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Thursday, June 05, 2008

Iran Part 2: The Iran of Poets, Wine & Women

Iran Part 2: The Iran of Poets, Wine & Women
I got onto the 9am bus to Esfahan, whose inhabitants called it ¡°Half the World¡±, on account of its grand monuments and aesthetic urban design. Once again, the bus travelled through over 400km of wild, dramatic landscapes which included the dry ranges of the Zagros Mountains, desert wastes, dry grasslands and fertile oases and river valleys.
I arrived in Esfahan¡¯s southern Soffeh Bus Terminal punctually at 4pm. I got onto a local taxi to Persia Hotel on the main thoroughfare, Chahar Bagh Abbasi St. The taxi skirted around a huge chunk of this enormous modern city to get to the destination. A modern ring road and expressway system helps to manage traffic flow ¨C needless to say, I was suitably impressed.
I love the tree-lined streets of Esfahan and the many shops on both sides of Chahar Bagh Abbasi St. Esfahan also seemed to get a lot of domestic tourists ¨C one must not forget Iran has 75 million inhabitants, hence domestic tourism is huge for this middle income country (Iran¡¯s GDP per capita of US$12,000 on PPP basis is just below Malaysia¡¯s).
Singapore is not at all unknown to Iranians, as we are to most of West Africa. In Iran, I have come across quite a few people who had either been to Singapore or have family who had. They seemed to like the orderliness and cleanliness but complained about high cost of visiting Singapore. I have also met at least two retired sailors who had sailed to Singapore a number of times.
I visited the magnificent Imam Khomeini Square. It was huge and beautiful, and I would return a few times during my stay in Esfahan, to look at the changing light and evolving colours. Thursday evening was when families come to picnic on the square¡¯s grassy patch ahead of Friday rest day. Friendly Esfahani invited me to join them and I did joined one particular family ¨C mainly ladies in hejab. They could not speak a lot of English but we managed it anyway. They fed me with bread-cheese rolls, sweets, desserts and endless cups of tea. There were also others who did small talk or beckoned me to join them. The hospitality was quite overwhelming. One could just walk around and get fed by random people. Indeed, over the next few days during my four-day stay in Esfahan, I would be invited to endless cups of tea by Iranians on this spectacular square.
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I walked into a 5-star hotel to check out a bookshop, only to be invited by the banquet manager for snacks, tea and desserts even though he knew I wasn¡¯t a guest and am staying at a US$16 place. He showed me around the hotel¡¯s panoramic rooftop and the garden tea house, and we chatted for a good hour and half.
At the rooftop restaurant, he showed me the banquet hall, divided into two for the different sexes which by law is not allowed to interact. Interestingly, the men¡¯s section had large tables whilst ladies had to content with small side tables probably with enough space only for snacks and desserts. He also showed me the men¡¯s pool ¨C women were naturally segregated too. Men swam in an open pool while women have an indoor pool so that no men could see them. What a waste of resources!
On the historic Si-o-She bridge across the Zayandeh River, I got to know Maryam, an Iranian girl who has just completed her masters and planning to go abroad for a PhD. What was even more coincidental was that she was the same person Raj mentioned a few days ago. He had told me how intelligent and hospitable she was. We had a long chat and she walked me around half of Esfahan.
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Singaporeans get 15 days visa-free entry into Iran. I intend to stay 18 days in Iran and so need a 3-days extension from the Foreign Affairs Department in Esfahan. When I reached the location as indicated in my guidebook, 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 an air force pilot waiting for his wife to finish her exams at the university premises nearby. We drove round the area but could not 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. Could you find such kindness anywhere else in the world?
Unfortunately, I was told by the Foreign Affairs 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 there were only have two working days left before the following week¡¯s long holidays started in Iran. Originally, there were to be two holidays the following week ¨C anniversaries of Khomeini¡¯s death and that of Khomeini¡¯s denunciation of the Shah - but the government had decreed a few more days special holidays so that the people could more properly mourn Khomeini, together with the death of Fatima, the Prophet¡¯s daughter, who died 19 years and more than 1000 years ago respectively.
My guidebook had specifically warned about the slowness and confusion that reign in the Tehran visa office, where any form of visa extension might take as many as 5 days to process. If I were to rush to Tehran that night to try get the visa-free extension before the holiday week began, I would have missed seeing all the sights I had yet to visit in Esfahan and would probably have to spent two more full days of hassle in Tehran trying to get a three day extension. Not worth the effort at all.
Hence I decided to stay in Iran till my final visa expiry date, and then leave on Gulf Air for Beirut via Bahrain at 23:55 on 4 June, mere 5 minutes before my visa-free stay expired. Iran Air, Jazeera Airways and Air Arabia flights out of Iran were all fully booked ¨C it¡¯s holiday week and all those who could afford it were all travelling either within or outside the country.
Many provincials were also travelling to Tehran for pilgrimage at Khomeini¡¯s tomb, officially known as The Imam Khomeini Holy Shrine. I contemplated visiting Ahwaz in the southwest to visit the ancient fortress-pyramids of Mesopotamia but flights there and back to Tehran were full too. So I had to give up going to Ahwaz. I bought a 7 hour bus ticket to Tehran instead ¨C in case even bus tickets run out during holiday season too!
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In the evening, I met Maryam again. We walked along the river admiring the famous bridges in moonlight. Then she bought me a light dinner. Once again, I could not but felt heartened by the hospitality of the Iranian people.
As the next week would be Khomeini¡¯s death anniversary, religious police were patrolling with greater vigor in their cars with green paint and special insignia, looking for single man hanging around with single woman, or people who break the law by dancing or singing. All Iranians were supposed to be mourning for Khomeini the following week and so more religious police were going around to make sure no one was having too much of a good time in public. I asked Maryam if we would run the risk of getting questioned by walking around without her relatives around. She laughed, ¡°I don¡¯t care.¡±
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Esfahan is a city of beautiful bridges that link two halves of the city bisected by Zayandeh River. Esfahanians like to spend their time strolling along the river, or picnic by the green belt on its banks. Every evening, or on the Friday rest day, the river banks are crowded with families and couples. At night, the bridges are lit up to create a most romantic atmosphere.
The cynic, however, would attribute this to the lack of places to hang out in Esfahan, or Iran in general. Most forms of public entertainment are forbidden by the Islamic Republic. Dancing and partying are forbidden. Only men are allowed to sing and only religious songs are allowed. Some members of the religious establishment believe that when women sing, men with a weak mind could be tempted to commit hideous crimes or act in manner deemed indecent by polite society. Tea houses in some places have been shut down, sometimes because they are deemed dodgy places for un-Islamic mixing of different sexes, and sometimes because people smoke water pipes there instead of devoting time to the study of Quran. There are a few cinemas but some clergymen would love to see them closed, as they might prompt naughty un-Islamic values. The naughty ones can buy pirated DVDs or VCDs from many shops and watch them at their home¡¯s privacy. Nothing wrong about piracy as it is the financial loss of already wealthy movie makers of the Great Satan, as America is known as to the regime.
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I visited the Imam Khomeini Square again, and also the monuments around it. Imam Khomeini Mosque ¨C Completed in 1629 during the reign of Shah Abbas the Great, this is one of the most monumental mosques in the world. A pity massive tent and scaffolding has been put up over its entire courtyard for ceremonies relating to the death anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini, obscuring the magnificent inner gateway facades.
Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque on the eastern side of Imam Khomeini Square: I thought I would be tired of mosques by now, but the interior of this mosque really surprised me. No wonder a plaque en-site described it as the most beautiful mosque in the world. The amazing interplay with light and geometrics made this an architectural wonder and an aesthetic beauty. Yes, the plaque is not too far off the truth.
Ali Qapu Palace - Built in the 17th century, this six-storey palace commands a strategic view across the square. It was once renowned for its beautiful frescoes and one of the finest examples of Persian painting and arts during the Golden Age of Abbas Shah. Unfortunately, most of its murals and frescoes were destroyed by Islamist fundamentalists during the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The fundamentalists regarded these murals not as fine art but as pornography, a symbol of the aristocratic ruling class and an abhorrence of Allah¡¯s decree against idol worship and portrayal of human images.

The walls and ceilings of the palace are bare today, except for some colourful floral tiles on the staircase and a few faded frescoes of dancing girls that hinted at the exuberance of what used to exist. I was almost heart-broken when I saw what remained today. Ironically, on the outer walls of the palace are portraits of Supreme Khamenei and Ayatollah Khomeini. I wonder whether the fundamentalists would regard these too to be graven images. An Iranian I met grumbled sarcastically, ¡°Who do they think they are? The new shahs?¡±
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I went south of the river to Jolfa, Esfahan¡¯s Armenian or Christian Quarter. Armenians have always been loyal subjects of the Persian State, from days of the Achaemenids¡¯ Persian Empire to the Islamic Republic. I have seen carvings of Armenian envoys bringing horses and amphoras with griffin-handles as gifts for the Persian kings at the famous 6th century B.C. Apadana Staircase at Persepolis.
Armenian craftsmen and merchants have always been valued by various Persian dynasties. In the 17th century, Shah Abbas the Great transported a large community of Armenians from the city of Old Jolfa (on the border of Iran with Azerbaijan¡¯s Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic) to New Jolfa on the suburbs of his new capital at Esfahan. They were hugely rewarded for their services to the royal court and their religious and trading freedom were safeguarded by generations of shahs through edicts and decrees.
Today, Jolfa¡¯s Armenian inhabitants are distinguished citizens of the Islamic Republic and they have guaranteed representation in the Iranian parliament. Having such supportive Christian citizens also allows the Islamic Republic to boasts of its tolerance towards minority religions and ethnic groups, a privilege which is, however, denied to the Bahais, a religion that appeared in Iran in the 19th century and spread across the world, for instance.
Independent Armenian Republic is also a close unofficial ally of sorts of Iran. I recall seeing Iranian products on sale in the markets of Yerevan, capital of Armenia, and of how Armenians told me that Iran, despite being an Islamic fundamentalist state, is a covert ally of Armenia in its struggle against Muslim Azerbaijan for control over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh. Iran, with an ethnic Azeri population of over 20 million, is always wary of the possibility of independent Azerbaijan claiming Iran¡¯s West and East Azerbaijan provinces, which people in Baku, capital of independent Azerbaijan, called ¡°Southern Azerbaijan¡±. Your enemy¡¯s enemy is my friend ¨C this is the eternal truth in geopolitics. Hence the close links between Iran and Armenia.
Jolfa is today a very fashionable suburb with nice apartment blocks, travel agencies, ethnic restaurants and cafes, boutiques and a few old churches. The Vank Cathedral is an example of a marriage of Persian, Armenian and European architectural and artistic traditions. With its huge mud dome, the cathedral looks like a mosque from afar. Close-up, one sees the cross on top of the dome, plus bell towers typical of a church elsewhere in the world. The inner walls of the main cathedral building are lined with well-preserved frescoes and murals of biblical scenes, coupled with Persian mosaics and tiles of Islamic geometric patterns typical of mosques in Iran.
The cathedral museum, apart from displays of Christian art and everyday church objects, also proudly displays the various decrees and edicts issued by Persian shahs granting rights and privileges to the Armenians, or grants of protection of persons and properties. There is also a gaudy exhibit on the Armenian genocide and of how 1.5 million Armenians were massacred by the Turks in the early 20th century.
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Across shops and bazaars in Iran, one comes across portraits of Imam Husayn, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad. He is usually portrayed as a handsome, dashing figure, sometimes almost Jesus-like, on a horse, or with horsemen behind him. Killed at the battle of Karbala (in today¡¯s Iraq) on 6 October 680 A.D. by soldiers of Yazid I, the Umayyad calip based in Damascus, Husayn is the foremost martyr of Shia Islam, the predominant Islamic sect of Iran. The anniversary of his martyrdom is called Ashura, and it is a day of mourning and religious observance among Shia Muslims. Black flags raised everywhere and processions are held in which participants beat their heads and chests repeatedly, whip themselves and wail to mourn this event that occurred more than 1300 years ago.
Shia Islam sees the family and descendants of Prophet Muhammad as his rightful political and religious heir, whose rightful inheritance of political leadership was robbed by the Umayyads (whose political position is held by today¡¯s Sunni Islam). When in 680 A.D., Husayn and his family and companions ¨C including 72 adult men - marched from Medina to Kufa where many people supported his cause, Yazid I sent an army of 4000 against them.
Husayn and his entourage were besieged on the desert at Karbala, where they ran out of water, and then slaughtered one by one. Eventually, 72 men and 51 children were killed, leaving only a few female members of the Prophet¡¯s family. The Battle of Karbala is a rallying cry for all Shia Muslims, and Shiite account of the battle includes tales of individual bravery, providential acknowledgement of such courage, indescribable cruelty on the side of the enemy Sunnis (involving killing of infants, mutilation, beheading, among other acts).
The martyrs of Karbala, together with other followers and descendants of the Prophet¡¯s family who were killed in subsequent years by the Umayyads, are mourned every year and their shrines have become major pilgrimage centres. The Iranian and Shia calendar is full of numerous of such mourning days that black flags are flown everywhere for large parts of each year. Some say only Noruz, the Iranian New Year, is the only happy day on the Iranian calendar.
Husayn is sometimes shown carrying a baby in his arms, with an arrow through the baby and into his arm. The baby portrayed here is Ali Asghar, Husayn¡¯s infant son. Husayn¡¯s entourage had grown so thirsty during the siege that Husayn carried his son towards the enemy, asking them for water for the children. The enemy commander called on his archers to shoot the two but none dared ¨C one soldier shouted that heaven would damn them if they shot an infant. So the commander lifted a bow and shot an arrow across, which went through the baby and into Husayn¡¯s arm. Ali Asghar is often described in Shia literature as the manifestation of innocence and purity, and his death is seen as the evidence of the cruelty of the Sunnis, who could not even spare a baby.
There was also the story of Husayn¡¯s brother, Abbas, who went to the river in search of water for Husayn and was attacked. His companions were all slaughtered but he managed to get a bag of water and on his way back to the camp, his right hand was cut off in an ambush. The water skin (or bag) was then hung onto his left shoulder (don¡¯t ask me how) as he continued his way back. Then he was attacked again and his left arm severed as well. But he persisted, biting the water skin in his teeth, until an arrow hit and burst the water bag. Another barrage of arrow shot him off his horse. As he died, he called out his brother¡¯s name.
After Husayn was killed in the final battle during which his limbs were severed, he was decapitated and head sent to the Caliph as trophy. His surviving female family members tried to save his torso but the Umayyad soldiers had horses stamped it to dust instead, as Shia accounts bitterly recounted.
There were other stories involving Husayn¡¯s eldest son and horse, plus other individual companions as well, all highlighting their bravery and readiness to die for Husayn and the Prophet¡¯s family. Despite graphic performance of any kind is seen as un-Islamic, passion plays similar to those performed in Christian Europe during the Middle Ages are regularly held in Iran, portraying the battle of Karbala and the terrible martyrdom of Husayn and his family and followers.
As noted in Wikipedia, ¡°The saying, "Every day is Ashura, every land is Karbala," is a reminder to live one's life as Hussein did on Ashura, with total sacrifice to Allah and for others. This saying also signifies "We must always remember, because there is suffering everywhere"¡±
Any Shiite is familiar with these tales and even the less religious among them will get somewhat emotional and charged when recounting this historical event. A young lady I spoke to in Shiraz, who seemed most unreligious and anti-establishment to me, almost choked with emotions and grief as she told me the story of Imam Husayn. This is hardly surprising given the mourning that goes on for much of the year and generation after generation of perpetuating such feelings. The Battle of Karbala will remain a thorn between Sunni and Shia Islam, and between modern nation states such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia on one side (Sunni) and Shiite Iran on the other.
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I visited Golestan-e Shohada in the southern suburbs of Esfahan. This is a cemetery for those who died in the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988. 500,000 people from each side died in this terrible conflict which began when Saddam Hussein of Iraq invaded Iran at the wake of the Iranian Islamic Revolution, with the aim of capturing Iran¡¯s oil rich Khuzestan Province. One whole generation in Iran, i.e., ¡°The Lost Generation¡±, died in this war. Golestan-e Shohada, or Garden of Rose, is Esfahan¡¯s war cemetery. Most of the dead appeared to be young men in their prime, and some tombs even had photos of teenagers and children. It was a moving scene: Elderly ladies placing flowers by the tombs; some whispered the latest news of the family to the long dead husbands; others sat quietly by the resting place of their loved ones, lost in thought.
There were many huge boards with old photos of young men at war. I wonder how many of these are still alive today. Those smiling young faces holding rifles, by the canon, in diving suits, in the swamps¡­ sent to the battle field as canon fodder. Also present were images of the two chief ayatollahs and various patriotic messages rallying for the current regime. One wonders if the war had been fought longer than necessary, and how long the regime can uphold patriotic fervor by constantly reminding the nation of the war.

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