Monday, July 18, 2016

Iran Redux: Learning to write

This week, for the writing workshop, we brought in a picture of ourselves that we liked and in the class we were given twenty minutes to write about our emotions connected with the photo. This is difficult for me to do, always being guarded about disclosing too much personal stuff. Our teacher gave us some excellent advice which I'm trying to apply. Here is a little travel piece about Iran, written with my newly found knowledge. The teacher thought I could make good use of footnotes ala Mary Roach and so I have. The chosen photo is at the end. 

Iran: Visiting the Zoroastrian Fire Temple and Museum in Yazd

Wearing a hajib, or head scarf, was getting old. My head was hot, my scalp itchy and sweat was trickling down my forehead. In Iran, we were either freezing or boiling. Our driver, a university student, had kept the car air-conditioning going full blast for the past hour's ride. Later, we found out it was examination week; he'd pulled an all-nighter and was fighting to stay awake. As auto passengers in Iran for the past week, we saw the worst drivers we've seen anywhere in the world.(1) Had we known, in addition to the everyday road hazards we experienced, that our driver was barely awake, the journey would have been even more terrifying!

My Iranian travel outfit.

The temperature was hovering around 100 F. at 11:00 am. We were standing at the side of the Zoroastrian Fire Temple and museum in Yazd, just east of Shiraz, waiting for Nadia, our guide, to purchase entrance tickets. She was wearing a beautiful green linen "manteau" or coat of mid-thigh length. I was wearing a saffron yellow dress I purchased in the market in Tehran with Nadia's advice. As I'd looked through the clothes, Nadia advised me, rolling her eyes, that it was very important to keep the butt covered according to Islamic law. Although she found the rules tedious and senseless she had to abide by them. She confided to us that she was looking forward to an upcoming vacation in Turkey where she could wear mini-skirts and bare her head for a week. Of course, she still required written permission from her father to leave the country.(2)

Just before exiting the car, she adjusted her hijab carefully so none of her beautiful brown curls could be seen. Our half-conscious driver, young and liberal, hadn't objected to her removing her scarf in the car. At every stop, while we tried to thaw out, he huddled over his maths notes, smoking like a chimney and drinking Bhenoush, non-alcoholic Iranian beer.(3)

Nadia and Richard...oops a curl slipped out. 

Not everyone was so easy on Nadia. In Shiraz, as we were walking through a market, an elderly woman dressed in chador, approached her and spoke to her angrily, shaking her finger in Nadia's face with one hand while holding her black garment together with the other. We were very careful while in the country to avoid any conflict - the woman's anger made me really uncomfortable, after all, Iran had never been on my bucket list. (4) After she left, I asked Nadia what her problem was. Nadia explained the woman was admonishing her for working as a tour guide. "You'll be raped or murdered by a man," she warned. "Be careful," was her last admonition before she scurried away. Nadia had flushed and two spots of color appeared on her cheeks but she remained composed. She explained to me that this kind of confrontation occurred regularly. If she wasn't being cautioned by a conservative woman, then it was the morality police.(5) "What?" I asked. "The morality police?" "Yes," she replied, "My sister was arrested once, but it's more an embarrassing nuisance than a serious problem." Nadia had rescued her sister, bringing her appropriate clothing to wear home from the police station. She brushed the incident off, but it made me squirm, reminding me once more, how difficult life was for women in this part of the world.
Woman chastizing Nadia.

We were ready to get back into the air conditioning by the time Nadia returned with the tickets.

From reading a bit in advance of this visit I'd learned that the Zoroastrian faith is often mistakenly thought to be a religion of fire worshippers.(6) If you wish to know details about the faith you can read about it in an excellent Time Magazine article here .We were surprised at the number of Iranian tourists in the museum but Nadia reminded us that Iranians have few places they can travel to abroad. They're forced to stay home and visit their own museums!

Zoroastrianism claims to be the first religion to be monotheistic. The main tenet of the faith is to do good works. On our way to the museum, we'd stopped at a "Tower of Silence" on the outskirts, where Zoroastrian corpses used to lie buried "open sky"; the bodies were exposed to the natural elements and allowed to decompose. They believe that burying bodies pollutes the earth. Because of health regulations, all of these towers have ceased to be used. The round structure at the top of the photo is where the bodies were laid out - as many as 10,000 corpses decomposed here. It was ungodly hot that day and I stayed down below, panting and sweating, while Richard and Nadia sprinted to the top. I was creeped out a little by the scene and thought I might just do myself in with the climb. The irony would be too much. The last remaining of such burial towers in the world lies in a wealthy Parsi suburb in the outskirts of Mumbai and bodies of dead Zoroastrians world-wide are sometimes shipped to the site for their final rite. 

Towers of Silence.

Non-Zoroastrians are not allowed into the temple proper, but the eternal flame, reputedly burning for 1500 years, is housed in the entrance hall for all to see. As there was a small crowd around it, we chose to wander through the museum first. The explanations were in English - a big bonus - and we learned a lot about the unique religion. Rapidly dwindling, there is estimated to be only about 190,000 Zoroastrians remaining in the world.

 Once we saw a break in the crowd, we moved over to the flame and I got a few shots off before being jostled along by a new group of tourists. I bobbed and weaved in front of the glass separating us from the fire, trying to get rid of the reflections. At the time I thought the photos would be poor, but this one turned out to be one of my favorites of the trip.
Favorite photo of the Iran travel. Subject for my writing workshop. 

Details about the eternal flame.

(1) Iranians are the 4th worst drivers in the world with 38 auto deaths per 100,000 people surpassed only  by Venezuela, Thailand and Dominican Republic. If you want to be really safe on the road, go to Iceland where they have only 2.8 auto deaths per year according to "Driver's Domain UK", February 2015.

(2)Women are banned from leaving the country without first receiving permission from their husbands; single Iranian women (up to age 40) may need their father’s permission to travel abroad. Husbands can ban their wives from leaving the country at any time.

(3)When we were planning our travel to Iran, people asked me if I worried about wearing a head scarf for two weeks. I had to answer honestly that the head scarf didn't bother me as much as the thought of no wine for two weeks!

(4)This was all Richard's idea; despite State department warnings about travel in the area, we were two among the approximately 1000 Americans visiting the country in 2015.

(5)Despite objections from Iran's president, Hassan Rouhani, Tehran's police have announced up to 7,000 undercover officers will be on the lookout for those who don't follow conservative Islamic modes of dress and behavior. They're called the Gashte Ershad, the "guidance patrol," and they have broad powers to chastise and even arrest people for failing to meet what might be called the modesty test. Men are occasionally stopped — perhaps if their beards are too long, making them resemble jihadists — but usually, it's women who attract the attention of the Gashte Ershad. Too much hair peeking out from under a headscarf, removing the scarf altogether in the car, taking a walk with a boyfriend — all kinds of actions can risk a run-in with the morality police (as NPR's Deborah Amos reported in 2014).

(6)Some fun facts: Zoroaster, the priest who founded the religion, is the protagonist of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s classic work, “Thus Spoke Zarathustra.” Freddie Mercury, the flamboyant vocalist of rock group Queen, was and still is the world’s most famous Zoroastrian. 

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