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Wooed with a cup of tea in the desert


By Marion Bull
The Independent, London
April 24, 1999

IN A cubicle made of black theatre- curtaining, a pair of hands wander over my breasts. They stop at a bit of bra underwiring, and follow the shape round in concern, as though I were hiding a miniature scythe.

I stand submissively, arms outstretched, draped from head to toe in the full chador without which no woman is allowed into the Holy Shrine of the Imam Reza, in Mashhad. I hold the borrowed chador around me with my teeth, disappointed that it has a tea stain down the front. The female security guards let me through the curtain to a dazzling white courtyard, from where I enter the turquoise maze of endless other courtyards, built over centuries, a mixture of gaudy beauty and calm. For some reason I burst into tears. A man offers me a fig biscuit, and I follow the pilgrims through to a mirrored hall.

I had flown to Mashhad from Tehran to visit the little town of Neishabour, an hour's drive away, birthplace and resting-place of a childhood idol: Omar Khayyam. It was Edward Fitzgerald's translation of the Rubiyt that captured the imagination of Victorian England; in Persia, Omar - inventor of calendars, hinter at a spherical world as early as the 12th century - had always been celebrated more for his genius in maths and astronomy than for his anti-establishment poetry. It was nevertheless copied by others in Persia, who in turn became famous.

The guidebooks warned of an un-interesting town and monument over Omar's tomb, neither of which I found to be true. Neishabour's unpretentious low buildings in a quiet setting, against the snow-covered Alborz mountain range, were refreshing after so much city pollution. Its wispy green birch trees and gardens were a delight.

The monument is a remarkable piece of sculpture or even architecture, somewhere between a stone jellyfish and what it was intended to be symbolic of: "this inverted Bowl we call the Sky". My only disappointment was that the tomb should stand bleakly on concrete, because Omar was so specific that it should be on grass. Apparently it was moved to this garden from its original burial-place in another part of town, and I wondered what Omar would have thought about people being charged to go in and look.

Living out a fantasy, I searched for an old potter's shop like the one in the Rubiyt's Kuza Nama, the "Book of Pots"; I found instead a pottery museum. Housed in a former caravanserai, a resting-place for travellers and horses in the centre of town, it displayed pots that were already 1,000 years old when Omar was alive. The centre-piece of the museum is a model of Neishabour in the 15th century. The originals of the low, hump-backed mud structures, courtyards and covered alleyways it depicts are still standing in the surrounding desert - indeed throughout Iran - many of them still inhabited and looking, from a distance, like low-lying rocky outcrops, an extension of a flat landscape, baked the same colour as the earth.

I was glad I had made this trip. Outside Neishabour, in rusty green hills, I saw the little village of Darroud, with its tumbling spring on various levels and new shoots of spring greenery everywhere. This small corner was worth a hundred trips around better-known desert towns.

Travelling alone, I saw little of Iranian life. If this had been south- east Turkey or Kurdistan I would undoubtedly have been invited to someone's house for tea. But that is not done here, and I was simply watched with curiosity from a distance. I was not taken for a spy, as some had suggested I would be, nor was I in the least offended to be ignored at hotel receptions, and to be expected to stand in the background when a man was in front.

But the guide who showed me into Mashhad's mosque complex prior to seeing Neishabour ("Your hair!" when the chador slipped), also took me to see the Hezardastan restaurant for lunch, on the outskirts of Mashhad, a place I could not have found, or even entered, on my own. The dining-area was in a dimly lit, windowless basement; when my eyes adjusted to the light I could see that it was full of beds. A couple languished on cushions, absorbed in each other. Three men sat up in bed eating red-spotted rice in a corner and a young boy played a string instrument by the central fountain, oblivious to us all.

Nothing is what it seems. These were not beds, but antique, carpet-covered seats. The dessert we were served with a pot of tea was not a dessert at all, but the first course of a meal of leg of lamb and soup. I said yes when the guide asked me if I was married. I had been told to say I was a housewife, since I was travelling alone. He looked both relieved and disappointed. Omar would have been dismayed that there was no wine to help this scene along, but it was the most sensuous cup of tea I have ever had.

Indeed, nothing is what it seems in Iran. The breast-feeling business by female security guards happened about 10 times, with the departure from Tehran to London being the most fraught. They wore surgical gloves. It was 5am. I was screaming maniacally that my passport had just been stolen.

Re-emerging on the seething-crowd side of the black curtain, I saw my passport being shunted over people's heads. Someone had picked it up after I had dropped it in the rush, and was politely attempting to hand it back. It couldn't have been a more appropriate departing metaphor for this ill-understood country.


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