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A challenging encounter with Iran


Her name is Esfahān. 

Her black chador is an iron curtain imposed on her by fierce winds currently sweeping home.

Her soul is a monument proudly placed in her bosom by her once upon a time conquerors – the Safavids.

I look into Esfahān’s blue eyes. They beg me to take their blurred existence back to where they deserve to be acknowledged: the wider world. They beg to become, once again, the accessories of a face liberated from the black veil. They wish to be sung again with the 16th century half-rhyme, dedicated to their owner: Esfahān nesf-ē jahān – Esfahān is half the world.

I approach her blue eyes, as many others would in Iran, slowly and mesmerized.

“Blue-tiled mosaics, are they?” I ask myself. Sometimes interrupted by colorful corals of calligraphy and motifs, her eyes of deep blue challenge my vision. They invite me into their pupil of tranquility, but I am afraid of waking up their Safavid architects’ sweat, imagination, and energy. They hold together the mosaic of blue eyes and every other constituent – the dome, the minaret, the minrab, the minbar and the sanctuaries. 

“I cry almost every day,” Esfahān tells me, the blue of her eyes now more magnificent with the afternoon light, dancing up and down in fountains of the rectangular pool facing us.

“You are allowed to stare into my eyes,” she whispers.

“But my eyes are to stay with me, with Esfahān’s soul.”

“They are never to leave my veil to stare at the world outside Iran.”
I move my gaze away from fountains of the pool to tears slowly crawling down lips of velvet.

The tears dance down even faster when invited to the call of prayer echoed in several different muezzins’ voices; they come from all directions, from different minarets, embracing Esfahān tightly with pious reverence. Yet, she proceeds to tell me more about her blue eyes. She calls one Masjed-ē Emām – the Emām Mosque -, and the other she names Masjed-ē Sheikh – the Sheikh Lotfollāh Mosque. Both perfectly fit their surroundings, her face – the Emām Khomeinī Square or Meydān-ē Emām Khomeinī. The eyes, the face are open doors to the 16th century – a short time segment that shaped Esfahān’s life of moonlit minarets, blue and turquoise tiled domes, palaces with ornately tiled archways, skilled calligraphers, and bridges with teahouses in their bellies.

I too pull down my own head scarf to cover the visible strands of hair on my forehead – a habit repeated several times by Esfahān herself. Children, running around the fountain in the middle of the square, giggle at me aware that I am not used to wearing a scarf properly. Esfahān is as mischievous as the children watching my struggle with my restless scarf and my every other move. Yet, she helps me; she comforts me.
“It is all right for a couple of strands to say ‘hi’,” she says, smiling.
“You are a foreigner.”

We decide to sit on grass by the fountain, now my colorful scarf more lenient with me. We look at the full moon together. It reflects the beauty of the blue mosques. It washes the square to give a better vision of surroundings. It illuminates nights Iranians spend in this wide square to celebrate the end of suffocating and dusty heat of long summer days.

The same light oozing from the moon paints the grass too. It is broken in places only by black color of women’s chadors and silver hue of tea pots placed on colorful picnic mats or carpets. It becomes almost alive with clinking sounds of spoons swirling around in glasses of dark brown tea and bubbling noise of nārgīleh. The music of Persian language join the dance of light and the sounds too. They are the voices of the spectators – the blue mosques, the proud visual reminders of the legendary Safavid culture.

Every direction I look in the square, I see smiling and inviting faces on necks craned toward me. Female or male – they all seem proud to be smiling at a foreign woman staring right into the eyes of Esfahān.
“They would like to see more foreigners here,” I hear my friend say. 
“They want you to carry Iran with you wherever you go,” she continues as she stands up to join the long queue in front of the ice-cream stall of the square.

She buys us green colored pālūdeh – the cold and sweet Iranian confectionery.  The pālūdeh melts on my tongue with the grace of ice-cream but its macaroons crush my teeth with the force of an iceberg. My delight with the delicious desert amuses the children in the square even more: the foreigner dares to taste something of their own.

People picnicking around us continue watching me; people passing by stop to take a peek at me. Naïve eyes coupled with transparent hearts ask nothing from me except my own smile thrown back at them. An old man in his light gray robe suddenly approaches me with respect deep in the well of his eyes. His head carries a white turban, his trembling old hands a glass of dark brown tea. He presents the hot drink to me, shyly but proudly, uttering a couple of words in Persian. ‘Chāyi, chāyi,’ he says, urging me to drink. His wife joins the old man, now both happily watching me and my glass of tea. The wife’s yellowish teeth become a witness to the couple’s happiness. Even though the woman tries hard to pull her long black robe toward her face to hide them, the teeth force out into the open, smiling and completely freeing themselves from their bars of lips.

Excitement and curiosity in the looks of the other picnickers grow even more with the foreign woman holding their traditional drink. I, instead, stare at my glass and sip my chayī. It is quite strong – as strong as my friend Esfahān’s hospitality. Every time I visit Esfahān, hospitality is a fort, not withered by time or fierce winds. Her hair and body are hidden in black from the outsiders, but her face, just like that of every other Iranian I meet or glance at in the Emām Khomeinī Square, is a heaven to the unshaken hospitality which might have been long forgotten in the other squares of the world. Genuine willingness to share and desire to welcome the unfamiliar are all still there.

Sipping her own, Esfahān sucks in the aromatic smells visiting every inch of the square from people’s picnic feasts.

“Chelō kabāb,” she murmurs as she catches the smile of excitement I usually show when I think about Persian food.

“Is a dish of thin strips of lamb meat on a mound of rice enough to build stronger emotional bridges to a culture?” I question.

“It is,” my stomach ardently responds as I, encore, find myself visualizing the taste of pomegranate juice, auburgine, cardamom and walnuts that took me the day before to a heaven of meat stew called fesenjān. My senses were rolling around in this delicious meal presented with Esfahān’s hospitality on a low table in her beautiful courtyard of Persian carpets. 

“They are so dark red,” I come back to my current self, admiring Esfahān’s velvet lips, now busy telling me about the Alī Qāpū Palace of the 17th century, in the same square.

I look at the wooden Palace of the Safavid kings and I imagine, through Esfahān’s account, its roof with a royal wooden ceiling of intricate inlay work and exposed beams.

“When up there during the diminishing lights of the day,” she tells me, “you are bestowed with the view of blue eyes making love to the sun slowly setting behind them.” 

“How then were the kings able to watch the races and chogrān held for them down in the square?” I think to myself.    

“The music room,” Esfahān interjects to explain merrily, “is the most magnificent of the Palace, with the finest Persian art.”

“Vases, squares, stars, and other types of utensils,” her voice, with traces of musical Persian, continues singing in English, “are all different shapes of openings in its walls.”

“They are there to enhance acoustics,” she explains as her fingers stained with brownish henna push her relentless hair back into the invisible world behind the black curtain. She acts as if she is the artist behind all the floral designs and murals on the palace walls, painted with natural brown and blue colors of madder. She scrutinizes her own fingers one by one as they were of the artist’s, admiring and almost thanking them for the world heritage they left behind with the Alī Qāpū Palace – the Gate of Ali.

“Do you know why the Persian carpet has a very important role in Iranians’ lives?” asks Esfahān as she invites me to walk into the covered bazaar that holds together the three jewels of the square – the Emām Mosque, the Sheikh Lotfollāh Mosque and the Alī Qāpū Palace. The bazaar hugs the square of 500m by 160m, and it is as rectangular as the fountain in the middle of the square. It acts majestic as a crown would when carrying three very precious jewels.
I think about Esfahān’s question and of the several high-quality Persian wool and silk carpets, some of which depict colorful mosaics as beautiful as the ones in the domes of the Emām and the Sheikh Lotfollāh Mosques. They are, I know, symbols of wealth for Iranians.

“Not because they are elegant and soft,” Esfahān answers her own question without waiting for my reply. “They symbolize what Iran is to us,” she continues as she draws her henna dipped index finger around the designs of birds and flowers of a carpet from Qom displayed in one of the bazaar shops.

The other fingers, as brown as the index finger, all of a sudden come alive too to help Esfahān explain her point.

“The abundant natural sources of different kinds,” the little finger starts counting.

“The intricate ethnic fabric of a variety of people,” continues the ring finger.

“And the different kinds of art form Iran – the sophisticated,” the middle finger finally helps Esfahān wrap up her point.  

“The sophistication on carpets is then the visual reminder of the sophistication of Iran itself?” I try to confirm. Esfahān nods her head proudly, as she gently caresses another carpet from Kāshān, reminding me of some of the other spectacular carpets I saw in the Carpet Museum of Tehrān.

We continue our leisurely walk from one store to another in the bazaar lit by electric bulbs hanging down from the ceiling. The tobacco smoke from the picnickers’ nārgīlehs dance around in the bazaar corridors too, giving me a mild buzz and magically carpeting me back to the Silk Route of the 13th century and the courtyard of the hotel on the same route in Yazd in Central Iran. I fondly remember puffing one of these water pipes with some female Iranian university students and, of course, the spirit of Marco Polo. Under the stars, stretched out on silk carpets around a small pool in the courtyard, we talked away the whole night about the Towers of Silence and their builders Zoroastrians – some of the only remaining representatives of Zoroastrianism that swept Iran before Islam arrived with the Arabs in AD 637. I get goose bumps thinking about the eerie silence that engulfed me when visiting the Towers once built for the Zoroastrians’ deceased to be exposed for the vultures. Zoroastrians did not want to pollute the environment with their dead; they believed in the purity of the earth. I visualize the Zoroastrians building their towers on barren hilltops in the middle of the desert and the silk traders going through Central Iran to trade for hand-made silk fabrics with more than 30,000 Zoroastrians, now the only remaining population living in and around Yazd. My eyes were lucky to feast on some of these Zoroastrian descendants’ colorful and embroidered dresses, the only breakers of the monotony of black and clay colors, of the chadors and barren lands of Central Iran with sun-dried brick houses with wind towers called bādgīrs.

“Please taste some gaz from Esfahān, ma’m.” My thoughts spiced with Zoroastrians are all of a sudden broken by a polite invitation of a vendor coming out of his store with a plate of delicious sweets made from honey.

“I can give you box of them if you like. It is cheap like honey, like anything else in Iran,” he continues his one-way dialogue with me.
“An American tourist bought five boxes yesterday, ma’m; gaz is like Esfahān – unrivaled!”

“It is unrivaled,” I mumble to myself as the chewy gaz tickles my taste buds and I find myself leaving the vendor’s store with two boxes of these sweets tightly packed under my arm.

“American tourists?” I let the question out unintentionally, puzzled.
Not surprised by my question, Esfahān confirms my surprise with a nod.

“You must think they are brave to visit Iran,” she continues feeling the necessity to explain herself. 

“But it has nothing to do with bravery, unless bravery means wearing a chador or a scarf.”

“Being informed is what they are, these tourists,” she smacks her lips as she swallows the last bit of gaz in her mouth.

“They know better that they are welcome into the web of Iranian hospitality, just like anyone else; they are aware that the veil placed over their Western eyes is meaningless as the chador I am forcibly wearing myself.”

Esfahān’s words become something of a pilgrimage site in my mind during the rest of our visit in the bazaar. I constantly revisit the site as the Persians would their beloved poet Sa’dī’s tomb in Shīrāz. I repeat them to myself as the elegant verses of Sa’dī would be so very commonly used in the daily conversations of Persians. I remember once again that nothing really could stop tourists of any nationality from coming to Iran. It is only they who could stop themselves from taking the magical carpet ride in this fascinating spectrum of experience tunnel in Iran. Anyone is able to crack the shell that currently hides this country and its people from the rest of the world.

Still feeling the pulse of Esfahān’s verses drumming in my cranium, I find myself, with the help of my friend’s hand, swimming through the bazaar and its colorful miniature paintings of detailed hunting scenes, hand-printed wall hangings, and glazed pottery painted with floral and animal motifs. As we make our way through the bazaar back into the square, the creators of magical Persian art in the bazaar all say their hellos.

“Salām,” they chirp and welcome me, certain of themselves that I, and many other tourists, would come back one day to watch them when they are busy working on their art.

The Emām Khomeinī Square beats in the core of the bazaar and is as dramatic as when we left it an hour ago.

“Did Shāh Abbās the Great know that his vision for the open and wide Emām Khomeinī square would one day be the face of Esfahān? 

“What he did not know, however,” I continue my inner dialogue, “was that this face, Esfahān’s face, with blue eyes and velvet lips, would be behind a black veil for years.”

“And what would surprise the Shāh even more,” I sigh as I feel Esfahān move further and more permanently deep into the chambers of my heart, “is that it would continue to be hidden for an indefinite period of time.”

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