There’s Blood in the Fountain

Tabriz, 22-24th November, 2012

Blood in the Fountain


There ‘s probably no worse time to enter Iran than the day before Ashura. The country’s devout masses are out every night, literally whipping themselves up into a frenzy with chains and lashes; all of the shops are closed and there’s blood in the fountain in the centre of Tabriz.

It’s not real blood, of course, but Milad pretends it is as he fills his plastic cup with some and pretends to drink it – “Aren’t I sacrilegious?” he giggles. The cup is recently emptied of tea, one of many food and drink give-aways around the city. This is definitely the best thing about Ashura.

Having never travelled in a Shi’a country before, I knew little of Ashura. My host’s mother, a devout Muslim, asked if I’d heard of the terrible tragedy? Imam Husayn has been murdered! It was a while before I realise this happened 1,400 years ago, leading me to reflect on the differences between Christmas in England and these ritualistic self-flaggelation marches through the major cities of Iran. Interesting cultural differences, to say the least.

A man and woman on a motorbike stop in front of us, grinning. “Salaam!” they say, handing us some packages. We thank them and they speed off. I pass mine to Tim first to check if it’s meat. It’s not, it’s potato wraps! We devour them as we’re walking.

I arrived in Iran yesterday on foot from Armenia, alone, unprepared and looking a little like a bundle of rags with a backpack. I was pleased to hear a girl had offered to host me, hoping for clothing advice and a shopping trip, but when I saw the prices of coats in the bazaar, I decided I had to wait. She was sadly far too shy to give me any advice, but would later give me a new-looking ‘old’ coat and a beige long-sleeved top, setting off a trend of clothes-swapping that would continue throughout my time in Iran.

Other than coats, though, Iran is cheap for foreigners. $1 = 12,253 rials, according to the internet on the day I entered Iran. Imagine my delight then, when I was offered 28,000 rials for a dollar at the exchange office at the border. To confuse things further, nobody thinks in Rials anyway – all of the prices are shown in Tomans, which are around 10 Rials. $1 = roughly 3,000 Tomans, or 30,000 Rials – confused? I am.

“Hm, ok, let’s just…” Milad swings to the left abruptly and rounds a corner, then turns back on himself. We come to the edge of the corner as two girls reach the other edge. Awkward “hello”s are exchanged around the edge of the street corner and one of the girls hands Milad a dish. He thanks her and the girls are gone in the flutter of an eyelash. “That was your girlfriend?” I raise an eyebrow. “Actually, we’ve never met before – only on Facebook. It’s too dangerous. If the police see an unmarried man and woman on the street together, they can arrest you.”

It’s not the first and certainly won’t be the last time I’ve heard such things, though many people will later tell me this is exaggerated. Milad is young, though. The risk is higher for younger couples, since it’s more obvious you’re not married the younger you are.

Milad, Tim and I buy plastic spoons and eat our soup in a park, away from people’s stares. It’s simply not done, apparently, to eat food on the streets of Iran. As we’re finishing, I remember something – “Surprise!” I pull out the bar of 95% dark chocolate I’ve been carrying since Armenia. Milad is almost ecstatic, claiming even this amount of cacao is tough to get hold of here.

Dazed and high on cacao, we saunter down the streets. Milad gets a phone-call from some distant aunt. “Now we must go to another part of the city”, he says when he gets off the phone, “my aunt says they are putting out tables. There will be free food there soon.”

My own phone is still out of order, awaiting activation. To buy a sim card in Iran, you have to give your fingerprints and address. I remember my sim card purchasing experience well – the wrinkly man scowling at me from behind his glasses…

“Hotel?” he asks again. My host fiddles with her bag. The thing is, I’m not staying in a hotel, I’m couchsurfing – which is basically illegal in Iran. I whip out the fake guest-house address I copied from the internet, in case of awkward questions on the border…

Actually, they hardly asked me anything on the border, only – “Do you have friends in Iran?” “Not yet!” I replied, and the guards stern face cracked into a grin. Correct answer, I noted to myself for future reference.

I say my goodbyes to Milad and Tim at the bus station, wishing the latter the best of luck on his cycle-tour through the country. I only wish we could hitch-hike together. I board the bus to Tehran, hoping my sim card will activate soon and flood me with invitations from hosts in Tehran, preferably before I arrive…

DSC_1439 Mosque in Tabriz DSC_1446


41 thoughts on “There’s Blood in the Fountain

  1. i ate lots on the streets in the cities because there’s street stalls: those stinky beans, for example. and iranians like to picnic…we were taken to the mountains in Tehran for a picnic, but our hosts parked on the side of the main road and we didn’t walk into the nature: we just ate by the car!

  2. neat. people (YOU’re a “people”) meetin’, talkin’ with people, in (of all places) iran. i really appreciate hearing about what should be, could be, and in cases like you’ve described, IS the commonality of humanity, hopefully everywhere.

  3. I’m not the most adventurous spirit in the world, but I love reading about other people’s adventures and living vicariously through them – if only for a few paragraphs :) I wish you all the best on your travels. I hope your next couch is a comfy one!

  4. I never got to travel like this, but I travel a lot. The couch surfing has opened so many interesting options, and the act of free falling is always an opportunity to really experience new cultures and places (love when I can do that!). Safe travels!

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  6. “in general I was mostly annoyed by the perpetual curiosity and overdosing on hospitality (after the first few weeks)” – i don’t know about you, but at times it felt like an interrogation for me and very many akward moments ensued. May be its the way we perceive the tone of voice people use, but there were moments i was like something in a museum on display, like a talking doll, people feeling my skin, my hair, and many of the ‘why as a solo female traveller’ questions

    I took it in with a grin (most of it)

  7. ” Imam Husayn has been murdered! ” … uuumm.. not technically correct!!

    He was Martyred … there’s a big difference. :)

    I do hope that you did read and do your own research on Kerbala, Ashura and Imam Hussain himself.


  8. Great trip and post. I’d love to go to Iran and other places in the Mid-East. I think a lot of the interest and curiosity has to do with the fact you are female and wandering. My girlfriend and I in eastern Turkey would occasionally separate and I would wander taking pictures relatively incognito, while she would return with funny and sometimes worry-scary stories. Have a great time, and hope you get to accepting their reactions to you so you can have fun with them.

  9. Great article! Ive been to Iran, but never on Ashura. Really want to experience it, must be something. I remember how my newly-made Lebanese friends went ooooon for hours talking about the suffering of shiite saints in the time long gone – we were sharing a very long train ride from Syria to Iran, so there was time enough to honor them by retelling all their stories. But I have to say that I felt very comfortable traveling throughout Iran on my own as well – lot less hassle than in some of the Arab countries.

  10. Pingback: Meeting Freedom in Tehran | A Girl and Her Thumb

  11. Pingback: A Girl and her thumb | | You’ll Save With Sherwell! | Dry-Land Cruises

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