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Modern, but medieval
I feel that the word contrast pretty much embodies Iran

May 17, 2007

First Days in Tehran
So I decided to start a blog for anyone who wants to see what I'm up to in Iran because most of you probably have no clue what it's like here. Honestly, I had no clue either. Iran is incredibly complex. It will be hard to write about this country without political observations and implications, but I will try because I don't particularly want to go to prison. So, I guess my first observations are that the traffic is insane, the women are beautiful, the city is filthy, and the Alburz mountains rise up abover Tehran like a grand old king surveying his land. This city is enormous. When I saw it from the sky before I landed, I couldnt believe how sprawling it was. The traffic is literally the worst in the world and there are almost no rules or regulations and even the few there are are hardly followed.

I have to wear the hijab (scarf over my head, coat or tunic down to my knees) but it is so funny to see how this traditional and Islamic dress has evolved. Girls wear Prada sunglasses, scarves that barely cover their heads, tight trench coats that perfectly outline their breasts and butts, and enough makeup to scare RuPaul. Walking down the street, I see these girls and then next to them I see these black masses, women who glide down the street with only their eyes visible to the world. The contrast is amazing.

I feel that the word contrast pretty much embodies Iran. Contrasts exist in all realms of life here. Somehow Tehran is modern, but medieval. The people are not free, but they are just on the brink of excercising freedom. Everything here is an "almost." It is almost a cosmopolitan city; it is almost tolerable to live this way; i almost understand this way of life. But not quite.

I think the most surprising thing I have discovered so far does not lie with the discoveries of this city or its people, but something I have realized within myself: The smell of mint and rosewater awakens a comfort and patriotism that I didn't know existed inside of me. I've spent a lot of time in the car just sitting and gazing at the city and it has inadvertently awakened a feeling, a strong affinity, a sadness, an aggressive defensiveness against those who are hell bent (or supposedly heaven sent) on ruining this country - this country I barely know but feel a part of and seems to be a part of me.

I was in the car with a relative tonight heading to the mountains for some tea and hookah when a guy on a moped rode up next to me on the passenger side. My window was rolled down and he bent down and peered in (not looking at the road, but hey, who does?) and said in a thick Shirazy accent "Do you all want some beer?" Um.... I started to say no but my relative, who was driving said, "What is the percentage?" The guy on the moped fell back behind the car and zoomed onto the driver's side (mind you, we are driving during this whole exchange) and responded "5 percent. Heineken. 24 pack for 60,000 toomans ($60)." Apparently this was a good deal so my relative told the moped guy to follow us into a side street so we could do the exchange more privately.

"Now, you're positive this is 5%" asked my relative. The moped guy assured him it was good. They proceeded to haggle and the price came down to 55,000 toomans and my relative told the guy to wait in front of this house because one of his friends wanted to buy a 24 pack also. We gave the guy the money and he quickly put it into the trunk of the car. We also got his cell phone number for future alcohol endeavors. We programmed his number and saved his name as "Booz Amin." Then we drove off while he waited to make his next sale to the friend.

All of a sudden, my relative stopped the car and went to the trunk and brought a beer to the front. It was not a Heineken. It was called "Oettinger." On the can the word "Alkoholfrei" was written in lovely, large, cursive letters. Alcohol free.

We tried to track the guy down and he was gone. We called and he said, in that same thick Shirazy accent, "Sorry, you got the wrong number." And so it goes!

I just got back from the city of Yazd, one of the oldest cities in the world. When you think of the desert, or of life in the Middle East hundreds of years ago, or of mudhouses and sand and the endless pursuit of water, you have Yazd. It was beautiful in a way I can't fully describe because it was like nothing I have ever seen – nothing like this city exists in America or in Europe. It is the most unique place I have been to.

Our hotel was an old renovated Yazdi house where the rooms open into beautiful gardens. I could just imagine being a young lady surrounded by other young ladies lounging around the pool and waiting for our father to find us suitable husbands. We spent hours getting lost in the winding alleys with mud arches overhead and with every turn I discovered some new amazing structure or architectural wonder. Yazd is known for its "badgirs" (wind towers), which are these huge towers that caught the wind and pushed it down to be cooled by a huge pool of cold water. This was the old method of air conditioning and all of the big houses in Yazd had one or more badgirs. The architecture and precise mathematics of these structures is so amazing that apparently a group of Japanese engineers came to Yazd and studied the badgirs for six months and still could not figure out how they worked. I stood under the largest badgir in Yazd and was almost knocked over by the power of the wind it pushed down.

Yazd is also a huge center of Zoroastrianism in the Middle East. We traveled through the desert and drove into the heart of the mountains to reach the Zoroastrian pilgrimage site of Chak-Chak. Its name comes from the story of a Sassanian era princess who ran away from a dangerous situation and came to the mountains to seek refuge. There was no water and so she stood on the ledge of the mountain and pounded her staff down and water emerged. It made a dripping sound like "chk chk chk" and thus Chak-Chak. We climbed up to the see the Zoroastrian flame that must continually be fed wood so that it may burn forever, as it has burned for thousands of years past.

Zoroastrians did not want to pollute the earth so they did not bury their dead. They did not want to pollute the air so they did not cremate their dead. Instead, they put their dead into this enormous tower called a "dakhmeh." They would sit the dead upright and the guardians of the dakhmeh would watch to see if the vultures first picked out the left or right eye. If a vulture ate your right eye first, it meant your soul went to heaven. If it ate your left eye first then......your eternal soul was damned. Vultures would then feast on the rest of you and that's how Zoroastrians took care of their dead. This practice was outlawed about fifty years ago but I saw two dakhmeh's and they were in the middle of the desert and loomed overhead like a constant reminder of what's to come and where we all end up.

One of the most impressive things about Yazd was the kindness of its people, who are known throughout Iran as being incredibly generous and good-hearted. Everyone was so nice and helpful. Little children, seeing our cameras and awe-inspired expressions, would come up to us and smile these huge smiles and say "Hello!" There were so many tourists in Yazd from all over the world and whenever I talked to anyone, they would comment on how kind the Yazdi people were. Not only did I see a part of the world that I had never even imagined still existed, but it felt like I had traveled to a completely different time. Yazd was amazing.

I'm at my uncle's house in Chaboksar, northern Iran, on the Caspian Sea. Jungle meets the ocean and it is incredible. I went to a tea factory today. The smell of freshly picked tea leaves was intoxicating. I drank a cup of the tea and it was so strong it gave me a headache (it will get weaker in the coming weeks).

On the way up to the top of the mountains, we stopped at a small village and bought some eggs and borrowed a frying pan from a local restaurant owner. There were cows all over the road. At another village, there were dozens of men and women picking valerian flowers. The road we were on twisted and snaked its way through the heart of the mountains, climbing higher and higher with each bend. We finally reached the top of the mountains and the view that spread out before us was like something out of a fairy tale - green jungles, jagged cliffs, countless waterfalls. And all-enveloping mist.

We parked the car and climbed to a flat area where we set up a picnic - bread, cheese, and we cooked on a communal omelette in the borrowed frying pan on the petite fire we had made. Some cows ventured near, but I think we smoked them out. I made friends with a huge yellow slug that was attempting to steal some cookies. Someone suggested we have some escargot - I didn't think that a good idea. I spent some time exploring but got slightly discouraged when I put my hand on a stick colored snake that fled from me as I fled from it.

Almost as soon as we got to our spot on the mountain, the mist crept up on us. We resided in the mist and could not see more than five feet ahead of us. It was the thickest, heaviest moisture I have ever encountered. I laid down on the ground and closed my eyes for a moment and felt like I was at the top of the earth in the middle of nowhere but above all of humanity and enveloped in a cloud where I could disappear from the whole damn thing. So far I have been at the top of the mountain, at the edge of the sea, in the middle of the desert, part of the hustle and bustle of a metropolis of 14 million people, and on Monday I will head to a time where civilization was born and great kings built great kingdoms which centuries later would be heralded as one of the wonders of the world - Persepolis is my next stop! Comment 


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