December 17, 2009 GMT
Iran - Tabriz

First things first. Here is the complete Turkey itinerary:


Now onto Iran... where to start! (I am writing/revising this more than a month after entering the country, for reasons that should become apparent soon)

The country is vast. Three times the size of France I hear. The political system is a theocracy, which basically means that Islamic rules/theories govern how everything works. The immediately noticeable change from Turkey is that all women here cover their head with a scarf - the more traditional ones cover themselves completely in plain black fabrics that make them look, as an Iranian friend suggested, like penguins. The theory here is that to guarantee decency you have to completely hide any feature of your body that can evoke sexual desire. The body's figure, hair and even the face itself (lips etc) are covered. This is the most extreme case and is referred to as the "chador" - literally, a tent.

The (luckily) by far more usual case is women that dress in jeans, have a black top that covers their behind (like a small skirt over the trousers) and a nice colourful scarf casually thrown around the head, usually covering only the half of the hair. This is the I-am-only-doing-what-you-force-me-to statement that most women choose to make, and it's not awkward in any sense.

There are a lot of shades of grey between these two extremes. Some women do not allow a man to touch them, so extending your hand for the handshake that is so typical among men evokes an uncomfortable "sorry, I can't". Others do not allow a man (outside the family) to see their hair at all. I've had this experience when I was being hosted by a lovely, very polite and considerate family in Esfahan: One day, after knocking at the door and saying "hello, it's me", I just opened and walked in, only to notice two of the women fleeing the room to go put on their scarfs. Ever since I am extra careful about giving people enough notice, since I do not intend to insult anyone's personal choice.

Shades of grey are also mixed, so in the same family it is very usual to have women who choose to be more traditional and always cover up in the presence of a stranger, while others will always take off their scarf as soon as they're home and will have no problem interacting with you (a stranger) completely uncovered and in very casual and completely western-style clothing.

Men dress very regularly for european standards, albeit sometimes in a flashy manner (e.g. shiny business suits) that would be perceived as "too much" in Europe.

Other than clothing, social segregation is also quite visible to the foreigner. I was invited to a post-wedding dinner (I wouldn't call it a "reception" - it was just a dinner, in, food, out), where the "salon" used to host the dinner had a big curtain-like parapet that divided the space in two - women were on the left, men on the right. It was amusing to be on the male side and listen to the mayhem going on on the women's side (dancing/singing apparently), while all the men around me were just picking on their food and wishing for a swift end to a boring dinner. Funny that men should create such rules (as religion is of course completely dominated by men) and then suffer from them. A strange sense of justice. Of course while trying to find the bathroom I was faced with a door and a curtain, I took the curtain, and realised that about 100 pairs of eyes instantly were on me, as I had stepped into the women's part of the salon... I quickly retreated, opened the door and jumped in the bathroom, hoping that my sins would be excused for being a foreigner. And indeed they were.

In public transportation the same story goes on: women at the back of the bus, men in the front. Reminds me of Rosa Parks and the idiocy she had to deal with for her entire life, until one day she said "you know what? I'm not taking this crap any longer", which kickstarted the American civil rights movement against institutionalised racism and pretty much changed the world for the better. So I was particularly proud when a young girl I met in Esfahan had the courage to very naturally sit beside me on the bus, after I asked her why she was standing there. It's a simple action for most of us, but against the rules of this totalitarian state. It takes brave people to stand up to the idiocy of such archaic rules and I feel privileged to have met a number of them.

The Iranians are fantastic people. Helpful to a fault, cultured and never giving up the fight. I met poets, musicians, sculptors, authors, nature lovers, people who enjoyed singing traditional songs on top of 3000m mountain peaks, people who would break into an amazingly skillful dance given the support of only a voice and a tambourine, people who would bring entire bookcases down to find a dictionary so that they could continue that chat on philosophy/religion/society/family affairs/spirituality that was treading a slow but fascinating path with the help of phrasebooks, sign language, all the foreign languages everybody knew on the table, English learning books and dictionaries...

People who have not lost the will to live - quite the contrary, people here oppose oppression by building strong friendships, keeping the family strong as a support network, having plenty of interests, hobbies, activities, associations, clubs, traditions, being very interested in meeting new people and foreigners and talking about everything with them. I've met very little superstition against me, even from people who got to meet me without choosing to (e.g. relatives of people who chose to host me).

Iran gave me the impression that one can be very easily accused of doing something wrong and getting jailed for it. So, to protect the innocent and just have a clear conscience, I will not show pictures of any of the people I got to know in Iran. It was a tough decision, as I feel very close to some of them, and some of the pictures capture very warm feelings and memories, but I think I'll sleep better at night knowing that I'm not exposing them to any danger, as I consider myself already blacklisted in Iran (again, read on for my reasons to believe this).

A note on religion in Iran: Interestingly there are less and more discreet calls to prayers compared to the muezins of Turkey, who broadcast their chanting prayers at such a volume that I almost fell off the bike close to Van when I happened to be riding past a mosque the second the prayer started. Having said that, government buildings in major cities are littered with verses from the Quran with English translations attached to them, which sometimes make for awe-inspiring doublespeak It's funny (if you're a cynic) or sad depending on which side of the fence you're at. If I was an Iranian I think I would find it very sad.

As the story unwinds I will post pictures of such propaganda Quran signs.

The funny part here is that most people in Europe think that Iran is a nation of religious extremists. This couldn't be further from the truth. The overwhelming majority of people is secular to the bone and couldn't care less about a religion that has been twisted into an excuse for a totalitarian state. The ideals of the Muslim religion are so removed from the reality of how this theocracy operates that people are just fed up with it all.

There are those who say this is ok - there are those who say having censored TV/radio/Internet/newspapers is alright, since we can always get (illegal) satellite TV/radio and always find a way around Internet restrictions. They portray the existing situation as a mere nuisance on paper and not a veil of real restrictions, but I am not convinced. It's all fine and well that satellite dishes are everywhere, completely obvious to anyone, and the government is doing little to tear them down, but the filtering/censorship veil is everywhere. It stops people from publishing their work. It stops people having concerts that are not approved by the government. Did you know that it's forbidden to show musical instruments in Iranian television? Yep, they've been judged too un-religious to be shown to the public...

But enough with the treatise on Iran. The trip has evolved as follows: After entering from Bazargan (Turkish border) I headed south to Tabriz. After spending the first night in a hotel, receiving my initial shock at the friendliness of people and rummaging around Tabriz's vibrant bazaar, I spent most of the next day marveling at the Orumieh/Urmia salt lake:


The plays of the water with the salt and the sky were beautiful:


Salt formations on rocks around the lake's bank:


In Tabriz I spent one week... finding a home away from home, spending time with an amazing family of really special people. We saw Tabriz together, went mountain biking, for walks in the park, rummaged through their bilingual library, had long chats about everything and anything, climbed mountains together...

Exhibits from the Azerbaijan Museum of Tabriz:
The superman of peace: (he looks rather defeated)

Human misery:

The cycle of life:

Creation of a sculptor friend of a friend, in Tabriz... I have never met so down-to-earth, sensitive people who are true creative artists:

All that hanging around in the house (where no shoes are used) is taking the toll on my socks:

Monument to the fallen of the Iran-Iraq war on a hilltop just out of the city. Beautifully illuminated.


Two girls on the hike on Micho, about an hour's drive north of Tabriz:


A mountaineer enjoying the view from the peak, at 2800m:

Grass on Micho:


Yours truly during a lunch break on the mountain. I am happier than I look.

It was very difficult to leave Tabriz, and the (very real) prospect of never seeing my family again made me cry my eyes out like a complete fool. Bizarre, considering we had known each other only for one week... but I had to move on so after greeting everyone and having a last supper and last breakfast together, I took the road via Ardabil to the Caspian Sea.

Posted by Alexandros Papadopoulos at December 17, 2009 03:55 PM GMT

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