This Sort of Thing...


Tea with the Coppersmith



Part 10 of my personal magic carpet-ride through Persia.

All of a sudden I found myself travelling solo, soon to lose myself in parts of Isfahan that Mother Mahtab hadn’t told us about. Without the help of a grown-up or the library of glossy but often contradictory guide books carried everywhere in the knapsacks of wanderlustful travellers, I was as free as one of the thousands of hooded rooks that flew and, with sinister looks, scuttled and scratted about the streets and gardens across the city. Liberated from the constraints of flock membership, my afternoon’s route would be half planned and half aimlessly wandered.

Because of the Islamic regime’s attitude towards live performances, it was difficult to hear traditional Persian music. Homogenous religious music seemed to be played by radio stations all day long and listened to by a few taxi drivers and the owners of very small tea shops, but it wasn’t in the least bit entertaining in my opinion. I had already bought the only two CDs available in England (which I’d loaded onto my MP3 player and had listened to constantly for a month) but I hadn’t seen any others on sale in Iran or met anybody who was prepared to talk about the country’s rich seam of traditional music. So I was delighted to stumble upon a shop selling CDs and records in a shopping precinct opposite the famous historic Abassi Hotel (a restored inn with a central courtyard for caravans of nomadic merchants and their camels).

Delight quickly turned to despondency on my discovery that the CD shop was closed. My door-to-door enquiries revealed that the owner had been called away to pray. It was the only shop out of the two or three dozen in the precinct that wasn’t open. Thankfully, the man who ran the book shop next door took pity on me and invited me in. He told me that his cousin worked on a farm in Liverpool as he plied me with glasses of sweet black tea and tried to sell me a book about Persian carpets. He was determined to keep me entertained until the music shop proprietor rolled back with his rolled up his prayer mat, and he succeeded.

When the record salesman did eventually appear he immediately understood exactly what I was looking for. He had music from all across the Middle East and North Africa but, although I found this very interesting, I chose to be loyal to my host country and concentrated my attention on the Trad Iranian section. He was so excited at this stranger from foreign climes arriving to show such an interest that he forgot to offer me tea, which he later apologised for. He played a few CD tracks for me on a stereo system as big as the Shah Mosque, I happily parted with 300,000 rials (about £20) to secure ownership of five of his finest discs and then happily I danced out of his shop. Twenty metres from his door I sat on a bench to examine the contents of the carrier bag bearing the name of the shop (or something else) in Perso-Arabic script. The contents, which I lovingly examined every detail of, were also covered in Perso-Arabic script that I knew I would never understand, but that took nothing away from the fact that they were precious additions to my ever expanding collection of World Music.

In the course of my musical shopping sprees, I find it beneficial to listen to a little before I buy. Although my taste covers a wide range, it doesn’t cover everything. In Madras thirty-five years earlier I had bought, from a man in a turban in a market, a pirate cassette of Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks album. I was a long, long way from Madras when I first got the opportunity to play it and, when I did, I was a little disappointed to discover that the unmarked cartridge contained not the work of the gritty-voiced Dylan but of the Cockney barrow boy, Max Bygraves. I gave it to my Nan who said she was thrilled to receive such a thoughtful gift.

The labyrinthine seventeenth century built Bazaar-e Bozorg went on and on for what seemed like eternity. I spent most of the afternoon exploring its tunnels and alleys, marvelling over the vast array of shiny, colourful, tasty and exotic goods for sale there. The majority of them were handmade. Some were still in the process of being handmade as I passed by the busy workshops where sole craftsmen tinkered away with sheets of glittering metal and antiquarian hand tools.  It turned out to be a grand place for talking to wonderfully welcoming and hospitable traders, all keen to make a sale but even keener to have a chat with a wandering loner with tales to tell from foreign lands and a few rials in his pocket, such as the likes of me.

Straight to the top of my friendly traders’ league table went a coppersmith and enameller by the name of Elias. In his little shop, shelves and cabinets groaned under the weight of the multitude of copper vases, jugs, challises and trinket boxes that had been shaped, painted and enamelled with traditional Persian patterns in blues and reds by him and his brother. I felt as though he should have been putting more pressure on me to buy something from his tiny showroom but really he was more interested in just talking, as if he was on holiday himself. I bought a copper vase enamelled with a hand-painted design that included birds and ancient Persian symbols, mostly in blue and white but with traces of red and gold. I couldn’t describe the level of intricacy in the work that must have taken days to complete. It was fabulous and inexpensive and it still sits on my shelf at home today. He had much larger similar items but I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to manage a bigger and heavier piece of artistic copperware in my bag for my flight home. I loved my purchase but it almost hurt to consider the other extraordinary merchandise that I could have bought had I been going back to England by bus. It briefly crossed my mind that Volvo Vahid might have been able to help me out by taking a trip with me in his tour bus, but I instantly dismissed the idea as it was unlikely that he would have enjoyed all the pomegranate-free English beer where I lived.

Haggling over the price of the vase didn’t take long as we appeared to have an immediate mutual respect for each other. He started with a price that wasn’t very high, I came in with an offer that wasn’t much lower and soon the little urn was parcelled up in pages of yesterday’s Isfahan Evening Echo, brown paper and a couple of metres of coarse string. More time was taken up in boiling the kettle, drinking the tea and answering his questions about what extravagantly crafted artefacts a tourist might expect to see on sale in a souvenir shop in central London or Edinburgh. I thought back to the shops that I had seen selling traditional tartan-kilted soldier dolls at Heathrow Airport just over a week earlier, but I didn’t mention them as it would have taken some of the excitement out of his plans to travel to Britain sometime in the next forty or fifty years.

As we drank the tea from small copper cups that Elias had made himself, he told me he had never heard of the English places where I said I had lived but he had a friend who lodged with a Syrian family in Luton. Elias had never been to England but his friend had told him in letters that Luton was a very beautiful city and one day he would like to go there himself. In fact he said he would like to go anywhere in Britain except Manchester. He didn’t care much for the people from Manchester because he couldn’t understand their ‘thick voices’.

Going deeper into the bazaar I found a real life Tin Pan Alley where I was almost deafened by the noise of dozens of people clattering away with hammers to make metal cooking pots and pans. Then I got lost. I was totally disoriented as I meandered by stalls selling fruit, vegetables, nuts, spices, shoes, toys, jewellery, carpets and chadors. These gradually gave way to eerie dark arches of equally dark shops selling automotive parts, gas canisters and corrugated iron sheeting. This, in turn, led me to a series of small courtyards which, despite being out in the open, provided no through route back to Naqsh-e Jahan Square or the streets. I didn’t panic. I just kept walking and walking until eventually I came to a sack of walnuts that I recognised from earlier in the afternoon and I knew then that I was back on track.

In a narrow street near to the public square, as I readjusted my senses to meet the reintroduction of sunlight and fresh air, a man in a security sort of uniform with a gun holster but no gun told me he was a policeman and then asked me if I’d like to go into his brother’s shop to buy some glassware. Showing him that I was already weighed down with shopping bags (two quite small ones) he said that he understood my decision to decline. Then, after the usual brief twenty-minute conversation about my whole life story that Isfahanis loved, I asked if I could take his photograph, to which he agreed. Photographing government buildings or vehicles, or people in positions of authority could cause the photographer big problems in Iran so, overlooking the fact that he probably wasn’t a real policeman anyway, I was delighted that he had gone along with my request. I felt that I had beaten the system. As I lined him up in the viewfinder of my camera, he grabbed a passing boy of about eight or ten years to stand beside him in the picture. I asked him if the boy was his son. He replied that he had no idea who he was but that he had looked like the sort of kid who might enjoy having his photograph taken. Within seconds of hearing the click and whirr of the shutter release, the boy had disappeared without saying anything to either of us.

By that time I was ready to return to the hub of the activity, to catch some of the evening light on camera and to listen to the fantastically haunting maghrib azan (sunset call to prayer). But my plan failed as I became entangled in an hour-long discussion with a couple of teenagers about the contrasting politics, culture, weather and price of petrol in our respective countries. Having been brought up to show great respect for their elders, they wanted to call me Mr Turlough and, while we were talking about the music of the Beatles, they referred to two of the Fab Four as Mr Lennon and Mr McCartney. They said they had never before heard the term Fab Four and that any Iranian using such an epithet would be considered unforgivably rude. The time I spent with these two fellas was absolutely priceless. They were called Ali and Saied and in English and Farsi they wrote the following in my journal:

I wish you don’t need any doctor to help you, I wish you don’t have any problem in your life. - Ali Safaei

You should live until there is any flower (wish). - Saied Mohamad Amin Khodaie

Their prime objective had been to practise their English with me. They invited me to a tea shop where they could offer me a drink (of tea) so that we could speak English in comfort, away from the noise of the busy square, but I told them I was unable to do that as I still had a lot of things to see and do during my short stay. I spent most of the rest of the evening fretting over the possibility that two youths had found me rude and disrespectful.

Because of the debating session with Ali and Saied I missed the call to prayer. I had wanted to record it on my mobile phone and use it as my ring tone. Saied said he would email it to me.

Many more conversations with Iranian people later I found myself in a gaz (nougat) shop trying to buy sweets for my lovely children at home from two sales assistants who spoke absolutely no English. I tried to tell them that my son didn’t like nuts in the hope that they’d be able to come up with a suitable alternative to their nutty gaz for him. In an attempt to overcome the language barrier, they insisted that I try a small sample of virtually everything that they had on display in their glass cabinets. Almost all of the goods that I tried contained nuts, but the unusual sales promotion had at least compensated for the fact that I had forgotten to go for something to eat. There were no other types of sweet shops in the whole of Iran so in the end I settled for a couple of boxes of their sixty percent cut (referring to the pistachio content of the nougat, this being the purest that rials could buy) for my daughters and thought that for the lad I’d just get a big bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk from the shop in Chippenham railway station on the way home. I was sure he’d never know the truth.

My truly marvellous day ended with an hour of journal writing in the lounge at the Setareh Hotel and a lovely smile from the lovely receptionist with the big ugly scar on her face as I ordered a bottle of beer.

A minute later the waiter brought me something I hadn’t previously seen in Iran. It was alcohol-free malt beer… my favourite!



ABC 098


Photograph: Elias the coppersmith holding my copper vase enamelled with a hand-painted design that included birds and ancient Persian symbols, mostly in blue and white but with traces of red and gold that he had made himself.


Link to Part 11:

The Gaddafi Effect




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