Wednesday, 4 July 2007
It is a big affair. The invitations were printed without an address just in case the printer told the police even though the venue is a government building and the organiser works for the government...
Maryam and her Mum were in charge of bringing the Mullah to the ceremony. Maryam’s Mum, with the feigned naivety of someone who has lived well, spends the car ride demurely soap-boxing with the Mullah demanding that he explain why the Islamic Republic allows men to have four wives. I think it was probably the best journey of this poor Haji’s life…
We are in a garden with roses, it is dark, the air is thick and the night is happy. My hair is coifed complete with five finger discounted rose and I have borrowed some Max Factor colour stay red lippy from Shadi’s Aunt to match my nail polish. I wear a short black cotton dress with scenes of flowers and birds. There are ball gowns, skimpy strapless numbers, false eyelashes, loose hair, head scarves and long coats – depending on your religious preference.
The ceremony itself is a mini-version of the religious ceremony that happened a few months ago, with added symbolism. A cloth is held over the head of the couple to catch falling sugar as married women rub two blocks of sugar together to sweeten the marriage. There are announced gifts of gold coins, dancing for money, licking of honeyed fingers, feeding of sweets and obligatory kisses.
The ceremony is only attended by close friends and family, so we wait on the persian carpeted benches in the garden for the other guests to arrive whilst Shadi's dad's friends promise to rustle up some fire water to warm our spirits...
A jacket opens and there is a white plastic bag inside and a smile is looking down on me...
Doogh is an Iranian sour milk drink (a bit like a stale breathed lassie).
I don’t like milk.
Since a night of too much Spanish speaking fun - I don’t like tequila.
Nevertheless as I take a sip from the jacket I cant help but smile as he gently says - ‘Doogh-elia’…
After dinner the only place to be is on the dance floor moving with the best of them to a strange blend of traditional music and orientalist euro-pop. MashaAllah I cannot understand the lyrics otherwise I am sure the sentimentality of the words mixed with the doogh-elia would have made me loose my kebab...
I am now back in the UK where I hear from my housemate that our new neighbour who lives above the coffee shop might be a rival for bicep man and the kebab shops seem a little afraid of their customers.
I hope you have enjoyed these stories (I have enjoyed sharing them).
I promised Maryam and Babak that I would have a drink for them – for Babak I choose whisky and I think for Maryam I will choose a cocktail that includes a word like ‘muddled’.
So a toast: ‘To adventures and to friends’.
Monday, 4 June 2007
Just outside Tehran Maryam realizes that she has forgotten the tent…but we decide to push on as there is an inn the desert and if there is any problem with us staying there (as we are a man, a woman and a foreigner) we can always head back to Tehran as it is not so far away.
I love driving and I love the space and silence of the desert. For those who have been, the landscape here is not dissimilar to the desert in the north west of the state of Queensland in Australia (near Normanton). The soil is not red but beige with a ‘five-o’clock-shadow’ of light green scrub.
We drive to Kashan without a hitch but on arrival in Kashan there are posters, flags, free drink stands…yes, you guessed it the President was paying the town a visit. So we drive around looking for a way through the road blocks so we can get to the desert. Finally, after stopping friendly strangers we manage to find a way through.
As the road it getting lonelier we feel ourselves getting closer to the desert, but still there is irrigation and some pistachio trees. We have been told that when you get close to the desert and salt lake all the dirt roads will eventually lead onto the same main road that is alongside the southern edge of the salt lake. So we are not so concerned which road to take, but just to be doubly sure when we see a little brick farm house we drive up to ask for directions.
As we drive into the courtyard scattering the serenity we see an old man sitting on a chair under the shade of a tree, soaking his feet in the cool water of a diverted irrigation channel. Through his missing teeth and gentle lilting accent and with his worn brown trousers held together with a piece of string, he explains that we should follow the power lines as this is the best route.
Spurred on by the freedom of the space we race along the dirt roads, at each fork randomly choosing the next track to follow – with Babak (allegedly) keeping his eye on the way. For me, I was in charge of the music and map holding.
And then we see it. The salt lake. It is white as far as you can see – and the mirage makes the white look like waves of a great inland sea suspended at an eternal breaking point of swell and foam.
Unexpectedly there is a road that goes part way into the lake and then stops. We travel this for 500m, get out of the car and then wander on this space where the salt crystals are the size of bling.
To walk on a lake that has seen so much with two beautiful souls strip so much clutter of life away, down to the bare essentials of potential. Everything just seems so simple – so extraordinarily and awesomely simple.
We pile back into the care with the added passenger of joy and head towards the inn. It is midday. And hot, with a breeze, but even so we need some shelter so we can stop for lunch. As we drive along the road that hugs the lake I can see something strange in the distance it looks like little black stumps of trees. I can’t make it out so I initially think it is a burnt out dwelling. BUT as we drive closer, it is a herd of camels resting in the sun!
How exciting! So we stop the car for this photo opportunity and then continue on our way to the inn.
As we drive up a little embankment we almost drive straight into a rope that is stretched across the road. Two young soldiers (on compulsory military service) emerge from a small tent…
A conversation ensues that ends with us turning our little chariot around. Babak explains that the soldiers were wondering how we managed to get into this area as the whole desert area is closed for a military exercise. Maryam said that Babak was also making fun of the soldiers asking how good soldiers they must be since we managed to get this far into the desert (apparently there is a checkpoint closer to the entrance to the desert that we managed to easily avoid…). Maryam had told Babak to be quiet but he just kept making smart comments - no surprise then to learn that Babak still hasn't done compulsory military service which unfortunately means that he cannot have a passport. Well, until he finds someone to bribe.
Feeling a little sheepish our little Peugeot hatchback with the dashboard toy, shakes off its pride and turns back. Since we don’t really know how we got into the desert we decide to return via the main road (which we somehow managed to miss on the way in)…and of course we end up on the wrong side of a road block.
“Beep beep” chirps our little hatchback to rouse the soldiers from their midday sleep. Two soldiers emerge from the tent. Before we can speak a military issue truck is in front of us on the other side of the rope and we have to do a quick reverse, before returning to the soldiers. Babak exchanges a few words with them and they start pissing themselves laughing. A third solider emerges – obviously startled from his sleep as he is wearing his military uniform but with hot-pink slippers – and starts joining in on the fun.
But naturally we have to wait for a more senior officer to speak to us. I don’t really understand this, but Iran has two armies – the regular army and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which has a great deal of autonomy and whose allegiance is to the Revolution. The IRG is identifiable by the chequered scarf they were with their military uniform and the fact that their uniform has no identification markings such as name or rank.
As soon as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard emerges from the tent everyone stops joking – even though the situation is amusing and a mistake, it is still not something to joke about. Babak again explains what happened and it seems that everything is okay since there was also a third checkpoint that we did not pass and so we weren’t actually near anything sensitive. The soldiers didn’t even ask for ID. But just as Babak started to turn the car and the rope blocking the road was dropped the IRG said something that appeared a little aggressive and include the word ‘horagi’ – foreigner.
As we drive away I am filled in on the details of what happened. But Babak doesn’t mention anything about a ‘foreigner’. So I ask him what they guy said as we were about to drive away because I heard the word ‘horagi’. Babak looks a little pissed (I sense that he and authority are not the best of friends) and says that he had been explaining to the IRG that we were visiting the desert because we wanted to see nature. The IRG said: “what are you doing bringing a foreigner HERE? There is nothing to do here! Take her to someplace beautiful like the north!”
So we head back to the main road to Kashan and decide that since the desert is a no-go zone we’ll visit a freshwater spring where there is a waterfall and where they distil rosewater – can you believe such a place exists!?
Maryam is asleep in the back and I am in charge of the map. It is written in Farsi. So Babak is driving to my directions of ‘there is a place that begins with the letter A and ends in N and there are three dots in the second letter…’ Not very helpful.
But we make it.
And it is beautiful.
A small shaded hilltop village with winding roads and people sitting outside in the streets enjoying the late afternoon. The whole place smelling intensely of roses. A cool breeze against skin that has just spent the day in the desert. The spray from the waterfall blesses out weary bodies as we walk the hilltop to drink some tea.
After a little rest we head right to the top, to the source of the spring where there is also an ancient Zoroastrian fireplace. We eat an ice-cream in the light of dusk at the top of the world and then return to our chariot for the journey home.
Despite such a long day, Maryam and Babak have a book club to go to in the evening. So at 1030 after a quick wash we head out again to a family home in a well-to-do neighbourhood. Mum and Dad answer the door and we are shuffled into a small bedroom. One thing that is unusual for me is that people here live with their parents for quite a long time, so there is this strange feeling of the parental home being a gateway to some kind of free area – rather than something that tries to shelters you from the threats to innocence of a publicly free life.
It really is something special. In a small bedroom there are eight of us. One man begins to read in Farsi from a computer print out while everyone listens occasionally laughing or interjecting.
I am told that this is the forth book the club has read – the first being on politics, the second on evolutionary theory, the third I cant remember and this one (“The Satanic Verses”) is the first novel. There is such warmth in the room and the friendship is so visible, possibly even more visible because I can’t understand what is being said. I can’t hear, so all I understand is laughter.
I have such a desire to stay, to be a part of this group, to speak Farsi. At the same time I also want to hold my old friends closer as –to plagiarise a kindred – there IS something sad about being disconnected in space from people you care about.
With this mixture of connection and longing as I return home I try to find the words to explain how this day felt – a narrative doesn’t seem to do it justice. How can you capture such feelings in words?
The only thing that comes to mind is that this day and the feeling of such precious shared moments is a new reference point in my experience.
It’s a day against which precious others will be compared.
Sunday, 3 June 2007
I know, I know, SUCH a stereotype…but please do not crucify for this parochialism, I just never know how to answer the question of ‘what is a typical Australian meal?’. Laksa? Kebab? Sushi? Pasta? Curry? I have no idea. BUT last summer I cooked a lamb roast with my Ma and thought that I’d give it a bash so that I had something to write home about…
As an aside, speaking of stereotypes (or should I write ‘shame’), I was in the beauty parlor in
‘But then why do you have an ‘Australian Princess’?’
[I almost drop my glass of tea. No, please lord, say it isn’t so…]
‘I saw a show on satellite TV all about how you choose your Princess. Ohhhh I just luhve it. Really. What does she do in
‘Ah no, no, no that is a reality TV show – you know like the Bachelor or Big Brother. It’s not real. She’s not a real princess.’
[The look of disappointment is palpable.]
‘Oh…so it’s like a Miss Universe title?’
‘Yes, yes – exactly! Just as Miss Universe doesn’t actually have any power in the universe, Australian Princess doesn’t actually have any power in
[And at this point in time I wished that I wasn't actually Australian.]
‘Oh, okay so it is not about the government of
‘No, not really – it’s not really my favourite show..’.
‘But you like All Saints, yes?’
So friends, cooking a lamb roast and pavlova is the least of our worries.
Back to the roast. First the meat.
As the glass door clicks behind me at the butcher’s, tumble weed blows across the floor and the piano man in his sleeve protectors and braces stops playing. I stand a little dumbstruck while my trusty side kick (Shadi’s mum) shuffles over to the fish counter. I eyeball the butcher, so he cannot see my fear.
My trusty side kick has arranged for some fish for lunch and is waiting for it to be cleaned. Now it is my turn with the lamb. I look to the butcher, wink at my side-kick and with the total confidence of the ill informed, I point to my shoulder and say ‘lamb’. My side kick backs me up on this and says something to the butcher in Persian. We all smile, and I am proud for another successful effort in cross-cultural communication…
The butcher with a spring in his step walks to the glass counter and returns with the loyalty of a cat leaving its kill on the verandah. I look at him, smile and then look at his hands.
Nope, he is not holding anything that looks like a lamb shoulder in
Rather he holds up what can only be described as a thin sheet of meat.
Where did it all go wrong?! Everyone is confused. ‘Yes, yes. This is shoulder.’ They have given me exactly what I asked for, the communication was clear – and somehow it was not what I wanted.
How the hell can this be a shoulder? I look a little closer. Yup there is definitely a socket joint there. And yes, this piece of flesh would sit nicely on a shoulder like a sort of macabre piece of body amour or ornamental lapel.
No misunderstanding, that is definitely a shoulder, but not as I know it.
I stumble a ‘different in
Next: the rosemary.
Rosemary is not really used in cooking here. Instead it is used to grow hedges.
So on the way home from the butcher with the windows down, my side-kick and I roam the streets of
As we leave the shopping centre I see something out of the corner of my eye. It is covered in mud and hiding next to a foot path. But yes, it is rosemary. Holding my no-body-in-here-tunic close, and tying my hijab into the ‘let’s get down to business fold’ I jump across the ditch and start tearing at the rosemary like a madwoman.
After making the pavlova with a hand rotary beater, I run my little red hands under cold water while Shadi’s dad is cursing me for not showing him how to make the pavlova and save my hands from this red tenderness. He then declares that he will watch me cook so he can help. I smile, thank him and then start to wash the rosemary.
Shadi’s dad asks me where I got the rosemary from, since it’s not sold in the shops.
What do I say?! I feel like a thief. I AM a thief! I return Iranian hospitality by stealing their resources, adding a little bit of processing to it and then return it to them as a benevolent gift or fair deal…
All I can do is confess. I hold it in front of me: ‘I stole it.’
[Okay, that was painless enough].
‘Ruby, please tell me. What is the meaning of stole?’
[Oh please. That’s a tough one. Really how do you explain it with a limited vocabulary. I thought I could try a Biblical/Koranic reference, but then –
I hold up one finger: ‘finger’. [Mansour nods, ‘Yes, finger. I understand.’]
Holding my palm in front of him and count from one to five in Persian, pointing at each finger in turn: ‘Yek, do, seh, chahar, panj’
I pick up the rosemary in my fist: ‘Five-finger-discount.’
Mansour looks at me, looks at my hand, looks at my smile and then laughs and slaps me on the back so hard I’m winded.
‘I understand. Five finger discount! Very good. Very good.’
As the bones of the roast lay bare and the soft, flat pavlova that looks like a gift from the invisible pavlova cow has been worshipped and renamed ‘Iranian Pavlova’ and 'five-finger-discount' has been translated into Persian, I stumble off to bed a very happy soul.
But, mustering all the strength I had, I thought 'I have eaten the eye, the jaw, and the brain before: this cant be too bad, a little bbqed lamb shank, nice and crispy'
The foot is from the knee down, so includes the shin area. The shin bone is removed and then the floppy leg is cooked very slowly in a broth. So no crispiness, no bone to munch on - just this tube of skin and squishy sinew with a little cleft foot at the end and a few ankle bones.
I just looked at it and searched and searched for a word to describe what I saw. But no matter how hard I thought only one word came to mind: ‘flaccid’.
So I took out the ankle bones, wrapped the little flaccid foot into a sheath of hot bread, poured on some lemon juice and tried to empty my mind and enter the realm of zen as I munched away on this squishy little sanger.
But unfortunately all I could think about was these little lambs running around on their little cleft penis feet! They looked so cute and fluffy. They kept falling over at first as they tried to stand on their unresponsive limbs, but the more they tried to run on their four flaccids, the stiffer their little footsies got...
Did I mention we were eating in
I am going straight to hell.RT x
Yesterday I went out with Maryam and Babak. Two friends of Shadi who live in the same apartment block. They all grew up together and laugh over how after calling Shadi and her brother Shahrouz upstairs with simply shouting their names from an open window, their father would come downstairs to the rest of the children and say in a very stern (yet funny voice) ‘Ladies and gentlemen it is now time to return to your houses’. Everyday same routine.
Maryam is an industrial designer who is looking to study art therapy abroad and explains that ‘industrial designers all become interior designers in Iran because – after all – there is no industry’ (…but thankfully there are interiors). So Babak, Maryam and I went to a sculpture gallery where the students of a particular famous teacher were showing off their work. It was good. It was metal work and abstract and some I really liked. Others I pretended to like because I wanted to look smart.
Within the gallery there was a café where the chairs and tables were made from oil drums from the south of
After we arrived Maryam and I decided that it was the Babapapa house – we both loved this as children but she said that at some stage when she was growing up it was banned. Or the theme song was banned. Mmm, reminded me of how they tried to ban ‘Humphry’ in
Anyway, I digress.
If Darband is Mexican, I am sure all Mexicans are porn stars.
This place had smooth white walls and dark rooms. But no soft couches only tables and chairs. But still, I was looking for David Hasselhoff to appear in a white leisure suit and show me his manly chest. And then, I shit you not, this guy walked in who looked just like this Mexican guy I know only he was dressed like a porn star...
We had tea and smoked a water pipe. And then we spoke about psychoanalysis – Babak and Maryam both go to psychoanalysis sessions, Babak explained: ‘Can you imagine someone our age growing up in the Islamic Republic of Iran who doesn’t need a little therapy?’. So we laughed and played the game of who does your country hate the most? So according to Babak it is Arabs ands then the Chinese, the first for historic reasons the second for economic (the
On the way home Maryam explained that Babak and his brother we named after leftist revolutionaries. Babak was an Azeri leader who was killed by the Shah – not even in an honourable way as he was tricked. His brother was named after a left writer. Like many people I have spoken to he sees the revolution as being a leftist revolution that was stolen by the Mullahs. Maryam then explained that all her friends’ parents were left, except of course hers. The conversation then turned to dinner plans at Shahrouz and Nazanin’s place – Nazanin was cooking Gorma Sabzi ( a traditional dish with green herbs, lamb and bitter lime), but the issue wasn't the food but whether there would be some alcohol there – Babak had a nice bottle of Absolut Ruby Red that he had bought from a dealer sometime ago and so we were planning to take that along – much nicer than the Arak I had had the day before at Shadi’s parent’s house which made ASDA Whisky taste like heaven! After much debating we decided that bringing the bottle was enough – we didn’t need flowers as well.
I stayed with Maryam before we went out to dinner. Although her place is in the same apartment block it is so different to Maryam’s. It is so modern with walls painted bright colours and beautiful artwork. It was messy, the kitchen had fake fruit hanging from the ceiling and I imagined many good parties there, complete with martini glasses and stretch belts.
Maryam got changed for the party and was wearing a vibrant red wrap around, crepe jacket, big earring, red shoes and black pants. She showed me home movies of how her friends all went to a house outside of
Maryam then went to paint her nails bright red to go with her shirt. She complained that whenever she paints her nails she gets Parkinson’s disease. I was laughing so hard.
Babak arrived and we wrapped the Absolut Ruby Red in yellow crepe paper with brown string. Listened to some music by an Iranian band 'Kiosk'. Maryam and I then stuffed our sweet smelling bodies into our ‘Islamic regulation coats’, covered our hair and piled into the car after Babak’s brother had finally emerged from the shower. Yes, he looked good washed – perhaps even very good - but his pseudo-Hawaiian not the sexiest shirt I had ever seen.
Off we went to dinner. We ate gorma sabzi and lasagna with a chaser of absolut with pomegranate juice.
From the Islamic Republic,