April in Iran, Romance with the Persian Past (Tehran,Abyaneh, Esfahan, Yazd, Caravanserai, Zen Odin, Eghlid, Nomad Stay, Shiraz) April, 2016
When I was a girl I fell in love with the exotic stories of the East, beginning with the story of the Three Magi. On the 12th day of Christmas, the three kings traveled from the East on camels bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, to the baby Jesus. We hung our stockings by the window on the eve of the Feast of the Three Kings, and in the morning we woke up to it filled with candies and toys. For us children in the Philippines, it was a magical finale to the Christmas season. For me it was the seed that grew into a fascination to see for myself these lands where magic lamps could make one’s dreams come true. Istanbul, Baghdad, Damascus, Babylon, Mesopotamia, Jordan, Persia; these were places that Marco Polo and Herodotus described in their travels. Like them, I dreamed to experience these distant lands as told in the tales of 1001 nights. Wars and religious conflicts have changed some of these places beyond recognition, but Iran, formerly Persia, has a functioning government, since its revolution. Though a theocracy and limited by economic sanctions from the West, the revolution did not destroy its patrimony. The US State Department continues to issue travel advisory to Iran and both governments do not maintain diplomatic missions, but they nevertheless allow controlled travel between citizens. So I jumped at the opportunity despite warnings and counsel from well-meaning friends.
How wrong everybody was!
Tehran is just like any big city of 9 million people. It is chaotic with traffic and smog and noise, and construction everywhere, choking the road further. Drivers ignore lanes and one-way street signs, and would run over pedestrians if one is not alert. They could stop on a dime however unbelievable, and you breathe a sigh of relief. One junction with road work looked impossible to traverse, until I realized there was an official crossing guard to escort you across, just like a school kid. I did not demure and gratefully accepted. It was a Friday and the Muslim weekend, which was auspicious because my friend’s mother was off from work and with two of her friends, they picked me up to show me what Iranians are like. They could rival Filipinos for hospitality. On short notice her uncle and family welcomed me with snacks and drinks at their home in Rudehen, an hour’s drive north of Tehran. Tehran is on the desert valley hemmed by snow-capped Alborz mountains. The mountain slopes are now being developed as cool weekend retreats for cosmopolitan Iranians with high rise condo developments sprouting up. My friend’s cousin was our next stop further up the mountains who, on immediate notice prepared lubia polo, an elaborate traditional lamb and green beans and rice dish with crusted bottom that’s crunchy and full of flavors. I watched him prepare it and will attempt to duplicate the dish for my dinner with neighbors when I return. It was, as they say in any language, yum. Would have gone very well with pinot noir, but that would have to wait for my Atlanta dinner. Iran is a Muslim country, as you know, and alcohol is banned. Transgressors are fined and lashed. For women, wearing a head cover is strictly observed. My friend had to stop by a street vendor to buy a scarf because she forgot to bring one. A middle aged man on a motorcycle gestured to me to cover my head when my scarf inadvertently slipped off. The men however are all wearing western style attire. In the posh section of the city young women are fashionable with gorgeous eye makeup framed by colorful head scarves and figure-hugging leggings and platform heels, and shapely tunics with western influence. They unselfconsciously occupy the streets with traditionally clad women in niqab and abaya. Fashion houses are recognizing that these women want to be fashionable in their way and have introduced exciting design in hijab wear. Dolce and Gabbana, on the high end and H & M on the affordable end have pioneered the trend. People chat you up easily. I was asked where I was from by women passing me by, with big smiles and grand welcoming gestures. School children stop to chat and to practice their English, and one precocious twelve-year old even had a selfie stick to snap his picture with you. A senior lady I sat next engaged me in conversation and somehow I learned she has a son in Michigan and another in Maryland, and she only knew the word boy in English and I didn’t know a single word in Persian.
Meanwhile world news report on posturing by politicians, on nuclear disarmament and economic sanctions. The average Iranian ignores the news and goes about his day as usual. For the upper middle class, like us, they can travel, dine in fine restaurants, serve premium brand alcohol in their homes, go to the theater, spend weekends in their second homes in the mountain, or a beach resort. Observing rules in public is not a hassle, the women are used to wearing head scarves and modest attire including the niqab. They don’t consider it repressive. My friend runs her own business, drives a car, eats out. Restricted websites are undone by installing unblocking apps on their devices, and like anywhere they can go around rules to do what they must do. It’s only dangerous if you are into politics or competing in big business. Overall impression is that Iran is like any developing country. Infrastructure and housing construction are visible and transport of goods and people have significantly improved from camel caravan roads to highways and rail systems. Nomads carry their gear in pick-up trucks on their twice yearly migration, to the gulf in winter, and to the steppes in summer. But for the luxury tourists, it will be a while before they will make Iran, their preferred destination. Banking is not developed and the country is a cash economy. The nomad and farm segment of the population still conduct business by trading goods and services. They are cash poor, though landed. Wireless connectivity is spasmodic.There is huge potential in adventure travel but is undeveloped, but for those who seek an authentic cultural experience, now is the time to go, before the hordes spoil the charm of simple living and the sincerity and openness of the people. Crime is practically non-existent, beggars and homelessness are confined outside of cities and tourist areas. The local mosques help the very poor. The people as a whole is hospitable and tolerant, and accepts consequences as Allah’s will, inshAllah. Five times a day, you hear the call to prayers from minarets all over the city, and the weekend is on Friday. The culture is still pure and the people is proud of its influence on civilization. Its patrimony is well-preserved and goes back more than 4,000 years. You don’t hear western music blaring on taxi radios and TV, however, young people are trendy on everything in popular western culture, mainly American and British, through u-tube and unblocked internet sites. Iran is very impressive and exciting to visit. Would I live there? Nah, the lifestyle is too conservative and ruled by religion, much too alien for western tastes. I love wine too much to give it up and I love to dress in my own style, and to be noticed, so I will not hide myself in a shroud, no matter how magical pastoral life might be there.
Feather-dusted By The Fashion Police
At the Ayatollah Khomeini Mausoleum and Mosque, women have a separate entrance and if not in a niqab are issued a chador to wear while visiting. The supply ran out when my turn came, but the doorman waved me in and signaled it was OK. I was modestly attired in jeans and long-sleeved shirt with a tunic vest and my head and neck wrapped in a scarf. Our tour guide translated that it was my choice to go in or wait for a chador to become available. I chose not to wait. While viewing with awe the magnificence of the mosaics and carpets, an old woman in all black niqab approached smiling and greeted me in excellent English, “Hello, where are you from?” “From the Philippines”, I replied. It was easier to say I was from the Philippines, since answering I was from the US generated another question about my ethnicity. Still smiling kindly she said, “it is much better that you put on a chador for your protection.” Feeling chastised I explained that the guard gave me permission not to wear one. Now unsmiling and in a grave tone she said,”You should know what to do rather than rely on someone telling you. It’s for your protection. You don’t want to call men’s attention to yourself.” I countered, “Oh, I don’t mind the attention, I can handle it” She looked stern this time, “But, the women may be disturbed when they see you uncovered, it’s not the custom, and they would wonder why.” I decided it was a mistake to be flippant, and I was being disrespectful, so I apologized and moved on. In a moment, I felt a poke on my back. I turned around and here’s this guy looking agitated and waving what looked like a yellow feather duster, then he thrusted a chador for me to put on. Whew, close call. I may just have escaped a lashing or stoning!