A Story about Iran

Imagine, for some hardcore reason, you decided to walk the length of the Silk Road, that ancient trade route that flowed between China and Rome. You plough through deserts and up snow mountains, ford rivers and jump over yaks, recover from food poisoning in northern India, and was not kidnapped in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Months later, thousands of kilometres from where you had started, when you have stopped bothering to pick the scorpions out of your boots and sand from your hair, your journey would bring you to the gates of one of the greatest civilizations in the world. Persia, Salaam! Gryphon-tipped pillars rise out from the desert sands and her cosmopolitan army — archers from Africa, riders from the steppes — stand immortal across the marbled temple walls. She was the conqueror of Athens and Babylon, a land of poetry and wine — Persia hgeili huubu! Persia very good! The traders who once lived and died by the Silk Road would tell you, of this land that lay between Caesar and Kublai Khan.

Mountains off the Caspian Coast. On the way up to Mount Kalahoo, 4800m.

But Persia today is not the Persia of antiquity. Modern day Iran’s idea of a reception party is its capital Tehran’s airport visa office, all seemingly run by the same man, a cultured man, who would rather watch the Turkish drama on the TV that has taken up much of his desk than to defile his quiet nobility by touching anything related to paperwork. We tourists crowd in front of his counter, waiting on his whims. It is not by random chance that the airport prayer room is situated next to the visa office. An old French lady who did not speak English nor Farsi, the national language of Iran, impotently nudged her papers at the Visa guy. It also seemed like she had gotten the papers wrong. The only thing Visa Guy bothered about her was to signal her to put on a damn headscarf, which, based on some concept of enforced modesty, is compulsory for all females in Iran. I gesticulated and stabbed at the offending bits in her papers, and at her hair, but of course all it did was to further her confusion. This old French broad was born in 1932. She had survived World War 2, but her chances of surviving the Visa office was not looking good.

It was noon by the time Visa Hipster Guy sorted all of us infidel tourists out. All romantic expectations of Iran, by then, were already on life support. The infamous Tehran traffic, sensing the last faint whispers of optimism in my heart, honed in on my taxi and smashed it headlong into a traffic whirlpool in the middle of town. As I sat there in the backseat in a puddle of sweat and self-pity, 6 storeys-high crude paintings of martyrs from the 1980s Iran-Iraq war gazed down upon my mortal struggles from the side of apartment blocks. “If a martyr had lived in the apartment before the war, they would paint his face on the building,” I was told later on. I was however not told if turning people’s houses into giant tombstones was an effective plan to control property prices, else I could recommend it back home.

“Sometimes they would carry the caskets of martyrs into our university lectures too,” Said my Tehran friend. “And tell us how we should not forget their sacrifice. In the middle of a lecture about electrical wiring, the imams and the religious police would come and talk to us about some kid who had died twenty years ago. That’s how the government tries to distract us from the shitty way things are now in Iran.”

Exactly how shitty the governance was became clearer as Iran slowly unravelled over the 3 weeks I was there. One of the most apparent was the rule that girls must wear headscarfs. If the headscarf is missing, or some hair is falling out, a religious force known as the “Moral Police” would thunder down like some divine-sanctioned SWAT team and drag her ass off to jail. Modesty! Tradition! Lock up all the loose women! If the girl was lucky, all she had to do to get out of jail was to write an apology letter.

“An apology letter to who?!” I asked my host in Tehran, one night during one of those semi-illegal Tehran house parties where home-brewed beer and mysterious, equally home-brewed, blue liquour were the order of the night. Out on the streets, douchebag Iranian punks would unbutton their shirts to reveal an offensive amount of chest. Why the upstanding members of the Moral Police didn’t judge them to be offensive (on so many levels! Fashion, hygiene…) is a question as perplexing as the meaning of life itself. Iranians are a very highly educated bunch, and there were about 50 years of higher education cramped in that small room drinking DIY booze. Perhaps it was the blue stuff that got to all our heads, but nobody knew how those in government got so crazy.

The Iranian government does not just stop at being misogynistic. Sexism and trampling on women’s rights are just too mainstream. A decade ago, the government had also attempted to ban Backgammon, an innocuous chess game that for centuries has been part of the Persian way of life. “It distracted from the belief in God,” said my friend, barking off an awkward laugh.

that young girl is not wearing a chastity helmet on her head. That’s a wayward youth right there. Better lock her the hell up before she opens a brothel in the bazaar or something.

But the thing is, shitty though the Iranian policies are, the governance rarely affected me. Iranians and their heritage are nothing like their government. The grand and famous hospitality of Iranians made travelling through Iran a delightful experience.

At the police station, the guard at the gate, ceremoniously decorated with a fabulous red feather plume on his head and a gleaming AK 47 by his side, grabbed me by the shoulder. “You are a great friend my friend! Welcome to Iran!” He said. I had done nothing to deserve his warmth — not a single apprehended rapist to my name — but I was a traveller, who had dared to visit Iran despite the many misconceptions about her, and he, being Persian, had a centuries-old tradition of hospitality speaking through him: Salaam! Stranger, let us show you the splendours of Persia!

And what treasures Iran has hidden from the world. It is difficult to walk down a street in Iran without being molested by the breath-taking beauty of her sights. Behold sunset in the desert city of Yazd, her sharp and blockish wind towers gleaming gold in the city lights, while the mosque domes suspend above the city skyline like drops of lacquered stone, blue like the sea against the dark red sky. The beauty is the sort that makes the desert bloom and the angels sing. But Yazd, Yazd was merely on the way to even more ridiculous sights.

Yazd.

Isfahan is the fashionable, glamourous city that danced her way out from your imagination when you first read 1001 Arabian Nights. For a time she was the greatest city in Persia. According to a Persian saying, “Isfahan nesf-e jahan” — Isfahan is half the world — such was the scale of her beauty and her wealth, being a cosmopolitan center of trade and culture, nestled along a key route of the Silk Road. After about 400 years of glorious partying as perhaps the best hang-out dive along the Silk Road, she suddenly found herself, incongruous, locked in the middle of a country where the party has moved on. Fuck! Isfahan is now surrounded by old bearded boring men who now burns other people’s flags and rages about the decadence of other cultures! This was not the Persia that Isfahan knew. But Isfahan is a cool cat, like that. She shrugged and just continues being awesome. A city of spires and minarets and geometric arches, sunbeams dancing through sensuous curves of windows, falling onto mischievous eyes of children who splash and play in the sprawling fountain of a 17th century city square, flanked by two of the most magnificent mosques in the Islamic world. Carpets, lamps (genie tenants unknown), merchants selling spices that once shocked the togas off rich Romans. My Roman friend Elena proudly claimed that Rome is a living open-air museum. Isfahan is just like Rome, only without the thieves and crime, with mosques and palaces and golden bridges casually strewn around the landscape, without thought for the relative image of other jealous cities in the world.

FUA! mind blown.

Beautiful architecture and their great beauty, in itself, are not too difficult to find. One could easily name contemporaries to the beauty of Isfahan: the gardens of Alhambra in Granada, the spires of Taj Mahal in Agra, the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. But what remains of splendid architecture today often don’t feel alive, for their original functions have largely been reduced to the sole and terrible aim of entertaining hoards of tourists. In the Sistine Chapel, a place of worship, a house for the contemplation of God, I was ushered through a rush-hour quality crowd with the P.A. system thundering at everyone to keep quiet. Visiting ancient monuments often feels like walking through the crumbling husk of a past long gone by.

But Iran feels different. People still use the ancient architecture for their intended purposes. A young man snuck me into the giant mosque looming over one side of the Isfahan square during Friday prayers, and as Isfahans knelt and prayed around us, asked me if I would like to pray with him. He asked me what I believed in. I believed in the scientific method, I told him, that it is enough for me to understand how the world came to be, what it is, and what it will be. Science, after all, is what gave birth to the magnificent mosque around us, a marvel of engineering, that we are praying under now. He was open-minded enough and was glad I am not patronizing him, and as we walked from the mosque, Persian families started to crowd the grass in front of the mosque for some late night alcohol-free partying. Kids, way past their bedtime, ran circles around tired-looking policemen. A bazaar store that sells sunglasses, with a ground-breaking sense of business, remained open. Shar Jahan, the emperor who founded Isfahan, would be proud. Isfahan remains largely unchanged, for the better, and it doesn’t take much imagination to imagine that old one-eyed emperor standing on the pavilion of his palace overlooking the square, watching the polo games his cavalry once played on the grass.

His dad wanted me to take this picture. He, obviously, just wanted to splash in the water.

Such is the journey that Persia has taken. It has weathered dozens of dynasties and rulers, but what makes it Persia always endures. In the Iranian battle between culture and policy, culture survives, bubbling deep down in the tea that is offered in the middle of a desert road, behind the spark of the rebel artist’s eyes. I started the journey in Tehran, complaining about policy. I conclude this journey around the streets in Shiraz, another ancient capital of Iran, a much more invigorating and fun place, known for her poetry and wine.

In Shiraz, the observant traveller might notice portraits of what one at first discern to be that of Rockstar Emo Persian Jesus, a guy with a stern unibrow, chiselled features, epic beard and long hobo hair. But that doesn’t mean there’s a rock concert in town. It’s actually Hafez, a legendary Persian poet.

Hafez tends to drink a shit tonne of wine, get wasted, then proceed to ferment some epic poetry. His grape-flavoured poems covered such a wide swath of topics that Persians would consult his poetry whenever they have problems in life, and randomly-chosen verses serve the same function as a horoscope reading.

A painter in Isfahan, drawing Hafez on his namecard. Which I then stole, OF COURSE.

Outside his tomb in Shiraz, old men holding stacks of paper that contain stanzas of his poetry meander around with small parrots perched on their shoulders. For the scandalous tourist price of $2 I paid for a blue parrot — let’s call him Ali — to tell my fortune. Stuffing my money into his pockets, the old man grabbed Ali and stuffed it head first into the stack of poetry slips. It seemed like the bird might drown in those drunken rhymes, but ah, Ali was a professional. Ali dug himself out from the stack of papers with my destiny clutched in its tiny, prophetic beak. Ali’s professional life is pretty much the resolution scene in the movie Interstellar repeated daily.

Afterwards I had three different translations and interpretations of my future, to my varying satisfaction. The first two translations, provided via a Hafez poetry interpretation android app and a helpful graduate in Persian literature, told of me suddenly having a big fat demon-child, that I would pursue my dreams, and that I’ll be rich. Being rich is good news, but I was worried about the child. What is the ethnicity of the child? Holy fake Persian Jesus, please tell me, is it going to be a Persian baby? That would bring with it a whole other camel-load worth of problems, some which relate to dowry, and some which relate to the health hazards of being stoned for adultery under Iran criminal law.

But the third translation, provided by my friend Hedieh, who is an art and history snob of a girl who gives ridiculous travel advice like visiting rainbow-coloured Hormuz island which is currently hot enough to broil a dolphin, fortified my soul and rejuvenated my spirits:

“You must have the ambition and courage to pursue your dreams. Else, life will be cruel, and fate will not just sit there and realize your dreams.”

She repeated the part about “cruelty” various times. I think the prospect of an uneducated tourist who knows not his Cyrus the Great from his Darius the Great like me suffering for his ignorance pleased her. (Protip: the naked oily transgender looking guy with chains hanging from his nose from the movie 300 is not an acceptable answer to describing Persian kings to your Persian hosts.) Anyway, I was really happy. There was no talk of Persian babies, and Hafez says such safe, non-confrontational things.

Ali, taking a break from bullshitting tourists.

God-Poet Hafez might well be speaking the truth. I live in Singapore. Opportunities abound. I may well pursue any dream I fancy. But for my Iranian friends, it would take way more than some sick rhymes from Hafez to push them across the Rubicon. The difficulties of living in Iran, it blows the mind. Jobs are scarce, morale is low. There’s a huge drug problem whereby people take drugs just to forget their misery. Everyone hates the government. Almost every young Iranian I met wants to go to Germany to study engineering, but barely anyone is able to escape when inflation is at 20% in a good year, the average monthly pay is less than 400USD, and for Iranians, a visa to any western country is harder to get than getting a hooker to stroke an imam’s beard.

Hedieh used to work in an office that couldn’t even pay her salary on time. She spent half a day’s pay treating me, when I was still too stupid to convert currency properly and I mistakenly believed what she was treating was something cheap. Like almost every other young Iranian I had met, Hedieh is smart and driven and is dying to get out. By the time I left Iran, she had found a job in an international company, that was waiting for the sanctions to lift so as to enter the Iranian oil market. My hosts in Tehran discuss about setting up a travel company to exploit the nascent tourism industry. There is an edge and excitement in the air, like time slowed down just as a pulled bow is let loose. Great expectations course through the streets. And for all my Iranian friends, who have taken care of me when I was a hopeless stranger in their harsh but beautiful land, who had showed me such warmth, such humanity, I wish them all the best. What a great and triumphant future it would be, if Iran becomes more like Persia again, and we were to meet and walk once more, along the boulevards of Persia’s great cities.