The knife dance as performed by Reza The Styx

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"Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you", we sang to a rendition of the Iranian version of the song. I looked on as we also made our way through the Iranian version of events, nearly forgetting that it actually was my birthday and the glowing face we all looked on at was celebrating four days late. "Who's this one from?", shouted the helper as they sat before the recipient; perfume, a fancy shirt and ornamental modernist candles revealed themselves with kisses and hugs returned in kind. Group photos were arranged before the cake was cut and distributed. "Happy birthday", I wished the host as she smiled back with thanks; I restrained from mentioning it was actually mine.

Following the relief of finishing my weekly Farsi class I was picked up by a friend, "happy fucking birthday man!", he reminded me before suggesting a plan to fill out the otherwise unplanned afternoon. "Let go find some chicks", he prompted to which a place sprung to mind with embarrassing ease. "Those girls are checking us out", he said under his breath to which I later look to my 3 O'Clock as instructed. Two of them later left the cafe; "that's a sign man", I was informed, to which he also up and left, leaving me to contemplate if being freshly thirty really was too old for this type of thing. Both the girls and my friend returned and the text messaging began. "Dude! she says, 'I like your friend', I'm gonna give your number; tell her it's your birthday". A text message arrived for me; "Happy birthday", I read out to my friend. Reluctantly I played along and called the number as suggested; "they'll meet us outside in a few minutes", I summarised as we settle-up and left. Conscious of the legal and religious obstacles we quickly greet them to rearrange a rendezvous. "We're out celebrating our friend's birthday", says the one who likes me, to which I inform her it's mine on this day too. "Oh no, hers was the other day", she corrects me as we discretely slip off for safety. "OK, it was a pleasure meeting with you", my friend interjects in response to the girls' suggested plan, "we've got a birthday party to go to", he adds, and thus I guess it goes.

"Happy birthday Daveed", my friends greeted me as they arrived one-by-one to my house to celebrate the dying moments of my twenties. "It's not my birthday" I remind them, repeating the dying hours of the twenties part, "my birthday is tomorrow", I remind them as I'm handed various paper bags with gifts within.

Dance away a decade of decadence. Dance dammit, dance

'Dance away the dying moments of his twenties. Dance away a decade of decadence. Dance dammit, dance', it was written on the amusing invites made by a friend. I felt slightly safer having these printed and distributed knowing that he'd forgotten to add a time and date for the event.

"Daveed, why are you not dancing?", exclaimed a friend, interrupting my playing host. "Can it go louder?", "put on the Iranian music" and "when's the salsa coming on?", they came as I struggled with my make-shift set-up. "When will we do the cake", they came, "when will we do the presents", they came as I jumped between various music genres and failed to pleased.

"Who's this one from", shouted my helper as he sat before the me. The eyes glared on as I was worried they would: I'd needed to maintain a consistent level of surprise and gratitude. Books, traditional bowl, books, traditional shirt and more books revealed themselves before I gave my gratitude speech in two languages.

"Who's going to do the cake dance", shouted a guest as the traditional beats fired up while I sat before the 'Happy Birthday David' cake. My house mate then pulled off some traditional shuffles with a knife being delicately dangled before me. Tradition has it that I'm to be denied the knife three times as it's danced before me; I got two traditional shuffles before the slicing and distributing began.

"Happy birthday", they wished the host as he smiled back with thanks; the host restrained from mentioning it wasn't actually his birthday.

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A recent expedition to update my passport - it must be 5-years ago that I first came to visit as an adult.

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"That was something I wanted to ask you...", interjected the more European sounding of the two as a microphone crossed my face and the direction of the eyes came my way. A perfectly intellectual sounding and possibly interesting question was being formed but they might as well have asked in any other European language as I wasn't able to absorb it. The mic fell before me, "are you still not wanting to say anything David?", asked the main interviewee, to which the mention of my name seemed to not help, "don't worry, keep it rolling", I replied and with complete disregard to the question, I spilled out the pent-up counterpoints to my friend's prior commentary.

"I wanted to come back on a point my dear friend was making", I begun, noticing the nearby table of customers re-show interest as a new mouth fired-up. "I often get contacted by the western media showing an interest in the Iranian blogging scene and I wonder if they kind of project a romanticism in it", I added, repeating a point made in my initial contact with our international guests. "I'm not really qualified to answer in any case as I don't read blogs in Persian; because of my level of competence, and there's very little else that interests me that is written in English", I somewhat embarrassingly revealed. I returned to another point I'd mentioned in my prior correspondence, "I think it is too simple to think that politics is affected by the politically orientated; such thinking neglects to appreciate a more subtle and possibly more powerful undercurrent".

I spoke of the sweeping fad that is Yahoo 360; a social networking site that took over from the blocked Orkut; currently evading blocking by virtue of the inability to form groups, as my friend later pointed out. I'm not a subscriber to this fad but often hear it spoken about and frequently find a fellow colleague at work obsessing over correspondence or tweaking new photos of himself. I also spoke of Flickr, which is blocked here, but has a simple way around it. With Flickr, I mentioned a point that has always interested me so much with this site, this is the unifying subject matter or photography. With this cover, all manner of activity is catered for without arousing suspicion; in the case of the Iranians, this can be making new inter-gender relationships as well as delving into politics. I referred to the Flickr community, which strike me as a relatively unified, yet wholly charming bunch of people, and made a point that such active use of these sites help substitute restriction in both the culture and laws.

With such situations whereby some news organisation or another expresses an interest in the romantically suppressed Iran, I normally get turned off; if only by feeling that I'm expected to confirm western perspectives. Similarly, I watched a series of NBC reports from Iran the other day, whereby it was suggested that Iran, "has a long way to go", referring to the segregation on the innercity buses*, they explained this half-truth further, "women – by law – have to sit at the back". Well yes, but men by law have to sit in the front, and they failed to mention that the metro is unisex with even a special section for women only. With these western goggle firmly wrapped around their heads I get frustrated in meeting the requests, and not to mention paranoid for my personal safety, for which I've adapted various automatic responses.

As we arrived at the agreed coffee shop location for the interview I realised that I'd once again forgotten to get and give descriptions of how we looked. "Excuse me, are you...", we unsuccessfully asked as several foreign looking possibilities sat around. For the occasion I had invited several similarly situated friends, yet sneakily I'd not informed either party of the eventuality. With this, the plan was to deflect my input, increase the quality of results and maybe to have safety in numbers if all turned out to be not as it seemed. Upon meeting the journalists, no evidence was provided to prove their associations and a few interesting details were given that seemed odd for them to have not mentioned before; all of which not helping ease my mind. Thankfully though, common ground was a plenty and although certain points roused me as they unsuspectingly (I hope) triggered sensitive points, I managed to settle.

With a slight lapse in security, the whole of the regime would surely be gone – I was sitting in a dream American target

Both my friend and I, between us, seemed to provide an interesting juxtapose of points during the recording, to which much of my friend's words were new to me. He mentioned a declining interest in politically motivated blogging for Iranians, as the results and threats do not weigh up. It was suggested that the fate of the nation seems beyond control between elections and thus a certain futility is felt in such writing; certainly as friends of his have been punished for such activity. Among his incite he presented a fascinating volume of technical facts concerning internet activity in Iran that had both me and our international guests wide-eyed with interest.

My friend concluded on an amusing point, "we know the president is how he is, why write and complain when it's beyond you to do much about it; it's stating the obvious, like saying that Donald Duck is a cartoon duck; that he's a character by Disney and he can talk – you know, nothing changes". And with this summary the romanticism was surely dispelled as we all laughed an awkward laugh.
*Only on the innercity buses - intercity buses are mixed.

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My panoramic effort of the group shot - click above to see the full effect.

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"My name is Reza; ID; 'The Styx', S.T.Y.X.", spelled out my friend before the camera made its way round the ring people to me, "my name is Daveed; ID; D.D.M.M.Y.Y.Y.Y", I added in confusion; wondering if I'd numbered my 'Y's correctly. "You forgot the forward slashes", reminded a fellow member before as we moved on to other members; "...full-stop, colon, 'Saha', colon, full-stop", and then, "...'Thirsty Fish', greater-than sign, equals sign, smaller-than sign, greater-than sign".

This tedious introduction was as difficult to relay above as it was to sit through. It was a getting-to-know-you moment for the now regular Flickr photographer's gathering, which in this case, was hosted in a lush public garden in up-town Tehran. I'd first joined Flickr to help extend beyond my words – or vice-versa – just before coming to Iran and was a short time after that that the Iranian Flickr community saw its first gathering. I received an invite to that occasion and politely declined. It was a simple decision for me; the site is forbidden in Iran and in those tender early days, where I'd yet to settle my behaviour and understand the boundaries, it seemed perverse that I should expose myself. Several gatherings on from this, Flickr hosts – in just one case – a group of over 1000 Iranian (related) users with over 22,000 photographs of which around 30 of those Tehran users joined me for my first experience.

we were friends; in the virtual sense, I'd been commenting on their work for maybe over a year and now there they were before me; with their wife, child and a grinning face

For this occasion I was only nervous at the thought of greeting the many new faces, and thankfully not for being carted off by a tipped-off police squad. It only occurred to me upon my first introduction that the game of replacing names with IDs was going to make things a little trickier. "I'm Daveed – 'D.D.M.M.Y.Y.Y.Y'", I repeated, struggling to mouth out this damn alias; this would be followed with a fellow member mouthing out various character combinations in return. It was funny, we were friends; in the virtual sense, I'd been commenting on their work for maybe over a year and now there they were before me; with their wife, child and a grinning face.

Americans can only try and have such a smiling group of friendly faces; it was unreal, we were 'virtually' family. We darted around, photographing the garden, photographing each other photographing the garden; some of us photographing the photographers of the photographers. "Go stand over there", one would ask, "sit on in this area", put another as digital clicks and analogue snaps sounded around me. And then there came the traditional group shot.

I'd seen many group shots arriving in the Iranian groups, with numbers increasing, associations growing, and now, it was my turn to be another face in the crowd. The nested photographic situation arrived with this moment too, as we arranged ourselves into the photographers and the photographers of the photographers etc. I did both before sitting and smiling; both at making this moment and in the knowledge of being able to follow the follow-on tradition of being able to add a note around my face when the photos were later posted: "Me! It was great meeting you all; I look forward to the next".

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Our Turkish friend standing on the wall of Babak Fort.

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"We only have chicken kebab", informed the waiter as we sat at an uncleared table of a rapidly emptying restaurant part way up a mountain. Whether this news meant that our previous alternative of eggs was no longer coming we were yet to find out, but things were looking up as when we entered they had nothing to offer at all. Between this Mad Hatter lunch ordeal our traveling team was united with its needy pillar as our previously unseen guest had finally found us. We were to play host to a Turkish tourist during our three day excursion to Iran's Turk (known as 'Azeri' to the locals - as in, relating to Iran/Azerbaijan) regions – making the most of yet another Islamic holiday.

Our rendezvous arrangements proved as backward as our lunch arrangements as we missed our new friend in the main city of Tabriz and had to guide him to an early stage of our trek. His arrival couldn't have come sooner, he became the key needed to unlock to mystery of the local behavior. As he arrived our soup arrived, one single large bowl of it - at the beginning we wanted soup, then they didn't have any, then they didn't have anything - now we had soup, no eggs and everything we'd initially ordered, including the previous customer's food that still hadn't been cleared.

It should be noted that the Turks are to the Iranians what the Irish are to the English and as we settled up and headed off the many Iranian jokes about the Turks started to gain credibility.

We were like some comedy outfit, one deaf and one blind, getting results in a slap-stick style

In theory our newly found friend was to be guided by us Iranian folk as he upturned the stones of Iranian culture, yet things went much the other way round. The regional language is Turk, of which 30% of Iran speak (including my family), not the Farsi that we city kids speak. Of course, our new friend can't speak Farsi but his mother tongue is Turkish, which is maybe over 90% the same as Turk, forgiving the kooky accent. Thankfully however we all spoke English and for a rare occasion I was the good all-rounder, knowing a shameful amount of each. Between us we made a triangle of entertainment for the locals, discussing in Farsi, conveying in English and presenting in Turk - only to then do it in reverse. We were like some comedy outfit, one deaf and one blind, getting results in a slap-stick style.

"Don't be tired", "don't be tired!", and then another group of trekkers passed, "don't be tired", I politely state again. This aroused outbursts of laughter from our new friend with each kooky Turk tone that came from me. I was sincere, it's what we do when hiking, maybe it was the fact that I had no idea what was being said back at me. During this hefty hike we all became acquainted as we guessed our way through the cool cloud covered mountain. Our new friend is blessed with warmth and honesty that allows for his charismatic and sometimes over-familiarity to escape evasion. Most of the trek he would be in some way attached to us, or even passers by - he was as comfortable with English as he was with his hands when talking.

Our trek was to take us to a place called Babak Fort, a historical location known for a time the locals fended off the Arabs. The site was hidden by winding paths, steep climbs and also low cloud during our assent - thankfully the cool moist air took the strain out of the climb, gathering in our hair like dew on a spiders web. We deceptively arrived on several occasions of which I'm sure was the intentional design, yet upon our eventually arrival there was little to see. I mean, literally there was little to see, 5-metres ahead was what was available to our eyes and that which could be seen was restoration work.

Groups of trekkers joined us in this short lived relief, snacks and drinks were had as at least three mobiles squealed out traditional songs. A group of odd haircuts and clothes played the worst of it, between their chats and sing-alongs they cleared the plastic remains from previous visitors. "Is that Mostafazedeh...?", asked our musical buff in Farsi, "Talk Turk!", replied the haircut in Turk before they reached a chorus in unison. In response to this hostility our new Turkish friend's hands came out the pocket again and connections were made - it appeared that we'd stumbled upon the Azeri separatist. There was a long trade of words between the Turk and Turkish neighbours, a lot of touchy feely yet understanding seemed to be met. "What was that all about?", I asked as the deaf man to the blind. "I'll tell you later", he responded as I led us back down the mountain.

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My brother's final collection show at the RCA.

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"Hey, Superman?" inquired the boy standing in my path down London's notorious Brick Lane. He aimed me up and repeated himself, "...how's it going Superman?". Out of flattery and sarcasm I chose the latter, guessing this was some kind of taunt. We scuffed passed one another with me choosing to ignore things either way. Again he mistakenly addressed me causing me to get a second opinion from friends and family with me. "What?" I abruptly responded while turning on the spot, "you looking for a place to eat?". I hate those street ushers, "no, we've just eaten".

"You see Dave, it's awkward, I've been squatting for the last year or so since coming to London", my friend explained after I inquired as to why he was so coy around my family moments before. "I tried breaking a new one the other day but had problems, I've been staying with friend since the police found out the last one". And with this began my lesson on how to start a squat, Squatter's Rights and planning permission problems for landlords.

"Hold up boys", I heard over my left shoulder as we passed a group of part BMXed first generation Asian locals. I was walking with my friend towering over me, he was part leant on my shoulder and swinging his leg with every step (no doubt this was easier than tying the lace). "The law says you can't break and enter a place, but if a place is open and empty you can stay there providing you do a few things...". He stopped, he then flinched, as I looked to see why I felt something hit my right shoulder. For the second time I turned on the the spot, "what?".

"yeah what you doing like being gay and stuff"

"What you doing? What you being gay for like?", said one of the eight or so youths consciously limping along with chips in hand. "What's you problem?" I inquired in rage as my friend encouraged me to leave it. "We don't like that shit round here", said another, "yeah what you doing like being gay and stuff", added another. I made towards them slightly, "what are you going on about?".

It was all so bizarre, I was walking through one of London's more diverse regions, among a predominantly mixed immigrant community and being enlightened on conduct in my home nation by first generation school boys. Interestingly the Brick Lane area is home to many Muslims and having arrived from the Islamic Republic of Iran I found it especially bizarre that there was less tolerance in how men walk together in London, I mean, the Muslim men in Iran walk together with linked fingers.

"What you fucking doing like, walking like with your arm round each other and shit?", said another. "It's none of your business how I am with my friends...", I shouted back as they walked away seemingly surprised at my challenge. My friend tried to place this moment, nearly going as far as excusing their behavior. We caught them up at the end of the road where they'd gone their separate ways. Two of the boys stood in our path and things evened out.

"Mate, mate, you know like, my friend yeah, you know, he gets like that and shit", the local conduct was subject to negotiation it appeared. "You know what I mean mate, you just shouldn't be doing that shit around here, you know like arm around each other and shit", this boy was alone, his friend had his lips sealed. I heatedly had my two bob's worth which went some way in diffusing my anger and left having the one with the mouth offering matesy hand shakes before leaving this super hero and his floppy sidekick alone.

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An Alam being lifted as sign of respect for Imam Hossein during Moharam.

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"The Iranians are not blessed with the greatest of capital cities", I reflect while strolling late at night with friends, gaining on the 1, 2, 3 - pause of the Moharam drums. "Tehran has facilities...", a friend responds, "yes, but there's nothing defining, no great landmarks, a tourist could skip through Tehran on the way to Shiraz or Esfahan", I interject. Tips of feathers appeared on the road ahead, lit by the street-lights – reds, yellows and greens braking the dull night and guiding us to the proceedings. We continued listing attractions of Tehran as the beat drew upon us – the Azadi Tower – 1, 2, 3 - pause, Darband – 1, 2, 3 - pause.

The Islamic calendar had once again afforded us with days off, of which we chose to spend in the city of Arak. Packed six to a car we took it in turns to contort for space as we made the short trip a friend's, friend's historic house. If Tehran struggles to inspire an itinerary then Arak is the rotting corpse of a plan that never took off. We concluded this when we chanced upon the defining crossroad that seemed to double the city's size.

the repeated chaining of one's back, the chanting, the lifting of large scaffolding adorned with religious paraphenalia

It was just past this crossroad that the drum beat originated, encroaching on midnight the streets crawled with the now traditional sight of boys checking out girls, girls checking out boys, boys checking on other boys and girl checking the girls checking the boys. There was the more obvious traditional spectacle of Moharam happening centre to the road – oblivious: the repeated chaining of one's back, the chanting, the lifting of large scaffolding adorned with religious paraphenalia – and there was what went on around it. The centre of the road was the man's domain as tradition was observed, squabbling to take the weight of the decorative Alams or in some way assisting in the procession as it slowly rolled down the street, 1, 2, 3 - pause.

Arak's lack of anything kept us inside, comfortably hidden from the serious seriousness of these days. We were captured in a period lost to Iran, walled in the historic house once run by a somebody. Excluding us you would struggle to find anything suggesting we'd reached 1980 but mostly we were somewhere in the early 20th century. I kept looking up, mildly entertained by having to stretch the head back to glance the high ceilings. I also sized the house up by trying to reach into a sprint in the hallways and occasionally trying alternative routes to enter a room. I enjoyed the doors that didn't fit, that scuffed on the floor, didn't lock and gapped holes. I stared at the faces that stared at us from the walls – large mustaches, upright gents lined nicely, wholesome beard, military uniforms – all black and white, interrupting the de-saturated tones of the countless rooms. Arak has at least one place for the itinerary, and I reveled in it during every drum pause.

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