iran 10: tehran… politics, shrines and martyrs

tehranamericaIran has a complicated relationship with the rest of the world. Whilst on one hand it has been labeled as an “axis of evil” by the West, the war with Iraq lasted for eight years and claimed hundreds of thousands of lives as trench warfare and poison gas were used for the first time since the first World War. Yet Iran’s only retaliation to it all is a couple of banners and a handful of painted wall murals outside the now ex-United States of America embassy in Tehran, and a Martyrs Cemetery where young impish school children sing songs and pay homage to their country’s dead heroes. It makes you wonder.

As the world ostracizes this ancient nation nestled between Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran itself carries about its own business as usual. It has a largely flawless infrastructure throughout its vast expanse, a wonderfully rich heritage and an educated and graceful people with ready smiles and laughter. “Iran good?” is the question asked by everyone you meet. There is such an eagerness to be accepted. To be liked. To be understood. Continue reading

iran 9: nain, abyaneh, kashan—traveling through the desert

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I’ll be leaving in a couple of days; I have been in Iran for two weeks now. How easily we are able to change our habits. Two weeks and I now feel uncomfortable going out in public without my hejab, kebabs have become my staple diet, and salams and merci came easily. One more week here and I would be all chadored, going na na every time someone wanted to take a picture of me.

Traveling through miles of desert is an extraordinary experience. It also teaches you not to be fussy. Bathrooms are invariably behind a sand dune, at a little booth in a caravanserai, or in a thicket. So when you emerge you learn to check your front and backside as well so that there are no twigs sticking out of your hejab. It gives a whole new angle to the ‘going to the ladies’ ritual. Continue reading

iran 8: esfahan nesf-e Jahan, esfahan is half the world

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Esfahan is like a fabled town straight out of a medieval story with its ethereal mosques, opulent palaces, picturesque bridges and fabulous bazaars, all set around the most beautiful square in the world, the Maidaan Naqsh-e Jahan. Continue reading

iran 7: the desert city of yazd

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I am nearing Yazd. The landscape is stunning. Towering barren sedimentary mountains, streaked with iron oxides, flank both sides of the road. It has been a long day, driving through hundreds of miles of arid wilderness. As I wind my way through the burgeoning city, millions of street lights twinkle in the darkness in warm welcome.

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Yazd is one of the highlights of Iran. Wedged between two desolate deserts, it has long been a prosperous staging post on the caravan route between Esfahan and Central Asia. The city was an important center for the pre-Islamic religion, Zoroastrianism and still has the largest Zoroastrian population in the country at 12,000. So it is befitting that my day starts with a visit to the Towers of Silence perched atop parched hilltops in its outskirts. Till recently these towers were used as putrefaction plateaus where corpses were picked clean by vultures. A priest would sit with the bodies which were placed in a seated position, and watch to see which eye the vultures picked out first. If it was the right eye, the soul faced a promising future. However, if it was the left eye, it symbolized a pretty grim afterlife. Such towers were used in Iran up until the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Continue reading

iran 6: shiraz, the heartland of persian culture

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Drink until the turbans are all unbound,
Drink until the house like the world turns around.
~ Hafez, Sufi poet (14th Century)

I’m in Shiraz, the heartland of Persian culture. Shiraz was one of the most important cities in the medieval Islamic world and the capital of the Zand Dynasty (1747-1779). Through its many artists and scholars the city earned a reputation for being the ‘House of Learning’ and was synonymous with education, nightingales, poetry, roses and at one time, red wine. It is home to one of the oldest universities dating to the 7th Century. Two of the world’s greatest poets, Hafez and Saadi are buried here. Continue reading

iran 5: the story of persepolis

“Passer-by, I am Cyrus the Great, I have given the Persians an empire and I have ruled over Asia. So do not envy me for this tomb.” ~ Inscription on the tomb of Cyrus the Great, Pasargade

I love rambling through archaeological sites, running my fingers over millennia old ruins, walking down worn out paths where before me countless souls had also passed along. Where history was made and destinies defined. Sites like these are humbling, making us realize how small we are in the bigger picture. And yet such sites also fill us with a deep sense of pride in humanity’s political achievements and artistic endeavors which are a legacy belonging to all mankind. Continue reading