Don’t Believe the Truth

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It’s been almost a year since I’ve written anything on this blog, and I’ve been missing it very much (hence the rather long post). Although I still have lots to say about my experiences and memories of the country, writing on a blog entitled Saudi in Iran just didn’t seem so sincere while not being in Iran. I’ve also been preoccupied with my dissertation – which is now thankfully done and, with the help of my faculty at the University of Tehran, I am now an MA graduate in Iranian Studies having completed the rest of my course remotely. My thesis itself was on the topic of how contemporary Iranians view their Arab neighbours; writing about this topic, which drew from some of my personal anecdotes and experiences, is what got me thinking deeply about my erstwhile blog, my time in Iran, and how this all started in the first place.

As mentioned in my second post, one of the most prominent questions I (as well as fellow foreigners) was asked in Iran is “what made you come here?” Although in this day and age people choose to travel and study all over the world for various reasons, I believe this question is of particular interest to many Iranians partly due to the political isolation the country has undergone in the past decades, along with the associated demonization of the country in external media coverage and the decline in foreign tourism. The latter trend is reversing dramatically, with a significant spike in foreign tourists as well as students going to Iran following the nuclear agreement. For the most part, in my experience Iranians feel pleased and proud that foreigners have chosen their country, culture and language to explore and study. In my case, the questions regarding my reasons for choosing Iran were always coloured with a particular acuteness, given the sour and ever-worsening state of relations between our governments.

This, to me, was exactly the problem – and one of the reasons that inspired me to move to Iran in the first place. The only narrative or shared space that has existed between the two peoples recently is that of the political sphere and, for most people, media coverage about the latest confrontation, escalation, or war of words. Other than the minority in both countries that travel or live abroad and are open to socializing and cultivating friendships with the ‘other side’, countless Saudis and Iranians (and many more across the region) base their mutual perceptions on what goes on between their governments. At a time when widely diverse peoples, ideas and cultures are being brought closer through modern communications and globalisation, the tenacity of politically-driven assumptions is still an obstruction to genuine human interaction in the Middle East. I remember clearly the final trigger prompting my decision to move to Iran for further studies a couple of years ago. One of my closest friends, of Iranian origin himself, was considering organising a group trip to Iran. He proclaimed that as much as he wanted me to see his country, he was distraught at the prospect of his people mistreating or disrespecting me because of my Saudi Arabian origin, and therefore wasn’t sure if it was a good idea.

This didn’t sit well with me at all. Not that my friend’s concerns about our countries’ long-running disputes and their effect on popular attitudes was news to me; however, I couldn’t reconcile my hitherto experience with Iranians and all I had learned about the culture through my friends and studies with the idea that I would be simplistically treated as persona non grata by an entire population due to prevailing politics. So, after finding a worthwhile course of study and resigning from my position at the LSE Middle East Centre (a sad affair but made easier by my colleagues’ wonderful support for my next step), I took what little Farsi I knew, along with my minimal knowledge but deep curiosity about the country, and headed to Iran. What I found when I got there, and overall during my year and a half in Tehran and beyond, was far from what my friend anxiously predicted.

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I was welcomed gracefully and met with hospitality regardless of contemporary events in the geopolitical realm, indeed many times with profound and well-natured interest in Saudi Arabia. Yes, many people asked me about politics and current developments, sometimes with a hint of indignation – especially after the hajj stampede in Mina. Nonetheless, the space for civilised interaction and human empathy – distinct from politics – was never shut down because of blind prejudice towards me, except for perhaps one instance (among thousands) that I’ve previously mentioned. This is aside from the abundance of encouragement and support I received from Iranians and fellow Arabs for the dialogue opened up by this blog, and the attempt to dispel mutual stereotypes by travelling to Iran. In my view, this demonstrates the willingness and readiness among many who refuse to let age-old or even present-day disputes poison their outlooks and obfuscate communication with fellow human beings. Yes, there are those who would prefer to call Arabs lizard-eaters and denigrate their culture rather than engage in conversation with them. There are also those in the Arab world who would rather spew atrocious slurs against Iranians or others than befriend them. Just as there are racists in every corner of the world who blindly stick to their own narrow definitions instead of widening their horizons and basing their opinions on real interactions. There’s no need to deny that racism, prejudice and increasingly politics-fuelled sectarianism exist in strong forms across the region; but neither is that a sufficient reason to disregard the multitude of moderate, open-minded and empathetic people that exist on all sides, or the possibility for common ground.

When the Saudi embassy in Tehran was ransacked after the execution of the Shi’a cleric Nimr al-Nimr in January of this year, followed by Saudi Arabia cutting diplomatic ties and banning its citizens from travelling to Iran, I stayed up for nights on end watching the news and – not to be overly dramatic – crying. This wasn’t just because I knew I would have to leave behind my friends, studies and the life I had built for myself in Iran. But also because I knew it would be just another nail in the coffin of mutual understanding, pushing the possibility for a positive change in perceptions even further back while strengthening the argument of those that insist on maintaining fences between us and clinging on to archaic stereotypes. It is so easy to get caught up in a flurry of nationalism, of ‘us versus them’ narratives, when we feel that our particular group is being threatened, and this is what has been playing out all over the world ever since the idea of distinct ethnicities came into being.

This is all the more potent when religion is added to the mix; it’s very sad to see overt verbal attacks and excommunication between the Islamic sects in the 21st century, especially when the religion itself preaches respect for and acceptance of others as long as they do not mean you harm – even if they belong to different religions, practices, cultures, etc. The ravaging religious wars of Europe and countless other past conflicts that were ostensibly fuelled by a sense of clashing identities may not be enough of a historical lesson to avoid similar catastrophes today. Nonetheless, as strong as some of these identity markers seem to be for many people, I think there is still a case to be made for defining ourselves first in terms of our common humanity, and making the effort to look beyond supposed justifications for alienating or belittling others. Because so much of the time, these prejudices or misgivings are ‘learned hatreds’ – just a function of our social environment – and they are far from innate. The true sign of being cultured is recognizing that others might value their own culture or background just as much as you do yours, and failure to respect that ultimately causes more long-term harm to yourself than to others.

The politics between our countries have become even more toxic since my friend first spoke those words. But thankfully since then, I have learned and hopefully shown some of my readers that this is not the whole story. I will always treasure all the love, support and kindness I received from my friends, university faculty, neighbours and random strangers not just as good memories, but also as a reminder that behind every headline, every myth of eternal animosity, there are millions of people who want nothing to do with such abstract labels and are ready to show compassion and respect to anyone who gives them equal consideration. Many seem to be calling to arms these days in a show of patriotism, and those calls grow louder and more widespread with each new geopolitical clash. What is really needed however is more awareness that despite our differences, there are humans on the other side who are deserving of our respect and understanding, and a sense of empathy can exist regardless of national disputes. In Orientalism, Edward Said tells us that it is a common human failing to prefer the superficial authority of what we read over “direct encounters with the human”. I believe this rings true now more than ever, not just in the Middle East but globally. Instead of relying on popular narratives and politics as reasons to write off communication and close down spaces for shared solidarity, we should take them as reasons to push harder to build those spaces and discover new sides to the timeworn story.

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IMG_4340 It seems like this may be my last blog as a Saudi in Iran, or to be precise, a Saudi who was in Iran. This fact brings with it tremendous sadness, but also reassurance that the efforts I had in mind when starting this blog and going to Iran in general are now more important than ever.

As political events take on a life of their own, as usual it is the average people who bear the brunt, and the relations or potential for constructive relations between them as well as between future generations that are poisoned. In this region it is common practice for most to sit back and, while perhaps feeling uneasy about developments, watch them all unfold. I truly believe however that we have failed as a people when we fail to speak out against intolerance and harmfully divisive narratives against each other, or indeed when a simple call for moderation can grant you the label of a traitor.

Many of those who insist that Islam is a religion of peace and acceptance see no contradiction whatsoever in using violent and bigoted language against supposedly ‘opposing’ sects, nationalities and peoples – this is a critical problem that cannot be underestimated. The principles of moderation, understanding, forgiveness and tolerance, which are abundantly provided for in local cultures in the region as well as in its dominant religions, are progressively being eschewed in the face of rising animosities between its inhabitants, which will in the end take us nowhere but down.

I’ve repeatedly mentioned on this blog that during my time in Iran, I did not encounter any racial or other prejudices as a result of my being a Saudi Arabian, and instead was met with overwhelming kindness and warmth. I should add one caveat here: on one of my last departures from Iran, someone at the airport questioned me on what I was doing in the country after learning of my nationality. I proceeded to tell him that I was a student of Iranian Studies and language, at which he seemed perplexed, commenting that relations between our nations are sour. In line with my usual responses to such comments (which are typically put forward out of curiosity towards my being in Iran more than anything else), I said that I don’t believe the tensions or animosities have anything to do with an innate enmity between the two peoples, but rather arises out of specific circumstances and commonly-held narratives – both in history and the present day. He disagreed with this fact, and said that he himself held an inherent dislike towards Arabs. I narrate this now not to emphasise or inflate this unfortunate point of view, but in the name of full disclosure and indeed to stress that in the course of meeting and interacting with hundreds of Iranians over my year there, I only once came across such chauvinistic views.

On the other hand, among the countless messages of support and positive feedback that I received after my blog was publicised – mainly originating from residents of the region itself – I received only one negative one from a young Egyptian man who could not understand why I would choose to live in the ‘land of infidels’. Again, this can be contrasted with a young Egyptian lady in my class at the University of Tehran who possesses a deep and profound interest for Iranian culture and language, and to be sure many other Egyptians and Arabs in general who do not hold such parochial views. The point here is that extremism and intolerance no doubt exist, and sadly they are here to stay. What must be focused on instead are the positive engagements and trends that also exist and have the potential to slowly but surely ameliorate some of the dangerous views and rhetoric circulating around the region. Compared with the countless wonderful Iranians I met, who do not share and in fact are ashamed of such views, the words of the airport fellow were not even a drop in the water. My decision to live and pursue studies in Tehran was partly driven by my endeavour to discover, in the face of embittered regional politics and popular portrayals of ‘intrinsic hatreds’, what kind of reception I would find as a Saudi Arabian in Iran. Not only was this reception warm and wholehearted, but I have also found myself making some of my best memories in the country, as well as some of my most cherished friends. I can only hope that the reverse experience would be the same.

Regardless of the dominant or more forceful narrative, more must be done to show the other side – the abundance of people in the region whose only desire in these troubling times is to live in peace and goodwill with each other. Otherwise, all we are doing is allowing the cycle of prejudice to begin all over again, subjecting generation after generation to blind hatred, until the idea of tolerance or coexistence is nothing more than a distant memory. We are seven billion people on this planet represented by roughly 200 nations. It is conceptually impossible to fathom that what goes on at the highest levels of statecraft must perennially affect and jeopardise our potential ties with each other. There are many who brand this as a lost cause, stating that things will never change. Yes, many of the deeply entrenched and negative attitudes are unlikely to be positively modified. Nonetheless, it is vital for average people to do their part in halting the stubborn advance of such bigotry and prejudice, which is only being exacerbated along with political developments on the ground. Even if the regional media and common parlance are not providing hopeful impressions, this is not reason enough to give up on the overarching ideal to promote better, more peaceful relations between us. Good will begets good will, and it’s becoming evermore imperative to emphasise the human side to the prevailing issues and increase our exchanges with each other. It is harder to blindly hate someone who you can relate to, someone whose story you know.

On a lighter note, the Mexican standoff of generosity and gift-exchanging that was running between my mother and my neighbour (who had kindly given herself the task of becoming my proxy mother and took care of me immensely) will finally come to an end. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank my unsung heroes of the blogosphere, my family and friends, who tirelessly helped me with edits and posts from afar when my internet connection just couldn’t handle it. Lama, who gave me the push I needed to start this blog in the first place; and Jumana, who did the same when moving to Iran was still a half-formed dream I was daring myself with. The experiences and memories I take with me from Iran are unparalleled in their beauty and will always stay with me. Thank you all for reading.

House of Strength

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A couple of weeks ago, I managed to negotiate myself into a zoorkhaneh. The term literally means ‘House of Strength’, and refers to an ancient Persian institution where athletes practice rigorous regiment training in a domed structure, a sort of traditional gymnasium (the zoorkhaneh). As a system of athletics originally intended to train warriors, it dates back to the Parthian era and is currently recognised by UNESCO as one of the world’s longest-running forms of such training. Although there were efforts to curb the sport, first during the modernisation campaigns of the Pahlavi era due to it being a ‘relic of the past’, and then shortly after the Islamic revolution due to its pre-Islamic origins, it is currently promoted as varzesh-e bastani (ancient sport) and is a symbol of Iranian culture and pride for many. In their contemporary form, zoorkhaneh rituals blend elements of pre-Islamic Persian culture (including Zoroastrianism and Mithraism) with the spirituality evident in Shi’a Islam and Sufism. While difficult to do it justice in words, the sport is ritualistic in essence and consists of a series of exercises combining martial arts, physical aptitude and special skills which are practiced against the backdrop of sacred poetry chanted by a musician, with drums and bells being sounded to mark the beginning of the different sections.

It had been a goal of mine to visit a zoorkhaneh ever since I’d heard about the ancient practice during my first couple of months in Iran. I wasn’t quite sure how to go about it – while in the past one could expect an audience to be watching the athletes’ exercises, this is no longer the norm; moreover, women aren’t exactly a prominent feature in the zoorkhaneh, as the sport is traditionally practiced by men. The idea of visiting one got pushed to the back of my mind over the months as it seemed less and less of a possibility, to be occasionally brought up between myself and other interested friends but never truly acted upon. Most recently, we decided to try the most obvious method – shamefully late for people of the internet generation – a simple online search. This hadn’t occurred to us before; perhaps this had something to do with the pre-historic roots and mysticism surrounding the sport. In any case, after finding a list of Tehran-based venues, I called one that was very conveniently located in a hamlet adjacent to my neighbourhood. I got through to Agha (a term denoting ‘Mr.’) Sasani, and explained that we were a group of foreigners studying Iranian culture, history and the like, and would be extremely grateful for the opportunity to watch a session at the zoorkhaneh. Judging from his reaction, it seemed to be the first time Agha Sasani ever received such a request, but he was nonetheless extremely forthcoming and welcoming. He suggested a suitable evening for us to attend, and before I knew it I was sitting in an underground zoorkhaneh along with my Japanese friend Kenichi and my Iranian-American friend Ramin, ready to finally see what it was all about.

Without a doubt, the athletics on display for the next hour or so were unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. About ten men of varying ages were in the main octagonal pit, with several more practising in the surrounding areas of the gymnasium. Lining the walls were trophies as well as photos of past members and champions of the zoorkhaneh, some seemingly dating back numerous decades. In an elevated stand in the corner sat the musician-cum-reciter, along with his fellow drummer, who turned out to be the elder brother of one of the most talented athletes we were to see.

IMG_5941Now, for the crux of the matter. First we watched the swinging, with precision, of the ‘meel’ or ‘Indian club’ in sync with the drumbeats, perhaps one of the most well-known symbols of zoorkhaneh rituals. The weight of the specific meel chosen by the athletes can vary, but even the lightest ones are considerably heavy (as a post-session attempt at lifting one showed me), which accentuates the skill and strength required to wield and control them for prolonged periods of time. Following this, the athletes performed sequential acrobatics in unison, again to the pace of the accompanying acoustics. The intense focus of the men was palpable with every movement, as was the physical discipline and dexterity necessary for the gymnastics being practiced. This was no more apparent than in the case of the eldest athlete present, whom I was later informed was 80 years of age. Observing his agility and vigour during the practices, this was quite hard for my friends and I to believe. Another feature involved the athletes spinning around the pit in turn, in a practice somewhat similar to Sufi whirling but – from what I could see – with a wider sphere of movement and more emphasis on physical capacity rather than the quest to reach a state of trance. That being said, during this and all of the other activities we watched, one could discern a clear link between the physical and the spiritual in both the participants’ actions as well as the general mood. Moreover, an atmosphere of camaraderie and mutual encouragement prevailed. For example, one of the customs I found particularly intriguing was during the abovementioned individual spinning exercises, when the remaining athletes would form a circle around the pit; whenever the spinning athlete would approach one of the sides or edges of the pit, the others would raise their arms as a gesture of protection and support. While this may well be done out of tradition rather than necessity for most of the athletes, the beauty lies in the meaning of the gesture itself. Incidentally, the act seemed to be performed with more attentiveness when one of the athletes brought his two young sons into the pit (who were previously practising enthusiastically in the outer area) to practice spinning; in both cases there were a couple of close falls, during which the athletes would ring closer to ensure the safety of the boys, while later offering words of advice for the development of the skill.

 

All the while duIMG_5917ring the sessions, the musician would sing/chant in a calming tone in harmony with the exercises; in the ancient practice, this singing is said to have served as a form of oral education intended to imbue social knowledge, moral codes and religious teachings to the warriors in training. In between the sessions, he would recite valuable idioms and anecdotes, broaching topics such as human dignity, togetherness and respect for all. From what I understood, one such saying expressed the fact that we humans are all the same in essence and will eventually all end up in the same place, and we must therefore show the utmost empathy and understanding in our dealings with each other; this is in line with the whole philosophy and ethics surrounding the zoorkhaneh, which is comparable to Sufism in its emphasis on purity of the heart and excellence of the mind. My friends and I also found ourselves to be the subject of the narrations at one point, as the musician drew attention to the “foreign guests” in the audience. He proceeded to graciously welcome us while praising our inclination to observe this aspect of Iranian culture. As the athletes looked on with interest, he continued to wish us continuous health and safety, and hoped that we experience and witness nothing but good in Iran. He then ended this commentary by asking if their honoured sister (yours truly) would kindly translate his words to my two friends. Since I had organised the logistics, Agha Sasani had assumed I was the only Farsi-speaker among our group, which gave us a bit of a chuckle considering that Ramin is natively fluent. From my previous knowledge as well as some of the reactions I gauged when I first entered, it was exceedingly apparent that having a woman in the zoorkhaneh was an extreme rarity. This is not to say that there was any noticeable objection or discomfort; on the contrary, similar to the musician, the athletes seemed to appreciate our interest in the practice, regardless of gender. There was a tremendously positive, light-hearted and congenial vibe to the place in general, for example when the athletes would praise each other’s execution of a particular exercise. From what I could garner from my impressions, it seemed that these men truly strive to live by the philosophy underpinning the zoorkhaneh. As the final session had come to an end, one of the athletes who it turned out was an employee at the Japanese embassy in Tehran came over to speak to Kenichi in Japanese; as I looked on, I saw another athlete putting on his robes, showing that he was a member of the clerical class (a rouhani). I caught myself somewhat surprised that this religious man was a member of the zoorkhaneh, before realising that this was a completely baseless assumption, especially considering the musician’s previous orations regarding our common ground; there’s no reason why this type of practice wouldn’t be appealing or beneficial to people from all walks of life.

Today, there are reportedly still about 500 zoorkhanehs in Iran. Traditionally, rather than relying on payment from the athletes, the zoorkhaneh sustained itself through public donations in return for community services and protection. One such example is a ceremony in which athletes would hold Iranian wrestling, or koshti, matches and other displays of strength to raise funds for the needy, including those faced with unexpected, adverse circumstances. Such ceremonies were named gol rizan, or ‘casting of flowers’: the money would be gathered on a wide piece of cloth, however the term ‘flowers’ was used instead of money out of respect and consideration for the sensitivities of those receiving it. While such customs may no longer be in widespread practice, the zoorkhanehs maintain strong ties with their local community, especially in more remote areas of the country. In a subsequent conversation with Agha Sasani, he explained that this particular zoorkhaneh was established as a cooperative by a number of locals who together raised the funds to open it. After setting up a board, he was elected as the administrator to be responsible for the zoorkhaneh’s management and maintenance. Climbing the stairs up to the main door to exit while contemplating the possibility of becoming a female zoorkhaneh champion, I felt quite a distinctive contrast, having just watched one of the world’s oldest and most spiritual sports to then step back out to the spectacle of ‘modern civilisation’. The irony is in the fact that if the ideals and philosophies espoused by ancient institutions such as the zoorkhaneh and other comparable traditions were recognised and practiced more widely, I believe humanity would on the whole find itself to be far more civilised at this point in time.

Strangers on a Train

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Whenever I’m feeling particularly disheartened about the political situation in the Middle East, or read commentary and views that are frankly worrying for the state of humanity, there are certain people, places and memories I like to reflect on that put me back on a positive track. For me, encountering the kindness and moderation of hitherto strangers in Iran – and likewise throughout the Middle East – while it may be argued as having no effect or consequence on the turmoil transpiring on a wider scale, is still a welcome reminder that the current state of affairs is far from the desired one for what is certainly the majority of the region’s inhabitants. One such memory is from my recent journey back from Yazd in central Iran.

As my friend Alice and I rushed into the train station – typically late – we began flat out sprinting to catch our train back to Tehran which was departing in a couple of minutes. By sheer luck, we made it onto the train seconds before it left the station and, gasping for breath, stumbled into our compartment. Confronted with four pairs of curious eyes staring back at us, Alice and I quickly realised that there would be six of us travelling in the modestly-sized compartment, contrary to our expectations. As we were on a 9-hour long sleeper train, I wasn’t quite sure how it would go – or even where we would all fit come bedtime. Nonetheless, before we even started picking up speed, my slight apprehension began to dissipate.

Our fellow travellers consisted of a young student, a middle-aged, conservative woman (if one is to judge based on rudimentary factors such as clothing, which was incidentally a chador), and two ladies from Yazd. After kindly helping us find the most convenient place for our luggage, our new companions sat back down and we all began offering and exchanging snacks with each other. I settled down into my book, and as I felt my eyes begin to droop shortly after, I looked around and realised that the transition to sleep mode was a mutual desire. I followed the others’ lead as they began opening up the fold-out beds layered on the two sides of the compartment. Being the smallest two, we all communally agreed that Alice and I would take the top two beds; as the hinges of the steel ladder that led to my cot began to shift during my ascent (I knew I had eaten too many snacks), the ladies all speedily rushed towards me to stabilise it, and proceeded to cheerfully hold it in place whenever we used it during the remainder of the journey. After we passed around the provided bags containing the blankets, pillows and so forth, one of the Yazdi ladies switched off the light and I swiftly fell asleep. In what seemed like no time, we were awoken to loud knocks and repeated calls from one of the crew-members who was pacing the train to inform the sleeping passengers that we would soon be arriving – quite harshly I thought, but then again I had just woken up and was admittedly cranky. Accordingly, still rubbing the sleep from our eyes, we helped each other pack up, put on our headscarves, chadors, etc., said our warm goodbyes, and went on our separate ways.

Others may find this exchange unremarkable. What I found heartening, however, was that a situation that might under other circumstances be at least a bit uncomfortable (a group of tired strangers in a small, confined space) was in fact in this case very congenial and even enjoyable. In this day and age it can sometimes be hard to relate even to those of the same background or social context, therefore – without meaning to exoticise it too much – it is quite comforting when something as simple as a train ride becomes an opportunity to show unconditional kindness to others. Although we didn’t speak that much, words weren’t necessary to perceive the warmth and friendliness of these women, which went far beyond the Iranian custom of being welcoming and hospitable to foreigners.

 

IMG_5335Another mental ‘happy place’ of mine is the thought of my next-door neighbours, whom I have discussed in previous posts and whose compassion and attention similarly go far deeper than the surface of ta’arof (the term generally used to describe traditional Iranian hospitality and etiquette). The lady of the house, Shohreh, cares for me as she would her own daughter, and indeed regularly expresses that she considers me as such. Furthermore, there are those at my university – for instance some of the administrative staff and members of the faculty – who regularly check on me to ensure I’m not experiencing any problems or difficulties here. As I’ve mentioned earlier, I have yet to witness any form of bigotry as a result of my nationality. However, being the only Saudi Arabian in my programme, I believe their concern and consideration stems from wanting to make sure that I am comfortable here. On a related note, before I left Iran for the summer holidays, a jovial member of the university cleaning staff who I’ve developed a rapport with asked if I could bring back two prayer rugs from Makkah – one for him and one for his wife – as he didn’t think he would ever get the chance to make the pilgrimage during his lifetime. Regardless of how many times I tell him it was my pleasure and was no bother at all, his gratitude is boundless.

My local gym is another one of these places that grounds and reminds me of my main purpose of being here. Although, like many other people, the gym has always been an ‘in and out’ sort of place for me, I’ve found myself making friends there, overcome with the geniality and sociability of other gym-goers as well as staff. There is no doubt that other gyms around Tehran offer a more clinical, impersonal ambiance, for instance in the more affluent areas; nevertheless, mine is without a doubt the most unique gym atmosphere I’ve experienced so far. My group class instructor – an animated woman with a distinct 80’s style in both clothing and music – has taken me totally under her wing. At one point, when she noticed I was coming down with a cold, she insisted that I purchase some shalgham to boil and eat in order to boost my immune system (a subsequent trip to the vegetable shop taught me that shalgham translates into turnip – a remedy which really did help). In that instance, the other ladies in the class started chiming in with their own suggestions; on other occasions, the conversation would revolve around what Iranian dishes would be the simplest for me to try cooking, and similar thoughtful as well as humorous topics.

 

IMG_5422Thinking back on my time here so far, I realise just how much I’ve deeply interacted with and become friends with those previously known as ‘strangers’ – more than in any other country I’ve lived in (only two, but still). There are some logical reasons for this. As previously mentioned, the boundaries between unacquainted people here are not as defined as they are in many other countries; this is especially true when you factor in the local fascination with foreigners. Moreover, I personally enjoy talking and engaging with new people from different walks of life – sometimes in the most random of ways – and being in constant student mode here, I welcome any and all opportunities to practice my Farsi. Whatever the causes, I’ve ended up with a broad support system, something of an extended family even, in a country where I arrived knowing no-one. Although it’s still months away, I already feel how much I will miss this wonderful network of meaningful bonds that resides somewhere between the ill-defined realms of acquaintances and close friends.

Going beyond strangers in Iran, something I must mention when considering sources of inspiration and reassurance is the extensive support I have received from countless people all over the world – and particularly the region – after France 24 published an article about my experiences in Iran. Being contacted by all these people who want nothing more than to offer words of solidarity and encouragement is invaluable to me, specifically when it is juxtaposed with a seemingly downward spiral of violence and intolerance on a larger scale in the Middle East. The recent events in Paris seem to depict a singular representation of our region to the rest of the world that imposes a sense of malice, despair and hopelessness. Undoubtedly, as this above-mentioned support has demonstrated, there is much more to it than that. While I started writing this piece before that dreadful tragedy, its occurrence only solidifies my belief that it is upon the moderates of this region to be more aware of each other, connect with each other and in general raise our voices louder than the white noise of destruction around us. May we all see peace within our lifetimes.

Garmeh

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So far, I have shamefully neglected writing in depth about any of my travels, which collectively form a big part of my life here. This post is intended to start rectifying this oversight, and in doing so it makes sense to go back to the beginning – my very first trip out of Tehran, which also happens to remain one of my favourites.

In November last year, two of my classmates had suggested going to a small village called Garmeh in Dasht-e Kavir, or the ‘Great Salt Desert’, just north of central Iran. Having yet to venture out of the capital, I jumped on the idea and we started planning for the upcoming long weekend. Our travel group consisted of my two classmates, their roommate in the dormitories and myself. Being four girls from Australia, Turkey, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, many of those we would come across in this and all subsequent travels together would look perplexed, asking how on earth we found each other. The sense of mystery etched on their faces would always disappear somewhat as soon as we responded that we just study together, nonetheless their happiness and excitement to meet us would remain.

After a lengthy bus ride and a couple of taxis, we had finally descended upon Garmeh. We were received by the very friendly owner of the charming guest-house we had booked a room in, who was responsible for almost single-handedly reviving his ancestral village through restoring its mud-brick buildings, opening his guest-house and hostel and providing vital infrastructure to the area and employment for locals. Maziar, a grand figure with a distinct Gandalf-like resemblance, was a very kind host with a vibrant personality. Although his establishment, named Ateshooni, receives countless visitors and is constantly at peak capacity – especially after being featured in the popular traveller’s guidebook Lonely Planet – he was incredibly attentive and helpful. Over the next couple of days, he would drive us to surrounding villages, showing off his sand-duning skills while his preferred electronic tunes played on the stereo system.

IMG_3936The guesthouse and rooms themselves were enchanting in their decor; the whole atmosphere gave the feeling of staying in a land lost in time. In the communal area of the guesthouse, located in a restored castle about five minutes walk from our room, delicious home-cooked food was served daily. The utter tastiness of every meal led me to take advantage of the cosy divan area to rest after over-stuffing myself every time (and not regretting it once). In this divan, Maziar would later treat us and his other guests to his musical performance on the didgeridoo, a traditional wind instrument developed by Australian Aborigines, which he had mastered. I had never heard of the instrument before, and the irony of hearing it played for the first time in a remote desert village in Iran was not lost on us.

My friends and I were having a wonderful time wandering around the village, strolling through its far-reaching date palms and finding our way up a small mountain with a mesmerising water cave at its base. The photo on the homepage of my blog is actually taken from within one of the village’s historic, un-renovated mud-brick buildings overlooking the palm trees and mountains at the rear. At one point we relaxed up on the roof of the guesthouse, where we had a brilliant view of the entire village, reading our books and eating pumpkin seeds. We also visited the famous salt lake just outside of Garmeh, taking it upon ourselves to personally sample many of the crystallised hexagons of salt.

On one of the nights, my friends suggested staying up to watch the moonrise, as it was a full moon and we were guaranteed a pristine view being in the middle of the desert. We took a rug, music speakers and some reinforcements (in the form of food and drink) out to the furthest spot we could find while still keeping the village lights in distant view. I had never watched a moonrise before, and the sight of it emerging as if from within the depths of the desert itself was absolutely breath-taking. We spent the rest of the night snacking and dancing against the backdrop of the silent, endless sands now flooded with moonlight. It is one of the best nights I’ve had in Iran so far.

IMG_3892The next day, Maziar had organised a day trip for us as well as some of the other hostel guests to a spot in the middle of the barren desert. After some epic sand-duning on the part of Maziar, we parked the cars and got out to the view of a vast, bronze-coloured ocean of sand, extending as far as the eye could see. Although I would probably classify myself as mostly a ‘beach person’, there is something about the desert that has always profoundly moved me. Perhaps this stems from the fact that some of my not-too-distant ancestors were bona fide Bedouins. Whatever it may be, being there in the solitary, noiseless Dasht-e Kavir gave me an immense feeling of peace. It didn’t stay noiseless for too long, however; my friends and I wasted no time in kicking off our shoes, climbing and running around the sand hills and dunes, and contemplating rolling down them as well – which we luckily reconsidered. We watched the sunset from one of these hills, complementing the moonrise we had seen the night before in a seamless and mystical way.

As night began to fall, we were ushered over to a campfire, which we joyfully sat around as the air temperature was swiftly dropping. While we engaged in stilted conversation with our host and fellow guests (we were about a month into our Farsi studies at that point), we realised how hungry we were. Although we tried to ignore the pangs and appreciate the magnificent scene before us, I must admit I was thinking longingly back to my last, exquisite meal at the guesthouse. As the others conversed with each other and kept tending to the fire, we began to repeatedly hear the word sib-zamini, which is Farsi for potato (literally meaning apple of the earth). We weren’t sure whether we had become delirious from hunger or whether our Farsi was just that bad. Suddenly, like magic, Maziar began to unearth countless potatoes wrapped in foil that were baking under the embers of the fire. Our delight at seeing these was only matched by that which we felt after tasting the flavourful, piping hot potatoes. After we each had a few, my friends and I started to roast and devour everything we had on us. Apples, tangerines – nothing was safe from our makeshift skewers (basically just sticks).

It was difficult to leave the peaceful and enthralling world of Garmeh. The only thing that consoled me on the bus ride back, with our early morning class at the back of my mind, was the promise of further travels to come. Speaking of, I post this piece while I am putting off packing (for me, the only downside to travel) for a trip to Yazd tonight, another desert city said to be an architectural and historical treasure. More soon.

The Middle Ground

When I decidedIMG_4310 to start this blog a few months ago, for obvious reasons I made a conscious decision to keep it strictly socio-cultural, without touching upon sensitive geo-political issues that would likely obscure the very message I am attempting to convey. However, after the tragedy that occurred in Mina over the past month amidst a backdrop of an evermore tense and frankly frightening political climate, I feel there are some things that must be said and this blog provides the ideal venue.

It’s not a very encouraging time for those who dream of peace in the region. Discourse and rhetoric on both flanks of the Saudi-Iranian ‘divide’ are becoming more scathing, and more pronounced. On the Iranian side, there is a perception among many that the Saudi government somehow targeted those of Iranian nationality (theirs bearing the brunt of the death toll) and failed to adequately manage the tragedy post-event. Many in Saudi Arabia conversely are convinced, and convincing others, that there was some high-level Iranian involvement to instigate the stampede and hence stir commotion and upheaval, putting into question Saudi Arabia’s authority over the holy sites. What is being side-lined in both cases is the very real, human aspect of the disaster – those that have lost their lives or lost loved ones on a spiritual journey that is meant to be the highlight of a devout Muslim’s life. The blame-game and heightened rhetoric tends to only exacerbate the pain of those grieving at this sensitive time. Yet another event is now polarising the two populations even further, to the delight of hardliners, while pushing the possibility of mutual understanding and empathy back another few decades. This disaster cannot and should not be belittled; however, it is also worth considering what is at stake on a larger scale for the future of the region and its inhabitants, and what needs to be kept in mind.

I had left Iran immediately after the unfortunate events of 24 September for a conference. It was then that I was asked, or implored, by my mother not to return and risk my safety at this delicate juncture. She is under no illusions that the country is teeming with mobs sharing the sole aim of tracking down and attacking Saudis. Nonetheless, the images of anti-Saudi demonstrations outside the embassy in Tehran coupled with the sharpening tone of both governments towards each other gave her cause for concern. I calmly reassured her, as I have to other family members and friends enquiring about my safety, that as poignant as it is, and regardless of what the media shows (media which also regularly aggravates tensions), I truly don’t expect this latest event to fundamentally alter my experience or encounters in Iran. Nor has it since my return.

I do concede, the immigration officer on my way back in inspected my passport for a few more seconds than usual, and proceeded to ask me questions with a rather stern face. Nonetheless, as soon as I got to my topic of research (Iranian Studies), his face broke into a wide smile as he acknowledged my objective interest in the country, and he wished me the best of luck while stamping my passport. I have been living here for nine months now, and my experience with the wide majority of people that I meet – and you meet a lot in the hustle and bustle of Tehran and surrounding regions – is that people are able to separate between politics and individuals in a way that is in fact unique in the Middle East. Not one person I have come across has cared that I am Saudi Arabian; not one person I have come across has cared that I am Sunni. Of course, this is besides the gasps of interest followed by a series of questions. It’s not as though I am holding a huge placard declaring myself as Saudi; as I’ve mentioned in previous posts I blend in as many Arabs could pass for Iranians, and vice versa. As soon as someone hears the quirk in my accent though, after usually asking if I’m Indian (which I get the world over) and then finding out my nationality, the interest and curious questions begin. I am not claiming that hardliners or chauvinists do not exist. I am also not trying to claim that the experience of every other Saudi Arabian residing or visiting here might be the same as mine. All I can give however is my own personal feedback and what I have come to understand about the Iranian people; and with the relative scarcity of fellow Saudis here, I think it is a good example to go by – assuming that other hypothetical Saudis wouldn’t come here expressing prejudiced or extreme views themselves. One cannot generalise and blindly label a population of 80 million, just as one cannot do the same with a population of 19 million.

I suppose there is another relevant example to mention in this regard. Yesterday, as I was buying some dough from the university shop (a yoghurt drink, laban or ‘ayran in the Arab world), a good friend of mine joked to the cashier: “don’t serve her, she’s Saudi”. While I personally knew that the mentality of my friend could not be further than what his joke indicated, after he left the cashier – a lovely lady that I enjoy a good rapport with – spent a full five minutes taking me aside to make sure I wasn’t offended, hurt or in any way upset by his comment. She said that remarks like that have no place here, no matter what the context or intention.

The silent majority has nothing to do with the politics at the top. They are not looking for where to place the blame. They are mostly going about their day-to-day lives, some are currently mourning, and others are perhaps wondering when the region will ever get back from the depths it has plunged to – as I am. This blog has up until now been trying to recount my everyday experiences and display the kindness I have witnessed from both strangers and acquaintances as a Saudi Arabian here, not because I think that kindness and hospitality are unique to this country or something not to be expected in Iran, but because the damaging and divisive way in which so many interpret the current ‘cold conflict’ between our countries gives credence and authority to the preposterous idea that there is a fundamental enmity between the populations. I’ve been attempting to use my personal experience here – while of course not an all-inclusive, infallible sample but still something – to disprove just that.

In my humble opinion, those of us with more moderate outlooks need to do much more to tackle the damaging words and stereotypes that are so lightly strewn about if we ever want to see a region that is not on fire. Some might argue that it has nothing to do with us, but on the contrary, it starts with the personal, the human conduct and interactions between those who are to inhabit this star-crossed region. There needs to be far more awareness in general and less susceptibility to blind hatred, prejudice and false categorisations. This of course goes for both sides of the ‘divide’. If we are ever to witness a day where animosity or destruction does not permeate the pores of the Middle East, extreme, sectarian or simply bigoted views and statements must be de-normalised and ostracised, and indeed one day hopefully removed from the equation. A day when radical preachers, for instance those pronouncing fatwas that the blood of all Shia ‘heretics’ or their sympathisers is halal, will themselves be outcast. Both populations – to be sure, all of us in the Middle East – need to be more aware of the middle ground, which surely exists among us but is not as vocal as the others. If we wait for the politics of the region to first settle, it will undoubtedly be too late. Open minds, compassion and awareness of the other is what we need to start moving forward.

Sorry for the rant. I will henceforth return as much as possible to the socio-cultural.

Back in the Big Pomegranate

IMG_5341I arrived back to Tehran about a week ago. My flight landed in the evening, and after going through immigration (spotting twice as many foreigners as the last time I was there) and picking up my luggage, I met with the driver who was waiting for me. As we stood descending in the elevator, which was playing a tinny version of Unchained Melody, down to the parking garage, I felt a distinct surrealness. Thinking of my family, friends and elderly dog that I had just left, all the familiar questions of self-doubt and uncertainty that I had experienced upon my first arrival in Iran started popping seamlessly in my head. After hitting the road, the taxi driver struck up a conversation, and I gingerly responded to his questions with my out-of-practice Farsi. All of a sudden, a car sped up to us from behind until we were side by side, and the woman in the driver’s seat rolled down her window and urged my taxi driver to do the same. With both cars going about 120 kmph on the highway, she asked for the way to Imam Khomeini’s mausoleum. While the driver shouted back the directions, I couldn’t help but smile as I started to sense an indescribable feeling of being right back at home.

Upon reaching my dusty flat, I unloaded my luggage and went straight to see my neighbours who I had truly missed. They gave me a wholehearted welcome, and the lady of the house, Shohreh – although she was clearly about to go to bed before I arrived – insisted on making me dinner. This was something she had offered on a regular basis before I left for summer, but I would always politely decline. This time however, I was far too exhausted and frankly hungry to turn down her kind offer. It seems I’d opened the floodgates, as ever since I’ve had dinner brought over to me almost every night – all ready on a plate with adjacent vegetables, so too late to refuse. I’m completely overcome by their thoughtfulness and constantly trying to think of nice things to do for my neighbours, especially since my typical dinners (which many a time consist of packaged miso soup and crisps) can’t even be placed in the same category as Shohreh’s exceptional cooking.

Over the following week, I quickly got back into the swing of things. I’ve happily found that my muscle memory still recalls what it takes to navigate my way across the tumultuous roads. These had once prompted my mother to ask in exasperation upon her visit, “do you cross these roads every day?” I had replied in all seriousness, “only on the days I go out”. Within the first week I also had the somewhat customary profound, existential conversation with a taxi driver, so all was par for the course. My classes had already started, and after a little reunion with my classmates I was also happy to find only one 8am start on the schedule this term. Though the Farsi classes have yet to be scheduled – so fingers crossed. I’ve also been catching up with all the people at my local corner shop, dry cleaners, fruit vendor, bread bakery and flower shop. After not seeing me for three months, the staff at these places genuinely greeted me more emphatically than some of my casual friends would back home. The young Kurdish boy who works at my corner shop even peeled his eyes away from the television screen, which was displaying a Barcelona-Roma match (he is a huge Barcelona fan), to ask me about my travels. The more of these encounters I had, the more I realised I really was experiencing the basic human connections I was seeking that had partly motivated my decision to come here.

I ended my week with something most definitely outside of my normal routine. A friend of mine had invited me to go see a Jean-Paul Sartre play at the Farhangsara-ye Niavaran, a cultural centre in North Tehran. An Iranian cast was performing ‘The Unburied Dead’ (Les Morts Sans Sépulture), or Mordegane bi Kafno Dafn in Farsi. While my friend was afterwards slightly critical of the acting, as we sometimes tend to be with products of our own culture, I was taken aback by the excellent Farsi-language portrayal of the philosophical themes involved in the story about a group of dissidents captured and tortured by German soldiers during World War II. It was my first time watching a Sartre play, and can honestly say I never thought I would be doing this in Iran. That being said, I did see a Farsi production of Death of a Salesman during my first term at Tehran’s national theatre, before ever having seen it in English. With my minimal language skills at the time, it’s safe to say my confusion over the plot line was insurmountable.

As my weekend begins, some friends and I are gearing up for an overnight bus trip to the historic city of Tabriz in northwest Iran, where we plan to spend a few sight-seeing days. More to come soon.

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Khuda Hafez For Now

On one of my final days in Tehran before the holidays, a friend of mine invited me to a dinner with some of his colleagues at the Azari Restaurant. This is a hundred-year old, restored traditional Iranian tea house or ghahve-khane in South Tehran that hosts live music bands and was established during the time of Reza Shah Pahlavi. As I arrived and located my party, I took off my shoes to climb into the large, carpeted divan characteristic of traditional restaurants here and greeted the fellow guests before sitting down.

I started to get acquainted with my neighbour for the night, a prominent Malaysian scholar at the National University of Singapore, who was married to an Iranian woman and visiting Iran for a couple of weeks with his family. We engaged in a very interesting conversation about the Middle East and his field of study, which partly involves Islam and the Sunni-Shia conflict. According to him, there needs to be much more focus on the fundamentals of this matter, in order to raise awareness about the lack of basis for extreme views on either side which have partly led to the violence and destruction plaguing the Middle East. This resonated strongly with me, as in my opinion it’s this same absence of awareness that has led to tensions between some Arab and Persian populations, an issue intertwined with the Sunni-Shia one.

As we continued our chat, the band started preparing their live set and my eyes fell upon our host. My friend, Hamid-Reza, is the epitome of Middle Eastern hospitality; he spent the entire night rushing between our table and the reception, coordinating all of our orders and making sure everyone had what they needed before even thinking of sitting down and touching his food. He relaxed at long last, just as the live music began with a range of captivating Iranian instruments, the names of which I still only know a shameful few. After the first song came to an end, one of the band members asked the restaurant patrons where they were from. Several tables began shouting out their regions or cities: Mazandaran (northern Iran); Kurdistan (north-Western Iran); Khuzestan (southern Iran); Khorasan (central Iran), and so forth. The band then proceeded to play traditional songs from all of the mentioned regions, to the enthused clapping and singing along of the diners.

Taking in the cheerful atmosphere and listening to the sounds of the chords and drums, I looked around at the paintings hung on the walls. One depicted a scene from an old traditional tea-house with men gathered around smoking water pipes, or ghalyoun in Farsi. Another showed a fierce battle between the esteemed hero Rostam and one of his arch-nemeses, the Div-e-Sepid or White Demon, from ‘The Seven Labours of Rostam’ in Firdowsi’s epic poem the Shahname. In that moment, with the enthralling music playing in the background, I genuinely felt as though I was in a land frozen in time, or an orientalist’s dream. I must admit, before coming to Iran myself, I was guilty of mysticising the country. Back in London, I would ask every Iranian I met just what it was like, as if it was some imagined, far-off planet. Not until I moved here did I really appreciate the fact that while there are indeed countless magical elements to it, Iran was just another country with people going about their normal lives every day. I think that the inability to truly visualise that reality, or relate to the country and its people, is what leads many in the region and elsewhere to oversimplified or misguided views – being caught between negative media portrayals and other-worldly imaginings. It’s something that I personally didn’t fully comprehend before spending time in Iran, coming to realise that at the heart of it the everyday lives, concerns and desires of people here are not much different to what they are anywhere else. It’s the combination of the magical and the commonplace that I’ve found here, however, for instance while walking through the remains of Persepolis or witnessing the simple kindness of strangers, that has truly endeared me to the country.

With exams and essays done and dusted, and my packing at various stages of completion, everything is pretty much ready for my departure from Tehran tonight. I’ve had my little farewell-for-now party; I’ve said goodbye to my fruit and veg vendours and those at my local corner shop and dry cleaners; and the next three Farsi Harry Potter books have been purchased and packed, to support my language progress in its inevitable summer decline. I’ve grown quite fond of Harry, Ron and Hermione’s Iranian alter-egos. What I will really miss and can’t exactly bid farewell to is the city and country itself: the charm and joviality of its people; the view of its majestic mountains unceasingly watching over the capital from the north; and the constant prospect of adventure and travel just around the corner. Nonetheless, I am excited to see my family and friends for the next three months, and am already looking forward to returning to a more mildly-weathered, potentially sanctions-lifted Iran.

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Go North and Prosper

When there’s a public holiday and a simultaneous long weekend in Iran, the thing to do is travel. Some will go back to their home cities to visit family, while others will travel around various regions for tourism and leisure. More recently it’s become significantly harder for lower income families to meet the travel expenses for every holiday, but it’s still a generally widespread practice among Iranians. Unless you’re going back home, the choice of destination will usually depend on the time of year. The northern region of Iran is the most popular for the spring and summer months. With a long weekend upon us, a couple of friends and I decided we’d like to jump on the bandwagon and also get out of town for a few days. The weather in Tehran has been stiflingly hot, and we figured a change of scenery might also jumpstart us into much-needed study mode. I myself haven’t been able to shake the feeling that my summer holidays have already started since classes came to an end, even though exams are right around the corner – starting with Farsi tomorrow.

We decided to go to Ramsar, a highly-acclaimed city in north Iran known for its natural beauty, where a friend helped us arrange a villa. The only problem with the fact that everyone travels for long weekends in Iran, however, is that everyone travels for long weekends in Iran. In the run-up to our trip, we’d been hearing horror stories from all sides about the unspeakable traffic queues to be expected on the road to Shumal (northern Iran). Our journey, which should typically take some four hours by car, was projected by some to take up to 14. We were even advised not to go on several occasions, especially after one of the four roads leading north was closed by traffic police. Not to be discouraged, in typical foreigner fashion we planned to beat the system, staying up on Wednesday night to hit the road at 4am in the belief that we’d be among the few who had thought to travel at such a late/early hour. How wrong we were.

Even before hitting the first wall of traffic, our taxi driver conceded that we had probably picked the best time considering we had to wait until one of our friends’ work day ended; nonetheless, he had no doubt we would get gridlocked. In fact, he mentioned that although his wife has over countless years suggesting going north for long weekends, he never once agreed because of the prohibitive traffic. I apologised that we had now caused him to potentially face this nightmare, moreover with us as his company rather than his family.

Upon leaving Tehran, the traffic began to thicken, going through sporadic starts and stops. Since it was a novelty for me and I was adrenaline-pumped as I usually am when staying up, it was actually a fascinating scene to be a part of: it felt like we were in a thousands-strong convoy all heading to a common destination, like a festival. Looking at the vehicles around us, some loaded to the hilt with luggage on the roof, there was a variety of different moods within them. Some housed families that were all fast asleep save the unfortunate driver of the car; others had passengers that were laughing and dancing, starting their weekend celebrations on the road; others still held silent, livid-looking bunches observing the traffic ahead. There were also cross-city buses sharing the road filled with forward-thinking passengers – this was our first choice of travel before realising all the buses to Ramsar were fully booked weeks in advance. At periodic intervals, some had stopped to erect their tents on the side of the road and have picnics. Elderly men were walking around in their hiking gear (the north is famous for its stunning hiking trails), while groups of friends took selfies in front of valley rivers and other spectacular landscapes. Restaurants, corner shops and street food vendors dotted the way and remained open at all hours to supply weary travellers on the road, livening the atmosphere and adding to the sense of our joint migration. Street merchants circled the cars with flowers and CDs, while others were waving around the lovely Iranian incense known as Esfand, or wild rue. Though I was sure that those who regularly endure this must find it extremely tiring and tedious, I was enjoying the surrounding atmosphere.

By the time the worst of the traffic subsided and dawn had fully broken, my friends had fallen asleep leaving just the taxi driver and I – and what honestly seemed to be the rest of Tehran’s population behind and ahead of us – to wind through the magnificent mountains ringing the road north. This gave me ample time to think and, with the holidays fast approaching, reflect on my time here so far and whether I’ve at least partly achieved what I set out to. The main question on my mind was whether jumping into the unknown has been worth leaving a steady and rewarding job, worrying my mother that I was one step further from settling down and providing her with children to play with, and potentially placing me on several watch-lists on my side of the region.

I came here wanting to immerse myself in the local culture, learn the language and gain a deeper understanding of the people here, hopefully taking some of that back with me to confront some of the stereotypes. I began evaluating my progress in those fields. While my exam tomorrow will probably give a more accurate assessment, I’m quite happy with my level of Farsi. Due to the close proximity between Arabic and Farsi and the intensive nature of the language course I’m enrolled in, when I now come to speak Arabic with family, friends or Arabs I’ve met in Iran, I actually sometimes find myself mixing Farsi words into my speech. Moreover, at times I subconsciously express the Farsi pronunciation for words with identical spellings but different pronunciations in the two languages. It seems I’ve created a very special brand of ‘Farabic’, and have definitely noticed a couple of curious stares from native Arabic speakers when it happens. Nevertheless, I will hopefully work out these little quirks in time.

Furthermore, during my time here I’ve met and befriended some truly wonderful people. This was highlighted by a gathering I had for my birthday a week ago, where I realised I was going to really miss my friends throughout the summer holidays. A couple had made me a beautiful scrap-book containing pictures of our many travels around Iran, reminding me of all our adventures and filling me with anticipation to continue these upon our return. Based upon others that I’ve been to here, my gathering was unique in that it hosted Iranians from widely different social backgrounds, but all united in their good nature and kind-heartedness. On that note, after hearing from her daughter Donya, who has become a good friend of mine, that I planned to have people over, my neighbour insisted on making me a variety of mouth-watering dishes. Considering my sorry cooking skills – the improving of which was another goal of moving here and living alone, still in progress – her kind offer along with the help of friends who came early thankfully enabled me to feed my guests very well, while constantly correcting compliments on ‘my’ wonderful cooking.

As for the aim of taking back a more accurate view of this country and its people, while I’m quite certain I’m not changing the world I very much hope that this blog, as well as my numerous conversations and fielding of questions from people back home, is going a short way towards achieving this goal. I’m very aware of the unique opportunity I have with my experience in Iran, and am anxious not to waste it when there are so many people in the region with the wrong idea. It’s quite a strange feeling knowing I’ll be leaving for three months. I feel like I’ve been in somewhat of a bubble here – granted, one I’ve thoroughly enjoyed – and am eager to see what it will be like to return after the summer sojourn. I very much hope my Farsi will hold up, and plan to seek out as many Iranians as possible to practice during the holiday, as well as keep up with my Farsi Harry Potter series (I’ve now reached Harry Potter o Zendaniye Azkaban).

Taking it back to the road just as the sight of the gloriously green mountains and splendid nature jerked me out of my thoughts, the north was absolutely beautiful (pictured). We ate delicious food (with the proximity to the Caspian Sea, a northern specialty is fish – my favourite), rode a cable car to a mountain peak where we could view the exquisite coastal city below, and had a spontaneous (and in retrospect quite perilous) mini-hike where we scrambled up a steep mountain hill, a couple of us wearing sandals. Although I would probably not willingly choose to spend all that time in traffic again and sooner kidnap my working friends to leave before the official start of a long weekend, I definitely plan to go back and explore further cities along the Caspian coast. Unfortunately not much studying was done, but I comforted myself with the knowledge that I spent the whole weekend speaking with locals in Farsi and will therefore be fine for my first exam. While I self-answered my abovementioned travel contemplations about coming to Iran with ringing positivity, I guess we’ll find out the answer to this one tomorrow.

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Prisons and Cheese Houses

Last weekend, my friend Alice suggested that we go visit Zendan-e Ghasr, or ‘Palace Prison’. One of the oldest prisons in Iran (pictured), it was built in 1790 during the Qajar era in the form of a palace, hence its name, by a Russian architect named Nikolai Markov. In 2008, the prison was permanently shut down and turned into a museum for the public.

Walking through the beautiful gardens, we found ourselves at one of the museum entrances, where we were helped by a security guard who encouraged us to join one of the tours that were about to start. We happily obliged and were subsequently linked with a group to be shown around the general prison halls and cells, some of which housed recreations of their former inmates in various forms. Sombre music accompanied a few of the long halls, creating a poignant and somewhat eerie feel. One of the most touching aspects of the museum was a room where old videos were been played showing former political prisoners being reunited with their families and loved ones on January 16, 1979 – the day the Shah left the country post-revolution.

Following the general prison tour, we were dropped off at the political prison across the courtyard and received by a solemn man seemingly in his seventies or early eighties. A small man in a crisp suit with a stern, heavily-lined face, our guide gave the impression that he had walked those halls hundreds of times. He proceeded to show us around the political prison, giving us (from what I understood) in-depth, detailed snippets about what prison life was like in its heyday. For instance, according to him, the inmates had devised their own system by which all food packages brought by their visitors would be shared among all. As a large number of the political prison population came from very distant regions across Iran, years could go by without them receiving any family or friends as visitors. Therefore, this system was intended to spare their feelings and forge a more equal atmosphere of solidarity. The visiting room itself was a fascinating feature. It consisted of a moderately-sized, partitioned hall which prisoners and visitors had to shout across to communicate with each other. According to our guide, and verified by the very loud tapes being played overhead re-constructing the conditions, it was utter mayhem. Towards the end of the tour, our austere but occasionally smiling guide informed us with a barely perceptible flicker in his eye that he himself had been incarcerated for four and a half years in the political prison for speaking and writing against the regime of the Shah, roughly six years prior to the 1979 revolution. He then pointed out his very own mug-shot photo among the dozens plastered to the wall near the exit.

We stepped outside the dark, concrete prison to a radically different atmosphere. There was an exhibition and fair going on that week, and after wandering the street markets set up in the large museum courtyards and eating some falafel, Alice and I sat down to watch a demonstration of Kurdish and Khorasani (central Iranian) dancing on the stage. We then left the museum complex and realised that even a short prison stay had taken it out of us, so decided to go somewhere a bit more cheery. Parchak Cheese House in Abbasabad provided the perfect alternative. After some walking, getting lost and caught up in what seemed to be a brewing sandstorm, we decided to get a couple of shared taxis to reach our destination. Shared taxis are one of the most common forms of transport in big cities here. They offer extremely low rates for relatively long distances; many are just average people looking to make some extra money during tough financial straits. For me, shared taxis provide a particular advantage in the form of Farsi practice. It’s quite commonplace for the drivers and passengers to strike up a conversation about politics, social issues, a nearby manic motorbike driver, and so forth. So sometimes just a short ride can have both my practice and my current affairs on the street sorted.

Back to the present. After witnessing a minor scuffle over territory rights between another taxi driver and the one whose car we had just entered – apparently our driver was on the other’s turf, but we completely sided with our guy, a jovial old man – we headed up Vali Asr, the Middle East’s longest street (17.9km). We alighted at the Cheese House and entered the comfortable, aesthetically-pleasing setting. Another friend joined us and we sat down to unwind with some lovely cheese, saffron tea and soft music in the background, as I grilled my friend about when I could acquire the leaked Game of Thrones episodes from him. When we came to leave, however, I discovered that my wallet was nowhere to be found. Having gone through the customary panic and periodic bag-search, I realised that I must have either left it in the taxi or dropped it on the street as I stepped out. We had been dropped off by the taxi at a relatively early hour (around 8pm), leaving plenty of time for other passengers to be picked up after us – and while I wanted to stay optimistic, most of my friends as well as the police who I later called informed me that it was most probably gone. I knew it wasn’t the end of the world, but was still quite distressed as my wallet contained some important items such as my British driving license, my Saudi ID card, my University of Tehran student card (which can only be replaced once), as well as a large sum of Iranian toumans – considerably more than I would usually carry on me as I had just exchanged some pounds. There was a silver lining though: friends of mine as well as the police told me that while most times the money and actual wallet are taken, the documents may be placed in a post box to be eventually reunited with their owner. This did give me some fragile hope, but it still left me in a jam money-wise.

I spent that night and the next dreading the transnational bureaucratic labyrinth I would likely have to manoeuvre to start getting my documents back, as well as figuring out how to deal with my financial situation for the next couple of weeks before leaving Iran for summer holidays. A friend had lent me money so I was set for the coming few days, but the constant mental replay of my momentary yet silly mistake, which had placed me in quite a thorny position, was getting me down. Nonetheless, while at university on Saturday (the first day of the week here), I received a call from a sweet-voiced woman, asking me if I had lost a wallet, and didn’t I want to get it back? I couldn’t stop myself from jumping up and down, ignoring the stares I was getting, and tried to calm myself enough to speak to the woman. She was the wife of the taxi driver, and as it happened, they had been trying to get through to me since they had come across the wallet. First, they had called my university, which couldn’t give out students’ personal information no matter the circumstances. Next, they had gone to my bank to obtain my phone number; unfortunately, the number they had on record was evidently wrong, as I had registered in my first week in Iran and was still getting confused between 4 and 6 (the only two numbers written differently in Farsi than in Arabic script). Finally, they had found a doctor’s note in my wallet from a recent visit, and after calling the doctor’s office and explaining the situation, she thankfully gave them my correct number.

Upon hearing all of this, I was truly taken aback and overjoyed by the effort these strangers had gone to in order to find me as soon as possible. We arranged to meet at the appropriately-named Seyyed Khandan locality (‘seyyed’ is a noble title, and ‘khandan’ means laughing or smiling – the area is named after an Iranian religious scholar); a friend of mine kindly drove me there. I quickly located the cheery-faced taxi driver who was waving my wallet outside the window and hurtled myself out of the car to go meet him. My friend and I then profusely thanked him, to which he calmly replied that he had done nothing more than the right thing, and that no thanks were required. It took me quite some time to convince him to accept the box of pastries I had got for them, as he kept insisting they weren’t deserved. I begged to differ, and tried to express in Farsi how moved I was that they had gone out of their way to locate me, on top of the fact that he had been waiting for me by the side of the road for almost an hour at peak traffic (meaning highest earning) times. ‘Faith in humanity restored’ is a phrase I will definitely have to learn in, or possibly import into, Farsi.