Forget Cups of Chai, It's Cappuccino Time in Southern India

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The Australian, Travel and Indulgence, July 2010

Sweet and Sour - Persian Style

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Weekend Courier Mail, Brisbane November 2008, SA Weekend, Adelaide Advertiser, April 2009

Yuletide in the Air at Tamborine Mountain

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Brisbane Courier Mail, June 2009

To the City of Wine and the Blissful Poet


Shrine of the poet-saint Hafiz - Shiraz, Iran
(Click to enlarge)

It takes me a few days to wind down; to appreciate simple pleasures like the art of sipping tea through sugar cubes and more time again to become accustomed to the politics of gender. Dark sunglasses afford me the privacy I need to take my first walk out from our budget hotel onto Amir Kabir Street, a two mile male dominant stretch of road. I breathe in the scent of engine oil and exhaust, rubber tyres, reconditioned carburetors and vinyl. (If you need your car upholstered  while you wait, bring it here). The traffic noise, akin to memories of Saturday night excursions to Lismore Speedway, 1972, comes from six tangled lanes of motorbikes, clapped out peugots, buses and a plethora of share taxis; the public transport of choice. How’s a foreign sex in a foreign street supposed to act? Returning to the same place five weeks later after travelling the length of Iran I realised the extent of paranoia I’d carried with me from home. Eye contact with a man seemed  positively licentious but in time I felt at ease, dare I say almost relieved by many of the "religiously" enforced codes of conduct.

Travelling on buses, for example, women sit separately in the back half and on Teheran’s ultra sleek metro the first two carriages are women only. If however a woman is accompanied by a male relative, as was my case, she is able to board any compartment. One memorable ride was an hour before Iran’s match with Portugal in the World Cup. The whole city seemed to be heading home to watch the game and with each successive station it seemed a hundred more bodies squeezed into our carriage. Scanning this sea of men pressed against each other I’d estimate for every two hundred there might be two or three women. At no time though, did I feel threatened and in fact a protective space was made for me beside a wall. The real fun begins in a shared taxi where a woman cannot sit beside a man unless he is either the driver or a relation. It’s a game of musical chairs made all the more interesting because only the right side back seat door opens. We hail a taxi. The front seat is taken the back is empty. I get in followed by my partner. Two streets later we stop for a woman. We get out so she can climb in then I sit beside her. (The other possibility is the man in front gets out to sit beside us so the woman can sit by the driver). This is all done with a minimum of communication and we reach our destination in little less than the speed of light.

We now need to cross the road. Traffic lights and pedestrian crossings, with few exceptions, mean nothing. When in doubt do as the locals; nonchalantly step into a blurred wall of speeding machines. An occasional movement of your hand, the kind our stop-go council workers make at roadworks to slow us down from 50 to 20 klms, might just save you from the crazed acceleration of a car overtaking a bus. Oh and never mind the motor bikes, they simply swerve around you. I confess to closing my eyes and holding Peter’s hand for the first few crossings. After that it was pure adrenalin.

Holding hands in public? It took me a while to get used to the sight of a woman dressed in a long black chadoor walking hand in hand with her thoroughly modern boyfriend. Sleek haircut, tight jeans, Calvin Klein shirt and patent leather pointed toe shoes. Look a little closer and you’ll notice her shoes too. Stilettos and possibly fire-engine red toenails. Catch a glimpse of her face in the shadow of her veil and you might see perfectly waxed eyebrows, peacock coloured eyelids, long mascara lashes, rouged cheeks and pencil lined, glossed lips. But we’re in the exclusive northern suburbs of Teheran and her head to toe cover is the exception. Rules here are bent to breaking point. The figure hugging thigh length coat is the dress of choice, worn over jeans with cuffs rolled up to reveal ankles and sometimes a few more inches for a hint of calf, while teased locks of hair escape the confines of minimalist headscarves. Boutique windows are filled with strapless visions of sequinned, slinky cocktail and clubbing dresses. Where am I? Fifth Avenue, Hollywood? A recent blitz by the government to rid shop windows of such ‘erotica’ seems to have fizzled.

But wait a minute, none of the mannequins have heads. In the entire time spent in Iran I found two female models with heads intact, (scarved of course). Compare this with hundreds of male dummies (pun unintended), all suave and sophisticated in gel back Elvis hairstyles and three piece suits. In a few instances women had half-heads – taking the vacuous catwalk look to a whole new level I thought. Oh and these too, were not exempt from the mandatory scarf. Herein lies one of Iran’s contradictions. Women. Sixty percent of university students are women, yet only fifteen percent of the workforce is female. This I am told, in the next ten years, will change exponentially as they break through the glass ceiling. Take the example of one town that boasts an all women fire-fighting team. Then there’s the the success of recent street protests at the government’s attempt to ban women from seeing male dentists. It becomes a double edged sword of paternal politics however, when men are barred from training as gynaeocologists. Women protested against this too, but to no avail.

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Byron Shire Echo September 2009

The Mullahs Watch but the Nightingales Still Sing


Down an alley-way at sunset in the ancient city of Yazd, Iran

Arriving in the northern city of Sanandaj does coincide with a concert - for women only. There's an air of celebration as the auditorium fills to bursting: white veils, black veils, chiffon chadors and lipstick kisses on cheeks all around. Everyone sways, claps and sings along to the five female musicians. The row behind me are so overcome they wolf whistle and twirl their headscarves scandalously in the air. One of many knee jerk reactions after the '79 revolution was to ban all concerts, particularly those by women, and it’s only recently that they have regained the right to perform. If, like me, you become so enamoured by a performance and seek out the closest music shop for a CD: well forget it. The boy behind the counter shakes his head in disgust at the government's stance, "not possible". A woman's voice is still regarded as an instrument of lust and recordings (and photographs) are forbidden.


A shakey sneak-shot of womens' concert in Sanandaj, Iran

Not so the voice of muezzins. Their calls to prayer seem to be broadcast from every corner. We’re in Yazd, deep in the central desert of  Iran. Sheltering in the shadow of its high mud walls, from a harrowing fifty degrees, I stop and listen to them for the third time today. This is one of the oldest cities on earth and it’s not hard to visualise Marco Polo and a long line of camels laden with silk rolls and carpets entering its gates. But even here, climbing onto the roof of an old caravanserai, it becomes obvious that an underground pulse is reshaping the skyline. Beyond the two turquoise minarets of Jameh mosque and past the badgirs - ancient wind towers that funnel water cooled air down into adobe homes, is a sea of satellite dishes. Like drawing a line in sand the new headstrong Yazd, all concrete and billboard sprawls out into the desert and up into the 21st century.

Inside the compounds of middle and working class homes, families have access to as many as four and five hundred channels. It's a situation out of control and all the government can do is act on individual complaints. Where one is made they waste no time implementing fines and confiscating all equipment. Meanwhile, information technology can be sourced for a song. Extensive broadband facilities are available in cities and a single disc containing all the latest computer programs can be bought for as little as ten dollars.

People are getting up close and personal to the west. In the case of many young Iranians though, it's not Media Watch or European news but Bollywood with Hollywood running a close second. The consensus seems to be: why watch a censored national network? INN’s coverage of the World Cup for example, sponsored by drinking water and washing powder, showed not a peek of the long legged, mini skirted mascots. For that and more you tune elsewhere. During half time and in the privacy of a conservative home with a group of teenage girls, it felt a little odd watching a raunchy video clip of a practically naked Beyonce. True, we'd taken our headscarves off but otherwise, remained decently clad from head to toe. President Ahmadinejad, to his credit, had promised women the right to publicly watch the World Cup (women are banned from male sporting events) but this was, at the last minute, overturned by the mullahs.

Iran loses to Portugal. We are in Esfahan two weeks later when Australia is also out. On the positive side this makes for great bonding. Appropriate in a city given the title ‘Half the World’ for its history of tolerance and an exquisite fusion of mosaic mosques, palaces and gardens. Today it boasts a population of over one and a half million and somewhere between the Garden of Martyrs and Imam Square we become lost. A young married couple take us under their wing: one more example of the extraordinary kindness and hospitality of people here. They invite us to a teahouse built into the 16th century Si-O-Seh. Bridge. Resting under the stars on divans spread with carpets and cushions we sip tea and break warm bread, fragrant with thyme and sesame.

Our new friends came originally from Yazd and explain how most young people aspire to live in Esfahan or better still, Teheran. "We can only dream about emigrating to the West." Unlike the massive brain drain of Iran during the revolution, it’s now virtually impossible. Mr ‘Alif’ complains about the abysmal salary at UCF after two years training at university. "It's not safe either. I don't like the fact that we have to wear protective clothing." He then proceeds to explain in detail the photochemical analysis of contaminants. "What does UCF stand for?" "Uranium Conversion (Enrichment) Facility," is his casual reply with no hint of intrigue or espionage.

We have in-house stereo accompaniment from two birdcages: a nightingale at the entrance and a canary at the back. It seems an appropriate metaphor for what I am hearing over and over again - disillusionment with an iron-handed government, yet from within the "cage" come clear voices; independent and considered. Two days journey away in the remote and fiercely independent state of Kurdistan this dynamic will only intensify.

Our conversation moves to children. She wants babies and he doesn’t. Dreams and domesticity I realise are universal even so close to midnight. The scent of apple tobacco from Mr "Alif’s" water pipe lingers on after the charcoal dies. We exchange emails and promise to meet again. As we walk through the arches of Si-O-Seh I notice a poster advertising the premier stage performance of Pinnochio next week. I think of the world stage and wonder whose nose is the longest.

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Byron Shire Echo Nov 2006