So I’ve come full circle and I’m back in Isfahan. Here I’ve returned to my very gracious, hospitable and generous host Amir, who has a passion for tuning cars and talking total shite when it comes to playing FIFA on the X-box. With most of the sightseeing done, we basically spend hours locking horns and having a massive slagging match with it, so much so it’s a wonder it doesn’t come to blows.
And speaking of which, it reminded me of a time I was working as a residential child care worker. To keep the bad behaviour in check, I would often accompany one of the boys to have a game of FIFA. To be honest it was pretty much all I ever did. And being the dominating force I was on that game (rarely was I bettered) and having a viciously unscrupulous competitive streak in me, I’d be damned if I was letting any of these pip-squeaks win. Consequently this nearly got me the hiding of my life when I banged in a 5th goal against a particularly aggressive Irish teen, whose background was bare knuckle boxing. Thankfully for me he decided to smash the games room up instead.
Anyway Amir and I have been going at it for days and hours on end, with obviously me being the overall victor. Obviously. Seriously as if there was any question. But you might wonder why I’m mashing game-pad buttons stuck in an apartment given I’ve only a limited amount of time in this beautiful country. Well the answer is simply this: normality. It’s the first time I’ve felt any semblance of “the real world” in many a year. I know this. This is familiar. This is safe. This was my youth – or parts of it at least – shutting out the world and getting lost in the escapism of a video game. For a brief moment, I’m 15 again, my clean washing is ironed and folded in the drawers, and my dinner is on the table. Which I was always late for – because I was playing FIFA.
Oh and Yeah! They play FIFA over here too! They have X-boxes and everything! Amir doesn’t go to work on a camel! He drives a pimped up classic VW Golf. That he practically built himself. He calls me a “cheating fucking bastard” when I score a dodgy goal. They’re just like us these Iranians…!
My arrival in Iran has coincided with a very serious Muslim festival. Actually it’s more of a funeral, and it’s a special and specific date in their religious calendar. For nearly two months, they honour and remember the life and death of one Imam Hussain, a revolutionary leader and Muslim martyr. They take his death very seriously in these parts (for Shia Muslims only) and cities are decorated accordingly with banners, flags and posters. Kiosks and street stalls hand out free food and hot beverages, but it’s a somber affair, and the entire country appears to be in mourning. Believers predominantly wear black, and towards the end of the event, Muslim men gather together to sing, chant, pound drums, pray and beat themselves with fists and whips – symbolising their devotion to and solidarity with Hussain. I make a point to explore and investigate further, as people always fear what they don’t understand, and seeing a mass throng of black clad men and boys violently beat themselves is a sobering sight. Meanwhile, as this takes precedence, everything else has a back seat, so I wouldn’t advise coming during this time if you’ve got urgent stuff to do. I’m also sure someone will message me if I’ve got any of this wrong.
So in-spite of the religious fervor and escalating passions among the devout, the remaining sights in the beautiful city of Isfahan need to be witnessed. The stunning Naqsh-e Jahan Square is a tourists wet dream, literally, with beautiful fountains the length of the enclosed maidan, and the famous Lotfollah Mosque with its incredible blue dome one of the many attractions. The square teems with life too, from students drawing the architecture, elderly tour groups and solo wanderers, to families on a day out and horse-drawn carriages to whisk you round the striking square. I should work for the tourist board.
And above all, you feel comfortable. You feel at home. Safe. Surrounded by friends you’ve not met yet. Strolling in the warm sunshine (it’s November and it’s like July in Scotland) I’m offered tea almost every step I take, fruit is thrust into my hands as I snap shots of vendors and street sellers, and I’m continuously asked to be included in selfies. I am, like many other foreigners, something of a novelty. A personal highlight comes when I’m approached by a man of advancing years who requests an impromptu street English lesson, and as class is in session, a number of other locals join in. I feel like Robin Williams in Good Morning Vietnam. Afterwards, thanking me, he offers me the pick of his enormous bag of fresh limes – something it seems they buy in their thousands. And bollocks – because I’ve just remembered they’re still at the bottom of my bag.
And so it’s more killing you with kindness. Seriously they’re helpful to a fault as I find yet another pomegranate thrust into my palm and a stack of bread draped across my shoulder. What’s theirs is yours and what’s yours is yours with no questions asked. Whoever said this country was dangerous has clearly never set foot in it.