In the cooler NW of Iran many people speak a Turkish dialect and more importantly, the cake selection has improved markedly on the rest of country. My, albeit limited knowledge of the Turkish language came into great use in Zanjan, where I spent an evening with some local students, they were most impressed by me knowing the Turkish for fart and we got on famously after that. So if any of you take up another language don’t let the teacher bully you into work on complex grammatical terminology before doing bodily functions first. It’s a subject all cultures share, although some like to share it more than others and after all, what use is the pluperfect subjunctive conjugation of an irregular verb when you have 30 seconds to find a toilet before all hell breaks loose
I must point out a few of the harmless quirks of Iranian culture that you will encounter.
1) The desire to take photos of us tourists, even for only the briefest of encounters – it’s all done in the nicest possible way but who knows the point of it, maybe they have a gallery of English twits they can compare with their mates.
2) As is common in other Middle Eastern countries the concept of impoliteness for many personal questions is non existent, although it didn’t quite extend to bodily functions. Personally I don’t regard my age, income and marital status as facts worthy of disguising but others may. Of course stating that such questions of a personal nature can be improper in our culture will tend to be respected, though they may be stumped as to what to talk about if their English is limited as these seem to be the things that they all learn first.
3) Being some way down on the Top Tourist Destinations list you are bound to be a bit of a novelty to the locals who seem to regard even your mere presence as of value – the total inability to communicate with them will not hinder this interest. This facet only really becomes bothersome with schoolgirl outings at sites of interest (why the boys hardly seem to get such outings remains a mystery). If your response to their “hello” goes one small step beyond a simple reply before you move swiftly on you will quickly be surrounded by the whole group, usually declaring, “I love you”. Now I know that some of you male readers will be thinking that the prospect of being surrounded by hoards of attractive teenage girls confessing their love for you will have you on the next plane out. It may be worth considering the linguistic nature of Farsi that doesn’t differentiate between love and like except by context and while marriage to girls of 13 is permissible, sex outside of marriage with a Muslim girl will probably get you the death sentence. You do of course have the option of converting to Islam and taking up to four brides.
As an example of how engrained into the culture the welcome for strangers is here I would like to show you an official notice outside a mosque under construction that gave the words of Imam Ali (after Allah and Mohammed he is the most important figure in Shia Islam, being Mohammed’s son in law ):-
To quote the sign, “As long as a tourist is in an Islamic country the Islamic government is responsible to guarantee his safety and comfort. If a tourist in an Islamic country loses his properties the government should support and provide him with the lost property”.
Thankfully I haven’t needed to make use of this option but it is worth bearing in mind that such sentiments are more of a genuine reflection of everyday Islam than the rantings of fundamentalists that the media concentrates on. There is a common assumption that Western visitors are probably Christian and I heard nothing but respectful comments re Christianity, which is seen as a “religion of the book” as expressed in the Qur’an, ie: related to Islam. At this point it is also worth mentioning the demonstration I saw yesterday in Tabriz: given the number of coaches at the roadside it was obvious that the party faithful were shipped in to join in some, frankly rather lacklustre chanting of “marg bar amrika” ( death to America ), which was greeted with utter indifference by the locals, most of whom didn’t even bother turning their heads to see what was going on. From my understanding this would seem to be fairly typical. So, with the exception of G.Bush doing something extremely stupid, the next time the news shows you “an angry crowd in Iran” bear in mind that the average Iranian is more concerned with the price of fruit and how Man. United are doing in the cup.
My recent wanderings included a visit to Persepolis which is the big must see, representing as it is the great flowering of Persian culture from 500 to 330BC. Despite its age the ruins of its palaces are still impressive and many of the carvings are as crisp as they day they were made. If it wasn’t for Alexander the Great downing a bit too much of the local Shiraz one night and getting into a bit of a strop and ordering the place to be burnt down it would probably be in a better state. Although the bulk of the buildings are of stone the roofs were of Lebanese cedar and thus flammable. Such behaviour was fairly typical of Alexander but maybe the Achaemenid builders of Persepolis were simply paying the price for ignoring the lesson laid down in the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh. For those with any interest in ancient literature the epic is the oldest written story and one of the things that Gilgamesh was punished for by the gods was chopping down the cedar forest. Given that the tale is at least 5000 years old it comes as no surprise that humanity is still ignoring such an obvious environmental message, even now. As an aside you may interested to know that the bible’s Noah and the flood story comes directly from the Gilgamesh epic. Whilst dealing with the same period as Persepolis, the film 300 is a bit of a sore point here as it depicts the Persians as a sorry bunch of rampant homosexuals easily thrashed in battle by a small band of Spartans in leather jock straps. To be perfectly honest I thought the Persians looked like real men and the Spartans were camper than a row of tents. Anyway, I had to explain that it was unlikely that the film was a Pentagon plot and was just another example of Hollywood’s inability of letting history get in the way of a simplistic plot line that would otherwise strain the minds of the more educationally challenged American. Besides, history clearly demonstrates that the Spartan regime of training of young men into warriors made today’s Catholic priest sex scandals look decidedly tame, so were in no place to accuse the Persians of being poofs.
To show that I have not lost contact with my feminine side I have been keeping notes on ladies fashions for you female readers. Iran is the Ford model T of the fashion world:- you can have any colour you want, as long as its black. Whole market stalls can be devoted to variations on black material, from the gauzy patterned black to heavy winter warmth black. Beyond the choice of colour, which represents mourning for martyrs, I am at a loss to understand the practical point of the all enveloping chador here because, almost invariably the women are in religiously acceptable standards of modesty, including headscarves, underneath them anyway. They require frequent adjustment and holding in place to some extent, often done with the mouth, which must lead to chador lip or some such affliction. But, I suppose style has never been hindered by practical considerations. In this year are: blonde highlights; big shades and turn ups on denim jeans. So you have no excuse for looking out of place. That said you can always spot a female tourist simply by their inability to fix a headscarf with the same panache as the locals. Rebelliousness is measured by the amount of hair showing at the front, once the headscarf has crept back to the top of the head you are at what would be the UK equivalent of facial piercings and ANARCHY tattooed on the forehead.
Just so the boys don’t feel left out, a few words about cars, or rather a car – the Paykan. This trusty, locally made work horse probably makes up half of the road going vehicles. I want you to imagine that car design reached a pinnacle around 1973 with the Hillman Hunter and stayed there, for it was this British design classic which they chose to copy. For the automotively disinclined or those unfamiliar with British cars of the 1970’s: use the barest hint of imagination to re-create the most uninspired vehicle of your youth, then remove any curves you may have thought of and voila- the Paykan. I suppose for £4k for a new one you can’t be fussy though.
One unavoidable theme that permeates society is martyrdom. As well as the black worn by women, every town is decorated with pictures of those martyred in the Iran Iraq war; the religious channels regularly fit the war martyrs into their programs; posters of Imam Hossein, martyred in the battle of Kerbala in the 7th century adorn shop walls up and down the country. Even Hossein’s horse was deemed to have been martyred. It’s a force so strong in Shia Islam that it drove 13 year old boys to blissfully walk into minefields to clear them and one can assume that any military action today would only provoke an equally fervent response. In a quest to learn more about the subject I visited the Behesht e Zahara cemetery on the outskirts of Tehran where many martyrs are buried. Forget the tranquil image of quiet reflection in English cemeteries, this was a hive of activity – graves being cleaned and new flowers displayed, whole families picnicking with a positive remembrance for the dead rather than the grim faced solemnity of home. These “mourners” happily shared their sweets, dates and cake with me. So, if it was down to me at crunch time for the big vote at the UN I would always side on the country which dishes out free cake anytime.
All I hope is that my visit has shown you that any simplified notions about Iran, whether social, political, religious or otherwise that may be presented to you are almost certainly wide of the mark, but you can be sure that its people (with a few exceptions of course) are a credit to the nation. But for all its good points it has to be said that a bacon sarnie and a pint of lager is looking bloody tempting right now.