20th-24th December, 2012, Shiraz and Persepolis
I am a giraffe in Iran. I walk the streets with my long neck, swaying in the breeze. People stop and gape. “Where from? Where from?” They’ve never seen a giraffe before, not even on television. Trouble is, being an exotic animal is starting to grind me down.
They say Shiraz is the most beautiful city in Iran. To me, it’s just a regular Iranian city, albeit with more trees, a bit less traffic pollution and more historical monuments. Ornamental orange trees decorate the avenues. There’s a giant adobe castle in the centre of the city.
The Long Night of Boredom
It’s the end of December 20th and so far the world has shown no sign of impending explosion, implosion or anything else. I kind of wish it would. The woman sits by the bonfire, waffling on and on, apparently about Zoroastrianism. She has been speaking in Farsi for hours already and there’s no sign, so far, that she will ever end, let alone the rest of the world. The man sitting next to me, my host – so far the only person who’s spoken to me – seems equally as bored. Tonight is Yalda Night: the longest night of the year. It’s traditional to celebrate this night by staying awake ’til dawn. I doubt I’ll make it to midnight.
When I was told of a party in a private garden in Shiraz, visions of liberal Iranians sitting around sipping shiraz wine came to mind. This was based not only on wishful thinking, but also on information imparted by a friend from Shiraz, who told me that people here still make the wine secretly, despite it’s prohibition. No such luck. Every woman in the private, walled garden is still wearing her hijab. Wine would be unthinkable.
During the next twelve hours, another three people attempt to begin a conversation with me, each beginning with the words “what is your idea about..?” I’m asked for my idea about Persepolis (I don’t have one), Stonehenge (it’s a big clock), “our land” (presumably meaning Iran), Allah (tried to avoid answering that one) and Iranian people – to which I respond that here, like everywhere, there are some very nice people and some total bastards, but mostly people are somewhere in-between – a complex mixture of life-experiences, thoughts and emotions, neither ‘good’, nor ‘bad’. It’s not a popular answer.
As the night wears on, my temper shortens. There is one woman with a light shining out of her eyes, but barely a word of English. She struggles to ask which city I’m from. Her husband sneers at her and says something in Persian. “What did he say?” I ask the man standing next to me. “He told her this is not important.” I spend the next half an hour communicating with the woman in a series of gestures and smiles. We share a big hug when we finally leave. After almost 24 hours in that garden, I feel like I’m getting out of prison.
The End of the World
Ali is my new host. He lives alone in the centre of Shiraz. It’s very uncommon in Iran for an unmarried guy in his thirties to live alone. We have some friends in common and are both members of the hitchhiking group on a certain hospitality exchange website, so we have plenty to talk about. Conversation swings to the End of the World which, according to popular interpretations, has been predicted by the ancient Mayans to occur at some point on this very eve. Back in Europe, it’s mostly hippies, conspiracy theorists, and other eccentric types who are into this prophecy, however, in Iran it seems to have made it to the mainstream. Several times during my travels I’ve been asked what people in the West are saying about the End of the World. Not much, actually.
If it were really the end of the world, I’d quite like a drink. I mention this to Ali, who promptly grabs a bottle of vodka from the cupboard. This, I was not expecting. We drink into the wee hours, Ali becoming increasingly flirtatious. “Why you are not drunk?” he slurs. “I am,” I tell him, I’m just more used to it than you are. I hear him being sick in the toilet before stumbling off to bed.
Milad is a fun and quirky young couchsurfer who’s passionate about hitchhiking. I contact him through that same inevitable hospitality exchange website and we decide to hitchhike together to Persepolis, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, 70km from Shiraz.
It’s my second time hitching in Iran and I’m glad to have Milad with me. It’s obvious to the drivers that he’s a student and his slight clumsiness adds to his charm. Every car that stops agrees to take us for free. I see men’s eyes in front mirrors and avert them, letting Milad answer all the inevitable questions for me. “Inglistan”, he tells them, when they ask where I’m from. We decided to say we met at a hotel. Couchsurfing is more or less illegal in Iran.
Sunshine vanishes as we leave the city. Persepolis leers out of the fog, adding a striking atmosphere to Iran’s oldest pre-Islamic ruins.
The Grey Flat-Cap
I can’t remember which way the coffee shop is, so I ask a man working at a kebab stand close to the Arg of Karim Khan – the 18th century citadel in the city centre. He points me in the direction of Shohada Square. I know it’s not the way, so I thank him and walk on in the direction I think is right, leaving three men staring after me.
I’ve long since begun looking at the ground as I walk, so as not to meet the eyes I know are everywhere, pointing directly at me. Unfortunately, this means I’m completely unaware of the tall fat boy in the grey flat-cap, until he walks alongside me. “Coffee-shop?” he asks. The only way he can know I’m looking for a coffee shop is if he heard me back at the kebab stand ten minutes earlier. “Are you following me?” His forehead draws down into a frown. He doesn’t understand, but I do. I slow my pace. Flat-cap slows down with me and looks impatient. He wants me to hurry up. After a while, he points down a side-street “Coffee-shop!” he tells me. There’s no way it’s down there. I stop and call my first host, the guy who took me there before. He tells me it’s on Hafez Street – I’m on the right road. When I get off the phone, the guy is gone and I continue walking.
I hear footsteps quicken behind me as the fat boy rushes up to me, grabs a handful of my behind and dashes off down a side-street, leaving me yelling after him – “FUCKING BAAASTAAARD!” He must have been tailing me for over half an hour.
Safely inside Farough Cafe, I engross myself in my writing. On looking up, I notice two young women staring at me as though I’m made of sunlight and gold. One of them asks politely if they can speak with me. I can hardly say no. I tell them about the grey flat-cap and they nod sadly. “We have to get used to this”, one of them says. Apparently this kind of thing happens to them all the time.
The reaction of men is worse. “Male company will reduce lots of hazards.” “Better to avoid crowded downtown streets.” They may as well say it’s my fault for being a woman, for being alone, blonde, not covering every bit of my hair – although I cover as much as the average Tehranian woman.
I feel that my time in Iran is coming to an end. I’m bored of the stares, the attention, the endless questions. I’m bored of being a tourist, of covering my hair and staring at the ground when I walk. I hate being a giraffe.
10-11th December, 2013, Kerman
I first met Sarah in Tbilisi, Georgia, while sharing a CS host. We knew we were going the same way, but she raced past me in Armenia and got to Iran a week before me. Somehow, she’s still here. I decide to go to Kerman to meet her and then race further South to meet David, another traveller friend.
Sarah is staying with two brothers, both called Mohammed. I join them after another long train journey, through the giant desert that it seems Iran is made of.
The Mohammeds, both in their mid-twenties, live with their parents in the city suburbs. They are polite, very friendly and speak good English. Their mother, who does not speak English, smiles at us often and lays out tea and snacks. It appears that she wears her hijab all day long, even at home with her sons. She prays many times in the corner of the room.
Sarah and I don’t need to wear our headscarves around Mohammed and Mohammed, but when their father comes home, we put them on. This is by far the most conservative family I’ve stayed with so far.
During my weeks in Iran, I have come to love coffee-shops immensely. They are places where people of different genders go to meet, where people discuss politics openly and sip Western coffee. Most importantly, people tend not to stare at me in coffee-shops.
After a day traipsing the old city centre with Sarah, we beg the Mohammeds to take us to a coffee-shop. The one they take us to is a blend of modern and seedy, with rounded red chairs and funny-shaped tables.
One of the Mohammeds suggests playing spin the bottle. “In a coffee-shop? In Iran?!” Me and Sarah gape in disbelief. It seems though, the two Mohammeds are a little confused about how the game is played. What they really mean is truth or dare, played by spinning a bottle. “Oh no, no kissing!” one of the Mohammeds blushes when we explain the Western rules.
The bottle lands on Sarah. Mohammed looks at the ceiling. “Hmm, I can’t think what to ask…” This is such a ridiculous display of politeness that I can’t help laughing. As though these boys, who admittedly have probably led a rather sheltered life, are so naive that they can’t think what to ask the two European girls they just suggested playing truth or dare with.
“OK… um… when did you first… um… when-did-you-first-have-sex?”
Sarah laughs. “I was fifteen”, she says.
“Oh, OK.” The guys nod as though for them, that’s perfectly normal.
The bottle lands on Mohammed. “Oh, but I already know everything about my brother!”
“Come on,” I encourage him, “there must be something you want to know.”
“How many times did you make out with your ex-girlfriend?”
“You know, ‘make out’ means kissing?” I tell Mohammed, thinking he made a mistake.
“Yeah,” he nods, all innocence. He asks his brother again.
“We did it lots of times. We did it over there” – Mohammed indicates two chairs in the corner of the room. We’re upstairs in the coffee-shop and since the couple on the next table left, nobody else came in. I imagine their excitement at doing something so naughty and smile.
“So, when did you first have sex?” Julia asks the same Mohammed who questioned her.
“Well, actually I must admit that I didn’t do it yet…”
“Oh, OK.” We nod, as though for us, that’s perfectly normal.
Some weeks later, Sarah sends me an excited text message. She met the Mohammeds again in the North of the country, and this time she managed to kiss one of them.
Mashad, 1st-10th December, 2012
When I realised I’d be having a birthday in Iran, I began thinking about where I might celebrate it. I originally opted for the now ruined city of Bam, simply because I read a story about it once that quite enchanted me and spending a birthday in a desert city seemed like something only dreams are made of. However, my life being what it is: a tumbling of synchronicity with little space for planning, I found myself turning thirty-two in Mashad, Iran’s second biggest city and one of it’s most devout.
On the train to Mashad, I’m asked by the girls sitting across from me if I’m Muslim. I’m originally puzzled by this question as it’s not one I’ve been asked often, but later come to realise that the sole reason any foreigner would usually go to Mashad is to visit Imam Reza’s shrine, a huge elaborate gated construction attracting thousands of holy pilgrimagers each year. I, however, am not at all intent on visiting this world-famous shrine, but on meeting an Iranian anarchist I’ve been emailing for the past three years through the Couchsurfing website.
The train ride to Mashad is a long, arid track through an endless desert. The sun settles down to sleep on the dry earth. I write pages and pages, filling my notebook with synonyms for heat, sand, earth and sunsets.
Another CS contact comes to meet me from the train station, along with his couchsurfing guest Michel. Michel is a musician, originally from Spain. He spent the previous few years living in Syria and has come to Iran in search of an Afghan rubab teacher. Mashad is close to the Afghan border and it’s here that the majority of refugees first arrive. Michel and I, being the only foreigners in town, bond quickly and spend most of our time together, particularly while our Iranian friends are busy with work and university.
There are certain stereotypes associated with the city of Mashad: devout, pious, conservative, traditional. As though in direct opposition to this, my new Iranian friends are highly progressive by anyone’s standards: critically minded about not only the power of their own government, but power in general; environmentally conscious; sensitive to gender issues and hyper-aware of their own constrained place within their culture. I meet people practising open polyamorous relationships. I meet a vegan man who’s living in nature, teaching himself about Permaculture and digging his own compost toilet. I meet a university student who’s setting up the first independent student-controlled newspaper (depending on your definition see the bottom of this post for update) since the Islamic Revolution. I meet strong, independent feminist women who are assertive about their sexuality. I find myself making bonds quickly and feel like I somehow ‘fit in’ to the cultural bubble they’ve created inside a spacious shared flat in the centre of the city.
On the streets outside, it’s a different matter. I am apparently an object of intense interest and curiosity. Heads turn, eyes follow. To make matters worse, Mashad seems even more polluted than Tehran and I can barely breathe.
Without the usual access to alcohol enjoyed by young people around the world, I’m finding Iranians to be particularly creative in organising social activities. There are theatre recital evenings; night-time football matches; discussion evenings and mountain treks. And of course, despite it’s prohibition, there’s alcohol.
As the date of my birthday draws closer, it becomes clear the only place to spend it is here in Mashad with my friends. I’m notorious for having terrible birthdays and all I want is good company and preferably something to drink. This arrives, in abundance. It’s not so hard to get booze in Iran if know the right people. Fortunately, we do. A huge four litre bottle of aragh is procured: Iranian homebrew. My birthday is singing, dancing and merriment, with plenty of food and good company. It’s my best birthday in years.
*UPDATE I have been informed of this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iranian_Students_News_Agency but whether it qualifies as “independent” or not depends on your criteria.