Iran, my neighbour.
Text and photography: Rüçhan Ziya
When you first start traveling, getting away is generally the point. It is mainly the far away places you are interested in. You want to see baobab trees, natives. You want to exchange gifts with the chief. However as time goes by, you start to figure some rules for traveling; like GKYOKF (Get to Know Your Own Country First) and maybe later GKYNCS (Get to Know Your Neighbouring Countries Second). It may also be you are just getting older and can not go far.
So as a principle, we set out to Iran. A frightening country at first. Our childhood is full of horror stories like Iran exporting the religious revolution and our lives changing forever. Women have to cover their hairs, should not show their legs, arms, etc… the Islamic dress code which partly effects men also (from the belly to the knees only.)
The history lessons should have thought us that, during the Roman era there was also another civilization, so there is also a time called Persian era. A major ancient culture. There should be people living as long as the history goes back. Omer Hayyam used to recite poetry and develop a life view there. Shiraz Wines get their name from a Persian city…. So there was a lot before our humble lifes. But no we were stuck at the last 25 years and forgot about the past 250,000 years.
In stress, we arrive in Tehran (Tahran). With our proper Islamic code dresses we pass passport control. And one of the nicest part of our Iran Trip; without a Visa. Here we take our revenge on other nations, I remember the days of stress when I could not get a Chinese Visa in HongKong while almost everyone was getting one from travel agencies. Here I am proud and continuing my mission of visiting non-visa requiring countries.
Tahran – The Getting Lost
Tahran is a very big city of 12 million people living on the skirts of Mount Darbant. Most big cities welcome stangers and travelers but not Tahran. We never got lost in Tahran but it is hard to say we got where we wanted. Tahran is not an easy city,you can just go to a few historical places and recommend them to your friends. It looks like you need to try hard and spend your precious time to understand the city.
Not having a single friend in Tahran we spent our days in vain. In a city of 12 million you need to know where to go. We had no difficulty in finding the guide book recommended streets, places. We walked for hours on the streets, spent time in tea shops, smoking water pipes, we shopped in the grand bazaar. But all this led to more frustration and despair. Maybe in winter Tahran will be easier. The mount Darbant has skiing facilities and the lifts are operating from the north end of Tahran. So staying in city and having a skiing holiday is possible. And with skiing Islamic Code will also be less hassle.
Qom – (Kum)
We arrived in Qom with all our stress gathered in Tahran and spend a few days in this one of the holiest cities in Iran. Qom also is a University town, where most of the prestigious universities are. Homeyni (Humeyni) the head of Islamic revolution has lived and studied here as well.
Here we start learning more about the sects of Islam, coming from Sunni tradition we did not know much about the Shiite sect. Except their name and it requires a boot full of blood to ruin your abdest (you will be required to clean yourself before performing religious activities). In sunni sect only a minor cut is enough.
However it turns out that the real separation goes further into history and politics. And all our knowledge was just details. I am still not an expert but following the power struggle, wars and killings after the death of Prophet Mohammed, naturally all the sides did not vanish. There are no wars but the tension is still there as we can see out in the open in the occupied Iraq (Irak).
Qom is a major Shiite pilgrimage site after Karbala (Kerbela), in Iraq. The tomb of Hz. Masume (the sister of Emam Reza (Imam Riza) is in Qom. Combine the shrine with religious universities, the relatively relaxed Islamic Outfits are history. Almost all the woman wear black head to toe covers (Cador). And most of the men are dressed according to the various minor sects. Heads covered with white/black cloths, and wear loose pants with black almost transparent coats. Having seen various movies, it is quite frightening at first. However as we wander around the streets, despite the curious looks, we feel much more relaxed compared to Qom. Yes, it is obvious we are outsiders but we are welcome to wander around, visit Homeyni’s very basic house and the shrine, if we are muslims and covered head to toe if we are women.
We were also lucky to have local people accompanying us. So we had no problems even during our visit to the shrine with two ladies, one being a blonde Norwegian wearing a white trenchcoat, (having the air of Casablanca) in the middle of all black women.
ESFEHAN (Isfahan) – NAGSHE JAHAN
We had a basic plan for visiting various cities in Iran, and we mentioned Esfehan evertime we were asked our itinary. So we learned about the saying, “Esfehan, Nagse Jahan” meaning “Esfehan, Half of the world” without the rhyme. And some completed the saying by addind “if it weren’t for Tabriz”. I have not seen Tabriz but I believe this comes from the jealous Tebrizi people. I will know better when I visit Tabriz one day.
So Esfehan should be some place at least in the past we thought. We arrived in Esfehan through a relaxing road, Caharbag, which used to have 40 vineyards I believe. Esfehan is the most touristic city in Iran however even in the Emam Square (AKA Nagshe Cahan square) the top touristic destination, the foreigners are rarity, contrasting with Sultan Ahmet or Times Square for the matter.
Wandering around the Emam square, visiting the beatufilly tiled Sheih Lutfullah mosque, or Emam Mosque, shopping in the bazaar next to the square, one can feel and catch glimpses of the mythical east. And smoking a waterpipe in one of the shops overlooking the square, is the best way to think about the old times when the square was built and traffic was better. Here you can find the old Persian and Omer Khayyam times.
The buildings in the square are marvelous examples of Islamic architecture, calligraphy and art. And in the bazaar you can find more examples some resembling the ones in Turkey, and some are different as painting people is not seen as a sin in the Shiite sect unlike Sunni sect. Iran is also the birthplace for miniatures. (The painting which has a different perspective, where the scene is seen from the top, god’s (Allah) view.
So Esfehan is also a trap for shopping Iran souvenirs, if that’s your cup of tea.
Unlike Tahran, which does not have a major river, and Qom which has a river but dries in summer to be used as a parking lot; Zayendeh river flows through Esfehan peacefully and people cross over beautiful bridges spread over the river or just sit and sip tea in the teashops (cayhane) under the bridges.
Tea (Cay) and waterpipe (nargile) is very common in Iran where as cigarettes are not. And people do not smoke for hours, they take a few puffs and drop it. Lack of multinational (American) companies promoting cigarettes could be the reason for the healty life of Iranians.
SHIRAZ _Where are all the fish?
Having relaxed completely in Esfehan, we arrive in another major town, Shiraz. Which also hosts a dried out river when we visited. Shiraz is a major stop over to visit Persopolis and other Archemenidi ruins.And you can see a totally different city to understand the impossibility of generalising iran cities. Besides the tomb of Hafiz to smoke Qalyan (another word for nargile) and to further deepen your contact with Iranians.
Language: Throughout out trip we did not have any major problems with the language. And English was not the #1 language we were using. We were speaking Turkish for most of time. Having not studied history and geography I did not expect to find that many people speaking Turkish or a Turkic language of dialect. Acorrding to some people I met more than %50 percent of Iran was Turkic origin (Azerian Turks, Azeris, Turkmens, or plain Turks.) And almost everywhere we have been to there was someone to speak Turkish (or at least some words) to. And as Persian was the main artistic and royal language during ottoman times plus having the tradition of using Persian numbers for backgammon we could understand many Persian words too. Being geographically close also preserves many words. It was chai in India, Chay in Iran and Cay in Turkey. One of my curiosities, the origin of some week days in Turkish, also came to an end in Iran. The week days in Persian go like Shanbe, DoShanbe, Charshanbe,…
After the abandoned ruins of Persopolis and others on our way between SHIRAZ and Yazd, coming into a really living city was great. And besides, Yazd is one of the oldest cities still inhabited according toUNESCO as we came to learn later. Yazd is a city having all the charm and weight of centuries. In the old part the alleys are labyrinths and the buildings are made from yellow sand. The houses go deeper than the road level demonstrating the years passed. And the people in Yazd just as happy as you are. Being away from the central authority and big cities, being close to desert and having centuries of wisdom behind, live peacefully. The general atmosphere is exceptionally tranquil.
In Iran generally, with the exception of Tahran, you can feel like you are in an eastern Turkish city where many women are also covered not because of the state authority but the traditions. Just like these places, it is obvious that you are an outsider but you are also welcome with your difference as long as you mind your own business. Taking photos, buying souvenirs, asking directions, and the casual smalltalk.
So following the principle of SANC (See A Neighbouring Country), a rewarding, entertaining and edutaining trip has been realized.
The results of the trip as a summary; no need to be so frightened of Iran, we can manage in Turkish , mostly Turkish people are highly regarded, there are indeed rare sights in Iran, food is cheap, generally the accomodation also, the gas prices are 1/10 of Turkey, the effects of American Ambargo is not felt much (maybe lack of smoking), the wealth distribution seems ok (more than OK compared to many countries), the street poverty is almost inexistent.
Rüçhan Ziya, Copyright 2005
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