Tehran, Iran


I'm sitting in the office of my friend's husband Abbas using a computer that is spare while the office is closed for lunch. How did I get here, and what have I been doing for the last two months?



Christmas in the Desert

I'll start with Christmas. I got totally ill the night I finished my last news update and spent two days languishing, but then I went back to the desert near Wadi Rum in southern Jordan. Ali, the guide for Alexa, Rachel and me in early December, had said I would be welcome, and that I could meet his parents and younger sisters, who still live in tents out in the desert grazing their goats, moving and changing their tents between summer and winter. So I got to Rum village on the afternoon of December 23rd. After a quick phone call from the village to say Happy Christmas to my family (who were in the process of also succumbing entirely to flu), we drove out to the desert. That night however, his parents were not at home (though a couple of sisters had been left to guard the goats and camels). We drove on to meet his parents, and to feast at the camp of some friends, where I tasted goat for the first time (a bit tough, though nice tasting, but it took AGES to get through me...). Ali first roasted me a small piece to taste, but the dish of the night was mensaf. For this, the goat meat was simmered and simmered, in an ever-reducing milk-based liquid in an absolutely HUGE pot on the fire. When ready, it is served on an equally massive metal plate that is covered first with bedouin bread, then a mountain of rice, and finally the meat on top, with the remaining juice poured over and served on the side as a 'soup'. Maybe because I was eating in the women's tent, and we got the dish once the men were done with it, I was spared famed eyeballs, etc..... The next couple of days were very different from a Flynn family Christmas - on the afternoon of Christmas Eve I spent several hours alone: reading, snoozing, and enjoying the quiet of the desert. That night there was an impromptu concert by one of Jordan's best lute players, who comes from Rum, with a mixture of local people and the random few 'westerners' to be found, at the camp of a French woman who works for a tour operator (no tours in town over Christmas). On Christmas Day morning I fired a gun for the first time (at a stone target, not an animal or person…). Naturally, I missed. Ali and his friends were planning on going hunting - they would race barefoot up mountains clutching their rifles at the slightest glimpse of something moving when they were not busy scaling rock faces, sitting round the fire and singing to each other, or cooking. The ibex is spoken of in hushed but excited tones, but smaller beasts will do.



Eid al-Fitr with Bedouins in Jordan

I went back to the desert yet again for Eid Al-Fitr, or 'Muslim Christmas' as they referred to it as to me - the celebrations at the end of Ramadan. At the end of my visit over Christmas, Ali's cousin M'salem (who is married to Ali's sister Fatima - something I have encountered loads, also here in Iran) had invited me for this. Ali met me at the Rum turn-off on the Amman to Aqaba highway in the early evening on the 6th January. After confirming that the Eid was indeed the following day from a TV announcement at Fatima and M'Salem's home in Rum village, Ali and I headed out to his family's camp, arriving around 11.30 pm. His mother and a couple of sisters were still awake, and one of them, Thoreeya, proceeded to decorate my hands with henna (part of the dressing up for the special occasion) while I was virtually asleep. I then bedded down in the women's section, alongside Ali's wife Alia, his mother and his sisters. The following day began before dawn - I could hear the murmur of some of the women as they started the first fire of the day. The camp faces east, sheltered by a large rock hill behind. A portion of the tent was opened, so that we could see the sun as it rose over the horizon. We drank frothy hot sweet tea with fresh sheep and goat's milk, and then ate lots and lots of sweets. The women showed me how to make their thin flat bread (I think they were impressed with my attempt though it was rather uncontrolled), and I watched Ali's younger brother Atiug kill, skin and gut the sheep that we were to tuck into later in the day. Once the women started beautifying themselves, I was made up, lent a dress (long, black, no waistline, and lots of green sequins) and also put on my new black scarf, bought the previous morning in Amman as part of my purchase of hejab to take to Iran. As the morning wore on, Ali's two elder brothers and their wives and children arrived, and later in the day his two married sisters (Fatima and Beerkheet) arrived with their husbands and children too - in time for the eating of the sheep, also cooked as mensaf. Friends and family came and went from the camp in jeeps throughout the day. I spent only a small amount of time in the men's area, where they pound, brew and drink coffee as well as tea, and when some men arrived that weren't family I retreated back to the women's area, upon suggestion. At one point one visiting friend came with a tourist couple. Both the man and woman were shown to the men's area. It was very weird for me - I was hiding in the women's section in my garb, peering out at them and their cameras through the gap between the wall and the roof of the tent!!!! One of the best bits of the day was towards its end. A lot of other piling into jeeps was going on, and Atiug asked me if I wanted to come and watch TV. I said ok, so jumped in too (a bit difficult in the long black dress) and we bounced away from the camp. Where to? To an area out in the open so that the reception would be better than in the camp!! The TV was powered by the battery of the jeep, and in the twilight round a small fire we watched the latest episode of some very dramatic drama: about a dead man that is in fact just in hiding, who sneaks back and impregnates his wife. That week she was having to bear the wrathful consequences from his family while not owning up to her husband's not-actually-dead state. Typical. I had impressed Naif, one of the nephews, by kicking his football as the TV was getting set up. This meant I was invited to join the many small children in their game the following morning - when my true lack of football colours was revealed, to their disappointment. I also spent a couple of nights back in the village: with M'salem and Fatima, being taken by him on the seasonal visits to some of his extensive family in a nearby village (M'salem's father is a successful rock climber tourguide and has 3 wives and many children), and teaching her some English, and with Ali and Alia in their home - Alia speaks superb English, so there was no teaching her. Yet again sad to leave friends.



New Year with Friends

The week around New Year was very relaxed - with Nicky, Kim and Sam in Sinai in Egypt, staying in huts on the beach by the Red Sea. On New Year's Eve, Kim and I spent five and a half hours climbing up and down Mount Sinai. Even though it was December it was very hot and sunny! And it felt groovy to be up where Moses chatted with God and received the Ten Commandments. On New Year's Day we sat, ate, fished, and swam. Before Kim went back to the States early on the 5th, we also spent time in a national park, swimming in pools by waterfalls, which felt very filmish. Nicky came back to Jordan with me, and we visited Petra. It was absolutely icy windy weather and we realised why wind-cheaters are so called - Nicky didn't have one and felt the blasts much worse than I did in my Gore-Tex. It was my second visit, but it was just as incredible as with Rachel and Alexa, and I noticed more carvings and caves than I had the first time round since I was more prepared for the enormity of it. It remains the most impressive ancient city that I have ever visited and I would happily go there again and again as there is still loads I haven't seen. I think I mentioned in my last news that I wanted to take a boat to southern Iran from Oman, having first visited the parents of my brother-in-law Toby, who live in Bahrain. Well, it turned out that the dates I was planning to be in the Gulf were the same days that the Tylers were going to be in the throes of moving to Dubai. So I just got a visa for Oman, and flew there, very expensively, on account of not being able to cross Saudi Arabia by road without the accompaniment of a man (plus there is no road between Saudi Arabia's Empty Quarter and Oman, so I would have had to get a visa for UAE too to get through). Oman is supposed to be one of the most interesting places in the Gulf for the tourist - and if so, I am not sure I am too keen to spend much time in many other of said States!! Hmmm maybe that is not fair, as I was not there for long, and had to spend much of that time on logistics.




Task number one was to track down the passenger boat to Iran from Muscat. After several phone calls I found out that it had ceased operations four years ago due to lack of demand!!! Alternatives: there are boats from Dubai and Sharjah in UAE, but I had no visa for UAE. So I got the forms from the embassy, but was told that Australians need a sponsor. I phoned multiple expensive hotels in Dubai that supposedly will sponsor, but they told me that they couldn't just send a fax to the embassy in Oman, they can only sponsor if they do the whole process and charge set fees, take several days, etc etc. The boat was leaving on Monday, it was by now Saturday, and the red tape wheels were just too slow for me. For about two minutes I contemplated just going to Musandem, an Omani jungly peninsula separated from the rest of the country, which itself sounded fascinating and which is very close to Iran, assuming there had to be some boats going from there - officially or no. But when told that yes, there were Iranians going in and out of Musandem, but the 'out' part is typically under police escort having been caught smuggling, I decided not to waste more time and money, and sucked up another expensive flight all the way to Tehran - ironically changing planes in Dubai, the country that had proven too difficult to get into by road.

So what is worth mentioning about Oman, apart from the costs I incurred getting there and leaving? Well, it has some stunning unspoilt beaches in the far south of the country. When offices and embassies closed for Thursday and Friday, I took a 12 hour bus through the desert (not scenic like Jordan's, though some very cool sweeping yellow dunes for some of the way) to Salalah, the country's second city. There was a group of 15 middle aged Italians also on the bus, and I had the unfortunate experience of having to sit next to one for most of the way there. She was for sure one of the rudest women I have ever met! Moan, moan, moan about the lack of attractions in Oman. Annoyed that my Italian was not better (bloody hell, I had spent the previous two months getting my head round Turkish and Arabic, what did she expect??? And she didn't speak any English). And then asked me if I had been sleeping with animals!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I had had a shower at about 1 am the night before (the bus left at 6 am) so for once my personal hygiene was ok!!! Then I realised what it was. My windcheater was on my lap, and since I had just come from the desert, and many wood fires, in Jordan, it, along with all my stuff, had absorbed the lovely smell of the woodsmoke! So I moved the coat to the luggage rack above our heads, to protect her poor nostrils, and she shrieked and shoved, first removing her own fleece so that it was not contaminated. Apparently she has been to Yemen. Shame she ever came back if you ask me.

I meanwhile nearly went to Yemen myself while in the south. I hired a car (more money, but this time DEFINITELY worth it to be driving myself somewhere for the first time in months) and swept along the coastline past these amazing beaches, and Oman's famed incense trees, up into the rock mountains. I stopped at one point to take a photo, and realised that I was near a checkpoint. Assuming that this was the start of border formalities for Yemen, and not having a visa for that place either (though it sounded amazing from the guidebook, and I have only been put off temporarily by the 'advice' printout in the Australian Embassy in Tehran, which says that all Australians should leave immediately and not consider attempt to go there), and realising that I should head back towards Salalah to not run out of petrol, I turned around. Next thing I knew as I went back down the hairpin bends (you know I'm not the most conscientious rear mirror observer) was that a camouflaged tank was behind me, and the men inside it wanted me to pull over!!!! Rather nervously I did so, and then followed the tank back to the checkpoint, where I had to explain myself to the officer in charge of this sentry-point. This time I realised that I had virtually photographed a camouflaged machine-gun post when I had stopped before!!! And I had thought it was just a wild camel...... Once my clearly naive motives were revealed, I sat and had a cup of coffee with the officer, who was apparently rather bored, before returning to the beaches where I sat and wrote my diary. The other interesting thing about Oman for me was the delicious Indian food, as the country seems to be mostly working thanks to Indians. In Muscat a friend of Toby's parents had taken me to an absolutely superb North Indian restaurant, set high up above the shore. Then in Salalah I felt like I was back in south India, as I ate dinner, breakfast, and then an early dinner again at a restaurant run by a family from Kerala. Vegetarian thali, idly, vada, dosa, milk sweets, etc - Sarra you will understand my relishing!!!!

OK, I'm out of time now and I have not even started on Iran yet! I'll save that, and my plans for the next few weeks, till I get to an Internet Cafe in Turkmenistan......



UPDATE: 16th February, Ashgabat, Turkmenistan:

No internet cafes in Turkmenistan yet, apparently, but I am borrowing a computer and an email account at the American Center very quickly to send this first instalment of my latest news. I paid the first bribe of my life yesterday getting in at the border! And just bought a new toothbrush for about 10 p. The sun is shining and Ashgabat pollution levels seem nowhere near Tehran's. But I don't speak a word of Russian (problem). I hope to have a chance to check my own e-mail, and write and send news of my excellent month in Iran, and what I'm doing in central Asia, from Uzbekistan next week some time.

Lots of love,


  The tiles on the journal pages are from the Masjed-e-Emam in Iran. |Click here to view the original photo|