Iran Diary: December, 2007

Hamedan, 9/12/07

The two-hour nighttime flight from Doha arrives at the splendid new Imam Khomeini Airport in the south of Tehran. It is a great improvement over the old Mehrabad airport though that did have the advantage of being in the more salubrious, northern part of the city. For people heading south, this new location makes for a flying start and the journey to Hamedan is appreciably shorter. The passport control officer is, perhaps like all of his kind, decidedly unhelpful though his English is good – far better then my Persian. I don’t have to fill out an arrival card, the information is collected by means of a mild interrogation. He is, from the beginning, worried about the fact that my passport is a little water-damaged on one side, coincidentally exactly where the signed part of the visa is placed.

“Yes, the envelope that it came back from the embassy in got in the rain.” Where will I be staying? “Well I forgot to bring the exact address but it is in Hamedan with the Family F.” What? “In Hamedan with the Family F.” I start to spell the name out. Where? “Hamedan” Are you staying in a hotel? “No, my friends are collecting me.” Is this your first visit to Iran? “No, my third.” Was that on a different passport? “No, the visas are all there.” He flicks through my passport in a resigned, unhappy sort of way and then stamps it.

On the four-hour drive to Hamedan I catch up with news of my numerous and various friends. One of the daughters is now a postgraduate student in Canada, another is about to enter university. The state of my favourite family – widow, daughter and three sons – is concerning. Since the husband’s death they seem to have slid more and more into poverty. Their house is decidedly unsafe and probably has to completely rebuilt. Quotes of around thirty thousand Australian dollars are mentioned. Not much I can do there. They are living on a small pension but, like many, are suffering from the current bout of inflation. When I first came to Iran, an Australian dollar might well buy ten times as much in the way of basic living materials like food as it would in Australia. Now, since an Australian dollar seems to buy only about five times as much, there is strong evidence that Iranian prices must have doubled. The family has just enough to cover food but not essential utilities and there are sad stories of near cut-offs and desperate last-minute borrowings. K and I ponder some, at best temporary, solutions.

While K stops to buy cigarettes, I get to talk bad Persian (for the first time since my last visit) to one of the sons of this family, A, who has come along to give moral support and hand out cups of tea or coffee from the front passenger seat. The conversation is entirely about football. When I first met him he was in early adolescence and his first words to me were “Harry Kewell”. That formed a bond which has lasted. He offers a quick summary of the English game: Leeds are now bad (though doing well in the third tier), Middlesborough are very bad (fortunately I don’t know the Persian for “potential” and “relegation”) but Arsenal are sublime, playing the best football from a club team I think I have ever seen, Real Madrid at its best, notwithstanding: Fabregas, Clichy, Flamini, Walcott etc etc. You don’t need a sophisticated grasp of a language to operate on a subject like this, further proof, if it were needed, that football is one of the great bonding forces of the world.

In the family house the decline is all too evident. True, there is a new television: last time I came only one channel worked and to get a new channel you had to retune that one. But there are great patches in the ceiling and cracks in the walls. The house itself is a kind of freeform u-shape around a small courtyard. Depending on how you divide it up it is either three rooms or one long one. The ceiling is high and the floor uneven, as though it simply follows the natural undulations of the ground. The walls have been made of soft brick and are probably well past their use-by date. To make matters worse, the instant that it is rebuilt, the government resumes about six feet of the road side of the house as part of a widening process. A rebuilt house will have to be a two-story affair. General gloom at the prospects. Not that you would know anything was wrong from the behaviour of the family which is, as always, immensely hospitable. Lunch (or a late breakfast) is served: tea, flat bread, butter, panir (a kind of cottage cheese), honey and talk.

Hamedan, 10/12/07

A good night’s sleep and thankfully few manifestations of jetlag. At most of my friends’ houses we all sleep together on the floor. The ladies of the house carry out a stack of thin mattresses, each of which has a quilt made by folding a blanket and pinning a sheet around it. They are spread out on the floor and everybody is accommodated. I want to resist Iranophile ravings here, but this is a truly civilized process. A small house like the one we are in now can have up to a dozen people sleeping over at the end of one of the obligatory mass meals – which are also, by the way, taken on the floor though often a row of chairs will stand, unused, against the wall, almost like framed pictures of themselves. I was the first to go to sleep while others talked on and so I missed Deportivo losing to Barca. That was on in the early hours.

Possibly to get me out of the house, M, my Persian teacher, and F, the lady of the house, take me out for a walk. First we go to the street bazaar which sets up in this area each Monday – and then moves to other areas on other days. This is not a real bazaar: that is a permanent construction, entirely under cover. There are fruit and vegetables here and a lot of, well, junk: as though a bomb had exploded inside a Crazy Clark’s. I get smiles that are friendly rather than surprised, a marker that tourists are a bit more common here than they used to be, though apparently they are more common in summer and spring and more likely to be found at the tomb of Avicenna. M and I walk along a main street till we get to a small hill from which Hamedan can be seen. What to say about this city that I have such a soft spot for?

Hamedan is exactly the same as it was on previous visits and probably has been since it was the capital of the Medes: a fairly ugly, temporary-looking place all done in shades of brown brick. The urban ugliness of Iran is something I would like to know more about. Is it because I come from a clean and green city that I notice what perhaps most other inhabitants of the world would not? Is it to do with that ubiquitous Persian notion that the exterior doesn’t matter, it is what is inside, in the heart, that counts? At any rate, like all Iranian towns, it is made up of a set of large roundabouts which are joined by the major roads of the town. These meidanha can be alarming: firstly on account of the way the traffic circulates around them looking for ways to get across to the desired exit (you could write a book about near-death experiences on urban Iranian roads) and secondly from the kind of municipal whimsies one sometimes sees on the land inside the roundabout. I’ve seen, in different places, large animals made of concrete, incomprehensible statues, concrete mushrooms, concrete renditions of fruits of the world and, most bizarrely, large plastic models of ball-shaped cacti. There is no green anywhere. Spare blocks of land between buildings are left just like that, like building tips. Long ago when I asked why the council doesn’t grass these over to make pretty, temporary parks, I was told, “Because the Afghans will take over and play football there”.

What redeems Hamedan – if that is the right word – are the mountains. As an inhabitant of sub-tropical river flats I had actually subliminally registered these as clouds. But we are in the high Zagros here and a huge range runs to the south of the city in rather the same way that the Alburz runs along the north of Tehran. The biggest mountain of this range is Alvand, a steep, looming peak, snow-covered and sparkling in the bright winter sunlight. You can accept a lot of urban ugliness when it is butted up against something like that.

In the afternoon we watch live football from Tokyo where Sepahan of Isfahan play the Japanese club Urawa Reds. Sepahan means “army” – literally it is “soldiers”, the plural of the Persian word which gets into English via Hindi and the English of the Raj as “sepoy”. Sepahan, unaccountably happy to play with a right-hand side to its defence that goes entirely missing in action, lose one-three after plenty of warnings from the forwards and midfielders of the Urawa left. There is a bit of depression but not much. This is essentially a household supporting Persepolis (pronounced Perseplees with the stress on the last syllable) which, with Esteqlal, is one of the big two teams of Tehran.

Malayer, 11/12/07

Last evening we moved to the flat of another friend, M’s sister. When the electricity failed we moved on to the house of her daughter and the daughter’s husband. Both have recently retired, the latter as a bank manager. For an Iranian he has extraordinary looks: he might be a Russian or, even, a Norwegian. Their house is about as luxurious as I have seen in Iran. It has three self contained levels and the middle level is let out. There is much laughter and embarrassment when, looking for the television set which is “below”, I stumble into this middle flat terrifying the man who rents it. At midnight I am at the end of my tether and we return to the original house to find the electricity once more working.

Today is a good day to sample Iranian television. Especially the international news station, IRINN, which, bless them, runs banners in English. These are revealing and worth sampling:

Iran’s commander: Iran never sought nuclear weapons.

Cargo trains begin between Koreas.

Ice storm in US claims fourteen lives.

UN urges restoring Gaza fuel supply.

Afghan troops take Taliban town.

Civil Rights Group: Israeli policies raise racisms.

Persian Gulf States: Israel threatens Mid-East.

Berlin schools hire guards after attacks on pupils.

Chinese yuan hits new high against US dollar.

Palestinian Cabinet: Expansionism a blow to peace.

Egypt slams Israel for continuing settlement construction.

Zebani: US presence temporary.

CIA chief faces congress grilling over interrogation tapes.

Argentina swears in female leader.

One of these banners was too cryptic for me:

“Iranian Research Team preparing for Afghan Lullaby.”

I know all this stuff simply reflects a government line and that the rules are fairly straightforward: nothing good must be reported from Israel or America, not even stories about shaggy dogs rescued from ice-floes. But they do harmonize with the Iranians’ sense of themselves as a nation proud of its scientists and philosophers, surrounded by countries which are alien (and sometimes, like the Gulf States, staggeringly rich) because they are Sunni Muslim but with which reasonably lasting links can be made. Beyond these states is Israel, a land of thugs, and America which used to be a country that was merely self-obsessed, materialist and insensitive but which is now, under the Bush Administration, shown to be also a country of thugs and torturers. As for the news itself, it is all spin. True, it’s not exactly Goebbels’ Germany. It spins at about the same speed as Fox News though without the ugly, abrasive edge. Oh for an independent news service: who, but a politician, wants to live in a world of nothing but spin?

Then there is the aesthetics of the television world in Tehran. The visual quality of the programs is quite distinctive, high-quality and, above all, consistent. On television, outdoors Iran seems much prettier than it is. But there are a lot of flowers. Two men talking about football, of all things, are likely to have a glass table between them, saturated with flowers – perhaps even artificial flowers. One wouldn’t lightly use a word like “kitsch” for a culture that produced the Sheikh Lotfullah mosque and the great Friday Mosque of Isfahan or which produced the architect of the Taj Mahal, but it teeters on the edge of being very cloying – at least to Western eyes.

Malayer, 12/12/07

A day of two parts. The morning is spent with M and her niece’s husband, H, seeing various sights of Hamedan including the Tomb of Avicenna and an ancient stone lion reputed to be of Achemenian vintage. These are things I have seen before but it is always good to see something again when you know more about it. This applies to the second part of the day, as well. This trip is going to be a visit of only small journeys since they are expensive and I want as much of my traveling money as possible to go to friends. The Gate at Kermanshah is within striking distance and, although I have been there once before, it will repay a second visit especially as, the first time, the famous Behistun inscription was covered up for repairs. We decide to drive beyond Kermanshah to Eslam Abad where we will stay with friends. If we make an early start back (not as uncomplicated a process as it might seem), we have a whole day to explore Kermanshah, the Gate and the inscription.

We leave at three in the afternoon and so by the time we approach Kermanshah it is already dusk. You need to know something about the geography of the Gate for what follows. Essentially it is a pass that takes one up from the sea-level lands of Iraq into the high plateaus of Iran. Because it is so marked and the mountains so high, one is never in any doubt that one is on the right road. Everybody has been through here: Cyrus the Great on his way from southern Iran to conquer Babylon in 539BC (and to earn the epithet “The Anointed of Yahweh” in the Old Testament) and Alexander the Great a couple of hundred years later, in the opposite direction) on his way to doing to the Persians what Cyrus had done to the Neo-Chaldean empire. The Gate skirts the southern side of an extraordinary mountain – actually a short range of mountains – which is now called Bisotun. This name itself is worth looking at. The mountain is so high and so abrupt that it was in the past associated (like Mt Sinai) with the gods. Then its name was Bagastan: the place of god. This became corrupted to Behistun and, since that doesn’t mean anything in Persian, it was eventually changed – by the Persian equivalent of what we call anglicisation – to Bisotun, which means “without pillars”.

As we approach through the growing dark, something miraculous happens. In the distance, among the ranges of high mountains, Bisotun slowly reveals itself as the dominant feature. Largely it is the abruptness that does this. The thing is a mile high and seems to go straight up. As the sun sets behind it, and we get closer, it simply occludes large parts of the sky. And there, as though added by a designer, in the pink and lilac sky to the left, is a sickle moon, pointing like a bow to the great mountain. An image to take to the grave.

Eslam Abad, 13/12/07

We arrived last night to stay with a family which I remember well from a one night visit eight years ago. Then we were on our way back from a trip to Isfahan and Shiraz , traveling north along the western Zagros. Ideally this, too, should have been a one-night visit but last night the lady of the house was ill and had to be taken to hospital. Since everybody but me (I was so tired that I slept through all these disruptions) didn’t get to bed until early in the morning, we would not be able to set off early enough the projected visits to Kermanshah and beyond. This is a really lovely family: a mother and father and four sons each of whom is married and has children. The two older sons have moved out, with their wives, and the younger two live in the house downstairs. When we arrive, I remember the two “middle” wives perfectly, G and Ko. I was fascinated by their lives. They lived together, as close as sisters, though they were completely unrelated. They are both very beautiful and don’t seem to have aged at all.

Everybody turns up for the evening meal. There are now two boys who are at school as well as two younger children. These are very charming and great fun to talk to largely because they can make themselves understood. The Kurdish-inflected dialect of the parents and, especially, the grandparents – everybody seems to talk as though they had mouths full of pistachios – is altogether more difficult. It is as warm and loving an environment for children (and their mothers and fathers) as you could imagine and yet it is an environment of such limited horizons. Eight years ago, there was only one school age child, a little girl who, in the way of little girls experiencing a profoundly alien visitor, made a great deal of me. When we left, she gave a children’s book as a present. I haven’t ever forgotten – I still have it. I meet her and her father in the street after the first of our walks around the town. She is now fifteen or sixteen, very self-possessed and clearly remembers me. Later in the day, she and her mother come to dinner and, in the afternoon, while I am sleeping, she returns with a book and a card as a gift. I shall have to reciprocate somehow – a book of photos of Brisbane would be nice.

On my first visit I thought Eslam Abad must be about the crummiest town on earth: small, dirty, insular. In a way it is provincial urban Iran, not the mullah-ridden, ignorant Iran of our fears, but a simple, devout and self-contained place. Today I have two walks around the place and I warm to it a little more. Oddly it seems to be thriving, at least relatively. There are a number of new buildings being built and even a new shopping arcade. The second walk is with K, M and the wife of the youngest son together with her small son. It is in the evening: promenading and window-shopping time. I get to look more closely at the people on the streets. This town, together with Kermanshah, is the centre of the Kurdish area of Iran. People are just different-looking to elsewhere. It’s hard to talk about it without seeming racist but the faces are all unusual in one way or another. The women often have a strong-jawed, mannish look that makes you think of gypsies, though one woman I saw looked like a small, homely version of Michelle Pfeiffer.

In the evening we go to the house of the second son for a meal. Everyone (except the oldest son and his family) is there and the children have a computer, though we can’t get the web-browser working. After eating we watch television and I get to talk to G the lady of the house. She is a language learner’s dream, having the rare gift of asking questions slowly and clearly. “How are your children? Are they grown up yet? Do you have any grandchildren? How many languages do you speak?” Suddenly I remember that on my first visit, eight years ago, I spoke to her on the roof of this same house where we had been having an outside meal. She had the same lovely, gracious manner then and I think it was the first time that I attempted to speak in Persian to someone without the intervention and aid of M or K. Gracelessly, I had forgotten all about this through the intervening years. At least at the end of the evening, when we make our goodbyes and she uses that lovely Persian formula, “Bring our greetings to your friends” I am able to say that I hope to be back in a year or so, perhaps accompanied by some of these friends. Much Inshallahing.

By Iranian standards this is a very early night. We get back to the house at about 10pm though I am half-delirious with social exhaustion. But since we need to make an early start (early being sometime before lunch) we need to sleep. I pass out the moment my head hits the pillow.

Hamedan, 14/12/07

An early start, leaving Eslam Abad and traveling east towards Kermanshah. There are wrecked Iraqi tanks pointedly left outside the town. In the war the Iraqis took Eslam Abad but not Kermanshah. Between the two towns is a piece of typical Iranian geography: a high flat fertile plain, a few kilometers in diameter, with mountains on all sides. Basically when one travels in Iran (at least in western Iran ) one moves from one such valley to another courtesy of a pass through the encircling mountains. The Iraqi assault got as far as a small town in one such valley. Its name, mysteriously, is Mahi-dasht which, if it means anything, means Fish-Plain.

On to Kermanshah where we stop to do some shopping. At the opening to the bazaar is a shop famous for its biscuits. They are called nan-e-brenj: rice bread. On my first visit we all watched fascinated as a single worker pinched off the dough, rolled it and set it on a large baking tray. He did this at the rate of about two biscuits a second and one was torn between admiration of his dexterity and fear for what a shift of four hours, six days a week doing this would do to one’s body and brain. At any rate he has either been pensioned off or has retired because his place is now taken by two much younger men who are no slouches themselves. We are allowed inside (the privilege of the exotic tourist) to take photos and are given a small cardboard tray of free, freshly made, delicious biscuits. I stand on the upper level with the boys and M while K wanders around taking movie footage of the shop front staff, all of whom are delighted to be filmed. The advantage of standing on the upper level is that one is near to the oven vent and its blessedly warm air: today is a cold day in Kermanshah.

As soon as you leave the city, traveling north-east, Bisotun begins to make an appearance. Turning a corner you see it suddenly looming up at the edge of the town. It’s a bit like the minster at York – you can’t get it entirely out of your field of vision. Where Kermanshah runs up against the mountain is a park. Here you can see massive Sassanian inscriptions made in the base of the mountain. They have never attracted me, though they are, undoubtedly, historically significant. The most striking is a huge arch cut into the mountain with relief statues of Khosro II (590-628AD) with the gods Ahura Mazda and Anahita as well as some hunting scenes. Below is what looks for all the world like a medieval knight in armour and on horse with a spear. For all their importance as recorders of the style of a dynasty which does not have too many sources they are not appealing, though there is an Hellenic look about the images of the gods.

A few kilometers down the road (which hugs the southern side of the mountain) we come to the village of Bisotun . After the death of Cyrus the Great in 530 BC, probably in a skirmish on his north-eastern borders, his son, Cambyses, inherited the empire and extended it by annexing Egypt. Although circumstances have combined to turn Cambyses into the very model of a looney eastern potentate (Caligula and Nero come to mind), he did conquer the third great empire of the day (Cyrus had conquered Lydia and Babylon ). But he also killed his brother, Bardiya. When Cambyses died, one of the priests impersonated the dead brother and took control of the fledgling empire. He, in turn, was killed by a cabal of nobles and the kingship passed to one of these, Darius the Great. We know all this from Herodotus, though even this bare outline of events will suggest to the ordinary conspiracy theorist that there are many other scenarios: what if Bardiya wasn’t killed by Cambyses and Darius came to the throne by killing one of the sons of Cyrus? It is all thrashed out in Book One of Herodotus who is very reliable about the Persians, even if he never saw this inscription and knew precious little about the empire’s administrative and banking centre, Persepolis.

Darius’ first year on the throne, 521BC, was spent establishing his credentials by putting out spot fire rebellions. These are recorded on the great inscription of Behistun. In fact we know that one of the rebellions occurred while the inscription was being carved because the layout has been altered to accommodate new information. Like all of the Old Persian inscriptions it is in three languages: Old Persian, Neo-Babylonian and Elamite (the old civilization of the southern Zagros, long gone by the time of Darius). When I first came here, it was covered for repair, now it is open to the public for the cost of admission to a sealed off park. You go past a weird little statue of Hercules, probably Sassanian, which now at least doesn’t need to be enclosed in a box for its own protection, though I suspect that the head has been replaced by a new copy. To your left is the pool that Alexander saw and you begin a climb up the mountain. To be fair, the inscription is not quite what you expect. It is not carved on an outward-facing bulwark of the mountain where it would be thrust into the faces of all who pass by. Instead it is on of the walls of a large cleft. Deep in the cleft is a fire-escape-like set of steps for the conservators: the public can get only to the base of these, about fifty feet below the inscription. The inscription is clearly visible though one wonders whether anybody who had not seen copies of it would recognize it. It is rather smaller that I expected and you do need to know what it looks like to know what it looks like. But there on the left is Darius, seated before a row of captives, each of whom is different and each of whom represents one of the rebellious kings, and there are the rows of priceless Old Persian text. If I tell you that there are approximately 80 surviving inscriptions in Old Persian, most of which are less than five lines, that this is over five hundred lines long and that the next longest is sixty lines, you will get some idea of its linguistic as well as historical value. In their day, the Persians were the most powerful people on earth and all paid tribute, even their neighbours the Greeks who later were successfully to resist a Persian invasion by Darius’ son. Persia is to Ancient Greece as America is to Iran. But, unlike the Greeks, and unlike the Jews who, as prisoners of the Babylonians, were inherited and eventually freed by the Persian kings, the Persians did very little writing. There may have been extensive demotic administrative documents, held in Persepolis, but if so they were destroyed when Alexander burnt Persepolis in 330BC.

In 1836 An English military man, Henry Rawlinson, had himself lowered on ropes from the top of the mountain so that he could transcribe the letters. This enabled him to decipher Old Persian. Looking up beyond the inscription at this formidable mountain, I get a better sense of his achievement. “Had himself lowered by ropes” doesn’t sound much in a book, but standing here below the inscription I reflect that it is not something I would do.

Looking at it more carefully, I have the heretical thought that this is really a disappointing site for such a famous piece of self-justifying propaganda. This leads to the thought that perhaps this cleft was chosen for the simple reason that the masons could build scaffolding more easily. Instead of being one of those freak achievements which completely overrides the difficulties of its site (like, say, the pyramids) perhaps there is something a little opportunistic and gimcrack about the whole affair. At any rate, it is a potent experience to stand fifty feet below one of the great documents of the past: worth seeing and also worth going to see.

But if the inscription of Darius is a little less than I expect, the Gate is considerably more. It is a fairly wide pass, at times a true (though narrow) valley. When we get to the end of it, before the town of Sahneh, we stop at the side of the road to look back, to see by day what two days ago we saw at dusk. It is a really impressive site with the enormous range looming at the far end. We have lunch at Sahneh and then off.

Malayer, 15/12/07

We have a very quiet morning in Hamedan. Most people seem to be sleeping so I finish Zuleika Dobson something I brought with me, having started it well before leaving Brisbane. What a strange novel it is, surely the strangest novel in English. How fitting to be reading it in such a strange country but I shudder to think what I would say if someone here asked me to explain what it was about. At 3.30, when everybody is pointing more or less in the same direction, we set off for Malayer.

Malayer is a smallish town (perhaps 30,000 people) to the south of Hamedan about an hour’s drive away. Here we stay with family of K’s which I know very well. I always feel immediately at home here. It is less exotic than the others though not more Australian. It is made up of husband and wife and three daughters, though the middle daughter, after enduring a difficult divorce, now lives with a new husband (and brand new baby) in the south. The eldest daughter, Mm, lives with her husband in the upper part of a comfortable, three tier house. I get the room of the youngest daughter, S, which has a bed and a computer with internet capabilities. On this computer, S has digitized pictures of her older sister’s wedding and new baby. There are an awful lot of them.

Iranian weddings seem to go on for ever. Some of the scariest things I have seen in Iran – the country of revolution, war, religious intensity – are wedding videos. They too go on forever and at various points small pink butterflies are superimposed on the happy couple. Nobody finds this embarrassing. To make it even worse, the brides in the still photographs always look awful and look nothing like their real selves. But they do look consistently awful: there is a distinct style going on here.

Later on there is laughter in the kitchen and I prick up my ears when I hear my name. S has asked Mm why she doesn’t wear a scarf now Martin is in the house and the answer, apparently, is that I am like a father. I take this, optimistically, to mean that I am an accepted member of the family rather than that I am so old I hardly count in matters of etiquette.

Today Esteqlal lost 1-3 at home. Much slightly undignified rejoicing at the discomfiture of a rival.

Malayer, 16/12/07

A quiet day. I have a cold and spend the morning reading and writing. After lunch I watch Boca Juniors lose to AC Milan in the world club championship which pits the best team in South America against the winner of the European Champions League. While I am watching I notice that N, sitting alongside me, is reading a book that has the formidable, unsmiling face of you-know-who on the front. Whether it is a collection of Khomeini’s speeches or a properly written book, I can’t find out. It certainly isn’t a novel. Was Khomeini as good man? “Definitely.” This is unanimous in the house. Why are you reading him? “He tells us about Islam.” I ask if he seen as the “Father of his country”, as though he were an Ataturk, but the phrase doesn’t seem to work in Persian. He is the architect of the Republic. We talk about the horrors of revolution and how the experience here is paralleled in other countries: indeed the English Civil War and the ensuing Commonwealth seem very close. A bunch of religious fanatics take over the place, attempt to remake a culture on grounds they approve of, and ultimately run out of steam. My friends have never heard the cliche “Revolutions eat their own children” but there is hearty assent. And then, as if a fundamentalist revolution wasn’t enough, came the horrors of the eight-year long war with an invading Iraq . The man of this house was a police officer in Khorramshahr on the Shatt al Arab and there are many old photos in the family albums of bombed bridges and houses.

In the afternoon we get Liverpool vs Manchester United (one nil to the away team) and Arsenal vs Chelsea (a win to Arsenal). Afterwards there is a long interview with Ahmedinejad on another of the channels. I say “interview” though the interviewer looks solemn and opens his mouth very rarely. As far as I can make out it is a long, wide-ranging kind of talk (he uses a sheaf of notes) generally focusing on economic issues. Ahmedinejad looks, I have to say, rather good. When he appears on television in the West there is always a slightly buffoonish, hectoring quality about him. This is exacerbated by the fact that he is a small man, usually surrounded by a bulky entourage. The sense we often get of him is that he is not unlike Bush junior, a small man, rather out of his depth. Here, on his home turf, he looks a good deal better. He comes across as thoughtful, measured and sincere and has, despite what seems to be a mild strabismus, a wry and attractive smile. To help him out, there is a far more sympathetic camera positioning so that his head and shoulders are much higher in the frame. All the furore about nuclear weapons seems here nothing more than a cleverly exploited distraction.

Ahmedinejad’s problems are at home and they are really serious problems. The Iranians whom I know all tend to have what is called a “zero-sum” understanding of economics. They know their country is wealthy in natural resources and that high world oil prices mean that dollars are flowing in at a mind-boggling rate. They also know that they, themselves, have never been well-off and that jobs are now even harder to get than before and that inflation is eating away at the buying power of the toman. Therefore, it seems to them, someone is pocketing all the wealth. This doesn’t bode well for an elected government.

I don’t know when this interview was recorded but tomorrow Ahmedinejad sets off on the Haj. In a surprising way it’s hard not to wish him well but it is just as hard to imagine him surviving another election.

Malayer, 17/12/07

K and M have gone off to Tehran on business, some of it involving the final, financial throes of the divorce of the daughter of my Hamedan friends. I decide to stay behind here in Malayer until they return. There won’t be much traveling but it will at least be calm and give me a chance to write up this diary properly. It is good for me in language terms as well: I simply have to make myself understood. Over the ensuing days, by the way, this becomes easier. An element of charade is woven into our conversations and these persist, even when not necessary. So a conversation which begins with some statement about mullahs (always suspected here of pocketing the country’s wealth, though I, myself, have never seen an unduly rich one) will be accompanied by a gesture of wrapping ones hand around one’s head to indicate the amameh: the turban. Any reference to police is accompanied by a tapping of two fingers on the shoulder to indicate official rank and so on. In fact it occurs to me that when we try to learn to speak a language – ie communicate verbally – we really teach our listener as much as they teach us. We have first to teach them the basic rules of how to speak to foreigners in your own language and then we have to teach them what version of their own language we actually know. The former means teaching them the basic rules: no slang, no metaphors, speak slowly and show where the wordbreaks are. The latter means helping them know what vocabulary we know and what we don’t know. It’s an odd reversal of roles but it seems essential. In this family our communication improves as we get closer together and there is much laughter about the fact that I can understand N but rarely M. N, we say, understands Martin’s Persian!

Today we go to look at a century and a half old Qajar period house which is within walking distance. It is in the process of being turned into a museum. Almost everything in Iran seems to be in process: new buildings, because landscaping is never done, always look to be about two weeks away from true completion. On the surface, for someone who has seen the Behistun inscription, this doesn’t seem especially appetizing but how wrong one can be. It’s a fascinating place: a large walled enclosure with extensive, two story living quarters, stables and workshops. Below is a large, cool room with a fountain in the middle and the bases for beds all around: plainly somewhere to go in the heat of summer. Stored away in this room, in the process of being prepared for some kind of display, are the most amazing pieces of agricultural equipment: wooden ploughs, hoes, harrows etc that we see only in period films where they look suspiciously new. All of this looks incredibly clumsily made though, from a woodworking point of view, some are surprisingly complex. There is rotary plough, for example, designed to be pulled between two oxen, which is made up of flat wooden blades set into what must originally have been a section of a large tree trunk. These blades have been individually adzed and then fitted into a deep groove cut in the shaft. There must be thirty of them and it must have taken an age to make and keep in repair. One of the completed sections is a life-size diorama of people treading grapes and then turning the juice into a thick liquor from which a paste is made. In the room next door a life size model of what is presumably the owner of the house is sitting at a table. Always anxious to take advantage of any photo opportunity, M leaps across the low barrier and sits next to the model while I take a quick photograph.

In the afternoon Persepolis play Petro-Chimie of Tabriz in the ugly and cavernous Azadi Stadium. After the revolution the name of Persepolis was changed to Piroozi (Victory) as in the Melbourne team. But everyone refers to is by its pre-Revolutionary name just as, in Brisbane, Lang Park is generally still Lang Park. The game is a fairly clinical dismembering courtesy of a technically superior midfield accompanied by some good finishing. 4-1 to Persepolis.

Malayer, 18-20/12/07

Three calm and productive days in this town. On one of the evenings we watch an historical film about Abraham (Ebrahim). This is in keeping with the season because this year the Eid-e-Qorban (which celebrates Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son and to which the time of the Haj is attached) takes place around Christmas time. Like the fast of Ramadhan it is on a solar calendar and will be at a different time next year. The whole story celebrates Abraham’s testing and submission except that in the Qur’anic version it is Ishmael not Isaac who nearly goes under the knife. Given that it is Ishmael, the son of Hagar, who, even in the Jewish tradition, is the ancestor of the Arabs, this tweaking of the biblical original seems appropriate. The Eid-e- Qorban also produces that ubiquitous and lovely formula, often heard at the end of telephone conversations: ” Qorban-e-shoma ” “I am your sacrifice.”

On the next evening we visit friends of M and N who (like me) have a son who is just graduating as an engineer. He speaks English, and would like the opportunity for some practice. His father is a handsome retired military man who, in the time of the Shah , learnt about servicing F-4 Phantoms in Texas and Colorado. I get to talk on the telephone to the family’s daughter who is a doctor, about to emigrate to Australia . “What is Sydney like?” Very beautiful. In fact, a little like Istanbul.

Walking back from another visit to the Qajar house, I see that the sun illuminates the Kuh-e-Sard above Malayer and stop to take a photo. Unfortunately a petrol station is in the foreground and I am quickly stopped. It is forbidden to take photos of petrol stations – presumably in case the information should be passed on to someone planning to bomb the place. One shouldn’t be too scornful about this: during the war petrol supplies were bombed regularly by the Iraqis.

Hamedan, 21/12/07

We arrived here yesterday evening. It is a familiar, hour-long journey, this time enlivened by having become involved with several cars constituting a wedding party. This made for some dangerous driving as they wove across the road with much tooting of horns and flashing of lights. It is often said that Isfahan would be a wonderful place if it weren’t full of Isfahanis. Similarly, it is tempting to say that Iran’s roads would be wonderful if they weren’t full of drivers.

This morning we have a shopping expedition though the bazaar is closed in honour of the Eid-e-Qorban . It is seriously cold and the mountains have an odd, glowing look, as though they were back-projected. Fortunately all the shops have heaters.

In the evening there is a large feast in honour of the Eid. I am asked what changes I have seen in Iran since my last visit. A difficult question. The cars are better, but there is petrol rationing. How can there be petrol rationing in an oil-rich country? We also have a brief discussion about Iranian art films. They are criticized here for presenting too bleak a view of the country. As social-realist documents they tend to avoid the urban middle-class (unless dealing with some issue like women’s rights) and thus give the impression that Iranians don’t have mobile phones, good cars etc etc. I respond that this may be true but is a minor negative given the exposure of Iran to the world that has been achieved by the films of the likes of Kiarostami, Majidi. Makhmalbaf etc.

Because it is the Eid-e-Qorban, there are enormous amounts of food eaten and large numbers of photos taken. My Persian teacher, M, always a party animal, puts on a tape and she, and many of the other women, dance. The men sit around sheepishly refusing their wives’ pleadings that they dance. But we do contribute the clapping. After all this there is a Hafez reading. K reads a poem for individuals chosen by a kind of lottery involving the rings of the ladies present. I get a poem but, since it is one I do not know, it goes over my head. Social exhaustion takes over.

Hamedan, 22/12/07

Off to the bazaar in search of gifts for friends. The gold-sellers (talaforoosh-ha) dominate with their brightly-lit shops, the size of three or four phone-booths joined together. They are, as always, friendly, even affectionate, thoughtful, bottomlessly polite. They are also important people in the community, certainly not mere retailers. The gold and silver bangles, rings and trinkets which they display are their property. When they close for lunch all the trays are put in a safe which occupies a good deal of the shop. They sell gold ornaments but also rebuy them. When they sell, the value of the item is the value of the gold by weight with a premium of about twenty-five percent for the workmanship (this can often be very fine). When they buy an item back, they pay the going price for the gold alone. And the buyers (phalanxes of women squeezed hungrily into the tiny space in front of the counter) are not just buying high-quality junk. Gold rings and bangles are a way of carrying money around and when you need cash you sell an item or two at the talaforoosh who also act as unofficial money-changers – men of significance.

Regrettably gold is just too expensive for my budget and this, combined with the fact that my friends know that I derive no pleasure at all from shopping (as some people derive no pleasure from watching football) results in my getting packed off, with A as a guide, to look at the ruins of Haghmataneh. This is the ancient city which became Ecbatana and, later, Hamedan. It lies pretty well in the main part of Hamedan, a deserted stretch of land full of earth mounds. By a miraculous piece of good fortune, it was never built over (though there was, apparently, a caravanserai here for a century or two) and so has remained available for archeological excavation. And this has progressed significantly since I was last here: you can walk on shaky scaffolding over an extensive stretch of excavated houses and other buildings from the early period. And the museum is now complete. It is an impressive place showing finds ranging from a Bronze-Age burial to objects from a succession of Persian dynasties through to the Islamic period.

As part of a pre-existing arrangement, I am to go with H to see the so-called treasure-letter (Ganjnameh) – an important Achemenian inscription. Unfortunately by the time we get there it is rather dark, too dark to take good photographs. And so we arrange to come again in the morning when the path will be just as dangerously icy, but the sun will illuminate the lettering.

Hamedan, 23/12/07

Back to the Ganjnameh this morning with H. The ice is a few inches thick and dangerous to walk on so we tippy-toe up towards the monument. I have been working on an attempt to understand its location. In the past it always seemed to be carved on a rock which is in a dead-end valley. I had presumed that the valley was some sort of cool retreat for the Achemenian court at the height of summer: next to the inscription is a beautiful waterfall. But it always seemed odd to spend countless man-hours carving an inscription which declares, virtually, that you own the whole world (courtesy of Ahura Mazda) on a piece of rock near a glorified picnic area.

The inscription is, in fact, visible from a road which runs up a mountain spur and thence over the mountains. This road is an ancient one and connects Hamedan to the town of Tuyserkan. The road was part of a larger path taking people from Iran west to Babylon via Hamedan and the Gate at Kermanshah. As you came down the mountain pass towards Hamedan you would see it on your left. It must have been an impressive reminder of who ruled the known world that you were traversing. It would take you a long time to get to Babylon and if there were other inscriptions on the way you would be reminded of just how vast the lands of the Great King were.

More than a millennium later, this road became part of the Silk Route. There was an alternative, southern route, branching off at Qazvin and going on to Baghdad and then to points farther west. It was a way of avoiding the snows that were likely to delay you on the northern route through Tabriz, Turkey and then Constantinople.

The inscription itself is in unbelievably good condition. Like the one at Bisotun it is in Old Persian, Neo-Babylonian and Elamite: all in cuneiform letters cut into the rock. And the rock is a darkish granite and exceptionally hard. With the morning sun shining directly into the lettering you can see how clear and precise the carving is. Like the great imperial processions at the entrance to Persepolis and like the “Alexander” sarcophagus in the Istanbul museum, it might have been made yesterday.

The two inscriptions are a few metres above head height and you can see beneath them the holes where the mason obviously inserted poles to support the Achemenian equivalent of painters’ planks. The one on the left is by Darius and the one on the right by Xerxes. I like the theory, however, that both were commissioned by Xerxes and the one ostensibly by Darius was written by Xerxes to stress that he was no newcomer: his father had ruled and passed his patrimony on to his son.

I can remember the surprise and excitement when I first read the translation into English that was then provided at the site.

A great God is Ahura Mazda, who created this earth, who created that heaven, who created man, who created happiness for man, who made Darius king, the one king of many kings, the one lord of many lords. I am Darius the great king, the king of kings, the king of countries having many men, the king in this great earth far and wide, the son of Hytaspes , an Achemenian.

“I am Darius the Great King, the King of Kings . . .” I am still amazed at how familiar this seemed. Our knowledge of ancient history prepares us for this kind of imperial rhetoric – it was probably stolen from the Babylonians – and instead of being an experience of estrangement, it seems something that our pasts have prepared us for.

The Ganjnameh also records, in an oblique way, the occlusion of the Achemenians from later Persian history. The later dynasties, Parthians, Sassanids, Safavids etc, were always remembered but nobody knew who had produced these inscriptions or what they meant. Hence the inane names. Ganjnameh means “treasure-letter”, presumably because somebody thought it might tell people how to unearth a nearby treasure. Persepolis was (and still is) called Takht-e-Jamshed (the Throne of Jamshed) and the nearby Achemenian tombs Naqsh-e-Rostam (the Inscription of Rostam). Both Rostam and Jamshed are mythical characters from Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, written around the turn of the first millennium AD, so it’s a bit as though, in the future, the remains of Buckingham palace were found and called the palace of King Arthur.

It is the Greeks who all of us, Persians included, have to thank for the true history of this, the first really extensive empire in the world. Especially that indefatigable researcher, Herodotus. He certainly never got as far east as Hamedan, however, because his description of the capital of the Medes has all the attributes of tall tales transmitted at a distance: fabulous wealth, seven differently coloured walls, etc. Little wonder that when, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, amateur archaeologists turned up in Hamedan, they were looking for the remains of a middle-eastern Eldorado and hence, no doubt, the idea of an inscription being a treasure map.

On to Malayer in the evening. K and M begin some very serious packing while I, altogether lighter in worldly goods, watch Manchester United beat Everton (thanks to a last minute foul on Giggs in the penalty area) and Inter win the Milan derby by the same score: 2-1.

Tehran, 24/12/07

It’s Christmas Eve and we move on, with our goods, to Tehran. Unfortunately, these goods occupy so much space that there is no room at the car for M and myself. We follow on by bus and taxi.

The parting between Ma and M (who is Ma’s wife’s brother’s wife!) is formidable. They begin exchanging formulae well before the door. All in all it takes perhaps three or four minutes but it seems like an eternity. At the end they both look exhausted. And these courtesies continue in the short taxi ride to the bus terminal. The first half of this is occupied by M and her husband’s niece Mm offering payment and the driver resolutely refusing it until it is virtually stuffed into a crevice in the car. The second half is taken up by the women refusing the change he offers. This is all show, of course. It is called ta’rof, the refusal to accept money for goods or services. It may be a sham – you have to pay – but it is still an impressive display of courtesy, emphasising that your new friend (in this case the taxi driver) would never dream of sullying your friendship by asking for money. The bus ride is comfortable and safe, the only thing worth recording being the extensive eucalyptus plantings around the city of Qom. The bus pulls in to the southern bus terminal of Tehran and after that we make our way north by taxi.

I really think that everybody on earth should, at some time in their lives, experience five or ten minutes of a taxi ride through the southern suburbs of Tehran. It shows us (among many, many, things) how parts of our brain are separated. The part connected to our senses tells us that very soon we are going to be killed or interestingly maimed in a serious accident. The other, logical part, reminds us that the driver does this all day, six days a week, and is still alive: there are no burnt-out wrecks beside the road, no screaming ambulances, no visible blood.

It is best described as a cross between dodgem cars and rally driving. If you have enough savoir faire to relax, it can be quite exhilarating and you can admire the skill of the driver who must belong to the most skilful group of non-competitive drivers in the world. You can also admire his impeccable good humour since the disposition of his passengers makes his driving even more difficult. Since no man can sit alongside an unknown woman and since the number of passengers must be maximised to ensure a good profit, some awkward configurations take place. In this little car there are five of us. I sit in the middle of the rear between M and a young man on my left while two men sit one on the other’s lap, in the front passenger seat.

Finally we find the house of M, one of K’s uncles. It is in the better part of the city in the north where the suburbs begin to work their way up the southern foothills of the Alburz . Tehran stretches out for kilometres to the south though you would hardly know: all you can see, after a block or two, is the great brown cloud of pollution.

Tehran, 25/12/07

K and M leave at 3.00am but I don’t hear them go. In the morning I have a longish chat to K’s uncle while waiting for my own flight in the afternoon. I can understand most of what he and his wife say and the conversation is immediately political. He is the first person I have met who approves of Ahmedinejad . Mr Khatemi was a good, cultured, civilised soul but not a real politician. He asks how Ahmedinejad is seen in the west. I answer, as I’ve written before in this diary, that he looks a good deal better in Iran than in the west. Had I heard of his performance at the American university? I had and agreed that his response to the students: “You would not be treated like this if you visited my country” was a telling blow. Agreement.

K’s uncle thinks that the Iranian parliamentary system – we are watching, on television, proceedings in the splendid new Parliament House – is a good one. Systems of democracy should not be imposed but should grow from the culture of the country. Since I know only that the religious component acts as a block to progressive legislation, I realize that I know nothing about the intricate relationship between the two components of the parliamentary system.

What about inflation? K’s uncle thinks it arises out of the cost of importing technology from the west. In essence it is an argument that Australians are familiar with. If we have a recession is it a result of government incompetence or is it simply that the larger economic world has caught cold and sneezed all over us? He belongs in the “influence of the wider world” camp.

Petrol rationing? How can there be petrol rationing in a country with so much oil? It is because Iranians waste oil shamefully. Rationing is a good way of reducing this and reducing the brown cloud outside the window!

Brisbane, 27/12/07

A reasonably uneventful return through Doha and Singapore back to my green, warm and damp home town. I have a few days to tidy up this diary before inflicting it on all those friends who ask: What is Iran like?

I seem to have been away from the place for five or even six months, but in real time it has only been long enough for the Queensland Roar to tot up one home win and an away draw. Good results.