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.

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