Ayatollahs. Head scarves. Fanaticism. Nuclear bombs. Perhaps even revolution.
These may be the first words that come to mind when you think of Iran. A country which is estranged from the West, which has seemed (at least until recent years) to rejoice in flouting the demands made by the UN and other international bodies, and which seems to revel in stoking its own concept of Islamic rapture: it is not that surprising that most people looked on in dismay when I told them that I would be going on vacation there with three friends.
But if there is one revolution going on in Iran right now, it is not a revolution of war or belligerence or violence. No, if anything, it is a revolution in the shape of my heart.
And by that I mean, quite literally, the ‘Shape of my Heart’; that iconic song by Sting where he coos about not being ‘a man of too many faces / The mask I wear is one’. For one absurd reason or another, this became the soundtrack of the trip, with the song following every step we took. It appeared to be the song of choice amongst young Iranians – the equivalent of being an unchallenged contender for the song to accompany the first dance at a wedding. Unprompted, our tour guides waxed lyrical about their love of the song. For one of the guides, it was even his mobile ringtone.
And maybe there is more to this than being a simple song which Iranians love. Maybe.
The song opens by saying:
‘And those he plays never suspect
He doesn’t play for the money he wins
He doesn’t play for respect’
Can a metaphor be read into this about Iran? Is Iran misunderstood from the rest of the world? Is it more of a puppy than a pariah? Or maybe it says something about the general people living in Iran, as opposed to the high politics which engulfs its international image; that they are, in fact, normal people driven by normal human impulses. Just imagine.
Well, our experience was precisely that. My friends, Lauren and Rachel (with more on the third friend, Mel, below), did find wearing a head scarf cumbersome and annoying, but other than that I do not recall us ever feeling threatened or afraid, apart from perhaps when a man who was nearing the twilight years of his life and was moonlighting as a taxi driver drove with the same shade of rampage that you saw when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gave a speech to the UN. But that was just lousy driving.
Truth be told, that is what I was expecting. What I did find startling, however, was how less conspicuously religious (albeit relatively) it was to how Iran is often portrayed. Plastic surgery is all the vogue for both women and men, albeit that may be an offshoot – for women at least – of having to wear a head scarf; religious clerics rubbed shoulders in the street with everyday people; and there were few inhibitions (at least with the people I spoke to) about the limits of proper conversation.
So, what about the trip?
Lauren, Rachel and I flew from Gatwick to Tehran via a four hour stopover in Dubai. Upon landing in my old haunt, the trip was dealt with a blow: Mel, a friend who lives in Abu Dhabi, had taken ill that day and for all intents and purposes, was not going to join us. So then there were three. In Dubai International we celebrated my birthday with a couple of drinks (and to also commemorate our last drink before our two week dry period began) at the salubrious Heineken bar, before boarding the flight to Tehran.
Our luggage was late to arrive, but this made for some interesting vignettes. One example is the elderly man who sauntered over to us and asked, fairly indifferently, where we came from. He then, with a mischievous grin, asked to guess what was in his luggage. As we were stumped, he proclaimed that it was a bottle of vodka, winked at us, and went on to joke that hopefully the police will not catch him this time. Good old Iran.
Tehran was a teeming metropolis. It was busy and large, and a substantial portion of our day was spent commuting from place to place with our young thickly moustached tour guide, Mehran. On our first day we visited the National Museum, Golestan Palace, various local bazaars, the Imamzadeh mosque and walked around the Tajrish district. Here are some pictures:
In the evening Mehran took us to Laleh park with a few of his friends, and once there, one of his cohort began singing some sort of Iranian rendition of happy birthday before unveiling a birthday cake for me. It was slightly surreal, but indicative of the sort of hospitality which Persians are renowned for.
Kashan / Isfahan
The following day we took a taxi to Kashan where we visited Fin Garden, an elaborate site where an assassin, at the behest of the king at that time, killed local leader (or specifically, the Qajarid chancellor). This also set the tone for many of the sites we visited during the trip, particularly those frequented by Iranian tourists; the garden and the surrounding environs were interesting, but the reconstruction of the murder, through the modern art form of mannequins, was, well, slightly naff. I have never been one to be whipped into a frenzy by mannequins, but the local tourists were agog at the anticipation of seeing a very plastic rendition of the murder, so much so that people were pushing and shoving in order to make room for a selfie against the reflecting glass:
Via a quick visit to the Masjed-e Agha Borzag mosque and an even quicker stop to replenish ourselves with some truly hideous Iranian pizza (imagine a loaf of Hovis bread, cut in half, and deep baked), we drove to Isfahan.
It was the early evening by the time we arrived, but over the next day and a half we visited the UNESCO Naqsh-e Jahan Square (or Imam Square) – which was built in the early 1600s, is purportedly the second largest in the world after Tiananmen Square, was originally a polo pitch and is enveloped by bulbous domes and two mosques – and the ornate Chehel Sotoun palace and pavilion, before renting bicycles and riding past the various river bridges in Isfahan.
Part of the slightly murkier side of Iran was evident in the evening when we returned to the Siose Pol river bridge where, amidst a large crowd, an elderly man began singing a Persian song to us (which, we were told, had political overtones and was slightly risqué). This was all very endearing until everyone suddenly started to flock away, supposedly out of fear of the religious police who were approaching. Nothing more happened, but it was a demonstration of the fear that people do have of the authorities. C’est la vie, although that was the extent of our problems throughout the trip.
Varzaneh and Yadz
During our last morning in Isfahan, we visited the Armenian quarter and the Vank church and its adjoining museum, before going to the colossal Isfahan Jame Mosque, which is one of the oldest mosques which still exists in Iran and is notable for the four gates facing each other. We then took a taxi to Varzaneh, or more specifically, to a desert camp on the outskirts of the city, but with the wind whipping the sand up into a frenzy and thus making the whole experience fairly unpleasant, we retreated to a communal gazebo and arrange for our visit to Yadz to be expedited.
Yadz was beautiful. It is broadly split into the old and new town, with the former having a sandy façade akin to a Tatooine village from Star Wars:
On the outskirts of the city we visited one of the holiest Zoroastrian temples – Yazd Atash Behram – which contained an eternal flame (and no, the song was not being piped down from the ceiling), before heading to the Zoroastrian ‘Towers of Silence’ (or Dakhmeh-ye Zartoshtiyun) which overlooked the city and which served, until the 1960s, as essentially a giant crematorium.
We then returned to the city centre and visited the Amir Chakhmaq Complex before experiencing the ‘authentic’ Iranian ritual of hearing a bunch of overweight and elderly men grunt and sweat to the sound of a drum – also known as, yes, you guessed it, the Zoorkhaneh rituals. We had no idea what was going on, and nor did anybody else for that matter, but it supposedly is (or at least was) once a common pastime in Iran.
Over the next couple of days we visited more mosques, were invited to Mehran’s family’s house for dinner – where a friend treated us to a 15 minute Tor performance – went to the nearby desert, ambled around the city by ourselves and, most importantly, I had my haircut.
On our final afternoon in Yadz, Mehran told us he was too home sick to continue being our tour guide, so he was replaced by the indefatigable Ali. Welcome Ali.
We took the bus to Shiraz and our first full day there coincided with ‘Nowruz’ – the first day (or ‘new day’) of spring – and which is celebrated nationwide by people going for a picnic. So off we went to the nearby village of Dashtak where we went on various short hikes which ended with a picnic (involving, to our – and also Ali’s – horror, undercooked chicken) prepared by our delightful aging taxi-driver-cum-tour-guide-for-the-day who openly proclaimed his love for Shirazi wine and his disdain for the government (and, interestingly, he also forebodingly mentioned he was imprisoned for several years in the UAE, presumably for bad cooking). Whatever he lacked in culinary or driving skills, he more than made up by the sheer force of his personality.
Back in Shiraz we visited the Masjed e-Vakil mosque which was built in the mid-1700s and had an elegant tree-blossomed courtyard, treated ourselves to an ornate dinner in one of Yadz’s nicest hotels, and climbed to the top of ‘Koran Gate’ which was essentially a mountain overlooking the city.
The next day we visited local bazaars, the Arg-e Karim Khan fortress in the centre of the city, the Vakil Hammam, e-Nazar gardens and pavilion, and the Hafez tomb, before visiting the expansive and enchanting Arangh-e Shah-e Cheragh Mosque (which is the most important pilgrimage site in Shiraz) in the evening.
Persepolis and all that
The next day we embarked on a series of site-seeing trips, taking in Cyrus’s Tomb, the Necropolis and Persepolis. These seemed more akin to what you would see in ancient Egypt and were a marked difference to the largely Islamic sites we had seen to-date. You can read about these sites on Wikipedia, but here are some select photographs:
Shush and Shushtar
From Shiraz we took an overnight bus to Shush, where we arrived at 6am. Wiping the sleep from our eyes, we visited the Tomb of Daniel during twilight hours whilst the city was still eerily silent, before visiting the Apadana Palace (which was the Winter palace of the Achaemenid Empire, whereas Persepolis was theor summer palace), followed by the adjacent Château du Morgan castle which was built in the last 1800s by French archaeologists to provide them with home comforts whilst toiling in Iran. We also visited the Chogha Zanbil – a brick Ziggurat (meaning, according to Wikipedia, a ‘massive structure
built in the ancient Mesopotamian valley and western Iranian plateau, having the form of a terraced step pyramid of successively receding stories or levels’) – and Shushtar’s soothing water mills before taking the night train to Tehran.
On our last day in Tehran, we went to the Tochal skis slopes (why!? Why not?) which were on the outskirts of Tehran, enjoyed a few runs down the slopes, went to some bazaars in the Ray district of Tehran, and ate dinner at the upmarket and impressive Darband complex.
And then we rested. We said our farewells to Ali and flew to Dubai where I caught up with my old colleagues, and where we visited the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi (and caught up with Mel), indulged in an Al Qasr brunch followed by a sunset dance at 360, relaxed at the Dubai Marine and Sail Club, and went for drinks at At.mosphere at the top of the Burj Khalifa.
As always, the whole trip came and went too quickly and I wish I had more time there. But even during our short stint, Iran left enough of an impression on the Shape of my Heart. Aw.
For the full set of pictures click HERE, but here are a few more select photographs: