Friday, 28 March 2014

surfing in Iran

An hour after dental surgery that was so tough the dentist even needed a fag break halfway, we are back at Amir's house.  Soon afterwards he and Samaneh return from their No Ruz trip.  It's quite weird - this is our third night here and we're just meeting them.  They are inevitably a very relaxed and friendly couple and despite their long travels find time to chat and find out what our plans are.   Originally we were only going to stay two nights here - we have a programme to fit in with getting a visa extension - but after a short discussion we agree to scrap the original plan and Go With The Flow.  This generally seems to work when you're Couch Surfing in Iran.  

Amir doesn't hang around.  We tell him we want to cycle to Abyaneh and then onto Esfahan.  He checks with another Couch Surfing host in the city about the road.  The problem is a uranium-enrichment plant close to both new and old roads.  Cyclists have been stopped by police, questioned, sent back to take a bus.  Being British, we want to be cautious.  We also realise there is a possibility of compromising our hosts if we get into trouble - although we have already decided to stick to our "camping in the park" story.  Many Iranians do this on their holidays and we have already seen the ubiquitous cheap tents dotted around some of the shady parks in Kashan. So, despite our plans, we settle on busing it to Esfahan.  In the meantime we can use the time we save to spend with Amir and Samaneh and their family.

Early the next morning Amir is sorting us out with a ride up to Abyaneh and back.  It seems a bit decadent to take a taxi but Amir negotiates a good price for us.  Our destination is a traditional village tucked away in the folds of the mountains southwest of Kashan.  It is now a certified tourist destination and the villagers are preparing for the daily No Ruz onslaught of Iranians.  We arrive early and walking around the village is a real pleasure.  The old brick and adobe houses have been touched up, the ageing locals have on their finery - bright headscarves for the women and silky black loon pants for the men.  By lunchtime there's a heaving throng of tourists plying up and down the narrow lanes.

In the afternoon we are invited to Amir's parents for dinner with the family.  There's Amir's immediately family plus aunties, uncles and cousins.  Only Amir and Mohammed, his brother, speak English, and after a great deal of polite small talk we suddenly find a cousin asking them to translate his questions and our answers.  The family is fairly traditional but not especially religious.  So the women keep on their headscarves but there's a bit of banter about "the mullahs".  Ahh, but it's more complicated than that.  Many Iranians might not practise their religion simply because of the way their religious leaders are governing them. (Back in Tehran I sat down to watch Man City play Fulham on the TV at the hostel.  City won a penalty.  The picture suddenly switched to Koranic script, soft green lights and the call to prayer was sung.  An Iranian watching with me shook his head. "They didn't used to do this.  Now the mullahs insist.  They only turn people away from religion doing this.  Here we are, enjoying the game and then...." I nodded in consolation.  I had just assumed the mullahs were Fulham fans....)

Here in Central Iran we are in the traditional heart of Iran.  The people are predominantly Persian and fairly conservative.  Black chadors have proliferated now we have come south of Tehran - although they are common enough in the poorer parts of the capital.  So it's no surprise to find people asking us our religion - we expect it, although it still seems a bizarre conversation at times.  It's been said that if someone is too demonstrative about their religious beliefs (religious ring-tone on their phone, always worrying about prayer time) they are probably dishonest and not to be trusted. The mullahs are very rich men, after all.

Asked about Iran by some tourists at one of the sights in Kashan, Gayle expresses her opinion about the hejab - all women must cover their hair and wear loose clothing. What she actually says is that she doesn't like governments that tell you what you can drink or wear.  A man listening in interjects.  "Excuse me, but may I just say that your government tells you what you can do.  Such as drink and driving".  "Yes, but drink and driving is proven to be dangerous.  What can be dangerous about what you wear?"

The meal with Amir's family is taken on the floor sitting around a large cloth spread with plates of rice and dill, beans with lamb, pickles and salad greens. The food is splendid - we have not had one bad meal in Iran - and it's healthy too.  After the preamble of fruit and nuts beforehand, the actual meal is eaten quickly.  It's siesta time.  The city is quiet between 1 and 5.  During the summer temperatures can hit 50.  Come sunset the roads are busy again and the shops reopen, pavements fill with shoppers.  It tends to be even busier than morning time.

The next day Gayle heads off with more of Amir's family, and two Polish surfers who have come to stay too, into the desert.  I cannot face the six o'clock start - I am waking in the night with my sore tooth still and don't think I can stand the pace out in the desert.  The whole family have hired a bus for their trip. There's about 30 people in total.  On the way there's music and a Amir and his brother dance in the aisle.  On the dirt road into the desert the bus stops at an army checkpoint and a soldier climbs aboard to lecture everyone about behaving properly and observing the hejab rules.  Gayle crouches down in her seat in her pink buff.  The Polish women have black headscarves so blend in better.  Gayle comments that it seems the authorities are determined that the Iranians should not have any fun.  But the Iranians are just as determined to ensure that they do.  Out in the desert are huge dunes to climb.  The air is fresh on the tops but baking hot at the bottom.  It's only the end of March.

having fun in the park
 In the evening I go out to buy some instant noodles for a quick tea - I'm starving - and easy to chew.  When I get back Amir looks horrified.  He shows Samaneh the plastic packets, holding them out with his fingertips as if they were contagious, and after a quick discussion they tell me I should be eating healthier food to aid my recovery.  Samaneh starts preparing a chicken and vegetable broth.  I feel somewhat embarrassed - I'm not ill, but my tooth still hurts, and the antibiotics I'm taking have given me a huge amount of wind.  For the past two days my stomach has inflated like a balloon and I have had to retreat to the toilet for trombone practice on a regular basis.  Now we are invited to wait for a home-cooked soup (which is wonderful) while I, now faint with hunger, try not to burst out with the chorus from 'In The Mood'.   We watch a video of their wedding reception which is interesting for a while.  Amir wants to show how mixed the reception is - not segregated by sex - although the majority of the dancing is by men.  Around 600 were invited.  They explain that although they married two years ago, the reception was only seven months ago.  The two of them met when Samaneh was placed at Amir's workplace while she was studying.  They courted in secret, mothers were informed, a formal wedding proposal eventually made.  Pre-nuptial agreements are normal practice in Iran, to safeguard the wife should the husband seek a divorce.  A wife needs a husband's consent to divorce, but not the other way around.  It seems that general attitudes to relationships and marriage are gradually getting more relaxed - where Tehran leads, the rest of the cities follow.  But it's hard to tell.  As Amir himself says, Couch Surfers are a different kind of people.

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