The Islamic Republic Of Iran

Iran is long in the rear-view now, and the post-game roundup has been rattling around in the back of my head like the unknown object that fell through the parking brake casing into the chassis. It’s late enough after the party that memories are starting to blur together: Did we eat goat brain in Tehran or Shiraz? Is that photo from the desert in the east or the desert a little farther east? Did I win more at road-backgammon or did Jae? How did we ever decide that playing backgammon while driving was a good idea in the first place? These shapeshifting memories are turning into series of disconnected experiences and highlights, like lachrymose end-of-year montages set to soaring and melodramatic indie rock. So turn on some Bloc Party and get ready for some well-worn cliches.

Geography Lesson

Attempting to outrun winter all the way to Australia was always going to be a hubristic ambition, and the snow caught up to us as we were entering Iran. For a while in the east, it was colder than the shady side of an iceberg and the freezing puddles punished my poor but stylish choice of footwear. Dispel your notions of Iran as a desert country – you’re likely thinking of Saudi Arabia. Iran is one of the most mountainous countries on earth and is largely perched high up on the Iranian plateau. In the north near the Caspian Sea there are dense rain forests, while in the east you will find salt lakes and parched deserts like the Dasht-e Lut, home of the hottest recorded temperature on the planet: 70.7 C (159 F).

The Dasht-e Lut is also home to giant sand castle-like formations, some several stories tall, which jut out from under the dunes. They look like solid rock, but are simply highly compacted sand. Don’t be fooled – using your forehead to break a fall will hurt as much on highly compacted sand as it will on rock, and you will lightly concuss yourself; I selflessly tested this for science. Apparently, no one knows how these giant sand castles were formed. The leading theory is an ancient race of giant children with giant plastic pails and giant plastic shovels.

Back north, we made hay while the snow fell by going skiing at Dizin, one of Iran’s few ski resorts. We had a great day on empty slopes on the cheap. Iran has some pretty legit skiing, and we met people from Turkey, Azerbaijan and other countries who travel there just for the fresh pow. According to one Azeri we met, Dizin is pretty expensive at around $15-30 for a lift ticket. To European or Canadian wallets, it’s a steal, especially for the quality of skiing.

Later that night, we drove a few hours up to the Caspian Sea, where it was green and (relatively) balmy. This is where the rich cityfolk come to play in the summer, when the heat of Tehran sears you to a sweaty crisp and smog shoehorns itself into your alveoli.

Major Events

While we toured around Iran, there were two major political crises: the increased sanctions by the US, Canada and Britain, and the invasion of the British embassy and subsequent expulsion of Iranian diplomats from London. More depressing news for the guy on the street, though to the hardliners the increased intimidation from the West just writes their rhetoric for them. It was widely accepted by everyone we met that the British embassy invasion was not conducted by students outraged at the sanctions, as the Iranian media claimed, but was rather orchestrated by the basij militia, a paramilitary group loyal to the Ayatollah.

The introduction of fresh economy-killing sanctions and more isolation from the rest of the world is just another sad chapter in the life of the average Iranian, who must suffer the effects of pigheaded theocratic politics on a daily basis. Young people with access to Western media (for better and for worse – the Beeb’s twee shadow extends even to Iran) are able to see how the other side lives, and are the ones who suffer most.

Since it is sponsored by the state, young Iranians inevitably go to a university of sorts. Engineering education is subsidized most heavily, to the point where an engineering degree is virtually free. But it’s virtually worthless, too, as there are no jobs for graduates, everyone has the same degree and the lack of access to any actual equipment at school makes the education entirely impractical.

If you stay in school, though, seeking out a Masters or Ph.D. (both often equally as worthless as a Bachelor’s for the same reasons) will at least stave off the compulsory military service for a few more years. Those particularly opposed to the regime and military life will often go to extreme lengths to avoid it. We met one young guy who flew to Dubai and paid a doctor to surgically induce a hernia in his abdomen, in order to medically disqualify himself from military training. The military doctors didn’t see it on the scan, so he had to fly back and have it widened. Now he lives in constant pain.

Those with access to an internet proxy (every Western website is blocked – from Facebook to WordPress to BBC) see the position Iran occupies on the world stage. State TV paints a remarkably similar portrait of Iran’s international position: a pariah state, persecuted by Western powers. The difference is that in the latter stories Iran is the unjustified victim. Much like Fox News in the US, watching Iranian news would be hilarious if it wasn’t so utterly depressing. Here is some choice propaganda from the English ticker running at the bottom of the state news agency broadcasts:

  • “US seeking to save Zionist regime from collapsing: President Ahmadinejad.”
  • “Export of Iran’s steel products increases by 55% in 7 months”
  • “World bullies playing divide and rule policy in Mideast”
  • “Iran warns Tunisians against falling into West’s trap”

When the volume is muted on the blathering clerics, these Goebbelsian headlines provide for hours of sad, unintended entertainment.

Ban The (Means For Producing The Ingredients To Potentially Construct The) Bomb

The tone would be a lot less heated if Iran wasn’t constantly threatening to build a nuclear weapon power plant. Iranians have every right to nuclear power, and it’s a matter of national pride to even the most liberal of them, but they’re kidding themselves if they believe their government is just building an alternative to fossil fuels. The Ayatollah provides no reason to be trusted, and there’s no doubt that becoming a nuclear state is in the government’s self-interest. There’s hardly a faster way to garner the begrudging courtesy of the West than if you have the capability to level and irradiate a large part of it. What’s to be done then? You tell me.

History Lesson

Iran is a history buff’s wet dream. Its ruins are varied and well-kept and because of the great tradition of invasion in Iran, you’ve got stuff from any number of unpronouncable dynasties. Memorizing all of the peoples and rulers who blew through Iran would give you a Trebekian level of useless trivia knowledge. And there are fascinating stories in all that conquering: The Romans defeated at Carrhae perished after being some of the first Europeans to see silk, the fabric used to make the victorious Parthian flags; a Persian astronomer in the 11th century calculated the length of the year as 365.24219858156 days, a level of accuracy not seen until many centuries later; Iranian icon Cyrus created in the 6th century BC what some believe is the first declaration of human rights; Genghis Khan roved up and down the country siringhundreds of children.

Here’s a particularly good story, as related by Greek historian Herodotus. After Cyrus defeated the Massagetai army by getting them all wasted beforehand, the Massagetai queen, and mother of the defeated general, Tomyris, sent him a letter:

“You bloodthirsty Cyrus, pride not yourself on this poor success: it was the grape-juice — which, when you drink it, makes you so mad, and as you swallow it down brings up to your lips such bold and wicked words — it was this poison by which you ensnared my child, and so overcame him, not in fair open fight. Now hear what I advise, and be sure I advise you for your good. Restore my son to me and get you from the land unharmed, triumphant over a third part of the host of the Massagetai. Refuse, and I swear by the sun, the sovereign lord of the Massagetai, bloodthirsty as you are, I will give you your fill of blood.”

“Crazy old bat,” Cyrus thought, and let her son go, who in turn promptly committed suicide. Tomyris, rightly or wrongly plenty pissed off, gathered together all of the forces of her kingdom and met him on the field for battle. She prevailed, and set her men out amongst the corpses to search for Cyrus. When she found his body, she took a skin, filled it with blood, cut off Cyrus’ head, and dropped it inside, “saying, as she thus insulted the corpse, ‘I live and have conquered you in fight, and yet by you am I ruined, for you took my son with guile; but thus I make good my threat, and give you your fill of blood.'”

Now that’s history! But you’d never read anything near that interesting on the historical placards you find at these sites. Someone needs to send a memo to all sign-writers for ancient ruins everywhere with instructions to include stuff like the story above, because, dear god, do they ever know how to make history boring. For example, take this sign at the site of Cyrus’ tomb, by all measures a pretty impressive ruin:

“The tomb is over 11 meters high. It is built with massive blocks of stone some 7 meters long and consists of two distinct parts: a solid platform made up of six receding tiers and measuring 164.20 square meters at the base, and a small gabled chamber with walls some 1.50 meters thick and a cella 2.11 meters high and measuring 2.11*3.17 meters. A single entrance in the northwestern front leads in to the cella (the original stone door has vanished)…”

I will allow a moment for your eyes to deglaze.

As you can see above, Cyrus’ tomb is indeed built with massive blocks of stone some 7 meters long, and it does indeed consist of two distinct parts. Fascinatingly observant. However, anyone standing there reading that sign has already seen this, and eager archaeology nerds have brought along their own measuring tapes. Think of the young budding archaeologists out there. What do you think interests them more: the dimensions of a tomb, or the fact that the guy who was buried there had his head immersed in blood by an enraged queen?

*I’ve just learned that there is a field of archaeology called archaeometry, which “investigates different spatial characteristics of features, employing such methods as space syntax and geodesy, which can be analyzed using computer-based geographic information system technologies.” God help us, it’s the archaeometrists who are running the show.


We were in Iran for the biggest holiday in Shia Islam (the main sect in Iran), the Day of Ashura, which commemorates the martyrdom of Hussain ibn Ali, the prophet Muhammad’s grandson. It is the culmination of the Mourning of Muharram, and was described to us as a “sad holiday.” Traditionally, Shia Muslims celebrate the Day of Ashura by crying, self-flagellation and chanting Hussain’s name.

Since the actual letting of one’s own blood was banned by various Shiite clerics (including the ever-compassionate Ayatollah Ali Khamenei), devotees hit themselves with flails made of light chains and beat their chests as forms of self-flagellation. Or, skewing closer to the original nature of the devotion, adherents will donate blood on the holiday. As with all religions, there’s a varying degree of piety (watch the guy in the middle):

I impulsively bought a large golden flail as a souvenir. It weighs about 10 pounds and I have no idea what to do with it.

A Tale Of Five Cities

After the revolution, every main street/square/roundabout/park/tollbooth was renamed for Imam Khomeini. Since the Supreme Leaders stare down at you from virtually every wall, you’re never far from their company or their cold, hollow stare. But Iran’s cities provide an appealing variety, despite the overbearing Ayatollahs. There were five cities of particular interest on our journey.

Tehran, the capital, is a smoggy tangle of roads, buildings and people. We luckily had a great guide to show us around the chaos. Like Montreal and Barcelona, there’s a viewpoint up on the side of a mountain (in Montreal – “mountain”) that provides fantastic panoramas of the city, if you ever get a clear day. We were also shown how to pick up girls in a notoriously restrictive and Muslim society. It involved a lot of driving around (which I hated – see Driving In Iran) and hollering (which was shockingly effective) at girls (who are themselves are driving around for the same reason). The women are incredibly beautiful in Iran. Almost all of them with enough money have had a nose job or some other form of plastic surgery. Those without the cash simply buy some gauze and tape for a self-made status symbol on the cheap.

Besides that, Tehran is crowded chaos. We passed on the novelty of visiting the US Den of Espionage (formerly the US Embassy), but if they keep storming embassies like they did the British, pretty soon the whole diplomatic enclave will be a den of spies.

The city that everyone loves to love in Iran is Esfahan. It’s a stunning place – tree-lined streets, two giant beautiful pedestrian bridges. But the piece de resistance is Imam Square, formerly Shah Square, formally Naqsh-e Jahan Square. The place is mind-bogglingly beautiful, and lends credence to Esfahan’s claim of being “half of the world”.

Further south is Shiraz, which may or may not be home to that full-bodied vintage that you are drinking with your lamb kebabs. We spent a couple days with our friend’s cousin and her family and had a great time. What we saw of the city was fantastic, and if you are worried that you might have appendicitis, the doctors here are top-notch.

Yazd was also a pretty amazing place in its own right. A labyrinthine mud-brick old town is punctuated by badgirs, which are towers that rise out of the top of buildings. Complete with fans and funnels to channel the air, this ancient form of air conditioning is still used in a desert city that consistently reaches 40 C in the summer. And ancient means ancient: Yazd is one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the entire world at some 3,000 years old.

Just outside the city, there are the Zoroastrian Towers of Silence. Zoroastrians attempt to avoid contaminating the purity of the earth with corpses. These days, it often means they bury their dead in concrete tombs. Back in the day, however, they would deposit bodies on the top of these Towers of Silence, where the bones would be picked clean by vultures.

In 2003, Bam suffered a terrible earthquake. Over 30,000 people died and to add insult to injury, their pride and touristic impetus, the Arg-e Bam, a giant mud-brick citadel that had stood for 2500 years, was razed almost to the ground. Even in its partially restored state, the thing is impressive and worth a visit.

The woes of Bam continue, though. With their main and only attractive tourist attraction in shambles, very little money flows into the economy. The drug money that flows into the economy from next-door Sistan and Balochistan province (on the border with Pakistan and Afghanistan) keeps many solvent, while the ill-favored and feeble-willed descend into opiate addiction.

Iran’s war against drugs is being lost in a bad way. Iran is first in the world in per capita opium addiction (2.8% of its population is addicted); 40% of inmates in prisons are there on drug-related charges; and the government spends almost $1 billion a year dealing with illegal drug smuggling. Sistan and Balochistan Province is the front line against the drug trade coming from Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the cops are literally fighting the war in the trenches — opiates are often put on motorcycles and biked through the desert in the middle of the night, so the government digs miles of trenches and erects barbed wire to discourage the drugrunners.

The smugglers also employ camels, who wander the desert freely, and who can easily be trained to return to a certain feeding spot. So the camels are fed for a while in the same place, and set loose in the desert. Once they’re retrieved in Afghanistan, the smugglers-cum-vets surgically implant a couple kilos of smack in the camels’ humps and send them back home to Iran.

America’s Cousin

If opposites attract and likes repel, America and Iran must be splitting images of each other. Despite the hate flung back and forth, there are many similarities between the countries:

Both countries are controlled by governments who operate under strict religious doctrine. In America, commerce long ago replaced Christianity as the state religion, while Iranians are treated to the maniacal theocracy of their Supreme Leader. In both cases, the power and money is distilled through a crony filter to a financial or religious elite at the top of the pile. The idea of democracy is chimerical in both societies.

Both countries are fighting a massively expensive drug war that fuels police and military augmentation and destroys countless lives.

Both peoples are similar: warm, friendly, hospitable, proud of their country, generally ashamed of their government, with a light smattering of benign bigotry. In Iran, you’re told not to drop anything on the sidewalk in Qazvin; Esfahanis are the niggardly Scrooges squeezing a few extra rials out of every business transaction; Baluchis are dark, exotic and not to be trusted. In America, the trick to a relatively easy and hassle-free existence is, of course, to be white.

Women are doing way better in the States, though

Both countries pit a progressive left against a relentless and vociferous religious right. You’d think this is more pronounced in Iran until you realize that Republican candidates are obliged to be social conservatives in order to cater to Christian right voter bloc.

Both countries terrify the rest of the world. America’s oafish handling of the reins of the world economy and the Western war machine provide just as much cause for anxious nail-biting as the radical and temperamental theocrats in Tehran.

If Iran and America were humans, a night of passion in the back of America’s pick-up would go a long way to relieving this almost sexual tension between the countries.

It’s All About The Food

We tasted some amazing stuff in Iran. But for our friends who knew where to take us and how to read Farsi, though, we would have gone mad on a month-long all-kebab diet.

Or particular note was the goat head medley we were treated to in Tehran. The goat brain soup was remarkably delicious, tasting a lot like chicken noodle soup — if the noodles were cortical folds.

And particularly deserving of derision was Iranian pizza. Take two slices of wet toast, sprinkle on some ground-up Spam, cover with melted white cheddar Kraft Singles, and you have Iranian pizza. It got worse every time we were forced to eat it.

Happy 2012

It’s 2012. Just a couple years away from hoverboards. Hasten the day.

So what are we looking forward to this year? In the X-Files, December 22 is the day that aliens begin to colonize the Earth. In real life, we’re hitting a solar maximum this year, which means it’s primetime for northern lights. I’m happy for both, really.

One thing I am relieved to learn is that we’re not all going to die this year because of the Mayans. Noted eschatologists Jay Sean and Nicki Minaj have assured me that “it ain’t the end.” Phew.

It was odd spending Christmas and New Year’s in Pakistan, but not altogether unenjoyable. I missed everyone back home a bit more, but on the upside I got to play with monkeys and drive around the Margalla Hills outside of Islamabad:

I also stumbled upon a giant Christmas tree in a field, and was briefly a celebrity as I took photographs with all the merry Christian Pakistanis. Now I know how mall Santas feel.

Happy New Year everyone! May your 2012s be far, far better than the movie.


6 thoughts on “The Islamic Republic Of Iran

  1. Looks awesome. Well done, sir. I think your YouTube button links to someone else’s YouTube channel. Unless you’ve discovered a new found love for professional wrestling. Have you?

  2. Pingback: Overland Travel - India

  3. Hey Adam, Nice coverage of Iran! I’m living in Melbourne so lemme know when you get here if you want. I’ve traveled all around Australia with Kent in 2009 in an old Subaru 2WD/4WD station wagon (he’s coming back for a visit shortly). Happy travels!

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