It’s not much, I know, but still, I have to utter these powerless words, hoping they contribute to raising awareness for a grave situation.
My thoughts and sad feelings are with the oppressed people of Iran. In this dark hour, I stand behind the brave ones who are raising their voice and putting everything on the line for women’s rights and freedom in their beloved country. Among them are a few of the most kind and friendly human beings Ziggy and I met on our journey. For what it’s worth: stay strong and stand firm Irani!
For more than two weeks we had been traveling through Iran before touching Shirazian soil on the 13th of August, day 137 of the journey. We had an appointment with Navid, a young guy whom we met shortly in Tbilisi during my mom’s visit. As a tour guide born and raised in Shiraz, he offered Ziggy and me a place to sleep and the promise of a tour through the city once we got there. Irresistible was his cool, collected character, his sly smile and his offer that a few weeks later, after a long day of cycling through Fars – ‘cradle of the Persian culture’, we tried to find a way to the coffee place he was overseeing for a friend.
It wasn’t easy, some might even say dangerous: during dusk navigating through streets filled with thousands of dented Saipa’s – scratched Kavir’s everywhere, all stuck in the evening’s traffic jam. Without any incidents worth mentioning however, we made it to the coffee shop where a one-man welcoming party stood on the sidewalk. ‘Hiiiii! You made it,’ Navid shouted. ‘Park your bike, sit down and let me order you something.’ I asked for a milkshake and waited till Navid’s work was done, all the while answering questions curious friends were firing at me. ‘Let’s go. Do you like pizza? You must be hungry. Let’s get pizza and then we will see… Maybe go home so you can meet my family and take a rest.’
The evening marked the beginning of a stay in the former Persian capital in which a new culture came crashing down on me like twent foot wave, submerging me and maybe changing me for good since, as I remember it correctly, it was in this city where my perspective on quite a number of issues started to shift. But we will return to that later. First, loftier matters: music, food and the Shirazian art of chilling.
Already in Mesr I was properly introduced to Iranian music: in the sand dunes I heard the whining sounds coming out of the kamancheh, got surprised by Homayoun Shajarian’s vocal technique and was moved by virtuoso sitar music played by an unknown artist whose name or songs I wasn’t able to obtain. When Navid and I were driving purposelessly through an abandoned Shiraz in the middle of the night, music playing in the background, a thing we did almost every night, I encountered the same problem: even with the help of modern apps, the internet and a VPN I often couldn’t figure out who was playing which song. It was too bad since a lot of the music was beautiful. I asked Navid how he listened to his favorite music. ‘We have certain websites we go to. And I have downloaded a lot of songs. You know… Music is free here in Iran.’ Huh? ‘Yeah, the music the artists make, they don’t own it. They have no rights of ownership.’ My mind went back to my mp3-puberty-days when I was on Kazaa or Limewire downloading the latest Akon, Taio Cruz or Usher track. ‘Most music is considered haram so we have to be creative but… Yeah, basically all music – also songs from your countries… It’s free here in Iran.’
Eventually, after some digging and a lot of midnight drives in which Navid not only guided me through the streets but also through the annals of Persian music, I was able to come up with a few Iranian songs and artists I really enjoyed listening to. We even tracked down a song or two in the mystical style with the multiple meanings of the two famous Shirazi poets Hafez and Sa’adi, literary masters whose work I had grown fond of as well. I couldn’t help but notice it was often these songs – with their timeless lyrics and lines, meaning much more than what cultural heritage may imply – which offered an escape for many to a romanticized past in which things were better. A capella or a singalong, young and old, outside or inside, in good times and bad times, the tunes were ever present, marginalizing the prayers coming from the minarets on the corner of the street with joyful ease.
It goes without saying I couldn’t stay unaffected by these songs. For those who are curious to Persian music, here are some of my favorite discoveries that you might like as well: the work of Homayoun Shajarian, the work of Kayhan Kalhor, the song ‘Behet Ghol Midam’ written by Mohsen Yeganeh, ‘Raghse Atash’ by Saler Aghil, ‘Aram Aram’ by Reza Malekzadeh and if you like hip-hop or rap Amir Tataloo.
Music, sport and the next cultural topic, food, have, in my opinion, at least one common denominator: they are a universal language by themselves. I believe you don’t need words and you don’t need to know someone’s background or culture in order to communicate in a meaningful way. Running blindly after a ball with complete strangers, listening to music with someone you just met on the street or sitting down – whether on a chair or a carpet – sharing some lavash, it can do the same trick as interchanging a hundred words.
Eating is what I did a lot in Iran. Often, elaborate and in great quantities. Not because I had a pending calorie deficit after all those kilometers of cycling, nor because I asked for it. No, as I came to see it, good food is simply of the utmost importance in Iran. (I might be wrong here. I might be that guy who turns into a very annoying person when hungry, which would offer an explanation why everywhere I went, people stuffed me with all kinds of treats. Their ratio behind this approach, I suspect: let’s fix that guy’s temper and at the same time shut him up for a while.)
Anyhow, when Navid and I woke up around noon – what happened a lot because of late night futsal or driving around town – the carpet in the living room was set and filled with many platters, small and big. Carrot, tomatoes, cole, heaps of delicately spiced rice, sweet olives, coriander, spring onions, bread, walnuts with sweet pomegranate paste and caramel sauce, mint, yoghurt with cucumber and salt, cloves of garlic in vinegar, a lot of lime, it was all there. You could feed a respectable village with the amount of food being served. And Navid’s lovely mother, the main architect behind each daily feast, kept insisting on eating more and more. She must have been reading Sa’adi because it was he who wrote the following lines:
Possibly an ear may during a lifetime.
Not hear the sound of drum, lute or fife
The eye may be without sight of a garden
The brain may be without the rose or nasrin
If no feather pillow be at hand
Sleep may be had with a stone under the head
And if there be no sweetheart to sleep with
The hand may be placed on one’s own bosom
But this disreputable twisting belly
Cannot bear to exist without anything
Sitting cross-legged on the floor – ‘getting involved’ as Teaching Tornado Dave would say – I tried to imitate the locals and eat without the help of utensils. For Irani it’s second nature: tearing off some bread, folding it into a scooping form and scraping rob plow, Shirazi plum shop, kalam polo or gorme without getting their hands sticky. For me on the other hand, I ended up making most of the time a mess on my side of the carpet: food between the legs, on my trousers, in my beard. It gave the people around – often there were more than I could count with my sticky fingers – a good laugh. Luckily, with the dessert – my favorite dish, I couldn’t do much wrong. Rose water – an excellent name for the local Shirazian drink since the flower is its city’s symbol – and faludeh were a true delight with zero chance of adding anything to my clumsy culinary etiquette.
What normally followed in Iran, especially in Shiraz – they are renowned throughout the country for it, was a laidback moment to let the food find its gentle way through the body. How? Get the leftovers of food out of the way, grab yourself a comfortable cushion, stretch your legs and doze off for an hour or more. For me, this ritual was heaven. The road from Isfahan to Shiraz had been stunning, yet exhausting. Both physically and mentally. The former because of the hilly and mountainous landscapes and the rather high temperatures, the latter because of the amount of attention a cyclist and his or her bicycle receives while pedaling across the vast country.
There were moments when all we wanted was a cold drink and close our eyes for a few minutes in the shade of a lonely tree or an empty mosque with a purring ac. Yes, even Ziggy needed some well-deserved rest now and then. Instead, almost everywhere where we stopped, curious and persistent Irani approached us. They wanted to talk, wanted to invite us to their homes, wanted to introduce us to their many-headed families, wanted us to share an elaborate dinner with them, wanted to show us – proud inhabitants and community members as they are – their villages, their workshops, their gardens and animals, their backcountry, their schools, their bicycles. A few times we found ourselves the cause of a dispute in which different people were discussing amongst one another who could and more important, who should host us. And although all of it must come forth from their kind nature – their hospitable character, it sometimes was overwhelming and killing after a long morning of battling vicious climbs under a scorching sun.
Therefore, the body, the mind, one begins to understand, thankfully welcomed, I might even say embraced, the Shirazi siesta. And since resting is just as serious a business as food, the spacious homes are completely equipped for it: save the kitchen floor, almost each square meter of living space is covered with the famous and richly decorated Oriental carpets and rugs. No tables, no chairs, no closets, no cupboards – just a single open space with a soft, comfortable floor to lie on in any desired position. It was quite the sight for me, unknown to this phenomenon, seeing especially the kids: how one after another rolled to his or her corner after eating enough and falling sound asleep with their flexible limbs in what looked to me like awkward positions.
By the way, not only the inside of the living quarters in Iran are designed to host a lot of people: also their large, marble verandas are easily transformed into pleasurable places to eat and afterwards nap, a happening that regularly takes place since the Irani like company and the weather in Iran permits them to be outside a lot of the time.
During our stay in Iran, I appreciated the moment of relaxation after a late, savory lunch the most. It gave me the strength and energy to hit the road again or to find my way to a bazaar. And with that, we touch upon an earnest subject.
Before coming to Iran, I had heard and read about the famed marketplace. In particular the work ‘Shah of Shahs’ by Ryszard Kapuscinski gave me an insight in the importance of the bazaar for a flourishing city and the vital role it played in Persian culture. It was and still is far more than a central and commercial place where goods and means are being traded or sold. It’s a public rendezvous for social and communal gatherings of various kinds, a safe spot for talking politics and hiding, a historical site where revolutions found an igniting spark.
It’s numerous roofed in alleys, passageways, stairs, tunnels and inner courts; it’s countless gates, towers, back rooms and hidden chambers; the constant hustle and bustle of supplying all those stuffed shops and street vendors with heavily scented spices, splendid jewels, sweets in every color of the rainbow, handmade rugs, fine clothes, fresh and dried fruits, hugh pyramids built out of the smallest nuts, lamps with refined painted glass and what not. Mesmerizing, kaleidoscopic, a continuous bombardment of a thousand and one stimuli. It made my head spin, turn and tumble. In the beginning, because of my untrained eye, I thought the place resembled at best an inescapable maze built on hecticness and chaos. However, after a several visits in different cities and with explanations by Navid and others, an ant colony would prove to be a more appropriate analogy: all the merchants, traders, suppliers, frequent visitors, all their movements, shops and little alleys, everything that happened under those roofs, the complete design, each detail, it all served a purpose.
Not surprisingly, it was in the bazaar where we met some interesting people. In Shiraz for instance, Navid and I ran into the man responsible back in the day for setting fire to the gate of the Iranian embassy in Ankara. I asked him the same question I had asked so many Iranians up to that point: ‘Nobody seems to like the regime and its doings. When will the next revolution start?’ His answer was crystal clear: ‘The regime will not make it to the end of the year.’ Not knowing what would happen in mid September when serious protests started after the death of Mahsa Amini, I must have looked puzzled. All the young adults I had talked to were rather pessimistic in my eyes, their attitude being as if resigned – apathetic. Most of them thought change was far away and those who thought otherwise couldn’t tell me if or when the revolution would start. (I don’t blame them: it’s hard to tell when a revolution will start, especially one in Iran since there are but a few people that really know what’s going on in the under current as I came to understand.) But then there was this old man: rather slovenly dressed, gray short hair, angular face, unshaven, dark eyebrows under which eyes sparkled with boundless energy, regularly miling, a constant stream of words flowing out of his mouth. ‘Believe me, not till the end of the year.’
I don’t know if it was a sign, hearing those revolutionary words in the bazaar – words that might turn out to be words of truth – exactly in the place where I expected them to hear. Probably, it wasn’t. Probably it was life’s silly way of throwing me off with some genuine randomness and hardcore coincidence. Nevertheless, his appearance, his words, they hit me right in the face. Like an uppercut. It must have been wishful thinking, or the confirmation bias inside my brain. I didn’t know at that moment, but what I did know after being in the country for three weeks was that a diverse and overwhelming majority of the Iranians I met truly hated the regime and its doings: male and female, young and old, rich and poor, craftsmen and scholars, civil service or not, without exceptions, they all expressed their displeasure to me. The elderly were often more straightforward than the young in choosing their words – the spectrum being: from severe complaining to raw discontent – but it was always negative. And this good humored man said words I somewhere was expecting to hear.
I tried to talk a lot with the people. To learn more. To maybe, naive as I am, get a chance of talking frankly with someone from the other side – the system side, the side everybody disliked. So I talked, sometimes in the bazaar, sometimes in homes, sometimes in coffee shops (this place being popular among the young adults). In the end I might have unknowingly spoken to someone from the other side. They are everywhere and they follow you, right from the moment you entered the country, I was told. Despite all the talking, I saw what was coming though: besides the words of the man in the bazaar, I didn’t find a single clue or a hint that pointed in a direction of the starting unrest as I left the country in the beginning of September. I would be lying if I say that I had a hunch that those terrible, tumultuous times with numerous protests, arrests and killings were around the corner. The only thing I vividly remember when crossing the border with Pakistan was my own disbelief, not understanding how there could be such an enormous chasm between the people and the government of such a great country. In hindsight, I think, as someone not born and raised in Iran – as a passerby that spend only a month in Iran, it is Persia in optima forma: you have to be one of them, to eat, sleep, live and breath with them for a good amount of time before some of the mystical inner workings become apparent to you.
The journey through Iran was from our own perspective simply mind boggling. Mainly because of the amazing people, the diversity of scenery and the rich culture. Cyclist or non-cyclist, Iran is worth experiencing. Maybe not at the moment, but if you ever have a chance to go, do not hesitate. Just go, it’s worth it!