Written by koshkha on 15 Mar, 2009
When you visit Iran there’s one thing you can’t fail to spot – it is a country with a fixation on death and martyrdom; a country where no matter where you go, you are never very far from reminders of the Iran-Iraq war – or…Read More
When you visit Iran there’s one thing you can’t fail to spot – it is a country with a fixation on death and martyrdom; a country where no matter where you go, you are never very far from reminders of the Iran-Iraq war – or as the Iranians call it, ‘the Imposed War’. The war ran for just short of eight years from September 1980 to August 1988 and is recognised as the longest ‘conventional’ war of the 20th Century. Nearly twenty years after it ended, the memories are still very fresh in Iran. I’ll admit I was a little taken aback after an overnight flight to Tehran that the ‘highlights’ of day one were to be a tad fixated on death and destruction – a trip firstly to the tomb of Ayatollah Khomeini before we popped round the corner to the Behesht-e-Zahra Cemetery to see the memorials to the martyrs of the Iran-Iraq war as well as those killed during the 1979 revolution. I started to think about how different my life in England had been from the life I might have had if I’d been born in Iran and to look at what mattered to me in 1980 – the year that the war started. Was I even aware of the Iran-Iraq war? Could I have found the countries on a map or known who stood for what? When I asked myself what I could confidently recall of the events of 1980 I didn’t get much further than the Moscow Olympics and the widespread international boycott over Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan – an invasion of Afghanistan? That sounds all too familiar doesn’t it? I checked out Wikipedia for the highlights of 1980 and I found that lots of other things I remembered had happened that year; Robin Cousins skated to gold in Lake Placid; the Iranian Embassy siege ended with spectacular SAS activity; IRA prisoners went on hunger strikes in the Maze prison; strikes in the Gdansk shipyards led to the formation of Solidarity; Ronald Reagan became President and John Lennon was shot. Those are the things I remembered – not the Iraqi invasion of Iran. I would have been hard pushed to tell you who invaded whom. The more I read up about the Iran-Iraq War the more I realised I couldn’t write a review of the Martyrs Cemetery without giving some background to the conflict that killed so many in the 1980s. To discuss the cemetery without putting the conflict into context would be a mistake.~Background to Conflict~ One of the biggest sparks for Iraq’s invasion was the Iranian Revolution of 1979. This led to the downfall of the Shah - who fled into exile - and the return from exile of the hard-line cleric Ayatollah Khomeini. Khomeini returned in triumph and set up the Islamic Republic of Iran, much to the dismay of some of the more secularist groups who had supported the revolution. The Shah had been quite a popular figure with Western governments and the revolution had shaken western confidence in Iran. The country’s reputation with the USA went downhill rapidly when a large group of Iranian radicals invaded the American Embassy in Tehran and laid siege to it for 444 days, demanding the USA send the Shah back to Iran to stand trial. Over the border in Iraq, Saddam Hussein must have thought he was in a great position to exploit Western concerns and get the international community on his side. Iran was the pariah country that nobody wanted to invite to their party. The armed forces were weakened in the aftermath of the revolution, officers loyal to the Shah had been kicked out, military equipment previously sourced from the USA was almost unusable due to lack of spare parts. Hussein expected a walkover. On September 18th 1980 he declared the Shatt al-Arab waterway to be Iraqi property and launched an invasion of Iran four days later boldly declaring he’d be in Tehran within 3 days. Almost eight years later, Iran had spent more than a trillion dollars defending their country. When the UN Security Council finally brokered a ceasefire neither side had made any significant land gains. It must surely go down in history as one of the most pointless wars of all time. ~ How many died? ~ The figures vary widely depending on who you ask but Iran probably lost around a million people – about 2% of the total population. 100,000 Iranians were killed by chemical weapons alone and Iran still bitterly resents the involvement of western companies and countries in helping Hussein to develop his chemical weapons capabilities. Iran has a finely developed and very large chip on its national shoulder. ~ The Martyrs Cemetery ~ The Behesht-e-Zahra cemetery lies about half an hour south-west of the centre of Tehran and just off the Tehran to Qom highway. As is often the case with large cemeteries, it’s both a peaceful and very moving place. The Martyr's Cemetery is just one section of the Behesht-e-Zahra but it's the part most tourists are likely to see. Leaving our bus in the main car park we walked for about 5 minutes along tidy tree-lined boulevards until we came to two large monuments – one to the army and the other to the navy. The army memorial consists of four high walls – two pairs of slabs meeting at right angles and covered in names of the dead. These are also set in the same shape as a monument at Mecca, apparently a well-used format for Islamic monuments. On the ground surrounding the slabs are hundreds of tidy little tombs set in the floor. The naval monument by contrast is – if it’s not too disrespectful to say it – a bit funny. It’s a large ship set on top of carved waves. It looks for all the world as if you could put a coin in a slot and watch the ship move up and down like a child’s attraction in the lobby of a supermarket. Walking through the army monument we came to the main area of the martyrs' graves. Many people may have seen these on TV reports but I hadn’t and I didn’t know what to expect. There are thousands of gravestones – some of them very plain and bearing nothing more than a carved impression of a dove and the word ‘unknown’ in Farsi. More typically though, the graves have metal and glass display cases mounted above them, looking not unlike miniature telephone booths. These cases have been filled by the family and friends of the dead men – usually with a few photographs, perhaps some artificial flowers, a lace doily or two and maybe a copy of the Koran. Sometimes a personal letter from the parents or other loved ones are there – other times there may be some item that was important to the dead man, a favourite book or a photo of his motorbike. The photographs are very moving and very dated, often taken at the big events in the young lives of the dead – graduation ceremonies, family weddings, birthday parties. Some are wearing dreadful sweaters knitted by loving mothers and grandmothers the type that went back in the drawer as soon as grandma went home and the photos had been taken. The cemetery is an active site of pilgrimage for the families, some of whom visit the graves every day or every weekend. You may see some local children offering to wash the graves for the families for a few pennies and even elderly men who can be hired to say the right prayers for your relatives. For these people a few strange looking tourists are of no interest. ~ The Rosewater Tomb ~ We were led to one special tomb. Of course they are all special to someone but this has become a rather bizarre place of pilgrimage. It looks no different from the others but is always surrounded by visitors because it's believed that this tomb weeps rosewater. If you touch it it’s always wet and it smells of roses. It’s really very strange and our local tour guide – normally very cynical and reluctant to get involved in any sort of superstition - totally believed in the authenticity of the tomb. Whilst we stood watching (and sniffing) local mourners passed round sweets and cakes, shyly offering them to us and including us in their visit. Very moved, we headed back to the bus – watching out for young men on motorbikes practicing their technique on the slopes and gravel pathways like skateboarders. We stopped for tea and to buy more date cakes to share with the locals who were sitting around the tea urn before we headed back to the city – moved and somewhat subdued and very conscious that for Iran, there will always be space for more martyrs and sadly, plenty willing to take those spaces and gain their route to paradise. Close
Written by koshkha on 06 Mar, 2009
There are times when I look around me at what people are wearing and I despair. Maybe I'm turning into my own mother, but the desire to scream "What DO you look like?" at random passers by is growing stronger as I get older. When…Read More
There are times when I look around me at what people are wearing and I despair. Maybe I'm turning into my own mother, but the desire to scream "What DO you look like?" at random passers by is growing stronger as I get older. When faced with a youth whose jeans are hanging so low that he can hardly walk, or confronted with a lady displaying more flesh than a butcher's shop, it strikes me that the concept of a national 'dress code' doesn't seem like such a bad thing at all.Mind you though, that feeling doesn't stick around for too long before I recall my old school uniform (bottle-green gym-knickers, ughh) and think of my experience of the kind of countries that do have dress codes rather than just dress 'norms'. Two I've experienced most recently are Iran and Bhutan. Whilst the Bhutanese can get away with jeans and t-shirts when they are off-duty and the national dress is only enforced in official settings (like banks, government buildings, temples and even the post office), the Iranian dress code is a tougher system to accommodate.Before I went to Iran I was reassured that it wasn't really such a big deal and I found that for a visit of 3 or 4 days, it was bearable. The question was whether I'd be able to put up with the restrictions for two whole weeks when I booked a holiday.Let's try to get it into perspective. Millions of people live within the Iranian dress code and codes like it which proves that you can get used to living your life by someone else's rules. How annoying could it be for just two weeks? Then I realised that I'm not by nature a dress-rule keeper. If the style magazines say short/long/black/beige/blah blah blah, then I don't pay a blind bit of notice. I wear what I want to regardless. As a teenager with no money I frequently left the house with my mother's cries of "You are NOT going out dressed like THAT!" I knew it wasn't going to be easy to go somewhere where I had to do as I was told.The basics of the 'hijab' dress code of Iran are fairly simple and not as scary as most people expect them to be. The two most important rules are dress modestly and keep your hair covered. Modesty is a relative thing and is open to a wide spectrum of interpretations. The most orthodox ladies and many in rural villages often wear the chador – the long bat-like black cape that covers everything and requires you to grow a couple of extra arms to keep it in place. If you work in a government office or a company with very religious management you might have to dress like that but for most city women and all tourists, it's not required or expected.The standard in Iran is the 'manteau', which as its French name suggests, just means 'coat'. The manteau buttons up to the neck or slightly below and is of varied length depending on your level of daring. It is seldom shorter than mid-thigh and can be as long as ankle length. For style, think of your grandma's dressing gown and you won't be too far off target. The 'norm' is probably just above the knee though it's not so easy to know where the knee is on an Iranian woman as trousers or sometimes long skirts are worn under the manteau. Head cover is non-negotiable and likely to cause the most annoyance. You don't have to master the art of artfully draping gauzy fabrics in gravity defying ways. You can in fact just fold a big square in half to make a triangle and then tie it under your chin. In combination with your raincoat-length manteau, you will probably feel like the Queen walking the corgies. If you can't get the hang of knotting and draping, you can buy a hood-like head cover which should satisfy any yearnings you have had to look like an extra from the Sound of Music. I took drastic action and went to Iran with a couple of Buff tube-hats. These are stretchy tubes of high-performance fabric which wicks moisture away from the head and keeps out wind and rain. They can be tied in dozens of bizarre and creative ways all of which look pretty stupid. But for Iran, the stick it on your head and make sure all your hair is hidden approach worked quite well. This was very effective because I am totally happy to spend my holiday looking like I have a pair or underpants on my head - so long as it's comfortable. I probably looked utterly ridiculous but I checked with our guide who said (after he stopped giggling) that I complied with the rules.A few days into our holiday we went to Persepolis. A young woman and her male friend were fooling about amongst the ruins when she leapt up onto a large carved rock, whipped off her scarf and shook out her hair. We all looked on in horror; if she'd lifted her shirt and shaken her boobs at us we couldn't have been more shocked. It only takes a few days of being forced to cover your hair to make you ready to leap up and stone any young floozie who breaks the rules. I think it was a case of us all thinking "We're not suffering flat hair and itchy scalps whilst you do that, young lady."Instead of a manteau, I wore long and shapeless shirts, each stretching to about mid-thigh. Colour isn't a problem and anyone who tells you that it's black or nothing is wrong. You might want to think twice about lime green or bright scarlet but there's no ban on colours or patterns – I just don't believe I've never met anyone with a complexion that benefited from such colours.There are a few other things to watch out for. Toe-cleavage is probably not something you've given too much thought to but apparently a teensy glimpse of your feet could drive a man insane with lust and divert him from the course of a pious life; so the normal instruction is to wear socks. I've seen reports that you can get away with bare feet and sandals but I'm not convinced at all.Gentlemen – how about you? Well I'm sure nobody would be surprised to hear that it's a lot easier being a man in Iran than being a woman. The main rules are no shorts, no short-sleeved shirts and please wear socks. There's a lot of controversy about whether you should or shouldn't wear suits and ties if visiting on business but my advice is to avoid ties. Ask yourself if you've ever seen an Iranian on TV with a tie? President Ahmedinajad is always tie-less and I've heard that the lack of ties in Iran is not a matter of casual choice – it's a conscious rejection of the old pre-revolutionary dress codes. Ties are associated with the corruption of the Shah's time and best avoided if you can.If you are wondering how strict the rules are applied, then the answer varies a little depending on the season and whether the government is in a good mood or not. A couple of years back there was a bit of a crack-down on dress because people were flexing the rules a bit too far. In Tehran we saw girls with manteaux that barely covered their bottoms and with their headscarves pushed way to the back of their heads and their hair teased up into bouffant confections of Marge Simpson proportions. Young men with more hair-gel than could ever be considered wise were stepping out in denims and black leather jackets as if there was a revival of West Side Story in town. However if you are there as a tourist, everyone is happy to accept that you didn't grow up with these rules, you probably don't really understand them and they are just happy to see that you are trying your best and making an effort. Out of the public eye you can relax the code a little. In private homes you can wear whatever you like and women routinely throw off their scarves the moment they cross the threshold. We went to parties where I certainly saw more expanse of thigh from the hostess than I'd suggest was wise in any culture. Hotel rooms often come with a seating area separate from the bedroom so you can invite friends and family to sit and relax without having to observe the dress code. It's also not uncommon for offices to have an entirely female staff so that the ladies can relax and wear what they like, only putting on their manteaux and scarves if the boss (who of course is male!) comes to visit. Close
Written by koshkha on 02 Mar, 2009
My first visit to Iran was not what you could really call a conventional trip but then it could be argued that perhaps with Iran no visit is ever really very conventional. It was about 6 years ago and the company I worked for asked…Read More
My first visit to Iran was not what you could really call a conventional trip but then it could be argued that perhaps with Iran no visit is ever really very conventional. It was about 6 years ago and the company I worked for asked me to go and present at a seminar in Tehran. The plan was that I would stand up and prance around for 45 minutes or so and tell them about what was happening in the world of sweet products and then they'd whisk me off to pontificate about toothpaste to a couple of major manufacturers and to drink lots of tea and eat lots of cakes with a couple of bakers. As you can imagine, it was an offer I couldn't resist.The plan was that I would join four of my colleagues from our Dutch office but because I was already visiting our agent in Turkey a few days before, the decision was taken that I'd rearrange my dates so that I could go directly from Istanbul to Tehran and meet everyone else the following day. For once I managed to play the 'Woe-is-me' card with the travel secretary and persuaded her that I was simply not willing to land in Iran in the middle of the night and stand in line for who-knows-how-long trying to persuade the immigration people to let a woman, travelling on her own, into the country. I demanded – and for once got – a business class ticket. At least that way I'd be first in the queue. This review is about the experience I had arriving in Iran for the first time.I was nervous and I'd be lying if I didn't admit it. The prospect of turning up in the wee small hours of the morning (about 3 am if I remember correctly) and fretting about whether I was properly attired was causing me worries. Another female colleague was going to Iran for the first time and we'd both been chatting to a colleague who worked in Saudi a few weeks before. He'd gone home and asked his wife to go out and buy us each an outfit for getting into the country and she – perhaps not too sure on just how strict Iran was, or maybe exhibiting some kind of evil sense of humour – had gone out and bought us both the Omani abaya. This version of what every good god-fearing ultra-conservative Muslim lady should wear consisted of a floor-length black outfit that fastened at the shoulder and hung shapelessly to the ground like a chorister's gown. Lest a sudden wind should catch the fabric, it would have had to be a massive tornado for the merest hint of flesh to be on show due to the massive overlap of fabric. And it came with a large headscarf of course, all of it in jet black. Clearly in the Middle East, black really IS the new black. Sitting on the plane in my already fairly conservative clothing, I popped off to the toilets about half an hour before we were due to land to get myself togged up for landing. You know how tiny airline toilets are? Well imagine trying to get yourself dressed up in a big black sack in a confined area. I used to have a neighbour who lived most of the year in Saudi and she'd warned me about the risk of showing my hair so I'd bought a large stretchy head-band to ensure no hairs escaped under the black scarf. I went into the toilet a typical European and came out looking like a nun and avoiding the gaze of every other person on the plane in a sense of exquisite embarrassment.When we landed I took a deep breath and stepped off the plane. Every news report of bad things happening in Iran went through my mind as I walked down the steps. I was mentally running old newsreels of the American hostages, the death of Khomeini and the Iran Iraq war. And then, as I reached the bottom, there was a guy with a placard with six or seven names on it and mine was amongst them. Whilst the rest of the flight headed off to go to the terminal, we were herded into a plush little minibus and whisked off to the C.I.P – Commercially Important Persons – lounge. Oh joy! Whilst I had absolutely no idea what was going on, I was clearly getting some kind of special treatment.In the spirit of the demure and placid good lady that I was passing myself off as, I sat with my eyes lowered trying not to meet the gaze of the other passengers. I was, after all, wearing the most ridiculous fancy dress of my life and I couldn't be sure that I wouldn't burst out laughing if someone smiled at me or burst into tears if someone had looked at me 'a bit funny'.The minibus discharged us and we were guided into an ornately decorated lounge. Someone took my passport and luggage receipt and disappeared with them and I was led to the back of the lounge where two men were waiting for me – the agents who were due to meet me. Well at this point they looked me up and down and burst out laughing. "Where on earth did you get THAT?" asked Darius, the more confident of the two. "I've seen more flesh on an ayatollah's wife" he said. They quizzed me about what I was wearing underneath (which my demure self considered a bit cheeky) and when I said I had a long jacket and trousers they urged me to take off my crow-outfit and to remove the hair-band. I think they were torn between being moved by the ridiculous trouble I'd gone to in order to 'do the right thing' and the need to suppress the tears of mirth that were welling up in their eyes.And so I shed my cloak of invisibility and embarrassment and sat down. A waiter brought us drinks and snacks though a gin and tonic would have been a lot more welcome than the sweet and slightly sickly juice. It was a relief to be comfortable in the lounge whilst somebody somewhere was off getting my passport stamped and picking up my luggage. About half an hour later my passport returned and my suitcase was delivered and we were able to head off to the hotel.I never completely got to the bottom of how the CIP system worked. I assumed my hosts had paid a fee to expedite me through the system and I was very grateful indeed for the help that they gave. When it came time to leave a few days later the CIP system again clicked into place and I was able to simply dump my bags (my original case plus a large additional bag filled with rugs I'd bought and the ridiculous number of gifts I'd received) and go straight to the lounge with the agents. I suspect the CIP enabled me to get away with a massive amount of excess luggage as well as avoiding queuing to check in and to board. I've never been a very self-conscious person but several days of being openly stared at was starting to get me down and being able to avoid that at the airport really was a bonus.If you find yourself travelling to Iran for business it's certainly worth asking your hosts if they can help you out with access to the CIP system. If I'd known in advance that everything was going to be made so simple and easy, I think my nerves before the trip would have been greatly reduced. Close
Written by koshkha on 28 Feb, 2009
~ Q is for Qajars ~There were many dynasties in Persia but the Qajars were one that I can't remember too much about - but at least the provided me with a Q. Wikipedia tells me that they were around from 1781 to 1925…Read More
~ Q is for Qajars ~There were many dynasties in Persia but the Qajars were one that I can't remember too much about - but at least the provided me with a Q. Wikipedia tells me that they were around from 1781 to 1925 and that reminds me that these were the family who built up the amazingly rich collection of Crown Jewels that are now held in the basement vaults of a bank in Tehran. The excesses of the family were incredible - even their horses had jewelled ornaments to keep the flies out of their eyes and to decorate their tails. ~ R is for Religion ~Iran is a majority Shia Moslem country - I think it's the only one in the world. They aren't popular with their Sunni neighbours and I won't attempt an explanation of the philosophical difference other than to say it goes back a long way to the issue of who got to take over as boss when Mohammed died. In addition to Shia's there are pockets of Zoroastrianism - the majority religion of the pre-Islamic days - and there are tiny numbers of Jews and Christians, the latter mostly Armenians. We visited a small Jewish shrine and a few churches. The religion that's most persecuted in Iran is the Baha'I faith - officially and legally, they don't exist. ~ S is for Shiraz ~"Shiraz, hmm," you may be thinking, "isn't that a red wine? Surely not". Shiraz is the city of poets and a grape growing area that gave its name to the red wine - not that there's any wine making going on today, more's the pity. Two of the main attractions are the tombs of two great Persian Poets – Hafez and Saadi. The city is also the closest to two significant ancient cities - Pasargad, the city of Cyrus the Great, and Persepolis, the city of Darius and Xerxes.~ T is for Temporary Marriage ~The rule is no sex outside marriage - and in Iran that's a rule you don't break or the penalties are severe; as a minimum it's a good flogging and then you are marched off and forced to marry or if it's adultery then the penalty is death. But people (i.e. 'men') have 'needs' or so we are told and there's a weird little loophole that's allegedly been around since the time of Mohammed - it's called 'temporary marriage' and it utterly does my head in. Our local guide told us that a Temporary Marriage can last for a minimum of a year and gives the woman some kind of legal protection. He claimed it was 'better than prostitution or having a mistress' but I couldn't quite figure out the logic behind that if no man will want a woman who's not a virgin. You can apparently renew your temporary marriage three times and after that you have to go ahead and do a proper one. I think there's also some facility for having more than one wife but by that stage of the conversation he'd lost me. It was certainly a bit of a shock.~ U is for Underpasses ~There don't seem to be any and this leads to the widespread art or sport of playing chicken on busy roads. Maybe all those paintings of martyrs on the roundabouts were actually for those killed trying to cross the road? I don't know but being a pedestrian in Iran is a dangerous business. In order to reach the famous Azadi Monument (the big white four legged arch you tend to see in news reports) we had to take our lives in our hands and run for it. I'm still shaking about the experience more than two years later.~ V is for Visas ~Whatever you do, don't go over your allotted time limit. The authorities don't have a sense of humour about such matters and you may get a free extension to your visit - in a jail cell. Allegedly if you expect to have problems the best place to apply for a visa extension is 'anywhere other than Tehran' where the tourist police will make you sweat. Esfahan is recommended.To get in you will of course have to apply for a visa. This is relatively unproblematic if you travel with an approved tour company but can be tricky for individuals especially if they have no local 'sponsor' to endorse their visit.~ W is for Water ~It's probably more precious than oil - they've got plenty of the latter. Over the millennia people have devised clever ways to store water in underground 'cisterns' and to maximise the effectiveness of its collection. Amazingly though as a tourist you don't have to drink bottled water; Iran is rightly very proud that the water straight from the tap is completely safe. ~ X is for Xerxes ~One of the great Persian emperors who got his arse well and truly whooped by the Spartans at the battle of Thermopylae and subsequently failed to take Athens. It's a great shame to me that the recent film '300' focused on the one big battle that the Persians lost and there aren't enough films about the amazing feats of warfare that led to the creation and expansion of the Persian Empire.~ Y is for Yazd ~The desert city of Yazd is a tourist attraction with fabulous mosques, spooky Zoroastrian 'Towers of Silence' and Fire Temples and clever cooling systems using wind towers called badgirs. We of course got into some fairly silly discussions about badgers instead which led to a lot of giggling over the alcohol-free beverages. In Yazd we found some bizarre attractions, not least of which was the chance to watch an exceptionally sweaty group of men doing their exercises in a pit. I forget what this was called but I don't forget the stink.~ Z is for Zoroastrianism ~Inevitably it's snuck in a couple of times already but Zoroastrianism practised by followers of Zarathustra (cue the music from 2001, a Space Odyssey) is thought to have been the world's first monotheistic religion. The god of Zoroastrians is called Ahura Mazda. Some of the basics of the religion were sacred elements (fire, air, earth and water), and an ongoing battle between light and dark and good and bad. The religion is perhaps best known for its tradition of leaving dead bodies out in the 'Towers of Silence' to be eaten by vultures so that the bodies didn't defile the earth or fire. Bones were then incarcerated in rock tombs such as those at Naqsh-e Rustam.Zoroastrianism is a fascinating religion that believes the hedgehogs are excellent little beasts that gobble up slugs and spiders and 'other manifestations of the shadow'. How could you fail to like a religion that rates the little spiny critters so highly? Close
~ G is for George Bush ~"Do you all hate us or is it just the Americans?" The question was asked one evening as we wandered the streets of Shiraz. It was asked in curiosity rather than anger and we resisted the temptation to say…Read More
~ G is for George Bush ~"Do you all hate us or is it just the Americans?" The question was asked one evening as we wandered the streets of Shiraz. It was asked in curiosity rather than anger and we resisted the temptation to say "Actually, the Israelis and Iraqis hate you too, but we wouldn't be here if we didn't like you". The point is that at the time of our visit, one of the biggest concerns that most would-be tourists had was that Dubya was going to pop over and bomb the country back to the stone age – and let's face it, that would put a real damper on your holiday. Writing in 2009, things look maybe a bit less shaky than two and a half years ago when we went but it's natural that the relationship between Iran and the USA will always be something to keep an eye on.You may meet locals - particularly young ones - who will tell you they pray for GWB to invade and get rid of the government. I can't suggest they are drunk - on the 0.0% beer substitute - but they may well be crazy. Be careful what you wish for guys. ~ H is for Hijab~Hijab - the word sends a shudder down the spines of most women – or those who know what it means anyway. It's the 'Islamic Dress Code' but it doesn't have to be a nightmare if you prepare well. Chadors are not compulsory in Iran but you may have to wrap up in a sheet to get into some shrines - the local ladies will be happy to giggle and help you. Most of the time the requirement is a headscarf or other head covering (I got by with a Buff tube hat because I just couldn't do the scarf routine) and a 'manteau' - a knee length shirt or coat. In general the style is like 'The Queen walking the corgis at Balmoral' without the wellington boots. In the big cities the manteaux are getting shorter and more tailored and some of the interpretations of the code are bordering on risque but out in the sticks, black is very definitely 'the new black'. Young women in Tehran over-compensate for the headscarf by using masses of make up and teasing their hair into soaring back-combed monsters seldom seen since the demise of Dusty Springfield. Then they pin their scarves as far back as possible so they are perched as far back as they can be. Since we got back there have been rumours that the morality police were getting a lot stricter about how people – women in particular – were dressing but as a tourist, they are mostly so glad to see you there that it's unlikely you'll get any trouble.~ I is for the Iran-Iraq War - or the so-called 'Imposed' War ~For ten years Iran and Iraq had a big dust up on the border. It cost millions of lives- estimates vary between one and three million. It cost the Iranians a trillion dollars (that's a million millions – though in these days of banking collapses I think everyone knows what a trillion is); and at the end of the day the borders were almost exactly where they started. Those who died are considered to be 'martyrs' and you will see photographs and murals of the local martyrs on the roundabouts and walls of every city. There's even a TV channel which we dubbed 'Martyr TV' which shows photos and honours the dead all day long. The Martyrs' Cemetery in Tehran is a moving monument to the futility of this conflict. ~ J is for Journeys ~Flights in Iran are amazingly cheap - you can fly from Esfahan to Tehran for less than £20. Coach or bus travel is also really cheap - keep in mind that the fuel costs are silly. Iran has plenty of oil. There are a lot of police road blocks and your driver will sometimes have to negotiate eight lanes of traffic to get to the policeman, thus ensuring his passengers dig deep at the end of the tour in respect for his bravery. Most of the roads are in good condition although some of the mountain passes are a bit pukey.~ K is for Kebabs ~Chicken kebab, minced lamb kebab, whole piece lamb kebab. That's your standard menu - take it or leave it. You might think you like kebabs - after 28 of them in two weeks you may be ready to change your mind. ~ L is for language ~Iranians speak Farsi - it uses an Arabic script but sounds softer and has less throat clearing. Thank you is - conveniently - Merci. It's pronounced as if pleading for mercy rather than doing a French accent. And hello is Salaam. But don't worry - all tourists are assumed to speak English so you'll hear "Hello", "Welcome to my country", 'Thank you for your visit" wherever you go. Iranians do 7 years of English in school and all the street signs are in both Farsi and English.~ M is for Mountains ~Iran's a very mountainous place - in fact the highest peak between Kilimanjaro and the Himalayas is Mount Damovand, just outside Tehran. It's 5671m to the summit and it's a very pretty cone volcano shape - a bit like Mount Fuji. Many of the cities popular with tourists are set on high altitude planes with stunning mountains as their backdrop. In Tehran you can spend your free time skiing in the mountains right up against the city limits and a visit to the ski-lift will give you fantastic views over the city. Be aware though that Tehran is at altitude and you may get a bit light-headed. ~ N is for Nuclear Power ~One of the most controversial issues of the moment is whether Iran should be 'allowed' to develop nuclear power and would it lead inevitably to weapons development? A simpler question might be why does a land with 8% of the world's oil reserves need nuclear power? Should we be worried or should we assume that a country that thought the Hillman Hunter was state of the art until a few years ago shouldn't be too much of a threat? It's a tough issue not least because their bitterest enemy Israel already has the bomb (not that they'll ever openly admit to it). You know what - I'm not going to say any more on this topic because I'm inevitably going to offend someone, whatever I say.~ O is for Ordinary People ~I doubt you'll get a warmer welcome anywhere in the world than you'll receive as a tourist in Iran. Estimates vary but it's thought that the number of European or 'western' tourists is running at about 3000 per year - not enough to make any impact on the economy at all. As a tourist you can't help but stand out and people will stare but not in an unpleasant way. Most of the locals did a bit of English in school and total strangers will say 'hello' or 'welcome' or ask you where you come from without any intention to sell you something or engage you in a long conversation. They are curious and enormously welcoming. Even those who don't speak any English at all will offer you sweets, dates, cakes or nuts and share what they have with you. In one small town a local man heard there were tourists in town and sat in the lobby of our flea-pit hotel for two hours waiting for the chance to practice his English. We pushed him towards the mad Irish-Serbian in our tour group and left the chattering away over 0% beers for the rest of the evening.~ P is for Persepolis ~In the middle of the first millenium BC, Darius the Great and his successor Xerxes set out to conquer the world and build the first 'world empire' stretching from Greece and North Africa, through the Middle East, and way into Asia. They built Persepolis as a grand city where they could celebrate the Zoroastrain New Year which took place during the spring equinox. For this special occasion they would invite people from all over the empire to come and pay tribute to the Emperor (by tribute, read taxes!). Persepolis today is the sort of archaeological wonder that would be knee-deep in bus-loads of tourists if it were anywhere but Iran. It's a UNESCO world heritage site but on the day of our visit, there can't have been more than a couple of hundred visitors spread across the city. This is a truly world class attraction and definitely not one to be missed. Close
In 2006, we announced to friends, family and colleagues that we had just booked a holiday in Iran (an 'Axis of Evil Tour' as they might see it) and their responses were fairly predictable. They ranged from the geographically mistaken "But isn't there a war…Read More
In 2006, we announced to friends, family and colleagues that we had just booked a holiday in Iran (an 'Axis of Evil Tour' as they might see it) and their responses were fairly predictable. They ranged from the geographically mistaken "But isn't there a war there?" (nope, that's Iraq) or "aren't they fighting with Israel?" (nope, at the time that was Lebanon) to the most predictable of all responses - a look of bemusement and the question "What on earth would you want to do that for?"Iran could fairly be said to have a bit of an image problem. Try to set aside your images of mad mullahs and the bellicose but oddly attractive (in a Jose Mourinho despotic sort of way) prime minister Ahmedinajad. Try instead to think Persia - the world's first great empire and the land of carpets and fluffy kitties with squashed up faces. Try to look at IranWe booked a two-week tour with a UK tour company called Explore Worldwide. At the time there were only a very small number of companies in Europe with permission to run tours. It's not quite impossible to go on your own but it's certainly not easy. It wasn't my first time in Iran as I'd previously been over for a few days on a business trip to Tehran which had whetted my appetite to go back for a proper look. Iranians are very hospitable and very generous and I'd received a gift of a large coffee-table book with photos of the country which made me realise this was a place that deserved a much closer examination.As there's so much I could say about this fabulous country I'm going to enforce some much needed discipline on my thoughts and restrict myself to an A to Z format. I'm going to try to give you a taster of the good and bad of a tour round Iran.~A is for Ayatollah Khomeini~The old boy has been dead since 1989 but his scowling face still leers down on you wherever you go. He's best known as the 'architect' of the Iranian Revolution and as the man who pronounced the fatwa on Salman Rushdie for 'The Satanic Verses' and reduced the age of marriage for girls to just 9 years. To many Iranians, he's still seen as a national hero and his shrine just outside Tehran is set to be the biggest mosque in the world if the builders ever finish it. It's a project on a par with Wembley Stadium and a building with all the attractiveness of a cattle market crossed with a 1970's Shopping Centre. ~B is for Bread~I have a professional interest in bread and baking and am a bit of a bread bore. Nowhere in the world have I ever tasted bread as bad as made in Iran. It would seem that local bakers have cracked the art of producing a product that comes out of the oven pre-staled. The remarkable thing about this is that their neighbouring country, Turkey, produces what I consider to be the best bread in the world. I can only guess there's an issue with the quality of the flour but Iranian bread is very poor and very disappointing. And since I don't eat meat, I had to face far too much bad bread.~ C is for Crafts ~Shopping for local goodies should be a highlight of any holiday and there is some great stuff to buy in Iran if you know what you are doing. The carpets are world-class but very expensive and are highly valued by local people, perhaps more so than by tourists. Every Iranian with money knows the value of each type of carpet and can quote the 'going rate' per square foot in the same way that everyone knows the rate for an ounce of gold in other places. As a tourist you are unlikely to be able to compete for the finest quality knotted carpets. However, I prefer flat-weave rugs and you can get some outstanding bargains. Miniature painting is also very popular and can be found on both camel bone (didn't see a camel the entire trip but plenty of bone) and paper. The quality is excellent. Tiles and ceramics also make nice presents and there's plenty of jewellery and high grade gold if that's what you like. However, the smaller towns and cities see very few tourists and the shops are more likely to be selling plastic buckets and rice and to have very limited appeal. With so few tourists there are very few touts and pushy sales people and those who don't want to shop, won't have to. We met only one pushy seller in two weeks - a guy trying to flog Iran T-shirts for a dollar who clearly hoped we wouldn't notice that the embroidered flags were in the wrong colours. ~ D is for Driving ~With petrol heavily subsidised the car is king. We heard different prices quoted with a dollar buying you between 10 and 30 litres of petrol depending on whom you believe. The cars are mostly out of date models flogged by European car companies, many before the revolution. The Paycan is the national car and is based on the long defunct Hillman Hunter but production has now ceased and Peugeot 206s are very popular. Many of the cars are kept together by little more than prayer and filler. Based on the standard of driving we strongly suspect that getting a driving licence in Iran is like getting a TV licence, a dog licence or a fishing licence in the UK (i.e you pay for it rather than having to 'earn' it).~ E is for Esfehan ~Esfehan has long been known as one of the most beautiful cities on earth. Visitors will be exposed frequently to the famous quote 'Esfahan is half the world' - not that anyone seems too sure what that's supposed to mean. The best guess seems to be that half of everything worth seeing in the world is in Esfahan which might well have been true in the days of Shah Abbas in the 16th Century. It's home to the Imam Square – alleged to be the world's second largest square (after Tianamen) which is ten times bigger than St Mark's in Venice and so pretty it makes your eyes water. (It's actually not true – there are bigger squares but not ones that anyone has ever heard of). Add to this some stunning palaces and museums, some mosques that have withstood 800 years of all that earthquakes and Scud missiles could throw at them and you've got a place you'll want to stay in forever - or until you've spent all your money. ~ F is for Food ~At the airport we saw a book called 'The Art of Persian Cooking'. It was quite a slim volume but even so I suspect the type must have been big. If you don't eat meat the food is a disaster. If you do it's just plain boring. You may think you like kebabs but could you eat them twice a day with stale bread and garlic yoghurt? I suffered - I really did. And three days being off my food after a colossal vomiting session was actually quite a relief. Iranian food is bland and repetitive. Sorry - some will disagree with me and sing the praises of great Iranian dishes but this is my review and my opinion and I can't recall a holiday where I've eaten more poorly. Oh, and I HATE saffron - there's seemingly no food in Iran nothing that can escape this evil spice including the ice-cream. Close
Written by baroudeur2004 on 19 Oct, 2007
After having visited Abyaneh and Bagh-e Tarikhi-ye Fin, I went back to Kashan to visit its main sights.Agha Bozorg MosqueI first stopped at Agha Bozorg Mosque. At the entrance, an old man asked me to pay the foreign rate. I quickly had a look at…Read More
After having visited Abyaneh and Bagh-e Tarikhi-ye Fin, I went back to Kashan to visit its main sights.Agha Bozorg MosqueI first stopped at Agha Bozorg Mosque. At the entrance, an old man asked me to pay the foreign rate. I quickly had a look at the ticket and I noticed that there was only one tariff (but in Arabic characters). I told the old man that I would not pay more than indicated on the ticket unless he could prove me that there was a dual tariff for this mosque. He agreed that I paid the normal tariff since I could read Farsi. The mosque is very beautiful, but is not as beautiful as those of Esfahan...I still had an overall idea of what I would see afterwards in Iran (Kashan was my second stop in Iran after Tehran).This mosque and theological school consists of two large iwans (terraces), one in front of the mihrab and the other near the entrance. The courtyard has a second court in the middle which contains a garden with trees and a fountain. Surrounding the courtyard are arcades. The iwan in front of the mihrab has two minarets with a brick dome. The colors of arcades and the iwan are restricted to blue, red, or yellow on a brick ground. Khan-e Borujerdi After having visited Agha Bozorg Mosque, I headed towards the Khans (Residences) district, located in the old city. My map lacked precisions regarding the exact location of the houses to visit, and I was forced to ask the way to young Iranians, visibly happy to be able to help a lost tourist. A teenager volunteered to show me the first house, the Borujerdi house. It is the first Persian Residence that I visited in Iran and I would visit a lot of other ones later. This house used to be a private home but now is open to the public as a museum. This house was built in 18 years in the early 19th century and consists of a beautiful courtyard, delightful wall paintings and very unusual wind towers (see pictures) which help cool down the house. It is considered a true masterpiece of Persian traditional residential architecture. Khan-e TabatabeiThe second house I visited was Khan-e Tabatabei, not much different to the previous one. The only difference was the beautiful windows with painted glasses and the wind towers were less unusual than at Khan-e Borujeri. Friday MosqueI ended my visit of Kashan with the Friday Mosque or Masjed-e Jameh, less impressive than Agha Bozorg Mosque. Its 11th century mihrab was built during the Seljuq period and has been restored several times since then. This mosque itself dates back to the Timurid Dynasty (15th century) and has a minaret with some ancient inscriptions. Overall, Kashan is a charming city, where it is good to live, in spite of the drenchy summer heat and I really enjoyed visiting it. Close
Written by Esteeve on 10 Nov, 2000
Usually mostaqim (straight ahead) will do the trick.
In order to hail a taxi anywhere in Iran, one must stand by the roadside and as taxis slow down and roll by, you must yell out the direction in which you wish to travel. If the…Read More
Usually mostaqim (straight ahead) will do the trick.
In order to hail a taxi anywhere in Iran, one must stand by the roadside and as taxis slow down and roll by, you must yell out the direction in which you wish to travel. If the driver is going in that direction he will stop. If not, he will continue rolling on his way looking for other passengers.
For the foreigner unaccustomed to the Iranian procedures of hailing a cab, one might consider practicing by shouting out places that almost no taxi will go, just to get the hang of talking to moving vehicles.
Most of the taxis only travel along the main routes throughout the city and are not willing to stray from the beaten path. It just isn't worth it for them to do so -- unless you are willing to pay for what it would cost five passengers going in your direction. If you are unable to find a taxi willing to go to your destination, much like metro systems around the world and similar to changing subway trains, you will have to change taxis at every major meydan (traffic circle) and each time you will need to hail another taxi in a similar fashion.
Upon hailing a taxi, if you are the only passenger, or one of two, the driver will crawl along the road honking at potential passengers standing by the roadside. If he does spot some passengers, you quickly find your already tight space becoming even tighter. For a New Yorker, the first time this happens, one is a bit shocked and befuddled that complete strangers are jumping into your taxi. But after a few times and after you yourself jump into near-capacity taxis, it ceases to be a problem.
The experience of riding in a taxi in Iran is not to be missed. The cars most often used as taxis are the Iranian made Paykan, which are no larger than the Japanese econoboxes of the 1970s and no more powerful than your average John Deer lawn mower.
It may be argued that the taxis, which I suspect present the most opportunities for people to find second or third jobs, make a significant contribution to Tehran's pollution problems. However, until the much talked about and not nearly finished Tehran subway system becomes a reality, these taxis effectively take the place of an elaborate metro system; they go along all main roads and routes.
Three passengers in the back and two in the front passenger seat is the rule, not the exception; well, actually one in the front passenger seat and the second person performing a balancing act of sitting half-on the seat and half-on the gearbox.
With all of the weight, it is amazing that these Paykans have survived for so many years. They move like molasses and often I feared that adding another 600 pounds of dead weight in the form of five fare-paying passengers might drive the cars into a long past-due retirement in car heaven. No such fate has befallen them. For all the complaints one might have about the Paykan, the most important thing for its owners and for that matter the nation, the majority of which drive these just slightly less than limousinesque wheels, is that it runs.
Coming from New York and accustomed to paying $1.50 just to sit in a behemoth and odor-enhanced yellow Chevrolet taxi, even when traveling with an Iranian friend, rare was the occasion that our combined fare was more than the basic New York rate. When taking a taxi from the ancient ruins of Persepolis back to Shiraz, a 60 kilometer ride, the fare for two people was 800 tomans ($2.60 at the official exchange rate).
Of course, I was cognizant of the fact that for the average Iranian, the amount I spent on taxis was not a mere drop in the bucket, and had I not been traveling without an Iranian, I'm certain that the fares might have inflated as soon as I squeezed myself into the car. But as their normal rates stand, they are reasonable and occasionally negotiable. Even if the fare is reasonable, many passengers still feign objections to the quoted rate and it seems that almost no ride would be complete without a good deal of haggling.
The insides of most taxis are as basic as can be, complete with nonexistent window handles. On few occasions I was requested to close the featherweight door more gently, because my arm is accustomed to heaving closed the heavier doors of American land yachts, cars the size of which would have difficulty passing through the narrow kuche's (alleys) of Tehran without snagging the hood ornament or a chrome bumper.
While entering the other lanes, most drivers appear not to pay attention to whether they cut off on-coming traffic and expect others to look out for them. If anything, Iranian drivers must be extremely attentive when at the wheel, especially at night when many drivers operate without headlights or only use their tiny fog lights. Some of those who do use their headlights have tinted them with either a shade of purple or green.
However, with all of these dangers a driver must face on any given day, I saw only one or two accidents. I suspect that because most cars in Iran have a top speed of 60 mph, and because drivers must be especially attentive, fewer serious accidents occur. And for all the times in a day when a driver may be cut off by an inattentive driver, rarely do drivers become agitated or come to blows with one another.
They take it all in stride.
(This article previously appeared in the November 1995 edition of the netzine, The Iranian which can be found at www.iranian.com. Prices mentioned refer to a US$/Toman exchange rate of 1:300. Since 1995 the toman has further depreciated and travelers should anticipate paying a higher amount.)
Written by baroudeur2004 on 25 Sep, 2007
I had met Moshen, a lovely Iranian guy through a chatting website and I had decided to meet him since he seemed trustworthy. He was a graphic designer student about to finish his studies and we quickly became friends after I arrived in Tehran. Moshen…Read More
I had met Moshen, a lovely Iranian guy through a chatting website and I had decided to meet him since he seemed trustworthy. He was a graphic designer student about to finish his studies and we quickly became friends after I arrived in Tehran. Moshen showed me the main sights of Tehran with his car during my three days in Tehran and introduced me to his family living in a spacious modern flat in a middle-class neighbourhood in North Tehran. I learnt later that Moshen's father was a strong supporter of the Shah and disliked the current Islamic Regime because it failed its ideals. That is why I was asked so many questions about the King of Belgium and the current Belgian political system when I met him. One day, I asked Moshen to show me the most open-minded areas of North Tehran (because I was staying in a mostly fundamentalist area in South Tehran and I had barely seen any young Iranians aiming for a change in the way the country was ruled). Moshen thus decided to drive me to Jamshidieh Park, close to the Alborz Mountains in North Tehran where, according to him, I would see unmarried couples wandering together hands in hands and barely covered young women.We met several friends of Moshen in the park and after having drunk a tea in a teahouse overlooking Tehran, it started becoming dark, so Moshen and I left the park to go to a so-called Italian restaurant near Vali-ye Asr Avenue where we ate a thick pizza. Unfortunately, time went quickly by and I had to get back to my hostel before it closed for the night. There is an unofficial curfew in South Tehran, meaning that after 10pm everything is closed and one might wonder what a tourist is doing in such an area at night.Moshen and I went down Vali-ye Asr avenue towards South Tehran in his white Fiat-like car. Moshen had put an American music tape in his radio and we both listened to the loud music. Just after we crossed the imaginary border between North and South Tehran, we noticed a small traffic-jam. I could swear I saw Moshen becoming pale; he started panicking, quickly removed the music tape out of the radio and hid it under my seat. He then told me to remain quiet and not to say anything. He had seen the Bassijis. The Bassjis, are a voluntary paramilitary force subordinate to the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution. They patrol the city streets (usually in the hot spots of the city at night) and are allowed to arrest anyone who does not comply with the Islamic rules. Moshen slowed down. He was hoping that the Bassijis would let us go without asking us further questions. That was when I realized that the Bassijis were there. The guardians of the Revolution —all bearded men with khaki fatigues and Kalashnikov guns—noticed Moshen and me. They could not miss us because of my blonde hair and white skin. They asked Moshen to stop his car and get out of it. They told me in Farsi to stay put; Moshen translated for me. He was sweating because he knew that there were illegal music tapes in his car. The Bassijis had a quick look at the car but did not notice the t Close
Written by sbmalik on 22 Aug, 2006
Iran-The hidden beautyPresent day Iran after the reign of Shah of Iran and now under the Ayatullahs regime is not a favorite and popular destination of Americans or Europeans. The unwritten threat and Islamic culture, dress code for women appears to be the major reasons…Read More
Iran-The hidden beautyPresent day Iran after the reign of Shah of Iran and now under the Ayatullahs regime is not a favorite and popular destination of Americans or Europeans. The unwritten threat and Islamic culture, dress code for women appears to be the major reasons for very few foreign travelers to Iran. Tehran, the capital city, with a population of over 14 millions is the major city. The city is quite modern comparing well with other cities in South/Southeast Asia. We stayed in Tehran for 3 months in 2002 while working on a project. The people of Iran are friendly and hospitable, though it is difficult to converse in English as very less percentage of population speaks the language. However, with the help of our hosts, friends, our landlord, other Indian families, we could manage. The imposition of dress code for women, full length dresses covering your body except your face and hands was not a constraint for us as we Indians are used to similar full length dresses. You can wear jeans with long coats and a scarf to cover your head. Tehran is situated just below the Elburz Mountains. New housing development is mostly in the northern part of the city with wide roads, expressways, flyovers, underpasses. Big malls, shops are visible in north Tehran. Transport is mainly through private cabs/taxis for which you sometimes have to negotiate. Tehran has beautiful laid our parks. The restaurants serve all types of cuisines. The kababs made from beef, chicken, sheep are fantastic with minimum oil, bar-be-qued over charcoal. Iranians also consume lots of fruits. The visitors in the houses are served on arrival with a plate laden with fruits, cucumber, dry fruits etc. followed by tea which is very healthy. We visited the town Shiraz, famous for the Perspolis palace, which was destroyed during the Alexander’s march from Greece to India in 327 BC. Only few towers are left of this historical palace. A beautiful laid out botanical garden was worth the visit in Shiraz.The ski resort in Dijin, about 200 kms from Tehran has long ski slopes for all types of skiers. A monocable gondola ride, chairlifts, skilifts are available for going up the slopes.Tehran also has a 7 section ropeway system up the Elburz Mountains. We also visited the famous Ali Sadr Water Caves in Hamadam. This was a wonderful experience. Hamadam is about 500 kms west of Tehran. You drive on expressway for first 200 kms and then on reasonable good roads through fields and mountains. The journey took about 6 hours. It is advisable to carry your eatables as once you are off the expressway; there are no good wayside restaurants. We managed with fried eggs and Iranian nans. The Ali Sadr caves were discovered by French travelers in 1962. The caves were developed for viewing around 1967. The water caves are 2.5 km long with different routes. The entrance is below a mountain. The depth of water is maximum 9 feet. The water is fresh; coming from underground and excess water gets drained out. The cave is visited by pedal boats. Huge stalagmites are formed in the cave, appearing in different shapes of elephant, birds, on walls, roof. The temperature inside the cave is a constant 16 deg. Celsius throughout the year. A big platform with a restaurant and a café provides visitors with a place to take a break and refresh themselves. A good number of eating joints are available outside the caves. Modular cabins for a family of 4 were under construction in 2002.Our stay in Iran during 3 months in 2002 was comfortable, because of us being a part of the project team and great help from our hosts. However, travelers to Iran are advised to go in a group with interpreters.Generally the people are helpful. Some of them like to talk to you in English and to know about your culture. We used to often meet a school teacher in the market, who would try to converse always in English. India had close contacts with Iran in the past. Indian movies of 60s were very popular. In the markets, we were often enquired whether we are from India. On being told so, the people will ask whether film stars of 60s like Raj Kapoor, Vyajantimala, Rajindra Kumar are still alive. Sangam, a film made in 1964, starring above actors was very popular in Iran. Our Driver was very fond of Hindi film songs of Raj Kapoor and will regularly play the cassettes given by us of Hindi songs. Overall a nice experience. Worth a visit in a group. Close