Last year I remember thinking, “Oh, my 27th birthday is on a Thursday. We’ll just have to celebrate the day after.” But, in Iran Thursday is like our Saturday. The weekend here is Thursday and Friday. So, it worked out perfectly. I got to spend a “Saturday” night on the town, in Esfahan of all places!
We headed out at noon thinking that it would be a long day so we’d start later in order to see some of the nightlife in Iran. Besides being in love with the baking, Chris and I both fell in love with the fresh banana milkshakes. Chris thought that’d be the perfect way to start my special day.
After our refreshment we started walking through the winding, cool streets of the covered bazaar to get to the largest mosque in Iran, the Jameh Mosque.
It was prayer time when we reached the mosque, so Chris and I found some shady steps and enjoyed an ice cream. It can sometimes seem impossible to find a restaurant in Iran. You can walk for kilometres before you find one. However if your diet consists of ice cream and fruit smoothies then this is the place for you.
While we walked around the mosque, a cute little boy of about 7 followed us around saying numerous things in Farsi we couldn’t understand, but also repeatedly saying “hello”, “Goodbye”, and “Holiday”.
After visiting the Jameh mosque, we did the 30-minute walk through a section of the covered bazaar that took us back to the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Naghsh-e Jahan Square. It is the second largest square in the world, second to China’s Tian’anmen Square in Beijing. Corridor after corridor we passed clothing stores, rug shops, table cloth shops, spice shops and ones full of many different objects like plates and pots hammered out of shinny copper or intricately painted pottery.
We walked and walked but still could not find a restaurant. As we hesitated at a crossroads of the bazaar a long curly-haired man yelled to us from the end of the corridor, “Come this way. It is better.” We walked towards him. He was pointing towards the covered bazaar, which continued around the corner, as an alternative to walking in the blistering heat in the center of the square.
“I am nomad, but now I live in city. You want carpet? This is very nice carpet shop. Here is card for the Flying Carpet. Oh, you are hungry? I know very good restaurant. Come I’ll take you to it.”
He led us to one of the nicest restaurants we’ve seen. It seemed the perfect place for my birthday lunch.
Suddenly another man from the carpet shop had emerged. “If you like lunch then you come drink tea with us in shop. But if you don’t like lunch then you don’t come drink tea with us. Sound fair?”
We laughed and nodded, thanking the men as we entered the restaurant and the two of them backed away with smiles and waves as they were once again sucked into the business of the bazaar.
Chris and I made ourselves comfortable on one of the wooden platforms in the courtyard of the restaurant. Sure enough we enjoyed some of the best food we had in Iran. Yogurt mixed with diced shallots, mint and garlic. Beef kebab and rice lightly seasoned with saffron. Salad with huge slices of cucumber and tomato accompanied by a French dressing and a baked aubergine in a rich tomato sauce. It was delicious.
When we left the restaurant we exited through another door. My hopes were to avoid the carpet salesmen. I hurriedly ducked around displays of the intricate crafts made in the bazaar. I was only 3 meters from the end of the section when suddenly I heard, “So, did you enjoy your lunch?” the carpet man rested with his arm casually against a displayed carpet.
“Yes, very much so”, Chris replied “So I guess we better take you up on your tea offer.”
To my surprise the three men in the store were about our age and extremely relaxed. They were not pushy like the Turkish salesmen. None of them moved quickly, or without unnecessary reason. Without an order given or even a head nod one slipped away into the backroom almost without notice and presented four small glasses of tea and a sugar bowl on a silver tray. The traditional way of drinking tea is to place one of the rather large pieces of sugar in your mouth and then sip the tea through the sugar.
We chatted for nearly two hours and had such a great time that we tentatively put two kilim carpets aside for us. However the cost was $600, so we weren’t convinced. We left the carpet shop with many smiles and handshakes and took no more than ten steps before we stood in front of the great Imam Mosque.
We paid 5,000 rials each (roughly 0.50 cents) to enter. The ticket guard looked at our tickets and grunted to me, “Chador”. I went back to the ticket office and kindly asked for a chador. A chador is typically a black piece of fabric women drape over themselves, but the one he handed me was white with flowers.
Chris and I were amazed with the size and the artistry of the mosque. A few minutes after entering a man from the mosques religious school started to speak with us and offered to interpret the mosque. I found some of the stuff he said most interesting.
“How do you find the chador?” he asked me.
“Well, I don’t know how to wear it properly, but it’s fine.”
“Do you know why muslim women cover themselves?” Chris explained his understanding and the man continued, “The beauty of a women is only for her husband. So this beauty must be covered.”
These words flittered in and out of my mind throughout the rest of the day and the next day. Does this mean that men are ugly and that women don’t want to look at men and that’s why they don’t need to cover up? And what about the 6 and 7-year olds I see with head scarves and the rare one in a chador? I’m guessing she doesn’t have a husband to protect her beauty for. When I told Chris this he told me, sarcastically, “You’re not suppose to use logic and reasoning.”
I thought that perhaps having to wear a headscarf for as long as I have (June 17 – July 10) I would have a better understanding, but honestly it still complexes me like it did before. I understand that it is a religious thing. I understand that it is a conservative thing. I understand that black is the “most religious” colour because it draws the least attention especially for a women with no make-up and no hair showing. However, in the temperatures we have been enduring day in and day out I cannot help but think it is one of the most impractical religious practices I have come across in our modern world. It is not only hot, but also extremely annoying in a car with the windows down or simply on a windy day. Not to mention you do not hear properly.
After all this time I still don’t understand. I’m not a religious person. I find certain aspects fascinating and interesting about religion but when it comes down to it I feel they strip the individual of individualistic thoughts. I despise how they are cult-like, contain brainwashing-like characteristics and can be the cause of conflict. I know there are good qualities about all religions; to me they are simply outnumbered by the bad.
But enough of my rant and back to the story. From the mosque and back into the blistering heat of 7:00 pm we did not get more than 15 feet from the door before our long curly-haired nomad beckoned us once again.
“How did you enjoy mosque? Very good.”
He started to point out minor architectural differences in the mosque, showing us how the mosque is in fact asymmetrical when at first glance it appears symmetrical. “Look at the mosque. See on one side it is a mosaic but the other the same design is on large tiles? It is thought that the mosaic was by the master and the tiles were done by the student. Look here. You see this vase shape and how it is very detailed but on the other side the vase is plain. Perhaps master and student again, but also only Allah, only God, is perfect. That is why the mosque is made this way.”
“See over here there are motorcycles parked, but on this side there are none, only God is perfect!” He chuckled at what must be one of his most common jokes for the tourists.
We thanked him for sharing his information and proceeded to walk around the fountain in front of the mosque.
“Don’t go this way. There is nothing over there.” One of the young men from the carpet shop yelled at us as he sat on a nearby wall.
“Really? There’s nothing this way.” Chris said.
“No, because our carpet shop is that way.” He pointed back to the carpet store we left two hours ago but only managed to get 40 feet from. We chuckled and bade him “Hoda Hafez”, essentially “Goodbye.”
As we crossed the street of the grand Naghsh-e Jahan square, six horse drawn carriages jingled past. The horses trotted the same path for the countless time but the passengers were fresh and jolly like all the ones who came before them.
We were just taking our first few steps across the 500-meter long square when we were approached by two young men, one rather tall and other quite petit, both with gaping grins reaching from ear to ear and a politeness that surrounded them.
“Hello. Welcome to Iran. Where are you from? Do you have some time to speak with us for a few minutes?” said the smaller fellow.
By this point Chris and I both felt a strong need and want to get to the tea shop across the square. We had been trying to reach it for two hours.
“Thank you. We are from Canada.”
“Oh wow! We have been coming to this square nearly every day, every weekend for the past two years and I think that you are the first Canadians we have ever met,” gleamed the taller, stockier fellow.
“We would like to speak, but we have been trying to reach the tea shop over there for almost two hours. We’ve only made it 40 feet because we keep meeting people. But perhaps we can talk for five or ten minutes.” Chris replied.
“Oh yes that would be very nice. We both studied English in university but finished two years ago. So we like to practice it when we can.” the petit man replied.
“You know. Why don’t you come to the tea shop with us? Please would you like to come? It will be our treat.”
Both talking at once and over top of each other the men replied.
“Oh well. “
“I suppose we could”
“But we must leave by 8:00 pm”
“And you are our guests, so it will be our treat.”
“Yes, you’re our guests,“ they both insisted.
With that, Chris and I and our two new friends both named Ali, made it across the square, into the narrow doorway and up the uneven, winding stairs of different heights into the tea shop. We stepped out onto the patio for a spectacular birds-eye view of the entire square. We sat down but were quickly ushered to another seat because we had apparently sat in the “bachelor” section. My presence had caused quite the stir in the regular routine of the server. It is very uncommon to find segregated areas in Iran, but tea shops are generally male-dominated.
We sat down on one of the long backless metal benches covered with a synthetic, machine-made Persian carpet. The wall of the building was to our backs and the heat of the day reflected off it making it feel as if we were in front of an oven. Sweat dripped down my face and collected under my bangs. My jacket clung to my skin and the lack of air flow or even a slight breeze made it quite unbearable with my head scarf wrapped around my neck containing the heat. A little part of me was cursing inside. The better part of me repressed the anger and frustration of the heat and wardrobe and tried to enjoy the view, company and tea. Although drinking tea may be easier for our bodies in hot weather on one hand, it can also be very difficult.
The men described to us “Agd”, the first stage of marriage in Iran. They have a special ceremony for “Agd” in which they say a few sentences that they both agree to marry the other. After this ceremony the man is allowed to touch his “fiancé” and see her hair. This stage of their marriage is like our “engagement” stage. “Agd” may last one year or even five, it all depends on the requirements agreed and desired by the families and when the husband has acquired the necessary funds/assets.
The taller Ali explained how he and his wife have been in “Agd” for four years since she was twenty-one. He needs to save enough money to buy a house and gold for his wife before her family will let him marry her.
“Do you think we could smoke some Iranian shisha? The water pipe?” I asked. The two men nodded and taller Ali offered to order it.
“I smoked the water pipe once, but when my mom found out she got very, very angry. So I have never smoked it again.” the petit Ali told us.
We kept talking and the tea shop started to fill up. A man and his friends sat beside me, and upon over hearing part of our conversation he retorted, “There are no ordinary tourists in Iran. Ordinary tourists don’t come here.” This was our introduction to Abed. At this moment we had no idea we would build a strong friendship with him over the next four days.
When the two Ali’s got up to leave, we all stood up. They shook Chris’s hand and when I extended mine they both backed away with their hands on their hearts and said, “Excuse me miss. Goodbye.” That was my first time feeling awkward with my unaccepted extended hand. After another occurrence I stopped offering a handshake to men unless they extended their hand to me. In fact, I learned and somewhat enjoyed that many times I didn’t have to carry the brunt of conversation or small talk because that’s my husband’s job.
We sat back down and started to speak with Abed. We learned that he worked in the carpet shop in the square and that he comes to the tea shop every day. When we were about to part he invited us to come with him to the Armenian, modern area of Esfahan. Before we knew it we were in a taxi and found ourselves surrounded by the energetic, young generations of Iran.
Walking down the side walk with a cigarette casually dangling from his finger tips Abed was stopped by four men. On the ground were many hand-made necklaces with different images painted on small pieces of wood. The hippie-like artist smiled as we picked one for my birthday present.
We continued down the sidewalk and arrived at Abed’s favourite pizza restaurant at 11:00 pm. It was packed. Every table was taken and the line to order weaved into the tables. With a wait time of 45 minutes we decided instead for my late-night birthday meal, to eat at a near-by traditional Iranian restaurant.
We spoiled ourselves with the traditional yogurt drink, stuffed vegetables, olives, chicken and a traditional dish of “Fesenjun” which is chicken, walnuts and pomegranate all mashed together. Chris and Abed sung me Happy Birthday, and Chris gave me candles he had hoped to find a cake for. I realized I’m to old to just buy one package of candles and we all chuckled at getting older.
Our night ended around 1:00 am with walking along the river and across the Si-o-Seh Pol Bridge (Bridge of 33 Arches).
As we walked on the curving park paths we passed many families, including their small children only 4-9 years old still awake. The families were eating and smoking shisha and the children were riding bikes and playing games.
We bade farewell to Abed for the night as we jumped in our $2 taxi ride back to the hotel. Collapsing onto my bed I thought of the day and what a unique and unforgettable birthday it will be in my life.