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Sunday, June 01, 2008

Drastic Change of Plans/Shortened Stay in Iran/More Tales of Iran and Kind Iranians

Went to the Foreign Affairs Department as indicated on my edition of the LP Guide. Singaporeans get 15 days visa-free entry into Iran. I intend to stay 18 days in Iran and so need a 3-days extension. When I reached the location as indicated in LP, I could not find it. As I walked around the vicinity in search of the office, a man in a car parked nearby asked what I was after. He then offered to drive me around to search for the office. Hamid was actually an air force pilot waiting for his wife to finish her university exams (- Esfahan University is nearby). We drove round the area but couldn't find the place. We then came across an old man who said that the department had moved to another location at the other hand of town. So we drove across town to the new office of the Foreign Affairs office and Hamid dropped me there after providing me with his contact details in case I needed further help. Amazing kindness, isn't it?
Unfortunately, I was told by the officers there they only have authority to extend issued visas, not visa-free entry. They asked me to go to Tehran to extend my stay. This was really strange as I have Singapore friends who had extended their visa-free entry in other cities without problems. The situation was not ideal, as I only have 2 working days or less left before next week's long holidays start in Iran. There's originally 2 holidays next week (Khomeini's death anniversary and anniversary of his denunciation of the Shah) but the government has decreed a few more days special holidays so that the people can more properly mourn Khomeini, together with the death of Fatima, the Prophet's daughter, more than 1000 years ago. LP had specifically warned about the slowness and confusion that reign in the Tehran visa office. I have yet to finish seeing Esfahan and would waste more time and hassle in Tehran trying to get the extension if I rush to Tehran tonight. Probably not worth the effort.
Hence I decided to stay in Iran till my final visa expiry date, then leave for Beirut via Bahrain on 4 June. Jazeera and Air Arabia flights out of Iran were all fully booked – it's holiday week and all those who could afford it were all travelling either within or outside the country. I contemplated visiting Ahwaz in the southwest (Khuzestan) but flights there and to Tehran were full too. So I had to give up going to Ahwaz. I bought a 7hour bus ticket to Tehran instead – in case even bus tickets run out during holiday season too!
Afternoon was spent checking out the picturesque bridges along the river – clear blue skies today – Imam Mosque and also Joffa Armenian Quarter. Vanks Cathedral was amazing – brightly coloured frescoes and well preserved too. The style was a unusual mix between Western and Persian art styles. Really cool.
Imam Mosque – impressive but unfortunately, tents and scaffolding in the entire courtyard perhaps preparing for the mass sermon for the occasion of Khomeini's death anniversary. Makes photography difficult.
In the evening, I met Tibeh again. We walked along the river admiring the famous bridges in moonlight. Then she bought me a light dinner. Very friendly people.
On a few occasions, I came across Iranians who have "oriental" looks. I realized who they were when someone asked if I was Hazara, a Shia tribe in Afghanistan who were supposedly descendants of Genghis Khan's Mongol army. The Hazara have the East Asian looks and live in Bamiyan Valley (in Hazarajat region) where the giant Buddhas used to be before they were destroyed by the Taleban.
Despite the various restrictions the Islamic Republic imposes on Iranian women, such as the requirement to wear the hejab which is one of the most impracticable and crippling clothing ever invented, and various social restrictions that limit the Iranian woman's social circle (for instance, they are not allowed to be in the company of an unrelated male without the presence of other people), I have found Iranian women rather daring in approaching and talking to me on the streets. Some of them spoke fairly good English and allowed me to take photos of them. I attribute this to the self-confidence and independence acquired through education. There are more women than men in Iranian universities and the long-standing emphasis on education among the Iranians has probably brushed aside what religious inhibitions that might exist.
In contrast, Arab women in the other Middle East countries, despite not having major legal restrictions on social behavior or dressing, are a lot more meek and wary of the foreigner. Few have confidence even to greet or do small talk with foreigners. Fewer Arab women go to higher education and the social conservativism that exists prevents them from displaying significant independence.

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