We have been traveling at a pretty fast and furious pace, getting up at unholy hours of the morning for flights and bus trips. The last three days are a blur, but the consistent impression that repeatedly blows me away is the warm hospitality of the Iranian people. You can hardly walk through the streets without being stopped every five minutes for a lively conversation.
Here in Esfahan, the main concentration of activity centers around Imam Square, one of the largest squares in the world filled with people strolling, talking, picnicking, shopping, worshiping, or going for a carriage ride! It is a gigantic fountain-filled courtyard surrounded by the bazaar selling everything from nougat with pistachios to prayer rugs, flanked on both sides by stunning blue tiled mosques, one of the main attractions that have always made me want to visit Iran.
People stopped us cold in the street to ask if they could talk to us. They are very eager to speak English, and when they ask where we are from, they raise their eyebrows, open their eyes wide, and say “America is VERY GOOD!!” They all say how much they are happy about Obama, how they want our country to be friends. Their next comment is usually, “We love American people!!” followed by their next question that makes me swallow hard, “What do American people think about Iranians?” It is a heartbreak to look these very enthusiastic, smiling young people in the eye, holding back the answer, “Most Americans are terrified of you!” Interesting to discuss Obama’s challenges ahead, when they seem to be more informed about American politics than we do. Many apologize for their president, calling him “crazy!” I just reply, “It’s okay, we used to have a crazy president too, but it’s proof that things can change!” Anyway, enough with my political soapbox.
Seventy percent of the population is below 30 years old, and these kids are STYLIN’! It is amazing how the drop-dead gorgeous women get so creative to look so evocative while 90% of their bodies are covered. Nose jobs are very popular, and you see at least half a dozen women each day sporting their dainty white bandages on their noses as a symbol of status. Their make-up is very dramatic with coal-ringed eyes and arched eyebrows, and their hair teased up under their hejab (headscarf) as if it were a bouffant competition. The guys all wear skinny tight jeans, and comb their hair into spiky punk styles. Last night walking home, one came up to me and asked if I liked Rap and Rock music. I said “yes, I love all kinds of music.” He whispered as if he were speaking of an intoxicating drug, “It is WONDERFUL, but VERY dangerous!!” They seem to have such a great desire to be a part of the modern world.
As for the scenery, the architecture and history are as astoundingly impressive if not more so than I had hoped. Thousand year old bridges, magnificent mosques with mirror-like repetitive arches, stalactite moldings in honeycombed archways, high domed ceilings with lattice pierced windows, all covered in every square inch with intricate blue, turquoise, and yellow tiles.
They roll out giant carpets by the yard in the courtyards three times a day when it is time to pray, then roll them all back up at the end of each prayer session. The sight of hundreds of people all bowing in unison to worship is mesmerizing.
At the Holy Shrine in Mashad (burial place of the 8th Imam, 8th descendant of Mohammad and second holiest place for Muslims next to Mecca) we were required to wear the “chador,” the draping black veil that covers all but the hands and face. Although I was glad to shed it once the tour was over, I must admit it was fun wandering through the courtyards in the dramatically mysterious billowy black tent among the local women, as people kept telling me I looked Iranian. I don’t see the resemblance.
There is an abundance of commerce here, and although the unemployment rate is reported to be high, I have not seen much sign of poverty. I can only attribute this to the fact that one of the laws of Islam is to give to the less fortunate, and you see donation boxes on the streets as prolific as parking meters.
Fruits and vegetables, nuts and dates are fresh and plentiful. Breakfast is included in the hotels (typically boiled eggs, really red tomatoes, cucumbers, feta-style cheese, bread, butter, honey, cherry jam, dates, yogurt, and tea,) and lunch has typically been some type of kabab (chicken or lamb) and rice. The most famous local dish is “Fesenjun,” a sauce of grated pomegranate, walnuts, eggplant, and cardamom served over roast chicken and rice. I enjoyed mine topped off with a cold, non-alcoholic beer –deliciously intoxicating with flavor if not with alcohol. There is Pear beer, Peach bee, Apple beer, just no alcoholic beer! Being in a Muslim country where alcohol is strictly forbidden only makes me crave it more!
Tomorrow is a long day, as we drive to Shiraz, which is about a nine hour drive, but at least our bus is big, air conditioned, and very comfy, with an individual row for each one of us. I will charge up the ipod and enjoy the freedom music choice while of listening to the Beatles White Album, watching the Iranian world roll by….