Only Half A World Away


Otago Daily Times
Tue, 11 Aug 2009


Craftsmen work with a sheet of silver in a bazaar. Photo by Rebekah
Gray. When Rebekah Gray and Jimmy Kershaw-North declared they were
going to Iran, people decided they were nuts.

"Isn’t it full of terrorists?" people asked when we told them we were
going to Iran.

Variations included "don’t they oppress women?" and "isn’t it all
just desert?" When we arrived back in New Zealand, the questions were
about whether we had become caught up in the recent protests before
and after the presidential elections.

The answer to all of these questions is a resounding "no".

We travelled to Iran mainly to visit friends who have spent time in
New Zealand.

They are fluent in English, which made our life so much easier.

However, the number of people who have never left Iran but who have
good conversation skills in English is quite surprising.

Also, all the major road signs are in English as well as Farsi

As a result, we didn’t feel as if we had landed in the middle of

The main city we stayed in was Esfahan – a city as majestic and
splendid as it gets.

It is considered a jewel in the Islamic world.

Indeed, there is a saying "Esfahan nesf-e jahan", which translates as
"Esfahan is half the world".

There are amazing mosques with beautiful blue tiles and amazing

However, one of the most memorable experiences we had in the city
was when we found a goldsmith in a back alley of the Bazar-e Honar,
or the jewellery bazaar, making the most intricate 22-carat gold
cross I had ever seen.

It had taken him about 100 hours to make and was a commission for a
local Armenian Christian merchant.

The estimated cost was about $NZ260.

The handicraft in and around the Imam Square bazaar is world famous.

You see men, with their sons beside them, hand-beating silver
platters or bowls into intricate patterns and pictures, women and
men painting enamel plates with fine skill, and all of them welcoming
the opportunity to show their wares and abilities.

In a world dominated by objects made in China, it was refreshing to
see so many skilled craftsmen and women displaying their work.

We would sometimes see women making the carpets for which Iran and
ancient Persia are so famous.

A tip, though, for buying carpets: all prices are negotiable.

We saved about $NZ1000 by getting our Iranian friend to get one for
us while we were out of sight.

As soon as carpet sellers saw we were tourists, they would put the
price up by about $NZ1000.

Also keep in mind that not all carpets are hand-knotted or naturally

Outside Esfahan, we were invited into many people’s homes.

The hospitality was amazing.

We had to get used to hot, black tea (chay) served with wafer-thin
toffee discs or cubes of sugar to suck on.

One particularly memorable occasion was when we were invited to a
"garden" in the village of Jamal, about an hour east of Esfahan,
seemingly in the middle of a desert.

We turned up and were promptly adopted by the wife of our host,
who with no English welcomed us warmly into her home.

It consisted of a mud-brick room with enough electricity to power a
cellphone charger, one light bulb, a fridge and a small radio.

Water for tea was heated on a charcoal samovar and food cooked on a
charcoal barbecue.

The toilet was a hole in the ground at the end of the garden and
water for washing hands came from barrels with taps in the side,
filled with rain- and spring-water.

The garden, like at any home in Iran, was surrounded by a 2m-high
mud-brick wall but had enough fruit trees to afford shade for the
heat of the day.

It was surprisingly cool under those mulberry trees, as the breeze
blew softly through them.

After lunch, it was OK to fall asleep on a carpet set aside just for
us, as the heat determined the speed of life in the village.

Our host’s wife then took us to a shrine for an Imam Zadeh (the son of
a revered person) where, using our limited Farsi and some interesting
sign language, we were told that a prayer to Allah and the imam will
help worshippers who want children.

The gratitude of our hosts was almost overwhelming when we donated
a little money to the shrine.

We were also taken to the source of drinking water for the village –
a spring halfway up the side of a mountain that had surprisingly cold
and clear water.

It was, after the hike, completely refreshing.

We went to another village outside the city, Shahr-e-kord, which was
nestled among the Zagros mountains in the western part of central Iran.

We were again adopted by our host’s wife, who demonstrated how to
make bread for the family, as well as yoghurt and butter from the
local goats’ milk.

We tried making the flatbread that is a staple of all meals in this
part of Iran.

There is certainly a knack to it.

We were also shown how wool from the local sheep is made into
mattresses and told that the wife of our host handmade these for her
daughter’s dowry.

Everywhere we went the same question was asked: "So, what do you
think of Iran?" People wanted to engage with us.

They wanted to practise their English and find out what the rest of
the world thinks of this country between Europe and Asia.

But, most of all they wanted to laugh and sing and dance with the
funny foreigners.

The country’s Government is widely vilified, but we found Iran’s
people to be incredibly relaxed, welcoming and almost overwhelming
in their hospitality and their eagerness to please.

It has incredible landscapes, a rich and ancient history and untold
richness in its craftsmen and women.

Maybe we are a little nuts, but we like Iran and wouldn’t mind visiting
again sometime. – Rebekah Gray and Jimmy Kershaw-North.