I’m lying in bed trying to piece together the events of this last trip that just ended after a 48-hour day of transit. Of all my trips, this ranks among the most memorable. Yes, the architecture, history, and pageantry are astonishing, but it is the people that made this trip magical.
|Shahcheragh Shrine, Shiraz.|
As some of you know, I study humans’ relationships with the body through intentional alteration, temporary or permanent, and frequently in the context of a religious experience. It has been a dream of mine to attend Muharram for the Ashura ceremony of Shi’ah Muslims. The biggest hurdle being the best places to witness this ceremony: Iran, Pakistan, Lebanon, and Iraq haven’t been accessible or felt safe to visit. Thanks to Obama and Rouhani, this seemed like the right time to visit Iran; either the door of tourism will slam shut or burst open. And now with the blessing of the supreme leader Khameni (not to be confused with Khomeini) clearing the way for a deal to lift sanctions, I would bet the country will open up.
|Muharram flagellant procession, Shiraz|
Mic and I are celebrating our 20th anniversary. Twenty years ago I trained him to pierce when the Gauntlet hired him and he’s been in and out of my life, mostly working for me since then. Taking him on a trip was to say “thanks for your awesomeness.” Jon John started traveling with me to far off places a few years back. I want to thank both of them for trusting in me enough to take a trip that almost everyone we talked to thought we were crazy and pressured us not to take.
|Walls outside the former US Embassy, Tehran|
|US Embassy has been renamed, "US Den of Espionage." When you take into account the evidence of 2 prior CIA planned coups, the Iranian government has a point. "We reap what we sow."|
I think a cursory overview of Islam is in order. I’m neither a Muslim nor a scholar of religions, so bear with my missteps. There are about 1.5 billion Muslims in the world. Approximately 85% are Sunni with most of the rest being Shi’ah. Of only 5 countries where Shi’ah are the majority, Iran is by far the strongest and most stable. The fundamental split between these two sects occurred after the death of the prophet Muhammad stemming from a difference of opinion on succession of leadership. Those that came to be known as Sunni (which basically means “people of the tradition”) believed the leader should be elected by a council, where as those that came to be known as Shi’ah (which basically means “followers of Ali,” who was the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad) believed the leader should be mandated by Mohammad’s bloodline. Shi’ah also believed they were in keeping with Muhammad’s directive for succession. There was much early political maneuvering, warring, and assassinating, etc. in the 7th century CE (Western calendar).
The split solidified with the gruesome massacre of Husayn, his infant son, and his brother Hasan, the last living relatives of Muhammad, by the disputed Islamic leader Yazid. It is the slaughter of Husayn that is remembered and grieved during the month of Muharram every year. This ritualized grieving ceremony is enacted through singing, theatrical performances, and nightly processions of participants chanting, drumming, flagellating, and/or chest pounding through the streets. From a functionalist perspective, the ceremony solidifies group identity and a sense of belonging. Politically, the ceremony critiques the injustices of the present by linking them with the atrocities of the past, in what Khomeini called “the eternal now.”
|Mosque fountain stained blood red for Muharram, Eqlid.|
|Eqlid Ashura boys|
Iran doesn’t make it easy for Americans to visit (and vice versa). Currently as Americans, we are allowed in the country 1 day before and 1 day after a compulsory tour. We are instructed that we must be with a government approved tour guide 24/7. As Westerners, we have to pass a prescreening background check, prior to applying for the actual $189 visa application (plus an additional $200 for a private company to transport the passport, since the only official-unofficial consulate is in DC). All the research showed that travel should be safe for us, however, visas can be denied and no explanation will be given. We all agreed to comb our hair, remove our facial piercings, and cover up our tattoos for the photos and for clearing immigration. Thanks, Kryolan, your makeup works! By the way, none of the time spent removing jewelry or applying multiple layers and shades of makeup was probably necessary. Certainly once in the country, tattoos and piercings weren’t a problem at all, just a curiosity. For women, it’s another matter. It was a strange site to see a plane load of Persian and foreign women pull out head scarves upon landing in Tehran. There hadn’t been a single woman wearing hijab when we had boarded our plane in Vienna.
|Iranian woman with a mosque-loaned chador, Shiraz.|
Jetlag and a quick scan of the Khomeini international airport melted my final fears of deportation. The government officials were the same lackadaisical bureaucrats that you would find anywhere else. The exception being they were physically warm and verbally funny with each other. Their equipment was worn and dated. There wasn’t anything that signaled I was dealing with a paranoid and fanatical police state. They did pull us aside without an explanation for 1 ½ hours. Turned out they wanted to finger print us, but couldn’t be bothered to get around to it (when they finally did, it took 5 minutes). They asked what I did for a living…no interrogations, not even a bag search.
|Ebrat Museum, Tehran|
|Mic reposing at Golestan Palace tea house, Tehran|
Tehran is a city of about 9 million. I had expected more beauty and antiquity. It’s there, but it’s buried behind the typical concrete crap that you find everywhere these days. It’s sprawling and chock full of vehicles. Motorbikes use the sidewalks and red lights are a suggestion. As a pedestrian, you cross up to six lanes, one lane at a time, weaving between the traffic flurry. The secret is to cross with the locals and walk at an even speed so the cars and motorbikes can project a trajectory. The worst thing you can do is panic. Bolting and freezing makes it more difficult for unbreaking vehicles to miss hitting you. Fortunately, they have a subway and Mic was able to turn our trips into impromptu comedy shows with a captive audience. They loved the loud laughing, gregarious foreigner!
|"Apple" store, Tehran|
“Nothing is permitted, but anything is possible.” One of my two favorite expressions from this trip. It’s a common expression, particularly among the younger, more secular Iranians. Satellite television is haram (prohibited by Islamic edict), yet millions of Iranians own them. After the Green Party protests, the government banned and blocked Youtube and Facebook, yet every Iranian I talked to accessed these sites through VPNs and special apps. These app companies are even advertised on satellite broadcasts. To the unacquainted, the Iranian’s varying departments of security and enforcement are a bit confusing. While we have our own array of TSA, NSA, CIA, FBI, ABC, DOJ, DHS, ATF…etc., the Iranians have the Morality Police. They enforce the hadith (Islamic understandings of morality derived from the Quran). The MPs have checkpoints at a few intersections to see if unmarried males and females are fraternizing in public. They also check that women and men are dressed appropriately, for women that means their heads, necks, ankles, and arms are covered and for men, no shorts or sleeveless shirts. The wearing of the black covering, chador is common, but not compulsory. I never saw a burqa (the female cloak that also covers the face), it’s not an Iranian practice. You can easily spot the more secular females since their designer label and usually decorative hajib will only half cover their head. For the average Westerner this may all seem outrageous and sexist; however, they have no rampant problems of alcoholism, drug addiction, homelessness, uncared for mental illness, public displays of sexual harassment or disrespecting of females, teen pregnancy, litter, human and animal feces, or used syringes in the street…all the things I witness in San Francisco on an hourly basis. Make no mistake, I’m not moving to a country that criminalizes homosexuality anytime soon and that technically has fatwas (religious rulings) against tattooing and male beauty treatments such as eyebrow plucking, however, they at least offer real solutions for problems that have plagued large populations for millennia.
|Jon John captivating girls with his tattoos, Kahkaran village|
Iranians and Shi'ah are not ISIS/ISIL; they’re technically at war with them. Considering they are situated next to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, with Syria a stone’s throw away, the average citizen (and airport security) are surprisingly relaxed. Obviously in the “Islamic Republic of Iran,” Shi’ah Islam comes first, however there are Sunnis, Christians, and even Jews. “Despite all the different races, we are Iranians first.” “Iran” comes from the word Aryan, which reportedly, they all consider themselves.
|Locals' shisha bar with "Abe" and Jon John, Shiraz|
|Shahcheragh shrine, Shiraz|
|Nasiralmolk mosque, Shiraz|
Iranians will offer you the shirts off their back, they’re socially obligated to be generous. However, you should always refuse the first several times to make sure they mean it and that they’re not just performing generosity, as is the custom. Much like how polite Westerners may arm wrestle for a restaurant bill or jockey to open the door first, Persians have taken this etiquette dance to the level of fine art. They call this taarof.
“Jews, Muslims, Christians, they’re all family having a family argument.”This was expressed to me by a brought-up-Shi-but-now-secular Iranian. This perspective cast new light, for me, onto the Palestinian issue. But have you ever tried to butt into a family argument? Not pretty. And this is a weaponized family fighting over inheritance.
|Armenian church wall mural, Isfahan|
|Old town passage, Yadz|
|Lotfollah mosque, Isfahan|
(the most beautiful mosque I have ever seen)
Okay my Joons that is it for this travel journal. Iran is one of the most amazing countries I’ve been to. GO!
(Joon means “life” in Farsi; it is a term of endearment and is commonly added on as a suffix like, “dear.”)