Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Iran and the global community, my experiences.

I've collected coins since I was a kid. I've been all over the world, and the loose change has gotten so heavy my bookshelf needs reinforcement. There are lots of coins that are worth nothing. I've got a Turkish million Lira piece, an Italian one lira coin, and a few other weird things, but one thing I think is completely unique is the souvenir set I got in Shiraz. What makes it unique is one particular coin, a one-ryal piece that is worth one 9000th of a dollar. It was dated this year, and it's thus the most worthless coin ever minted by anyone. Sure there are plenty of coins that are worth less than nothing, but they were all minted before catastrophic inflation rendered them so (I've seen people with wheelbarrows filled with money, it's not pretty). But this was different. This was made AFTER it was worthless.

Having a national currency worth "less than nothing" is embarrassing. So the Persians invented the Thumm. Sure it's not worth all that much, but it's still respectable in a way. Inflation is beginning to ravage the Thumm the way it ravaged the Ryal. Land is up, food is up, fuel is up, and it's not just because of western sanctions, either. Our friend Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s power may be mostly fictional, but he has some control over the economy, and he's been doing a really bad job of it, and it was this in mind that on the last full day of my trip, I left Persia and entered Iran.

The village of Natanz is not one of those places that it's necessary to visit. It's a tiny place in the middle of nowhere where the locals wear colorful traditional clothes, have red adobe houses (iron-rich soil) and sell the few tourists that go there CDs featuring their picturesque lives. The nine of us (seven tourists, the bus driver and the guide) had the same lunch as always (I hope to eat chicken kebab again, but not any time soon) and after getting back on the bus, someone mentioned the nuclear facility.

The guide shrugged. "It's about twenty miles from here, on the other side of the mountains."
"Do you think we'll sit it?" someone said.
"I don't know."

We saw it, all right.

The damn thing was right on the highway. We first began to notice some antiaircraft batteries, and then more, then we saw a modest smokestack and finally the nuke plant itself. There was military everywhere, and a number of signs warning us not to take pictures.

"Someone stopped a bus here and confiscated all the cameras.,” the guide warned. A couple of my compatriots managed to surreptitiously snapped a few pictures.Talk of wars and rumors of wars pervaded the bus. We were home free, or so we thought. As we approached the holy city of Qom on of the group announced that his bladder was about to burst. So we stopped at the mosque right next to the toll booth.

It was about a hundred degrees outside, but everyone got out of the air conditioning and headed to make waste. Normally, this is something that shouldn't be mentioned, for obvious reasons, but on the way back, something happened. A cop got on the bus and and told the driver that someone had passed a brand new law the day before and that he needed an assistant driver in order to be allowed to make it back to Tehran.

Now the reason for the new law was actually pretty reasonable. A bus driver fell asleep a few days before and got into an accident (I'd been in a similer accident in Zimbabwe some years back). the law was fine, but it seems that they hadn't bothered to tell anyone until they had started issuing tickets.

So we hung around for over an hour while the guide and driver tried desperately to find another driver. They couldn't find one, and the cops said that they'd let us go with a warning, but they lied. A trap was set, and about two miles north of the toll gate, the bus was stopped and the driver arrested.

After another half hour of quiet panic, the two returned with some semi-bad news. We were going to be aboe to make it to the hotel, and from there the airport, but the driver had his license revoked, and was issued a temporary one good only until midnight. As the owner of the bus who still had a huge loan to pay off, he faced bankruptcy. This with a wife and two kids to support.

We found out a bit later that the new law wasn't supposed to actually go into effect until later in the week, and that the driver could appeal and would probably get his license back. The cops in Qom were just having some fun with some drivers. That, my friends, is Iran.

When we arrived at last in Tehran, there was a blackout. The manager blamed sanctions. They didn't get the lights back on in our rooms until well after I had gone to sleep.

Tomorrow, I'll sum up.

Isfahan and the art of Painting

From the West, Persian is difficult to invade, it has only been successfully done twice (Alexander the Great and the Ummayad caliphs a millennium later). From the east it was a different story, Mongols, Turks, Tajiks (who were the only actual Iranians to rule Iran until modern times) and Pashduns, would regularly invade, raping and pilliging and burning everything to the ground again and again until there was nothing left except crumbling adobe houses and that amazing national underground plumbing system.

The only group of foreigners to have the remotest claim tp "nativeness" were the The Samanids (819–999), who were the first in centuries to use Farsi as an official language in centuries and they hired the poet Ferdowsi to write the Persian national epic, "Shahnama: The Epic of the KIngs" which has been the core of Persian education ever since. They may have been forced to become Muslims, but Ins'shallah, they weren't going to give up their language like the Berbers or Syrians.

It's the poets who have kept the Persian people alive. Ferdowsi, Haifez, Omar Kayyam, and Rumi, all of whom lived at the end of the first millennium AD or beginning of the second, are treasured by citizens of the Islamic Republic far more than modern Brits do Keats or Shelly. Only William Shakespeare has such prestige.

In the city of Shiraz, people would go to the tomb of the poet Haifez in the evening and recite 800 year old poetry, before saluting the master with a Coke® (US trade with Iran is greater now than at any time since the Shah's fall). Could you imagine that with at the grave of Robert Frost? I don't think so.

In Isfahan, hundreds of miles to the north (eight hours by bus, and it feels it), people go under the pol-e Khadu bridge and sing tales from Ferdowsi (dig that crazy echo!) while later in the evening when it's actually cool, bring some of the family's more worn rugs and have a picnic on the banks of the Zayande river, where if it's possible to avoid notice by the morality police (which, from what I can tell, is the national sport), one can snuggle up with one's honey. The river at this time is filled with paddleboats. There is poetry is the vision.

The Mongols and Turks who ruled Persia for most of the second Millennium AD began to stop tearing down palaces of previous dynasties around the time of Henry VIII of England, and as these are primarily secular buildings, one can see a tradition of figurative fresco which looks like something out of Japan. However, the people in charge of restoration have done a horrible job in some places. In fact, except for a very few mosques, there's very little architecture that seems to be older than the 16th century, and what there is, is mostly adobe that doesn't look all that impressive from the outside. That is except for caravansaries, which are a cross between castles and hotels designed to protect merchants on the silk road.

It's at this point that a kind of weariness begins to creep in. We could feel the end of the trip creeping up on us, and not a moment too soon....

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Persia, Chapter four: Persepolis

According to Islamic lore, in the year 610 of the Christian Era, a certain Abu l-Qasim Muhammad ibn ‘Abd Allāh al-Hashimi al-Qurashi was ordered by the Archangel Jabril to read out loud from a book that didn't yet exist. Prior to that, the world was in the "age of ignorance" and what was produced didn't matter all that much.

For the next 1,189 years, most of what was built by the hands of man prior to that was either ignored or destroyed. True, the works of certain Greek and Jewish philosophers were preserved and studied. Euclid and Galen were very useful, after all, but what was left of the great library at Alexandria was burned to the ground (although some Moslems blame that on Christians) and much of everything else was left to rot. then the Turks and Mongols came raping and pillaging their way west...and then in 1799 Napolean Bonaparte came to Egypt to restock the Louvre museum. The "Age of Ignorance" is what brings many tourists to the Middle East, and that doesn't sit well with everyone living there.

Persepolis is the jewel of Persia and the number one tourist attraction in all of Iran. Going all the way to Iran and not seeing it for yourself is a minor crime, and innumerable Achaemenid sculptures on the reconstructed walls are breathtaking. There are also the rock cut tombs of Achaemenids Artaxerxes 2nd and 3rd, one of whom was the husband of Queen Esther. (we'll never be sure which it was).

Going from the parking lot to the ruins, you pass the ticket office, a souvenier shopping center, and a theater showing a filmed introduction to the site, which is, sadly, only in Farsi. Then you pass through teh various gates, which are decorated in motifs from various parts of the Achaemenid Empire. Babylonian sphinxes, Griffins from Central Asia, bulls and horses, and lines and line of people carved in bas relief on walls showing every nation in the then known world bringing gifts to the Shah. Imagine a mural in the national headquarters of the IRS showing happy people waiting on line holding cash and checks....you get the idea. They also show Ahura Mazda fighting his nemisis Arhiman, and Darius, Xerxes, and various Artaxerxeses worshiping AM. There is also a little museum there which is actually a reconstructed palace, which shows all sorts of small goodies

Now why would anyone want to wipe this Unesco World Heritage site off the face of the Earth? Well, on the one hand Alexander the Great, who burned the place down in around 330 BC, had an excuse, he and his men were completely blotto and didn't know what they were doing. But what about that Mullah thousands of years later?

From what I was told, and the two sources could be wrong, the guy and his followers wanted to erase any traces of Mohammed Reza Shah, who had fled the country earlier in the year. The Shah had decided to mark the 2500th anniversary of Cyrus the Great with a huge party at Persepolis, and forgetting that the soiree had actually made a substantial profit in subsequent tourist revenue in the following two years, the mullahs, armed with bulldozers and pickaxes headed to the site to cleanse it of preislamic foulness.

The locals from the surrounding villages and the city of Shiraz met them with greater numbers and almost lynched them. Persepolis was saved!..and so were the many bas-reliefs made in the area by Sassanian Shahs from the first half of the First millennium CE, Some of which were defaced by Moslems in the age of the Abbisd Caliphs. For that you cannot blame the current regime.

A few days later, on our way from Shiraz to Istfahan, we stopped at the tomb of Cyrus in Parsagad. there were some bas reliefs of a guy in a fish suit and a few other minor things, the city Cyrus built there was mostly made of wood, and that all rotted away ages ago. But the tomb itself was made of stone, and because the locals claimed that it was the tomb of Solomon's mother, it had survived the vandals. I noticed that someone had left a bouquet of flowers on the stairs leading up to the entrance in tribute.

At lunch afterwards, we debated whether or not it was a statement against the current regime or just a loving tribute to a great man.

Persia, chapter three: Yazd.

When we were finished looking at the Qajar and Pahlavi palaces, we headed for the "domestic" airport and boarded an Iran Air 737 and headed south to the city of Yazd. Yazd is an old city, named after the Sassanian shah Yazdegerd I (c. 400 CE) and is allegedly one of the oldest cities in the world. It's here that most of the remaining Zoroastrians live, living relics of the Lost World, that Achaemenid empire that stretched from the Danube to the Indus and was the bane of the Greeks.(It is said that the reason Tehran didn't get the '84 Olympics is that they wanted to cancel the Marathon, as it brought back painful memories of the Persian loss there 2400 years ago).

We were to consider the heritage of this relict people, but first we were to consider something more important, and a much more impressive feat than conquering the world. it's the Iranian pride and joy: a great network of qanats, or underground canals, which bring water from the mountains to wherever it is needed. for thousands of years, people have been building and maintaining these things, allowing cities to flourish in the desert and do things like grow rice in arid wastelands. The first museum we went to, and it wasn't a particularly good one, was dedicated to the brave men who risked their lives to mine water (the minors would wear a modified burial shroud in case they didn't make it back.) The next one we saw was dedicated to something almost as important, air conditioning...

Before the invention of electronics in the late 19th century, air conditioning was a difficult nut to crack, and how they did it was with what is called a wind tower. The tower was designed to channel the winds through a chamber filled with wet leaves and from there into the living area of the house, where it would be nice and cool, or at least in theory, and if you were rich. The poor had to just take a siesta in the heat or the public access atechamber to the local qanat. (If you were rich, you'd be able to build your house over it and have private access to all the water you wanted). The towers resembled ancient greek temples.

But the highlight of the segment, aside from the rug shop, were the two Zoroastrian Fire temples. There are about 40 thousand Zoroastrians left in Iran, and as a persecuted minority have gone from the vast majority of a world empire to a mere 22 thousand hangers on. Yazd has two fire temples (named after the fire which is kept burning eternally as a "statue" of the god Ohrmazd. One contains the Sassanid's official flame, which has been allegedly burning since before the Prophet Mohammed was born, and a derelict one next to the banned "towers of Silence" where the dead used to be fed to the vultures until the 1970s. We climbed up one and looked at the view.

The one that's still functioning is as much an official tourist trap as anything else. There's the eternal flame, a cheezy picture of Zoroaster, and a small park. How Ohrmazd is actually worshipped at the temple is a bit of a mystery. I asked and they weren't all that forthcoming, all they wanted to do was sell postcards.

There wasn't any room to do very much inside, although it's possible that it's all done outside on th front lawn. I guess it doesn't really matter. What does is that all of the Zoroastrians I've met have the religous symbol around their necks. and soon I'd seen them all over the place. As there are so few Zoroastrians left, it might be Muslims making a political statement...more on that later.

Persia, Chapter two: Tehran

A quarter millennium ago, Tehran was a large village of around fifteen thousand people. All that changed in 1798, when Aqa Muhammad, the first Qajar [pronounced: Ka-JAR] Shah, moved the capitol there from Shiraz several hundred miles to the south. The reason that he didn't like Shraz, which, as we shall see, is a pretty nice place, is actually quite understandable. Years before, the Afsharid Shah Rukh had cut his balls off, and then the Zand hereditary Prime Minister Karim Khan had him locked up in a dungeon for years. Who wouldn't have wanted a new start?

Since the Qajars moved in, Tehran has changed long beyond recognition. The village has become a city, and the city a megalopolis. The city grew like wildfire under the Qajar and Palhavi Shahs, then even more under the Islamic republic.

Driving in from the airport, which is over an hour away from the city, one can see the sprawl. Even at four thirty in the morning, the traffic is heavy, and there are almost no traffic lights. We are two people short. United Airlines has fucked up yet again, but that's par for the course. Getting up after three hours sleep, we have breakfast introduce ourselves to each other ['Hi, I'm a famous actress, don't you remember me in..." Holy shit! I do—cool] and go get on the bus to see the officially authorized sites, which means palaces and museums.

One must always remember that Iran was always also Persia, and the small national archeological museum, where we see relics Persepolis and a few pots and pans, plus statues of long dead pagan princes. Interesting stuff, then we head out to the Qajar palaces, which are in the old part of town.

The Qajars, who ruled from 1795 to 1925, are the fount of all Persia/Iran's troubles. They had heard stories of the great wealth and beauty of the European west, and later on, Shah Nasir Al-Din actually went there and was thunderstruck with the pomp and circumstance of European courts. So he raised taxes to crippling levels, even among muslims, and later started selling off the country's natural resources in order to build more splendiforous palaces and plant more formal gardens and parks.

These people weren't as dumb as they seemed. They weren't babies being bamboozled out of inheritance. They were thrilled with the income that the future BP was sending them for the oil that was drilled and refined at the company's expense.

The result was a bit on the kitchy side. The paintings on the walls look like a cross between Russian Icons and the tops of old cigar boxes. They also used lots of broken glass.

The Pahlavis, Riza Khan and his son, THE Shah, abandoned these and built more modern digs. These are much nicer to the modern eye, although that autographed photo of Adolph Hitler prominently displayed in the foyer near the Shah's office is a bit disconcerting. Outside, of course there's a park, with lots of people hanging out in the shade, and it's here that I first heard the first dissenting declaration by the local citizenry, "I want the SHAH BACK!" said an old woman.

Palace museums aside, everything is up to date in Tehran. McDonalds is nowhere to be seen, but Nokia is, and a trip to a typical shopping mall shows that underneath the officially required outerwear, women like sexy. There's lots of heavy makeup and evidence of nose-jobs. I also noticed people wearing necklaces with the zoroastrian Ormizad symbol on it.

Shi'a Moslems are more laid back on some things than Sunnis, especially in the arts, where the human form is not taboo as it is in some Arab countries (Iran is NOT Arab). Art is heroic, both poetry and pictures are treasured even more than in the west.

After three days, two of which were partly dedicated to recovering from jet-lag, we went to the "domestic" airport and boarded a plane to our next destination, Shriaz.

My trip to Persia part one: Introduction

Few countries are as historically important as Persia. Not Iran, Persia. True, the area was to some extent called "Aryan" or "iran" on and off for millenia for the last two and a half thousand years, it's been Persia, and that's what most of the people consider themselves, Persian. They speak Farsi (Persian), not Irani, but that's a discussion for later. For now, let's discuss why anyone in their right mind would travel half way around the world and back and spend a quarter-year's salary (minimum wage) to go there for two weeks.

Before the 9/11 attacks, there was a company called "Now Voyager" which specialized in what were then called "courier flights." Back in those days, it was cheaper for a company to buy a plane ticket and use the luggage space than to just ship the packages. So they would sell the seat to some poor fool who just needed a change of underwear and a small napsack that fit in the overhead bin for up to 90% off, and viola! You could spend a week in Hong Kong, or London, Paris or Rome, for almost no money. Then there were other ways to get across the atlantic cheap, and for a thousand bucks, you could go clear around the world...and I did.

I became an invenerate tourist, and still am. It gets me mad when someone says "I"m not a tourist, I'm a traveller, as if something was crass about the idea of seeing someplace for the first time with one's eyes and mouth open in wonderment. Tourism is an honorable activity, going back thousands of years. Hell, the Crusades were fought to protect tourists for crying out loud. Allah himself, through the prophet Mohammed (allegedly) demanded that his followers go to Mecca to see the sights there at least once in their lives.

God himself, you can't get a better endorsement than that!

Some countries are harder to get to than others. Take Cuba for example. It's illegal under most circumstances, and I went there under a special license just before the Bush administration decided to suspend them. Other places have "State department advisories" against them, but that doesn't mean that you're not allowed to go there, however there are some countries that just won't let you in. Libya for example refuses to issue visas, and even when they do, they don't always honor them. That's a very hard nut to crack, and I'll do it some day.

Global Exchange is a lefty group promoting things like "fair trade" and Hugo Chavez. One of the things they do is tours of places who's governments hate our guts, or have a leftist bent, Venuzuela, for example. Propaganda tourism. (the late Spalding Grey did a brilliant description of this in his Monster in a Box)They're pretty much the only people who've managed to get regular tours of NORTH Korea, and one of the few who organize jaunts to Iran, although one of their "delegations" was too loud in her advocacy, and they got banned for a year. So poor people bitching is not on the agenda for this trip, which is fine and dandy with me. The main problem was the expense and that you had to be accepted.

I obviously WAS accepted, and after about six weeks of waiting, the Iranian interest section gave the okay. The visa was expensive, and because it took so long we had to pay the special overnight fee as well (the Iranians took three days anyway), and there were lots and lots of dos and don'ts, especially when it came to dress. The Chador and all that. Global Exchange spend a lot of time and money getting off the blacklist, and they didn't want to get back one, which is completely understandable.

Even with the isolation of luxury hotels and a bus tour, we seven tourists managed to make contact with quite a few ordinary Persians, as well as Azeris, Turkomen and indogenes. (I also got two small rugs, it's friggen' PERSIA for crying out loud). My knowledge of the people is cursory at best, but it's far better than what we get out of the media. I'm not going to talk about the dynamics of the group or anything like that because that's mostly irrelevant (Mexican lawyers, college sophomore marxists and minor movie stars) just what I saw and read about while I was there.

I love Persia and hate Iran, by the time I"m finished, I hope you know why.

Monday, February 04, 2008

the worst polls for super tuesday.

state Pollster Dates N/Pop Clinton Edwards Obama Undecided
*Alabama ASU |1/7-30 | 438 LV 24 11 31 27
*CA ARG 2/1-2 600 LV 47 - 39 8
*Ct ARG 1/30-31 600 LV 48 - 35 10
*Ga Mn-Dn 1/7-10 400 LV 36* 14 33* 17
*Ill ARG 1/30-31 600 LV 40 - 51 8
*MA W NE College1/20-26 151 LV 43 8 15 31
*MN U of MN 1/18-27 478 RV 40 12 33 15
*Mo Rasmussen 1/24 798 LV 43 18 24 5
*NJ Monmouth 1/30-2/1 718 LV 50 - 36 14
*NY Gallup 1/23-26 767 LV 56 10 28 5
*OK SurveyUSA 1/27 714 LV 44 27 19 3
*TN InsiderAdvantage1/30 463 LV 59 - 26 8