“You are welcome to put your feet on my eyes but I’m worried my eyelashes will bother you.” This is an Iranian folk-saying that conveys how hospitable the Persians are towards visitors, who are seen as a gift from God.
My daughter and I have slipped out of our hotel room and are hitting the streets of Kashan. It is just on dark and a stream of white cars is heading into town. All along the sidewalk free soup is being stirred in large vats and ladled into bowls which runners carry on trays to revelers in their cars. It’s like a giant soup drive-in. We are instantly folded into these proceedings, handed a tasty bowl of thick green soup – which tastes of mint, beans, pasta and chickpeas – shown a place to sit, and an English-fluent explainer fills us in on the details. It’s “falling in love with the last Imam” soup he tells us. What a lovely name for a soup.
On another occasion the “magic tour bus” drives four hours into the Zagros ranges, rain pelting and mud slewing down the mountainsides. The word is that the Bakhtiari tribes-people are pausing in their spring migration to dance a special stick-dance for us. The Bakhtiari still lead a nomadic lifestyle, pitching their black tents, planting their staple crops and tending their animals on the move. The primal drum beat starts off slow and melodic but steadily gathers momentum to build what feels like a cone of sound becoming rounder and rounder until we are up on our feet dancing with the nomads. A falling-into-it Margaret Mead moment, while outside lightning flashes and thunder bounces between escarpments. Atmospheric or what, though I see the branded world has crept in when I spot the Nike swoosh peeping out from one dancer’s otherwise traditional costume.
Later, at the iconic ruins Persepolis, the women-aren’t-allowed-to-dance rule is broken again. Inside the ladies loo four or five stout, scarfed Iranian women spontaneously start to clap the beat and bust out their moves, folding us in, in between pees that is. Once again all separation dissolves as they teach us their beloved Persian dance, first inside the toilets then outside near the sad remains of the Tent City, the fiscal folly that doomed the last Shah back in 1979. We are dancing across the pages of history making so much noise the gentlemen next door are alerted. With amusement they join our ensemble of rain-dancers at Persepolis. ‘It’s a wonder you weren’t arrested’ comments Maureen, our tour leader, later.
We glimpse something of Iran’s darker side at the martyr’s cemeteries, where on sacred Fridays white cars cram onto a freeway that is dotted with flower-sellers. At the martyrs’ cemeteries, families unpack a picnic atop the memorial site of their loved son, or daughter, taken by the disastrous Iraq-Iran war.
On a lighter note, after visiting poets’ tombs in Shiraz we are having carrot floats and rosewater faloodeh (a serious ice-cream adventure where no taste buds have gone before) when an olden-day bus full of schoolgirls pulls up alongside. At seeing us, the bus rocks with their giggling. And on the night-time streets of big cities we are given free sangak, Iran’s national flatbread cooked on a bed of hot river stones, the taste of which takes some beating.
What is the main thing I shall take from my second trip to Iran, asks a fellow pilgrim. It is this. The Persians seem to have the capacity to be fully in love, fully in grief, fully in joy … fully in the moment. “Fully” is “a language in the artists mind”, as they put it poetically. Many of us in New Zealand don’t have the equivalent cultural supports to be fully folded in: no shrines, no weekly rituals, no altars – none of the symbolic, collective rest of it.
My daughter and I had the time of our lives being openly, warmly and solidly folded and stitched into the fabric of Iranian life. Despite the risks of geopolitical tensions, earthquakes and dust storms, being in Iran reminded me how the soul is nourished by simple things: meaning, connection, seasonal rhythm, firm boundaries, having a purpose, sharing food with family and guests. Anyone who has not experienced Iranian hospitality doesn’t know what they are missing. Nowhere in the world but Persia does the host invite your feet to step upon their eyes, perhaps a metaphor for seeing more sensitively. Most of all I miss their beautiful manners like “please excuse my back” for which the appropriate comeback is:
love is beautiful from all angles”.
Annette Rose is a registered nurse, doctor’s wife, mother & grandmother, social anthropologist, creative entrepreneur & storyteller. She lives in Dunedin, New Zealand.