7. Iran 3
Qazvin to Qom and Kashan
Justine – We left you last time in the baking heat with Kabylie breaking down. Why do these things always seem to happen at the worst times and in the worst places? Due to Kabylie’s condition, we had decided to abandon exploring Western Iran and to head south towards Esfahan from where Sally and Mike were to fly home in a week’s time. Our new route was to take us through Qom the Vatican city of Iran where none of us were that keen on going as it is so conservative, and we were unsure we would be very welcome. It was here in the theological schools that the 1979 revolution began and the city and its hard-line clerics remain the centre of power in Iran today.
Qom sits in a hot dusty desert and as we approached the temperature soared. This was of course where Kabylie decided to conk out – in the hottest bit of desert so far, with temperatures hitting 45’. Every kilometre the engine died and a very stressed Tom had to fiddle frantically under the bonnet trying to work out the problem before his in-laws, wife and children boiled to death. The 45km journey to Qom ended up taking 8 hours. The heat was made worse for the girls as being in such a highly conservative area, we were advised to put on our neck to floor black polyester chadors. I found out ‘chador’ means tent and I considered wearing our loo tent as I felt sure it would be cooler. Thank goodness we had enough water in our tank to keep wetting our clothes to keep cool.
As the sweat ran down the interior of our chadors, we were all dreading camping in the heat on a dusty roadside. More complicated was the fact that we were arriving on one of the main religious, week long festivals of the year, where 1 million Shiites from around the world would descend in a couple of days to worship the 12th Imam. As we drove into town there was absolutely nowhere to camp, even the traffic islands were jammed with tents and people. We were just resigning ourselves to very little sleep, when Hossein our guide announced his well connected friend had found us the last hotel room in town! No ordinary hotel, it was in fact a hotel for Mullahs! We were amazed they let the infidel in, but not only that, as we were a family, we were given the VIP vast apartment, with three bedrooms, two bathrooms and …….aircon!!!!!!! to put the icing on the cake, Kabylie could be parked outside the door under an awning, so mechanic Tom could take his baby apart in the shade.
With boiler suit on and bonnet open it was not long before Tom was approached by a worried looking Mullah with a long beard and black turban (black turban means you are related to the prophet). He had managed to get his car bumper hooked up on the curb. Tom was tired and hungry so gave his car an impatient shove that separated bumper from pavement. Amazed at the miracle Tom had performed, he was immediately grabbed and given a very enthusiastic Mullah man hug with four wet kisses (his beard was wet) on both cheeks. In fact it was so wet that Tom felt he needed to cleanse himself in the shower!
That evening when the temperature had dropped a few degrees, we set off to see the holy shrine of Fatemeh, the 8th Imama’s sister. It is very nice to hear about a female of importance, as there do not seem to be many of them in Islam.
Fatemeh’s shrine was utterly beautiful, particularly at night and it had a fantastic feel to it. The girls of the party had to enter via a special cloaked doorway to check we were covered enough. Sally and I passed the test in full black, but Petra, though fully covered had to put another sheet on top of everything which ensured she nearly passed out from heat. The complex was vast and every inch tiled exquisitely. Families picnicked and kids ran about playing. There seemed to be lots more women then men and this is probably because the women use mosques as a social gathering point as well as a place of worship.
Suddenly a huge wind blasted us, as a dust storm approached. We legged it to the car, chadors and headscarves flying, through the area where you go if you wanted to be temporarily married (Sigheh). Bizarrely the Shiites believe that you can have a temporary wife for anything from 1 hour to several years as long as you pay for it and a Mullah recites some absolving words. When the Mullahs want a temporary wife I assume they can recite the words themselves. There are men who act as agents putting the willing parties together and it all sounds remarkably like the oldest profession in the world but by another name. The women as usual get a duff deal as once you have been a temporary wife (even to a boyfriend), it is unlikely that anyone will marry you, so you are stuck in the trade forever.
We had all decided we needed a recuperation day from the heat and Tom needed a day to fathom out what was wrong with Kabylie. We had a lovely day with the curtains firmly closed (in case an unsuspecting Mullah saw us without our headscarves on) playing games and blog writing, swathed in blissful aircon and using a clean western toilet. Apparently after the revolution, western toilets were banned and everyone had to return to a squat and drop Iranian loo. This caused havoc for all the hotels in the country as you can imagine. It was therefore surprising that here in the mullah VIP suite, western loos reigned, very welcome as the majority of the loos in Iran are dubious, even in nice restaurants and hotels. The one thing that can be said of Iranian loos, though, is that there is ALWAYS soap and somewhere good to wash your hands.
We left early the next morning for Kashan, keen to escape the 1 million other guests who were on their way to use the city’s loos. Tom was optimistic that he had solved Kabylie’s problem – the float in the carburettor had kept sticking. As the heat of the day mounted, optimism descended as the familiar spluttering and ticking resumed. The routine of stop/start continued all the way to Kashan and we limped, sweating across the desert plain. It was at this point that I began to feel a little relieved that our Turkmenistan visas had still not come through.
Kashan is a lovely city and the first place we saw other tourists. It’s long history had seen a lot of wealth and it has a wonderful bazaar and numerous old merchant houses which have been restored and are fantastic to visit. From the outside they look nothing, with just a small brick doorway, but this leads to a straw and mud adobe roof, rounded on the outside but concealing a fabulous tiled dome on the inside. On entering, a cool corridor leads to a vast complex with numerous courtyards of trees and pools, and accommodation quarters designated for each of the four seasons to ensure sunshine, shade and breeze during the appropriate months. Kashan and in fact the whole country is full of these mud buildings but sadly not for much longer. Without maintenance they are quickly being eroded away
Tom went off to find car parts and the rest of us had chay (tea) in a beautifully restored merchant’s house which is now a gorgeous hotel. No sooner had we stepped inside, we were overcome by the urge to blow the budget and stay there.
Sadly no rooms were available, so we made do with a little place Hossein found. Actually we struck gold as there was a wedding going on in the building next to the hotel. The girls were invited (sorry boys) to see it and we quickly rummaged about trying to find appropriate attire though with no idea what to wear to an Iranian wedding.
Rather like the local buses, many conservative Iranian weddings are segregated. The women celebrate in one room and the men next door. The bride and groom visit each section and are given gifts and money. When we arrived, the happy couple were next door doing the rounds of the men’s room (not the loo). The women our side were attired in the revealing and racy dresses we had seen in every market, but wondered when they were ever worn. Here was the answer. Women dress up for other women and their husband only. As we sat at the back of the room eating cucumbers and riveted at what was going on, there was a sudden outburst of ‘ululating.’ Every woman excitedly joined in and there was a flurry as whirling scarves quickly shrouded the wonderful hairstyles and racy dresses. The ululating was a ‘warning’ ‘Quick! Quick! A man is coming – cover up! Three minutes later the bride and groom entered and we realised the great cover-up was due to this one man entering. What a feeling of power men must have knowing the performance that goes on at their mere presence in a room.View our tracker
The bride was the only one allowed to be unveiled in the presence of the groom and they danced as people gave them money. The groom then left and the bride danced on her own and then sat on the stage alone as everyone else danced, which seemed rather lonely. We were invited into the dancing and everyone was sweet and wanted a selfie with us. One of the guests called Emi spoke really good English and explained how most of the guests were cousins and that the bride and groom had known each other for exactly one month. Gosh! It was not an arranged marriage because they had met at work, but the reason it took so long for them to actually get married was their families had to discuss whether they thought they would get along well and other things. For many marriages, they know each other for a week!
Emi and her family were delightful and invited us for lunch the next day. It was another example of incredible Iranian hospitality and one we heartily accepted.