The one where I go to Iran
I have a flair for languages (or so I think). After dabbling into Arabic for a bit, I decided that I wanted to pursue my interest in Persian and what better way to do that than go to Iran to learn it! So I applied to the University of Isfahan. It took a couple of months but for a country that is very strict about granting visas, the application and visa process was pretty smooth. So off I went to Iran to study Farsi.
This was not my first time in Iran. I was in Tehran in ‘transit’ on my way to and back from Baghdad in 1996. Of course, I was much younger back then and my stay was limited to a day or two. Anyway, I landed at Isfahan airport via Dubai a day before Eid and found a really sweet taxi driver (probably in his late sixties) who spoke English. It took me a while to figure out the currency because it has way too many zeroes! Fast-forward three days because the Eid holidays and crappy Internet situation which would take over a week to be resolved meant I spent a lot of time cooped up in my room reading After the Prophet when I was not exploring Naqsh-e-Jehan Square and shocking Japanese American tourists (“she’s from Pakistan!” “actually, i’ve been there,” ha)! and having chillo murgh at Darwazae Shiraz (seriously best Eid ever). One time I was sitting on the bench alone in the garden outside my guesthouse at night and this huge Iranian family having an equally huge picnic invited me to join them and fed me ‘gaz’ and ash. I had a wonderful conversation with the patriarch of the family who was a professor at the university and was a regular visitor to Islamabad! He would translate for the rest of the family members who wanted to speak to me and I somehow also landed up a marriage proposal which I of course politely wriggled out of.
Finally, my classes started and as soon as I walked inside the University’s International Office (a department for foreign students who want to study Persian), I was greeted by several pairs of surprised eyes. “She’s the Pakistani student!” So before I move on further, let me just tell you that my entire stay in Iran was characterised by people mistaking me for being Iranian and incredulous expressions (and comments) upon being told I was Pakistani and my amused German friend telling me to wear a bindi to avoid further confusion. Moving on, my Persian classes were intense but fulfilling, characterised by fun chai breaks in the staff room where the students and teachers would sit together in the half hour break and bond over delicious Iranian chai!
Ten days into the classes and I knew enough Persian to be able to get by. My Japanese friend who’d been there for six months introduced me to the public transport system there, which by the way is fantastic! Also, thanks to the street culture that is very inclusive of women I could easily walk around and explore the sights, and foods of Iran, my favourites being doogh and ghoosh-e-feel, saffron ice-cream and the divine bastani anaar (pomegranate ice-cream)! I couldn’t get enough of their version of nutella, not to mention the breakfast cream and paneer. The fresh, heavenly taste of their locally produced dairy products is unmatchable! Did I mention that the rose-flavoured milk was absolutely delicious as well. This could go on forever ……
Isfahan is literally the city of gardens and really pretty colourful ones at that! I told my Iranian friend who loved Shahrukh Khan that I found it prettier than Switzerland only to be on the receiving end of a very disbelieving look. Speaking of Bollywood, I met quite a few fans in Iran and one day, to my err delight discovered Munna bhai, dubbed in Farsi, playing on the television in the lobby of the guesthouse! Coming back to the sights and sounds of Isfahan, you could spend a lifetime in Naqsh-e-Jehan Square (more popularly known as Meidan-e-Imam in Iran) and the adjoining Grand Bazaar and it still won’t be enough! Jolfa, the Armenian Quarter, much like the rest of Iran has a rich history, and the ancient Vank Cathedral there is one of the most beautiful churches I have ever seen
Did I forget to mention that I was caught twice by the hijab police and managed to escape them on both occasions? Both times, I was with Iranian and non-Iranian friends and we were stopped for some of our hair showing(?) and ‘short’ (read above knee-length) tops and I must say we dodged them quite skilfully (the first time I brushed the woman aside thinking she was trying to get friendly and the second time I literally ran for my life). It was one of those unfortunate days when I had decided to give my long manteaus a rest because of the scorching heat.
In my seven week stay I took road (read bus) trips to Tehran, Kashan, Qom, Mashhad, met some amazing people, including an amazing paediatrician from the Netherlands who left his kettle and a box of delicious Isfahani gaz outside my door right before he left! Perhaps, the most Iranian yet non-Iranian experience was the delicious buffet lunch at the Ferdowsi Hotel in Tehran. There was a great band singing and playing some brilliant Persian music and the fashionable divas in the hotel could mislead anyone into thinking they were on a Parisian street. Also, a must-visit if you are in Tehran are the historical Golestan Palace and Tehran museum.
Signing off the safarnama with a mandatory picture with the Sio-seh-pol!