8th May 2018
Among the well-informed travelling community, the people of Iran have a reputation, and it has nothing to do with the funding of international terrorism, dodgy politics or the surreptitious quest for nuclear weapons. Rather, it's that they are considered one of the most friendly, hospitable and cultured peoples of the world. And within less than a day in this fascinating country, I had already had first hand experience of these famed characteristics.
Having just returned from the toilet in an upmarket Shiraz restaurant the day before our 'Taste of Iran' culinary tour was due to start, a woman approached and tapped me on the shoulder. "Mister," she said, "you have left your money downstairs." At first I couldn't understand what she was talking about, "I'm sorry," I replied, pulling out my wallet, "but my money is here."
"No,' she said politely, 'I mean your other money." I slapped my chest and my blood ran cold. Sure enough, my money - by which I mean the entire trip's cash funds, around $3,000 - was gone from my Pakistani money vest. Seeing my face turn white she said, "It is downstairs, by the bathroom."
I jumped up and ran down the stairs and out into the rear courtyard where I found the woman's friend standing guard over the plastic bag full of my cash. "It is here sir," the friend said, again in flawless English. I picked it up and checked the pocket of my money vest and found it had a hole in it. I thanked the women profusely, who just bowed graciously in a manner that said it's nothing and left. I went back to my table and friends shaking my head with relief. Losing that amount of cash before a tour had even started would have caused me considerable problems. These total strangers had saved the day.
Of course this could have happened anywhere. But the fact that it happened here in Iran was a great reminder of what an honest and cultured people the Iranians are. Their reputation it seems is well deserved.
So the tour started and we have had an excellent two days in Shiraz. On the first day, we saw the city's impressive citadel, wandered through its huge bazaar - a place first built to take the caravans travelling the old Silk Road - and Eram Bagh, one of its most famous gardens. And as this is a culinary tour, we visited a private garden on the outskirts of town where Simi, our Persian chef and tour host, and a local family prepared a sumptuous lunch for us.
Yesterday, we visied the magnificent site of Persepolis, built by Darius the Great in the 6th century BC to showcase the splendours of the Acheamenid Empire, after which we enjoyed a tradtional Iranian picnic. From there, we visited the impressive Naqsh-e-Rostam tombs nearby and then returned to town to visit the mirrored shrine of Ali Hamzeh before finishing the day's sightseeing at the tomb of Hafez, the famous Persian poet.
It is said that all Iranian homes have two books; the Koran and another containing the poems of Hafez. Set at the centre of a traditional Persian garden, the tomb is a magical place where locals come to pay their respect and recite the great man's poetry. To see Iranian women, both young and old, reading verses aloud to each other over his grave was a very moving sight.
The one verse I remember is, "The words you use is the house you live in." Which, if you think about it, is very true.
The Iranians are a very cultured people. You don't have to be here long, talk to many, to get the sense they carry a ubiquitous confidence, born no doubt out of thousands of years of civilization, that leaves them as individuals at one with themselves and the world around them. Whatever happens, it's happened before and it will pass. Life will go on.