Tuesday, October 29, 2013


NOTE: I wrote this last night, but had no way of posting it until I arrived with my aged laptop in Istanbul a couple of hours ago...

Well here I am on the last evening of my time in Iran. I’m in a rather basic hotel room in the historic trading city of Tabriz, in the northwest corner of Iran not far from the borders of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey. Tomorrow morning I have a Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul, and two days later a direct flight to Toronto.

As you probably know, Iran still has substantial firewalls to block access to social media like Facebook and Twitter, and to many other sites too. In that way it feels a little like Burma did during the time I was making trips there for my Burma book, from early 2009 until late 2011. But in Burma not only were there firewalls, there was also virtually no access to cell phones or to wi-fi, and very few internet cafes except in Rangoon/Yangon. When I found an internet cafe in a town, I’d go and ask the young guys there (it was always young guys) to help me bypass the firewalls so that I could get access to my e-mails. Yahoo was blocked; Gmail was generally easier. And they’d always manage it, by using something I heard called a “proxy”.

Fast forward to Iran now in late 2013. Social media have continued to evolve, and so have cel phones. Iran has both. And many people here are on FB and Twitter. How? you ask. Well people download a proxy server for themselves (a sophistication not available to most people in Burma a few years ago) and then they can fly over the firewalls. 

I had no proxy server (failed to deal with the issue before coming) and no way of downloading one once I was here (because of course access to that is also blocked), until I got to Kerman, in southern Iran. A nice guy I met there who is IT-proficient helped me download Puffin, a proxy server, onto my smart-phone. He did it using his tablet and bluetooth. 

And suddenly after two weeks of blocked access I was reconnected to Twitter and Facebook. The whole process - of restriction and then evasion of restriction - reminded me of all the attempts by governments, from China to Iran to Burma and more, who try to shut off their citizens’ access to the rest of the world. It used to be possible to enclose people behind an “iron curtain” or just a flurry of propaganda. But now there are ways the determined can push through electronically. Perhaps only North Korea has managed to lock its citizens away. At least so we’re told. 

Anyhow, once Puffin was flying me over the firewalls, one of the first messages I tweeted was to the president of Iran, who is actively on Twitter. I suggested that people in Iran could have better access to his tweets if the firewalls here came down.

That is of course true, but what’s also clear from my time here, and from things people have told me, is that Iranians in general are brilliant at “work-arounds”. They don’t take no for an answer, but instead figure out alternative routes to get what they want or need. And so people here who want to be online and connected are managing to do so, despite the government. Still, if the firewalls came down many more, I imagine, would get confident and engaged with social media and the wider world.

Other work-arounds here have to do with the dress code restrictions. Women are still by law required to cover their head and neck when out in public and to dress “modestly”. The definitions have changed over time, loosening in the nineties, then tightening again when Amedinajad came into power, and now softening again. In general they mean at a minimum wearing a headscarf tied or crossed under the chin, and a “manteau” a garment that goes down to the knees or nearly, over trousers.

Many or most women dislike the restrictions. In less-conservative places, such as Teheran and Shiraz, women, especially those who come from more moneyed families, wear light wispy scarves, and often set them way back on their hair. And their versions of manteau are equally gestural, brightly coloured and very form-fitting, often worn with fashionable high heels. 

All the emphasis on the face, as the only free and clearly visible aspect of the woman, has led to another perhaps predictable result: plastic surgery is fashionable and very unremarkable, almost expected, among young urban women. They have collagen to pump up cheekbones, the lips are made fuller, and the nose is “fixed. The result is that noses with a white strip of bandage on top are a common sight. There’s also a lot of make-up, thickly applied, from foundation to eye shadow to lipstick. And eyebrows are plucked out completely and then redrawn in pencil, or tattooed on, in a higher wider sweep. 

Women in more conservative families or communities wear a black or dull-coloured manteau in the form of a loosely fitting trenchcoat closed up to the neck, with black pants and socks or stockings and black shoes as well as a scarf or other hair and head covering. Over that many wear a chador, usually black, a long one piece cape like a nun’s veil from another era, that rests on the top of the head and floats/drapes down to the ground. It’s open in the front, has no fastening, so women clutch it closed with one hand in front of them, or hold it in their teeth sometimes so they have both hands free.

The result is that in conservative towns, and at some shrines and mosques where it’s compulsory that women wear a chador, the women become a flock of black creatures... It’s disturbing to think about and to see. Only when you get close and are talking to a woman in a black chador can you sense her personal distinctiveness. Otherwise the outfit erases her, just as nun’s habits were designed to do to the women who wore them.

The wonder is that women here manage to function with confidence and strength in public, despite the censoriousness of the laws and the special police who enforce them.

I stayed two nights with a family in a village ten days ago. There were two daughters, aged 14 and 11, both alert intelligent people. I watched them dress for school the last morning I was there, a Saturday, the first day of the school week. Niloufer, the younger one, still in primary school, wore pants, a long manteau top, and a kind of pink wimple of stretchy knit material that framed her face and covered her hair and neck completely. Over that she wore a looser head-covering, a kind of scarf. The older daughter was entirely in black, as the school requred of girls her age: pants, manteau/trenchcoat, wimple and scarf over the hair, and on top of all that, a black chador to the ground. Her liveliness drowned in all the black coverup.

That kind of clothing requirement in school that tells girls to cover up and hide their bodies must cripple some. I remember how gauche and uncertain I was about my physical self, about what was acceptable or “ok”, when I was a teenager. But unlike these girls and young women,  who have not since early childhood been out in public with their hair floating free (just imagine!) I had never been told that it was my responsibility to hide my hair, my neck, my arms.

Of course as a women visitor here in Iran, I had to follow the rules. They have eased up, as I said above, or at least they are not as strictly interpreted and enforced as in earlier times.  I didn’t want to give offence. That’s how I felt at first.  But once I realised that most people disliked the rules, I didn’t worry about offending custom.  I was instead aware that I could be chided for having my scarf on so loosely (and incompetently let me admit) that “too much” hair was showing.

And finally it happened, that a man in authority insisted that I correct the thing he reproached me for: the front of my hair was showing too much. It was at a very holy place, the holiest place in Iran for Shia Muslims: the Shrine of Imam Reza in Mashad. (He is the eighth Imam, and was murdered not far from Mashad. About twenty million people visit the huge shrine complex every year.) I was outside, not yet in the grounds, and had asked directions of one of the guys who keep an eye on things, not guards exactly, but officials. He gave me a censorious look and gestured to his hair, to show me where I was at fault. Ony once I had adjusted my scarf did he answer my question.

The encounter was a small thing. But how would it feel if I had been born and raised here, and perhaps was especially sensitive to criticism, or just not confident? Surely it would make me over-compliant, anxious to make sure that my tenue was correct at all times.

And indeed, even unworried, after my first few days in Iran I found myself taking on the habits of the women here: you reach up and feel your head on top to check whether your scarf has slipped back. Then you feel with your fingers along the edge of the scarf, where it meets your face, and check that no hair has strayed forward and that the edges are even. It becomes a tic, endlessly repeated. A time-lapse of women in a bus or at a restaurant or in a car, or in a classroom I suppose too, would show a pattern of check, recheck, adjust, readjust, going on all over the female landscape.

Wild. And taken for granted by the women of Iran. They have to take it for granted or it would surely drive them around the bend. In any case they have more important thngs to worry about: They are doctors and teachers and filmmakers, mothers and grandmothers, sweepers and cooks, secretaries and managers, most of them managing all the cooking and other household matters as their second or third job. And they are strong.

AFTERWARD: In the plane this morning, as the doors were closed and we started to move off, there was a rustling sound here and there as most of the women passengers, including me, removed their headscarves and shook out their hair. And then of course most also shed their manteau, emerging, in some cases, with very skin-tight outfits of various kinds...

Friday, October 4, 2013


A rather embarrassing number of weeks have passed since I last posted here. No excuses really. But I’m now in Istanbul, rather dazed by the lovely complexities of the city. And to anticipate your questions: no I have not yet been to see the Hagia Sophia (which I did see the only other time I visited Istanbul, long ago in 1982); nor any of the offerings in the Istanbul Biennal; nor much else except outdoor walking, ferry, bus, and light rail routes, and small restaurants of various kinds.

First to the transport: Where I live, in downtown Toronto, a large rich city of nearly 3 million, we have not built a subway line for a long time, and have only added a few tram/streetcar lines. In Istanbul, a large very complicated terrain loaded with historical obstacles, they’ve gone from 45 km of track to 145 or so and are headed for 400 km by 2020. Impressive. And it shows. I mean yes the traffic is snarly, but there is a dizzying number of transit options to cope with people’s need to move up and down hills and over large stretches of water. All of it can be done using a prepaid card, like the Oyster card of London or the Octopus card of HongKong, that gets scanned each time you enter a new mode of transport. It’s all much smoother-running because of the easy scanning: no tokens, no tickets…

Just to give you an idea: I am staying in an airbnb not far from Taksim Square (of May demos fame). To get to, say, the main tourist places or to the ferries, I walk up to Taksim, then take the funicular (underground cable car) down the hill to Kabatas, then get straight onto the tram, which carries me along the shore (past two or three huge cruise ships, big boxy apartment-buildings on the water) and over the new Galata bridge. From there I can walk two minutes and catch a ferry across the Sea of Marmara to Kadikoy, on the Asian side, a fifteen or twenty minute trip. And there, as I had been told before I left, is a lively market neighbourhood, fabulous walking streets and beautiful food scenes all around.

So that’s where I went yesterday nooontime (after spending the morning at the consulate of Iran, waiting, then getting instructions and forms, and then waiting again to hand everything back in; they tell me the visa will be delivered on Monday morning).

I’d been over to Kadikoy the previous day for a wander around, in company with an immersethrough friend B who happened to be in Istanbul for the first two days I was here. We rambled following our noses, choosing the most interesting looking streets, and got lost without knowing we were lost (or caring).

Some of the fish in the market – Jake Tilson looked at the photo and says they are a kind of bonito – had their gilled pulled out and kind of separated so that they looked like dark-cherry-coloured flowers, very beautiful in a massed display. There were fresh hamsi (anchovies) all silver gleaming, and other fish I know nothing about and could only admire for their beauty. And there were ripe figs, large and small, as well as pale to deeper red pomegranates, always with a few broken open to show their juicy promise. Several shops had heads of leaf lettuce arranged in rows, each topped by a small bundle of red radishes, like a small bouquet, the red an almost shocking contrast to the bright green.

In the midst of all the plenty was an enticing-looking bookshop full of books in Turkish with beautiful leather bindings. Of course we went in to look. And when we asked, Yes, down a steep flight of stairs were books in English and French and more in Turkish. I found a Virago edition of a fantastical novel by Naomi Mitchison called Travel Light in which Constantinople plays a small role. Later, as we found our way back to the ferry again, I wondered out loud if I could find my way back to the bookstore again.

That was two days ago. When we went back to Kadikoy yesterday, though all the same market loveliness was on display, we were less observant, for we were on a mission to find Musa’s restaurant Ciya. We also wanted to spot a lachmacun place called Halil that the deeply knowledgeable Robyn Eckhardt of Eating Asia had told me about. After asking a couple of people, we found ourselves on a street we recognised from the day before. First we found Halil, and then, right opposite the bookstore – aha! – was Ciya.

We feasted at Ciya (I hadn’t eaten before leaping out the door for my visa and was starving). And it was like the best kind of home cooking, with layers of flavour and care, that’s the only way I can describe it. Of course I am too unknowledgeable about Turkish cuisine to tell you in detail, but the lamb with quince was wonderful, the kibbeh was perfect, the wheat berry and cheese stuffing in the vine leaves was fresh on the tongue… I am hoping to get back there, perhaps on one of the evenings I have on my way through after Iran… (And I have promised myself a visit to Halil too.)

After the luck of my first two days in Istanbul, today was more bumpy. I looked up a resto I wanted to try, Google sent me to a strange suburban location, but so what? I thought. There's light rail to nearby. In fact, no, there's not, because it has been torn up and is being replaced with a metro line. Meantime, take a bus said the man. I did, but it was very far, and then it turned out that Google had sent me to the right street address, but in a different quarter, not the right one. I was miles from where I wanted to be. I should have phoned first, of course, to check. But it wasn't wasted time, I said to myself firmly as I stood in a crowded bus hoping I was headed the right way on the return. I got to see parts of the city I'd never have been to, and to see how hard life is for loner-distance commuters.

All of this reminds me of the not-knowingness of travel. I have spent most of my travel time recently in Burma and Thailand. And while Burma was a layered puzzle that I have only barely begun to get familiar with, I did at least have some clue by the time I’d finished work on my book.

In Turkey, and even more so in the next weeks in Iran, I am again starting from scratch, and in a more visibly complex environment. At least here, thanks to Ataturk, who moved Turkish into a western alphabet, I can read the street signs and sound out other signs to try to make sense of them (taksi, bufe, etc). But in Iran I will be as illiterate as I was in Burma at the start.

That illiteracy forces me to use other cues, to be observant of details. You might almost say it forces me back into fuller awarenes. Just as, on that first trip to Kadikoy I noticed lots of market details because I was tuning in to what was before me, while on the second, as a hostage to a map and directions and a fixed goal, I noticed very little, so the illiterate is alert to more, whereas, when reading is an option, we tend to not see much beyond the signage.

Do I revel in my ignorance and the not-knowingness of my situational illiteracy? Yes, in many ways I do. It’s humbling (never a bad thing) and I like it as a reminder of how much I usually fail to notice. I always hope I’ll stay attuned to that reminder, and keep trying to tune in, even when I am in familiar surroundings. But mindfulness is easier to talk about than it is to practise, don’t you find?