Posts Tagged ‘Iran’


Badgirs and bed-ridden in Yazd

September 25, 2008


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.


Tehran’s grooviest taxi driver

September 21, 2008


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.


Art and Authority

September 21, 2008
20/09/08It was J’s birthday yesterday. The thing he most desired was a cold beer, so we trekked down to the Armenian Club for a late lunch, thinking that would be our best bet. Unfortunately, the only beer on the menu was non-alcoholic, and so our celebratory meal consisted in a sober session accompanied by some mediocre spaghetti, a slightly disappointing but no doubt memorable birthday.

One of the things that we hadn’t expected was the extent of complete shutdown that the city entered on Fridays. Everything was shut, from shops to restaurants to internet cafes,and the roads were quiet. Again, this could have been exacerbated due to Ramadan, but I do get the feeling that all year round, Fridays are a day reserved for rest and worship.

One of the few things that was open was the Museum of Contemporary Art, situated inside Park Laleh. Now here was some life. The park was filled with families and couples, lounging in the grass, playing badminton, strumming Spanish guitars… A pleasant dose of liveliness after the relative desertion of other parts of the city.

The exhibition in the museum was the fourth Annual Iran Typography Exhibition, which meant that all of the pieces on display were calligraphical. There were hundreds of pieces on display, most of them computerized or graphically designed, all of them directly and explicitly religious. The content of the pieces was recurrent throughout the exhibition, as all of the words used were Koranic and referred to Allah. Therefore, all variations were in the form that the words took. The most common words phrases were: ‘Allah’, ‘bismillah alrahman alrahim’ (in the name of God, the most benevolent and most merciful; the opening verse of the Koran); and then variations of the 99 names for Allah (‘alhaqq’, the truth; ‘alawwal’, the first; ‘alakhir’, the last; ‘malik almuluk’, king of kings; etc).

The redundancy could have been boring (and I admit that by the end it was slightly) but for the most part the artists’ stylistic choices in colour, font, contrast etc (note that im obviously not an artist with such limited descriptive words!) made the exhibition very interesting. One of the works that has stuck in my mind set the phrase ‘bismillah alrahman alrahim’ in the form of birds, drawn in white against a blue background. Others listed words and varied the thickness and length of their letters in order to create other patterns or words in a more layered/subliminal fashion.

What fascinated me the most about the exhibition was the notion the because the substantive choices were so limited, the style and form had to be worked on in even greater lengths in order to render each piece unique and enable innovative expression. For the most part, I would say that the artists’ succeeded in doing so.

Obviously, this genre of art is very compatible with the exigencies of the Islamic regime, because the subject matter is completely controlled. In fact, to me, the exhibition felt like a collection of modern Islamic art, in that it followed the conventions of traditional Islamic art (the use of calligraphy and abstract geometrical patterns for the purpose of praise) but through cutting edge means, including state of the art computer design software. I wondered to what extent this exhibition determined the platform of graphic design artists. Were there other such high-profile annual exhibitions in which design artists (or any artists for that matter) were NOT bound to religious dictates? Perhaps, but the lack of any permanent collection in the museum made me unable to answer that question.

I have to admit that throughout I was eagerly seeking signs of dissidence, of divergence from the imposed model. And although i did not find them in substance, i feel that the proliferation of forms and colours was the key to individuality, and that therein lied the potential for subversion. I did not interpret the pieces in the exhibition as expressions of worship. I felt that it was the externalization of individual artistic desires and impulses through the imposed paradigm of worship. As a spectator, I sensed that the more often than not, the words were secondary to the form, mere vehicles through which other feelings could be delivered. In many pieces i felt disillusionment, perhaps frustration. In some i felt a desire to escape, to move far beyond the dictates.

There were, notwithstanding, some through which i felt strong faith; that cannot be denied. But this was not the majority, and I came out of the museum feeling like I had just been in a sort of zoo, where animals are obliged to perform outside their dispositions in order to please the audience. I felt that a burning artistic desire was being shackled.



September 20, 2008

Lesson 4: Internet cafes (coffeenets) are few and far between in southern Tehran. They also close at 3pm on Thursdays and do not open again until Saturday morning…


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.