Posts Tagged ‘Esfahan’


Gambling and Gays in Esfahan

October 11, 2008

This is a piece written by J.

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?’



‘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.






Living Mosques

October 2, 2008

1/10/08 Esfahan


            Loitering outside the front of  the stunning Imam mosque, half-heartedly browsing through postcards, I met a man who called himself Zizou the Nomad. He said he was a member of the Lore tribe from Lorestan, that he was an archaeologist and desert tour guide and then went on to list all of the websites and books in which various tourists had mentioned him over the years. After, he started indicating and explaining various architectural aspects of the entrance of the Imam mosque that towered over our heads; small details, such as the difference between the designs on the vase-shaped bases of the engraved columns that flanked the doorway, which indicated he difference between the work of a master and his student.


            Out of the many other details that he mentioned, the most interesting was when, sweeping his hand over his head in allusion to the multiple shades of blue-turquoise mosaic tiles above, he said: ”Many people think that the reason why mosques in Iran are decorated in blue is because blue is the colour of paradise. But this is not true. the reason blue is the chosen co0lour of worship is because it quiets the mind and soothes the soul”.


            Sitting in a small alcove inside the mosque, staring at the spectacular dome and minarets that rise before me, I can feel the simple yet undeniable truth in his words. The turquoise dome, stenciled with a pattern of interwoven white and yellow  vines and flowers and then surrounded by a band of white calligraphy set against a dark blue background, sits against the periwinkle sky like some celestial mushroom, in complete coordination and harmony with its surroundings. In many ways, it seems much more like a product of nature than the work of man. A spring blossom on the verge of blooming; a precious stone wrought with the veins of more humble rock, worn out of the surrounding desert by millions of years of sporadic rain. In its roundness there is safety, protection. And as the shades of blue shift from dark to light to various degrees of green and then come to be intercepted by crests of white, one feels like they are staring into the shifting depths of an undulating ocean, occasionally broken by some surface spray.


            Indeed, every detail of this mosque seems to lend itself to contemplation, surrender, worship. Yet it is not only that which makes this mosque in particular, and the many others with similar compositions that I have seen so far in Iran, so appealing.  Apart from the breathtaking architecture, Iranian mosques provide outsiders with a place in which they can discretely observe people as well. Contrary to the sites of ‘dead tourism’ which I wrote about in my last post, mosques are full of life, in the sense that they are places in which people live out many different parts of their lives.


            A big part of such living is religious: mosques are first and foremost places of worship. Because they are open to the public, both Muslim and non-Muslim, throughout the day, one can enter the mosque at prayer times in order to listen to and watch the sermon. What is wonderful about this experience is that because worship, piety and faith are all very public acts in Shi’a Islam, identifiable from anything from dress to the call to prayer to active participation in the community (for a very interesting book on public piety in a Shi’a community in southern Beirut, Lebanon, see An Enchanted Modern by Lara Deeb), the presence of foreigners at prayer times is not perceived of as intrusive or voyeuristic. Therefore, with the required subtlety, one can observe the ways in which people live their faith, for example the physical aspects of prayer (prostration and replies to the Mollah who gives the sermon).


            Even outside designated prayer time, it has been interesting to witness the social interaction in mosques. In Yaszd: a group of a few men sitting in a semi-circle, chatting easily (about what I don’t know: it could have been trivial banalities or theological deliberations), when suddenly, in some consensus, they decide that its time to pray. They stand, face the pulpit and focus themselves. Then, each in his own time, they begin their prostrations. Their movements are unsynchronised, as each one follows his own personal rhythm and timing, one choosing to spend a couple seconds more with his head pressed against the stone on the floor; the other effectuating his sequence with a faster flow. At the end, as they begin to exit the carpeted praying area, they turn to one another and resume their relaxed conversation, which lasts as they replace their shoes and continues as they leave the mosque. 


            On the other hand, mosques the social interactions that occur in mosques exceed the religious. Most notably for Iran, they were spaces in which the blood-stained hands of the Shahs brutal secret police, Savak, had little reign, and therefore provided a realm in which resistance to that regime co0uld flourish (many analyses conclude that this was a decisive factor in how the Islamist pockets of resistance came to dominate over others during/after the revolution). And their activities exceed politics as well. I have seen whole classes of art students, each equipped with clip-board, pencils and paper, being taken to the fringe rooms of a mosque which house its most valued artifacts: here an exquisite Safavid portal carved out of wood; there a 900 year-old dome which is apparently the most mathematically precise in existence (both in Esfahan’s Jameh mosque). At other times the courtyard is a veritable playground, with groups of children running around playing tag or chasing pigeons. At other times it is a communal bedroom, with old men and women lying curled up on their sides or spread out on their backs under alcoves or in corners. Now, with the end of Ramadan, they are picnic grounds, with families gathered in circles exchanging crisps and drinks.


            The only two other mosques where I’ve experienced similar activities are the Grand Mosque in Damascus and the Al Azhar mosque in Cairo. But perhaps, that is because they constitute 50% of the mosques that I had visited before coming to Iran, because many mosques in Muslim countries do not allow non-Muslims to enter. Thankfully, this is no the case in Iran. And many of the most interesting, reflective, moving moments that I’ve experienced since being here have been in mosques, witnessing the diversity of lives that flourish therein.