Sunday, May 28, 2006

Sun, 28 May 2006

GREETINGS again, long time no news, too busy to write!

Now it feels like ancient history, and again retrogressing:

When we returned from Mashhad, now several weeks ago, (flime is CERTAINLY tying ...) and before finally making the break - on my own - for various tourist attractions out in the countryside (more about that later), I fell into a whirlwind of local activities here in Tehran, some about music - as musician, teacher (of dayereh and daff) and student (tombak and Persian language), some about being a tourist (visits to some of the array of amazing museums here in Tehran), some about being a guest in various homes and experiencing quite extraordinary Persian-style hospitality ... and some just about being someone from a different culture - different planet! - and dealing with the full array of challenges that naturally represents ... including a few periods of just being totally exhausted, overwhelmed, broken down, incapacitated, out of order, not moving outside at all - barely even inside.

I went for an excellent tombak lesson and also Persian language lesson, and had the painful realization that with my time over here being so precious, I needed to make some difficult decisions about whether to stick myself inside a room and practice like mad, OR, to throw myself into this country, and try to fill myself up with as many impressions and sights and vibrations from talking with people on the street, the architecture, monuments, stunning geographic variations ... And finally came to the conclusion that as much as I can try to find some sort of balance between all these directions, I just could not put myself - here - at this time - on what I consider an appropriate schedule for being a serious student. (If that were the case, I would never see anything other than my own hands, the instrument before me, and the four walls ...) How could I be over here and NOT go to Esfahan, Shiraz, Persepolis, etc ... !?!?!

... Looking for an internet cafe (here known as "coffee-net") with printer near the guesthouse, asking 20 people and getting 20 different answers ... including quite a few people who walked long distances with me, so graciously showing me the way where they thought would be such a place, (and there wasn't), sometimes getting confused with "coffee shop" and finding myself in a bakery with amazing assortments of sweets and goodies - no internet ... Finally ended up in the business center of the quite glorious Simorgh Hotel (where I FINALLY managed to set up this weblog - which started out as a newsletter for my family and friends, and then after some problems sending multiple mailings through Yahoo, and encouragement from friends about creating a blog and going "public", and hoping that a blog would be easier to send ... lo and behold!). Also in the process stumbled on quite a magnificent park, and had the great pleasure of sitting among some trees and shade and fountains, marvelling at the quantity and splendid quality of soooo many parks, throughout Tehran!

Went for visa extension, quite amazing. When I first arrived I was told that after the first month, I could get two 15-day extensions, making a total of two months that I would be allowed to stay here. Then the day came for the visit to the Aliens Police (I know that concept from Athens, and cannot help but laugh every time I think of that term, and my expectation to see some green characters with antennaes strolling about, wearing wild-western style marshall-like badges on their chests ...) We went together, Nima and "my Ayatollah" and one other gentleman (it turns out that of the two gentlemen I met here when I first arrived, one is in fact an Ayatollah, without the customary clothing to give it away.) I had understood that I would need to return in a few days to pick up my passport with the visa extension.

We walked into the room, full of people with rather exasperated expressions, seeming as if they had been waiting for hours. Most of them apeared to be Afghanis, and I was filled with sadness for these proud and handsome people who have such an incredibly difficult time, sorting out their lives ... Both sad and relieved, when we whisked by the whole lot, into a side room, a conversation with an officer, then up to the front of the line, and in NO TIME not only did I get my passport back again, but I was given 30 days, not 15, AND permission to get yet another 30-day extension, making a total of 3 months here. SOOOO happy, also feeling a bit guilty, passing out through the hordes onto the street again with the green light of the open horizon before me. I felt like a real VIP, getting the red carpet treatment!

Another day we went to some family friends for a HUGE delicious lunch, at their home near the northern edge of Tehran, and a walk up some hills nearby, where Nima and I played music together with neighbours and passers-by stopping shyly near us to listen in. Before we knew it, there on the hilltop among the trees with a magnificent view overlooking Tehran, several hours had gone by. Back down the hill, and to an enlightening concert of Traditional Persian music in the major music theater in Tehran, Talar-e Vahdat, with only the splendid fountains and delicious garden design of the courtyard giving away the location, otherwise the concert hall could have been in any European city.

Many visits, lunches and dinners with friends, friends and families of friends, including a warm visit at the home of the Armenian lady with whom I arrived on the plane from Frankfurt ... Also to the family of my very dear friend Fardin!!! We went for a trout dinner at a grand restaurant sitting by the side of a raging river, under the trees and OXYGEN!!! - and THAT was a welcome respite from the heat of the city (more about that later). Full circles ... busy social life (not my normal pattern!), Persian language expanding, out of necessity - wonderful and exhausting!

Some of my personal reflections, including some of the difficulties here ... I know everything I have written so far has been about all the glories and wonders, as if it is all effortless. Believe me - it is not easy, in any and every case, wherever, trying to fit oneself into a different culture. Being a tourist is one thing, viewing everything from the outside - but trying to assimilate, and to understand the culture from the inside, including some degree of language ability - is QUITE another matter. I am sure many of you know what I mean!!!

The period building up to my arrival here was heavily, dramatically charged with all sorts of - how to put it? - "recommendations" is an understatement - to NOT COME to Iran - including some rather frantic warnings about my being totally crazy to put myself into such a dangerous and volatile climate - that I would certainly be ... - I don't even want to repeat it here - from some of my very dearest, boldest and wisest American and Greek friends, who have travelled to outrageously out-of-the-way places, far, far off the beaten track. When I asked one Iranian lady from Tehran whom I met in Los Angeles if she would come here if she were me, her answer was, flatly, NO.

And then there was the hysterical 6 week period in Athens, intense neverending work on the material plane, fixing all manner of problems with managing 3 rental apartments, one terrace roof about to fly off in the wind, holes/leaks in another roof, every day checking the internet for news of my visa, and listening to my Greek friends' horror about my travel plans. Of course, a few of my friends, even my MOM (thanks Mommy Joon!) have been totally understanding of how much this trip means/has meant to me, after YEARS of wanting to come here ... and although concerned for me, have been totally supportive, and encouraging.

When the visa was FINALLY CONFIRMED, and all things tucked away and dust scraped off the floor and out from my lungs, replacement of rusty hot water heaters with water discovered inside the wires, ready to explode ... exhausted, battle-weary, bouts of paranoia mixed with the certainty of my destiny guiding the way ... never I will forget being in the taxi to the Athens airport, sleepless, wrung out, energy totally spent in the previous weeks, trying to remember to breathe, and delightfully passing signs on the road for the Greek drivers: ENKYRO (good) ... ANAPSTE OLA (turn on all lights, driving through a tunnel) ... and never did those words hold such meaning and power, and indication that my path was opening before me in the RIGHT way ... and the experience, at LAST, of having gone - already - through some sort of rite of passage, as if dematerializing, passing through a cement wall, rematerializing on the other side ... full of anticipation, anxiety, excitement, about the actual arrival here ... and the REAL adventure ...

For some reason I had thought I was not allowed to be outside on the streets by myself here, which I had just accepted without questioning (and fully understanding the reasons for that, me with my US passport.) But finally after the first 10 days of poor Nima and/or other family members constantly shuffling me back and forth, one day Nima announced, OK - it's time for you to go around alone! I called my Ayatollah to make sure I had permission: YES, no problem, and I was both relieved and rather intimidated, and when Nima went with me to the local supermarket - and left me there alone to fend for myself - I had a fine time trying to look like I was NOT a foreigner, my nervousness inside wearing a "calm" expression ... must have worked since as soon as I was alone in there, wandering around the isles, acting the part, a woman approached me and asked if I knew where something was in there. (Reminiscent of my experience coming out of the Haram at Mashhad, and also MANY other times here, women seem to gravitate to me, asking directions!)

Laughing to myself, I simply answered no, so sorry, don't know ... And until then I had always gone with Nima everywhere and still had not much of a clue about the money situation ... at the checkout counter had another laugh ... the very gracious lady at the cash register offered to help with my wad of bills, her chosing carefully which ones amounted to what ... and asking me where I am from ... and my general response over here is, Greece (and more about THAT later). And then, eureka! I even managed to take a taxi, and actually to arrive at Nima's family's home, all by myself! I had asked the lady caretaker at the guesthouse if I had the right amount of money in my hand for the taxi, and was assured that yes, it was correct - and then arrived near Nima's house and handed the money to the driver - and it turned out I was giving him ten times the correct amount, and gratefully he handed over the rather drastic difference in the change ... Again, chuckling at myself, and congratulating myself with my big accomplishment ...

... And then at one dinner gathering one Iranian gentleman had a good chuckle about my preferred Greek identity/affiliation, reminding me of the dastardly deeds of Alexander and his conquests (interesting switch of perspective, right, all my Greek friends!?!?!) ... and how being Greek over here is not much better than being an American ... Ancient history aside, luckily in recent history the Greeks have a most respectable standing in the world at large ... and identifying myself with Greek culture certainly feels right and appropriate - after living there for almost 13 years ... and, frankly, more low-profile!!! (And by the way, some of you might have noticed in the heading of this blog, I have edited my identity as American/Greek ... which also, by the way, makes me realize that writing about my experience of adapting and becoming integrated into Greek culture is another extraordinary chapter of my life-path ... sometime later, inshallah!)

There is a term here, called "taarof" (and later will include some of the terms used here in polite conversation), which means something like "overarching politeness". Nima's sister Shiva gives this as a rough description/translation: politeness out of limits, and not real ... and from a dictionary: compliment, flattery, courtesy, to stand upon ceremony, to make a present of. So far, coming from a Western background of struggling to be direct about communications, this element of society here is rather daunting, and forever has me wondering where I really stand with people here (and for that matter, where anyone has standing ...)

An example, and a very fine lesson in the benefits of knowing about how and when to resort to this kind of behaviour:

One evening Nima and I were invited to the home of some Iranian friends at 9 pm. Knowing that this is a normal dinner hour, and that the cooking expertise in this family is quite superiour, AND thinking that the invitation was certainly for dinner, Nima and I ate nothing all day in anticipation of a delicious and huge meal. We arrived at the home at the appointed time, and the full array of typically pre-dinner goodies began appearing gloriously at the table in the living room: fruit, sweets, nuts, tea. We started playing some music, which was wonderful, all the time looking over to the dinner table with hungry eyes and stomach ... After a few hours I finally realized, alas! ... no dinner! Chuckling to myself about my own mis-read assumptions, we finally made our departure, with our hosts finally enquiring, you DID eat dinner, right!? At the SAME moment, Nima answered yes, and I answered, no ... laughing, woops! ... (and to myself, GROOOAAAAN ... feeling like a bull in a china shop is my normal experience here in this culture, full of finesse and delicacy and subtleties ...) The stark realization that with my cloddish answer all I managed to do was to make the hosts feel so uncomfortable.

The lesson: Nima was so correct with his answer, since even when our hosts were obviously embarrassed about the lack of dinner, and when they insisted on our staying to catch a bite of something, the time was such that we needed to leave, and, A. we did not eat there, and B. with my answer, the result was only that they felt bad!!! If I had just answered along with Nima that yes, we had eaten, our hosts would have felt fine, and we would have left hungry anyway ... Sigh ... my education in the ways of the world, appropriate behaviours according to cultural differences ... hopefully, I am indeed learning something!

Closing for now ... the events, impressions and personal reflections that have unfolded since these times described here will have to wait for the next installment(s) ... including, Qom, Kashan, Esfahan, and another trip to Kurdistan - all extraordinary and vastly different highlights, so stay tuned for the next batch of news!

As always, sending much love to all,



Blogger Arash Sharifi said...

Dear Rowan,
thanks for sharing your experiences in Iran and thank you for sharing it honestly. By reading your news I feel myself in Tehran's streets, Esfahan bazaar and in Mashhad shrine. I wonder if you like to start attaching some pictures to your news.
Can't wait to read more about your finding over there. By the way my name is Arash and I am a member of frame drume group at Yahoo. Recently I moved to US and now living in southern California. Appreciate if you take a look at my blog, you may find some interesting stuff there.

1:34 AM  
Blogger _/\/\ichael{R} said...


Ah, yes, how flime does ty when your having fun! (smile)

The images I now have of you and Nima playing out on a hillside of Tehran as neighbors and passers-by stopped to listen makes me ache to have been there. You do have a way of creating magic wherever you go, don't you?!?

How wonderful that you were able to reconnect with the woman from your flight to Tehran. I hope you had a chance to drum with her (I think I remember you learned she was a drummer also...and maybe even that you played a little together on the plane???).

You spoke at length about all the dire warnings of your friends about it being too dangerous a trip, and I remind you yet again about our many discussions on the nature of the Hero's Journey. If what you're doing was safe and effortless, it would not be the literal and amazing Hero's Journey which you are on and which is surely changing your life as all such Journeys must. People will always be frightened for the Hero as she begins her Journey. It cannot be any other way, and you are indeed, as you say, turning on the lights as you pass through both your inner and outer dark tunnels. You call it, "A rite of passage," but I would have written it in upper case (smile).

And how wonderful that you have discovered you're allowed out on the streets there alone (I was so sure that would be the case) and that you have found yourself not only at home there but even attracting others to you to ask directions . . . but of course they would ask directions of one so clearly in the presence of her own sense of direction.

Oh my, how funny that playing yourself as Greek turns out to no better a face to wear than your true one. Hmm, I wonder if there's a lesson in there somewhere. (smile)
But, then, yes, you have become by now partially Greek, and I appreciate that it the subtitle of your blog.

Yes, that choking moment in the throat when we commit a social faux pas...when you admitted you had not had dinner. But don't be so sure that Nima's answer was the right one. I would say you were not only the more courageous but the more correct, for the truth is almost always known anyway and is usually better admitted than not. Next time perhaps your hosts will not make assumptions when a simple question would have solved everything right in the beginning. While I DO understand your point, it might want to be tempered a little with its opposite.

Can't wait to hear about your time in Kurdistan!!!

Love and hugs, _/\/\ichael{R}

PS: If, at the end of each blog installment, you were to remind us to leave "Comments" here within the blog, it would give each of us an opportunity to share not just with you but with everyone. I have a real hunger to know what your other friends (and strangers) are saying about your extraordinary trip!

PPS: The comment from Arash was wonderful. I took a quick look at his website and you must go look at his pictures of Sufi dancing, they're amazing, they feel like the dance.

5:52 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home