Archive for June, 2010

holiday in iraq

June 26, 2010


We’re in a tidy, blonde brick housing estate. We’re trying on Levi’s at the mall. We’re drinking beer at a German-themed pub. Um… we’re in Iraq. You’d barely know it except for the signs reminding me that I’m not allowed to bring my firearm into the supermarket.

Not quite what we expected, but bloody brilliant all the same.

A long day’s bus ride took us from northern Iran to Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan and temporary home of hostess extraordinaire, KDawe. We cruise past road signs pointing to Kirkuk and Baghdad to English Village, where the cab slows to a crawl; soon enough, a flash of pink leaps out onto the road and waves us down. And before long, we’re sipping G&T on the back veranda, admiring the world’s ugliest water feature and reminiscing about Uniswim in the 90s. The following days saw us whizzing down a gully on the Shingelbana, fussing over paddling pools and watching a documentary on LL Cool J while waiting for our visa renewal.*

It’s not all beer and skittles though. A trip to the Amna Suraka (Red Security) museum in Slemani is a chilling reminder of  the horrific treatment Kurds endured at the hands of Saddam Hussein. Our hulking driver was visibly shaken at the graphic exhibitions and after calming raising the alarm when we were briefly and accidentally locked inside the old cell block – mildly amusing in hindsight, but fairly panic-inducing at the time – he later confessed that faced with the prospect of being stuck in there a second longer, he was on the verge of busting the door down with his own hands.

Nevertheless, while much of the ‘stan is surreal in its incongruousness or freakish normalcy, Kurdish pride is on full display. Apart from being the closest thing they’re ever likely to get to a Kurdish homeland, a lot is riding on distinguishing themselves from Arab Iraq as big money is traded off the region’s stability, diversity and reputedly colossal oil reserves. The Kurdish flag flies proudly over a skyline littered with construction cranes; Peshmerga soldiers man scores of checkpoints; Kurdish language takes precedence over Arabic; and traditional baggy pants are favoured – although, as KDawe’s driver pointed out to us, not so practical should Kurdistan ever field a team for the World Cup.

*If that wasn’t weird enough, the guy who dealt with our paperwork was a dead ringer for Tommy Bell, albeit with a Kurdish twist.

we’ve gone wrong

June 22, 2010


This is one of the infamous murals painted on the perimeter wall of the former US embassy in Tehran.

Our visit prompted a somewhat strange reaction in us; while others might find themselves intimidated or outraged, we burst into an adulterated version of Miley Cyrus’ Party in the USA:

“Shaking my fist like yeah
Waving my banner like yeah…
Yeah, it’s down with the USA…”

Yes, we’ve gone wrong.

the shock of the not-so-new

June 20, 2010


Over the past year-and-a-bit, we’ve visited a lot of cities that seem stuck in a bygone era – Luang Prabang has strong elements of 1920s France; Bombay is stuck in the last days of the Raj; Saigon has a definite whiff of the 1950s; and the swinging 70s are still alive and well in Tehran – a little like Perth, really. It’s a little strange to gaze upon rows of soulless concrete buildings and feel pangs of homesickness. But to see Tehran’s showpiece architecture is to get a small idea of where things were headed before the revolution. The bold Azadi monument and contemporary Pahlavi-era museums and palaces all meant to convey that Tehran was a modern, European city – so much so that scholars have accused Tehran of forgetting its Persian-ness altogether.

The undisputed highlight of our stay in Tehran was our day on the town with the lovely O & N. We met O, she of the pink-sequinned Cons, at our beloved Esfahan tea-house and she kindly offered to show us around, with her friend N, when we were in Tehran the following week. Before abandoning sightseeing to higher pursuits, such as eating icecream, we ducked into the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art.

The former Empress Farah spent much of the last 15 years of her reign prodigiously buying and commissioning modern art and most of this collection is housed in this fascinating (although for unintended reasons), modernist gallery with a wonderful Guggenheim-esque spiraling interior. On the outside it actually bears freakish resemblance to the Art Gallery of Western Australia – there’s a giant Henry Moore piece out the front, although O & N were perplexed when I pointed out that even the air-conditioning vents are the same. The collection housed here includes all the big dudes of modern art: Duchamp, Degas, Warhol, Pollock, Monet, Miro, Kandinsky, Picasso, Van Gogh – and just about any other late 19th and 20th century artist you could think of. It’s widely regarded as the best collection of modern art outside of the United States and Western Europe and reputedly worth something approaching US$3 billion.

You would be right in assuming that all of this is pretty incongruous sitting in present day Tehran, the capital of a regime not exactly well-known for its tolerant approach to, well, much at all but least, the arts. Well, the catch is that none of the treasures I’ve mentioned are on display. Instead, the museum chooses to exhibit embarrassingly amateurish contemporary religious art mostly depicting the martyrdom of various Shi’ite Imams – O eventually stormed out in disgust – and the main collection has been boxed up for much of the last 30 years. A bit of research reveals that the museum telling visitors for the last decade that the main collection will be back on display “in two weeks”… and they’ve sticking to this line for about a decade.

Without getting carried away, the museum ends up coming across as a giant installation in itself – a metaphor for Iranian history and cultural outlook. At least it hasn’t been destroyed, although you do have to wonder why the regime hangs on to the collection when they could probably build a couple of nuclear facilities with that sort of money.

We also spent a few days exploring the former palaces, which lie nestled in Tehran’s leafy northern suburbs and are preserved at pretty much the exact point in time at which the Shah and his family abandoned them. While the buildings and art are fantastic, we couldn’t help but feel a little ill at ease as we sticky-beaked at so many of the personal effects, obviously left behind in the rush to flee the country – the same sort of awkward voyeurism we felt at the royal palace in Luang Prabang. The Pippy Longstocking decals in the princess’ pink bathroom sent us both over the edge and we had to scurry out. As palaces go, they’re actually pretty modest – although when we visited the National Jewels Museum later, it was easy to understand why Iranians eventually got fed up with generations of royal excess; there’s enough bling in there to supply a lifetime of PDiddy clips.

Some parting words from the wise N: “You know what Australia’s biggest problem is? You don’t have any religious leaders! We’d be happy to give you some of ours!” Thanks for a great days, guys – O, we owe you the cost of your traffic infringement 🙂

a very dangerous afternoon

June 14, 2010


 

So we get dropped at our hotel in Kashan and arrange for our taxi driver, Abbas, to take us to the nearby mountain village of Abyaneh that afternoon. Half an hour later we are back in his cab, brushing ash off the seat, when he asks if it’s OK if his friend joins us for the trip. This not being India, we agree, and a few minutes later, six-year-old Sepideh and her leopard print-clad mother, Sara, tumble into the front seat. Given that Abbas is a rotund 60-year-old, it’s not quite what we expected but we roll with it. Sara immediately tunes the radio to her preferred station and soon we’re all clapping and grooving in our seats, Abbas included, as we cruise past the uranium enrichment facility. We stop for petrol; there’s no electricity at the first pump so we reverse a few hundred metres at high speed to the petrol station next door.

We had actually met Sara earlier in the day when we checked in to the hotel. She leapt up from behind the counter and mistook us for Italians. We presumed that she worked at the hotel, but as the day unfolds it becomes clear that she neither works at the hotel nor knows Abbas from a bar of soap. But no matter.

We arrive in Abyaneh and after some cursory photos of Sepideh on a tortured donkey, we settle on a greasy spoon for some lunch. In between squirting alarming amounts of mayonnaise on her sandwich, Sara insists on whipping my headscarf off for alternate photos of me wıth unwashed blonde locks flowing and with a tablecloth substituted for the floral kerchief famously worn by the women of Abyaneh. Abbas rasps “he he he” in the corner as the sandwich guy quizzes Linds on the availability of alcohol in Australia.

Wandering the picturesque streets as Sara sets up various photo shoots wıth reluctant villagers, all the while not-so-discreetly complaining that they are notoriously tight-fisted, we happen across a lovely grove of the most fragrant miniature rose bushes; Sepideh picks one, two, ten and then her mum helps her strip the whole lot. In a deserted corner, the headscarves are again whipped off for more photos; an affectionate hug somehow morphs into a sort of strangle and everyone laughs, exclaiming that Iran is indeed very dangerous. Such is the hilarity of this gag that it is repeated several more times throughout the afternoon, each time the stranglıng increasing in ferocity and accompanied with various other acts of abuse, such as mock eye gouging.

After a visit to the town mosque, more photos and an impromptu dance performance of mild inappropriateness for a six-year-old, it is time to leave. Everyone is weary and quiet on the way home; Sepideh prattles away in Farsi until she falls asleep in my lap, shedding a tear for the bag of chips mysteriously lost between the carpark kiosk and the car. We roll back into Kashan and drop the girls off on a random street corner. Sara waves and shouts “Ciao!” as we drive off; she still thinks we’re Italian.

beer blogging in tehran – beer notes #31

June 13, 2010

Istak Malt Iran 0%
Delster Pomegranate Iran 0%
Star Lemon Iran 0%

I came up with the title of this post before I had accumulated any ideas for content – this may become apparent as you read on. For those of you who need some guidance on the Dodd “cryptic reference”*, it’s a nod to the well-known memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran. Quite a lot of things happen “in Tehran” so I’m starting to think that not even the title was really worth it.

If reviewıng is really about cataloguing dıfference, I’ve not a lot to go on. My only point of reference is from 2002 when I accidentally spent the equivalent of an hour’s wages at Swanny Cellars – 4 euros – on a “malt” Grolsch in Rotterdam. What a horrific realisation that was.

The bottle looks like a real bottle of beer, leading to all sorts of confusion. It’s a bit disconcerting to see a 10-year-old kid wander by with a stubby in his fist.

Iranians love this stuff – it’s easily the most commonly available drink, even beating Coke which has somehow muscled its way into the Iranian market. Neither of us really like sweet soft drinks but we found ourselves drinking quite a bit of it. Our favourite flavour is lemon, with pomegranate a close second. Neither taste anything like beer though – in fact, I wonder why they persevere with the “beer” thing at all. “Malt” is the base flavour and it’s not that bad – although like Iran more broadly, my positive reaction is most likely influenced by the sheer awfulness of Indian beer. But it’s not that bad. Really. If you are in Iran and can’t get anything else to drink. Which you probably won’t be able to.

* Also called “just shit references” by quite a few.

P.S. We enter Syria tomorrow so blogging will again be on hiatus. We should have really got up to date here in Turkey but dark ale and mezze have proved too much of a distraction.

of picnics and pipes

June 6, 2010

 

 

Esfahan is the jewel of Iran – invariably the first place listed on the “Have you been there yet?” questionnaire rattled off by most Iranians – and the tree-lined boulevards, magnificent square and several kilometres of parkland hugging both sides of the river make it easy to understand why. Said parkland provides a perfect setting for the Iranian national pastime of picnicking, which is a real boon for Esfahanis, given that most of their fellow countryfolk seem perfectly content to picnic in emergency stopping lanes or petrol station driveways. Fridays see the crowds swell to mosh pit proportions and each family totes a veritable battery of gear: at least two burners with accompanying gas bottles; pressure cookers (why waste time cooking at home?); giant samovar; various other tea apparatus; water pipe(s); bedding for post-lunch snoozing.
 
Shamed by our lack of picnic preparedness, we were forced to take our eating, drinking and smoking to the Azadegan teahouse which, thankfully, also happens to be The Coolest Place in the Whole Wide World – down a series of junk-strewn laneways, with a few mangy chooks clucking outside the door lay this cavernous gem with a decor that would best be described as “garage sale chic”. A beaded curtain divided the “crusty old men” section from the “hip young things” section – these are my sort of cool kids: the kind who chow down on lamb stew – and we went there every day like the true tragics that we are. A lady remarked on our last day that we looked like teahouse professionals, as we negotiated a table full of tea, sweets, doogh, stew and pipe with seemingly natural dexterity – little did she know she had paid us the highest compliment we could have hoped for.
 
Imam Square is flanked by the sprawling bazaar at one end and the beautiful blue and gold-tiled Imam Mosque at the other, both of which we wandered at length soaking up their sheer scale. The square is probably the only place in Iran where a handful of India-style touts exist, although clearly rank amateurs. A few tips, guys, if you really want to make it big in the business of snagging unsuspecting tourists – don’t tell me in the first 30 seconds that you want to show me your brother’s carpet shop, and when I politely refuse, don’t smile and walk away immediately, telling me to enjoy my time in Iran and pointing me in the direction of the place I’m looking for. Sheesh.

 

yazd, or it’s fun to climb a desert mountain in the midday sun wearing hejab

June 5, 2010
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Yazd. On the edge of the Dasht-e Kavir (Great Salt) Desert, which stretches all the way to Afghanistan, it’s hot and much of the city seems to be brown from baking in the sun. In a good way – the old city is famed for its labyrinthine laneways, mud houses and skyline of domes and badgirs, unique windtower contraptions designed to catch the breeze and funnel it into the buildings below.
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Vastly more conservative than youthful, cosmopolitan Shiraz, my thigh-length manteau stuck out like a sore thumb amongst the sea of chadors on the main street which, ordinarily bustling, resembled a ghost town for most of the afternoon as things shut down for midday prayers, a long lunch and an even longer siesta. Suited us fine, as we got to retire to the hotel, housed in a restored traditional home, to loll about on daybeds in the leafy courtyard, sipping tea and nibbling sweets.
Yazd is also home to Iran’s largest population of Zoroastrians. Our interest in this ancient religion was piqued in Bombay, which is dotted with Parsi temples and Irani cafes; indeed, it was over a few beers in one of these cafes that we decided to visit Iran.* This interest culminated in a hike up a lonely desert mountain to view the Towers of Silence where bodies of the deceased were placed for vultures to pick the bones clean. This practice having ceased in the 60s, the site’s main visitors now appear to be teenage boys hooning around on motorbikes and stupid foreigners scrambling up the hillside. If you look closely at these photos, you can see me conveying to Linds exactly what I thought of having to clamber across rubble or, more specifically, him cheerfully snapping photos of me clambering across said rubble.
* The irony of this situation is not lost on us. 
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shiraz, shiraz everywhere; not a drop to drink

June 2, 2010

Shirazis are universally loved throughout Iran for their relaxed, fun-loving nature. True as this is, Shiraz will always hold a special place in our hearts for the fact that it was the first place we’d been to in a long time that wasn’t India. Footpaths! Hygienically refrigerated meat! Relative anonymity! Things were off to a cracking start when we scored an upgrade to the 1980s-America’s-Cup-style penthouse suite at the hotel, complete with chandeliers and geometric exposed brick, which was bigger than our wee house at Bagot – two bedrooms; two bathrooms; and two balconies, the second of which we only discovered on the last day. You could almost see Bondy sunning himself on a banana lounge in Ken Done board shorts. The only thing missing was the city’s eponymous grape and its fruity elixir, although a box of West Coast Wine Cooler probably would have been more fitting, given the surrounds. 

Nevertheless, like its namesake, Shiraz was somewhat intoxicating – we wandered the bazaar and ate icecream in shady parks in a giddy state such that I didn’t even mind wearing the goddam scarf on my head all the time. The biggest attraction is Persepolis which, being 42km out of town, required us to hire a taxi. Recently disgorged from India, we approached this task the sort of enthusiasm usually reserved for having a root canal. But we forgot that we were in the city that could do no wrong – tea, two packets of biscuits and a conversation about the owner’s son studying engineering in some Australian city beginning with “P” (“Perth! PERTH!”), we were on our way with a 20% discount.

 

 

 

 

Persepolis is really freakin’ old – like, 2500 years old – and the source of intense national pride, representing a time when Persian empire and culture, uncorrupted by Arab influence, ruled the region. While the ruins are in a fairly, well, ruinous state, you can’t help but be impressed by the sheer size of the complex, which I guess was the whole point.  The entire place was burned to the ground after Alexander the Great conquered the Persians a couple of hundred years later, although apparently there is some debate amongst scholars over whether this was done deliberately, as revenge for the Persians’ earlier destruction of Athens, or the accidental result of a drunken party. Uh, woops.