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The International Writers Magazine: Iran

More Tea, Mullah?
Steven Tizzard
The name Shiraz is synonymous with wine. Although claims that the syrah grape originated there are contentious, the oldest sample of wine in the world - around 7000 years old - was reputedly discovered in clay jars outside the city.


As alcohol is banned in Iran, Shiraz is no longer a city of wine. The capital during the Zand dynasty (1749-79) is, however, still famous for poetry and gardens - Eram Garden, with a range of botanical samples from all over the world, is the most famous. Shiraz vies with Esfahan for the status of the country's premier tourist attraction.

Choosing to visit Iran raises eyebrows. It is hardly Club Med. Whenever there is crisis in the Middle East, we see images of furious protesters on the streets, the Stars and Stripes and Star of David aflame. If we think of Iran, we visualise bearded mullahs, women cowering in black chardors, the glowering face of the late Ayotollah Khomeini, leader of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Iran chills Western hearts as it seems to revel in its infamy, perceived as the nemesis of Judeo-Christian society.

The reality behind the often self-perpetuating propaganda is very different. Ordinary Iranians constantly reaffirm that they are not terrorists, they are not Arabs. Indeed, they have far more problems with Arabs than they do with Americans. They cannot quite forgive the former for their conquest of Persia in the Seventh-century. This was, to some, the beginning of the end of Persian greatness.

In the 13th century, Shiraz was known as Dar al-Elm, the House of Knowledge. Proud of this heritage, the modern city is far removed from the image of fundamentalist Islam. The economic centre of southern Iran even has a female rugby team. Shiraz is representative of the Persian spirit and the paradoxes of modern Iran: it as a city that has adapted to survive when faced with Arab, Mongol and Timurid conquest but never fully assimilated. A public face has always been shown to the authorities in order to survive right up to the present day. In private, however, this face is very different. It is very Persian.

Visitors soon realise that the only fanatical thing in Iran is the hospitality. The only thing you have to fear is repaying this hospitality one day. There are no suicide bombers, only suicidal drivers, particularly motorcyclists who ride without helmets on pavements and against the flow of traffic. Driving with Behtash in his PK - the shell of a Renault 5 with a Kia Pride engine - he tutted as a motorbike moved recklessly, narrowly avoiding a passing Paykan, a hulking car based on the 1960s British Hillman Hunter. "My father says, if he sees a motorbike in an accident, he will not stop. Even if the driver is dying, he will not stop. Why? Because they are crazy!" said the thirty-year-old, throwing up his hands in the air. Road accidents are the second biggest killer in Iran.

Shiraz, 919 kilometres south of Tehran, has hotels ranging from the plush £130 a night to more humble mosaferkhuneh (cheap hotels with shared bathroom facilities) costing £5 a bed. During Norouz, the Zoroastrian New Year, which coincides with the vernal equinox (March 21st), Shiraz is mobbed by Iranians. They fill hotels and swamp the main attractions. Drawn by history not religion, many camp in parks and on roadsides; extended families picnic around portable gas stoves in spring sunshine. It is the best of times and the worst of times to visit Shiraz.

Until the subway system opens later this year, the best way to get about Shiraz is on foot or by bus. If you get lost the biggest problem is not finding your way, but choosing who to help you. Everyone nearby wants to be involved. The easily located central sight is the Arg of Karim Khan, a well-preserved and well-restored fortress with 14 metre high circular towers at each corner.

Bazaar Nearby Shiraz's most famous bazaar - Bazar-e Vakil - has wide, high vaulted brick avenues which were designed to ensure the interior remained cool in summer and warm in winter. It is as busy today as when it was constructed in the 18th century.

Within walking distance of the centre is Shah Cheragh, the holiest site in the city. It is the mausoleum of Seyed Amir Ahmad, the brother of Imam Reza, the holiest of Iran's imams. He came to Shiraz in the late 8th century and died in 835. Since then his tomb has been a site of pilgrimage although the current building is relatively new. Security is strict. Bags and cameras must be left at a booth outside. Men and women enter separately and the latter must remove distinctive make-up and wear chardors. Once inside, an undistinguishable mix of pilgrims and tourists barge each other to touch the shiny cage covering the tomb. The walls and ceilings are covered with pristine mirrored tiles, the floors with Persian carpets. Amongst the bustle it is soon evident that, despite the ban on photography inside the mausoleum, Iranians still use their cell phones cameras, posing in front of the tomb for group shots or capturing memories of the exquisite room.

Shiraz is, perhaps more than anything else, a tale of two poets: Saadi and Hafez. Saadi, a 12th and 13th century poet was born in Shiraz. He left his native town at a young age for Baghdad to study Arabic literature and Islamic sciences. Having completed his studies, he roamed what are the modern countries of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Egypt as well as Central Asia and India. He was elderly when he returned to his native city and spent the rest of his life there as a highly respected citizen. U.S. President Barack Obama quoted Saadi's most famous work Gulistan (The Rose Garden) in a videotaped Norouz greeting to the Iranian people in March 2009: "There are those who insist that we be defined by our differences. But let us remember the words that were written by the poet Saadi, so many years ago: 'The children of Adam are limbs to each other, having been created of one essence.'"

Hafez, born in 1324, is regarded with affection by Iranians as the greatest master of Persian poetry of all time. Born in Shiraz, he lived his whole life there. After his death in 1391, he was buried in a garden named after him - the Hafezieh - in the north-east of the city. The collected works of Hafez are respected by Iranians second only to the Qu'ran; they are used as a guide to life and also for fortune telling by selecting a page at random. Both the tombs of Saadi and Hafez are more popular pilgrimage sites than Shah Cheragh certainly during Norouz when people crowd to take photographs of the stone tombs and invade the usually serene gardens.

hafezieh Leaving the city heading towards Persepolis, you pass the Qu'ran Gate, the city's historical main entrance. Originally built a millennia ago, the current incarnation was constructed a mere sixty years ago. A nearby path leads up the neighbouring hillside for views over Shiraz, best seen at night: a serpentine trail of car lights.

Among the hillside alleys,there are several small restaurants and tea houses. One tea house is found in a cave. You can smoke a hookah with fruit flavoured tobacco and drink tea. Black tea - chai - with crystallised cubes of sugar - ghand - is the ubiquitous national drink of Iran and you will drink unfathomable litres during any visit to the country. Iranians poise the ghand between their teeth and slurp scalding tea, chuckling at foreigners who attempt the same. Inside the cave, children try to sell banana flavoured chewing gum. Nine year old Amir was more persistent than most: his father was an opium addict while his mother worked hard to keep the household going. Later our taxi driver said, "Opium is as common as sugar here".

No visit to Shiraz is complete without seeing Persepolis, 60 km north of the city. It was the ceremonial capital of the Persian Empire during the Achaemenid dynasty and the earliest remains of the citadel date from 515 BC. Inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1979, it is more than the national symbol of Iran: it is the heart of Persia, one of the greatest sites of the ancient world.

Entry is an unbelievable 5000  rials (about 30 pence). This allows you to roam the whole site, which includes a 125 square metre terrace of immense ruined buildings. Originally the citadel was surrounded by three walls: the first was seven metres high, the second fourteen metres and the third twenty seven metres. Although nothing remains of these walls, there are enough ruins to give a strong sense of the grandeur of Cyrus and Darius the Greats' project. Persepolis' enigmatic power lasted two centuries: despite being the locus of a vast empire, it was also a beacon of enlightenment, as evinced by the Cyrus Cylinder. Currently in the British Museum in London, the Cylinder is regarded as the first Bill of Rights. The end of Persepolis came in 330 BC when it was looted and destroyed by Alexander the Great's army.

Naqs-e Rostam, 5 kilometres north east of Persepolis, is an archaeological site of monumental tombs carved into a cliff face. Not only are the tombs impressive due to the scope of their construction with the rock shining like fields of wheat against a blue sky, but also due to the reliefs showing Persian success in battle, most notably carvings of the legendary hero, Rostam, which offer a marked contrast to the carved scenes of peace and multicultural co-existence at Persepolis. One of the tombs, shown by an inscription, is that of Darius the Great (522-486 BC). There are four other tombs containing the graves of some of his successors. All were looted by Alexander the Great's army. At this revered site, the pride Iranians feel for their noble past was shown by a response to the film 300 by a university student. "Go to America and tell the director that his film is nonsense!" he cried.

Iran is not what you expect and not what it seems. There are few places where this more evident than in Shiraz. Iran may be an Islamic Republic, a grand theocratic experiment, but Shiraz still has a Jewish community of around 6000 with a working synagogue. There are functioning Anglican and Armenian churches. The parks of Shiraz during Norouz could almost be parks in any other country with girls roller blading, ice cream stalls, fountains and pools, trees shading green lawns, aviaries and small fun fairs. The vast majority of Iranians are Muslim but the vast majority are not particularly devout. Western music, dancing, alcohol and drugs are all illegal, but all inescapable especially behind closed doors. Shiraz tells us as much about the history of a superpower of antiquity as it does about the reality of the country today.

© Steven Tizzard March 19th 2010

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