The small city of Kashan, 5 hours south of Tehran, is noticeably more conservative and to me, slightly more tense than the capital. I arrive during a religious holiday so it’s even more quiet than usual and most places are closed during my time there. There are less women on the streets and unlike Tehran, almost all of them wear the full-length black chador. There isn’t much to do apart from wonder the streets and visit some historic bath-houses.
The morning before I leave for Isfahan, I search in vain for somewhere to have tea. I ask a middle aged chap where I can get some chai and his mate standing beside him invites me to his home through the narrow lanes nearby. His wife (who never enters the same room as I) makes the chai while he shows me his workshop of musical instruments. When the tea’s ready, he plays one of his traditional Iranian instruments while the TV shows some robotic government propaganda in the background. I’d ask him what he thought of it, as it’s the first time I’ve seen a government TV channel here (all the previous homes I’ve been in had illegal satellite channels) but he doesn’t have much English, so I just enjoy the music he plays on his own hand-made santur.
Despite being being more touristic (in Iranian terms) than Kashan, I’m relieved to be in the bigger city of Isfahan and meeting young, English-speaking Iranians. I spend much of my time hanging out in the World Heritage site of Naqsh-e Jahan square in the centre. It’s name is Farsi for ‘Image of the World Square’ but is officially known as ‘Imman Square’ since the revolution. With my newly found local mates (they’re easily made here), I meet two other European travelers (Dutch and Austrian) who’re also enjoying their time exploring the city. We spend hours wondering around the grand baazar and chilling out in one of many hookah (or hubble-bubble as it’s known in Iran) joints around the square. The last days of 2012 are spent lazily getting to know one of the most beautiful cities in the world, amongst friends who just a couple of days ago were complete strangers.
I’m not going to write any more about the Islamic architecture of the square but to say that they really knew how to build massive enchanting spaces. If an alien were to come to Earth wanting to see a bit of human civilisation, I wouldn’t let them anywhere near New York or London…I’d take it to this place. Another part of the city I keep returning to during my time in Isfahan is the Armenian Quarter. Unlike larger minorities such as Azeris and Kurds, Armenian Christians are allowed to educate their children in their native language and have their own schools, churches and clubs. An ancient community, numbering around 80,000 mainly in Tehran and Isfahan, they’re too small a minority to be seen as a threat by the Islamic Republic, which allows them certain liberties not afforded to the larger minorities. It’s strange to see the Armenian script again in this context, on street signs and shop fronts.
Going to Isfahan opens up a whole new world to me, of an ancient, culturally rich civilisation, that I already glimpsed in the attitudes and perspectives of Iranians. They’re proud of this history and maybe because of present circumstances, they take it all the more seriously. Many I’ve talked to dislike the Arab influences in their language and culture, seeing it as something almost imperialistic and something favored by their current rulers. And yet it was the Arabs who brought Islam to Persia. As with many countries, the people here hark back to a more ‘pure’ time, when the imagined glory of their nation was in its heyday. I can’t blame them – I often do it myself. Here it’s all the more pertinent though, as basic liberties enjoyed by the previous young generation are denied the youth of today. As a friend brings us for a drive up the main ‘dating’ street in the city at night to witness where young people drive up and down, stopping to exchange phone numbers with the opposite sex out of their car windows (it’s too dangerous to do it in the open), it’s clear the social and political problems here are severe. Like the dry riverbed (due to nearby long-term water shortages) that runs through the city and which is a source of mild heartache for many Isfahanians, free life in the public arena is pretty barren. Still, as a foreigner, for now I just enjoy the rich cultural heritage and the novelty of being an outsider in one of the most hospitable countries in the world.