Friday, September 16, 2011

The land formerly known as Persia

Full of the Empty 1998 (the very condensed version)
Funny bus sign.
It was five am, a car horn tooted outside our villa—it was our friendly Kashmiri taxi driver Maruf waiting for us. My friend Brian Rose and I were driven off to the Sharjah International Airport from whence our trip to Iran would begin. I was feeling under the weather so I slept most of the waya rather auspicious way of starting the trip of a lifetime. We had been planning this Iran trip since my good friend George Evashuk first proposed it a year earlier. Truth be told, I had wanted to go to Iran for over 20 years. Because it was Iran, we would be obliged to have a guided tour and the mere thought of a “guided tour” was enough to give me the willies.

Mr. George was waiting for us upon our arriving at the terminal. Before going through the security x—ray machine, he noticed that we didn’t have our internal tickets from Shiraz to Isfahan. Panic set in and we tried to get a hold of our Iranian travel agent in Dubai—Mr. Massoud. Funny, he wasnt in his office so we hurried on to the check-in area.

Brian Rose in Imam Square, Isfahan.
The check-in line continued shuffling along, as the Indian clerk, Hernandez queried me
You are only staying for 4 days in Iran?
Initially, he gave me a start, but then I didn't bother telling him that the visa does not start until you enter Iran. George called the travel agent again. Luckily, this time he was there. We were thinking of all the possibilities that would await us in Iran: having to buy a ticket there, would the guide be waiting for us and what other surprises awaited our presence. Massoud answered the phone—

No, he reassured George, there was no problem as the guide would look after
 the ticket when we arrive in Iran.

Phew! That was close and a load off our beleaguered minds. It was at this point that I promptly left my rocket launcher cum monopod at the telephone booths where George had been talking. On approaching the plane, Rose noticed I didn’t have my monopod. I got off and told the Indian maitred that I forgot something in the airport. He told me that I couldn’t return to the airport for security reasons. He calmly wrote down my seat number and said he would try to find it for meI didn‘t have much faith in him and kissed the tripod goodbye. We were sweating buckets and I had already misplaced my monopodnot a great beginning! We finally got seated on the ageing Aseman Iran Airline 727 and one of the stewards came up and asked me for my seat number. At first, I thought that he was trying to shift Rose and me so as to accommodate some Emirati women. However, as it turns out, he was trying to find out if I was seat 18F. Then along came the monopod, thrust from hand to hand down the length of the plane and finally into my waiting handswhat a relief!

L-R Brian Rose and George Evashuk, Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque.
The in-flight entertainment package was a couple of childrens toys that I managed to finagle from the dour stewardess. There was no in-flight magazine either and our snack was a rather stale bun, brackish coffee and a mystery dessert bun with some hidden lemon sauce in it. Also, there was some kind of dark pudding that looked like a liver transplant with a few pistachios sprinkled on it. I tried a spoonful and promptly regurgitated it back into its cellophane wrapper as the damn thing was laced with rosewater. Later, the flight attendants brought us the main course. Unlike the last pathetic offering, this was excellent. Tender chunks of chicken breast with a curry sauce, some potatoes and other veggies on the side. We were all given warm Zam Zam cola which did little to slake our thirst. World

The landscape looked tortured much like the Iranians had been over the past few years since the war with Iraq. First of all, they were screwed over by the Shah and then they were forcefully converted into an Islamic Republic of the Mullahs. However, in spite of their brutish features, the Iranian passengers all smiled at us. We passed over razor edges, serrated knives of brown land that separated long swathes of dried lakes. Some of the peaks looked like they had brilliant granite outcroppings, but, upon closer inspection it was drifts of snow. Great buttes of bleached rock and uplifted vaults. There was evidence of rivers and dried wadis that carved their signatures through the strata and towns pooped up on their alluvial fans. We twisted this way and that way as if we were trying to sneak between mountain passes. I was starting to wonder what tack the pilot was trying to take on his approach to Shiraz.

We finally landed and the temperature reminded me of the Canadian Rockies warm sun on the face and a cool breeze on the backno pollution! As we were waiting in our line-up, an Iranian overheard our conversation about being hassled by the Iranian customs. He laughed and said
You dont have to worry as they only hassle Iranians!
We handed over our passports and the official scrutinized our photos, in particular, mine. George and Brian were ahead of me and managed to get through unscathed. My passport did not have a very flattering photo and I looked very much like a cross between Jerry Garcia, who is gratefully dead, and one of the mad students of the Taleban in Afghanistan. Rose caught the guards worried expression and laughed out loud saying—
Yah, I wouldn‘t let him either.”
The guard laughed too, as he probably hadnt seen the likes of me in Iran since the Shahs time (maybe we should call him Marjoribanks).

We eventually got through PASSPORT CONTORL which was decorated with mug shots of his holinessAyatollah Khomeni and his hair apparent, Ayatollah Khatami. There was a festive feel to the place as many of the returning Iranians were greeted with garlands of roses from loved ones and next of kin. We were greeted by a different rose. Out of a crowd of Iranians came a rather pretty Iranian woman covered in the mandatory hijab with a big fur wrap around her shoulders and a floor length black coat.
She seemed to know who we were but we hadn‘t a clue who she was. Above the din, she tried to tell me her name but it sounded like she was saying her name was Frozen Ass. She tried again—
Hello, my name is Frozan Nahas, I am your International Guide for Iran.
Martyr or Basiji Mural in Shiraz.
She had sparkling eyes and excellent Englishvery diminutive but respectable. We were kind of shocked that we would have a woman as a guide, esp. in Iran of all places! In the Emirates, we are not permitted to look at women, touch them or even talk to them. In reality, there is half a society here in the Middle East that we (western men) know absolutely nothing about. Except if you get to teach a night school course to women, then, just briefly, the veil is lifted for a tease and a wink. At any rate, who is the first person that we meet in the Islamic Republic of Irana single woman, an International Guide no less! She facilitated the formalities of getting through PASSPORT CONTORL, retrieving our passports and making our way through customs without any hassles. As it turned out, Frozan was 25 yrs. old, single from Teheran; she had studied in Teheran University and spoke Parsi, English and understood Turkish. Frozan gathered us up like lost sheep and led us through the labyrinthine Iranian arrivals area. The customs man waved me through the final gate and as I walked by he said a few words that caught me off-guard
Happy Birthday.
Thank you”, I replied and whispered to Rose
How does this guy know it’s my birthday?’
Rose looked dumbfounded and asked me
Is it your birthday?’
Of course not, but I appreciate the gesture.’
 I smiled back and said
Merry Christmas
He just smiled back oblivious to the fact that it was the Iranian New Year and not Christmas nor my birthday.

George at ruins of Cyrus palace, Pasargadae
I almost cried when I finally set foot outside the airport, the air was refreshing and the tension of Iran was slowly dissipating. Travelling to Iran had been the stuff of dreams, especially since first reading Byrons, The Road to Oxiana in 1982. In the subsequent years, it had become something of an obsession. I had originally planned to follow the Silk Road overland route but politics, war and university study delayed the project. All the bad press warnings and negative images that had flashed through my mind were starting to dissolve as I crossed into terra sancta of Persiathe land of the legendary kings (Cyrus the Great, Darius the Great, even that Greek punk Alexander) whose rule had encompassed the Four Corners of the World.

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