Sunday, June 25, 2006

Boycott "World Pride" in Jerusalem

To celebrate “Love Without Borders” in a city ringed with checkpoints to keep its natives divided and exiled is ludicrous! This event makes it appear that LGBTI people support the occupation and we should do our best to show this support does not represent our entire community.

I’m the grandson of German Jews, raised on stories of how relatives were stripped of their citizenship, denied their professions, driven from homes to relocation camps, badgered and humiliated. The Shoah overshadows the horrors that Jews suffered in Germany before the Wansee conference that initiated the Holocaust, but Palestinians now endure the same treatment that our families endured in Germany in the late 1930’s. As long as there is no organized, massive genocide on the scale of the Shoah, and children and other innocents are “only” killed as “collateral damage” or from malnutrition and lack of medical care due to the many checkpoints and curfews and other forms of economic strangulation, yes, the Israeli government can honestly claim that they are better than the Nazis. But since when is “better than the Nazis” an adequate standard?

That people are so abused in the name of Judaism disgusts and horrifies me. We must oppose the abuse of Palestinians and support the boycott of Israel. As GLBT people who seek justice in the world we must then support the boycott of World Pride in the occupied city of Jerusalem.

"Never Again!" is an important assertion. We can never tolerate bigotry or genocide. But what happened to us we should be making sure it never happens again -- not just to us, but to anyone.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Muslim Opera?

Why shouldn’t a Muslim enjoy opera? Especially one that’s written about a Muslim?

This week I went to two operas. The San Francisco Opera production of “Madama Butterfly” and the Oakland Opera Theater’s “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X”

Madama Butterfly is a nice opera, although horribly overdone. No fault of the cast (Good, not brilliant.) Give it a rest!

San Francisco Opera is one of the top companies in the US. As such it has huge budgetary obligations as well as huge resources. Those obligations force it to stick mostly to mainstream operas that bring in large audiences tending to the lowest common denominator of opera fans, which means doing a few very popular operas very often and not taking big artistic risks. Pamela Rosenberg tried the risks and after a few years decided she’d rather go be in Germany close to her grandchildren. Yeah, right. The new general director offers some promise. I’ll keep an open mind, but let’s please not OD on Puccini! (I like Puccini, but enough already!)

Malcolm X was a real treat, even if the writing and composition of it is a bit uneven. As a small company with a small house they are able to take artistic risks, to innovate, and to bring in operas that are daring, off-beat, and appealing to a more independent crowd. I’ve enjoyed very much their productions of Philip Glass’ “Akhnaten” and “Four Saints in Three Acts” by Vergil Thompson & Gertrude Stein. The cast includes some excellent singers, especially Duana Demus as Malcolm’s mother and Joseph Wright as Malcolm. (Mr. Wright usually sings with the San Jose Opera which has an excellent reputation for finding and grooming brilliant young voices. It truly is the place to see tomorrow’s stars today. ) Ms. Demus is also very charming and gracious off-stage! She will be performing in the San Francisco Lyric Opera’s production of Il Trovatore in September. Details at

Oakland Opera Theatre, with its technical innovations, clever staging (brilliant use of a small space!) and selections of little done operas that carry big ideas, is a pioneer of 21st century opera. They don’t follow the conventions (such as they are) of the European regie-theatre techniques that are so popular over there and generally derided as “euro-trash” in the states. Actually I like those general principles and have seen some brilliantly successful regie-theatre productions. But Oakland Opera is in another direction using very American

While discussing local opera companies I should mention Palo Alto’s West Bay Opera which is based in a very tony suburban community not far from Stanford University. They make excellent use of the local resources and produce some excellent operas. Berkeley Opera is in a similar position and a more free spirited locale where they also take some innovative directions, especially with updating librettos in translation. In July Berkeley will be doing “Girl of the Golden West,” yeah, Puccini, but it’s rarely done and I’m looking forward to seeing it for the first time.

If you can, go see “X” and you may see why I insist that the Oakland Opera Theatre is one of the most exciting opera companies around.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Iran, continued

27 April

“Isn’t Iran Dangerous?”

I feel very safe here. This country is amazingly hospitable. People are very warm and friendly. The food is so good, and the men both beautiful and charming, the only danger here is to my waistline and to my libido.

Today, as the news filters down to me, it seems that Condoleeza Rice is threatening tighter sanctions against Iran. Our tour guide, Reza, shrugs. Iran has friendly neighbors a seacoast, and the ability to sell oil cheap. How much can American sanctions do?

Esfahan is a modern, bustling cosmopolitan city. An Armenian church here has an exhibit on the Genocide waged by the Turks. Photos, documents, and posted text were horrifyingly reminiscent of the Shoah, the Nazi extermination of Jews. One can easily imagine the Nazis having studied from the Turks. (To be fair, there was a lot they could have learned from the British and Americans as well!)

Over lunch we discuss the political situation. How far will America go? There is no real danger in the immediate future, but the Bush League needs to keep congress Republican and the surest way they can scare people into continued support is to create heightened war fear. An attack on Iran will precipitate retaliations and create support for a tightened security (which is to say, police) state. The timing of the political cycle makes an attack likely in September, certainly no sooner than August. We are in no danger here and now, but we are horrified at what our government is moving towards.

May 3
En route from Tehran to Shahrud

The group tour is over. Alhamdulillah! Altogether it was a very good group of people, but two weeks in close and fairly constant proximity was getting on my nerves and I was getting short with a few of our company, which they didn’t deserve.

Ten days of travel to catch up on… It’s way too much. These have been the most dizzying two weeks of my life. Yazd is an ancient city. Some say Damascus is the only city on earth that has been longer continually inhabited. The streets of the old Town center are largely covered over with the same mud and straw that the old houses are built of. High archways and occasional breaks for light and air keep the streets from feeling claustrophobic. At the edge of the desert one can feel that heat of day and the cool of night that make such covering necessary.

In a number of cities out in the desert the Mosques have subterranean worship spaces beneath the regular ground level worship areas. When the weather gets too hot or cold to stay above ground the faithful retreat to the chambers below. Among the covered streets of old Yazd are old hotels and homes that hide behind dark walls. Doorways feature a pair of doorknockers, one long, hanging bar gives a loud masculine thump, and its opposite, a lighter circular knocker that offers a more lady-like rat-a-tat. The phallus and yoni make it obvious which knocker is for which sex, and the sounds, easily distinguished to the residents alerts them to the visitor’s gender so a proper greeting can be made.

The ancient hotels are being refurbished; beautiful rooms around deep courtyards have translucent doors offering both illumination and privacy to the visitor. In one such hotel, we had lunch in a huge tented courtyard. A Green soup with lentils and garbanzos and a surprising lemon flavor called “shouli” (In Tehran it’s called “shourbah.”) was utterly delicious. I was told to try the “Barely Soup” which was of course misspelled barley soup, and it would have been quite impressive if I’d sampled that before the heavenly shouli. The main course was fessanjun, chicken cooked in a sauce of pomegranate juice and ground walnuts. I’ve since had a few fessanjuns, but none as good. I will have to find recipes for Shouli and Fessanjun. If I can make them nearly as good as the Yazd hotel does friends will be begging for invitations.

The Zoroastrian Fire Temple was built in 1934 in a style reminiscent of bungalows in Los Angeles from the same era. A 1500 year old sacred flame deserves better. The Zoroastrian Silent Towers where sky burials were performed were properly impressive, although they hardly seemed “towers.” A pair of tall hills were crowned by short squat round structures. Broad bases, shoulder high walls, and open to the sky this is where the dead were brought. The Zoroastrians consider flame, earth, rain, and water to be sacred, not to be polluted with dead bodies so here they were brought to be picked clean by the birds. The clean bones were ground to dust in a pit in the center of each “tower.” Since the practice was banned, the local Zoroastrian community buries their dead in concrete blocks so as not to pollute the earth.

A common architectural feature in Yazd is the wind tower. Everywhere you see boxy towers with vents on all sides, designed to pull cool air down into warm houses. I got to stand under one and feel the rush of wind coming down a shaft and the pull of wind going back up, but it does move the air about and help keep a place cool. I still want to see a diagram of whatever baffles and vents make this work.

Yazd also features a famous candy shop where we loaded up on sweets. “Baklava” (a candy with no phyllo) came in various flavors including saffron and coconut.

En route to Esfahan we saw a truck loaded up with camels being taken to slaughter for meat. Larry, who works as a sommelier for a group of Thai restaurants, is a bit of a foodie and would be intent on sampling camel – which we heard a bit late is served only in Yazd – and sheep brains. Larry finally got some sheep brains in Tehran, and liked it very much. I’ve tried them previously and once was enough. But I’m game to try anything, and maybe we’ll find camel meat in Mashhad?

“Esfahan is half the world,” according to an old Persian saying, and it is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever seen. The main capital of the Safavid dynasty it has a number of bridges straddling a river that is too shallow to be navigable, so no matter that the arches supporting the bridges are too close and narrow for any ship to pass through. The Kharjo Bridge has two levels. Down below people can hide in the arches from the sun, and hop over narrow channels of water. Up above is a walkway and in the middle are balconies where the Shah Abass I could listen to musicians playing on a broad platform below. The “33” Bridge, named for the number of arches is not quite as beautiful, but has a teahouse at the end near our hotel. Nick was down there at every opportunity flirting with the local boys. I went looking for him and was stopped by four men, one of whom was especially sexy in a young Bob Hoskinsish/Daddy Bear kind of way and his friends were also very charming. They insisted I join them and we chatted a bit, challenging my very meager Persian vocabulary, but with a pocket dictionary we were able to establish that they were all science teachers, married and with so many daughters and sons. I was able to squeeze out, “Na zan, na dochtar, na pesar – azad e!” No wife, no daughters, no sons – I’m free! I may not be so free as all that, but it hardly seemed the time or place to go into details.

Later in Tehran my guide, Ali, would grill me on my history with women, and from its paucity figured to ask “Boyfriends?” I fessed up and he pointed out the park by the theater square where he said certified homosexuals were authorized to meet. He said that doctors would test to see if someone was genetically homosexual or just looking for opportunities. Medically verified homos could cruise the theater park. Too bad I didn’t’ bring my genetic certification along with my shahadah certificate! Yeah, right. I told Ali that there is there is no medical difference between gays and straights, and one can only tell by asking, and hoping for an honest answer. Couldn’t help blurting out that I prefer to go by a taste test.

Esfahan is all taste and elegance. The Imam Square is said to be the largest municipal square in the world. It is huge. The Imam Mosque sits at one end, tilted about 45 degrees from the edge of the square, opposite the far distant main gate. At the midpoint of the long sides the 18th century Ali Qapu palace built for Abass I faces a Mosque built for his father-in-law. The Palace is about six stories high and the top floor features a music room. In the arches of the ceiling are cutouts of musical instruments. This room is a gorgeous example of the Persian Renaissance.

The Sheikh Lotfullah Mosque across from it is a gorgeous little jewel box entered through a winding passage that wraps around it. In addition to creating a sense of a very separate sacred space, it obscures the fact that like the Imam Mosque, the qibla is angled askew from the faces of the square.

All around the square is the Isfahan Grand Bazaar. Most of what I saw there was very touristy, but a carpet shop there was owned by a very cheerful, welcoming bunch of guys who were friends of Jerry’s, they gave us a quick education on Persian Carpets and – we were told – gave us excellent prices. Mike later met a son of a carpet dealer who appraised his purchase at twice what he paid, so perhaps we did get great deals.

May 4


On our way towards Mashhad we stopped in what seems a relatively quiet little town. The main streets are still busy at night with people out walking and socializing. I’m in a two star hotel that I would politely describe as adequate and Elias (Happy Birthday, Darling!) wouldn’t tolerate for a minute. When I realized there was no toilet paper I didn’t even bother to ask. There is the ubiquitous hose for washing oneself, but however do they dry off? If they use water instead of paper why doesn’t one see wet pants coming out of bathrooms? Perhaps I could ask my guide but it seems such a funny question.

At first I felt a perfect idiot for not packing little packs of Kleenex, but tissues are ubiquitous here, in hotel rooms and on restaurant tables where they are to be used as napkins. I make sure to replenish my supply.

Leaving Tehran Ali told me he’d been replaced and was switching me over to another guide. That was a bit of a relief. When Ali outed me he kept asking why I don’t like women, asserting again and again how beautiful they are, and how much he loves women. Thank God he didn’t pick up on that chorus the next morning. I had been beginning to wonder who he saw trying to convince. Or was it his relatively gracious way of assuring me he wasn’t available to my desires? No worries there. There are many exquisitely beautiful men here, but there are also many others, including Ali,

My new guide, Mahdi, is easily in the former camp, and in any camp he could pitch my tent whenever he likes! He is gorgeous, charming, very professional and apparently rather religious. I expect our relationship to stay strictly professional. Still, he is good company, especially after a day with Ali.

A long drive through the desert yesterday along the Silk Road brought us by a number of caravanserais and ice houses. Mahdi offered to stop and show me a caravanserai. But we made that stop a few days ago. We also saw ice houses in Yazd and near Susa. Those deep pits are covered with domed or conical structures, and a staircase leads down to where the ice is saved from winter through the summer months.

Other stops included one of the oldest mosques, perhaps the oldest in Iran dating from the 8th century. I’m still learning to distinguish between Seljuk and Mongol brick decorations. Mahdi pointed out the Sassanid architectural basis that informed early mosque building. Then on to some pre-historic digs, and then a shrine to a sufi sibling to the 7th Iman.

In Shi’ite Islam there were/are 12 Imams, spiritually pure descendants of Mohammed (peace be upon him) who were the true successors, not to be confused with the usurpers – as the Ummayad and Abassid caliphs are regarded here – who murdered Ali, then Hassan and Hussein. (Martyrdom is big here, but more on that later.) The 12th Imam disappeared into a cave and is to return with Jesus to initiate an era of peace and help in the final judgment. This last bit corresponds to the Sunni version with Jesus and the yet unidentified Mahdi. My guide Mahdi asked how Sunnis can believe in the 12th Imam but not the first 11? It seems a false presumption in logic that I find rife in popular theology, not just among Muslims. Of course the illogic of that question does not answer either way the question of the Imams. I remain Sunni, but open minded.

Between Esfahan and Tehran our group had stopped in Qom, the theological heart of the Islamic Revolution. We met with a very congenial mullah who made a gracious speech, answered some questions, and made us all feel very welcome. As the lone Muslim I was allowed to go into the shrine of the Lady Fatima, who was the daughter of one imam and sister to the next. Architecturally, I assured my fellow travelers, it was nothing new; but the spiritual power in that place was amazing. I prayed with the other men inside and walked around in a meditative daze, tears coming to my eyes. After this experience I’m even more looking forward to the shrine at Mashhad.

Khomeini’s tomb was a huge surprise. To the western imagination it would be expected to be very severe and militant. It’s actually… well, still under construction and what there is yet of the architecture inside looks and feels more like the underside of a stadium under construction, but it was filled with families and children running and playing, more like a playground than a mausoleum. The Ayatollah had wanted his final resting place to be a relaxing, enjoyable place for families and the old man got what he wanted. There was ample space to pray and here the men and women were separated only by a waist high fence. Sometimes women would sit with their husbands and children in the “men’s side” showing a relaxed attitude here about gender apartheid.

Mike and Maggie were taking pictures of little girls in white robes and cowls, looking like baby nuns. The girls were crowding at the fence, eager to be photographed and making such a ruckus I worried about trouble. Jerry, our very experienced and very protective leader was sitting right there, cheerily engaged in conversation with an Iranian and ignoring the chaos right in front of him, so it must be OK. Packs of boys also wandered through, eager to be photographed. Little wolfpacks ravening for attention mugged for my more accommodating companions. I kept my attention to costume and custom, and more usually to men, not boys. “I love you! I love you!” The little boys shouted sassily. “But will you respect me in the morning?” I retorted with a smile. Packs of boys are the same everywhere, bratty, impudent, and charmingly aggressive in that way that only pre-pubescent boys can get away with. Maybe I should have taken more pictures of them.

As I write this I imagine the possibility of American (or Israeli?) bombs, and how ignorant yahoos would greet news of bombing Khomeini’s tomb, as if it were a great symbolic victory. It would just be families killed on a holiday. Little girls slaughtered in their white uniforms, little boys incinerated, never again to crow, “I love you!”

Nearly next door is the Martyrs’s Cemetery, a huge field of graves, some of the two million who were killed in the eight year war with Iraq. Just after the Iranian revolution the United States and Germany quietly backed Iraq’s attack on the Islamic Republic. Iran prevailed, but here was the cost. How can you make sense of such loss? Each grave was marked with the word shahid, “martyr.” Assuring families and friends that their beloved went to heaven defending not just the nation, but the faith itself. Martyrdom is extolled here. With so much death, how else can the loss be assuaged? But what does this glorification of the dead say to the young who are living, and especially under the threat of war? When Ahmadinejad says that thousands of suicide bombers, eager for martyrdom will respond to any American attack, I believe him. The war threats made by my government fill me with such horror and revulsion that extreme retaliation is easy to imagine.

It’s easy to be cynical in America about the stupidity of dying in war. In the last sixty years our only wars have been those of our own aggression on foreign soil. No American has died in defense of our country since World War II, and arguably even then only at Pearl Harbor. (Granted, one might include the firemen and police who died heroically at the WTC attack. I tend to categorize them more with other firemen and cops who die in the line of duty. In deference to those who lost loved ones, I would not make an argument of my opinion, made far from the catastrophe.) But here in these rows upon rows, miles of graves of boys who died in earnest defense of the motherland, one can only be profoundly moved – and scared for the sons and nephews who were raised to honor martyrdom over all, now ready to face their own.

The Qur’an says that martyrdom is indeed a guarantee to Paradise, but that nobody can seek it out. Being killed while fighting for life is very different from seeking death. I pray that this distinction is clear to young Iranians who may have to defend their motherland. I pray even more that it won’t come to that.

Mahdi tells me he served in the war. He doesn’t say anything to me about US complicity with Iraq’s attack – perhaps only because he doesn’t want to embarrass me? But he does talk about how Germany provided chemical weapons to Iraq, and then made a big show of humanitarianism as Iranian victims were welcomed to German hospitals where effects of the weapons could be evaluated. One can see a lot of men in their forties limping, or otherwise maimed. They’re not conspicuous, but if you pay attention you will see that there are more than there should be.

May 5

The Adhan is echoing over the darkening skies just after sunset. I’ll pray soon, although I’m just back from prayer at the Imam Reza Shrine. Cameras are not allowed inside, and after what I saw and experienced I’m glad for that. The space, a sequence of courtyards leading to the Shrine, is magnificent. The floors of the courtyard are marble and so clean it feels wrong to be wearing shoes. Bins full of plastic bags are at the edges of carpeted areas so we can carry our shoes in the mosque and the shrine, to put them down cleanly as necessary. Through the crowded courtyard we come to the Shrine which is mobbed. I push through, wanting not to knock aside men who are standing in devotion, but taking my cues from others rushing to and from the tomb of the Imam.

Of the 12 Imams, only one is entombed in Iran so Imam Reza’s shrine is the holiest place in all the country. Not just Iranians, but Shi’ites from all over, and at least an occasional Sunni, come to pay respects. I find my way through the mob into a press of bodies crowding to the tomb. Giggling little boys are being passed over heads to kiss the gold and silver walls containing this near descendant of Muhammed (pbuh)

I get close and take hold of the grillwork, making my prayers, and feeling the crush of bodies. I am conscious in a way that is almost, but not quite sexual, of the men pressed all around me. I complete the prayers that I am assured will be granted and let go of the tomb. Sliding out through a mob eager to take my place.

Mahdi is nearby, holding my shoes. He is ever deferential, encouraging me to make decisions, to tell him what I want to do, but all I want is to experience the amazing purity and power of this place. He asks if I want to pray and points out a place where I can do that. After my prayers we exit to the courtyard and sit against a wall.

The energy of this place is somehow both calm and frenetic, like the tireless whirling of atoms in constant motion. We sit in contemplation, and Mahdi asks me to describe it. Curious about my impressions? Wanting to learn the English words? I look across the designs in the tiles, seeing stars and flowers and Qur’anic scriptures all around, as if they express all the mysteries of the universe and the simplest, truest mystery: Love God and serve humanity; love humanity and serve God.

The serenity and purity of this place is beyond description. I feel such open love in my heart that I can understand why honeymooners come here. How wonderful it must be to find this feeling and to be able to express it in physical intimacy.

Jerry had asked me what I thought of Qom – or was it the Imam Mosque in Esfahan? When I told him how astounding it was, he said it was designed to inspire. Of course. That’s the purpose of ecclesiastical architecture and why I love it so. And how, he asked – and this at least was at Qom – does it compare to the Vatican? It’s entirely different.

Because of the size and the grandeur the Imam Reza Shrine offers a fairer comparison, or should I say contrast, to the Vatican. This is so much more mystical and liberating to the soul. St. Peter’s is a vanity project with names and faces all over it. The only personage acknowledged at this shrine is the Eighth Imam, but while he is a focus and the center of attention, one is sucked into and released from the gravity of his tomb to contemplate the gifts of God in a setting that is open to the heavens, and decorated with rich designs of stars, flowers, and sacred text. Love God and serve humanity; love humanity and serve God. People of all sorts rush by to and from prayer, as effortless and busy as the tide, in a wash of devotion. Next to this the St. Peter’s Basilica seems, dark and claustrophobic, petty and egotistical, a museum of statued piety crowded with tourists and flashbulbs.

“Are you a Muslim?” a guard had asked when I first entered the shrine. No tourists here; only the faithful. Exclusionary perhaps, but it is so mobbed already. My answer yes was enough for him. And if every entrant is taken at his or her word, how exclusionary is it? Simply declare your faith, and if you’re lying only God can judge.

Mahdi and I pray again. I finish my prayer and wait for Mahdi, standing, watching others in prayer, children in play, families and friends walking across the courtyard, tile patterns of white calligraphy on blue, and stars and flowers, all proclaiming God’s glory. It is all beauty and purity beyond description.

May 8
Between Gorgan & Tehran

The toilet in Shahrud had no paper. In Mashhad there was paper, but no toilet. Actually, here was no western style toilet, but a “squat,” a porcelain hole in the floor. I imagine that regular use of those would give one stronger knees than I seem to have. In Gorgan there was a choice, but where there is a western style toilet here they seem to prefer the low squat models with weak flushes. There have been all sorts of annoying problems including noises that continue through the night. At Gorgan the shower curtain, a midi length that shielded one side of a corner stall, did nothing to separate the shower from the toilet, explaining the constant puddle around the john and the wetness of the seat if one’s not prepared.

Mahdi lauds the material and technological achievements of the government. He thinks Ahmadinejad is doing a perfect job. I see no point in arguing, and such discussions as we have on social issues – including homosexuality and teen pregnancy – are interesting for perspective, but we’ll never see eye to eye.

We had gone back for a second visit to the shrine of Imam Reza. It is still amazingly splendid, but I was disappointed by my own expectations. The first time I’d approached in awe and wonder; the second time I was hoping for a mechanical repetition of a mystical experience. It’s still quite beautiful and even in my disappointment a kind of serenity.

Gorgan is up towards the Caspian Sea in a humid forested region they call a jungle, or more correctly “jangal” which turns out to be the Persian word for “forest.” From the urban chaos of Tehran to the open desert spaces it is easy to see why this lush green wood is so beloved by the Iranians. The drive from desert to thick forest reminds me of California, and I am glad to be heading towards home soon.

My eyes have been opened, my soul has been touched and I am exhausted… sounds like great sex, which is the one pleasure Iran has not offered. No, I’ve also missed out on good newspapers. For all its wonders this is an authoritarian theocracy. The chadors and scarves are a constant reminder, as is Mahdi’s refusal to believe that there could be any, well, certainly no more than a few gays here where it is very much “against the religion.” In many ways Iran reminds me of the USSR, although granted that it functions much better.

San Francisco
May 29, 2006

Caught up on my work, and editing this diary, it seems I’ve overlooked so much. There was so much more than I could possibly tell, and memories will come back, perhaps to this record.

Mahdi took me to the airport with a very friendly farewell, and offered greetings to my partner. Even if, at a socio-political level he seems very rigid and conservative, at a more personal level he is very warm and accepting. “You go to your grave alone” he said, meaning nobody can judge another. He refuses to get into arguing or insisting that he’s right and you’re wrong, but welcomes hearing other perspectives. Somehow I find this typical in Iran. The papers are heavily censored and only relate the government line, the laws are repressive, but the people are warm, friendly, and accepting. Even at the Muslims-only shrine, a simple question and a hopefully honest answer opens up to a smile and a welcome.

It was a fantastic privilege to visit Iran, and I hope that with a better knowledge of Persian I can go back in a couple of years.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Four Amazing Days!

April 20 7:30 PM

An amazing day in Tehran!

After a fitful sleep (Jetlag improving, but still not over it.) we went past the old American Embassy, photographing damage to the walls from 1979 and the anti-American murals and slogans. Then on to a series of museums.

The Museum of Archaeology had some beautiful Elamite and Achemenean pieces. Some went as far back as 5000 BCE. The pieces that most caught my interest were the bull figurines that spanned the Taurean age (roughly 4,000 – 2,000 BCE) and then the ram figures that started appearing just after 2,000 BCE, beginning the Age of Aries! There were other pieces that were fascinating for their design and beauty, and some for their amazing playfulness.

Next to it was the Museum of Islamic History. Again, a wonderful collection, but the sweet surprise was a small section devoted to astrological tools and relics. They had quite an exhibit of 12th century astrolabes, including a few disassembled to give a clue as to how they work. There were also some gorgeous lacquered plaques showing the signs of the zodiac and a medieval Arabic astrology text. Say what you like about Iran, but what other government sponsors a permanent astrological exhibit in one of their major national museums?

Another surprise – at the main entrance to the general exhibit was an illuminated page with an icon of Muhammed (peace and blessings be upon him) at the top of the page.

After that we went to the Museum of Glass and Ceramics. Housed in what used to be the Prime Minister’s residence – a building with a very 19th century Persian façade and a gorgeous interior partly inspired by art nouveau, the collection was nearly upstaged by its setting. But the collection was brilliant with glassworks covering seven millennia of local history. For all the beautiful works, my favorite was a small monochromatic pitcher in shades of mauve, ranging from the nearly black of its handle to the nearly white of its widest diameter. There were also some sin-haft trays. Sin-haft is a Persian new years’ tradition collecting seven traditional items that all start with the letter S. Our guide, Reza, confirmed my suspicion that each of the items corresponds with one of the planets, but he was not clear about what item invokes which planet.

After a full lunch (grilled quail) we went back to Mehrabad airport where men and women have separate entrances. At the security gates, if there is any frisking necessary they have women guards for the women, and men for the men. Not that it seems to matter at that point, everyone just barrels through the metal detectors, peeping away, and are told to continue through. Once checked in we go through a more serious security gate, also gender segregated. I would have loved to get a photo of the big yellow sign that located the “Men Inspection,” but photography is very strictly forbidden around airports.

The one-hour flight to Ahvaz took us over desert and the Zagros Mountaints. Descending we saw the ruins of an old town – but how old? When Iraq invaded they bombarded hundreds of towns. Discussions of the Iraq-Iran war that stretched through so much of the 1980’s reminded me of how hard the US had worked to organize a military response to Saddam Hussein when he invaded Kuwait. But the US had supported and supplied Saddam when he invaded Iran. Of course any talk about American commitment to international principle is ludicrous. Here such hypocrisy is especially obvious and rankling.

As we approached Ahvaz we could see oil wells with towers burning off… waste? “excess”? The city itself looks dirty and run down. No tall buildings. Some gorgeous mosques. Our hotel is right on the river which makes for a pleasant walk. Throughout the riverside park there are groups of young men smoking hookahs. Some were lying all over in piles like puppies. In the US that would look so gay. Here, of course, nobody thinks anything of it. The men are all around 20 years old, slim, and beautiful. By and large they are darker then the Tehranis and most of the people here are Arabs, which helps me to communicate a little more easily. If I were into younger men, the temptations could be very dangerous. A very few older men, and fewer women, the women always accompanied by a man and sometimes children, would walk down the path, but none had stopped to hang out.

After a while one of these boys called out to me, “Hey, Mister!” and offered me a hookah. “Na Merci” I called back to him and mimed taking a hit off the hookah and coughing horribly. Then I noticed two or our group, Maggie and Brian, sitting on a mat, sharing a hookah. I joined their company, and some boys came over. The handsomest of the lot started asking questions – in his very poor English, which he seemed intent on improving – about us (Age? Married? Religion? Maggie, who is single and Jewish decided it would be smarter here to be married and Buddhist.) and he asked about America. The boys agreed heartily when I made derisive gestures about Bush. They seemed no fans of local government either.

Throughout this exchange the crowd grew, and after awhile one guy said he needed his mat back. We got up and then one kid started demanding money. Brian offered him a small bill, but the kid rejected it and all the guys lined up confrontively. One wanted to be paid for use of the hookah and the mat. Seems Brian and Maggie had offered to pay at the beginning, but were told they didn’t need to pay. (One way or another you always have to pay!) Brian pulled out a 10,000 riyal note (about $1.00) and one of the guys shook his head, yelling “Five” in Arabic. Brian fished out 50,000 riyals and everything was fine. The whole thing was momentarily a bit scary, but easily enough resolved.

April 22 Leaving Ahavaz

We’re in the Mesopotamian River Valley, the birthplace of Western Civilization. It’s a broad flat fiver valley with rich, fertile soil. Fields of wheat, barley, and sugar cane line the roads, waving green and yellow on the way to Chogar Zabil, said to be the best preserved ziggurat remaining. The ziggurat’s base is a perfect square 105m. on each side. It was surrounded by three walls of which now only some rudimentary ruins remain. We approached the ziggurat through one main eastern entrance in the remains of the inner wall. While one can come close, access onto the ziggurat is very limited. Locked gates bar access to the entrances – at the center of each side – to stairways to the upper levels We were able to go into a series of rooms leading into a cul-de-sac. Some of the bricks have cuneiform inscriptions.

On the eastern and southern sides by the entrances are sundials made of brick, large squat cylinders with tiered recesses at each of the four points of the compass. Looking at it, the geometry is obvious. Anyone familiar with the system could measure the shadows of these recesses very easily and exactly. The question came up why an agricultural people would need to know the time so exactly? I explained the importance of the Ascendant, especially in ancient astrology and how this exact time keeping would facilitate calculation of the Ascendant. The southern sundial was much larger and served as the base of a sacrificial altar. The circular top of the sundial was divided in half with a platform to stand on and one side raised for the altar. The dividing line, in effect, a low brick wall, was lined up at a diagonal to the strict compass points of everything else there. After some haggling with the local guide through our guide interpreting we were able to figure out that the line of the wall was exactly aligned to the horizon point of the setting sun at the Winter Equinox.

Driving around Khuzestan, the Mesopotamian province of Iran, we’ve seen people herding goats, sheep, water buffalo, and camels. There are also cattle in pens, including the hump-backed Brahmins. This region is largely ethnically Arab so my Arabic – such as it is – has come in handy. The central government is very much ethnically Persian and not supportive of minority cultures. All public education, throughout a very ethnically diverse country, is conducted in Persian. There is an Arab separatist movement in Khuzistan, and some people call it Arabistan. This is where all – or at least a huge amount – of the oil is pumped and it is also the agricultural breadbasket of Iran. If this province were to secede it would be bean economic shock like California leaving the US. Local Arab loyalties are also suspect in part because of the 8 Year War that Iraq waged to try to capture this province. Handsome young soldiers are portrayed in murals all around here, fallen war dead, hailed as religious martyrs. Khomeini is also shown with quotes, exhorting people to good behavior and patriotism. Many of the quotes are in English along with Persian, to benefit foreign visitors.

Liz is a tall slim woman of a certain age, a retired facilities manager, who remembers the fifties well enough to have a full appreciation for the accomplishments of the feminist movement. She’s been here before, and wears her scarf without complaint until some man makes it out to be a small imposition. She’ll let you know at that point what a bother it is. A long drive through the country allowed her to let it fall back, but at one point we passed a man and two women on a motorcycle who pointed and laughed at our bus as if something were very funny. Liz’s bare head? A little later we drove through a small town and into a traffic circle where the honking, traffic, and commotion seemed excessive even by Iranian standards. (Like male beauty, we are again dealing with a heightened level of expectations!) Sitting right behind Liz I suggested that she might want to put her scarf back up. She did so and there was no more fuss. That night a Greek tourist sauntered across to the salad bar with her head uncovered – the shameless hussy! Our tour guide had some words with the Greek group’s tour guide. Secret police are everywhere and this could be trouble. If one group draws bad attention, it makes it harder for all of us. The other leader, a young woman who was letting her own scarf slip back pretty far, seemed confident that she knew where the rules could be bent, and that hotel, in the basement restaurant was safe. She came over and chatted with us, shaking hands (The heterosexual handshake is tabu here as is any cross-gender touching outside the family!) and offering great hope as an example of a young Iranian woman who doesn’t take crap.

From Chogar Zanbil we went to Shush, an ancient Achaemenian capital where some meager remains sit atop a hill top. In the late 18th century French Archaeologists took control of the hilltop and built an Omani style castle to protect the archeologists from Arab raiders. The castle was interesting, although we couldn’t enter. Air conditioning units showed it still in use. Best of all was the view from up there down over the city itself and the look into the courtyard of the Mosque of Daniel’s Tomb. We had gone there first and I was able to pray with the other faithful who were there as we all faced the tomb of the Biblical prophet Daniel. After my salat I played tourist and photographed the tomb the best I could in such a cramped space.

Our hotel in Ahwaz had decent dinners. Uninspired kebabs seem the rule so far, but the fish and shrimp kebabs here were good. Salad bars here offer varieties of yogurt, plain, one withchopped cukes and garlic that would be called tzatziki in Greece. Here it’s called masosir. A third variety appears to have chopped spinach. Breakfast at the Brand Pars Ahwaz features the usual choices plus a porridge with fine pits of beef. It’s eaten with sugar and cinnamon. There’s also a thick gloopy soup of mystery greens with garbanzos and lentils. Any description of it must be scary, but it really was delicious. After yesterday’s breakfast I was looking forward to more of the same this morning. Of course I want to try a full range of varieties, but more of the same of these breakfasts would not be a terrible disappointment.

On the way back from Susa we stopped off at Shushtar, a city of extraordinarily beautiful men (Iran already sets a high standard there!) and a hydroelectric dam in the middle of town. Instead of the usual dull spillways they’ve created a series of cascades and walkways making a beautiful aquatic park.

At night Nick, a brilliantly flirtatious man of 40, took me on a riverside stroll. People were very friendly, and quite a few of them were visibly drunk. Almost all the men here are stunningly gorgeous, so the one who greeted me on the stairs from the hotel to the walkway could have saved me the walk. But he quickly lost interest, perhaps due to language difficulties. We went a short distance and Nick was telling me of his adventures the previous night, ending up in a dark park on the other side of the river, apparently left alone for illicit activities. As we chatted a pair of young straight couples weaved up to us, one of the girls took the lead introducing herself as “Fifi” in a tone suggesting the whole thing was a huge joke, and we played along. After they left in a fit of giggles we met Mustafa, whom Nick fell in lust with instantly. He took us to a gang of friends who were amazingly friendly. They asked what seem the usual questions about our religion and, “Bush?” My standard response of a raspberry and a thumbs-down gesture always gets a laugh. Especially with my declaration, “Bush is a schmuck!” which these boys learned and repeated eagerly. “Boosh – a shmahck!” They kept offering whisky and puffs on the hookah, and flirted outrageously. One caught sight of the edge of my tattoo and wanted to see the rest of it. I rolled up my sleeve to show as much as decency in an Islamic Republic allows, indicating the extent of it. Issa, the real prize of the bunch, indicated that he wanted me to show him the rest and I allowed that I would be glad to show him as much as he wants to see if we could find a right place for it. Someone with a phone took some pictures of my arm, and Mustafa told Nick that we should go. We made our hasty farewells as gracefully as we could, with lots of hugs and kisses.

A decent night’s sleep, Alhamdulillah; another fine breakfast of green gloop and porridge with meat and cinnamon, and maa-salaama to Khuzestan, the birthplace of Western Civilization and home of beautiful, beautiful men!

At a small town we stopped for a quick break. An ice cream shop there prepares a small plastic dish loaded with seven tiny scoops of ice cream. Along with chocolate and “nescafe” I got coconut, saffron, and carrot. Saffron is plentiful here, and relatively cheap.

We’re making some close passes by oil wells. Flames atop the rigs are burning off natural gas. It seems terribly wasteful, but any effort to retrieve the gas would risk some of it getting caught into the oil pipelines, which could cause an explosion. Flame is very important in the Zoroastrian religion which is as suffuse in local culture as pagan traditions are in American Christianity. The fires here offer great beauty and a sense of purification. Unfortunately we’ve only driven by the wells at day. At night they must be very striking!

Bishipur was the first capital of the Sassanid dynasty. What little that remains of King Shapur’s city is mostly undulating stone walls. One interesting feature is a temple 6 meters below ground level, at the level of a nearby river, which fed a shallow pool in the square temple. Like the ziggurats this temple had entrances to the main room from each of four sides. Each of these doorways led to a corridor surrounding the temple, but only one doorway led to the stairs back up to the surface. This was the temple to Anahita, goddess of water and fertility. The city had stood at the opening of a narrow, lush river valley, and was obviously nurtured by the river as it flowed out to the larger valley of which the city had a commanding view. The king’s palace featured a dome with four iwans. The dome, covering a room of 25 meters squared was the first significant dome in Persian architecture. This style of dome and iwans is a common pattern now in Iranian mosques. Close to this was a “sex temple” where guests of the emperor were offered erotic companionship. The Persians are still famous for their hospitality, but nothing is what it used to be!

Up into the river valley, are bas-relief carvings honoring Sassanid victories, and one showing the emperor receiving a ring of power from the Zoroastrian god, Ahuru Mazda. Across from those were walls built of rock into the steep wall of the river valley, made more visible by the perfectly round windows and narrow slits (For archers? Or for air and illumination?)

Out of there just in time for sunset we are continuing our ascent up mountain roads through passes to the city of Shiraz, where wine has been made for 5,000 years.
There are still vineyards and wine is made for Zoroastrians, Christians and Jews (Oh, My!)

April 23, 4:30 pm

Persepolis beggars description. Our tour guide, Reza, asked me how it compares to the Roman Forum. The Forum was a collection of temples and related buildings in the heart of an urban center. What remains of the city of Persepolis was a magnificent palace complex. One of the palaces there was the home of King Xerxes and his wife Queen Esther. A ceremonial entrance to the palace complex has on either side giant bull figures looming over the portal. Both figures have been partially destroyed, and one of the heads is now in the museum at the University of Chicago. When Reza said that, I realized that I have a picture of it. It’s from a National Geographic from the early 50’s showing a picture of that bull’s head being admired by my mother, then a teenaged student at the U of C.

The figures that predominate in the art are bulls and lions. An image that appears frequently is that of a lion biting into a bull’s haunch. The lion’s mane radiates with a regularity that makes the lion’s head suggest a solar disk. A curve in the bull’s horn makes it look like a crescent moon. The Sun rules Leo and the Moon is exalted in Taurus so the astrology of it confirms Reza’s explanation that it represents day conquering night. Bulls, Lions and Men are the commonest figures, suggesting three of the four fixed signs of the Zodiac. What, no eagle or scorpion? Perhaps they thought Scorpio should remain hidden.

One figure Reza pointed out as King Ataxerxes killing a lion, a boast of his strength. Actually that would exactly describe another bas-relief very near by. I noticed that this particular “lion” had eagle’s wings and claws, a scorpion’s tail, and bull’s horns, features from three of the fixed signs. Is Ataxerxes than supposed to be Aquarius? But here the image of the gryphon-like figure being killed by the King appears to assert his majesty’s control over the order of the universe.

At a wonderful lunch Jerry showed us how to wrap some cheese, leaves from a savory herb, and a piece of raw onion into a piece of flatbread, and dip it in yoghurt. Delicious!!! Seriously!

Then on to the necropolis where Xerxes and three other kings were buried. (Esther is somewhere else with uncle Mordecai.) These tombs were high up in a cliff wall with carvings that make one think of Petra or the Valley of the Kings in Egypt – at least from photos of those places I’ve not yet been. Buried high above they were supposed to be closer to heaven. Beneath them large carvings into the rock depicted coronations and military victories.

A tall narrow square building, in the necropolis had been called the Zoroastrian Ka’aba, but its purpose remains unknown. Some scholars suspect an astrological connection, and archaeologists have invited astrologers to help figure it out.

On the way back into Shiraz we stopped off at an Imam Zahdeh, a shrine to… well this one featured a grandson of one of the 12 Imams in a crypt identical to the one holding the prophet Daniel, except that it was out in the open in the center of the shrine, not in a small room like Daniel’s. The courtyard of the shrine was paved with gravestones identifying those buried beneath. In the center a goldfish pond was lined with spigots and stools for wudhu (ablutions necessary before prayer) The crypt was exactly under the center of the dome in a slightly cruciform building. The interior walls, ceilings, and iwans were entirely covered in patterns of small pieces of mirror. It is easily the glitziest place I’ve ever prayed!

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Salam, Tehran!

April 17-18, 2006

The flight over on Air France was better than Alitalia, but not up to Lufthansa or FinnAir. Food was excellent, service snippy – a classic stereotype of the French! Flight was crowded and uncomfortable. Big guy in a flimsy seat in front of me kept it going up and down, making me feel like I was underneath a see-saw.

Exhausted but slightly wired from jetlag and excitement, I’m in my room at the Tehran Grand Hotel, which by Iranian standards is a 4 star hotel. I’d give it two stars. Our tour leader, Jerry, was over-enthusiastic, but I have no real complaints. Elias would have a lot to say,

Getting through passport control and customs was a breeze, but for a long, slow line at the passport gate and the guard a bit officious and clearly surprised with a group of Americans coming in.

There was some confusion about our arrival time. Whoever is in charge has decided that Iran will not observe daylight time this year. Astrologers take note!

Tehran – a city of 10,000,000 -- is all lit up, with shops lining streets selling various treats. Traffic is mad, way beyond anything I ever saw in Italy, even in Morocco. Signs were of course in Farsi, most with roman transliteration, as are all the street signs. Nice practice for reading!

The air is hot, dry, and dirty, reminiscent of Mexico City. My sinuses are not happy, but it’s not terrible.

The Islamic Republic is cracking down. Western music and dancing, so I’m told, are banned in public. I here there may even be a new plan whereby men and women will have to walk on different sides of the street. Even families will be gender segregated in public strolls. How this can be made practical I can’t imagine and it’s sure to disrupt commerce something fierce. It’s too crazy, and must be a joke. More likely is the news that womens’ dress codes will get stricter next month, needing to cover more as things get much warmer around here.

The façade of the hotel is lit up with garish colors, looking like a shabby version of Las Vegas. Inside it’s pleasant enough. My otherwise very ordinary room has a folded-up prayer rug on the shelf by the mirror, and as I unfurled it for evening prayer, a small clay disk flew out. I understand it’s a Shi’ite tradition to put that where your head meets the ground in the low bow of salat. Of course there’s a Qur’an by the rug, but it’s all Arabic, not unexpectedly. I brought my bi-lingual copy. A small arrow tacked up on the wall points to qibla, the direction of Mecca. My little compass and guide for that disagrees by 90 degrees.

The bathroom has a hose on a spigot next to the toilet to accommodate the “traditionalists” who clean themselves, wiping with water, as Muslims did in the days before rolls of perforated tissue. Paper is there for those of us what go for them new-fangled innovations. That reminds me: Check on local left-hand taboos.

So much for late night arrival in Tehran, after much too long a time flying.

Shob bekheyr is Persian for good night!

April 19, 2006, 7:00 AM

A fitful night’s sleep. My room is not far over a busy, noisy street. He view (north) is rather pretty, with snow-capped mountains not too far off, and a stream along the sidewalk where you would expect a gutter. Trees (maples?) are growing in the stream.

6:00 PM
Traffic here continues to amaze… traffic lanes seem to be mere recommendations and people scrape by – almost literally. Breakfast mystery meats, sandwich meats and sausage are all halal so I can devour them fearlessly, and the buffet here is pretty good.

This morning we went to the Qajar dynasty palace complex. , a number of buildings framing a beautiful, large garden. A grand marble throne with gorgeous carvings – statues of Persian princes and princesses, and fanged demons from poems by Fergowsi. Support a large marble base -- looks out from one ornate room onto the garden. Another room, used for court ceremonies is decorated mostly with pieces of mirror arranged in geometric patterns that raise into small peaks, reflecting light everywhere.

Another building, the tallest in Tehran when it was built, had then aroused some fury as the good citizen neighbors feared that the men of the royal household would look down into yards nearby and see their wives and daughters unveiled. The Shah agreed that only women would be allowed on the top two floors of his palace.

On to the Grand Bazaar of Tehran. Well, semi-grand…. It appears at first glance like the labyrinthine net of The Bazaar of Istanbul or Marakesh Souks all pressed close together, but it’s altogether much smaller and from what we saw deals mostly in household goods. That includes some very nice furnishings, and more mundane items. I got some disposable razors.

After lunch – little more than moderately interesting, but for the variety of rice preparations and a saffron & rosewater pudding for dessert – we went on to the Sa`d Abad Museum complex which used to be the Summer Palaces of the Pahlevi Shahs and their close relatives. None of the palaces is hugely impressive, but there are some nice rooms and pieces, and the grounds, overlooking Tehran from the hills to the north make a lovely park.

For all that, the highlight of the day may have been the huge mural declaring “Down With America!” Our tour guide, Reza, was very apologetic, but one of our group had wanted to see it. We assured him that such a design would fit right into a San Francisco peace march, and that we were opposed to US imperial aggression.

Doesn’t sound like much of a day, but we’re still pretty seriously jetlagged and came back to our hotel exhausted.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Going to Iran!

Monday I’m flying to Iran!

This is a spectacular opportunity, and the tour looks fairly complete. I’ll stay a week longer to fill in some gaps, hoping by then to know enough Persian to get by on my own.

Telling friends about the trip is already an experience. People who’ve been there describe the Iranians as the warmest most hospitable people in the world. Those who’ve studied the area and know what’s going on are very excited and encouraging. My friends who are less informed think it’s dangerous. One even told me that it’s insane to go to a country that’s at war. Perhaps. Certainly one should visit such countries only very advisedly, but Iran hasn’t been at war with anyone in nearly 20 years. How many wars has the US been in since then, not counting the two we’re waging now in Afghanistan and Iraq?

Some highlights of the itinerary:

Tehran city tour with visits to the Golestan Palace Complex and the Ethnological Museum. Later a visit to the Garden Hall of Shams-ol-Emareh and the Hall of the Marble Throne. Afterwards a stroll through the Tehran Bazaar.
A visit to the Archeological and Islamic Art Museums in Tehran with their fine collection of artifacts from the period of the ancient Persian Empire from the 5th to the 4th millennium B.C. and Islamic Art Museum containing a collection of carpets, textiles, ceramics and pottery from the Islamic Period.

Ahwaz, a city of just over one million people, is the capital of Khuzestan Province and is part of the greater region known historically as Mesopotamia. After breakfast in the hotel we drive to Susa (Shush), once one of the greatest cities of ancient Persia until Alexander the Great conquered it in 331 BC. Afterwards a visit to Chogha Zanbil, one of the best-preserved ziggurats in Mesopotamia. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The ziggurat was dedicated to the chief God of the ancient Elamites, Inshushinak. Later a drive to the city of Shushtar to see the water mills on the Karun River dating back to the Qajar Dynasty.

A visit to the ancient Sassanian city of Bishapur with visits to the Temple of Anahita, the Zoroastrian deity of water and fertility and the bas reliefs commemorating the Sassanian victory over the Romans in 243 AD.

Persepolis, the spiritual capital of the Persian Empire built by Darius I in 518 B.C., destroyed by Alexander the Great in 330 B.C. and considered by many to be one of the most beautiful and spectacular archaeological sites in the world today, was the spiritual capital of the ancient Persian Empire ruled over by the Achaemenian kings.We’ll visit the Achaemenian tombs at Naghsh-e-Rostam

City tour of Shiraz with a visit to the NarenjestanGarden and the Nasir ol-Molk Mosque. An afternoon visit to the tombs of the Sufi Poets Hafez and Sa'adi, the Khan Theological School and the Koran Gate. Shiraz was one of the most important cities in the Medieval Islamic world and is the cradle of Persian culture and civilization. It was the Iranian capital from 1747-1770. Shiraz has been famous throughout Iranian history as a city of poets, Sufi saints, and rose gardens and as a seat of learning.
Drive from Shiraz to Yazd with a visit to Pasargad, the ancient capital and burial place of Cyrus the Great. Yazd, a city of about 500,000, is the center of Iranian Zoroastrianism and lies on the Silk Road along the edge of the Dasht­e-Kavir desert. Yazd was visited my Marco Polo in 1272. Our visit to Yazd will include the Friday Mosque, the Chaqmaq Mosque and the Dowlatabad Gardens with its famous wind towers. Afterwards we will visit the Zoroastrian Fire Temple and the Towers of Silence.
On to Isfahan is a city of about 1,300,000 inhabitants and is considered by many to be the classical Persian city. It is beautifully situated on a river, which flows through the center of town. There are several exquisite bridges that are fine examples of Safavid Dynasty architecture. The term "Isfahan nesfe­jahan" (Isfahan is half of the world) was coined in the 16th century to reflect the magnificence of the city. During the rule of Shah Abbas I in the 16th century Isfahan became the center of some of the most beautiful and awe inspiring architecture, art and carpets seen anywhere in the Islamic world.
Full day tour of Imam Square built in 1612. It is one of the largest squares in the world. The tour includes the Ali Qapu Palace constructed in the 18th century, Imam Mosque, one of the most stunning examples of Persian architecture built in 1638 and the Sheikh Lotfullah Mosque and the traditional bazaar. An afternoon visit to the bridges of Isfahan located on the Zayandeh River. Later a visit to a traditional Zurkhaneh (House of Strength) to watch an exhibition of Persian martial arts which has its roots in Sufism (mystical Islam).

Qom is one of the most important centers of Shi'a Islam and is the cradle of the Islamic Revolution. A visit to the Sanctuary of Fatima, one of the holiest pilgrimage sites for Shi'a Moslems. Continue on to Tehran with visits to Behesht-e-Zahra, the Cemetery of Martyrs, and the Mausoleum of Imam Khomeini.


After that, some leave, some stay, going on individual exploration. I’ll spend a day or two in Tehran and fly to the historical city of Tabriz, then over the Caspian coastline to Mashhad, a great religious center said to have some of the best ecclesiastical architecture anywhere.

I love visiting Muslim countries – which sounds like I do it a lot, although I’ve only been to Turkey, Morocco, and Bosnia – and look forward to spending a few weeks in a mostly Shi’ite country, observing the differences between the two major sects of Islam. I don’t plan on keeping my Sunni side up, but will be eager to observe, learn, and participate to my best abilities according to the house rules. When in Rome…. I strongly feel that Islam is a universal religion because it is a set of simple principles that can be adapted to the cultures and needs of different peoples in different nations. Just as there is one humanity with billions of unique individuals, there is one Islam for all and we each have to find our own path and practice. There are five pillars of faith built around the word of God in holy scriptures, but around that there is a lot of room for individuality and cultural variety.

In any case, it will be a tremendous adventure to explore this ancient land.

Friday, March 31, 2006

Reply to Rosendall

Richard Rosendall, wrote a column in the 30 March 2006 issue of Boston's GLBTI paper, "Bay Window." As it encapsulated a lot of common clichés of Islamophobia I thought it worth responding to. Editor Susan Ryan-Vollmar wrote that this response would run in the next issue:

As Richard Rosendall reports with apparent approval, Bruce Bawer has shifted focus from his bizarre revisionism of queer history. (Bawer has in the past gone to some length saying that the leftists, queens, bulldykes, and leathermen who catalyzed our community’s growth in the Stonewall Era are weirdos who denigrate our community.) Now Bruce is whipping up anti-Muslim hysteria. Indeed the integration of large Muslim populations in western societies is a problem, but one that needs a more nuanced and historical perspective than Bawer offers. Quelle surprise.

Projecting a homophobic dystopia arising out of current trends, Rosendall and Bawer ignore the fact that the trends they’re looking at follow a cycle of rise and ebb; not the linear trajectory they draw. Historical precedents abound. Immigrant ghettoes in early 20th-century America also had imported systems of law enforcement where the civic institutions chose not to tread. But immigrants do integrate into the larger society. Recent efforts to allow Shari’ah courts in Canada were squelched, thanks in large part to progressive Muslim groups who recognize that we can preserve our religion and thrive better in an integrated society.

“Honor killings” are a tribal custom, not condoned by anything in the Qur’an, and yes, they happen, but they are not “routine” any more than double-fisting is a routine gay sex practice. Really, gay men should know enough about sensationalist stereotyping to look beyond it. Hysterical exaggeration only causes “traditional” communities to circle the wagons and make a real problem worse.

Typically ignorant of reality is Bawer’s characterization of Pat Robertson as merely wanting to deny us marriage – and thus nicer than the Muslims. Excuse me??? Robertson is well on record preaching death for queers as fervently as any mullah, and has blamed us for incurring God’s wrath in the forms of earthquakes, hurricanes, and even the 9/11 attack. Bruce’s longstanding fetish for Republican bootleather comes off here as indecent slavering.

Much more typical than the terrorism espoused by Osama bin-Laden is his niece, Wafa Dafour, a singer who has posed for sexy photos in GQ. Islamic names are growing ever more noticeable in cast lists and movie credits. As more and more Muslims celebrate the freedoms and opportunities offered in western cultures so are more and more westerners embracing Islam. Feminist, Queer, and progressive Muslims are organizing and finding in the Qur’an support for personal autonomy and cultural diversity.

With a growing presence of Muslims in the West we have a growing number of Queer Muslims among us who are struggling to tear down the artificial barrier between their religion and their sexual/gender integrity. Rosendall’s parroting of Bawer’s polarizing twaddle only attacks our efforts at personal and social integration.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Medicine for Mexicans: Public services and Illegal immigrants

A friend writes that Virginia has just passed a law requiring legal residence for medical assistance and that that Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico says illegal immigrants are stressing their health care system. Richardson, a latino Democrat, should know better.

With the brutal conditions that people sneaking up from Mexico risk, it seems insane that anyone would cross the border to take advantage of American Health Care, but likelier that they would need it after making the crossing. A couple of excellent movies, "El Norte" and "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" illustrate the point. In fact I have friends who have gone to Mexico to get treatment they couldn't get in the US. And besides, it's cheaper, and so much easier, to see a doctor in Mexico than to hire a "Coyote" to sneak you into the States.

Nowadays whenever a "liberal" speaks of compassion and the human cost he's accused of being a mushy-headed PC bleeding heart, so I'm going to skip all that and speak strictly in terms of economy and security.

People cross the border desperate to find work, and their labor, often at or below the minimum wage, without benefits that citizens would demand, usually the most grueling tasks, keeps our economy running. They pick the crops, clean the restaurants, and keep the homes of politicians who vote to make their lives even dicier. (We see these "nanny-gate" scandals again and again.)

Because they are here illegally they do their best to avoid the system and not use services that citizens and legal immigrants can take advantage of.

If an illegal gets a contagious disease, it is cheaper for all us taxpayers if he just goes to the clinic to get it taken care of, than if he doesn't get the care and the disease spreads among others, who are here legally or otherwise, and when it gets worse the treatment becomes more expensive in each case, and there are so many more cases!

If there are children here illegally who don't go to school, they are likelier to end up in gangs, and prisons are costlier than schools. (Funny how the right wing moans and bitches about the expense of schools and the politics of teachers' unions, but eagerly pump money into more prisons and shell out whatever the prison guards' unions ask for.) And a lot of those children, even if their parents are here illegally, are born in the US and are indeed citizens. And still, for fear of consequences to their parents, they miss out on school and health care. So we end up spending more on prisons. One should also note how more and more latinos are embracing Islam. I should be glad for that, but what Islam are they embracing? Are they learning – “Bismillah irrahman irrahim” – a discipline of love, mercy, and compassion that will help them to live fuller lives? Or are they getting the brutal puritanism that encourages contempt of diversity, that imagines armies of God and promotes violence and suicide bombs? Alienated youth who came up through gangs are too prone to the latter. Abdullah al Muhajir, né Jose Padilla, is one famous case involving an alleged “dirty bomb” plot. (Joe Loya writes more about the link between latin gangs and el-Qaeda at )

Yes, our public health care system is being very stressed. Blaming the illegals conveniently ignores the cut-backs and lowered corporate taxes, the obscene diversion of government funds to the war in Iraq. This is just another symptom of the structural decadence of America as health, education, and infrastructure are being starved so the rich can get richer.

The new law in Virgina requiring legal residence for medical treatment is penny wise, but pound foolish. It appeals to short-sighted jingoistic voters and echoes Virginia’s racist past, but the many Virginians who call themselves Christians should be ashamed of turning away the ill, the poor, the strangers... exactly the people that Jesus told us to embrace and care for.

As for Richardson, this only demonstrates the spineless vacillation, the lack of leadership and vision that is keeping Democrats out of power. Shame, shame, shame...

Friday, March 03, 2006

How did I come to Islam?

I was raised in an agnostic, socialist home. Even my grandparents were all agnostic. Both my grandfathers grew up in strict religious homes, one Catholic, the other orthodox Jewish. The Catholic married an Episcopalian who converted to appease his mother and, tourism aside, neither ever entered a church again. My Jewish grandpa came to America and after a couple of other marriages met my nana who came from a very reform Jewish family in Berlin. My parents raised their children without religion… for the most part. For reasons more pragmatic than religious we went to a Unitarian Church for a year. Being active in the Civil Rights movement, and then the peace movement opposing the war in Vietnam we had a lot of contact with black and peace-oriented activist churches. Our parents taught us about different religions and said we could make up our minds when we grew up. When they divorced, my father decided that his three pre-teen children would all be Jews. A rabbi said some words over our heads, and they are since long forgotten. My brother is an adamant atheist and my sister attends a Protestant church.

As a young adult I read the Gospels and became a Christian, and eventually Roman Catholic, but always critical of institutions and fundamentalism. I remained open to learning other ways, studied Wicca, and always had friends of many different religions. For all that I never really knew any Muslims, although in the 10th grade I’d read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and that was for a long time most of what I knew about Islam.

In February of 2001 I was studying in Florence and had the opportunity to visit Istanbul. What I found there astounded me, a vibrant city that had been truly cosmopolitan for centuries in ways that no European or American city came near. I was then only dimly aware of medieval Arab empires that stretched from China to Iberia, but in Istanbul one could see an incredible legacy of many diverse arts and cultures. I was hungry to learn more.

I returned that summer to San Francisco and signed up for classes in the “History of Islamic Societies” in the fall of 2001. The class had been meeting for a few weeks before the attack on the World Trade Center. On September 12, we were as shell shocked as the rest of the country, and very aware that we were strangely privileged to be in that class at that time, that after a few weeks we already knew far more about Islam than most Americans and that what we were learning would be crucial in healing wounds and building bridges.

The next summer I went to Morocco to study Arabic, which strictly for studying Arabic was a mistake, like going to Italy to study Latin. What they speak in Morocco is a form of Arabic rather removed from the standard language of the Arab media, much less the dialects of other Arab countries. Still, it was very eye-opening to live in an Arab country, poor in their economy, but rich in history, culture, and the good manners I would learn were integral to Muslim society, “al-adab” which means manners, culture, and literature, depending on context, but always suggests polite grace and education.

Back in San Francisco I continued learning about Islam and the Muslim world – never intending to convert. I was really quite happy as a Catholic, thank you very much – but with a sense of duty that Americans and Europeans needed to know about this world that was so close to us in so many ways, but so far from our knowledge.

It always seemed to me that to judge any matter you always have to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. To know another person’s way of thinking you have to learn her language. People only resort to violence, let alone suicide, when other means fail. What were we not hearing from the Muslim world, what did we need to know? Aside from the huge geo-political questions what are the underlying religious and philosophical beliefs?

It came clearer and clearer that– despite the institutional overlays, and the huge political problems that they create – the Abrahamite religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have at their common core a belief that the dignity of humanity is a divine grace that we share in by acts of compassion and forgiveness. There is really very little that separates these religions – differing opinions about Jesus and Mohammed (peace be upon them) – but the moral teachings are essentially the same. The rest is little more than cultural and political history.

In my study of Islam I had to ask myself if I could or would be a Muslim and why (not)? As a Catholic I believed in Jesus Christ as God incarnate. There is a wonderful, beautiful mystery in this that links humanity with God. The Incarnation was very important to me, and even believing in this as an historical (if historically unverifiable) fact, I knew that if we believe in Christ as the salvation of man, that excludes the majority of humanity that never had the opportunity to know of Him. Therefore God either turns His back on most of humanity or “knowing Christ” has to be as valid in metaphor as it is in literal interpretation.

The Qur’an, on the other hand, affirms Jesus as prophet, but no more, and also affirms that while some prophets are known to us through the Qur’an and the Bible, there are many prophets and they share God’s word in all communities. And also that we are made in different nations and cultures that we may all learn from each other. This understanding helped me to let go of the Incarnation.

There is also the not inconsiderable problem that I have always and only loved men. Women as friends and sisters, sure, but never “that way.” Along with my other research I looked into Gay Muslim organizations and scholarship and found that the homophobia that is indeed very strong in most contemporary Muslim cultures is relatively new, that it flourished with the spread of European colonialism, and that sexual diversity had been known and accepted throughout most of Muslim history. Islamic arguments against homosexuality are based on readings of the story of the “people of Lut” – familiar to Christians and Jews as the Sodomites – but this is a story about robbery, rape, and murder, that has nothing to do with men loving men or women loving women.

All this came to a head for me when I attended the 2003 conference of Salaam Canada, a Gay Muslim organization. I felt there was no reason I could not make the declaration of faith, but should probably wait to do so until I got home, rather than doing something rash in a setting so removed from my daily life. But then there were two Sufi dhikr. The first one was ecstatic, leading me into an openness of spirit.

The second one was more structured, strictly choreographed dances with chanting ayat (verses from the Qur’an). The first two were general recognitions of human spirit… but the third, “En’shedu na la illaha il allah wa Muhamed rasul allah,” was the declaration of faith: There is no god but God, and Mohammed is his prophet. Could I say it without meaning it? One participant, who was not Muslim, bowed out, which crystallized my choice, and I asked the leader if this would qualify as a Shahadah. She said that it would if I meant it. Could I, should I say it and mean it? I could, and despite the sensible reasons for waiting it seemed a perfect setting in which to make the Shahadah. Besides, I am a professional astrologer and my horoscope for that day signaled a major change in my life.

I danced and sang,
En’shedu na la illaha il allah wa Muhamed rasul allah.
“En’shedu na le illaha il allah wa Muhamed rasul allah.
“En’shedu na le illaha il allah wa Muhamed rasul allah.”

And I have never regretted it. I find joy in prayer and fasting, and I find in Islam not easy answers to questions, but simple principles that offer endless challenge.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Oh, those Cartoons! Anti-Semitic? Or Anti-Israeli?

In response to Muslim rage over the Danish doodles, Muslims have been challenged with anti-Israeli cartoons taken as evidence of vicious anti-Semitism. But can one criticize the policies of the Israeli state without being accused of anti-Semitism? And what other government has managed to put itself so above criticism? Oh, but look at the cartoons! They are ugly stereotypes of Jews and profane the sacred symbols of Judaism. True enough, but let’s look at the context.

Political cartoons rely on stereotypes that would be crude and bufoonish elsewhere. Any survey of political cartoons would find the French drawn as apache dancers with baguettes, the English are cockneys or snooty umbrella-toters, the Germans are fat, officious men in monocles or women in braids and dirndls, etc., etc… Heaven knows we've been lately awash in Arabs with bulging eyes and unkempt beards, swinging huge scimtars. The cartoon stereotype of the Jew does have ugly historic resonance, but if Israel claims to represent the Jewish people they cannot reasonably protest being represented as Jewish people, even in a medium where most of the people are absurdly crude stereotypes.

Israeli leaders have declared themselves and their government THE representatives of the Jewish people – a claim that many of my Jewish friends and relatives dispute – and this government represents itself with the symbols of the Jewish religion. Take the Jewish star, the mogen david, which is so prominent in these cartoons. I don't like seeing it sullied, but it is the symbol on the Israeli flag. The Israeli state seal exploits a menorah. It is the Israelis who have made the sacred symbols of Judaism, the religion of my own family and forebears, into the signs of a worldly government. Religious symbols should be above vicious caricature, but political symbols are fair game. The Israeli government cannot have it both ways.

The icing on the cake is the comparison of caricatures of Muhammed with caricatures of Ariel Sharon. Inherent in this argument is equating a prophet of God with a particularly brutal politician.
This is not to deny that there is indeed crude and vicious hatred of Jews among Muslims (as there is also among Christians and others!) but when reasonable political criticism is assailed as religious hatred, this is "crying 'wolf''" in a way that makes serious challenges to actual bigotry all the more difficult.