PERSIAN DIARIES ( 50 Days on the "Axis of Evil" ) [2017 2019]
I. IRÁN : A PERSIAN -STYLE THEOCRACY .
I met her under the shadow of the imposing Iwan of the Iman Khomeini mosque in Isfahan. A few minutes later I was drinking tea with her whole family in the shadow of a shrub in Naqsh e Jahan Square. For the umpteenth time I was riddled with questions about my country and my opinion about theirs. I don't remember her name, but she was resolute and talkative and her status as a computer engineer gave her a certain air of superiority respect to the rest of the family. Between benevolent laughters and disdain, which I couldn't understand very well, they were building on the picnic´s tablecloth a kind of disordered mosaic with some of the photographs I took in my first trip. Suddenly, instantaneously and instinctively she got up with the photo in her hands asking me, with a gesture impossible to ignore, whether she could break it; I obviously nodded but she, in an attempt to be polite, desisted while saying aloud to blush of her family "I hate all of them".
The photo was taken in Tehran and shows two short women with chador under two immense portraits of Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Khamenei who seems to observe them closely.
Suddenly, I remembered that morning, last year, when I received an SMS while being in Yazd. In it, they begged me not to comment with anyone about conversations that we had the night before while we were having dinner in the park by the outskirts. What it was spoken there and what is spoken in Iran on recurrent way is boredom, fear and lack of freedom.
These would be nothing but anecdotes if it were not because they are repeated again and again no matter where you were or who you talked to.
Weariness, fear, longing for freedom and also pessimism because, as they know from their own experience, the great changes, the revolutions - as it happened with Khomeini's - only happens when people are hungry and, at the same time, they lose their fear of power that subjugates them.
Today, in Iran, the Iranians have something to put in their mouths and they haven’t lost their fear.
It is paradoxical that the children of those who kissed the shoes of Rheza Pahlevi, the last Shah of Persia, or of those who tried so hard to tear down one after another the hundreds of effigies spreaded throughout the country, must live together today with the thousands of portraits who flood the current Iran, of Ruhollah Musaví Khomeini or his successor, the current supreme leader, Ali Khamenei.
And the thing is that Iran, a paradigm of modern theocracy, lives under the shadow of who in 1979 returned from his exile in Paris to end years of waste, corruption and terror of the Pahlavi dynasty establishing the Islamic Republic of Iran.
When, on February 1 of that year, the Iranians welcomed the Khomeini’s return with happiness, they did nothing but express their hope for a life worthy and, perhaps, to recover a lost identity.
The answer, to how those hopes have been satisfied and to what the consequences of his return have been, is - paraphrasing the great Dylan – “floating in the wind”. You just have to be willing to listen to it.
II. THE IRANIAN SHIITES AND THEIR RELIGIOUS FERVOR.
He was striving for a good frame on the photo; they, unaware of her father’s efforts, gaped at the infinity of biblical stories told from the floor to the dome in a polychrome that remembered the Ethiopian Orthodox monasteries but with a very superior pictorial quality.
The scene would go unnoticed if not happened - it happens every day - in Vank Church the Christian cathedral of Jolfa in the Armenian district of Isfahan and because the family in question professes the Shia branch of Islam according to the impeccable chadors that they dressed and that barely showed anything more than their white faces. They were born Shiites and won’t have legal way to choose a new religion at all if they wish.
The chance made me met next day with the same family in the Chahar Bagh madrasa on Friday prayer day.
In this time, things happened a little different. They, between another two hundred women, all of them with black chador, in the outdoor patio; he, inside the madrasa with the rest of the men. All of them, devoted parishioners, share moments of great emotional charge and even individual and collective ecstasy that reinforce up to the infinite the awareness of belonging to a group, a fact that undoubtedly constitutes one of the strengths of the Iranian people.
A few days before, I ended up by chance in what to my eyes was undoubtedly a sacred site. But while some parishioners prayed silently or rubbed their hands against the grave of some martyr, another group of men chatted happily around some teas and exquisite dates that I immediately tasted. After an hour, after some lengthy introductions, one of them held my arm, took me to a corner assuring himself with the gaze that we were in a hidden angle of the security cameras to make me unspeakable revelations about his idea of the current political regime.
I had time to drink one last tea and, as I walked away, I strove to think that I had not participated in any meeting of some friends at the bar on the corner. Actually it was the Shahzade-ye Ibrahim mausoleum of Kashan. Surely for them it was the mausoleum on the corner.
To think that the phenomenon of Shiism in Iran is by the work and grace of Ayatollah Khomeini and his 1979 revolution is at least naive. At the end of the X century practically all Persians were already Muslims but embracing Shiism as a form of rebellion and survival against the Sunni Arab invaders who conquered Persia.
Cradle of Zoroastrianism, the oldest of the religions revealed, and Islamized by the Arabs around 636 AD, Iran was officially converted to twelfth Shiism by the first Sha Ismail I of the Safavid dynasty in 1502, which at that time established the first theocratic government of the country.
The Shiite branch of Islam gives Iran its particular way of being and explains much of its past and recent history: The Shiites refuse the power of the Caliphs (Sunnis), they barely tolerate another power that doesn’t come from their imams and they have an unbreakable faith that the twelfth imam, killed violently like all previous ones, will return to announce the end of the world.
And it’s such faith, their true source of spiritual strength, with which they live, get excited, cry and for which they die if necessary.
Considered by the Sunnites as a heretical branch of Islam, they haven’t stopped producing new interpretations of the Qur'an and in their studies they include philosophers such as Aristotle or Plato because they consider that human reason is a divine source, a heresy for the Sunnites.
And to collect all these feelings is the mosque. The Iranian mosque is much more than the materialization of a glorious architecture, much more than a praying center; it's ,above all, a forbidden territory to secular power, it's a place of refuge in difficult times, such as those of Sha's reign, and the stage for an animated social, cultural and paradoxically political life.
III. BAZAAR : PRIVATE LIFE AND PUBLIC LIFE IN POST-KHOMEINI IRAN
Benhaz insisted on meet with her friend at a certain time that seemed too late to me. I supposed it was a way to avoid prying eyes and therefore problems. Once we were in the car, we went to pick up her sister Bahar and her niece Nila.
I knew I should not shake hands with Bahar, much less a couple of kisses, so I limited myself from the co-pilot position to greet her in Farsi –“khoshvaqtam”- which immediately aroused in her an explosive and honest smile.
We spent a few hours drinking tea and smoking "khelium" in what it should be the foothills of a mountain, based on the unusual freshness of the environment. At midnight they left me in the alley that leads to the hotel and when I was about to say goodbye with the basic phrases in Farsi I had learned, Bahar - who guessed my intentions seeing me taking my little notebook - got out the car, gave me a big hug and a couple of kisses and she got back again into the car without barely giving me time to react.
She should have seen my astonishment because, as she walked away, she laughed out with a burst of laughter making the victory sign with her left hand.
Days later, walking through the intricate alleyways of the Kashan's bazaar, I remembered that unexpected farewell. The Iranian bazaar is much more than a market, more than a labyrinth of alleys and shops. The invisible bazaar is made up of an intricate tangle of commercial, political and religious networks that have influenced the great events of the country's recent history.
There was something strange about that bazaar that I didn't wasn’t able to identify, it was more than the captivating smells of spices, more than the sun rays coming through the vaults, more than the incessant movement of women dressed in black chador.
At midday, running away as always from the burning sun, I protected myself in a restored old public baths, where locals and foreigners spend hours smoking in a water pipe or drinking tea, the national pastime.
I reviewed my travel notes over coffee when suddenly the bazaar mystery fell like ripe fruit does; it came to me tens of images of women dressed with impeccable black chadors flirting with jewels and gowns they will never be able to wear in public. I ended up understanding what I had seen so insistently in the great bazaar of Isfahan and that I saw again in the Kashán one.
The meaning of what I had so many times in front of my eyes without understanding it, was revealed by Bahar's farewell days ago ; while she was walking away from the car making the sign of victory, she should thought : Do not you know that in Iran we live two lives?
IV. NAQSH-E JAHAN THE CENTER OF HALF OF THE WORLD
I met Safouraz under the impressive portico of Ali Qapu Palace running away from the relentless midday sun, like the rest of the Isfahanian people. Her large white visor gave her a rare and sophisticated air, but under her black chador she could barely hide her melancholy aspect. Between furtive gazes at the huge portraits of Ali Khamenei and Imam Khomeini that we had above us, she didn't take long to outline a few brushstrokes about her life that were enough to me to understand that she was marked by irreversible personal losses.
Safouraz dreamed dangerously with paradise and its martyrs but hearing how she talked about her city, I understood why the Isfahanian people say it’s half of the world: because to equal its beauty everything else is needed.
It was my first day in Naqsh-e Jahan; I still carried the heavy burden of prejudice with which we the Westerners usually judge the country. Perhaps for that reason, I remember perfectly how my senses and emotions focused on two particular and irresistible points that, at that moment, seemed contradictory to me: black chadors everywhere and the unexpected peace and harmony that it was breathed, that is breathed every day, in such a special place.
The entrance to the grand bazaar - the Qasarieh gate - to the north, the Imam Khomeini mosque to the south, the Loftollah mosque to the east and the Ali Qapu palace to the west; all of them being mute witnesses of the avatars of the Isfahanian people beyond historical periods, regimes or revolutions.
With the first solar rays, Naqsh-e Jahan square - the image of the world in farsi - shows, proudly, its exceptional architecture. It happens like this since Shah Abbas I the Great moved the capital of the Persian Empire to Isfahan, becoming it the most beautiful city in the Muslim world. Even today it's one of the largest squares ever built.
When the last solar rays keep lighted the mosque minarets, when the water jets of the central pond become flares of fire and when the shadows of the chadors lengthen on the ground competing in length with them, Naqsh-e Jahan is the center of the half of the world.
In the center of the half of the world - today's Iran -, if you are a woman, you are either "chadoríi" , “hiyabi” or “mantoíi". Tens upon tens of black chadors, dressed - by conviction or resignation - with a certain look of elegance, and many others of western appearance but always accompanied by trousers, topped with a scarf on the head, overwhelm the square producing a strange sensation.
There, young people get together everyday flying kites or playing volleyball, children soaking in the immense central pond under the watchful gaze of their mothers, teenage girls spending time between selfies, nervous laughter and dreams for the future, couples in love promising each other eternal love and especially tens of families having a picnic around a thermos of tea or a basket of fruit.
All of them shape a human puzzle which is renewed every day but always rotates around the essential core of Iranian society: the family.
Naqsh-e Jahan is the perfect metaphor of Iran in the world, it's the perfect materialization of the feature that most characterizes us as species: our tenacity and ability to survive even in the most adverse situations.
Last day in Isfahan and last night in Naqsh-e Jahan that I take advantage of it until midnight. While I head to the hotel between passers-by, horse-drawn carriages, motorcycles and money changers that seem to take turns keeping the street permanently occupied, I realize that it’s time to think about the next destination.
I look back while I think to myself, "I’ll be back to the half of the world."
V. KHAJU: STORIES OF A DRY BRIDGE
They spent most of the morning strategically situated on the northern entrance of the bridge, their static position, their black chadors and their tinted glasses made them unmistakable, they were a couple of the feared "Gashte Ershad", the female police guardian of good customs.
The older women seemed to have a special sense to detect them and, making gestures of resignation, replaced their hiyabs before coming across them; the young adolescent girls, abstracted in their own world, were almost always surprised and, with gestures of submission, received the polite admonition to cover their hair under the hiyab.
In the sunset, the chants of the minstrels resounded between the vaults of the bridge’s lower level for two hours before; suddenly, in an imperceptible way, that atmosphere of collective calm and euphoria was transformed into a great riot provoked by an impeccably dressed guy that condemned the minstrel's behavior.
Fearing that the guy was a secret policeman of the regime I prudently walked away from the scene, but half an hour later, when I observed that he was literally cornered by the crowd, I approached one of the ringleaders who had faced him with less dissimulation - and who hours ago had instructed me about the importance of Hafiz's poetry in Persian culture- to ask him about what had happened.
He showed me his wrinkles, pointed to his right bicep and, with a tired face and watery eyes of contained rage, told me literally "I had to spend many hardships in my life so that now narrow-minded people come to tell me what I can or cannot sing". He looked back the guy and, with a broad smile and a satisfied gesture typical of a victorious teenager, he began to hum in English so that I could understand him "I’m happy, I’m happy, I’m happy, I want to live with joy, I’m Happy, I'm happy. "
The stone and brick Khaju Bridge built during the mandate of Shah Abbas II around 1650, with its 127 m length is one of the best examples of Persian architecture. But nowadays the Isfahanis share videos of a bygone splendour with Bluetooth, in which blue-green waters passed placidly under it. They regret with resignation the total loss of the flow of the Zayandeh River for 11 months per year due to distant hydraulic policy decided in Tehran.
Like a great and impressive beehive, it hosts tens of actors from dawn to dusk, who unwittingly perform a play with an unwritten script every day. They are spontaneous minstrels, families that protect themselves from the unbearable sun, loners of all kind looking for anonymous company or people in love.
It is said that there is no couple in Isfahan who has not sought certain privacy under the shadow of some hidden arch of this spectacular construction of the Safavid dynasty avoiding the inquisitorial gazes of the police and "Gashte Ershad".
Paradoxes of destiny, the Khaju Bridge, already deprived of its hydraulic reason for existing, has been converted by the Isfahan people into the particular stage of the theatre of their lives.
VI. YAZD Y KASHAN TWO OASIS IN THE DASHT E KAVIR DESERT.
We met at the queue of the night train to Yazd and he took advantage of the first visual contact to say “Welcome to Iran”. A couple of hours later he appeared in my wagon with sweet dates accompanied by his mother, a young Iranian girl dressed in the “hijabi” style who strove to record the scene as if it were the documentary of her life.
Two days later I was on a picnic with all his family and, while his parents strove to be excellent hosts, his teenager brother, full of curiosity and vital energy, whispered in my ear:
- Do you know that in my country there is not freedom?
- I answered with another question, what do your parents think about it? He looked around, like someone who needs to check that nobody is in our conversation, and answered with a satisfied face: The same as me.
Next morning I received an SMS: "Please do not comment anyone our meeting last night and much less what we were speaking there because in my country we are not allowed to dine with tourists for security reasons"
Both Yazd and Kashan emerge as unsuspected miracles in the western boundaries of the Persian desert; of a millenary history, they were for a long time the last stop of the caravans before entering the desolate desert Dahst e Kavir.
They still preserve the millenary architecture of "Sabbats" -narrow adobe alleys- and "Bagdirs" -ventilation towers combined with underground water tanks - which Marco Polo saw on one of his trips in 1272 and which have a rigorous climate that oscillates between more than 40º C in summer and -8º C in winter.
They also preserve that way of life away from the bustle of the great cities and attached to the traditions and the strict orthodoxy of sharia. Here, in the Iranian desert, the proportion of "Chadorii" women is crushing and it is practically impossible to find those, who abound in Tehran and other big cities that, in a brave act of rebellion, let the hijab show her hair challenging the regime.
I was remembering ,days after, the surprising sms of Aboolfazl while I was walking through the old neighborhood of Kashan running away from the burning sun; It was noon and although I was literally rubbing the adobe wall, I had to take refuge under a door frame so that the car could move slowly along the "Sabbat". When it reached my place, the car stopped literally embedding me between the house door and the one of the car. The two windows were lowered from which three voices came out saying in accord “Welcome to Iran". Immediately the teenage daughter, dressed in chador like her mother, took the initiative and she asked me in a very polite way to accompany them to her house to eat: "You are our guest, please ...”
It's hard to forget their faces of frustration when, in the end, they understood that it was completely impossible to me because in a few hours I had to leave for my next destination.
I said goodbye, thanking them and wishing them a good day: "Sepas go Sharam" "Ruz khubi dastec basid". Their faces lit up again with a gesture between surprise and strangeness.
VII.- BANDAR-E ANZALI : THE ELONGATED SHADOW OF THE CHADORS.
Almost without realizing it, I was smoking “khelium” with some fishermen in one of the many coffee shops at Mirza Kouchak Khan Street; this is something really difficult to see in most of cities of the country. As it has happened for centuries, dozens of fish are auctioned after bring caught the previous night.
While I was listening to the pipe's bubbling, I smiled as I observed the fully tattooed arm of one of them; in a somewhat arrogant tone, he smiled at me as he rolled up his sleeve to show a rude tattoo of a totally naked girl. I made a small movement to focus my camera but he stopped me abruptly: Don't take a picture of this, it’s forbidden.
Back to the hotel, the young fisherman's words reminded me of what I had witnessed in Anzali Beach.
They looked at the Caspian waves as statues; they must be from inland judging by their faces of joy. Grouped in a single row under umbrellas that were already useless because of the sun's position, they watched as a group of three girls enjoyed the surge despite the enormous weight of their soaked clothes.
Unexpectedly an accusing finger and some beeps interrupted the scene; they came from a group of women dressed in integral chador and white visors. Apparently, the soaked hijab by some of the girls had become counterrevolutionary, showing more hair than allowed. I was surprised by the meekness of the girls and their fiancés, one of whom watched the scene from the sand and made effusive signals for the hijab to go up.
For a moment I thought I was back at the northern entrance of the Khaju Bridge in Isfahan where the "Gashte Ershad" women watch over the fulfillment of the sharia.
Next day, and again I was in Mirza Kouchak Khan Street. I spent a good time playing a game of billiards with a former captain, already retired, from the Iranian Navy and with a large cohort of public. While the sailor reluctantly admitted my victory, beginner's luck without question, I became interested in the strange room’s location, as a stilt house, in the room's back of one of the coffee shops in the port city. With a gesture, between tiredness and impotence, he told me that this was due to the gambling is not allowed in Iran.
Too many prohibitions in my country finally sentenced in a low voice.
VIII.- THE IRANINAN PEOPLE . SONS OF THE REVOLUTION
I knew I could go in and take as many photos as I wanted. The Iranians, for whom mosques are much more than a place of prayer, not only allow you to enter, but invite you to share even the most private moments of prayer with them.
Even so, I kept discreetly under the door of the Azam Korsi mosque in Kashan watching the parishioners, all of them men, raise their evening prayers. Suddenly, a middle-aged man invited me effusively to enter, telling me with his face that I was missing out on something important. Considering my reticence he asked me for a photo with to who appeared to be his father. Finally he grabbed me by the shoulders while giving me four kisses, two and two, like those of the grandmothers of always.
Shortly before, while I walking around the mosque, I was approached by a teenager on a bike whose pace slowed down to start a conversation. While he was asking me about my country and my opinion about yours, a mature man with a disheveled appearance approached him and in a kind and condescending manner whispered something in his ear. The man quickly walked away apologizing for the interruption and immediately, the teenager, ashamed, got off the bike apologizing for not having done it before.
This teenager was very different from the ones I met days later at Khaju Brigde in Isfahan. In a completely unknown way by me until now, their behavior was defiant and their attitude mocking. Determined to solve the situation, I turned to the one who seemed to be the group's leader and said in an exaggeratedly serious tone: as far as I know the Iranians are friendly and polite people, and you are bothering me. His four fellows automatically grabbed his arms, apologizing while they moved him away.
Encounters like these happen one after another, day after day, in today's Iran.
Encounters like these corroborate the simple idea that a country is great, not because of its extraordinary landscapes, nor because of its impressive architecture, nor because of its millenary culture, not even because of the political regime of the moment or its leaders. Without its people, they are all emotional deserts.
IX.- TALKING WITH MOLANA.
I'm iron resisting the strongest magnet there is.
It was written in the thirteenth century by one of the great sufi and mystic poets of Persian origin, author of the Masnavi-ye Manavi known as the Persian Qur'an and inspirer of the Whirling Dervish order, paradoxically banned nowadays in Iran.
All of them were born within the current Islamic Republic of Iran and they could choose praises to spring or almond blossoms. They could choose to speak about mystical union with the Supreme Being, about the emotion of human love or to praise music and dance as the way to reach ecstasy. But they chose, sometimes with courage, sometimes with fear, to speak about pain, fear, walls, resistance, freedom and hope.
And it happens that the poetry of Yalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī , known as Molana, transcends its origins and its time, puts each of us in front of the mirror and, like a shy but powerful ray of light, alerts us exquisitely to the dangers of self-complacency because we tend to judge the other's walls as their prison and the owns as our strength.