Archive for the ‘Passport’ Category

Islamic influences in Florence

March 4, 2009

Tehran Bureau | passport

Visitors flock to the marvel of Renaissance expression, an ebullient city which, between the 14 to 16th centuries, led the world in artistic, literary and scientific development. Florence, was founded by the Romans and then prospered as a centre for textiles and commerce, giving the continent one of its first currencies with the ‘florin’ and developing the first modern banking system.

Along with these riches came the greatest thinkers of the age. Wealthy Florentine families sought to ensure their place in heaven by funding sacred art and architecture as well as to build edifices that testified to their own power and glory. Names such as Giotto, Dante, Petrarch, Donatello, Masaccio, Boticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Galileo and Machiavelli head the list of greats that lived and worked here. Unlike other Italian cities such as Rome, Florence is cohesive, most of her glories date from the Renaissance — the rebirth — in which classical Greek texts were rediscovered and translated into Latin and classical methods were revived. It is for this reason that UNESCO, in 1982, made the whole of the centro storico (the historic center) a World Heritage Site.

Muslim visitors to Florence might detect something familiar under the Renaissance gilding. In walking the narrow alleyways bounded by tall walls and bridged by arches, one is reminded of the medinas of great Islamic cities such as Marrakech and Damascus. The high-walled palazzos all harbor courtyards and inner gardens with fragrant flowers, tall trees and tinkling fountains, much like the traditional houses found in the Middle East and north Africa, not to mention Moorish Southern Spain. And the city’s skyline is pierced not just by the great dome and campanile of the Duomo, but by many bell towers that bear an uncanny resemblance to minarets.

Perhaps the greatest connection with the Islamic world comes with the achievements of Brunelleschi, the architect and engineer whose construction of the great dome of the Duomo drew on Muslim sources. Scholars have identified the mausoleum of Oljeitu Khodabanda in Soltanyeh, near Zanjan in Iran as bearing the blueprint that Brunelleschi followed. The Soltanyeh mausoleum was built between 1304-1313, predating the construction of the Duomo’s dome by 150 years. Brunelleschi’s use of the double dome to support the vast drum of the structure and herringbone pattern of brickwork within is the first such instance in Europe — but can be found throughout great mosques of the Muslim world.

Another church that displays clear Islamic influences is San Miniato al Monte, a jewel of a church that stands in the hills to the south of the city, giving panoramic views across town. This 11th-century church is filled with intricate marble work — and the inlaid patterns that cover the floor and the walls around the splendid marble pulpit are geometric in design and employ arabesques and floral motifs so beloved of Islamic art. It is impossible to stand in this church and not be convinced of the influence of Islamic art on this church.

Although Florence herself has no direct links with the Muslim world, it was an important commercial center and a typically successful Florentine merchant would have exploited all potential new markets — including Jerusalem and, after the fall of Constantinople, the Ottoman Empire. Slaves and spices picked up on trade routes were sold here and Florence’s proximity to Pisa — which was a maritime city state which both traded and warred with the East — connected Florence to the rest of the world and the flourishing exchange of goods and ideas that characterized the Mediterranean at the time. With the Crusades bringing back Muslim ideas and people to Europe, the presence of Moorish Spain, and the cross-fertilization of styles that was happening in another important maritime city state, Venice, Florence was another hub for the melding of ideas.

Modern scholarship attributes the magnificence of Renaissance Florence to a re-evaluation of Roman and Greek classical forms and ideas. What it misses is how much those very ideas were shaped in Greek exchange with the other great empire at the time — the Persian Empire, and how, subsequently, the eminent Muslim Empire that swept the known world, embedded the best of Islamic thinking, scholarship and knowledge in the West. For example, Galileo’s innovations in the theory of heliocentrism (that the earth revolves around the sun and not vice versa) came centuries after Muslim scientists had posited the same theory, and the Renaissance masters’ mastering of perspective in both art and architecture developed Muslim mathematician Alhazen’s optical theory which he published in the 10th-century Book of Optics. This book was translated into Latin by an unknown scholar at the start of 13th century and it is fascinating to speculate on whether the likes of Brunelleschi read this work.

An informed Muslim visitor to Florence will see what is apparent in all the splendor and beauty here — that in the flowering of human thought and aesthetic that Renaissance Florence represented, many different cultures and past achievements played a part, and that Muslim art and scholarship has played a crucial role in the development of the Western world. Florence will show those who care to look that it is impossible to separate the East from the West and, whether Catholic or Muslim, we all share in Florence’s triumphs.

Contemporary Florence for Muslims

The mosque. Although the plan to build a mosque for the city’s many Muslims was approved in 2005, new buildings famously take a long time to appear in Florence. For the moment, the city’s mosque is squeezed into a former furniture workshop in the Piazza dei Ciompi. Phone: +39 055 2381411.

The hammam. Soul Space is a luxurious and contemporary day spa owned by a Florentine/Turkish couple with a wonderful hammam and bellydancing classes on offer. Soul Space, 12 Via S. Egidio, Florence; Phone +39 055 2001794;

The restaurant. Darvish has a menu that features dishes from across the Middle East. Darvish, 76 Via Ghibellina, Florence; Phone: +39 055 3900742

The Tea House. Mago Merlino Tea House serves exotic teas along with stories of the owner’s travels in Marrakech. Mago Merlino Tea House, 31 via de Pilastri, Florence; Phone: + 39 055 242970.

A Guide to Iran

January 25, 2009

A jaunt through Tehran, Esfahan and Persepolis.

Tehran Bureau | passport

The joke was barely out of my mouth before I regretted making it.

“The Great Satan,” I’d quipped when the Iranian airport security official asked me where I was from. Unsmiling, he looked me up and down and said, “Please come with me.”

A thousand thoughts exploded in my head, none of them comforting. But it turned out the man only wanted to walk around the corner for a little privacy so he could ask about getting a visa to come to America.

It was a most unexpected welcome to Iran — but not, as it turned out, all that unusual. During the month I spent there one fall not too long ago I had similar exchanges with Iranians from all walks of life, few of them interested in discussing the animosity that has existed for so long between our two governments.

Nobody burned an American flag in my presence. Nobody threw rocks or taunted me. Many, in fact, expressed embarrassment over the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979, when 52 Americans were held captive for 444 days.

And rarely did average Iranians air their grievances with the United States, of which there are many: the CIA-backed coup in 1953 that overthrew a democratically elected prime minister; the decades of U.S. support for the unpopular Shah; the help given to Saddam Hussein during his eight-year war against Iran; and the shooting down of an Iranian airliner over the Persian Gulf in 1988, killing all 260 people aboard. The United States says it was a horrible accident; the Iranian government maintains it was deliberate.

Nor did anyone bring up the current contretemps over the enrichment of uranium and Iran’s quest for a nuclear bomb. (My visit was before Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s bizarre conference of Holocaust deniers last December.)

Understandably, though, most Americans are reluctant to travel to an “axis of evil,” as Bush calls it. But it’s perfectly legal to do so. Unlike Cuba, where U.S. law makes it virtually impossible for its citizens to set foot, Iran can be visited by any American who can get a visa (which, admittedly, is not always easy to do).

And there are plenty of reasons to go. In 2005, UNESCO ranked Iran seventh in the world in terms of historical, natural and archaeological assets. There’s world-class diving in the coral-rich Persian Gulf; skiing and mountain trekking take place amid peaks over 18,000 feet. But visitors don’t have to worry about jostling crowds: Iran ranks only 70th in the world in tourism revenue, which means not many are coming.

As an Iranian American growing up in Marin during the 1980s, I was constantly confronted with images of Iranians that never matched my perceptions or the experiences of people I knew so well. From an early age, I wanted to go to Iran and get to know it for myself, beyond both the U.S. propaganda and the often-distorted nostalgia of Iranian expats living in America.

Focused on the past

Arriving in Tehran, it’s hard to imagine there would be much worth staying to visit. The smog hangs over the city so thickly it has a texture. The city streets often resemble a parking lot. Many of its old architectural gems were destroyed by the Shah and replaced by drab, modern buildings, many now cheerlessly adorned with billboards honoring martyrs from Iran’s war with Iraq. Tehran, one quickly discovers, is a little rough around the edges.

Something about it, though, kept me transfixed. Tehran’s charm doesn’t lie in prettiness but in its surprises. For a city of its size (somewhere between 12 million and 15 million; no one is really sure) Tehran is improbably warm and friendly. Since the streets are packed, many Tehranis opt to take taxis. Unless the passenger is ready to pay for the whole cab and clearly states so, the driver will pick up as many passengers as the car will hold. This is a great way to see Tehran and get to know its residents. Any official gender segregation goes completely unnoticed, and men and women from all social strata discuss everything from government corruption to American pop music to computers to ever-rising inflation. I speak a little Persian, but it’s not essential for a visit; many Iranians, especially the younger ones, speak English.

One afternoon, to escape the smog, I hailed one of these communal cabs and headed for the top of Tehran, to one of the Shah’s former palaces. As I made my way through the entrance of the Sa’ad Abad Museum Complex, I felt I was in another world. The grounds were covered in lush, mature trees that appeared to be well manicured. On the ample lawns that surround the regal buildings, couples of all ages sat and flirted, making sure not to do anything too risqué.

It was clear from the literature provided at the door and from the bored and scruffy-looking guards — who were all too willing to give a guided tour of the artifacts of monarchial excess — that this museum was meant to show the evils of the Shah’s reign. The effect, though, was of a wistful nostalgia on the part of every visitor I saw, most of them ogling the large Persian rugs (the likes of which have all but vanished from Iran into the collections of Westerners) while the elders recounted the Iranian achievements of that era. Iran, I realized, is a nation fixated on what could have been.

Tehran today

Returning to reality — and to the smog — I made my way back to Tajrish, a bustling, upscale neighborhood in the north of the city, where I was approached by a women shrouded completely in black, a rare sight in that more liberal part of Tehran.

“Are you going to Vanak Square?” she asked.

I told her I was, but that I wasn’t a driver.

“I am!” she snapped, as if it should have been obvious. “Get in and let’s go.”

One of the few female taxi drivers in Tehran, she took us on shortcuts through residential neighborhoods and drove as if she would know them with her eyes closed. With every pothole we hit, she cursed the inefficiencies of the regime, to the delight of the five of us who were her fares.

For visitors from the West, the role of women here is an eye-opener. Sixty percent of university students are female. Women now hold many of the traditionally male jobs and are a conspicuous and beautiful part of Iranian public life. Compare these numbers with U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia, and it leads to head-scratching. And as I learned that night, they can most certainly drive cars.

One site in Tehran is far more fascinating to visiting Americans than it is to most Iranians: The old U.S. embassy, site of the 1979 student takeover that so badly soured relations between the two nations.

It’s an imposing site, taking up several city blocks in central Tehran, and it’s surrounded by a huge brick wall. The walls are covered with anti-American and anti-Israeli murals and quotes from Ayatollah Khomeini. Above the wall is barbed wire.

These days, much of the grounds are used as a headquarters for a military group, while the main building is an anti-imperialism museum open only a few days a year. A couple of rooms are dedicated to depicting American operations within the “Den of Spies,” as the Iranians once called the embassy. Other exhibits honor the students who took over the embassy and spent weeks painstakingly piecing together shredded U.S. documents. Photo exhibits depict atrocities perpetrated on Iran and other developing nations.

I happened to be in Tehran on one of the few days the museum was open. When I asked a taxi driver to take me to the “old American Embassy,” his response surprised me: “Old American Embassy? There’s only one American Embassy, which is the property of the U.S.” He went into a long diatribe about how international law was broken when the embassy was seized. For most Iranians, the embassy takeover was clearly not their proudest moment.

When I arrived, groups of schoolchildren were being led around and quizzed about Western atrocities against Muslims. After I made it clear to everyone there that I was American, the scene quickly changed to one of curiosity and friendliness.

“What’s new in Hollywood?” asked one of the students in a hushed voice. Young Iranians are more informed about American pop culture than I’ll ever be, but as far as American political history goes, they seemed uninterested.

‘The Persian Florence’

If Tehran is an acquired taste, Esfahan is an epiphany. Travelers returning from Iran have for centuries boasted of the “Persian Florence.” Visiting the blue, mosaic-tiled mosques that help quench the desert’s ravenous thirst for civilization, though, I had to question that comparison. Both towns rose to glory during the same era, but it was Esfahan, not its unofficial European sister city, that was Earth’s most populous capital. Behind every corner I stumbled upon spectacular reminders of that rich past.

The city was built around the river Zayandeh Rood, which is crossed by two of the world’s most picturesque pedestrian bridges. The first is Si-o-Se Pol, literally “Thirty Three Bridge,” named for its 33 arches. The second, the Khaju bridge built by Shah Abbas in 1650, has two stories and features stone stairs that descend to the river. It’s probably the best place in Iran to dip your feet on a hot day.

A popular Persian rhyme of the day that “Esfahan is half the world” gave Esfahan’s square its original name. Indeed, the square has been the heart of the city since it was built in 1612, flanked by some of the most important buildings of the Islamic world and a labyrinthine bazaar that still serves as the center of commerce.

After five centuries, it remains one of the largest public squares in the world. It is on UNESCO’s World Heritage list, and from the moment I entered through one of its ancient corridors it has been my favorite place on earth. Not surprisingly, the past two regimes have co-opted the square as its own, going predictably from “Shah Square” to “Imam Square.” But, as a dapper young doctor in Levis and Reeboks told me, “We are proud of our city and its place in history, and to us this will always be known by its original name, ‘Reflection of the World Square.'”

Esfahan continues to be Iran’s most religiously diverse city, with a number of churches, Zoroastrian temples — and, yes, synagogues. This comes as a big surprise amid all the anti-Zionist rhetoric, but Iran is home to more Jews — about 30,000 — than any other Middle Eastern nation, other than Israel. In a country known for its devotion to religious icons and martyrs, for me Esfahan itself was the ultimate pilgrimage.

Ruins of an empire

Stepping even further back in time, I visited the ruins of Persepolis, south of Esfahan — the ancient Persian city constructed by Darius the Great, beginning in 512 B.C.

What remains today is a series of bas-reliefs with intricately carved characters that include brigades of soldiers and mythical figures such as the winged Homa, which predates Islam by many centuries but remains a symbol of Persian pride.

Buried under sand until the 1930s, when it was excavated, the remains only hint at the grandeur of this desert palace. Darius’ father-in-law, Cyrus, was the founder of Persia and the first architect of a human rights declaration. During his reign the Persian Empire spread to become the largest nation the world had yet seen.

The construction of Persepolis took nearly 150 years, and the city’s glory was short-lived. Alexander the Great’s army burned the city to the ground in 330 B.C.

Wandering the ruins early in the morning, I thought about how Persepolis represented Iran’s first what-could-have-been moment, and how it is facing another fork in the road right now. Based on the warm welcome the people here gave to a citizen of their ostensible enemy, I left full of hope.

Jason Rezaian, director of Iran Media Services, is a guide to journalists visiting Iran.

An American in Tehran

December 18, 2008

Welcome to Mehrabad.

Tehran, Iran
Tehran Bureau | passport

As I sat squashed, dehydrated, and inhaling stale air on Air France flight 554, I worried that I had bit off more than I could chew. Possibly because I had been traveling for 30 hours now, but maybe it was something else. I had been to many places as of late, but never to a country that appeared as exotic, closed and unknown as Iran. Luckily I was sitting next to a nice burly 50-something mustached Iranian man upon whom I could release some of my anxiety by asking nervous questions, such as: “How is my hejab?” “Believable?” “Will I pass the immigration test?”

As he gulped down his last beer of freedom, he nodded, urging me to appear as clean-cut as possible in front of the immigration officers. As I had heard before, this is the most difficult test in Iran — if you pass the airport immigration standards, you can stay. If you fail, you are as good as on the next flight back home. Taking out my nose stud would be a start, he suggested. As I twisted my nose stud out, he politely looked away and posed a question: “Why would you want to go to Iran, when you could have Paris!???”

A typical question. Insert whatever country other than Iran, and I have heard it before. “Why on earth would you want to go to Burkina Faso? Is there a beach there?” or “You have to bring your own food to Ethiopia, right?” Most people don’t get it. I was too nervous about my arrival to Tehran to get into a philosophical debate, so I instead shifted back to practical matters: My passport. It is clearly written that I was born in the United States; was this going to be a problem? Although my passport is Irish, I had heard of others, U.S. citizens with dual nationality, who were humiliated, called traitors and sent home on the next plane, never getting to experience the entrancing unknown that is Iran.

To distract myself from all the “what ifs” I wound a colorful turquoise scarf over my head. I thought I better get comfortable with this because this is how life will be while I am in Iran. I had planned to practice wearing the headscarf in order to wear it with classic elegance, fitting in like a local, but instead, here I was: 30 minutes to landing with my hair popping out of the scarf, neck being choked by wrapping it too many times, lipstick clearly smudged. I made one last trip to the bathroom to get myself in check. The colorful turquoise, hot pink, and gold striped headscarf was in stark contrast to the black one-pieces that other once-scantily-clad female passengers now donned. Luckily, in my insecurities I remembered that I did pack a solid navy blue “back-up” scarf in my carry on, just in case. An added bonus was that the back-up scarf was long enough that I could use it to also cover up all the decorative turquoise beading detail on the Indian shirt I was wearing. Clearly, what was I thinking when I thought of such an ensemble. Although long enough to cover my bottom, I now realized it was wildly inappropriate with its relatively speaking “plunging neckline” which revealed my clavicle bones.

Off the plane, down the air-gate steps into the dark night, and through the glass doors into blinding fluorescent light, we arrived at the airport immigration. Once it was my turn to go through immigration I was “buzzed” through a stable-like gate up to a young male immigration officer. Little did he know, my choice of his line was calculated. I thought he would be easier on me than someone twice my age. I imagined he must watch illegal MTV or have a favorite European football team; somehow making some strange association between them and me, hence letting me pass immigration swiftly and trouble free. Those thoughts were quickly dashed when he immediately questioned my visa: “What is this?” he said, pointing to two parts of the visa which rain-drops had gotten on back in Germany when I was careless and worry-free. I answered him factually, with hand motions: “Rain.”

Without making any eye contact he told me to go to a different office to get a stamp to approve the rain marks. I was scared, but obedient, doing whatever it was going to take to get in. From behind a dull, dirty glass window with a vase of dusty fake flowers in it, I interrupted a bearded man watching a chador-covered lady reading from some papers on a TV news program. Pictures of Imam Khomeini were behind him, looking down at me suspiciously, like a grumpy grandpa. The rain marks on my visa were enough to capture his interest from the government-sponsored news. He sat up, switching from mild to militant: “Who does that?!” he shouted. “Sir, who does what?” I asked, wide eyed and virginal. “Who stands outside in the rain with their visa?” “I do, sir.” His eyes bugged out: “That’s not,” he paused, “normal!!” At home I would never put up with this. I would take off on a tangent about what’s wrong with not being normal, and how I thank God I am not “normal,” because normal people are a bit scary. But here at the Tehran Mehrabad International airport at 11PM on a Sunday, I instead offered a very believable yet scared: “I’m sorry!” knowing that I needed to play the game. Submit & let him dominate. Once I am out of here I can do what I want, I thought. He shouted back at me “Don’t tell me you’re sorry!! Tell him you’re sorry!!!” pointing back to the young man at the customs stall who had just sent me over.

A bit frustrated, and more brazen due to being overly tired at this point, I charged back to the front of the line with a look on my face of someone who had been scolded but was starting to get pissed off about it. The young customs agent made eyes bugged out, and motioned for me to come in. “He told me to tell you I’m sorry” I whined before I had even gotten to his counter. My fellow passengers were watching, worried. He looked puzzled and asked in a lowered voice. “Where’s the stamp?” I explained to him that there was no stamp, just a “sorry.” He noticed I was upset. So he did what I later learned is typical of many Iranians: he complied in order to avoid seeing me cry. He quickly stamped my passport, wrote some squiggles which I later learned are numbers, and wished me a good time in Iran. I fetched my luggage, and changed my money. The dark clouds lifted: all my dreams were possible again, because I was allowed independent entry to the Islamic Republic of Iran!

I had a few phone numbers of family of friends on me, but due to how I normally travel, I never felt an urgency to call them to see if any of them would want to meet me at the airport or offer me a place to stay. As I looked at all the families feverishly thrusting bouquets of flowers in loved ones faces, hugging, kissing and squealing with glee, I drifted through the crowds in the greeting hall virtually unnoticed, thinking that it would be nice to receive such a reception. Even though the black chador was the look that dominated the fashion landscape in the airport, the people wearing them sure appeared happy and full of joy — more joy than I recall seeing back home in America in some time. Instead my welcome reception team awaited me outside: the illegal taxi drivers. Because I had been through such a long day and felt so incredibly blessed to have made it past the scary man in the office at immigration, I decided to go ahead and splurge on getting ripped off by a taxi-driver without feeling taken advantage of, guilty, or getting into a huge haggle over prices. “The money diet starts tomorrow,” I thought. My driver said he did not speak English, but did speak the international language of grabbing my bags, tearing off to toss them in a beat-up jalopy of a taxi held together by duct tape. I have to admit, that US$25 taxi ride that should have really cost no more than US$3 was truly the ride of a lifetime. The hot oven-like summer air blowing on my face, the seatbelt that did not work which inadvertently liberated me on some subconscious level, the sheer speed and agility of this racecar-like driver, the darkness of night, the stifling pollution still lingering after the day had gone to bed, the glowing green mosques whizzing by…. I pulled my turquoise Indian scarf out of my bag, casually putting it on, over my navy scarf, my bangs still hanging out, lipstick still smeared.