Yazd

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The first time I meet Ali, DJ Ta’aba is blaring from his speakers and a cigarette dangling out the door of his cab. “Hostel?” he says, with a gap-toothed yellow sweet smile. “Yes,” I say, and tell him the name of a hostel whose name I forget now. “Better hostel I show you,” says Ali, “Very good hostel.” It is an unholy hour of the morning, and I am tired out from the journey and a stomach bug I’d caught in a godawful, abortive visit to Shiraz, so I agree promptly.

To Dalan Behesht we drive, with DJ Ta’aba’s dulcet tones booming in our ears and the smell of a Bahman cigarette permeating the morning air.

Dalan Behesht is a great sort of hostel – a large common area surrounded by many small rooms. A breakfast that’s good enough for a hostel – toast and fruit and tea and coffee, and I forget what else. In the evenings, the hostellers and the receptionist, Agha Beyghi, sit and chat about much under the sun, including the political situation in Iran.

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In the midst of the conversation, a topic I am in love with turns up. Beyghi wants to study yoga, he says. Now, I’d only just begun teaching yoga, and I am vastly excited by any opportunity to teach and gather guinea pigs for my teaching experiment, so I readily shared Beyghi’s enthusiasm. So we set up a class, along with C and M, who are from a small town near Marseilles and are in Iran to much parental worry. I tell them, laughingly, of convincing my parents of staying in Istanbul, and calling them from Tehran to let them know of the momentous journey. We find we share strong opinions about the wonderful hospitality, food, culture and the beautiful, diverse landscapes of Iran. Iran isn’t unsafe; Iran isn’t worrisome. As a solo female traveller, I never had a moment of worry, I tell them; I felt perfectly safe even in the company of perfect strangers.

Speaking of strangers. Outside Yazd lies the desert. A vast, dusty, beautiful desert. Hardly barren, and filled, on a Friday afternoon, with revellers galore and endless numbered cars. Ali and I, along with his friends – complete strangers to me who didn’t speak a word of English – take ourselves to the desert for a spot of desert-driving. One of them owns a factory outside of Yazd, and the other, Alireza (every second man in Iran seemed to be called Alireza), is a self-proclaimed cool guy, sunglasses casually hung in the top pocket of his shirt. He is also a champion desert-driver, putting the car through moves I’m certain it’s never seen before, racing across the sands like it was a competition against the mountain of dust we were kicking up.

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But the desert in Yazd is far from barren. Pools of water stretch as far as the eye can see. They froth and foam at the edges, and men swim in it often. “You cannot go far into the desert,” says Ali, “You will get lost and it will get cold at night.” I agreed heartily; I had no intention of being lost in a desert with a sense of direction as crippled as mine. So we walk across the desert, watching families enjoy their day off, and Ali tells me about his family.

“I am from Mashhad,” he says. “I come here 10, 15 years ago. Now I live with Papa.” His father is an invalid, and his sisters are all married. “But I am not married,” he says, with a shy smile. When I probe, he shrugs, which I take to mean that the opportunity never arose. But perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps he chose to stay and care for his Papa. Perhaps the girl he loved married someone else. Perhaps he is happy alone. He certainly seems so. He laughs (he laughs a lot) at my ruminations, shakes his head, and indicates that it is time to head back.

The sun is down and the desert is packed, packed, packed with people and cars by the time we get back. Friday nights are wild desert nights, I find out. There is a huge circle of cars, boombox speakers strapped to their boots. There is Farsi EDM playing that would put DJ Ta’aba to shame. There is a bonfire in the centre, bottles of alcohol strewn around. There are men dancing – no, thrashing about in a weird aggressive drunken dance – all around the bonfire. And there are no women in sight – not a single one. I am fascinated, but Ali thinks the night, with its canopy of stars, is a better time to visit the desert than sundown, so we get into our car with Omid and Alireza, and drive out of the desert leaving dust-whorls in our wake.

Shiraz

Last December, I was a whirlwind dervish, dancing across Iran. As I danced from city to city, sight to sight, many magical things came alive. And I met Zobeydeh at a bus station in Tehran, on her way home to Shiraz. Her genuine smile and kindness caught me immediately. She was on her way home for Yalda, she explained.

Yalda is the festival of the winter solstice. During Yalda, a giant platter of fresh fruit and sweets is prepared; the whole family gets together and reads the poetry of Hafez. Hafez’s poetry is sensuous, spiritual and amorous – he weaves in philosophy into the sensuality of love like a skilled warp-and-weft. Yalda is big in Shiraz; Shiraz is where Hafez lived and flourished and is best remembered with a proprietary sort of pride.

As I whirled from Tehran to Esfahan to Yazd, Hafez’s tomb and Persepolis called me, yearningly, to come visit Shiraz. So I packed my bags and betook my untiring feet to Shiraz, where I would spend a few days with Zobeydeh and her family. When I reached Soltani Veloyat, I was blown away by the kindness, jollity and hospitality Z’s family showed me.

Soltani Veloyat is about 30km from Shiraz, and about 10km from Persepolis, the ruins of the magnificent Achaemenid empire palaces. Finally, I thought, finally I’d get to see the Persepolis, and go teary-eyed at Hafez’s eternal presence. I’d start out from Soltani Veloyat with Zobeydeh. The village is about 10-12 houses, many of whom are Zobeydeh’s brothers, uncles, sisters, their spouses, their kids. It’s a large, merry mix of a family, at the top of which rules an 87 year old father.

Zobeydeh’s father, a happy, funny, endlessly kind, occasionally grouchy man, tried to marry me off to one of his grandsons within five minutes of our meeting; he just couldn’t understand why I was still unmarried and thought to rectify the situation promptly. Nothing in life is worth worrying about, he told me, with a flick of his wrist and an infectious, cheeky smile. When the biscuit factory he was working in closed down, he came home, and took care of the house and the land surrounding it. His wife, a tiny sweet caring thing of 62, makes excellent food, always with a sweet smile.

Most of the family came for dinner the first night I was there, and I was bombarded with so many questions. Are Indians rich or poor? How much money did it take you to travel to Iran? Why are you travelling alone? Why aren’t you married? Do you do namaz? Do you wear a headscarf? Do you worship cows? Don’t you think there is only one God (when I told them a little bit about Hinduism)? Is there Allah in Hinduism? Do you like Imam Khomeini? Do you like Ahmadinejad? How can you not eat any meat? How do you get your protein (and “No wonder you are so thin!”)?

I saw and heard so many things that day that if I record them all, I’ll sound like a Kerouac story.  The next day, tired out from the long dinner and yet brimming with energy, Zobeydeh, Mehdi and I set out to see Persepolis. They’d been there countless times, but came with me anyway. And this proved a blessing for me – for Zobeydeh, with her masters in tourism studies, took me all around the Persepolis complex and told me stories, pointed out little hidden details, that let me learn more about Persepolis than I’d have done on my own. Mehdi, too, added stories he’d read and heard, and we made such a lovely trip of it!

Hafez’s tomb and garden was another tear-inducing trip. The garden itself is public, like the Lodhi Gardens in Delhi. People old and young come for a walk, to read, to sketch, to talk poetry and language and philosophy. Oranges galore grow on the trees there; I was sorely tempted to steal an orange – or a kilo! And there, in the centre of the garden, stays Hafez entombed. People come on pilgrimages, to pay their respects, to lay their hands on his marble tomb and whisper the words from their favourite poem. I wanted to, too, but the words just sounded so much more entrancing in Farsi, when Fatima, Zobeydeh’s sister, read them out at a lunch we all shared.

I have many memories of Iran, but Shiraz and Soltani Veloyat have remained with me, vivid and bright, while the details of many others have dimmed and become blurred around the edges. I think that’s because I got to spend time with genuine people, who found it easy to be loving, friendly and hospitable. I hope that when I go back to Iran, I will spend more time in Shiraz and with Zobeydeh.

 

Istanbul

 

Istanbul is my favouritest of all cities. I want to see the changing of all seasons here.

And I want to write you a rambling love letter about Istanbul. If you look too closely, insistently, for reality in this letter, you will not find it. Its reality, and Istanbul’s and mine, are interwoven with goblins and threads of memory and fancy, and this letter has golden threads running through it. Ask Borges. He’ll tell you. All reality is tinged with imagination.

Now, that’s a long introduction.

There was this big, fat brown cat sauntering across from Mavi today. I’d holed up in the room for a while, reading my tarot cards for some guidance and comfort through a (small but significant) uncertainty. Then I saw the cat, and all was forgotten for a moment. He waddled across, sat looking up for a moment, and thoughtfully scratched his chin.

“No,” he thought, “It smells like eggplant in there.” And he wandered away. Gravel got inside his paws, and he didn’t bother to shake them as he walked toward the sea. The gravel, they felt cushioned, protected by the furry paws; they rolled off when he took a flying leap over the traffic, and felt wind against them. Wind flying east, joyously, and seagulls flying with them.

Flying? Oh, no. Slipstream buffet, more like. Two valiant sweeps of the wings of this one seagull our cat was watching, and one whoooosh! back, because the wind’s too strong.

“She’s trying so hard,” thought our cat contemptuously, with a swish of his tail. “Fuck you,” thought the seagull. You might think she was replying to the cat, but she was really cursing the wind for fucking up her flight record. It’s not easy being the fastest slipstream seagull in the bay. “The record’s mineminemine!”

As though the wind cared. She blew, blew like a confident whistle; blew east, east, east; east into the meydani where the last rays of the sun touched the Ayasofya, slipping past the tomb of Ahmed III. She blew east, carrying the spicy, niggling aromas of Nihat’s aubergines and pilav. She blew the delish smells straight into my nose, whereat I gathered my steps and betook them quickly, ravenously, across the square and into Mavi’s kitchen.

Perhaps, I thought, perhaps I’ll stay here a while, share my time with others I’ve come to know by sight and smile and the occasional word. Perhaps I’ll put the uncertainty off for another day, and for now, tuck into the ambrosia Nihat’s made for us.