Persian script is as beautiful to look at as it is intriguing to the mind. It is written right to left. It’s like taking things and turning them around. That’s why I first began to feel a connection with Iran. Perhaps the first thing that struck me was the unfamiliar black dress walking around on the streets. At first I was a little nervous. “Do I look? “I want to look, but don’t want to stare” filled my thoughts. “Maybe if I look, I should look at the eyes?”. It wasn’t a burka, but it was the more traditional (I suppose) female dress throughout Iran. Perhaps what I saw most in it wasn’t so much in what it was inhibiting, but what it brought out in the other person behind. Instead of arriving at a conclusion based on appearance, I was forced to look at their faces, actually at their eyes and, what I saw most during my stay in Iran, was plenty of warmth at the centre surrounded by degrees of hardship.
While waiting at Immigration, a few of us were watching the local news on a flat screen TV in Persian. I watched a small clock in the bottom right corner counting up the day. I laughed, comforted by the notion that people count up in this mysterious land. I taught myself the numbers, one to ten, laughing again when I realised, even though the symbols were different, they still used a time system based on 60 seconds/minutes and 24 hours in a day. It seemed that time was universal. Thank heavens for that human supposition! The Persian calendar was perhaps more accurate than the Gregorian one because it was still directly linked with the equinox (I later discovered) using astronomical calculation rather than mathematical rules. The calendar is based on the moon (12 months a year) but 10 days or so short of a lunar year (365 days) so it is adjusted a little. The start date was 600 years or so after Christ, and so in Iran I’d travelled back in time to the year 1359!
A dry and barren land greeted my entry into Iran. Sunshine and sand filled my eyes and occasionally rock-like ‘gardens’ with burnt shrubs stretched off to the hills in each direction. Between Masjad and the border, I found myself sleeping at the bottom of tight valleys where the riverbed was dry and provided the only flat sandy place to camp. I was relieved of the dry barren desert once I’d arrived in Masjad.
In Masjad I stayed at a local guest house I’d heard about from other travellers, “Vali’s Non-Smoking Home Stay”. It is possibly one of the warmest places I’ve ever stayed at. Vali, the man who greeted me in the neighbourhood thinking I might be looking for his place, was a guest house owner, tour guide and rug dealer who was full of enthusiasm for his life and culture. With those credentials, I got told just about everything I needed to know about Masjad. When he was younger he had travelled through Europe without any money apart from a few expensive rugs acquired in Iran. When he needed money he simply sold the rugs and from this he financed an odyssey around Europe. On these travels he learnt English and the western way of living and somehow found a delicate balance of the two. Quite literally we became part of his family and home in an instant. We shared the most amazing meals together cooked diligently by his beautiful wife. There were always people coming and going. When his wife occasionally complained about all the foreigners staying in their modest home, interfering with her more traditional partake in Islamic society, Vali would reply that welcoming needy strangers into their home is “the work of God”. Touche’ to that!
After Mecca in Saudi Arabia, the second most holy place for Muslims in the world is Mashad. Stepping from a busy city street into a thousand year old temple, something inside me became still. To hear the call to prayer buzzing through loudspeakers and then see 5000 people amass to pray with each other, in unison within a huge ancient square surrounded by towering minarets, domed roofs and beautiful intricate architecture is something quite extraordinary, indeed something also very beautiful – as if god herself was there praying with them. Following a thought I heard during a TV interview recently, if we look at other creatures we share this planet with; the dance of the lyrebird during courtship or a spider intricately weaving a web and think, wow that is beautiful in an amazing way, we might ask what part of it is intentional and what part is simply an expression of the spiders nature? What can be said about our lives and the story of us? Indeed a story which is part of a larger whole that, all too often, gets horribly distorted. Opinions on religion aside, what I saw that afternoon and into the evening was something very beautiful transcendent of bias or belief.
From the relative oasis of Masjad I followed a dry valley for three days toward the Caspian Sea. At the pass the road began to wind its way down a small valley and green vegetation started to appear. It was difficult to see where the cliffs and rock ended and the forest began. I like to think that it didn’t end but they just became each other. It wasn’t long before I found myself relieved while cycling in the cool morning air in a moist autumn forest. The air was thick with the smell of vegetation. It was cool beneath broad shady trees that lined the edge of the road and I was happy to be out of the dry landscape. The ground was littered with the red, brown and yellow colours of autumn’s fall. At the bottom of the valley a scent filled the air that was at first peculiar and I couldn’t quite place it; a freshness in the air that seemed to open my lungs. With an easterly breeze, it was the unmistakable smell of mangroves that first got my attention, followed by the crisp salty infusion of a sea breeze. I was nearing the Caspian.
I was in the land of Persia, a name that stirs the imagination deep within and with it comes a boyish enthusiasm bubbling to the surface. I smiled. I was staring at the Caspian Sea, the world’s largest inland sea. And, while my eyes stared at a distant horizon I’d seen many times before off the coast of Australia, my heart knew better. This wasn’t just another sea. It was the CASPIAN. It excited me not only in my mind, but in my heart and gave me a great feeling of just being alive.
Iran is certainly not the place we know portrayed in the media. Forget what you think you know. The Iranian people are generous beyond belief. If I told you it was a common occurrence for people to let me walk out of the grocery store with a bag full of food not having spent a single Toman (Iranian $), you probably wouldn’t believe me. If I said that during the day cars would pull over by the side of the road and ask if I needed a place to stay, you’d probably think I was exaggerating. If I said that, generally, Iranian people would bend over backwards to make your stay is as comfortable as possible (in so far as even going out of the house walking 3 km down the road to fetch some sugar for my tea when I asked for sugar and none was to be had), you’d probably call me a storyteller. Iran is nothing like we’ve been told in the media. It’s a good enough reason as any to seriously question what we take for granted as the truth.
I followed the shores of the Caspian for two weeks. I was tired of the dry desert. I didn’t go to Tehran, partly because I’ve come not to enjoy expensive, noisy and dirty big cities. Instead I enjoyed the fresh afternoon sea breezes and the flat riding along the coast. Even if it was in the rain I still had fresh bread every morning, kebab stores as far as the eye could see and friendly Iranians to welcome me to food, drinks and places to sleep the night and the unmistakable familiarity of a salty sea breeze to fill my lungs.