Half The World

Trip Start Feb 04, 2007
Trip End Mar 09, 2008

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Flag of Iran  ,
Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Esfahan is the city in Iran about which everyone raves. Even Tehranis tell you to stop wasting time in their hellhole and to get down to Esfahan. The odd traveller we cross paths with reminds you not to skimp on your time here. Expectations are created.
Esfahan, on arrival, is no different to elsewhere in Iran. Ridiculous levels of hospitality: everyone wants to get involved to make sure you get on the right bus to get downtown. Heated arguments start between passengers to ensure we get off at the bus stop that means we only need to walk 40m, not 60m to our hotel. 60m. Pah. Is that any way to treat our guests?
We had come in on a coach with the oddest fellow traveller yet. In his forties, three piece suit with evidence of a great many meals that had failed to find their intended target. Gold rings occupied most of his finger space. And something, something, just a little bit wrong in his bearing and demeanour.
After days of people always looking over their shoulder, some of the paranoia rubs off. I definitely did not think he was the travel agent he introduced himself as. I was curious as to why a fluent English speaker "thought you were speaking German" - it was clearly a conversation starter that we couldn't handle with a yes or no answer, thus forcing our engagement. Normally these conversations never end, but it was simply a matter for me to ask a question of him rather than let him play questioner and me answerer and he would simply not talk and look straight ahead - then restart 10 minutes later. The sledgehammer point for me was that he advised us to be careful with the camera as "we had to deport two Swedish tourists recently for taking inappropriate photos of certain facilities". I am fairly sure this wouldn't have made the news, so how did he know? Why did he use the word 'we'? And Dopey had introduced himself as a travel agent an hour earlier by cheerily saying "I just got back from Sweden".
Claude picked the big flaw. When we alighted the bus there had been two chador clad women in the two front seats parallel to us. No one in Iran asks a woman to move, let alone a conservative woman. He had asked and they seemingly dismissively refused before quickly assenting. Too much seemed out of the ordinary.
I subsequently softened in my views and settled in my mind that he was simply pro-government, English speaking and curious: he got bored with us too quickly and there was no government car waiting for him at the other end which would have been the marks of something darker... Claude initially thought I was making things up, then spent the later part of the day arguing the case that he was somewhere involved with the police. The only conclusion we can jointly draw is that it doesn't take long for a bit of paranoia, suspicion and caution to rub off.
Esfahan itself at first seemed like the Gold Coast. Has historic Esfahan decided to dedicate itself to blinking lights, subway sandwiches, awful pizza and chintzy clothes shops? As a first impression we definitely had some second thoughts about a long stay here.
A really inaccurate first impression: there is clearly the quinella of great sights and great people interactions that warranted our exploring it at leisure.
Claude struck first - striking up conversation with four 18 year old girls (two conservatively clad in chador, two doing the legal minimum coverage). With only a minimum of language and a maximum of charades we were still able to get to know them quite well over a few hours. I never expected we would be able to mingle like this with girls, but as Westerners, woohoo! we don't count under Islamic law. So to girls who are tremendously curious about boys in general a foreign attached tourist is a golden opportunity to have some man time.
They were welcoming and engaging of course. Surprisingly, they were ardently pro-government, and disdained both foreign governments and the efforts of the previous Iranian reformist government. They seemed to chafe at the restraints that they couldn't meet boys (and Sasha, Claude has promised you to a girl here btw, best start looking for a ring), but loved the change of government that got rid of the reformer Khatami and made the laws tighter again.
Later conversations with other locals revealed a little more. We met three groups of people on our first whole day - yielding 2 to 6 hour conversations with them. My favorite was with a local man about our age (or a little younger) who laconically referred to the problems for Iran being that "No one can get a job - even with a good degree. Everything is about connections if you want a job. My only connection is to my uncle's carpet shop". His English was so perfect and his enunciation so pure that he could slot in to the royal family effortlessly. Yet in a state centring on connections he remains unemployable despite the pidgin English translations seen in all the English language newspapers provided around the country and the halting clipped sentences on the late night English language news.
We linked up here with an Australian doctor, Marcus, with whom we had dined in Tehran. Marcus, courtesy of a Finnish mother and an Indian father, looks too Iranian for the locals to bother speaking to him - or if they do they speak in rapid Farsi (good luck). He has resorted to baseball caps, having his camera out - anything to look like a tourist - and still locals would come to me and enquire if he was our guide. In a society that generates so many impressions and points worthy of further thought its been great to have a third opinion.
An evening tea at Si-oh-Seh Bridge, part of Shah Abbas 17th century legacy, is a beautiful place to pass an evening. And guess what happens: again we spend the hours with three Iranian men in their very early 20's (A, M and B - to remind us) keen to share a fine welcome and ensure we know the many problems of the country. Its no burden.
This conversation was interesting as for the first time there was a conservative religious voice among them. Far from being pro-government, he merely had a different take on why things had to change - that Islam compels no one to adhere, so the strictures of the government are simply about control and paying only lip service to the religion that underpins the control structure.
These new friends arose at dawn to show us the bridges straddling the Zayandeh river - many of which are 400 years old and are a focal point for the town's inhabitants as a place for a tea, some exercise or even to sing using the arches amazing acoustics. Afterwards we went out for a traditional breakfast and returned to the riverfront tea house (otherwise closed) to enjoy it. I just have no parallel for this kind of hospitality. And the food is excellent, but culinary descriptions must take a back seat to all the people we are meeting.
Later in the day we made it to Imam Square. This happens a lot in Iran: you set out planning to see three sights and you finish the day having seen nothing but having had tea with 15 new, and very open, friends. Three planned days in Esfahan turns into five and still we haven't seen anything. This is not a caution to other travellers - this should be the highlight reason why you come. The mosques will still be here next time.
Imam Square lives up to its hype. The world's second largest square after Tiananmen it is wrapped with two storeys of elegant and historic arched arcades and is the centre point for two mosques and the sprawling bazaar. Both the Lotfollah Mosque and Imam Mosque are actually beyond the norm (visit too many and they do tend to blur). The quality, scale and precision attained 400 years ago is startling. And yet in the modern era the need for crowd control and sun shading sees the appended additions made out of thick, rough, lurid green scaffolding completely destroying the effect that would otherwise be even more astounding.
Outside the mosque we met a man of 17 (who reminded me a lot of Anthony Callea, but I could get no support for this opinion) who we spent the evening with in his carpet shop. True to his word, he never attempted to sell us anything - he truly just wanted to talk. Born to an Iraqi father he was denied citizenship - and thus education - but had managed to do some private English classes and now spoke better than most Australians. He has even branched into slang, with a beaming smile he invites you to "park your ass!" on his carpets. He knew some other slang that is otherwise unrepeatable on a family website. In a long conversation - covering all the topics we have covered in this and past entries (its always the same concerns and level of anger) we gained a new measure of the people's desire to get out. His friends were now jealous that he had been able to secure an Iraqi passport - he was the lucky one. He had a pretty good chance of hitting a refugee visa and a ticket out.
An increasingly common occurrence is people asking for visa invitations, with seemingly every young male plotting a way to leave. As I have got more reckless my hypothetical questions have extended to "if a group of 10,000 people were marching to protest how the government treats you, would you join in?", I have found that fear of police reprisal comes second to "that would go on my record, and I would never get an exit visa".
Leaving Iran even on holiday is hard. You need to be able to leave behind cash or real estate to the value if USD$20,000. This is more than a house. You don't need to do this if you go on a package tour: costing about a year's wages (if you are lucky enough to be employed of course) for a 15 day Europe tour. We seem to learn a new rule every day: its very Truman Show in its efforts to tread on people's ability to leave, and I keep picturing that film's scenes of travel agents with pictures of burning airliners and tropical destinations beset by tidal waves. Yet the young would still choose the burning plane over staying.
On our last two nights here we have been invited to speak at local language institutes. As native English speakers we can usually English good much. We spoke to three classes - the teachers in each case being ecstatic to have us there, as were the students. Despite early polite words to their students that talking politics is impolite, that was a genie that couldn't stay in its bottle and the questions flowed without pause. I was happy to engage, and Claude is always happy to share her views about enforced headscarves in 30 degree heat.
So many conversations and questions have hit the same points - the only surprise left for me is how uniform the views are becoming. There are the sad but resigned questions about whether Western people think all Iranians are terrorists (of course not, would we risk visiting if we thought so?), what we think of Iranian people (where we try to prepare them for an outside world that I fear will take advantage of their highly trusting nature), and what will we tell people about Iranian people (I hope some of you are already booking tickets).
There is also the inevitable awkward questions of what we think of Iran's nuclear programme, and of whether we would like to live here. This is trickier.

There is a real risk in the potential for misunderstandings with people for whom English is a second language - so the need to use simple words and be concise is paramount (not my strong suits...). Equally, there is no point pandering and pretending everything is fine: a good chunk of them openly acknowledge things are far from fine, so the leeway to be open is clearly there for the visitor to take.
I have tended to pull few punches and give them my genuine views - if the Iranian Government had nothing to hide, why did they not allow inspections for so long... do they understand that hiding things makes people worry and assume the worst? (yes) I explained that Iran was my favorite place to visit yet I could not live in a society where freedom of association and freedom of speech were strictly limited (seemingly less well understood).
As an interesting sidenote, it is funny that all the English language teaching videos and cassettes are American. The American accent is the most prized by the English language student, and when I noted to one female teacher (in the staff room) her slight Texan drawl she was most sincerely complimented and the compliment was repeated to ensure her contemporaries also heard of this foreigner's judgment. One excellently witty old man spoke with the perfect British accent of the educated (he had spent 18 years at Oxford). He let me know that each semester four or so students would drop out of his class as they don't want to learn that accent. He commented drily on the irony others missed "Its Death to America," in his upper class British accent, "but thank you very much", in the velvet tones of Elvis.
In the nuclear discussion we had, one student pursued a logical and reasonable (and not militant) argument that the rest of the world has nuclear weapons, so why not Iran? Its an argument with a solid base, and its a nuanced argument to dissuade them of the need. America has them, and has used them twice, they correctly point out. Countering this is tricky in a country where the notion of Japan as aggressor in the 1930's and 40's, China as anything less than paradise, or why (or even that) any oppressive regime has toppled over in Eastern Europe does not seem to be taught. Countering that America has not used their weapons for the 60 years since WWII seemed to be a new point for consideration they were open to, and overall it was a nice discussion. At the end of the class, the key protagonist sought me out to thank me for giving honest and direct answers - and I was relieved he did, having sailed perilously close to the wind on a couple of occasions leaving me with some concern I may have caused offense. Then the bombshell "I have won the Green Card Lottery - I am moving to California in two weeks - my brothers are already there!"
There is a simple rhyme about this place, "Esfahan nesf-e jahan", which translates as 'Esfahan is half the world'. But the comment above shows the rub - while Iran is a fantastic, welcoming and beautiful place to visit seemingly every citizen is planning to get out to the other half of the world.

* * *

My first moments in Esfahan are marked by me accidentally sitting down in the male section on the bus. 
We were making our way to our hotel carrying our 16kg backpacks and various other pieces of luggage.  The standard confusion ensued as we were told we needed to get the 301 bus into town, but logically none of the buses seemed to have roman numeral numbers (or even Farsi ones - which we can now read) on the front.  The standard gaggle of people passing by leaped to our aid and soon we were on the correct bus barreling down the main street Chahah Bagh Abbasi.
There was no way I was passing up the only two seats left on the bus.  I pounced across the seats with my pack still attached to my body and as the bus began to fill I decided to vacate the second seat that my bag was resting upon.  By now Iain was sitting diagonally opposite me in our four person bus seat.  The quiet man facing opposite politely informed me that I was seated in the male section of the bus but as I was a tourist it would probably be OK.  It was then I noticed that there were numerous females standing in the back half of the bus - most of them gawking at me.  I squeezed myself against the bus wall and kept my pack on my lap to ensure that it would be easy for another man to sit down next to me without having to touch me.  The seat stayed vacant despite the cluster of 25 men who were now standing in the bus' male zone.  After a few minutes the polite man leaned forward again to suggest that Iain sit next to me as no male would ever sit next to me.  Iain left his seat to sit next to me and within 2 seconds his prior seat had been filled.
I have begun to notice that whenever any male that we meet does decide to shake my hand with vigour - I am ecstatic. [Of course, I no longer offer my hand as I have faced too much rejection over the past two weeks].  It is astounding how something so small and unnoticeable can provoke so much emotion.   Generally speaking I can't help feeling a little like a dejected leper despite the fact that I (sort of) understand the religious rationale behind these actions. 
Esfahan is a beautiful city.  We have visited the astoundingly pretty Imam Mosque, the beautiful Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque (both located on impressive Imam Square), we have sucked on sugar cubes as we sipped our cay in a tea house under the magnificent Si-o-Seh bridge, we have visited the Armenian Quarter and located the lone cafe which served, erm, cappuccino (well sort of) as the Vank Cathedral was closed that day, we have seen the Shaking Minarets at Manar Jomban, climbed to the the top of the nearby Fire Temple and traipsed through the neverending Bazaar.  However, all of these things have taken us about 5 days to complete (rather than the required two) as we are stopped everywhere we go by locals who want to spend time with us.  We both agree that Iran is less about visiting the sites and monuments and much more about speaking to the people and embracing the hospitality.
Our first day in Esfahan was an incredible blend of conversations.  We began the day at Imam Square where we were picked up by J, an English student, who chatted with us and then invited us to speak at his upcoming English class in two days time.  While speaking to J, we were approached by a number of other boys who also wanted to have a chat.  Including the man who sidled up to us silently with his baby on his hip, said nothing but listened to the conversation for about two hours and then left with a hearty "welcome to iran and it was nice to meet you".  Once again, the conversation was all about the lack of freedom for people in Iran, the poor government and the very real fear that the Western world believed Iranians to be terrorists (it is frightening how concerned people are about this - "I always watch the BBC news (on my illegal satellite) and I hate the way Iran is portrayed").
We said our goodbyes and wandered away looking for a place to eat.  Within minutes a group of chador-clad girls approached me to welcome us to Iran and invite us to their friend's 19th birthday picnic.  Iain and I were ecstatic as speaking to females has been the missing link in our ongoing Iranian investigation.  The conversation was a little more challenging as our Farsi remained non-existant and their English was less fluent but we were able to communicate together.  After loudly singing happy birthday to their friend, Iain and I were met with a giggling frenzy and then admonished "it is illegal for females to sing in Iran".  Oh, of course it was.  

They were confused about why my eyebrows were unruly as in Iran single girls did not pluck their eyebrows but then once married they should be shaped and minimised within an inch of their lives.  Apparently, I was the laughing stock.  They were amazed that my arms had freckles ("what is this?") and were even more amazed when I explained they were all over my arms and legs.  In a land of night and day full-body cover up sun damage is less of a problem.
We moved on to religion and I was surprised by their vocal and repetitive admissions of love about wearing the chador and veil.  I suppose I secretly harboured the hope that all Muslim women felt forced into dressing this way and if given the chance they would prefer to run free through parks in singlets and shorts with their long hair trailing behind them caressed by the wind.  Apparently this is not so. 
Two of these girls were quite devout and were confused that we were not Muslim and could not comprehend a life where a god was not a huge part of every single day.  They made certain to scowl at any approaching boys and as an automatic reflex they lifted their chadors to cover the lower part of their face when any young Iranian boys looked their way. [Iain apparently did not count as he was not Muslim].  They loved their lives and loved the Iranian President.  They looked forward to their future organised marriage and were keen that with marriage they would be able to get a mobile phone from their new husband.  This was an interesting day. 

They talked a lot about the memories they would keep from this day we had shared and led us to the water's edge for a professional photograph.  All four of them purchased a print and then an additional print was purchased as our gift (despite my protests that I could take my own photograph).  I could see that they also enjoyed having their own real live boy to speak to even though he wasn't Muslim ("...I love mister Iain").
We met a group of four older girls in a restaurant who once again were keen to chat to us.  Two had finished their degrees - one was now a bank clerk, one was unemployed and the other two were still studying. 
"So what will you do when you finish your Biology Degree?"
"Nothing, I will be unemployed then I will get married and go shopping"  (all giggle)
I am starting to realise that this society is generating a group of males and females who are conditioned to behave a certain way.  The females we have spoken to don't actually seem unhappy with their plight.  They have embraced their situation and seem to be just getting on with business.  The anger, resentment and unemployment seems to largely affect the male youth here in Iran and I suppose this is why they are so eager to flee the country. [Nevertheless, i have now heard from a few male tourists that iranian girls have approached them and complained bitterly about their situation and about wearing the chador.  i assume travelling as a 'couple' may mean we are not meeting a broad representation of females].

Still on the first day we met up with Australian Marcus (who we had met earlier in Tehran).  We decided to have dinner together and then took him to the tea house we had visited with the 4 girls.  Little did we know, he had met the tea house owner earlier that day who had invited him for tea.  The evening began as tea for 3 and ultimately became tea for 7 as the tea house owner, M, and his friends joined us.

So continued another day chock-a-block with conversations.  We chatted late into the evening about all sorts of things - even sharing a bit of Kylie Minogue (which was well received) from Marcus' ipod illustrating that female singers were not banned in other countries.  Female musician's popularity was further authenticated by iain's instant mournfulness upon discovering that Marcus didn't have any Belinda Carlisle on his ipod.

As per usual, everyone volunteered how much they disapproved of the government and their lack of freedom as an iranian citizen.  One of the more religious among M's friends had a slightly different approach to his animosity: "this is not islam".  He hated that islam was scapegoated as a blanket suppression tool against the iranian people.  Even though his views were not shared by his friends, it was interesting to see how the government seemed to universally alienate it's citizens and unite them in opposition.

it was a nice evening together so when their invitation to be shown some of the nicer spots of Esfahan was offered, we all agreed  ...even though the plan was to meet at 6am.  Before sunrise!  Even iain said yes!  This reveals how much we enjoyed their company.

Before we knew it, it was dawn and we were standing under one of the many arches of the bridge listening  to M singing an enchanting iranian poem about the beautiful city of Esfahan.  This was considered extremely normal.  in fact it was explained that many men would stop by the bridge on their way to work to have a quick sing under the acoustic-friendly arches.  Like clockwork, a man dashed up to the bridge clad in a conservative brown suit carrying a briefcase.  He idled under an arch momentarily and then began to warm up his throat before singing.  One song later, he was on his way back to the busy streets.

Many times during our stay people (essentially males) commented how happy i was.  They said that my smiling made them happy being around me.  i was a bit confused and thought that perhaps this was just part of the ruse: "Things To Say To Foreign Ladies So They Will Let You Touch Their Doodads".  After spending time with the chador clad girls and watching interactions on the street - I realised that it is not bad enough that males and females are estranged but generally females demonstrate their purity by intentionally grimacing at males or covering even more of their faces when a male walks by.  Males generally see females as angry, frowning people.  i suppose my laughing and smiling openly in front of them was odd. 

There is so much to say about our experience at Esfahan that i fear i would be typing for the next week.  instead i just want to cover a few things that happened to us.

What started as an invitation to one English class, quickly turned into three.  Each was better than the last and our host, J, invited us back to his house for sofre style tea and watermelon which soon turned into a bed for the night.  

We met his entire family including his married brother who came from down the road when he heard that J had tourist visitors.  J's mother was a lovely woman who welcomed us into her home "you are more welcome than my own sister in my home".  She was a little shy and in the few moments that she wasn't feeding us, she was constantly pulling her chador up so that it was covering most of her face.  J was the only english speaker in the extended family and it was through him that we learned that J's parents were married when she was 9 and he was 25yrs old.  This was a lovely couple who had been together for about 50 happy years but a big part of me could not get over the fact that in numerous countries this act constitutes paedophilia. 

i find it horrifying that it is believed that a 9 year old girl can be ready for marriage.  Whilst visiting the Shaking Minarets i started to chat to a little girl who was wrestling with her little brothers.  She puffed out her chest and was telling me that her mum was from Korea and her dad was from iran but she was born and had lived her whole life in the USA.  She then went on to tell me that she had just turned 9.  This girl was tiny.  And young.  Anyone in their right mind would want to help her or her look after her if they had stumbled upon her.  it was like a smack in the face to learn that if she had been born over here, she was slap bang on marrying age.

i've since learned that the Ayatollah Khumeini selected a 10yr old wife for himself when he was 28.  "A man can have sexual pleasure from a child as young as a baby. However, he should not penetrate." - Khomeini (Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution). 

While i - and many of the locals also - just can't get over some of the shocking laws, i am loving our time here.  Esfahan, a magnificent stop - both beautiful and educational. 
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Derek Hopper on

What a beautiful piece, and such great photographs. I have been considering a trip to Iran for next year and you just made up my mind.

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