Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Iran & Syria - Part 4

We began our second week in Iran by driving from Yazd to Isfahan, stopping en route in Nai’n to have lunch and visit the Jameh Mosque located there. The mosque is one of the oldest mosques anywhere, dating from the 10th Century, and it is different than other mosques we saw in that it isn’t covered with colored tiles. Instead, it is notable for its innovative yet simple use of stucco decoration.

Our drive to Isfahan was uneventful – until we arrived at our hotel. I was vaguely aware that we seemed to be having a hard time locating our destination and that Mehdi was on the phone more than usual. But it wasn’t until we stopped in front of a hotel called Suite that I realized we hadn’t gone to the Alighapo Hotel, the one on our itinerary. From the outside the Suite didn’t look too appealing. Inside was no better. It was labeled a 3-star establishment. We’d been promised and had paid for a 4-star hotel.

Had I been informed there had been a change and had someone taken the time to explain what was going on, I may have accepted the downgrade with some degree of good humor. I say “may have” advisedly. I’m sure I still would have pressed our travel agency to make good on their promise. But the fact that it was 1) presented to us as a fait accompli and that 2) it came with no warning combined to annoy me.

I didn’t try to hide my feelings from Mehdi. He’s a guy who hates confrontations of any sort, and I was being confrontive. He tried to deflect responsibility by saying he had nothing to do with it. I pointed out that he represented the agency, Let’s Go Iran, and so he did have something to do with it. And besides, he was the only person around who I could talk to.

He was ready to do anything to get me off his back. So he called the agency’s office in Shiraz and put me on the phone with a woman who I assumed was managing these arrangements. She was not very helpful. She had a string of excuses. Nothing could be done. There were no hotel rooms in Isfahan. It wasn’t her fault. They hadn’t booked the hotel they promised me because my visa authorization came late. And besides, President Ahmadinejad was in Isfahan today (more about that later) so that made a difficult situation even worse. And so on . . .

I thought I had a trump card. I thought my man Mohammed, who owned the agency, would come to my rescue. I told her to get Mohammed on the case. She now had excuses for why he wasn’t available. I was beginning to get the feeling that I wasn’t going to win this one. So I took a step back and told her and Mehdi that I’d look at the room they were offering but wasn’t agreeing to take it and they should spent time looking elsewhere in Isfahan and find us the quality room they promised.

We went in and were taken to a room. It was awful. Small, dingy, thoroughly unappealing, with two single beds. I wanted a larger bed and said so. We were taken to a second room. This one was still second-rate, but at least it had more space and it did have a larger bed. We went back to the car to talk again with Shiraz and find out if they had a better solution.

This time I got Mohammed on the phone. He came up with the same set of excuses his office manager used. It was obvious that if they had made reservations months earlier, at the time they confirmed our hotel arrangements, there would have been no problem. But they didn’t, and it looked like we were stuck with the Suite. I didn’t want to destroy my relationship with Mohammed, so I expressed my unhappiness in a calm way and agreed to accept what we were offered.

I don’t want to leave the impression that I was verbally abusive or very nasty – an Ugly American. I wasn’t. My manner was more one of exasperation, of disappointment, wanting to reason with the people and inspire them to correct their mistake. I wasn’t successful. Had I to do it again I would still express my unhappiness but I’d do it with a little less energy. A full-disclosure footnote about the Suite Hotel: while our room didn’t improve during our stay, we found the buffet breakfast they offered was one of the best we had in Iran (he admits sheepishly).

I’ve been asked about the quality of our accommodations. There seems to be an assumption that the hotels would be sub-standard and uncomfortable. That’s not the way it was. We did stay in a variety of places, and it isn’t fair to compare a 4-star hotel in a large city like Shiraz with the Caravanserai or Abbas’ guesthouse in Bavanat. With the exception of the Suite and Goodad (a story for later) we were happy with where we stayed.

The Dad Hotel in Yazd, for example, was built around a lovely pool and garden, and the room was comfortable and well equipped. While reception varied from place to place, we always had a working TV set and in most places access to CNN and the BBC. While Persian and Arabic language stations predominated, we often saw German, French, Italian and other European channels. Interestingly, we found less western TV in Syria than in Iran. The rooms were usually well lit and had two comfortable chairs that facilitated reading. A small refrigerator was a standard item. I found it amusing that every room had a large clock on the wall – in some cases really large. They were functional if not aesthetically pleasing. We asked for and usually were given a double or queen size bed. It was common to have a room with both a large and small bed.

On the negative side, the bathrooms weren’t wonderful. Cabinet and shelf space were at a premium. The showers were a challenge to use, although we were never without hot water. Somehow, every bathroom was designed to ensure that water covered the floor after a shower. I tried various workarounds to avoid the problem but wasn’t successful.

Common areas in the hotels were usually large and attractive. Often there would be an array of flags from countries around the world. Never did I see the stars and stripes included. Not a surprise, but I noticed that after I looked carefully and didn’t find our flag I felt a little disappointed. Hotel staff knew we were Americans, and I saw no sign of animosity. They were invariably friendly and helpful.

Wireless Internet access was usually available, but we didn’t use it. We decided that if we could live without wine for 16 days we could also live without email and the need to be ‘connected.’ The only meal we ate in the hotels was breakfast, so I don’t have much experience with their restaurants. My sense is that the menu was limited and the prices were high.

Overall, I’d give our accommodations a grade of B. Maybe had we chosen to stay in 5-star hotels my rating would be higher, but from what I read the top-end places are often not wonderful.

Once past the hotel change drama we had a good time in Isfahan. It is one of Iran’s top attractions and deserves to be. The Lonely Planet is more rhapsodic:

Isfahan is Iran’s masterpiece, the jewel of ancient Persia and one of the finest cities in the Islamic world. The exquisite blue mosaic tiles of Isfahan’s Islamic buildings, its expansive bazaar and its gorgeous bridges demand as much of your time as you can spare. It’s a city for walking, getting lost in the bazaar, dozing in beautiful gardens, and drinking tea and chatting to locals . . .

You get the point.

Except for the mosques, monuments and old towns I didn’t find Iran’s cities aesthetically pleasing. However, some parts of Isfahan strongly argue against my conclusion. Tree-lined avenues, one with a beautifully landscaped pedestrian boulevard in the center, and walkways alongside the river are very attractive and people friendly. And the most well known site in Isfahan, Imam Square, is indeed a centerpiece of Persian culture.

I have re-looked at the pictures and movies I took as we made our way through Isfahan. The Friday Mosque, Imam Square, the Imam Mosque, the Khaju Bridge, the Sio Se Pol Bridge, and the Lotfallah Mosque. The pictures don’t do justice to these extraordinary sites. Any description I am foolish enough to attempt will be inadequate. So again I suggest that if you want to learn and see for yourself and can’t make the trip, check out the various sources on the Internet and elsewhere that are available to you. Here I’ll focus on my impressions.

Having made my disclaimer, there is one mosque that I have to highlight – the Sheikh Lotfallah Mosque on the eastern side of Imam Square. It is the most exquisite of all the exquisites. It was built in 1615 by Shah Abbas I for his father-in-law, Sheikh Lotfallah and was used as a place of worship only for the Shah, his family and his harem. It’s rather like the private chapel of a king or pope.

It is large, but not nearly as large as other mosques. It has neither a minaret nor a courtyard, probably because it was not meant for public use. An entryway leads to a sanctuary, one magnificent room, which is the jewel in the crown. It is like the best of every aspect of Persian tile work and architecture is brought to its pinnacle in this sanctuary. I could only stand in awe and be thankful for the opportunity to be there. We had only two days in Isfahan, and we visited the Sheikh Lotfallah Mosque both days.

Imam Square is huge. Covering nearly 21 acres, it is second only to Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in size. I have to confess I expected to be more impressed. Its enormous scope is part of the problem. I have a positive response to more human scale spaces, like the Piazza del Campo in Siena or the Place de la Concorde in Paris. These public spaces don’t have to be small, just more approachable. The other part of the problem for me is the structures along the periphery. They’re rather ordinary. I would have liked to see better Persian architecture on display, and it wasn’t.

The best parts of Imam Square were the smaller areas in the center. The walkways, the pond, the benches. They are magnets for families and children. That’s closer to what the Square should be about. I left Imam Square with the same feeling I had when I was confronted by the massive squares and super-wide streets in St. Petersburg. Fine for a czar driving around in an 8-horse carriage. Not so fine for a woman with a baby carriage. As for Isfahan’s main square – more appropriate for a shah than for ordinary people.

I mentioned that Ahmadinejad was in Isfahan the day we were there. He had come to make a speech commemorating Nuclear Day (probably not the exact name but close enough). It was a well-publicized talk, aggressive in tone, reiterating that Iran is proud of its nuclear program and will not be backing away from its commitment to become an independent nuclear power. Posters and flags with Ahmadinejad’s picture were all over town, including on the main entrance to the Imam Mosque in the Square.

As I write this we are only a week away from a national election in Iran. It is uncertain whether Ahmadinejad will be reelected. During my time in Iran I did not want to express my views about internal Iranian politics. I may have been over-cautious, but I didn’t want to run the risk of being seen as a critic of their government. I was quite willing to express how I felt about my own government’s policies, past and present. And I was happy to have the local people I talked with express their views. But as a foreign guest I wanted to be careful.

One thing did surprise me, and that was how often I heard criticism from Iranians about their government and its leaders. Regarding Ahmadinejad, I heard more negative than positive opinions. Regarding aspects of daily life that are “required” or “forbidden,” I heard complaints. Most surprising were comments I heard about the religious leaders, the mullahs. These comments didn’t take the form of criticizing specifically one or another of the mullahs; they were spoken more in a tone of sarcasm, a kind of sneering disregard for mullahs as a whole.

Granted, my opinions are based on a very small number of interactions. Hardly a national survey. Even so, before I made this trip I wouldn’t have guessed that I would hear such views openly expressed.

On the day of our arrival in Isfahan, after we checked into the hotel Mehdi had to go to police headquarters to register us. I’m not sure why he needed to do this. It’s not something that was required anywhere else. I suspect it had to do with Ahmadinejad being in town. Whatever the reason, Mehdi was disgruntled because the process took so long. After the day’s drive and finally getting us settled into the hotel he wanted a nap, which he didn’t get.

We ate dinner at one of Isfahan’s fanciest restaurants, the Shahrzad. It was beautifully decorated with wall paintings, stained glass windows, mirror work and old artifacts. The style was Qajar-era opulent. It was also very popular. We arrived early, but by the time we left the Shahrzad was full and people were lined up to get in. The food was good, but a cut below the décor.

We had two lunches in Isfahan, both at restaurants near Imam Square. The Bastani was unique in that the walls and ceiling were covered with large pieces of decorated fabric. We ate Dizi and Kofteh which I’ll assume, since I made note of them, were very good. The Partikan was a very large restaurant that given the way the tables were arranged appeared to cater to groups. We had the place almost all to ourselves.

Our final dinner in Isfahan was at the Khangostar in the Armenian Quarter. Turns out it is in the Julfa Hotel, where Mehdi and Mahyar were staying. After the really special restaurants we’d been to, the Khangostar didn’t measure up. It looked like a drab cafeteria – with service to match.

Isfahan’s most famous bridge, the Khaju, is, as advertised, very beautiful. It was built over the Zayandeh River in about 1650 by Shah Abbas II, is more than 400’ long and has two levels of terraced arcades. But what I’ll remember about the Khaju is not the bridge itself but the people who were hanging out on it.

As we walked along the upper level we passed arches that are on both sides of the bridge. There are 23 of them. Looking through an arch we could see an opposite arch on the other side, 46’ away. Between the arches is a pathway about 12’ wide. We heard singing. About midway across the singing grew louder and we came upon a group of people gathered between a set of arches enjoying an old man who was joyously belting out a folk song, clapping his hands and dancing. The audience was participating by clapping with him. It was an extraordinary scene in an extraordinary setting. We just stood and watched and enjoyed it all.

When we finally continued our walk across the bridge we heard another voice. This time it was a young man singing a song made famous by Moein, one of Iran’s most popular vocalists. His audience was quiet and respectful. While very different in mood than the folk song earlier, this memorable scene was just as extraordinary.

We hadn’t intended to do any shopping in Isfahan. But somewhere along the way we mentioned to Mehdi that we loved miniatures and wondered if there were any to see. He said he knew a miniaturist located just behind Imam Square and would take us there. And so we ended up at the gallery and workshop of Mostafa Fotowat.

Shortly after we were introduced, Fotowat picked up a small flat piece of camel bone and a brush with a tiny point and began drawing. In about two minutes he was finished. He handed the piece to Sandra. It was a gift. He had drawn the face of Hafez, Iran’s famous poet. It was absolutely wonderful. An amazing demonstration of skill and artistry.

We spent the next hour or so looking at the art he had on display. We loved much of what we saw and wondered if we’d be able to buy any. Usually when we travel we rely on our Visa card to pay for almost everything. We had been told that credit cards were of no use in Iran; we’d need to use cash for our expenses. So we’d come with a stash of dollars but wanted to make sure we didn’t run out, since replenishing our supply would be impossible – or at least very very difficult.

We found two pictures that we wanted to buy and could afford to pay for in cash. One is the face of a Baluchistani man painted by Fotowat. The other is a classic Persian scene painted by another artist. On the back of this picture is a very old piece of paper (they said 200 years old) with quotes from the Shahname (Book of Kings), the national epic of Iran written by Ferdowsi in the 10th Century.

As it turns out, Mostafa Fotowat has a gallery in Germany and is therefore able to accept credit cards. Had we known this when we made our choices of what to buy I’m sure we would have come away with more art. In any event, we’re thrilled with what we have. Again, serendipity played a role in nurturing our travel experience.

And now an add-on to the miniature story:

We brought the Persian scene piece back unframed, and until two days ago hadn’t done anything to get the job done. Sandra and I went for a walk, not for the purpose of finding a frame shop but just to go for a walk. We passed a gallery we hadn’t seen before and wondered if they do framing. Inside, we saw that they did have a frame selection and began a conversation with the owner. As we talked I had the notion that this man may be Iranian. When he gave me a business card I saw that his name was Hourian. “Is Hourian a Persian name?” I asked. “Yes.”

We then told him about our trip and the art we wanted to get framed. He was thrilled to hear we’d been to his country and had had a good time. He is an artist himself and obviously the perfect person to work on our piece. Serendipity – one more time.

Our last stop in Isfahan before heading out of town was a carpet shop. This was for Mehdi, not us. He has a sister who lives in California and his mother will be visiting her soon. He wanted to find a carpet he could have his mother take to her. And he wanted our opinion about what we thought she would like.

Many of the carpets we saw were absolutely beautiful. Could we be tempted to buy one? We were pretty sure the answer would be no. We have Persian-style carpets I bought decades ago in Kashmir and no floor space for more. But the salesman wouldn’t take a “Not interested” as our final answer. I must say he did a brilliant job of trying to lure us in. I’d heard about Persian carpet salesmen but never before had I been on the receiving end of a pitch. I admired his skill, but in the end didn’t relent. We were able to leave without a carpet. Mehdi found a few possibilities for his sister.

And so we said goodbye to Isfahan.


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