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 ├žay 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)


saba said...

how amazing was kazem's mum:)))) poor U :)
miss U guys:*

Anonymous said...

lovely to hear from you, hope you're all tip top now kat xxx

Anonymous said...

Oksana says "I love you both so much, I will gladly marry both of you and then laugh as you try to explain that!"

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