Saturday, May 27, 2006

Close Shave

A popular catchphrase used by countries to lure in the punters is to claim to be where cultures meet and mix i.e. "where East meets West!" or "where the Muslim and Christian worlds meet!" or even "where ancient meets modern!" (the claims are invariably followed by multiple exclamation marks, the sure sign of a desperate mind). You get the picture. Iran is no exception, being touted as the place where India, the Middle East and Europe collide. And though I'm often sceptical of such claims it is certainly true here. In the southwest the Arab influence is dominant, in the southeast the Baluchis are much like their Pakistani counterparts, and in the north and west one could easily be forgiven for thinking that one is in Europe, as I quickly discovered.

Upon crossing the border from Pakistan I was dressed in my scruffy shalwar kameez and sporting a respectable beard, which was par for the course in Pakistan (although some Pakistanis did remark on the worn look of my clothes, though I got the impression it was more because they didn't expect a foreigner to get down and dirty like the common people), and was not unusual on the Iranian side of the border either. However, 24 hours later, upon getting off the bus in Tehran and I looked so out of place it was comical. Smart jeans and shirts, or classic casual-wear is the norm amongst the urban classes here in Iran, though what really marked me out was my beard. In the West we have a very parochial view of Iran as the only images we’re fed are of hyperactive masses baying for America’s blood or wizened mullahs spouting vitriolic rhetoric. The majority of Iranians, however, view these people with more disdain than even we do (because they've got to live with them). And the general leitmotiv running through the appearance of these wackos is their full facial hair, so that anybody sporting more than just a moustache or goatee is viewed, by the "sane" majority as more than a little suspect. The best way to recognise the feared basijis, the fanatical, religious militia controlled by the mullahs, is by their lack of fashion sense and week-old stubble. And since I am sartorially challenged myself then something had to give (I was even getting odd looks and comments from my family asking me whether I had joined the Taliban on my travels). So, under this frown pressure I dug out my razor from my bag - it took a while as I hadn't used it since 'Nam – and hacked off my whiskers. It annoys me somewhat as I'll have to start shaving regularly again, and might even have to spend money on blades and perhaps even aftershave.

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