Friday, May 29, 2009

Iran & Syria - Part 3

When we set up our trip we asked if it would be possible to meet some average people and have an opportunity to see how they lived. We were told we could “stay a night in a rural home with a nice & kind family.” That sounded perfect and we immediately accepted the offer with pleasure.

Which is how we ended up in Bavanat and came to know Abbas Barzegar and his family. Abbas, an attractive, soft spoken, thin man in his mid-30’s, is the grandson of a nomad who settled in Bavanat some years ago. I guess settling in one location is inconsistent with a nomadic life, but as I understand it the grandfather opted for Bavanat because it would provide year round sustenance for his sheep. He was willing to alter the family’s traditional lifestyle to accomplish this.

Bavanat is a county in Fars Province, of which Shiraz is the administrative center. It is 150 miles northeast of Shiraz in a mountainous region. Until we reached the hills the landscape reminded me of the Southern California/Nevada border. It is desert-like and home to very few people. Once in the mountains it all changed. We went sharply uphill and passed through several villages. While the area is called Bavanat, there are a number of small villages included in Bavanat. During our visit we were located in a village named Bazm.

While it is true that the Barzegars are a “nice and kind family,” and in many ways are average Iranians, we soon realized that Abbas has both an interesting personal history and a strong personal and business relationship with Mohammed Yazdanpanah, owner of our tourist agency, Let’s Go Iran.

Abbas claims to be poorly educated. He may have overstated this aspect of his background, but my guess is that he didn’t complete high school. He does not speak English. When interacting with Abbas, all this is irrelevant. He is smart, charismatic, warm and friendly, and a very shrewd entrepreneur.

About 10 years ago he was running a small grocery shop in Bavanat. One day two German backpackers who were lost asked him for help. He did more than point them in the right direction. He provided food, lodging and hospitality. They became friends, stayed in touch after they returned to Germany and for Abbas an idea was born. He’d enjoyed meeting these foreigners; he’d enjoyed taking care of them. His entrepreneurial spirit told him he might be able to make a living by providing hospitality for other visitors. Since then he’s been turning this dream into reality.

Over the years Abbas worked with various travel agencies. He needed them to link him up with tourists who wanted to include a rural area like Bavanat in their itinerary. He was inexperienced in general and a novice in the tourist industry in particular. What happened was predictable. He got ripped off by the agencies. They’d tell him they were charging ‘x’ and he would get ‘y’ percent of the fee. In fact, they were charging ‘x’ + ‘z’ but his cut was calculated only on ‘x.’

Only when he met and began working with Mohammed was he treated fairly and honestly. It restored Abbas’ faith in the process, led to new opportunities, was profitable and generated in Abbas a fierce loyalty to his partner. When we asked Abbas what we could do to promote tourism in Bavanat he said we should have people contact Mohammed. When we asked for his email address, he gave it to us but added that it was better to write Mohammed. I have every reason to believe that Abbas’ feelings are reciprocated by Mohammed. I found the bond between these two men to be inspiring.

Abbas employs about 150 people, half the working population of his village. In addition to the guesthouse in which we stayed he has a hostel that sleeps about 30, is building a larger up-scale guesthouse, has opened a restaurant nearby and owns several shops in the area. He has a greenhouse in which he grows vegetables, and other land that he uses for farming and grazing. Like I say, a serious entrepreneur.

At the entrance to Abbas’ compound we were greeted by three little girls age 7 to 10 in beautifully decorated traditional local dress. They were Abbas’ daughters (one recently adopted upon the death of a relative.) One was holding a container with smoking incense. We were told that we should bend down and let the smoke waft over us. Another was holding a silver urn filled with symbolically important goodies.

It took us about one minute to conclude that we were thrilled to be in Bavanat. What a great way to start a visit.

I have no way to measure how Abbas’ compound compares to other homesteads in Iran. As it stands I found it impressive. On one side is a mud or clay structure that represents what houses were like centuries ago. Now it is preserved as a kind of museum. To get into it we climbed a ladder and were taken into a room that was set up as a home might have been a hundred years ago. Around the room, in niches and on the floor, were artifacts – tools, vases, pottery, utensils, carpets. Down below at the ground level were several dozen chickens and roosters. I assume that these old houses kept the animals below while the people lived up above.

On the other side is a newer structure that houses the Barzegar family. Walking on back toward the rear we passed 4 or 5 fenced and leashed large, noisy dogs. They are used out in the fields at certain times of the year to protect the crops. They looked and acted fierce, not at all pretty or cuddly, which I assume is the point. But since when we were there they weren’t out working I was glad they were penned up and restrained.

Back at the rear of the property is a new building where we stayed. While it lacks some amenities I would have liked, it is very well done. Abbas obviously tried hard to make it attractive and comfortable for his guests. It has two bedrooms, two large rooms that serve as living and dining rooms, a modern kitchen, and two bathrooms. It is decorated with pictures, photographs, carpets and local artifacts. Certain traditional items are there to protect against evil spirits. The building is clean and feels new.

There are a few problems with the guesthouse. Our bedroom had two single beds. A large bed would have been more to our liking. We had an ineffective heating device in our room, and it was cold at night. Mehdi told me that in the other bedroom that he and Mahyar used it was too cold to sleep. The bathroom is small with no bath and a shower that is almost unusable. And cold. Finally, the dining room chairs were uncomfortable. So I hope Abbas does better with the new guesthouse he’s building.

These less-than-perfect items didn’t detract from our overall feeling that coming to Bavanat was a wonderful experience. We’d do it again and recommend it to others.

Before dinner we went over to a special room in the family quarters, sat down on the floor in front of an open fire and had tea. Abbas and his daughters were there. We hadn’t yet met his wife. The water for tea was heated in an old teapot set atop the burning logs. We were told later by our Iranian friend, Monib Khademi, that having tea in this setting and in this way is very typical of how things are done in Iran. We had a choice of tea. I opted for what Abbas called Pharoah tea, a stronger than usual variety.

After tea we went to the family kitchen to meet Abbas’ wife and observe her dinner preparations. Mrs. Barzegar was an attractive 30-something, slightly shy and eager to please. Two other women (relatives I think) were helping her. Dinner was delicious (not surprising since it was all home cooked), as were breakfast and lunch the next day. I’m embarrassed to admit that I can’t remember exactly what we ate, except for wonderful eggs at breakfast. Sandra remembers that we had a lentil soup that was special and that everything was delicious, but is also short on specifics.

The next morning we took a drive and had a walk to get a first hand look at village life and the countryside. In the Bavanat area groves of walnut trees are everywhere. I love spending time wandering through these small places. The roads are unpaved. The houses are simple. The people are not accustomed to seeing outsiders. The kids peak out from gates and windows. It is an ingenuous setting, honest and unpretentious.

At lunch I talked a little with Abbas about his business. He said he hosts about 4,000 guests a year. Last year 70 Americans came to Bavanat. We were the first Americans to visit this year. I had the sense that he is somewhat of a poster boy for Iranian tourism. He’s never been to the U.S., but he’s been in Europe and Asia to promote tourism at conventions and other events. He proudly showed us a scrapbook of pictures from those trips. He also has a video that was made (I don’t know by whom) promoting Bavanat. A couple of years ago his daughters made an appearance with President Ahmadinejad, and of course that was featured in the video.

We completed our visit to Bavanat by trading gifts. In addition to chocolate and postcards we asked if it was appropriate to give a cash gift to his daughters, who were very helpful to us and their parents during our visit. No problem, they said, so we were happy to do it. They gave us several items, including two small handmade balls that, while decorated and pretty, are mainly meant to protect us from evil spirits. Whatever I may think about evil spirits, it was nice to see that certain traditions haven’t died away.

Once we left Bavanat it didn’t take long before the hills were replaced by desert – flat and sand as far as the eye could see. We were headed for the Zeinodin Caravanserai, one of the inns built on the Silk Road to accommodate travelers and their animals on the trade route between Asia and Europe. I became familiar with the caravanserai phenomenon when we were in Turkey a few years ago, but I’d never stayed in one. I’d now have a chance to fill in that missing piece of my biography.

Over the centuries hundreds of caravanserais were built. Some say they originated in Persia. Zeinodin is a classic small caravanserai built by Shah Abbas I early in the 17th Century. It has been faithfully renovated and turned into a hotel. The entrance leads into an open to the sky circular courtyard around which are six guest rooms and hotel facilities. The inside walls of the enclosure are filled with large rooms that in the old days were stalls for animals or chambers to accommodate merchants, their servants and merchandise. Today they are used to house tour groups and assistants like Mehdi and Mahyar. Sandra and I were among the favored few and had a room facing the courtyard.

It sounds a little more exotic than it really was. Our room was a small, dark space with two single beds and very little else. No closet. No sink or bath or toilet. No dresser. One light bulb. Common bathroom facilities on the other side of an open courtyard are not my favorite thing, especially in the middle of the night, but I’ll spare you the details. I’m sure what we had was better than what was available to travelers and their camels when they arrived at the end of a long, dusty day on the road. Even so, at the creature comfort level Zeinodin struck me as more fitting for ascetic monks than pampered Americans.

At another, more important level, being there was a terrific experience. It is an oasis setting, a lovely structure alone in the middle of the desert, nothing close by. We went up to the roof at sunset to enjoy the fading light and stillness. The public spaces are wonderful. The courtyard, the dining area, the entrance, all are decorated with carpets and artifacts from the past. An area just outside the door to our room was like a carpeted porch – a place to sit on the floor with pillows to lean against – great for reading or writing.

I’d say the caravanserai was ‘casually’ managed. More camaraderie than efficiency. The visitors were all foreign tourists, mostly European (we shared a dinner table with some Spaniards.) The hotel staff and tour guides seemed to know each other well. A buffet dinner was served about an hour later than the appointed time. The food was mediocre and, for Iran, highly priced. It was so much a setting that catered to non-Iranians that the usual dress code for women was not required.

With all that could have been improved, the Zeinodin Caravanserai provides a unique experience. That is what is promised and they do a good job of delivering on their promise. I’m glad we stopped there.

Getting ready to leave after breakfast the next morning was easier than usual. We hadn’t unpacked anything except a few necessities. But getting ready to leave didn’t equate to actually leaving. I wish I could say that loading our luggage into the car got easier as the days went by, but it was an ongoing struggle. Every day was like a Day 1, with the lessons from the previous day(s) forgotten. Sandra and I dealt with it by making sure that one of us was present to oversee the process.

It didn’t take long to get to our next stop, Yazd, an oasis where the Dasht-e Kavir desert and the Dasht-e Lut desert meet, and capital of Yazd province. It is architecturally unique (almost everything is built from adobe), and is known for its silk weaving and sweets shops. Yazd is also a center of Zoroastrian culture. Several people had told us that Yazd has a special ambiance, is a very pleasant place to be. They were right.

On the way into town we stopped at a Zoroastrian Fire Temple that houses a flame said to have burned continuously since 470 AD. For Zoroastrians fire (and water) are key elements of ritual purity. It isn’t the fire itself so much as the clean, white ash that is produced and used to purify worshippers. I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but I find Zoroastrian temples to be more kitschy than beautiful. This one didn’t change my opinion.

Later, to complete our mini-tour of things Zoroastrian, we drove out of town to see (from a distance) their Towers of Silence. For practitioners, a corpse is a vessel of decay and must be disposed of in a way that does not pollute the environment. This is done by placing the body atop a hill in a sacred spot easily accessible to scavenger birds that function as a clean-up crew. The leftover bones are buried in sealed ossuaries.

As I understand it, these days Zoroastrians either bury or cremate their dead, so the Towers of Silence in Yazd are preserved relics from the past. Some years ago I visited (again from a distance) the Towers of Silence used by Indian Zoroastrians (Parsis) in Bombay. It’s possible that these are still in use, but recently they’ve had a problem in keeping the tradition alive (so to speak). Why? There is a shortage of vultures needed to get the job done. But that’s a story for another day.

In Yazd we visited the city’s two large mosques. It will come as no surprise to hear that they are beautiful. But what really stands out for me is the time we spent walking through the Old Town. I’ve been in many Old Towns in many countries, and I’ve never tired of wandering through the narrow, twisting lanes that lead me past houses, shops, public spaces, sacred places and special-purpose buildings of all kinds. In the process, of course, I encounter the people who live there. That’s the way it was in Yazd.

Mehdi pointed out that two ancient wooden doors lead into each home. Mounted on each door are metal knockers that don’t match. One is meant to be used by women, the other by men. Since the sounds are different, if you are inside you know whether the person knocking is male or female. These knockers are beautifully designed.

We saw many buildings that are equipped with windcatchers (badgirs), a traditional Persian architectural device used for centuries to create natural ventilation. Windcatchers are tower-like structures that capture the breeze, send it down through a shaft and then through cool water, which creates a cooling effect on the other side. Windcatchers are not only practical, they are lovely to look at.

We came upon a children’s playground. We passed an old madrasa, where children have been educated for centuries. We found a tiny bakery, crowded with stone ovens, workers and customers – and providing mouth-watering aromas. We had a snack in the basement of an old building originally used for – I can’t remember what, sorry. We exchanged dollars for rials in a shoe store. (Since it was done openly I assume it was a legal transaction, but I don’t know for sure.) We asked why a large color photograph was in the rear window of a car. I thought maybe it was the face of someone running for office. Turns out it is the recently deceased father of the car owner, and he is being honored. We watched women shopping. Sandra found a sweets shop, which facilitated her ongoing research project to taste and assess personally every available Iranian cookie. I exaggerate, but only slightly.

We had lunch in a great restaurant, Hamam Khan, which was formerly a bath house. It’s a wonderful space, almost like being in a museum. Lots of diners. Good music in the background. And the food wasn’t bad either – we had fesenjan and meatballs. Dinner in Yazd was at the Silk Road Hotel. It is a simple establishment that I would characterize as backpacker-friendly. Their eating area is in an outdoor garden (not a particularly beautiful one) and the menu is limited. Always willing to take a chance on something I haven’t had before, I ordered camel stew. It was disappointing. Not much taste and very fatty. I suspected a higher end restaurant would do better with camel. Alas, I didn’t find camel on the menu again, so I wasn’t been able to test my suspicion.

Before we arrived in Shiraz I’d never heard of a Zurkhaneh, which literally means “House of Strength.” Mehdi told us about it and thought we’d enjoy seeing one. A Zurkhaneh is a traditional Iranian gymnasium in which their national sport, called Varzesh-e Pahlavani, is practiced. He said that there were no tournaments taking place during our visit, but clubs that compete practice every day and often open their practices to the public. It sounded interesting, and said, “Let’s go.”

So we found ourselves at the Saheb.A.Zaman Club in Yazd. They would be practicing at 6 the evening we were in town. At the top of a flight of stairs we entered a large, high-ceilinged space. In the center was an oblong pit about 3’ deep with a floor of clay. Around the periphery were folding chairs for visitors like us. On the walls were pictures, banners, quotations and other paraphernalia. On the floor in the space between the chairs and the pit were dozens of weighted items of various sizes and shapes that would be used by the club members as they practiced.

Facing us on the opposite wall about 15’ above the floor was a man who would lead the exercises by playing a large drum, singing epic songs and reciting the poetry of Hafez. The words and music were amplified, so once the leader got started it was very loud.

The roots of the Zurkhaneh and Verzesh-e Pahlavani go back thousands of years. Over time the pastime has been adapted to fit and promote Islamic culture. It is more than a sport and includes moral qualities and values such as courage, selflessness and, above all, faith and loyalty to the Prophet and Imams. So when the competitors/performers practice or compete they combine tests of physical strength and flexibility with specific rituals.

Since I knew nothing about the way the sport is played or the symbolism involved, I could only respond to what I was seeing in front of me, but that was more than enough to be a treat. Nine or ten men were in the pit. They ranged in age from teenagers to one man who was in his 50’s or 60’s. Not surprisingly he looked to be the fittest and most skilled. They exercised and danced with and without the weighted items. They were at it for about 40 minutes, during which time we were mesmerized. The music and poetry had a hypnotic effect on us and the other 30 or 40 people who filled the room.

The Zurkhaneh and Yazd itself were memorable. It would have been nice to spend more time there.


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