Sunday, March 16, 2008

"Excuse me, do you mind if..."

Some days in Esfahan it feels like everyone wants to practice their English. You hardly sit down before a student or schoolkid has approached and asked, usually very politely, if they can talk for a moment. Most of the time it's good fun - once we have been asked the usual questions we get a chance to ask ours. In some countries it can be hard to meet locals and talk about their country, but in Iran it is easy. At times you even have to fend them off, or we end up having separate conversations at the same time. Esfahan seems especially demanding of us. It's the greenest city we have visited, with plenty of parks and a large river with landscaped banks to wander up and down, sit and read and talk.
This city was Iran's capital in the 1600's and the Shah who made it so built some great monuments that have lasted the test of time. The centrepiece is Imam Square - the second-largest square in the world, it is a large rectangle with four decorative portals that connect the main bazaar, the royal palaces, and probably the most beautiful mosque we have seen. It is surrounded by a two-storey arcade of shops and the gardens in the middle are a great place to eat an ice-cream and watch the colours change at sunset. And of course, help people improve their English.

We meet Mehrdad, a 19 year-old student, here. He is good company and we meet up again a couple of times. His family are traditional working-class - moved to the city when he was young. His mother was married at 13 and gave birth to him a year later. As he explains, the mullah encouraged the marriage and having a large family - nowadays, not so many children are expected. One fascinating statistic is that in the ten years after the Revolution, the population of Iran doubled. It now stands around 70 million and the country is still trying to catch up. There is high unemployment in the under-30s. Mehrdad is studying electrical engineering, but there is no guarantee of getting a job when he finishes his degree. "It's not what you know, but who you know" is a commonly-expressed feeling. He is religious - makes regular pilgimages to the holy shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad. One day he asks us if we'd like to go to his cousin's wedding. We are delighted. Mehrdad himself complains how hard it is to meet a girl. He was close to his cousin, in love, but a marriage was out of the question - her mother wanted somebody with more money. But, like Iran, he is full of contradictions - speaks critically of the young girls who meet boys in the parks, whilst lamenting the fact that he does not know how to meet anyone. We are reading War and Peace, where male suitors who wish to court young ladies are obliged to commit themselves early to marriage, and seek consent from the parents. The parents always seek a good match - i.e. a wealthy partner. It seems the tradition is alive and well here, for some.

The river scene in Esfahan is very popular. There are several original old bridges that attract hundreds of people - the best has 33 arches spanning a bend in the river. The bridges serve as damns and were used to irrigate the surrounding countryside. Esfahan has grown enormously since then and disappears over the hillside in the distance. We spend a day walking the riverbank and meeting people. Fathers push their young children to talk to us. A family picnicking invite us to join them on their blanket for tea and fruit. It is election day - they all sport blue thumbs. They support Ahmadinejad - see him as a good President trying to do his best for the Iranian people. On balance we hear more critical comments than complimentary. Some are embarrassed by their President's image abroad, some fed up with rising prices, petrol rationing. The election won't change anything radically - only conservative candidates are allowed to stand, putting many people off voting. The presidential elections are next year - these might be more interesting. At night the streets are packed tight with crowds all shopping for No Ruz - the Iranian New Year festivities that begin with the Spring Equinox. It is just like Christmas shopping at home. The traditional celebrations are pre-Islamic, and people prepare by spring-cleaning their houses and buying new clothes. Our shopping is limited to buying a souvenir killim, produced by one of Iran's dwindling nomadic tribes. Goldfish are being sold on the streets everywhere. This is one of the items that every family should have on their table at No Ruz, along with the Haft Sin - the Seven S's: seven things beginning with the letter 's', including garlic, apple, seeds, vinegar, grass.

While we are here we visit a catherdral in the Armenian quarter. The neighbourhood is full of designer shops and trendy coffee shops. The women's headscarves are more colourful. The church's interior is covered in painted scenes from the Old and New Testament, with a particularly vivid picture of what hell could be like, which fascinates the Iranian tourists. There are also some gory images of a saint being tortured in most bizarre and gruesome ways. The bells ring and the Iranians smile with delight at the novelty, as we did when we first heard the call to prayer way back in Marrakesh. We also see the Martyrs' cemetery - row upon row of photographs above the graves of young men who died during the long war with Iraq.

Our time in Esfahan passes quickly, and before we get too fat on the ice cream we head back to Tehran.

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