Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Title? Uhh A title, title...

It seems that my visit to Isfahan has grown to something of legendary proportions. Sitting down to lunch yesterday with the head of the civil engineering department, I was asked, " What's this about you being up at 4am to take pictures?"

I promptly answered that I was not up until 6:15 and that it was for sunrise shots of the Imam Mosque. My final day in Isfahan was a bit of a whirlwind as I tried to do a final bit of souvenir hunting, take in a few sights and reunite with my friends from the night before for lunch at the same restaurant, this time with our Iranian friend able to join us without breaking (family) curfew. While shopping, my chaperone took it upon himself to bargain as much as possible, meeting with mixed success. He seemed to get a good deal at one store, but when negotiating at another he only managed to save me about 10 or 12 cents. It seems like a lot when it is 1000 rials.

Lunch was as pleasant as dinner the night before, though not as leisurely as it was by moonlight. Promises were made to meet again in Tehran before I depart.

The drive to the airport was fascinating. The same route as the drive into town earlier, but the sight of goat herders and their flocks or herds hiding in the sparse shade of roadside clumps of trees while the goats munhced on smashed watermelons to keep cool, made me wonder how far removed they were from the carpet merchants who set upon me at every turn and provoked me to tell my Iranian friend, with a dramatic, canine quiver of the nose, "They smell money."

It is now definitely the homestretch. I've said that a few times over the last few days but with three days left in the classroom, I can definitely say it with a bit of confidence. I'm still trying to book a flight out of the city for Monday morning and if that goes well I'll be groggily plodding around my apartment en route to my fridge. In the classroom, I've emphasized the need for the students to finish things off with a bang.

Appointments and plans are being arranged with students and staff for a final few nights out before I say good bye and there have even been a few offers to have a guided carpet buying trip. While I have all of those activities to look forward to, it has been nice to let my thoughts drift to more mundane matters such as whether or not to send my next batch of laundry out or to pack it and wash myself upon my return. I just need one more work shirt cleaned before I'm through. I would, however, love to have a bit of fabric softener for my sink washes. (I'm counting those rather than the days.)

Yesterday might have been one of my last taxi drives back to the hotel. I made a point of chatting with him as much as possible last night and ran through a checklist of the places I visited during my excursion. He nodded approval and was satisfied that I did not miss or skip too many of the essential places. After that we talked a bit about the cars that we saw on the highway.

A surprising conversation with one of the students was a highlight of the day. Apparent news reports about a Hockey Brawlers contest in BC made the news here. I had a hard time putting the hockey goon or policeman into a perspective that a foreigner who had never seen the game before could understand. Ideally I'd have a DVD or tape of a game where the build-up to a fight was obvious and it was in a bit more context. I wonder if it was an attempt to discourage people from immigrating to Canada.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Random thoughts II

Found a badly named product yesterday - Barf Detergent. I'm not kidding, I have proof. The Farsi word for snow.

The children have been eager to try out their English but can't get past "Hello."

The chador doesn't seem as austere and oppressive when it billows above Chuck Taylor's and Levi's, is worn during badminton or is seen astride a motorcycle zigzagging through traffic.

Almost bought a carpet but had second thoughts. Had third thoughts when someone asked, "How many of your friends are going to ask, 'You went to Iran and you didn't buy a carpet!?!'"
Any of you planning to say that upon my return can let me know now.

Esfahan is amazing. It would be beyond that if it were 10 degrees cooler. I'll have to visit in April.

Ah, the English teacher. Before I crossed any items off my souvenir list I stop at a bookstore and buy... textbooks. Yes textbooks. Before anyone goes on about where my head might be, they were new and about $5 total.

Friday, August 26, 2005

A day for the ages

As I promised myself, I rose around dawn and headed to Imam Square, the heart of Isfahan, if not all of Iran. It is the second largest square in the world and is surrounded by two mosques and ancient palace and a massive bazaar. I did not quite know the way into the square and simply bee-lined to the dome of a mosque silhouetted in the rising sun. The whole walk was a quiet one without the hectic traffic that is apparent even in Isfahan and I was able to cross the streets without having to look both ways on every step.

When I finally got close to the mosque, surrounded by walls of sand-coloured brick, and realized that for a moment at least I had this place all to myself I was dumbfounded by the fact that this moment was so far away from my thoughts at the beginning of the year and only started to crystallize late this spring. It was quite mind-boggling to stand at a place that I had only seen in pictures and finally capture it for myself. I eventually navigated my way through the quiet lanes of the bazaar and into the square itself. There were a few pick-up soccer games being played on the concrete and people carting away garbage, and watering the lawns.

Before too long, the themes were set for the day when I met a few Afghanis who were looking for a chance to practice their English. They were quite friendly and admitted to looking for tourists to help them brush up. Both of them worked and one of them had aspirations of heading home to teach. Before long they were shouldered aside by an Iranian med student who was keen to talk but also to get me to visit his father's shop. He added that the bazaar would be closed today because it was a Friday and he insisted that his father would be my best chance to buy a carpet. I politely turned down his attempts to set an appointment, I am on vacation after all, but let him give me his cell phone number. When the bazaar turned out to be open and thriving, I abandoned any thoughts of paying a visit. Having taken a few sunrise shots, I headed back to the hotel for breakfast. On the way back I found more soccer games, this time in the thoroughfares which were not nearly as convenient as the suburban streets where I played street hockey.

Hitting the bazaar, my attempts to buy sumac, the spice in the third shaker on the Iranian table, were proving difficult as the merchant tried to give it to me free. I insisted only to learn that he gave 250g instead of the 200g I asked for. More similar hospitality was encountered on my way to another mosque when a man stopped to offer a piece of bread. I took a handful and he biked off before I could pay. I learned that people are quite generous with their bread and water.

The first mosque I visited was probably the main mosque of Isfahan, Jafeh Mosque, which has a bit of history dating to the Iran-Iraq war, having been bombed by the Iraqi army. It has been rebuilt to some extent though the pillars inside are listing under the weight of the ceiling.

After a siesta and a bit of lunch we headed back to Imam Square for the late afternoon. The goal was to visit the Imam Mosque, trip across the square for tea at sunset and then find a place for dinner. Inside the Mosque I met another Afghani who was working on his English, who pulled Jack Richards' Interchange out of his pants to show me where he was with his English. Not my favorite textbook but it was good to see the enthusiasm for the language. We chatted a bit and he departed, leaving me to absorb the wonders of the architecture and the artwork of the building. Upon leaving the mosque, a fellow asked me where I was from and I told him Canada. He mangled the name of "Calgary" to my surprise and added that he met other people from there recently - from what I could tell another prof. We talked a bit and he turned out to be working for a carpet shop. (Damn it!) I decided to at least hear the guy out and I went in for a look before totally writing off the idea of buying one. He showed me several and served me a tea as well and I mulled things over, all the while keeping an eye on my watch and my plans for tea somewhere else for sunset clear in my mind. I came close and was quite tempted to buy one for $200 US but was wary of being taken in the deal.

I managed to get out and headed to tea at my prefered destination, which was crowded with fellow tourists clutching their Lonely Planet and making the same pilgrimage that I was. Before long a group of us, two Italians, a Dane and three Iranians and I, who was at leas 10-15 years older than the rest sat down over our tea and biscuits. I forgot my age for a while and felt as adventurous and excited as they did. We traded stories of our travels and experiences to this point in Iran and our lives and bonds quickly formed. Email addresses were exchanged, photos taken and when the climax of sunset passed and the time come to move on to something else we did not quite want to part ways so casually. Most of us headed on to another Lonely Planet recommendation and ate at a table with a clear few of the Imam Mosque. I finally had my long-sought dizi and found myself remaking future travel plans. Italy... China... here again South Africa...

All told this was the kind of day that every vacation requires. The scenery, the cameraderie and experiences came together with a sense of completeness that makes it hard to imagine not traveling more. It was an education, an invigoration and a memorable experience. I can see why so many people haunt this place waiting for the opportunity to present itself each day as the combination of like-minded people collide and share their experiences with one another.


Thursday, August 25, 2005

I or E

Isfahan. Previously known to me as the title of a Duke Ellington tune, composed by Billy Strayhorn, it now has an E and conjures up nuclear fears, anxieties or paranoia. Take your pick. This is where I am spending my first real opportunity to play tourist and it is good to be here and especially be back on the ground during an August that is asking to be dubbed crash-a-day-month in the airline industry. Sanctions have made it hard for Iran to stock itself with the most modern Airbuses or Boeings and rely on older planes from dodgier manufacturers.

I'm in a hotel just across the street from a mosque but it is closed six days a week. I've held off on the main part of the city, which would draw me back like a magnet for the rest of my time here. Instead I've headed south to an Armenian neighbourhood and visited an old church that has am interesting mix of Christian and Moslem architectural features. To end off the day I head up to one of the many historic bridges in the southern part of the city and have tea under the bridge and cross back and forth a few times to watch people going by and take in the scenery.

For dinner, I stop in at a restaurant and accept the maitre d's recommendation of chicken in almond sauce. It is not the most attractive thing I've eaten - the chicken comes in a bowl covered in a dark, dark brown sauce but was quite surprising and somehow sweet. I ate more than I could. Before heading home, the maitre d' asked me to sign a guest book that he kept for foreigners. I obliged him and wrote a note and added my humble business card for effect. I leafed through and was surprised to see the name of Michael Ignattief, fellow Nova Scotian, Harvard professor, occasional Globe & Mail contributor and possible to contender for the Liberal party leadership. Missed rubbing elbows with him by four months.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Language lesson

I climbed four flights of stairs to and from my hotel room because there was a wet paint sign on the elevator door.

Someone suggested we go out for a drink tonight... of pomegranate juice.

The newspaper reports that there are 810 reported cases of cholera in the city at the moment.

Not one of my better days in school today and for the sake of discretion I'll leave it at that.

The evening went much better as I had another evening out with my students. This evening it was a restaurant near one of the Shah's palaces, the one that the taxi drivers pointed out to me every morning. Live music was the highlight with a wonderful mix of instruments that made me think about all of the culture that moved up an down the Silk Road a thousand years ago. One in particular, a four-stringed cousin of the violin which reminded me of a similar three-stringer from China. The music itself very pleasant to listen to and a few vocalists joined in during the evening, one of them singing music that sounded a bit like Japanese enka and made me wonder how close these cultures are despite the distances between them.

It was interesting as well to see waterpipes on the tables and younger women smoking without any inhibition whatsoever.


A lot of people have been asking, especially over the last few days, what I have thought of Tehran and Iran so far. While it has been easy, and accurate, to say that it has been interesting and exciting, not to mention the fact that the people have been exceptionally friendly, I can still say that I have not been overwhelmed or shocked by too much of what I have seen, with the exception of the traffic. (My students would scramble to parse out and re-engineer that sentence. Other would ask me to stop read John Fowles, to which I could only say, "I'm not, I'm not.")

With the exceptions of the drive to work, there have been few moments when I've seen a gritty or sordid side to life here. People, however, have advised me not to go to southern Tehran and continue to tell me that this part of the city is exceptionally wealthy. My students are well-educated and represent, I believe, a relatively small percentage of the population. After visiting one student's home, I got the feeling that the standard of living that my students enjoy is much closer to my own than I feared it would be prior to visiting Iran.

At any moment though, there is a chance that I will get nudged out of the secure cocoon I've been in at the hotel and the university and that opportunity is most likely when I hop in the cab. During one late night drive to the hotel, in a car so old that I doubted it could climb the steep mountains to my hotel, that feeling of precariousness emerged for a moment. There was no element of fear, mind you, but the extra chill of excitement that came from feeling things were a bit more authentic. I sat with my knees drilled into the back of the front seat as the boxy little thing chugged and spurted along spewing out who knows what from an engine that was likely wouldn't know a catalytic converter from an airbag. Somehow the whole scenario conjured up notions of a frosty drive through Moscow, hunched over to either peer through the half-moon of clear window near the dashboard heaters or to keep out of sight of whatever cloak and dagger entities there might bein the trailing car. I'm not sure where this whimsical train of thought came from, the cooler night breezes, the car, the hour, or the fact that I had seen another side of a city the aspires to have it so much more together than it does now.

Apart from that kind of moment, the biggest thing to adjust to has been the ongoing bargaining in the classroom and the close proximity I find myself at when I am in a conversation. While the culture shock is not so strong my eye is constantly captivated. There is something about the height or angle of the sun that colors everything in hot, parched tones that suggest a certain weariness or decrepitness that is rarely evident in high-sunned, cool Calgary. The building under construction somehow possess both optimistic potential and a weary abandonment, especially when the steel and brick guts of the building are still exposed and suggest that the building's future could go either way before eventually being completed with polished marble facades. (In the wealthy north.)

I've begun to develop the impression that it would be easy to travel to a place like this and isolated oneself from anything that would register the words "third world" in one's head, at least not in the starkest terms that we can see on the news. Students insisted a few nights ago that they could be just about anything here despite the sanctions and the simmering differences with the U.S. The mentioned to one another lending DVD's of Mr. and Mrs. Smith or Monster-in-Law with one another while George Michael blared out of their car stereo at the indifferent police.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Halfway mark

Today marks two full weeks in Tehran and I think my eighth class, hmmm yes, my eighth class with the students. From here in I have two more days this week, then four days off to visit Isfahan, then my last six days will be interrupted by the regular Thursday-Friday weekend here. I was reading for most of the day yesterday and came across the line, "The best part about traveling is going home." Indeed.

I've never been one, for one strange reason or another, to become homesick and my trip so far has been very enjoyable and too busy to even think about home. Still I miss peeking in my mailbox as I come in the door and checking to see if there are any phone calls, things that just don't happen when you're half a world away in a hotel. Little things, but a reminder that one is connected to a place.

I continue to get a taste of the city though and last night went to a park near my hotel, which also happened to be near Khomeini's old home. Finished the night off with an Italian dinner and felt refreshed for the brief week ahead.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Water, water...

The hotel has stopped serving ice cubes for my drink and people are talking a bit more about the water problems. Last week people joked that it was a consequence of the new Iranian President's socks, but now things are a bit more cautious or serious. Of all the occasions I choose to pack light. I haven't had any problems with the food or my stomach, however.

On the weekend I went to Golestan Palace, which has been the home to many Iranian and Persian kings over the years. It was a spectacular building but it has obviously seen better days and is in dire need of some attention and maintenance. Ironically enough, I saw the Palace as one of many sights to visit in a commercial for Iranian tourism that has been on BBC for the last few days. I suspect that this ad is only airing in this region, especially with international relations being the way they are. There hasn't been too much talk about the situation in the classroom, though when I told the class that they would have a final project on alternative energy sources, one of the students said, jokingly I hope, "But you won't let us use it." This of course was a reference to the nuclear plant.

Getting back to the palace, and tourism, it was a very nice building but it could use a bit of attention from either people here in the country or some international sources, namely UNESCO who would be responsible for giving it or other more worthy places in the country World Heritage designation and allow it to survive a little longer.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Laundry in the Time of Cholera

The hotel informed me yesterday that they can no longer wash my socks or underwear. After two weeks of clean jocks and socks, suddenly, "No." The first inclination is to take it personally, but before the end of the day I learned that it is in part because of concerns about some water-borne illness. I'm not sure how I might be further tainting the city water supply, especially when my first alternative is to scrub them myself at the bathroom sink or buy enough to get me through the rest of my stay.

Broke out the camera and the wallet for a few items. Went to one shop to look at some enamelled copper wear. I wasready to make a purchase up until the salesman hauled out his keys to start showing how scratch resistant the item was. Just a bit too much like a Ronco commercial so I'll buy it somewhere else.

Best of all, a full-night's sleep. Eight hours. Count 'em!

Visit to the Embassy

Over the last few weeks I've been puzzled by the presence of little green kiosks in the street labelled "Diplomatic Police." I've been concerned that they might be intent on harassing me but learned that they are security for the embassies. I paid a visit to my own embassy today to register and inform them how long I would be staying. I was surprised to see a scrum of people outside the building, which is in downtown Tehran and unlike other embassies near my hotel not cordoned off behind a huge wall. I did not have to get into the line with the visa applicants and quickly made my way in and out.

On my way back to the hotel I saw anotherof the many murals that are prominent throughout the city. I've seen quite a few but this one was of a man holding a baby in one arm and a Kalashnikov in another. I'm not sure if I spelled that right or not but somehowit has much more life and character than simply "machine gun" or whatever. The baby was dressed like its father and had a little grenade launcher aswell. Underneath it said "I love my family but I love martyrdom even more." I harkened back to my visit to Belfast last year when I had a chance to see similar murals and recalled my tour guides annoyance with both sides of the troubles in Northern Ireland. I suspect that murals like the one I saw an hour ago have more effect on me than they would on Iranians, most of whom are dissatisfied with the government's focus on things other than economic progress.

Top ten list or, everything but the tree

My five-day stretch in the classroom came to an end on Wednesday. Even though I stayed up relatively late Tuesday night for a swim and late dinner I felt pretty fresh. The swim was long overdue and I made the cultural gaffe of changing right in front of my locker rather than in the little changing room that everyone else was using.

Wednesday evening though I had an opportunity to visit one of my students for dinner. I met him right after class and headed to his place. It was, by his standards, a humble apartment but I was quite pleased to see that he lived a lifestyle that was more comfortable than I expected. I was very warmly welcomed by his wife and sat down to a lovely evening. It seems that in Iran dinner runs relatively late; at my hotel I'm usually served dinner around 9pm, which sets my stomach growling for a few hours while unwind from my day. We started dinner perhaps around the same time, in part because of tradition but also because his wife was preparing a MASSIVE spread of food. There was a substantial dish of nuts in the living room, the same variety and size that I would associate with Christmas, bigger actually and there was just as big a bowl of fruit for me to nibble on before dinner and while I chatted with them about Persia culture. I should add that the nuts are something usually reserved for special occasions in Iran, much the same as they are in Canada. The wife was not shut into the kitchen and unseen but was separated from the living room only by the counter so she could listen and contribute. She also happens to be a well-educated woman with a post-graduate degree.

Dinner itself was... Well over the last few months I've been, for some reason, mulling over a top-ten list of great meals that I've had in my life, whether it was the pan fried fish my Aunt Janet served up in 1982, the $15 feast I had in Prague in 1997, the dinner of lobster and steak I had with my folks in 1995 just before I left for Japan, anyone of the times when my father made clam chowder, any Friday night of "the trad" with Bill in Arashiyama, and the countless surprising meals where the food was complemented by the company whether it was at posh restaurant or just the Hard Rock Cafe. This evening's meal placed high on that list. The food was an impressive array of different dishes that I had only heard about. Two rice dishes, eggplant, veal, a variety of different things, the names of which have escaped me. It covered about 1/2 or even 2/3 of a table that was substantial enough for a large family gather and there were just the three of us.

My student's commitment to this program, in terms of not only time and effort, but also the short-term setback to his career while he works and studies is substantial and realizing that makes the job I have here and my responsibilities to my students even more apparent to me.

I did not get back to my hotel until about 2am and was not allowed to leave without taking along a little care package of fruits and nuts, much as my mother would insist upon after any visit home. Of course as any occasion like this requires, the evening would not be complete without a glance through photo albums. I did not have my computer for pictures of my family but I did not have enough foresight two weeks ago and again yesterday morning to pack a coffee table book of pictures from across Canada.

To encounter the full hospitality of the Iranian people in the way I did tonight made for an incredible, touching evening.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Ohh the SHAH's house

Just about every morning driver makes a note of a long expanse of crumbling white wall on the way from my hotel to work. Today one of them knew enough English to tell me that the wall surrounded the Shah's old palace. Ahhh.

The week has been long. I'm on my fourth straight day of classes, with one more tomorrow and things have caught up to me. The tendency among the students to question and challenge everything has taken a bit of a toll. A lack of sleep, averaging about 5 hours a night and only 4 last night have made me a bit impatient, but one more day and I'll have a break and the rest of the stretches will be no more than three in a row. While I'm confident at this point that I'll look back on it all as a positive experience, I must confess that the last couple of days have tested my resilience. Heading out this evening for a gentle (by my standards) swim and a meal in a restaurant. If someone told me it looked like I'd lost weight I wouldn't argue with them. All I need is one pizza the first night back. Rebooked my ticket for a departure ten hours after I finish classes but I'm on the waiting list at the moment. Hopefully things will shake up a bit in the next three weeks.

For all the wear the last few days have been, the friendliness has been quite comforting. A door is never reached without someone insisting that I go first and whenever I head from my room to the cab in the morning the attendant at the hotel always insists on carrying my bag down and laying it on the back seat for me. There is also a gentleman at the university who brings a bottle of water during the afternoon class and he always greet me with a traditional hand to the chest a slight bow that has humble grace to it. No greeting is complete without a handshake either.

This afternoon in class, one of the women made a point of telling a partner in her small group of five that she was a feminist. It started over a passage that used "them" instead of "he," "he/she," "s/he" or any other combination that I might have left out. The man raised the question and when I did my best to explain how lazy we are and how we don't use he anymore, the woman said that them would do because she was a feminist. It has been quite interesting and refreshing to see how active the women in the class are. I have been hesitant to put them in situations where they might be uncomfortable, but at the same time try to give them their fair say. They have taken full advantage of it and impressed me.

The long dark cloaks seem to be reserved for older or more conservative women. There was one photo opportunity begging for my attention last weekend when a women in the long black chador stood in front of the display window of an appliance shop that was complete with all the modern amenities including, of course, a stainless steel range. The car was too fast...

Younger women get by with just a scarf over their head and in some cases it is barely on. The silk serves more as a frame to their streaked hair and heavily made-up faces. There has been a relaxation of standards in the country and despite the hejab or scarf they are doing their best to play as big a role in society as possible.

Monday, August 15, 2005

The elevator from hell

No I did not get trapped in one or anything like that today, just a title to sum up my experiences of Iran radio today. It is a reference to a contest I heard on a radio station in Montreal where they played muzak versions of hit songs and challenged listeners to identify them. This morning I heard a muzak version The Chicken Dance just after the morning news and in the afternoon a muzak version of "Celebration" by Kool and the Gang. And I thought they didn't let Western music into the country. The Chicken Dance might have been improved now that I think of it.

A bit of a grind today and I've got two more days before I get a few days off. Three to be exact. My calendar has filled up with a bit of sight-seeing guided by my students. (Probably NOT all 75 of them.)

The sights continue to baffle and catch my eye, the only problem is that the taxi is chugging along too fast for me to photograph them all. Hopefully when I'm on foot instead of in the taxi I'll be able to capture a fraction of this with the camera. Plans for the weekend include the old US Embassy/ Den of Espionage, the Golestan Palace, a few museums and a few hipper, modern (I think) places where real Iranians lead their everyday lives. Next week I'll be off to Esfahan. The ancient jewel of Persian arts, architecture and culture. I'll do a lot of sight seeing then and go through film like I've never seen the place. Makes sense, no?

For the demands of the routine over the last week, it has been one where I've managed to keep up some good habits. Eating the fruit that is in my room everyday, doing a bit of stretching to start off each morning, and doing a very good job of the early to bed, early to rise routine as well, though I'd dance in the streets if I slept in until 6:30. I'll eat more eggs this month than I did during my eight years in Japan, but if that's my vice for the month I'm living well.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Random thoughts

Just giving folks a break from the verbal diarrhea.

As for... you know, my stomach has been fine.

Forget pepper, I'm hooked on sumac. (a spice)

Hot but not too hot. It's a dry heat.

(No not smack, sumac!)

My driver yesterday was listening to rap.

Think I ought to burn a disc of music and say "Here" to the next driver with a CD player.

The food has been good.

A fresh plate of fruit in my room at the end of everyday. More than I can eat.

(Yes, my stomach is fine.)

Very often there is a little icon at the bottom of the computer screen that suggests somebody is monitoring my use.

Students taping my class. Hmm.

My laundry was dry cleaned. All of it, even the Bauer Hockey T-shirt that usually sits on the side of my tub in scummy heap after a trip to the gym. It looks like new.

Friday, August 12, 2005

New hyphen: crossing guard

Dusk after a cooling rain brought a bit of relief from the heat. We walked around a part in the northern part of the city, which is still south of my hotel. People were playing netless badminton, rollerblading, or bashing around soccer and volleyballs. Families and couples strolled around our lounged on the broad lawns of the "People's Park." Despite my declaration a few days earlier, I did indeed cross the street - four times.

I visited my first bazaar, a small one apparently. It was an indoor spot, despite the breezy connotations of the word conjures up when it does not take place in a school gym. Instead of piles of spices or dates or silk, there were clothing stores, shoe shops and a few places dedicated to Iranian arts and crafts. There was one that sold enameled copperware, however, an item high on my souvenir list. The bazaar building itself was gorgeous with its elaborate tiled facade and the paintings and other touches decorating the interior corridors of the building. It reminded me of the Kunstmuseum in Vienna, where the building alone was a feast for the eye.

I stopped in a fast food restaurant for a burger and a taste of ordinary life. The restaurant was just like a fast-foodie at home, though there were separate queues for men and women and signs request respect or Islamic traditions. There was a playroom for the kids and even a face painter. While there I had a chance to talk about American politics and the differences between Canada and the U Michael moor's Bowling for Columbine, which has been seen in Iran, was a point of reference and helped us make ourselves clear about some of the differences between those two countries.

I also learned that the thumbs up sign is an obscene gesture like the finger. (No the finger is not used for praise of approval.) Now I have to find another way to assure people that their apologies are accepted or unnecessary.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry."

Thumbs up.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

This morning's traffic report

Prior to coming here I was conscious of the possibility that I might avoid the maximum amount of adventure that this trip might present me. A little voice has been coaching me to make the most of this and experience as much as I could rather than retreat into a cautious routine for the sake of self-preservation or surrender to all of the negative western news about the place rather than acknowledging and abiding by the respect and hospitality that I experience in the school and the hotel. I have been hoping to form a new habit that would allow me to make the most of this.

To this point I have experienced quite a lot and on my first day off I'll venture out into the "real Tehran." The adventure has been well-managed and supervised - the safety net always there and the feeling that there are discussions and substantial planning going on behind the scenes to assure my safety, comfort and well-being.

I guess that confidence about my safety would explain my morning drive today. My taxi driver is tailgating a Toyota and is at the very most 2 metres off the leading car's back bumper. For the hell of it, I glance over at the speedometer and see that we are traveling at 110 km/h. For some reason I don't flinch and my reaction amounts to, "110, neat."

I have been terribly remiss to this point. I have a chaperone-administrative assistant-guide at the university who is looking after me. He is trying to get into a university where he can continue his Ph.D studies but in the meantime he is working as the ultimate multi-hyphenate.

During the drive home yesterday, I was a bit curious about music here. My cab drive unlocked his glove box to reveal a CD-rom drive from a computer which he rigged up as a car stereo. It gave me the impression that there was something illicit about listening to music in this country, but I over looked the fact that we were in an old, old Paykan - a boxy little number that makes me think back (fondly) to the 1971 Renault my father owned. This afternoon, however, my driver had a more modern car and a fancy schmancy Pioneer deck that played MP3's not to mention pump out the bass at a volume that made the image in the rear-view mirror blur to the softness of a watercolor painting. There is music here, I've yet to hear any Western stuff that managed to get in though.

In class however, I learned what has gotten in. While prepping the class for a listening exercise, I was informed that the students had seen that old Canadian drama North of 60. I immediately wanted to wax nostalgic about watching it Thursday nights while I was teaching up there. That connection is just one of the more tangible signs of the bond that is forming between the class and I. After class this afternoon, a clutch of them huddled around to ask what I knew and thought of the country so far. They were quite impressed with my knowledge of Iran and its history. This I have to credit to the Lonely Planet.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

1st day of classes

The drive to my first day of classes as at 7:45am, when the shops were closed or, in the case of one, there was a shorter line. Traffic was just as breakneck as the day before and I had a chance to reinforce some of the images rather than let them blur by unaccounted for like the details of a dream. Hopefully I managed not to gape as much this time around.

The Kabooky Fried Chicken, yes a KFC from what I could tell of the font and the colors, was indeed a reality the second time I passed through a chaotic rotary early in the journey. I should also add that there was a sign for an establishment called Aphrodite, but I have no idea what they merchandise in.

The highways in their own small way provide an account of the nation's history. There are a few American cars, but none more recent than a 1979 Cadillcac. The rest of them are much older and in no condition to pass a stringent Canadian auto inspection. The more recent models are Peugeots and KIAs (built in Iran) and none of them have the character that you would expect to see if you had a steady diet of dusty decrepit images of various countries in National Geographic. There are also a few domestic cars. Gas is a tenth of the price in Canada, thanks to government subsidies.

I have yet to see a gas station, however. There are plenty of mechanics, not to mention cars stranded on the side of the road after giving up the ghost. The assertiveness of drivers is beyond descripion. They drive so close together that I was tempted on one occasion to reach out and flick the gas door shut on a passing car. One driver even managed to pull a U turn in full on traffic and did so from the lane outside the one my taxi was in. He cut across us and another lane of traffic and then jammed his nose into the opposite bound traffic and nudge his way into the preferred flow of traffic. Okay, I gaped at that.

Through it all though the pedestrians weave in and out of traffic, knowing enough to cede the right of way. One of the professors advised me to be careful crossing the street and I told him that I was never going to cross the street.

In the classroom, I had just enough of an adrenaline rush to stave off the jet lag and get a little silly at times. The class was patient with my comedic forays to keep their attention during the 3 1/2 hour classes and laughed enough to assure me that their comprehension is exceptional.

During the breaks , a few students mill around with questions and invitations to see a bit more of the city or country.

Younger people are quite open expressing their concerns about Iran's future, motivated in part by the restart this week of the country's nuclear program. I've also met another faculty member from U of C who is staying at the same hotel as I am.

Last night I had the feeling that this entry would be brief. Ha.

Monday, August 08, 2005


Jet lag is having it's way with me at the moment. It is not quite as bad as the German computer keyboard where the Z and Y were exchanged but sleep is visiting and departing at the most unexpected times. I tried my best to keep myself awake on Sunday night long enough to get some semblance of a well-scheduled sleep only to fall asleep at 10:30 and wake up at 2am. I tried to fall back to sleep but I was just too alert. There was also a very strange dream featuring Patrick Duffy - he of the Dallas dream sequence season and if that is what my subconscious is going to do to me while I sleep then I'm all for staying awake.

My daylight drive through Tehran was as breath-taking as the night drive from the airport suggested. From the moment I left the hotel the sights were fascinating. Chador-clad women carry large pieces of bread that looked like nan, a preschooler clad in a David Beckham England jersey, a man by the side of the road with a single- or double-stringed instrument, the mosque just on the edge of the university campus. And in that description I leave out the driving itself. My driver was ruthless in making good time, playing a few games of "chicken" it seemed with oncoming traffic and weaving in and out of vehicular AND pedestrian traffic in a manner that suggested that these roads teemed around the clock with a chaotic ballet. All of it was a synchronization of movement that could preoccupy the most dedicated and profound of mathematical minds.

My arrival at the university was at the wrong gate but after a brief wait Ali arrived to take me the rest of the way to the civil engineering department. I've been here for a few hours mapping out the weeks ahead and at 2:30pm still functioning relatively well. The faculty has been very accommodating and hospitable and I'm looking forward to getting into the classroom tomorrow.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Rose Petal Marmalade

The jetlag lingers. I was going to load up a few notes that I kept while en route from Calgary to here but I'm not on my computer at the moment. I've been in Tehran for a little more than 12 hours and I'm quie happy to say that much of the anxiety I felt leading up to this is gone. Whatever niggling doubts there were stirring my stomach and clenching my chest have been set aside. I had a very easy entry into the country with no inspection of my luggage and questions about the copy of Underworld that I brought with me. I decided that this was not exactly the best time to try and goad myself through another attempt at reading Ulysses and decided to go with Underworld because it was a good long read and that I'd find something new in it the third time through. Halfway to Vancouver though I realized that Salman Rushdie had a blurb on the front cover. I covered his name with a decal from Vancouver airport, but wondered if that would just draw more attention to it.

It was fascinating to stand in line at customs and see the mix of westerners and Iranians, not to mention the ubiqitous Hello Kitty paraphenalia.

I was met on the other side of customs by a gentleman from the university I'll be teaching at. He's studying German at the moment, so occasionally he replies nein instead of no but that is hardly reason for him to apologize for his exceptional English. He escorted me to my hotel where I checked in at 3am. The drive through Tehran was quite fascinating and I was keen to see it all by daylight. There was a lot of traffic for the hour of the night and I'm sure even more during rush hour tomorrow. I slept for about six hours and after a call to Bahman (sp?), an ever-smiling member of the hotel staff, I was sitting down to a breakfast of eggs, toast, feta cheese and rose petal marmalade.

The view from my window faces south which is a broad vista of sun-baked browns and sand. There is a heavy haze over it all and the hotel is on a hill which probably exposes it to a bit more of the haze. I didn't notice it last night, but on the ceiling there is a sign indicating the direction to Mecca and a prayer rug in the night stand next to, I assume, a copy of the Koran and another book.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Passport in hand, but...

Well things are looking a bit more official now. My passport has just been delivered with my Iranian visa inside. I have little idea what any of it says but it certainly makes things feel that much more certain about things. I'll be jetting off tomorrow or perhaps Friday if the scheduling does not quite jell with the airline. The suitcase is filling up and I've crossed that bizarre item, "Burn writing" off my to do list. Not that I was planning to destroy all my writing, just putting them onto a disc in case the old lap top take one bang too many in transit. I've loaded up on film, poured over the curriculum I have to teach and paced around as I try to absorb what I'm actually getting myself in for.
After yesterday's crash in Toronto I promise you that I will keep my seat belt on and remain in my seat until the plane comes to a complete and full stop at the terminal.

The phone just rang. The flights are full, so I have to wait one more day.