Thursday, June 21, 2007

Valley of Assassins

We have now been in Turkey for almost a week and still I am finding it strange to feel the wind in my air and the sun on my bare arms. Despite these personal freedoms and the ready availability of beer Iran is still very much in our thoughts. Sure Turkish people are friendly, and we were definitely ready to leave Iran, but I don't think I have ever travelled in a country where I have made so many real connections with everyday, ordinary people. It is this that really made our time in the country so amazing.

Our final destination in Iran was Gazor Khan village which lies at the foot of Hasan-i-Sabbah's Alamut Castle, one of the castles scattered through the Valley of Assassins. Ever since I had read about the legend of the assassins (and yes, came across the SCIII references) I had been keen to visit.

The assassins were Ismaili muslims who were feared throughout the region until they were wiped out by the Mongols in the 13th century. The story goes that Hasan-i-Sabbah would lure young men to his stronghold with promises of the eternal paradise they would attain by training and working as assassins. This pitch was further assissted by drugging the trainees with marijuana (although possibly this last part is not true and the term Assassin - Hashshashin came from other sources) and having them awake in a garden abounding with beautiful virgins and delectable foods. Hassan-i-Sabbah used his army of men to intimidate and manipulate political empires. The assassins would work their way into trusted positions in their victims staff and death would always be by dagger.

It was late afternoon when we began the 40 minute hike up the hill to the ruins of Alamut castle. It was a public holiday in Iran so there were many Iranians making the climb with us. We asked one man what the holiday was for and he told us that it was the anniversary of the death of Fatima (the daughter of Prophet Muhammad). "I am very happy for this holiday and so I say: Allah bless you Fatimah, I wish you long life!" It turns out he is an Iranian with a french passport and as such is able to travel freely. He told us that the previous month when it was the anniversary of the death of Imam Khomeini he went to Thailand and from Krabi uttered similar words of encouragement in Khomeini's name.

At the top of the hill we stopped and sat down to take in the sweeping, stunning views. I could certainly understand how difficult a place this must have been to reach and conquer. I spied a group of people around our age coming our way and at first wondered whether they were Turkish given that the women were wearing clothes that would be normal in Australia. One had a hat on her head, but no scarf! In fact, I started to feel downright dowdy in my hot and demure wimple-like scarf (unbecoming yes, but very practical in terms of staying on your head).

They tripped over to us and were very excited to discover that we were Australian.
"Excellent, now we can ask you a question that we have been thinking about!!"
It turns out that they are very much Tehranis and that they had been drinking some newly home-made red wine in their apartment the other week and decided that they would like to move to Australia so that they could perfect their wine-making skills. We informed them that Australia was just the place and they were very amused with their idea.

We then took some photos, and I was introduced to the interesting fact that when in places of isolated natural beauty particularly bold Iranian women take their headscarves off for photos.
Our new Tehrani friends left after an exchange of emails and we sat on the hill watching the sunlight play over the undulating landscape and musing about Iran now and in the past. In terms of the castle their wasn't much left, making it hard to get a sense of how the assassins really lived. Recently I read one article which credited the assassins as being the first terrorists. However, unlike their 11th century descendants Ismaili muslims now are a very peaceful and tolerant group. Many live in Pakistan, in particular in the north of Pakistan where we travelled recently.

It continually amazes me how wonderfully welcoming and hospitable people in countries such as Pakistan, Iran and Syria are. These are countries which are met with the most fear and concern when we tell people we are travelling there, but in reality they are also some of the places where I have had the most rewarding and unexpected experiences as a tourist. In fact, there almost seems to be a direct relationship between the despoticness and fear of a government and the warmth and hospitality of the people.

Hello Turkey!

Notice anything dıfferent? Bare skin and hair - shocking! Oh, and please note the background evidence of a reputable provider of non-prohibitively expensive SIM cards that we purchased with cash from an ATM. Not exciting I know but you miss these things when they are gone. Oh, and this tasted really good too:

Khodafez Iran!

So after 5 weeks Anth and I are spending our final night in Iran in a lovely little town called Maku about 25km from the Turkish border. There have of course been the inevitable ups and downs as with every country. Firstly the downs:
  • Pretty much anything associated with the moronic mullahs and their puppet government
  • The occasional bouts of narrow mindedness and absence of creativity that come from looking backwards and being shackled to a glorious historical legacy (also see "But we built Angkor Wat!" mentality in Cambodia)
  • The complete lack of vegetarian food for Anth

Despite these factors, we think its safe to say that our time in Iran has been one of the most overwhelmingly positive travel experiences we have ever had. We did quite a bit of research before we came here, but like most people in the West we had our fair share of misconceptions. Based on our experiences in the last 5 weeks, we would like to declare that:

  • Iran is safe (crazy driving on the roads excepted)
  • A large percentage of the population do not go to the mosque regularly
  • Iranians HATE to be grouped with Arabs
  • There are a lot of women that are pushing the limits of hijab (and looking very fashionable to boot)
  • Iranians do not have a blanket hatred for Jews

Socio-cultural and political misconceptions aside, Iran also has some incredibly stunning historical sites and a deep reverence for old fashioned culture (we have never met so many literature and theatre students before) that is almost quaint. From a selfish point of view, the ridiculous oil subsidies (prices have just increased from 8 to 10 cents per litre) that are crippling the government economically (inflation is waaay out of control now) make travelling in Iran VERY cheap on the fantastic trains and buses. Another gift from the government is their crackpot policies and isolationism which has driven other tourists away and made locals even more eager to engage with us.

So, as a final word we would like to ask every reader of this blog to think about one day travelling to Iran or encouraging your friends and family to visit this wonderful place. Its been a privilege for us to witness and experience Iran and its people first hand, and it has further underlined what an absurd tragedy it would be if major sanctions were imposed.

PS - we have a few more Iran posts up our sleeves which we hopefully get to non-chronologically in Turkey.


For some reasons the vast majority of Iranians are convinced that all foreigners are German (a puzzling fact given that we haven't actually met any here). In fact, the most common way for people to ask you where you are from is "Allemagne?" (we often get this in drive by form shouted from a car or motorbike when we are walking on the sidewalks). When we explain that we are from Australian ("No, not Austria!") the response from the interrogator is usually one of the following:
  1. "Mark Bosnich! Harry Kewell!" OR gloating references to this tragic football game at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in 1997 (if I'm in a grumpy mood I'll mention this more recent game in Adelaide)
  2. "Australia good! Iran bad!" (protestations to the contrary are not always successful)
  3. "I have a friend that wants to study in Australia, how can he/she..." OR "I want to study in Australia, how can I..."

Given the current situation economically and politically in Iran, and the bleak prognosis that a lot of people have - its understandable that people have the latter response. After many conversations about moving to Australia or other Western countries, we have become worried about the apparent ignorance that a lot of Iranians seem to have about what they are aspiring too.

We have lost count of the number of times we have explained Australia's restrictive immigration requirements and the bias towards skilled migrants. By far the greatest knowledge sharing that is required in these types of conversations though is associated with cost of living. We commonly get asked "How much does a [insert profession of person asking] make per month in Australia?" What follows is a detailed explanation of our graded taxation system (never %100 comprehension on this one) and the response is normally wide eyed amazement when we reveal the salary estimate in US dollars. Before people then get too excited and try to hop into our backpacks, we try to list off the average prices in Australia and other countries of food, housing, healthcare, petrol etc...

After these conversations most people still seem determined to move out of Iran. The one exception came last week when we were picnicking with the holidaying families of three Azerbaijani (not Iranian - an important point we learnt!) teachers from NW Iran during the drive back to Zanjan from Takht-e-Solomein (they very kindly gave us lifts after our share taxi there (no problems) and different share taxi back (uhhhh...) plan came badly awry). Anth and I were having our usual cost of living in Australia conversation after they told us that teachers only make 300 dollars a month. We then told them that we couldn't afford to buy a house in Australia and that it would probably be a long while before we could. What followed was an awkward pause and a sympathetic "Oh. I see. We are really sorry to hear that!" - this was a very novel Iran/"rich" tourist dynamic for us! About half an hour later one of the teachers admitted quietly to me that "Maybe Iran isn't so bad - I can buy a car, and a house, and we can go for picnics with our friends anywhere, and we have been driving for 3 days and it only cost us 3 dollars!" This was the first and only time an Iranian has said anything like this to us. (Below is a shot of the wonderful families of the three teachers)

We do not live here in Iran and we can only begin to imagine what it must feel like to to have our daily freedoms severely curtailed - but it was still reassuring to hear someone say that Iran is not THAT bad (at least materially). We were having a conversation a few days ago with an Iranian living in France who claimed that Iran and Thailand are third world countries - we expressed incredulity and immediately countered with "If you want to see third world go to [insert name of neighbouring country to Thailand here]!"

Its possible that all of the negativity that Iranians feel about their country, and their inability to make comparative assessments first-hand with other countries (its VERY difficult for them to get visas) has clouded their sense of what is possible and how things can change. We were having a very poignant conversation with a friend of ours over coffee and she told us that all the young people in Iran are leaving as they don't see any hope. She then told us that she and her husband made personal decisions after the Revolution in 1979 to stay and try and make a difference (an important aside: her husband has spent a total of 8 years in jail and was behind bars for the birth of their only child).

Friday, June 15, 2007

Happy Snaps

Thanks to an unusually good internet connection and access to flickr we have put up a range of new photos including some shots from our summer in Australia. Also, all photos have now been arranged into sets and collections for your more organized viewing pleasure.

Shameless Volte Face on Fruity Malt Beverages

Regular readers of our blog will have read my thoughts on the pineapple beer in China. Well, much like one pines for a lover and glosses over their bad points after a long time apart - my tastebuds have become addled by 6 weeks without alcoholic beverages (with a handful of lapses in people's homes). Iran is awash with malt beverages that proudly proclaim "non-alcoholic!". There are some brands that do the pale imitation thing better than others - unsurprisingly "beers" that come from places that produce real beer (like Turkey and Russia) fare marginally better. Inevitably though one is always left with a sense of profound disappointment after the initial malty rush has subsided from one's tastebuds.

In this crazy climate of no public alcohol, I have formed quite a dependance on a local malt beverage called Delster. Delster comes has several common flavours (apple, peach and lemon) and two much rarer types (stawberry and pineapple).

In fact, I have now started a Daily Delster consumption campaign, and have got to know some of the delivery drivers on first name terms:

As most of you will know I am not the biggest drinker - but going without alcohol for so long has been surprisingly tough. In the current atmosphere of potential sanctions on Iran, Anth and I have been thinking about the toughest sanctions you could impose on countries that would attack something fundamental to their culture, and we came up with the following list:

  1. Australia - beer
  2. Cambodia - Khmer rice (a no-brainer!)
  3. Iran - soft serves (see Anth's post here)
  4. UK - tea
  5. USA - doughnuts
  6. Canada - pancakes and maple syrup

Any other thoughts?

Thursday, June 07, 2007


One thing that must really anger overseas Iranians is the depiction of Iran in the Western media. When we were in Islamabad we came across an old Newseek that had a cover story on Iran. To be honest the lead article was quite interesting and portrayed Iran in an occasionally favourable light, but the accompanying photo essay called "Modern Life in Iran" was presented in stark black and white and was HIGHLY selective. The image below for example shows young women in full chadors looking cowed and anxious in front of the infamous murals along the wall of the "US Den of Espionage" (the former US embassy):

We were walking along said wall this afternoon on our way to the Iranian Artists Forum when we snapped this picture which we would like to offer as a counterpoint (note trendy tight fitting manteau, lipstick and fringe - apologies for lack of focus). This is fairly standard attire for Tehrani women and we were wondering today whether the hijab police would even bother patrolling here given the number of potential offenders.

We would also like to offer the following snapshot from one of the galleries inside the fantastic forum:

How did this happen?

In recent months there has been a crackdown on the enforcement of hijab (Islamic dress code) across Iran. Apparently police were given the power to issue warnings for excessive make-up, showing too much hair underneath scarves, tight jackets, and excessively gelled hair or skimpy t-shirts (for men). In Tehran, women are exiled to provincial backwaters after three warnings. In addition, police also have the power to ask men and women socialising in public to prove that they are married. We spoke to one student who's brother was pulled up on the latter offence - and the police spoke to his parents and the relationship had to be immediately broken off.

In the last week, things have apparently become even stricter with the enforcement of hijab. Below is a picture I took yesterday in Kashan of a group of "hijab police" who were furtively going around scolding women for un-Islamic dress. I have tried to circle one of the walkie-talkies which presumably links back to the local police:

One question that has constantly occupied both of us since we arrived in Iran is, how did this happen? We have talked to a lot of people since we arrived - and nearly all of them have been very critical and almost apologetic of the current government very soon into our conversations. Admittedly we have talked to a very skewed sample of people - highly educated English speakers often under 30 - and I'm sure that the opinions of a poor farmer in the conservative rural areas would be quite different. That said though, I think its pretty safe to say that the local elections from late last year (and here) demonstrate that Ahmadinejad's policies aren't massively popular at the moment (if the US were stupid enough to bomb Iran that would of course change overnight).

From what we have seen, Iran is a very different country from either Pakistan, China or Cambodia - it is modernised, with a highly literate well-educated populace that loathes being associated with "backwards" Arabs. From what we have seen in the privacy of people's homes (again a small and skewed sample) - the middle/upper classes in Iran are not overly religious and are quite liberal in what they wear and drink. How then, is the current government getting away with enforcing the application of strict Islamic moral codes in such a draconian fashion?

The people that we have talked to have posited various theories - fear (understandable!), people are "asleep", and the electorate did not know Ahmadinejad's true colours until after he was elected. One potential factor that we have pondered - going by the number of conversations we have had with people of many different ages and occupations about getting visas overseas - is that the part of the population that have the strongest desire for change are leaving en masse. Anth and I walked into a pharmacy in Esfahan, and within seconds the middle aged lady who ran the shop was asking how Anth felt about wearing the scarf. The lady then told us how all the young people are leaving Iran, and that she also wants to leave but that she is too old, and how much she loves her country - pretty heartbreaking stuff.

To be honest we can never fully know the answers to our question given our limited time here and the fact that we are not Iranian- but it is certainly something we will continue to mull over and talk to people about...

Even Sunsmarter?

Memo to the Cancer Council of Australia:

The below image is taken from the Cancer Council website, and is indicative of the types of "sun-smart" behaviour they promote in Australian primary schools:

From our own extensive experience (and the fact that only I - not Anth - have suffered from a sunburnt neck and arms), I would suggest that the following is an example of much more effective "sun-smart" protection:

I would even go so far to advocate that signs like this be place in tuck-shops across the country:

Food for thought...


We had been in Kashan around 1 hour and were walking along a dirt alley with yellow mud bricked houses on all sides. Kashan is a town surrounded by desert, similar to Yazd. We were both grumpy and tired. On arrival, we had walked into a recommended hostel only to meet two Australians who were leaving, they advised us to not take room 8 as it had fleas in the bed. We walked out of the hostel when the price for a room was quoted at double what we had been paying everywhere else and tried a hostel nearby. It too was windowless, unclean and overpriced. We had given in after some strong bargaining and were now pacing the streets trying to find a restaurant to eat dinner and trying not to think about how filthy the beds were in our room. It was the anniversary of the death of Ayatollah Khomeimi and consequently most things were closed. We couldn't find the restaurant, but were told it was closed anyway.

As we walked down the alley the wind picked up and rain started to fall, it felt like a sandstorm was brewing. A car stopped nearby us with a middle-aged couple and their child in it. They called to us and asked where we were from. We told them and the man started to talk to us. Communication was difficult given that they did not speak much english and our farsi is limited to basic travel phrases. We gathered that the man was a doctor, and something about a girl (or was he just confusing genders?), and then he said "home, me" which we took as an invitation to their house. Given our frayed tempers we smiled and declined and kept on walking.

A minute later the car pulls up beside us and the man hands us a cell phone. I take it and a female voice says to me in fluent English "Hello, you have just met my parents and we would like to invite you to our home. Please get in the car and they will drive you here." Andrew and I look at each other and figure that given the difficulty in finding food on a public holiday like this it might be a good idea to accept. Next thing we know we are bundled into their car and driving out of the city to the scraps of urban development on the fringes. Whilst we are driving it occurs to me that the man was not telling us that he was a "doctor", but instead trying to tell us about his "daughter".

As it turns out, Mohammad (the man) is a judge and also holds some position in the mosque. His rented house is made up of a large carpeted room with bedrooms and a kitchen ranging around the central room. There is no other furniture in the room. We sit on the carpet and meet his two daughters and two sons. Eila greets us in english and explains that she is learning english both at school and also at a private institute. The rest of the family speak very little english and so all conversation goes through Eila. The women wear scarves in the house and so I leave my manteau and scarf on as well. I chat to Eila as the members of the household organise themselves and Andrew plays with Eila's younger brother Amia who is four years old.

I very quickly get the impression that Eila is one smart, switched on and motivated woman. She tells me that she really wants to improve her english and that she has instructed her parents to bring home any english speaking foreigners that they see in the street. Which further explains our abduction!

Eila wants to become a doctor and ultimately she would like to live overseas, she likes the idea of moving to Italy as one of her passions is soccer. She tells me that she plays soccor in an all girls team and that they play in matches around Iran. In Iran there are no mixed sports teams - only women can watch women's sporting matches and only men watch men's sporting matches.

Her mother chimes in and says they have already tried to help Eila get overseas but the Iranian officials refused to give her permission as they said she must be married to be able to leave the country. Eila assures me that she does not want to get married as she wants to be a working woman. She says that in Iran it is deemed desirable for women to have a bachelor degree but then when they are married they give up work and look after the house and family (which perhaps explains why the majority of women have less vocationally focussed degrees such as art, poetry and design?). "Do you have any trouble with marriage and work?" she asks me. I pause, so strange is the idea that being "married" to Andrew would in anyway impact on my choice to work. I tell her that it makes no difference. "Well that is good, and you are lucky" she says. "For me, I will just not get married."

At around 10 pm the family gathers for dinner. A plastic mat is placed on the carpeted floor and everyone sits around the mat with the food in front of us. It is at this point that Eila tells us that it is her birthday. We wish her a happy birthday and ask how old she is. 15. I pause surprised. I knew that she must be in high school, but Eila does not look or talk like she is 15.

After dinner Mohammad excuses himself as he must go to work, Eila explains that for his work as a judge he often has appointments with people late at night. Once Mohammad is gone Eila, her mother and myself enter into an intersting conversation about women in Iran. This is one of the first times I have been able to speak openly with women about their situation here, it is also interesting to be in the home of a family outside of Tehran. It seems that whilst Eila and her mother do not like wearing a scarf that they believe it is necessary. They are curious about how free it is for women in Australia and when I tell them they both shake their heads. "oh no, it is not like that in Iran!" They say that in Iran the men are "bad" and that it is not possible to go out for a coffee with a single man as a woman would not be comfortable. They say the man's thoughts would not be good and that the woman would be perceived badly by society.

Eila's mother then talks about problems with women marrying young and then the marriage ending in divorce. We discover the following day that Mohammad is Mitra's second husband and that the two women are Mitra's daughters from her previous marriage. Yet Eila's sister, who is 16, is engaged and will be married in 18 months.

We leave just before midnight. We are exhausted, but the family don't appear at all tired. We arrange to meet again tomorrow as they would like to take us site-seeing around Kashan. A taxi is called and after many thankyous we hop into the taxi. As we pull up to our hotel I offer the taxi driver money for the trip. "Befarme" (you are welcome) he says to me pushing away the money. I insist and again he says "Befarme". Finally at the third insistence he pockets the money and we hop out. I stand on the curb laughing, in what country would you hop into a random strangers car like that! and where else on earth would a taxi driver refuse your money!