Azadi Stadium.

 flickr  View my photo journal

"What happened?", I remarked while looking to the other side of the ticket office where a man in military uniform was beating customers who had just arrived. "This is Iran", came an ambiguous response, one that seems to be a common answer to this common question. We funneled through the attempt of a turnstile, parted with surprisingly little cash through a semicircular hole in an otherwise painted-out window, only to be met with swinging batons seemingly functioning as crowd control. Army officers struck at rears, demanding customers (men only, woman are not allowed to spectate) to clear the exit of the turnstiles. We were being herded, quite literally. This troubled me somewhat but it was only after the match that it became clear that we were treated like animals because we behaved like ones.

The match was to be the last of the season and to also present the home team, Esteghlal, with the 1385 Iranian football league trophy, regardless of the result. Due to this, the stadium exceeded capacity, filling stairwells, pathways and even the perimeter wall. The stadium was dangerously packed and if we weren't imprisoned by our very bodies, then we were by the volumes of security that held us all in. I observed the stadium fill, amused at seeing empty areas occupied by people filling the shaded shapes created by the flood-lights. I heard later that day that over 100,000 people attended, filling the stadium with universal blue attire and much foul language. Even my well bred friends regressed to thugs, polluting the air with obscenities and joining in with the occasional verbal tussle. Supporters fell like dominos as they negotiated the dense crowds and with every person that stood up came a chorus of "SIT DOWN!"s. I was tired, hot and uncomfortable with cigarette smoke relentlessly finding my eyes and people repeatedly falling on my back, yet all the time grateful that I didn't need to exit at any point for the John.

Four orange-shirts arrived in a vacant area on the north-side attracting nearly twenty blue-shirts at pace. After a brief skirmish among a cheering crowd victory was claimed as two blues-shirts - arms raised - stopped to reap the praise from roughly 70,000 jubilant onlooking spectators. This was the only inter-club bout I saw that day, probably due to them being the only orange-shirts available, yet the club-on-club bouts, fueled by the sun's heat, sprouted randomly around the benches during the 3-hour wait.

The sounds and visuals created by the crowd were mesmerizing: incomprehensible roars would drift in an out like trains passing platforms, preceded ever so slightly by the glittering flags and banners that rippled with the sound. Various chants would prompt new gestures only to be halted by further more insults or praises shouted in unison.

The game happened, and seemed to happen relatively quickly, with Esteghlal managing to put in four rather neat goals during the 90-minutes - each time allowing for men to kiss men between the abuse. During extra-time the visiting team slipped one by the goalkeeper, which failed to be noticed by the supporters who had already begun lighting newspapers as a symbol of victory. Darkness arrived, flood-lights lit and firework were set off as the season found its winner.

A tedious 1-hour wait in the car-park upon exiting was made more so by the many competing car sound-systems that blended in an out of a mixture of 4-songs. The highway was blocked carrying many celebrating supporters who leapt between cars, dancing to the limited music. The police seemed only observant to this illegal activity and the ambulance workers were unperturbed by supporters carelessly waving banners while sitting out of the car windows. I might erroneously consider that the day's behavior is unique to Iran but surely it isn't a case of, "this is Iran" but rather, "this is football".



The unworthy.

 flickr  View my photo journal

"Big news... Ahmadinijad is telling the people of big news tonight" exclaimed my unlikely friend at a local fast-food joint whilst forcing a burger through the hole between his beard. Glaring at the big screen in the corner that prompted the statement, over the heads of consuming Iranians, I studied the screen - it could have been one of many things. Rapidly accessing possible scenarios, combined scenarios and sub scenarios, I arrived at a couple of likely situations, both of which raised the pulse a little. "It's good news" replied my friend, leaving me less reassured.

It's a tense time, a complicated time and a confusing time. It might also be an illogical time and nearing a dangerous time. The president announced a technological advancement which seemed less a statement for Iranian ears and more of the continued word play between the paymaster that surrounds this nation. This news came with a smile for me. Although anything involving the word nuclear troubles me, I can see some merits. On the night of Iran entering the "nuclear club", I conducted a research session regarding the related issues and was kept awake in horror till morning prayer. Beyond the obvious, my ear pricked to the very real scenario that is the ironic possibility of a nuclear strike within Iranian border.

"Seed [nuclear] energy is our right" is chanted in support of these advances yet perverted by children and adopted by elders: "Seed [nuclear] energy 200 toman [£0.12] a pack" is one of many. Among the circles I dance between the preferred term is said with a waiting smile, a jape with solidarity showing no illusion as to the wavering fate of the nation.

A few days after, my unlikely friend managed to lure me into what was presented as spectatorship of the not too uncommon scene of gifting the public with cakes and drinks. The day coincided with the anniversary of prophet Mohammad's birthday, which also conicided with the anniversary of Jesus' resurrection, yet my interest lay with seeing a possible celebration of the nation's controversial technological advancement. Our arrival at the patisserie to pick up the order for 100 kilos of cakes informed me of the real plans and the role that was assumed of me. Nonplussed by this turnout, I excitedly joined a team of five men in throwing together an attempt of a display table part-way into an ally off a busy street. There was no beginning to this event and certainly no opportunity for display - no sooner had cake boxes opened than hands attacked. I fell into the role of cup-filler, receiving top-ups to my copper kettle and supplying to plastic cups. The swelling crowd forked at us with their wanting fingers while shunting the table forward and shouting requests - "Two people", "six people", "three people" instructed the people, who's faces I had no time to see. "You've given me too little" announced a displeased recipient while returning his cup. Angry at the developing greed, my unlikely friend spoke out, "You are being ugly before god" as we witnessed people walking off with six cakes per hand and passing two-litre bottles for filling.

We had surprisingly few operational issues during the handing out and I happily ate my first and only cake as it was informed that we'd managed to fill two thousand cups. I had little time to rejoice though, the aftermath added to my upset at the peoples' behavior. We'd managed to destroy the street - I could hear the repeated crunch of plastic cups under pedestrian feet. We fed the unworthy, littered the streets and paid a lot of money for the privilege. I tried not to imagine the scenes should there be a real need for food, should the nation be forced to defend itself.



Vank Armenian Cathedral, Isfahan..

 flickr  View my photo journal

"It's a western tour operator's dream waiting to happen... save a few minor political changes" I remarked after relaying my expeditions within Iran and those with my sister during her visit. "There's just so much to see" I went on before listing other sites I've visited prior to my sister's arrival.

This conversation was to be set in motion one week before, April 1st, whilst in Isfahan for a new year escape. My sister's gigantic porky exceeded my effort: a text message to friends announcing my winning of the British Green Card Lottery. "Yes, I didn't pack my British passport" my sister repeated before continuing to tell me how our mother suggested that it would be unwise to bring her British passport with her to Iran. Yet only after I had indulged her knavery for some time, did it become clear that this was no April fooling. My mother - April's fool maybe - has a continued perspective of Iran being exactly the same as it was when she was here last, some 25 years ago, this occasion not being a pleasant one due to many reasons. Sadly I have heard too many conflicting stories from reputable sources to begin to afford an opinion on the events and I struggle to piece this history together. Although these mashed stories captivate me, I fail to see what inspired my mother to coerce my sister in not taking her best lifeline should the proverbial shit be distributed by rotating blades.

If I am not mistaken, of the four occasions that my sister would need to present a passport during her trip, her exit from Iran would need to be accompanied by her British passport, a VISA would be required should she wish to leave Iran on her Iranian one. With less than a week before she was to depart, we considered plans of getting it posted and managed to get close to doing this should it not have been for little matter of having to notify the British authorities of such action. Even if we had have done this in time, DHL were asking 75 new-English to get it there - a day too late!

Back in Tehran, a day later, I sat with my sister and a friend for lunch in an excessively decorated and fightingly expensive Chinese restaurant. As we toiled with chop sticks, I was interrupted with the familiar voice of my sister's flat-mate that blessed my mobile with this bad news. "My niece is visiting Tehran in two days, she lives in London..." announced the friend, interrupting my sister's sigh as she drew blank on the phone. And so, our-people were to meet their-people and between my sister's crossed-fingers and my "Inshallah"s we made for a nice mid-film moment.

48-hours before departure, after an illicit day of fun and games with friends in the countryside, we made our way back to Tehran to rendezvous with the savior of a niece. This young undergrad still radiated with Englishness prompting a barrage of irrelevant political small-talk that spilled from my mouth in excitement. "How is 'e-Tony e-Belair'?" I enquired mocking the Iranian accent. It had seemed I had missed a lover's tiff with Gordi - news that slipped by me from the daily scouting through British news sites on the filtered world wide web. After exchanging histories of our upbringings we took care of business, exchanged gifts and moved the subject appropriately onto travel. We talked of our recent travels, explaining the amusing story of being given free tickets to sites by female Basijis as an apology for bothering a foreigner (my sister) to correct her headscarf. This was met with huge surprise as with the other Iranians we've told. We relayed amusing stories of the children that followed and stared in silence, possibly intrigued, yet I imagine that they have little contact with foreigners, like most Iranians, and would naturally be curious. This lack of interaction is understandable yet I am learning that all sides have such a wealth of history and beauty to see, "there's just so much of it" I repeated in conclusion.



As my sister is in town I asked her write the latest entry:


On Si o Seh Pol, Isfahan.

 flickr  View my photo journal

"25 years!" my brothers pointed out when I arrived at Tehran's main airport - Mehrabad. I was 4 years old then - I don't have many memories before this age, but I have seen the photographic evidence and heard many stories!

I was little nervous when landing and going through passport control, as I had been warned there would be a small family precession waiting in arrivals, but after collecting my baggage I was relieved to see only my two brothers, father and step-mother greeting me with a bunch of flowers.

My first morning was spent going to a local park, before which I noticed that my short denim-jacket was creating quite a stir due to my rear being not so literally on display! Unfortunately I had only brought short jackets as I was only aware of covering arms, legs and hair. Once a 'manteau' was purchased and discretely swapped behind a tree and we were on our way.

Following an afternoon nap (something my father likes to take regularly!) we went to my grandmother's house to meet some of the family. I was a little anxious about this moment as I had not seen these relatives for so many years. This was especially odd as they seemed to vividly remember me as a young girl whereas my memories were so vague.

First to see me was my grandmother ("Mudar Bozorg" as she is known) who greeted me in Farsi, followed by "how ahrr ya?" - one of her two English phrases, I later gathered. I mumbled back some Farsi and kissed her three times on the cheeks. I was then introduced to my aunt, uncle and cousins (who also live with my grandmother) and was similarly greeted with three kisses by my aunt and a hand shakes from the men - but only when their hand was offered as I later learned was correct. Soon after I met another of my father's brothers and respective family, whom unlike other family who have been to England, I have not seen since my last visit. My aunt was very pleased to see me, taking a liking to my hair (straight and in a short bob, quite unusual in Iran I've noticed) and making comments regarding my build relative to the other family members.

The evening was pretty much what I expected, due to what I'd heard from David's previous visits and the few Iranian ways I had experienced whilst growing up: sitting on the floor to eat; everyone helping dish up and tidy away and lots of talking over one another. Whilst sitting before the food I became confused by the appropriate etiquette, at first I wondered whether to wait to start eating before everyone was present (as would be expected in England), yet everyone tucked in with disregard.

As it was the new year just before I arrived, the streets were rather quiet, so I was yet to see the famed madness on the roads as we traveled around. The next few days were spent either at the family sports complex or round people's houses for "Aid Didani". This tradition is where friends and family visit one another while indulging in fruit, nuts and sweets with the odd occasion where one returns the favour. Two or three of these within a day became hard work, particularly when I have no idea what the conversations were about! While doing the rounds, one of the things I noticed was that sons and daughters remain with their parents until they are married, which is not as soon in their life as I initially thought.

For the past four days we have been in the old capital of Iran - Isfahan. Here we visited various galleries, exhibitions, mosques, bazaars and even a church. As the new year was still being celebrated it was extremely busy (I got to see the mad driving and the aftermath of a couple of crashes!), particularly on Sunday as it was the 13th day (the end of the holiday known as "Sisda be da") of the new year where one normally takes to the outdoors and dines among nature. The dress in Isfahan is a little more modest than that of Tehran, which could have explained why I got stared at quite a lot, or maybe this was because I seemed foreign, as I could understand no other reason why so many people gazed. On a couple of occasions the religious police - Basij - asked me to fix my headscarf yet when they were told by my father that I was a tourist from England they made swift apologies even gave us free entry to one of the mosques!

I have found the Iranian food to be a little monotonous as one can't get a quick sandwich or a light snack - and obviously there is no alcohol so this is a two-week detox for me! Another noticeable difference to England is the condition of the roads and paths - Claims Direct would have a field day with "no win no fee" cases! But along with many other things in Iran, the poor conditions will be attended one day, "inshallah".

I find Iranian folk very contradictory - within the home they can't do enough for each other and won't let you leave, plying one with gifts, but on the roads and around the streets it's everyman-for-himself, yet when it comes to helping with directions I noticed, they don't hesitate in responding!

Finally, I would like to add, should I ever live in Iran, I would find socialising very hard due to unrelated men and women not being able to mix freely. And I note, where women are restricted in their clothing, they seem to make up for it in other ways - namely by wearing a LOT of makeup, having very high hair-dos (which seem to correlate with wealth) and wearing varying degrees of bleached-blonde highlights. Similarly, men also like to groom themselves by either matching the height of the ladies hair or growing it long and slicking lots of gel through their mullets.

I heard news that I may go to a "gathering" this week so am looking forward to seeing the illicit culture for my generation! Other than this I am eager to see more sites in Tehran and fill the memory on the digital camera.