Friday, 29 October 2010

Such Beauty Words Can't Describe

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Scratching the Surface

From Tabriz we decided get a bus to Tehran. We needed to sort out our visas to Uzbekistan so it suited us fine to miss what turned out to be a very busy and polluted road. Arriving in the middle of the capital in the dark with no clue where we were heading was flippin scary.

But that fear soon turned to excitement. At a traffic light, mildly afraid for our lives, moderately stressed and utterly lost we asked a chap on a scooter if he could direct us to the Firuzeh hotel. He said “Sure, follow me” and zoomed off. We pedalled after him full tilt in a surreal half-hour chase scene that could have featured in any kick-ass action flick. I wished I had the initiative to film it all, but really we were just hanging on for dear life. The chap was weaving through the chaos of Tehran traffic, dodging, speeding, screeching, zooming. As we said before, normal road ruled do not apply here and the only thing that matters is to survive. He was riding down one way streets, onto pavements, running red lights while we cranked furiously trying to keep up. Often we also had a swarm of other motorcyclists pulling to the side of us and asking a whole lot of questions. “Where are you from?” “What is your name?” “Do you like Iran?” “Are you two married?”. Moving fast through chaotic traffic is difficult enough, but trying to have a conversation at the same time with two motorcyclists on either side of you turns downright exhilarating. It soon transpired that our guide had absolutely no clue of where we were going; he was asking around for directions, backtracking, asking again, carrying on. We just shut up and followed. And finally after several attempts we managed to find our resting place for the night. We had started in Northern Tehran and ended up in the South part of town. Our guide in shining helmet did not need to come here at all, just took it onto himself to take us where we needed. We did not know how to thank him, he just smiled, said: “It's my duty and pleasure” and sped off.

Arriving in a city where you know nobody is not the same everywhere. In Iran it is difficult to know nobody for more than five minutes. The day after arriving in Tehran we had several messages from couchsurfing hosts asking if we had arrived and whether we needed a guide. Some of the people we met through this network will stay in our memories for a long time. In fact, let me rephrase that: because of the friends we made here, this is a country we will have to come back to.

In Iran the couchsurfing network works slightly differently than in the UK. Here it is also used as a social network to organize meetings and excursions with other locals. In Tehran we met one such groups and ended up going to a caving expedition just South of Mount Damavand. These young Tehranis were a liberated and raucous bunch and out in the mountains it was difficult to remember the rigid rules that constrict Iranian society most of the times. Girls were wearing short sleeves, head scarves came off and for a while hijab was forgotten. For the sake of privacy I will not mention names here, but we hold two of the people we met on our little expedition as very dear to us. And if you are reading this dear friends, believe us when we say that we will be back to climb the Great Damavand with you (and have another sip of your potent moonshine ;-).

Also in Tehran we had our second English class. Again, this felt much more like a cultural exchange group than a language class. K teaches his students about behaviour, customs and ways of looking at the world as much as pronunciation. English classes in this country felt very political, almost radical, not in the sense that they directly teach dissent, but through stimulating curiosity and questions. And questions of course can be highly corrosive to the granitic bastions of propaganda.

We heard many harrowing stories, but our friends had an enthusiasm and joie de vivre that didn't betray the hardships and horror they had experienced. Their interest in making contact was genuine and innocent, and hanging around them was refreshing and light-hearted.

We had a some time to kill in the capital as we were waiting for the rusty cogs of bureaucracy to churn out a couple of stickers that would allow us to cross the next border. Somehow we managed to miss all tourist sites in Tehran and instead spent our time over (very expensive) cappuccinos talking, laughing, and generally hanging around with our new friends. Of course we had to rush about a bit to sort out our visas but that's tedious enough to do without having to bore the whole world talking about it. Let me just say that we have it easy, very easy in fact. Whatever complaint we might have about how much of a pain it is for us to try getting visas for certain places, pales when confronted to the impassable barriers our governments set up to prevent others entering Europe and the West. Really, we ought to cherish our freedom to roam as this is not a privilege shared by many.

In Esfahan we had another chance encounter with a group of young artists. We were stuck in town again because of waiting for a visa extension so we ended up spending a few days and smoky nights talking. One of my absolute highlights was the ability to play a long set of my favourite music one morning in a café in the Armenian part of town. In a country where dancing is prohibited, being able to play loud music was a great joy and privilege. Not many people were there but I was happy to share what I love with those selected few.

The last night of our stay I was speaking with S and M about the English language and being vegetarian when something clicked in them. I remember a very sudden and violent outpour of emotion. Through their words I heard of their frustration but through their voices I felt their anguish and anger. It was the first time I actually faced the intensity of our friends' fury. The only options that seem open to people here are to bow down to a system they despise or bail out, leaving much of what they love behind. I felt paralysed, unable to help or offer any true comfort. How can one go back home and watch telly after that?

Well, the chance to help someone presented itself just a few weeks later. Details might jeopardise our ability to help, so we'll just say we found a fragile briar we want to help bloom.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

For the sake of the Iranian people

Our experience here has been completely different from the previous parts of this trip. Where before we spent much time pedalling, here mostly we stayed still (and moved around by bus when we needed). Where before much of our experience was about landscape, here it was all about human interaction. Where before we looked, here we listened.

From the moment we arrived Iran felt much different from Turkey. Although there are obvious common elements such as hectolitres of çay and strong faith, the details of these common elements differ. Here sugar cubes are kept in the mouth while sipping the tea, and the domes of the mosques are more rounded and spherical than onion shaped. The architecture of simple houses also is different: windows are long and narrow, buildings generally are of only one floor, made of yellow brick and, in more rural settings, designed around a central courtyard with vegetable garden and pomegranate trees in the middle. In the evening small cities are buzzing with activity. Shops are open late and the roads are full of people and cars and scooters and bicycles and carts loaded up high with sacks and packs and stuff flowing with the impetus of as a tidal river.

The first impact with the traffic is horrendous. Turks feel like Germans when compared to Iranian drivers. Where in Turkey the right of way is established by who gets there first, here it's all about pushing in. So at intersections traffic lights are completely ignored (even though a police car might be sitting there waiting) and everybody has a go at getting through. Basically they all edges forward until somebody has to give way. It is very common to see people stop in the middle lane of a road, hop out of the car and do a spot of shopping while everybody else tries to make their way around the obstruction. People are also happy to reverse down one way systems or, frequently, down motorways if they have missed their exit. The only rule that applies is 'beep your horn'. Of course beeping means many things, from “watch out I'm behind you”, to “hello”, to “get out of my way”, to “I'm getting married”, so turning around and trying to understand what's coming at you is the only feasible option. Unfortunately in Iran things don't just come at you from the front or the rear but from every side, above and below.

Initially crossing the road is traumatic. Seriously. The flow of traffic never stops and everybody is undertaking or overtaking or changing lane or reversing or something while you have to try and get across. Lanes of course do not exist so it's not even possible to seek refuge on road markings. The only way is to jump into the fray and, insh'Allah, come out alive. The mind boggles trying to understand how the Iranians do it. Never running, never stressing, but relaxed and trusting while texting or reading, anyway never paying any attention to their surrounding. They just walk in and emerge smiling on the other side. The first few days we used the human shield strategy: we only crossed when a local was crossing and always kept them on the side the (majority) of traffic was coming from. Safety in numbers. Lately we've been much more relaxed and manage to dive in, dodge, wait, side-step, back off, rush forward and reach the safety of the pavement without blinking. Of course once on the sidewalk you are just as likely to be run over by one of the many motorcycles weaving full throttle through pedestrians.

On the evening of day 2 in Iran, Isla and I were walking around Qaraziadin after a pretty bad pizza when we were approached by a tall young man and a shorter rounder older man with glasses. The young man said that he had been looking for us, and had been waiting for us at the hotel for the last hour. Apparently he was an English teacher and was about to teach a class. He was wondering whether we cared joining his class for some conversation. We accepted and soon after we were in some strangers' car, being driven to some place we knew nothing about. We asked whether we were going to some cave somewhere, but they laughed and led us to the local English language institute instead. Here we had a very interesting hour chatting and for the first time getting to know the Iranian people. They had lots of questions for us, some quite personal too. After three other similar lessons later on we realized that people are often interested in the same subjects. How long did it take us to get here? What did we think of Iran? What do people think of Iran in the west? What's our job? How much do we earn in one year? Have we got brothers and sisters? Kids? What's our religion?

The last is not an easy question to answer and yet it is asked by almost everybody who speaks with us for more than 5 seconds. The simplest route would be to lie. Saying that one's a Christian or Hindu would probably stop the questioning, but lying has never been our choice of tack. I think that for real understanding truth must be the base of a cultural exchange and if people are genuinely interested in knowing what and how we think and operate, then they have a right to know what and how we think and operate. But of course this makes for some pretty awkward moments and surprised stares when people incredulously persist with “What do you mean you have no religion?”. For some this is an incomprehensible thought, just like saying you don't believe in mountains or the sun rising every day, for a few it is too radical, heretical or offensive to even entertain, for many it is perfectly understandable, and they seem to find it refreshing to be able to nod and continue talking about the differences between Iranian and western societies.

Weeks later in Yazd I learnt why fabrication is a slippery path. Kazem invited us for dinner with his family but unfortunately Isla was not feeling well and decided not to go. I felt a good connection with him and was interested in meeting his family so arranged to see them the evening after. The premise for all of this is that our standard answer for “Are you together?” is that we are married. This makes some people more at ease and prevents any untoward behaviour towards Isla as well as allowing us to share a room in a hotel. When we get to know somebody better we are often happy to disclose the details of our connection, but for short answers “Yes, we are married” seems to be the easiest. This one evening I was alone having a very nice dinner with Kazem's family. Several times before I had called Isla my wife and did not feel like saying that, by the way, she was not. I should have done because at some point Kazem's mother started asking lots of questions about our wedding. Without the support of my accomplice I had to give a detailed narration of how, when and where it all happened, including who was there and exactly how the ceremony took place... as well as what Isla's dress looked like.

(Note: Kazem, if you are reading this please do not feel offended. I hope you can see the funny side of the story)