OK, I suck at travel blogging. I’m sitting on no fewer than six half-finished posts including Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and India, which were months ago. But! I am stuck in Tblisi waiting for visas (Kazakhstan, the promotional literature that your consul showered me with assures me you are A Beacon Of Progress! I find this hard to believe when your visa application process is more convoluted than, to take an example at random, Afghanistan’s.) in a hostel with free wireless, so that means spam time. First up is Iran, which had plenty of good bits which did not involve police stations.
While if you were to choose any city in Iran to be stuck in for three weeks while police conducted enquiries about you it would be unlikely that you would light upon Mashhad as your first choice, it probably gave me a better feel for the country, specialised policemen and all, than the same amount of time spent wandering around in rhapsodies over Persepolis (not that I wouldn‘t, on balance, have probably preferred the latter). Mashhad is short on tourist sites and tourist traffic (apart from religious tourists), but has great ice cream and is very well-stocked with Iranians, who I think most visitors would agree are by far the best thing about a trip to the country. Over the past year, I’ve become used to the effusiveness of Central Asian hospitality, so the fact that enthusiasm with which I was invited into homes, English classes, music lessons, birthday parties, ancestral villages and goodness knows what else really took me by surprise is saying a lot. I’ve rarely been in a country where the language barrier was so universal, and not being able to eve begin to read the shop signs and so on was very disconcerting (my proudest achievement in three weeks was learning to distinguish between the men and women’s toilet signs in Farsi) but this was more than compensated for by the determination of complete strangers to make sure I was OK and knew where I was going and what did I think about Iran and did the English people like Iran and did they know that the Iranian people wanted a just peace and also nuclear energy and so forth (on several occasions I had taxi drivers making detours to pick up English speaking friends or relatives so we could discuss these topics more effectively). Hospitable, smart (so many engineers!), erudite (the poetry, you guys), and with a incredible ability to picnic at the drop of a hat (I have come away with a vague impression that all Iranian car boots are equipped with a barbeque and skewers of marinated chicken ready to go at a moment’s notice), Iranians rapidly became some of my favourite people ever.
Travelling alone as a woman in Iran was also surprisingly easy, dress code apart (of which more anon). Solo travel as a woman in Central Asia means accepting a certain level of hassle from pretty much any guy you meet, which by now I’ve got pretty good at ignoring, but the taboo on interacting with unrelated members of the opposite sex in public in Iran meant that this almost completely disappeared (almost. It seems that everywhere in the world there are guys who think that following a woman in a car and persistently offering her a ride is alluring. Hint: it’s not). In private houses there’s no segregation at all, but once I’d got used to being relegated to the back of the bus, the public divide was almost relaxing. The camaraderie in all-female environments was instant and comforting; I felt more at ease here than in most other countries I’ve travelled in, confident that if I got into difficulties there would be an army of helpers at my back, all of whom I could rely on not to ask if I needed company in my hotel room that night.
That said, the legally enforced dress code makes it difficult to forget that you’re in a country where the government, at least, finds your gender strange and somewhat troublesome. Women are required by law to dress modestly: in practice for foreigners and most younger women), this means a long trench coat which reaches to at least mid-thigh, plus headscarf. Opinions seem to vary as to how much hair is acceptable. In most of the city, no one really seemed to mind when my headscarf fell off (as it frequently did) as long as I put it back on again; however, every so often I would be accosted by a woman who would firmly tuck any escaping tendrils of hair back under my scarf. Mashhad is generally a religious, conservative city, and I though saw no burqas at all (unlike Afghanistan, where they were pretty much universal) and very few niqabs; the garment of choice for most of the women in Mashhad was the chador (for a quick pictorial primer on Islamic dress for women, see here). This literally means “tent”, and is basically a large cotton sheet (usually in fashionable black) that you drape around yourself and hold closed with a greater or lesser degree of expertise (guess which category I fell into). This garment rapidly became my nemesis: I never got the hang of even putting it on, and found it impossible to take myself seriously wearing one (a feeling enhanced by the fact that I was invariably wearing somebody’s spare, which was usually in an appalling pink paisley pattern and made me feel like I was wearing a duvet cover). I felt the overall effect was rather like a bad Halloween costume crossed with a toga party gone horribly wrong, and I never required the level of expertise necessary to look remotely dignified when walking in it. My only comfort was that I was not the only one – many other smart young women seemed to be struggling, and some of the more pragmatic had opted for bulldog clips as the preferred method of keeping the damn thing on.
I estimated about 60 – 70% chador coverage in day to day usage, but they were compulsory wear at many religious sites, and above all when visiting Mashhad‘s raison d‘etre, the Haram, or shrine of Imam Reza. The eight Imam of Shia Islam was martyred here during the ninth century, and the shrine surrounding his tomb has grown into an enormous glittering complex of golden domes and minarets and courtyards and fountains and flags and spires that look like a Baghdad from 1001 Nights (although most of it has been built or rebuilt since the Islamic Revolution, and golden minarets sure lose their mystique when you see them in their pre-gilded concrete state) and should really be off shining on a hill somewhere rather than peeking out between gloomy concrete hotel blocks and its very own ring road. It is one of the foremost sites of pilgrimage for Shia Islam, and millions come to visit every year. Visitors of all religions are welcome in the magnificent blue-tiled courtyards and museums full of donations from grateful pilgrims (including a whole floor full of stuffed fish. No, I’m not sure why either) but non-Muslims are not technically supposed to enter the holiest parts of the shrine, surrounding the Imam’s tomb. However, it’s a little difficult not to: even on the occasions when I visited without my friends, I was surrounded by helpful women who assumed that of course I would want to pray there, and firmly pulled inside one carpet-covered entrance.
(A brief aside on this: my feelings about my decision to visit the shrine are decidedly mixed. Almost every foreign tourist who comes to Mashhad ends up visiting, and in general people are pretty relaxed about it; the unspoken rule seems to be that as long as you observe the dress code and behave respectfully, no one will question your presence. Regardless of this, the official rule is no non-Muslims, and I prefer to respect the boundaries people place on their places of worship – I had initially decided not to try to enter the shrine itself. However, when it came to it I was entreated and encouraged by every Iranian that I met to do so, to the point where I felt that refusing would cause more offence, and, let’s be honest, this kind of thing fascinates me and I was really, really curious).
The gilded exterior is fabulous enough, but the interior is astonishing. Just like any medieval cathedral in Europe, religious devotion backed by political might combines to form something magnificent that is designed to awe. Every surface covered by carved or painted or mirrored tiles in an overwhelming riot of colour and opulence and splendour. Pilgrims kiss the golden doors and stream through to the central halls, lit by an eerie green (the colour of Shia Islam) light cast by spiral energy-saving light bulbs set incongruously in vast and intricate chandeliers, illuminating the tomb of the Imam himself which is surrounded by a vast cage of silver and gold. Screens divide the hall in two for men and women, with half the tomb on each side, but from both the susurration of hundreds of people whispering in fierce, intense and earnest prayer, each individual entirely focussed on the tomb and on fighting their way through the throng to touch the gilded cage, push money and gifts through the grille and beg the Imam for his assistance. Despite the number of people, it felt very private, hundreds of personal conversations with the Imam. At the back women sat cross legged reading the Koran and reciting prayers, some weeping, some readjusting their chadors knocked askew during the struggle for the tomb, some retying them to gear up for another attempt. Keeping order were half a dozen stern and severely-dressed young women armed with long-handled green feather dusters to prod individuals who were getting a bit overenthusiastic and clinging to the cage a little too devotedly. One of them eyed me suspiciously, but the presence of my Iranian friends seemed to reassure her, and I hurriedly moved on.
So intense is the atmosphere surrounding the tomb itself that it was a relief to escape downstairs to the family mosque. Brand new and covered with mirrored tiles, yet somehow managing to avoid looking like the interior of a giant disco ball, it’s a place where the sexes can mingle, and was blessedly relaxed; old women in wheelchairs, and small girls tripping over their too-long chadors and whacking their brothers with strings of prayer beads while their parents prayed – this was clearly a family day out. In a way, this was the most interesting part of the shrine, because while I recognised the intense devotion from various religious sites and events I’ve visited in Europe, I’ve never encountered such a relaxed environment at a place of worship back home. Probably it exists in some places, but here it bespeaks a religion that permeates everyday life and society as a whole in a way that Christianity doesn’t quite anymore, at least not so much in Western Europe. I do wonder if it ever used to be like that back home, if the pilgrims at Canterbury used to bring their kids and plonk them down at the back of the shrine in the charge of grandma while they went to pray. This is one of the ways I felt I barely scratched the surface of Iran: in a way it’s a much more liberal country than many in the west give it credit for (or at least, it has an expanding, highly educated middle class which is much more liberal than its government) and the way the majority of people seem to practice religion here is at odds with the strict theocracy that the Ayatollahs would like to believe that they have, or the stereotypical portrayal in so much of the Western media. Ayatollahs or not, people would still come here in vast numbers; the Imam is far bigger than the Revolution. One day I am going to get to Persepolis, but the scenes at the Haram are I think always going to be the most vivid memories I have of Iran. Mainly I feel as though I learned more about what Iran isn’t than about what it is, which makes it even more frustrating I can’t come back. This country has got to me in a way that others haven’t, and it’s going to be lurking at the back of my mind for a long time.