Title‘Thousand-and-one dreams’: a book full of love for Iran

Tracking Trans-Iranian Railway

25 Mar 2010

■ Ann De Craemer
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Ann De Craemer, English editor at TehranReview, travelled through Iran in June 2009, following the track of the famous Trans-Iranian Railway. She has written a book about her journey which will be presented to the public today. Title of her book is Duizend-en-een dromen. Een reis langs de Trans-Iraanse Spoorlijn (Thousand-and-one dreams. A journey along the Trans-Iranian Railway). It will be launched this evening at the FotoMuseum in the Belgian city of Antwerp. Pieter-Jan De Pue, the photographer who travelled with Ann in June, has a photo exposition in the same museum, which depicts daily life in Iran and the boundaries between tradition and modernity in the Islamic Republic.

Western media often portray it otherwise, but Iran is so much more than a country full of fanatic bearded ayatollahs and women in black chador. This is what Ann De Craemer (1981) wanted to experience when in June 2009, she made her first journey through a country she had been fascinated by for a long time already – so much so that she even self-studied the Persian language. Ann witnesssed the Iranian sea of green and saw in practice what she knew already in theory after years of studying Iran: life is changing in the Islamic Republic. Following the Trans-Iranian Railway from Tehran in the north to Bandar Abbas in the south and passing through both city and countryside, she met a population that is craving for modernity, openness and democracy.

Thousand-and-one dreams is however not mainly about politics. It is above all a travel story about a young author’s first encouter with a culture and a country she deeply cherished before she had even laid eyes on it. It is a book about the daily lives of ordinary Iranians she meets in the train, in the bazaar, on Persian carpets and in the park. It is a book that gives a voice to people who have so often been silenced, but who fought back fiercely at the time Ann and Pieter-Jan made their historic journey. It is a book about a one-month stay in Iran that Ann De Craemer will always remember, in a period that history will never forget.

On the occasion of the book launch today, TehranReview presents an English translation of the chapter ‘Isfahan’ from the book.

“In the States I was a woman. Here I feel like a man”

In the past, whenever I thought of Persian cuisine, I pictured spices in the most beautiful colours. Now I just recall the nauseating smell of mutton. Meals in Iran can be delicious, but if you only eat out, you would very soon form another opinion. Most restaurants do present themselves as such, but are in fact just glorified fast-food outlets where half the food on the menu is not available. There are waiters who go red in the face when they answer you again, for the fifth time, that sorry, khanoem, we don’t have that either. There are others who dramatically raise their hands to heaven and look at you as if you have just ordered a ton of caviar. If you eat out, there is usually only chelow kabab, the national dish of Iran. The rice is served with butter and grilled tomatoes, and the kabab comes in several varieties: from kabab-e barg (beef), or kabab-e jujeh (chicken), to mahi kabab (fish). This is accompanied by a salad which everywhere is as tasteless as it is colourless: a small pile of green leaves, a few slices of cucumber, and a few bits of dried tomato.

Enough about chelow kabab; if you are in Isfahan, you should feel as rich as a shah at least once. We go to the Shahrzad Restaurant, the best known in the city. At last a restaurant that is really a restaurant: here is the sound of quiet piano music; here are pictures on the wall with scenes from Thousand and One Nights; there are real flowers on the table and what I order is actually available. I eat fesenjun, one of the best known traditional Iranian dishes: chicken in a sauce of pomegranate paste and walnuts.

The woman sitting by herself at a table next to us strikes me at once. Painted lips, nose correction, bleached hair, tons of make-up, a veil anchored by Gucci sunglasses, and a chic tunic with a leopard motif.
As soon as she catches my eye she asks where we come from. She gives a little scream and holds her hands in front of her mouth. ‘Belgium? Mais oui; vraiment? Alors, vous parlez le français?’ For the second time in Isfahan I answer that I do indeed speak French. She points invitingly at the chair next to her. ‘I am so pleased to meet Europeans again, mademoiselle, and so happy to be able to speak French again.’ The theatrical way she sighs and moves the back of her hand across her forehead gives her the air of a glamorous actress from an old French film. ‘It is dreadful here. Dreadful, this country, sick, mad, finished.’
Her voice is husky and her bright red nails are razor sharp. She often shuts her eyes while she is talking and switches easily from French to American-English.

‘I have lived everywhere, my dear. In Switzerland, on the Côte d’Azur, in Beverly Hills, in New York, in Washington.’ At the end of every sentence there is a little pause, with which she seems to want to arouse my curiosity, like an aged actress who on the stage unravels her story for a public which she’s had to do without for a long time. ‘I come from one of the richest Jewish families in Iran. Three years before the Revolution I converted to Islam. You can guess what happened then.’ I do what is expected from me and ask the question she wants to hear. ‘No, what happened?’ She curls the corners of her mouth down, makes a throw-away gesture with her right hand, on which a sparkling ring glitters. ‘My family disowned me, because they didn’t want a Muslim in their midst. Suddenly I had nothing. No money and no status. But I was a fighter. In 1978 I went abroad – just before the Revolution broke out and this country became a hell. In the States I started again from scratch. I made the American Dream come true. I became rich and had status again. But yet I missed something abroad.’ She pauses. ‘Any idea what?’ I shake my head. ‘I’ll tell you, mademoiselle. I am very spiritual, and that was lacking in America and Europe. That’s why I came back to Iran five years ago. But it went wrong. The regime has confiscated all my money.’

Her speech and movements are so theatrical that I don’t know if her words are the bitter truth or a story she has invented to make life a little easier. Just how, I ask, did the regime steal her money? Can they just do that sort of thing?
‘Mais bien sûr! Of course! Everything is possible in this country! It happens to a lot of rich people who come back to Iran. They took 38 million dollars off me. Now I am fighting against poverty and against Iranian justice.’

Poverty? What about that chic outfit, the Gucci sunglasses, that beautiful ring? She shakes her head. ‘I am a proud woman. That I dress well does not mean that I am rich.’ Another deep sigh. ‘I missed my homeland and that’s why I came back. But homesickness was a sweet pain compared with what I suffer now. In the States I was a woman. Here I feel like a man. There I was rich, here I’m poor. There I was free, here I am a prisoner.’

I ask what her plans are for the future. Will she leave the country again?

‘Of course I want to leave here. But I have to follow a path.’ A path? What path would that be? She smiles mysteriously. ‘That’s just what I mean. Westerners don’t know what spirituality is.’ She is now speaking alternately in French and English. ‘My path, c’est ceci: I must do what God asks me to do. For the time being I can’t leave Iran. I have to bring my fight against the system to a good end and I will do that with the help of God. But I will not stay in this town; Isfahan has lost its glory.’

She comes closer and whispers in my ear. ‘I’m making plans to move to Kish. I can find happiness there as long as I’m in Iran.’ Kish, an island in the Persian Gulf, is Iran’s Dubai. A shopping paradise, a favourite holiday resort of the Iranian beau monde, and a place where women may – albeit on a secluded beach – bathe in a bikini. I can picture her like that in Kish, swimming in a bikini with a leopard motif, parading beside the sea, being rich among the rich. But is she really rich, or is she pretending? Was it really her longing for spirituality that made her come back to Iran, and is it her ‘path’ which keeps her in this country? In the past few weeks I had seen this play between pretence and reality among many people, but never had it been so difficult to distinguish between the two as with this woman.

When she’s finished her cup of tea she gets up. ‘Look at them all staring at me,’ she sneers, while she looks around her, as self-assured as a top model and as vulnerable as a frightened teenager. ‘As if they see a spectre, just because I look fashionable and come to dine here by myself. It drives me mad.’

Just for a moment I, too, thought she was mad, but she was just a woman like many others in Iran: dispirited by their struggle. Women have a hard life here and the daily humiliations often become too much for them. The majority of suicides in Iran are among women – whereas in the West it is often among men. It is often young women who commit suicide, and more often married ones than unmarried. Research has shown that women often commit suicide because the taboo on divorce is still very strong. Inequality between men and women, the difficulties for many women of finding a good job, male dominance and arrogance: it places women much lower on the social ladder than men. But because women in Iran have to suffer most, they also fight back hardest. I saw Farah as an example of both: a woman beaten by life, but also determined to fight back.

Before she disappears through the swing doors of the Shahrzad Restaurant she turns briefly round. ‘I’m sure you know that Khatami will soon be coming to Isfahan. Don’t go to hear him speak. It is dangerous. You are a target. Particularly that photographer of yours with his red hair is very noticeable. They will arrest you.’

Duizend-en-één dromen. Een reis langs de Trans-Iraanse Spoorlijn, Uitgeverij Lannoo/Het Spectrum, 188 p., 19,95 euro. With pictures by Pieter-Jan De Pue.

Tehran Review
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