When the World Didn’t End

20th-24th December, 2012, Shiraz and Persepolis

Persepolis in the fog

Persepolis in the fog

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.

Horse relief

Stone relief at Persepolis from up to 550BC

Persian and Median soldiers in relief on a wall

Persian and Median soldiers in relief on a wall

View of Persepolis

View of Persepolis

Bas-relief in Persepolis—a symbol Zoroastrian Nowruz—in day of a spring equinox power of eternally fighting bull (personifying the moon), and a lion (personifying the Sun, the bulls crescent horn resembling the moon,the lions mane, representing the sun.

This relief depicts the Zoroastrian Nowruz or Spring Equinox. The bull and lion represent the eternal battle between the moon and sun, respectively.

The Grey Flat-Cap

The Arg of Karim Khan

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 thoughts on “When the World Didn’t End

  1. really lovely writing, jo. your cynicism made me smile!
    my arse got grabbed twice in iran too, unfortunately. (having said that, it’s probably been grabbed more in Margate, where i am from!)
    lots of love to you, and keep writing: you’re almost half a year behind :D
    p.s. my end of the world was equally as tedious!

  2. I often wonder if the Iranian attitude toward women is rooted in culture or religion. Did you ever raise that point with the younger Iranian men you’ve come across or befriended? Do you get the feeling their attitude will be different from the previous generation’s?

    • To me it seems pretty clear that if you divide any culture cleanly into two genders, separate them from one another and criminalize interactions on any level other than married partners or family members, the same thing will happen to that culture. In my impressions, it’s getting worse, because the current generation is more oppressed than ever. Iran was not like this before the Islamic Revolution in 1979. That said, I have many male Iranian friends and of course the oppression affects different people in different ways. I feel that there is such a strong mystique surrounding women and sex that a lot of men are barely able to control themselves. Others, of course, are different. Also, just because it’s illegal for young unmarried couples to have sex, doesn’t mean none of them are having sex – so availability of sex also differs between people. I would like to add that I am friends with male Iranian feminists and I’m also having a relationship with one of them, so I definitely wouldn’t judge a whole culture on the actions of a percentage of the people in it :)

  3. Good point! When I recently returned to Burma (my birthplace) for a visit, I began to notice the things I used to miss (like the segragated areas in some pagodas where only men are allowed). When I discussed that with my childhood friends, they got defensive. They told me it was “tradition.” I hope younger people learn to question and challenge such traditions.

  4. Once a car followed me as i walked to my host’s house in Tehran. I knew because when i stopped, he stopped, i walked he continued driving, so what did i do, i grabbed a stone and made to throw it at his car- i dont think i ever saw someone drive away that fast!
    totally relate to your being a giraffe, being dark skinned and a woman, i felt like a zebra in IRAN, and when the time came could not wait to leave!

    I enjoy your writing Jo, please keep the stories coming, lovely following your journey :D

  5. Wow! What happened to all that excitement and mystery that surrounded you when you talked of going to Iran, of visiting women’s groups, and finding out… hm, finding out what? That you couldn’t wait to leave the place! Saddens me, and as I haven’t gone travelling, proper travelling for ages now, makes me feel like skipping Iran, when I start up again. Oh, sorry to say sporadically reading the blog, could you direct me to a post (if you’ve written one) where you do the things you used to talk to me about wanting to do in Iran. If not no worries. Big hug, love Px

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