Monday, February 28, 2011

Unexpected Diversity

Iran is by no means a homogeneous country by any measure. We've already covered the landscape and climate, but the people are a mixed bag too. Only half of the population are ethnically Persian. Another quarter are Azeri (known locally as Turks) with the other quarter made up of a motley crew of Kurds, Lors, Bakhtiari, Turkmen, Arabs, Laks, Baluchis and Mazandaranis. During this little jaunt down to the south I've met most of these different ethnic groups and although they all have their own languages, cultures and histories there is a uniting factor amongst them, and that is their Iranian identity. This pride goes far deeper than religion and the current Islamic regime and its ubiquitous slogans and propaganda: even fervent Muslims will often have a pendant or sticker on their car of a farohar, an old Zoroastrian symbol. More than once I've heard people say that they are Muslim in name only and that in fact they identify more closely with the tenets of the older, indigenous religion (for non-Muslims the bureaucratic machine can pose unwelcome hurdles). The biggest holiday is also No Ruz, a spring festival that predates Islam by millennia and which the ayatollahs, much like the Muslims who conquered 13 centuries ago, strove to ban when they initially came to power, but without success. The following encounters are a sample of the seemingly contradictory cross-section that there is within Iranian society.

A farohar over the lintel of a Zoroastrian temple in Yazd. The symbol, although religious, has been adopted by Persians, proud of their non-Arab heritage, as a national symbol.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011


In all my previous visits to Iran I had never visited the Gulf coast. This is mainly because I had always come during my summer holidays, and in summer the Gulf is as hot as Hades and horribly humid to boot. Unbearable. Instead winters are balmy and pleasant

Along the coast the landscape is dominated by dry, rocky mountains, with the occasional village eking out a living from fishing or an isolated palm grove or, that local standby, an oil well. Despite the barrenness of the landscape there is a mesmerising beauty to it too, which is particularly evident on the islands of Hormoz and Qeshm, where vegetation plays a cameo role. Instead strange geological processes have created a dry dreamscape of multicoloured mountains and narrow canyons crafted by the wind. The Hormozis are so proud of their many-coloured sands that they've even incorporated them into their local cuisine: a popular speciality is called sooragh and is composed of fish and fine red sand mixed together and left to ferment in a jar for a few months. Naturally we had to buy some (I'm just lucky that I'm allergic to fish as it really smelt foul).

A narrow canyon on Qeshm, sculpted by wind-blown sand.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Kaluts And Castles

The past few days have been a demonstration of the diversity, both natural and human, that is to be found in Iran. I had been to Kerman before, but I hadn't really strayed from the main northwest-southeast axis, and this time I wanted to correct that. My first goal was to visit the kaluts in the Lut desert to the north. The kaluts are the largest expanse of yardangs in the world (For those who aren't aware, including me, as I had to look this up too, yardangs are sand and rock formations that are caused by unidirectional prevailing winds in deserts, which create long ridges that can be tens of metres high and hundreds long. For more info click here.). To get an idea of the vastness of the area covered by the kaluts check these co-ordinates on Google Earth, and then zoom out to see what looks like the traces of a god's combing of the desert. From Kerman the road passes through a spur of the Zagros mountains which rise up to over 4000m. So despite the southerly latitude (it's at the same level as Cairo) there was still plenty of fresh snow around. The day we went was the 22nd of Bahman (11th of Feb), the anniversary of the Revolution, and a public holiday. The road was packed with cars crammed full of people and a fair number, for some strange reason, had inflated inner tubes from truck tyres lashed to their roofs. The purpose became clear as we reached the col and saw the road swarming with soldiers. The road had been turned into an impromptu car park as local Kermanis took advantage of the double blessing of a holiday and snow to head to the mountains for fun and frolics in the snow - the inner tubes are used as sleds. The soldiers were there to try and keep some semblance of order to the traffic, an almost impossible task with Iranian drivers even at the best of times. Less than an hour later we were at a road junction in the desert with a sign indicating a dirt track to the "hottest place on earth". I would have dearly liked to go there but unfortunately you need a guide and a 4WD - sadly our trusty Pride wasn't going to cut the mustard. Instead we carried on to the kaluts, which straddle the road for kilometres on either side forming an eery landscape of protruding rocks and nature's sandcastles.

The otherworldly landscape of the kaluts.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Road Trippin'

One of the things I had wanted to do whilst here in Iran was to head south to the Gulf. Firstly because it's a part of the country I have not really seen, and secondly because winter is the best time of year to visit, when the temperature and humidity are bearable. Normally I would travel by public transport, but as my father has also come over and wants to travel with me I thought that it would be more interesting to make it into a road trip by taking my mum's dinky little Kia Pride, the workhorse of Iranian passenger vehicles, on an epic tour of Iran.

An extraordinary Martian landscape just off the road in the middle of the kavir.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

TV Politics

In a few days I plan to head south to discover explore some parts of Iran that I have yet to see, but in the meantime my days are mainly spent working on my pictures (less than 1500 to go now). The TV is often on in the background, which is something of a novelty as I rarely have the opportunity, or even feel the need, to watch TV whilst travelling. Like everyone else in Iran we have satellite, even though it is illegal, and so have been listening to the news quite regularly. These are certainly interesting times to be in the Middle East as revolutions rock Tunisia and Egypt. Personally I am very happy that the people of these countries are managing to overthrow their brutal governments and I wish them better ones in the future (and if the protests spread to other countries in the region then so much the better, as there isn’t a single one that has a legitimately fair and representative government, not even Israel or Lebanon).
The reactions of other countries has also been fascinating in terms of worldwide realpolitik. The West, and most notably America, have been very muted in their response because these were secular dictatorships propped up by Western money and influence. The paradox and hypocrisy of Us calling for greater democracy and freedoms in the wider world whilst supporting such regimes is blatantly apparent to the people of the region. Last week Obama called for “restraint from both parties” in Egypt, somehow implying that the ordinary people, who after 30 years of repression were protesting for their basic civil rights and an end to the endemic corruption of the Mubarak government, were somehow as much to blame as the latter. Such pussyfooting about has left a vacuum where opportunists have stepped in: the Iranian government is claiming the protests are inspired by the revolution of ’79.
And therein lies the crux of what I see as the fatal flaw in America’s dealing with other countries, especially those of the Middle East. They spout rhetoric about democracy, moral high-grounds and universal human rights, and yet they back unsavoury regimes for the sake of expediency, believing that the ends justify the means. Unfortunately for them, when the ends are ethics and the rule of law, the means are the ends. By that I mean that you cannot act immorally to promote the spread of justice and morality. By doing so you undermine any credibility you might have. Every regime here is pretty much equally corrupt, venal, oppressive and unfair. But by labelling some as “good” and others as “bad” based solely on how much the regime toe’s Washington’s line, yet couching the rhetoric in human rights, America ends up alienating the local population who are far more savvy about world politics than their Western peers. And so you get the surreal situation, where the Iranian regime, which is far from democratic, is supporting pro-democracy protests in a country that has long been an adversary, whilst America, the leader of the “free world”, is praising an oppressive dictator and seeking to keep him in power.
Similarly, if you compare the reaction from foreign powers to the protests both in Tunisia and Egypt to those in Iran a couple of years back there is a world of difference. Back then they were incredibly vocal in their support of the protesters’ rights and demands and did their utmost to ensure that communication was maintained via the internet and other media. Now, when the Egyptian authorities have taken the unprecedented step of blocking off the entire internet in the country there was barely a peep to be heard.
Geopolitics really is depressing when you start looking at it closely.