In April 2012 my friends Fleur Tālebi and Hossein Mashreghi took me on a long road trip in Iran. They generously introduced me to their country’s fascinating history, breathtaking art and architecture, places of surprising natural beauty, and its legendary food and hospitality. We visited friends and family, which is always the best way to travel! My sincere thanks go out to them.
Our trip took us from Mashhad and Neyshabur in the northeast, south to the desert towns of Bajestān, Tabas, and Yazd. From there we went east to friendly Kermān with a stop at the cave village of Meymand, and further to the amazing sand structures of the Kavir Lut near Shahdād. From Kermān we went west to the garden city of Shirāz, home of great mystic poetry and the ancient ruins of Persepolis, and then north to the artistic and architectural glories of Esfahān. A quick visit to the village of Abyāneh, and then to Kāshān, where we saw the amazing nineteenth century houses (palaces really!) of wealthy merchants. There were family visits in Tehrān, a quick stop at the Caspian Sea, and then on to Semnān, where nearby caves boasted fluorescent stalactites. At last full circle, back to Mashhad, with a side trip to the mountain town of Kalat.
Between the traffic-clogged cities the roads revealed beautiful and ever-changing landscapes.
One of Esfahan’s ancient bridges over the Zayandeh River
It was a trip that broke many of the media’s fear-mongering stereotypes. It’s true that few families are untouched by the tyrannies and injustices of their government, and at the same time what I experienced was people courageously and cheerfully getting on with their lives. A pretty powerful way of counteracting tyranny! There’s a stronger sense of identity with the history and culture of Iran than there is with the Islamic Republic’s domestic and international policies. Contrary to one common concern, I had no brushes with the authorities and felt very safe.
Many contrasts struck me: between deserts and lush forests, tradition and modernity, pre and post-revolutionary customs, home life and public life, people who are very religious and those who are not.
Near the kaluts are salt deposits like this one. This area was once a sea.
I’m no expert. What I’ve written here is my first impressions of a complex country, along with a some thoughts based on reading and conversations here at home. These impressions include the many things I loved about Iran, along with a few that I find disturbing.
I’ll share with you some of my photos. There are others that I didn’t manage to catch, such as men selling huge bouquets of roses to drivers stuck in traffic jams. Some of these scenes flashed by at the side of the highway, and others involved situations in which I felt people would rather not be photographed.
Hossein did all the driving. Since streets change over the years, making even familiar places feel unfamiliar, he often stopped to ask directions. Hossein is a man who loves to chat with people and enjoys every interaction, even the small ones. He’d roll down the window and call, “Salām aleikum. How’s your health, how’s your family? And where is such and such a place?” Almost without exception the person replied right away. “Go straight, take the second left, go down four blocks and turn right, two blocks and that’s it.” No stopping to think or to count how many streets.
It was the same thing in the Tehran bazaar, known for its huge size and endless twists and turns. Fleur asked for a certain restaurant. “Go straight down to the 4th alley on the left. Then take the third right and you’ll come to it.” I joked about the fact that in Vancouver hardly anybody can answer such questions so easily. Hossein replied, “That’s because here everybody stays where they grew up. So they know the place.” Of course it’s possible people just don’t like to admit that they don’t know, but for the moment let’s stay with Hossein’s thought.
Hossein Mashreghi in the city of Yazd
There are advantages both to staying put and to moving around. I’m one of those who has moved around. My own family goes back to the 17th century in North America and no two generations have lived in one place. There are advantages to adapting in new circumstances, getting to know different people and ways of doing things. On the other hand, staying put allows people to maintain local traditions and language, as well as the ties of family.
This doesn’t mean that nothing changes. Iran’s population has doubled since the 1979 revolution and former villages are now cities. Governments come and go, each one contradicting the edicts of the one that came before. Cell phones and nose jobs abound. Traffic is horrendous and in some places like Tehran, the air is bad.
Many traditions remain however, including holiday celebrations as well as foods and handicrafts. Each town has its own candies, not to speak of the variety of design in tiles and carpets. I bought an embroidered coat made by Turkmen artists in the northeast. In Kāshān there is rosewater, in Yazd a beautiful silk fabric called termeh. Kermān has embroidery and Esfahān printed cottons.
Traditional life is still reflected in the bazaars where shops are organized by profession. We saw many skilled men making copper pots and enamel plates. Others were block-printing fabrics. Streets are lively, and we often passed shops selling ijil — elaborate arrangements of spices, dried fruits and nuts. Shops sell clothing, household goods, and car parts. Click here for a wonderful stroll through the Esfahān bazaar.
I was delighted to visit a bakery in which bread was baked in the traditional tanur. The oven is rounded and the flat loaves of bread dough are stuck onto the inside wall — when baked, they are easy to remove. Delicious hot!
As a traveler approaching a culture new to me, I too was asking for directions— sometimes aloud. “Is my scarf OK?” “What can I politely call Hossein’s mother?”
Other times it was a question of gauging situations. How to interpret the intense curiosity people on the street showed about me? Why did children want their pictures taken with me? How could I engage in the many rounds of polite conversation when my grasp of the language was so minimal? I must have appeared very rude since I knew so few of the polite expressions that guide social gatherings.
Would the ideas I had come with would stand or fall in the face of reality? Given the friendliness, hospitality, and level of safety I experienced, why does my government advise me not to go to this country? At the same time they are now making it increasingly difficult for Iranians to visit Canada. Do they wish to maintain the negative images and prevent the human contact that could get at the their root causes?
I came to see that I had brought preconceptions about fundamentalism as I have experienced it in other religions. Did these semi-conscious images hold up beside the people I met and the life dilemmas I heard about? Sometimes yes, more often no. Life is more subtle than any preconception.
Robab Mashreghi, matriarch of Hossein’s large family.
Impressions don’t fit easily into categories. But I’ve done my best to focus here on a few touchstones — particular interests that I took with me, and new fascinations that grew while there.
My warm and since thanks go out to Fleur Tālebi, Hossein Mashreghi and their many friends and family members in Mashhad, Bajestān, Kermān, Esfahān, Tehrān and Semnān who all filled my first trip to Iran with warmth and pleasure.
Thanks also to friends at home who have listened and questioned, helping my thoughts to take shape.
Special thanks also to my Farsi teacher Haideh Hashemi who patiently helped prepare me to communicate with the people I met. And to Robert D.MacNevin for putting it all so beautifully onto the web page. Robert and I thank Kendra Gibbons for her assistance with the map of Iran.
Continue the journey as I experience the Music and Poetry of Iran!
You can also visit a photo album of my Iran visit at Picasa!
Please feel free to write to me with your comments and questions.