Wael Al-Mahdi (2010)
“I can’t believe I’m here” is a common cry from the overwhelmed traveler, who can hardly believe that although he had left home a few hours ago, he is now suddenly faced with fresh vistas of experience he had never imagined. He dreams of the unknown world that works just fine without his having the slightest clue about it. Then he comes back down to earth and takes in a thousand little mundane details: the sweat drenched drabness of the airport; the smell of petrol that meets one at the exit; the haggling with red-eyed taxi drivers and doubts over unfamiliar currencies; the welcome arrival at one’s provisional home; and then, finally, the much anticipated threshold, the exciting knowledge that a whole new world lies out there, just waiting to be explored.
Isfahan is perhaps one of the greatest cities in the Islamic World. It was conceived as a refined, confident city, the vision of a king who knew what he wanted and who transformed a nation. Persepolis, 400 kilometers to the south of Isfahan, represents a far more ancient and resounding vision: a steadfast monument near the city of Shiraz, dedicated to the glory of the ancient Persian kings and a testimony to the love of empire.
Our trip to Isfahan, Shiraz and Persepolis had been suggested by a friend of mine, a banker and an enthusiast for Eastern culture. This was, for him, a pilgrimage to the land where he believes his historical and spiritual patrimony lies. For me, it was a trip to a rich cultural milieu and a great neighboring civilization which has had a large impact on our region and on the wider Middle East and Islamic World.
Leaving the Arabian Gulf
Bahrain airport was its usual medium-sized and thoroughly familiar self. Many a time I had walked to and fro in its wide halls, checked out its duty free stores, and browsed its DVDs and books. Once I had decided to indulge myself and bought a packet of Indonesian cigars; these lost their taste as soon as I had tasted a real Cuban cigar. Waiting for my friend, I decided to have a cup of tea (the second among many cups of tea that day), and settled in the enclosed smoking room of the one of the airport cafés. The smoking room was equipped with an industrial-size ventilation fan sucking out all the evil cancerogenic smoke. Therein were ensconced the latest social rejects, the smoking pariahs. Some of them were solitary, others huddled up in twos or threes. While they indulged their long-standing oral fixations, people on the outside were walking by and staring at them as if at a freak show. And, as if in a parody of an orientalist painting (which is itself a parody), my mind’s eye could easily see them smoking tinny hookahs and wearing funky fez caps and multi-colored robes. I saw a Kuwaiti man with a typically well-dressed little girl (a testament to her mother’s keenness of style), whom I knew to be Kuwaiti from the distinctive fashion of attire that young Kuwaitis affect when they lay off the thobe and decide to go Western. At once I was shocked that he had dragged his little girl with him into that deadly gas chamber. Sure enough, not a few seconds had passed before the Filipina at the counter came in and politely demanded that he order something (for he was taking advantage of the smoking room for free), and that he leave his little daughter outside. He regarded her with an ugly look, his pale face contorting with disgust and indignation. With complete disdain, he pulled out a one dinar bill, ordering the cheapest item on the menu. “I’ll finish my cigarette and leave,” he spat. Then, in Arabic, he hissed, “haywana“, what beastly behavior! Meanwhile the little girl was incessantly asking what the Filipina had said in English.
We had to make a transit stop in Kuwait airport on the way to Isfahan. Haste compelled me to make the mistake of rushing into the country and having my passport stamped, only to discover that I should’ve followed the transit sign and gone to get my boarding pass. So I retraced my steps and talked to the policeman in the most respectable yet self-respecting Gulf dialect I could muster, explaining that I had inadvertently entered the country and left my friend inside Kuwait. I was relying on the usual respect Gulf Arabs show for each other; as I was talking to the policeman, he was complaining about a particularly confused troupe of Indian laborers who couldn’t find the entry visa in their passports. “Simple,” he said, “Don’t worry about it. Just go back inside and talk to the immigration officer.” Although nobody was supposed to go back through the exit gate, I walked back inside, spoke to a Kuwaiti at the transit desk, who expediently guided me to the immigration officer, who immediately canceled my entry visa. I liked how the whole episode passed by without any fuss and how the Kuwaiti authorities such as they were represented there acted with dispatch and respect. I shudder to think what would’ve happened if I had I made the same mistake in Syria or Iran.
I had no time to visit my Kuwaiti cousins nor to have a decent meal in one of Kuwait’s many good restaurants. But travel and hunger go hand-in-hand, so we decided to dine at the airport. Kuwait airport, although pioneering by Gulf standards, does not seem to have been renovated for some time. It impresses on one an atmosphere of outdated fanciness, in the same manner of the many formerly modern buildings that had been left to tarnish in the Kuwaiti sun since the 70s. Where Dubai airport, for example, boasts a bewildering variety of restaurants at its food court, and even a small airport like Sharja’s offers 4 or 5 eateries, Kuwait airport has only one restaurant to feed the weary (and wary) traveler: McDonalds. For those worried about halal-hood, a neon sign dubiously assures the customer that all meat is prepared according to the Sharia. Out of travel-induced hunger I was forced to order that double-decked hamburger which boasts two patties, coupled with heart-stopping greasy fries and oversweetened Coke that would instantly induce coma in a diabetic. Now I can understand why obese people want to sue McDonalds: their drug of choice is easily available and freely sold over the counter. Besides, who knows what goes inside these patties besides the ostensible beef?
The other side of the Gulf
When one travels in the Middle East, it behooves one to get one’s paperwork in order. Immigration authorities frequently forget the rules they’re supposed to work by, and familiar procedures might change inexplicably or according to the whim of the official on duty. While officials in the region are notoriously relaxed about bending the rules, they can also be surprisingly rigid and get hung-up on minor points of the law as if they were “scripture”. My friend had tried to get an Iranian visa online while in Bahrain, but as usually happens with the regional bureaucracies, said visa was not delivered on the promised date. Although a banker, was refused a meeting with the commercial attaché. He was assured, however, that he would be granted a visa on arrival in Isfahan. We arrived late in the afternoon at Isfahan airport, a pitifully small and shabby affair, which apparently had only received our airplane and none other on that day.
The Iranians, being the citizens of a large country, are accustomed to queue battles. They instantly rushed to passport control, emerging on the other side to be welcomed by relatives bearing flowers. The Iranians worship their flowers, and even their president fixes a whole wreath of them in front of his microphones every time he makes one of his interminable speeches. Once in Tabriz I saw a piece of mural calligraphy proclaiming that “flowers are a sign of civilization”. If the Iranians do it, it must be a sign of civilization.
My friend, along with an Algerian Frenchman, a Russian and his Persian wife, and several Kuwaitis of Persian descent, all went on to the immigration office in order to arrange their entry visas. The usual delays, doubt, and confusion ensued. The officer was apparently not certain of the procedure; there was much detail taking and questioning, and plenty of shouting through telephone lines and across corridors. I had escaped this bureaucratic quagmire by obtaining my visa in Bahrain. Carriers of Bahraini passports can usually obtain an Iranian visa in less in 24 hours, apparently because Bahrainis are innumerous, low-risk travelers, entering the country as pilgrims and spending a substantial amount of money in the form of hard (or at least harder) currency. Meanwhile the airport has almost emptied of travelers and our group were still negotiating with linguistically challenged civil servants over their visas. Other customs officers entered the fray, all holding forth on immigration law and offering fatwas on what should be done. Jokingly I said to my friend, “only Ahmadi-Nejad can sort this out now!” Eventually, after a delay of an hour of a half, after who knows how many calls were made and which senior government official was consulted, the visas were in order and the travelers allowed to enter the great nation of Iran.
Shah Abbas was the powerful Safavid king who made Isfahan, and Iran, what they are today. The Safavid family emerged from Azerbaijan and spread Shia Islam across Persia and other parts of Iran, so that today in Arab countries the term “Safavid” has become a byword for the imaginary threat of Shia expansionism, and an insult to be hurled at Shia Arabs in order to marginalize them and cast doubt on their Arabist credentials.
Fast-forward 4 centuries. In the tumultuous transformation that overtook Iran after the Islamic revolution, and in typical third-world style, the flag was changed, and many place names were replaced. Many buildings were also converted. For example, Shah Square in Isfahan became Imam Square. Also, Shah Abbas’s caravansaray-complex in Isfahan became a marvelous hotel, perhaps the best in Iran. On a previous visit I had stayed there one night at the expense of the Iranian government (lest any sinister theories come to the mind of the reader, I should explain that we were guests at a tourism conference). I was simply taken in by the beauty of the place. The mosaics, roof paintings, the woodwork, and genuine ornaments and fixtures, all leave no doubt that this had been the royal abode of a king with tremendous, almost destructive, energies.
In the middle of the hotel lobby there is a large oval water bowl which contains fish that nibble at your finger. Near the bowl with the peckish fish we met a tour guide of Iraqi origin who was reluctant to clarify his ethnic background. He boasted that he had visited many countries but curiously neglected to mention Iraq. His Iraqi dialect was native and his Arabness was further driven home by his artificial-sounding Persian surname, ‘Mehmandoost’, which literally means ‘Friend of Guests’. The jewel of the palace-caravansaray-hotel is the garden with its carefully tended greenery and exquisite waters. There, in the midst of the wonderful flora and festive atmosphere, we had had a richly wholesome Iranian meal, a meal truly fit for a king.
This time, unfortunately, I was not to stay at the Abbasi. My companion and I had befriended a French Algerian who had reserved a room at the hotel, and we decided to meet him there that evening and have dinner together. After leaving our stuff at our own (humble) hotel and making sure the fare was agreed upon (an important thing to do in Iran), we walked through a dark but fair-weathered night to Abbasi hotel, taking in the new atmosphere and reveling in our sense of complete freedom. For some reason the French Algerian didn’t show up as agreed, but we did, however, run into the Russian and his Persian wife that we had met at the airport. She was jabbering away in Farsi to the haughty hotel receptionist, who was delighted and amused at the nationality of her husband. They were the most perfect lovebirds, completely contained in a world of their own, living out their pre-destined epic of romance. Sitting always close together, enjoying each others’ warmth, never leaving each other out of sight; him looking at her smitten with a silly Slavic expression, and she fawning over him in a manner which was exceedingly feminine and touchingly maternal at the same time. And to live this story of romance in that most romantic of cities, Isfahan, and that most refined of hotels, Abbasi. I wished the lovers all the luck in world (or ‘half of the world’, as Isfahan is nicknamed in Farsi, ‘nesf-e jahan’). As we walked out of the hotel, I saw her standing in front of him, looking deeply into his eyes and tenderly caressing his hair.
People who come from small, uncrowded countries are unused to streets overflowing with masses of humans and metal vehicles. I take a step back, half-fascinated, half-apprehensive, when I behold the heaving, breathing, lumbering totality that is the soul of a living organism like the city of Isfahan. My mind makes a thousand detours, a thousand stories and interconnections congeal in my imagination. The city reminds me of the mythological monster that attracts its victims instead of hunting them, with promises of everlasting salvation that might just turn out to be true. Thus the city calls out: I see the lives of humans and their individual yet collective dramas playing out before my eyes.
I see a young man with greasy dark hair and darker eyes, riding a motorcycle, struggling against the road and against his boss at the local bakery. I wonder about his parents, his siblings, his inner pains and ills, his little hatreds of himself, and his embarrassing dreams that rise like unattainable mountains on his psychic horizon. I see him desiring a wife and physical intimacy, the two concepts mixed up in his thinking. I look into his heart, and feel his craving for money, status and self-confidence. But I also see him enjoying small daily pleasures. He is proud of his motorcycle and lovingly maintains it, perhaps saving a little money to buy a newer model. He delights in the company of his mates, exchanging jokes ranging from the childish to the raunchy and dreaming of escape to a wider world. Most central to his life, however, is his natural niche as the son of a close-knit family and society. A web of belonging seamlessly assigns him an organic role that ties him to his relatives and his co-patriots, to the whole nation, and to his ancestors stretching all the way back to antiquity.
On a dark street corner I see an old woman, seemingly embalmed with age, draped in a black sheet and so bent her chin almost touches the sidewalk. Where are you going? I ask her inwardly. What brings you out at this time of night? In a moment of interconnectivity, images of her birth village flit before my mind. I see the old well, the fields, and the donkeys painted with dark red henna. I see poverty and seasonal hunger. A modest wedding at 12 years of age; a much older, paternal, moody husband; stillbirths and babies dead at several months old. I feel the bitterness of a mismatched marriage turning with age into the bittersweet wine of interdependence. I see further heartbreak with a death of a beloved and promising son in the first Gulf War. My eyes can muster just enough light to see her carrying a bag of freshly cut basil to be placed as a fragrant tribute at the tombstone of her fallen offspring, a tombstone silently proclaiming an individual among a million other child-martyrs, with the following epitaph chiseled upon it:
Dar vasat-e galle-ye heyvanat, faqat eshq-e madar mitavanad ensan besazad
(In the midst of the herd, only the love of a mother can make one human.)