Gulf crossing in Persia


Published Sun Herald, June 2006

‘YOU like Eminem?’ “No. Something local maybe?”

The 16-year-old shuffles her MP3 playlist. Snow is falling lightly on Jamshidiyeh Park in well-heeled north Tehran. I’ve just returned from a walk up the Alborz Mountains and am sitting under a gazebo with a group of women who have invited me to share afternoon tea. A Persian pop song bursts from the teenager’s MP3 player and we are all up dancing.

Minutes later the young woman calls out a warning and kills the music as a couple of men wander by, waving and shouting greetings. Dancing in public is taboo in Iran. The women laugh like schoolgirls who’ve got away with breaking the rules.

Day one in Iran. With limited time and a rich cultural menu from which to choose, I decide to travel through the desert heartland of old Persia where, in the seventh century, Islam replaced Zoroastrianism as the dominant religion.

Outside Tehran I will travel solo. Friends assure me I’ll be comfortable travelling alone as Iranians are very hospitable.

In Shiraz, a cultured garden city famous for the wine it no longer produces, I think that my friends have got it wrong. At the King of the Lamp Mausoleum I am quizzed in perfect English about my religion by the keeper of the boots. The inquisition starts after I ask permission to enter, park my boots and am down to my socks, ready to enter. “Are you a Muslim, madam?” I shake my head. “Are you a Catholic, madam?” I laugh and splutter. “What!” “Madam if you are not a Muslim you cannot go in.” Not what staff at the Hotel Eram had told me, but who’s to argue in their socks? Banished, I zip up my boots when a gust of wind almost unravels the chador I am wearing in these holy grounds. A mischievous genie is out to get me.

On my way back to the hotel a young man in uniform cruises up beside me and tries to chat. Convinced that he is part of a street gang a guide book tells me operates here, purporting to be police while ripping passports off tourists, I ask him to leave me alone. He persists. “Excuse me, madam, I am officer, may I walk with you?” He turns out to be a Turcoman Army officer from Tabriz in northern Iran who wants to practise his English. For the next 20 minutes we shout at each other in broken English above the traffic while he describes how difficult it is to find a Turcoman wife in Shiraz. At my hotel, exhausted by conversation, he wishes me good day and disappears into the afternoon.

I climb into a road-worn Mercedes bus travelling from Shiraz over the Zagros Mountains to Yazd. The driver’s sidekick separates the sexes, women down the front, men at the back. Mohsen sits with the women.  He is heading home to Yazd for a few days’ leave. He tells me his computer studies have been interrupted by two years of national service. “All young Iranian men must do this because, you know, the Americans . . .”

Antique Yazd is straight from one of Scheherezade’s stories, one she never got round to telling. Poised on the edge of two deserts that stretch to the Afghan border, its low skyline is dominated by slender minarets sprouting from blue-tiled mosques, dun-coloured domes and soaring badgirs, box-like wind towers that have for centuries caught the hot desert winds and transformed them to cool interior ventilation.

Mohsen naturally assumes he will help me find my hotel, the Malek-O-Tojar, once a merchant’s house, in the belly of the Panjeh-Ali Bazaar. Next day in a hire car Mohsen and I speed through the snow-dusted Desert of Emptiness to a caravanserai, a shelter for travellers. Once part of the old trade routes into Central Asia, the crumbling buildings are undergoing a makeover. He shows me a qanat, or water channel, running underneath us and surfacing in the courtyard. “We have had this system for 2000 years. The water comes underground, down from the mountains, the channels were all dug by Yazd men.”

Next stop is Esfahan – the jewel of Islamic Persia. Modern Esfahan retains its medieval legacy of tree-lined avenues, palaces in pleasure gardens, gorgeous tiled mosques and a labyrinthine bazaar. I float along the main boulevard, Chahar Bagh or Four Gardens, south to the 17th-century footbridges arching the Zayandeh River. Across the Si-o-seh, or 33 arches bridge with its outdoor teashop, lies the Armenian quarter of Jolfa and its churches.

More than 400 years ago Shah Abbas the Great moved his capital from the country’s north near the troublesome Turks to this strategically more secure oasis surrounded by desert. He made Esfahan the embodiment of high Persian culture, a city of feminine richness. The cultural heart of Esfahan is Imam Khomeini Square, but many locals still call it by its old name, Naghsh-e Jahan, Map of the World. It is a huge but intimate courtyard flanked by two of Islamic architecture’s beauties – the Imam and Sheikh Lotfollah mosques. The square is essentially an enclosed Persian garden. The old Persian term for an enclosed space is par deiza, from which Christians derived paradise, the Garden of Eden. Iranian tourists take a leisurely afternoon stroll along the colonnaded shops and underemployed touts bump into each other while marking a group of Norwegian skiers heading for nearby snowfields.

The tile artisans in Esfahan understood the interplay of colour, light, design and glaze. In a teashop above the bazaar at the northern end of the square I drink chai with a young carpet merchant and a Norwegian traveller as we chat and watch the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque’s dome change colour from cream to pink as light alters. Inside, the sanctuary ceiling of this mosque is a tiled galaxy of blue mosaics with diminishing yellow motifs drawing one’s eyes to its exquisite star centre and out again to the rim of a perfect circle. Latticed upper windows play light and shade on the mosaics to shimmering effect.

Now it’s back to Tehran riding in a Volvo, considered by locals to be the most luxurious coach. We are offered tea and biscuits as well as the usual TV video soapie.

The young woman next to me tries to teach me how to drink chai Iranian style – two sugar cubes between the teeth while delicately sucking in the tea.

This far into the journey I can’t quite get my teeth into it. There’s too much else to chew over.

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