Category Archives: Iran

What are these? Hint: when you eat them they look different.

In Xi’an we saw sunflower seeds still attached to their sunflowers. The most observant amongst our blog followers were able to identify the food they were looking at, even though it looked very different from how it displays on a supermarket shelf.

In a similar vein, who can tell me what food you’re looking at here. Once again, they don’t look the same by the time they get into your mouth.


Merge like a ZIPPO

We’ve navigated swarms of scooters in Viet Nam, yelled at jeep driver until he slowed down in Sulawesi and been gob smacked by how close the cows in Delhi traffic jams come to being mincemeat. But nowhere have we been as afraid of traffic – both when we’re in it in a taxi and when we’re wanting to cross it – as we have in Iran.

The chaos in Iranian city streets is hard to describe. Pedestrians crossings are meaningless, traffic lights guidelines, and the constraints of one way streets surmountable so long as you are backing in the wrong direction. More than all that it is the sheer aggression of Iranian drivers that is most astounding, especially when, in every other circumstance, they seem so genial. Instead of ‘merge like a zip’ it’s like merge like a ZIPPO LIGHTER and set fire to anything in your way as a result.

We’ve come across a couple of explanations for the crazy driving behaviour. One is that there’s a kind of inshallah culture. People believe so strongly in the omnipotence of Allah that they figure he’ll look after them well enough. Either something is faulty with their logic, or Allah just doesn’t like Iranians that much: Iran rounds out the top six countries with the most road deaths per capita.

Another explanation is that Iranians are pathologically polite in inter-personal relationships, but that goes to pieces under the cover of anonymity. So, you probably won’t find many who only discuss their fury with American foreign policy with travelers, but many  will shout “death to America” when they join a massive protest.

The logical extension of this interpretation is to try and make driving, or road crossing, a more personal experience: make eye contact with the person you’re hoping will wave you through. We’ve had limited success with this approach. Instead we just opt for safety in numbers. When we need to cross a busy road we’ll wait until there are Iranians who have grown up with this particular variety of crazy, and cross in their shadow.

Fast food development – Iran

If it were the prevalence of fast food generally that we were recording then Iran would up there with the best of them. There are plenty of places selling sandwiches with felafel or inedible sausage, and a few stretch to pizza with inedible sausage too. But our project is about the development of Western fast food brands, and on that basis Iran is very different.

Note: not a real KFC.
Note: not a real KFC.

There are no Western fast food brands. None. I saw a sign that said KFC once, but it was just a sandwich shop masquerading as diversified. In fact, Iran almost has less than the few other countries that we have categories as stage 1 (no Western fast food brands) because other Western convenience products are relatively hard to come by too. There is Coke and Pepsi, bottled locally, but it competes on a even footing with Iran’s own soft drink brands. You can’t reliably find a Mars bar at a corner store.

But back to the central question, we’re approaching the time in our travels when we will aggregate the fast food development ratings and mash them up a bit with other indicators of country development. Without looking at the numbers Iran is looking like a serious outlier. It is much richer than its fast food development implies. Or its literacy or child mortality rates.

It is simply politics that stops you getting a Big Mac in Bandar Abbas.

Valley of the hashish assassins

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The Alamut Valley seems like a good place to play hide and go defend yourself. Its hills are craggy, perfect for building castles on top, and its views are long, perfect for seeing who is coming to get you.

It is likely for this reason that in the 12th century Hasan-e-Sabah and his followers setup a network of intensely fortified castles here. Sabbath led the heretical Ismali Muslim sect which differs from the dominant Twelver Shiia form of Islam because it only recognises five Imams.

Sabbah trained a ferocious mercenary organisation and would send his subjects out on daring missions to assassinate religious and political leaders who posed threats. To convince his warriors to accept certain death on their missions he told the they would go to paradise as martyrs. In fact, or at least as the story goes, he would cultivate these beliefs by showing them beautiful secret gardens, filled with alluring maidens while they were unwittingly stoned on hashish. This practice gave root to the term ‘hashish-iyun’, the root of the modern English word, assassin.

There’s a competing explanation that all this was made up to discredit Sabah and his particular brand of Islam (which coincidentally was more free-thinking and pro-science). But that’s a less interesting story.

In any case, the formidable defences of the castles of the assassins were eventually broken and Ismali Islam all but disappeared in Iran. It did pop up again, though, in Tajikistan and northern Pakistan. We stayed with an Ismali family on Morkhun.

Most of the castles were thoroughly destroyed but we still thoroughly enjoyed our trip to the valley. The landscape is impressive: shades of Central Otago, but with a sense of scale that you never really see in New Zealand. There were also red rocks that looked like they belonged in Australia. Plus, most tourism in Iran is city based, and it was nice to be out and about.

Collecting companions in Qazvin

Everywhere we go in Iran people want to say hello. “Hello!” they say. And then “Welcome to Iran!” Often there’s some variation of “From country?” Their smiles suggest they’d love to ask more, but they don’t know how.

In Qazvin there were more people who could take the conversation a little further and wanted to prove it. My best guess is that’s because Qazvin, scarcely two hours from Tehran, is in a richer, better-educated part of Iran, but sees fewer tourists than the bigger cities. So we were still a big novelty.

These conversationalists would get in step with us when we walked the city streets. They’d rattle off an elaborate, and presumably much practiced speech. It’d include a welcome, for sure, and probably a thank you to Fiona for respecting local customs and wearing hejab.

One was an English teacher for kindergarten. He told us, with great excitement, that we were the first native English speakers he had ever spoken to. He showed us around an old caravanserai – an inn where traders with their camels stopped to rest along the Silk Road – and he showed us the book he was learning English from. It was published in the US, a rarity in Iran, and he’d covered it with Persian newspapers so it wouldn’t be recognised and pinched.

Another informed us, as part of his opening salvo, that he liked German people very much, but hated the English. “Impolite!” he said “one English say she want to be alone, not talk to me!” With his English so forceful it came out aggressive. I knew how she felt, but we felt some obligation to oblige him lest New Zealand end up on the hate list too.

Then there was Vahid. He introduced himself when he heard us pondering options over the guidebook as we bussed in from Tehran. He was headed to Qazvin to start the first semester of an MBA. Remarkably, he’d chosen that over a Masters in Engineering at University of Auckland where he could continue his studies in earthquake proofing. The first base isolators, he said, were in a tomb in Iran, but it didn’t amount to invention, because the system was inadvertent.

It was great to talk to Vahid. His English, education and background meant we could have meaningful conversations about a wide range of subjects: health insurance premiums and retirement savings in Iran; why alcohol is banned in Islam; Iran’s tempestuous relationship with Saudi Arabia; internet speeds; constitutions and tax. That’s to say nothing of the far superior taxi fares he bargained for us when we traveled to a nearby valley together the next day.

It was great to make a connection where we were more than an English language learning resource. We learned a lot from Vahid. We really hope he makes it to New Zealand one day so we can show him around.

Quite a coup

Sometimes when I read about historical events I get a strong desire, borne of frustration, to be able to transport myself to the place a key decision was made, look decision makers in the eye, and show them proof that what their decision will be calamitous. I’ve long felt this was about UN inaction in Rwanda in 1994, for example. And now I can add the British and American engineered Iranian coup of 1953.

I’ve read several accounts recently, and the story is pretty much agreed. It is also extensively evidenced in documents that were leaked to the New York Times in 2000.

In the 1950s Iran was moving towards democracy, maybe not the purest but certainly not the worst in the region. A populist Prime Minister called Mossaddegh was elected, partly on a platform of renegotiating the oil concessions of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. You probably know it as BP. Whereas the Americans in Saudi Arabia were sharing oil revenues fifty/fifty with locals, AOIC was taking 92%. Iranians were getting pissed.

Mossaddegh resolved to cancel the AIOC contract, effectively ending British access to Iranian oil. The British cried foul but the International Court of Justice, and at first, at least, the Americas, took Iran’s side. The contract was between companies, not states, and Mossaddegh was planning to pay compensation to effectively buy the contract out.

The British managed to pivot the narrative. Mossedegh was nationalising oil, they said, and that meant he was probably a communist sympathiser. There’s evidence that the British, and the CIA agents they were trying to rile, didn’t really believe this, but with the Soviets on Iran’s northern border and the domino theory very much in vogue, this poke was enough to get the wheels of a coup moving.

Like something out of Homeland, MI6 and the CIA cultivated and corrupted individuals they thought would be keen to overthrow democracy and return to the rule of the hereditary Shah. A couple of million dollars was enough to get this done. In 1953 these folks successfully executed a broadly bloodless coup, reinstated the Shah, and got oil flowing to the British again.

There were three serious, and inter-locking problems associated with the coup, and that’s not even counting its motivations. First, the Shah wasn’t a very nice guy, nor a very competent ruler. Without a genuine mandate his regime was authoritarian and barbaric with its opponents. He was liberal and reforming, but his subjects didn’t look to the West like he did. Second, the instigators of the coup that the Shah appointed to run the country were, pretty much by definition, the most corruptible officials around. They didn’t do a great job. Finally, America’s fingerprints were clearly all over the coup. This was an affront to Iranian nationalism, undermined the authority of the Shah, and festered into the 1979 revolution and Iran’s transition to an Islamic Republic.

The consequences of the coup linger today in the popular anti-Americanism here. The fear of foreign influence which leads Iran to have a strident and aggressively independent foreign policy. And, in what is perhaps the richest irony, the oil that British spies were so evil to secure, is beyond their reach because of sanctions they’ve put in place against the new Iranian regime. It still gets sold, though, mostly to Iran’s biggest customer, China.

You can call us Mashti now

Every year between twelve and fifteen million Shia Muslims visit Mashhad’s holy shrine. To understand why they do you need to know a little about Shia Islam.

There was a schism in Islam over the rightful successor to the prophet Muhammad. Sunnis believed it was the ruler of the caliphate. Shias believed it was Muhammad’s son-in law (and cousin), Ali. They followed Ali and his descendants, called them Imam and believe that only they had the authority to interpret the Qur’an directly. Imams’ interpretations account for most of the things that make Shias different today.

Most Shias believe there were twelve Imams. They’re called ‘twelvers’. Imams continue to be revered like saints. Eleven are buried in elaborate tombs. Pilgrims visit their shrines to remember their stories and pray to them. The twelfth, Mahdi, disappeared some fifteen hundred years ago. Shias believe he is in hiding and will return to lead his people through the day of judgement. Apparently Jesus is also expected to tag along.

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The Holy Shrine in Mashhad houses the remains of Reza, the eighth Imam. His importance seems to stem from three places. First, he’s an Imam, and they’re all pretty important. Second, he died in what became Iran, by far the largest and most powerful Shia state, and his tomb is consequently more accessible than others in Saudi and Iraq. Third, he was killed by a caliph who was jealous of his religious influence. The idea of martyrdom is especially important to Shias; reliving the story of his death is an essential part of the pilgrimage and one which is understood to cause significant anguish.

We visited the shrine around the time of evening prayers. It is massive and it was packed. It is the largest Mosque in the world by size, and only Masjid al-Haram in Mecca beats it for capacity. The only other time I’ve seen as many people at once has been at big sports games, and there was something of a stadium atmosphere. The night was chilly and dark but the lights overhead would have been plenty strong for a football match. Pilgrims sat on neat rows of prayer mats all facing in towards the action. Others queued for water and plastic bags to hold their shoes, or milled about in doorways and concourses. Prayers were broadcast over loud speakers. It was at once intense and orderly.

Muhammad the cleric, fresh from his attempted indoctrination of Fiona, guided us around the shrine complex. This was lucky because its crowds and size are disorienting. But also because of the things he could point our that we could not see: the senior cleric being escorted by three burly bodyguards (very Brian Tamaki), the office where you can pay money in the hope of expediting your prayers to the Imam (Muhammad assured us this works) and the language of clerics’ turbans which apparently indicate whether or not their father is still alive.

As a cleric Muhammad also seemed to be a minor celebrity. Pilgrims would come up to him to talk, he’d put on his listening face and preach to them quietly. We assumed he was giving out deep spiritual guidance but apparently he was addressing more practical questions about how many times per day pilgrims had to pray. In a possibly rare act of pragmatism Imams made special forgiving rules for travelers.

I’ve always liked the idea of pilgrimages. They’re an outlet for religious devotion that isn’t missionary and I understand why it might be moving to be somewhere that is important to your faith as a way of deepening it. I’ll never observe the the hajj pilgrimages to Mecca because they’re for Muslims only. But the pilgrimage to Mashhad is approaching that same level of significance. As Muslims who have visited Mecca can add Hajji to their name, those who have made it to Mashhad can call themselves Mashti.

Women are like jewellery


We were attempting to buy a flight out of Mashhad, to Tehran, without success, when a friendly mullah came to our aide. Muhammad, tall and stately in a white turban and long clerical robes, directed us to a travel agent who could book us on a charter flight, raising Joe’s hopes we might fly on another antiquated airplane.

His hospitality didn’t stop there. Muhammad became our unofficial guide for the evening, navigating us through Mashhad’s holy shrine to Imam Reza, and holding forth on various matters of Islam. Muhammad was partial to analogies. Praying was food for the soul, just as regular food fuels the body. Regularity of prayer ensures the soul doesn’t run out of fuel, just like a cell phone battery needs regular recharging. Why must you pray three times a day? For the same reason that only one phone number will reach your chosen destination.

Approaching the shrine complex, Muhammad pointed to my scarf and asked me what I thought of wearing hejab. I replied, as diplomatically as I could, that I respected the hejab but felt it should be a matter of individual choice rather than law. My answer belied my ignorance on Islamic matters. “Do you know why Islam requires hejab?” he said. “Why do you keep your money safe in your pocket?” I agreed that we want to protect it from thieves. “What about jewellery?” Jewellery, he said, was precious and an owner should carefully lock it away from prying eyes.

At this point we reached the gate of the shrine where I was required to don a chador to enter. Muhammad found us a booth where I could borrow one. A local woman helped me pull the shapeless black fabric into place, shrouding any body contours that remained in my standard Islamic dress. As we filed through the beautiful halls and courtyards of Iran’s holiest site I continually readjusted the fabric: the chador had nothing to keep it in place, and needed to be clasped together by hand.

Muhammad returned to the issue at hand. He explained how it was important for women to get married. He clearly approved when Joe indicated that I was his wife. “A woman should be only for her husband.” Then, returning to his favoured analogy, “women are like jewellery.” The comparison with property was not lost on me.

Mashhad – a spiritual and actual refuge


Mashhad is Iran’s holiest city, and its second largest.

The holiness is due to the massive shrine complex in the city’s centre. Inside is the body of Reza, one of the twelve Imams of Shia Islam, and the only one to be buried in Iran. Reza was poisoned with grapes and pomegranate juice, which is kinda cool. Shia pilgrims come to pay their respects and ask for favour from Reza.

They stay in concentric circles of hotels that span out from the shrine. Arab tourism means the streets we walk in are filled with men in long white robes and women dressed even more conservatively than Iran’s laws require. We’ll write about our experience in the shrine soon.

The population is largely due to the Iran-Iraq war. Mashhad was the Iranian city that was furthest from the front. Its population skyrocketed with Iranians displaced from the conflict and others who were scared its misery would encroach further towards their homes.

It feels like the Iran-Iraq war is under-represented in western consciousness. Which is to say, I was embarrassed by how little I knew about it. As a broader mark of how much we care it apparently used to be called the Gulf War in English until Iraq invaded Kuwait a few years later and we decided the fight that involved western forces deserved the name. The war lasted for eight years, the longest conventional war in the 20th century. It also saw the revival of trench warfare for the first time since world war one, and the serious use of chemical weapons.

About a million people died. A considerable number of them died as deliberate martyrs. It was common for young Iranian men to walk through minefields, sacrificing their lives to try and clear them. Today billboards in towns throughout Iran still display their pictures and offer thanks.

When the war started in 1980 Iran was still piecing itself back together after the 1979 revolution. It seems the domestic chaos was a prime motivation for Saddam Hussein’s opportunist grab of oil rich Khunestan province on his northern border. He was also concerned that the Iranain revolution might serve as a model for the Shia Islam minority he oppressed.

In some senses the invasion probably galvanised Iran’s new Islamic State; volunteers flooded south to fight the Iraqis. Iraq’s army was better organised and armed but Iran’s was more numerous. By 1982 Iraq had been pushed back to its borders but Iran sought to continue the conflict, invading Iraq with dubious claims to legitimate sovereignty over important Shia pilgrimage sites Najaf and Karbala. A cease-fire was negotiated in 1988, though apparently prisoners were still being exchanged as late as 2003. By the time this uneasy peace was reached about a million Iranians had fled their homes, and most of them had ended up in Mashhad.

Despite the horror and longevity of the war I can’t find anything that says anyone seriously considered intervening to knock it off. The US did give a bunch of money and weaponry to Saddam though. And that worked out well.

Iranian sanctions: Up in the air


Since Hong Kong we’ve tried to avoid flying in an attempt to sustain the somewhat romantic notion that we’re really traveling the Silk Road. We’ve made exceptions when overland travel isn’t safe (Pakistan/Iran border) and when the distance between stops, and time to travel between them are just too damn large to bare (I’m looking at you, China).

Our flight from Shiraz to Mashhad met neither of these exceptions. But sanctions have effectively frozen Iran’s civil aviation in the 1980s and I wasn’t going to pass up the chance to add a little vintage to my tally of aircraft flown. We flew on an ATA Airlines MD82, a narrow-body stalwart of the 1980s with engines mounted at its tail and wings far back as a result.

In most senses it felt like a pretty normal flight. The existence and contents of the inflight meal was probably the biggest nod to another time of flying. I’m pretty sure that roll was from the 1980s. We made what seemed to be a u-turn on the Shiraz tarmac, and took a very long time to roll to a stoop in Mashhad, but I’ve really no clue as to whether either peculiarity was due to the aging aircraft that we flew.

Thee normalcy of our flight, and the hundreds like it in Iran every day, on aircraft that anywhere else would be passed their used by date is a testament to the resilience and ingenuity of Iranian industry. Other heavily sanctioned states (Cuba and North Korea) have turned to Russian manufacturers. Iran tried that, but when the Tupolevs kept crashing they decided to stick to the western stuff. Now they use a rag tag collection of aircraft that were flying when sanctions first hit in 1979, or second hand metal they’ve managed to finagle despite tight restrictions on international finance. There’s a story about some ex-Qantas 747s being flown all over the globe before landing in Iran, just to put sanctions enforcers off the scent.

There are at least six carriers with serious domestic schedules and, excepting Japan, Iran probably has one of the densest use of wide-body aircraft for in-country hops of anywhere in the world. Pilgrimage flights to Mashhad are especially common – four others left in the hour we did from Shiraz – and charters seem to be used to circumvent government regulated fares. Continue reading Iranian sanctions: Up in the air