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Friday, 31 December 2010

Last Post of the Year

In the previous post I mentioned Shab-e Yalda, the Iranian winter festival that was celebrated last week. This is a pre-Islamic festival, dating back to the worship of the ancient god Mithra, or Mehr, whose birth was celebrated at the beginning of winter. The worship of Mithra travelled west and became firmly established throughout the Roman Empire, reaching as far as the British Isles. In fact, the foundations of a small temple to Mithra are still visible a small distance from the Bank underground station in the city of London.

As Christianity supplanted older religions, the celebration of the birth of Mithra, which bore the promise of summer and light at the darkest time of the year was replaced by the celebration of Christ’s birth, at roughly the same time, and the promise of victory of good (light) over evil (darkness).

At the threshold of the New Year, I end this year of posts with a reminder of how people and their feasts are much closer that we think at first sight, and with the wish that the New Year will bring us all much closer.

All the best in the New Year, but above all, health, prosperity and peace.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

The Shortest Night of the Year

With the sincere hope that this will be the last of the long story of my incapacity, I add this short vignette I witnessed, or rather listened in, It took place on the eve of the 22 December, or Shab-e Yalda, the longest night of the year. On this night Iranians gather in their elders’ houses, munching nuts, eating carefully preserved watermelon (the promise of summer) and reading poems by Hafez, the 13th century mystic poet.

Earlier that evening I had a physiotherapy session. I was shown to a free cubicle, but a little boy of about six was lying on the bed. He had face-painting on and wore a colourful party hat. He said that they had had a Yalda celebration at his nursery, hence the make-up, and rushed off to his mother, one of the therapists working there.

A young man was having treatment in the cubicle next to mine. During my session, I heard the little boy talking with him. As they were talking, the little boy casually said, “My father’s passed away,” but he didn’t sound upset about it; he probably hasn’t understood the concept of death yet. The patient told him that we say “he’s passed away” because we can’t see him, but he can see us, and he can see the little boy and pray for him.

The man asked the boy whether he remembers seeing his father. The boy said, yes, he remembers him from photographs. His father is gone to Paradise to be with Imam Hossein, whose martyrdom was commemorated only a week ago. Then the boy asked the patient about the electrodes on his face. The young man explained that one side of his face had become paralysed (“What is paralysed?” “It means that it has stopped working”) and that the doctor had said that he would get better after physiotherapy.

And I thought I had troubles enough.

Thursday, 16 December 2010


Following the long trawl around doctors and medical practitioners, I came across two philellenes. One was the young assistant of the top Tehran neurosurgeon who examined me before his professor. As soon as he realised I was Greek, he asked me about the correct pronunciation of names and places and mentioned stories from Greek mythology and Ancient History. Theseus and the Minotaur, how Ariadne was abandoned in Naxos, and how Aegeus killing himself falling off the cape of Sounion, Darius’ and Cyrus’ expeditions against Greece, the battles of Marathon and Thermopylae, the sea-battle of Salamis, Plataea, and then the Peloponnesean War. He said that even though he has never been to Greece, he has all these places in his mind.
And how come a neurosurgeon is so immersed in Greek history? His father is the chief editor of the academic journal Andishmand (The Intellectual) and the young doctor has always been interested in ancient civilisations.
The second philellene was the doctor who took an electromyogram of my legs, to assess nerve function. He had spent the Iranian New Year holiday in Greece, visiting Athens and the neighbouring islands of Hydra and Poros. He was very impressed by the friendliness of Greeks and saw many similarities between their character and that of Iranians. Then he mentioned something I had forgotten myself: about twelve years ago an Iranian television program called Iranian Bride had featured my family and myself. He remembered that in that program I had talked about my Greek background and Greek cooking.

Even so far from home, I often feel surrounded by friends

Saturday, 4 December 2010


Another long absence: again, after just over two weeks of almost normal life, the pain was back as bad as at the very beginning and suspended normal life again for another eight days. By last Saturday I had become quite fed up with being confined to bed (no, I didn’t tackle War and Peace, as every day I hoped I would be up again).

When I rang the neurosurgeon I had seen about a month ago, he made this extremely wise and encouraging comment: “Until you lose all the excess weight you carry, there is nothing else to do except bed rest”! Easiest thing in the world, to lose about forty kilos lying in bed. I gave up on him.
Then two friends of mine gave me the addresses of another two neurosurgeons. The first one painted a very serious picture of my condition and opined that the only option open to me now is surgery. He only operates in a modern private hospital; my operation would necessitate possibly two nights’ stay, it would be done microscopically leaving only a 3 cm scar and the whole thing would cost about 50 million rials (about £2,800). Piece of cake.
The second doctor absolutely ruled out the possibility of operation: considering my physical condition it would be too risky. He prescribed different medicines and physiotherapy. I have now had three sessions, with seven more to go, and I must say that thankfully I now feel much better.

Deep down I always mistrust doctors, especially where money is involved; the visit to the first one confirmed my suspicions.

Monday, 15 November 2010

People's Good Prayers (Du'a-ye Kheir)

Since the latest entry, my back condition has been improving slowly; on some days I feel better than others, and generally I need to rest more than usual, but on the whole it’s been a great improvement from the excruciating pain of three weeks ago. After a rough night during which I stayed up with leg pain, I received a telephone call from a friend, a female theologian I met last year when I attended her class on religious rulings. She was in Mashhad, visiting the shrine of the Holy Imam Reza; she knew that I had been unwell and rang to say that she was in the courtyard of the shrine facing the golden dome, waiting for the call to prayer and praying for my health. Then she told me to say a prayer myself and turned her handset towards the shrine.

I have only been to four or five of her sessions, and seen her maybe another two or three times, but she had the kindness to think of me in my pain. When people ask me (quite often) why I left England to come and live here, I think that it is these little thins that matter in my life among the Iranians.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Up for Air

This time I have broken all records: I've been away from the blog, and, I feel, lost to normal life, for four whole weeks.

On the Friday after the wedding described on the previous blog, I got a pain down my left leg, as I have had before on a couple of occasions previously. I thought it would get better in a couple of days and I carried on with normal life, although I missed my Arabic class on Saturday morning, just in case. On the Tuesday, I taught my English class, but by the evening the pain was almost unbearable. Contrary to expectations, it kept getting worse.

My GP prescribed three days of complete bed rest and strong painkillers, but after three days it was getting worse. Another three days of complete rest brought no result: I was only able to sleep on my right side in the embryonic position; getting up brought excruciating pain. Eventually I went for an MRI test: nothing much, except "evidence of disc regeneration at several vertebrae, a slipped disc lower down bringing pressure on the leg nerve." (Otherwise all right? as Basil Fawlty would say).

To cut a long story short, another fourteen days of complete bed resulted in four weeks of total disruption of normal life. Classes cancelled, sisters-in law pitched in to cook after hubby left for London twelve days ago. Only in the last couple of days have I been able to stay up a little longer and do bits and pieces around the house.

The silver lining, though, has been that I've been able to catch up with a lot of reading I've been meaning to do for a long, long time but I never had the chance. Starting from the classics (Northanger Abbey), I moved through Graham Swift (Waterland, Out of This World, Last orders), A S Byatt's Possession, Tracy Chevalier's The Virgin Blue, Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss, Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus, Irene Nemirovski’s Suite Francaise. I also revisited my E M Forster favourites A Room With A View and A Passage to India, as well as Umberot Eco’s The Name of the Rose.
I stopped short of War and Peace, which I am saving for another crisis.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Village Wedding (1)

For a long time I had wanted to see a village wedding and compare mentally its customs to those of Iranian city weddings and those of my native island of Kassos, Dodecanese, Greece. My chance came last Wednesday when we were invited to a wedding of a distant relative in a village outside Ab-yek, in the province of Qazvin. The wedding invitations were delivered by the groom himself about a week before the wedding. Unlike city wedding receptions which take place in especially hired reception halls between 7 and 11 pm, this invitation mentioned the timing as 4 pm until the end of the celebration.

We set off from Tehran at 3 pm and, after taking a wrong turn, arrived at the village at about 5.20 pm. As we drove into the central maidan (square) of the village, the honking of car horns and the smoke of wild rue on coals (against the evil eye), filled the air. As it happened, a couple of cars ahead of us followed the bridal car to the groom’s house. According to the village custom, the bride’s and the groom’s families hold separate celebrations: the bride’s family hold a celebration and dinner the night before the wedding, called hanna-aqd, and another one on the following morning followed by lunch and finishing in the afternoon. Then the bride leaves her paternal home for the groom’s house, where the celebration of the groom’s family takes place. Since we are related to the groom’s family, this is the feast we were invited to.

The groom’s family has three sons. When the first one got married, a house was built along the large yard next to his paternal house. In preparation for this, the second son’s, wedding, another house was built next to the other two and the yard was extended and enclosed. Building work is about to start on the third son’s house on another side of the yard, so eventually the parents and the three sons and their families will all live in one residential compound. The family also has four daughters, but they have married and moved away.

The favoured mode of residence, in this area at least, is patrilocality: since the husband provides the accommodation, married women move to their husbands’ villages), Patrilocality is generally common in Iran and, as far as I know, in most parts of Greece, especially the mainland. However, interestingly, in my native island of Kassos, in the southern Dodecanese, the father of the bride provides the accommodation of the married couple, so the groom moves to the bride’s village (matrilocality).

More on other similarities and differences to follow soon.

Thursday, 23 September 2010


Walking through Navarinou Street in Central Athens yesterday, I stumbled upon a makeshift memorial: tied on a scaffolding with a white ribbon was a bunch of wilting flowers, with a short message: "Our beloved Dad, you left your last breath at this spot. We will never forget you, your daughters."

Around the spot, stylish coffee shops were just opening and expensive boutiques advertised their wares. Life carries on.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Athens, and my old school

Last Saturday, the day after Eid, I flew to Athens to visit my parents. Since no airlines fly directly from Athens to Tehran, I flew via Bahrain. The flight from Tehran to Bahrain left at 5.30 am and got to Bahrain an hour and a half later. Then I had a stopover of over 3.5 hours and another 4-hour flight to Athens.

Athens is cool and pleasant this time of the year; schools opened today, so an unusual buzz of activity reigned in the neighbourhood this morning. I went to my nephew’s school for the school year opening ceremony, but nothing much happened afterwards, so the children were let out half an hour later, to start in earnest tomorrow.

The building housing this primary school used to house my old school. On this site the old building of my school used to be a two-storey aristocratic mansion with a double staircase. This was demolished in the late seventies and a modern building took its place in 1979, when I was in year 10. Despite the new building, my school only remained open for another two years. It closed down in 1981, and all its students were transferred to the state high school across the road.

Today was the first time I went inside the playground after almost thirty years. The two old palm trees I remember since I first crossed this threshold, six years old in sky-blue overalls and lunch box, still stand tall on either side of the school gate.

A Taxi driver with a difference

Last Friday was Eid Fitr, the feast celebrating the holy month of Ramadan. During this time the schedule of normal life was disrupted, hence my longer than usual absence from this blog.

I have written elsewhere about Tehran’s taxi drivers: some are polite, others grumpy, some talk a lot, others only exchange laconic words with their passengers, but most share a stoic attitude towards the city traffic, which can often drive you crazy.
But one particular taxi driver must stand out. His taxi follows a set itinerary (see Among the Iranians) between Haft Tir Square and Seyed Khandan Bridge, near my house. I stood by the kerb waiting for a taxi, when he pulled up in front of me and a young man in military uniform got out from the passenger seat. I thought he was getting off there, so I got in. As the soldier sat in the back seat and I settled in my seat, the driver thanked the soldier for moving to the back; it turned out that the driver had made that request.
I thanked them both
Then I recognised him: this was the second time I happened to board this taxi. He is an interesting character, evidently in love with his job (very rare!) and with people. As soon as I sat in the passenger seat, he gave me a folder to look at: it was full of newspaper and magazine clippings about him and his taxi, and comments by all sorts of people, Iranian and foreigners, who have boarded his taxi. When I got to my destination, he offered me a boiled sweet and wished me a nice afternoon. His name is Dehbashizadeh and keeps a blog (in Persian) at

Saturday, 21 August 2010


Apologies for the extra long absence this time but the last two weeks have been extremely busy.
With the beginning of the fasting month of Ramadan on Thursday 12 August, a number of bits and pieces that I needed to do beforehand but never got round to were squeezed in the last days. A couple of friends over from London would go back before Ramadan, so we had to have them over for dinner. One of the women of my class visited Mecca earlier this summer and held a reunion with the other students in her house. It was meant to be a morning, but she had prepared a buffet of food, and the conversation as so pleasant that some of us ended up staying until five o’clock in the afternoon. Then there was the preparation for our family reunion.
In a previous post I have mentioned that every month Hossein’s brothers and sisters and their families gather in one house for a family dinner. Our turn was on 5 August, but we decided to hold it on 12 August, on the first day of Ramadan, for iftar (the meal that breaks the fast).

Iftar is meant to be a simple meal but if the number of guests is large, it needs a lot of last minute work. The host needs to make sure that every guest has everything within reach: dates, sugar bowl, fresh bread, feta cheese and fresh herbs, sometimes butter and honey or jam, thick soup (ash reshteh – the recipe is given in Among the Iranians), and any other foods that can be eaten with bread, like aubergine dip (kashk-e bademjan) or fried meze. Also, enough tea should already be served in front of every guest by the moment the call to the evening prayer is made.

We were twenty-two people to our iftar, which made it a marathon of work, but fortunately my two sisters-in-law and their daughters came earlier and were a huge help.

Since that day, the routine of everyday life is different. The fast is broken at about 8.10 pm, and then preparations for the morning meal begin with meat stew or chicken being cooked and rice soaked and parboiled. At 3.30 am I make salad, lay the table, brew fresh tea, wash fruit and call everyone to eat at 4.00 am. The call to the morning prayer is made at a couple of minutes before 5 am, after which believers abstain from all food and drink. This routine will carry on untilthe last day of the Ramadan on Thursday 9 September.
Many believers also try to do a complete reading of the Holy Quran in this month. This is the first time that I have decided to complete the reading too, since this is the first year that I know how to read Quranic Arabic. The Holy Quran is about 600 pages long in most editions, and it is divided into 30 equally long sections (juz’), each of which takes about an hour and a half to read. Since today is the tenth of Ramadan, one third of it (200 pages) has now been read.

Thursday, 29 July 2010


This is the last bit of my travelling impressions.

On the following day, 17 June 2010, we visited the bazaar of Kermanshah, where traditional shoes (geeveh) are woven. The ones that are still used by local men are usually woven in cream thread, but women’s and children’s slippers and shoes are woven in a variety of colours. I bought a tiny pair of shoes woven in turquoise and yellow, now displayed on our mantelpiece, and another similar one to take to my nephew in Athens. I also got a bag sewn of real kilim, not like tone ones sold in souvenir shops. The friendly shopkeeper suggested that we go round the bazaar to see the old gate that was brought back from Imam Ali’s shrine in Najaf, Iraq, when a new one was installed there. He didn’t have any more information on this, but the gate was worth seeing. I touched the old wood; my hands tingled with the vibrations of prayers that have been said over the centuries in Imam Ali’s shrine. For a moment, my eyes welled up wondering whether I would ever visit the holy shrines in Najaf, Karbala, Samarra and Kazemain, all in war-fraught Iraq.

As with gates in traditional houses, it has two different door knockers, one on each leaf. The heavier one which produces a heavier sound was meant to be used by men and the lighter one by women. Believers have tied small pieces of ribbon or fabric to the door knockers, a visual metaphor of the knotty problems of their everyday lives and a physical anchor of their prayers for a solution. On either side of the gate two candle niches carried small lit candles, and on their low railing, more ribbons and small padlocks are attached, with the same significance.

We returned to the Taq e Bustan for late lunch. It was late afternoon when we decided to sit in the grounds for tea before the long drive home. We left Kermanshah at 6.30 pm. At about 10 pm we stopped at a leisure park near the town of Razan. Local families had spread their picnics on the grass, while children played around on the swings. We had a supper of freshly baked barbari bread, white cheese, tomatoes and fruit and then set off again. We arrived home at 4 am, as the call to the morning prayer was heard.


This is the next instalment of my travelling impressions from our trip to the west of Iran in June. One more to go!

On Wednesday 16 June after lunch we left Hamadan. About 95 km from Hamadan lie the remains of an ancient temple: sources are at a variance whether it was dedicated to the Greek goddess Artemis or to Anahita, the ancient Persian goddess of water. Investigations indicate that it dates from late Seleucid/early Parthian times.

Driving westwards, an immense rockface is visible through the wide plains from tens of kilometres away. The modern road follows the trail of the Achemenid Royal Road which ran from what is now western Turkey across the Zagros mountain range, Hamadan (or ancient Ecbatana) and then turned southwards to the imperial capital Susa. The Bisotun rockface is a UNESCO listed world heritage site and carries stone reliefs recording Darius’ victories. The almost perpendicular rockface must have functioned as a huge billboard, proclaiming the glory of the Achemenids to the world and, it is assumed, to Alexander the Great. I climbed up until the Hercules statue, carved in 148 BCE and carrying an inscription on Greek, until I sprained my foot and that was the end of my climbing ambitions. I had to satisfy myself with the descriptions of the carving provided by brave daughter and husband who climbed up to the relief.
We arrived at Kermanshah at about 8 pm, and visited the Taq Bustan complex, located in the old hunting grounds of Sassanid kings. In celebration of the glories of their reigns, two grottoes or arcades are carved on the rockface, depicting the Tree of Life, the goddess Anahita and a Sassanid king, whose identity is uncertain. The complex also contains a pool with paddling boats and is surrounded by traditional kebab cafes.

Time was getting on, so we left Taq Bustan at about 9.30 pm to look for a hotel room, and then, once again as in Hamadan, because we did not have any identification that showed we are related, we had to visit the branch of the local police responsible for public places. We stopped at a garage to ask for directions to this place. When the mechanic heard what our problem was, he invited us to stay in his house. “This is no empty formality,” he said, “like the Tehranis do. Really, by God, if you don’t find a room or you don’t get the document, you are more than welcome to stay the night.” We thanked him and went on our way.

After chatting with the two young officers on duty, we got the coveted document that would allow us to check into our hotel room.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Baba Taher

After a two-week break, I would like to get back to my impressions from our trip to Hamadan a month ago.

On the morning of 16 June we visited the mausoleum of Baba Taher, the writer of mystical poems that are often set to traditional Iranian music. Earlier this year during my lessons of traditional Iranian singing, I had to learn this quatrain set to the Tusi melody of the Mahoor mode.

Del-e asheq be peyqami besazad
Khomaralood be jami besazad
Mara keyfiyat-e chasm-e to kafist
Riazatkesh be badami besazad

Again, in an awkward translation for which I take full credit:

A heart in love lives on the Beloved’s message
A drunkard lives on a cup of wine
For me, a glance from your eyes is enough
Like an ascetic who lives on an almond a day

The last line is a reference to the Beloved’s almond-shaped eyes.

Within the same grounds the mausoleum of a grandson of Imam Hossein is also located. Just like other mausoleums, the internal walls are decorated with mirrorwork, an art that was developed in Iran, as I understand, as a result of the import of mirrors from Europe, mainly Venice, at a time when mirrors were very expensive. Inevitably, some breakages took place in transit, and the ingenious Iranians devised a way of transforming the broken pieces into an art form. Small pieces of mirror cover the interior walls in symmetrical patterns: for the fist-time viewer the effect is dazzling, like a palace out of the Thousand and One Nights, as the light is reflected on thousands of tiny mirrors.

The mirror and light are potent symbols in Iranian culture, so their arrangement can also be seen as a representation of the One true God as the source of Light being reflected in the multiplicity of the physical world.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Traditional Medicine

In the previous post I mentioned Abu Ali Sina’s system of traditional medicine, so I thought I’d post some more detail on it. The following is an extract from Chapter 7 of Among The Iranians.

Traditional medicine

Zoroastrianism, the ancient Iranian system of beliefs, established a dualism that exerted a strong influence on all aspects of Iranian life. The ongoing battle between the God of Good/Light (Ahura Mazda) and the God of Evil/Darkness (Ahriman) was seen as an ever-present threat to the overall balance of the world. As a result of this struggle in the physical world, night follows day and winter follows summer as one or the other god attains temporary victory.

A similar struggle between good and evil manifests itself in every human as illness, which is nothing more than a sign of imbalance within the body. (endnote 2). The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates (b. 490 CE) described this physical balance in more detail. Considering every human as a miniature of the cosmos, he linked the four natural elements (air, fire, earth, water) to the four humours in the human body (blood, yellow bile, black bile, phlegm) and classified each with the qualities hot/cold and dry/moist.

These elements, named humours, co-exist in a delicate balance in a healthy constitution. (endnote 3). However, this classification does not pertain only to humans but to all foodstuffs, which can come to the aid of the diseased individual by helping bring the system back into balance/health.

Every Iranian housewife knows the basics of this system and applies it in the dishes she prepares and their combinations she puts on offer for her family in order to ensure their health and well-being. Common ailments can be treated by the application of this system: for example, a tummy ache, especially in children, is usually an indication of ‘cold’ predominance in the body and is usually remedied with some crystallised sugar (nabât) in tea, both of which are ‘hot’. A sore throat may indicate a surplus of ‘heat’, so the patient should avoid the consumption of ‘hot’ foods such as pistachios and walnuts that would exacerbate the condition. I understand that this system, known as Greek Medicine is practised in India too, whereas, surprisingly, we Modern Greeks know next to nothing about it.

Traditional medicine has always been and still remains a reliable resource for the maintenance of family health, not least because it treats the patience as a whole and does not only address the symptoms of the illness.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Technological help needed

To those of my readers who are kind enough to leave comments, I would appreciate some help in the form of email to my address at the top of the page.

Question: why do your comments appear in Chinese characters? Do I do something wrong?

Answers will be most appreciated by a technologically-challenged blogger.

Many thanks

Abu Ali Sina

This entry continues from the previous post on our short break to the west of Iran. On the second day of our journey (15 June), we visited the grave of Ibn Sina (Abu Ali Sina or Avicenna), the 11th c. scientist, astronomer and physician.

The grave complex is adjacent to a pleasant round garden at the Bou Ali Roundabout, and includes a small museum with the works of Ibn Sina in different languages. My attention was drawn to an inscription of a poem by Ibn Sina in the book room, which runs as follows in Persian:

Az qahr-e gol-e siyah ta owj-e zohal
Kardam hame moshkelat-e alam ra hall
Birun jastam ze qeid mokr o hil
Har band goshoude shod magar band-e ajal

In a free (and rather awkward) paraphrase, this roughly means “I have been able to unlock the mysteries of nature, from the humblest plant until the heights of the planets, and I have been able to escape from the machinations of enemies and to break all fetters, except the fetters of death.”

Abu Ali Sina’s Canon of Medicine book was the main medical textbook in European universities until the 17th century. His medical outlook sees the human organism as a whole, consisting of body and soul. The body’s health depends on the balance of the four humours (earth, fire, water and air), the main elements that the physical world is also made of. Any imbalance in the four elements within the body gives rise to illness, hence many of the treatments in this system depend on various foodstuffs that re-align the body’s balance.
This is a topic I have written in some detail in Among the Iranians, but it may be worth coming back to in the next post.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Achemenid Inscriptions near Hamadan

Continued from previous post…

Once we settled our things in the hotel, we went in search of sustenance in the form of steamed rice and kebab, and then drove westwards from Hamadan, passed Abbas-abad, a favourite picnic and camping spot affording panoramic views of the city, until we reached the Ganj-nameh Leisure complex.
This includes outdoor restaurants, giving off whiffs of kebab mixed with fruit-flavour tobacco from water-pipes, and a cable car, which, unfortunately, closed at 10 pm. A short uphill walk leads up to the Ganj-nameh itself, which consists of two large panels carved on the rock face and containing inscriptions in three languages (Babylonian, Elamite and Old Persian) in cuneiform script. Dating back to the Achaemenid times, the two lots of inscriptions record the victories of Darius and his son Xerxes (d. 465 BC) and their gratitude to Ahura Mazda, the God of Zoroastrianism, for the blessings he bestowed on the royal dynasty. According to the modern inscription on site, these ancient texts were deciphered by Sir Henry Rawlinson in the early 19th c. and assumed fundamental importance for our knowledge of these three ancient languages.
The contemplation of these inscriptions arouses conflicting thoughts and feelings: humans throughout history share the desire to leave something behind before the waters of oblivion close over them; an awareness of the thousands of people that have looked at these over the centuries and a strong sense of one’s own insignificance.
Just behind the rock bearing the inscriptions, a waterfall sheds its water forming a river downhill. Families were camped on the banks of the river, enjoying their picnics and the cool mountain air. Close to the spirits of their ancestors, modern Iranians refresh their spirit near nature, and preferably near running water.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Trip to Hamadan

Taking advantage of the few days between the end of the children’s exams and the beginning of summer school for my daughter, we went on a mini-break westwards to Hamadan and Kermanshah.
We left on Monday 14 June at 7 am.

According to the inscription, the Ali Sadr Cave is the world’s largest underwater cave and dates back to the Second Geological Period (Jurassic, 136 – 190 million years ago). Parts of it remain unexplored and may stretch for hundreds of kilometres; the locals think that a cave near Zanjan, hundreds of kilometres to the north of Hamadan, is actually the same cave.
We arrived at the cave complex at 2.30 pm and had lunch at a traditional restaurant, sitting on a wooden platform covered in carpets. A brief walk during the hottest part of the day led to the entrance lobby to the cave. As soon as we stepped inside the specially formed corridor, the temperature dropped markedly, and during our visit it dropped as low as 16C, while outside the temperature was in the high thirties.
Visitors can proceed on foot until a certain depth, after which they need to board a boat tugged by a pedalo boat operated by two employees of the cave organisation. The passage is so tight in places that the sides of the boat scrape against the rocks. The water is Ph neutral, colourless and odourless, and has a natural taste. Because the water is crystal-clear, the underwater rocks and stalagmites are visible even to a depth of 14 meters.
Stalactite formations are stunning: white bunches hanging down from the roof as giant cauliflower; reddish and glistening patches spread along the sides in the shape of octopus tentacles and body parts of aliens (“They make me sick!”, daughter exclaimed); near the end of the tour, in a wide space named Talar-e Niayesh (Prayer Hall), an overhead stalactite forms the name of Allah in Arabic.
As we stepped out into the daylight again, the weather was slightly cooler. We drove for another hour and a half to Hamadan to look for a place to stay, but when we went to check-in, we realised that since Hossein hadn’t brought his ID booklet (shenas-nameh) to prove that we are related, we needed ID documents for all of us, which we didn’t have. The hotel receptionist directed us to a branch of the local police responsible for public places. The young officer on duty asked us a few questions and eventually issued a document allowing the hotel to give us a room.
More to follow in the next post.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010


“Seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave,” the Commander of the Faithful Imam Ali said. So I thought I’d put this advice to practice and have started to learn some Arabic, a wish I have had for a very long time. I have found a class that started a year ago and meets once a week, but has only progressed to the beginning of the second book. If (and this is a very big IF) I can work through until the end of the first book by the end of August, I might be able to join them from the beginning of the school year at the end of September.

I should get enough time in the summer: the last session of the class I teach is on 25 June, my daughter will attend summer school between 19 June and 11 August in preparation of next year’s university admission exams, and my son will also be at summer school between 3 July and 5 August. By the looks of it, plenty of fun to be had this summer.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010


A few days ago I received an email from an American PhD student who is spending the summer in Shiraz for her research and in order to improve her spoken Persian. She picked up the book on her way to Iran and read it during the flight, and expressed her appreciation for the information in Among the Iranians, which she found useful. She now refers to it often and, what I found most gratifying, is this comment:

I think if it wasn't for your book, I would be going crazy by now and would be very confused, but because of your book, I can take everything in with the knowledge of what is going on and am able to have more patience when dealing with new situations. I am slowly learning how to navigate through ta'roof and the sometimes overly zealous protection and hospitality, while I am just so grateful for their kindness and generosity.

While I was working on the book and sometimes found the writing hard going, I kept telling myself that even if one person’s experience of Iran is enhanced in a small way through reading this book, I would consider myself well rewarded. I have now found my reward.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Thursday evening

On the way from my flat to the main street there is a small square planted with grass, benches, a drinking fountain and a wooden hut for children to play in.
This square is a favourite haunt of retired men, who gather around the small stone tables and seats to observe a game of backgammon, just like old men do in coffee shops in Greece.
Last Thursday I was walking down our road to the main street. As usual, men were sitting around chatting and playing backgammon. A woman went round with a paper box offering biscuits in exchange for a prayer for her deceased. It is believed that on Thursday evenings the souls of the dead can roam free, so they can see if their relatives remember them.
The usual prayer for the dead is called Fatiha, and usually includes these two Quranic suras.

Sura 1 Fatiha (The Opening)

In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
Praise be to Allah, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the Worlds;
Gracious, Most Merciful;
Master of the Day of Judgment.
Thee do we worship and Thine aid we seek.
Show us the straight way,
The way of those on whom Thou hast bestowed Thy Grace,
those whose (portion) is not wrath, and who go not astray.

Sura 112 Ikhlas (The Purity of Faith)

In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
Say: He is Allah, the One and Only;
Allah, the Eternal, Absolute;
He begetteth not, nor is He begotten;
And there is none like unto Him.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Teacher's Day

Just like every year, last Sunday 2 May was the anniversary of Morteza Motahari’s martyrdom. He was one of the intellectual architects of the Islamic Revolution, if not the main one, and his memory is celebrated every year by celebrating every teacher across the country.
The whole week that contains the anniversary is designated as “Teacher’s Week”. In schools, universities, adult education classes, everywhere where people teach and learn, students organise celebrations and buy their teachers presents and flowers. In my Quran class, one of the students collected money from all the students and bought our teacher a golden coin on behalf of the class and a box of pastry, which we al shared around the class after the lesson.
In my daughter’s school, where I am the deputy of the PTA (Parents’ – Teachers’ Association), a celebration was organised last Thursday. At one o’clock students and teachers were assembled in the hall, where the headteacher spoke briefly on the status of the teacher. She said that according to a prophetic tradition (hadith), whenever a person teaches, everything alive in the world prays for him/her. Then she handed out honorary certificates to every teacher to the cheers and applause of the students.
At quarter to two, the students had a picnic lunch in the school yard and were then dismissed. In the meantime, the school’s caretakers were preparing lunch for the teachers and the members of the PTA. Lunch was laid out in the school library in true Iranian style: chicken in ground walnut and pomegranate paste sauce (fesenjan), chicken with fried aubergines in red sauce, fragrant Iranian rice decorated with saffron, green salad, Mexican salad, drinking yogurt, and tea and Danish pastries afterwards.
When lunch was cleared out, the teachers offered a collective present to the headteacher (a gold coin), the school’s founder presented her with a white gold bracelet, the PTA gave her a complete set of non-stick cookware. She also got a complete commentary of the Holy Quran. Then, in her turn, she gave a non-stick cooking pot to every teacher and member of staff, saying that although the custom is to give personal items as presents, because she believes in strong family relations, she chose to buy them something they can use to cook for their family. She also wished that those teachers who are still single be married by the time of the next teachers’ celebration.
All this exchange of presents was accompanied by lots of jokes and compliments and asides. Although I only knew a couple of those present, I felt quite at home in the school’s friendly atmosphere; it reminded me of my teaching days in Southall, Middlesex back in the nineties. They felt so far away.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Another farewell

Talking of farewells, Thia Marika passed away last Sunday 18 April. She was 92 years old and passed away peacefully at home, without having been ill, so I suppose one should be grateful for this. May God rest her soul and lead her to eternal bliss.

My mother only let me know this morning. I know that I should be thankful for her long life and its peaceful end, I am nevertheless sad at her loss. My mother doesn’t have any sisters, so her aunts, aunt Marika and aunt Varvara, who passed away three years ago, have always been like my maternal aunts. My sister Eleni and I grew up with them and this Marika’s daughter Irini: they used to visit us every Saturday evening and we learned a lot from their conversations.

Thia Marika had been especially kind to me in recent years. When we began to visit Kassos again with Hossein and the children, she kindly let us stay in her house, which is only a five-minute walk from my mother’s house that could not accommodate us all. In my and the children’s minds, thia Marika’s name will always be linked with the four summers of their childhood we spent in Kassos. May God repay her kindness.

Looking through my bits and pieces of writing, I dug out this piece which I wrote in 2002, describing her house.

Through the kindness of my mother’s aunt, I was allowed the use of her house throughout my stay in Kassos. The house is in some need of repair: doorhandles, hinges and bolts are rusted in the humid air and after long years of neglect, paint is peeling off doors and windows. The putty holding the window panes in place has flaked off, making the windows rattle menacingly at the smallest gust of air. The only cooking facility is a three-stove table top gas cooker connected to a gas cylinder. When not in use, the neighbour Bebis tells me it is advisable to secure the valve at the top of the cylinder.

Despite the lack of comforts, the house commands a superb view. Perched on a high spot just off the dry river bed of the river Skyllas, it faces west. Its front gate made of wood and featuring elegant wooden railing is painted in royal blue. This is now flaking in places, revealing its previous history: turquoise, cinnamon brown, pistachio green. Two raised flower beds run along the sides of the small yard, left and right. On the right, an old grapevine, its trunk old, gnarled and peeling has heaved itself up supported by three intersecting metal tubes forming a roughly shaped pergola. Its leaves are moth-eaten and unkempt, revealing some irregular, diseased bunches of grapes. On the left, a two-trunk lemon tree raises its limbs in a gesture of silent despair and rises to meet the vine over the middle of the yard, its skin dark grey, smooth and clear. The old companions’ permanent embrace casts a welcome shade on the faded, Victorian tiles of the yard.

Looking over to the north, one can see Fry, the port and the town, arranged eyebrow shape along the smooth coast. Moving westwards, my eyes greet the cemetery and the white form of Ai-Yiannis church fenced in by a white wall on a gently rising slope that leads on to the village of Ayia Marina. Then I follow the undulating rise like the profile of a sleeping giant, that reaches Profitis Elias, the minute church on top of the mountain.
I am elated to be here. This house is steeped in family history: my great-great grandmother Sofilla spent the last years of her life in this house when the Italian commandant requisitioned her own house and the olive grove next to it for his headquarters. She died in the room where I will sleep. Old photos on the wall signal some details of her life. A photograph of her daughter Barbara, who emigrated newly wed to America never to return; a fifties wedding photograph of Barbara’s daughter Sofia from America, with six maids of honour; a convent school photo of the 1920s of seven year old aunt Marika, in pinafore and hair in a short bob parted on the side.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Back Home

The conclusion of the New Year feast (Nowruz) comes to an end on the thirteenth day of the new year (sizdeh be dar), wehn Iranians go on a picnic and cast away the sprouted wheat (sabzeh) in running water, casting away the evil along with the sabzeh. On the following day, life goes back to normal again.

This year sizdeh be dar fell on Good Friday, which was lucky for Iranians living outside Iran, like our friends in London, who insisted that we postpone our departure so that we could join them on their picnic. However, schools in Iran reopened last Saturday (and I doubt that any picnic took place in rainy London), so we left as planned on Thursday evening and arrived in Tehran on Friday 2 April at 2.30 am.

Being back in London initially felt strange, but after a day I felt as if I hadn't been away at all. To me this is a familiar sensation: I experience it every time I return to Athens, where I grew up; to Kassos, where my parents were born and where I spent my childhood summers; to London, where I spent most of my adult, married life, and now to Tehran, where home now is.

As we boarded the cab for Heathrow , under the pathetic fallacy of hail, I remembered Aqa jun, Hossein's father, and the last glimpse I had of himin this life. He was in the cab then leaving for Heathrow, and I stood in the doorway waving goodbye. He spent two months with us in the spring of 2006, and exactly a year later he passed away.

What is life, except a series of hellos and goodbyes.

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

The Travel Bookshop

Last night the event at the Travel Bookshop was well attended and, as I understand, well received. This has had much to do with the participation of Alex Harvie, writing and publishing consultant (, good friend and ardent fan of Iran, who with her insighful questions, gave a great lift to the event. I thank her once again for everything she's done for the book.

The Travel Bookshop is a small specialist bookshop in Notting Hill (it features in the film by the same name, starring Hugh Grant; in fact while the talk was on, a group of Spanish tourists were taking photos of the front of the bookshop).
I liked the way books are shelved under geographical areas rather than genre, so together with travel maps and travelogues about, say, Greece, one also finds Louis de Bernieres Captain Corelli's Mandolin.

For the first time, the Travel Bookshop hope to upload photos and an edited recording of the talk on their website.

Many thanks to everyone who came along on a rainy spring evening.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Next event

The SOAS event went very well on Monday, so now we are on to the next one at the Travel Bookshop on Tuesday 30 March.

All the information is on the website at, and click on Events and talks.

Hope to see you there.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Book Launch on Monday 22 March 2010

looking forward to seeing many of you on Monday.

Here's the announcement:

Sofia A. Koutlaki author of
Among the Iranians - A Guide to Iran 's Culture and Customs
will be giving a talk and signing copies of her book

at 7pm on 22nd March 2010 in Room B202, Brunei Gallery Building , SOAS
(Thornhaugh Street, nearest tube station Russell Square)

Admission Free – All Welcome
For further information: T 020 7239 0360 E

Friday, 19 March 2010

Last Thursday of the year

Yesterday was the last Thursday of the year, traditionally a day when Iranian families visit the graves of their dead, or otherwise especially remember them.

Last night, a very dear Iranian friend and neighbour in London brought round to our flat a plate of Iranian halva to mark this occasion of rememberance. One is meant to eat at least one spoonful of halva and offer a Fatiha prayer for the dead. As the Iranians say, physical distance is not important, the closeness of the hearts is what matters.

Indicentally, during the weekend of 20-21 March a Noruz celebration is organised at the Great Court of the British Museum, offering a variety of activities for families. The event is free, and it is on from 11 am until 4.30 pm. If previous years are anything to go by, this should be a day to remember.

SOAS Book Launch

We arrived in London last Tuesday for the promotion of the book.

Here's the info on the first event next Monday.

Sofia A. Koutlaki author of
Among the Iranians - A Guide to Iran 's Culture and Customs will be giving a talk and signing copies of her book
at 7pm on 22nd March 2010 in Room B202, Brunei Gallery Building , SOAS, Thornhaugh Street (nearest tube station Russell Square)

Admission Free – All Welcome
For further information: T 020 7239 0360 E

I hope to see many of you there, and Happy New Year!

Monday, 8 March 2010

New Year Preparations

The whole of the country is now in the grip of pre-Nowruz fever in anticipation of the beginning of the New Year. This is the highlight of the year for all Iranians, who prepare for it in various ways: externally by spring-cleaning and refurbishing their homes and shops and buying new clothes and shoes and internally, by settling old scores, making friends with those they may have differences and resolving to improve aspects of their lives in the new year.

Shops are extremely busy, especially in the afternoons and weekends, and some of them remain open round the clock in the last weeks of the year.

The exact moment of the transition from the old to the new year is the result of precise astronomical calculation: Saturday 20 March, 21:02:13 Iran time, 18:32:47 GMT.

This is an extract from Among the Iranians: A Guide to Iran’s Customs and Culture, (to be released in the UK on 25 March and in the US on 1 April):

“About ten days before the New Year the women of the family soak lentils or wheat until they sprout. Then they spread them on a plate and cover them with a piece of gauze which is kept moist. Until New Year day the sprouts have grown to a height of about ten centimetres, when they are tied around with a red ribbon and become one of the main items, the sabzeh, on the New Year spread.”
When Hossein’s parents were still with us, all their children and grandchildren arrived at their house just before the change of the New Year. Maman jun put an embroidered piece of fabric on the floor in the middle of the room and laid the New Year spread on it, every object from the natural world an anchor of an abstract ideal. She put her wedding mirror and candlesticks for purity, light and joy in the New Year, took out one of her goldfish from the pool and brought it in a bowl to represent freshness and got her grandchildren to decorate some eggs in a symbolism of new life. In keeping with tradition, she had to have seven items whose names begin with the letter “s” in Persian: sabzeh (green herbs), serkeh (vinegar), seer (garlic), seeb (apple), samanou (a paste similar to halva made of germinated wheat), somaq (sumac, a sour spice used in kebab dishes) and senjed (dried lotus fruit) or sombol (hyacinth flower).

Although Nowruz is not an Islamic feast and it is celebrated by Iranians of every religion, its celebration has been fused in the Iranian psyche with the worship of the one God and Islam, so most Iranian Muslims also place the Holy Quran on the New Year spread too and read a special supplication (Du’â Sâl-e No) in Arabic.”

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Bookshop Event

Among the Iranians: A Guide to Iran's Customs and Culture will be released in the UK on 25 March.

A number of events are being organised by Publicity at Nicholas Brealey, and I will be posting info on them as it becomes available.

I will be giving a talk for people interested in travelling to Iran at The Travel Bookshop, 13-15 Blenheim Crescent, Notting Hill, London W11 2EE on Tuesday 30th March - 6.30pm talk starts at 7pm - tickets cost £3 - signed copies of the book, Among the Iranians, A Guide to Iran 's Customs and Culture, will be available.

For more information and to buy tickets, please contact The Travel Bookshop:, and click on Events and Talks, or ring them on 02072295260

I look forward to seeing you there.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Third and last instalment (for now)

Last bit (for now) of my first day in Iran in February 1989.
After a long day of struggling to communicate using a vocabulary of about twenty words, meeting new relatives and processing many new impressions I was ready for bed, so to speak. Sister opened the double fitted wardrobe and pulled out everybody’s bedding: thick mattresses made of cotton and covered in colourful, flowery fabric, heavy duck-down pillows and blankets with sheeting sewn on, which reminded me of my childhood and how my mother used to do the same with my blanket. Normally sister slept downstairs in the same room with her parents and her younger brother, but that night she intended to come upstairs. I told her that I didn’t want to get her out of her habitual sleeping place and assured her that I could sleep upstairs on my own.
Both Maman-jun and sister would hear none of it. What if I needed something during the night? Brother carried two mattresses and a tray with a water jug and two glasses upstairs to the reception room. “Whatever you need, any time of the night, just wake me up,” sister said. For the first time in the year and a half after I left home for university in England, I had the warm feeling you get when you return home and your mother cooks your favourite dish. Only this was hundreds of miles away from home, among people I had just met, who were kind not because I was their bride, but because this is who they were.
When I woke up at 3 am to ‘go to the yard’ (i.e. toilet), I was too embarrassed to wake sister up. I groped for the corridor light switch and started down the stairs. She must have sensed the movement and followed quickly, overtaking me by the front door.
“You’ll freeze outside. Put on a jacket,” she said, handing me a thick, hand-knitted jacket from the hanger behind the door. “I’ll come with you if you’re scared.” I told her I was fine and also wanted to tell her that back in my Greek native island my younger sister woke me up to go to the yard with her, so no, I wasn’t scared. But I was too sleepy and couldn’t muster all the words I needed.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Still Looking Back

My blog posts are like buses: you wait ages for one and then two come at once.

As I said in the blog before last, February is a month of memories of my first visit to Iran. I can’t help looking back at a time when Maman-jun and Aqa-jun were still with us.
On that very first visit, Hossein’s mother led me to sit ‘high up’, i.e. by the ornamental fireplace, farthest from the door, a position accorded to elders and foreigners as a sign of respect because they are less likely to be disturbed by others. Sister removed her black chador, black scarf and overcoat, revealing denim trousers and a red jumper, much like any other young woman back home, and went off to the kitchen.
We sat in the sitting room talking about my family, England, Hossein, my job with Iran Air. My knowledge of Persian at the time was rudimentary: I struggled with words and gestures to make myself understood, but the linguist in me found it enjoyable, if hard going. Aqa Jun cracked a joke that later became a family classic:
“Hossein went abroad to study and got married instead; I want to go abroad to study too!”
“You graduated years ago with five certificates, [their children],”Haj Khanum retorted.
Soon after tea, Haj Khanum asked me to call her “Maman jun” (mummy) and to feel at home. But when I offered to help sister with washing up and laying the lunch spread, she insisted that I remain seated because I was a “guest” and consequently it was their duty to look after me and ensure my comfort. When I pointed out the discrepancy, Aqa Jun laughed with good humour and said I was too clever for my boots.
Last bit to follow tomorrow.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Last weekend

Because of a combination of holidays the previous weekend was an extended mini-holiday of five days: Thursday 11 February was the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, Friday is always a day off, Saturday was the anniversary of the Holy Prophet’s passing and Imam Hassan’s martyrdom and Monday was the anniversary of Imam Reza’s martyrdom. Technically Sunday was a working day, but schools were off and many people went on mini-breaks to the Caspian littoral and to other cities, and many visited Mashhad, where Imam Reza is buried.

On the Friday we visited my brother-in-law’s in-laws (NOT a typing mistake), who had paid us a New Year visit last spring and which we had not got round to paying back. They live in a village bear Qazvin, down from the Alamut Castle in the famous Valley of the Assasins. After a sumptuous lunch (chicken in red sauce and rice with barberries (zereshk polow), yellow lentils stew with fried aubergines (khoresh gheimeh)) we went for a walk round the land to the south of the village. Apparently what now is arable land was a cemetery about tow centuries ago. Some gravestones were visible here and there: a man’s gravestone engraved with his name and a string of prayer beads; a woman’s bearing the engraving of a comb.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

A Trip Down Memory Lane

Yesterday, the first of February or the twelfth of Bahman in the Iranian calendar, marked the thirty-first anniversary of Imam Khoneini’s return to Iran and the beginning of the Ten Days of Dawn (Dahe ye Fajr), which culminated with the victory of the Islamic Revolution on 11 February 1979.

Apart from the historical significance of these days for the Iranian nation, these days bring me back to twenty-one years ago, the tenth anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, and the very first time I flew to Iran as a guest of Iran Air, London (I was working at their Heathrow Airport station at the time). I was travelling with a colleague from the Iran Air town office in Piccadilly who was married to an Iranian and was able to explain things to a wide-eyed foreigner such as me.

When we arrived at Mehrabad Airport in Tehran, I rang Hossein’s parents to say I had arrived and that I would ring again once I was in the hotel. An Iran Air driver drove us to Hotel Homa but Aqa-jun, my father-in-law, who couldn’t wait to meet me, was at the Hotel Homa along with my sister-in-law and a maternal cousin almost as soon as I was shown into my room, and arranged with my tour guide for me to spend the night in their house.
I opened my suitcase in a hurry and retrieved a black chador I had borrowed from a friend back in London. My friend had explained that Shahrerey, or Shabdolazim, Hossein’s home town in the south of Tehran is a pilgrimage destination because the saint Hazrat Abdol-Azim is buried there, so a black chador was to be worn in the street (This has now changed.) I found the idea of wearing a chador exciting, just like a child dressing up. The trouble was that I was one hand short: overnight bag in one hand, bag with presents in the other and the missing one to hold the chador in place under the chin. I must have been a ridiculous sight as I stumbled out of the lift to meet my father- and sister-in-law (as it turned out later, the chador was too short for me.) Haj Nasser the Blacksmith, as Aqa-jun introduced himself, was shorter and stockier than Hossein and sported a three-day greying stubble, rough and blackened hands and a permanent smile. Sister-in-law, a primary schoolteacher, was the same age as me but still unmarried, so she had eyebrows still unspoilt by the beautician’s hand over hazelnut, almond-shaped eyes.

We drove through the streets in an old bottle green Peugeot, which, as I found out later, had been borrowed from a relative. The cars and pick-up vans on the road were wounded and worn out but patched up, testimony to Iranian inventiveness and resilience, the spirit of ‘making do’ that this brave nation recovering from war had to summon.

I had no idea in which direction we were travelling and could see no landmarks I could use to work out my bearings. Down a long street (Mostafa Khomeini Street, I now know) above the rows of shops the beauty of the old Qajar-period buildings showed through. Façades flanked by ornate columns and topped by lunettes decorated in polychrome tiles struck me like an old, faded beauty on whose face the previous glory lives on.

Eventually we reached Shoush Square (which technically isn’t a square but a circus) with its short clock tower, about the height of Little Ben by Victoria Station in London, and took the road to Shahrerey, straight and dreary, lined with low-rise mud brick workshops and frayed shop signs.

Aqa-jun’s house and blacksmith workshop was on 24 Metri Avenue, Shahrerey (Shabdolazim). This twenty-four metre wide avenue, hence its name, radiates to the east of Shabdolazim square and ends at the ancient fortress of Qal’eh Gabri. When Aqa-jun married my mother-in-law, they moved to Shabdolazim in the mid 50s. After a few years he managed to buy a house plot, where he had the workshop built, with the house at the back.

The entrance to Hossein’s family house was through a narrow ironwork gate that sealed the high wall. Aqa-jun had made the gate himself and shaped “In the Name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful” in iron strips over it. He rang the bell. “Who is it?” a female voice asked through the intercom. “Open the door,” he answered. The door buzzed. He pushed the door. “Is it open?” the voice asked again. (This is a formulaic exchange: it happens every time. Identifying yourself through the intercom or on the telephone is the mark of the foreigner.) Aqa-jun lifted the thick green curtain just behind the gate and said, “After you, ladies.”

We went through a dark, narrow corridor and into a yard with an oblong pool on the left; I recognised the potted geraniums from a photograph Hossein had sent me during the pen-pal days of our acquaintance. Two more members of the family stood by the front door: his mother, slim, with the same hazelnut eyes and benign smile as Hossein, and his youngest brother, shorter and much younger, but quite similar to him. The mother hugged me and kissed me three times on the cheeks and welcomed me into their home. I took off my shoes in the yard, just before the door and was led into a room without furniture but with a hand-knotted carpet with intricate floral patterns on a dark red background (This carpet, the first real Persian carpet I ever sat on, is now in our bedroom. When it became threadbare Aqa-jun wanted to donate it to the local mosque but I asked him to donate it to us because, I joked, at the time we were poorer that the mosque. Now that we are a bit better off I have grown attached to it and can’t bear to give it away).

Trip down memory lane to continue soon.

Friday, 22 January 2010


A few days ago I had a cleaner in. The only display cabinet we have in the house is a narrow rectangular glass case by the kitchen entrance, and even this does not contain “proper” display objects like vases and crystal, as is usual in Iran. It houses an assortment of odd objects, and the cleaner had a thing or two to say about this.

The top shelf contains a miniature bronze samovar with a baby teapot sitting on it, six antique teacup holders, and an old, faded melamine plate resting against the back of the cabinet, all anchors to the past.

“What’s all this?” the cleaner asked. I knew where she was coming from. In her experience, such objects have no display value: only freaky foreigners who don’t know any better would put these on display.

“The samovar and the cup holders were my mother-in-law’s, so they remind me of her.” In fact, they remind me of something else too, but that was a long story to tell. Over the years Maman-jun had collected all sorts of decorative objects in anticipation of the time when she would move to a bigger house and she would have the space to display them properly. Until then, they were kept in an attic storage room.

Eventually, in the spring of 2002, they sold the old house and bought a new one. She arranged her crystal and china in a display cabinet, so her wish had finally been fulfilled. Six months later she came to London to visit us and she unexpectedly passed away there. My father-in-law, Aqa-jun, and her sons and daughters could not bear living in that house anymore, so less than a year after it was bought, it was sold again, and Aqa-jun and his youngest son moved into a flat. Maman-jun’s china and things went into storage once again, until we moved to Iran in the summer of 2007. By that time Aqa-jun had also left us, and the youngest son-on-law with his young bride lived in the flat.

One evening all the children of the family gathered in the flat to clear out the store room. Maman-jun’ things, all those serving dishes and fruit plates and vases she had lovingly collected, were bought upstairs. Her daughters, daughters-in-law and granddaughters chose the things they would like to keep, and the rest was packed to be given to the poor. As the boxes were being stacked near the front door, I thought of the futility of life.
This is what the samovar and the teacup holders also remind me of.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Music without Borders

I have now attended twelve sessions of Traditional Iranian singing (Avaz Sonnati), and although I find the vocal flourishes (tahrir) difficult, I enjoy the lessons a lot.
A couple of sessions ago we were talking about Byzantine (Greek Church) and Greek traditional music, which are much closer to Iranian than to European music. I then mentioned the rich musical tradition of my native island of Kassos, Dodecanese, a subject I love. Despite the fact that Kassos is a very small island with only about eight hundred permanent inhabitants in the winter, its musical tradition boasts of some seventy-two different melodies (skopoi, or tunes).

The avaz teacher was interested in listening to one of them, so I sang the Palios Khaniotikos tune to the class. She loved it immediately and asked me to Bluetooth an amateur recording of it I’ve got and also to sing it myself so that she can record it.

Even though every singer can sing any distich to this tune, these two distichs (mandinades) are often sung to this tune:

You don’t go as far as killing me
But why don’t you put me put of my misery?
I’d much rather you killed me
Instead of hurting me so.

I owe this mortal body to the earth
And one day I will have to return it
But what do I owe to you
And you torment me so?

Interestingly, the similarities between the mandinades sung to the Kassos music and classical Persian poetry, which provides the lyrics to Iranian traditional singing, are striking. Overwhelming Love, the feeling that the Beloved is everywhere but forever out of reach, and a sense of separation from the object of one’s love, be it a person, God or the homeland that one has left behind but to which one yearns to return. Themes, images, poetic feeling…how similar the two apparently disparate cultures are.

For more information in English on the music of Kassos, visit, press the button for "Traditions" and then "mandinades" and "mousiki".

Sunday, 10 January 2010

New Year

Happy New Year to everyone.

This is the (belated) first blogpost of the year. In Greece, last Friday was the first day back to school after the Christmas break, in England almost a whole week of the new term is gone, although, as I hear, with disruptions because of the snow. In Iran the (Christian) new year barely registered. The children are sitting end of term exams but are otherwise off school in order to study.

However, we observed the Greek custom of Vasilopitta, or New Year cake: on New Year’s eve, a cake is baked at home in which a coin is mixed. After the stroke of midnight or on the first morning of the new year, the family gathers around the table and the father of the family cuts the cake, assigning each piece to a family member, including those who are absent, and Christ, the Virgin Mary and the poor. The person in whose piece the coin falls is given a present or money, and can expect good luck in the new year.

The coin of our cake fell to the lot of my sister-in-law’s son. I forgot to ask about my mother’s cake in Athens.

In a previous post (14 Dec 09) I wrote about the charity wedding at my daughter’s school. The proceeds of the evening came to an equivalent of £1,700 ($2,500) in cash donations and another £3,500 ($5,500) in goods donations.

How a health scare can influence social behaviour: the general outbreak of influenza A got Iranians, just like everyone else, worried. The Ministry of Health made recommendations designed to limit the spreading of influenza A. These included refraining from shaking hands and kissing (the social type, which, as I detailed in Among the Iranians, is common between members of the same gender). Over the months I have observed that such physical contact in social situations is reduced considerably, with people only nodding and bowing. I wonder whether this will be a permanent change or whether Iranians will revert to their usual practice once the threat is minimised.