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Persians and their poetry

The Persian’s love of poetry stretches back for thousands of years. They are famous both for their poets and their epic poems and even today you will come across Iranians who can recite hundreds, and in many cases, thousands of verses. I always remember a time when friends of Feri came over from the US to stay and one evening we invited a few more Iranians to join us. After the meal the men disappeared.  A good while later I went to find them. There they were sitting in a circle, cross-legged on the hard floor in the sumptuous surroundings of the utility room, happily reciting poetry to each other.

 

152That’s what they do. I admit that I found it strange at first, but listening to the rhythmic, lilting recitations I found myself enjoying the language and its calming effect, even if I didn’t understand its meaning. It reminded me of the lovely recording of Dylan Thomas’ “Under Milk Wood” by Richard Burton.

“To begin at the beginning:

It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless

and bible-black, the cobble streets silent and the hunched,

courters’-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the

sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea.”

Just as Under Milk Wood is a “Play for voices,” so I believe that Persian poetry is best read aloud in its original language.

To finish off Day 1 in Shiraz and before finding a hotel for the night, Feri suggested that we squeeze in a visit the tombs of two of the most famous and revered of Persia’s great poets, Hafez and Saadi. Understanding the importance that poetry plays in Iran’s culture and history it came as no great surprise to find not just any ordinary tombs but large mausoleums both ornately decorated with colourful mosaics and set in beautiful public gardens.

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Hafez

Hafez is the pen-name of the poet born in the early 14th century, Mohammad Shams al-Din Hafez. Hafez means “one who has learned the Koran by heart” which suggests that he was educated in devoted Muslim surroundings.  Hafez was, and still is, renowned for his sensual poetry and passionate free-thinking nature of his writing to the extent that, when he died, he was initially denied a proper Muslim burial.  This decision was eventually revoked and he was buried in a Muslim cemetery; his plot marked only by a plain tombstone.

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This austerity is a marked contrast to the Mausoleum of Hafez which exists today. The centrepiece is the marble tombstone engraved with two of Hafez’ poems. The tombstone stands within an 8-columned rotunda whose roof is coated with copper on the outside and decorated with intricate mosaics made of enamel tiles on the inside.  The beautiful garden complex includes a popular tea house where Feri and I ordered tea to drink under the tapestry canopies whilst enjoying the early evening warmth by the rectangular pool.

I understand that the Mausoleum of Hafez is the most visited historical and cultural site in Shiraz. Seeing the number of people come to pay their respects during the short time we were there, I am not surprised.

With tea finished, we made our way out of the garden and set out this time for the Mausoleum of Saadi.

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Saadi

Unlike Hafez who rarely left Shiraz, Saadi travelled extensively in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. His travels clearly influenced his writing and the combination of his experiences and the wisdom gathered during his journeys mean that his works are highly valued by Persians.  One of his sayings, referring directly to his travels is;

“I have wandered through many regions of the world, and everywhere have I mingled with the people. In each corner, I have gathered something of good.”

This resonates with me following my travels in Iran and I hope it continues!

In many ways, the setting of Saadi’s Mausoleum is even more spectacular than the gardens where Hafez lies in rest. The site covers an area of about 8,000 square feet and the gardens are exquisite.  Three pools occupy areas to the North and South of the tomb and the Mausoleum, which is built on two floors.  Beautiful mosaics depict vases of flowers and I notice that the main colours in these panels are pink instead of the more usual blue I am used to. I learn that Shiraz is known more for its pink mosaics (as in the Pink Mosque) whereas Esfahan is adorned entirely in blue.

By the time we had explored the extensive gardens and the underground teahouse with its fishpond, I was getting tired and looking forward to dinner, a shower and my bed.  We therefore decided to call it a day, having been awake and on the move since the previous mid-afternoon, and we drove back into the town centre to find a hotel.

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We found what looked like a nice hotel to stay in quite quickly, parked the car, unloaded our hand luggage and entered the foyer. We said “Good Night” to Rahmon who was staying with relatives and we both sank into the comfortable leather sofas waiting to check-in.

Little did I know that I would have to wait for my dinner, shower and bed for a few hours more.

Next time: Checking in with the Morality Police!

 

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My traditional pre-holiday reading was focussed on the extreme summer heat and not just how I was going to cope but also how the Iranians manage year after year during the seeringly hot summer months when temperatures can soar over 40 degrees centigrade in many areas. Inevitably, much of my research concerned water consumption and distribution in regions where much of the land is arid or semi-arid and how crops are grown in rural areas without regular rainfall. Was I going to be eating the luscious melons that Esfahan is so famous for or would they all be withered up left to dry out in the fields? I also wondered whether we would be subject to water rationing at home and, heaven forbid, would there be a ban on hosepipes?

 

It was when reading about these problems that I came across an ingenious solution to water distribution, the Qanat system. This underground aqueduct system is known to have been developed by the Persians sometime early in the 1st millennium BC, around the same time that we Britons were fighting off the Roman invasion led by Julius Caesar. Qanats were subsequently adopted by Arab and African countries further West and the remains of Qanats can still be found in China, Pakistan, Syria, UAE, Algeria, Greece and Spain.

So what is a Qanat? Simply, a Qanat is a series of shafts connecting ground level to sloping tunnels below ground. The theory is that the Qanats tap into the water underground so that it brings large quantities of water to the surface up the shafts without the need for a pumping mechanism. The water drains by gravity as it flows downwards from the aquifer source towards its destination. Because the canals are underground, there is little or no evaporation or wasteage and contamination is kept to a minimum. Qanats are usually contructed to cover a large area/distance which means that many fields and homes can be kept watered. Qanats were both expensive and time-consuming to build but it was considered a major investment by the communities who needed reliable water supplies for many years to come. That initial investment must have repaid them many-fold and the Qanats are a wonderful legacy.

Qanat cross section

Qanat cross section-diagram courtesy of the Middle East Institute

 

Building the Qanats is a skilled occupation and knowledge was generally passed through families from father to son. The gradient of the Qanat has to be just right if it is to be successful. Too shallow and the water will not flow; too steep and the heavy flow of water is likely to collapse the Qanat by washing it away. Bearing in mind that these shafts and tunnels were excavated by hand, without the sophisticated machinery we have today, they are amazing to see. If the Qanat diggers were lucky, they would initially hit the water aquifer at 50ft. Unfortunately for the labourers many of the shafts are 200-300 feet deep. Most Qanats are between 8-10 miles long with the longest Qanat in Iran being 18 miles long.

“In Persia, blind white fish live in the qanats.” This statement led four Oxford undergraduates to Iran in the early 1950’s to look for a new species of fish which apparently lived in the qanat water system and a book detailing their travels and exploits can still be found in secondhand bookshops. Keep an eye out for “Blind white fish in Persia” by Anthony Smith. It is well worth a read.

The Old Mosque in Na’in has a Qanat in the underground chambers although it is no longer in use. When it was used, it carried water for 1.2km to the left of the town and 1.5 km to the right thus serving much of the community around. Qanats are often used in conjunction with wind towers (Badgirs) and Yakhchals (ice houses) which are separate above-ground structures combining to cool air and water-an early version of air-conditioning and refrigeration and not a watt of electricity in sight.

“Necessity is the mother of invention” [Plato]

Perhaps these ideas can be adapted for future use as more sustainable options.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Octagonal minaret

Octagonal minaret

Compared to some of the elaborately decorated and colourful mosques I have visited in Iran, being one of the four oldest mosques in the country, the Congregational Mosque in Na’in is no less beautiful for its simplicity of design and clean lines shown to perfection against the clear blue sky. The oldest part of the mosque dates from the 7th Century with the remainder built in the 10th/11th Centuries.

 

Spectacular both inside and out, some of the internal features were real highlights for me and it was amazing to find that they lived up to their descriptions in the guide books. I had read about the famous minbar [an elevated pulpit from where the Imam stands to deliver his sermons] and so firstly made my way towards it only to find that was partially screened off which restricted viewing. I could still see however that it is a magnificent example of a minbar. Standing 5m high and intricately pieced together from wooden marquetry, it is 700 years old and the most valuable minbar in the Esfahan region – hence the extra protection.

 

Another common feature of Persian mosques is the finely carved stucco which decorates the mihrab and columns. The Congregational mosque has a beautiful stucco mihrab which is the traditional semi-circular niche in the wall of the mosque directing Muslims to face Mecca when praying. These unique carvings are echoed on the fourteen surrounding columns making this part of the mosque the most ornate.

The minaret at the Southeast corner, which led us to the mosque when approaching the town, is most unusual. It is 28m high and can be seen from miles around. It is also octagonal, a feature which makes it completely different from any other minaret found in the Esfahan area.

 

Na'in old mosque

Na’in old mosque

We were now entering the hottest part of the day, and with travelling East to the edge of desert country the temperature was rising steadily to 40 degrees +. Although we were walking slowly around the stone built building and being comparatively cool compared to out in the open, it was still very hot. I was very thankful therefore when Mr Aghaee, our impromptu guide, told us about the underground prayer hall and qanats which were much cooler.

Mr Aghaee proceeded to take us down two flights of stone steps leading to the Prayer Hall. He told us that the Prayer Hall remains at a constant temperature throughout the year only fluctuating 10-15 degrees even in the hottest and coldest times of year and is mostly used during high summer and mid winter when temperatures are at their least comfortable. It was a relief to escape from the oppressive heat upstairs and I could see why this area would be popular. The Prayer Hall wasn’t built or constructed but was simply dug out of the ground together with a maze of passages and small recesses also carved out beneath the mosque’s ground floor. The underground accommodation has no electric lighting, but is cleverly lit by five marble panels placed in the floor of the mosque which refract the daylight down “lampshades” made of stone. The effect is curious and can be seen in its full glory when a picture is taken with the subjects standing directly beneath one of the panels. Mr Aghaee kindly took our photos to illustrate the lighting arrangement and we could then see clearly what he meant. He knows exactly where best to stand and take the photo for best effect and we are very grateful for his inside knowledge.

 

Some of the recesses or alcoves are used for meditation and in the absence of interested visitors like us, I could understand why. Quiet, calm and comforting, the chambers are the perfect place to seek peace and tranquillity alone with your own thoughts.

 

One of the main reasons I wanted to visit the area of Na’in was to see and learn more about the qanat water system that originated in Iran and for someone who is avidly interested in how things work, I was fascinated by this concept. I am no engineer, but even I understand how the system is meant to carry water near and far in a country of massive desert areas knowing  that there are still some working examples I was determined to seek them out.

 

Old mosque qanat

Old mosque qanat

Luckily for me, the Old Mosque in Na’in has a qanat in it’s underground area, although today it is non-working, and again Mr Aghaee agreed to show us around the underground water tunnel and share his local knowledge.

 

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As usual before my holiday I spent some time researching possible trips out of Esfahan and made a list of all those things that I wanted to see. I compiled the list before I experienced the searing heat in June/July and therefore some of my plans had to be changed to suit the temperature once we arrived in Iran. One trip which I didn’t have to change however, even though we were due to head South-East towards the desert, was a visit to Na’in. I read about the old mosque with its minbar, the carpets, the citadel and the qanats in this town and convinced Feri and Will that they would love to spend a day in Na’in too.

Rahmon (see previous post) was duly roped in to our adventure-willingly as usual- and we set off early on Sunday morning with our normal supplies of  iced water and tea. Although this was the first day of Ramazan we were hopeful that we would find somewhere open to eat lunch later and we left the nun and panir at home.

As we traveled out of Esfahan to the East, the landscape gradually changed and we saw several pigeon towers dotted across the fields; herds of goats and their herdsmen were sheltering from the sun under the tree-shade by the roadside, the large guard dogs were also trying to keep cool by lying in the ditch. As we traveled towards Na’in, the soil became more sandy and the already sparse green shrubs became fewer and farther between. The passing cars left a thick dusty trail behind them as they disappeared into the distance.

After a short stop for a drink, we continued the long and winding climb through the mountains as the sun started to get really hot and intense.  We arrived in Na’in and drove straight to the old mosque-Masjeed-e Jame which we found easily by its tall 28m high octagonal minaret. We parked the car close to the mosque and walked towards the entrance.

The 28m high octagonal minaret

The 28m high octagonal minaret

Mr Aghaee

As we approached the mosque a man came towards us and greeted us in both Farsi and excellent English. I clearly understood the English but strangely, Feri and Rahmoon had difficulty in understanding the Farsi dialect. It appears that he was speaking the Pahlavi Old Persian which is not widely spoken in Iran but at least they understood more than they were able to speak!

Now they know how I feel 🙂

This very polite man introduced himself as the curator of the old mosque and Pirnia House (Pir= old, nia= ancestry) an Ethnographic Museum which Mr Aghaee has built up almost single-handedly, and was particularly proud of his mention in the Brandt Travel Guide to Iran. I actually had a copy of this guide with me and turned straight to page 112 where I read; ” Do persuade the knowledgeable curator, who speaks very good English to take you round; his wife is a noted carpet maker in the locale. He has persuaded the townspeople to lend him interesting archival material, such as marriage contracts, as well as metalwork and ceramic objects.”  

Feri & Mr Aghaee

Feri & Mr Aghaee

I can vouch for both his extensive knowledge and his excellent English and he was more than happy to escort us around the site. There was no persuasion required but if you visit and he is not there, do try and find him as it will make your visit much more meaningful.

During our initial conversation he explained that he is 73 years old (that was a surprise-he looks much younger I think), he has 7 children (must be the secret of eternal youth!) and his wife is a renowned local carpet maker. He corresponds with several ex-visitors by email, including an eminent professor from Oxford University. He has learned 22,000 verses of Persian poetry including some from Rumi and Hafez, and proceeded to recite some for us.

One of my favourite sayings of his was;

“Grey hairs are not a sign of growing old.

Growing old is when you have no love left in your heart”

As one who is cultivating grey hair at an alarming rate this was rather comforting.

Once we has listened to some of his poetry, Mr Aghaee offered to take us round the old mosque. This was too good an opportunity to miss as he was clearly both very knowledgeable and passionate about both the mosque and the museum of his and so it turned out to be.

Next time: Na’in, the old mosque.

Learn the lingo

Goat              Boz

Mosque             Masjeed

Museum         Muze

Carpet           Farsh

      

 

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026Having seen the dry river bed in Esfahan, and being used to seeing a healthy flow of water previously, I decided that I wanted to go and find the Zayandeh Rud however far upstream it may be. I didn’t include river hunting on my “would like to do” list before our holiday but it became a priority for me and I was determined to find it. When I discussed this with the family, it appeared to be a great idea not only because we would be satisfying my mission to track down the river, but also we would be heading North West out of Esfahan into cooler climes. This was welcomed by both Feri and Will and therefore I had no resistance to my on-the-spot decision made at the Khaju Bridge two days before.

Feri duly contacted our trusty chauffeur, Rahmon, who was, as always, up for an adventure, and at 8am the next morning we heard the toot of his taxi outside our door. We packed the car with a thermos of cold water/ice, tea, biscuits and bread and cheese (nuno va panir) for when we couldn’t find an eaterie open during Ramazan, and of course, the inevitable picnic rug. The Iranians are “Kings of the Picnic” (and BBQ) and no household is complete without their rug/s. They do have an advantage of course in that the weather is far more conducive to outdoor pursuits and al-fresco dining than the UK where we would struggle to get good value out of said picnic rug each year.

011Our 2-hour journey in the search of the Zayandeh Rud began with a drive through the mountains. Hot and barren with the dust swirling around the car as we drove across the wasteland, I was pleased when we began to detect a slight drop in temperature the further North and West we drove. After 2 hours in the car, we finally arrived at the Zamankhan Bridge on the Zayandeh Rud. This is the first accessible bridge on the river and is an amazing place to stop and take in the beautiful scenery. We had found the Zayandeh Rud which was missing in Esfahan.

Here the river is beautifully clean, free-flowing and powerful as the water cascades through the two-arched bridge with tremendous force. A magnificent sight to see.

We initially settled for a rest on the bank of the river, a cup of tea and a snack before exploring the area so Rahmon found us a lovely cool and shady spot under the trees where we could relax for a while.

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After a rest we went exploring. That sounds rather intrepid and actually it merely involved walking up and over the bridge to the other side of the river! But nevertheless, it was worth doing. Walking up to the bridge itself there were several tradesmen; a few selling postcards and typical tourist merchandise, but most selling dried herbs, fruit, nuts and kashk in lots of different shapes and forms. Whilst I adore Iranian cooking and all the different herbs, dried fruit and nuts, I am not a fan of kashk. Kashk is made from drained sour milk or yoghurt by forming it and letting it dry. It can be made in a variety of forms, including rolled into balls, sliced into strips, and formed into chunks all of which were on sale here. I don’t like this stuff as to me it smells and tastes like vomit. If anyone has had a baby throw up 3-hour old half-digested warm milk on their shoulder you will know what I mean.

Kashk is used quite a lot in Iranian cooking but I tend to give it a wide berth.

Walking along the opposite riverbank gave us a beautiful view of the Zayandeh Rud as it wound its way around the corner towards Esfahan. At some point the flow was dammed and we asked about access to this area but were told it was cordoned off. Shame as I would have liked to have seen how they stemmed the flow and diverted it to other regions as part of the summertime water management plan.

After yet another glass of tea (chai) we got back into the red-hot car and started the long drive home. On the way back, we came across a waterfall, only there was no water! We stopped for a look-see and were not disappointed.

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Next time: The waterless waterfall

Learn the lingo:

Car                               Mashin

Picnic blanket        Patu ye picnic

Water                         Ab

Bread                          Nun

Cheese                        Panir

Tree                              Derakht 

 

 

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Amir & Will on laptops

Amir & Will on laptops

Over the past 5 years I have watched my son Will grow up through his teenage years. In Iran, Feri’s sister has done the same with her youngest son Amir who, coincidentally, is just 1 month younger than Will. Common stories of untidy bedrooms, homework started and finished at the last minute, football, too many hours on computer games etc etc were shared between us in the UK and her in Iran. It was clear that these two adolescents were very similar but, growing up in very different environments, I wasn’t prepared for the”common  language” of teenagers to surpass their knowledge of each other’s actual  language when they were thrown together on our recent trip to Iran.

Knowing that Will can’t speak Farsi, and Amir speaks no English I was of course a little concerned that our holiday in Iran would be marred by this barrier. I needn’t have worried. It mattered not one jot and on the first night of our stay Will was out on the town with Amir and his friends. He even had to borrow some clothes as our cases had not accompanied us to Iran. This impressed me even more. I’m not sure that landing in Iran for the first time, not speaking the lingo and dressed in someone else’s clothes I would have felt confident enough to go out with strangers but off he went!

Over the next 3 weeks Will and Amir communicated quite adequately, and by all accounts had great fun together and with Amir’s Iranian friends. Will played football with Amir’s 5-a-side team-again in borrowed kit. He was the first Englishman to play in the local league and was impressed by the skills that they showed. He was also playing on a new 3G pitch, something which we don’t have much in the UK yet and it was an experience for Will. Football definitely has a “global language” of its own most of which I do not intend to share with you here, but it certainly helps to break down barriers! Some of the translations are a bit literal but that makes them more the funnier. Again, most are not suitable for this article!

Apart from playing football, when we arrived both England and Iran were still involved in the World Cup group matches, albeit hanging on by the skin of their teeth. On the Tuesday night everyone was rooting for England. On the Wednesday night we had great hopes for Iran playing against Bosnia after their brilliant performance against Argentina. Sadly Iran looked tired and spent and lost the match but it brought us all together supporting one team.

I’m not sure what impression people have about teenagers in Iran, and I can only comment on our boys, but to me Will and Amir were  doing the same things in Iran as Will does in the UK. This may surprise some people. Will went ten-pin bowling. He went Go-karting and went to restaurants in Esfahan to eat and “chat” with the other guys. One major difference is the segregation of the sexes so that boys and girls shouldn’t mix when unchaperoned and some of the guys were keen to ask Will questions about his girlfriend, and the more relaxed environment in which girls and boys can mix. However, I think it would be a shame if this was the dominant topic of conversation but I do understand why they ask. The allure of “forbidden fruit” can be very appealing but they also need to understand that the grass is not always greener and their traditional values and family oriented society can be to their advantage in the long-term.

Overall I was amazed by how these teenagers from East and West were able to get along quite happily without a common language. However, Will did meet up with one of Amir’s friends who was born in England and who could speak English. His name? George.

Only Will could come home from a holiday in Iran with a new friend called George!

Will and George

I needn’t have worried.

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Monday at do shanbeh bazaar

Monday at do shanbeh bazaar

Although “do shanbeh bazaar” literally translates as “Monday Market”, the shops, stalls and traders which make up this bazaar in the town of Sede can be found here all week. Having said that, it is on Mondays that it is at its busiest and more traders flock to the site filling up the street and pavements on both sides. Walking through the bazaar is slow work and not just because of the crowds of people, motorbikes and cars which all share the thoroughfare, but because there is so much to see. You also need to watch where you walk so you don’t trip over uneven paving stones and the odd hole in the road which can catch you out.

I love the atmosphere in the bazaar with traders shouting out prices to attract the passing shoppers and the noise of the constant haggling  by the wily women who know just how to get the best deal. I hate haggling. I am not used to it but watching Feri’s niece in action is an awesome sight and she always comes away with a reduction; £5 off a fresh flower display (eventual cost £15) was one of the best!

Iranians are born traders and you can end up paying a lot more than others if you don’t adopt the haggling mentality. My husband always tells me to identify items that I would like and then disappear from the scene so that he gets a good deal for being a “local” or “native”. If traders spot a tourist they will inflate the price substantially so my advice for buying in Iran is “caveat emptor!”

The variety of goods found in the bazaar is amazing and it is much more exciting and exhilarating than shopping in a sterile department store. It really is a “one-stop-shop” and I usually come home with a bag full of goodies which haven’t dented the purse too much. The nice thing about this market is that it is not focussed on the tourist trade but is very much about local produce and household goods that anyone will need.

I do get a lot of stares from the locals when I am in the bazaar. Sede is not a tourist town unlike Esfahan where they are much more used to tourists and Westerners and this can be difficult to tolerate sometimes. I understand why they stare but it can get a little disconcerting when people deliberately stand in your way to get a good look at you!

Mini-pumpkins

Mini-pumpkins

Walking up and down the street I am always amazed by the different goods that you can buy; Fresh fruit and vegetables (melons are a speciality of the Esfahan area), shoes, haberdashery, lights, material, sheep’s heads (for calapoce), ducklings and chicks, wedding dresses, nuts and dried fruit in abundance and hardware to name but a few. Some of my favourite shops and stalls sell women’s clothing and I have noticed a huge difference in the fashion since first coming to Iran four years ago. Colours are brighter, manteaus are shorter and are belted or have nipped in waists, scarves are worn further to the back of the head exposing more hair and make-up is applied with abandon. All very different and far more daring than on previous visits.

With all this activity going on you could easily walk past the bazaar mosque which offers an oasis of calm. The mosque is beautifully decorated with mosaic tiles and is clearly a focal point for the market community especially at prayer times.

The lovely thing about this bazaar is shops and stalls are rarely shut up and locked when the owner is away for any length of time. They may just put a sheet of cloth across the doorway which signifies that no one is there but I have seen no looting or theft despite the easy access. You can leave your bags of shopping hanging on your motorbike handles and it will still be there when you return. It is a much more relaxed and trusting environment which is a privilege to experience.

I love going to the bazaar especially at night when it is cooler and people are buying fresh produce for their evening meal. Life doesn’t stop when it gets dark, in fact it is at dusk that things come to life under the many lights that illuminate every street. I dread to think what Iran’s contribution to Global Warming may be due to their use of electricity to light their world but I do know that it makes life a lot easier and the days a lot longer when you can see what you are doing!

Next: Teenagers East & West meet up for a night out.

Learn the lingo:

Saturday                    shanbe

Two                              do

Monday                     do shanbe (two days after Saturday)

Watermelon             hendoune

Peach                          hulu

 

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