Wooed with a cup of tea in the desert
IRAN IS ONCE AGAIN OPENING UP TO VISITORS - INCLUDING MARION BULL, WHO
SEARCHES FOR SIGNS OF THE POET OMAR KHAYYAM
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