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.

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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.