Alistair Caldicott

Iranian Revelations: Shaking Minarets

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Chapter 13 - Back to School with Ali

Every new day in Iran, I would wake up and think I must have already exhausted the possibilities for new discoveries and implausible encounters. But they just kept on coming.

I had some more fun and toil trying to obtain my next bus ticket, getting good, interesting, but usually irrelevant, answers to simple queries. I had no guarantees since nothing on the pieces of paper I had been given had anything signed or written in English. At the end of the process, I was never entirely certain if I had actually exchanged my money for what I originally intended to obtain, or something totally different. Still, the price was once again ridiculously cheap. So, if it wasn't the correct one, I could just buy another one.

Today's newspaper headline was a new slant on the same familiar saga - a picture of an uneasy looking Turn He Blur with the words, "Blair threatens Iran."

As equally as I was building good relationships with many Iranian people, the relationship between our two governments kept deteriorating further and further. It was declining faster than the orange and white cat population of Esfahan.

Apparently, the Iranian President with the silly long name, which no one remembers or can spell, and I struggled to write, "Ahmed in a Jar", had said something wonderfully diplomatic at the World Without Zionism conference in Tehran. He said fairly unambiguously that Israel should be wiped off the face of the map.

As it happened, November 4th was deemed the National Day for Confronting Arrogant World Powers. This was also the day my visa to remain in Iran expired. Do enough illegal things and they will probably extend your visa indefinitely, was Arash's theory. This day was traditionally set aside for anti-Israel protests and looked a good day to be out the country anyway.

Many people forget, or are not aware, that the Israeli President was actually born in Iran, in this city, Yazd. Iran still retains a sizeable Jewish minority; over 20 synagogues still operate in Tehran. In fact, underneath all the official propaganda and mouthing off, there is to some extent, a latent curiosity about Israel, just like there is about America and my own country, Engelestan.

During my time in Iran, so little was known to the outside world about President Ahmedinajad. Lets call him Mr. A. or Mr. "Ahmed in a Jar". Black and white election poster portraits of this very ordinary and unassuming looking man, the son of a blacksmith, were faded and peeling from city walls. Mr. A does not wear a tie because he considers it to be a symbol of Western oppression. In fact, very few people in Iran wear ties. He is a relatively new and inexperienced President who seeks to embody Iran's assertiveness. It is a mystery how he got elected, but around 17 million people voted for him. Although the other two thirds of the electorate seemed to have either voted for his more moderate opponent, Rafsanjani, who the West thought they would be dealing with, or not bothered to vote at all.

He is dangerously unfazed by world opinion. He seems very belligerent, but not politically astute. His serial provocation tactics do not seem well suited to his country's stability. The Tehran stock exchange lost one quarter of its value in his first 6 months.

It is something of a mystery as to how Mr. A obtained power. He is adept at working sympathetic crowds rather than dealing with the complexities of international relations, one similarity he has with George Bush you might say.

His pledges to narrow the gap between rich and poor won him much support. As did promises to fight corruption and big business. He set up a movement called Justice for the Downtrodden. Southern Tehran was particularly fertile ground for his political message. He is very popular in rural areas, which includes around half of all Iranians. Basij is an Islamic volunteer force who mobilised support for him in the election. Basij means "mobilisation of the deprived".

So does his rise symbolise a return to radical Islamisation? Possibly, but it is important to consider, that in the Iranian system, the President does not have total political control over the country. It is a complex system. I remembered what Arash had told me about the President.

"He is just puppet for the mullahs. He must do what they say."

Mr. A has his own personal website called Mardamyar. It means Friend of the People. His history is diverse and chequered. He used to be in the Revolutionary Guards. Some even believe he was involved (indirectly at least) in the hostage taking siege at the American embassy back in 1981. He was also a university lecturer. What I found most amazing was that Mr. A has a doctorate in Traffic and Transportation from Tehran university. From my own personal experiences he seemed very slow to put any of this to effective use in the capital city.

He was briefly mayor of Tehran, when one of his policies involved shutting down fast food restaurants. He insisted city employees had to wear long sleeves and have beards. I don't think this included the women. Perhaps, most scandalously, he ordered a billboard advertising campaign with David Beckham's images on to be removed. He might have had my vote for that policy. Sometimes I wish I could go to a country and avoid David Beckham. He's like Tony Blair; shining representatives of my country, whose images always find a way of cropping up in some unlikely place to greet me.

Iran can be a very easy country to misread. Iran's leaders, if not its people remain loyal to Khomeini's legacy. These leaders may appear dangerous, but they are not necessarily irrational in their calculations. Today's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Khameini does not share Khomeini's charisma or religious authority, so his rule is less absolute. But fresh in my memory of the Iranian people was still their hospitality, quick acceptance and easy intimacy. It is important to distinguish between a country's leaders and its people.

I met a man named Ali. It happened a lot in Iran. He was a local English teacher and I took him up on his offer to take me to his school with him. Just as I was fumbling about with the seatbelt in the front seat of his car a very familiar noise attacked me at high volume from multiple angles. Chris The Burgh was back.

"I love." he enthused. "Is he your favourite too?"

"I've become reasonably well acquainted with him in recent times." I replied.

It was almost as if Ali knew what had been inflicted on me in my short, but eventful, Iranian car auto music history. This time though, the experience was intensified by Ali's unabashed abandon to sing, or shout, along with all the words.

"Laydee in REEEDDDDD!"

Fortunately, the journey from Yazd to the small town of Taff down the road was not long.

On the way we pulled over and five of his fellow teachers, all females, piled into the tiny back seat of his Kia Pride. These teachers were paid less than £1 an hour, but this still went a relatively long way in Iran. The cost for a child to be schooled was around £10 per term.

Soon, after a good deal of adolescent giggling, I was sitting at the front of one of Ali's classes. They were all girls. No time to relax though. After taking the register, Ali invited my contributions to the "Grammar Focus" exercise which he was enthusiastically leading. Then we progressed to going through some "Simple Statements with Irregular Verbs", before tackling a reading comprehension on the American pop singer Ricky Martin.

Everyone practised chanting some simple sentences like, "Lets go to the park on Sunday", and "what would you like for breakfast?". I gave some tips on how to pronounce "breakfast" correctly. And, for what it was worth, I tried to encourage English rather than American accents, which seemed to have become the norm. Critically, I went on to stress the importance of using "football" instead of "soccer".

Then one particularly bright pupil stood up. Ali encouraged her to come to the front to do a reading recital she had been rehearsing in English. Her boldness impressed me. What would she be reciting? Shakespeare perhaps, or Chaucer even? I settled myself to listen.

"I have never seen you looking so lovely as you did tonight." This sounded loosely familiar.

"I have never seen you shine so bright."

"You were amazing."

"I have never seen the hair lights in your eyes, I have been blind."

Hang on, wasn't this…..

"Laydee in Red. Is dancing with me. Cheek to cheek."

"There's no body here. Its just you and me. Laydee in Red."

There was no escape from Chris The Burgh. He had followed me into the classroom. With immense difficulty, I maintained a straight face to applaud her very good effort. What would next week's homework be? Phil Collins, Barry Manilow or Michael Jackson perhaps?

Worse was to follow though, as we entered into joint, in depth analysis of each line from the song. To my great relief, much of this was conducted in Farsi.

After a short break, it transpired that I was to take over as teacher from Ali. He thought it would be a great idea for me to get up, arm myself with some chalk, and invite questions. Sticking to what I knew, I decided to take them on a very brief and basic geographical tour of the world, as much as the blackboard's size would allow me, to draw maps of countries and continents. I also jotted down numbers of people who lived in various cities and countries. It was totally improvised. We touched on a succession of diverse and completely unrelated topics. Things did not always go in the direction I intended.

"What is your feeling about God?"

"Gosh, that's a big question." I had no time to play with. "God is good. No, God is great." I corrected myself and kept it simple. Whatever you do, don't start making jokes about God, a loud voice in my head distracted me.

"Why are you not married?" one girl asked.

"I am young now."

"And when do you get married?" another one fired at me straightaway.

"I don't know."

"When will you have children?" a third one chipped in.

"I don't know."

"How many children will you have?"

"600!" It defused the heat with laughter…slightly.

"Only 600?" one girl cried out cheekily after a while from the back of the class.

The girls had soon shed any reserve. I swiftly steered them back on to my blackboard world tour. As we closed in on the British Isles, Ali intervened.

"I hear Scottish people never spend money. This is true?"

"Urm…some people say that, yes."

For the first, and probably the last time, I introduced them to the name of Gordon Brown and the term "prudence". But the girls had another new word to eagerly jot down - "tight".

Any new words and phrases, which they wouldn't find in their textbooks were gratefully lapped up by the pupils. So I rolled out some English phrases, trying as best as I could to explain their meaning in the simplest of terms.

"Pigs might fly."

"Practice makes perfect."

"Every cloud has a silver lining."

We deviated and veered from all sorts of tenuously linked subjects.

From the (perhaps controversial) debate about Christianity in America we moved on to fish 'n chips. Questions were flying at me.

"What is it like in America? Why does America want to fight Iran?" one girl asked innocently.

"American people think dangerous about Iran? Why is this?" another followed up immediately.

How best to answer this question? I tried to keep my reply simple.

"American people different from American government. Like Iranian people are maybe different from Iranian government. People do not want to fight other people. But governments are different to people." I replied. "Yes, another question from the back."

"What is your best food?"

"Are you very rich?"

"What music you like?"

It went on. I went on.

After a while, one of Ali's mini army of female co-teachers put her head around the door and hauled me off to repeat the process in her class of girls. I stuck to my winning formula.

Then as it was getting dark, I was taken to sit down with Ali and all the other teachers for the breaking of the fast meal. While they feverishly devoured their food after a long all day wait, I was being more than adequately compensated for my efforts with tea, bread, rice and fruit. I learnt a lesson of my own though. Never attempt to speak with someone as they are breaking the fast. It was like distracting a salivating animal from its food.

As everyone began to recover from mild indigestion, one of the women teachers broke the silence with a comment directed at me.

"Our country has many problem, but most important you enjoy."

Five more classes, four hours and a dry throat later, I was completely hooked in to what I was doing. It was a shame to finish. As the girls from different classes left nearly all of them made me sign my autograph on their books and write messages. It was like being a minor celebrity. I could only hope that maybe I had left an impression and offered them something different to think about than what they had always been used to. Only after finishing and on my way out with Ali, did I realise that I had notched up another law breaking activity in the Islamic Republic. Teaching is illegal for "aliens", or foreigners.

With the school building emptied Ali drove us to a pleasant place just outside Yazd for more tea, dates and a strawberry water pipe. We listened to some extremely loud music which thumped out at ear splitting volumes from wardrobe sized speakers barely metres away. Ali told me the music was Iranian music, but illegally imported from the US. It was perhaps as close as you might come to the Iranian equivalent of an outdoor rave. We didn't linger for too long.

Once he got going, Ali, like plenty of Iranian men, enjoyed talking at a million miles an hour. On the way back to the car he asked me about the Pet Shop Boys, before proceeding to unleash an impromptu rendition of one of their songs, which was at least 4 verses too long and totally unrecognisable to me. Once inside the car we nearly reached a crescendo with Chris The Burgh.

"Laydee in REEEEEEEDDDDDDDDD!" he pelted out while simultaneously doing that hurtling at full speed in reverse gear thing with no less vigour.

Between screeching bursts of his singing, we discussed other countries.

"So you know Netherlands?" he asked me. "And Amsterdam? People there have sex in the street, no?"

"Not exactly," I had to break it to him, "it's more complicated than that."

"Russian girls I love." Ali continued. "I really love Russian girls!"

His comment troubled me slightly as I knew him to be a married man with a 3 month old baby daughter. But I short while after, I realised the "Russian girls" he was referring to happened to be his favourite Chris The Burgh song. But he did not know all the words in English.

"When we get home you have dinner with my family and you can write down the words for me." he insisted. "You love Chris De Burgh, yeah? He really is very famous you know."

I disguised my opinions well.

"What is your favourite song?"

"It's very difficult to single one out." I replied. "They're all so…"

"Yes," Ali interrupted, "mine REALLY is Russian girls. I like a lot. But I also like Bee Gees. You know Bee Gees? Very sexy music. How deep is…YOUR LOVE!?"

The car ride went mercifully quickly and we pulled up outside his house in a quiet area of Yazd. It soon became clear to me that he was not short of a Rial or two. By Iranian standards, his house was well furnished and equipped with several modern appliances and gadgets that you would not always find in western homes; wide screen satellite television, a sizeable hi-fi and a state-of-the-art computer, which housed an extensive collection of electronic music. I persuaded him to delve into this collection in the hope of postponing my Chris De Burgh transcriptions. But he had not in any way forgotten.

It was now well past midnight, and Ali seemed to have no qualm about the amount of noise we were causing by playing Madonna, "Like a Virgin", close to full volume despite his two young nephew sleeping in the corner of the room. Strangely, I found this to be enjoyably therapeutic, but it could not last long.

"Ah, here I find Russian Girls," Ali interrupted. "Do you have pen ready?"

We proceeded to trawl through the entire Chris De Burgh song, line by line, until I had written down every single word. Initially, I tried to do this as quickly as possible, but this backfired, because I made mistakes and the song would be rewinded yet again. I felt like I was back at school in the middle of a listening comprehension exam with someone watching over me very closely to ensure I didn't cheat. It was a great relief to reach the end.

Then the next stage of my assignment involved filling out citizenship applications to enter the United States for other members of his family. Six of them in painstaking detail. As tedious as this was, and in spite of me being aware of the extremely slim chances they must have had for being successful, I dutifully complied with everything they wanted to utilise my English for. Eventually, when all this was done, we all sat down on his carpet floor for a very late supper. It was spaghetti Bolognese with lime juice and yet more tea. After eating, Ali's brother-in-law offered me a cigarette. I never smoke cigarettes, but I thought why not. It was the next best thing to a drop of alcohol.

I learnt some more Farsi. I was very nearly, but not quite, on the verge of sustaining a meaningful two way conversation. I had grasped a sufficient amount of the language to say most of the things I wanted to say, but the problems came from understanding the replies.

A vigorous debate ensued amongst Ali's family. Maybe they were remarking on my excellent Chris De Burgh transcription skills, but frustratingly I couldn't quite keep up. However, my ears pricked up on various strange names thrown randomly into the fast moving conversation:

"Churchill…….De Gaulle……..Harry Potter…"

Before I knew it the time was well past 3am. Maybe it was due to Ramadan, or just Iran generally, but the time just didn't seem to cause anyone any concern. Iranians get used to eating late and most of the socialising is done before the meal, rather than after.

Ali insisted on driving me back to my hotel, where I found more people wide awake and carrying on conversations, as if it was perfectly natural to do this in the middle of night. The day never ends. Even the mosque man with his microphone had gone to bed. The young guy who worked on reception was writing his university thesis and wanted me to read through it. It was beyond my eyes and ears to function properly. They had been put to good use more than enough for one day.

Some countries, you find yourself counting down the days until you can get out. Others, like Iran, you wish you could stay longer.

If it is allowed (externally and internally) to be, Iran can be a very pleasant place. The chasm between outside perception and the reality is as yawning as the gulf between a hostile government and the hospitable people. I could remember hardly any moments of threatening hostility.

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