Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Life Is A Picnic (But Then Again Sometimes It Isn't)

The No Ruz (New Year) holidays were the perfect opportunity to visit my extended family in Tabriz. Although my immediate uncles and cousins are from Tehran the family is originally from Azerbaijan (not to be confused with the country of the same name, which traditionalist Azeris claim has stolen their identity). I love going up there as I get swamped in various second and third cousins numerous times removed, all laughing, smiling, joking. I don't get much of what's going on as everyone is speaking Turkish (Azeri) and I understand very little of what's going on, although pertinent exchanges get translated into Farsi for me. Not that it matters much as my main preoccupation is trying not to burst from all the baghlava, dried fruit and nuts, kebabs, sweets, rice and dolme that is coming from all angles as I'm carted from one family get-together to another. Luckily I do know how to say yemiram (I can't eat) to counter the insistent cries of ye! ye! (eat! eat!) of Azeri matrons for whom hospitality is second nature.

Typical Iranian picnic: park car by side of the road, unload boot, grill kebabs right there.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

An Ode To Tehran

Tehran is a huge, sprawling mess of a city. With an official population of 8.5 million, and an unofficial one pushing 14 million, it is a choking nexus of cars, buses and jostling humanity, all elbowing each other to get ahead. It takes forever to get anywhere; bureaucracy is rude and stifling; prices are prohibitive; people are perennially bad-tempered; and the air pollution is amongst the worst in the world (at least it used to be a few years back, though it’s getting better of late). Nobody could mistake it for a beautiful city.

From the northern suburbs of Tehran you can very quickly find yourself in wild, mountain landscapes (though you can still spy the city down the valley through the haze).

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A Fire That Can't Be Put Out

If you were to have walked the streets of Tehran last night you would have been forgiven for thinking that there was a civil war going on: bonfires were burning in many streets, riot police were out in force and explosions could be heard throughout the city. However this was just a standard Charshanbe Suri in the Islamic Republic. As I mentioned previously, the biggest holiday in Iran is No Ruz, or Persian New Year, which takes place on the spring equinox (usually the 21st of March). The festival predates Islam by about a couple millennia and is intricately related to pagan and Zoroastrian purification rites. Due to its non-Islamic roots the current regime frowns upon its celebration, especially the more exuberant parts, most notably Charshanbe Suri.

A traditional haft sin table with ritual objects to symbolise health, wealth and happiness for the coming year.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Off Road

Many Westerners think that Iran is a dangerous country to visit, fearing terrorists, Islamist violence, corrupt officialdom and rampant theft. Unless they are really stupid and go mouthing off about the regime to all and sundry their fears are very much misplaced. Nevertheless there are a couple of real dangers whilst in Iran: being suffocated by the overwhelming hospitality, and being run over by a crazy Iranian driver. Although I enjoyed the road trip I was also a little glad to get back to Tehran in one piece and ensconce myself in the traffic-free zone of our apartment.

Luckily the roads in the desert interior of Iran are relatively empty.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Kurds Away

Our last stop on our little road trip was the Howraman valleys in Kurdistan close to the Iraqi border. From the mountains of Luristan the route wound northwards to the mountains of Kurdistan. Finally, as opposed to most of the mountains in Iran which are separated by wide, flat valleys, here they were squeezed together to form proper, vertiginous mountain valleys more reminiscent of the Hindu Kush.

The mountain road from Nosud to Nodesheh rises to over 2000m with stunning views over the nearby mountains and the Iraqi border just down the valley.