Iran: Persia, picnics, pomegranates & poetry

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From historic silk road desert towns to modern metropolises to remnants of the glorious ancient Persian empire, Iran will amaze even the most intrepid of travellers.

YAZD, IRAN — Mostafa passes me the hose of the water pipe and as I accept it, I give his hand the customary two taps with my finger — a sign of thanks. I take greedy drags and the water in the glass jar bubbles vigorously, the hot coals perched on top glow red. Cool, moist tobacco smoke infused with apple flavour fills my lungs. Before arriving in Iran, I was genuinely unsettled by the fact that I would be without wine for weeks (alcohol is illegal in Iran). However, it seems one vice has successfully been replaced with another.

“This is the life,” I think to myself, ignoring the beautiful irony that with each puff I am reducing my life expectancy. If you were here in Yazd, an old city on the Silk Road in central Iran, you wouldn’t disagree with my statement.

In the courtyard of the Orient Hotel, a traditional desert house, we sit cross-legged on Persian carpets, lolling in the evening twilight. The intoxicating scent of orange blossoms wafts through the air. In between sips of syrupy sweet tea and nibbles of baghlava spiced with cardamom and rosewater, we chat and jest, the gentle warble of the call to prayer mingling with our laughter.

It may be strange to think of Iran as having a culture of pleasure but it does, in a simple, epicurean sense. Here, the sweet life is the indulgence in food, family and friends. Behind the austere façade and images of women draped in shapeless black cloth is a Persian culture passionate about picnics, pomegranates, poetry and, well, puffing.

A self-proclaimed expert in shisha, Mostafa laughs at my failed attempt at blowing a smoke ring.

“I’m a ‘Shishologist,’ Ph.D,” he says. “You need to keep practicing to earn your B.A. in ‘Shishology.’”

I knew little about Iran before arriving. Thanks to an expensive university degree (a minor in Classical Civilizations, no less), I knew that in the toga-and-sandals days the Persians didn’t get along with the Greeks. As for modern-day Iran, I’ve seen the news clips, read snippets from the international media. To put it lightly, the leaders aren’t out to win our favour. The application process to get a tourist visa didn’t exactly make me feel welcome.

The people in Iran, though, treat you very differently than their government.

By the time my plane touched down in Tehran, I had four invitations and phone numbers from people offering to feed me/be my tour guide/adopt me. They were surprised and overjoyed that I was visiting their country. I became the toast of rows 28 to 34.

“If you need anything,” my new den mother 31H said, “anything, you call me and we will come pick you up.”

Before we disembarked she taught me how to put on my headscarf.

“Are you in the Islamic Republic of Iran?” Mostafa says, flashing his signature mischievous grin.

Was this a trick question? “Yes . . .”

“Then unfortunately you must cover your hair,” he laughs. I pat my head and discover the headscarf has slipped back for the umpteenth time. I sigh and re-adjust. Even in the hotel the headscarf is required.

I love experiencing different cultures and customs. I’m one who will enthusiastically eat mystery animal organ-on-a-stick because a smiling local has offered it to me — and I’ll make all the appropriate “mmm!” sounds even when it tastes offal (sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun). But I am really being put to the test here. They say you should walk a mile in someone’s shoes — but how about wearing that person’s clothes? I knew putting on the hijab would be interesting, I just didn’t know how interesting.

The headscarf is hot. There’s an angry heat rash on the back of my neck. The scarf constantly falls back, revealing a matted mess of hair. It unravels at inopportune moments (i.e., while using the squat toilet) and snags on things. When I set down my backpack at the airport, the scarf got caught and I was choked. People watched, perplexed, as the odd foreigner struggled and gasped like she was fighting a boa constrictor. “Gah! aghck! drrr.”

I was reprimanded once by the fashion police, near a mosque. An old crone poked me hard in the ribs, flashed a badge and pointed to a bit of my neck accidentally exposed. It gave me a perverse thrill, like I was 14 again and annoying my mother with my outfit.

Many women wear a chador in public, a full-length cloak draped over the head and held closed in front by hand. But there are also women who don stylish figure-hugging coats, full makeup and stilettos. Sophisticated and chic, never is there a single hair out of place, their scarf gracefully resting on the back of their heads. My frustration trumps fashion; I’ve resorted to tying it under my chin like a granny.

Travel Iran
Here I’m photographing the abandoned desert town of Kharanaq. Taking photos while ensuring my headscarf remained on was a challenge.

Waiting for my turn with the pipe, my tobacco-induced happy fog dissipates and anxiety creeps in. I haven’t even left Iran and I’m feeling pressure about what to write. It’s a certain kind of panic writers are used to feeling.

Should I write about Esfahan, a city described as “half of the world” in a Persian proverb? You’d believe it if you stood in glorious Imam Square, the second-largest square in the world after Tiananmen in Beijing. I could describe the sheer enormity of it, the stunning architecture, the way your neck aches from gazing up at the effortlessly soaring arches and elegant domes covered in intricate tiles of every shade of blue imaginable.

Or perhaps I should write about how I was allowed into Aramgah-e Shah-e Cheragh, a mausoleum in Shiraz. The entire interior was overlaid with mirror tile mosaic. Breathlessly, I watched as women shed tears, touching their heads, hands and hearts to the shrine.

Ah, Shiraz — the city reputed for its gardens, culture and poets. Alas, the no-alcohol rule in Iran really is a shame since Shiraz is where, legend has it, the famous grape and red wine originated. No matter. Befriend someone from Shiraz and you’re guaranteed a good time. Ask any Iranian and they’ll tell you Shirazis are easygoing and fun loving — and lazy (note: Mostafa, who introduced me to the water pipe, is from Shiraz).

But Persepolis is the attraction most well known to the outside world. Once the crowning glory of the Achaemenid Empire, the city was burned by Alexander the Great in 330 BC. Like all ancient ruins, imagination is required to appreciate what you are viewing. Perhaps more interesting than the rubble is chatting with the throngs of Iranian families on holiday.

Harsh deserts, snow-capped mountains, modern cities, ancient towns, fertile lands and seas . . . packing it into 1,000 words seems impossible.

Mostafa sees me ruminating and passes me the hose of the water pipe. Two taps. What a relief. I’ve been saved from thinking about how to write the ending, something else I fret about. Now all I care about is how this night will end. Written by a Persian, it would end with good food, laughter and friends. And maybe another session with the water pipe.

This story was published in The Toronto Star, September 3, 2011.

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