Ahvaz at first glance is an arid city full of brick houses and palm trees. You may say, well, so is Miami. The difference is that the former has endured eight years of war and the signs, amazingly after sixteen years, are very apparent. Because Ahvaz and Abadan were literally only a few kilometers from Iraq, the Iraqi missiles that hit these cities carried large war heads and consequently had a devastating effect on both cities. A lot of the war torn buildings are untouched. The people are of course of Arab descent and the city looks very much like Baghdad.
My guide takes me to my hotel. A brick-wall hotel named “Oxin”. The hotel is relatively clean and I am impressed that the clerk has a flat monitor at his disposal. The hotel also has two Internet terminals.
After checking in, I am ready to head back to the conference. I see a huge bus waiting by the hotel entrance. In front of the bus is a brand new Mercedes Benz that seems to be a police car. Four armed police officers are outside. I soon find out they are our escorts. I am later told that due to a recent kidnapping of a few foreigners by a local gang, we are provided with police escort. “Where else am I going to be escorted to a conference?” I tell myself. Certainly not in the US or Europe.
After a twenty minute bus ride, I am taken to the gates of Ahvaz University Medical Center, Chamran Campus, formerly known as the Jondi Shapur University. Jondi Shapur is probably one of the oldest medical schools, if not the oldest, in the world. Founded around 500 BC, it was a world renown medical institution during its time.
The university has a large campus. As I am driven to the conference center I take notice of big portraits of former students who lost their lives in the war that are placed every 30 – 50 feet along the main road.
I soon register for the conference. Most of the presenters are from the Middle East but there are some big shots from the US, Canada and UK. I see Dr. Willet, world renown nutritionist from Harvard, trying to communicate with his guide. After listening to a couple of lectures (most of which did not interest me), I decide to go to the city center. Apparently there is a famous bazaar in Ahvaz near the Karoon river. I catch a taxi to the bazaar. I am excited to see large crowds of shoppers and traders in narrow streets.
One can find pretty much anything in this bazaar from a Sony CD player to live chickens. Most were conversing in Arabic but of course most also spoke Farsi. After walking a few blocks I find myself at Hotel Fajr (formerly Astoria). This is the “four star” hotel in Ahvaz. It is clean and relatively luxurious. It is a walking distance to the Karoon. In the afternoons young couples stroll by the river. The river has an exceptionally muddy, brownish color but looks cleaner on most days.
At night we were all invited to a live music event sponsored by the governor of the Khuzestan Province. The event was pleasant and we definitely had an all-you-can-eat dinner. I see professor Willet in the line trying to explore Persian dishes that he probably has not seen before. I wonder how much of a culture shock must he really be experiencing; from Boston to Ahvaz. Wow!
The next day I decide to go back to Tehran a day early. Thanks to a useless Iran Air agent who keeps promising that we can take the “next flight”, I am stranded in the airport for hours. The last highlight of my trip is when I suddenly notice a lot of people gathering around a relatively short man. After a closer look, I see he is Khodayar Azizi, the Iranian soccer star.
Finally, an Iran-Air flight takes me back to Tehran for another four weeks of adventure. To be continued… >>> Index