Friday, May 23, 2008

Big Brother in Shiraz

“Khoda Marg Beheshoon Bedan!” (May God kill them.)

I was surprised, as the worst curse my friend's granny uses would be “Saar-e Omar” -- which means "Omar’s Head" (disputed Sunni Imam). After some more chatting, she said it again....and again a few minutes later.

The young man she was speaking to, who helps her with all kinds of house maintenance, also has a full time job with the municipality of Shiraz. That day he worked his usual shift from 5am until dark, but without the allotted 2 hour break, and no lunch was provided.

They were preparing the city for the arrival of “Rahbar”—the Supreme Leader, who was visiting Fars province for a week. The city had to be sparkling, and free from rubbish, all dolled-up with massive posters and banners of the leader sweeping across every street view. Every few meters a giant poster billowed. At one intersection we counted 10 within eyesight. Each poster was of a different pose and mood, sometimes with a smile, or sometimes with a serious but compassionate gaze into the distance. It must have been quite a photo shoot. It was also interesting to notice the difference between the current leader’s wide grin beside the more austere, stoic look on Ayatollah Khomeini’s face in some of the posters. I guess nobody likes a moody leader anymore.

Half of the streets in the city were closed off. All the buses leading to the Hafez stadium, where the leader was giving his first day’s speech, were free. Men, women and children chaotically jammed into the buses. The footage we watched on television was bewildering. Thousands of supporters swarmed like ants around the leader’s bus as it approached the stadium, crying out and banging on the window behind which his black-turbaned head timidly nestled, as he waved his hand slowly and smiled. He looked so tiny and vulnerable next to the maddened masses. His smile seemed to hide a hidden terror, which we were not sure of. We wondered if he would ever make a trip like this again, so loudly heralded in advance.

It was announced that a free kabab lunch was to be served in Jahan Park for those who visited from outside the city. (noted that in Serbia it was quite similar, but with free ‘cevapis’—a pork and lamb kebab.)

free kabab everyone!!

Near our place, a microcosm of the big event was taking place. An ice cream truck giving away free ice cream was attacked by hordes of greedy consumers. Every once in a while the ice cream man threw out an entire box of treats, and the crowd would literally tear it to pieces, like lions fighting over a leg of meat. I thought surely some of the people were poor and hungry, but as far as I could tell, that didn’t seem to be the case. Several giggling teenage boys hoarded bundles of 10 or more melting ice cream packs in their hands, definitely not able to eat them all, or even get home in time before they melted.

The talk of the week was about how much money had been spent for this occasion, with unofficial accounts reporting around $1 million. By the end of my stay, that amount had risen to $4 million, each person who retold the news adding a token million or 2. Whatever amount it was, it was definitely a lot.

One taxi driver contemplated, "If only someone would come burn these posters in the night. But that doesn't happen anymore. No one is into revolutionary stuff anymore. Back then, it would happen..."

Passenger added, "Yes, now everyone is just glued to their mobiles! No one cares, everyone is selfish and into material things..."

and etc.

Another time, one woman prayed: “Khodah koneh baroon nayyad. Bad migan az ghadam-e Rahbar bood!” (God, don’t let it rain. Or else the people will say, it’s thanks to the Leader's coming!). A similar situation was brought up, when the Shah visited a town in 1978, a few days after he left there was a big earthquake, and everyone blamed it on him. Plenty of superstitious beliefs like these persist.

Other strange belief systems and practices persist among the more educated classes as well. For example, often my family would pose questions to me, but directed to the person sitting next to me, usually my grandmother, as if I were a child, or not there.

They don't believe that I can cook, and hover behind me any time I attemp something in the kitchen. When I do something contrary to their system (kitchen-epistemology), they ask: "Does it really taste good that way?" Yes, I say, it's okay. "But does your husband like it?" they say (which is the real question). I'm also convinced sometimes they still don't believe I am married, or they quickly forget, even though they met my husband, and he even sang them a song in Persian...

Another strange phenomenon, young girls become “aunties” pretty quickly, commenting earnestly on who got fat or skinny and why, or who’s recently gotten plastic surgery. One of my cousins says she wears an item of clothing only once, unless of course the crowd is different. name a few.

But overall, the Shirazis seem like a very happy bunch, always partying and fooling around. In the spring and summer, they spend most of time in ‘baghs’ -orchards- around the city. Temperatures are much cooler and shadier, and families sit around eating, drinking, cracking nuts and seeds, playing, singing and dancing from noon until midnight. Most parties or dinners take place in a bagh at this time of year.

Latest news, however, is that Arabs from the Gulf (Arabian or Persian?!?) are quickly buying up land in Shiraz. The weather here in the summer is far cooler than in the Gulf, especially in the baghs. Several massive hotels are also being built in Shiraz, being labelled by some "the next Dubai."

The melodious accent, along with other characteristics, could compare to a southern American twang, with a famous "oo" added to the end of everything. Just for fun, some things a Shirazi might say (this may only be interesting for the Iranian readers):

Oo shab to baghoo khayli khosh gozasht. (We had fun that night in the orchard!)

Che’qha’ zesht shodan! (He's got so ugly!)

Az yakhchaloo yey ab mivey begir. (Get some juice from that there fridge.)

Ee gowlha che qashang-an (These flowers are so purty)

Ye-ha! (similar to Yee-haw)

Bakesh nist. Tarifi-am nadaran. (It ain't nothin special)

Migam Ha…. (I'm tellin ya...)

Haa. (yep)

Bah bah (mmm mmm)

Oh’ Oh’ Oh’! (Oh Gawd!)

Ay Val. (You go boy/girl!)

E’qad dawq bood emrooz. E’qad dawq bood. (It sure was hot today...soooo hot)

Ee re? Ya oo re? (This'on? Or that one?)

Yey javoonak ma-re rensand. Khoda obr beysh-oon bede. (A youngin' brought us home, God bless him.)

Chizi an-chenani nist. (It was nothin real special)

Tokhmak bokhorim. (lets eat some seeds)

Kakoo (bro)

Finally, the typical intro to a phonecall in Shiraz:
Allo? Salam. Hal-e Sar Kar? Chetowwri? Khoobi? Bacheha Khooban?.....

And in Tehran, for comparison:
Allo? Salam. Khoobi? Mokhlesim. Nokaretam. Ghorboon-et......

Monday, May 12, 2008

Holy Cola

Zam Zam Cola, named after the holy-water well in Mecca, is the original anti-Western pro-Muslim cola. It was created in 1954 in Iran, initially a branch of Pepsi Cola. After the 1979 revolution, Zam Zam terminated its contract with Pepsi and was taken over by the 'Foundation of Dispossessed' (one of the powerful religious foundations ('bonyad') created by Ayatollah Khomeini--the second biggest corporation in Iran after the National Iranian Oil Company).

Today the soft drink is very successful not only in Iran but across the wider Muslim world--especially Saudi Arabia, who boycotted Coca Cola in 2002 and unofficially named Zam Zam the "Hajj drink". It is exported to parts of Asia, Africa, Europe (interestingly, Denmark was the first European country to sell Zam Zam) and North America. The Zam Zam group also includes Iran Behnoush which specializes in the non-alcoholic 'Islamic beer', Delster.

Zam Zam boasts its International Market, "Serving 26 Countries Around the World"

Meanwhile big European brands also scope out the Islamic market, with Heineken, Bavaria and Tuborg producing their own versions of non-alcoholic beer for Muslims who like to enjoy the bitter beer taste with their burger or pizza (Reminds me of vegetarians who like to eat 'fake meat'), although I hear that it is really impossible for beer to be 100% non-alcoholic.

Although Zam Zam, Coca Cola and Pepsi (Coke and Pepsi, who maintain a huge chunk of the market in Iran, dodge sanctions via Irish subsidiaries) are the most popular soft drinks in Iran, the majority of people still order cola -'noo-shabeh'- by three names: "Meshki, Sefid, or Narenji" --Black, White or Orange.

Struggling to keep up with the demand from the Muslim world (and others who like to boycott American products), Zam Zam's success inspired similar brands, such as Mecca Cola, Qibla Cola, and Parsi Cola.

The most famous of these is Mecca Cola, launched in France during Ramadan in 2002. Back in 2002 Mecca Cola, pledging 10% of profits towards a Palestinian cause, promised to "answer the needs of world citizens by contributing to the fight against American imperialism and the fascism of the Zionist entity." They also promised "to come up with a snappier slogan."

Mecca Cola Slogan: "Don't drink stupid. Drink Committed"
(but it looks just like CocaCola?)

During the Israeli attack on Lebanon in 2006, Iran's state television ran an advertising campaign denouncing Coca-Cola and Pepsi, among other big companies, as "Zionist," and claiming for example that Pepsi actually stands for 'Pay Each Penny to Save Israel."

Anti-Islam Conspiracy about Coca Cola

Out of all the imitations I have tried however, Zam Zam has proven to be the best tasting, and its wide popularity perhaps reflects this. There is one thing it just can't seem to get right: the logo backwards reads "Pi Pi" (a detail Iranian kids love to make fun of) !!

Can't beat the real thing

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Bride of the Desert

Surrounded by the Dasht-e Kavir and Dasht-e Lut deserts, and wild "black mountains" the ancient city of Yazd, which developed according to this unique and difficult setting, became known as "the bride of the desert." Yazd is also famous for some of the best preserved ancient Iranian architecture, peaceful desert charm, silk weaving, and cotton candy (PASHMAK).

Chakhmagh Palace

Yazd has the biggest population of Zoroastrians, dating back to the Sassanid era but increasing after the Arab-Islamic conquest, when many Zoroastrians fled here. Some of the famous Zoroastrian sites include (among many others) a fire temple which houses an 'eternal flame' since 1474 (the flame was transfered here from another site where it burned since 1174), as well as this eerie and unusual graveyard, know as 'Towers of Silence' or 'Dakhmeh-ye Zartoshtian'.

They consist of a pair of stone towers resting on two hills, side by side, just outside the city. According to tradition, corpses were places inside a tower exposed to the elements, but not touching the ground, as the earth is considered sacred. The bodies would eventually get eaten by vultures, while a priest would sit along to see which eye was poked out first, for various symbolic reasons. The practice was officially banned by the 1960s, and today Zoroastrians bury their dead in concrete blocks, so the corpse still does not mingle with the earth.

The main fascination of Yazd is the traditional Persian architecture, especially the 'bad-gir' or wind-catcher, and 'qanat', the ancient water and irrigation system. The bad-gir is a tower structure, designed to naturally ventilate buildings; Qanats are precisely engineered water wells dating back centuries. The two technologies combined to create a practical cooling system, which by 400BC was mastered with the storage of ice in the middle of the desert, in what was called 'yakhchal'--or ice pit. Today the name 'yakhchal' is still used for modern refrigerators.

Bad-Gir/Wind-Catcher at Bagh-e Dolat Abad

Ancient refrigerators

Two girls and a Bad-Gir

Deep inside the ancient houses, down a couple flights of stairs, we discovered a most pleasant room with a surprisingly cool temperature, far away from the dry nauseating heat outside. It was the 'yakhchal' room, chilled with the old school air-conditioning system, where food and water was stored, but also where people gathered for an afternoon nap, or just some relaxation and escape from the mid-day heat.

The roofs of old houses and bazaars are round, like in Kashan, and the explanation I found most convincing was that the the dome shape is never completely engulfed by the sun, thus maximizing the amount shade.

The 'kucheh' or ancient alley, was also designed to protect the urban area from dust and heat from the surrounding desert, creating pleasant shady spaces to wander about.

Although the city is small, we got lost quite a bit. Every time we asked for directions, which was often, they would respond in sing-song accent, nodding their head to some obscure direction:

“Go that way. There is a 3-way intersection. But don’t take it! Keep on going, you will see a light........Don't take the 3-way. And don't get lost now!”

Again and again, the mysterious ‘3-way’ appeared in their answer, wherever we happened to be, and we were supposed to ignore it completely. Act as if it isn’t there, they would argue. I dreamed that the town was synchronized to the 3-way intersection musical. The 10th time we heard this response I had to hold my breath not to laugh.

Unfortunately we missed out on shopping at 'Haj Khalifeh', the famous confectionery shop, a major institution since 1916. It was closed on the day we departed, Friday, but we did get a look when we first arrived. Inside it looks more like an office than a sweets shop. There are no display cases, and customers judge the sweets by placing toothpicks inside the product, with a rating system of 1, 2 or 3 toothpicks for the best stuff.

Haj Khalifeh:

Outside the Bagh-e Dolat-Abad --"No Residence Allowed"

This friendly old man sits at the top of a water well inside the mosque. Before allowing you to enter the narrow steps leading to an anti-climactic well, he sticks his hand out and rubs his fingers together, signaling a mandatory tip.

Women praying at quiet friday mosque in nearby Ardakan (ex-President Khatami's village)

An hour outside Yazd, into the desert, is a holy Zoroastrian site called 'Chak Chak' - or Drip Drip. The legend goes that Sassanian Princess Nikbanu fled the Arab invasion in AD 637 to this spot, and in the midst of drought and desert, threw her staff at the cliff and it started dripping, hence the name, "chak...chak". A tree grew in that very spot, into what is today a giant, lush green blob jutting out of the steep, dry wall. It is quite an impressive work of nature, and every summer thousands come to pay their superstitious duties.

The famous Chak Chak tree 'Pir-e Sabz' --or Old Green, outside the temple

Picnicking outside the temple, in the shade of Pir-e Sabz

Inside Chak Chak's temple, the famous drip,
caught inside a blue bucket and enveloped with incense

view from ChakChak

On the way back from Chak Chak, we stopped at this deserted village, which now seems to serve solely as an Islamic truck-stop.

"Private Bathroom" at the village petrol station (the only functioning site)
There was nothing special inside, same old disgusting bathroom

At the bus station, on my way to Shiraz, the most eligible meal available was the “Sandevich-e Macaroni” – Spaghetti Sandwich. It was actually quite tasty!

In general the Yazdis seemed a bit slow (but extremely friendly), although it’s probably because of the heat. Shirazis on the other hand have no excuse :)
To be continued…