Sunday, June 25, 2006

Gone Bad?

One of the advantages of travelling by bus is that one sees how landscapes gradually, or abruptly, change. As one heads west from Mashhad the landscape becomes greener with gently rolling hills. This is the Turkmen Sahra, home to most of Iran's Turkmen minority. Only a hundred years ago the Turkmen were mostly nomadic, riding their horses across the wide steppes, but they have settled down now and ride motorbikes instead, although they have retained much of their separate culture: they still speak their own language, they're generally Sunni rather than Shi'ite, and the women usually wear large, brightly patterned headscarves and colourful dresses rather than the dour black of the Shi'ite majority. One of the main towns in the area is Gonbad-e Kavus, known locally as plain Gonbad, though the place is much nicer than the name might suggest. The town is home to the eponymous gonbad (gonbad means dome or domed structure) after which it it is named. Built 1000 years ago as a mausoleum for the local ruler entirely out of brick, it is perhaps the world's first skyscraper, measuring some 55m from its base to its tip. The gonbad held my interest for a whole 10 minutes before I set off to find what else the town had to offer. I knew that there was an old defensive wall, called Alexander’s Wall (though it has nothing to do with Alexander the Great, having been built around 0 A.D., or is that B.C.?) that was built to keep out the barbarian hordes, somewhere close to town. The first person I asked said he was driving out that way and offered me a lift, but warned me that I might be disappointed. And he wasn't wrong. Even though it is the second longest defensive wall in the world, if you don't know what it is Alexander's Wall is little more than a long dike and hard to distinguish from the surrounding land because so much of it has been cannibalised for construction materials by the locals . But I didn't mind too much as my lift dropped me off at some friends of his who run a telephone taxi service who found me far more entertaining than doing any work. So I spent the whole day with Jalal and co. who found it far more worth their while chatting with me and feeding me than actually doing any work (Ring! Ring! "What? You want a taxi? Sorry, all our drivers are out. Goodbye." "So, Erik, you were telling us about the girls in your country..."). I ended up spending the entire day and night with the fun guys at their "office", smoking, sleeping, eating and talking about Iran and other countries before leaving the next morning towards Tehran, home and a hot shower.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

A Tale Of Two Flowers

From Kerman I headed north to the city of Mashhad. Most of eastern Iran is empty and barren, but getting closer to Mashhad the land becomes more fertile and large fields of crocuses begin to take over the countryside. The flowers aren't grown for their beauty, but for their carpels, which are hand-plucked and dried to make saffron, the world's most expensive spice. The bus journey is a long one, taking over 13 hours, but Iran's buses and roads are good enough to make the night relatively relaxing ... if only it wasn't for being woken several times in the middle of the night by over-zealous police and their incessant checks. I complain but I actually understand the need for the patrols and checkpoints because Iran's eastern neighbours are particularly lawless and dangerous places. They have particular problems with Afghans and their cultivation of another flower: the poppy. It's no secret that Afghanistan is the world's largest producer of opium and it's stronger cousin, heroin. The majority of the opium and heroin produced in Afghanistan works its way west via Iran, which is waging a continuous battle against the traffickers. And it's actually quite successful: 40% of all drugs seizures worldwide and 85% of opiates. Though the costs are also quite high: on average 2 Iranian policemen die every week in battles against traffickers and it is estimated that around 3% of the population are regular drug users (and I must admit that I have seen a fair amount of opium being passed about in the past 2 weeks).

But enough about drugs, on to Mashhad. It is the largest city in the area and owes its existence to the tomb of Imam Reza, the 8th Shi'ite Imam. It is therefore one of the main pilgrimage site for Shi'ites (there are a few holier Shi'ite shrines, but they are either in Iraq or Afghanistan and so are far trickier for pilgrims to visit) and attracts devotees from all over the region. As it is the middle of the pilgrim season hotel prices were ridiculous and so I could only stay for one day before heading off again, but that was enough for me to see the Astan-e Qods-e Razavi, the holy compound containing Reza's tomb. By all accounts Reza was a nice chap, being particularly friendly to animals and, true to Shia tradition, was heinously assassinated (or so the Shias claim) by his supposed benefactor, the wicked caliph. The compound contains the tomb, a mosque, several courtyards, eivans, museums, libraries and theological schools and is, whilst also being a highly spiritual place, of course, a big money-spinner. But that's OK because I can say, with no over-exaggeration, that the mosque and tomb are the most impressive religious buildings that I have ever seen. I know I often reach for superlatives when describing places, but the size, mirrorwork, tilework and proportions are just awesome (in the truest sense of the word). Not to mention the fact that the dome of the tomb, its four eivans and minaret are all covered in pure gold, which shine in the bright sunlight and are spectacularly lit up at night. During the day people throng around the tomb chamber letting out sobs and wails for their Imam (Shi'ism is all about mourning, wearing black and self-flagellation) whilst being shepherded about by dour looking wardens armed with feather dusters (honest!). In the evening hundreds of carpets are laid out in the extensive courtyards as people flock for evening prayers.

As I mentioned before there are a few museums in the complex that are quite interesting, such as one containing old artifacts from the shrine or items that have been donated to it over the years. Some of the museums left me rather baffled as to how they came about, for example the coin and stamp museum, or odder still the stuffed sea-creatures museum (considering that Mashhad is about 1500km from the sea!). It's only a shame that camera's aren't allowed within the complex, as it is an amazing place that deserves to be more widely known. But you can get a slight taste of what it's like on the shrine's website.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Bam, Bam Rubble

Upon first arriving in Bam you would be excused for thinking it an important port city, as most shops and homes are just converted containers or, if they're lucky, portacabins. If only the reality were so innocent. Unfortunately, on Boxing Day 2003, in the early hours of the morning, an earthquake measuring 6.6 on the Richter scale hit the city and levelled some 70% of its buildings and killing perhaps 40% of its population. Seeing the suffering that must have been and the hardship that still is produces a permanent lump in one's throat. The only things that weren't affected were the extensive date-palm plantations that produce the soft, sweet, juicy dates for which Bam is famous. Why then visit a town that is little more than a huge construction site since its dates can be bought everywhere? Well, Bam was also home to its eponymous citadel, once the largest adobe structure in the world. I say was, because the earthquake flattened the citadel, which had stood for hundreds of years, to nothing more than rubble. Walking around the ruins was rather painful: to see such beauty and human ingenuity gone in a matter of seconds. And although reconstruction work is going apace, it will not finish before my lifetime, of that I am quite sure. To see what was once and what is now have a look at the following BBC article.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Road Trip

I have spent the past couple of days with my new Iranian friend, Kazem, pottering around the town of Rafsanjan and its environs. Rafsanjan is the centre for pistachio production in Iran and its nuts are reputedly the finest in the country (and therefore the world). For those of you who perhaps follow events in Iran slightly more closely then the name might sound familiar as it is the hometown of one of Iran's ex-presidents, and defeated candidate this time around, Mr Rafsanjani (people aren't always very imaginative with their surnames over here, like our old friend Mr Khomeini from the town of Khomein).

Unfortunately I'm going to have to go into political mode here, so if that bores you just skip this paragraph. During the last election the final showdown was between our friends Mr's Ahmadinejad and Rafsanjani. So-called experts in the West were putting their money on Rafsanjani because he had made some conciliatory noises towards America and was therefore seen as a "moderate" and Ahmadinejad was seen as a "conservative". The problem about this view of things was that it was complete bollocks and that the only reason these people were considered experts was because they could actually find Iran on a map. Firstly Raf' is as conservative as they come, being a big-time cleric and head of the powerful Expediency Council. But the reason people really dislike him with a vengeance can most readily be seen in the town of Rafsanjan. An unimpressive little town in the back of beyond before the Revolution, Rafsanjan is now flush with money, a university, many factories and even a museum built by none other than Raf' (most galling is the fact that the museum is dedicated to his tenure as president!). A lot of property in town belongs to him as well, of course. But you won't find either him or his family there as he owns plenty of stuff abroad as well. Anyway, Raf' is the symbol of the hypocritical corruption and croneyism that runs rife among the ruling clergy, and so it is no surprise that Ahmadinejad got elected as he seemed to be more honest and straightforward. Although now comes the time for the old dictum about power and corruption.

Right, back to my travels. I met Kazem at my hotel in Kerman whilst watching the football on TV in the downstairs lobby. He's about 40-odd, has an estranged wife and kid and is rather well-off (being somewhat related to Mr Rafsanjani above). So when he offered to take me around some of the more far-flung sites of the region I was initially somewhat cautious because you can't be too sure of the people who stay in some of the dives I sleep in. But he turned out to be a very gracious and accommodating host, refusing to let me pay for anything and using his name to sometimes get us into places that were closed. Though however nice he was, I find hospitality, especially the excessive Muslim kind, rather claustrophobic after a while. Plus Kazem had a propensity for prolixity, so he'd be chattering away to various people and I'd be biting at the leash to be off again, though that possibly has more to do with my general restlessness than anything else. And I must say that I enjoyed our little road trip. Oh, and I have to say that a lot of people in "less civilised" countries put Westerners to shame with their limitless generosity. We are far too often preoccupied with our petty lives to make time for others.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Plan B

Hmm, my Zoroastrian contact didn't turn up in the end, but that's no big deal as I've grown used to not having everything (anything?) going to plan. Luckily I also had Plan B: football. Long live the World Cup. Although I'm not so sure about that after today. One of the great advantages of being multinational is being able to spread your net farther and wider when it comes to sporting events and to choose ones nationality depending on the different countries' sporting fort├ęs. However, today I was to learn a painful lesson from this "eggs in different baskets" tactic, and that is that if all the baskets should fall then the resulting mess is more nerve-wracking. Today both Iran and the Czech Republic were in action and both lost badly in front of my angst-ridden eyes. This only realistically leaves me with England as a representative of the UK (though it pains my Scottish sensibilities to admit it) before I have to start casting my allegiances out further after more tenuous links. I should probably just plump for Brazil now and save myself the bother, although knowing my jinxing ability that would probably cause them to immediately lose.

OK, that's enough football talk for now. I'm sure you're all curious as to where I am now and what I've been up to (though the more brutally honest of you are just waiting until I finish my rambling so that you can get on with something more interesting. At the moment I'm in the southern town of Kerman. It's a pleasant place with the requisite collection of mosques, traditional brick and adobe houses and rambling bazaar, but nothing out of the ordinary. I am, however, getting a taste for these traditional bazaars, the 17th century precursor to shopping malls, but with soul. Not only do they often have sumptuous architecture (domes, stalactites, frescoes) that often goes overlooked among the throng of people, but they are a cool retreat from the heat of Summer. Oh yeah, and you can buy almost anything there, from kitsch plastic, Chinese-made toys to 2m-wide copper saucepans. Kerman also has a nice collection of neighbourhood mountains which I took a few hours to explore today after my relative inactivity in Yazd. I've also got myself another contact here who has promised to show me round some of the more remote and obscure sights of the area. It should be fun, and in case he doesn't turn up, well there's always the football.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006


To the south and east of Tehran the word that best describes the landscape is khaki. Not only is it the predominant colour of the mountains, plains and buildings (i.e. everything), but it is also true to its original Farsi meaning (for khaki is a Farsi word) of dusty. So much so that I have decided to rename this part of Iran Khakestan. Which makes the town of Yazd all the more impressive. Squeezed between Iran's two main desserts it springs like a mirage from its arid surroundings. Although the buildings cannot help but be khaki in colour (there is but one building material) the monochromy is broken up by the greenery of the many trees and parks fed by the waters of the intricate qanat irrigation system, which has been used for thousands of years, that channels water from the mountains through tunnels under the parched dessert floor. I'm being continually astounded by the ingenuity and technical ability of the ancient Persians. For example, along with the badgirs and sardabs already mentioned, they constructed huge conical structures (that remind me of ice-cream cones and so always make me hungry whenever I see them) in which they would bring ice from the mountains in Winter, which would keep all through Summer despite temperatures in excess of 40 degrees for months on end, and be used for making traditional ice-cream (at least they had their priorities straight!) and keeping meat fresh.

Due to its remote location, during the Arab conquest of Persia Yazd remained relatively untouched and so the local religion, Zoroastrianism (often regarded as the first monotheistic religion in the world which probably influenced Judaism a great deal), managed to survive when it disappeared from the other regions of Persia. The city is still home to a sizable community of Zoroastrians and is the spiritual capital of their global diaspora, being close to their holiest temple at Chak Chak (the local temple also has a fire that has been continuously burning for the past 1500 years). And although they are no longer persecuted, they keep to themselves and so it is difficult to learn much about them, however I managed to meet one the other day who invited me to a local celebration in a couple of day's time, so I hope that will work out.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Proselytism And Apostasy

I finally got off my fat as and left the land of the Lotus Eaters a.k.a. my mum's appartment with it overstocked fridge, computer and satellite TV. I knew that if I didn't leave soon my trip would die a shameful, and slothful, death. So I decided to head south before it get too hot (though somehow I think I'm already too late).

My first stop was Qom. The city is the religious heartland of the Islamic Republic as it is not only home to one of Iran's holiest Shi'ite shrines, the haram of Hazrat Fatima al-Masumeh, but also because it is the site of the main theological seminary for Shi'ite mullahs. So, though it is barely an hour's drive from Tehran it's a world away from the plush boutiques and girls pushing the boundaries of hijab of northern Tehran. Away from the capital the chador count rises sharply and in Qom it positively skyrockets. But seeing as I wasn't planning on taking any lessons in Shi'ite Islam the town soon lost its interest and I moved on further south to the city of Kashan.

Kashan is renowned throughout Iran for its beautiful tiles and carpets, though I was most captivated by the traditionl, mud-brick houses and little, winding alleyways of the old town. The design of the houses does everything to maximise coolness in the hot, dessert environment: the houses are generally built below ground level; tall towers called badgirs (rechristened roof-badgers by one of the travellers I've met) catch the slightest hint of a breeze and send it to the rooms below; and deep tunnels, called sardabs, are used for storing perishable food and keeping it cool. I spent a good deal of time just wandering around and clambering along the old city walls from where there's a gorgeous views of the sandy-coloured roofs of the city. Kashan also has a string of enchanting little sights that can keep person occupied for a couple of days, such as the exquisite gardens of Fin, reputedly the finest example of classical Persian garden design, an old archaeological site (not much more than a large mound of bricks, but the entry was free so I'm not complaining), and a couple of charming little shrines. At one of them I had a rather long debate with a young mullah about religion, philosophy, being good and the afterlife. It was a strange, yet pleasant experience as the mullah was very gracious and courteous (probably because he saw me as a foreigner), and at the end he said that he hoped that he had set me on the path to a higher realisation. It's funny that, but Muslims often try and convert me, and sometimes in the strangest places: whilst buying a train ticket in Lahore the man at the counter urged me that Islam was the only true faith and a taxi driver in Shiraz said that if I only listened to devotional Koranic singing it would change my life completely. I always have to tread very carefully though, not just to avoid offending, but because in Iran proselytism (of anything but Shia Islam) is forbidden and apostasy can carry the death penalty. The latter could, theoretically, cause me problems, as my mother is Iranian (and therefore Muslim) and my father had to "convert" in order for them to get married. Though I seriously doubt that I'd get into any difficulties because of this, it's still better to err on the side of caution.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

The Ayatollah And The Great Satan

The past couple of days have been public holidays. The holidays commemorate the passing away of Ayatollah Khomeini, though they're meant more as days of mourning rather than celebration. This, coupled with the fact that I haven't done anything particularly newsworthy (things are far too crowded over the holidays), makes it an opportune time to talk about history and politics. Iran seems to be hogging the international news headlines lately and I think it would be a good idea to have a look at how things have got to be as they are now because the causes of a situation are often omitted from news reports. (Watch out, this post is rather long. You have been warned.)

Before I start I ought to put forward a small disclaimer that this post, being written about a topic I feel something for, is probably tinged with a slight bias, though I have made the utmost effort to put down the facts that I know (if there are any errors then please write to me so that I can correct them) and let them speak for themselves. Anyway, on to the heart of the matter. To properly understand the state of play we'll have to start at the beginning of the last century when Iran, or Persia as it was still known at the time, was ruled by the feudal Qajjar dynasty and the country was pretty backward with the British controlling a lot of the oil wealth via the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (which later became the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and then BP). In the early 20's an army officer, Reza Khan, overthrew the Qajjars and began to drag the country into the 20th century. Originally Reza Khan probably wanted to be an Ataturk-like president but was persuaded to crown himself king (shah), taking the name Pahlavi. It is generally agreed that, although his rule was rather autocratic, he initiated many changes that were very beneficial to the country like setting up schools, roads and other infrastructure and sending people abroad to be trained as technocrats.

With the advent World War II Iran sought to remain neutral, but its position was far too important strategically, both as a supply line for the Russians and as a source of oil, that the allies occupied it until a few years after the end of the war, removing Reza Pahlavi from the throne and replacing him with his young, inexperienced son, Mohammad Reza. Initially things went OK with parliamentary elections and the Shah staying out of politics, but when Mossadegh was elected prime minister on a nationalist platform the Western powers, Britain especially, got nervous. You see the oil contract that was signed between the Iranian government and AIOC stipulated that profits should be shared equally between the two sides. AIOC, however, refused to let the Iranian government see their accounts, meaning that the Iranians had to take it on blind faith that they were getting their fair share of their oil money. Naturally this pissed them off no end and so Mossadegh took the, hugely popular in Iran, step of nationalising AIOC. This move, along with the nationalist rhetoric against the Cold War backdrop prompted the Americans (following a request from the British) to instigate a coup which removed Mossadegh from power and put much more of it in the hands of the Shah, whilst at the same time, of course, renewing highly favourable oil contracts for British and American oil companies.

During the next 25 years the Shah became more and more autocratic, and corrupt, concentrating power and money into a small coterie of people surrounding him. Despite the oil money coming in very little was spent on public institutions and infrastructure. The regime became terribly repressive - no criticism or dissent was tolerated - and the CIA-trained secret police, the SAVAK, became so brutal and ruthless that Iran came top of Amnesty International's list of repressive states several times in the 70's. State-sponsored kidnappings, torture and murder of dissidents were not at all uncommon. All this didn't just happen with the approval of America; they were the ones calling the shots. This, of course, pissed off the clergy no end, as they were seeing their power eroded and the cultural mores changing too fast for them. Their leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, was exiled from the country in the 60's for speaking out against the Shah. But it wasn't just conservative religious groups that were unhappy: liberals, communists, intellectuals, the poor majority, pretty much everyone had an axe to grind against the Shah's regime.

Therefore when the revolution happened in 1979 it wasn't just a religious revolution, but it was a truly popular revolution, drawing support from all corners of society. And funnily enough, many Iranians lay a good chunk of the blame for the revolution, or at least for the revolution being hijacked by the religious extreme, at the door of a not-very-revolutionary institution: the BBC. You see it was the BBC who decided to broadcast Khomeini's vitriolic speeches to Iran. In the late 70's people would regularly tune in to Auntie Beeb to hear what he had to say. Of course everyone wanted the Shah out of the way, but, despite all his sweeping promises, Khomeini didn't have a plan for post-revolution Iran. In the aftermath the one thing that he concentrated on was consolidating power for himself and the clergy and installing his vision of Islam. Despite all his anti-American rhetoric it was the Americans that actually helped Khomeini do this, because they would have rather had a repressive theocratic regime than one in which communist parties had a say.

Following the revolution two events caused a further souring of relations between Iran and America. The first was the hostage crisis where a group of Iranian students held over 50 American diplomats hostage, demanding that America hand over the Shah for trial and refrain from interfering in their internal affairs. Both sides stubbornly refused to budge (instead the Americans launched a couple of disastrous rescue and coup attempts) until over a year had passed, by which the Shah had died of cancer, the Americans had elected a new president and Iraq had attacked Iran. Under persuasion from America, Saddam Hussein attacked southern Iran in a speculative land-grab, hoping to take advantage of the internal turmoil. However he had overestimated Iran's weakness and soon the war drew out into a long, protracted quagmire that would produce nothing for either side, claim close to a million lives, many of them young teenagers, some as young as 14, and leave the economies of both countries in tatters (it is estimated to have cost over a trillion dollars). The only thing it did achieve was to bring a squabbling country firmly behind the new regime against a common enemy. During the 8-year stalemate America sold many millions of dollars of weapons to Iraq, including chemical weapons (the hypocrisy of it is that the current American Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, was involved in many of these sales), which were used on Iranian as well as Iraqi Kurd populations (the issue of Iraq's chemical weapon use did come up at the UN Security Council in the 80's but was stymied by the Americans). On top of this the Americans were also selling weapons to the Iranians as well, via Israeli intermediaries, at inflated prices because of an arms embargo (initiated by, you guessed it, the Americans themselves). The profits from these arms sales were then channelled to right-wing death squads, the Contras, in Nicaragua. The so-called Iran-Contra affair, as it became known, almost brought down the Reagan administration when the details became known, but Reagan himself managed to evade serious censure with his "I can't remember, I've got Alzheimer's" defence). Towards the end of the war American warships were patrolling the Gulf to protect oil shipping and one of them hit an Iranian mine leading to a brief retaliatory skirmish where they sunk several Iranian boats. Now that I can understand in terms of international politics. However, several days later, an American ship "accidentally" shot down a scheduled Iran Air flight (no. 655) on a routine flight from Iran to Dubai. All 290 people on board died. Of course the official investigation came to the conclusion that it was not deliberate, but there are many inconsistencies in the various accounts of the events. Anyway, since the end of the Cold War America has not interfered to any real extent in Iran's affairs (apart from their own trade embargo) until it recently started pushing the nuclear issue.

So what about this nuclear issue? Is Iran developing nuclear weapons? The answer is that nobody, except those in charge in Iran, really know. All the Americans and the Europeans have come up with are allegations, accusations and conjecture, none of which would stand up in a court of law. Not that that bothers the Americans, we have only to see what happened in Iraq to realise that. In actual fact, under the provisions of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), they are entitled to develop their nuclear technology. Not a single piece of tangible evidence has been shown to say that the Iranians are planning to build a bomb, instead all we hear is that the regime is full of "bad people", and although I thoroughly agree with that statement, it is not enough. No, what worries me more is the fact that of the 8 countries with nuclear weapons, only 5 have signed the NPT (the USA, the UK, France, China and Russia), and the other 3 (India, Israel and Pakistan) don't like they're going to any time soon. What's telling is the stance of the USA towards these 3 countries. Israel and America have always been the staunchest of allies (in a recent, non-binding, vote at the UN General Assembly Israel was condemned by 184 countries whereas only 4 voted to support them: themselves, of course, the USA and two paltry little island groups in the middle of the Pacific that even I have never heard of); Pakistan has become America's newest best friend in the "War On Terror", getting hundreds of millions of dollars in aid every year; and India has just been granted a deal to buy nuclear technology from the States. It seems that instead of punishing countries that develop nuclear weapons they are being rewarded for it. Then, if one were to look at things from the Iranian point of view, the Americans have just invaded two neighbouring countries and installed favourable governments. They have military bases in Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkey, Georgia, Tajikistan, Qatar, Kuwait, Diego Garcia and Saudi Arabia, completely encircling them. Christ, even I'd be more than a little paranoid under the circumstances. Or, as one Indian general said, when asked what he had learnt after the first Gulf War, "don't fight the Americans without The Bomb."

So, what's the answer? I'm not sure (I'm not even sure there was a question). But I think this shows that the current situation is more complicated than we might be led to believe. I also think that Iran (and Iranians) can feel justifiably hard done by in their dealings with America and have legitimate grievances. But most of all I think it shows that in diplomacy and politics, an area where one would hope reason, logic and common sense prevail the actions of countries, and their leaders, are more like squabbling children: America, because it was ignominiously kicked out of Iran, still bears a grudge and would like to get its own back (just like with its embargo on Cuba, still going strong almost 50 years after the revolution whilst the rest of world has moved on in its relations with the island); and Iran, because it is feeling forced to do something, refuses all the more vehemently even though the course of action may be in everyone's best interests. But most of all I think the hypocrisy, double standards and refusal to admit mistakes and apologise of the Western powers leads to resentment in developing countries (where people know their history).