Inside Iran #3: India’s 800-year-old link to Chabahar

“You know… there is another person from India here,” remarked Barkat, my local guide-cum-driver, as we cruised along the sandy coastline of Chabahar on a hot, hot afternoon.

“From India?”

“Yes. He came a very, very long time ago…”

“Ah… Syed Ghulam Rasool!” *

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View from outside the compound wall of Syed Ghulam Rasool’s shrine

Legend has it that Syed Ghulam Rasool traveled from India to Persia about 800 years ago, fell in love with a local beauty and married her. Unfortunately, he passed away in his sleep that very night.

The locals then built a shrine as his resting place.

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Syed Ghulam Rasool’s tomb inside the shrine

 

 

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The shrine was expanded and has this very plain entrance now.
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A closer look at Rasool’s tomb.

The best part though is this: Every year, they hold a two-night festival to celebrate (rather than mourn) his death with dance and music.

Chabahar is in Iran’s Sistan-va-Baluchestan province and as the name suggests dominated by the Baloch community. During the festivities, Baloch from across the border in Pakistan also join in.

According to Barkat, the celebrations fall in the cooler months of December-January.

Wish I could be there then.

 

How did I know? The real reason was too complicated to break down for Barkat, especially in my halting Persian. Two years ago, I prepared a 5-minute presentation on Chabahar in my Persian class at Georgetown. The emotions you experience when you finally see with your own eyes the distant places that you’d obsessed over in pictures is priceless!

Inside Iran #2: Riding Tehran’s Metro “Mart”

If there is one thing I love to hop onto in every major city, it’s the MRT (aka life savers).

Tehran was no different.

For the tourist in town, Tehran’s metro is wonderfully easy to navigate given that most signs, as is the case across Iran, are in Persian and English. Navigating this system during peak hours would be a nightmare for most. Not so much for the Indian baptized on the Mumbai local.

 

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Shahid Beheshti Station on Line 1 (Red) in Tehran, Iran.

 

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First and last compartments of all trains are for women. Again, nothing strange to the Indian traveler.

 

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Stations clearly marked in English but announcements are in Persian. So stay alert!

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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You can manage a calm shot like this from the inside only in the afternoons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was also looking forward to experiencing a mighty interesting phenomenon that I’d read which plays out primarily in the women’s compartment. And I sure as hell wasn’t disappointed!

 

The women’s only compartment turns into a private shopping universe once the train pulls off a station.

 

It’s a women’s ‘bazaar on wheels’ where the young and the old shopped for make-up, jewelry, socks, scarves, hair clips…

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… got a temporary tattoo on their arms…

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… or gifted themselves some kickass lingerie. Yes, lingerie.

Not kidding.

Bras, panties and lingerie (the kind that makes any (wo)man blush!) in all sizes, materials and vibrant shades.

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I tried to be terribly discreet while photographing most saleswomen and co-passengers.

The saleswomen sometimes went a step further to ‘demonstrate’ their wares leading to very embarrassed giggling and amused expressions across the compartment.

There was this one particularly aggressive young lady selling fake denim stretch-pants. She pointed out that she was wearing one, whipped up her manteau and shirt in one quick move and proceeded to tug at the elastic band declaring to us how snug and comfortable they were.

I felt my jaw drop wide open… and burst into laughter with my fellow passengers in disbelief!

 

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Gave in on my third ride – Earrings for 10 cents!

Inside Iran #1: An Encounter of the “Moral” Kind

October 29, 2015. Isfahan.

It finally happened. 

You may have bravely tackled the Tehran Metro’s women’s compartment at peak hours, squashed like sardines in a can in a sea of black and brown. You may have desperately flagged down a share taxi, conveyed your destination in Persian, actually reached your desired destination and even paid the correct fare (what with the gazillion zeroes and the rial-toman hacks).

But you haven’t been truly initiated into the system until…

 

I was walking through the crowds with purpose near the Seeyo-se Pol (bridge with 33 arches) in Isfahan.

That’s when I spotted her, a figure in black, on the pavement through the corner of my eye. The reason she caught my attention? She stood alert, facing the crowd.

Could it be?

(in my head) “Holy… it’s the moral… ”

Dang.

I hadn’t realized that I’d instinctively turned towards her as I walked by.

She nodded at me, smiled and lifted her hand, palm facing downward, and gestured that I tuck in my hair in the front into my scarf.

My heart skipped a beat. I’d only recently watched Rick Steeve’s adventures in Iran (shot in 2011, a more sensitive time) where he specifically mentioned that foreign tourists were ignored. Ignored! (On further thought, perhaps you do need to be a woman in any situation to decide what a woman may or may not go through.)

Snapping back to reality.

My reaction you ask? I can say this much. I may or may not have scowled at the lady by the end of the episode.

Okay, I may have scowled without realizing after I adjusted my scarf which meant that the very next second I was walking away as fast as my legs could take me fervently hoping that a pack of cackling, chador-clad women wouldn’t follow behind.

—-

Afterthought.

In my short time here, it’s become quite clear to me that I can pass off as being Iranian. Specifically, as a “pretty young lady from the southern provinces” as one chap flatteringly put it.

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It’s true!

I’ve been asked directions (and a gazillion other things that I’ve no clue about) by the local women. I seem to play the part convincingly until I actually speak to someone in English (because the problem is too complicated to explain in Persian) or not comprehend what they rattled off to me in heavy duty Persian.

(I promise you my two cents shortly on the pros & cons of not looking “foreign” enough aka “white”)

The chador-clad moral police lady saw her chance and seized it to convey her message… politely.

I stress politely because later that night I befriended a female Swiss tourist who mentioned that the very same lady gave two young Iranian ladies a good dressing down (or up?) the same evening. The tourist, like me, received her message with a smile.

So, believe it or not, I am now actually more relieved that I was taken for a tourist more than anything else in the world.

Phew.

Game on, Iran.

Inside Iran: Pre-departure & Arrival Musings

Location: Iranian Consulate. Kuala Lampur, Malaysia. 

Pro tip: Dress to Impress. (aka get with the hijab program)

Conversation 1

Me (in my head): You have 24 hours. Hand me that visa!

Consulate officer (a young lady): I cannot guarantee next day collection…

She reads the list of countries I’ve visited. This includes USA, UK and UAE. It should have sent a gazillion alarm bells ringing….

A huge smile spreads across her face.

Is this your first visit to Iran?

Bale! I’m finally going! (in my ‘very excited’ voice hoping to floor her) Yek darkhwast een ast ke…. I have to return to Singapore tomorrow so please see if you can help. Lotfan!

15 nerve-wracking minutes later.

Come tomorrow to collect.. after 10am.

Khaili mamnunam khanum! 

Conversation 2

Lady sitting next to me begins to rant in Persian about her token number and the impossible number of people before her turnIn response, I shake my head.. gesture at the screen displaying the various counters and the token numbers being attended to… point to my ticket… and state the number of people before me in Persian.

After 5 minutes, she turns to me and continues to pile her grief on me at top speed… sigh.

I concede defeat, interject and declare my ignorance.

“Oh, you look Persian! So sorry. I kept talking to you thinking you were!”

“Wow. First time anyone’s told me that! (read as “You’ve made my day!”) I did understand the gist of what you said… And I did gesture and give monosyllabic replies… so umm… it’s not your fault!”

——–

October 25, 1 am. Kochi International Airport (CIAL), India. 

IRAN…. IRAN?

Why are you going to Iran? What is the ‘visit’ for? Who are you visiting? Who are these ‘friends’?

Molayyy….. what work do you do? (Grrr… the next time I hear ‘molay’)

——–

October 26, 07.30 am. My first glimpse of Iran. Arid, dry, rugged mountains.

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——–

October 26, 9 am. Imam Khomeini International Airport (IKA), Tehran.

Flirty immigration officer. Giggling away to himself. 

Zero questions.

ZERO. ZILCH. NADA. NOTHING.

Phew.

——–

True story: My first 15 minutes in Iran and chances are I appeared in the national sports news bulletin.

No clue which games these young athletes were returning from… but it was lovely to see them being celebrated in one space – well, specifically, at the baggage claim area. As it turned out, there was no other way to exit but to walk right through them and in all the camera frames as they were being interviewed.

Whoop de doo.

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Iran Nuclear Framework: Next Steps?

Excerpt from blog post on Logos, April 04, 2015.

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Image courtesy: European External Action Service (EEAS)

Iran and the P5+1 countries have negotiated a framework agreement and are now one step closer to a nuclear deal that will limit the former’s nuclear programme. This framework, announced after its original deadline of March 30, spells out key parameters that will now be carried forward to the final deal (to be negotiated by June 30).

Contrary to expectations of a vague statement or verbal understanding, the terms that were jointly announced by EU foreign policy chief Frederica Mogherini and Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif were pretty detailed. These parameters have of course been extensively covered by the media and also accessible via a White House fact sheet. Most parameters last ten years, some longer.

Chabahar, Flickr https://flic.kr/p/9AVm2s

India and Iran: Time to Act on Transit

Excerpt from op-ed published in Mint, March 03, 2015.

Chabahar, Flickr https://flic.kr/p/9AVm2s
Image Courtesy: Flickr (Creative commons)

Energy dominates any conversation on India’s interests in Iran. In the last two years, however, there is a second bilateral pillar that has taken centre stage—transit cooperation. The idea here is that we move our goods to Afghanistan, Central Asia and Europe through Iran, bypassing Pakistan. What sets this sector apart in Iran is the fact that, in an otherwise almost entirely sanctionable environment, it is slightly more easier to navigate.

There is a clear alignment of Indo-Iranian interests in this space.

Op-ed: Why We Can’t Take Afghanistan for Granted

Excerpt from op-ed published in the Business Standard, October 12, 2014.

The Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi with the President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, Dr. Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, at Hyderabad House, in New Delhi on April 28, 2015.
The Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi with the President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, Dr. Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, at Hyderabad House, in New Delhi on April 28, 2015. Image courtesy: PIB, Govt of India (CNR :67451 Photo ID :64772)

has a new president, albeit two months late. And even as the newly inaugurated president and his “chief executive officer” hash out the specifics of the country’s first peaceful political transition, outgoing president minced no words to convey who he thought were Afghanistan’s ‘true friends.’

“The Western countries and the United States of America came to Afghanistan for their personal goals. There are also countries who, without having personal agendas, are here for honest cooperation with Afghanistan’s government. One example is India.”

Read more here.

Pragati: When Iran Sanctions Bite

The article published in Pragati (September 29, 2014) breaks down the sanctions on Iran and traces their effects on India.

Image courtesy: Pragati

“The first problem was with respect to reducing imports and reconfiguring refineries…

The second concern was the often raised payment issue. Observing the increasing pressure on Iran, India had by mid-2011 stopped paying for oil imports through Iran’s central banks…

The third problem was regarding maritime (re)insurance. The EU embargo on Iranian oil in 2012 prohibited EU insurers and reinsurers from covering Iranian oil shipments. European insurance clubs handle a majority of the world’s tanker insurance (95 percent of the world’s tanker fleet).”