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The Land of the Unexpected

“Only one thing is predictable in Iran – and that is that nothing is predictable,” quipped my guide. It was an offhand remark but one that was to ring true throughout my short stay in this wonderful land of the unexpected.

Nothing was to be as straightforward as it seemed. Given the natural resources of the country, I presumed petrol would be cheap; it was rationed. I had thought that Ayahtollah Khomeini’s mausoleum would be a place of hushed respect and reverence; it was a vast unsightly edifice with mobile phones ringing and children running around. There is a widespread notion that the late shah had established an active Western-style democracy in Iran before he was ousted; it was patina and veneer: his rule was autocratic.

Whilst I could not access the BBC website from my hotel room my guide reassured me that many at home would have filters to give them access to such sites and that furthermore they had satellite dishes at home granting them access and exposure to a multitude of TV channels. At lunch my guide ordered a Pepsi which surprised me given the US embargo (In Shiraz I watched proud parents trying to coax their little boy to smile for a photograph not with “smile” or “cheese” but “Pepsi”). Sanctions are inconvenient but not insurmountable, not least with UN Council members such as Russia and China having the veto and willing to do business with Iran. In spite of heavy import duties the number of foreign cars has increased hugely in the last few years; further evidence of change albeit little by little.

What doesn’t change is congestion. Tehran is much like any capital city: technology is mobile but the traffic is not. The gridlock of cars gives way to cavalier opportunism namely that when drivers get the slightest sniff of open space ahead of them they accelerate away with alarming alacrity.

At first I found myself wincing at near miss after near miss but quickly realised that Iranian drivers have a spacial awareness second to none. So much so that during my stay, I only saw one accident, which happened to be the only time that I saw tempers raised. Maybe the woman involved was having a bad hair day – I couldn’t tell.

This is one of the dilemmas of Iran in that it is difficult to take things at face value. Iran is not a country that despite the propaganda in the west can be easily pigeon-holed. It is instead a wonderful atmospheric and exotic blend of paradox and contradiction.

In the west we are blinded by stereotypes and view Iran as monochrome and fundamental. Yes there is a certain amount of segregation – men sit at the front of buses, women at the back – but there is much more freedom than I had thought. Young couples sitting together in coffee houses and restaurants, women driving, women travelling alone in taxis with male drivers. Segregation dissolves into thin air in the air.

Women in chardors are a stereotypical image of Iran. I saw these stereotypes gossiping with each other outside shop windows weighing up the respective merits of revealing dresses that they can wear in the security of their own homes. The outfits women wear on the street are different but underneath they bare the same as they have always been. This duality presents no problem to Iranian women, whose natures easily encompass the two seemingly opposed desires – to party and to pray. "We used to do our praying in private and our partying in public" said our guide, "but now it's the other way round".

The other curiosity is a Vulcan-like fascination with eyebrows and fashioning them into shapes that Spock would be proud of. Perhaps most surprising of all was seeing women with plasters on their noses – the badges of cosmetic surgery which is blooming. Thousands of Iranians have nose jobs. Some of the people sporting bandages hadn't even had them. A nose job was a status symbol, and a bandage was better than nothing. I was beginning to get the message. This is a complicated culture in which all is not as it seems.
It is not the present that one travels to Iran for - it is one of the serendipities of travel – but rather its history. The National Museum in Tehran is the ideal introduction to Iran's long history. Here you get a dizzying sense of the layers of civilisation and history that make most countries in the world feel like gawky adolescents. There's pottery dating back to 7000 BC and an extraordinary range of ceramics, painted, and sometimes carved, with scorpions, snakes and fish.
Around the corner, on a Sumerian tablet from the fourth millennium BC, there's some of the oldest writing in the world. And around another one, there's one of the oldest wheels in the world. This litany of cultural milestones almost gets boring, but then, among the luxuriant beards on the stone statues from the first Persian empire, you stumble upon a mass of curly, real hair. A real beard, on a real head, with real eyebrows. This is Saltman, discovered by Iranian miners in 1993 and apparently 1,700 years old.
Although it does not possess the royal monuments of Persepolis, Isfahan and Shiraz, Yazd is fascinating for the history and unique use of some of its buildings – the bagdirs, wind towers, in particular.

The dokhmas (Towers of Silence) are stark reminder of the way in which Zoroastrians used to deal with their dead. Due to their sanctity of earth, fire, air and water the Zoroastrians exposed their dead to the elements (and vultures) on these towers not unlike Tibetan sky burials. Like the dokhmas, the Zoroastrain fire temple is worth a brief visit but does little to give you any better understanding of this once great religion.

The fourteenth century mosque of Masjid-i-Jami is impressive for its disproportionately high minarets but it is perhaps the splendid ceramic patterning in the main prayer hall that is most eye-catching. From here, I walked through the narrow streets and alleys of the old town catching glimpses of everyday life whether it be a small bakery or people going about their daily chores. Wonderfully warped old wooden doors with different knockers – one for men and the other for women – so that residents know the sex of the person calling on them. At every turn seeing the bagdirs, wind towers, that were so fundamental to giving the people of Yazd a quality of life.

As the sun sets the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer. An everyday occurrence in a Muslim country but what is not so commonplace is that for a fit few an hour long gym session follows evening prayers. This is no ordinary gym session - in a circular depression to the beat of drums and the plaintive singing of old poetry men in paisley pyjama bottoms do press-up thrusts, gyrate, twirl weights and whirl themselves around the small ring. Nothing is predictable in Iran.

Persepolis is impressive in its scale and grandeur however it lacks a knock out punch. Whilst Lord Curzon is unfair to have commented so wearily, “It is all the same, and the same again, and yet again...there is no variation in their steady, ceremonious tramp.” I can understand his jaded response. The late afternoon light softened and made up for some of the frustrations of the protective glass and canopy which cast infuriating shadows just over where you would like to photograph. Perhaps I am being unfair to a site which is over 2,500 years old, was destroyed by Alexander –according to Plutarch 10,000 mules and 5,000 camels were used to carry away the looted booty.

Shiraz is nowadays best known as a base from which to visit Persepolis, however, the city of roses and nightingales has much to boast of in its own right. Mazar Ali ibn Hamzeh, known for its extensive Qajar mirrorwork on its interior walls and vaults, is a short but interesting visit. The interior of the small building of the Park Museum is exquisite in its paintings and decor. The artefacts on display match the interior – this is a small but real treat of a museum.

The garden of Bagh-i-Eram, named after one of the four gardens of paradise described in the Koran, is tranquil and reflective and a great place to wander around. Shiraz is the antithesis of Yazd. There is a far more modern and positive buzz to this liberal city. Its relaxed atmosphere is reflected in the absence of chadors instead replaced by coiffeured hair

Isfahan is truly one of the must-see cities of the world. A bold statement but one more than backed up by the incredible wealth of its buildings and the charming nature of its people.

It is perhaps famed for its bridges - Shahrestan, Khajou and Sio-se-pol – but whilst interesting they are overshadowed by Maydan Imam undoubtedly one of the world’s grandest squares. It is not just its size that impresses but that it contains some incredible buildings in its perimeter most notably Masjid-i Imam and Masjid-i Shaykh Lotfallah. Tiananmen might me the biggest square in the world, St Mark’s the most famous but Maydan Imam is the greatest. When you're in it, you can see why someone might once have suggested that "Isfahan is half the world".

Not far from the square and not to be missed is Chehel Sotun Palace, built by Shah Abbas II in the 17th century is famed for its wooden columns reflected in the surface of the pool and hence its name ‘The Palace of Forty Columns’. However it is the paintings inside that are truly exquisite, even breathtaking.

Majid-i Jami is a large mosque that is most impressive for its domes. The Nizam al-Muulik (south dome) was built at the end of the eleventh century and is 17 metres in diameter. Compare this with St Paul’s Cathedral, which is 600 hundred years later and its dome is conical. As one architectural historian put it: “The Seljuks solved the difficulties which Sir Christopher Wren avoided.”

Yes there are some impressive buildings, sites and places in Iran but it is the interaction with people that you must take away. Throughout my travels in Iran, I was welcomed by the polite curiosity of strangers. It's one of the many ironies of this complicated country that a nation with an international reputation for hostility should be inhabited by a people of such rare, and hospitable, charm.
In Iran, the government is more conservative and religious but the people are very open. The key to understanding Iran is to meet and talk to local people - and that is easier than in most Middle Eastern countries. In any bazaar, at any cafe, people will be keen to talk to you. Walking through the bazaar allows you to see everyday life as families go about their business. Doorways lead into open courtyards that once were caravanserai now inhabited by modern traders and their shops or stand derelict, bereft of their former industry. But bazaars reinforce a stereotype of the ancient of the exotic, an image conferred on the country by its exonym of Persia.
In today’s Iran, glossy shopping malls are de rigueur. The girls and boys who stroll contentedly along are world’s apart from my impressions of Iran. They are young, beautiful and fashionable – their hair coiffed and styled as if on a fashion shoot. This society is young and modern so different from the images that look down from billboards of men dressed in robes and turbans, their beards white, their eyes disinterested in what is going on around them. It is difficult to reconcile the two. The regime seems out of step with society, of a youth that has evolved far beyond the strictures of law. Iran has the youngest population in the world – 75% of its 70 million population is under 30 years old - which is storing up problems in the future in terms of housing and unemployment.

There will be change. When and in what format I do not know. But at the very least I hope to have changes, or at the very least made you rethink, your views on Iran.





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