Author: Roshan Firouz
[The views expressed in this blog post are the author’s own.]
It is March in Dublin and my daughter Touran is trying to explain the concept of jumping over fires to Irish friends. Although the Irish celebrate the equinox’s and solstice’s, as Iran does, the idea of Charshanbeh Souri, “Scarlet Wednesday”, is proving difficult for them to understand. “It is a purification practice” I say, trying to help. This Iranian festival, with origins in ancient Iranian rituals, is celebrated on the eve of the last Wednesday before the New Year, on 21 March. “Do you actually jump over those seven huge fires?” asks Alice, her piercing blue eyes wide open with amazement. And this was the spark that ignited the idea which ended up with us going to Iran for the summer holidays with Alice, from Co. Waterford and Tyrone, from Co. Tipperary.
We arrived at the family farm in Kordan, in the foothills of the Alborz mountains at 6 am, on a golden fortuitous day in mid June – it had actually rained the night before, a welcome relief from southerly winds which had scorched the leaves off trees. The smell of damp earth permeated the countryside and the air was fresh and clean. Our homestead was a very earthy affair: adobe house, adobe stables, horses, chickens, pigeons, sheep and dogs, all in profusion. The house was hidden amongst the huge walnut trees on one side and the pear orchard on the other. Irrigation for the garden came up from a 70 metre well with the reservoir doubling as an icy pool. Long fronds of green algae grew abundantly in this pure, fresh water, waving and swirling in harmony with the swimmers. Two huge weeping willows flanked the path to the south, their branches swaying and dancing along the surface of the water. A pair of kingfishers had decided that there was food to be had in this pond and hovered on the trellis nearby. A dart of iridescent blue sent ripples across the pond and a disappointed but undaunted bird would return to the trellis.
We slept on the roof of the house, under a sky full of stars. The mares and foals were put out to graze in the paddock at night when it was cool. Later, at about midnight, the full moon appeared, turning the two grey mares a shimmering opalescent white, like unicorns. The soft melody of the wind whispering through the tall poplars would finally lull us all to sleep despite calls from the local jackals. Early in the morning, a pair of Eurasian Golden Orioles, nesting in the trunk of a nearby tree started their raucous calls, flashes of bright yellow flitting through the foliage. There was no lying in, but downstairs the samovar was on the boil and endless cups of tea, home produced eggs, fresh bread from the village baker and our own walnuts, all eaten outside next to the pond, made for the perfect breakfast.
Despite it being mid summer, Touran’s friends wanted to go south to see the desert as well as the cities of Esfahan, Shiraz and Yazd. We set off early one morning in a rented car and headed south, into the sweltering central climes. Traveling along the arid areas at the edge of the northern desert, the sun beat down on the the roof of the car, no mercy. The surrounding landscape was Martian in appearance, with mountains rising above the surrounding plains, rusty coloured boulders littering the inclines, individual hills and bluffs jutting out from the flatland in a bid to catch the eye, all dotted with jagged black rocks. Heatwaves shimmered up into the atmosphere giving the panorama a floaty feeling. Milo threatened to be sick and insisted that only Fanta could cure him. I imagined the fluorescent orange of this revolting drink that passes for a soft drink in Iran and hoped that he might forget about it. But I promised to buy him the vile brew as soon as we found a roadside shop, knowing full well that nobody in their right mind would be out in the midday sun (other than mad dogs and Englishmen).
Weaving through the narrow alleys of the old city of Esfahan, with only a vague idea of where to find the house of my friend and host, a timely message arrived telling us that if we passed the bicycle repair shop, we had gone too far. One of those frustrating Iranian indications which registers only when it is too late – “You missed it Mum” – tense moments as we navigated the medieval maze of winding lanes connected to the Bazar area. Another message, “just saw you driving past our door”… Three lefts and we got it right, but mostly because my friend was standing in the middle of the lane, arms raised. It was only when we got out of the car that we realised that his house formed the third angle of a triangle between two of the most stunning monuments of Esfahan, the entrance to the Grand Bazar and the Sheikh Lotfollah mosque, location spot on.
Esfahan was the capital of Iran under the Safavid dynasty, between 1598 and 1736. The Grand Bazar of Esfahan is a massive vaulted historic market that surrounds the enormous central square of the old city. The square was once a polo ground, laid out for the pleasure of royalty viewing from the terrace of the 17th century Aki Qapu palace on the west side of the square. Still standing are the original goal posts, a conclusive reply to any who question the fact that polo originated in Iran (my Indian friends will be seething). Nowadays, the only horses on the square draw carriages, offering sightseeing tours of the old city, their hooves covered in a layer of rubber from old tires, to stop the noise. “looks like they are floating on air, or swimming” Milo mused.
Our aim on this first evening was to find the Ghalamkar (block print) cloth sellers. We walked along the western end of the medieval vaulted Grand Bazar before choosing a nice shop nestled amongst the arches, offering an assorted and eye catching selection. The owner was one Mohammad, a charming young Esfahani with a winning smile. Having sat us on stools, and served us strong tea sweetened with saffron infused sugar crystals, Mohammad was happy to bring out his entire stock of textiles for us to see, all the time practicing his very rudimentary English as he unfolded and refolded. Momentarily baffled by the Irish accent, he quickly rallied and by the time we were on our third cup of tea he was mimicking Tyrone with the quintessentially Irish “you’re grand” and “what’s the craic”. He could not wrap his mouth around “sleeveen” but his attempts had us all laughing. Tyrone explained that this meant a sly, smooth tongued person and the irony of the situation hit me, the link between the Irish and the Iranians. Mohammad was overjoyed, “in Farsi we say zerang or pedarsookhteh“.
Mohammad insisted on taking us to dinner, to a new restaurant that had recently opened on the top level of the bazar, looking directly at the dome of the magnificent Sheikh Lotfollah mosque. We arrived to find a cosy and very atmospheric space, the perfect setting for first time visitors to Iran. Have you ever tried explaining to a non Iranian the concept that platters should literally overflow with food, that there should be an impression of abundance, generosity and plenty. In this case, salvation came when the set menu was laid out before us – the perfect example of Persian cuisine in its fullest and most replenishing.
I noticed that our young host had been gazing at the lovely Alice, with her black hair, striking blue eyes and fair skin. He finally got around to suggesting, in wonderfully broken English, that she might like to marry him. I smiled at the surprised looks on all the younger generation’s faces – Alice was speechless, Tyrone was amused and Milo, my youngest, put his arms up and applauded. Although Mohammad did not succeed on this occasion, Milo refused to let Alice forget the offer: “You’ll regret it, he was a great catch – and think of all the free bedspreads”
I was born in Shiraz and am always happy to be going back. The Nemazee hospital, where I was born, was built by my great uncle and my father was the chief engineer. The hospital it is still there, and like it or not, I was taking everyone to see it. I was also secretly hoping to find a particular old acquaintance, an echo firmly lodged in my memory, but which could have been a childhood fantasy. Within sight of the hospital, I could hardly believe it, there it was, the life size statue of a lion, standing tall and rampant, just like the picture in my mind. I remembered so well climbing on the lion as a child, dragging my little sister up with me. The shock was to see that the lion is now in a cage. Given that lions represent spirit, ferocity and justice, and the lioness represents sisterhood and prowess, it was clear why this lion had to be caged in modern day Iran. Another memory crept into my mind: my parents reminiscing about camping trips in the Dasht-e-Arjan, the plains of the lions in ancient Persian, located an hours drive south of Shiraz. Could it be possible that there had once been lions roaming wild in Iran? Of course it was possible: Panthera leo persica , the Asiatic lion, native to the Iranian plateau as well as west into Turkey and Mesopotamia, east into India. Ancient cylinder seals and friezes show the royal lion hunt, most famous of all being the Seal of Darius the Great (500 BC). Remarkably, the Asiatic lion was to be seen in Iran up until the late 19th century. Is it not tantalising and heartbreaking at the same time, to think that this amazing creature was wiped out so recently.
Against all odds, and with the help of a friend, we managed to find the house where my parents lived from 1956. At the time it was miles out of town in open countryside, but it is now well within the city of Shiraz. The property had been acquired by the military and had become a swimming club. At the edge of the big pool, the original weeping willows still stood, bringing memories flooding back. I bored the kids with anecdotes until Milo told me I was being tedious. “Mum, that is not the ancient history I was here for”.
One cannot go to Shiraz, city of poetry and roses, without visiting the tomb of the fourteenth century poet Hafez, regarded by most Iranians as the greatest of mystical poets, the very interpretation of life, love, of anguish and of insight. When the going is difficult, unexplainable, Iranians turn to Hafez for comfort and for understanding – a divination. His themes cover divine love, the beloved, faith, ecstasy and freedom from restraint.
The present tomb of Hafez was built in the 1930’s, on top of the original tomb, in the Musalla Gardens in Shiraz. It is just a little bit gaudy, and I think Hafez would laugh to see the trinkets and baubles that are peddled in his name on the site today. Pilgrims, like ourselves, and fortune tellers, rely on trained budgies/lovebirds to choose a snippet of a poem from a sheaf of papers, one version of the fal-e-Hafez (augury of Hafez). We accepted our enigmatic fortunes with bemusement, and forgot about them within minutes – the thrill of seeing the little green avian decide our fate was what amused us most.
We decided on a celebratory dinner – Mum getting in touch with her roots – and found a traditional restaurant, with a lovely mellow atmosphere (and air conditioning). Iranian food always makes an impression, and despite the lack of wine, which would have complimented the food beautifully, we were a jolly group. As we waited for the dessert to arrive, an elderly gentleman approached our table and greeted me quite formally. I responded with the rather drawn out traditional address. When the gentleman had prolonged the taarof as long as he could, he rather nervously got to his point. Pointing towards a young man sitting alone at a table across the small restaurant, he informed me that it was his son, who had a PhD in nuclear physics, had a good job and was a very well brought up young man. I complimented him on his good fortune, acknowledging that this was a blessing. This brought us to the crux of the matter: his son’s eyes had fallen on Touran, my daughter, and he had told his father that he had seen the woman he wanted to marry. Further compliments on Touran’s beautiful blond hair and blue eyes followed, how she looked like a very cultivated and educated young lady, how she would not regret marrying his son ….. I felt very bad interrupting the gentleman, having to tell him that Tyrone was, in fact, my daughter’s fiancé. His face fell, he threw a sad look towards his son and forced himself to complement me on my choice of future son-in-law. He left to join his son, both of them looking forlorn and defeated.
We drove on towards Yazd in 50 degree heat. The car’s air-conditioning died after an hour and we resorted to pouring water over each other. This proved to be a very short lived reprieve as our wet clothes dried within minutes in the intense furnace-like heat, not one iota of humidity in the air. The surrounding countryside glimmered with heatwaves, distant features swaying in the baking sun like belly dancers.
Our objective was Chak Chak, the most sacred of the mountain shrines of Iran’s ancient Zoroastrian religion. Pilgrims flock to this fire temple every year, the tradition being that they must walk from the moment they catch sight of the temple – by my calculations, that would be at least ten kilometres – I felt a moment of a gratitude for our car, despite its defective air-conditioning. Belief has it that the shrine of Chak Chak is where the daughter of the Sassanian King Yazdegerd III was trapped by an invading Arab army in 640 AD. In response to her prayers for protection, the highest deity and creator of Zoroastrianism, Ahura Mazda, opened the mountain and sheltered her from the invaders. Inside the cave, there is an ever dripping spring (Chak Chak is the sound of the dripping water). We peered into the cave before entering, not sure what to expect. Eternally burning fires had darkened the walls of the cave and the shrouded interior of the sanctuary carried the heavy feeling of history, of tens of thousands of prayers and pleas.
In nearby Yazd, we took the lazy approach – aimless wandering is the only way to appreciate this ancient city. Wedged between Iran’s two enormous deserts, Yazd is a proper desert city. This “City of Wind Catchers” is named after the tall structures designed to catch the breeze and usher it down and into the living areas of houses. “Wish the breezes were channeled down the roads too” commented Alice, whose fair skin was turning a bright pink. We ambled around the streets in 48 degree heat, admiring fire temples, ingenious cisterns and underground water channels. Towards late afternoon, feeling thoroughly defeated by the relentless heat, all brave faces were abandoned. “Hey! What about my Fanta”, Milo had his eyes pinned on a kiosque selling the foul concoctions. At this point, we all had not only Fanta but also some wonderfully sweet local ice creams – chemical dyes and sugar had never been so welcome nor tasted so good.
Back in Kordan, with the temperature a cool 38, we lazed around the pond until Tyrone was summoned to help with a particularly untameable horse. Word had gotten out that he was a good horseman, and the Afghans had had their share of kicks and bites and falls. Tyrone was thrown up onto the horse which immediately took off at a mad gallop across the field. Horrified at the thought that I would be delivering a bruised and beaten boy back to his family, I stared as the horse swerved around and bolted back at us, putting on the breaks about three metres from the fence. Tyrone came flying off and hit the wooden boards with a sickening sound. Two days later, I drove a bruised and beaten young man to the train station in Dublin and waited for the inevitable phone call from his Mum……