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My Silk Road The Piglet stumbles across the continent

53 - Unexpected contrasts and reflections

IRAN | Monday, 12 November 2012 | Views [344]

Iran - Mashhad

Iran - Mashhad "sexy"

Mashhad is a city of unexpected contrasts.  The entrance to my hotel (Pardis Hotel – Pardis as in “paradise”) is tucked away in a deadend alley behind some gold and watch shops, and its lobby is dimly lit and deserted.  My room is all the way down the end of a dark corridor and is stiflingly hot – the air-conditioning has been turned off by this time of the year and only heating is available, and while one of the windows open, there is no breeze and the view looks into concrete rooftops.  At first sight, it is not paradise.

But there are interesting and worthwhile upsides.  There were many families staying in the hotel, no doubt most of them on pilgrimage to the Holy Shrine, and watching the families at breakfast became an enjoyable pastime (dour grandmothers in black chadors, daughters-in-law rushing to bring bread and glasses of milk to them, earnest looking husbands in glasses trying to subdue excited children in sneakers with cartoon characters, teenage boys with gel-ed up pompadour hair ostentatiously carrying their mobile phones…).  There were also a few Arab families perhaps from the Gulf or KSA; I did not know that there were Shi’ite muslims amongst Arabs so that was interesting to learn. 

At night, I took a walk outside the hotel and found that the area is quite lively with many different types of shops and fast food restaurants.  It was quite safe to walk in the streets and even at around 9pm, there were many couples, teenagers and families with children around.  There are a few “shopping malls” behind the hotel – basically ground floor and basement shops selling mostly clothes and bags.  A couple of lingerie shops with a jam-packed display of red, white and pink lacy underwear and nighties took me by surprise given Mashhad’s ultra-conservative reputation (check out the pics!).  Their doors were however discreetly shielded by an opaque cloth probably to protect the privacy of its shoppers.  A few minutes walk away from the hotel led me to a tree-lined pedestrian shopping street, again flaunting various trendy ensembles: rhinestoned cut-out tops, bleached jeans and sequined and ruffled evening gowns in lurid satins.  So much for the curve-covering chador.

I found a fast food shop just round the corner where I bought a lemonade and hamburger for dinner.  The hamburger is assembled from grilled meat patties (readymade from a sealed bag), inserted into a baguette-shaped soft bread with pickles.  Mayonnaise and ketchup offered on the side.  Price of meal: less than US$1.  Further along the street is a juice shop offering various freshly squeezed juices – a large pomegranate juice is just under US$3.  On the way back to the hotel, I passed by a cake shop selling pastries and an assortment of animal-shaped cream cakes.  

Mashhad is well-known not just because of its association with Islam but also for its non-Islamic association.   The tomb of Ferdowsi, an 11thC poet, is located at the outskirts of Mashhad.  Ferdowsi is widely credited with reviving the Persian language through his epic poetic work “Shah-nameh”, written in Persian (a dying language in Ferdowsi's time), which deals with the eternal theme of good and evil through kings and heroes, villains and monsters from the early days of civilization through the Arab conquest in the 7thC.   The Arab conquest had sought to replace Zoroastrianism (the religion that was practiced before the advent of Islam) with Islam, and replace Persian with Arabic, the language of the Koran.   After the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, the clergy had wanted to discredit Ferdowsi because of his advocacy for the Persian language and culture, but fortunately, he was too well loved by the people to be forgotten.  Ferdowsi reminds me of my worry about Hong Kong and the seeming gradual erosion of its identity as it stands further and further in the shadow of China.  Culture and language should not be reserved for large influential world actors and every unique tradition, language, history should be vigorously protected, no matter practiced or spoken by how many or few and whether or not it is believed to have aesthetic or historical value.  There is nothing relative about identity.


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