Iran Life – The Kindness Of Strangers

mashad1Mashad was an experiential disaster – a depressing waste of time and air fare! It is a fast-growing, modern city of two and a half  million people close to the Afghan and Turkmenistan border. Its name means ‘Place of Martyrs’ and its raison d’être is that the 8th Shiite imam, Ali al-Reza was murdered there 1200 years ago and it has become a place of pilgrimage as a result. The shrine is, after Mecca, the most visited place on the planet for Muslims with in excess of 20 million visitors each year. It is in a state of constant expansion, and whilst the tile-work is typically Iranian and pretty gorgeous the underlying concrete is not. The oldest and most important parts of the shrine are off-limits to non-muslims and to visit any parts require women to cover themselves with a burqa and stay separate from men – great for visitors from other cultures! The first photo sums the place up for me – a conversation where she can’t look at him and he won’t look at her! If you do decide to visit the bits that are open to you you will be escorted by an ‘indoctrination squad’  from the visitor information office.

Mashad lies along the ancient Silk Road and has been home to some of the renowned Persian poets like Ferdowsi, philosophers, artists and singers. 120kms to the west of the town is the shrine and grave of the great mathematician, astronomer, engineer and poet Omar Khayyám, assuredly a place worth an uncomfortable ride in a taxi to see. Nope! The biggest attraction was the display of oriental tea pots at the tea house! Take our advice and give Mashad a miss – the turbulence on the flight to get there was far more interesting than the destination!!

at least the gardens were nice and the teapots interesting

I said that I found Mashad depressing and so perhaps I should explain – the sight of thousands of brain-dead people, particularly women, giving in to ritualistic wailing and crying as soon as they enter the shrine of a bloke who was poisoned in 818 is enough to take away my will to live! This, along with other religious pageantry is beyond me and I despair for the future for humanity whenever it crosses my path. I have no problem with personal faith – that is a crutch that anyone is entitled to hobble along with, but please respect the rights of others, including orang-utangs, to manage without having it rammed in our faces!

On a positive note, we actually left Mashad by train after a couple of days! In the restaurant car we had the misfortune to be engaged in conversation by an imam. This imam was 71 years of age (our contemporary); he has studied the holy Qur’ån in the holy city of Qom for 50 of those years – a Koranic scholar indeed! And, he was asking us (I say ‘us’, but he wouldn’t look at J, even when she forced her way into the conversation) our opinion about why the Islamic Revolution had happened – a miscalculation on his part, perhaps! We expounded on recent history; the overthrow by the British and US of the first elected democratic Iranian government of Mohammed Mossadegh (photo) and the imposition of the despotic Riza Shah.

MossadeghThis followed by the leftist revolution that ousted the shah and then its takeover/sandbagging by the Islamists and the creation of the Islamic Republic. Factual history was not his strong point – he proceeded to deliver a lecture, sans all the murdered leftists, that had me ‘requesting’ that he shut up and let the interpreter interpret! Luckily for him, and us, the train stopped for everyone who wanted to get off for prayers and we never saw him again!

I realise that this is a disjointed way to tell a story, but I want to include the following because it is relevant to the ‘kindness of strangers’ in the title.

J and I were sitting in our hotel foyer in the city of Kerman when we were engaged in conversation by a very distinguished-looking gentleman by the name of Mohammed who was in town on business. Mohammed had been a fighter pilot in the Shah’s air force, had trained in the US and had fought during the Iran-Iraq War. Our conversation ranged over many things; internal and external politics; sanctions and the death of Mohammed’s wife just a few years earlier from cancer. Sanctions had deprived his wife of the treatments/medicines she needed to have a fighting chance of survival. It was a sad and disturbing tale related with great dignity and suppressed anger – not towards the peoples of the US and its so-called allies in the ‘innernashunal communidy’, but towards the war criminals who lead those countries.

the beautiful teashop

Time flew and we were soon enough parting to get on with our day. We were visiting the delightful old bazaar and found, by chance, a wonderfully old and beautifully restored hamam that had been converted to a very popular local tea house. As we sat sipping and soaking up the atmosphere Mohammed walked in and we called him over. He ordered up tea and a water pipe and refreshing bowls of iced ‘pudding’ and more conversation flowed. He left just ahead of us and when we called the waiter over to settle up we found that our tab had been paid ‘by the gentleman who has just left’. A small kindness from someone who had, not long before, been a stranger.

tea with a gentleman – our only photo of Mohammed
iced pud
the refreshing local, iced ‘pudding’

Keep that in mind as we get this disjointed post back on track:

Compare and contrast this with the town of Shãhrud where we hopped off the train for a couple of days’ excursions to the mountains and deserts. Shãhrud is a delight of water and trees and ordinariness. It sits at the base of the mountains by the edge of the great desert and there is much to see and enjoy. I want to concentrate on our drive out into the desert. We spent quite a lot of time observing and photographing camels! There are loads of them wandering about being nice to their babies and dust bathing!

upon reflection
modern day camelboys

We eventually turned up at a gate to a compound in a deserted village and tooted our horn. A camel checked us out, followed by a herder.

. . you rang, Sir?

We were invited in to examine the stock of youngsters and then to drink tea with him and his nephew at his home. His house was a breeze block hovel; dirt floor; smoke-blackened walls; plastic carpet. We settled down and made ourselves at home.

two members of the ‘Axis of Evil’

After he had set the teapot brewing he addressed J – ‘You are not from this country’ he said, ‘you are not used to wearing that thing’, indicating her scarf. ‘Please, you are in my home, make yourself comfortable and take it off if you would prefer’.

Can you feel my emotions as I write and you read this?

We went on to discuss, at his instigation, world affairs and sanctions in particular and how he couldn’t buy barley for his camels (this has been a hard time with lower than usual rainfall this year and so less for the animals to graze – they are thin).

a few days old
the remains of a once thriving community
the two guys maintain the qanat to bring water from those mountains

What the f$%^ the US has against people with life-threatening illness and desperately poor camel herders in Iran is beyond me (and him) but we promised that we would at least blog about it, for what it is worth! All that said, what has stuck in our minds is the gentle hospitality, kindness and thoughtfulness of a camel herder and his nephew in the great desert of central Iran and the dignified widower in Kerman. May their god go with them and may barley and medicine, along with everything else, be removed from the list of embargoed goods, and may western, colonialist despotism be removed from the lives of people everywhere. Inşallah!

Alan in Okçular

The Sexual Life Of The Camel

‘The sexual life of the camel, Is stranger than anyone thinks.

One night in a moment of passion, He tried to deflower the Sphinx!

Now, the Sphinx’s posterior anatomy Is covered with sand from the Nile.

Which accounts for the ‘ump on the camel, And the Sphinx’s inscrutable smile!’


(a photo extravaganza first posted on Archers of Okçular 26.3.2012)

a magnificent bull in rut

J and I have had much to ‘get the ‘ump’ about of late. Those who follow these rambling wanderings through time, space and reality will know of the quarry that has been opened next door to our home. Anyway, to escape the noise, dust and mud that kicks off our days at 6.30 every single morning, we decided to have a few days away at a spa and take in some Camel Wrestling as well.

For those of you worried about blood sport or cruelty, let me reassure you that I’ve attended many a bout in my years in Turkey and I’ve never seen a camel hurt or in any way disturbed by the presence of the noisy audience. The animals are focussed on just one thing – being top-dog in the hierarchical world of bull camels at a time of year when the ladies are feeling receptive.

a bit of argy-bargy

To set the scene, you need to know that camel wrestling is not a touristy thing; it takes place over the winter months when the females are in season. With the steady expansion of winter tourism and with many more foreign residents around these days, venues near these centres now see a lot more ‘yabancı’ (foreigners) than used to be the case. For this reason, J and I prefer to frequent those places that are less ‘polished’ and less concerned about the image they are projecting. Rejecting the concrete safety fences of Selçuk for the chicken wire of Yatağan or Nazilli or Buldan suits us fine. Some of these venues are just a cleared area of forestry land, or an open space in the middle of a derelict works area, or, as was the case at Buldan where this post is set, a space in the middle of a quarry that was accessed through the town rubbish tip!

Welcome to Buldan’s Camel Wrestling Arena

As we drove through the mounds of rubbish and dust we did wonder if the sign pointing us this way might not have been turned around as a prank. Our doubts soon evaporated as we joined the back of a queue to get our tickets from the Zabita (municipal police) – it was mayhem as drivers behind tried to pass on both sides on a track wide enough for one. We handed over 15 lira and got our ticket to admit one car and as many people as could jam themselves inside; pretty good value for a family day out. We drove forward just a couple of metres where we were again stopped by the Zabita who demanded our ticket, tore it into bits, chucked it with the rest of the rubbish and waved us through! Burası Türkiye! This isTurkey!

Being obvious foreigners, we drew a lot of polite interest and we were soon adopted by the members of an Ottoman Marching Band; photos were taken, cards exchanged and we now find that we are to be their honoured guests whenever we are in Denizli.

honorary members of the Denizli Fatih Mehteri – Ottoman Marching Band

For those who have never experienced an event like this, it can best be described as a total assault on the senses. There are the sounds and sights and smells that emanate from thousands of people talking, drinking and cooking; there are tea vendors, candy-floss and balloon sellers; sausage makers, video sellers and those cooking meatballs and sausages on huge ‘barbies’; there are wandering bands of traditional folk musicians and the over-loud public address system. In the case of Buldan, there were the colourful uniforms of the Denizli Fatih Mehteri (Ottoman Marching Band), and then, of course, there are the stars of the show, the bull camels, decked out in all their finery; foaming and slobbering at the mouth and pumping out bucket loads of testosterone induced pheromones! The overall effect on the sensibilities of the new visitor is incredible – J and I have been attending these things for a while now and we still get a huge buzz. If you love spectacle and you love people-watching, you won’t find a better combination anywhere.

when leading your rutting bull a hoodie is not a good idea

It is worth remembering that the bulls are behaving as they would ‘in the wild’ where the instinct to gather as many females together as they can by seeing-off any likely competitor is so powerful that everything else pales into insignificance. To avoid any possible injury to these valuable beasts as they compete, they have a cord tied around their jaws to prevent biting.

camel wrestling – the take-down ‘Come on ref!’

The contests between bulls amounts to a great deal of pushing and shoving with attempts to topple the opponent by wrapping a head and neck around his front legs. Some bouts are over quickly, others are called out of time by the judges – sometimes one of the beasts will take off for the hills and, chicken wire fences being no impediment, they end up scattering chairs, picnics and people! For me, some of the funniest moments come when two bulls, locked together and oblivious to anything around, end up by the fences – off come the spectators’ hats, up come the plastic chairs and there follows a totally ineffectual pantomime performance as the crowd tries to shoo the animals away. The wise would simply leave their place by the fence, but then they’d be giving up a prime spot and you know what Turks are like in a queue!

deve sucuk – camel sausage ‘sarny’

In the end there will usually be a winner with one animal being ‘pinned down’; a judge blows a whistle and two teams of ten to a dozen men move in, get a rope around each bull and then proceed to pull them apart – no easy task. In the end the beasts are separated and immediately begin to act like perfectly behaved gentlemen, showing no interest in any more brawling.

folk musicians wander and play to the crowds

Buldan proved to be one of the very best venues we’ve been to – once through the rubbish tip, the atmosphere was brilliant – from here on the photos can do the talking. Back at our spa hotel we were able to have a nice long soak in the hot mineral waters and replace the smell of meatballs and rutting camels with the whiff of sulphur from the bowels of the earth – Sheer Bliss!

to the victor the spoils
two young ladies wondering what all the fuss is about
I say, that’s my cousin you’re eating!
making a day of it – Turkish style
a most superior beast
standing proud
. . getting out was harder than getting in!

Alan in Okçular