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.