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Sunday, 24 March 2013


I gave myself an absence mark from the blog last week, the last week of the Iranian year 1391 which ended on Wednesday 20 March at 14:31:47 hrs Iranian time at the precise moment when the sun’s movement marks the beginning of spring. As always, I had left all the cleaning and tidying up for the last minute (in the hope that someone else would do it, which they did – eventually), so the last days of the year were a marathon of scrubbing, cleaning, washing, folding, ironing and a thousand other things that should have been done much earlier.
On the first day of the New Year (Noruz) festival younger people visit the elders of the family, starting from the parents and grandparents, uncles and aunts. It is customary for the elders to give children and newly married couples an eidi, a present of money in the form of newly minted banknotes that have been kept between the Quran pages. This need not be a large sum, its significance being the blessing bestowed by the old upon the young. […] For the next twelve days short visits are exchanged among family and friends, the idea being that relatives should see each other at least once a year, if everyday life doesn’t let this happen more often. The younger visit the older people first, and towards the end of the twelve days, the older people reciprocate those visits.
During the Noruz visits, apart from the staples of tea and fruit, other compulsory items are on offer: several kinds of sweetmeats, sometimes homemade, nowadays mostly shop-bought, boiled sweets or chocolates, a mixture of seeds and nuts containing pistachios, almonds, dried chickpeas, pumpkin and watermelon seeds and other nuts. All these, and sometimes more, will be pressed upon you during a Noruz visit, so you will need a lot of stamina (to keep refusing) or a strong stomach; or both.
(the second and third paragraphs extracted and adapted from my Among the Iranians: A Guide to Iran’s Culture and Customs, Intercultural Press, Boston, Mass. 2010)

Saturday, 9 March 2013


A few days ago I received a text message from one of the students I taught last term at Ulum Hadith University. In a class of thirty-one, she had been one of those who either chatted or daydreamed during lessons, and mostly smiled cheekily.

She was in Mashhad, the burial place of the eighth Shi’a Imam and a favourite pilgrimage destination in Iran. The text message read, “I am standing by the mausoleum of the Holy Imam Reza (peace be upon him) praying for you.”

Another heart-warming gesture by a student that made me appreciate teaching once more. The funny thing is, she was one of the nine students who failed the exam.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Childish Joy

This is not the first time I write about experiences I have had on the way to, from, or actually in Shahrerey. Sitting on the back seat of the taxi, I usually glance at the city scenes that drift past the windows: only last Monday morning, as I got off the taxi just before Hazrat Abd ol-Azim’s Shrine, a group of nine-year-old girls, dressed in white chadors decorated with pink flowers got off a minibus. This visit must have been part of the celebration of their ‘coming of age’ in terms of religious duties (jashn-e taklif), something like the Catholic First Communion. They were all excited, milling around like kittens, until the stern voice of their teacher brought them into line.

On the same day, on the way back to the metro station, the taxi stopped at a red light in front of a greengrocer’s. A couple of people with their back turned to me were doing their shopping, while two schoolboys a short distance ahead held two wooden sticks and rolled around a rotten apple in place of a ball. Their faces were bright with childish excitement, at trying, at having a good game, at changing the world around them with whatever is at hand.

Their smiles brought me back to one summer in Kassos, my native island, when my cousin Manolis shaped little doll chairs and tables from the metallic stoppers of glass Coke bottles. He had used a long stone with a flattish end to straighten them and had managed to make the pieces stick together (I never worked out how.) When he finished, he gave the same kind of smile that has the warmth of the sun coming out from behind the clouds.

Saturday, 23 February 2013


Sometimes when I get tired of teaching, I wonder whether the whole thing is worth it. In every class the back row is filled with students (“tourists” as we called them when I was a student in Greece) who play games on their mobiles, chat in whispers or simply daydream, thinking that I have never been a student myself and that I am so old that I can’t see them or hear them. On days like these I wonder whether I should give up.

But then I remember the good things. After the first lesson of the new term four weeks ago, a young man whom I have taught for the last three terms came over to my office. He had been depressed throughout last year, attended erratically, did only the absolute minimum of written work and had repeatedly told me how he felt that there was no point in studying and that the whole of life was a dead-end. I had tried to help him be more positive, as had many counsellors, but without success.

He looked changed now. He came in smiling brightly, saying that he had got a job teaching English, was preparing for an international exam and had never felt so positive in his life before! Although I hadn’t had anything to do with his transformation, the fact that he came to share it with me reminded me that I should count myself lucky to have witnessed one of the many miracles that can, and do, happen.

Maybe teaching is worth it after all.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

How lives end

The bizarre process of dementia is taking my father on a reverse journey: from independent adulthood he progressed to childhood, when he clapped his hands, delighted at watching movies of animals and playing games. About two years ago, he took his last steps and slipped into bed-ridden infancy. He is now past the babbling stage, only smiling when he hears a familiar voice. We can only observe and feel helpless.

A few days ago I got out of the underground station at Shahrerey, where a number of taxi drivers usually stand around calling out for passengers. One of them, holding a small glass of tea, came up to me.
“Where are you going, haj khanum? The university?”

He was dishevelled and untidy, but I didn’t have the nerve to ignore him. I followed him to his car. He finished off his tea, opened the boot and put the empty glass in it.

The rear windscreen bore a funeral announcement like the ones stuck on walls. I sat in the rear seat. The driver wore a black shirt, had a grey, untidy beard. After a couple of minutes of silence, he mused, “When one’s wife is alive, one doesn’t appreciate her. She used to prepare some breakfast at least; now I have breakfast in the car, and go home all alone in the evenings, no-one to talk to…”

“May God grant her peace,” I whispered. “Was she old?”

“Only forty-five, but she had had a stroke and a heart attack. She had survived the bombing during the Iran-Iraq War. Our house fell on her and she was rescued after two hours. I was at the war front then. Out two-month old baby had been with her too, but he died under the rubble. This affected her speech, and gradually she spoke less and less, until her heart gave way.”

“May this be the last of your sorrows,” I said, finding refuge from my feelings of inadequacy in the conventional formula.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Twenty four years ago

Twenty-four years ago, on the second of February 1989, I arrived in Iran for the very first time. That was six months after the end of the Iran-Iraq War and during the celebrations of the tenth anniversary of the victory of the Islamic Revolution. I worked for Iran Air at Heathrow Airport at the time, and I had been sent to Iran as an official guest for the festivities, along with other non-Iranian colleagues from other stations. My in-laws, who could not wait to meet me, were at the Homa Hotel almost as soon as I was shown into my room and got my tour guide’s permission to spend the night in their house. I took a black chador I had borrowed from a friend in London out of my suitcase. My friend had explained that Shahr-e Rey, or Shabdolazim, Hossein’s home town in the south of Tehran, is a pilgrimage destination, so a chador is always to be worn in the street (I have written more details about Shabdolazim in a previous post; for the record, the convention of wearing black chador everywhere in Shabdolazim only now applies within the shrine compound and not to the whole town). I found the idea of wearing a chador exciting, 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. I must have been a ridiculous sight as I stumbled out of the lift to meet my father-in-law and sister-in-law. Haj Nasser the Blacksmith, as he introduced himself, was shorter and stockier than Hossein, but had the same endearing smile. Sister-in-law Mansoureh, a primary school teacher, was the same age as me and single, with eyebrows still unspoilt by the beautician’s hand over hazelnut-coloured, almond-shaped eyes. This was the first time I ever travelled outside Europe: I felt as if I had stepped into another, magical world. Everything seemed strange, exhilarating and yet familiar, as if I had come home to a place I had never seen before. I had not realised it then, but now whenever I am asked why I love Iran, I say I suppose it’s the people. (Except for the last paragraph, this text is adapted from Among the Iranians: A Guide to Iran’s Culture and Customs, Intercultural Press, Boston, Mass, 2010)

Monday, 28 January 2013

Bridal Bed

The daughter of my sister-in-law is getting married. Last Thursday, the men of the family (her father, brother, the groom, her uncle and cousins) helped move her household effects to the new house. Last Friday, her closest female relatives were invited to set up the house and arrange everything in its place for next Thursday, when the main ceremony will take place and more guests will visit the house. Electrical appliances were ranged on the kitchen worktop and covered with embroidered doilies; three large cutlery canteens, their drawers open, were displayed on a side table; a large display cabinet contained her formal dinner service, and crystal and porcelain set. In the bedroom, the bride’s and groom’s bathrobes hung from the bathroom door and all her perfumes and cosmetics were laid out on the dresser. On the day of her send-off, the guests will come to admire the bride’s trousseau and wish her and the groom “to grow old together.” In the older times and in smaller towns and villages, just like in other parts of the world and my native island Kassos, Greece, the bridal trousseau and the groom’s gifts were displayed publicly. In Iran this is called tabaqkeshoon, where the items were carried on large trays, whereas, from what I’ve heard from my father, in Kassos the trousseau items were loaded onto donkeys and shown around the village. Yesterday’s ceremony is similar to a custom that is still observed in Kassos and the rest of Greece (I suppose) called krevati or laying the bridal bed. This is an occasion for close female relatives and friends to see and admire the bridal home. A little child, usually a boy, is also thrown on the bed to bring the couple good luck. Once again I return to the familiar theme of how similar people and cultures are.

Monday, 21 January 2013

"But I Studied so Hard!"

Another week’s gone, this time taken up with marking and grading exam papers, which always takes me an inordinate amount of time because I try to be fair. But what really annoys me is when students ask me to look at their script again: they are really disappointed with their grade; they know that they didn’t do as well as they should, but they studied a lot; or they really need a high average. These are obviously the ones who didn’t work well during the term, when they were too busy socializing with their friends. They only realize what they have done (or rather haven’t) when the grades come in. As the Iranians say, “baby chicks are counted at the end of autumn,” or “as you sow, so you shall reap.”

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Shahrerey, South of Tehran

Apart from Shahid Beheshti University, since last September I also teach at the Quran and Holy Traditions University, in Shahrerey, south of Tehran. And so it happens that at the beginning of the week I go up to the snow-covered foot of the Alborz Mountains, and on the last day of the week I go down almost to the beginning of the desert, within the precinct of the tombs of three holy persons, Abd ol-Azim, Hamzah and Taher. And when I say “precinct”, I mean a large complex including prayer halls, mosques, wide forecourts, refectory, a health centre, a museum and a traditional bazaar, all centrered around the three tombs. Shahrerey is quite far from my house, but one metro line goes straight down there. However, at the beginning of the semester, I discovered another, easier way to get there: every morning, my brother-in-law drives down to his factory, which is 70 km south of Shahrerey, so he gives me a lift. The catch is, of course, that he leaves home at 6.00, so I get to the mausoleum by 6.30, at the latest 6.45, while lessons start at 8.00. At these early, magical times I sit at the southern courtyard of the mausoleum, enjoy the calm and observing the days drawing in from one week to the other, until at the very end of term I arrived there even before sunrise. Only a few worshippers are around then, leaving the mausoleum after the morning prayers. A couple of weeks ago, a woman who works there crossed the courtyard carrying two barbari breads, still steaming in the morning cold. She came up to me and said, “Come inside for breakfast; you’ll freeze here!” I thanked her, and she insisted, as Iranians always do, and then I told her that I would be going into the university building soon. But if I had accepted her invitation, she would have shared her bread, cheese and tea with a total stranger, a pilgrim of the saints. As we parted, I thought of Kassos, our traditional hospitality and the open doors everywhere, and the Greek coffee with melted butter and kouloures, homemade savoury bagels. How similar people are all over the world.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

The other day I was in the waiting room of a traditional doctor whose nutritional programme helps weight loss according to one’s body constitution. I sat there reading, as I always do in order not to feel I am wasting my time, when the woman sitting next to me, turned round and, out of the blue, said, “God must give us another Paradise!” I looked at her with my mouth half open, wondering whether she might actually need another type of doctor. Realising my confusion, she continued, “Since I remember myself, I have been overweight, just like you. That’s not fair! That’s why God has to make it up to us, for what we’ve suffered throughout life.” To be honest, I had never thought of it like that: I always assumed that being overweight had to do with eating too much.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

New Year's Day 2013

After two years (almost to the day) of absence, I take up the weekly blog again. I never had many readers, so I don’t suppose that my absence made a lot of difference. It’s just that I came to miss it, that chatter with myself. On days like these I remember past New Year days, when my mother divided the Vassilopita, the New Year cake, assigning a piece to Christ, to the poor, to my father, who was often away as a sea-captain in the merchant navy, and to every member of the family. The Vassilopita contained a coin, so the person in whose piece the coin fell would be lucky throughout the year. Ayios Vassilis (the Greek version of Santa Klaus) visited every house after midnight and left presents for my sister and me. We used to get lots of presents, bought really by my mother’s relatives who lived in our neighbourhood. Funnily enough, I can’t remember specific New Year days when my father was actually in Athens, except one, when I was 13. We saw the new year in together, but then he had to catch a flight to his next commission. I had got an oil painting set and two canvases with the outline of ships drawn on them, and I sat on my bed colouring one of them. I couldn’t bear to stay in the living room. When his taxi came before lunch, he came to my room to say goodbye. I stayed there after he left, tears falling on the canvas I was still colouring. A long life full of farewells, and the last one my father and all of us are now in, the most painful of all.