Sunday, 18 November 2012


Shortly before arriving in Kerman, my conversation partner invited me to have breakfast with him. I would have agreed, but I had to find the Canadian couple I was traveling with, as they left the bus ahead of us. When I found them, I couldn't find my Iranian friend, and I felt a bit bad. But maybe the breakfast invitation was just taarof?

Anyway, we took a taxi from the bus station to one of the hotels listed in Lonely Planet. I'm not a taxi person in any culture or country, but I got sucked along with the couple I was traveling with. The small hotel we went to was nice but somewhat basic, and the Canadians were shocked by the price, as it was 270,000 rial for a triple room with a private bathroom, TV, and fridge, as well as a shared kitchen. They thought this was the per-person price, but were surprised it was the price for the room. So, basically it was half the price of Vali's, for much nicer accommodation. In reality, this was the kind of pricing that I saw in most of Iran, as the devaluation really did make most things cost less than half (in dollar terms) of what they would have been earlier in the year.

Anyway, after stowing our bags, freshening up, and making some instant coffee in the kitchen, we headed out towards the main sight in Kerman: the grand bazaar and Ganj Ali Khan complex.

We left the hotel together and walked maybe 50 meters to the main street. As soon as we reached the busy main street, however, I realized something was up. Literally everyone we came across would turn to look at the Canadian couple (both of whom were very white and had sandy-coloured hair), with most of the attention being given to the girl. The males would do a good job of not staring until the passed the couple, but their heads would swivel afterwards, while Iranian girls would openly stare without attempting to conceal it. Within the first five minutes we had been approached in English by at least three people who wanted to talk to us. But when I say we were approached, I really mean that the white guy was approached: it would be improper for these Iranian males to directly address an accompanied female, and I was basically ignored (as I would learn later, the locals probably thought I was an Iranian tour guide or friend who was accompanying them, if they even noticed me at all). It was incredibly surreal to see how different our experiences were, and how much attention was being lavished on these white folks while I passed unnoticed even though all of us identified as Canadian, that I had to laugh. But as surreal as it was to me, the Canadians were totally unfazed, as they had been in the country for a while and were undoubtedly accustomed to all the attention.

We headed down towards the grand bazaar, which was a pretty nice introduction to Iranian covered markets. Unlike in most of Central Asia, in Iran there are lots of mosques, markets, baths, and other buildings that have been in continuous use for hundreds of years. These aren't recently-(over)restored tourist pieces like you see in Uzbekistan, but living and breathing buildings that have been maintained and cared for over the years. Even in places where the Mongols destroyed buildings in the early 13th century, by the first years of the 16th century the Safavid empire overthrew the Timurids in Iran (which was no slouch in the the architecture department, as Samarkand shows), ushering in "modern" Persia and a prolonged era of stability. And as Iran has never been colonized, as most of Central Asia was by the Russians, there has never been a move away from these traditional buildings.

As a result, the bazaars in most Iranian cities continue to be the exact same sort of traditional bazaars that have existed for hundreds of years: mazes of inter-connected alleys with small domes forming the roofs—though these are barely noticeable from inside the markets, as you're not often tempted to look up and admire them amidst the bustle. These bazaars feel both exotic and, after a while, surprisingly commonplace and unremarkable.

Kerman's grand bazaar is located adjacent to the Ganj Ali Khan complex, which contains a large rectangular square surrounded by arched cells (like a madressa), complete with fountains and greenery, and surrounded on the sides with a caravanserai, a mosque, and a hammam (bath).

Pishtaq leading to the caravanserai at the Ganj Ali Khan complex in Kerman, built in the Safavid era between 1591 and 1631. Although the large rectangular square looks like a giant caravanserai, the actual caravanserai is a small square courtyard behind the pishtaq.

_DSC6610 - _DSC6611
A bagdir (wind tower) along the north end of the square. Yazd is the most well-known center for bagdirs, which work by capturing small breezes and funneling the moving air down to ground level, where it often passes over a small pool of water that further cools it.

View down the bazaar, which runs along the southern side of the complex.

Smoky streets and grilled bananas at the eastern end of the market. You can see the domed alley of the main market in the background.

More women in chador. Although pretty much all the women pictured so far have been wearing the chador (which literally translates as 'tent'), in reality most young women eschew the chador for a simple scarf covering more or less of their hair, as well as a (tight) manteau jacket that is just long enough to cover their bum. The chador seems like an incredibly impractical garment, as women always keep one hand underneath it to pull the garment together under their chin.

The hammam has been turned into a museum, replete with wax dummies showing how the bath may have looked and operated. There are different pools of different temperature, and spaces around the pools to be relax or be scrubbed by an attendant. This sort of display is fairly common, and there's a similar (but better) museum in Shiraz. Many old hammams have also been converted to restaurants, and we ate at one in Kerman.

Perhaps one of the reasons that Canadian girl drew so many stares is that she was breaking the Iranian dress code: although she covered most of her hair with a scarf (depending on where you are in Iran, you can get away with covering more or less of your hair: in Tehran the trend is to push your scarf so far back on your head that 3/4 of it is visible), she didn't have a manteau or long sweaters and consequently had most of her bum visible through her pants/skirt. This wasn't a big deal, but in retrospect it seems pretty odd, given the politics of her boyfriend. You see, as I discovered from his Facebook feed, he's stridently atheist, and anti-Islamic in particular: he's one of those people who believes that there's no such thing as Islamophobia, apparently because Islam really is the worst of all religions and (all) fears and prejudices based on Islamic extremism are entirely justified. He's the kind of guy who believes that Muslim immigrants to countries like Canada should be obligated to give up all elements of their faith that we might find objectionable, and assimilate into local culture. The irony of him, as a European Canadian, saying these sorts of things about how immigrants should conform to local customs and culture is only heightened when you consider that his girlfriend—despite her Caucasian appearance—is actually of First Nations or Metis ancestry. To a certain extent it makes sense and is admirable for an anti-Islamist to travel widely in the Muslim world, but on the other hand it is hugely hypocritical for someone who believes so firmly in assimilation to visit foreign countries and, as a guest or visitor there, to flout local cultural norms and mores. It's especially hypocritical when many of these kinds of people almost feel as though they actually should violate these customs they find morally disagreeable, as though it is actually a moral imperative for them to do so. This often takes the shape of dress code violations or minor provocations—the same sort of provocation they would find offensive in their native countries if done by Muslim immigrants there. I mean, it's illegal to not cover a female's hair in Iran. On the other hand, it's perfectly legal for females to be topless in public in lots of places in the west. Yet western visitors to Iran often feel like they are doing something brave or making a political statement against state-compelled modesty when they intentionally dress immodestly, yet they would find it much more difficult to defend a woman who decides to go topless in the west (even in circumstances where many men do).

In a huge coincidence, the day after I published this post I happened upon an article on the BBC, describing a protest in Canada over three young women in Ontario who were stopped by the police because they were bicycling topless, and told they must cover up. It has been legal for women to be topless in public in Ontario since 1991. Adding to the irony is that the women were raised Muslim—specifically Ismaili (if you read my observations on Ismailis earlier, their being Muslim will be somewhat less surprising), and having their roots like so many Canadian Ismailis as the offspring of Gujerati merchants expelled from East Africa (Tanzania, in their case). So here we have Muslims being harassed in the west for not wearing enough clothing, with Ontario police taking over the role of the Iranian Basiji (morality police)... except the Basiji actually enforce the law, whereas the Ontario policeman was simply making up the law based on his own personal morality.

Now, you might think that these young women are especially celebrated in Canada by conservatives: after all, they must be pretty well assimilated as Canadians—and not "Muslims"—if they are willing to go topless, but the reaction is, predictably, the opposite: conservatives seem upset that they don't identify as Muslims, and are asking why they would organize a demonstration for police sexism instead of identifying as moderate Muslims and protesting Islamic extremism. I kid you not. Here's what one of Canada's leading conservative nutjobs, Ezra Levant, has to say:
On a hot day this week, three young sisters in Kitchener went for a bike ride -- topless.

A police officer told them to put their shirts back on but female toplessness has been legal in Ontario since 1991.

One of the Mohammed sisters is an aspiring musician, so maybe this was a publicity stunt. Otherwise, taking your shirt off isn't much of a bold feminist statement, at least in North America.

Why not campaign for women's rights in Muslim countries or against honor killings in Canada?
Yes, cycling topless must be a publicity stunt, because this "aspiring musician" (she's actually been nominated for a Juno, which is Canada's equivalent to a Grammy) surely must have known they would be harassed by the police for doing something perfectly legal. And it must be a feminist statement, just like pushing your scarf back on your head or wearing a hijab instead of a chador is a feminist statement in Iran, and going topless as a male is an inherently masculine statement.

And yes, why aren't these girls protesting against honor killings, or campaigning for women's rights in places other than Canada? You know, like how white folk campaign for equality and reparations in the US, and like how policemen lead the protests whenever a policeman kills an unarmed black person in the US, and how the Civil Right movement was lead by a bunch of white folk. And that's even forgetting that at least one of the girls (the would-be publicity hound) no longer identifies as Muslim, because it's apparently her burden to carry and to hell with her if she won't act the way self-righteous white Christian columnists want them to.

Anyway, back to Kerman. The Canadian couple and I were soon to part, as they were headed to Yazd the next day, where they planned to stay with some people from couch-surfing, while I planned to visit the ruins at Bam. They had couch-surfed fairly frequently on their trip, and they said that in Iran the attention from hosts could be overwhelming, as their hosts often accompanied them everywhere out of an over-abundance of friendliness and hospitality, leaving them little free time to themselves, which in turn meant that they couch-surfed somewhat less than they had in other places as a way to give themselves a bit of a break. Couch-surfing isn't really a big thing in most of Central Asia, but it's really big in Iran (relative to the number of visitors they have), mainly because many young Iranians have incredible interest in the west and are highly dissatisfied with their government, but are starved for foreign contact.


November 18, Kerman: 330,000 rial
  • Taxi from station: 2,000 rial 
  • Samsa: 10,000 rial
  • Bed in triple room: 120,000 rial
  • Oranges: 10,000 rial
  • Food at hammam-style teahouse: 50,000 rial
  • 2 packs of chips, toothbrush, 1.5 liter Pepsi, cookies: 40,000 rial
  • Coffee sachets: 80,000 rial

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