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Iran

Iran is one of the weirdest places I have been. I was surprised, its a modern, developed, busy country (read- boring). Traffic is awful. Petrol is subsidised by the government, 10 cents a litre and Iranian made cars are copies of a 1960 Hillman Hunter, with the same terrible fuel efficiency. So a fug of air pollution hangs over every street, traffic jams spring up in even the tiniest country towns. At least free gas makes taxi and bus travel incredibly cheap, and the hotels have excellent central heating and hot showers!

But its not the pollution and dangerous driving which is weird. Its the whole almosphere
of..of…governance. A country where talking or sitting next to a girl or boy you dont know is banned. Also banned are wearing shorts, alcohol, western music, Bahai religion and taking pictures in the wrong place. But all these rules dont seem to affect the hordes of friendly young people I met.

Maybe its the pictures of dead soldiers. Martyrs in the Iran-Iraq war, their portraits grace city streets and stare from glass boxes in the graveyards. This explains the hordes of young people- the government promoted big families to replace all those who died (more than 1 million). Museums show yellowing photographs of yellow desert. Teenage boys lie, dead and gruesomly maimed. The water tanker arrives, the soldiers drink. Men kiss the Koran as they board the bus to the front line. And ayatollahs whip the troops into a frenzy.

Thats the problem with this place. Its my worst nightmare, a country run by religious fanatics. Before I came here I always thought Iran had a bad rap from the west, that Israel was the baddie. But now, if Israel wants to send cruise missiles at the Iranian nuclear facilities, I say DO IT. If Iran gets the atomic bomb they may well, as their idiotic, Holocost-denying president says, “wipe Isreal off the map”.

Khomeini and Khameini, the supreme leaders, are like a pair of evil twins, one clownish with glasses, the elder looking over his shoulder. This depressing double portrait is on every building, in every lobby, every shop. On the wall of the old American embassy (now a training camp for the secret police) wise quotes, like “The day America praises us, we shall mourn….We shall make America face a very serious defeat”. On TV endless propaganda like the replay of Donald Rumsfelt shaking Saddams hand.

More weirdness. Women, of course, must wear a hair cover (and no revealing clothes). Fashionable girls risk arrest by wearing this on the back of their head, while at the front emerges a huge, boiffant, ridiculous hairdo. Most women scuttle the street, clutching a chador (black cloak) to their throat, even holding the cloak in their teeth (to hide those promiscous lips).

Its a big country with diverse people. Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Turkmens, Afghanis (all being sent back to their “now peaceful” country next year) and Arabs lend a bit of color to the otherwise western style of the place. The capital, Tehran, is one of the most awful cities I have had the misfortune to visit.

More weird. Ive never had such trouble with the restaurants. Every place is deserted, empty. The only street food is boiled turnip, beetroot or beans.Instead, thousands of “fast food” joints where you can eat a bad sandwich, or an awful burger. Ive been living on burgers for the last 20 days, its terrible.

Luckily I visited some amazing places. Most incredible was the holiest site in Iran, the tomb of Imam Reza, in the far northeast. Shiite muslims separated from Sunni muslims after a debate over who would be the correct descendent of Mohammed. Shias believe in the 12 Imams, many of whom (like Imam Reza) met horrible deaths at the hands of the Sunni Caliphs. Today a massive shrine complex attracts 15 million pilgrims every year.

In the vast marble courtyards people pray, sit, come and go for prayer times (only three times a day for shias, five for sunni). Golden domes and minarets, blue tile mosaics, and incredible calligraphy decorate arches and walls. Inside the shrine room its so packed with people you cant move, just get pushed by the sea of people wailing and crying in anguish. And from across the divide, on the womens side, I could hear even more weeping.

Men dressed in black train conducter uniforms tap striped feather dusters at women and say “pull down your chador”, while inside the shrine room the feather dusters are on extendable poles to stop people climbing over each other to touch and kiss the golden grating enclosing the tomb itself. Outside the complex a huge city sprawls.

And so it is with all Iranian cities. A tiny part is of interest, with impressivly decorated mosques,
parks, old houses complete with tall towers to collect the breeze and send it, cooled over water, into the house. Outside the crumbling maze of mud brick walls, the crazy traffic roars.

I ended up in Bandar Abbas on the Persian Gulf. Women here wear the strangest burkha mask, of red or black or gold, with golden embroidered trousers poking out from under layers of tableclothes. Its hot here, even in winter. And bargaining with those women in the market to buy some masks was damn hard.

Dubai has proved its convenience. I flew from Iranacross the Persian Gulf back to this desert
metropolis. Beyond the units housing foreign workers, beyond the palatial mansions with swimming pools and date palm orchards, highways end in yellow sand. This incredible city is expanding in every direction- upwards, into the desert, and out to sea the “palm” islands. The absolute nothingness of the surroundings (pure desert) illustrate how weird our world is. How can this city be? How can it grow, from what? Yet it does, wealth generates wealth. (Its not oil in the Emirates, but trade).

The airport bus costs 50 cents, cheap restaurants feed me and the Indian workers. And best of all, a cheap ticket back to New Zealand via Thailand and Hong Kong. Im going back, the same way I came. Im not going anywhere new, I havnt the energy. Its the beach in Cambodia for two weeks then back to China to see my friend Feng. And in both places, the best food in the world!

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