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Chapter 6 - Shaking Minarets
Brilliantly and unwittingly, the days permitted on my Iranian visa coincided precisely with the start and finish dates of Ramadan. I was becoming used to understanding the different meaning of the words "fast food". Once again, going without food beyond lunchtime proved virtually impossible and impractical.
"This means we are both weak people. Fasting is to make Muslims strong." I remarked.
"Sometimes," Arash told me discreetly, "you just have to bend or gently break the rules."
But I had tried fasting a couple of times and the same principle of sacrifice maybe runs true for women who are forced to conceal their hair. So the two of us were sitting with some bread in a shaded, concealed corner of a shrine, which was safely out of public view. Tentatively, I started to eat and felt consciously awkward, not least because we might well have been sitting on top of someone's grave. Yet I noticed other Iranians had come here to do the same thing. Some were even smoking as well. Maybe this was some kind of secret place that people came to prematurely break their fasts. Seeing other people discreetly eating and drinking helped any remnants of guilt I might have had to ebb away.
To what lengths should you go to obey something? This minor, trivial snapshot is a tiny, but accurate symptom of the hypocrisy and contradictions that ooze through contemporary Iran. You will not see it in international news reports, but behind closed doors and away from prying eyes, I was seeing more and more evidence that Iran is, in many respects, a different country to the way it is portrayed. What the government tells the Iranian people to do, and what many of the Iranian people actually do, can be very separate things.
We were also sitting inside the shrine for a good reason. Above us were the shaking minarets. Shortly after 2pm, a man, who seemed to be in charge of the whole shaking process, arrived. He sized up the small, but growing, crowd of onlookers for someone with the necessary pre-requisites: mainly a suitably strong and bulky frame to match that of his own. I offered up my own credentials, but like so many other requests or attempts to do things in Iran, the answer was a familiar, "No."
Another young Iranian man, not much bigger than me, was singled out for duty and escorted up the spiralling stairs to the top of the 25 metre high right hand minaret. I watched from the bottom as he tried his absolute hardest to physically shake the minaret from side to side. But barely any movement occurred and it required the intervention of the expert man in charge. After this substitution I witnessed a remarkable sight. The top part of a very sturdy looking minaret tower began to wobble and waver in a seismic manner before our eyes. Then the left hand minaret began to do the same as well. Half of me thought the whole thing might just collapse to the ground. But it didn't of course.
For a moment I drew an analogy for the shaking minarets. It was like shaking the foundations in reforming Iranian society; something which will perhaps only be executed effectively and properly by an insider who is strong and expert enough to perform the challenge while others watch on with uncertainty and fear from the bottom.
Before looking too far forwards to what might happen in the future, for my next landmark in Esfahan I went backwards to the 1980's and the eight long years of the Iran-Iraq war. In many ways, it was the world's great forgotten war.
But it certainly did not seem to have been forgotten at the Esfahan Cemetery, known as the Garden of Martyrs, which commemorates those Iranians who lost their lives in that brutal conflict. 22,000 of them from this city alone. Between 1980, and the war ending in 1988, over one million Iranians were killed. They were almost entirely men, young men and, staggeringly, plenty of teenage boys, some aged just 13. Wearing keys of martyrdom around their necks, these boys were brainwashed into running ahead of the armed troops to detonate land mines. Others fastened bombs to themselves and dived underneath enemy tanks.
Rustled dry leaves occasionally scraped the grey concrete. In the quiet late afternoon sun this cemetery became quite an eerie place. There was a distant hum of early rush hour traffic. But for me, the enduring sound was the relentless, robotic, metallic chiselling sounds of new graves being inscribed. In the foreground a mother tends a grave. And a man, someone's brother or son perhaps, is sitting hunched over with his head in his arms weeping as he tries to say a prayer, still coming to terms with the loss of a life.
Each grave had an upright plaque filled with a large black and white portrait photo of every victim. There are thousands of them in one sprawling orchard of stone. As I walked amongst them, all around me eyes of young men stared back at my own. Each one had its own individual story. The first ones I looked at closely were a pair of brothers, aged just twenty one and twenty two. Many of the plaques had the image of Ayatollah Khomeini, the Supreme Spiritual Leader, on the reverse side. He had promised many men that the war would afford them the opportunity to go to paradise as martyrs. It looked a long way from paradise to me.
I walked unhurriedly along row after row after row of these gravestones. One terminated life after another. Some of them practically boys still in their school uniform. War with a very visual human face, each one different from the last one, most captured with an eager expectancy. Tens, hundreds, thousands of them. I only saw one woman. An extremely sobering place. Somewhere which is far removed from the tourist sights, but a critical part of experiencing a country properly. I felt like a trespasser intruding into the orbit of someone else's grief.Purchase 'Iranian Revelations: Shaking Minarets'