Travel Stories

The Axis of Powder Tour, Part II – Isfahan/Iran

Psychologists or those who have witnessed the sharp end of a military dictatorship often proffer the opinion that we ‘need’ enemies on some level; that the demonising of others fulfils some kind of unifying process among communities. Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh probably put it best when he said, ‘…in order to rally people, governments need enemies. They want us to be afraid, to hate, so we will rally behind them. And if they do not have a real enemy, they will invent one in order to mobilize us’. Perhaps this is why, in the lead up to my trip to the Islamic Republic of Iran, with the country getting pilloried in the press along lines previously reserved for countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea and, spookily, Vietnam, the most common piece of advice I received from well-meaning friends was either ‘Don’t get chained to any radiators’ or ‘Make sure you don’t get beheaded’. Even my seemingly decent, Guardian-reading, Fair Trade tea-bag buying friends, visibly conjuring up images of marauding hordes of perfidious Persians as they spoke, would say with real concern, ‘Iran? Why on earth do you want to go there?’

The real tragedy of this attitude is that it is the result of the dividing line being deliberately blurred. True, concern is justified in the case of the religious government that has ruled the country for the last 25 years: but should it really apply to the 100 million ordinary people that live there, or the country itself? Does our government’s decision to invade Iraq reflect the reality of life in Britain in 2005, for instance? I think we can agree that such a suggestion is obviously absurd. It is no different in Iran, a country around four times the size of France and the cradle of a civilisation that began well over 5000 years ago. Their greatest ruler, Darius The Great, headed an empire so vast that an inscription on the gates of his great palace at Persepolis tells of ‘the countries remote from Persia, of which I was the King’ including such far flung locales as Armenia, the land of ‘the Ionians that dwell in the sea’ (that’s Greece to you and me), Arabia, India, ‘the Ethiopians’ and the homes of the ‘haoma drinking Scythians’. Today, monuments to his and every other civilisation to have conquered or settled in Iran are literally scattered among the fields and towns of this vast landscape – Shelley’s Ozymandias writ large across the entire landscape of a now impotent empire. In Isfahan – once the seat of the powerful Safavid Dynasty, now the country’s flagship tourist town – there are architectural wonders to surpass those of Florence, Venice, Prague or anywhere else you care to mention. Although you would never know it from the press the country gets in the West, clearly when we speak of Iran we’re dealing with a nation and a culture that is more than a mere warehouse for illegally processing uranium.

Still, given the extent of misinformation (the word is not too melodramatic), it was difficult not to feel slightly, well, scared as we flew across Europe heading east. And yet, indications that our fears were embarrassingly misplaced began the moment our plane touched down in Tehran, when Mahmood, our guide and soon to be lifelong friend, smilingly sorted out our visa hassles and laughed at our obvious discomfiture. Beneath the extraordinary background of the Elburz Mountains that tower over the city, dusted pink by the dawn sun and looking, as one of my companions pointed out, like they’d been painted in by a whimsical set designer, we drove into the city and stopped at a traditional Iranian restaurant to eat the first of many, many kebabs. It was a Sunday, and the large family groups sipping tea in the convivial atmosphere were visibly tickled to have a group of British white boys in their midst. Within two minutes, a group of women wearing their hajibs at particularly rakish angles were posing for photos with us and asking us flirtatiously whether we’d met any Iranian women we’d like to marry. It was a similar story later, when we walked through The Park of the Nation in the centre of the city. In the gathering twilight, with the sun embarrassing the piles of snow that lay everywhere, it was difficult to believe we were in the centre of one of the world’s largest urban conurbations. The feeling was heightened by the general activity in the park, with people sledging, strolling, chatting and, soon, mobbing us. Groups of girls caked in make-up flirted aggressively, while young Iranian lads told us their DJ names and offered to find us whiskey and vodka. By the time we left, a whole crew had gathered to escort us back to our van, cheerfully waving us off as we drove back to the hotel, exchanging glances and shaking our heads in embarrassment at seeing our prejudices so spectacularly debunked. And this was only day one.

This inquisitive and heartfelt hospitality would be the recurring motif of our trip, and it soon became clear that our preconceptions were being challenged before our eyes. While in any country there is a marked gap between the ‘idea’ of a country and the reality of the life lived by its citizens, it seems that in Iran that gap resembles a yawning, widening chasm. Soon we noticed it everywhere. It was there in the sardonic exchange I had with Mahmood as we jaywalked across a hectic Tehran street (“You know this is illegal in America?” “And this is progress, right?”), and in the story on the cover of the Tehran Times drolly noting the number of missiles the US had stationed on the border in neighbouring Turkey – right next to a report on Condoleezza Rice’s denunciation of Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism. It was written in such a style that you could almost see the raised eyebrow of the reporter. Most tellingly, we noticed it in the compulsive need among ordinary people to communicate this feeling to us. Although at first most locals looked at us in open-mouthed astonishment, as if we’d just been dropped from Mars, they’d soon engage us in passionate conversation, eager to tell us about the realities of their lives and to ask us two questions: “Why are you in Iran?” and “What do you think of Iran?” That’s how it was in Dizin and Shemshak, where we met Reza and his friends.

With his tattoos, trendy haircut and sunglasses, Reza, 23, was keen to tell us about his impressive playboy lifestyle. He runs his own construction firm in Tehran, but seemed to spend much of the time we spent with him maintaining an impressive social circle, drinking the alcohol that is strictly prohibited in Iran and smoking the marijuana he smuggled back with him from his three-month holiday in Thailand. Then he and his friends gather every weekend – the boys showing off the bodies they’ve honed through fanatical bodybuilding, the girls matching the headscarves they’re required to wear by Islamic law with that thick, layered make up we’d originally come across in The Park of The Nations. They meet up on the shores of the Caspian Sea or in opulent homes in the north of the city, where they like to dance to loud house music and take Ecstasy “…and sometimes, cocaine. European people think here we are very very bad. But we are not – we like to have a good time.” And what about his family? “I have not spoken to my father for seven years. He doesn’t like the way I live.”

According to Erik Lofgren, a Swede we met who had been living in Shemshak for a few months, more and more young people want to live like Reza. “They want to be like us, to copy the way they think we live in the West, and to reject Islam.” To this end, as well as being fastidiously turned out in the latest fashions, they can also obsessively list the merits of the different brands and converse wisely on the advantages of the camera on the new Nokia 7610. Part of it is the desire of any bored kid to own the latest technological gizmo, but in a country with religious strictures like Iran, openly pursuing such a lifestyle constitutes an act of very real rebellion. Of course, it’s not like this for everyone. Severe consequences mean pissed off kids can’t exactly go around daubing slogans on street corners, so this bizarre Beverly Hills 90210 lifestyle is open only to those with money enough to hide it away. But given the sheer amount of talk back home about “freedom coming from within” during the weeks leading up to our trip, the fact that some young Iranians seem to equate ‘freedom’ with the right to take drugs and listen to the worst dregs of western dance music seemed to be a keen irony indeed.

When we first met Reza we were surprised to find that Iranian kids even had the resources to be so up on the latest phone crazes sweeping the West. But then, when we thought about it, it wasn’t so surprising. After all, as the biggest oil producer in the Middle East, Iran is the richest and most powerful country in the region. As previously noted, it is also huge, and this financial and geographical security perhaps explains why the US and Britain have preferred to follow a diplomatic route in their recent dealings with the country. It also explains why so many of the Iranians we met seemed to find the prospect of imminent Anglo-US invasion so hilariously unlikely. But less easy to square, in the light of the materialistic rebellion practised by Reza and friends, was their complex attitude to their own country. In contrast to the way in which we’d found it difficult to differentiate between ‘CNN Iran’ and the real Iran, the Iranians we met, used to living in such a way, seemed to be able to hold two opposing thoughts in their heads simultaneously in a way F. Scott Fitzgerald would have truly appreciated. This manifested itself most obviously in conversations we’d have, in which people would be passionate about defending their nation in light of its worldwide pariah status, while at the same time distancing themselves from the system of government that has done so much to build up that image. Some of the young Iranians we met seemed able to flit between the two at will, alternatively hating their leaders while loving their land, appearing fiercely independent yet appealing to the rest of the world for understanding, and generally seeing the current situation as an aberration to be changed on their own terms. As we headed towards Isfahan, we began to realise that our view of the country had changed irrevocably, and that our constant surprise at the reality of life for ordinary people in Iran was beginning to diminish.


Any writer visiting Isfahan is always going to find it impossible to crawl out of Robert Byron’s shadow. Although he laboured away in upper class obscurity during his own lifetime, posterity has been kind to Byron and today he occupies a curious position as the unlikely poster boy of twentieth century literary travel. All anybody with a social life needs to know about Byron’s life, art and ethos can be found in one book: The Road to Oxiana. It deals in diary form with his 1930s journey from England to Afghanistan and it is a very unusual kind of classic text. From today’s perspective, Byron’s acidic asides are the kind of thing you either find hilarious or irritating, but the thing that the book is still remarkable for is Byron’s beautifully stylised renderings of Islam’s early architectural glories. As his most famous fan, Bruce Chatwin, put it, “…to construct, out of stone and brick and tile, a prose that will not only be readable but carry the reader to a pitch of excitement requires talents of the highest calibre. This is Byron’s achievement. His paean of praise to the Sheik Luftullah Mosque in Isfahan must put him at least in the rank of Ruskin.” It also put him in the rank of Marco Polo, Ibn Battutah and even Chatwin himself, as the ‘author’ of a journey so celebrated that even today people continue to make pilgrimages in his footsteps. Hell, it was why we were going to Isfahan and had been my main inspiration for the journey. An upper-class aesthete and fop like Robert Byron might seem an unlikely cheerleader for Iran, but today his influential alternative reading of the country is needed more than ever.

Part of the fun of reading Byron’s book is feeling as if you’re by his side as he quests his way across Persia. True, Isfahan was already world renowned by the time he visited, thanks to the decision of Shah Abbas I (“A cruel king with good taste” as Leily, our guide, put it) to make the city his capital in 1598. Shah Abbas was head of the Safavid Dynasty, and is credited with unifying Persia for the first time, implementing Farsi as the primary national language and filling his capital with so many architectural treasures that a phrase was coined – ‘Isfahan Nesfeh Jahan’ – meaning ‘Isfahan is half of the world’. But as the Safavids were eclipsed by raiding Afghans by 1736, so Isfahan gradually slipped below the radar. By the time Byron ‘rediscovered’ it in the 30s, its treasures were as relevant to the world as the memory of the Safavids themselves.

Since Byron’s visit, of course, much has changed in Isfahan, which means that the romantic expectations raised by the book are quashed as soon as you hit the city limits. It now has 2.5 million inhabitants, and occupies an important place in Iran as a city of religion, industry and economy. This industrial complexion is about all you notice as you drive into the city, but thankfully the Naqsh-e-Jahan (‘Half of the World’) Square remains intact. We spent three days in Isfahan, and spent much of that time in the square. It felt strange, finally seeing a place I had for so long wanted to visit, and we concentrated on exploring the three architectural centrepieces in the square upon which the fame of the city largely rests: the Royal Palace, or Ali Qapu, the Imam Mosque, or Masjid-I- Shah, and the Sheik Luftullah Mosque that so enraptured Byron. When we became too mosque’d out, we also spent an inordinate amount of time at the teashop that overlooks the rooftops, smoking mint shishas and sipping tea while taking in the strangely innocent atmosphere that seems to pervade the whole square.

But mostly, we walked around and goggled in awe at the architecture. The old truism goes that you should never come face to face with your idols, as you’re destined to be disappointed. But it is difficult to see how anybody can be anything but overwhelmed by the Sheik Luftullah Mosque. It is easily the most impressive building I have ever been in. I am not religious, but usually I like a cathedral or church mainly because of the efforts the architects and builders have gone to in confining a huge amount of open space in an effort to impress upon the visitor their devotion to God. This was something else entirely, relying not on scale to convey the same impression, and I began to understand why even the waspish Byron had been compelled to wheel out the superlatives at the sight of the “incredible richness” of the tiled interior chamber. Myself, I was just glad that others had definitively described the details of the room, leaving me free to enjoy its emotional effect.

After spending literally hours here, we moved on to the Imam Mosque and the Royal Palace, our steps soundtracked, as they must have been in Shah Abbas’ day, by the tap tapping of artisans working metal under the eaves. The Imam Mosque had been the Shah’s attempt to build something more impressive than the Babur Ali Mosque in the Ottoman Empire, and is a truly grandiose piece of work that dominates the north end of the square. In contrast, with its music room, elaborate frescoes and view overlooking the square onto an ancient polo pitch, the Royal Palace betrayed its pleasure palace roots. In form, with its bowed and elegant wooden columns supporting the roof against seemingly impossible odds, it too is formidable and it is strange for the western eye to comprehend the different forms of beauty that these buildings represent. It was here in the 17th century, apparently, that a Russian ambassador became so overwhelmed with the surroundings and the excellence of the local wine that he was sick into his top hat. I almost knew how he felt.

At sunset on our last day, we sat back at our teashop and watched flocks of crows fly towards the sun as smaller unidentifiable birds flitted around them. The mountains on the outskirts of the city looked like a lilac smudge on the horizon, while the sinking sun caused an orange glow to irradiate the outlines of the silhouetted buildings. Given such a setting, it seemed strange that somewhere as over-rated as the Djemaa el Fna in Marrakech can enjoy such renown while a city such as Isfahan, with it’s artistic richness and genuine atmosphere of tranquillity, should remain so unknown in the wider world. As we sat in silence, a nomad broke the reverie by coming over and asking us how many languages we could speak. He shrugged when we told him English and French. “Only two? Ha! I speak seven”.

We had to leave Isfahan the next day, and as we drove back to Tehran we spoke about the other experiences we’d had in the city: like visiting the Zoroastrian Fire Temple that sits on the edge of town, where we drank in the view of the entire city, and seeing the Palace of 40 Columns, just outside the square, where Shah Abbas entertained foreign dignitaries. Equally as compelling were the souks we spent an evening exploring, and the other architectural masterpiece that stopped Byron in his tracks, the Friday Mosque, where we spent a morning being escorted around by a blind man, bursting with pride at finding British people in his city and keen to tell us the history of the building. We remembered the man we’d met, who had shouted at us “I am very sensitive! Welcome to Iran! I know 20,000 English words! I know words that that even English people do not know! For example, philanthropy. Do you know the word philanthropy? Speaking English makes my head hurt!” and how on our last night we’d walked over each one of the incredible bridges that span the Zayandeh river, like the Si-o-Se-Pol Bridge that links Isfahan to the Armenian quarter, with it’s 33 arches said to represent the age of Jesus Christ. In truth, there was almost too much to take in, as there was when we visited the religious city of Kershan on our way north, where we were invited into a mosque to eat with the community, and in Q’om, Khomeini’s city, where we watched thousands of Shias celebrate the death of the Imam Hussein, the founder and martyr of the Shia faith. By the time we reached Tehran and prepared to travel home, we realised that there was no escaping the fact that our views of our own country and our own lives had changed as well. Perhaps in the past, with the world a map to be filled in, the old cliché about travel broadening the mind had some relevance. Not any more. How strange then, that we had to travel to the ‘Axis of Evil’, metaphorically as far from home as it is possible to get in this modern world, to rediscover some truth in it.

© Matt Barr/ACM Writing Group


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