This Sort of Thing...


Razzmatazzed in Yaz’d



Part 6 of my personal magic carpet-ride through Persia.

In the breakfast room of the Parsian Hotel in the City of Yaz’d, the people sitting around the table allocated to the X Travels intrepid adventure group seemed strangely subdued. I suspected that they’d all overdone it a bit with the alcohol-free apricot beer the previous evening. So I said, ‘My name’s Turlough and I’m a non-alcoholic’ and they all came suddenly back to life.

Mahtab spoke next, telling us about the problems she had encountered as a career woman in Iran and how her father initially hadn’t been happy about the unorthodox way that she wanted to live her life, but had eventually accepted that she was never going to learn to cook and sew like her sisters. Rather than lose their daughter, as many Iranian parents faced with that situation had done, he had given her his blessing and told her to crack on with it. She understood the implications, which strengthened her determination to be successful and made her love him all the more. She didn’t mention what her mother had had to say and, under the circumstances, we didn’t like to ask.

Despite what I had heard about the role of women in Iranian society, Mahtab appeared to be quite happy with what she had achieved. I was really pleased that we had a female tour guide as I suspected a male, however good, wouldn’t have been able to tell us so much about the way women were constantly downtrodden or ignored. She also talked about difficulties that existed within mixed-sex platonic friendships, rendering them almost impossible.

Wherever I’ve been in the world I’ve always felt extremely fortunate to have originated from a country where I was able to enjoy freedom of speech and the security of a decent human rights record. But I need to visit other countries because I love the experiences of contrasting landscapes and cultures. It appalled me that our hosts couldn’t voice their opinions openly or travel freely, particularly the women, but neither were they threatened by the excessive crime rates and out of control drug culture that I’d seen in the so-called developed world. Despite its many terrible faults (the severity of the punishments handed out to lawbreakers being a major one) the Iranian government did try to look after its people. Using revenue from oil exports it was able to provide Iranians with free education, free good quality health care, and virtually free fuel. And homelessness was virtually non-existent. Looking around me then and now it’s impossible to see that any country in the world has ever got everything completely right. Until they have attained perfection I’d say it’s wrong for one country to impose its ideals on another, whether that be in an east to west or in a west to east direction.

The whole of the Old City district of Yaz’d was a World Heritage Site so we didn’t have far to go for our daily UNESCO fix. Apparently Yaz’d used to be called Yez’d but the half million people who lived there decided that they fancied a change so they razzmatazzed the name a bit. It means ‘City of the Holy One’. It’s said to be the oldest living city on Earth with historians claiming that it had been inhabited continually for more than 7,000 years. Those historians were unable to prove such longevity but elderly American Connie confirmed that it had always been there on her visits to Iran.

A very short bus ride had us back on the mosque trail at last with a visit to the Jameh Mosque. Built in the fifteenth century it formed an equally stunning sight from close up or from a distance. It had the tallest entrance portal in Iran and was beautifully tiled throughout. Its magnificence had earned it a place on the obverse of the 200 rials banknote, at least the ones that hadn’t turned black from overuse.

Moseying around the mosque’s arcaded courtyard I got chatting to a student of architecture. He was keen to practice his English on me but he practiced his architecture on me too, telling me some of the differences between Western designs and those of Persia. For example, every building in his country was planned to include some sign of life in it, the clearest example being a deliberate small depression in a roof which would fill up with rainwater and from which the birds would be able to drink. Courtyards would always have an area of soil for shrubs to grow and a pool for animals to drink from and for fish to live in. Without these a building would be considered to be lifeless and consequently not be a healthy place to live or work. He had a huge bandage on his right wrist because he said he ‘had been doing falling over’. He laughed when I suggested that maybe the pond in his courtyard wasn’t big enough to provide the required standard of good health.

Because of its desert location, Yaz’d had had to adapt its architecture and had come to be known as the ‘City of Wind Catchers’. The idea of these structures called bagdirs in Farsi, and which dominated the city’s skyline, was to direct the slightest of breezes into a mosque or house to make it cool. Some were more impressively designed than others and although some were obviously very old, many more had been built in recent years.

For a couple of hours we walked around the almost deserted labyrinth of back streets of the Old City, losing ourselves amongst a myriad of old baked clay buildings and often stumbling across a small square with a café, a shop, a fountain, a palm tree or any permutation of two or three out of the four of these.  Women with small carts sold roasted corn on the cob (balal), doughnuts (bamieh) and saffron ice cream. People came out of their houses to talk to us. Some would ask to have their photographs taken with us, but only if they were in their best clothes as they were proud people. Not only were we in a different land, we were in a different time where only the tangled web of overhead electricity and telephone cables and an abandoned shopping trolley suggested that the twenty-first century had arrived.

From a ceramic shop in a tiled courtyard I bought a ceramic tile. A simple picture of a woman in old Persian dress standing in front of a window with brightly coloured curtains and holding a large, circular, beige object which I took to be either a fan or a naan. It was beautiful and the man who sold it to me was the man who had made it. He told me how, where and why he and his family produced such tiles and offered me tea and thanked me for visiting his shop. Connie had bought a similar item in a shop just around the corner in a tenth of the time and, having paid less for it, suggested that I had been ripped off. But I liked the shop, I liked the man, I loved the tile and I had enjoyed the experience. No one’s words could spoil it for me.

Today was the eightieth birthday of our group member Ann, who had come on the trip with her daughter Jo to mark the occasion. We bought her a party balloon and asked her if she’d be going out on the lash in the evening. This wouldn’t have been too unusual a question in Britain or Ireland where it meant partaking in the heavy consumption of alcohol to celebrate. In Iran, where the penalty for being caught with alcohol was forty lashes, being on the lash wasn’t the sort of thing you’d get dolled up for.

We passed a lovely hour relaxing among the fruit trees (pomegranate, medlar and persimmon) and ornamental pools in the shady courtyard of the Traditional Hotel, which was far more ornately decorated than the Parsian Hotel in which we were staying for a couple of nights. Here we escaped the hot sun and drank our first coffee since we were in Tehran on the first day of the trip. Iranians, we’d noticed, didn’t do coffee very often (in fact, almost never) but when they did, it was among the best I’d ever tasted. I sat and talked to the birthday girl, the youngest octogenarian that I knew, about her many travels during her lifetime. Her late husband had worked in the British Diplomatic Service so, accompanying him, she’d not just travelled but lived in a number of Asian and African countries and continued to travel to unusual and distant places after his passing. I admired and envied her, as well as Connie and Tony who were both also in their eighties with reams of travel stories tucked away in their wise old heads, and I promised myself that I’d continue to travel, as they had, late into my life.

From the roof of the Traditional Hotel I had an excellent view of the unique skyline with dozens of wind catchers filling the spaces between the clutter of domes and minarets of the city’s many mosques. Standing there alone I witnessed the dhuhr azan (noon call to prayer). From most of these the call was a recording broadcast by means of a loud speaker but some still had real life muezzins (the men who do the calling), and each started at a slightly different time so calls would be heard echoing from every direction for several minutes. This hauntingly beautiful experience was made even more bizarre by the chaotic flapping and fluttering of thousands of pigeons, disturbed from their shady rooftop perches by the sudden blasts of Islamic prayer.

Bagh-e Dolat Abad was cool in both senses of the word. Exquisitely designed, it was once the residence of Persian King Karim Khan Zand. Built around 1750 it consisted of a small pavilion in a large but peaceful and shaded garden with rows of cypresses lining either side of a qanat (a sloping channel, often ornamental as well as practical, for transferring water from a well to a building) and boasted the tallest badgir in Iran at over thirty-three metres. It was described in the guide book as 7,000 square metres of heaven on earth. Leaving there was difficult as by the time we had reached the end of our thirty-minute tour, the dry heat outside had become a bit uncomfortable. So strange it was to see the local people with their woolly jumpers on and their coats zipped up to their chins. In a part of the world where summer temperatures could reach 50° Celsius in the shade, a day of just over 30°, such as the day that we were there, would have felt quite chilly to them.

Several times we passed a building that had a huge sign on its roof saying ‘Yaz’d Water Museum’ which had me intrigued. In a place of such perfect desert conditions, I could imagine great halls with banks of display cabinets containing exhibits like a puddle from the rain shower of 1934, Cyrus the Great’s Saturday night bathwater and a half-full syphon from the days when local residents could enjoy a brandy and soda whilst sitting down to watch the Benny Hill Show on television. Mahtab said we didn’t have time to pay it a visit because we were dashing off to have our lunch in a restaurant that was a restored hammam and the museum wasn’t very interesting anyway because it was all about the history of building qanats which we would know all about if we had been listening to her while she was telling us about them as she showed us round the palace only half an hour earlier. ‘Yes Miss!’ we replied in unison.

The restaurant, tiled throughout with intricate turquoise and white ceramic tiles, was well worth the visit. Delightfully cool with delicious food served at tables where a century earlier there would have been steam rooms and plunge pools and people even sweatier than we were. As I write this I dribble a bit from the corners of my mouth at the recollection of eating a dish called abgusht which comprised of a hot iron crucible containing a lamb and potato stew in two layers. The first, rather runny layer was decanted off, just as molten metal would be decanted from a crucible in a steelworks, into a bowl and eaten like soup. Following the table etiquette of the region, I mashed up the second layer with a large metal implement resembling an engine piston rod and spooned it on to my plate to eat with spiced rice drizzled with pomegranate. The starter had been chilled yoghurt, nut and raisin soup which I have mentioned last because, although lovely, it was more like a dessert than a starter. A couple of members of our group thoroughly enjoyed plates of something that contained minced camel testicles, though they hadn’t been aware of the ingredients until the waiter explained the recipe as he cleared the tables and stared at the mess we had made of his starched white tablecloths.

In the afternoon we had a break from Islam and turned our attention to Zoroastrianism which, until then, I knew nothing about. The first port of Zoroastrian call was the ancient site of Dakhmeh Zartoshtian (The Tower of Silence). There were actually two towers, though one was in a much better state of repair than the other, built on hill tops where the Zoroastrians laid their dead so that the vultures could pick their bones clean, thus preserving the purity of the earth which would not have been possible with a burial. At the foot of the towers were the dome-roofed stone ruins of old fire temples in which worship had taken place. This incredible spot where the city met the desert bore a remarkable resemblance to the Star Wars film set.

Ateshkadeh means ‘House of Fire’ and our final historic treasure of the day today was the one that accommodated the Atash Bahram, meaning ‘Victorious Fire’, a Zoroastrian eternal flame that had been burning continuously since 470 A.D. It was refuelled constantly with branches from apricot trees but otherwise it was the same fire that had burned for one and a half millennia. We felt obliged at this point to explain to Mahtab the principle of Trigger’s Broom. Trigger was a character from the BBC television comedy series Only Fools and Horses who said that he had had his road sweeper's broom for twenty years, but added that in that time the broom had needed seventeen new heads and fourteen new handles. Mahtab smiled before hastily scribbling something in her X Travels group leader’s notebook.

Before returning to the hotel we had an early evening visit to the Yaz’d Grand Bazaar which, at the weariest hour of the day, didn’t appeal much to me. But on our arrival I discovered that it was one of the world’s oldest markets with countless arched tunnels crammed with Persian wares and a throng of Persian people out with their Persian shopping lists and shopping bags bearing the Yaz’d Grand Bazaar corporate logo.

Here we found busy little moustachioed men with pale skin due to them never having seen the light of day, trading from small shops and stalls laden with all manner of wares. The most memorable of these were the wooden kitchen knife blocks in the human form with big holes like stab wounds to accommodate the knives, Manchester United football shirts with the letter ‘h’ missing from the word Manchester where it appeared on the crests, handmade clothes (religious and non-religious), cakes (wedding and non-wedding), boxes of chocolates (edible and non-edible), tea pots (chocolate and non-chocolate), and multi-coloured umbrellas which were particularly strange to see considering that we were in one of the driest places on Earth. They had every retail item imaginable with the exception of corkscrews and condoms.

Outside the bazaar we bumped into Farzad, a young man who took delight in explaining to us that he was getting married the following day. So he was out on the town with his blushing bride to be, his mother in law to be, the bridesmaids and some of his sisters and their friends. I was surprised to see so many female members of this one-man stag party. The ladies were all dressed from head to toe in black with only their faces visible. Their joviality surprised me, as did their interest in us and where we were from. We took photographs of various permutations of family and guests but we weren’t invited to the wedding… not even to the evening do.

Dinner was enjoyed by the pool at our hotel once again. It took about an hour to eat it then and another hour to pay for it as we flapped and faffed about with copious piles of indistinguishable Iranian banknotes and the counting fingers of every member of the hotel staff. I was glad I wasn’t the only one in our group who was struggling with the Iranian rials to U.S. dollars to British pounds maths problems that followed each and every meal. The fact that they gave group members individual bills took some of the sting out of this but when settling up I found it was easiest to give the entire contents of my wallet to the Iranian man at the till each time, telling him to take whatever he needed and then hand what remained back to me. Tipping was impossible. As we were walking away from the cashier’s desk I tried to a leave a couple of dog-eared notes that were probably somewhere in the region of 10% but a waiter came running after me shouting that I’d made a terrible mistake. I spent the next ten minutes trying to explain to him and two or three of his colleagues the concept of leaving a gratuity. In the end the only way I could get the message across was by saying, ‘I like you very much and I want to give you some money so here you are and good night!’

Feeling more stressed than I had expected to feel whilst on holiday, I retired to my room and drank a bottle of beer from the well-stocked minibar. It was alcohol-free nectarine beer… my favourite!


ABC 094


Photograph: The Ateshkadeh fire temple in Yaz’d and its beautiful reflection.


Link to Part 7:

Just Deserts



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