Isfahan ... 11/09 - 13/09
We were warned, the station is 25km from the city. We manage to find a shuttle, it´s strange to take a shuttle as if it was an airport!
After a quick look at the hotels, we stop in a hotel with a courtyard and fountain. Our room overlooks the courtyard. We have barely turned the key in that we recognise familiar voices. Bruno and Dimitri have arrived this morning from Qom! We will have a great time... It turns out, it´s mostly an opportunity for the three boys to share student type of jokes :o). You have to find a way to relax when you cannot eat before 8pm nor drink alcohol and that all women are veiled!
We have been dreaming about Isfahan for a long time, especially through historical novels. This is not the Isfahan of 400 years ago of course. But the city is very pleasant, less traffic and pollution than in Tehran, the streets are shaded and the temperature is more bearable.
Ben embarks us on a city tour recommended by the guidebook but we are doubtful. He leads us into a maze of narrow streets and mud walls. "Click-click-click", we discover a workshop that embroiders brand names! As we enter, a dozen machines are frantically embroidering "Puma". It is probably not what the guide wanted to show us but we are delighted with our discovery.
We are delighted by the first monument, the Jameh ("Friday") mosque, by the large courtyard and beautiful mosaics. Shades of blue and yellow intermingle in a maze on the domes and the walls.
The difference is striking with the Hakim mosque. It´s Friday, a kid opens the door, shaking his head as if to say yes but he informs us: "It's closed, come back this afternoon." Dimitri makes some grimaces to make him laugh, and after he said no again as well as to two Iranians, he finally opens the door! A few men are lying on mats and chatting. The mosque was rebuilt and it is much more simple and geometric. Nothing to do with the delicate mosaics of the Jameh mosque.
On Thursday evening, the equivalent of Saturday night in Europe, we wander on the beautiful Imam Khomeini square. The place is huge, 512m long and 163m wide, the second largest in the world after Tiananmen Square... And much more beautiful! The Imam mosque, probably the most famous sight of Iran, is a dazzling masterpiece of blue and yellow mosaics. The artists began by cutting colored tiles in various shapes and assemble them... Daunting task. After doing one wall, someone pointed out that at this speed, it would take a century to finish the mosque. The artists did the rest by painting designs on the tiles and assembling them. The arcades around the place hosts a multitude of workshops. Enamel on copper, miniatures on camel bones, hammered copper, carpets ... The choice is vast and of good quality. At each end of the square stands two marble columns, remnants of polo matches that took place 400 years ago.
As the evening comes, families arrive, food baskets and mats under their arms and settle on the grass around the large fountain and in front of the illuminated mosque. We remain subjugated by a huge "table": two endless rows of men, women and children sitting on the ground, on both sides of a long carpet acting as table. They invite us for dinner: meat stew and cheese with chunks of bread and a large crepe filled with meat and seasoned with lemon juice and mint leaves. The stew is a bit strong but the pancake is delicious. For dessert we get a frozen English-type jelly.
After dinner, groups are formed: women on one side, men on the other. Ben and Dimitri are invited to join the men and Sylvie, a group of women of her age. Two of them (16 and 20 years) speak english and translate for the others. The 20 years-old has been married for 2 months. She is quite childish: "Who is more beautiful, my husband or me? You're prettier than your husband ...". After the usual questions: "what is your name? Where are you from? What is your profession?", it gets more serious: "Do you like the hejab?". It is the Islamic dress code for women (scarf, coat or even an all-enveloping black veil). "No, and you?" Sylvie replies, sure to be followed. "Yes, of course. The Iranian men are different from the other men. They can stare at us or even worse if we are not veiled." Every time they get up to greet someone, the girls wrap themselves in their chador, a large black cape leaving only the face to be seen. Why black? "To avoid attracting the attention of men." We thought that these women were under pressure from their families, they actually do it of their own will. Sylvie tries to explain that, although she is a foreigner and not veiled, she had no problem in Iran, it takes more to change ingrained beliefs. One of the girls tries to put her at ease: "You can remove your scarf." Sylvie explains that Iranian law doesn´t give her the choice, but they don´t understand and think Sylvie is just respecting their customs!
They then start on Dimitri: "Is your friend married?". Again, Sylvie explains that foreigners who show interest to an Iranian girl have then to deal with the police. "Your friend is in the police?". Ok let´s try again ...
The 16 years-old girl speaks better. She wants to be a dentist but the entrance exams at the university are tough. She also explains that while many Iranian women are studying, only a few work. Apart from top professions like doctor or lawyer, the others stay at home. Their husbands don´t want them to be in contact with other men.
We are aware of the different social classes in Iran, each class being a mix of people more or less religious. We don´t generalise what we saw tonight but it answered many of our questions.
On Friday noon, we walk back to the Imam Khomeini square at which we remain amazed. Suddenly, the place begins to fill. A quiet but continuous flow of men in european dress and women in black chador, little girls often veiled too, are rushing to the mosque. We forgot, it's Friday today (our Sunday)! As it is Ramadan even more people go to the mosque but the flow is huge even compared to a Christmas mass in France. We sit quietly in a corner of the square and look. Many women are completely wrapped in black chadors but there are some who dress more relaxed. A supernatural scene takes place a few meters away from us. A young man speaks to a young woman who listens intently, motionless, leaning slightly forward, her eyes fixed. They stand face to face but staggered so that their eyes do not meet. The man speaks continuously and we are trying to guess the meaning. The woman doesn´t say anything but sometimes turns away to hide a smile. After 10min, an elder woman in a black chador, probably the mother, leads the girl to the mosque. We remain stunned. Have we witnessed a traditional courting scene? What will be the outcome?
Whenever we talked of our plans to visit Iran, we always got the same remark: "Is it safe?". We had read several stories of travelers who had greatly appreciated Iran and we looked forward to our trip despite some apprehension due to cultural differences. The international political situation also frightens people.Actually, once in the country, what we see is men and women going about their daily chores: going to work, shopping for dinner, taking the children to school ... Where are the "monsters" and "demons" denounced by the foreign public opinion? Tourism and travel have been democratised but the media are still the strongest. We get easily blinded by the fights between the heads of state and we forget that the people of other countries have the same joys and worries as we do. Picnic, visiting family and friends, giving a good education to their children ... Everyone is the same, on every continent! What we fear at the moment, more than U.S. Missiles, are the earthquakes such as in Bandar Abbas, 6.1 on the Richter scale, on Wednesday September 10.