Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Iran - The Truth Behind the Veil

iran map

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First impressions are bleak. This is a terrible city, urban sprawl at its worst. Low density, poor quality, ugly housing developments. Pollution and traffic congestion caused by bad urban planning and a pathetic public transport system. You can observe all sorts of problems just from the bus. The wealth disparity, the prostitutes, the junkies, gangs of young thugs roaming the streets looking for some poor innocent to beat the crap out of. It's incredible to think that people are still living like this in 2006. It's scary, but it's not so bad because I'm only passing through Dublin on my way to the airport.

I arrived in Yazd on Sunday morning after an internal flight from Tehran, on an Iran air Fokker 100. A small Fokker, but a nice Fokker. Yazd is one of the oldest cities in the world and like all desert towns, it's hot, dry and dusty. There's also a lot of pollution, thanks mainly to 6c per litre unleaded petrol. The most common car is the Paykan, a licenced copy of the old Hillman Hunter. Iranians have a very liberal interpretation of the rules of the road, driving where they like, when they like. It's more to do with poor safety and carelessness than aggresion though, and I reckon these guys would find the going tough in Napoli. The people here seem very friendly and one of the guys hanging around the hotel, Masood, brought me to see his language institute. It's completely segregated, with male and female students in separate buildings. Masood says it's law to wear helmets on the motorbike but nobody bothers. Unfortunately on a day trip to Meybod we saw an accident with two bikes. Looked very bad for the lady on the ground. The day trip took in a couple of old villages in the desert, Kharanaq and Chak Chak, a Zoroastrian temple. The desert scenery is spectacular.

Ramadan finished on Tuesday morning, presumably marked by the music blaring from the mosque at 4.30 in the morning. For some reason the Iranian government has decided to grant three days holiday and since Friday is always a holiday that's four days in a row with a lot of things closed. Finding my way around the city isn't the easiest as the maps are not great and the signs on the smaller streets are only in Farsi.

Most of the women here wear the chador, or at least a looser version of it, though many of the younger ones wear just the hejab (headscarf) and a longish jacket to cover the jeans. On public buses they sit at the back and men sit at the front. There are not many working in the shops. So far things are fairly cheap, though it's hard to work out the money and you have to hope they're not ripping you off. Anyway if they do take a couple of thousand rials here and there who cares, since 10,000 rials is less than a Euro. Food is good, usually served with a lot of rice. Camel tastes a lot like llama.

Contrary to popular prejudice, there was no cavity search at the airport, in fact I didn't even show ID to take the internal flight. I have also not seen any crazed, bearded ayatollahs, nor have I heard any "death to the infidel" taunts. Tomorrow I'll take the bus to Esfahan, maybe I'll find some there.

Esfahan...half the world
I came to Esfahan on Thursday. It's rated as one of the most beautiful cities in the Islamic world and it is a beautiful city, as long as you stay away from the traffic fumes. There's the usual array of places to drink tea and smoke water-pipes, including a few under the bridges. It's less conservative here than in Yazd and they are obviously more used to seeing tourists as they don't stare so much. 1980s fashion is in for the guys and dodgy haircuts that only The Fonz could love. The girls are more daring and obviously the days when they would get acid thrown in their faces for wearing make-up, and have lipstick scraped off with razor blades are long gone. Post cosmetic surgery plasters are all the rage here. There are also more women working in the shops etc, though there's usually a man around to make sure they don't make mistakes. Again the people are extremely friendly and these guys just don't seem to be taking their role in the axis of evil very seriously.

Remarkably, the guys in the bazaars (markets) know the meaning of the word no, except when they want to drag you in for yet more tea, show off their carpets and ask how they can show people that Iran is a safe country for tourists, who have almost disappeared since September11th. Iranians have a very curious system of politeness called ta'arof. For example, if someone invites you for a meal, you should refuse a few times, so they have a chance to back out if they can't actually afford to buy you that meal. I took a taxi in Esfahan and asked the driver how much I owed him.
Driver: "Nothing, it's ok, I don't charge you"
Me: "No, seriously how much?"
Driver: "Nothing, it's ok"
Me: "Please, I insist, how much is it?"
Driver: "15,000 Rials"
Next time if they say its free I'll try saying "That's great, thanks" and see what happens.

si-o-se bridge

Small town between Esfahan and Tehran. Not a huge amount to see here, some old traditional houses. Traditional for the rich anyway. Food is getting repetitive, diced lamb kebab, minced lamb kebab. Chicken kebab, mixed lamb and chicken kebab. Kebab with rice, kebab with salad. Kebab with bread and tomatoes. At least they are good kebabs. Whoever made the comment about the nuclear facilities might be interested to know that on the way from Esfahan to Kashan you can see a military facility which is *allegedly* part of the nuclear program. For electrical power of course.

Tehran...not so bad.
A huge city of 14 millon or so and it feels like there are about that many cars. It's a city where red lights are meaningless, motorcyclists think nothing of going the wrong way against five lanes of traffic and crossing the street is an extreme sport. It's hectic and polluted, although it's not as bad as some people say. There are some nice parks and new metro system to get some relief from killer Paykans. In Esfahan I heard about a Bobby Sands street in Tehran. Since I couldn't find the Bobby Sands monument in Old Havana I was determined to find this one. A few people pointed me towards it and I found it easily enough. "Babi Sandz St.". Those geniuses at the Iranian government placed it right alongside the British Embassy. Brilliant. I took a photo and as I zoomed in for a close up I was quickly surrounded by three Iranian soldiers. One guy shook my hand.
"No photo, please delete".
As they had three guns and I had none, obviously I deleted the photo. To be fair they were very polite about it.
"What country?".
"Irland, like Babi Sandz".

The guy shook my hand again. Luckily at the far end of the street the sign was facing away from the embassy, so with permission from a different guard I got one from there. They even got the name right. The US den of espionage (ex US embassy) is similarly decorated with murals of "death to the great Satan", "down with Israel" etc. This was the site of the hostage crisis in 1979 and from where the CIA orchestrated the coup against the great Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953, installing Mohammad Reza Shah as dictator. As you would expect there are pictures everywhere of revolutionary ayatollahs, but disappointingly I have seen nothing of Mossadegh. Not publicly anyway, but people know who he was at least. For those who don't know Mohammed Mossadegh was the prime minister of democratic Iran in the early 1950s. His crime was nationalising Iran's oil wells.

Qazvin and the bus incident
On Sunday I took a bus from Tehran to Qazvin. It's hard to figure out where to go as no one working here speaks English. Finally someone points me in the right direction. As I'm one of the last people to get on there are not many seats left. I sit beside some guy who tells me through a translator accross the aisle that it's reserved. Translator says "This one is free" pointing to the seat in front. In front is a girl sitting on her own. "Mmm...is it ok if I sit here?" Girl says nothing, just looks at me and smiles. This is definitely not allowed on city buses, but maybe inter-city buses are different. I look around and no one tells me yes or no. The girl is clearly amused by my confusion. So fearing the wrath of the Komiteh (Iran's notorious morality police) I decided the best thing to do was get off and wait for the next bus. A few days later on the way back to Tehran I found out the answer to the question. Three young girls get on the bus and two of them sit in front of me. Despite lots of empty seats, the third one says,
"Can I sit here?"
"But what about the komiteh?"
"Oh, ok sit"
As far as I can gather, they are first year university students. It seems that most people in Iran don't learn English until they start university. The girls aren't put off by the fact that they have about two sentences of English between them and are convinced that if they shout loudly enough in Farsi, I'll eventually understand. Before getting off in Karaj they give me a present of a choker, and one of them, Sanaz, earns herself the distinction of becoming the only Iranian girl to shake my hand. This is not so unusual as handshaking is a western custom, and a fairly recent import to Iran even for men.

On Monday I took a trip to the Alamut. Waste of time really, the castle is so ruined there's hardly anything to see, and the driver didn't speak a word of English. Nice scenery, but not worth $40. Should have just spent the day in Qazvin, which is a nice town and has the best bazaar of any I've seen. On checkout on Tuesday the guy at the hotel, having previously said it's ok to pay in Euro now wants Rials as he can't figure out the conversion rates. So I have to change money to get back to Tehran. The first bank wont change money and at the second bank it takes three people 25 minutes and a whole bunch of signatures to change €30. They're obviously not used to money changing here and even the security guard comes over to have a close look at a ten Euro note. So once all that's done it's back to Tehran for flight home to the decadent west.

Iran - to go or not to go? Ff you want to see something different, there is no reason not to go to Iran. If you want beaches and night clubs, then Iran is not the place. If you're not prepared to follow Iran's social rules, then don't go. The image of a dangerous country full of Islamic militants and hardline extemists hostile to westerners and "infidels" is just media hype and prejudice. However, there is little doubt that Iran has a special place in the great Satan's new world order and maybe at some point they will come to liberate Iran's oil wells for democracy. Go now before it happens, because out of all the countries I have visited, Iran is the friendliest and most welcoming of them all.
follow the photo gallery link on the right to see photos


Unknown said...

hey eamonn,
nice one here.
have to read myself through the previous stuff.but for now.good luck and as we said: dont touch their girls.u ll need your hands for the boring winter in galway:)
talk to u soon.

Anonymous said...

Hello Eamonn!!

Great update and glad to hear all is going as planned.

Now going back to the mission, what about using the Fokker 100 to destroy the nuclear facilities?

All the best!!

Unknown said...

hey eamonn
great into man!
tried to set already a comment here.didnt work.typical irish!
even your blogs are not functioning well.propably developed by some totally drunk irish IT students- GMIT i guess:)
anyway take care of yourself man.
see you soon.

Anonymous said...

Are you stoned yet? Why are you not stoned yet? What no dope in Iran? I thought it was just a beer ban........:-)

Unknown said...

Hey! I enjoyed your blog. I was 9 (1985) when my family and I left Iran and haven't been back since. I'm planning to go there sometime this year, so it's nice to read about peoples experiences in Iran. I just wanted to make a note about your comment on hand shaking and that it is not a common thing in Iran. Actually according to historical references hand shacking has always been part of the Iranian tradition and it is understood that it (hand shaking) has originated from Persia (Iran). Unfortunately, according to Islamic rules women are forbidden to shake a mans hand. Islam came to Iran some 1400 years ago.