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Reading another post from PeaceofIran this morning brought to mind some of my first encounters with Iranian cooking pots. This may sound a little strange but as you have probably gathered I loathe cooking, and entertaining more than 2 people at once gives me nightmares. So when I see industrial-sized cooking pots stacked up in the kitchen it gets me worried.

Why on earth would I need a pot THAT BIG?  You invited HOW MANY?

Before meeting Feri and his family in Iran, and before touring the Bazaareh Mesgaran (literally the copper market) in Esfahan, the only pots and pans I had seen close to this size were at school and in hospital. That made sense to me. They have a lot of people to feed, but coming from a small family where entertaining was never top of the agenda, these pans did, and still do give me the heebie-jeebies.

I was slightly reassured by Feri’s last purchase in Sede before coming home.

A “baby” rice pot. Now that’s more my size.

 

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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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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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Sede, like many Iranian towns, has grown up and expanded around what is known as “old town” and I love the cracked mud and straw walls and buildings that still stand and evoke such a sense of history. Old town to me means dusty narrow streets, high walls and perhaps a tethered donkey or two watching the world go by. Nothing like “new town” with modern shops, 24-hour lighting and numerous cars “peeping” you out of their way.

When Feri’s sister suggested that we visit the Sarteep’s House in old town on our final Saturday I assumed that the site would be somewhat like an archaeological dig and there would not be much to see. In my ignorance not knowing what a Sarteep is I was not entirely convinced that this was how I wanted to spend my precious morning but gladly trusting her judgement I was more than pleasantly surprised when we arrived.

Surprised indeed I was, but it began to make sense when Feri explained that we were here to see “Sarteep’s” House, and not, as I thought, MR Sarteepi’s House. Big Difference as I soon discovered.

 “Sarteep” is a rank higher than Colonel in the Iranian Army, and 200 or so years ago a Sedehi was Sarteep during the reign of Naser-Odin Shah (King Naser) a good friend and ally of Britain. Whilst serving as Sarteep/Chief of Staff this Sedehi became very good friends with Zelle Sultan the Governor General of Esfahan and son of King Naser who often came to stay with the Sarteep in Sede. The Royal family stayed with the Sarteep’s family for long periods to the extent that the once modest house in Sede was upgraded substantially to Royal standards and much of the redesigned splendour remains today as we were privileged to see.

 

The house and substantial gardens are divided into private and official apartments and we started our tour with the private rooms and living quarters. Most of the rooms have glass cabinets filled with exhibits relating to the house and it took us some time to visit all the rooms whilst my husband translated the information cards.  

One of the most fascinating buildings for me was the baths and considering that these were designed and used more than 200 years ago, the facilities are impressive and I’m sure that the bathing and personal habits of the Persians at this point in history were far in advance of us in the West. I could be mistaken but I haven’t seen anything like these communal family facilities anywhere else but I’m happy to be proven wrong.

The resident guide was extremely kind and very helpful and fetching his big bunch of keys, unlocked the baths especially for us. I had to bend down to enter through the low-hung door and was surprised to see how large the bathing area is. Apparently, the families and their attendants were a large group who often bathed together and this explains why the bathing area is much bigger than I expected.

In addition to the hot bath which has a reinforced area under which a fire was lit to heat the water continuously, there is a smaller cold bath adjacent where bathers could cool down if necessary. (An early version of a plunge pool springs to mind.) The guide also told us that bathers were soaped down and rinsed off by their attendants in the central bath area then, unless they had further personal hygiene matters to see to, would sit and relax in the warm surroundings probably drinking tea and reciting poetry.

 

Most of the larger recesses and platforms carved out of the wall around the central rest area were for relaxing and socialising but I found out that one of the compartments was reserved for hair removal. Apparently, both men and women would be covered with a hair removal linament (17thC Veet) which would remove the body hair. I find it fascinating to think that they were so organised to have a designated area to carry out this procedure at home although I understand that this procedure was also carried out in public baths and maybe still is! I’m not about to find out either.

When we had finished our tour of the baths, the guide asked me what I thought of them. I explained that I was really impressed by the facilities and functionality of the baths but not surprised due to my previous knowledge and experience of Persian culture and he laughed. Why did he laugh?

He laughed because a tourist from a North European country, which shall remain nameless, had been surprised, nay, amazed that the Persians had baths 200 years ago. He didn’t realise that these Middle Eastern “savages” even washed!

How sad.

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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Walking down the main street in Sede, I noticed a rather flamboyant gold necklace in the jeweller’s window. I couldn’t help but notice it as it is made up of several gold medallions all of which have the Queen’s head stamped on them. Not only did it catch my eye due to its design, but there was something not quite right with it.

I stood and pondered for 5 minutes until I twigged that the Queen’s head is the wrong way round. Instead of facing right to left, she is facing left to right. Then came the question. Why?

Is it because they made a mistake? (most likely) Is it because only licensed products can display the Queens head from right to left ? (not sure that this would worry the manufacturers over here) or is it simply that because books are read from left to right, it seemed logical for the Queen to be facing that way? (Mmmm….brain working overtime again).

I don’t know the answer but it doesn’t matter. These necklaces are apparently selling like hot cakes and the Iranians love them.

Again, the question to the jeweller was “Why”? (I think he was fed up with me by now) I was expecting answers such as the Olympics, the Jubilee, or just because we love the Queen but he just didn’t know.

And why should he when his necklaces are flying off the shelves? I don’t know the answer to that one but one thing I do know, I won’t be buying one anytime soon!

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The past two days have been marked by the gorgeous blue skies and ever-increasing temperatures to the extent that by 10.00am yesterday morning it was too hot to be outdoors and we abandoned all thoughts of planting our flower beds as intended and retreated inside.

By midday the tiles were scorching hot and without shoes it was like walking on burning coals.

After the heat however came the rain storm, although we were clearly on the edge with only one clap of thunder, and it proceeded to rain like I have never seen here. Massive puddles formed quickly on the roads and we could hear the water pounding on the roof as we ate dinner. It was strangely comforting though as it reminded me very much of home and being on holiday in England.

This morning the clouds have disappeared and have been replaced by clear blue skies once more. Not only did the rain water all the plants but it also settled the dust which has plagued us all week.

We have our mountains back.

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I still get lost in this town and have to find my bearings before making a directional decision. When I get to the end of our street “I Lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help” which in Sede means the Sala mountains, and I know just where I am and which way to walk.

This morning however I came unstuck and had a reminder of where I am in the big wide world. The mountains had disappeared in a dust storm which is the outer edge of a sandstorm originating in the desert and I couldn’t see a thing beyond 500m. The sandstorm had hit Qom, a city between Tehran and Esfahan and we got the dregs. In fact, we still have the dregs although the dust is settling slowly. It’s a weird experience as it is like looking at the world through a Vaseline lens and I want to take my glasses off to clean them but no amount of cleaning will make the vision any clearer and we have to wait for nature to take its course.

 

I took these photos and whereas you can normally make out the mountains very clearly, you have to look hard to see their outline-but they are there!

In the meantime, the weather has turned from comfortably warm to hot which means that our adventures are restricted to mornings and evenings as it is too warm to do much at midday and early afternoon. But that’s OK as it gives me time to catch up on my blog whilst everyone else is asleep. They will just have to put up with Mrs Grumpy later.

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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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