Daily News… Project “From Vietnam to Italy for the disabled”.
I arrived to Shiraz, the sixth most populous city in Iran also known as Dar-ol-Elm, “house of knowledge”, on April 20 in mid-morning and, without any problems. I reached the central Shohada square where the tiny and picturesque fortress of Karim Khan, ex Shah of Iran is located. For wine drinkers, the city’s name is associated with the eponymous type of grape, characteristic of these arid areas that needs very little water to produce sugary black grapes.
The vineyards that once covered all the neighbouring valleys no longer exist for the ban imposed by the regime that, over the past 30 years of Islamic revolution, has changed a millennial tradition. I was immediately struck by the feeling of being in a real city with its vitality and its citizens well-dressed; the girls wearing chaste clothes but tight enough to show their figure and with the “chador” barely covering dyed blonde hair; shopping malls are stuffed with Japanese and Korean electronic goods; roads are busy with traffic and some luxury cars; restaurants and hotels are glittering with foreign tourists roaming in groups in the central streets.
Passing in front of a high school, I caught the laughter and comments aloud of the students because of my dress: cyclist shirt with blue and red horizontal stripes and the “sarong”, the skirt up to ankles normally worn by men in Central Asia, but that here is ridiculous.
The Muslim religion imposes a strict dress code to men and women alike and, with my tight cyclist shorts, I am almost explicitly pornographic. Therefore, to avoid problems with the “Sepah Pardarane Enghelab Eslami”, the guardians the Islamic revolution, when I am in the towns I cover my nakedness and features with this item of clothing that I carry around since Bangladesh. I found accommodation in an affordable hotel and had dinner in one of the many fast-food serving hamburger and fries, incredibly popular all over the country. At the table next to mine, two youngsters were playing with a computer and I asked them where to find a cybercafe with VPN, that is strictly forbidden by the law because it allows to bypass the internet censorship. Naturally Said and Salman looked at me with suspicion and were reluctant to answer, then they became more relaxed for I could not possibly be a “pardarane”.
Despite my beard typical of an orthodox follower of Islam, there are no “guardians of the revolution” who speak English with an Italian accent! Both of them are last year students of electronic engineering and I spent the next two days with them and another couple of friends who guided me to visit the city. I found it particularly interesting to answer their questions on the Western world and discover the conditions of youngsters in Iran where bars, discotheques or clubs are forbidden and even the simple friendship with girls is prohibited by law. When not studying, they spend their free time walking and talking among themselves, often of how their lives would be without the restrictions imposed by the regime. But despite their situation, I believe that they are joyful and pretty happy, worried for the uncertain future, as all young men of their age are, and I reassured them that they are not really missing anything compared to their Western peers, who, even if infinitely freer, are often sad and miserable. On April 25, I covered the 50 kilometres separating Shiraz from the ruins of the city that 2500 years ago was the most precious urban jewel of the terraqueous globe: Persepolis. Darius the Great began the construction of the capital of the then largest and most opulent empire in the world, unmatched for 150 years, until the troops of the victorious Alexander the Great destroyed it. I spent the whole day of the 26 wandering around the archaeological site, admiring the symmetry and architectural perfection of what is left of the buildings. The details of the excellent bas-relief are astonishing and I felt so tiny under the 20-meter high columns that rise proudly, looking down at you from top to bottom. Other civilizations on other continents in different centuries – such as the Khmer in Angkor, the Egyptians in Luxor, the Incas in Machu Picchu -, have left us examples of buildings as much or even more grandiose, but all their efforts were primarily aimed at glorifying the gods or erect tombs that preserved the mortal remains of the rulers for eternity.
For this reason, in my opinion, Persepolis’ uniqueness and greatness lies in the fact that the Persian emperors built lavish residences for themselves and their descendants, in fact “simple homes” to spend their life on earth. This makes the place graceful and human at the same time, for the search for beauty is applied to daily life and to something mortal, opposed to divine and eternal, and the beauty itself is specifically recognised as sovereign value. When I arrived in the parking lot in front of the two flights of stairs leading to the ruins of the buildings, I had the pleasure of being approached by Rassol, twenty-five years old with a degree in architecture who aspires to become a tour guide. He introduced me to Azzatollah, allegedly the only Italian-speaking guide of the site. The latter, at the ripe age of 75, has still the viability of a twenty-year old person, is graduate in engineering and worked for Italian businesses. Having lived for 45 years under l’ancien régime of the Shah and 30 years under the current one of the Ayatollah, was able to describe the differences between the two forms of government and how the country has regressed from a modernity that was beginning to come to light, to a dark Muslim Middle Ages. Even if at the time of the monarchy expression and political freedoms were severely limited, at least people enjoyed a full personal freedom.
There was greater inequality between the better-off and poorer classes, but women were more emancipated; one could go to any European country without a visa; alcohol, music and those small material joys that make life a little bit more pleasant were not prohibited as it is now. In general, people were not so terrified and afraid to say or do anything, uncertain whether a particular action can be interpreted as contrary to the dictates of the Koran. Until 30 years ago, everything was permitted except those expressly prohibited by law, now everything is forbidden except what is clearly permitted by the laws! For a few hours, we talked of these and a thousand other disparate topics, drinking tea with cinnamon just a few hundred meters from the ruins, in what 2500 years ago was the quarry where the stone blocks for the buildings were extracted. We sat on what was meant to be a two-headed cow capital, but that was never completed and was abandoned there, due to a crack that would have made it unsuited for the perfection of the city. On April 27, I continued northwards on National Highway 55 until Deh Bid, where I slept in my tent nearby one of the many roadblocks that the police set along the main roads of the country.
The police officers stop almost everybody, and in that “almost” I include myself since I have never been stopped till now. The officers get mostly on line coaches, asking for documents to those whose face looks suspicious and I saw people detained for further controls while the bus left them behind. Here the altitude is 2400 metres and that was the coldest night since I descended the Himalayan peaks last December. The next morning, I was awoken by an unbearable stench that, although I did not take a bath for three days, could not come from me! Emerging from the igloo, I found myself immersed in a lake of bleating goats, with the two shepherds who were watching closely the technical characteristics of the bicycle. Between the smelling sheep and the biting cold, which exacerbated throughout the day despite the sun shine, I continued to ride north on the plateau, that maintains an altitude of around the 2100 metres, intrigued by the Zagros Mountains to my right with the 3943 metres Bel Kuh towering peak covered in snow. A few kilometres before Surmagh, I turned right on the crossroad to Yazd leading east. The land drops down to 1500 metres and the Mediterranean scrub, protagonist in the last 400 kilometres, suddenly gives way to sparse thorny shrubs of the desert, which in turn gradually disappear leaving the land free from almost any forms of vegetation. Sometimes, for a full hour, I found myself to be the only human being, perhaps the only living creature!, within a radius of ten kilometres before being reached and overtaken by a car or a truck. Darkness fell, and I camped between a few green bushes just over one meter high, that for some mystery of nature, could survive in such a total dryness.
The next morning, putting my head out of the tent, I noticed something moving at the bushes foot. They were small animals like mice, I think rodents, colour sand-mustard-brown, that in different sizes came out of the holes at the base of the vegetation and cautiously wandered a few metres from me. I observed them for a good half hour, without them noticing my presence, with the young ones playing with each other, while the adults searched for food in that desolate habitat. When I revealed my presence, standing up on my feet, the puppies immediately ran to burrow, followed immediately by their parents who stayed a few moments on the lookout and disappeared completely underground after I moved a couple of steps towards the holes. At the intersection of Deh-e Shir, I must have taken a wrong turn and instead of following the direct way to Taft, I arrived to Mehriz lengthening my way of about fifty kilometres. This morning I reached Yazd, a city that can claim of having been continuously inhabited for the last 7000 years, and where I will dwell for a few days before heading north-east towards the real desert. Since in these past two years my life has been really public, I will tell you about a little “romance” that I am living.
In Shiraz, I received a call from an Iranian girl that angrily accused me of using the phone number she lost in a taxi in Tehran! Of course, I explained to her that I regularly bought the SIM in Bandar-e Abbas and everything became clear when I recited the number finding out that between the two numbers there was a figure of difference and that she dialled it incorrectly. An exchange of text messages followed that conversation in which she curiously asked who I was, where I was going, and so on. Since then I spent an hour almost every day talking on the phone with Leila, as the Princess of Star Wars, and we arranged to meet on my arrival in the capital. I hope not to get into trouble for a woman, as it would not be the first time and, frankly, I hope not the last …until next time.