Memory Traces II: Trinkets

July 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

“Take off your escarf.” – Hamid’s soulful eyes – Gabe meets fashion students at Moshir al-Mamalak – stolen prayer stones from the Jumeh Mosque in Isfahan – Gabe’s eggs – “I’m sorry my dear, no dancing for you.” – the Parthian Pinhead – green tea or black? – the perfect enamel bowls without saucer – Patty’s the only one who orders faloodeh-bastani for me! – Amanda loves her watermelon – when the girls are alone, all we eat is bread and lines of cheese – Daddy’s ghetto – “where’s Gabe?” – fruit plates: oranges, apples, and Persian zucchinis – Tom’s Axis of Evil Tour: Cuba, North Korea, Iran – two separate security lines at Mehrabad – “Chuck, I think our surrogate daughter is a little pixellated.” – the American-loving owner of Shahrzad and his guestbook – “How much was the carpet?” “$125,000. But he made money on it–he traded one of his Caspian Sea properties, and he’ll take the carpet as down payment.” – Bebakhshid. – another long bus ride through the mountains, and Amanda’s asleep – Hamid’s music: persian pop/flamenco/poetry recitation – “Five million dollar single-family homes.” – ice cream in that Northern Tehran mall, right off of Vali Nasr (Pahlavi) Boulevard – bird-pecked fortunes at Hafez’s tomb – “This used to be called Queen Elizabeth Street. Now it’s Farmers’ Street.” – creepy male mannequins at the Isfahan bazaar –  Rebecca’s glue stick – “Hey Gaaabe, wanna pass me a water?” – mango juice (nectar) in Yazd – Persepolis was astounding – Patty and I have matching manteaus, Rebecca and Amanda have matching manteaus – “You know who Maz Jobrani is? You should have a PhD in Middle Eastern Studies!” – turquoise necklace from Shiraz – “That’s where Mr. I’m-a-nut-job works.” – Chuck attempts a duet with Rojan – we see a Saudi woman in a burka at a restaurant in Shiraz-how does she eat? – an actual coffee shop in New Julfa-latte please! – To badi. To latti. – individual servings of mast-o museer in Ayabaneh – fesenjan – delirious at the Tehran Contemporary Art Museum – Persian herbal infusions: one tasted like drinking a rose, straight; the one with vinegar, honey and cucumber cools us down; and the clear one is actually pure mint and sugar – “You are the only Americans in Isfahan right now. Oh, yes, the Police must keep your passports, just so they can keep an eye on you.” – our room in Shiraz comes with a complimentary Quran, and book of Hafez poetry – Amanda and I stay up gossiping and giggling all night – Mr. Olympic at the gym–did he have green eyes? – charity collection boxes protect against seventy disasters – carrot jam, sour cherry jam, cedrate jam – black turban means you’re descended from the Prophet on your father’s side, white on both sides, and green on neither – sangak, lavosh, barbari, taftoon-we love all bread – special Isfahani pudding tastes like arroz con leche Tah-chin, the national dish – “You have something on your shirt?” “What?” “Got you!” – trying to order pomegranate juice by ourselves at Mahtab truck stop – “This is a beautiful, eighteenth century Safavid caravan saray. Look!” – Patty’s chador is falling off in the mosque – lion attacks a bull at Persepolis, a symbol of Spring overtaking Winter, for Norooz – who wants a full camel head for dinner? – Chuck gets a kiss from a shirazi at Eram Gardens – pictures of martyrs line the side of the highway – “Baba!” – “Amandah! Rebeccah! Alexah!” we love our long a’s – crossing the street alone in Isfahan is impossible and terrifying, we need a local.

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Memory Traces

July 12, 2011 § 1 Comment

one million cologne – Gabe’s pinkies – flashing neon signs in Farsi – “Eastern toilets”… with a hose – “Ambassador Stevens!” – the lights illuminating the freeway into Tehran – driving in Mohammad’s car and hearing Messle Khodet – our icebox in Yazd – courtyards cooled by qanats – walking alone through the all-male section of a wedding party – beautiful North Tehran women with enviably large hair; I need a “bump prothesis” – Secrets Under the Scarves, Episode 426: hot, topless quarriers! – Hamid’s morning “Salaaaaaam!” – every day’s a holiday: Imams birthdays, the Prophet’s revelations – “Kheyli mamnoon pedaram,” “khahesh mikoonam dokhtaram” – the “Persian Version” is always better – siesta – the hallucinogenic effects of saffron – “rich, green-eyed, Persian husband” – Patty’s six-year old laugh – “My dear, I cannot build another Persepolis just for you” – domed carpet modeled after Sheikh Lotfoallah Mosque for $28,000 – bastani! – manteau shopping at Yaas, the Persian Target – “hubbly bubbly and tea” – Fantah! – Dub-bai – Gabe has another “appointment” – Shah Tom – tissues instead of napkins – “Time to scarf up!” – 169 knots per square centimeter, Caspian sea silk, all natural dyes – “Another nose job sighting!” – four types of Persian architecture: ziggurats, columns, squinches, square-based domes – Rebecca looks like a babushka – zam-zam cola – “Farsi balad neestam.” – all the Persian children look like miniature adults – “The traveller who forgets his homeland, when in May, goes to Shiraz.” – contemplation – holy water – another teacup with Naser Al-Din Shah’s face on it – pomegranate juice – Is that in rials, tomans, or dollars? How many decimal places? – double-butted Persian sheep – asiatic – lamb kabob is always our favorite – “Bezam berin, rafid!” – eram, behest, pardis-gotta admire a language that has so many words for “paradise”! – “Another shopportunity!” – “A Persian escalator! Oh boy!” – “Be careful, you may think you’re in the bazaar, but half of it is actually Chinatown.” – “Let’s do it!” – “Daddy!” – Amanda’s birthday cake at Abbasi Hotel – watching the baker throw bread on the oven wall, then eating it a minute later – entire families (father, mother, child and grandma) crammed on the back of a moped – “tight little package” – “I kind of enjoy switching from daughter to harem member.” – parents in absentia – “Toothpaste in Farsi! Fire extinguisher in Farsi! Cheese wrapper in Farsi!” – eggplants are the best vegetable ever invented – Farah Diva – “Heave-ho Rebecca, heave-ho!” – “Oh look. We self-segregated again.” – The Iranian-American Friendship League – Patty takes three showers a day – Chuck’s snazzy purple shirt – Mercedes sedan police cars – the national soup: barley – non-alcoholic Bavarian beer tasted like Lysol, unless drenched in lime – our edible Quran – “Was that the call to prayer?” – “You mean, you would like it if it weren’t essentially what it is?” – “Rebecca’s first wife, and I’m the understudy.” – no shoes at the mosque, or on the sedan bed, or anywhere inside – Imam Ali has eyelashes like a Maybelline ad – “Let’s extend to the Caspian Sea!” – “Dear Mom and Dad, Greetings from Baghdad!” – pistachio, saffron, walnut and Persian melon ice cream; daily – “You look demonic in your visa picture.” – Persian cat–meow! – trying to cross the street in Isfahan, at the risk of being killed – 4,000 year-old cypress tree – Nescafé instead of actual coffee – scarfless in the women’s restroom at Mehrabad Airport – waxed eyebrows – every thing’s closed between 1 and 5 pm – only people in the restaurant, again – Gabe’s date with a cute Isfahani and her male…. classmate – Tom loves flan – Turkish MTV is the only thing on at Ferdossi – “Would your lives ever really be complete without this carpet? You’ll regret it!” – “So, are you married?” “Oh, no I’m not.” “And how old are you?” “20.” “Oh.” – “The Great Satan has come to the axis of evil!” – “Quebleh towards Mecca” – “Time to blog!” – “You’re a harlot.” – “She’s getting her Master’s in International Affairs. She speaks the international language of love.” – “You have Barbie hair!” – “Ma’am, your Iranian passport please?” “Oh, no, I only have the American one.”

Half of the World

July 11, 2011 § Leave a comment

The Apadana, Darius the Great's ceremonial palace, where he and his court would celebrate Norooz, or the Persian New year

We’re just arrived back in Tehran, where it all started and where it’s all about to end. After Shiraz, we were whisked away to Isfahan, famously dubbed “Isfahan, nefs-e jahan,” or “Isfahan, half of the world” because of the commerce that thrived there under the rule of Shah Abbas the Great. Before we could arrive in Half of the World, we took a detour to the highlight of our itinerary: Persepolis. This is the famous site of Darius the Great’s ceremonial palace, dating back to the sixth century BCE, and the sight is awesome. The grounds were burned (reportedly) by Alexander the Great in 330 BCE, leaving only remains–but the sheer size of this place is enough to see the pomp and circumstance of Darius’s court. You enter through the Gate of Nations, meant to represent all the territories under the Persian Empire’s control under the Achaemenids, and looking up at 60-foot rock reliefs, all I could feel was small and in awe. This place was older than anything else I had ever visited, and kings–true kings who ruled the “four corners of the civilized world”–had walked through the same gates I was. Persepolis was one of the first things I ever visualized about Iran, and truthfully probably the first part of my eclectic education about the country. Though my knowledge would be compounded later in Beatrice Manz’s comprehensive course, History of Iran, it all really started in a dingle (a double room inhabited by a single student when a roommate moves out) in Tilton Hall, one of the all-freshman dorms at Tufts. When people ask me how I became interested in Iran, I can always trace the answer back to that room, on that April night at the end of my freshman year. It was all quite odd, actually. After dressing up for the Arabic Academy Awards that afternoon, a mandatory event for all first-year Arabic students to showcase our final video projects, I was surreptitiously invited by my friend Afsheen to crash Friday night Shabbat services at Chabad House. So, after an afternoon of Lebanese food and Arabic chatter, we promptly stuffed ourselves again on gefilte fish and challah–as the only two non-Jews in the room, we spent a lot of time humming along to prayers and avoiding any questions about religious beliefs–but the food was great and the night was just beginning. Somehow we ended up back in his room that night, with a whole bunch of friends, listening to Persian pop music on YouTube–after a few music videos I started asking questions, and soon we were watching clips of documentaries about the great, ancient, Persian empire. It’s a rare pair that enjoys ten-part YouTube documentaries on a Friday night, but somehow I found it all fascinating. This was a whirlwind glimpse into a place I never considered myself fit to hold opinions on–Iran was wrapped up in political connotations, a language most foreign to me, and a whole bunch of misconceptions that I didn’t have the time, energy, or confidence to investigate for myself. But there we were, he telling me about Zoroastrianism, the ancient Achaemenid kings and translating lyrics using a mixture of Arabic, English and Spanish–all things that brought this place closer and closer to me. Perhaps I could know about this place after all. By this time everyone else had cleared out, we had been sitting on uncomfortable dorm chairs for hours, and we were both enraptured by a six-part series on Persepolis. All sorts of recreated scenes played out before us: Darius’s palace, replete with massive columns, Xerxes’s ceremonial rooms, and of course, a procession of kings through the Gate of Nations. My education would continue past that night (which lasted from four in the afternoon to six in the morning, no joke)–him teaching me about his homeland, me reading about it, academics theorizing on it–but that little video of Persepolis was the starting point of a seemingly endless passion, and here I was seeing it in the flesh. Things seemed to have come full circle.

So, we traveled on to Isfahan, Half of the World–which was almost as surreal as Persepolis, though for an entirely different reason. Instead of incredible size and enviable age, Isfahan is a city of stunning beauty that seems entirely out of place. Running through the city is a huge dried-up riverbed (it fills with water in the wintertime), and along either side of the river are two parks, stretching twenty miles on each side. These parks are larger-than-life reincarnations of famous Persian gardens, stretching as far as the eye can see. Large sycamore trees shade the sidewalk, grass stretched for blocks and blocks and flowers spring up at every corner. However, like most things that seem too crafted to be naturally formed, Isfahan has a very conservative and at times oppressive feel. The city lost the most amount of martyrs during the Iran-Iraq War, and it is still considered a center for fierce patriotism. But oh, to see this city is to behold something immortal. Imam Square, the second largest square in the world, houses a couple of mosques (Sheikh Lotfollah and Jumeh Mosques) and an old Safavid Palace, Ali Qapu. The architecture in this square is exquisite, detailed, and like the rest of the city, a little elusive–Isfahan was shrouded in impenetrable greenness, everywhere from its trees to the tiles lining the Friday Mosque (Jumeh Mosque) and the color of its famous enamel handicraft. Perhaps like its riverbed (othwerwise called the Zayanderud River, or “life-giving” river), the purpose of this ex-capital had dried somewhat, but its effect was just as stunning.

And from the beauty of Isfahan we have returned to Tehran, city of script and verse. We leave for the airport in a few hours, and I miss this place already. We’ve said goodbye to our guide (baba, or “daddy,” as he’s come to be known), our driver (Hamid) and the rest of our group. I’m hopeful that my eclectic education is still growing, twisting and speeding along without my control and into some new adventure into the depths of the Persian identity. All I feel is lucky, and extremely humbled in the face of all I have seen, all whom I’ve talked to, and all I’ve discovered here in Iran. For all of you who can, learn anything about this place–pick up a book, google”Hafez” or “Rumi” or “Sa’di,” find a friendly Iranian and ask questions, or get your hands on some Persian music and get to know this place for yourself. I am so grateful for that one spring night freshman year, when an acquaintance became a close friend and I got a glimpse into a culture I never thought I would be educated enough, or that I even deserved, to study or to know Iran’s changed my life forever, and I am so lucky I got to travel here myself, make my own opinions, and continue this particular education. Shab-be kheir, goodnight, and lots of love from Tehran!

Approaching Persepolis

The Gate of All Nations, where all the vassal states of the Persian Empire entered to greet the Shah


Love in the City

July 6, 2011 § Leave a comment

Today we’re in Shiraz, perhaps the sexiest part of Iran. The manteaus here are short, the scarves are designer and pushed far, far back on the head, and the jeans are tight. And that’s just the women! The men all seem to wear painfully tight jeans and small little t-shirts as they whip around the city in motorbikes. This is the city of love. Our guide, Bahman, is already adding a new career path to his impressive resume–actor, basketball player for the national Iranian team, model, investor, marine, translator, tour guide, and last but not least: international matchmaker. For some reason he seems to have adopted us four women as his American daughters (and, when that gets boring, we joke that we make up his harem, haha) and he sees it as his duty to marry us off to wealthy, attractive Persian men–especially me, being young and naive and in need of a nice man to buy me expensive Persian rugs. It started our very first day in Iran, when I happened to comment to Rebecca that the guard at the National Crown Jewel Collection had the most piercing green eyes. And, as the infant of the group (everyone either has grandchildren, children my age, or could be my grandparents–but I love them all like my own Persian family!). It was instantly remarked upon that I should find a rich green-eyed Persian husband. Immediately. And, this city, Shiraz, is the place to do it. We visited Hafez’s tomb this morning, a Persian poet who did as much for this country’s national identity as the Quran did (some might argue). He wrote of love–between two lovers and between the devout and the divine. This is called the city of love, nightingales and roses, citing oft-used images in Hafez’s poetry. And his tomb serves as the same purpose as his poetry did: to defy reality and to make the unknown known; shirazis come here both to pray and find dates. No joke. We saw whole families approach the marble tomb, encrusted with the writings of this famed poet, touch two fingers to the cool surface and whisper memorized prayers under their breath, eyes closed, hoping for some guidance from the man who knew all things. Then, along the perimeters of the tomb, where perfectly manicured Persian gardens provide shade and fragrant scenery, we saw those same fashionable women, make-up and heels and headscarves, sitting exceedingly close to men their age, talking about what I’m not sure, but the body language needed no translation.

The Tomb in the early morning

Young Shirazis meet at the tomb

We all had our fortunes told by the might Hafez, still influencing things from the grave–for a dollar (10,000 rials) we paid to have a little bird peck out a folded fortune. The fortunes start off with a poem, and continued on to give us advice. Bahman interpreted mine for me, “You are in love with someone and only have eyes for them, but this is in vain” he read, “you are fixated on a closed door, and do not see all the open doors surrounding you.  You would be wise to learn from those more experienced than you. Luck is like a butterfly, you must catch it before it flutters away.”  Ugh. This is what Hafez has come to tell me?  We were all sitting around the dinner table, feasting on another meal of kabob, saffron rice, fesenjan (the best walnut-pomogranate-chicken stew you’ll ever taste in your life; similar to Mexican mole in both taste and color) and, of course, epic amounts of bread–but my fortune didn’t quite seem to match the delicious excesses of the meal.  Fixed gaze on a closed door?  What does that mean?  Does that refer to my studies, my friends, love interests, my view of myself?  “It means,” philosophized Patty, “That you should be considering blue and brown-eyed Persians as well.  You’re closing yourself off!  “Patty is one my favorite people on this trip.  She is frank and honest, but she’s always up for seeing a new sight, asking questions of our guide and looking for information in all she encounters.  She’s older than my dad, but I swear she acts like a sixteen year old half the time, and a six-year old the other half. My surrogate mommy on this trip is Rebecca, a freelance writer from DC.  She came with Chuck–the two of them have been together for 25 years, and have been to over half the world’s countries combined.  You can tell she’s a writer–she always has stories to offer from her far-off travels (a horse-riding incident in Mongolia, a Rotweiler attack in Cambodia, a Santa Claus mix-up in Argentina), and she’s probably one of the funniest people I’ve met.  I plan to live with her and Chuck if I ever go to grad school in DC–here’s hoping! Chuck is a philosophy professor, which is instantly obvious when you observe him walk–he ambles, meaningfully, around every monument, painting, piece of classic Persian architecture–he takes everything in, quietly but enthusiastically, all while carrying a little navy blue umbrella to shade himself.  Gabe is the rogue of the group; he is famous for skipping our on dinner one night to go on a date at Hafez’s tomb. He had met some nice local tour guide earlier in the day, and they made plans to meet up that night.  He borrowed my Farsi phrasebook the first day of our trip and never returned it–instead he used it to start a conversation with everyone he met who would talk to him. And, because Persians are the most polite, interested, and chatty people on the planet, he quickly made friends with female fashion students, art students, museum guides–anyone and everyone.  Tom, a retired lawyer from Houston, bears a striking resemblance to the Mohammad Reza Shah, and he has thus been nicknamed Shah Tom,  He’s “shawsome.”  Even the natives look at him a little sideways sometimes, inquiring, “Are you from around here?”  But then he breaks out his Southern accent, hardened in Mobile, Alabama, and the distinction is clear.  Amanda, my roommate, is an English teacher from Ohio, but she and I have the most fun gossiping about the rest of the group late at night.  She has the biggest heart and the cutest laugh–and it’s her birthday in two days! Our guide bought her a turquoise necklace–one of the only two stones locally mined –for her birthday. Speaking of our guide, he might just be the incarnation of everything Persian, but exaggerated. he is the most generous man on the planet. His grandfather was a khan, or leader, for the Bakhtiyari tribe, which he eventually left to join the military, but leading groups runs in his blood. He has such pride for his country, and he knows everything about it, and shares it all with us in the hopes that we might love it too. He’s spent more than my entire college tuition on Persian carpets in the last three days, some for the Tehran condo and others for the Caspian Sea villa, and yet others for the property he might be buying in Shiraz. This guy is loaded, and it makes it all the more enjoyable for us to have a Persian sugar daddy that constantly feeds us bastani (ice cream–saffron, please!) mango, pomegranate, and orange juice, chai, coffee and anything else our hearts desire–we’re the luckiest adopted kids on the planet!

I don’t quite know if Hafez was directing me to a broader field of study, a different world view, or maybe just a small reminder that I am one of the luckiest Middle Eastern Studies majors to be visiting Iran first-hand. But perhaps I was being warned not to get too comfortable and to continue to soak up everything around me. The Iranians build humility into their mosques and their lives, and I have so much to learn from them. If the “more experienced” I’m supposed to be learning from is my group, then I’m in good hands–these people have all sorts of dreams for me, from future Ambassador Stevens to Iranologist to perfectly-coiffed tehrooni (Tehran is probably my favorite city though I’ve loved them all!). Or, perhaps I am just reminded to not over-romanticize everything, and that there is always more to learn. Though if I never stopped learning about this place, I would be happy–I haven’t found my green-eyed Persian man yet, but I am still madly in love with this place. So much for finding love in Shiraz!

Out of the Oven

July 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

“Eid mobarak!”

“Kheyli mamnoon, eid mobarak…”

We were standing in a seven hundred year old mosque on the morning of Eid Mabas, or the day the Prophet Mohammad received the revelation from God telling him that he was to be the Prophet. It was quiet in the blue-stoned mosque on that particular morning, only a lone woman knelt at the mihrab (an arched centerpiece of the mosque that faces towards Mecca; the mihrab is lowered into the ground so as to show humility before God; also to protect the devout–several imams were assassinated while in prayer at the mihrab) of the Jumeh Mosque in Yazd. It was the first structure of its kind we’d entered in Iran, and the effect was awesome. Standing before intricate and perfect patterned walls that tower multiple stories high, one can’t help feeling both their incredible smallness and the infinite complexity of living. The entire building was covered in little blue tiled mosaics, dutifully placed in exquisite patterns of stars and flowers, interweaving corners of hexagons all in shades of the finest turquoise, cerulean and aqua blue. “It has a cooling effect” Bahman tells us, “to enter a place that is all blue.” It was outstandingly hot that day in Yazd, with highs of 52C or 120F. But oddly enough, I didn’t feel it–the heat in Iran is ever-present, but the air is thin and there is no humidity, leaving my skin porcelain-smooth and my hair–though a sight yet unseen by most in my group–silky and soft, a similar effect to winters in Boston. We were in the city of Yazd, and with its heat, eternal flame and famed yellow bricks, it seemed to be the oven of Iran. Most of the old city is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site, and it is entirely constructed out of dust-colored yellow bricks formed into arches, low walls and careful entryways. Yazd is known for the religious minority it houses: the Zoroastrians. Zoroastrianism was, according to most, the world’s first monotheistic religion, and was practiced by many kings of Persia until the Islamic conquest in the seventh century CE. The Zoroastrians worship fire, and have kept the same eternal flame burning in Yazd for over 1515 years. They believe in good thoughts, good deeds, and good speech to aid in the triumph of good (embodied in Ahura Mazda) over evil (Ahriman). The Zoroastrian women can be identified by their dress; though they often wear the chador, it is usually dark blue or black in color, and covered with a pattern of small bright-colored flowers. But today was a Muslim holiday and there was more to the celebrations.

This night, we visited a real, Iranian gym, that had been built inside of a water cistern. Water cisterns were a common site in Yazd, they rise out of the ground in a beehive-like fashion, standing a story and a half or so tall, and allowing for deep recesses into the earth where yazdis used to keep their water supply. But on ground level, there was a gym fashioned into this circular building, with the same humility built into the architecture: the main gym floor was lowered a few (five or so) feet into the ground. We toured it once in he morning, seeing the equipment used for calisthenics that the men would do later that day, including oar-like bats, at least half a foot in diameter along the bottom, that evened out into a small handle at the other end. These were like elaborate weights that the men would hold over their shoulders and rotate in large circles, almost mimicking a forward stroke in swimming. When we returned at 6pm that night, the show had already begun. A group of twenty or so men–ranging in age from 15 to 75–were spread across the inner circle, doing coordinated push-ups. The leader in the middle was probably about 70, and was once the national champion in wrestling. But the men weren’t the stunning part, rather the sounds emanating from the front of the circular room where a man was chanting prayers, to the beat of a drummer who sat beside him. Bahman explained that this particular form of exercise was developed during the Iran-Iraq war, when prayer was often used as a motivator for the troops. It felt almost too intimate, like we were watching the men engaging in some sort of Iranian-style exercise dance class, but the mood was extremely serious and, even proud. At one point a little boy–maybe five–walked into the gym, picked up the smallest set or oar-like bats, and started following the ex-champion’s lead. I could imagine men kissing their wives and mothers goodbye after the afternoon siesta (everything in Yazd is closed, at least in the summertime between 2 and 5pm to avoid the heat), grabbing their gym clothes (and what clothes they were! Elaborately embroidered paisley pants and tight exercise shirts in white and green) and setting off for the old water cistern.

It reminded me, of what I have observed to be, the most incredible trait of Iranians throughout history: the ability to adapt without losing their identity. As we walk through varying museums and old homes, learning about the ridiculously chaotic history of this nation, I can’t help but stand in awe of Iranians today. To be Persian means so much–you can see the pride in people’s faces when they tell us about their country. Even Bahman, the true essence of a respectful guide, who aims to educate not to convince, is fierce when differentiating the Persians from those people around him, and even from the rest of the world. As a twenty-something year old at the halfway mark of her undergraduate career, I have regular identity crises which all end the same way: who am I, where do I come from, and who will I be? All undergraduates should visit Iran. Hell, all people should visit Iran. Regardless of age I look to everything around me for definition, including what I study, where I live, what I do with my free time, what I read and who I admire–but in Iran everything seems, from what I can tell, to run so much deeper. It’s not external, as the exterior is not the space for autonomous identity-formation. Rather it is the personal, the relationships with extensive family, people, and one’s own self that is the driving force behind Iranian identity. Looking out of the windows of our little bus, the streets are lined with pictures of martyrs from the war; Khomeini and Khameini peer down from store windows, billboards and even the rials we exchange for dollars; Imam Ali can be found everywhere from the mosque to the back window of a Shirazi taxi. But it is not this space, outside, which provides personal identity. It’s the interior, one’s relationships, one’s views–even though we espouse the American dream as the ultimate testament to our individuality, I constantly feel plagued by the burdon of showing, expressing, and defending my own self, whatever that is supposed to differentiate myself so much from anyone else off the street, in every public portal: from Facebook, to what I wear, to the thoughts in my head–it’s all a public entity. We may have the freedom of expression, but I feel it as a weight of personal defense. I envy the Iranians, their pride and seemingly inherent knowledge of who they are. I don’t mean to make black-and-white comparisons, but I do mean to highlight the potential for personal strength in a place where one’s public identity is already defined, already distinguished.

A gym made from a water cistern

"...including oar-like bats, at least half a foot in diameter along the bottom, that evened out into a small handle at the other end. These were like elaborate weights that the men would hold over their shoulders and rotate in large circles, almost mimicking a forward stroke in swimming."

And we returned that night to find the men exercising

Reading Tehran

June 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

Tehran is like nothing I’ve ever seen. The streets feel surreal; I feel as if I’m walking around an extremely detailed and life-like movie set, replete with extras in chadors and Louis Vuitton scarves, terrifying traffic, and a foreign script on seemingly every surface. It’s the Farsi that leads me to believe I’m in an illusion, and that nothing is real. Perhaps because I’ve only ever visited countries that use the same script that I do (Phoenician), but I will seemingly never tire of seeing that lazy, tailed lettering on storefronts, street signs, graffitied walls, on the sides of fences where old Qoranic verses greet passersby with the question “With Gods will, what else do you need?” on the neon signs indicating “harooj” or “exit”, even on the side of Coke bottles and Pepsi cans–all the daily intrusions of text onto image leave me exclaiming with wonder at the beauty of it all. It’s like being on sensory overload. It’s almost too much to take in. The people don’t even seem to make sense visually in the public space. It’s as if they’re simply moveable dots, punctuating the epic poem written across Tehran’s flat surfaces, half of which is deftly authored by the government–proclaiming everything from the names of martyrs to a calligraphied “May God Protect You” on the side of the highway–while the other half is a composite of the verses of seven million tehroonis, each contributing to their own lines to the national Persian epic.

Of course, there is more to Iran than just Farsi–even though so far it is my favorite part! Perhaps adding to the movie-set quality, I feel as if I get to play dress-up every time I walk out of my hotel room. “Wearing hijab” or abiding my appropriate Islamic dress has been the quickest transition I’ve ever made. I finally figured out how to wear my roosari (“headscarf” in Farsi) without having to fidget with it every few minutes, and I’m quickly getting used to seeing my face framed in black silk instead of my wavy brown hair–the effect of the scarf is instant and completely transformative. I feel at once anonymous and seen on the streets, almost as if we’re all in on the same secret–all the women, that is–and we give each other encouraging smiles when a scarf slips, or when we catch each other adjusting our scarves in mirrors and store windows. It helps one feel less American and more and more “native”, as if we can share in the same, shared public experience. Speaking of wearing hijab, the best part of the day came at the end, after in-depth tours of Golestan Palace and the State’s Crown Jewels collection, our guide, Bahman (my new favorite Persian) took all of us women–Patty, Rebecca, Amanda and I, and the men (Tom, Chuck, and Gabriel)–to a true Iranian department store to shop for manteaus. Yaas was almost like a Persian “Target”, identical to “El Corte Ingles” in Zaz (Zaragoza, Spain), boasting a grocery store on the first level, home appliances on level two, and finally women’s wear on level three. There we searched through racks and racks of varying manteaus, which resemble a shirt-dress that can be anything from just below hip level to mid-thigh or down to the knee, with long sleeves and usually some form of belt–but nothing that would be tight enough to show too much figure. So, of course, the four of us walk away with almost identical manteaus, all in shades of tan, camel or light beige. Now we even blend on the streets of Tehran, perhaps adding our own punctuation to the enormous textual landscape.

The sights we saw today were, in a word, glittering. We first visited Golestan Palace, used by the Qajar kings (shah, in Farsi) and the succeeding Pahlavis. Rulers from both these dynasties had a fascination with travel and visiting foreign royals in addition to fierce pride for their country, leading to a palace that is neither eastern nor western, but an experience entirely unique. The interior of the palace was almost fully covered in small tiles of mirrored glass. The effect is alarming–it’s kind of like stepping into the interior of a diamond, or a disco ball. After that we ate lunch (oh my god, Persian food is the best) and hurried off to the State’s Crown Jewels collection, housing the largest pink diamond in existence (182 carats, called “The Sea of Light”) the crowns of famed royals, a useable, life-sized globe made entirely of precious stones (emeralds, rubies and diamonds) and gold, with Iran set in diamonds. We saw gifts of foreign dignitaries, entire swords encrusted with diamonds and rubies–it was magical. As we make our way through this Persian epic, winding our way between history and the present with incredible ease, I feel beyond thankful that I have the chance to visit this place. The distance between dream and reality is still vast–Iranian reality feels like an illusion, a movie, just surreal–but the more I’m here, I have the feeling I’ll be able to sound out the words of a national identity, and maybe one day really understand it.

Stone-Cold Truths

June 25, 2011 § Leave a comment

Sometimes I wonder if all travel isn’t some variation of escape. An escape from somewhere or to something I’m not sure, but a deliberate action of leaving what is known to surround one’s self in the unknown. We had our conference call last week, where the seven of us met each other, over the phone, for the first time. Allow me to explain–our trip is organized by an NGO based out of San Francisco, Global Exchange, and I am one of seven delegates of this tour to Iran. Everyone spoke of their preparation–Patty, a fund-raiser from Columbia, Maryland, joked about the difficulty of finding a loose-fitting top that would be conservative enough for Iran yet tolerant enough for the heat (highs of 102ºF, lows of 80ºF next week); Rebecca, a freelance writer from Washington DC, talked about the voracious reading she had undertaken, ranging from ancient Persian history to the poetry of the greats–Hafez, Rumi, Ferdowsi–while Tom, a retired attorney from Houston, spoke not of the intellectual preparation he had done, but rather how he was waiting to take it all in once we got there. I spoke of my studies, my scant knowledge of Farsi, and my excitement. We were all urged to catalogue our preconceptions; write down a few questions we were hoping this trip would answer, or a few hypotheses we would confirm or disprove through the empirical evidence we were sure to gather on this fact-finding mission. This trip, though veiled in the same cloth as a true tourist venture–complete with bilingual native tour guide, bright orange tour bus (or so I hear), and of course us, the American tourists equipped with our guide books, cameras and useless currency–was also supposed to serve as a first-hand educational field guide, footnote to our intellectual conclusions and perceptions. I get the feeling that in two weeks, upon our return to the US, we are expected to bring back not just souvenirs but true gems of knowledge, which will illuminate our world views, focus our political inclinations and refine our identities.

But I don’t know what my preconceptions are, what I’m hoping this trip will answer, and I’m not quite sure that I’m going to Iran entirely to discover the Iranians and their country. You see, I’m truly hoping to discover more of myself through them. I want to know these people, see this country, connect our worlds, of course–but I’ve invested so much of myself in the study of Iran, what if all my columns of curiosity come crashing down? Truth be told, I’m a little terrified of disappointment; not in Iran, but in myself. The most common question I get leading up to my departure is the incredulous “Why? Why would you go to Iran?” And I can’t ever seem to give a coherent answer. I suppose the easiest reason I cite is the default one: oh, its what I’m studying, I’ve been interested in the region for years, I have a few close friends from the Middle East. But I know there must be more to it than that. No one commits them self to studying the foreign if the familiar is truly… Familiar. Here, in the West, I’m lost. There are so many possibilities–these days, the pressure to be something, to fulfill a professional aspiration, is waning in favor of the pressure to be someone, an intellectual-philosophical-socio-existential aspiration to find yourself and follow your dreams to personal fulfillment. And the prospects are terrifying. There are too many options, too little guidance, too much space, not enough time… We make it far too hard on ourselves, us twenty-somethings on the verge of completing our schooling and venturing into the real world. So, when I started school I did  what I thought was best–I picked something so foreign, so different, I must be defined within it. Studying the Middle East was a way to find myself, to see which truths could be translated across the map and still come back pure. But what if it was all in vain? What if my romantic notions of a country that I already identify with, that I am already enamored with, reveals itself to be like the gems it is famous for (turquoise, in particular is quite prolific in Iran)–beautiful, but impenetrable? There is an element of safety in studying the dissimilar. In conversations with well-intentioned relatives and inquiring friends, the conversation always turns to restrictions, to all the stone-cold realities of Iran today. But I feel protective of the image I’ve built of this place in my head, of what I’ve imagined from books and films–I suppose my perceptions are those of someone who, already committed, begs and pleads that reality confirm her dreams–because if not, she not only loses her knowledge of a place, but of herself.