied Doc Martens have received more looks of disapproval than any amount of hair/lower arm/ankle that has peeked out from my clothing.

Its funny, because we claim to be aware of the impact of media distortion on the perception of Otherness. We fashion ourselves as ones who are able to deconstruct the discourses and power relations that inform the way that we think about distant cultures. We feel confident in your non-essentialist view of any religion or ethnic group. And yet, the extent to which we are taken aback by the way in which an encountered ‘reality’ differs from what we have been exposed to betrays the inescapability of our construction. Which is not a bad thing, because it is healthy to be reminded of our bias, our partiality, our preferences, and how those influence the way that we not only see Otherness but also how we behave in its presence.

For me, that is one of the most valuable aspects of directly encountering difference: it makes us as much aware of aspects of the Other as much as what characterises the self. I learned this the hard way, during a difficult year spent studying Arabic in Egypt. It is a reflection that i hope i will never forget, because by recognizing my own agency in experiencing foreignness, I will be less likely to react angrily to the difficulties that will inevitably be faced in that encounter, and look inside for solutions rather than attributing blame outside.