Traveling to Iran

Why Travel to Iran?

It was the question addressed to me in the days, weeks and months prior to my trip to Iran.
I traveled to Iran because I wanted to see if the conflictive view most people get from the outside is accurate or real. As it pleasantly turned out, in many ways it is notIran is a conflicted place, a misunderstood destination, a cradle of culture, a million things all at once. Iran is a country where contrasting understandings of the world live side by side every day and everywhere. One of the countries I longed to visit since infancy happened to be another jewel on the globe’s map and probably the safest country in the region.

Perhaps the main question should rather be:

Why wouldn’t you travel to Iran? 🙂

Unfortunately, as it happens to many other places, Iran has become infamous for its political turmoil. The Revolution of 1979 in only a couple days saw the country transforming from a liberal nation, under the Shah of Iran (known for his liberal view and his excessive lavishness), to a suppressive regime under the hands of the Ayatollah Rurollah Khomeini.

Khomeini, then the Supreme Leader, overthrew Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, took over and things started to change, for better or for worse. With him came the Sharia law and with it the use of compulsory Hijab, religion acquired a much more significant role in everyday life and the country started to regress dramatically.

Unlike I was told, images and tributes to the current Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Hosseini Khamenei, are not spread all over the country. This is probably one of the very few images I found.

Nonetheless, Iran struck me as one of the most attractive and friendliest countries I have ever been to.

Let its friendly people, incredible architecture, vibrant cities and mystic deserts enchant you…

The most stunning mosque I’ve ever seen is by all means. This is the peacock dome of the Shah Mosque (Persian: مسجد شاه), also known as Royal Mosque or Imam Mosque in Esfahan.

Iran is a huge, it occupies1.6m sq. km. Its borders reach the same latitude as Athens and the southern boundary falls on the edge of the Tropic of Cancer. It is six times the size of Britain and three times that of France. Iran is really big.

Map of Iran, by iranpoliticsclub.net

My trip started on a very cold winter day in Tehran, the dynamic capital, after landing in what I believe it is thesecond most silent airport ever after the one in North Korea.

It didn’t take long to realise that the only danger Tehran poses is traffic. I learnt how to be fully aware on sidewalks, major path for bikes to flow in and out.

My ride into Tehran

Tehran is a lively peculiar city. On the one hand Iranians are notorious for their friendliness and hospitality, their unrestrained kindness, their love for culture and luxury, their passion for ornamentation of their art and their sense of amour propre, yet their restrictions and sensitivities are widely displayed.

From people, to food, to gardens, every corner shows all the polite formality of their language with its inbuilt metaphors and phrases and its simple rules of syntax.

Here I discovered the endless cradle of art, architecture and culture, Iran is pioneer of multiple concepts and words that are nowadays used all over the world such as the enclosed and carefully structured Pardis (the origin of our ‘paradise’), which provides a setting where variety of spiritual and secular activities happen in the same space.

Bakhlava and other delicatssen of Iran.

If you take media reports with a pinch of salt, Iran is actually very safe. I felt safere here than in Mexico, where I currently live, on in the US with the current wave of mass shooting. Also, once you meet some friendly Iranians, you will understand what I’m talking about.

I never encountered people being so helpful anywhere else in the world. Not even at night I felt a whim of insecurity.

Iran can also easily be the ultimate backpacking destination. It’s cheap, it has hostels in major tourist places, cheap hotels and guesthouses in others, comfortable buses, and friendly locals. What more can you want when you backpack…?

It’s true that Iran has a fairly negative image and very bad press on issues such as freedom of speech and human rights. This easily pushes a country down the bucket list and leaves it up for the most intrepid travelers only.

Taking my best shots of rural Abyaneh.

But times are changing, and even though Iran basically is still literally invisible on platforms like Instagram travel feeds, Iran is swifting its political spectrum. After my visit in January 2017, the government turned towards the progressive party. Sharia law is still inforced and with this I mean also death-by-stoning and mandatory dress code for women. “Mandatory” has become a fluid concept really. Truth is the reality I witnessed in Iran was quite different.

Iran is not a country where women have no voice and drape themselves with black chadors. On the contrary. In Tehran I saw the vivid and livid image of women not willing to be subjected by such impositions. Especially in Tehran. Women style has nothing to envy to Paris or Rome female icons.

Women and people in general are very well educated and seem to have a thorough knowledge on many things. They are curious, they ask questions about you and your country, they love hearing how much you like their food and they’re even willing to discuss politics if you will.

Gentlemen in Esfahan. They love politics and happily asked us questions about our perception of Iran and foreigners.
Having a good talk with old pals.
More traditional girls and women are found in rural areas of the country. This is Yazd.

Iran in the end, is a land of eye-watering beautiful minarets and shrines, bustling and cheerful bazaars, tea houses with shisha, tabernas with sublime lamb and saffron dishes, and so much more.

Going into Palestine

It is indeed challenging to try to relate the relevant history of the area now known as the Palestinian territories without offending someone. Depending on the point at which you begin the narrative, the balance of things, rights and claims can look very different. Especially after today’s news regarding the status of Jerusalem.

A biblical conflict that still holds the key of the world’s geopolitical landscape. The cradle of religions. The keepers of the Holy City of Jerusalem. Yes, such panorama is hardly easy to address with objectivity. Countless of accounts have been written, but it is unlikely that anyone has address or will do an “objective” and definitive summary that would be accepted by everyone.

Nonetheless, I’m attempting to relate some of the history that had led to the unique state of law and justice in the territory under the present-day Palestinian Territories and what it felt like being there.

I had always wanted to go to Palestine for different reasons and the most important one was: discovering the most biblical and conflicted corner on earth.

I went there as a volunteer for an NGO dedicated to agricultural development along with a Japanese friend of mine and my mother, and it was an experience that truly made me go deep in the history and discover the best expression of human being’s capacity to react against difficulties.

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Working day in Beit Sahour with some local herders passing by us

I chose to travel as a volunteer because only living among locals you can really grasp the reality of a place. Of course, I could have simpy gone back packing but I assure you the experience wouldn’t have been the same.

Before digging into my incredible adventure, let’s take a glance at its history for a second.

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The land variously called Palestine is very small (5,640 sq km the West Bank and 360 sq km the Gaza Strip at present) and has been settled continuously for tens of thousands of years. Archeologists have found evidence of agriculture at Jericho dating from before 10,000 B.C., making it one of the oldest sites in the world (reason why we visited). During its long history, the area, population and ownership of the territory have varied greatly.

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Jericho in the evening, I was coming down from the Mount of Temptation monastery

Of the whole territory, the land within the recognized borders of Israel makes up of about 78% of the total. The remaing portion has been occupied by Israel since the 1967 war.  Part of this area is under the autonomous control of the Palestinian National Authority.

The territory became part of the Ottoman Empire in 1517, and remained so until the end of the World War I in 1918.

This is a crucial moment: here is when it is good to start the chronology of events that has determined the state of law in the areas now considered as Palestinian.

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British soldiers push a crowd of Arab citizens out of Jerusalem during the June 1936 uprising.

In 1919, at the Paris Peace Conference, much of the Ottoman Empire was divided into Mandates, all territories that were assigned to the victors of the war.

However, the most determining demands were those of the British and French demands, rather than the views of the land’s inhabitants. The British were anxious to keep Palestine away from the French, so they decided to ask for a mandate that would allow them to establish a Jewish national home out of the Balfour declaration, assuming, of course, that the Jews would support the British claim. The Arabs opposed the idea of a Jewish national home on the territory, considering that all the areas being discussed were theirs, also bearing in mind that the Balfour Declaration expressly declared that the already-settled population should be respected.

By this moment, many had recognized the inevitability of conflict between Jews and Arab Palestinians over possession of the territory, the attempt of Britain to keep its presence in Palestine through self-governing institutions, the Jewish fear of the Arab majority, and the Arabs unwillingness to accept any Jews at all.

Jewish immigration to the region swelled in the 1930s, driven by persecutions in Eastern Europe, even before the rise of Nazism. The rise of Hitler in Germany added to the long tide of immigration. Palestinians resisted Jewish immigration and demanded their independence which led to widespread rioting, later known as the Arab Revolt in 1936, which was characterized by violence on both sides and lasted until after World War II.  In 1947, Great Britain turned the Palestine issue over to the United Nations, which issued an infinite amount of resolutions aiming to solve the difficult situation.

One of these resolutions, nº181 issued in 1947 aimed to divide the land into two approximately equal portions, but since Israel proclaimed its Independence in 1948, it expanded its occupation to 77% of the territory, including East Jerusalem.

Over half of the beduin Palestinian population was expelled. Jordan and Egypt took control the other parts of the territory that would have been assigned by the resolution to the Palestinian Arab State (West Bank and Gaza Strip).

In the aftermath of the 1967 war, Israel occupied the parts of Palestine that had been under Jordanian and Egyptian control. The war brought about a second exodus of Palestinians, estimated at half a million. Although UN Resolution nº242 (1967) called on Israel to withdraw from territories it occupies, the situation remains the same.

To this date, the Palestinian territory has never been a formal, independent and sovereign state and since 1967 and has been under various levels of military occupation and control by Israel.  The Palestinian National Authority (PNA), created in 1994 as a result of the signing of the Oslo Agreements, is meant to be in charge of governing the West Bank and Gaza strip until a final status agreement is negotiated with Israel.

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Now, back to my adventure.

After landing at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport my first harsh encounter was at Customs. I was nervous as I had been informed how tough Israeli customs can be to foreigners.
The dialogue went pretty much like this:

“Passport,” the young tough lady said to me in a non-friendly tone.

I handed it to her.

“What is the reason for your visit?”

I smiled and replied, “I came to see the Christian holy sites”

She examined my passport, then she examined my face, ”Will you be visiting the West Bank or Gaza?”

I said, “West Bank yes, Gaza don’t think so…” without thinking.

“You are going to the West Bank and Gaza?” again in a very serious tone

“Well, I can’t come and not see where Jesus was born so yes, I am going to Bethlehem at least” I replied quickly.

She examined my passport again, “Do know any Palestinians?” she asked.

I smirked, “Not yet.”

She looked at me angry. She then blubbered something to her next door colleague and went back to me.

I immediately had the feeling she was about to stamp my passport (huge mistake, here is why) so I said stop!

“Could you please not stamp my passport?”

Very annoyed she replied “Why is that?”

“I will have to travel for work to other countries and the stamp will be inconvenient”
(I meant it, but I had also been told that this is a good way to avoid the stamp)

She snorted, looked at her colleague and eventually gave me my passport back with a stamped piece of paper. I was officially admitted in Israel.

Riding from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the first thing I noticed, besides the breathtaking Palestinian landscape with its palm trees, olive trees and immense hills and valleys, were walls and barbwire. I mean kilometres and kilometres of concrete wall surrounding basically everything my eyes could see.

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Departing from Jerusalem, a taxi drove us along the road to Bethlehem, for about half an hour. The landscape is dry and simple: in the whole territory there are few roads, so getting lost is almost impossible.

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Thanks to our taxi driver Abdullah, I’d later find out that a portion of my 90-minute ride from the airport to Jerusalem gave a brief look at “Area-C.” I’ll explain the partition areas of the West Bank. As I was about to learn, the occupied West Bank is divided into three parts: “Area-A,” “Area-B” and “Area-C.” “Area-C” is controlled by the Israeli government, while “Area-A” is supposedly under the control of the Palestinian Authority. “Area-B” is ambivalent: technically under Palestinian municipal control but the Israeli security controls it. The reason I say “supposedly,” is because after spending two weeks in this country, I began to realise that the areas classifications were and still are simply a broad public relations campaign to convince the world that Palestinians have a degree of military, political, and economic power they do not have. And this is not unlikely. Since 1995, the Israeli government has asserted along with international approval that “Area-A” is under PA control, but on the ground, the PA acts as a subcontracted enforcer to the Israeli occupiers.

I was meant to reach the town of Beit Sahour, suburb of Bethlehem, where I would be working for the next month.

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Along the road to Bethlehem stands the Separation Wall. A highly controversial 8-meters tall concrete wall constellated with massive watchtowers that runs for 670 km along the possible border of a Palestinian state.
Israeli government justifies the wall as essential for security reasons, so that Palestinians are prevented from entering Israel.

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The Separation Wall.

Along the construction you can find many signs of protest against the wall, artists such as Banksy and Roger Waters among others.

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Beit Sahour is little town east of Bethlehem, little piece of Holy Land claimed by Greek Orthodox, Catholics, Franciscans and Muslims. The curiosity about this town is that it is believed is to be close to the place where the New Testament announces the birth of Jesus.

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My volunteer experience starts right here, in Beit Sahour: bottles-preserving project. Our goal was precisely this: plant as many plants and trees as we can, make the best of water usage (very scarce resource in the West Bank), and somehow invent a way to increase the agricultural system.  Its naturally arid soil, combined with a lack of proper irrigation and absence of proper management of natural resources, is facing  serious problems of desertification. Adding to this, serious economic crisis, water scarcity, lack of basic sanitary infrastructures, and centralization of peoples in smaller spots of land, which are likely to escalate as a result of its current situation.

The gang at Bustaan Qaraaqa 🙂 after a day of hard work.

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The guy above was a true hero in the West Bank, Abd A-Rabbeh. He lives in a tiny farm in Al-Walaja, on the verge of a hill facing East Jerusalem.
Very charismatic and dedicated to simple farming life, Abd defended his little farm from the constant warnings of land confiscation imposed by the Israeli government. In several occasion he has found burned trees when he had been away for a few hours.

Inside his cave, he holds so far 5 guests-book with thousands of visitors’ signatures.

Stay tuned, the adventure only just started.

 

Can you beat Brit food?

Traveling always gives me ideas and myths to break. Today I am going to break the British Bad Food myth. Just because I love food so much 🙂 and I firmly believe Britain’s got Good Food!

I went back on an exploration to my second favourite country in Europe, the UK, my home for few years. A trip down memory lane, basically, and as such an important culinary destination as well.

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At breakfast in Piccadilly Circus I found delicious coffee in these delicious mugs.

We all know that the United Kingdom is rightfully recognised for many contributions throughout history (did you know, for example, that printed press was invented in England in the 1534?) and for some obscure reason food has never been one of them. I remember friends complaining about the excessive amount of meat and specifically lamb in most menus, or the plain taste of fish and chips spots all around London. Often the subject of ridicule, even the locals sometimes seem to not appreciate their cuisine.

Tru that I’ve heard similar opinions on Canadian food and even the US, and while I might actually agree there, I prefer to stop and focus on the UK first.

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Fish and Chips on Notting Hill Street. Delicious half-morning snack on my way to the Brisiths Museum 🙂

I started thinking of what the reasons could be. Is it because Britain’s cuisine scene is saturated with a myriad cultures settling in and highlighting their flavours? Maybe because the most iconic dishes don’t have an understandable name that give an idea to an outsider or seem unfussy? Take the Yorkshire Pudding, Shepherd’s Pie. And my new favourite, the Guinness Pie. Unless you enquire about the recipe, you can’t know what they’re made of. The pressing presence of international cuisines does not mean that British simple sauces dishes should be overlooked, let alone mocked.

Why do people believe food in the UK is bad?

After done some research and asking around, the answer is: History, of course.

England’s monarchs were all different in tastes and dislikes. Kings. Often Queens. Britain saw an enormous change and addition to its fashion style and culinary creativity in the 16th century given the alliances built with European powers and eagerness to explore. In England this is particularly true and documented in many letters found at the hand of reform seekers. French sauces and the growing saffron in England became an inspiration.

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The famous English Breakfast used to keep me energised the entire day. Especially when I had to be at Heathrow the whole day working, this breakfast was THE way to do it. This one I had at Cafe Number 1 in Hackney.

Then we come to the Victorian age. While famous for bringing all sort of innovations and entertainment in the country, the Victorian age somehow threw a disapproving eye on exciting food especially if inspired from abroad. The traditional English Breakfast is in fact a Victorian invention mostly prepared and served in the upper and upper-middle classes, such as bankers.

Then the WW II came. Food rationing persisted for many years after the war’s end, giving the Brits an almost permanent greasy-pastry menu of dishes. Under the rationing period, many ingredients were unavailable and so substitutes of inferior quality and canned food took over and became wildly used.

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Canned peas. Simply delicious and malleable, you can eat these with anything.

The 1990s saw the emergence of reinventing things. Many chefs looked around and revitalised old recipes with new ingredients in an effort to bring in some culinary excitement and leave behind the old plain days. Plus low cost airlines made it easy for British people to eat better quality dishes and realised they could demand better quality from their home-country kitchens. More on the cuisine reinvention is found here.

I think that was the right move. The New British food, if prepared with the adequate ingredients and passion, is actually quite amazing.