When? October 2016
How? Overland tour in a bus Shiraz to Tehran
Who? Group Tour and then with my Iranian friend Azita in Tehran
I’m not sure if I’m looking forward to this trip or not. Obtaining a visa was a tortuous process that first involved filling in a complex form, and getting my photo taken in a headscarf. I then had to gamble on whether the consul would be open on the days it said it would be and try to second guess which days would be the most popular. It opened at 2, three days a week. I turned up just after midday to find about thirty people already ensconced along the fence in Kensington Court. It’s almost a social affair as we gossip. Jut before two we are handed raffle tickets and proceed indoors. The women all sheepishly sliding on headscarves, just in case. There is a number count down display just like on the supermarket deli counter. But no one calls out any numbers and we are very British and organise ourselves into the correct order. Fingerprints and money are at one counter and then, finally money and form at another. It’s relatively straightforward except for the whopping £150 fee, much higher than other nations I notice. An Irish girl in front of me pays about a quarter of that. My passport, with visa arrives safely a week later. Along with the information that I will now require a visa to enter the U. S.A. and this will also involve lengthy form filling and a day at the embassy in London.
Anxiety builds as I read the latest news bulletins on detained dual passport holders (not that I am one) and the instructions about what I must do and wear. I don’t want to get my ankle whipped by the morality police- or worse. My clothes must be loose and cover my bottom. I won’t be allowed in to the country unless I’m wearing a headscarf. An entirely new wardrobe is called for.
The flight to Shiraz goes via Istanbul and the passengers adapt their attire as Iran grows nearer. All the women don their scarves, looking embarrassed, as the plane lands. The Iranians behind me apologise- “We’re so sorry you have to do this”.
Iran is hardly virgin territory. There are tour groups everywhere we go, each of them accompanied by the obligatory Iranian guide. Ours is called Pooran and she has been doing this a long time; she is extremely knowledgeable but talks interminably and in a monotone without, seemingly, drawing breath. She is also very controlling and our English (well Australian) tour leader is new to this trip. They bicker incessantly, mainly arguing about when and what we are going to do. Consequently, we are late to most places, and some of the drives, across unremitting desert are already very long indeed.
There are twelve of us, five couples/friends and an earnest young man who is half my age. Our reception by the locals is a little wary in Shiraz, even slightly hostile at times, in the markets, but grows warmer as we venture north towards Tehran. At times both men and woman attract our attention to quietly vent their frustration at the restrictions on their own behaviour. Wearing a headscarf is indeed very restricting. It’s hot and uncomfortable, as are the long clothes I’m swathed in. At the large mosques charming Imams affably promote their peaceful view of Islam. It is indisputably very calm everywhere. Maybe because there is no alcohol? The woman look very elegant in beautifully tailored long coats and scarves that sit just so on the back of their heads, unlike mine. The men, on the other hand, seem to aspire to look like Mark Wright in skinny jeans and tight T shirts.
Other barriers to overcome:
• There is internet but it’s very limited. No BBC and no Facebook.
• The currency is difficult to understand. It officially called a rial, and most of the notes printed are in rials but everyone talks and quotes toman, which are the same as rials but minus a nought – got it?
• Thronging groups of visitors at all the Amin sites- the tourist cafes are crammed. At one hotel there is chaos as all the wrong suitcases are loaded onto the buses.
• The culture – it’s the month of mourning when I visit and there are black flags and signs along the streets, draped across the souk alleys and on all the key buildings. (Though no music is allowed during this month.)
• The exquisitely decorated mosques, old and wooden or renovated blue, yellow and green ceramic
• The atmospheric mud built Zoroastrian towers of silence, fire towers and temples
• The amazing ruins at Persepolis
• The Achaemenid tombs
• The carefully laid out and manicured gardens
• The Zurkhaneh – Sufi gymnastics performance
• Some of the food – kebabs of course, mezze style starters, pomegranates abound- pomegranate and walnut stew is good, and vermicelli ice cream is interesting, but bastani- saffron ice cream with pistachios, rosewater and chinks of clotted cream is addictively delicious
• And best of all, Esfahan, the huge Naqsh-e Jahan square, the music themed palace, the stunning mosques and the enormous souk, all delightful
After the group tour I stay with my friend Azita (she used to live in London) and glimpse Iranian life more intimately. We visit all the tourist sites, the tower, the shah’s various places, mirrored, gilded and entirely opulent-The infamous peacock throne sums it all up. The jewellery museum isn’t easy to find but here the countless gaudy gems are fascinating.
The traffic in Tehran is terrible and Azita avoids driving when she can. In the evenings we join the streams of cars and head towards the mountains. Darband is a wonderland- a suburb full of traditional fairy-tale cafes and restaurants beautifully decorated and illuminated, with gushing streams, fountains and the standard charcoal braziers. Food is eaten from the korsi –central table. After dinner the standard amusement is to sit on the low carpeted settles and smoke the shisha. There’s a midnight curfew so the restaurants close quite early. Navigating the conversation is tricky at times. Not everyone, by any means, is unhappy with the current politics. Azita’s friend, an educated, thirty year old called Arash, asks me if I like Iran.
“It’s very beautiful and interesting”, I reply, “but I don’t like having to wear a headscarf”.
“Ah but women look better with them on,” he insists. I tell him that I would prefer him to wear a suit, as he would look better in that. He protests grumpily- they’re not comfortable and he doesn’t want to. He doesn’t get the point at all.
On the plane home there is a scramble to sit down and almost ceremoniously remove the scarves. Everyone laughs.