Archive for the ‘Iran’ Category
Thank you Tehran Bureau!
Posted on October 10th, 2009 by admin. Filed under Iran.
As many of you know often when I travel I do so by way of couchsurfing, meaning that I sign on to stay with complete strangers in an effort for cultural exchange and understanding. This past summer couchsurfing invited me to give a talk at a bookstore about what it is like to be a traveler in Iran. That talk is finally happening on Tuesday October 20th at 7PM at Get Lost Books at 825 Market Street in San Francisco. I hope you can come. Love, Meshel
Posted on September 20th, 2009 by admin. Filed under Iran.
Just came across a few great images of Iran from my 1st trip there in 2007. That visit was pre-website/blog… spent a month hitch-hiking & taking public buses around the country- often staying with people I met in the street or on public transport. May be one of the last places on earth where you can do that? I want to do a reality show where I hitch across Iran with no $ yet live like a queen with the loveliest of people- it is the reality, in fact- I already did it- you can do it too, you know… well wait for it to quiet down, InSh’Allah.
Posted on September 2nd, 2009 by admin. Filed under Iran.
As the dust has settled i am seeing things more clearly- things that i did not trust myself to make any judgements on a few months ago. Just like anything in life, people’s reactions & criticisms of often say more about them & their hang ups, than anything valid about you. Friends who have divorced have told me this, and i never quite had anything very contraversial to apply that to, until this past summer in Iran. Yes, being forcibly stopped, surrounded & abducted by 10 Basiji men is intimidating but it is *certainly* not the worst thing on earth.. But i was a bit surprised when a few close male friends (seperately) told me that i was making a big deal of nothing. I definitely do not think it was a big deal compared to what others were going through but that does not mean that it still was not scary and did not deeply affect me- as it would others who are not used to living under those circumstances. In talking to more friends about it now (I was pretty isolated after it happened) I see that it was normal to be scared.. & even a tiny bit traumatized. Again- *certainly not* the worst thing that could happen but when you are alone in a foreign land, no one knows where you are, and you are a female with all men, it can be scary- especially given how unpredictable things were at the time & the fact that the Basiji certainly were to be feared.
Five days after the abduction one of my male friends- whose opinion i highly valued- sat me down & gave me a talking to after i had trouble eating, sleeping & producing work in reaction to what happened. In an annoyed manner, he told me that he also had a traumatic experience in Iran once: his car was broken into & his passport was stolen. And that he had to get over it & move on & that i needed to stop sulking, and get over it too. Maybe he just wanted to cheer me up- but the demeanor which he did this in suggested annoyance more than empathy. He said that what happend to me & what happend to him were “the same thing” … hmmmm.. I get the moving on part, but a car break in- losing your things vs. being scared for your life/safety are not the same thing. I could not believe what i was hearing. I really was not trusting myself when he said that to me, so i just kept quiet…
I met up with another male acquaintance from home, about a month after that. Granted i do not really trust this person’s opinion much - he often seems to get great joy from pointing out people’s fauts. Do not quote me on this- but within 15 minutes of seeing him, he went on to say “How on earth could you be so stupid to get your self in that situation?” and “On the one TV interview you had this grin, like ‘yeah i know i’m a bad ass.’” actually this is sort of a noncomment/nonsurprise given the source, rite?! Still, I pressed him about this & after a few beers (& possibly some superego getting him in check) he said that naysyers may just be jealous b/c they secretly wish they were out doing that sort of thing….
Just this weekend a close male friend questioned me- asking me why the thought that the Basij may kill me crossed my mind while that had me captive (uh, b/c they just abducted me- and they had killed others… and i was under allot of stress… errr—)- he went on to say that was foolish & that many people would simply brush the experience off (yes, i know–) and that i am “not a very hearty person” because it scared me so much. I know that too- but….. but… but…. That said, he spent all summer in Ibiza on a news fast….
What is my point? i guess to get some of this off my chest. Most of my friends have been supportive & I am sure that this is these people’s way of showing support.. but i just wonder why a few *male* friends interpret what happened in this way. No females have. I am left thinking perhaps it is a macho thing- is it because i did not spend the summer at the mall putting on makeup? Is it b/c they spent all summer get man-cials while drinking soy lattes when really they wished they were crossing the sahara atop a cargo truck? i don’t know… but no matter, i hope there is some therapeutic benefit of airing my dirty laundry here in cyberspace.
Hi, Have not blogged in a long time for probably obvious reasons- while in Iran i knew that was a no-go. In Lebanon & Syria I did not want anyone there to be able to track me or know where I was- call me paranoid ; ) I feel i have to address a few questions that have been raised following what happened in Iran:
1. What happend to me is NOTHING compared to what the Iranian people live with- especially now.
2. I have been to Iran three times- the past three years my focus has been on fostering understanding between the everyday people of America & the everyday people of Iran (not our governments- i am not a politician). Having everyday people understand eachother when we have few opportunities for real life ineraction is a massive undertaking, that of course i know i am not able to single-handedly tackle-but- as I wrote here long ago- this is just my tiny meagre contribtion to that. Iran is a very different place than what was portrayed in the media the past few decades (since June that is changing).. I wanted to let everyday Americans know the truth about Iranians-since they are truly hospitable kind people- quite different from what we saw in teh media. I have written about this before, been interviewed by journalists in the past, and have also spoken at events such as the Axis Of Friendhsip festival in 2008 regarding my hopes. I did not go to Iran in June as a novice who was ”swept up” in the “trendiness” of the green wave. I have many friends there -some of who are like family- I like to see them- they mean alot to me. I wanted to be with my friends there during what potentially could have been a positive time. No one predicted the situation to deteriorate as quickly as it did. No matter, the real reason i was abudcted by the Basij is because they & the government do not want ANY foreign eyes there to witness the atrocities happening. They were trying to intimidate & scare ousiders to leave. They saw me read CNN- a news site that their government has conveniently deemed ”terrorist trouble maker.” it really had far less to do with teh interaction i had wit the undercover Basiji & more to do with their zero tolerance policy that started the day before (ironic since i was trying to read CNN to find out just what was said at the Ayatollah’s prayer- and what did it mean- for me- a foreign tourist, ie: should i leave?).
3. When you see a brief clip of a much longer interview focusing on the fear I felt when abducted I know it may appear naive & foolish- to trust someone in Iran. Fact is human beings make decisions based on what they have been conditioned and actually experienced in life. Would I let a stanger hail a taxi for me in Moscow? No. Would I agree with negative comments about the government in say China? No. Would I walk home in the dark a half mile from my own apartment in San Francisco? No. However In Iran- by all means yes. In my past experiences in Iran the vast majority of people there verbally bash their government- all the time. In hindsite i see that it was a hyper sensitive time and i could have exercised more caution- but lesson learned. Unfortunately now i think there wil be many more secret police. Don’t feel sorry for the tourist- feel sorry for the everyday ppl who have too live there under such renewed oppression of all divergent thought & idea.
4. I am now in Jordan- I let a young man (stranger) hail a taxi for me yesterday. In this part of the world hospitality is unparalelled- much different than in a western nation. As i have said here on my blog over the years- I find Iran to be THE most hospitable and one of the safest nations I have ever visited. The custom there is “the guest is next to God.” We stand so much to learn from this. I am sorry if it seems naive – because in reality it is not. if you are paranoid- you are the one who misses out. I and many others travel b/c we like to experience something different from our own culture. I do not travel with my guard up in places which have proven that they could be trusted- this was literally the 1st time i have ever been stung by trusting too much in the middle east. Granted, i now have adjusted how I travel and have been far more cautious. I am sure I am missing out on positive experiences with people as as result, but it is just where I am at in my head right now. Fact is most of the world is a very friendly place with good people- a small minority of people are bad eggs. The bastard Basiji who got me was just that- a minority in a nation of good people. The only way to truly know that and trust this though is to get out & experience it.
On 6/20/2009 I was abducted by a militia group, the Basij, in Tehran. They thought I was a spy. Here are some CNN & ABC links:
ABC interview segment & link:
Posted on July 31st, 2008 by admin. Filed under Iran.
above: last photo I snapped as a “free woman” (without police escort) in Zahedan, Iran
At 6AM Mr. Akbar & I flagged down a bus from Bam to Zahedan. Even though I was never alone in Bam (due to security reasons, see: kidnapped Japanese tourist story below), i was told by Mr. Akbar that the bus may be my best bet in getting to Zahedan “safely” (whatever that means). He said if i went by share taxi or regular taxi i had more risk of being stopped by drug smugglers, though they are normally not out much during the day (another point in my favor).
When i got on the bus i noticed that it was like stepping into another country- it was full of skinny men in baggy white salwar kameez’s; hints of Pakistan were everywhere. THere were also a few urban-Tehrani types- most noteably the girl infront of me who had 2 black-ish eyes- she was using tissue to clean the clogged blood coming out of her nostrils, she wore a large bandage over a metal strip holding her new nose job in place (the nose job is a bit of a a rite of passage to rich or aspringing modern Tehranis who also wear alot of make up/use alot of hair gel, etc-). This site reminded me that in fact, i am still in Iran, alrite!
Pakistani music playing, it made me want to continue on east to Pakistan and eventually to India where thinsg are more colorful & free, relatively speaking. It all seemed well & good and a bit like a trip down memory lane. I thought to myself, rather than being a scary trip through drug territory as folks described, it seemed like a nice relaxing journey. I looked out the window and watched the desert landscape turn from a lunar jagged reddish-brown to a flat tan color. At times there were decaying carcasses of cow or camel, the desert looking like it was slowly swallowing the body. As the wind blew in the window it felt like opening an over door full of intense wind- it made my eyes sore & i had to wear glasses for that reason alone.
Thinigs change when we started making many stops. Too many. For starters, a scrawny police officer came on with a few convicts who were handcuffed to one another. THey wore baggy salwar kameezes as an accessory to their handcuffs. Aside from the fact that they are scary convicts another downside of our new passengers was that they smelled really bad. The police escorted them to the back, everyone staring at them nonstop for at least a half an hour. I thought that was wierd, that the police use public transport here to transport prisoners. Especially since there is just one of his & more of them. Maybe he needs us? What was wierder was that a few kilometers further a new-looking pickup truck full of turbaned men- some wrapping their faces entirely – only eyes showing- stopped us and put an entire truckload of gasoline under the bus. They then shot off on some crude dirl track back into the mountains. We carried on with our new cargo- but the fumes of gasoline were so strong that many passengers started throwing up. Seeing everyone throw up made me want to throw up but i didn’t. I started to think to myself- what was Mr. Akbar thinking that the bus was safer?!!!! I need to call him. After about 30 kilometers and a dozen police checkpoints a bunch of bandit looking gentlemen again flew out of nowhere from the mountains in pickup trucks- different colored turbans, big billowy beards of white and jet black- and face coverings. THey stopped us, and i thought: Oh God, what now? hopefully, not wanting any hostages for playing their game with the government. We were lucky, they just wanted the gasoline we had picked up 30 K earlier. Good thing, the pungent gasoline fumes also went away. THey rode off again, into some crags in the mountains. Who knows who these people are, but they make me damn curious. I wish i could shrink myself down, and ride along to see just what life is like with all these desert pirates. As we rode further young boys covered head to toe in gasoline were walking home from “work” I imagined. I bet they do not make much, relatively speaking, from the trade. According to a friend in Kerman, what costs the equivalent of 10 cents (gasoline) here can be sold for 18 times that amount in Pakistan at least (not sure the price in Afghanistan, but i am sure it is less than the gov’t subsidized stuff here). What is most interesting is that the police were with us the whole time, and never seemed phased by this. THey say where we are, Baluchistan, is a lawless land so i guess they choose their battles focusing mroe on the much more lucrative opium-trade. It definitely appears to be more out in the open here, and less hidden than it was in Kurdistan near Iraq.
Moving on, no one was feeling very good with the convicts on our bus. Everyone on the bus was pretty petite but if it came down to it i think we could have taken them if they made a break for it or tried to hold anyone hostage. I imagined i was not the only one thinking this. In my mind, i was a bit more concerned about what to do once in the city since i knew i was suporsed to be with police escort- i decided my best bet was to befriend the folks who had the nose-jobbed friend/family member since that as what i was most familiar with. I approached them and thought they did not speak any English, with hand-motions they made it clear that i was to go with them & not any dodgy taxi drivers. Their male friend who called himself Alex picked us up & the only words of English anyone uttered to me were “Zahedan- Danger.” With hand motions they described that their friend once had a big nose & using a cutting motion they showed that now her nose is smaller. I tried to explain with handmotions that i find strong, or big- if you will- noses are much more attractive to me, but i do not think it worked. They dropped me off at my hotel & we took a family photo. Since that time i have not gone anywhere in Zahedan without the mandatory police escort for foreigners. More on that later….
Posted on July 27th, 2008 by admin. Filed under Iran.
I left the mountainous Northwest of the country- headed to the Caspian sea which was lush- a lushness which hypnotizes any living being after only seeing brown, red and grey for so long… THe green was fluorescent, lighting up paddy fields- just like the ones i love in SE Asia. Odd to see it here in Iran- what seems odder is that the ever-present Black Chador cloaked every female i saw- a stark contrast with the vibrant sultry green. After that I took a PLANE (yep!) to the Southeast of the country- where i am now- to explore the “Wild East.” Yee-ha! A month ago- or even a week ago- i thought i would not come here. Forget Kurdistan, this is the region everyone really fears- everyone warns you about. It is definitely a lawless part of Iran where whafts of Opium smoke fill the bazars, dodgy exotic looking bearded men hang out talking about who knows what, and camels have addiction issues… and well, i guess that’s it… So, there is reason for the caution & fear- as you could guess: this is where the drug runners operate! Opium. Well, it is not just that it is smuggled here b/c that goes on in alot of places– the issue is the government and the smugglers play a little game and this is area is the battleground, so to speak. It goes like this: the police confiscate opium from the smugglers, and then the dealers then kidnap people to get the $ they lost in confiscated drug back. I do not believe they have ever killed people- at least not foreigners (am i rationalizing?) When i was at the Irish embassy several weeks ago, the Ambassador told me about this- Apparently one Japansese man was taken right infront of the Bam Citadel (major tourist attraction, well is used to be till the quake of 03). He was kidnapped there about a year ago, and he just was released now. The kidnappers demanded the same amount of $ of their confiscated drugs- a figure in the millions. Before that a Belgian couple was also kidnapped- but i have to say they were driving a car late at night in Baluchestan-which i think it is common knowledge not to do that- do not go out after dark b/c that is when the drug-runners take over the streets. So they were taken but for 2 months- and word on the street is that the woman was freed after 2 days due to the fact that she is a woman (another point in my favor). I have been told that in Bam and beyond i will be escorted by the police. So as i travel every say, 10 kilometers, i will be handed from one police station to the next- they follow me in a car. I have seen a friend’s video of this- the police followed him lights blazing, guns drawn & everything. He said seeing this beautiful land & meeting the kind people out this was well worth the hassle of the escort. Some people tell me it is probably safer on the public bus (strength in numbers) but that i should try very hard to fit in, which may be hard. I bought a new black chador today & must admit, i like the relief from attention it gives me (had a harmless stalker on a motorbike earlier- that was enough to set me straight and put me into the black.. Oh no!!! i am doing what i said i would not!!). i think that i will in fact be fine b/c i will make all movements by car/bus in the morning, with police escort, not taking many photos or sticking out as a tourist. I will be home in my hotel by 4PM each nite (no fun!). It is only about a week that i will be out there- so not to worry. Others have done it & percentage wise i do think i could much easier be killed by a crazy driver in Tehran or a shooting in San Francisco, than meeting my maker here. A new friend here told me yesterday: “Michelle, God is paying alot of attention to YOU- YOU are not about to become one of these statistics.” That said, I can still hear you thinking/saying/shouting: Michelle, why the hell are you doing this? aren’t there several other places you could see safely in Iran? Well, for starters- this area is one of the final frontiers & of course, i find that very interesting & appealing. Also, you must understand that I had my heart set on going to Afghanistan before i came to Iran- but then there was a US military raid in the town of Herat where i planned to go. Like everyone- I am scared shiteless of the Taleban- they are the real deal, so now no way to Afghanistan… Still, i am left with this real thirst for a flavor more exotic, a society a less modern than other parts of Iran- these flavors however can be found here. This region is just another one of the strong influences that make up this country, but sadly it gets swept under the rug due to a few bad eggs & isolated incidents. ANyhoo, so enough of my explanations to you (i am on vacation- what the…), suffice it to say i will be able to fill you in on lots more about the recovering city of Bam, the Opium trade, gasoline smuggling (here too!), & the situation with Afghan refugees as i work my way from Bam to Zahedan, up to Zabol & then north along the Afghan border (by bus) till finally I head a bit west to the the very normal Iranian (see: super safe & travelled) city of Mashhad. I hope to do that all within a week- will keep you posted every step of the way that i can. As long as there is internet at my hotel you know i will certainly have the time to update you ; ) Love yas….. XOXOXOOX
I went to a Zurkhaneh session in the town of Ardabil a few nites back. Zurkhaneh is an ancient ritual which i can best describe as a cross between whirling dervish, mosque prayer, aerobics, and weight lifting. I am happy that the elders let me watch as an “honorary male” ; ) It was captivating & the participants & old men with tea (above pic) were charming hosts. Here is he Wikipedia low-down on Zurkhaneh & one of my brief videos to follow. Enjoy!
The Varzesh-e Pahlavani rituals mimic the rituals and traditions of Sufi orders, as evidenced by terminology like murshed “master” (beating the drum and reciting poetry), pish kesvat “leader”, taj “crown” or faqr “poverty”. The ethics involved are also similar to Sufi ideals, emphasizing purity of heart. Every session begins with pious praise of prophet and his family. In less religion-oriented Zurkhanehs, these elements are replaced by the recital of stories from Iranian mythology, such as those of the Shahnameh.
The main part of a Varzesh-e Pahlavani session is dedicated to gymnastics or calisthenics, notably using a pair of wooden clubs (mil) and metal shields (sang), and bow-shaped iron weights (‘kaman). The exercises also involve acrobatics like Sufi whirling and juggling. The sessions end with submission wrestling known as the Koshti Pahlavani
Picking up where i left off, one of my new friends in Tehran, a photojournalist, tipped me off to a man here in Kurdistan who could introduce me to the Dervish (Sufi) order here & see if he could get me a rare coveted invite to a private cereony. I followed the directions to the Sanandaj museum with my very bad Kurdish asking for “Hadi” i could not pronounce his last name (Ziaoddini) even when spelled out phonetically. The curator of the museum brought me across the way to a mansion which is now a different museum. He brought me to a basement office containging several men covered in plaster which i learned were for manequins. they wore the traditional baggy trousers yet some of the younger ones (30s & 40s) managed to even look sexy, dare i say. If i had fast enough net to post the video you would agree, no doubt.
These artists had no idea who i was except for my incessant repeating the name ”Hadi” & “spas” Kurdish for “thanks.” THey sat me down, gave me tea, and made several phone calls- I watched them smoke their cigarettes out of a long contraptions which i guess was invented so that they would not get plaster all over their cigarettes & inhale toxic fumes (?). After about a half hour a tall, lean, girlishly-handsome man in sharp western dress showed up with his head held high. THey told me it was not Hadi, but that i was to go with him. This man walked fast. His head held high in almost a beauty queen sort of a way. i imagined that he must be gay, but really what do i know with all the cultural differencesthat i do not understand. We got into a taxi- he would not let me pay (not once have i paid for a taxi here in Kurdistan)- when we got out we & walked through a neighborhood which was a mix of rubble and old beautiful manisons. Graffiti for carpet cleaners in Farsi alongside English sayings such as “Fuak you” and “I love u r” (incorrect grammar & spelling) were on the walls lining these mansions. Finally we ended up at one of ths manisons, where we rang a bell at a tall gate- after 5 minutes of waiting someone showed up & let us in. inside was a once lovely and decadent courtyard that now lied in ruins. STill, there was something extremely magical, artistic and romantic about this courtyard and garden. Chickens clucked around us and ducks swam in a man-made pond that had gutting filled with workers digging all around it. We entered a room off the garden with classical music playing where there was a painter inside and several bust of sculpted heads. THere was iron work and all the usual suspects in an artists studio space- homemade English-Farsi flash cards, dusty old photographs laying nonchallantly on a bookshelf, a pack of cigarettes, a tea-stained box o sweets, a near empty sugar bowl, and lots of plaster and paint splattered all over. The artist in the room was not Hadi- but he was one step closer. he said in hand gestures Hadi would be there in 30 minutes, and to wait. He stopped his work to serve me tea. the effeminate man who had lead me there looked at me, bulged out his eyes- motioning his head for the door. He pointed to his watch and motioned for me to chug the tea. He wanted me to leave- Of course, i figured i was interrupting this man who was obviouslly an impressive painter, but Kurdish people really do seem to get intense pleasure out of taking care of others, so that was why i was letting him stop to serve me tea.
As i was about to finish my tea in walked a man with a beard and Kurdish (baggy ) trousers. His trousers were splatered in paint and plaster. He had a presence about him but not in a hughty way. he seems a kind humble man, who had a soft spot and had endured some suffering in his life. Although my friend in Tehran told me that Hadi spoke English, Hadi claimed, in broken English, that he does not speak English. I gave him my photojournalist friend’s card, and we tried to ring him on his mobile. However this being Kurdistan, the lines were cut & we could not reach our friend in Tehran to introduce us & translate. i tried to give him hints as to what i was there for- “Dervish” “Sufi” he then made a phone call to someone who he said would be right over to translate. AS i waited he sculpted a massive head, and his helper showed me a photo book of Hadi’s sculptures, most displayed in public places in major cities in Iraq and Iran. Even in Sanandaj my favorite centerpiece of the city is an abstract looking person with their heads reaching up to the heavens, either in desperation or in grattitude, depending on how the observer is feeling. So of course, it was my great surprise to learn that i was now sitting with the man who made this favorite sculpture. I thought: “who knew that he was a sufi too???” Even though we could not communicate he made clear that i was not to leave like my little helper’s eye and hand gestures had implied.
Before i knew it the room was filled with a group of artists from Tehran, Kurdistan, Canada and the UK. All Kurdish born but now sharing their great talents with the world. THe Canadien and the Brit of course explaiend everything to me and i explained to them that I as told Hadi was a great Sufi who could giveme the magic password enabling me to go to the Dervish ceremony at the local order. We all had a good laugh over that b/c Hadi is not a Dervish, though he does have great respect for them & of course, good relations with them. My Brit friend let me know that although i thought i was wrong in assuming he was the guru, i was in fact right- he is a guru but another sort of Guru and that i made a wonderful error which lead me to some good people including the most celebrated Kurdish artist in Iran! I realized too that the man who came to pick me up, and who motioned for me to leave is basically a groupie/entourage/wanna-be sort of person who also greatly admires Hadi’s work. Hadi let this man know that after our meeting he was to take me to another museum they are restoring and then eventually to the Dervish order where he was to arrange to get permission for me to attend their upcoming ceremony. I was also informed by my new English speaking friends that women are normally forbidden from attending these rituals because it inhibits the men from “reaching ecstasy” we had a good laugh over that. My friend let me know when i go to be extra covered and look as manly/homely as possible! After leaving my new friends & having some good conversation with Hadi via translator, his helper took me sightseeing, and then finally to another manison where we met a crazy but young Azan (man who sings at the mosque) who tried to become my husband, and a very funky 85 year old Dervish- priceless memories. By that time the helper learned I that i was “in” with Hadi and his friends, so of course he was picking me apricots, fetching tea and being a real sweet heart. I have much more to say than this but i have to run.. tonite is the ceremony & soon i will post photos of Hadi, tell you about our conversations, what inpsires him, & of course explain some of his great work, etc-… in the meantime you can read about him at www.ziaoddini.com
- Some photos from Misrata… stories to follow.
- The Boat to Misrata (Libya): Men’s quarters vs. Women’s quarters
- Why I had to visit Misrata (Libya).
- Greetings from Benghazi, Libya
- Just another day in Cairo…