Saturday, May 5, 2007

Day One: Museums in Tehran

I was thrilled to discover that Iranian breakfast is the same as (or at least incorporates some of the same elements as) Turkish breakfast: cucumbers, tomatoes, a delicious feta that's milder than what we have in the U.S., bread (flat), and hard-boiled eggs. Miscellaneous meats and sweets were also available.

Day 1 BreakfastI'm not sure quite what I had imagined our guide, Bahman, would be like, but I wasn't expecting him to be as suave and cosmopolitan as he is. I was continuously impressed with the way he navigated potential difficulties and managed to keep our motley and disorganized group together and mostly on schedule. One of the reasons I'm not changing his name in this blog is because if you go to Iran, you should call him! He's amazing.

Anyway, here you see us having our first experience of our fearless leader, as he tries to prep our bleary, jet-lagged selves for the day's activities.

In the morning we visited three museums: the National Museum of Iran, with archeological treasures; the glassware museum, showcasing ancient & modern masterpieces, and the carpet museum.

In the archeological museum, groups of schoolchildren hesitantly approached us, with much giggling. Some girls asked me, through a translator, why I was wearing the al-amira hijab—was I a Muslim? I replied that I was not. What religion was I? they then asked. I hedged, but they insisted, so I said "Christian."

They were satisfied and wandered off, but then a man hurried up to me and asked (with somewhat unsettling eagerness), "You're Christian? Are you Lebanese? Syrian?"

Something about his intensity was a bit worrisome, but before I could decide whether he was going to be a real problem, something happened that would happen several times during the trip, on the few occasions when an awkward exchange seemed imminent: another man came up and pulled the first man away, muttering an admonition whose words I didn't catch but whose tone was something like, "come on, dude, leave her alone."

This was only the first of many times I would be asked about my religion because of the al-amira; I learned to say, "No, I'm just too lazy to make the scarf look nice." Women understood that easily.

So, anyway, onward, to the glass and carpet museums:

Next was lunch at a traditional restaurant.

As we entered, we were invited to scoop small seeds onto a brazier of smoking coals (see photo at right), a traditional ritual to ward off the evil eye (the seeds bursting in the heat correspond to the destruction of the evil eye).

I've traveled in several places where charms against "the evil eye" were ubiquitous, but I've never been quite sure what "the evil eye" is... Here is what Wikipedia has to say about this ritual, and the evil eye in general, and here is some more specific information about the ritual. (At left: fellow diners in the restaurant)

But I digress.

The best part of lunch was the appetizer: delicious herbs (sabzi, literally "greens") rolled in bread and dipped in yogurt. My traveling companions identified dill, parsley, coriander, mint, basil, and green onions. Soooo delicious! The main course was a selection of kebabs, a staple in Iran.

After lunch, the women went shopping for "manteaux." Manteau, which means "coat" in French (there are many French loan-words in Persian), describes an all-purpose coat-like garment that comes to one's knees. It allows one to comply with the law on "Islamic dress code" while wearing other clothing underneath.

We were taken to a row of shops where manteaux are sold. Choosing a shop at random, several of us dove in, only to be faced with what seemed to be a small army of young male shop assistants, all hanging out and eating ice cream.

They greeted us with an edge of sarcasm that was a bit daunting (later in the trip I learned to recognize the same sarcasm teenagers in the U.S. employ when they are caught at a loss for words) and began suggesting manteaux for us. I tried on the ones they gave me, but all were too frilly and too small.

"I don't like this," I said in Persian (literally, "this is not my friend"!), fingering some of the frou-frou. "Also, too small. Bigger, please."

"Oh, bigger! She wants it bigger!" several of the young men said to each other, smirking. "BIGGER!" one said to me, illustrating the concept with arms held out to indicate rotund proportions, and face puffed up in imitation of fat. I laughed (when in Rome...!) and said, "yes, please."

After a few minutes of this, however, I found myself upstairs (in what must have been the matronly section), being assisted in peace and quiet by a courteous, deferential young man, who quickly understood both my size and my taste, and picked out some less-frilly items that fit perfectly.

I chose the simplest, and took it down to pay for it. The shop owner, too, was polite and helped me through the transaction with the help of limited English. He was one of the first people to say (as so many others would), "Welcome to Iran. I hope you enjoy your time here."

By this time, the other young men had calmed down and were helping the other women find suitable clothing. I wondered if it took them a few minutes to realize that we were serious shoppers, not just there to mock the garments worn by local women. Or maybe it just took them a few minutes to recover their manners, a few minutes for the shock of our sudden appearance to dissipate.

I took my purchase out to the sidewalk where the unattached men were waiting for us (husbands and partners were inside helping their better halves). Our guide had bought some sour green fruits for us, washing them in a tap by the jub (canal); the sourness was extremely refreshing.

In the late afternoon we were given time to rest; several of us went for a walk near the hotel, where we saw both traditional and modern shops.

As I walked down the sidewalk, I sometimes cautiously raised my gaze to catch the eyes of passing women. They regarded us with what I thought was an implacably hostile expression; I was later to learn how wrong I was about that.

This expedition, like so many of our adventures in Iran, ended up in a carpet shop.

It appears that by dinner time I was too sleepy to take any photos; I was certainly too sleepy to recall anything that happened. This is therefore the end of Day One... more to come!


miriam said...

Yay! The blog! I like all the different entries so far - personal, confidential, but also universal. The image of being on the plane and being so absorbed is great. Then all the details of the trip beginning to flesh out. Like Flickr, plus!


seth (on the left) said...

More please! The museums entry is greaat. I've travelled in the middle east a bit, but never to Iran. The people were fabulous and it just sickens me to know how displaced they are in Iraq.

Mamluke said...

so no Day Two or Three yet? :)

Mamluke said...

so no Day Two or Three yet? :)
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About this blog

Although I didn't end up blogging while I was in Iran, I still want to share my experiences and impressions. I'll (hopefully) write each day about one day's experiences (much as if I were writing while on the trip, although inevitably the perspective is different). I'll also write separate posts to collect and summarize my thoughts and impressions on specific topics (i.e., the revolution, the government, women, etc.), based both on observations and on prior reading.

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Comments are welcome; offensive comments will be deleted. It's my blog, so I will be the sole and arbitrary judge of what is offensive. People seeking to insult (or advocate harm to) others can post that crap on their own blogs. Rationale: I have visited too many interesting blogs whose comments are a waste of space, full of ridiculously petty arguments and traded insults. (Boring!) Comments whining about the policy will also be deleted.