The only two cities I visited on my trip were to Mashad and Isfahan. Mashad is famous for two things. The shrine of the Eighth Imam of the Shia sect of Islam, Imam Reza, the only one out of all twelve Imams to actually be buried in Iran (all the others are buried in Saudi Arabia and Iraq) and saffron that grows far, far more plentifully than it does in Kashmir. I could write a book about my week in Iran, but will restrict myself to captioning these photographs.
Mashad sells carpets woven/produced elsewhere. While the large carpets are traditionally Iranian, the small ones in frames are too suspiciously perfect to be made with human hand. Most of them have a plethora of shades of white in them, making the weaver something of a genius!
After I returned from my trip, I cursed myself roundly for not having paid attention to the reverse side of these picture carpets. Maybe, as whispers claim, they ARE made in China. Or maybe they are actually worth their weight in gold by being woven on a carpet look by a host of little old ladies who are half blind by now.
What I do know is that the single most difficult part of my trip was never taking my abbaya off. Ever. In Iran, the norm is the chador. A single, unstitched piece of cloth that has been cut on the cross (like an umbrella skirt) it is a nightmare to keep on all the time. Iranian women of a certain age have been wearing it for decades and the younger (35 years and under) just wear a short (sometimes rather tight) coat with a head scarf that reveals as much as it conceals of the hairstyle underneath. I only ever threw off my abbaya in the privacy of my hotel room.
Ok. Kashmiris have zaarpaar. Iranians have tarof. Both mean the same: politeness demands that you pester your guest to eat more. Kashmiris win hands down: Iranians just ask you two or three times. Both are charming or irritating, depending on your perspective! We had been invited to the home of the gent on the left, a saffron grower in Torbat e Haideriyya, a village 2 hours away from Mashad. My companions had gone to check out the quality of his saffron and I had tagged along. Rice (plain steamed) with a whole plate of tahdig (the fried crust at the bottom of the pan) was waiting for us, along with broiled lamb and raw greens, in this case onion and garlic leaves, but usually mint leaves and occasionally, fenugreek leaves too! More food was forced on all of us than we could possibly do justice too. The hostess (it would have been highly improper to take a photograph of her because of her venerable age) kept on her ‘house chador’ a black and white one, so I had to keep on my abbaya too, though we had lunch on the floor. Well, delicious as the food was, eating with a black cloak on was a first for me!
Early November, Torbat e Haideriyya. But if you had showed me this picture and asked me to guess whether it was Pampore in Kashmir or around Mashad, I would have probably guessed wrong! Both saffron fields are very similak, down to the mountains in the distance. The flowers bloom for just a few weeks and they have to be picked at the optimum stage in the ripening process. Iran grows approximately ten times the saffron that Kashmir doets, and my companions for the day inspected what is poetically called a flower market (NO pictures PLEASE glared the guard!) which consisted of a ‘mandi’ or marketplace with about 200 growers with piles and piles of saffron blossoms, stigmas in place. My friends just pulled one flower in each pile apart to know if it was the quality they were looking for. “Too short for us” they’d mutter to each other. While I took this picture, our host at lunch knelt down on the mud and prayed the evening prayer. He reminded me so much of my own Dad (father in law) if only Dad would wear western trousers and a shirt instead of his habitual shalwar suit. Both had the same zany sense of humour (my companions were meticulous about translating every sentence anyone spoke in Farsi).
If there is resort architecture and industrial architecture, there just has to be religious architecture, doesn’t there? High ceilinged, high domed, a wealth of handicrafts (tile work, gold leaf, mirror work, stone inlay) put together seamlessly so that far from looking like a quaint shop, it gives glory to God. Imagine the scale of the Vatican, the soaring height of Meenakshi Temple, Madurai and the gompas of Ladakh, and you’ve just begun to get the picture of Imam Reza’s tomb in Mashad. It’s poetically beautiful, but its raison d’etre is to bring you a step closer to your Maker. All ladies HAVE to wear chadors. No. Burqas and abbayas will not do. Which is why all the Kuwaiti and Iraqi pilgrims that swarmed my rather flashy hotel Ghasr Talaee two kilometres down the road from the shrine arrived at breakfast with abbayas. Perhaps they visited the shrine regularly (being Shia, they probably would) and knew to bring chadors. It was a huge rush and a rather tight squeeze in our ladies’ section of the shrine, but never once was I pushed or felt that a stampede was about to take place. After my friend Toktam took me around the shrine (being young and fashionable, she had an even worse time with her chador than I had with mine), we sat on one of the fine carpets in the picture and remembered God. Toktam says that periodically, the carpets are auctioned to the public and rich Mashadis snaffle them up as a status symbol in their living rooms. “The carpet on which you’ve just dropped tea was once in Imam Reza’s shrine.”
Outside Imam Reza’s shrine is a covered market selling exactly the sort of trinkets and baubles that Colaba Causeway/Lalchowk/Palika Bazar specializes in. Even outside the market, dealers with a canny eye have spread their goods. I caught sight of this calligraphy shop, but the owner, a prayerful gent, simply shook his head when he figured out that we did not speak a common language. By then, I was alone; for the rest of my trip, I usually did have someone or the other with me. The practical reason is that Iran is not a tourist country and English is not spoken at all by shopkeepers. The other is that the currency is a nightmare. One lakh tomans is a tiny amount; my companions who were in Mashad on a saffron-procuring spree first had to wait for the market to open (the money market that is), find out that day’s dollar exchange rate and then commence trade.
Oh, and by the way, Twitter and facebook are turned off in the WHOLE country! Being the Twitter addict I am, I had to have a proxy server installed in my laptop. I felt like a bit of a criminal, I can tell you!
Another similarity between Iranians and Kashmiris. Give them any food in a restaurant as long as its local. Every last restaurant in Kashmir just has to sell wazwan dishes if it wants to be popular. In Iran, kebob is the raison d’etre for any restaurant, of any size or grandeur. In Mashad there are a couple of exceptions to this rule, but the glass mirrors of this restaurant I think are meant to replicate the craft of Imam Rezas’s shrine. Bakhtiari kebab (alternating pieces of lamb and chicken), logmeh kebab (minced lamb kebab with slashes made at intervals because logmeh means bite sized) and joojeh kebab (like the Indian chooza or chicken) – the fare in most restaurants runs to about eight items. That’s it. Soup, salad and dessert are usually on a tired buffet table, but the locals make a beeline for the kebabs the way Kashmiris head for the ristas and roghan josh!
Isfahan is a centre of carpet weaving, so somehow I never saw any suspiciously intricate western design carpets hanging on the walls in frames. What this shop has, are piles upon piles of real Iranian rugs, some extremely fine, others more rough and tribal. Better than looking around (I am not a carpet freak) was talking to the sale people. Once I told my companion that every last carpet woven in Qom has a tiny bit of turquoise blue in it, to replicate the Eighth Imam’s sister’s shrine’s dome, the sales people just petered out into silence, realizing that I did know enough about the subject to not appreciate an incessant sales pitch.
Mashadis know how to grow saffron, but Isfahanis know how to use it in their cooking. Another world away from the rather down to earth, stolid Mashadis, Isfahan restaurants (this one that Leila Vaezzadeh and I stumbled upon on our evening walk was the least grand of all the others we visited on our stay in that city) had a main course menu that consisted of aab gusht, that may sound the same as the Kashmiri dish, but was light years away. All the restaurants we visited in Isfahan had raised bed-like platforms to sit on. Your shoes remain on the ground. Cushions support your back. A cheap plastic one-time-use dastarkhan is spread by a waiter (some of the restaurants had waitresses too) and you eat off that, on plates, with cutlery. Any Kashmiri would have a tough time trying not to eat with his hands: squatting on the floor and eating with cutlery? I don’t know any Kashmiri who would be able to do it naturally!
And this brings us to the end of Iran Part 1.