Monday, July 31, 2006

Getting High In Iran

One thing I really like about Iran is that almost every town sits below its very own mountain (range) so that, of one were so inclined, all you need is a short bus or taxi ride and you can start heading off into beautiful countryside, clean air and lovely views. Many Iranians take advantage of this and so mountaineering is one of the most popular sports activities in the country, practised by both men and women alike as it is one of the few sports where hijab is not really much of a hindrance. I haven't really made full use of the fantastic mountains presented to me (only going to the mountains beside Tehran and Hamedan), but I made up for my lacunae by going for the mother of them all, Mount Damavand. At 5671m, not only is it the highest mountain in Iran and the Middle East, but it is also taller than any mountain in Europe (beating Mt Elbrus by some 40m). The dormant volcano sits head and shoulders above its surrounding Alborz range and holds a special place in the Iranian psyche, akin to Fuji for the Japanese and Olympus for the Greeks. Many important legends revolve around the mountain, for example it is the site of Arash the archer's heroic sacrifice and is also home to the mythical giant bird Simorgh.

So, on Saturday morning, after having suitably kitted myself out by borrowing gloves from my cousin, sunscreen from my aunt, a jacket from my mum and a last minute purchase of a walking stick from a sports shop (which would prove to be a very useful acquisition), I set off for the fabled mountain. Getting to the main base camp at 3000m of Gusfand Sara (living up to its name of Goat Gathering Place) was easy enough, involving various buses and share taxis. From there it was another 1100m to the second base camp. By the time I reached it I had a bit of a headache from the heavy backpack and altitude and was beginning to think that an acclimatisation climb, to get used to the thin air, beforehand would not have been such a bad idea. But I had the whole afternoon and night to sleep it off and try and get my body to work normally. Upon waking up the next morning at 4am I was feeling much better and was greeted by the sublime sight of seeing the fluffy cumulus clouds spread out below me like a warm, fluffy sea. I had joined up with a few other climbers, and together the eight of us (of whom 3 were women, and 3 had never been up before) at 5am to make the most of the good weather, which generally lasts until noon. What I lacked in experience, preparedness, equipment and skill I made up for with copious amounts of food: dried figs and mulberries, raisins, almonds, bread, cheese and a large tub of pasta salad comprising my armoury (causing one of my fellow-climbers to call me Mr. Supermarket). The going was painfully slow, though in hindsight it was probably a good thing as it lessened the strain on my circulatory system which, by 5000m was trying to tell me something when the altitude caused me to have an almost permanent head-rush. By 5400m a headache had also made itself at home in my skull. The going, however, was not in the least technical and relatively simple, except for the last couple of hundred metres where the going was through fine, volcanic ash that caused you to slip down a metre for every two climbed. But we were lucky with the weather which held, and though the wind was strong and kept whipping fine, gritty sand into our mouths, eyes and ears (I'm still dislodging some now, two days, and a shower, later), it was constant and bearable. Perhaps most fortunate of all was the fact that the noxious, sulphuric fumes that the dormant, but not quite dead, volcano constantly emits were relatively weak that day. We eventually reached the rim of the crater, lined by yellow and greenish sulphur rocks and were greeted, not by a sign saying "congratulations you've reached the top" or even one just stating the altitude, but instead, in a sheltered grotto, the first thing we saw was a macabre menagerie of freeze-dried sheep (and perhaps other animals, though I didn't bother checking too carefully) that had been overcome by the fumes and died on this desolate summit. After about 20 minutes on the summit the weather started to turn and decided to head down again. The ash that had made going so tough on the way up was perfect for what Iranians call shen eski, or sand skiing, whereby you take big leaps letting the sliding sand to carry you softly along. So the top part, which took over an hour to negotiate on the way up, was dismissed in under 5 minutes. Easy come, easy go I suppose. Upon returning to the camp many people were complaining of sore eyes from the fumes, but I didn't understand what they were talking about ... until I took out my contact lenses, which caused the sulphur to react with the water on my eyes and produce sulphuric acid. The condition is not helped when you wipe your eyes with fingers also covered in sulphur.

Despite the hardships of altitude, sore legs and sulphur (the first two being attributable to my complete lack of preparation which should be prerequisite for climbing such a high mountain that continues to claim lives of mountaineers every year) the buzz from reaching the summit was undeniably worth it, and has perhaps instilled in me a too-great a sense of ability in myself. So keep reading to see how and when I inevitably come crashing back to reality.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Tiring Of Taarof

It is a well known fact that Iranians are generous to a fault, thinking nothing of inviting complete strangers to dinner, giving copiously to charity and fighting pitched battles over being able to pay for a meal (the custom of splitting bills is almost unheard of). Along with this open-heartedness (open-walletedness?) goes a great deal of cultural etiquette and formal language known as taarof. It is the polite, ceremonial to-ing and fro-ing between a host and his guest, whereby the latter must refuse anything offered to him and the former must insist upon its acceptance. This charade goes on for as long as unnecessary and is extremely irritating for me because, not only is a complete waste of time, but it also means that it is impossible to recognise genuine refusal. For example if I am offered some food that I honestly dislike I am sometimes forced to eat it anyway because, after my tenth, polite, refusal has been swept aside with another, more forceful, offer, I just give up. Or when you have to pay for things. A fair price for a fair service (be it a taxi ride or buying a chunk of cheese) is what makes the world go round, but can be difficult to get here in Iran. And, strange as it may seem, not because people are trying to rip you off, but because the first response to any queries about how much something costs is ghabeleh nadareh (loosely translated as "think nothing of it"). It takes a lot of cajoling to get a decent figure. I've often been tempted to just say "OK mate" and walk out without paying.

Another aspect of this etiquette-ish rigmarole is greetings. When Iranians meet each other a simple salam (hello) rarely suffices. Various more or less intricate greetings formulations are strung together in a random order, each side taking it in turns to come up with a new incantation (slightly akin to a word association game, or, for Brits of my generation, Mallet’s mallet). This also takes as long as unnecessary, which makes TV and radio phone-in programmes hilarious as callers end up asking the health of every member of the panel and wishing them (and their extended family) prosperity, health and happiness for at least 5 minutes before actually asking their main question or making their point. One common such greeting is khasteh nabasheen (may you not be tired). Indeed, khasteh (tired) is the worst thing one can be in polite society. It can express annoyance, anger and dislike as well as tiredness and hosts continually ask to assure themselves that their guests are not khasteh. Needless to say I’m getting rather khasteh of the whole farce myself.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Proportionate Response?

I don't normally talk about current news events in my posts, but the latest developments in the Middle East have hit a raw nerve with me. A raid by Hezbollah on an Israeli army post, killing 8 and capturing 2, precipitated a response from the Israelis whereby they have, in 10 days, killed over 300 civilians (of which over 100 were children), completely isolated the country and destroyed much of its civilian infrastructure (roads, bridges, dams, power stations, etc.) in almost indiscriminate bombing raids and made half a million people refugees in their own country. Now this has made me angry on several levels. Firstly the loss of innocent, civilian life on both sides of the border. But the number is far greater amongst the Lebanese, which brings me onto the complete lack of proportion of this military response. And although I do not condone the Hezbollah action that started this whole thing off, it was an attack against a military position, which can, in a way be justified. But by retaliating against an country and punishing the entire population is not only wrong, but against international law (not to mention the bounds of basic human compassion). Perhaps worse, however, is the response from the international community. The Americans just sit back and blithely trot out that Israel is "justified in defending itself", whilst the other major powers exert considerable resources to the evacuation of their own citizens they are weak in their condemnation of the brutal and overwhelming force used, as if the lives of the Lebanese were worth a pittance compared to their own nationals. This complete lack of care is demonstrated by the international media (such as, but not limited to, the BBC) who devote far more airtime to the evacuation rather than the plight of Lebanon. The media here in Iran, on the other hand, are having a field day, repeatedly showing images of burning houses, bloodied survivors, rows of coffins and pounding jets and tanks. And for once they don't even need to twist or exaggerate the truth to suit their agenda (ironically, one radio programme was even quoting from the Torah to demonstrate Israeli hypocrisy). Which shows that such forceful, unilateral measures are ultimately counterproductive for the Israelis themselves as it feeds the anti-Zionist propaganda and recruits thousands of willing volunteers to fight them (and the Americans in Iraq, for all the conflicts in the Middle East are inevitably linked to this one issue) and to continue this never-ending spiral of hate. Unfortunately it seems to be a prerequisite that politicians throughout the world lack the moral rectitude needed to resolve such conflicts by facing up to facts, admitting shameful truths and making painful concessions. This is especially true of Western politicians who fail to realise that, since we are in a position of power and privilege, we need to be the ones to give way first and lead by example. Sadly they (and by extension, we) are far too short-sighted and can only see as far as tomorrow's gains instead of understanding that a loss now is doubly rewarded later.

P.S. I am also deeply annoyed for purely selfish reasons as I was planning on travelling back home via Lebanon and Syria, which is looking less and less likely every day.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Life Is A Picnic (Sometimes)

Of the countries I've visited so far Iran probably ranks bottom in the night-life stakes. No clubs, no discos, no pubs, no bars and no decent films in the cinemas. Little is left to young Iranians but to cruise around the streets in their cars or hang out in juice shops and ice-cream parlours (the unlikely, yet surprisingly good, combo of carrot juice and ice-cream seems to be the flavour of the month). Due to the lack of recreational opportunities spend their time scooting from one family gathering to another (leading to traffic jams in Tehran at midnight), attending private parties at night or picnicking during the day. The latter being something of a craze in the country. On Thursdays and Fridays (the weekend over here) Iranian families pack up some victuals and head for a patch of green to set up camp for the day. Parks are most popular, but mosque courtyards, riverbanks, forests and even roundabouts and motorway verges are used for these family outings And it's not just a couple of sarnies in a lunch box; these people come prepared. Portable barbecues, kebabs, at least a couple thermoses of tea (or better yet, a samovar), china tea sets, boxes of sugar cubes, several kilos of fruit and anything else that isn't really essential.

One place I saw many such picnickers was at the Ali Sadr caves close to Hamedan. A hugely popular local attraction they make a welcome change from the usual Iranian fare of mosques, museums, mausoleums and (m)ruins. The extensive cave system is filled with water in many places so you get ferried around in boats strung behind a guide on a pedalo who points out various rock formations that have been given names (written on little boards in both Farsi and English) of things they do not in the least resemble. There is, however, one majestic, large, phallic, stalactite that, for some reason, has not been given a name despite bearing more than a passing resemblance to a part of one's body (if one happens to be male, that is). But, just so that visitors do not forget that they are in the Islamic Republic there are several helpful signs with passages from the Koran or suitably appropriate messages such as "freedom and adornment are both the secrets of hejab". I wasn't quite sure whether that was meant ironically or not.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Globalisation Is Not A Dirty Word

I've left the Kurds and their trousers behind me and made my way to the city of Hamedan, which used to be the ancient city of Ecbatana and another of Alexander's conquests during his campaigns. As befits such a historic place there are the prerequisite ruins (more walls), the mausoleum of Esther (from the bible, though it's ironic that such an important Jewish memorial is off limits to Israelis!) as well as various Achaemenid vestiges dotted around the countryside, most notably a frieze left by Darius at Bisotun in which he writes (at length) all the countries he has conquered, battles he has won, and asses he has kicked. It is particularly important because the inscriptions are written in 3 languages and was used to decipher the old cuneiform scripts (much like the Rosetta Stone was used for Egyptian hieroglyphs). The site would be more impressive if old Darius hadn't decided to place the carvings 100m up a sheer rock face so that we could see them better.

Hamedan itself is a bustling city with a pleasant climate at this time of the year (compared to most of the rest of the country) due to its relatively high altitude. If you spend any time in Hamedan you cannot ignore Hamedan's most famous citizen, Abū Alī al-Husayn ibn Abd Allāh ibn Sīnā, or just Bu Ali Sina for short (so that his name can fit onto street signs). Most people in the West know him by his latinised name Avicenna. The Islamic world's very own da Vinci Ali Sina, who lived during the 11th century, wrote books on theology, philosophy, mathematics and logic, though he is most well known for his book The Cannon of Medicine, which, once the Europeans had finally left the Dark Ages, was used as the authoritative medical textbook well into the 17th century and is known as the "Father of Medicine". Which leads me onto today's rant about anti-globalisation.

OK, that might be a leap of reasoning too far. The reasoning behind it is that globalisation, a horribly vague term that is used so often in the media that everybody assumes they know what it means but aren't really sure when asked directly, is the spreading of not just economic principles, but also culture and ideas across borders. And it isn't a new phenomenon. For most of history the traffic has mostly been one-way: from east to west. Paper, gunpowder, the decimal numeral system and every world religion, to name but a few, are all Asian inventions. It wasn't until the industrial revolution that the flow reversed. So when people claim about modern "western medicine" being forced upon people instead of using traditional "eastern medicine" they fail to realise that modern medicine is "eastern". And perhaps many of the aspects of the western cultural hegemony that are being decried are gaining ground, not because of some vast conspiracy, but because they are truly popular and they appeal to people. It's just that I've come across quite a few travellers who reject everything Western as being intrinsically bad and everything Eastern as good. Though I blame the perversion of the word globalisation on the media who have tried to find an easily-recognisable term for a band of disparate pressure groups whose only thing in common is their dissatisfaction with an aspect of today's society/economy and so they call them "anti-globalisation" activists (instead of "anti-farm subsidies" or "anti-free market trade", which, admittedly, is more of a mouthful). But without globalisation I wouldn't be able to write this blog (no internet), be able to travel, talk to people from diverse backgrounds about world politics, or do pretty much any of the things I like. So, although there are a lot of things wrong with the world today, the fact that people around the world have more in common and are able to understand each other slightly better is not one of them. Perhaps we need more globalisation?

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Baggy Trousers

I may be out of Azerbaijan but I still don't understand what people are saying. I have now moved south out of Azerbaijan and am in Sanandaj, the regional capital of Kordestan region. The Kurds are among the oldest, remaining inhabitants of the region, but are split by international boundaries that cut through the heart of their lands (Kurds are spread between Iran, Turkey, Iraq and Syria). As such they are possibly the largest ethnic group without a homeland, despite having been promised one at the Treaty of Sèvres after World War I. But more on Kurdish politics later, probably when I get to Turkey. The Kurds themselves are generally easy to recognise as they still often wear their distinctive traditional dress: large, baggy trousers that reach well above their navels for the men; and dark, floral-patterned, billowing dresses for the women. Both sexes wear wide sashes around their waists and wrap tassled scarves round their heads. This is also the one place in Iran where you are likely to see people with light-brown or even ginger hair, traits that, though rare, are found amongst the Kurdish population. Many Kurds still practise transhumance and their large tents can be seen on hilltop pasturelands as you drive through western Iran.

The trip south from Azerbaijan to Kordestan is interesting as one can see remnants of the many cultures that have resided in, and influenced, the region. Armenian churches in the far north, ancient Urartian or Assyrian ruins, and later Mongol forts to name but a few. All this in an undulating landscape of golden wheat and rich, brown, freshly ploughed soil. The top draw, though, has to be the Sassanian ruins at Takht-e Soleiman (Solomon's Throne). The countryside around it is dotted with old, extinct volcanoes and the fortification surrounds a crater with its own lake and spring. Beside it are the remains of the main Zoroastrian temple of the Sassanid empire, though not much remains today. No, the most amazing thing about the ruins of Takht-e Soleiman is a hollow crater some 4km away from the main ruins. From the road it looks like an ordinary mountain. So you start hiking up. And then, all of a sudden, you run out of mountain as a huge, gaping chasm opens up right beneath your feet and plunges straight down some 100m. Welcome to Zendan-e Soleiman, or Solomon's Prison, where the legendary king is said to have imprisoned evil monsters. I don't know about that but it's certainly an impressive sight and I had to exercise utmost control over my sphincter muscles as I leaned over the edge to take a couple of pictures.

Sunday, July 09, 2006


When the Arabs conquered Persia in the 7th century and brought their religion with them there were, understandably, many who fought to resist the invaders. Perhaps the most successful of these fighters was Babak Khorramdin who campaigned against the caliphs in the area that is now called Azerbaijan. He harried the Arabs much like William Wallace did against the English, until he too was betrayed to the enemy and made to die a most unpleasant death by being cut up into little pieces. As such he has, of late, become a symbol for the Azeris of the fight against the suppression of their rights and their culture by the Persian majority (rather ironic given the fact that Babak himself was Persian and the Turkic people, to whom the Azeris class themselves, didn't arrive on the scene until a good 300 years after his death). The ruins of his castle, perched on a craggy, granite extrusion, surrounded by steep mountains is a site of pilgrimage for independence-minded Azeris and Iranians who don't particularly agree with living in a theocracy. The anniversary of Babak's birthday would see hordes of people descending on the beautiful valleys surrounding the castle for several days of festivities. For some reason the authorities were none too happy about this and for the past two years the site has been closed off by the military for a week either side of his birthday. We arrived there the day after the ban was lifted: all the hotels were empty and only a handful of people were making the trek up to the castle. Like despotic regimes everywhere in the world the government here is doing everything to maintain power and stifle dissent. Similarly, about a month ago, there were huge protests in Tabriz. Following the recent trend the spark that ignited them was a cartoon published in a national newspaper that mocked Azeris. The protests quickly grew to encompass dissatisfaction at the economic situation, the low status of the Azeri language (although it is spoken by everyone on the streets it is not taught in schools and there are no publications) and even calls for autonomy and independence. Most Iranians, however, were blissfully unaware that this was happening in their own country as there was a complete media blackout and the region was kept isolated during the riots.

While in northern Iran I did a little pilgrimage of my own to the river Araks (Aras in Farsi) that marks the border between Iran and the ex-Soviet republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan. I have wanted to see the river for almost as long as I can remember as my mother chose it for my Farsi name (many members of my family don't even know that I'm called Erik). I must say that I approve of my mum's choice of river: although it is neither the biggest, nor most famous, river in the world, but what it lacks in scale it makes up with charm. Alternately gushing through steep mountain gorges or meandering along fertile flood plains, the Aras is also thought by some to be the Gihon, one of the four rivers of biblical Eden. Not bad for a little river.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

On The Relative Viscosity Of Blood

Iran's population is a diverse mix of many different ethnic groups, of which Persians comprise only 50% or so. The biggest minority group are the Azeris who make up a quarter of Iran's population, mainly in the northwest of the country. The lilting, softly guttural (if that isn't a contradiction in terms) tones of the Azeri language already envelops you as you step into Tehran's western bus terminal, and by the time you reach Qazvin, some 2 hours further west, you don't hear Farsi any more. Luckily I have contacts. My grandparents were originally from Azerbaijan (the region in Iran, not the ex-Soviet country) and so the majority of my mother's numerous cousins live in Tabriz, the regional capital. It's when I visit the Tabriz clan that I fully appreciate how central the family, and family ties, are to Iranian culture. Despite only having visited Tabriz twice before, my many cousins, variously removed, all seem to have vivid recollections of me and my juvenile antics (which are invariably very embarrassing for me) whereas I'm struggling, and failing, just to remember everybody's names. At least they make the concession to me by speaking mainly in Farsi rather than Azeri which, although I love the sound of it, I don't understand at all. But for me the most wonderful thing is how readily and openly I'm accepted in spite of the fact that I'm only around for a few days and I'm not likely to return for several years at least. It is this unquestioning acceptance that makes family (by which I mean the extended family and ties of relation, rather than the blinkered "mother, father and two kids" nuclear version) such a magical and special thing. And it's sad that such relationships are becoming less and less common as our societies become more and more "advanced".

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Museums And Roundabouts

Tehran, despite being the capital city, is not a particularly touristy city. It has only been the capital for 250 years during the gradual decline from empire to today's Islamic Republic. Before then it was quite an unimportant provincial trading centre and has recently mushroomed into a huge metropolis. Therefore the city has no real sights as such, but it makes up for its lack of heritage by having a dazzling array of museums to suit all tastes and inclinations. It has a great archaeology museum with artefacts dating back as far as the 6th millennium B.C. (as well as the requisite statues, clay pots and ancient domestic flotsam); a carpet museum; ceramics museum; national jewels museum, with more glitter and gold than you can shake a jewelled sceptre at (including the world’s largest pink diamond in the world); various royal ex-residences; and plenty of fine arts galleries. So, whilst waiting for my Azerbaijani visa I've been frequenting the odd one or two that have piqued my interest (when I've managed to get out of bed in time that is). One that I quite wanted to visit, but couldn't due to its being closed for repairs, was the Azadi (freedom) monument. That didn't bother me too much as I wanted to see the monument itself rather than the museum inside. Iranians love roundabouts. It suits their (lack of) driving style (they would never be able to stay still in front of a red light if they saw an inch of free road in front of them). Some countries, like the USA, have no roundabouts at all, but here in Iran they’re everywhere. But bare, round lawns would hurt their aesthetic sensibilities, so every roundabout in the country has some piece of public sculpture in the middle. It doesn't matter what it is as long as there’s something there. I've seen a Mayan pyramid, statues of doves in flight, giant, concrete sunflowers, strange geometric motifs, and plenty of water features, but the Azadi monument is the mother of them all. Standing 45m tall, like a white, inverted Y, the undeniably graceful structure dominates the western entrance to the city and would make a nice picnic spot if it wasn't also the main transport junction of the city.

The man at the Azadi museum was very apologetic about the closure and, upon learning that I was foreign, launched into a litany about how such a thing wouldn't be allowed to happen in Europe and how under this regime things don’t work properly. Barely a day goes by without a mundane encounter being peppered with complaints against the mullahs (taxi drivers are particularly forthcoming, though hoteliers, shopkeepers and even policemen join in too). One would perhaps expect people to be more cautious of voicing their opinions for fear of getting into trouble from Big Brother (one travelling couple I met haven't updated their blog because they are worried that the authorities might be monitoring them), but it is impossible to quell the discontent of the masses, who are generally well-educated, often have family or friends abroad, and yet are unable to find decent jobs. As so very often happens, the dislike of the ruling autocracy has little to do with ideology and democracy and more to do with economics. Well, that and the inability of young men to be able to change girlfriends every day "like you do in Europe" (unfortunately their view of life in the West is based on raunchy music videos and American soaps).