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Home Sweet Home(ish)

I may have come searching for my Middle Eastern roots in the land of veils and saffron, but it’s orange blossoms, mosques and accusations of international espionage that I find. Surprised?
I’ve got one very good reason to be nervous as I wait to clear immigration and customs on arrival at Tehran International Airport: there’s a fair chance that upon seeing my documents the official will confiscate my passport and have me escorted to an army base on the Iraqi border. You see despite having lived in Australia since I was one, the fact that I was born in Shiraz obligates me to spend at least twenty months defending the borders and religious virtues of the Islamic People’s Republic of Iran, even if my only religion is coffee and I’ve always thought guns were kind of icky.

“Don’t worry,” my mother had assured me last week, having just cajoled me into joining the rest of my family as they visited my grandmother in Mashhad. “It’ll probably be OK.”

Probably be OK? Given that Iranian bureaucracy changes its visa policies as often as J-Lo gets married, and that the consequence of things not probably being OK is months of tortuous physical training followed by a stint on one of the country’s peaceful borders—take your pick of Iraq, Afghanistan or if you're lucky Pakistan—I was hoping for slightly better odds.

So I’m understandably anxious as I reach into my daypack for my passport, but even more so when I glimpse the novel I’ve been reading on the plane. Bret Easton Ellis’s Rules of Attraction may be a biting—if needlessly gratuitous—satire of 80’s college culture, but I somewhat belatedly realize that its graphic depictions of sadistic sex also make it the kind of book you can be publicly whipped for owning in Iran.

I clutch the book and fruitlessly scan the room for a rubbish bin. The lady in front of me finishes at immigration and presents her bags to be searched by some very thorough looking customs personnel.

“Next please.”

Correction: I now have two very good reasons to be nervous.

I’ve got one very good reason to be nervous as I wait to clear immigration and customs on arrival at Tehran International Airport: there’s a fair chance that upon seeing my documents the official will confiscate my passport and have me escorted to an army base on the Iraqi border.
I try to look innocent as I stealthily dump the book between the leaves of a pot plant beside me and slink up to the young clerk who is busy adjusting her headscarf.

She flicks through my passport, while I contemplate whether US $100 will be enough to bribe my way out, then tilts her head to study my “Rock West” t-shirt, fake Ray Bans and Western haircut. I guess this is the one immigration control point in the world where not having an Islamic turban and a copy of the Koran is liable to earn you a cavity search.

“Your last visit to Iran was thirteen years ago?” she scolds.

The helpless smile I offer in reply probably looks as forced as I am scared. Make that US $200.

She closes my passport and is about to hand it back before pausing for a moment and letting it hover between us. “Didn’t you miss your country?” she demands as a final test.

I spread my hands, smile and give her the only response I can. “Why do you think I’m back?”

Why am I in Iran? Well for Ally’ subscribers who don’t know me that well, or at all, it’d probably clarify things a little if you knew that I was born here. My family migrated to Australia just days after my first birthday, so despite the fact that I crave Vegemite in the mornings and my first word was in English—and quite shamefully the name of an evil fast food conglomerate that shall remain McNameless—I am a full-blooded Iranian man.

And ever since I first donned a backpack four years ago I’ve been itching to throw myself at the place. Apart from a whirlwind family reunion when I was twelve—of which my only memories are anonymous relatives pulling my cheek and forcing plates of food down my throat—I know little of the country whose language I can speak and transplanted culture I’ve been raised with.

So now I’m here in the far-flung Western city of Masshad where it seems I’m related to half the population and they’re all intent on reducing me to a fussed over, kebab-gorging shut-in. Being surrounded by such love, warmth and hospitality by relative strangers after months of travelling isolation is an entirely welcome experience, even if it means I’ll have to buy myself a muumuu and size 50 pants when I leave.

Allah-oh-Akbar! Allah-oh-Akbar!

There are few things more symbolic of Islam than calls to prayer echoing over the rooftops of a desert city, and as I stand amid thousands of worshippers inside Mashhad’s Shrine of Imam Reza during the height of pilgrimage season, I figure that it doesn’t get any more Islamic than this.

Each year millions of Shiites flock to the sprawling collection of tiled mosques, graceful courtyards and towering minarets to mourn the assassination of their charismatic leader at the hands of a jealous caliph over one thousand years ago. (For those not up on their theological history, Shiites are to Sunnis what Protestants are to Catholics; devout adherents to slightly differing flavours of the same religion that have taken inexplicable joy in slaughtering each other for centuries).

And if the sheer scale of the exercise doesn’t impress visitors, then the fervent energy with which its heaving sea of pilgrims throw themselves at it will. Some worshippers, sobbing uncontrollably, beat their heads against the gold latticed cage muttering “Vai, vai”, while most just remain frozen in silent prayer, hands clutching the partition and their faces mouthing silent praises to Allah.

Outside the inner sanctum, and beneath the dazzling gold dome of the shrine and its intricately mosaiced minarets, thousands of kneeling men and women, their faces peeking out beneath black chadors, are working themselves into a religious frenzy; two women, overcome by grief, are beating themselves with a leather strap and shrieking in agony at each self-inflicted blow. This alien scene of religious zeal, I guess, forms the basis of most people’s view of Iran: black veils, fanaticism and an incomprehensible faith.

But it wasn’t always like this. Having once ruled a huge swathe of Europe and Asia, by the 1920s the Persian empire settled into its current borders as a moderately religious monarchy under the ruthless Pahlavi dynasty. After years of mismanagement, torture and authoritarianism, a CIA-led coup to topple the democratically-elected Prime Minister in exchange for oil rights crystallised widespread resentment towards the ‘US-puppet’ Shah.

A woman walks past a mural of Ayatollah Khomeini outside the old US Embassy in Tehran Enlarge »
It was into this powder keg of poverty and discontent that a little known cleric named Ayatollah Khomeini threw in the match of religious fanaticism and the promise of a better life. The explosive revolution that followed saw Khomeini install himself as the supreme leader of a quasi-democracy where an elected parliament is held subject to the whims of a self-appointed, omnipotent religious council.

In the years that followed, a bitter war with Iraq—in which the West supported and sold weapons to their friend Saddam Hussein—and incompetent financial management left an entire generation of Iranians dead and the nation’s economy in languishing. The people of Iran are now left with a hard-line theocracy they can’t stand and a desperate feeling of helplessness about their future.

“But why does Islam have to be so grave and depressing?” I ask my grandmother later that evening. “Why can’t they be singing hymns of joy?”

“It doesn’t have to be,” she counters, “that’s just the way it’s been interpreted. Islam is warm, joyous and welcoming; you should see the parties around Eid el Fitr! You’ll see what I mean when you travel the country, you’ll see the other side of Iran.”

She’s right. I discover the hidden charm of Iran waiting patiently for me in Esfahan. This desert oasis is unarguably Iran’s grandest city and one of greatest showpieces of Persian and Islamic architecture. For a blissful week I spend my mornings haggling for a breakfast melon in a sprawling bazaar thick with carpet sellers, bellowing hawkers and the smells of rosewater and cinnamon. To escape the midday sun I explore the iwans and madresahs hidden between the grand turquoise domes of ancient mosques, napping on their cool marble floors while the occasional worshipper comes to pray beside me.

Locals take refuge from Iran's scorching midday sun under the cool marble arches of Esfahan's Khaju Bridge. Enlarge »
As dusk approaches I stretch my legs and join the throngs of picnicking Esfehanis as they bring rugs, plates and half their kitchens to cook up lavish feasts on the lawns of the vast Emam Square. And when the scorching daytime heat finally bows to the jasmine scented breeze of starlit evenings, I stroll beneath the spans of Zayandeh River’s 17th century bridges, stopping occasionally for endless pots of tea and the odd puff on a water pipe from the richly decorated tea houses that lines its banks.

This, this is what I’ve been looking for. I ponder how many tourists would be packing these river banks if they knew that beneath a thin crust of ignorance-fed fear they would discover the romantic essence of the Middle East, all on a budget of US $10 a day.

And the same atmosphere greets me in Iran’s historical and cultural capital of Shiraz, a leafy city renowned as the birthplace of Persian poetry. This art form is so revered in Iran that poets such as Saadi, Hafiz and Omar Khayaam are venerated as quasi-religious figures, and on a visit to the tomb of Hafiz I see how. Carpenters, businessmen, soldiers and housewives all stroll quietly up to the marble monument set amid orange blossoms and roses to tenderly touch the tomb and breathe a silent prayer.

As I hunt about for Ari, the lust-starved Mexican I’m exploring Hafiz’s tomb with, a scruffy, barefoot boy clutching a bird cage and a box of small sheets offers me a fa’al.
Crowds gathering to pray at the stunning Emam Mosque beside Esfahan's Emam Square. Enlarge »
In the Persian tradition, whenever a person faces a momentous decision they ask the Oracle of Shiraz, Hafiz, for guidance. I tip the kid handsomely and he fishes out the canary while I ask a somewhat belittling question to the spirit of the great poet: “What should I have for lunch?”

The well-trained bird picks out a random verse of unintelligible cursive script from the stack of sheets, which I have read out to me by an obliging local:

Don’t seek your guidance in the skies
It is deceitful, though it seems wise.
It helped many kings majestically rise
Then brought them down at its own behest.
So this is what if feels like to be reprimanded by a centuries-dead poet for taking the piss.

“You’re not from around here, are you?”

It’s not an unexpected question, but I can’t help be offended by it, especially since I’m sitting outside the maternity ward of the very hospital I was born in.

I’m still not sure why I decided to seek out Namazi Hospital; partly curiosity, I guess, or perhaps to gain a better understanding of my own origins. Whatever the reason, I couldn’t help but be disappointed by the drab, concrete structure that I at first mistook for an underground carpark. I hadn’t been expecting anything as grandiose as a manger and three wise men bearing gifts, but I guess my pride would have appreciated a faint halo, or maybe even a small plaque in my honour.

While poking around aimlessly outside its broken doors, I struck up a conversation with Amin, a young guy with tired eyes whose his wife was inside suffering through a hellish eighteen hour labour.

A busker shows off his lack of talent with the shrill squeals of his flute on Si-o-seh Pol Bridge. Enlarge »
Like me, Amin was born at Namazi Hospital during the early days of the 1979 uprising as protestors marched the streets chanting “Death to the King!” and burning the first of many US flags. Unike me, though, he grew up in Iran as a child of the revolution, while trying to live his life in ignorance of it. He spent his teen years listening to Thriller, watching Beverly Hills 90210 and more recently surfing Yahoo!, thanks to illicit satellite dishes and internet access that have opened up a pipeline of western culture into the isolated country. He went to university and married early, but is now struggling to find work in Iran's stagnant economy and wondering if his new family will ever move out of the tiny bedroom in his parents' apartment.

But within a few minutes of chatting to me, Amin’s picked up on a slight twang in my Farsi and asked me where I’m from.

It shouldn’t offend me, but everytime an Iranian has asked me this I’ve been hurt, perhaps because it’s a question I’ve been asked all my life. Despite being a poster child for cultural assimilation in migrant friendly Australia—with the possible exception that I'd rather beat my head repeatedly against brickwork than watch test cricket—my thick Australian drawl and fondness for Carlton Draught are constantly questioned by people who keep narrowing their eyes and asking me, “But seriously, where are you from?”

I’ve always been the kid with the strange smelling lunches and the unpronounceable surname, or the adult that faces “Oh”s and awkward silences when I tell someone my birthplace and they struggle to come up with a response that doesn’t involve Ayatollah’s, Salman Rushdie or Not Without My Daughter. It’s not that I feel I don’t belong in Australia—I love almost everything about the place—but I’ve never felt that Australia belonged entirely to me. So as Amin struggles to guess the origins of my mediocre Farsi, I’m left wondering if anywhere ever will.

“You’re lucky,” he tells me when he learns of my Antipodean upbringing. “Your family escaped in time.”

“Escaped? I don’t understand,” I tell Amin, “why Iran’s people are so pessimistic when it’s a young, educated country sitting on incomprehensible amounts of oil. This country could have it all, and yet people are queuing up to leave.”

“You don’t have to live here!” he retorts. “Life can be good here, but it’s just so hard. Everything—work, buying a house, dealing with the corruption, love, fun—just takes so much work and effort. You don't have to date your girlfriend in secret, or pray for a job that probably won’t support your family. Your two brothers didn't die in the war, serving under a government they hated. You don't have to beg for a visa everytime you leave the country because the world looks at you and thinks 'terrorist'.

Would you want to live my life?”

He’s right, after all it was only a twist of fate that brought me to Australia. My father had been on a six month sabbatical at a Melbourne university when the Iran-Iraq conflict erupted and my parents decided to wait out what ended up being an eight year war in relative safety of Australia. If the fighting had broken out just a few months earlier or later, it could very well be me sitting hopelessly outside Namazi Hospital wondering how I was going to support my wife and new child.

I decide that I’m a lucky, lucky man.

After three trouble-free weeks I should have seen it coming. But I guess you can never really anticipate being woken up in the middle of the night by two policemen shining a flashlight in your eyes.

“Wake up,” commands the portly cop holding the torch, while his young, limping partner searches for the light switch of my grubby guesthouse room. “We need to ask you some questions.”

I sit up with a start, blinking in the harsh fluorescent light as it flickers to life, and try to remember which hotel, city and country I’m in. I rub my eyes and glance at the clock beside my bed: it’s 3.14 am. That bloody night watchman.

I arrived in the pretty little town of Kashan only a few hours earlier, weary after a day spent careering through central Iran’s scorching desert in the cargo bay of an ageing Russian bus, and had stumbled into a travellers’ lodge begging for the cheapest room they had.

The night caretaker, a rapidly aging man with a large belly, toilet brush beard and his shirt on inside out simply grunted in reply and handed me a registration form. Halfway through I’d struggled with the meaning of a legalistic Farsi word, showed it to him and asked its meaning.

“How the Hell am I supposed to know?” he spat back. “I’m illiterate. What about you? Didn’t you say you were a student?”

A family negotiating night time traffic in Yazd. Enlarge »
“Well you see I’m from overseas and …”

“So you’re a foreigner!” he waved an accusing finger at me and pulled out an alien’s registration card. “You’ll have to fill this out with your foreign passport.”

We argued back and forth for a few minutes about which form I should fill in, before I noticed that the face of the man holding the key to the only room in town I could afford was turning Tequila Sunrise red.

“Look,” I offered calmly, “I’m Iranian. I have an Iranian ID card. Just forget the Australian passport and give me the Iranian form to fill in.”

“That ID card could be forged!” he shouted at me. “You are not Iranian!”

Now anyone who knows me can attest to my absolute loathing of confrontation, so I’m not sure what came over me at that instant but guess it was the heat and the fatigue and the fact that I was sick of people from my own country treating me like a stranger. Sick of the “So where you from’s” and the jealous looks that follow the answer. Angry that despite the fact that I’d grown a beard and started dressing like other Iranians, little kids would still skip up to me and ask in Spanish if I wanted to buy a carpet. Frustrated to hear other travellers’ tales of limitless Iranian hospitality while I was being made to feel like I was too Iranian to be fussed over by strangers but too foreign to be accepted as kin.

“I’M NOT IRANIAN?!” I bellowed back. “My name is Ally, I was born in Shiraz and I can damn well read and write Farsi better than you can! So tell me, if I’m not Iranian, what the Hell does that make you?!”

Without waiting for a response I stormed off to my room, slamming the door behind me. And now it seems the night watchman has decided to protect his own back by informing the police about the suspicious foreigner with two passports and patchy Farsi who may or may not be sending encrypted spy signals from Room 109.

Officer Flashlight snaps me back to the present. “Sir, we hear you are in possession of a foreign passport.”

A young woman and a soldier pay their respects to Hafiz, one of the greatest Persian poets. Enlarge »
“Well, y-yes,” I stutter, fishing it out my bag and wondering whether I’ll ever see it again.

Limpy spies the kangaroo on the passport’s gold coat of arms. “Australia, eh? I hear you can do anything over there … That girls and guys can sleep with whoever they want to.”

“Well, yes, in a sense.”

“Hmm, Australia.” Limpy stares thoughtfully at the passport. “Say, can you help me get a visa?”

It’s not until the next morning that I discover why the Kashan police department was paranoid enough to storm a tired backpacker’s room at three in the morning on the suspicions of a dim-witted hotel clerk.

I set out at nine, heading to the town’s outskirts in order to try and hitch a lift to the nearby ochre-walled village of Abiyaneh. Within minutes I’ve scored a lift in one of the Iran’s iconic Peykans—70’s style sedans that account for over eighty percent of the country’s smog spewing vehicles—with Hossein, a middle-aged guy sporting a silky black moustache and saucer-sized glasses. I gratefully hop in to his car while Hossein guns the engine and explains that he can take me as far as his office, almost halfway to Abiyaneh.

As the dry, gravelly landscape rushes past us I begin to notice an increasing military presence: roadblocks, mobile patrols and a half dozen anti-aircraft guns pointed watchfully at the sky.

“It’s all to protect me from US and Israeli planes while I’m at work,” grins Hossein when I probe him on the hardware lining the road.

“You know those nuclear research facilities the US and the IAEA have been kicking up such a fuss about recently?” Hossein points to a mass of buildings on the horizon. “Well, that’s one of them.”

As we pull up in front of the Nantaz Nuclear Research Centre, a sprawling complex of low rise blocks and bunkers, three armed guards approach to verify our credentials and I decide it’s time for me to make my foreign-passport carrying self scarce.

“Tell me,” I ask with a smile as I give Hossein a warm farewell handshake, “is it true? Are you guys really building a nuclear bomb in there?”

Hossein chuckles and points to a cracked teapot sitting on the backseat of his car. “If they’d given us the budget to build a bomb do you think I’d have to bring my broken pot in from home?

“The day I start drinking freshly brewed coffee from an imported French machine, well that’s the day the world should start worrying.”

Just as I began my homecoming in Iran’s most religious city, it’s somewhat fitting that I end it in its manic capital, Tehran. Although the city itself doesn’t have much to offer other than choking pollution, sprawling concrete apartments and millions of drivers who attack their art with an equal mix of homicidal aggression and suicidal incompetence, it’s a beacon of liberalization beating to the Western dreams of its young and defiant residents.

If there is any doubt that Iran is opening up, that it is evolving, and that change and democracy are inevitable, a day spent walking through the streets of Tehran is heartening. Women have reinterpreted the strict dress code of a black headscarf and dowdy overcoat to mean a whisper of peacock Chanel cloth over their painstakingly coiffed locks and figure-hugging long shirts that barely conceal the latest Milan fashions. By day university students quietly organise political rallies and subversive demonstrations and let loose to the latest UK beats at underground raves at night. On the sparkling new metro system teenage boys decked out in Skechers, Diesel and Ecko quietly neck their girlfriends clad in tubs of make up and high heels, while at European cafes in the leafy northern suburbs Iranian intelligentsia sit reading the fruits of a fledgling independent media.

Intricate calligraphic tiling on an Esfahan mosque. Enlarge »
So after a couple of days spent watching Tehran’s youth conducting their own covert revolution against the religious clerics I’m quietly optimistic, but still a little nervous, as I return back to where I started: queuing at immigration at Tehran’s airport. My flight to London leaves in an hour but I can’t help but feel that I haven’t really found what I’d come here in search of. Sure, I’ve confirmed my suspicions that Iran is an achingly beautiful country, but I still haven’t answered the one question that’s been nagging me this past month: is this where I’m from?

As the immigration clerk scans my passport, I think back to an elderly man I’d befriended one afternoon while writing the first half of this post on a park bench in the lush Caspian-coast city of Rasht. I’d chatted aimlessly with the retired war veteran for a few minutes—addressing him respectfully as haji agha—before being invited to a traditional tea house set in the garden courtyard of an ancient Iranian home. We’d stretched out on thick Persian rugs, talking for hours amid fruitful citrus trees and sweetly fragrant flowers while sharing the cherry smoke of a water pipe and the crimson sky above us.

“Ally you’re stupid,” haji agha dispensed with tact after listening to the inner neuroses of my cultural identity crisis. “You’re right: you’re not Iranian, and you’re not Australian either. But that’s a wonderful thing! You’ve seen cities that I didn’t even know existed, you’ve eaten foods that I can’t even imagine and you’ve spoken to people of all colours. Don’t you see? You’re not a child of Iran or Australia, you’re a child of the world!”

A child of the world ... I like the sound of that.

The cute clerk makes an official sounding stamping noise in my passport, hands it back to me and smiles. “Don't make it another thirteen years between visits.”

“Don’t worry,” I promise her, “I won’t.”

Comments about this page

iran must be an amazing place. fantastic photos as well. are you getting this stuff published?
jane (toronto) on Oct 17, 2004 at 8:18 pm

Hi Ally. cool post. I'm thinking of going to Iran in a few months on an overland trek from turkey to india. is it hard to get a visa? what's accommodation like? And how did you take that photo of the family in traffic?

Thanks dude. Keep on travelling.
Brian on Oct 21, 2004 at 6:21 pm

Hey Brian. I was travelling on an Iranian passport, but have heard you can now get 15 day tourist visas at the border. Accommodation ranges from dirt cheap (US $3 / night to 5 star US $100 / night) and is fairly easy to find in most places. The photo of the family was a long exposure shot (around 2 seconds, I think). Have fun in Iran!
Ally (London) on Oct 28, 2004 at 4:01 am

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