Unusually, our Iranian guide Showān had accompanied us for dinner in the Delpazir restaurant in Kāshān. After dinner, a conversation between him and our travel companion Marie Josee ensues (with Thom and me listening and sometimes prompting). Marie Josee, a very independent woman and capable travel companion, and Showān, a well-educated Iranian (but maybe raised somewhat traditionally) working as a guide to help finance his studies, had had a personality clash right from the first moment they met; now, they’re really talking for the first time, and Showān tells us what he’d wanted not to bother us with at first.
Just before we arrived in Iran, new rules set by the government required each group to be accompanied by a guide (we certainly hadn’t asked for one, and Marie Josee had actually wanted to “fire” him). His brief was that he was responsible for us, for our safety, and that we didn’t take any photographs of military objects. The problem is that we’re independent travellers, travelling ‘with’ a group rather than ‘in’ a group — something Showān had never encountered before, but the standard for the trips organized by Koning Aap Reizen (Monkey King Travels). It was already clear to us he always tried to stay with us and keep us together; at one time the group actually decided to get rid of him for once by splitting up and all go in different directions at the same time — unwittingly making Showān’s job very difficult for him. He actually had clear instructions (from the government, by proxy of his travel agency) to keep us together. Already on the very first evening, in Tabriz, he found this was impossible to do.
On the third day, so he tells us now, he’d called his boss to explain it was impossible to keep us together, but also that he found us really interested travellers and would like to stay with us. That evening, a meeting took place in Tehrān at the highest level: the minister of tourism, a man from the tourism bureau, and someone from the travel agency (Showān’s employer); the meeting lasted three hours. Finally, Showān did get ‘permission’ to ‘let us loose’ (not that he had any choice, but at least they’d acknowledged that); but he was told he’s still responsible for us not to photograph any military objects and for our safety (how is he going to handle that when we spread out over each city and town we visit?). The decision eased the situation for him only partly, and he’s still in a conundrum; if anything goes wrong, that will likely destroy his chance to go to abroad next year to continue his studies as he’s hoping to do: it’s not just his job on the line but his future as well.
On the other hand, not having encountered people before who travel like we do, he had decided to try an experiment to find out what it’s like: walk around a strange city, without help, without speaking the language, without even a map. In Sanandaj we’d encountered him together with driver Mohammed and assistant Ali, proudly telling us: “We do what you do!” We had no clue what he meant then but now it’s suddenly clear — and he confesses he actually didn’t manage to find the way back without help. Of course, that’s something you have to learn through practice but we’re impressed he actually tried this to get a feel for how we travel.
Showān also still has to report back where we are each day, and what we do — we have no problem with that — and Marie Josee has a solution: she’ll just give him the same photocopies with city information she gives us: that way he can ‘report’ without even trying to baby-sit us.
Of course in one conversation personalities and personal backgrounds don’t change. But at least now there’s a truce and mutual understanding. Showān has a difficult job to do, and his future is at stake as well…
The monastery in Ta’ersi (called the Kumbum monastery or Kumbum Jampaling) is indeed very large. Obviously the Chinese are ‘developing’ it as a tourist attraction and a whole new entrance has been built — which we ignore since the old entrance (now side entrance) is simply at the end of the street: there’s an iron gate, half-closed with a chain, which everyone simply ducks under to enter.
At first we can’t find where to buy a ticket but when we try to enter a temple we’re stopped and pointed to the ticket office. Officially there are nine ‘sites’ to visit but it seems one is closed while some other buildings (like the Kumbum Old Monk’s Home) don’t require a ticket at all. Alas at most temples photography is not allowed — except of course when one monk in a nice jacket over his robes asks me to take his picture!
The whole complex is so huge (and the weather so unpleasant with a constant drizzle) that we give up on the idea of seeing each and every building. One highlight we visit is the Dharma Protector temple where on the second floor, around the courtyard, a range of stuffed animals is looking down on us over the railing: a bear, a deer, a yak, etc.: animals that are also frequently pictured in Buddhist paintings.
Another interesting temple is the Kalachakra Mandala temple: while the outside of the temple building is square, the inside floor plan is laid out in the form of a Mandala, with a large circle within the square of the walls and inside that other squares and circles within each other, forming a three-dimensional mandala. Just inside the large circle (which I understand symbolizes the wheel of time) is a text made of individual Tibetan characters standing up, painted in different bright colors and interspersed with small statues of mythical animals. I’m half expecting the row of characters to start marching round — the whole interior of this temple somehow reminds me of a planetarium and I actually look if there isn’t a mechanism there — but no, I see nothing: this wheel of time remains stationary. What is weird is that when you walk around in a clockwise direction (as required) you’re reading the text from right to left (if you can read Tibetan that is) but the Tibetan script is actually written left to right. I wish I could read the text here!
At a third temple (of which the name has escaped me) we find a real surprise: a little gold frame propped up on a Buddha statue holds a portrait of the Dalai Lama with the (unofficial) Tibetan flag as the background. Portraits of the Dalai Lama are strictly forbidden by the Chinese (as is the flag) — didn’t they notice this or are they getting a little more lenient?
After a late lunch at a Chinese restaurant (our dishes beautifully decorated with flowers folded from thin slices of a kind of radish) and a birthday party with a big Chinese birthday cake in one of the upstairs gambling rooms of the hotel, we board our bus again which takes us to Xining.
We leave 15 minutes late, at 08:15, for our bus trip through Khuzestan on our way to Esfahān. The Khuzis are an old people, of which the real origin is unknown: they weren´t Persians, but not Arabic either, living in this are before either group arrived here. There are also Bakhtiari in this area, nomads who still move around with their livestock here — alas we don´t meet any. Iranian policy towards the nomads is quite liberal: they are not forced to settle down and can continue their way of life and move around, although somewhat coordinated so groups don´t hinder each other. Of course they do have to obey the law of the country and the children have to go to school: in the past there was a lot of analphabetism among them, but now young teachers (called the ¨mobile education brigade¨) are actually moving around with the nomads so the children get an education.
In a more general sense, separatism isn´t allowed, but culture and language are: for instance primary schools can teach in the Kurdish language, and the language can be studied as an extra subject at the University. There is — more or less — religious freedom, in particular with respect to the religions ¨of the book¨ (Islam, Judaism and Christianity) but proselytizing is strictly forbidden.
Several weeks before this trip, I ¨met¨ a young Iranian, Mehrdad, on identica, a microblogging community. That was pure coincidence: I noticed him mentioning he lived in Mashhad and couldn´t help myself and told him I´d be in Mashhad in a few weeks. The answer was ¨wow!¨ and a suggestion it might be nice to meet. Thus an idea was born.
Gradually I found other contacts in Iran via identica, either involved in development of Free Open Source Software (FOSS), or users and evangelists of FOSS. Five of them were also members of the Mashhad Linux Users Group (Linux is an operating system, like Windows, except it´s Open Source). Since I´m involved in FOSS myself, I thought it would be nice to meet with Iranian FOSS people. In the end, it turned out too complicated to set up a meeting in every city we would visit (and our program was way too busy fro that), but Mehrdad kindly organized a meet-up in Mashhad, where according to our itinerary we would have a full day. I left the meeting time to Mehrdad; we were to meet at 19:00 which was perfect for me, since I could do almost the whole day program that way.
And so, a few minutes before seven, I sit in the lobby of our Pardis hotel; just a few minutes after, three young men walk in — I recognize Mehrdad immediately from his identica avatar: a photo of himself. Being already used to Iranian customs with respect to shaking hands (especially after our experience in Yazd), I don´t initiate any handshakes, and only one of the young men shakes my hand in greeting. The three came together because they live in another part of the city; Mohammad lives in the same neighborhood as the hotel and arrives a little later on his own. When we´re complete, Majid suddenly asks me what my age is — 59, I say, and counter that now they´ll all have to tell me their ages as well, which gives me a chance to write down their ages and names: Majid, 23; Mohammad, 24; Mehrdad, 23 and Morteza, the youngest at 22. Three of them are still studying, Majid has just graduated and will have to go into military service (for 18 months) soon; Mohammad also has a job — he´s a bit down today since he failed a very hard exam this morning.
After a little chatting about my trip, we get to ¨business¨ and I explain what I´m really interested in hearing about: how they manage here in Iran to download, contribute to and use FOSS, limited by filtering of some sites by the Iranian government on the one hand, and US export regulations on the other. That story is told elsewhere, on my development blog. They also gently grill me about my involvement in FOSS, and usage of Linux (so far mainly for websites).
When the subject is more or less exhausted, Mohammad proposes we go somewhere else to have drinks. We walk a little down the street to where he can easily flag down a taxi (he knows the neighborhood, and thus knows where to get a taxi); ¨I hope you´ll get me back to my hotel¨, I say — just joking because I´m absolutely sure the polite Iranians would not even think of not doing that. Then a car stops, and we all pile in: three of us in the back, two on the passenger seat in front. The car door on my side doesn´t have any lining, it´s practically falling apart, and the whole car is very rickety, seemingly held together with bits of wire. Nevertheless it quickly and safely takes us to another neighborhood where we get off at a corner and walk again a little down the street. I´m really enjoying this part, since we´ve only been transported by bus through the city so far — I don´t feel I´ve really ¨been¨ in a city unless I´ve walked along its streets.
They´re taking me to a juice bar. Little stores where you can buy a big glass of freshly squeezed juice are quite common in Iran, just like elsewhere in the Middle East. But this place is different, an upmarket version of these little juice shops: it´s bright and shiny, roomy, with tables and chairs to sit on, a menu with subtitles in English on each table. The choice is enormous, juices, smoothies and other fruit-based products (¨no sugar added¨) and ingredients are quite varied, too. The menu even has an email address for information, but curiously no website address (I later find they do have one though there isn’t much information there). I opt for a wheat-grass-and-banana smoothie, which turns out to be delicious. Two of the boys now send an update to identica from their mobile phones, to let others know that we´re sitting here. Over drinks we chat on about the software situation in Iran — as it turns out, quite similar to that in China with its ¨Great Firewall¨, where knowledgeable people can easily get around the blocks, and copyright still means almost nothing: for instance, you can get a copy of Windows for about one dollar here.
Drinks finished, I try to buy the round for them, but that is resolutely refused: I´m their guest, period. Then the taxi ritual is performed again, and this time a much better car takes us back to my hotel: they tell me the quality of the taxis is dependent on the neighborhood where they cruise around. Back at the hotel, I say I´d like a picture of all of us together, which poses a little problem: the two people behind the reception desk are occupied, and no one else is in view in the hall. Magically, just in time, our guide Noyan appears from the elevator: I introduce them to each other, and he willingly takes our picture: I leave the arrangement to my hosts, which turns out just a little formal. When they take their leave, I´m somewhat surprised to get three handshakes.
All in all — and impressed yet again by the hospitality of the Iranians — I enjoyed our meet-up very much, and I think the story about Open Source Software development in Iran is a story worth telling, because, indeed, Freedom matters!