Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Street Art

Just like the bohemian student filled streets of inner North Melbourne, it would appear that stencil art is pretty hot right now in Iran. Below is one of the local entries to the Melbourne Stencil Festival 2007 :

To be fair (lest we present a dishonest biased portrait) - this kind of iconography has not been massively prevalent from what we have seen so far. Some of the other street art we have seen also gives an idea of some of the many contradictions inherent in Iranian society:

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Photos of Pakistan

Thanks to high speed internet access in Tehran and a nifty proxy website that enables us to get around government blocked sites we have a bucketload of new photos up on flickr, yay! We are very happy to be able to share these with everyone, especially given that Pakistan was so incredibly, gapingly, beautiful. We recommend that when viewing the photos you check them out by album as they are all in a muddle in the recently uploaded photo section.

The photo above is in Karimabad, and below is Rakaposhi base camp in the Hunza Valley.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

36 hours in Tehran (Stumbling from one act of extreme hospitality to another)

It is our second day in Iran, and already we are beginning to discover the difficulty of planning a full day of site seeing. We are in the very impressive national jewels museum when we met Nariman an English teacher at a local private institute and his two students Sarain and Mohammad (a young married couple). All three are keen to move to Adelaide for work and study so immediately they started to talk excitedly to Andrew. Next thing we know we have an invitation to Sarain and Mohammad's house for dinner.

We are met by Mohammad later that evening, he greets me with a bunch of irises and says how happy he is that we are coming to his house. Once in their house Sarain takes me to her room and gives me some time to take off my scarf and any other additional street-wear. Once in an Iranian home there is no need to wear head scarves or big shapeless overcoats.

Sarain's entire family are crammed into their apartment, her mother and sister are busy cooking the meal and her 18 month year old daughter is crawling around on the carpet, looking shyly at the foreigners. Once the meal is prepared Sarain's parents and sister leave with the baby, it seems that they are only here to help make the meal and won't be joining us. We thank them as they leave and then settle down to a lovely meal of fried fish, yoghurt and lots of fresh salads.

As we sit down at the table Mohammad asks Andrew if he would like wine, beer or whiskey. Andrew looks confused and responds that he wasn't aware that you could have any of these in Iran. Our three hosts laughed merrily, "but of course!" they say. We agree on beer and Sarain produces several cans of beer made in Turkey. Apparently alcohol is available on order, you simple make a call and it can be delivered.

Over dinner we talk about Adelaide and Australia. Soheil is extremely keen to know what jobs are in demand in Australia (his brother has already been living there for the last 10 months). All three are well educated with at least one bachelor degree. Sarain wants to study nursing in Australia, despite the fact that her bachelor degree is in business, she has heard that it is much easier to find work and then gain citizenship in Australia with nursing skills. I get the distinct impression that she doesn't really want to become a nurse, but this is outweighed by her wish to move to Australia. Both she and Mohammad are spending the next two months learning English intensively so to prepare for the IELTS (English language test) that they must pass to be able to work or study in Australia.

After dinner the conversation turns to religion and politics. Nariman is very open about his views, he does not see the current situation improving. He tells us that generally most Iranians are not particularly religious people it is just the government who are imposing their religious beliefs on the people. Nariman tells us that only 5% of Iranians attend the mosque regularly (although Sarain believes that it is perhaps around 15%). We suggest that surely where there is a critical mass of well educated young people who are struggling to find work and freedom of expression that perhaps there is hope but he disagrees.

By this time it is very late and our hosts insist on driving us home, not before collecting all the fruit in the house and giving it to us. Our hotel is on the other side of town but we all put on our coverings and bundle into the car. We bid goodbye to them well past 1am and crawl into bed.

We wake up disoriented at 11am and realise that we have one hour to get across town to visit Nariman's English class. We had promised him the night before that we would pop in to give his students an opportunity to converse with native english speakers. We rush about the room getting ready and finally make it to the class ten minutes late. His class is comprised of 15 young, attractive women, all of them have finished university and most are taking the intensive course (like Mohammad and Sarain) to pass the IELTS. We go around the room introducing ourselves and each student indicates whether she wants to go to Canada, Australia or sometimes, that she is studying English for fun.

Andrew and I sit at the front of the classroom and my black headscarf, hurriedly put on, takes on a life of its own. It slithers and slips back across the crown of my head and I fidget and tug at it, attempting to maintain some degree of purdah. One of the women to my left, who has a thick fringe of dark hair displayed and red lipsticked lips, notices my struggle and says "Don't worry yourself about it!" Finally my scarf and my head come to some sort of standing agreement and I manage to concentrate on the conversation. The level of English is high and consequently there is not so much chit chat, our topics range from the treatment of Aboriginals in Australia to the merits of mixed or same-sex education systems.

During the course of conversation it comes out that we would like to hear some live Iranian music and also that I am a vegetarian. Consequently at the end of the class one student offers to drive us to a good vegetarian restaurant near her house and another offers to get us tickets to a performance of traditional Iranian music at a Tehran university that afternoon. We accept both offers.

After a delicious late lunch we dash to meet Samin out front of the university. She waves at us and smiles and then tells us that she must go. It seems that she only turned up to give us the tickets. Before leaving she introduces us to two of her friends, Mustafa and Said, who are put in charge of us. We enjoy the performance and afterwards we discover that the performers are all engineering students who play traditional Iranian instruments in their spare time. Said's brother is one of the performers, he and his two brothers are all musicians. After the performance we mill about outside and Mustafa asks us if we go back to our hotel or if we have any plans. We tell him that we have no plans, maybe we will go for a coffee. "No plans? Well, we will make some plans then." Before we can protest not to go to any trouble Mustafa and Said are organising for us to have dinner with Said's family in their home.

We walk to Valiasr Square and then take a taxi to Said's house. He lives with his parents and two brothers. In Iran children generally live with their parents until they are married. Said and Mustafa both like the idea of the Australian concept of share housing, especially given that Mustafa declares that he does not want to get married. It seems that marriage in Iran is an expensive prospect for the groom with a sizeable financial gift expected for the brides family.

As we walk to the square Mustafa and I enter a no-holds-barred discussion on sex and life in Iran. He tells me how that AIDS is a problem, but that the government refuses to support any major public information campaign as it does not want to accept that sex before marriage occurs. It seems that Iranian society, at least in Tehran for the more wealthy, is not so restrictive and that there is a big diference between one's private life and public life. He gesticulates towards the smartly dressed Tehrani women walking in front of us, "Look at them, they do not want to cover up, they only do so because of the law".

We arrive at Said's house and are sat down in front of a table heaped with pistachios, walnuts, sweets and dried fruits. We chat with Said's parents (his mother is a doctor who manages a large NGO-run hospital for poor people, and his father is an engineer specialising in irrigation) who are incredibly kind and welcoming and then move outside to the balcony where we can sit and admire their garden whilst drinking some of Said's fathers vodka. It is home-made by an Armenian friend, it seems that the Armenians are well known for making high quality vodka. At around 10pm we sit down to a delicious meal cooked by Said's mother. All her son's are present and everyone is so relaxed that we we feel like one of the family. She has prepared a delicious, traditional Iranian eggplant dish for me and everyone else digs into chicken, rice with dill (pulao), salad and flat bread.

Said's mother compliments me on my earrings and I tell her they are made by my father who is a silversmith. She is very interested in this and takes me to her room and gives me a necklace made from natural stones from Iran. I ask at least three times whether this is ok (sometimes in Iran you need to try three times to ensure that the offering is really intended) and she insists. I then thank her profusely.

Back in the living room the boys are settling in around the laptop preparing for a music exhchange. "Iranian Sebastian" (who is Said's brother who performed that evening and who's name I cannot pronounce but sounds something like "Sebastian" and who also reminds me somewhat of my brother) sits with Andrew and the laptop and the two of them confer over respective music tastes. We give them Secret Chiefs III (which sounds strangely familiar to our new Iranian friends - and is a huge hit), Dengue Fever ("This is great, now we can tell our friends we have Cambodian music!") and QotSA and they give us Kurdish traditional music, Iranian rock (a rare breed) and some not so traditional Iranian music using traditional instruments.

I sit on the couch reading a collection of poems by Hafez translated into English given to me by Iranian Sebastian ("you haven't heard of Hafez!? why he is most famous Iranian poet, read this!) and the boys scramble about the place, out to the car and back carrying Iranian rap CDs and other favourite selections for us to rip. Said's cousin even finds me a cd of an Iranian rock group who use Hafez's poems as their lyrics. As we are listening to one Iranian rapper, Said tells us that his lyrics are very controversial. Mustafa pipes in "that is why the government hang him".

Finally the music exchange finishes. We are exhausted and it is once again nearing 1am again. The boys want to know if we are going to be around on Thursday night as there is going to be a dance party but we think that we will be in Yazd then. They insist that we call them when we come back to Tehran and we get everyone's cell phone number and email address. I find my scarf and then Said and Mustafa drive us all the way back to our hotel.

We collapse into bed, second night in a row, exhausted, full of excellent food and warmed by all the wonderful people we have met.

Thursday, May 17, 2007


Hi folks, just a quick post to let you know that we are both well. We've had a fantastic few weeks here in Pakistan - the crossing over the Khunjerab Pass was AMAZING, the scenery in the North was stunning, and the friendliness and hospitality of virtually everyone we have met has been something else. Our only complaints are with the weather down South (we've spent the last week here in Lahore and its been 40 plus degrees), and with the neglected and decaying IT infrastructure (a marked contrast to China). Internet is SLOW and unreliable, so hence the lack of posts and pictures (of which there are many to put up). We've fortunately managed to avoid the alarming troubles in Karachi and Peshawar, alhough there have been a few protests here in Lahore associated with the highly political (and technically un-constitutional) sacking of the Chief Justice - the source of the weekend turmoil in Karachi.

Several months after we got the ball rolling on our Iranian visas, we finally received them Islamabad. We are spoiling ourselves and flying out tomorrow to Tehran (its an arduous 4 days on buses otherwise, through some areas that are not the safest). We'e both been waiting a long time to visit Iran - so we can't wait. Hopefully we will be able to access our blogs there....