Iran, inside out

When I told my family I’d be travelling through Iran then Iraq on my way to India, my mother’s unintentionally funny reply came quickly: “You want to die?” Responses generally seemed to range anywhere from intrigue to fright. When the day came it was clear that crossing from northern Iraq into Iran is no easy feat; Erbil was sombre from news that ISIS had been gaining ground and the city itself was no stranger to ISIS attacks. However, any feelings of insecurity were put on hold for the all-night fireworks that fuelled the celebrations for Kurdish New Year, PKK flags in abundance.

The border was pretty tricky, second only to Pakistani-India. I was interrogated by the post chief’s office, with some peculiar questions, but soon enough I was back out on the road. Lake Urmia, three times the size of London, soon came into view; a solitary pirogue rocked solemnly on the shore beside small hills of salt. Iran occupies a place of extremes in many people’s minds; it has been this way before and ever since Freya Stark wrote of her travels through the valley of assassins. It is either the land of ancient tales, veiled in mysteries, or it is the ultra-repressive no-go zone for foreigners. In truth, it’s positioned somewhere between the two, rarely failing to offer the undaunted traveller an opportunity to glimpse into the glorious and troubled heart of the land of four seasons,

More than 50% of Iranians live in cities; 60 years ago this figure was half. Ideals are fast changing in Iranian society. Fast food chains are emerging and quickly displacing local restaurants while clothing styles are increasingly leaning toward the western vogues. Families in the cities are a really mixed bag; many are far from conservative, but traditional ways of living permeate all households. The youth for the most part are progressively westernised in their choice of activities, as a few let me know; every drug under the sun can be found and acquired with relative ease.

Suspicions and surprises

By some late night fortune I spent Nooruz with a family in Tabriz. Nooruz is an ancient celebration of the spring equinox and the most important festival of the year. Nothing was off the cards; we shuffled and jigged to Azerbaijani traditional folk but also to Psy’s Gagnam Style, old and young alike. We ate traditional mezze but also drank American liqueurs and when all was finished and the 50 photos with the foreigner were taken, I departed on the foreboding note to not tell anyone where I had been, for fear of their safety.

Iranians are tentative toward tourists, to say the least. Close to the Pakistan border, in the city of Zahedan, I was almost attacked by a mob of old men who, after a warm conversation, misconstrued my scarf for that which the undercover Basij wear and turned on me. In Mount Sabalon’s purifying natural hot springs, I chatted with a family when suddenly the uncle asked, with a dead straight face, whether I was a spy. Eventually a friend explained to me that the new government administration had been televising messages urging people not to fraternise with tourists as many were foreign spies sent to undermine the nation. These messages greatly affect the national psyche, triggering insecurity on a national scale.

I hitched down to Esfahan from Mount Sabalon with a family who were perhaps the best example of Iranian hospitality, and there were countless examples. Iran has earned the title “land of hospitality” for good reason. I travelled by land from Turkey to India and Iran came a close second for generosity, Pakistan taking gold. The family met me the next day at my hostel, having organised a personalized tour of the city’s ancient Saffavid architecture and prepared three traditional dishes for my bus journey. It all countered the impressions made on an awkward car journey the night before where they condemned my love of Sufism, vowed death to the Illuminati and spoke of how Sunni Islam is a false creed, their 12-year-old son chipping in every so often.

Desert bound

In Esfahan I met a Russian and Croat, with whom I travelled for the next two weeks. We couch-surfed the same home and left under some of the strangest circumstances in all my travels. Our host was a hard-to-place character, his persona the opposite of its online description; our theories were plentiful. After exploring the dimly lit and inviting bazaar in the arches of Naqsh I Jahan square we headed to a basement boutique nargille café. While toking away on some fine shisha we suddenly all received a message from our couch-surf host; his online account said our host was not him, his account had been hacked and he had no idea who the host was or why he was doing this. My Iranian friend we were with at the time was adamant that our host must be an information gatherer for the government, monitoring travellers’ movements. We left swiftly.

The next evening we arrived at the tiny and remote village of Mesr. A few hundred metres long and about a hundred metres wide it was hidden in a desert the size of Scotland, Dasht e Kavir. I took my tent out to the wilderness and convinced my new friends to camp out, one of the most liberating experiences for all three of us: a joint reflection on life’s spontaneity while watching ants and spiders undertake their suicidal march toward the camp fire. Soon enough we went our separate ways. I found out there was a small hippy commune where a crew of musicians, activists and creative folk lived together and made myself some sleeping arrangements. Classically trained Sufi musicians teamed up with didgeridoo players, who carved their own instruments from desert wood. We would sit by the fire waiting for the moon rise and reciting Hafez while homemade alcohol made from dates did the rounds.

The mutual appreciation of the mysticism of Sufism, inherent in the music, songs and atmosphere never needed to be spoken; the expression on every person’s face spoke volumes to whoever met another’s smile. Rohab ran the village. Both his scraggly afro and yellow keffiyeh were always a welcome sight, his smile and buzz was infectious and his classy Buick was the best ride of my life. The company was grounding but what I equally appreciated was the absolute solitude the desert offered. I would don my goggles when mild sandstorms surfaced and proceed to wade through the river of sand twisting between my ankles in chaotic eddies and vortices. Your mind and heart are transformed when you look out into endless dunes, I can’t put my finger on it but it’s like you feel more resolute as a person.

Straight to the straits

In Kurdish Turkey, camped out by the Tigris River, I met two Iranians travelling with no money, selling bracelets along the way. They recommended but one place: the Iranian island of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf. Hormuz is a world unto itself; red clay cliffs paint the sea bloody, abandoned factories and piers dot the barren interior and an intriguing community of Bandari islanders lived by the jetty. After almost being deported from the island for camping illegally, I gave it another shot and pitched up on a cliff edge just above an isolated beach where 10 km in either direction was no human activity save for a strange “marine research centre” that only came alive at night. Iranian day trippers would stop close by to admire the views from my cliff, often leaving behind sweets and cigarettes. I had brought food supplies to camp out for five days.

The beach was a place of routine, swimming, walking meditation and cooking being the staple. Wild goats grazed on pockets of grass, snakes basked in the 45 degree midday heat and the sea lapped silently as gulls snapped up small hermit crabs too busy battling each other to notice. It was in this place I realised that, much like in the mystical Jewish practice of Hitbodedut, the self-seclusion of inner exploration must come to an end to become effective. Ironically, from solitude I understood that the beauty of being human is in sharing, in empathising, in being together. I left Hormuz refreshed for the city.

Bandar Abbas to Zahedan zipped by and the next morning I woke up on the floor of the back room in a dental laboratory. Opium smoke lingered in the air as Ahmad’s brother unravelled a small sachet of potent poppy pollen fresh from Afghanistan. Zahedan was heated; the capital of Sistan ve Baluchistan, it is the home of a furious counterinsurgency by Baluchi Jundullah rebels, well taken care of by the US and Israel. But Baluchis do have a genuine grievance in the region and not much has improved for their community in recent decades. Glasgow-educated Rouhani, the president of Iran, happened to be visiting Zahedan while I was there, the man who came in on a wing, a prayer and promise to thaw relations with the west.

Stirrings of change

Maryam, an acquaintance I made in Esfahan, but whom I also hung out with in Mesr, is the perfect example of popular sentiment toward the government. She, like most Iranians, is deeply proud of her historic heritage and passionately wants her country to fulfil its “written in the stars” destiny, wants neither friction nor confrontation with the West and is repulsed by the kind of authoritarian brand of Islam currently in charge. As she explained to me one evening, young women especially bear the brunt of the religious repression. Maryam doesn’t deny tradition but feels she must assert her rights for equal treatment - it is in this arena the government fails spectacularly.

Freedom is the word escaping the mouths of countless youths. As I prepared to leave Iran I mulled over the countless conversations. I remembered Sorab, the brilliant young musician who had performed for the president and decided to play an anti-government ballad; he has been on the run since. The deepest impression was that Iranians have been largely unable to tell the world their side of the story; even on events like the US shooting down of an Iranian passenger aeroplane, the narrative was hijacked by the Murdoch media. Daily conversations were taken as an opportunity to sell the nation, to explain that they don’t hate the US and that they, for the most part, wished more people would visit.

I remembered the Iranian families I had encountered in Turkey as in Iran, many of whom were applying for asylum in the US, explaining how they’ve been squeezed out of the economy, how joblessness means they must leave their nation. Mothers with hearts of gold, children with big dreams. As the Iranian diaspora, grows, so too does the freedom movement and so does our understanding of the ancient and diverse dynamics of Iranian society. In its lived legacy, Iran has much to offer the world but we must reverse our attitudes in order to begin to take notice. For starters, I recommend switching off Fox and even BBC news and booking a trip out to the land, which is filled with storytellers waiting for the world’s ear.

Joshua Virasami 2014 © Boutique Nargille Cafe. Esfahan, Iran.

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