Month: December 2014

Iran: The Shi’a

…I arrived in Iran at the end of Arba’een, the 40 days of mourning for the martyrdom of Imam Hussain. They say that a single tear shed for Hussain washes away a hundred sins, which by my reckoning means that lots of people I saw have enough sin credit stored up for a month long bender. Black flags line the streets, it seems, every street. I apprehensively look out for a different kind of black flag in Saudi Arabia. The minute I see one is the minute I leave. So I had to initially remind myself that these aren’t the same black flags flying over the border in Iraq. The complete opposite in fact. It reminded me once again that even though I’ve been in an Islamic country for almost two years, my ignorance of “Islam” still gets me when I see stereotypical signs of what I think is violence and evil. The media even affects those who try to not let it affect them…

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…In the Shah Cheragh Shrine in Shiraz, with its spectacular glass decorations, men sit praying, crying and beating their chests. There was a certain performance element to it all. I wasn’t quite sure what they were doing at first. I can’t honestly say I was convinced anyone was genuinely crying, but they were certainly doing their best to squeeze a tear or two out. A man came and sat next to me and thought it was ok to ask questions about me, but be offended when I asked one about him. It turns out he’d lived in Jeddah for a while, and was just wondering what I thought of Iran before I came. He answered his question for me before I could get a breath out. “Negative no doubt. The West likes to spread negative propaganda about us.” I bit my tongue at his generalisation of The West, because he was probably right this time…

…In the street, lots of women wear the hijab and mantow (a covering/dress that should come down to the knee, and worn on top of trousers), and depending on the town there were also lots of women wearing the chouder (a full body covering leaving the face exposed but nothing else). In Tehran, the hijabs were falling off the backs of girls’ heads, and the mantows were riding up their legs as high as they thought they could get away with whilst wearing skinny trousers underneath. Even Jeddah looks very conservatively dressed compared to Tehran. I had culture shock upon seeing women. Again…

…In Naqshe Jahan Square in Isfahan I took a peek at Friday prayers. I was searched going in and told not to take any pictures. The back pocket came in handy and I was able to sneak a couple of pictures in none the less. Religious group mentality can be very eerie. Talking/praying/shouting in unison seems to give off a cult-ish/hypnotic effect. The man was talking about their dislike of the Gulf States and the Western nations for exploiting their oil. The hundreds of men sat down in lines in the second largest square in the world all obligingly chanted, “Death to Israel! Death to America!” They stood up to pray in the Shi’a style, with their hands up and their muhr (a small stone) on the ground to place their heads (and sometimes noses too) on when they prostrated themselves. I later stole one from the Grand Mosque. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a little unnerving. I find things like this interesting, especially politically, but I couldn’t help but feel like the blond white guy standing up next to them, watching them all pray whilst I took sneaky photos when the police weren’t looking, hoping that a “Death to Inglistan!” chant didn’t take off. I’d have said I was German if they’d asked. We all the look the same anyway…

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…Everything closes early in Iran, starting from about 10.30pm. The police kindly help you out if you forget. There isn’t a curfew, but it naturally clears the streets since there’s nothing to do when everything’s shut…

…I spoke to a Mullah in Isfahan who approached me to ask him questions, not the other way around. I wasn’t particularly interested. He said people usually ask about hijabs and terrorism, which I thought quite bold of other tourists. I don’t care to think about those things these days, so opted for the politically safe, “I live in Saudi Arabia, so why are you different from them? Why do you have 12 Imams? I live near Ismaelis who believe in 7 Imams, what’s that all about?” He politely informed me of some basic distinctions that I wasn’t particularly listening to. I was just looking at his turban and confused why his English was so good. Am I racist for calling it a turban? It looks like a turban, but I’ve probably annoyed someone somewhere. There was a moment of agreement when he accused the US of hypocrisy when they accuse Iran of human rights violations, until we realised after that he might have been implying Iran doesn’t have any. Clever how he skewed the conversation from Saudi Ismaelis following 7 Imams into a slur against America’s human rights record…

…In Kashan, a very religious town, we arrived the evening of the anniversary of the Prophet’s death. Well, I thought it was Mohammad’s death, but it was to be the anniversary of Imam Reza’s death two days after, and it seemed they were rolling it into one, with lots of Hassans and Hussains thrown into their lamentations. Men and boys had mud on their clothes to show their state of mourning, green lights dimly lit up the alley we stopped at to watch two lines of men facing each other listen to a preacher tearfully remember the Prophet (and Reza, and Hussain, and Hassan…). In time, with well practiced swings, they beat their chests in unison at the required moments. Shoulders hiccoughing up and down, faces scrunched up waiting for tears to start falling. I still didn’t see any, and their wails didn’t convince me. I can’t help but think this has become a trait for the Shi’a, a ritual that they just do even if they’re not really sad. I felt uncomfortable standing near the middle, as I think anyone would who’s not taking part in a ceremony. I edged in a bit after a few minutes when I realised I could get a better picture that way…

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…I thought I’d hear more about how Shi’a are better than Sunni, but I didn’t. Maybe I spoke to the wrong people. The dislike of Arabs seems to be historical and political rather than doctrinal. They tell me in Saudi Arabia that Shi’a aren’t Muslims, and interestingly I now understand that a growing number of Iranians agree, and see Shi’a Islam as a blend of Persian and Islamic culture brought about partly due to rebellion against the Arab Invasion…

…I didn’t see as much of Islam in Iran as I do in Saudi Arabia, so it’s hard to compare. But it’s very plain to see that Islam in the Gulf is far simpler. Shi’a traditions made me think of all the superstitions some Catholics around the world have brought into their religion, to incorporate older traditions with the invading Christianity…

…But anyway, I didn’t convert…

Impressions of Iran

Every time I leave Saudi Arabia, it takes me a few days to adjust, no matter where I might be. Small things interest me, normal things that I’ve gotten used to not seeing. More detailed things are to follow, but for now, here are a few initial thoughts:

Iran is clean (I couldn’t help but think “Japan-like”), the women are stunning and try their best to push the limits of the law with regards to dress, there are lots of Peugeot 206s on the roads, they have trees and fallen autumnal leaves that you can kick like a kid.

I attended a ‘couchsurfing’ discussion entitled ‘Power’. Men and women mixed in a cafe openly discussing anything around that topic that took their fancy. It seemed that people were interested in open debate and nothing seemed to be taboo. There was a little debate about how normal this was when I asked. The conclusion seemed to be perhaps a little unusual for Shiraz where we were, but not Tehran where we were heading. They seemed interested in Scotland and its vote against independence. I confess, that was how I introduced myself. It’s not a lie anyway, and a “Mexican” was also there. A blatant American.

A man in a hotel asked me why I was standing next to the heater because I should be used to the cold in my country. I told him I lived in “Arabistan” in the desert and his reply was priceless. “What…with…the Arabs?” Incidentally, “-istan” is Persian, and shows the influence Persia had on the wider region. It just means “the land of”. Afghanistan is therefore the land of the Afghan people, Turkmenistan the land of the Turks etc. We’ll just leave Pakistan I think.

Zoroastrian symbols are visible in every town I went to. I was a bit ignorant about this before I went, I didn’t realise it was legal to still be a Zoroastrian in Iran. It seems that people who display the symbols mostly aren’t, but it’s a sign they are proud of their heritage and culture, and is a legal two fingers to the current regime. The visibility of the symbols implies there are a lot of people waving a lot of fingers in rage against the machine.

Iranians are smart, even the men selling things in the bazaars and street stalls were generally well-presented. They are “civilised,” which isn’t a pleasant word as it implies others aren’t. However, it was the word that sprang to mind looking around. They have culture, education and a sense of decency that other places don’t. It really makes you wonder why on earth we’d villainise a people when they’re clearly the same as us in many respects. It became more and more apparent that the actions of the powers that be (mainly the former power that was) did a lot of damage to their image, and Iranians feel it, and are uneasy with it. I would be horrified if a section of the globe tarred me with the same negative brush as western political leaders, past or present.

I often wonder about those first few days out of Saudi Arabia, as I never know if it’s culture shock of entering normality again, or culture shock of the new place I’ve arrived in. I saw a lot of history, and I’m not going to repeat it on here, look it up yourself – it’s ancient, rich and fascinating. As the dust’s begun to settle a bit, and now that I’m back home, I’ve decided to comment on a further three things: The Shiite Islam (double i^^) I saw, the Armenian Orthodox man I met and Iran’s subversive cultural revolution I witnessed…

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