Saturday, 16 October 2010

Tabriz: an insight into Iranian lives

We spent only two days in Tabriz, but it felt a lot longer. On our first day, we were adopted by a local to explore the amazing Bazaar with its exotic fruits and spices, beautiful carpets and handmade jewellery. We didn’t plan to do too much on our second day, only resting up, writing our journal and sorting through our photos. However, the one thing we did want to visit was the Blue Mosque. ||

The Blue Mosque was built in 1465, and was one of the most glorious buildings of the era. Every surface was covered in blue mosaic tiles and calligraphy. It collapsed in an earthquake in 1773 and was only restored in the 1950s. At the mosque we met a couple of girls from Kermanshah who were here on a weekend trip. They were very sweet and invited us to Kermanshah, but unfortunately we are not going that way.

Inside the Mosque the patches of original tile work that remained were stunning, a visit prior to the 1773 quake when it was in its full glory must have been exquisite.

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Afterwards, we were resting in a nearby park, watching families picnic and children zip by on rollerblades, when an older man with frizzy white hair came up to us. He spoke German and was delighted to be able to practice. Like a waterfall, he talked without a break, quizzing us about the economic and political situation in Germany, Australia and the UK. Question after question was fired at us: “What is the unemployment rate in Australia at the moment? Is Australia affected by the global financial crisis? What are your biggest exports?  What do you think of Angela Merkel? Is is true that she has a PhD? If you wanted to live in the USA, would you need a visa?” and so on. He was an intensely curious and kind man, and like many of the people here, when we finally extricated ourselves to walk back to our hotel, he looked sad to see us go.

We feel that many Iranians are very keen to meet foreigners, as we represent a connection with the outside world. On the other side it’s also sometimes dangerous for them to be seen with us, and several times we had to pretend they were just showing us the way when a police man came along. Many educated Iranians we have spoken to dream of emigrating to another country, usually the US, Canada, Australia or the UK. Many people speak openly about their issues with the current government here, and ask us for information about life in our countries, and how to get a visa. One young guy we spoke to said, “Our president is a very bad diplomat, making the situation much worse for us Iranians, it feels like a prison. I have only one wish: to emigrate.” It’s such a sad situation that so many of the people we speak to are faced with this dilemma; leaving their country, a country they love passionately but a country that gives them such limited freedom. Another guy we met said that not even all the Iranian oil money could persuade him to stay in a country where he has no freedom. A young girl said 40% of her class mates have already emigrated and many more will follow.

Walking back from the mosque, we noticed a teenage girl with her dad. Sometimes they were walking next to us, sometimes we overtook them, then suddenly they appeared in front again. As we passed them again, we heard a faint “Hello!” They were both very shy, but really wanted to talk to us. The girl was 13 and wearing braces. She spoke a little English, and her dad was even shyer than she was. “Please, come to our house”, she invited us after a few minutes. We were curious, but at the same time also tired from our previous encounter with the German speaking man, and we also still had stuff to do back at the hotel, so we declined politely, but walked a little further with them. We found that in Tabriz, people were so extremely friendly that we could not accept all invitations, otherwise we would not have a minute to ourselves. Iran is the most fascinating, interesting and contradictory country we have ever travelled in, and we needed time to digest our impressions.

We quickly finished our journal writing and headed to the internet cafe. In Turkey, we almost always had a WiFi internet connection in our hotel, but in Iran this was pretty much non-existent, even in the better hotels. We were in for a surprise: as we entered the internet cafe, we saw PY sitting there, the French backpacker we had met back in Dogubeyazit. We thought he would be far ahead of us by now, but somehow he was still in Tabriz. He looked absolutely exhausted. Diagnosis: hospitality overload. It turned out that he had made friends with some local guys. They were making music together and so he had stayed much longer than planned. They were planning to head to a park just outside the city, Elgoli Park, and invited us to come along.

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An hour later we were on our way. PY got his guitar from the hotel, and we all jumped into a taxi. Shared taxis are very common here, and on the way, the taxi stopped several times to pick up or drop off other passengers. The two Iranian guys were sitting in front, one on the other’s lap, and they asked the taxi driver to play their tape. They were into rap music, which is actually banned in Iran. Because of this, they had no access to a proper recording studio and had to use home studios. The whole scene seemed to be quite underground. PY had recorded a song with them, which they now delighted in playing at full volume making the old Paykan taxi rattle to the heavy beats of their rap tunes and the taxi driver grow more and more nervous that he might be found guilty by association. Ahmed, who composes music, told us he wants to emigrate, because everything he wants to do in Iran is banned.

The plan was to find a quiet spot in the park to make some music, but this never happened as the park was full of Iranians enjoying the many outdoor food stalls and waterpipe bars. We met up with a local girl PY had met through Couchsurfing, and decided to have a quick bite to eat. This turned into quite a long dinner and a smoke of the waterpipe.

The guys told us that there is no way for them to buy legal software or download Iphone apps, as they are unable to pay for them because of the sanctions against the banking system. Even Paypal is blocked for Iranians. There is a huge black market for software, and in fact there doesn’t even seem to be any copyright law in Iran, which must have a big impact on businesses here. PY’s friend sometimes does translation work for a client abroad (she is an English teacher), and the only way for her to get paid is to use an agent who has a bank account in Azerbaijan and receives the money for her, in return for a fee. People here feel very cut off from the rest of the world…

It was an interesting evening, and we would have liked to stay in Tabriz a little longer. However, we only have a one month visa and are not sure if we will be able to extend it, so we had to jump back on the bikes the following morning and pedal towards our next destination, Zanjan.

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