Posts Tagged ‘Iran’

h1

Uzbekistan in retrospect

November 8, 2008

            7/11/08 Shymkent, Kazakhstan

            I am aware that my writing during the three weeks that I spent in Uzbekistan has not been as stimulating as it was while I was in Iran, nor has it offered as many interpretative ‘snapshots’ of Uzbek people or life as I feel my Iran writings did. I think this is because I engaged much less with Uzbekistan, in the sense that I both learned less about it and felt that what I did learn was, perhaps, somewhat superficial. I feel like I left Uzbekistan with a piecemeal idea about its history and a glimpse of its geography, but no comprehensive sense of Uzbek social dynamics, no hint of individual perceptions, tastes or hopes, which are aspects that I felt I gained a minimal yet significant exposure to in Iran.

 

            One of the biggest causes of this sense of lack was definitely due to the fact that I experienced much less interaction with Uzbek people than with Iranians. In Iran, I felt that I had several meaningful encounters with different people, even within the frame of ‘foreigner’ or ‘tourist’ to which I am inescapably bound in my travels. Generally, I suppose, I found Iranians to be more open, more curious, more eager to strike up a conversation in which they inquired about me and spoke about themselves. Moreover, while they actively sought my point of view on ‘touchy’ subjects such as politics or religion, I was surprised to find them willing to express often dissident opinions about those matters. When I expressed such surprise to one Iranian man quite early on in my trip, he said that he was not afraid to voice his disapproval to foreigners (when asked his opinion about Ahmedinejad, he had replied, without a second’s hesitation,: ”asshole”), but that he would never choose to act on his feelings because he felt that there was too much at stake. I found that his comment shed light on the ideas that condition the circumstances under which many Iranians feel more or less able to manifest their opinions.

 

            In Uzbekistan, I was privy to only a handful of conversations with Uzbeks, and their scope was far more standard: origins, education, family. On one hand, I think it had something to do with the language barrier: more people spoke English in Iran, and Arabic is far closer to Farsi than it is to both Russian and Uzbek, which had proven very useful at times. (I managed to make some headway with the ethnic Tajiks we met near Bukhara and Samarkand, because Tajik and Farsi overlap quite heavily).

 

            But language aside, I felt that many Uzbeks reacted to my foreignness with a certain distance. In the rural areas, I felt this translated into amusement, where my linguistic ignorance was often met with laughter.  In the cities it expressed itself less endearingly, and, especially Tashkent, I felt general apathy, manifested in a scarcity of smiling faces and a lack of willingness to help. This stood in such drastic contrast to the hospitality of the Iranians, the scale of which I had never encountered before. Perhaps mistakenly, I attribute the relative disinterest, even coldness that i experienced in urban Uzbekistan to a combination of the proliferation of mass tourism and the indifference and anonymity that accompanies the way that Central Asia has come to be atomized along post-Soviet Russo-European lines.

 

            By the same token, I must acknowledge my own agency in not connecting as much with Uzbeks as I felt i did with Iranians. Two months of travel (coupled with a week’s worth of traveller’s diarrhea) have doubtlessly drained my explorational energies. My laziness manifested itself as much in my lack of efforts to learn Uzbek or Russian as in my favouring  early bed-times over nights out in local haunts, which is where I could have potentially met and chatted to more people.

 

            The amalgamation of these factors, set against the frequency and depth that characterised my conversations with the Iranians I met, led me to feel that my interactions with Uzbeks revealed to me less about aspects of Uzbek society. This might sound patronising, but I did not find that my conversations with Uzbeks were as eye-opening or as insightful as those that I had with Iranians.

 

*          *          *

 

            Personal interaction is not, of course, the only source of knowledge, but unfortunately, the information that I acquired through other channels proved hardly illuminating either. There is undoubtedly a plethora of material artifacts and architectural structures that bear testimony to the hayday of Uzbek history, the glorious days when the Silk Road was the centre of the world. However, I failed to find the curation and presentation of these stimulating. Something that i found particularly offputting in the ancient Khanates of Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand was that each mosque and madrasa was being used more as a market stall than a place of archaeological import. When one enters through the huge, arched, blue mosaic-tiled entrances of the centuries-old structures, instead of being able to absorb the characteristics and imagine the past life of the building, one is encountered with flocks of old ladies clad in colourful head-scarves peddling embroidered bags, throws and carpets; terra cotta plates and bowls with intricate geometric designs; and small boxes with hand-painted miniature scenes of courting, music and feasting.

 

            Now, do not doubt the craftsmanship and consequent appeal of their wares, for both are evident. But I felt that it was inappropriate to allow four hundred year-old courtyards, celebrated as prestigious centres of learning of Islamic world some 500 years ago, to serve as platforms from which unsuspecting tourists could be wielded out of a few dollars. Although it could be seen as infusing otherwise ‘dead’ places with a new commercial life, I found that it distracted me from being able to imagine their histories. The vaulted rooms which were once the classrooms of the Islamic world’s most ground-breaking philosophers, doctors, astronomers and poets had been transformed into tourist bazaars. Sight-seeing came to be quickly replaced by browsing and, eventually, shopping. Yes, time and time again, i was sucked right in.

 

            Even the History Museum of the People of Uzbekistan, aka national museum, offered a shallow overview of over 10,000 years of human history, beginning with the stone tools of Neanderthal man and ending with fragments that represent the modernity of post-Soviet Uzbekistan: the production quota of chemical plants; various Olympic medals; Visa cards and Mastercards. Admittedly, some of the more interesting material concerning popular Uzbek uprisings against Russian and then Soviet imperialism was not translated into English, so again language proved a significant barrier to learning.

 

            Thankfully, one avenue of cultural/historical discovery was opened for us: we were fortunate to be able to get tickets for a production at the Ilkhom Theatre in Tashkent which had English subtitles. Ecstasy with the Pomegranate told the story of a Russian painter who had been sent to live in Tashkent in 1916, as part of the Russian conquest of Central Asia. Against the background of the ‘civilizing’ mission of imperial Russia which sought to replace traditional Uzbek culture with Russified values, the painter finds his objects of both artistic and social interest in a group of ‘bachas’, male dancers that perform in a sexual, homoerotic style similar to Arab belly-dancing. The themes were multi-faceted, ranging from traditional Uzbek gender roles (one character is a girl who dresses as a boy in order to be able to fulfill her passion for dancing); the dynamics of the colonial encounter, including the sexualisation of the cultural other which stimulates unconventional affections (a Russian soldier who falls for a young bacha) and the difficulties in blindly applying the Russian legal system in a completely different cultural context; and the impact of the Bolshevik revolution on both Russians and non-Russians.

 

            It was a long production, almost 3 hours, and though i nodded off during the last act (shame!), I found it was the most interesting representation of Uzbek history and culture that I had encountered in Uzbekistan. I left the theatre feeling like I had engaged emotionally with Uzbek history as well as having witnessed a snippet of the avant-garde contemporary arts scene, which, judging from the fact that the show was sold out, seems to be in full bloom.

 

            *          *          *

 

            I think that ultimately, though, my overall disappointment with my time spent travelling in Uzbekistan is a consequence of the fact that all experiences are perceived of comparatively. Generally, the interpretation of any experience is significantly influenced by the past, and therefore the ways in which we come to think about or see something new will always be imbued with previous encounters. Our perceptions will always be influenced by the many factors of our own construction. We can never experience something as it is; but only according to the conditions that structure our encounter with it.

 

            In my mind, my experiences in Uzbekistan will always stand in relation to my experiences in Iran because I visited the two countries as part of the same trip, in which one followed nearly immediately after the other (save the brief four-day transit through Turkmenistan). I believe that this relationality dampened my appreciation of the country, which also means that should have made extra efforts to break through my high-expectations. Therefore, I wish to mediate my previous negative comments about Uzbeks, their hospitality, the organization of their tourism etc by stating that I realise that my interpretation is equally, if not more responsible for the mediocraty of my experience than any of the flaws i previosly pointed out.

 

            And this is not a disclaimer! It is only the meager efforts of a wandering wonderer to bring sense and meaning to the many different, often conflicting emotions that the (largely indulgent) act of perpetual vagabonding entails….

Advertisements
h1

Bodies that matter

October 12, 2008

11/10/08, Tehran

In the village of Gazor Khan, at the foot of Alamut rock, I was beckoned over by two young girls, Miriam and Sara. Following the usual exchange of queries concerning origin, age and work, and after learning that I lived in Lebanon, the girls were eager to see some of my photographs. The two things they knew about Lebanon were Hizbullah and Nancy Ajram (Lebanese pop star), and it struck me as amusing that two such diverse images could come to represent Lebanon in their eyes… Lebanon: the land of the Islamic resistance and sex-kittens.

Initially, I was reluctant to show them the photos on my digital camera, mainly because most of them were of beaches and parties, which meant there was a lot of skin being bared. There was even a whole sequence of photos from a holiday with J’s family in Cyprus, which has three generations of his family lolling around pools drinking cocktails. But then I though, no; it’s alright if they see people enjoying themselves in ways that are socially acceptable outside the dogmatism of the Islamic Republic.

They were fascinated by the photos, intrigued by arms, legs, and other exposed body parts. They were particularly surprised when I told them who these people were: this lady with the long blond hair and short dress is my mother; those men in the swimming shorts are my husband, his father and his grandfather. Those adolescents are my husband and his brothers and sisters. They alternated between semi-embarrassed giggling and voicing their admiration of the white skin glistening in the sunlight.

‘Are there Christians in Lebanon?’, Miriam asked. Yes, I replied, quite a lot.

 

Then Sara expressed curiosity about the clothes people wear there, and asked if women had to wear the hijab. No, I said. ‘In other countries of the world’, she continued, ‘do you have to wear it?’ No, I said again. Actually, there are only a few countries where you must wear it: Iran, Saudi Arabia, some Gulf countries. I went on in my broken Farsi, explaining that in other Muslim countries, like Egypt, Syria, Morocco, Yemen, Jordan, you don’t have to wear it. If you’re a Christian, you don’t have to. And if you’re a Muslim, you have a choice: ‘it is possible yes, it is possible no’.

The girls digested my comments slowly, and I thought about the implications that my words, my photographs, would have on them. I figured that their exposure to other ways of living and interacting shouldn’t be conceived of as irresponsible. Indeed, I have always found the phrase ‘ignorance is bliss’ to be patronizing, because it assumes that certain types of knowledge should be restricted certain people.

And even after I left them, I began to think that it was in fact a positive thing for them to be able to see the ways in which ordinary people, families, can show their bodies publicly and banally without them being either sexual or shameful. Seeing pasty, middle-aged, beer-bellied English people sat benignly in their swimmers sort of smashes the interpretation that exposing skin is inherently indecent or immoral. If anything, it shows that in some contexts, the body can be released from weighty moral judgments and allowed to just ‘be’.

The more I thought about it, the more I was convinced that showing Sara and Miriam my photographs of women with exposed bodies and hair in an explicitly de-sexualised context was healthy, because it contradicted the sorts of exposed bodies that they had obviously already had access to: images of Lebanon’s pop princesses. Those images probably constitute their idea of what non-veiled women are, which is exactly the line that the strict religious authorities wish to push: non-veiled women in revealing clothing are shameful whores. Women of the noble Islamic Republic, show your dignity and pride by hiding your bodies and rejecting such vileness! But if the internet contained as many photographs of grannies on beach holidays; nudist beaches; naked, bearded Hindu ascetics; hairy-arm-pitted feminists (loud and proud!); and other images of bodies in non-sexualised contexts as it did of digitally enhanced pornographic vixens, then the image of the non-veiled Other as intrinsically immoral that is pushed by Iran’s clergy would crumble.

I realise that it would be dangerous to assume the role of ‘opener of people’s eyes and broadener of horizons’, because that would inevitably imply some sort of neocolonial agenda. I do not intend to go round showing 22-year-old girls from remote Iranian villages photographs that are potentially subversive because they challenge the dominant discourse of the religious authorities. I do, however, think that responsibly responding to the curiosity of adults regarding their cultural Others can be a positive exchange. I have learned so much from so many people during my three weeks here in Iran, about individual’s perceptions of their culture, government, food, bodies, facial hair… And as with all cultural encounters as dialogical experiences, I have also shared my opinions. I can only hope that doing so has encouraged individuals to continue to quench their curiosities by seeking insight from sources other than mainstream representations by media or government, by challenging whatever dominant paradigm exists in that context.

These are ideals which I hold myself to. I believe that they are sources of growth and inspiration… Not the only sources, because growth and inspiration spring from infinite and often unexpected locations. But somewhere, somewhere inside this constant grappling with Self and Other, there are some valuable inklings, some fleeting illuminations; and we just have to keep scratching into the depths of those exchanges to discover them.

h1

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.

h1

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!’

h1

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.

 

 

 

 

h1

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.

h1

“Dead Tourism”: Reflections on the objects of touristic interest

September 29, 2008

28/09/08 Shiraz

The two main sights we saw in Shiraz were Persipolis and the tomb of Hafez, the infamous Iranian poet. Many of the other things that had been recommended to us, such as the bazaar and certain mosques, were closed on our Friday evening walkabout of the town, obviously the worst time to go sightseeing, especially because it was the last Friday of Ramadan.

Persipolis was quite disappointing: a 120,000 metre square sight of ruins, elevated on a rock slab base 18 metres above ground level. The construction of the ancient city of Parsa was begun in approximately 518 BC by Darius the Great and continued through his successors Xerxes and Artaxerxes, and it served as a royal palace and a place of celebration for the Persian new year, No Ruz. (We found it amusing that we were potentially visiting an ancient site which served a similar function as Glastonbury or Ibiza, to which debauched subjects made annual pilgrimages in order to savour the finest earthy delights of the time… We wondered if, in 2000 years’ time, the nuclear-stricken carcasses of legendary clubbing venues such as Fabric in London would receive similar reverence…) The lifespan of the elaborate, festive city was relatively short, as it was sacked by the armies of Alexander the Great in 330 BC. What remains after excavation and reconstruction of the mythical location is a meager selection of structures: the grand staircase, the mammoth frame of the entrance hall, a few scattered columns, and a handful of bas reliefs alluding to both decoration and customs. Unfortunately, like so many other locations that have been reaped and pillaged by hungry Western archaeologists, the contents of the museum and the site are scarce when compared to the Ancient Persian collection in, say, the British Museum.

To be fair, we are a hard group to please, what with between us we’ve visited many of the world’s truly phenomenal sites: Baalbeck in Lebanon, Karnak in Egypt, Petra in Jordan, Angkor Wat in Vietnam, the Terra Cota Warriors in China, Machu Pichu in Peru. And compared to those sights, which are both architecturally impressive and well preserved, Persipolis fell short of astounding. But to give it some credit, the site itself is well-curated, with clear panels in English and Farsi which provide you with plenty of information and therefore spare you the expense of a guide. And it is worth climbing up to the tomb carved out of rock which flanks the city, because it offers an interesting overhead view.

More impressive were the tombs of Naqsh e-Rostam, about a 10 minute drive from Persipolis. These consist in 4 tombs carved into a mountainside, the resting places of Darius I, Xerxes, Artaxerxes and Darius II. They hover in the sheer rock face over 15 metres off the ground, giving the sight a slightly suspended, ghost-like feeling. Below the tombs are bas reliefs which date hundreds of years after the deaths of the kings, and the specificities of these are explained in detail in clear panels.

After resting from our morning spent out in the baking sun poking round 2000 year old tombs and palaces, we opted for a relaxing evening at the tomb of Hafez, who had discovered the inspirational mix of wine and poetry long before the likes of Rimbaud, Verlaine, or their romantic contemporaries. His verses speak of love and loss, hope and fate, and are riddled with imagery of birds, flowers and other such components of nature. He is still revered in Iran today, despite (perhaps even because of) his tendencies towards indulgence standing in sharp contradiction to the values of the Islamic state. His tomb is situated in a well-kept park of sorts, with ponds and grassy patches.

Surrendering to the romantic sensation of the whole experience, I bought a small collection of Hafez’s poems in Farsi and English in the bookshop on the premises, and then sat in a corner and alternated between reading his works and observing the many people who came to his tomb. Elevated under a sort of pagoda, groups would become silent when approaching the resting place of their revered national poet, and then their composite individuals would step up to the rectangular marble slab under which the body lay, kneel down, and place their heads on the cold stone. It was almost as if they were in a place of religious worship, such was their expressed reverence.

As i sat there, willingly being taken by the whole scene, J read the last pages of the book that he has been reading since the beginning of this trip, entitled ‘We are Iran’. It is an observation of contemporary Iranian thought and social movements through blogging. The two of us sitting there in that garden, at that tomb, in the wake of our day spent discovering ancient Persian relics, sparked some funny thought in me. The contrast between J reading about contemporary social issues with very tangible manifestations and consequences compared to my delving into some abstract, romantic past, bothered me. It made me remember how I find it disturbing that being a visitor in a foreign country means, more often than not, spending more time experiencing the ‘dead’ parts of a country (i.e. its remote history) instead of engaging with the complexities of the present. Of course, to familiarise oneself with the past is an indispensable avenue to understanding the present. But to prioritize activities such as spectator sightseeing of archaeological relics over more banal interactions or up-to-date research is also shallow, because it can limit an outsider’s understanding of a place to some long-gone era that is scarcely relevant to the present.

My first inklings of this sort occurred during my year spent living in Egypt. At that time, I was seeking out the reasons behind my experiences of alienation and harassment that mired my time in that country. Initially, I blamed various elements of contemporary Egyptian society, including the sharp rural-urban divide, disparity of wealth, wide-spread illiteracy and the rise of political Islam as a consequence of the failed economic and political reforms of the Sadat era.

And then I went on holiday to Luxor and Assouan, the sites of many of Egypt’s most infamous sites, including the Temples of Luxor and Karnak and the Valley of the Kings, and saw things differently. It was about 5 months after my arrival in Alexandria, where i was attending university to study Arabic, which was largely enough time to make me realise what is acceptable attire for women in Egypt: modest dress, not showing too much leg, upper arm or chest. The streams of scantily-clad Europeans on package holidays that I encountered in Assouan and Luxor made me lose my self-righteous disdain for the attitudes of some Egyptians towards me, which I had initially perceived as irrationally sexist and anti-Western. It made me understand that the behaviour of most tourists that come to Egypt actually foster the image of a certain frivolity and unfettered sexuality (compared to what is acceptable and unacceptable in Egyptian society). It also made me remember that I also had once played a part in creating that very image of Westerners in Egypt.

Egypt’s main industry is tourism, and it receives thousands of tourists every year, who flock to its celebrated relics in under-dressed gaggles on the ubiquitous Nile cruises. I had been on a similar cruise several years before, on a week-long class trip. I remember sunbathing topless in the glorious spring heat on the deck of the boat with my blossoming adolescent companions, and wandering round the ancient sites in tank tops and shorts. We were completely ignorant of anything to do with contemporary Egyptian values or manners, and lapped up the ancient history as if is was the only thing of substance in the country. I knew no Arabic, had no concept of the country’s recent history, its anti-colonial struggles, it’s wars, it’s occupation… I also knew nothing about Islam. Again, i was completely ignorant of anything that constituted twenty-first century Egypt, and behaved in according disrespect. And, returning to those tourist sites after having learned a fair amount about all those things, i realised that,similar to my young teenage self, the vast majority of those who visit Egypt are equally ignorant.

The tourist industry in Egypt is based on a civilization that existed somewhere between 5-3 thousand years ago. The millions who partake in that industry have their appetites whetted with visions of the country as a grandiose, mythical land of the Pharaohs. For the most part, they come away from their visit with that idea solidly rooted in their minds, because all they have been exposed to are the radiant sunshine and scenic palms of the tranquil Nile shores, the cradle of modern agriculture; the breathtaking temples and palaces that adorn bygone kings and queens that fashioned themselves as the representatives of Gods on earth. They have been shuttled from from boat to archaeological site in clean, air-conditioned buses, without having to spend too long in the blistering heat or dirty streets of the towns they stop in, or without having to interact with any local people apart from those highly irritating ones who run after them trying to sell cheap plastic replicas of the wonders they’ve seen.

They leave Egypt not having known an Egyptian outside the the frame of tourism, outside their own positions of privilege (obviously, no one can ever truly escape their privilege, to think so is naive, but in this case the extent that such privilege infiltrates every single relation is very strong). They might have had an entertaining Egyptian guide, or bought a carpet from a pleasant man who offered them tea, or been showered with innumerable shouts of ‘welcome in Egypt’. They are undoubtedly more fascinated by dead, decaying bodies (the mummies) than the the living, breathing individuals that populate the country. They probably also got slightly ripped off by a souvenir peddler, and perhaps resent being taken advantage of. The only modern structure that has probably been framed as being of any significance is the Assouan dam, and even then it is no doubt belittled in comparison to the glorious temples that have just been visited.

Basically, that type of tourism constructs an image of Egypt in tourists minds as a place of nostalgic return to a past, dead civilization, which is made to harbour a historical richness that is pre-packaged, sanitised and fit for Western consumption. When they compare this romanticised past to Egypt’s current social ills, including poverty and corruption and the rise of political Islam, the country is seen in a state of regression, because the current culture is rendered devoid of any significance outside the touristic trope. Reciprocally, tourists in Egypt do not even consider modifying their behaviour/dress to suit Egypt’s cultural values. Therefore, in turn, the Egyptians have come to think of foreigners as disrespectful and endowed with unimaginable disposable incomes that enable their jilted consumption of the treasures of ancient Egypt. Both images mutually reinforce the negative aspects of each party’s other, and sustain a tense, problematic relationship between the two.

Although the Egyptian case is an extreme, I have elaborated upon it so much in order to question the extent to which similar patterns reproduce themselves in all touristic destinations. How do we ‘experience’ a foreign country? What do we choose to see, what do we prioritise? Inversely, what do we deem as banal and hence not of interest? We precipitate upon the anti-Israeli street demonstrations in the major cities of Iran that marked the last Friday of Ramadan, but perhaps disregard the groups of schoolchildren leaving school, or the myriad different ways in which women transcend the strict Islamic dress code through hairstyle, make-up and other dress forms…

No traveler should forget the implications of their gaze, and how that gaze creates what is seen of our difference…