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Richard Lutz’s Blog

INSIDE IRAN (1)

07-04-2009

Mosque

Undaunted by its pivotal position within George Bush’s “Axis of Evil”, Richard Lutz has braved Iran for the benefit of Stirrer readers.

The thing about Mike is that he is big. If he were to stand in the Iranian desert and a flood roared down from the Caspian Sea, the water and wind would go around him. He’s immutable, as big as The Wrekin.

So when he walks through the Iranian streets, eyes follow. He is also carrying a 3 foot long ostrich feather given to him by a bazaar trader trying to hawk tourist tat. You can’t miss the boy.

We are in Esfahan in south central Iran. It is a garden city, filled with palaces, huge squares, fragrant rows of flowers, bubbling fountains, elegant turquoise domes.

It is towards the end of No Ruz - the Iranian New Year - and that means families, thousands of picnicking families, line the banks of the sinuous Zayandeh River that meanders though this city. And on the placid water, everyone is having a ball on the pedalos, red, yellow and blue vessels zapping around in the early spring sunshine

The ostrich feather and Mike’s bulk keep us on view at all times. But there are no suspicious eyes. Just curious eyes. And no one is at all hesitant about approaching.

Men, women and kids stop to ask us where we come from, what we think of Iran, why we have come to Iran. As we stop, the mobiles are whipped out and snaps and video clips are recorded for the family archives. I am not sure who is on show, them or us.

Everyone has a question. And simply put, we can talk about anything - except the over arching clerical leaders who peer down from the ominous walls and billboards.

A university student approaches- dressed like a late 50’s rocker just like thousands of other Iranian lads. His black shirt is studded with straps, metal and buckles. His legs are snared in trousers as tight as a drain. He’s got reflecto-shades. His deeply-producted hair boasts a Roy Orbison ‘do’ straight up and straight back…Johnny Cash would have approved.

‘Hello, where are you from?’

‘England.’

Big smiles, big smiles.

‘Parlez- vous francais?’

‘No, mais mon ami parle francais.’

Tom comes over to rescue me. The Iranian is studying French and the chat devolves to the international language of banalities - footy.

The lad knows Birmingham. And why not?

‘Martin O’Neill.’ he says.

But he doesn’t know The Blues. St Andrews is beyond range.

Tom and he get into heavy-duty footy talk about Liverpool, Ronaldo, Capello, and, of course, Beckham.

Then, he inevitably whips out the mobile and asks if he can take a picture of us.

Snap away, brother. Iran is single handedly supporting the digi-picture industry. We are in Kodak country here.

It’s a holiday crowd and the weather is as soft as an English summer’s day. Regiments of stocks in the border of the park pierce the air with scent. Trees are starting to bloom and sun bounces off the river.

This is Iran at play.

But there is always a hint everywhere of a sterner side to Iran, the one you read about all the time in UK papers. You can’t turn around in the city without seeing the faces of the leading clerical duo of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini - the leader of the ’79 Revolution - and his bookish-looking successor Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who is still chief mullah. Their faces exude raw ultimate power.

But below their solemn gazes, the families are happily spreading out their picnic blankets. The portable BBQ’s are ready, and family chefs are laying out lamb shish kabob hot off the grill, fresh vegetables, and newly baked slabs of naan that could be straight out of a Sparkhill balti.

Picnic in Iran

We are stopped everywhere and asked to sit and eat. It is hard to resist with the fragrance of fresh food everywhere.

A smiling man offers me some lamb kebab straight off the barby. I take a bite. It’s dynamite-as good as it smells.

‘Come, eat with my family.’ A blanket full of kids, sisters, grandparents beckon, insist, smile.

Kebab Man

Iran is an alcohol free country so there is only Coke, Fanta, (all somehow trickily evading sanctions), non-alcoholic beer, bottled water and a salty yogurt called durg. Some of the lads are firing up a hookah and the smell of flavoured tobacco curves around us.

We can’t slide through this crowd or disappear because the holidaymakers are looking at us more than we are taking them in. And, of course, there’s Mike and the feather.We are part of the day out here in Esfahan as we stroll on the riverbank.

A man with a gentle face stops and smiles. He is holding his year old son.

He is Ali.

He explains why he is in Esfahan.

‘I come from Kabul and left Afghanistan because of the war. There is too much trouble there.’

‘Are you happy in Iran?’ I ask.

‘No,’ he says, ‘I am Sunni and Iran is Shia.’

‘And that means…?’ I let the question hang.

‘They only allow me o work with my hands. But I want to work in a shop or an office. But I cannot.’

‘Because you are Afghan?’

‘Because I am Sunni.’ His hands are tough and strong as he holds his happy round baby.

We walk on. More families are arriving for their riverside picnic. A lot of the babies are held by the men. The kids are swaddled in heavy blankets- you can’t see their little faces as their dads cradle them. No one uses a push chair or a carriage.

The mothers, meanwhile, walk alongside their husbands and dutifully ensure the little children are being safely carried. Older children run, run, run some more and play.

Child's slide Iran

And they gawk. If it isn’t Mike and his ostrich feather, it is Rosemary. She has silver hair neatly encased in a shimmery white headscarf. The women - especially- can’t get their eyes off her. And neither can I because she is my wife and she looks great.

The girls ask to take photos of Rosemary. There is no hesitancy, no cultural taboos about Iranian women approaching us. As a matter of fact, I would say, they are more confident than the men. The lasses clock Rosemary’s hair, her light skin, her handbag and shoes. They happily surround her, their headscarves and chadors highlighting almond eyes, handsome faces, quick smiles. And underneath their head coverings, there are mountain ranges of black hair.

Girls in Iran

Everyone is asking questions. I speak no Iranian. And most English in Esfahan is rudimentary. No one talks about the clerical hierarchy, the mullahs. It is something that obviously can’t be brought up with strangers. But the political elections in June are a hot topic and the ultra conservative President Ahmadinejad - up for re election-isn’t off the chat agenda.

‘Bush no, Ahmadinejad no.’ a shop keeper tells me. He dismisses both men with a quick flick of his hand.

‘But,’ he says simply, ‘Americans OK, Iranians OK.’

And Obama?’

‘Obama good…maybe.’

I walk on.

A middle aged man called Reza has better English.

‘The reformers are no good.’ Reza says, ‘They have no ideas. No one knows what they believe in. But you know what Ahmadinejad is thinking.’

Who will he vote for in June?

‘Ahmadinejad.’

‘Why?’

He says carefully: ‘Things have to change and Ahmadinejad’s policies will bring things to a boil.’

Now, there’s tricky thinking: let the ultra conservatives hang themselves with their far right policies.

And the mullahs? The ones who control the politicians and continuously look down from those posters?

A small smile signals an end to the chat.

I look up and see Mike and his feather. He is surrounded by little kids. And the kids are laughing.

Names have been changed.

Tomorrow Richard takes gets a hit off his Persian hookah, tucks into some great food and finds out more about who rules Iran.

Pictures courtesy of Richard Lutz 2009

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