To paraphrase that old despot and war criminal (gassing Kurds in Mesopotamia in 1920 the Iraqi Revolt) Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill; ‘Iran is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.’
J and I are just back from an amazing, wonderful, depressing, fascinating and stimulating trip to the Islamic Republic. The contrasts and contradictions have been profound. From the intransigent, unbending, unhearing ‘discussion’ on a train with an imam from the holy city of Qom, who has made a life-long study of the Koran, to the quiet kindness of a desperately poor desert-dwelling camel-herder and his nephew. From the ritualised wailing of thousands of pilgrims at the shrine of the murdered Imam Riza in Mashad (the shrine attracts more than 20 million pilgrims every year, second only to Mecca, and the murder happened more than 1200 years ago!), to the residents of the ‘Art House’, a shrine to dissent, anarchy and Sponge Bob ‘somewhere in Tehran’. From the insanity of Iranian drivers to the peace, beauty, camels and flowers of the great Dasht-e-Kavir desert and the northern Arborz Mountains. And from the quiet dignity of a gentleman widowed by the wicked Western sanctions that condemned his wife to death by denying her the medicines she needed to treat her cancer, this country with its monumental wonders, culture and delightful people has engraved itself on our hearts and minds. I hope that I can pass on some of what we found so that you too will want to leave your footprint in this incredible place.
Lest I get carried away with it all (and carry you with me), I need to relate a story that was whispered to us over an intoxicating glass of ‘Islamic beer’ (non-alcoholic) that might add a little bit of perspective. It goes like this:
‘Not long ago there was this devout, god-fearing, pleasures-of-the-flesh denying imam lying contentedly on his death bed. He knew for sure that he was headed for heaven because everything that he had ever read told him so.
Soon enough he passed over the great divide and awoke to find himself where he had always dreamed of and longed to be. He was surrounded by beautiful, flower-filled meadows with gently flowing streams; blossom-laden trees provided dappled shade; gentle music and song filled the air; those who shared this paradise with him spoke softly, smiled often and never argued. And then there were the gorgeous, nubile houris wandering about the place – afterlife was just perfect.
Too perfect, in fact, because our pious cleric was soon pretty much bored to death with it all – déjà vu all over again because even the houris, like his newly liberated wife (who, incidentally, thought she had died and gone to heaven when he popped his clogs) failed to tickle his libido! He took to wandering about alone, muttering and arguing with himself, shunned by the other denizens of paradise.
One day, as he wandered some distant corner of perfection, he chanced across a wall with a great iron-studded door and a small window that stood ajar. Above the door was a sign that read ‘HELL’ in large red letters. From the open window the cleric could hear the sounds of great merriment, singing, music, lively discussion – arguments even. A veritable party in full swing! Drawn by the sounds he looked in through the window and was amazed by what he saw – and even more by what he didn’t see – if this was Hell then he felt cheated by being dumped in awful, boring, perfect Heaven. It was time to take action and so he rang the bell.
His call was answered by a smartly dressed door-devil sporting a shiny evening suit who explained politely that ‘No!’ he couldn’t just walk in and wander around. He’d need to go back to Heaven and apply for a visitor’s visa at the Hellian embassy. This he did and in no time at all he was back at the frontier door where he was duly stamped in for a two week visit by the unsmiling and rather bored looking immigration devil.
Our cleric had a whale of a time – he partied, laughed a lot, was treated like royalty, ate exotic food, drank finest Shiraz wine, chatted-up the girls, watched the odd raunchy stage show and generally made up for lost time. Sadly, his visit was soon over and as he left, his head ringing with cries of ‘Come and visit us again soon’ and ‘We’ll be waiting for you’, his suitcase felt as heavy as his heart.
Back in heaven he was soon bored out of his brain with the mind-numbing routine of the perfect afterlife. He longed to be back in Hell partying with the best of them. So it was that he went back to the Hellian embassy where he applied for permanent residency. The smiling and very charming diplomatic devil asked him if he was sure because such permits were one-way, there would be no going back if he changed his mind. Fuelled by the memories of his two weeks of holiday the imam signed on the dotted line, picked up his documents and headed for the doorway to Hell – he was happy and smiling and felt as if he were walking on air! Ahead lay a new afterlife that was one to die for.
At the entrance to Hell the door-devil examined his documents, smiled, closed the great iron-studded door with a clang and ushered him through the body scanner and into Hell proper. As he stepped through he was met by a wall of noise, wailing and gnashing of teeth. Devils with pitchforks and cattle-prods were tormenting people at every turn and the smell of burning, tortured flesh was everywhere. As our cleric recoiled from the reality that confronted him, he turned to the devil aghast – ‘What is this place? When I was here before everything looked wonderful to me. I so wanted to be here.’
‘Ah!’ smiled the devil, ‘when you were here before you were a tourist. Now you live here!’
The moral? There are more facets to exploring another culture that on the Koh-i-Noor diamond – always look under the bed and behind the curtain! We’ll do our best to offer more than just amazing mosques, incredible columns, scintillating ceilings and the like – although there will be plenty of those!
Next post the story begins. Welcome to ‘Iran Life’.
Alan Fenn, Okçular Köyü
ps having tried for several days to sort out a glitch that has happened with WordPress whilst we’ve been away, this post is sans any media/images etc. Frankly, I have no idea what to do – I’ve tried everything I know including reinstall several times. I can’t use html or add tags either and the thought of having to start over is just too daunting and time consuming with our limited bandwidth and lifespan!
pps as you can see we’re up and running again – for WP users it was the ‘Wordfence’ security plugin that caused the problem.