Posts Tagged ‘Bam’


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.”, 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.


The Ledgendary Akbar of Bam

October 12, 2008

7/10/08 Train, Kerman – Tehran

‘Sorry, no rooms free tonight!’, the voice rang out from somewhere behind the iron gate.

‘Please, we’ll take anything! Is there space on the roof or in the courtyard? We’ve just walked from the bus station, we’re very tired and just want to rest’.

An elderly man approached us with a wide smile across his long, characteristically wrinkled face. He opened the gate and welcomed us in. ‘Just come have a cup of tea and we’ll see what we an do for you’, he said, in an obviously groomed English accent. We entered the gravel yard covered by a corrugated iron roof, and saw three other backpackers lounging on the wide seats. By the smiles on all their faces and subsequent questions, we realised that they were the only occupants of the hostel, and that the initial words of our host were in jest. The rest of the evening confirmed the mischievous humour and prestigious culture of Akbar, owner and manager of Akbar’s Guesthouse in Bam, as he spouted poetry in Persian and English and boggled out minds for hours with riddles and lateral thinking problems.

Akbar is renowned in tour books no only for his hospitality, but also for the story of his survival of the earthquake that flattened Bam in December 2003, killing over 30,000 people. His guesthouse was destroyed, but thanks to the immediate reaction of some of his guests, many people were pulled alive from the rubble, and only 3 people lost their lives there. Between his jovial bouts of entertainment, he spoke about the incident.

‘The hardest night was the first night. After the guests had been taken to hospitals in Kerman and further north, my family and I set up a tent across the street. We had hardly anything: no shoes, no blankets. Everything was still under the rubble. It was freezing cold, and we all just huddled in a circle around my baby grandson, warming him with our hands and using our bodies to keep the heat round him.’

‘But Bam is rebuilding. There is a lot of work on the Arg (the ancient town of Bam), and it will be more beautiful than ever. They are rebuilding the bazaar, and each school will be uniquely beautiful because every one has received funding from different countries.’

Many hours of our three day stay in Bam were spent in conversation with Akbar, either dodging the midday heat or soaking up the fresh evening air. Constantly, Akbar would oscillate between banal exchanges, often on literature or his visits to Europe (proclaiming his affection for English fried breakfasts and midday pints of Guinness), nostalgic narrations about his heady student days in Shiraz and profound commentaries on his life and loves. One recurring theme was his lamentation of the family pressures that pushed him to marry someone other than his love at the time, a Dutch woman.

‘My mother told me that I could never marry a foreigner. So I had to marry a woman I hardly knew…’ When asked where his wife lived now, he said that he didn’t know exactly: she spent her time alternating between the houses of their five children in Tehran and Kerman. And then he’d sigh heavily, and leave those listening to him in an uncomfortable silence, not sure how to respond to the melancholy that wrought his soul. He made the point of saying that it was not the same today, that today, such strict codes of family and social expectations did not weigh so heavily on the choices of the individual. But he still mentioned, as so many other Iranians have done, the discrepancies between the values of the government and the needs and desires of the people.

At one point, we got onto the topic of divorce. I was speaking about my stepfather’s upcoming birthday, and Akbar inquired whether or not my father had remarried. No, I replied, he was very happy living on his own, with a scattering of female acquaintances in various countries to keep him entertained. Akbar seemed amused, and once again voiced his dismay at having spent over 40 years in a lukewarm marriage for the sake of social expectations. I said that the divorce was the best thing for my parents, even that they waited too long, and that those reasons that many couples give for staying together (‘it’s better for the children’ etc) are shallow, because it is healthier for the children to grow up in a loving environment than upholding the appearances of a stable, nuclear family.

But, as always, I was wary coming across as framing my own social system as ‘better’ than that of my interlocutors. Therefore, I made the point that despite the apparent ‘freedoms’ of the West, there was a growing tendency to not live such freedoms responsibly. I quoted Sarte: ‘On est condamné d’etre libre’. We are condemned to be free, because our freedom makes us responsible for our actions and choices. Without wanting to cater to the image propagated by the Iranian authorities of the West as an entity wrought with the consequences of moral decadence, but wishing to illustrate that every social system has its own woes, I spoke about the problems being faced in contemporary Britain: how in last year’s UNICEF report on Europe, it rated highest in terms of violence, drug use, pregnancy and illiteracy amongst adolescents. I think Akbar, with his Anglophillic attachment to Shakespeare, curries and pints, was shocked to hear this. Even the Slovenian backpacker who was sitting with us said that it was very uncommon to hear of 16-year-old girls falling pregnant in his country, let alone raising them through the benefits of the welfare state.

It is difficult to feel as if one is from a world of which some aspects are idealized by one’s interlocutor-as-Other. As a foreigner, a traveller, a stranger, one carries a certain weight of representation, the representation of difference. It is often tricky to negotiate between what is expected, what is appropriate/acceptable and one’s perceptions on a matter; particularly when one’s culture is shrouded in stigma and romanticisation and one seeks to steer clear of both…

By the time we left Bam, I had grown very fond of Akbar: his sporadic melancholy; his omnipresent nostalgia; the juvenile sparkle in his eye. The day before we left, after failing to get on the desired train and hence forced to delay our journey north by another day, he dismissed our concern with a vaguely familiar anecdote, perhaps slightly reminiscent of chain-mails, but completely suited to his personality:

‘You guys spend so much time worrying about small things when theres really only one important thing in life: either you’re healthy, or you’re sick. If you’re healthy, then you should focus on staying that way. If you’re sick, then either you live, or you die. If you live, then you should concentrate on living life to the full. If you die, then you either go to heaven, or you go to hell. If you go to heaven, then you’ll be so amazed by all the beautiful things that surround you that you’ll be eternally happy. If you go to hell, then you’ll be having so much fun meeting up with old friends from your prior life that you’ll have no time to worry about anything else!’