Written and Photographed by Hugh Fraser Johannesburg, South Africa
The chicken kabab was perfectly delicious but I was very distracted. I couldn't take my eyes off the women helping themselves to the salad. They resembled a catwalk of Vogue models dressed up in sleeping bags.
I had arrived in Iran earlier in the day, with the intention of visiting the architectural sites of Isfahan and Shiraz. I remembered phoning the Iranian embassy in Pretoria to ask how long it would take to get a visa. “20 years,” said the disembodied voice. I demurred. “Sorry, 20 days,” he said.
As it turned out, his initial response felt more accurate. Three months, one refusal, seven visits and 26 phone calls later, I had the visa. This, combined with the media hype about Iran, filled me with foreboding. I was brought sharply back to reality as I took a large mouthful of what appeared to be a green bean salad but in actual fact was a chili arrangement.
In physical appearance, the center of Tehran is not unlike a southern European city; sprawling concrete blocks, but with surprisingly pleasant tree-lined pavements, often with clear water gurgling beneath the trees. The Alborz mountains to the north are a mixed blessing, whilst providing fertile walking trails and skiing in winter, they do trap the air, making it very polluted.
One is constantly aware of the paradoxes of modern Iran. Women play an integral part in daily life. They drive cars (unlike in some Arab states), they work, shop and argue with policemen. All this below the ominous enveloping chador (literally, a tent) — a black sheet that covers the body from head to toe. Its effect is very disturbing. The women almost appear to be blackouts moving through the city.
The government mechanically vomits vitriol aimed at the Americans and Israelis. And yet most of the youth follow American fashions slavishly. In keeping with their government's boycott of Iran, the American Coca-Cola and Pepsi companies have withdrawn their products.
An apprehensive circuit of the former U.S. Embassy puts the hostage crisis of 1979 eerily into perspective. The cement seal of the embassy is surprisingly still there, but has been extensively chiseled and only the barest form remains. A shop called “The Center of Publication of U.S. Espionage Den's Documents” (sic) is prominently positioned to sell copies of documents painstakingly reassembled after having been shredded by the Americans.
And yet, I experienced unfeigned hospitality that I have not encountered anywhere in the world. On a number of occasions, people I met on buses or in bazaars invited me to spend nights at their homes. These incredibly rare moments of insight provided invaluable opportunities to talk to families and particularly women unfettered by the chador. In the security of their homes they revealed their unhappiness with some of the decisions of the regime.
With conversation, the visitor is always plied with vast amounts of food, albeit without alcohol, that include huge arrays of salads with fresh green herbs and bread, chicken kababs, shrimp cakes, saffron rice and delicacies like fresh dates, carrot juice with ice-cream and gaz (nougat with pistachio nuts, a specialty from Isfahan.)
Traveling in a devout Muslim country engendered in me a far deeper understanding of the religion and subjects that I had previously found bewildering. Many of my hosts had volunteered for action in the Iran-Iraq war at the age of 15 or younger.
On the 1,000 rial bank note, the watermark is an image of Hussein Fahmideh, a 13-year-old who martyred himself by strapping himself with grenades and destroying an Iraqi tank. It appears that religion was used as an extremely powerful tool in drumming up public support for the war.
Indeed a visit to the Golestan-e-Shohada, in Isfahan, the cemetery of soldiers killed in the war, is very distressing. Literally thousands and thousands of graves lie in unrelenting waves with photographs of the victims in large metal frames, with the reverse side often displaying a photo of Khomeini.
Typical of practically every town in Iran, my visit revealed family and friends sitting, often with a picnic, conversing with the deceased or cleansing the grave with fresh water. In a bizarre twist, the war has ensured a plethora of participants for the country in the Special Olympics. In the competition held recently, Iran overwhelmingly won the most medals with ex-soldiers missing limbs.
The ancient city of Isfahan lies six hours by bus south of Tehran. It has the greatest concentration of Islamic buildings in Iran. The cool blue tile of the mosques provides welcome relief from the scorching desert sun. It reached its zenith during the reign of Shah Abbas I (1587-1629).
A rhyme from that period declares: Isfahan nesf–jahan.( Isfahan is half the world). The rest of Persia scorns the inhabitants for their “shady” way of doing business and indeed it is very difficult to outwit the shrewd merchants of Isfahan, in spite of a very depressed tourist market.
The focus of Isfahan is centered around the Meidan-e-Imam (known as Meidan-e-Shah before the revolution). A huge town planning square, 500 x 160m, laid out in 1612. Its southern end is terminated by the huge Imam Mosque (again, changed from Shah Mosque). The shimmering mosaics ensure that the surfaces change hourly according to the light.
The buildings, which are angled to face Mecca, provide a refreshing relief to the relentless buzz of activity outside. The towering minarets act as sentinels as one moves from courtyard to courtyard past tiny gardens, ponds and fountains.
Back on the square, the bazaar sprawls from open air to congested malls with fantastic brick vaulting, selling everything one can imagine, from Hermes scarves to herbs. Around one courtyard, there is the clanging of metal workers shaping oversized copper drums and down an alley the fabric printers who conjure up past battle victories print by hand. Of course the most difficult thing is to tear oneself away from the acres of Persian carpets and kelims.
In spite of a government ban on satellite aerials, many homes have bootleg videotapes of musicians from the expatriate community, based mainly in Los Angeles, referred to by the locals as “Teherangeles.” Needless to say, entertainment does not extend to discos or dancing . In a recent case, the father of the bridegroom at a wedding was sentenced to 18 months in jail for allowing dancing between the sexes. While this is an extreme case, it does happen. The Komiteh or social police are known to prowl the streets seeking out offensive or un-Islamic behavior.
Moving east, toward the cities of Yazd and Kerman, one passes forts and castles abandoned in the desert . My mind runs rampant with the images of the route of Marco Polo as he labored along the Silk Route to China. Along the way I met many Afghanistanis, which seemed strange — meeting exiles in a country that has supplied so many itself.
After the Karoo-like landscape wedged against the smoldering desolation of the Dasht-e-Lut desert, I arrived in Yazd. Conspicuous for its badgirs, these wind towers stand proudly above the town and are designed to catch the slightest breeze from any direction and channel this air movement down into a house or cistern to cool water. Underground channels, called ghanats (up to 40km long) are used to provide water for the city. The ghanat-builders of Yazd are renowned throughout Iran.
Three hours east of Kerman toward Pakistan is the town of Bam, the setting for the city citadel of Arg-e-Bam. Resembling a medieval European castle, it was built from brick beginning in the 12th century. A flourishing commercial and crafts center, it prospered for five centuries. A walk through the city reveals mosques, mansions, barracks and squares all constructed from a homogeneous sand colored mud brick.
After weeks of abstinence, the image of Shiraz appeared like a mirage across the desert. Alas, I was not to be rewarded with any wine from the grape which took its name from the city.
Fifty kilometers north of Shiraz lies Persepolis, the ancient capital of the Archaemenians. It was built in 512 BC by Darius I. In 313 BC, in an unusual act of wanton destruction, it was razed by Alexander the Great. Nevertheless, some exquisite ruins remain with beautiful carvings and sculptures. It was here that seeds were being sown for the downfall of the Peacock Throne. In 1971, the Shah threw the mother of all parties to celebrate 2,500 years of the Persian Empire.
Five hours southwest of Shiraz, the port city of Bushehr lies like a shark fin in the Persian Gulf. Since the war it has seen its importance decline as shipping and commerce moved east to Bandar Abbas. Nevertheless it remains a charming example of Bandari architecture. The sand-colored buildings sit cheek by jowl, traversed by narrow alleys, reminiscent of the coastal architecture of Lamu and Zanzibar in East Africa.
Whilst the city lies idle, it provided an opportunity for my host, Ali who had accompanied me from Shiraz, to catch up on all the gossip. This man's wife was caught in flagrante delicto with their neighbor (indeed a seditious act) and that man can arrange to obtain alcohol through the Armenians. The obsession with sex and alcohol oozes from the slumbering walls.
I had been cutting a fine line, photographing buildings around Iran. It was only a matter of time before the hospitality expired and my luck ran out. It happened on my last evening in Tehran. I stumbled upon a fantastic nine-story mural decrying the Americans. I took one photo and was positioning myself to take another when I was accosted by a policeman. I was arrested and taken into custody. In the police station there followed hours of questioning in my “fluent Persian.” About the only phrase I could repeat was “Jasus nistam” (I am not a spy).
During the fracas, I removed my film in an extremely uncharacteristic moment of bravado and replaced it with another. Hours later we reached an agreement: I would surrender my film, my passport would be copied and I could leave. Crestfallen, I removed the unused film from the camera, relinquished it and fled. Throughout my custody, I was treated with nothing less than charm and a knowing disbelief that I couldn't really be South African. And of course we have Mandela. Alhamdolellah! (Thank God!)