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The secret life

Words By + Photos: Will Pardoe

of Persia
My brothers in Shiraz

Bridge over the Zayanderud, Isfahan

Iran the country most despised by the West? The country people told me I was foolish for visiting. Until I actually went there to see for myself, to avoid having a mind closed by media and with the faith that the majority of people in this world are good, regardless of the invisible lines separating us. What I found was a land of friendliness and hospitality that was farremoved from the axis of evil weve been lead to believe.
Two days after crossing the border from eastern Turkey, I arrived in Tehran; the mysterious city I didnt know anything about or had ever expected to see. Tehran was a place on the television, where angry mobs burned flags and chanted death to the West. Yet here I was, life continued as normal and nobody was passing more than a curious glance in my direction. I made it to my contact who was living in the city a cheerful couple, who had never met me but welcomed me into their home like an old friend. That evening their friends were throwing a house party. This gave me a whole new perspective on Iran. Behind closed doors, the hijabs came off, the home-brewed drinks were brought out and the dancing took over. Despite bottles being three times the price, no sooner would I have finished my glass than another was in my hand. The ladies tried teaching me the traditional dance and everyone mingled and enjoyed themselves until a feast was laid out towards the end of the night. It was all very sophisticated; a special occasion, not just an excuse! It was amazing to see the two sides of their culture the public and the private; how a free population copes with a suppressive government. On the street, young women wear the hijab high on their head, showing as much hair as they can get away with. Their clothes are tightly fitting and stylish, and though all skin is covered, they

are able to show off their figures. There is a feeling of change.

The oasis

I spent a few days in Tehran - exploring the bazaar, relaxing in the park and just enjoying the freedom to walk around this closed-off country. It was greatly satisfying just to be there; to have resisted the limitations that our society tries to press upon us. To achieve our dreams in life often requires pushing the boundaries of what is considered normal. I guess thats why I do it to escape normality and find the place where life is extraordinary. Coming back to earth now, my friends parents were leaving for their summer cottage two hours south in Niasar, and they welcomed me along with them. Niasar is an oasis town, where a waterfall gushes out from a plateau. A sea of green spills out over the landscape, until the water dries up and the ground returns to dry, dusty rock. Their cottage was a little piece of paradise - a secret garden where we could relax in the dappled shade, while birds sang in the branches above and a stream trickled by. We spent our time reading, dozing, chatting and of course eating. A peaceful existence. A great feature of the house was that

the stream flowed right through the middle of it. A room within had a small tiled pool a form of air conditioning and it was noticeably cooler than the other rooms. The family would sleep there during the summer months. During the day, it was a peaceful place to relax, and it also served as the dining room. Being thoroughly chilled out, I said goodbye to my Tehrani family and headed south for Isfahan. Isfahan is where Iran goes on holiday; picnicking beside the river, or anywhere else for that matter. I couldnt walk down the street without becoming involved in a conversation or being invited to join a picnic. One such conversation was with a man named Sharam. Upon learning that I was British, he proclaimed, We hate your government! They are our enemy. But our people, we love your people. And this appeared to be the common view that despite international politics, were all the same. Perhaps because the people are so opposed to their government, the Iranians make their own mind up - rather than absorbing what the media portrays.

A toast to Shiraz

Having been satisfied with Isfahan, I made my way to the road heading south. It would



These knockers sound different - a man answers one, a woman answers the other

have been a good spot to hitchhike from, if it werent for the hoard of taxis lying in wait. The drivers harassed me, declaring that I couldnt hitchhike in Iran while demanding that they take me to Shiraz. After a frustrating wait, surrounded by hecklers, I finally hailed a coach. I knew they would expect payment, but my patience was wearing very thin and I was happy to climb aboard. As a rule I dont pay for rides its too easy to throw money at a problem, and in that way you dont encounter the best of people. These guys were great though, and I had a good laugh with them up there at the front of the bus. We cruised for five hours through endless floodplains, passing once-impressive mud fortresses lying half in existence, half melted by a thousand rains. A huge dust devil, spanning the road, sent the coach off course as we plowed through. The sun set and we journeyed onwards. A friend I made in Isfahan had put me in contact with his friend living in Shiraz. Boback was there to greet me, a total stranger, as the bus pulled in. Though he was unable to host me, he took me to his house and made call after call to his friends, seeking someone who could. If they cant help you, theyll find someone who can! Soon I had four new friends at the door. I was whisked away to their majilis a large room with carpets and cushions, where people relax and guests are entertained. As with the Arabs, hospitality is an important part of their culture. Ali spoke perfect English, the others spoke only Farsi. Through Alis translation and good vibes, we all became friends and wed share jokes without the use of language. After a little while, Reza (nicknamed Marco Polo for his travels throughout Iran) brought out the bottles. What happened next was a real cultural experience. Because of its scarcity, a great ritual had been developed around the

Only in Iran

act of drinking. The most senior man, the Saghri, would be in charge of pouring it out. This was Reza; in his thirties, with a wise and relaxed presence. The first drink is dedicated to the dead and poured on the ground. The second is dedicated to all who are alive, everywhere: prisoners, enemies, soldiers. We are involving them, Ali explained. For their happiness. I believe this brings a love between people; we forget the differences. He didnt drink, though he appreciated the ritual and was keen to explain it. The third drink is dedicated to the Saghri. This time, Im honoured with the first toast. To Marco Polo! they laugh.

Redneck rhythms

The next day, they took me for a tour of Shiraz. I was enjoying their company fun, laid back, and happy to share their country with me. They showed me the bazaar, a restored fortress and poet Saadis tomb. The only western music they had was an American country song, People Are Crazy. They played it on loop, and we enjoyed it every time! I still get goose bumps when I hear it. They dropped me at the bus to Bandar Abbas, and it was over all too soon. The bus wound its way south, up and down through the high mountain passes. The Gulf was getting close stepping off the bus, a wall of humidity hit me in the face. A clammy, invasive hug which put a smile on my face and a familiar smell in my

Breakfast in Shiraz

lungs. I could feel Dubai across the horizon. My intention was to catch a ride with the dhows. That would have been a real experience! Unfortunately, security stopped me in my tracks and I was forced to take the ferry. Well, at least I didnt have to fly that would have been cheating. Evening set in and we surged off into the soupy blackness. A hot shower, cold drink, and comfy sofa were calling to me. Thirteen hours later, Sharjah emerged through the early morning haze. It wasnt a pretty sight, but oh was it beautiful!

Riding the coach from Isfahan

Party time!