From Mesopotamia to the Pamirs

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  Thursday 2009-05-21 - Mashhad, Iran

Three tombs

Most of the day in Mashhad today is spent visiting a number of important sites — there are of course numerous ones in this holy city in Iran, so it must be a selection.

First, we go to the tomb of Nader Shah, a Turk of the Safavids who liberated Persia from the Afghan occupation in the 18th century and is thus revered here, in the spiritist tradition of reverence for great heroes. He managed to restore Iran to its former extended area. He proved to be an excellent strategist, but not such a good ruler; near the end of his life he became totally paranoid. The building is modern and of an interesting design with interlocking and rotated squares. In the half-open hall where the actual tomb stands in a large slightly sunken rotated square, this must have caused some problems for visitors (I imagine some falls and sprained ankles) because the corner nearest the tomb has been filled-in with a wooden deck so people can walk along the stone tomb without having to step down and up again.

Next on our list is the site of the tomb of Khajeh Rabee, a relative of Imam Reza. It´s a beautiful and peaceful site with a large garden around it. The pavement consists of memorial stones for martyrs of the Iran-Irak war, and endless expanse of them which brings home the terrible toll the 10-year war meant for this country.

Ferdowsi was a great poet and writer from the 11th century, the Seljuk period. He wrote ¨The Book of Kings¨ and with it made an important contribution to the continued existence of Farsi, using the language carefully and avoiding Arabic words. His tomb is here in Mashhad and quite different in atmosphere to that of Khajeh Rabee. The building, situated in a beautiful garden in Tus (his birthplace), is clearly inspired by Cyrus´ tomb in Pasargadae; behind it is a part of the old mud-brick city wall of Tus, partly protected by a roof: it´s a hangout place for local youth. Inside the building, Ferdowsi´s stone grave is on the ground floor, but on the top floor is a gallery from which you can look down on it — and surprisingly on this gallery there is an art exhibition, with some really good and quite witty drawings. A little farther on we make a short stop near a beautiful brick building that houses a Koran school.

posted: Sunday 2009-06-21 10:11 UTC architecture, art, history, tombs

Barley soup and lamb stew

For lunch we have some nice local dishes. I start with one of my favorite Iranian dishes, a barley soup made with barley (obviously), tomato, carrot, onion, a little meat (probably lamb), herbs and probably some lemon (it´s slightly sour): it´s as delicious as I remember it. For the main course we all have a dish called ghorme sabzi, a stew with lamb and various vegetables (I recognize at least parsley and cilantro). With it, an Iranian alcohol-free beer (called sade).

posted: Sunday 2009-06-21 10:19 UTC food and drink

Adventure at the Holy Shrine

Our destination for the afternoon is the holy shrine of Imam Reza which forms the physical and symbolic core of the holy city of Mashhad; the city map makes this clear, but last night it was beautifully obvious from the plane just before we landed, with lighted streets all converging on the huge, floodlighted complex of the shrine.

As in Qom, opinions differ on whether to admit non-Muslims at all, or only deny them access to the shrine itself, or be open and admit everyone. As a result, while we — all non-muslims — will be able to enter the complex today, it´s unsure whether we´ll be able to enter the shrine building itself. There, as usual, men and women enter in separate rooms on two sides of the shrine itself; since our local guide is male, he has organized some local women to accompany the women in our group (the majority); they brought some children as well, which supposedly makes our group look less like tourists. Unfortunately, their English isn´t very good so it´s rather hard to communicate (which in turn makes us more obvious than intended). We´re instructed to stay together, and avoid questions about whether we are muslim or not.

We enter through one of the huge courtyards, surrounded by beautiful buildings. Here and there, men and women distinguished only by the fact they carry what looks like a feather duster are standing around: they´re here to keep order (probably volunteers). Then we enter one of the older buildings, a very large hall, with a completely white stuccoed ceiling — a surprise when most Shi’ite mosques we´ve seen have ceilings covered completely in faceted mirrors. It´s beautiful here, and there´s a relaxed atmosphere with men and women sitting around quietly, children with them freely playing around them. I’d like to stay here a bit but we move on. Then another huge and beautiful courtyard, and next to it the shrine building. Here we split up. Us women enter the shrine bulding in a tight group with our guides without any problem, being given a look over by woman with a feather duster, with a smile and without comment. The scene inside is somewhat emotional, but that doesn’t surprise me, I´ve seen that before at a shrine. The women nearby are friendly, smiling, welcoming.

Then, suddenly, our guides call us: we must go out — now. Somehow, we have been spotted as non-Muslims and ordered out, apparently. Once outside, our companions tell us to sit together in a circle. A friend of one of them greets them, and they tell her (loud enough to be understood by bystanders) that we´re from the Netherlands, which probably doesn´t help our situation. Now some officials with a badge stay near us until a short man approaches and tells us to wait. We tell him that if we can´t go inside, we just want to go outside to meet our male companions at the museum. No, we must wait here, he tells us. We´re ordered to a different location on the side of the courtyard, and still we must wait. We´re worried the men of our group will be waiting for us either at the museum, or somewhere else, but we´re just not allowed to go. Finally, to our relief, the men come outside too, and find us here (guided by one of the officials). The short man, obviously in charge, wants us to come to the Foreign Visitors´ Office, to register (they want to keep statistics about vistors, he tells us) and watch a film about Islam and the Holy Shrine. None of us wants to watch a film, so after dutifully feeding their statistics we finally go out. By then, we´ve lost two of the women in our group — they apparently declined to even go into the office, but none of us knows what they planned, or whether they already left or not, so we stand around waiting for quite a while; they don´t turn up.

Finally we split up, with most of the group going on foot to the bazaar nearby, and me going back to the hotel with our bus to be back in time for my meeting.

posted: Sunday 2009-06-21 10:29 UTC architecture, local customs, religion

Meet-up with the Mashhad Linux Users Group

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!

posted: Sunday 2009-06-21 11:00 UTC culture, food and drink, freedom, internet, local customs, open source, politics, software

Kashke Bademjan

Just back from fruity drinks with the Iranian guys (and not feeling particularly hungry after that), I find I´m just in time to join the group for dinner. Noyan knows nice restaurant nearby, within walking distance of the Pardis hotel, and so I get another chance to walk and ¨feel¨ the city a little. The restaurant is in a busy pedestrians-only street with lots of shops, and it´s quite lively with all shops still open and many people strolling around.

Inside, the decor is fully traditional; sometimes there is live music here, but unfortunately not this time. Some traditional instruments are standing around and Noyan tells us a little about them. Hibiscus tea is served, and there are sweets on the table: this is ¨service¨ for which they charge 30,000 rials. The main dish we pick (about 70,000) is called kashke bademjan. It´s made from roasted, peeled eggplant, pureed with various spices; this is served with a yogurt-cucumber salad, a tomato-onion-cucumber slad, some sliced raw onion and bread. I drink a doogh with it. A really delicious meal!

posted: Sunday 2009-06-21 11:05 UTC food and drink