This Sort of Thing...


The Great Falafel Kerfuffle



Part 8 of my personal magic carpet-ride through Persia.

The least stimulating day of the Persian adventure had taken us on a long journey across the Dasht-e Kavier desert from Yaz’d to Isfahan. Hours spent staring out of a window at passing expanses of hardly anything had been largely uninteresting and uncomfortable. On reflection, this sandy landscape stretching from the Red Sea to the Persian Gulf might have been considered one of the world’s best beaches but it didn’t look like much fun at the time. However, every moment of numbness suddenly seemed to have been worthwhile as our coach approached a place that might be better described as a melting pot of commotion than a city. Isfahan, with a population in excess of 2.2 million, was the latest on our list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Since leaving the City of Na’in there had been very little traffic on the road. Just a few cars and vans crammed with too many people or goats on their way to places where there might be something to eat, or where the latter might become something to eat. Occasionally we’d see colossal trucks wearily wending their way along a land route that linked Southern Asia with Eastern Europe. Their loads would probably have been bulk agricultural produce in transit to feed the more densely populated areas, or heavy machinery being relocated from where it had become obsolete to where it would be refurbished and reused. Concealed within these shipments it was possible that there might also be human traffic fleeing something dreadful. Apart from a few pilgrims bound for holy sites there were no signs of other tourists; our swanky, bright blue and yellow Volvo coach must have stuck out like a sore angošt (thumb). As we got nearer and nearer to our destination the trickle of traffic gradually intensified and coagulated before becoming a solid jam in which our bus, that looked a bit like a wasp anyway, struggled to make progress like a floundering wasp trying to escape from a blob of spilt jam.

Just as it had been in Tehran on our very first day, the peak period city traffic was too dense for our tour bus to negotiate, so it was decided that we would make the final kilometre of our journey to the hotel in taxis. These were much more manoeuvrable, and they didn’t belong to Mahtab’s travel company so it didn’t matter if they got scratched or dented.

There were twelve of us in the group so it was calculated that we would quite comfortably fit into three taxis, all of which were Paykans (Iranian Hillman Hunters) the design of which provided seats to accommodate three passengers in each. Again, reminiscent of our first bash at this city centre ferrying about that we’d seen on day one, there was a lot of squeezing in and touching bits of people in a way that didn’t sit easily with the local culture or laws. Our bags were thrown into the boot to encounter the same not-quite-fitting scenario and, despite the skilled use of frayed and worn lengths of nylon rope, we witnessed the hurtling of one of them onto the busy road as we raced to get through a traffic light that was already four or five seconds into its red phase. Rajid the taxi driver told us not to worry and in truth only Kidderminster Andy showed any sign of concern about the bag because it was his that had broken loose from its state-of-the-art bit of string. Looking back, I suppose we may have behaved a little selfishly, but the rest of us were too worried about our lives to think about anything else.

What happened in the next few minutes must have looked like a video clip of a car chase in a low-budget American film as the brakes were slammed on and the Paykan was thrown into reverse gear before doing an illegal left turn to thrash through the shrubbery planted in the central reservation and re-join the dense traffic on the opposite carriageway. A few panic stricken chickens flapping about wouldn’t have looked out of place. In Rajid’s defence I must say that although the recovery of Andy’s bag was of prime importance to him, he ensured somehow that no pedestrians, wildlife or lollipop ladies were harmed. Only a few rose bushes and maybe the chassis of the taxi were listed among the casualties.

An angry policeman in a motionless car adjacent to ours bellowed some sort of warning in the most aggressive Farsi that I had ever heard, but Rajid was able to shout back at him even more loudly and then double our already death-defying velocity to lose the police car and catch up with the other two taxis in our convoy. He stopped once, and only briefly, jumping out to run through the log jam of bloodstained vehicles to retrieve the accidentally jettisoned bag that lay on the pavement guarded by a dozen smiling onlookers. The incident had most likely seemed like a common occurrence to them. It crossed my mind that installing an airport-style baggage carousel on every Isfahani street corner might make life simpler in the inevitable event of this sort of thing happening again.

And all this had taken place because Vahid didn‘t think it was safe to try to drive his big bus through the mad throng of urban traffic. Later in the day, whilst sharing the telling of the tale of this white knuckle ride with the other survivors, Mahtab remarked that she had learned to drive in a Paykan. I told her that I had too, and about my emotional attachment to these wonderful machines, including the one in which I had come close to losing my luggage and my life that afternoon. She went on to say that most Iranians learnt to drive from watching clips of car chases in a low-budget American films.

The Setareh Hotel in Hafez Street was the ‘Hotel of the Trip’ competition winner by an Islamic country mile. Just like myself, it was stylish but not quite luxurious and some bits didn’t work properly, so I felt well and truly at home there. The fact that the minibar in our room was not just well-stocked with alcohol-free beer but also contained a number of tins of pineapple chunks was, for me, the match winning feature. The man from Infidel Monte had obviously said yes.

As well as being a little more plush than the other hotels we had stayed in, it had the tasteful ambiance and elegance of hotels from times long gone. Falling into the depths of very comfortable leather sofas in the lobby to relax with a drink and watch the Middle East and his wives go by, I could imagine that former guests might have included the likes of Omar Sharif, Peter O’Toole or the cast of Carry On Follow That Camel.

Behind the hotel’s reception desk worked a beautiful young woman. She was tall with olive skin, long dark hair and those classic Persian deep dark eyes. When she turned her head I was shocked to see a really ugly scar about ten centimetres long on the other side of her face. Each time I saw her after that, I couldn’t help but wonder about how and why the scar had got there. Maybe it had been the result of an accident, but I couldn’t remove the thought that it might have been something more sinister. Isfahan was well known for its health tourism; people from all over the Arab world travelled there to have their large prominent arched noses modified by plastic surgeons. I wondered why she hadn’t taken advantage of that, concluding that she may have been advised not to, so that it would remain as a constant reminder of something to her. I hoped I was wrong. In less than a week I’d fallen in love with Iran but in that same short time that love was frequently and rigorously tested.

Wiping the residue of the pineapple chunks from our chins, Kidderminster Andy and I travelled down in the 1930s style lift to the reception area to meet Oldham Liz and venture out into our latest jewel of the East. We already knew that we were a long way from the tranquil streets of Yaz’d and Na’in. Isfahan, Iran’s third largest city, was going to be a whirlwind of fascinating people, architecture and culture. A smiling concierge in an old-fashioned uniform held the door open for us and told us to have a nice day as we gulped and stepped out into the street.

Naqsh-e Jahan Square, approximately 500 metres from our hotel, was said to be the second largest public square in the world, surpassed only by Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Mahtab had been doing such a good job as our tour guide that I didn’t like to point out to her that it was really more of a long narrow rectangle than a square. Perhaps I should have done because, if Tiananmen Square really was geometrically square then Naqsh-e Jahan Square would surely have been able to claim the title of biggest public rectangle in the world, which sounded much grander than second biggest square.  

We hadn’t walked far when a young Iranian gentleman asked us where we were from and were we enjoying our stay and would we like to visit his shop to drink tea? Having imagined a small tea shop with red and white gingham table clothes and all that goes with them, we became immediately suspicious in a racial stereotyping kind of way when he led us down an empty alley to a large carpet shop. We were to be hustled! But in his defence, he did keep to the promise of his opening line and provided us with a cups of sweet black tea. As none of us had left home with any plans to buy floor coverings, we sat on the lavish leather cushions, drinking our tea and feeling a bit awkward about what to say or do next.

We were relieved of our embarrassment when one of the many young proprietors asked ‘Have you never been in a carpet shop before?’ So we must have looked as awkward as we felt. Eyeing the magnificent handmade rugs and carpets that adorned every inch of the walls, I hadn’t the heart to tell him about the Allied Carpets Bank Holiday Monday Warehouse Clearance Sale that seemed to take place every day of every year in Swindon. So we explained our predicament and drank their tea and answered their questions about our opinions of their country. They were all lovely, friendly people striving to make a success of their business. I would describe them as persuasive but not pushy because they did succeed in making me wish that I could buy something from them. I promised that I would make every effort to purchase one of their carpets on my next visit to Iran and in the meantime I would tell all my friends about their fine emporium and their delicious tea. We hadn’t spent a single rial but we were thanked profusely as we left to return to the public rectangle.

As darkness fell and the muezzin called from the top of one of the minarets of the mesmerising Shah Mosque, the lovely gardens and fountains were lit up and the square exploded with colours to become one of the most memorable night time city scenes that I had ever set my eyes upon. The ornately decorated Ali Qapu Palace was also very beautiful and I would have said that the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque was the most wonderful building I had seen in Iran had it not been only 200 metres from the even better Shah Mosque. Exquisite ancient mosques in Iran were like Leeds buses; you’d wait ages for one to come along and then all of a sudden you’d get two together with men waving their arms about and shouting streams of words you don’t understand from the tops of them.

Kidderminster Andy was keen to introduce us to Persian falafel. Someone he knew in Kidderminster (though it may have been Bromsgrove, but it didn’t matter) had told him that the best falafel in the world was to be found in Isfahan. We searched for a falafel restaurant but to no avail. We already knew that restaurants were rare and usually not required in Iran because families eating their meals together at home or on a blanket in a park or garden was such a strong feature of their culture. Andy showed signs of panic until we eventually found a small non-alcoholic beer and falafel bar where we bought the biggest sandwich ever made. Falafel sandwiches only came in extra-large or massive sizes so we shared one between the three of us. It was a bit dry, making me wonder if it really was the best in the world. Andy panicked again and muttered something unflattering about Bromsgrove under his breath. We washed our food down with much needed alcohol-free beer in bottles that had no labels on them, so we assumed that the beer must have been alcohol-free homebrew.

Our meal had been a bit disappointing so we became curious when we noticed picnickers in the square eating gooey yellow stuff that didn’t look all that appetising but seemed very popular. We asked some people what it was and after a thirty-minute session of being told their grandmother’s recipe and having our photographs taken with them and explaining exactly where Oldham was in relation to Buckingham Palace, they told us it was called kashke bademjan and pointed us in the direction of a small kiosk where we could buy it. It was a dish made from aubergine, garlic and saffron, topped with sautéed onions and eaten with naan. I had to admit it looked absolutely disgusting. Oldham Liz, who was a surgeon, said that it had the appearance of something that might be left lying around at the end of a long hard day in a hospital’s ear, nose and throat department. We sat on a low stone wall in the square to eat it. A sort of night time picnic, just like the hundreds of Iranian folks around us were having. It was absolutely delicious.

Our bellies full, we sauntered a little more in the area of the square. There were no restaurants or bars and the shops had nearly all closed for the night. All that remained open were the shops that sold gaz (nougat) which must have inexplicably had some sort of late licence arrangement with the local authority.

Some Iranian ladies sitting on the grass by the fountains laughed and shouted at us. All a bit of fun, I thought. But then an Iranian man came up to us from nowhere and apologised for their ‘cheap jokes’ adding that he hoped we weren’t offended. My only regret was that I hadn’t understood what they were saying as I quite enjoy a cheap joke, though I didn’t tell him that. I suspected that they had been amused by the traces of kashke bademjan that had dribbled from my chin to the front of my shirt.

Back at the hotel we marvelled at the elevator music. With perfect acoustics, it seemed as though there was someone in there with us performing Chopin on a concert grand piano. Also, the recorded voice of a lady saying ‘third floor’ and ‘have a nice day’ in English and in Farsi sounded sophisticated and seductive. I remember thinking that the cabin of this small lift was more comfortable and attractive than quite a few hotel rooms I had stayed in on my previous travels.

Kidderminster Andy, who was still showing signs of distress from the unfortunate outcome of the falafel episode, decided that he was going to hit the pineapple chunks. I couldn’t stand the atmosphere so I left him to it and returned to the hotel lobby to write the day’s entry in my journal. I ordered a coffee from the beautiful woman with the awful scar. A man in a bellhop uniform brought it to where I was sitting. It looked good and it smelt good but it tasted awful. But at least they had coffee; this was only my third cup since my arrival in Iran. As I sat and wrote, occasionally looking up to observe the assortment of people who were wandering into the hotel from the darkness of the Persian night, I felt totally at peace with the world. I decided that it was only the poor standard of the coffee that was putting me off staying there forever.

Five minutes later I decided that the coffee was better described as unbearable than awful, so I spoke to the lovely receptionist and ordered a bottle of beer. It was alcohol-free cantaloupe beer… my favourite!


ABC 096


Photograph: The kashke bademjan seller of Isfahan.


Link to Part 9:

The Man in the Iran Mosque



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