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“From little acorns big oaks grow” is a traditional saying and I am hoping that my series of musings about my travels in Iran which are now being published in our little village magazine will go some way to illustrating an Iran much removed from the politics and sanctions dominating the news,  instead focussing on the “real” Iran and its wonderful people.

I never fail to be amazed by comments I receive about my writing however mundane I feel it is. It is important to describe and explain how people live in Iran even if my observations are based on a small rural/urban population around Esfahan. I cannot and will not pretend that my experiences of traveling in Iran are representative of the population. They cannot possibly be so with a country the size of Iran but I hope that I can give comfort to readers that Iranian people are just like us. They have families, jobs, go on holiday, eat and drink, enjoy themselves. They are not all extreme political or religious animals. They are normal. Just like us.

Let’s hope that by writing about my experiences, more people will begin to understand and appreciate the Iran not publicised by the western media.

Fingers crossed.

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(Continued)

As well as enjoying the sunshine and appreciating the history and grandeur of Sarteep House, we soon learned that there were connections between the House and Feri’s family which Feri did not know about.  

Some Ashrafi family background will help to explain the connections.

Heidar Ali Ashrafi (19xx-1980)

Feri’s father Heidar Ali Ashrafi, started his working life in management at a sugar factory in Esfahan. Keen to help his local community and passionate about politics it wasn’t long before he was elected Councillor, a member of the Anjoman-e Shar, (Town Council) in Sede, his home town. He was subsequently elected Mayor and served three terms in Sede. He was also the Mayor of Tiran, Rehnan and Mubarakhe and we still have the orders from the Ministry of the Interior commanding him to take up his Mayorships.  

Heidar was determined to improve the living and working conditions for the people of Sede and he was renowned for being a very active  and “hands-on” Mayor. During his Mayorship, irrigation systems through the town to the local orchards were vastly improved and proper sewerage systems were introduced; the main roads were tarmaced for the first time and he created two town squares at each end of town to welcome people into Sede from Esfahan and Tehran. These works are still in evidence today and are an amazing legacy for the community.

Heidar was still in office as Mayor in February 1979 when the Revolution took place but was deposed soon after and put under House Arrest. Sadly, he died in unexplained circumstances some 9 months later.

 Heidar Ashrafi is still remembered by the community with a great deal of respect and fondness for his vision, passion and generosity and we never visit the town without someone, somewhere taking time to tell us.

Feri’s grandfather, Mohamad Ashrafi, was a very experienced theologian and lawyer and became the Head of the Ministry of Justice of Esfahan Province. This was in the days before jury’s were introduced and he was responsible for passing judgement and sentences on those brought before him who had committed less serious crimes. If he was faced with a murder case or more serious crime, he would call upon the Council of Guardians of the town who would meet at Sarteep’s House for deliberation and final judgement.

 

This is the same room in which those meetings took place and we stood quietly thinking about Feri’s grandfather sitting on these steps deliberating with his fellow judges all those years ago. Feri had never seen this room before and didn’t know that his grandfather had been there before him but hopefully it has spurred him on to find out more about his fascinating family history.

Feri came to the UK to study when he was 19 years old. His father and his two elder brothers died during this period and he did not return to Iran for the next 22 years.  There are still gaps in his knowledge and understanding about what happened to his family but we are gradually finding the missing pieces which we hope will complete the jigsaw.

Dr Amini 

 

During our visit we saw three other visitors at the house. Two were walking round with filming equipment and the third walked towards us. The guide introduced Feri to Dr Amini. Feri didn’t flinch but clearly recognising the Ashrafi name and after asking a couple of questions about Feri’s father, Dr Amini introduced himself as Feri’s junior school teacher. It was a particularly emotional moment and I was quite choked as the two men embraced.

Dr Amini spoke very highly of Heider Ashrafi, remembering much about his achievements whilst Mayor of Sede. He turned to Sethari, Feri’s niece and told her how proud she should be of her grandfather and her ancestry as well as the legacies he left for the town.  I know that she is proud of her family roots and she appreciates the respect and warmth which clearly still exists for her grandfather, but to hear this from an eminent historian now working for the equivalent of UK’s National Trust was quite overwhelming and it brought home to me what the Ashrafi name still stands for in Sede and in many ways why I have been made so welcome in the town.

When Feri and Dr Amini finished talking, Dr Amini left for an interview with a local TV station about Sarteep House, and we completed our tour of the house somewhat subdued and stunned by the morning’s events. Before we left, the guide explained that the Trustees of Sarteep House want to add a model of Feri’s father to their collection along with his Biography and would we be able to help with putting something together.

I’m sure that we can, but I have said that we will commission the “Madame Tussaud’s” model…….

 

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If you haven’t already come across Hila Sadeghi, the young Iranian poet, you are about to. Great poetry has been written by great Persian poets in the past and the rhythm and musicality of the language makes it perfect for this medium.

Written and spoken with passion, angst, disappointment and anger, Hila’s poems come alive as she delivers them to the receptive audience and she gets the recognition and applause she deserves for her talent, openness and bravery.

I’m not proficient enough in Farsi to really appreciate Persian poetry past or present-it is  difficult to translate poems from and into any language without losing some of the inferred meaning but even if you don’t speak the lingo, there is no doubting the meaning and passion behind Hila’s poems. She speaks from the heart. A brave thing to do.

Hila remembers Neda Agha Soltan.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DWAM7C3Q8vk

The Class is Empty without Your Presence

By: Hila Sedighi

It is a rainy autumn day.
The sky is about to burst
into tears
as if a cloud
is kneeling to pray
to the summer’s heat.

The school smells of the alphabet
The bells ring loud to declare our first recess

Our unsanctioned laughter and our naive joy
was met with constant rage and slander
These were our youth days!

It is autumn and the school re-opens.
I am filled with moments and memories in this classroom where you are no more.
I sit there at your desk that is topped with perished flower petals.

It is autumn and I am so full of rain
It is autumn and I am so full of rain
I am imprisoned by my own rage.

What a beautiful tomorrow we dreamed of
It is all in vain now.

What great times and what dreams we passed
searching for a re-awakening.

Me and you!
We were the generation that was not allowed to fly.

Me and you!
We were the generation that could not fly!

Enslaved in the claws of the falcon-
the same falcon who shot you in front of my eyes with its sharp claws!
The same falcon who shot you in front of my eyes with its sharp claws!

All our dreams died
and separated our hands of friendship.

You drank the poison of death,
and you left me suddenly.

I now swear to to the tears that roll down a mother’s face
And I swear to our eternal ideas
And I swear to each drop of blood of love
And I swear to the burning hearts in chains
My heart shattered in a hundred pieces and fell to the ground
The sorrow had cut my heart.

Tell me
Tell me if you are happy where you are.

Are you free in the other world?
Do yo still remember our younger years?
Do you still love your country?

Tell me, are there no perverts where you are?
Is the fate of trees indebted to axes?
Do they not steal your conscious over there?
Do they not rape your pride over there?

Are there signs of unknown graves where you are?
Do you hear the cries of the mothers?

Recite with me, recite with me
We shared our pains, our generation, and our way
Recite my poem with sorrow and sigh

Again,
it is the beginning of autumn
The sky is about to burst into tears

I am left with an empty chair where you used to sit
I am left with an empty chair where you used to sit
And the perished flowers on your desk.

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On a previous visit to Iran we were lucky enough to be invited round to tea by our next-door-neighbours. This was no ordinary tea-time though as the point of the invitation was to show me the extremely old samovar and charcoal burner that is the traditional Iranian way to prepare tea. I forget now just how old the samovar is but I think it is at least 70 years old.

We sat on a takht, covered in a Persian carpet and drank tea as it should be drunk! Calmly with friends. 🙂

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Still roaming round the private apartments at Sarteep’s House I was intrigued by many of the exhibits displayed behind the glass cabinets. Unfortunately, the sun was pouring in just at the wrong angle which meant photography was difficult but I did manage some recognisable pictures.

Wedding attire, hair conditioner resembling Octopus legs, tooth extractors, kohl-liners (Surmehdan) and even a chain-link suit of armour mixed with other household memorabilia to make a fascinating exhibition of life in those times. History at school was so boring….social history is something else.

  

My favourite exhibit, although with very sad connotations, was the Zangouleh-paa-Taboot (literally meaning “the bell that accompanies the coffin”.) I had previously walked passed ignoring this exhibit not understanding its significance but when we had been talking to the guide for a while and he understood how genuinely interested I am in Persian/Iranian culture and everyday traditions, he took us back to the room where the exhibit was and made a point of explaining what this item meant. I found it very sad at the time, and remembering it now I still do. For some reason I was and am very touched by this old tradition but I understand that it is a concept still alive and kicking in modern day Iran. (See below*)

Zangouleh-paa-Taboot-then

It was explained to us that in days gone by when a less-affluent man had a child late in life and died whilst the child was still young the child would walk in front of/beside the coffin carrying this item to signify he was an orphan and needed “help”. I found it sad to think that children were expected to demonstrate their need so openly but perhaps as part of the culture it is an accepted practice and there is no stigma attached to this. I hope so.     

*Zangouleh-paa-Taboot-now

The phrase is still used in Iran now to signify the status of a child born of an elderly father so, as I tease Feri, should by some miracle he has a child at this late stage in life (he’s 57 this year) I would say “Oh Feri! You don’t want a “Zangouleh-paa-Taboot!”………..  

Do you?

To be continued……

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Many of our friends and family in Sede have a family orchard which has been passed down the generations and where we go to spend a day together once a week. Our family orchard is set up perfectly for a day out and is totally self-contained. The orchard is in the old part of town which means that we have to negotiate narrow and bumpy roads which get progressively narrower as we near the orchard gates and car wing-mirrors have to be folded back tightly so we can get by safely.

      

A day in the family orchard in the spring/ordibehesht is a very different day from a day spent picking fruit and fighting off the wasps in late summer/early autumn.

The Orchard in October

At this time of year the fruit trees are in leaf and the blossom is only just turning into what become the apples, pears, apricots and cherries that we return to pick later in the year. Harvesting the fruit keeps us busy, so what do we do when there is no fruit to pick?

We make our own entertainment of course, or to be more precise, “the boys” entertain us admirably. My knitting and reading was soon abandoned as I watched wheelbarrow races and in the general mayhem that followed they formed a “band” comprising Mammad on the watering-can, Amir playing the tin box, Feri blowing away on a makeshift trumpet and Mansour banging two metal plates together. Ali joined in later to demonstrate his musical prowess and natural rhythm and so “Bonkers” was born.

Introducing “Bonkers”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Wb72mYMNyE

     

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Times, they are a-changin’ in Iran and I have noticed from this visit that gradually the traditional shops which I love so much are giving way to more modern retailers.

On a more positive note and if you look closely however you will also notice that more than the local high street is changing. People’s attitudes and outward behaviour are changing and it is very noticeable to us after only a year away.

It is more noticeable to me as probably the only westerner in the town and being fair-skinned I have always been the subject of many stares. There is no malice or rudeness just curiosity. But this time, there is something more. We experience an openness not seen before, a more relaxed feeling on the street with the women wearing their brightly coloured hijab further away from the hairline atop false hair pieces and daring to wear much tighter fitting manteaus. Men and women are now openly holding hands as they walk along the street and a number of inquisitive Iranians have stopped to talk to me as I walk along and in the restaurant/ tea house.

They want to know where I am from, what do I do and all welcome me to Iran/Esfahan. They love foreign visitors to their country and if I accepted their kind offers of tea I would be doing nothing else but visiting until we leave. I spoke to a young couple who stopped us in the Bazaar and found out that the husband works for the Iranian Inland Revenue. I explained that my first job was with HMRC and we laughed that as expected, Tax Inspectors are universally disliked.

A woman with her two sons stopped me further down the street to welcome me to Iran. “It is very nice to see you here” she says as her eldest son keeps repeating “Hello, how are you?” He is learning English at school and determined to make the most of his opportunity to practise. A girl started a conversation whilst in the tea house and during lunch, a girl studying English at Esfahan University came over and asked if she could sit with us and and ask some questions which I gladly answered.

Visiting the Fin Gardens in Kashan I was inundated with requests for photographs from a group of schoolgirls and one by one they stood with me as their friends took the photos. I was there for a good 20 minutes whilst they made sure that everyone had a photo of me on their phone but I got my own back when I asked to take a photo of their group and they were so excited to agree!

This direct approach from strangers has never happened on previous visits although you could see that they wanted to. Something has changed so that people feel willing and able to open dialogue between us.

This can only be good for everyone and I welcome it.

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After the excitement of the family engagement celebrations over the weekend, the second Monday of our stay in Iran was a public holiday and we all de-camped to the family orchard across town to relax and enjoy a family day out. I was told that we were to have a picnic and stay for the whole day. At first, it all seemed rather familiar and reminiscent of picnics at home as I watched food, baskets laden with goodies and utensils, blankets and last but not least 16 people cram into the cars for the short drive there.

I grew up in a rural area where there were plenty of orchards and I thought that I was heading back 40 years to familiar territory. As the roads narrowed we had to fold back the car wing mirrors so that they wouldn’t scrape the ever-encroaching mud walls. A white donkey tethered in the road hardly gave us a glance as we passed the double-gated entrances and 7 foot high walls of the neighbour’s orchards. Only then did I begin to wonder just what was waiting for me. It all seemed on a much grander and remote scale than I had imagined and it was clear that we were heading for a hidden garden gem.

The anticipation grew and when we reached our gated entrance I saw that the orchard is in fact 2 large separate pieces of land full of apricot, apple, pear, walnut, fig and sour cherry trees interspersed with grape vines clinging to the trunks, boughs and frames made to accommodate the branches heaving with ripe fruit.

In amongst the trees however and suddenly making sense of the sheer amount of stuff brought with us is a small house, surely, every man’s perfect retreat. This “garden shed” comes complete with fridge and cooking facilities, running water, toilet, cool stone terrace and BBQs galore. Now this is what I call a picnic.

After the men had unloaded the cars, and the girls organised proceedings, we all set about picking the ripe fruit both to eat there and to take home and store. Everyone joined in carrying baskets, boxes, climbing up ladders and using anything else that they found lying about to stand on.

 I was walking around the perimeter of the orchard when I came across Akbar digging a hole by a tree-root and, like a squirrel, he was burying pears wrapped in dried leaves and twigs in the hollow. Apparently the fruit keeps perfectly well protected like this and all he has to do is remember where he has buried his treasure when he wishes to retrieve it later. All this was great fun and it so reminded me of happy childhood days scrambling up trees to pick Victoria plums, damsons and greengages; Simple pleasures.

The fruit and vegetables picked, attention was turned to preparing the meals for the day. Everyone helps out but, in line with tradition, the girls sit together aside from the men and both groups carry out their communal chores in collective harmony. I joined the girls helping to clean and prepare the herbs whilst the men took charge of the kebabs, and meat for the BBQ.

Lunch was eventually served, which was as delicious as expected but, with all the ripe fruit about, we were inundated with wasps. I don’t like wasps very much and tried very hard not to make a fuss but I only managed to eat most of my meal before having to excuse myself from the group to find refuge from these “zanbours”. For some reason, perhaps even to them I looked and maybe tasted different, they were buzzing around me more than anyone else. With everyone now on wasp-watch, swatting the little beasties with shoes, scarves, whatever was at hand, I was able to return to the proceedings which had, by this time, resumed outside. As the day cooled, I settled down to read my book thinking that the immediate threat of wasp-attack had receded. Not so. One persistent stinger managed to creep under my loose shirt and stung me 3 times before I could shake it out. I have to say that this has been the only unfriendly Iranian I came across during my two week stay, but even then I was assured by everyone that the wasp was also being friendly and giving me a “kiss”! Mmmmm….not too sure about that but next time wasps, beware, I will come prepared.

Although remaining warm, the evenings draw in very quickly in October and it is completely dark by 6pm. However, this is not a problem, and outside-living continues just as it would if it were daylight. More BBQs were lit, dinner served and eaten and it was after 9pm when we packed up the cars and went home. If only we had this balmy weather in the UK. Life would be so much more pleasant and family-friendly.

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Here in the UK we often hear complaints from local councils and gardeners about the damage and inconvenience that wild pigeons create and several companies dedicate their resources to eliminating the birds (H + R).  Many people feed these urban “pests” and the very acidic and vast amounts of resulting pigeon poo corrodes stonework of buildings, clutters drains and guttering and can make smooth pavements into veritable ice-rinks.

Food left uneaten also encourages mice and rats and dead pigeons can contaminate water supplies. So, what do the Iranians, and particularly those living around Esfahan do about their pigeons?

 They build Pigeon Towers and I’m fascinated by these structures.  There are many, many such towers in and around the Esfahan area and all are individually designed and architectually unique. Unlike the UK, pigeons are revered in Iran and these pigeon-palaces are considered well deserved. I was lucky enough to see inside one of these towers which just happened to be undergoing some internal maintenance when we arrived. Even Feri had not seen inside one of these so it was an experience for both of us.

The main purpose of these towers is to encourage pigeons to nest in the honeycombed interior, where each bird has their own “pad”, about the same size as a small shoe box. Not wanting to soil their living area, the pigeons then poo on the protruding lip of their nest, and once a year when the tower is opened, the guardian can then easily brush all the guano to the floor sweep it up and use it as fertiliser for locally grown crops. The tower doors are usually sealed with mud so that snakes can’t enter.

The Esfahan area is well-known for its melon and cucumber yields, and I can say from experience that they are deliciously sweet, crisp and full of flavour. Must be the pigeon poo!

Pigeon Towers at Abnil, Linjan, Esfahan Province-April 2012

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