Iran : 24 Hours in Shiraz. Cut Throat Razors, War, and Poetry.
“He wants to ask you a question.” Faroud was our non-official translator. “Sure. Fire away”. Mohamed was driving, and his English wasn’t great. My Farsi, for all intents, is non-existent. “He says, yesterday, were you a little scared to come with us, and get into our car?”. It was a legitimate question, and had been brewing for 24 hours. It all started as a simple black-market currency transaction on the side-walks of Zand Boulevard – the main thoroughfare of Shiraz, Iran. Over the next 24 hours, from cut-throat razor blades to poetry, Shiraz was going to live up to it’s deserved reputation.
Yesterday, I had handed these same guys $500 US dollars in exchange for a huge wad of rapidly depreciating Iranian rials. Five Benjamin’s is two weeks average wage in Iran. On the streets, they must have seen the remainder of my US dollars, the bills were stashed not-so-stealthy in an old envelope with a clear window. Ben Franklin may as well have been winking. Soon after, Phillipa and myself soon found ourselves walking down a Shirazi alley-way, with three Iranian strangers, and getting into a car for a destination unknown. At this point, I was more than aware that my small backpack contained every bit of cash I had left in the world. The US dollars, and the Rials.
“Why don’t you, ask him how did he know I wasn’t some crazy foreigner who was going to pull out a knife, take my $500 back, and then steal his car?” We all smiled. No answers were necessary. After trekking around the ancient Iranian countryside all day, we were pretty beat. Despite the differences in our backgrounds, and the short time we had known each other, we had developed the implicit trust of old friends.
Sometimes, you have to take a chance in life. You have to ask, what’s the worst that can happen? Actually, as a westerner in Iran, maybe that’s not the question to ask. But the point stands – if you don’t take a risk in life, what’s the point of living? Quitting my job, was a risk. Flying one-way to Iran with no visa, was a risk. Jumping in a car with two Iranian men, and Phillipa, was a risk.
Twenty-four hours ago, Muhammad asked me, at the conclusion of our black market exchange dealings, “do you want to come to my house and drink?” I delivered my answer, only after sizing him up, staring in his eyes, and looking at his body language. “Yeah. Sure. When? Now?”. He nodded. “Ok, lets go”. After a quick walk to his car, we were on our way, to our first authentic Iranian household encounter.
We started the walk to Muhammad’s car with three guys, one guy got waylaid by a phone call, so it was Muhammad, Faroud, Phillipa, and myself who jumped in for destinations unknown. I call it being “street smart”. Others say it’s being “not smart”.
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They were just regular Iranian guys. Mid-late twenties. Cool. Muhammad was a street wise entrepreneur, with many irons in life’s fire. Faroud was intelligent, well spoken, a student of Engineering. Standard Shirazi issue. A phone call from Muhammad to his mother, totally put my mind at rest. “He’s telling his mum that he’s bringing some foreigners home for lunch”.
Muhammad’s house was huge, but according to Faroud, this was a pretty normal house for Shiraz. He added the disclaimer of “in every city around the world, of course there are people with little money, and people with more money”, using a high and low hand gesture to make sure we understood. The ladies of his family, mother and sisters, were modern, radiant, and personable. His Father was strong, solemn, with a firm handshake and eyes that clearly had seen enough in this world not to be totally surprised by two random Australian’s entering his home.
We soon became aware, that Faroud had a severe hangover. Still, he soldiered on with the translating duties, being the only one amongst all of us who spoke both English and Persian. Phillipa removed her headscarf, seeing and feeling the casual atmosphere of the home. It must have been quite a relief – we have been in Iran almost two weeks, and this was the first time she could socialise without wearing the headscarf.
We chatted. “Muhammad says he is a good barber”. Faroud continued with the translations. Lunch was going to take an hour to prepare, so whilst mum cooked, we ate pistachios and fruit. “Great! Can you ask him where there’s a good place to get a haircut in Shiraz?” Every traveller needs a hair-cut sooner or later. “He says he can cut your hair now, if you like? We have time. Do you have time?” Faroud was laughing as he translated. “I have all the time in the world. Lets do it.” There were a few more communal “OK’s”, and all round looks of surprise, the I adjourned to the bathroom of an Iranian man I had only met an hour or so ago.
Muhammad soon entered, smiling, with a cut-throat razor blade in his hand. Just me, and Muhammad. I thought of my friends in Australia, and what they may have thought of this situation. I looked out to the loungeroom, only to trade looks of “can you believe this” with Phillipa. But, she had disappeared.
He cut my hair, expertly, then pointed at my facial hair. Which, once again, had attained the hipster castaway look that seems to be a speciality of lazy western travellers. “Take it all off. Gone. Understand?” After a few runs with the clippers, Muhammad, whose English was now warming up, looked at me, laughed, and said “Norway, stop now! haha!”. I had no idea what he was talking about. Faroud wasn’t there to translate, we were on our own. I didn’t have a mirror, to see why he was laughing at as he stroked his own chin. He gave me that look of do you get it? And said again, “Norway, stop now!”.
“What? Norway? What do you mean? I don’t understand?“. He pointed out a mirror on a far wall, and told me to get up and look. “See? Black Metal! Norway, stop now! hahaha!“. Muhammad the Iranian, who had never left Iran, had a knowledge of popular western culture so nuanced that he was crafting jokes based upon an understanding that Norway was indeed the home of the sub-genre of Heavy Metal music known as Black Metal.
I looked in the mirror, and saw he had removed most of my beard, but had left a long, staunch, moustache. Vertically dropping by the corners of my mouth and down under my chin, I looked like a stand-in bass player for Metallica. Oh, Norway stop now, black metal, yes! I laughed, Mahamoud made the devil sign with his hand, and laughed some more.
A couple more clips, and he asked me to stand up and look in the mirror again. “This is Iraqi – Saddam!”. Now I had a regular moustache, with a little hair under my bottom lip. Laugher continued, I sat back down. He clipped some more. “Now, this is Iranian man style”. Indeed, I now had the moustache style that Muhammad’s father was rocking. I considered stopping at this point, but decided against it. A clip more. “Look now! Charlie Chaplin!”. This was too much. We were both loving the ridiculousness of a situation that only carefree and unrelenting trust of perfect strangers could bring.
A clip or two later, we wrapped it up and returned to the family room.
“Where’s Phillipa?” I couldn’t see her anywhere. “She’s in there, with his father.” Faroud was reading, chilling alone in the family room, pointing at the entrance to a room I had not yet visited. I walked over, and stood in the doorway. It was a beautifully unexpected scene. Phillipa was sitting on Persian rug with Muhammad’s father, smiling, staring at his hands. They both couldn’t have been more calm and relaxed.
I knew, thanks to the broken banter Muhammad made during my haircut, that this man was the father of five children, a former power-lifter, and an eight year veteran of the Iran/Iraq war – the longest conventional war of the 20th century.
Fought between 1980 and 1988, the Iran Iraq War was two nations slaughtering half a million soldiers and civilians, in an eight year battle supported and encouraged by Eastern and Western interests. Indeed, the USA was supplying weapons to Iran, in a callous violation of the very sanctions they had imposed on Iran.
Sickeningly, many other countries also supported Iran and Iraq during this war, supplying weapons, armaments, land-mines, materials useful in the creation of weapons of mass destruction, as well as huge quantities of pre-cursors to aid chemical warfare. And well, just generally taking sides with one or both of oil rich nations in the hope of favourable trade when the dust settled. That is to say, make a quick buck.
Common understanding is that Iraq was the aggressor, invading a weakened Iran in the wake of crippling sanctions introduced by the US government in 1979, an economic noose that has been in effect now for 33 years in Iran – long before the positively recent claims of Uranium Enrichment and Nuclear weapons capability. The end result of the disgustingly brutal war was zero gain to either country, apart from an end to the war. It was a huge economic and humanistic loss that is still being felt. An eight year nightmare that simply returned each country to the state of relative peace they had before it started. Oh, and a few favours to be repaid to other nations.
Now, today in 2012, Muhammad’s father was sitting with Phillipa by his side, deftly adding calligraphy to an artwork he began in 1986, during the war. It was a composition of words from the poet “Hafez”, the most popular and universally loved poet in the history of the Persian people. With a deft hand, he had placed the flowing Persian script into a geometric design, appearing somewhat like a stylised flower.
In the same calligraphic Persian script, some 28 years later, he was finally completing the artwork.
He looked up at me, then at Phillipa, and spoke in his own language, pointing at the art.
Faroud had joined us, he was drawn in by intrigue.
“He says, wait until it’s dry”.
Twenty-eight years after the war-surviving-father-of-five had began this artwork, it was completed with the words – “dedicated to Phillipa”.
PS, the photos here are from “Nashq-e Rostam – a 3000 year old Necropolis of Kings, carved into the side of a stone mountain near Shiraz, Iran. Getting here was another risk. After visiting the ancient city of Persepolis, my taxi driver said some words to me. What I understood was “do you want to see…”. Of course, I answered “yes”. Without having any idea as to where I was going.
PPS, thanks to the aforementioned sanctions, I have no idea if anyone is reading this blog, as I can’t access any statistics, at all, from within Iran. This is not Iranian government censorship, this is Google saying “we know you’re in Iran, so we’re not allowing you to access our products”… so, if you are enjoying this Iran series, feel free to leave a comment.
* names have been changed in this story, in case I let slip something that could get these guys into trouble.