So I think you have learned your lessons in Iranian architecture by now, right? … reflecting pools, mirrors, arches, etc. So what are some of the prominent points we have learned about their culture? Did you say tea? Good job! How’s this for a tea pot??
Reza took us to a traditional tea house in Isfahan … the kind where women get the traditional Islamic second-class treatment. They’re not allowed in the back room where the men hang out. They have to stay in front in the “family section.” So I stayed and twiddled my thumbs at our family table while Reza showed Erik the back room. They both said they wouldn’t want to be there anyway, that the family area (also basically equating to the tourist area) was far more pleasant; the back was thick with hooka smoke and felt seedy to them. So that’s fine, but it still didn’t really make me feel any less sullen about the fact that I couldn’t go back there even if I wanted to; I had to sit by myself with my arms and my head bound in stifling fabric in the summer heat, staring at the ceiling. But of all places to be left alone staring at the ceiling, this was probably the best of them. You can see here it is full of hanging lanterns of every type and size. Was actually very interesting. Reza’s friend, Mehran, joined us … by now we were being joined regularly by his various friends who were starting to feel like our friends, too, several of whom we had played laser tag with in Kerman, including Mehran.
Outside of this tea house is where we saw one of the best things I’ve ever seen in my life. I didn’t get a good capture … the pics all came out blurry, but you get the idea. This cat had a harem of chickens whom he adored. He rubbed up against them, pushing his head into their feathers. When we tried to approach him he got skittish and nearly ran away ... didn’t like humans, only chickens. This happened to be on Easter Sunday, by the way. And coincidentally, at lunch that day, one of the items on our menu was “bunny burger.”
In spite of his love for tea, Reza also had a love for espresso from a single particular coffee shop located in the corner of a little courtyard inside the bazaar in Isfahan. I’m not sure if this fondness for the coffee is distinguishable from his fondness for the girls who run the shop … But they were super nice. And one of my business cards is now tacked to the center of their back wall. :)
It was here that I was cajoled into drinking my first espresso. Ever. I can’t stand coffee or anything coffee-flavored, even the smell of it bothers me. But I decided to be a team player with Reza and Erik. This was such a momentous and rowdy occasion that Erik documented it below. I had a piece of chocolate in hand as a chaser … that is what you see me frantically trying to shove in my mouth after downing the espresso.
We went to this coffee shop several days in a row. The fun thing about our time in Isfahan was that we stayed there just long enough to get a wee bit of familiarity and routine, visiting the bazaar every day and this coffee shop. Each time we were there, so was an older man who had been an ex-pat in America for 40 years until his father became ill and he moved back to Isfahan to care for him. Once here, he founded an English school. So it was interesting talking with him, as he of course left Iran before the revolution and came back to a completely different country. As such, he was far more cynical about Iran than Reza seems to be. But he did say that the last few years under President Rouhani have been "like heaven" compared to the decades previously. He was quick to point out many problems and hypocrisies which, when we asked Reza for his opinion on the topics, Reza mostly backed them up but with less emphasis ... so my guess is that on many issues the truth lies somewhere in between (for one example, the prevalence of heroin addiction -- ex-pat says it's rampant, Reza says it's fairly mild).
We went to the bazaar every day in Isfahan. It was huge. Here is one of the entrances (from the Imam Square), but you (or at least *I*) wouldn’t properly guess at how extensive it is from this relatively humble entrance.
The are so many side alleys and whole courtyards branching off the main corridors. Sometimes even a series of courtyards, one after another. I'd love to slice off the top of the whole complex and get an aerial view of the place. I was so surprised to see such a spacious courtyard as this when I peered through a doorway along one of the corridors.
There was one whole "branch" for the gold market and exchange, which was a glittering alley, indeed. As I mentioned in Tehran, there is no stock market here and Iran is forbidden by sanctions to bank with or be financially involved with other countries like the U.S. Their own local version of Wall Street takes place literally on sidewalks and in bazaars.
Though I loved the feel of the bazaar when it was full of people, my favorite time was during the afternoon siesta when most of the corridors were virtually deserted. The goods were still all displayed, so actually it was the best time to inspect them. Can you guess what is in the rows of glass jars? This is the stall of a perfumery -- perfumes and colognes, and also scents such as rose water and jasmine. You select your “flavor” of smell and then they put some in a smaller vial for you.
A couple different times somebody from a bakery in the bazaar would come by and give us free cookies! We ate lunch inside the bazaar on a couple of occasions, as well, and had delicious food at this place pictured, which was one of Reza’s favorites … he said he would choose to eat there just about every day if he could. The man is cooking up lamb meat in the giant pan. (Which is what I mostly lived on in Iran, incidentally – lamb meat.)
But what I most enjoyed during these quiet times was that you could really appreciate the fine architecture.
I’m going to make an assumption that it’s difficult to obtain mannequins due to the sanctions. Iran has learned to make a lot of goods and materials that it can't buy abroad out of necessity; but less important items, such as camping gear and I’m guessing mannequins, haven’t been taken up by Iranian manufacturers. So the mannequins in the bazaars were hilarious. Some of the child mannequins were full-on, almost horror-movie-grade creepy with wild hair and crazed eyes. (blurry photo below, middle kid reminds me of Cousin It) The men had their hair and many of their facial features simply painted on, and often there were chunks of plastic missing from their faces or limbs. The men's hair styles and coloring fascinates me. I think I would like to meet these mannequin fashion designers.
This is another scene, below, that I as a Westerner found amusing and I’m sure Iranians thought I was a little wacko for taking photos. (Though, maybe lots of Westerners take the same pics.) But the displays of women in black chadors are one of the things that really make you realize you’re in a very different culture. The little kid was particularly creepy, and I could definitely see her starring in the zombie-child role in some B-grade horror flick. So these chador stores were basically like fabric stores -- with bolts of different types of black fabric for the women to choose from ... some just completely plain solid fabric, and others with subtle patterns and textures. Then the lady or a tailor would sew the chador from it.
And ... I can't help but add that I was struck (perhaps only as a [cynical] Western woman could be) by the symbolism of the black-clad women being chained to the brick pillars. Yeah OK, they're only plastic women, but standing there with only their little plastic faces showing, demonstrating how the real-life woman might look -- might *pay money* to look -- strapped side by side to a building ... this is how I felt sometimes in my hijab (albeit a blazing red scarf sitting loosely upon my head) and my long sleeves clinging to my arms in the middle of summer, denied by some men their hand in greeting and by others even their voice and their gaze in acknowledgement ... symbolically chained to an immobile wall of archaic dogma. But then, that's just me ... I always think of shit like that. :)
The other activity we did a couple of nights, which is a very popular activity with the locals, was visit one of the spectacular bridges over the Zayandehrood river. Though to be sure, visually-speaking, it would have been rather more spectacular had there been water flowing underneath the bridges. As it was, the long, many-arched bridges span a wide stretch of sand. Dry sand. The riverbed has been dried up for almost a decade. Such a pity. According to an article I read in The National, it's likely a combination of decreasing rainfall in the area and mismanagement of water resources by the central government since the revolution. In the past, the river not only provided an economic center with its fisheries, but these bridges were literally the hub of social activity in the city. Though they are still very crowded, one gets a subtle vibe of nostalgia ... as though the activity of going there is a habit and an homage, but one that will fade away sooner than later. We went to two different ones, and they each were brimming with pedestrian traffic (and the occasional scofflaw ruffian motorbike traffic) ... and I felt melancholy to think of the dried-up riverbed robbing the citizens of so much more than water, as if that weren't unfortunate enough.
It was very pleasant strolling along the top of the bridges, but the most interesting parts were below in the arches that hold them up. Namely, here is where people sing. It's so great. Reza says it can actually get competitive ... so, like, first one guy is sitting on the bridge singing, then another guy takes over and tries to up the caliber, and then another guy, etc. And people gather all around to listen. There are no jars for tips. The singers aren't looking for money, only for the approval of their temporary audience and perhaps the satisfaction of upping their comrade singers. And let's be clear ... these aren't just some Joe Shmoes who sing in their shower in the morning and think they're good; there were some really talented people (men). Here are a few shots from the arches underneath the bridges.
The best part of the singing, though, was that the crowd would clap and join in at the choruses -- they were so involved and interactive. I had not the slightest clue what was being sung about, but I had presumed they were religious songs. I guess that shows some sort of preconception of the population, thinking that surely any public activity must be of a religious nature -- hurray for another Western assumption founded on ... what? Not even on misinformation, but on complete lack of information and understanding of the general citizenry. Even at this late stage in the game, after hanging out with Reza's friends in their private homes and playing laser tag, etc., I still had this unconscious assumption of religious zealotry, of religious dominance in all personal activity. So ... what I'm driving at, of course, is that the songs weren't religious in any way. They were songs from movies of the 1970s ... pre-revolution soundtracks. Back when people could watch whatever movies they wanted to. And clearly such movies now hold a special place in the collective memory. Those gathered in the underbelly of the bridges knew well the tunes and lyrics, and they sang with absolute joy. It was delightful and infectious, and I couldn't have been happier standing there in witness.
There was even ... gasp ... a man dancing in public to some of the singing. A man who to all appearances and whiffs was a healthy three sheets to the wind. We asked Reza what happens to a person who is drunk in public. He said that it really depends on the police officer who apprehends the drunkard. By law, the offense carries a not-insignificant consequence. But apparently, as everywhere, people who have the power of the law in their hands differ by nature, and some are more tolerant, perhaps even sympathetic, than others.
I had thought this would be my last post from Iran until right about now. I realize at this point that it's quite long already, and I have at least two other things I want to cover. So I'm going to close this one out now that you've had a taste of some of the regular, every-day activities of the average Iranian citizen living in Isfahan -- tea, bazaars and bridges. :)