You may be wondering what I have actually been doing in Iran , apart from looking at old buildings, chatting with locals and pondering upon the Iranian psyche. Well, as the hardened travellers amongst you will know there is plenty to dull the exotic image of distant lands and cultures: buttock numbing hours on sweaty bus seats; strained crouching over cracked porcelain, stained with an age of misuse; ill natured haggling with the species endemic to all nations – the money grabbing taxi driver; beating off the pathfinders of the cockroach battalion that has picked up the scent of my fish supper. Why indeed do we endure such tests, well, as the prophet Mohammed’s son in law, Imam Ali once said, “one days travel is worth 20 at home”. Even in our times of 42″ plasma screens and surround sound this still holds true, TV can’t transmit the real time stimulation of the senses: the warmth of the last rays of the sun as it breaks through the clouds at dusk to cast jagged shadows from giant, wind sculptured rocks that rise from black desert sands; the taste of fresh caught shark on lemon and barberry flavoured rice; the cheery hello of builders as they take a few seconds respite in the blistering heat to welcome you to their earthquake devastated city ; dancing in the moonlight on a roof top with people of ten different nations to illegal Iranian pop music amongst the aroma of apple scented tobacco. Another thing you most certainly won’t encounter on your sofa is Horst: a bearded, dreadlocked German who has become a sadhu (holy man) in India, completing his third cycling trip between India and Germany to renew his visa; his guru having spent the last 30 years with his now atrophied right arm held permanently in the air in order to learn through pain.
Whilst I am on the subject of some of the more trying aspects of travel I should start with the south coast of Iran which I have just left. I’ve experienced several hot places before but I was beginning to think that my tolerance for it had waned until I found a thermometer to leave out in the shade for a while at midday. When it reached 46C I realised that a siesta was the only option until the sun was low in the sky. The cultural mix of the South was encapsulated in the Thursday market in Minab, with its blend of Baluchi, Arab and African added to the Iranians, there are a range of faces many of which would not look out of place in Mumbai, Cairo or Nairobi. Whether you were hunting for tobacco, tuna, plastic tat, goat’s innards or palm frond brushes there was plenty of choice. Unlike the rest of Iran, where women’s faces are clearly visible, many of the local women’s faces are covered, not with a veil but coloured masks: a centrally ridged rectangle or a sort of batman affair being the most common. The cultural mix was added to when, with a New Zealand fellow traveller we stayed in a hotel on the island of Qeshm catering, almost entirely for migrant, Indian workers recuperating from a stint in Dubai. All prices were in Dirhams and there was curry for breakfast as well as lunch.
Earlier in the trip I experienced a ritual at a Zurkhune, which is a kind of amalgam of wrestlers warm up routine and Sufi ritual to the rhythm of drumming, Islamic chanting and poetry. Its origins are too old to guess at but it still attracts devotees from 6 to 60. The sight of a hulking, hairy, middle aged man performing dervish whirling at a frantic speed is something metaphors and similes fail to encapsulate.
On a more sedate note the multitude of great, mud walled alleys of ancient Yazd provided a beautiful calm away from the surrounding modern city. Lurching skywards from the mixture of crumbling ruins, elegant houses, bustling bazaars and humble homes are hundreds of old ventilation towers called Badgirs that funnel even the mildest breeze on a hot day into the homes below. It was however a location begging for a 007 style chase scene. In fact, one can’t help but think that a decent Hollywood style film that didn’t pander to the blinkered idea of Iran as a hotbed of dangerous fundamentalism, making use of the myriad potential film locations here would do more to improve relations than any effort so far. One can only hope that the western public is open to such enlightened views and the regime would consider a public image revolution. Yazd is also the Iranian home to the Zoroastrian religion (arguably the world’s first monotheistic religion, although the Jews could quibble about this) and somewhat influential on the Abrahamic faiths to follow. A sacred flame there has been burning since at least 470AD and you don’t have to have a spiritual atom in your body to feel in the presence of something special in such places. Having been to several places of great religious significance in various countries I find that they at least share a historical resonance in the events that have gone on around them and still do even now. What spiritual significance you attach to them may depend on your own personal faith but to ignore them is to ignore a vital part of mankind’s history.
After such portentous thoughts I ought to dwell on things more trivial. You may be surprised by the number of signs in English here, major roads and squares usually have bilingual signs; fast food is described as ‘fast food”, in English along with its popular products – hamburgers and pizzas; shops and advertising are common homes to the English language, my favourite being above one shop proudly declaring: “The first and best manufacturer of sanitary ware in Iran”.
Western culture has made many other inroads into Iran: on board entertainment on one bus journey was a dubbed version of the Waltons and there is no more a savage indictment of a program’s mediocrity than having it passed by the Iranian mullahs as fit for broadcasting. I eagerly await the re runs of Little house on the prairie.