Thursday, January 2, 2014

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year (from the UAE and Iran)

 

Apparently there are rumours that I’ve suffered some catastrophic end as it’s been so long since I updated my blog.  I’m still kicking but I’ve not had that many interesting things to write about this fall other than a lovely long weekend in Muscat to see dolphins and the opera.  That was great and I can’t say enough good things about the Royal Opera House.  All the chairs have little screens for the subtitles so I could effortlessly follow the Italian Marriage of Figaro,

Winter has brought a few new developments.  To start with, I put in my letter of resignation in December so this is my last year with HCT and possibly my last in the region if the job search doesn’t pan out.  I’m not too worried at the moment but we’ll see if that holds when the time starts running out.  It’s been a great experience but I’d like to see some of that, hopefully, greener grass on other pastures.

Christmas started out with a bang with lost of parties and an dinner events.  I even had a dress made (it’s cheap to do that here).

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Then I headed off to Iran for a two week trek with my friend Lynn.  Lynn and I met in 2010 while traveling in Mexico, kept in contact on Facebook and eventually ended up living here in the UAE at the same time which worked out perfectly. 

Iran was a bit of a wild idea as I had never met anyone that had been there but there wasn’t really a reason not to go if you ignore the fact that the US says it’s part of the axis of evil…total hogwash!!!

We started our trip in Shiraz where we were met at the airport by our guide/driver, Kuroosh.  We spent two days there with a quick trip to Persepolis and then went to Yazd via Pasargad.  After that we drove to Isfahan for Christmas.  Kashan was our next stop and we finished in Tehran. It was about 1400klms through scrub, desert, mountains and even some snow.

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I found Shiraz to be a bit run down but you could see how there was potential.  Here is the Qur’an Gate which some of the cities had.  It was a gate at the entrance to the city that held a Holy Qur’an to protect travelers and keep out evil.  They’ve modernized this one and it seemed to be a place for couples to go walking.

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We also visited a palace and garden from three dynasties ago (the Qajor Dynasty 1700’s)

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The palace-with-garden-combo has ancient roots in Iran.  The Persians invented the garden as we know it about 2500 years ago.  They considered good gardening an important skill and even had their gardening prowess mentioned on their tombs.  The original word ‘paradiza’ was Persian for Garden which is the origin of the word ‘paradise’.

We also visited the bazaar.  This bazaar had some carpets and a lot of textiles and we saw lots of nomadic people (herders) shopping.  The women wore sparkly velvet dresses which reminded me of gypsies….unfortunately, I couldn’t get a photo of the women.

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We had our first introduction to Iranian food in a traditional restaurant in the bazaar.  Kuroosh, our guide, is mashing up my ‘dizzie’ which is chickpeas, tomato, meat and broth.  Once it was mashed, I ate it with flatbread.  It’s considered ‘comfort food’ and it was pretty good.

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This was probably my favourite restaurant and the most interesting food.  I have to say that the food in Iran is fairly limited with Kebobs and rice being the mainstay. 

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It was possible to get fresh and dried fruit which we did to supplement our diet.  I also bought pomegranates at a roadside stand.

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We paid a quick visit to the tomb of Hafez, the poet (1315-1390) and it turned out to be incredibly important to understanding Iran.

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Everywhere we went, the walls were decorated with stories from their great poets and phrases from the poems are still used in common speech today which reminds me of Shakespeare in English. 

According to our guide, everyone has a copy of these books in their home and they read them.  Apparently, the poets were all ‘Islamic mystics’ so the stories should be interpreted as lessons in conjunction with the Qur’an but I question that a bit.

Here’s a couple of lines of Hafez’s poetry.

“The
Earth would die
If the sun stopped kissing her.”
حافظ, The Gift

“The heart is a
The thousand-stringed instrument
That can only be tuned with
Love.”
حافظ, The Gift

Now, for the highlight of the trip for me.  Persepolis (Parsa in old Persian).  Here’s a bit of quick history.  About 2500 years ago, Cyrus the Great founded the Persian Empire by defeating all the surrounding lands from Egypt to the west, Greece to the north and Pakistan/India to the east and south.  He was the first great Empire builder but his name has gotten lost in history, in part due to great press by Alexander’s Greek writers. 

Here is his simple tomb in Pasagard

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Persepolis is one of the best preserved historical sites from those times.  It was built by Darius the First and his son Xerxes the Great (from the movie ‘300’).  It had a lot of the construction elements that we credit the Greeks and Romans for such as underground aqueducts.  It was also the first time that any empire incorporated artistic elements from each of it’s nation states so that they would all feel included in the empire.

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Here’s a face that you’ll want to remember next time you’re mailing a letter or going through an international border.

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Darius the First invented the passport, the pony express mail service, the idea of administration and using an official government language. 

From the ancient past to a more modern Iran, we got on the road to Yazd, a desert city high in the mountains.  We drove right up into the clouds

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and into the snow.

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It was at this point we realized we might have a problem with our guide, Kuroosh.  He couldn’t understand the concept of bathroom-break and even if they were all stinky pit toilets, we needed to visit one occasionally.  It took us eight days to train him but we never saw him take a toilet break himself…freaky!

It was also then that we figured out his driving was going to be a problem.  He had to phone for directions to every hotel and most historical attractions and wasted hours driving around pretending that he wasn’t lost.  On our second day in Yazd, he hit two parked cars and didn’t even consider stopping.  The second car he hit while driving backwards, getting directions on the phone and shifting.  This seemed to be normal behaviour and he laughed off our concerns,  To be fair, the driving in Iran was horrendous but after being in a competent driver’s car in Tehran, both of us agreed that Kuroosh was exceptionally bad.

I would suggest that anyone planning their trip, interview the guide and driver before heading off with them.

Anyways…Yazd city was and still is the home of the Zoroastrian religion.  They worshipped the sun and fire and we saw their symbol all over ancient and modern Iran.  Even on the backs of buses.

It turned out to be a holiday which our guide seemed surprised about so we couldn’t see their fire temple where the flame has been burning for over 1000 years.

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About the holidays, here’s a quick primer on Islam.  Most of the Middle East follows Sunni Islam which states that Mohammad was the one and only Prophet of Allah but the Iranians are Shia Muslims who believe that there were twelve holy Prophets after Mohammad.  In Iran, each of the twelve Prophets get two days holiday for their birthdays and two for their death days.  That’s twenty-four holidays just for the Prophets.  I’m considering converting.

On one of these holidays, all the people gather at the mosques for prayer, eating and visiting. 

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After pushing our way through the throngs of people, we went walking through the ‘old town’ dating back over a thousand years.

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We also got a great look at doors.  I’m a bit crazed over doors to start with but these ones have an interesting history.  There were two knockers on Iranian doors; a phallic shaped one for men and a round shaped one for women.  They made different sounds so that the people inside the house would know if a woman or a man should answer the door as women weren’t supposed to answer the door to unrelated men.

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We were booked into traditional hotels and this was our best example.  The rooms are all around a courtyard which commonly has a restaurant.

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Just a note for anyone planning their own trip to Iran.  Ask for ‘one’ traditional hotel to get the feel and then go modern the rest of the way.  We eventually had a little rebellion and got the agency to change this for us as the definition of traditional can sometimes interpreted as ‘decrepit’.

Back on the road, this time to Isfahan…demanding our god given rights to bathroom breaks along the way.

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Isfahan city is the tourist capital of the country and the people were amazingly friendly, wishing us Merry Christmas and asking where we were from.

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We had the chance to visit the Armenian quarter of the city on Boxing Day and see their gorgeous church.

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The Armenians are and were the merchants of Iran so they are wealthy but they didn’t come there of their own free will.  They were forcibly moved to the city about five hundred years ago to increase trade in the region.  Their museum had a lot of documents showing how the government protected them and prevented them from being harassed by the Muslims which, of course, leads one to believe that they were being harassed by the Muslims.

Here I am under the 33 Arch Bridge…our guide parked and then lost his car on that stop.  Luckly, Lynn and I remembered where it was. We also met the most interesting older man on the bridge who, in the way that some older people do, tried to tell us his life story.  He had traveled for business before the sanctions but ended up working in an auto parts factory for his life’s work.  A victim of the US’s interference in Iran’s affairs even though he never said a word about it or complained at all.

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Off to Kashan with a quick stop at a mountain village where I bought the most delicious dried apple chips I’ve ever eaten.  The people in Abenah village speak a different language and they worship the Sun Goddess, although, there were mosques in the village so that Sun Goddess thing might just be a bit of extra insurance.

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It was also quite cold.

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There was one other exciting aspect to this drive.  We noticed anti-aircraft guns on all the hills next to the roads and learned that the controversial Nuclear Enrichment Plant was nearby.  Kuroosh said, “No photos and no stopping.”

Kashan city had probably the best examples of all the gardens, palaces and traditional homes. 

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The dome on top of this traditional house is actually a wind catcher.  The holes in the masonry let the cool air in and then it’s drawn down and circulated throughout the house. 

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Tehran was our final stop on the trip and after ninety minutes driving around in circles, Kuroosh found the hotel and left us.  We weren’t terribly saddened by his departure but I do wonder if he ever found his way home.

We stayed in their version of a four star hotel.  I would say that the services were definitely four star but the rooms were more three star quality.

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Here is their version of a bible in the hotel, a prayer rug and a stone for resting your forehead.

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Tehran was crowded and hectic with crazy traffic and bad air but it was also incredibly interesting and fun.

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We saw money changers on the street (and used them when another holiday closed the banks)

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We spent our two days visiting museums and shopping in the bazaar.  We both bought jewellery which was fun and I feel like we got great deals.  We also learned about the recent history of Iran so I feel like I have a better grasp of what actually happened there in the 70’s and what’s happening now.  Our city guide, Hamad was exactly what I expected an Iranian to be; thoughtful, intellectual and savvy.

My lasting impressions of Iran are of a country robbed of it’s potential.  The rich history and unique culture are worth visiting alone but I think visiting and then spreading the word that Iranians aren’t crazed Jihadists is just as valuable.

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