I write this from Shiraz (yes, the place the wine is named after, although I suspect not much is produced here now), where I flew this evening. Shiraz is in Central Iran, down south close-ish to the Perian Gulf. From here, I make my way back to Tehran via car, stopping at all sorts of interesting places along the way.
I almost missed my flight tonight, not because we were late, but because all the announcements were in Farsi (no English). I kept watching the Departures board, waiting for my flight to come up. Once again, I heard some version of my name being called over the loudspeaker (I could only vaguely make out the “Toll” part) and looked across at the boarding gates, to see mine, so I dashed over. When I arrived, I was immediately asked if I was me – so thank goodness I was awake enough to hear that announcement.
In Shiraz I was met by a very thoughtful guide/driver – he arrived to nab one of the best parking spots two hours before my flight was due to make sure I didn’t need to walk too far, and produced water for me when I got in the car. He says I have picked one of the best travel agents (reassuring since it was a random find over the internet and none of the guide books mention them – the Iran Traveling Center). He thinks that Lonely Planet has it wrong about some of the travel agent recommendations as they don’t look after people properly. His attitude that tourists are their visitors and it’s his job to make sure that we are well looked after. He is a history buff and, despite his being very thoughtful, I may find my head spinning from the rich history of Iran as he rolls it all out to me for the next four days. He picks me up tomorrow at 8.55am (n0, not 9 – 8.55am) for a walking tour of Shiraz.
Today, though, was spent in Tehran, with visits to the carpet museum, another palace set amongst gorgeous gardens at the foot of the snow-capped Alborz mountain range to Tehran’s north (I think I have this right, but Jaleh will correct me if I’m wrong!), a bazaar and the carpet museum. At the carpet museum, Jaleh very naughtily suggested I could touch the magnificent carpets until I was told not to, which indeed I did and then indeed I was. We also did another drive-by past the old US Embassy so I could replace my lost snaps, at which point Jaleh warns me to be careful as it’s illegal (“very bad”), and of course the cops are right there (I managed to get some photos…shhh). The mountains are also the home of some excellent and extremely cheap skiing, if that’s your thing.
Finally, we visited the Azadi Tower, a huge gate-like structure, which is synonymous with Tehran, but all I can recall is walking on the road right beside the heavy traffic to find our car, and having everyone stare at me.
The bazaar is, essentially, Tehran’s answer to Westfield with winding covered alleys and little “streets” of related goods like textiles, electrical goods, dried fruit, spices, gold and – of course – carpets. A great contrast to the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, which is over-ridden by tourists, this is where the locals buy their stuff! We are accosted by a guy trying to flog his nomadic carpets and follow him to his store where Jaleh falls in love with some of them. I confess that I do too, but I am starting to wonder where I will put any more carpets, and whether I have enough cash on hand to cover another one (Jaleh reports that there may be a way for some places to take credit cards, but all I can think is the Commonwealth Bank will kill me, for more reasons than one). I leave it for the minute, wondering if I’ll regret not snagging a Persian carpet in Persia while I had the chance.
There was no stopping me with the jewellery, though, and I bought some pieces from outside the palace and the markets (I stayed away from the gold – I was only interested in the traditional stuff) and got some lovely pieces that will be talking points for ages to come.
Along the way, I did my best to take photos of various forms of women’s dress as we sped by in the car. Jaleh, being cheeky, actually stopped a stunning looking, very stylish woman and her husband inside our restaurant so I could take a photo of them. Along the way, there were a few women who had clearly had nose jobs – the bandages still stuck across their new noses. Would you believe that nose jobs are trendy in Iran, and both women and men are keen to show them off!
Buses carry both men and women, although women ride in the front, and men at the back. At the airport, you go through security twice – once on the way into the airport, and a second time before the boarding gates. There are separate entrances for men and women, it seems for practical reasons – men really can’t feel strange women up in public as one security woman did to me today. But men and women sit together to wait for their boarding call once they have passed the security checks.
The average salary in Iran is around USD500 per month, with professionals like engineers earning around USD1,000 per month. If you don’t own a house, being on the lower end of the scale can be a tough gig. Tehran is not a particularly old city, although there was a village or two here originally. It’s become huge most recently because the Ayatolleh, in an act to encourage people to move to Tehran after the Islamic Revolution, started giving away free land. Now it’s a concrete mass, gaining much of its historical value from the museums where artefacts have been nicked from Iranian cities with richer history like Persepolis and Tabriz. Just last week, the President announced that they were kicking off a program to move people out of Tehran by offering free land in less populous places.
We talk about the Government, and nuclear power. Iran is pissing everyone off in wanting to move away from its dependency on oil and delevop nuclear capability – hence, the UN sanctions. Who knows whether there is an evil plan to roll out weapons, whether now or one day, and who am I to claim to know the truth – but the real life Iranians I have met so far don’t seem remotely radical or militant – and they want nuclear power. The people like that the Government is strong, standing up for Iran on such issues, although many think they are too religious. The revolution was good, and necessary, but people want less interference in their lives. The people feel that they are the ones who pay for their government’s positions on the US and Israel.
Now, Iran has a large dependency on Russia and China for trade; in the last post-election protests, instead of “down with USA” it was “down with Russia and China”! As Jaleh asks, if you’re dependent on someone else “what’s the difference” if it’s the US or Russia and China?
There is actually so much I want to tell you about Iran, stuff that you just don’t see because it’s like a country sitting behind its own veil and the real story struggles to get out. The place is undeniably modern. I ply Jaleh with questions, and she is patient and open enough to answer them, so let me try with the thing that strikes me as the most important.
In Iran, people have two lives – the public and the private. In public, they act as expected – head scarves, no alcohol, model behaviour. But, and this is the intriguing thing, in private, they are free to be themselves, with opinions and their own sets of behaviours. I notice that seriously gorgeous young Iranian men swagger about in tight T-shirts and jeans. At parties, women will dress in a similar way, and people will drink alcohol – it really depends on their religious beliefs as to where their personal boundaries lie. Although the Government is conservative (more so, it seems, than the people really want) it allows this freedom and – you must assume – gains power from allowing people to be themselves in private.
Jaleh says that she has no hesitation in going out with her male friends, and no-one is going to say or do anything to stop you if you touch people of the opposite sex (although don’t think public groping will make it big for a little while yet). She reports that many of the limits put upon people are more cultural than they are from the Government, conservative as they are.
In terms of dress, it is only the most religious who get about in the black chador. Jaleh jokes about the women who pin up their chador and only peer through with one eye, and was curious enough about one woman who she saw eating in a restaurant, passing food under her veil, that Jaleh took a picture! She says that the Quoran only requires that women are covered so their faces and hands show, and reckons such women are “more religious than Mohammed”.
As for the most intriguing question, yes, more and more unmarried couples are out there having sex, but they are not advertising it (again, the private life) and living together without being married is still frowned upon and highly unusual.
In the Golestan Palace, which we visited yesterday, Jaleh showed me a door with two different knockers attached to the outside. The right side, heavier one, was for men. The other, for women. Why? So the women of the house are alerted and can get themselves together if a strange man arrives; so they can close the veil on their private lives and present the public one to a stranger at the door.