Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Neither Ahvaz nor the entire province of Khuzestan had ever ranked very high on my list of places to visit in Iran, but I figured since I wanted to eventually see everywhere in the country, and it was Nowruz (pretty much the only visitable time in Ahvaz) I might as well go ahead and see it. Maybe it was the calm water, maybe the friendly people, or maybe the carefree southern bandari (port) culture, but Ahvaz had character. It had soul. And it turned out to be one of my favorite cities in Iran. 

White Bridge

I headed straight to the nearby city of Khorramshahr upon arrival. As we drove along the Arvand Rood, the driver asked me, "See that white truck driving across the river?" I saw it. "That's Iraq." I knew that Khorramshahr had been one of the first cities ravaged by Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war and was left virtually a ghost town in the years that followed. What I didn't realize was just how unnervingly close it was to the border.


I briefly stopped at the Jam’e Mosque whose bullet-ridden mosaic facade still bears the scars of the brutal 8-year war. Then I stopped at the Holy Defense Museum (in Persian, the Iran-Iraq war is referred to as defâye moqadas, the holy defense), dedicated to the estimated one million Iranian lives lost in the war. Walking through the memorial and seeing the belongings of men young and old was absolutely heart-wrenching, thought-provoking, and humbling. On the surrounding grounds was a good deal of artillery which was now being ridden like toys by children with no concept or memory of this ruthless war or its consequences. 

Bullet holes still remain in Khorramshahr's Jam'e Mosque

Memorabilia from the Holy Defense Museum

Children play with the artillery at the Holy Defense Museum

We drove through Abadan on the way back to Ahvaz, and I enjoyed an unforgettable sunset. I watched the rays of orange and yellow glisten off the water as the sun melted into the lagoon just around the Shadegan Wildlife Refuge.

Sunset in Abadan

The next day, I spent some time exploring Ahvaz, 'the city of bridges.' A total of eight, the most famous are the White Bridge (the symbol of Ahvaz built by a German engineer and his wife), the Black Bridge (or Railway Bridge), and the Seventh Bridge which has a beautiful artificial waterfall and is particularly picturesque at night. Walking along the Karun River, the city was alive with people out picnicking, strolling, or taking a ride on the boats. 

Boats seen from the White Bridge

Seventh Bridge has an artificial waterfall

White Bridge at night

I was told that I couldn’t miss the street food in Lashkar Abad, and it turned out to be one of my greatest memories. This long street has falafel, samosa, and rotisserie chicken stands on either side, and cars tailgate down playing loud bandari music. On a street full of the same type of restaurants, there was one that was especially crowded, so I decided it had to be good. (A quick note to germaphobes: don’t go to Lashkar Abad!) I popped in front of the cashier and said “One!”, and he promptly gave me a baguette. Then in true American fashion, I hopped to the back of the line and watched as people clawed and pushed their way around to fill their sandwich first. I was so mesmerized that I decided to just observe the goings-on. I ended up near the cook who was busy deep frying as quickly as he possibly could to satisfy the hungry mob. Sensing my amateur status, he suddenly turned to me and said, “Give me your bread. You’ve been waiting a while.” (Actually, I hadn’t.) I handed it to him and he grabbed it with his bare hands, stuffed it full of falafel, and shoved it back in my direction so I could move to the other side and pile it high with toppings. Maybe it was the extra germs from having been handled by several pairs of bare (and surely unwashed) hands, but it was the single most delicious falafel sandwich I’ve had to this day. So I didn't stop there. As long as I was in the south, I had to try their samosas. With just the right kick of spice, they didn’t disappoint either. As I was taking in my surroundings and trying to find a taxi, it started to gently rain. A perfect end to the evening.

The most delicious falafel at the most crowded stand

The scene at Lashkar Abad

4 things to know about Ahvazis:

1. They love their Ray-Bans. It’s kind of a joke in Iran that Ahvazis and Abadanis won’t even let you in their cities without a slick pair.

2. They passionately support the Brazilian national soccer team. I saw so many Brazilian flags while I was in the region that I started to doubt where I was. And then there was the Brazilian soccer team-themed falafel stand in Lashkar Abad which proudly claimed to have two branches: #1 in Lashkar Abad and #2 in São Paulo! And just in case you need proof:

Branch 1: Lashkar Abad, Branch 2: Sao Paulo

3. For having endured so many hardships during the war, they are a remarkably cheerful bunch. These night owls seem to spend a lot of time outdoors picnicking, camping, and smoking hookah in parks. Almost every car plays music at full blast, and most of the passengers are dancing inside. My first night in the hotel, I awoke at 3:30 am to the blaring sounds of bandari music. When I peaked out of the window, I noticed a few cars had stopped, and the people, including a bride and groom, had gotten out and were dancing in the middle of the street. 

4. On the opposite side of the spectrum, they are also hot-tempered (at least in my experience). I witnessed four fights in the four days I was there. The one that caused me the most alarm was in Lashkar Abad when one guy went after another with a glass bottle and then threw basically anything else he could get his hands on. 


Ahvaz gets a bad rap because it suffers a great deal from horrific dust storms, choking pollution, and scorching heat. If you plan to go, do so in mid-March around the Persian New Year. The weather is absolutely superb at that time, and flowers are blooming, making for beautiful scenery. Don’t even think about going in the summer when the sun is most unforgiving and temperatures reach an unfathomable 125°F! 

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Friday, June 9, 2017

My Persian Soundtrack

After catching Nahange Anbar 2 last week (the comedy that taps into a great deal of Iranian nostalgia), I headed to the shop next door to, at long last, buy some much overdue and greatly needed CDs. Even though MP3s get passed around, it was nice to be in a store and actually buy CDs again. 

Growing up, my only exposure to Iranian music was through my parents' playlist. I grew up listening to the likes of Googoosh, Vigen, Ebi, Mahasti, Haydeh, and others because that was what my parents listened to. In fact, I can say with confidence that other Iranian-Americans of my generation (and even Iranians of younger generations) had the same experience. For us, these singers represent nostalgia. Most Saturday mornings, I'd wake up to Googoosh's voice. One week, my eyes would pop open as she sang the refrain, khodâyâ, khodâyâ, kaviram, kaviram! The next week, I'd catch her at the line gharibe âshenâ, dooset dâram biyâ

Basically I listened to Iranian music because my parents were playing it at home or in the car or because it was playing at a mehmoonigathering, or Nowruz party. My friends and I always expected to hear it at such events and liked it, but never voluntarily listened to it. There were beloved Iranian artists from LA like Andy, Black Cats, Siavash, and Mansour who were always fun to listen to, but again, just at a gathering. We took ourselves way too seriously listening to Nirvana, Stone Temple Pilots, and Pearl Jam.

When I started this blog, it was a way for me to explore my Persian heritage, sometimes picking it apart into pieces. I remember the day a co-worker came in and asked if I had seen Ali Azimi's Pishdaramad video. We watched it together, and I immediately included it on my blog. This was way different from my parents' music or anything coming out of LA. This was coming straight out of the motherland, and it had come a long way.

When the TV series Shahgoosh came out (and if you follow my blog, you know I was obsessed with it), I heard Ali Zand Vakili's Zohreh, which played in the closing credits, and I absolutely loved his voice and traditional style. 

Then I eventually made my way to Iran, and the first concert I went to was Alireza Ghorbani, a traditional vocalist. I wasn't familiar with him, but the instant he opened his mouth, I was blown away. And even though the lyrics were too deep for me to get, music has a way of transcending any language barrier. 

Soon after, the young pop singer Morteza Pashaei passed away. His songs were not only playing everywhere at the time (and still are), but they were also ringtones. The one song from him that I continue to hear in taxis is this one:

Nowruz 2015 came around and I went to Divan, the uber posh restaurant in Tehran's Sam Center. The Jordy Design handbag with the Paykan emblem was calling out to me, and I decided that I absolutely needed it. With my purchase came a Nowruz mix CD compliments of Divan. While all the songs were awesome, I had these on repeat: Zacon's Aha Bogoo, which is a modern cover of a traditional song from the northern Gilan province. 

And Iranian-German singer Sogand's, Delom 

And this song which I loved but didn't know who the singer was. I later found out it was the fusion band Chaartaar who I had heard so much about. 

Around this time, the series Shahrzad was everyone's addiction. I say with great shame that I'm still only at the beginning, but I plan to finish in time for the second season. Mohsen Chavoshi sang many of the tracks, but this was my favorite.

I was introduced to Dang Show when my cousin bought the CD. With its mix of percussion and traditional vocals, the first song was so awesome, we had a hard time getting to the end of the album.

Pop group Seven's Dooset Daram, I love you, is another one we played often during our excursions. 

For my birthday one year, we were driving to the Caspian Sea through Chalus Road, arguably the most famous, beautiful, and often dangerous road to the north of Iran. We were driving through a particularly narrow stretch with a dam on one side and cliffs on the other. I had leaned my head back and was looking up at the towering and somewhat terrifying rocky mountains through the open sunroof while Kako Band's Dance in Fire was playing. There was something about this rough, edgy song that perfectly matched the scenery. To this day, I think of that stretch whenever I hear this song. 

A few months later, I was on a bus headed toward the ancient village of Abyaneh, famous for its red-hued adobe houses. After about three hours driving through dry desert, we took the exit and were greeted with green valleys and beautiful nature. The driver was playing London-based Ajam's Zoghalchi, and it was once again the perfect soundtrack for our entrance. 

Then Hojat Ashrafzadeh came on the scene with Mah o Mahi, the heartbreakingly beautiful hit that you just couldn't escape in Iran.

Then came my second concert- traditional/pop singer Alireza Assar. I knew his name and a couple of songs, but my cousin had been waiting years to see him and bought me a ticket whether or not I liked it. I did. 

Out of nowhere (at least for me) came Hamed Homayoun with Chatre Khis. You couldn't go anywhere without hearing this one, and it was one of those songs that I had to learn so I could belt it out with friends when it came on (especially at the part when he says bah bah). It took me back to my days in Madrid when my roommates and I memorized David Bisbal's Ave Maria and Llorare las Penas so that we could sing them at the top of our lungs with the Madrileños when we went out (I just totally aged myself).

I like the fact that I can always recognize Hamed Homayoun not so much because of his voice, but more because of his pronunciation. The way he says â comes out sounding more like âw. (Notice: great isn't âli, but âwli. God isn't khodâ, but khodâw.) Once when I was sitting in a Snapp (Iran's answer to Uber), the driver was playing the CD and I realized his whole album is pretty darn catchy.

Asghar Farhadi's Oscar-winning The Salesman introduced me to Mehrdad Mehdi, the amazing accordionist whose piece plays at the end of the movie. His album Tehran Waltzes is very reminiscent of the Amelie soundtrack, perhaps my favorite ever. I have high hopes of catching him performing in the streets of Tehran one day. 

My friend had the album Tehran, Smile!, but I never paid much attention to it thinking it was a mixed CD or something. Then somehow I realized it's the band Pallett, whose song Naro Beman was also on my Divan Nowruz mix, only I didn't know it. I absolutely love their style and unorthodox mix of instruments, but it's especially this song that gets me every time.

The latest to my list is Hani Niroo whose modern music meets classic songs with a twist of minimalism. 

Which brings us back to my visit to the CD store where I added Pallett, Ali Zand Vakili, Kako Band, Chaartaar, and Mehrdad Mehdi to my collection. I am now voluntarily listening to Iranian music. Not at a mehmooni, not at a Nowruz party, not because my parents are listening to it. But because I actually want to. 

In the now three years (gasp!) that I've been in Tehran, I see that homegrown music has come a long way. It took me back to the late 80s and early 90s when in the weeks leading up to our summer visits to Iran, I would slave over creating the perfect mixed tapes to take. My hard work would culminate into the ultimate selection of Def Leopard, Bon Jovi, Madonna, and Pet Shop Boys to ensure sure that the music coming out of our car was the coolest. Because in those days, it was all about western music, and in any car or taxi that you sat in, you heard English lyrics. I remember once when my sister was mouthing the words to the Madonna song playing in the taxi and my mom nudged her to stop. Maybe it's just my memory, maybe I wasn't aware because I was so young, or maybe there were more limitations back then, I don't know. But whatever the reason, I just don't remember hearing much Iranian music at that time.

It was some time in the late 90s and early 2000s when Iranians singers started to appear again. Pop singer Benjamin was all the rage with his song Loknat, Stutter. We'd blast it at home and dance to it, and in the streets, it was blaring out of cars. That was also the time I learned about Mohsen Chavoshi and his unique, raspy rock sound. And it was since about this time that on each trip to Iran, I heard less and less western music and more and more Iranian music- some from inside Iran, others from outside. 

These days, though, when I sit in a taxi or friend's car, all I hear is Iranian music. Which is not to say that there's no western music, because there is. But I can say that I just don't hear it like I used to. Every time my neighbor turns up the volume on his stereo (and it's often) it's always music from inside Iran which makes me quite happy because it's with good reason. Iranians are super artsy, creative, and talented! And I'm thrilled that they aren't so focused on western music anymore. Because if you ask me, it's about time the west started listening to what's coming out of Iran!


Saturday, December 24, 2016

Christmas in Tehran

One of the things that I miss most about the US is the whole Christmas atmosphere- the hustle and bustle of shopping, the Salvation Army bells, trees lined up on the sidewalks, lights illuminating streets and buildings, radio stations playing Christmas songs on a loop, watching back-to-back showings of Elf on TV… it’s all so cozy. So going on my third Christmas away from home, I can say with certainty that, yah, I miss it a lot. 

Iran has a minority Armenian Christian population that celebrates Christmas just like other countries. I had heard about their festivities in the Armenian neighborhood of Tehran, so this year, I headed over to Mirzaye Shirazi Street to join in the Christmas splendor, and it felt like a little piece of home was placed back into my heart. 

I wasn’t expecting the grand Christmas markets of Germany, Austria, or even those of New York, but what I saw was definitely much more than I ever expected. Rows of Christmas trees cut the sidewalks in half, and people were choosing which one to take home. Stores were filled with ornaments, candles, angels, snow globes, mugs, and gingerbread houses. Behind the windows, reindeer sat alongside dancing mechanical Santas playing the saxophone, inviting passersby to take endless selfies against the displays which were decorated with just as many Christmas balls and tinsel as you had hoped. The pastry shop was packed with locals buying Christmas cookies and cakes, or just a hot cup of coffee to warm up on a frigid night. And the last time I was this happy to see Santa Claus, Baba Noel as he’s known in Persian, was probably when I was 6 years old. But there he was… charging 5,000 tomans a picture… just like the Santas of the great American malls. And to top it all off, Wham!’s Last Christmas was playing for everyone to enjoy.

Most of the shopkeepers were super friendly and cheerful, photobombing the selfies and group pictures with smiles, but others looked on with a more austere face and what I imagined to be a thought bubble that read, “What's with all the pictures? Haven’t these Iranians ever seen Christmas preparations before?” Of course we have. It’s just surprising to see them here, in the Islamic Republic of Iran. 

Merry Christmas to all who celebrate!


Friday, December 16, 2016

Iran's Lut Desert in Pictures

Iran has an impressive 20 cultural world heritage sites registered with UNESCO, but in July of this year, it got its first natural site, the Lut Desert (Dashte Lut). I visited the Lut Desert over the Nowruz holiday in March, and it is indeed an exceptional site. Located outside the city of Kerman, it's known to be one of the hottest and driest spots on Earth. In fact, I was told by several people that it's too hot for any living creature to survive there, so you can imagine my surprise when I came across a perfectly camouflaged lizard making its way around. 

The land formations, yardangs (or Kalut in Persian), are caused by strong winds that occur, and therefore, the formations are constantly changing. If you were to go back to the same spot at a later time, it would look completely different. The trip to the desert itself is quite mesmerizing as you pass sand dunes and empty stretches of road. Once you arrive, there is the chance to rent 4-wheelers or take a camel ride through the desert, but for me all of that was unnecessary and actually took away from the serenity and silence the desert has to offer. I instead opted to trek a little deeper, climb on top of a Kalut, and simply be still. 


Monday, October 31, 2016

Music Monday: Hojjat Ashrafzadeh- Mah o Mahi

Every so often a song comes along that regardless of whether or not you understand the lyrics, it reaches the depths of your soul. Hojjat Ashrafzadeh’s Mâh o Mâhi is just that. In my opinion, this song is so heart-wrenchingly beautiful that I can’t even listen to it because it brings me to tears and throws me into a pit of depression (in a good way?). 

Other than its beauty, what drew me to the song was his mention of Neyshabur, which, being my mom’s hometown, holds a special place in my heart. The song also mentions mornings of Neyshabur, and completely unlike Corinne Bailey Rae's "Paris Nights and New York Mornings", the old Middle Eastern saying goes, sleeping in Baghdad and mornings in Neyshabur, or as I like to call it: Baghdad Nights and Neyshabur Mornings. And of course Neyshabur is the city of turquoise (firuze), another reference in this song.

In the first line, the moon, mâh, symbolizes beauty and freedom, and the fish symbolizes being trapped, almost a prisoner of the pool. I hope you enjoy this song as much as I do.

to mâhi o man mâhiye in berkeye kâshi // you're the moon and I'm the fish of this tiled pool 
to mâhi o man mâhiye in berkeye kâshi 

anduhe bozorgist, zamâni ke nabâshi // there is great sadness when you aren't here 
anduhe bozorgist, zamâni ke nabâshi 

âh az nafase pâke tovo sobhe Neyshabur // a sigh for your pure breath and mornings of Neyshabur  
az chashme tovo chashme tovo // of your eyes, your eyes
hojreye firuze tarâshi // and the chamber of turquoise shaping

pelki bezan ey makhzane asrâr ke har bâr // blink you treasure of secrets that every time
firuze vo almâs be âfâgh bepâshi // you pour turquoise and diamonds on the horizon
hargez be to dastam naresad mâhe bolandam // I can never reach you my high moon
anduhe bozorgist che bâshi che nabâshi // there is great sadness whether or not you are here

ey bâde saboksâr // oh free wind
ey bâde saboksâr // oh free wind
marâ bogzar o bogzâr // leave me and pass
marâ bogzar o bogzâr // leave me and pass 

hoshdâr ke ârâmeshe mâ râ nakharâshi // beware that you don't scratch our serenity

(Song repeats)


Saturday, October 22, 2016

8 Persian Slang Phrases You’ll Need in Iran

Adding to our previous list of Persian slang, here are 8 common phrases you’ll need to either understand what locals are saying in the streets or impress your friends and sound like a local yourself.

1. ایول | eyval | bravo

Used when someone does something pleasant, surprising, or exciting. It’s often used in combination with damet garm, literally warm breath or well done

Sound like a local:
!بلیط کنسرت دنگ شو رو گرفتی؟ ایول دمت گرم 
Bilite concerte Dang Sho ro gerefti!? Eyval, damet garm! (You got tickets to the Dang Sho concert? Bravo! Nice job!)

2. پایه ام | pâyam | I’m down (to do something)

Sound like a local: 
.اگر رفتین کوه اخر هفته من پایه ام
Agar raftin kuh âkhar hafte, man pâyam. (If you go hiking this weekend, I’m down.)

3. داف | duff | hot girl

While this is a hot girl, it refers more specifically to the girls who wear a lot of makeup and often have nose jobs.

Sound like a local: 
.تهران دخترهای داف زیاد داره
Tehran dokhtarâye duff ziyâd dâre. (Tehran has a lot of hot girls.)

4. حسش نیست | hesesh nist | I don’t feel like it. 

Sound like a local: 
بریم دربند کباب بخوریم؟
.حسش نیست
Berim Darband kabob borkhorim? (Want to get some kabob in Darband?)
Hesesh nist. (I don't feel like it.)

5. تابلو | tâblo | obvious or standing out in an awkward way

Just like the French tableau, board/picture

Sound like a local: 
!لهجه ات تابلوه که ایرانی نیستی
Lahjat tâbloe ke Irâni nisti! (Your accent makes it obvious you aren’t Iranian!)

6. سه سوت | seh soot | instantly

Literally, three whistles. 

Sound like a local:
.کاری داشتی زنگ بزن سه سوت میام 
Kâri dâshti, zang bezan, seh soot miyâm. (If you need anything, call me, and I’ll be there instantly.)

7. کف کردم | kaf kardam! | I was fascinated/amazed!

Literally, I foamed. 

Sound like a local
!اولین باری که پرسپولیس را دیدم کف کردم
Avalin bâri ke Persepoliso didam, kaf kardam! (The first time I went to Persepolis, I was amazed!)

8. تعطیله | tatile | S/He’s out of it

Of course this can also mean that a place is closed (Muze tatile, The museum is closed.), or that it’s a holiday or day off, as in fardâ tatile, tomorrow is a holiday. Calling someone tatil is like saying their brain is on holiday- they are totally out of it. 

Sound like a local:
.ده بار بهش گفتم گوش نمیده. یارو کلا مخش تعطیله
Dah bar behesh goftam gush nemide. Yâru kollan mokhesh tatile. (I’ve told him 10 times but he won’t listen. He’s totally out of it.)

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Kerman-Related Persian Idioms

In a recent post about 6 things to buy in Kerman, I noted that there were 2 Persian idioms related to these products. Kerman is well known for its zire, caraway (or cumin- I’ve always known zire as cumin, but the dictionary says caraway, and quite frankly I can’t tell the difference between the two). So the first idiom we have is:

زیره به کرمان بردن
zire be Kermān bordan, taking cumin/caraway to Kerman, or the English equivalent: taking coal to Newcastle

A few months ago, my mom was visiting me from the US, and in addition to the stash of Peet’s French Roast coffee, Oreos, and manchego that I had requested, I also noticed a tiny jar of red powder. 

“Saffron,” she said.
“Saffron? Mom, you brought saffron to Iran, really? Zire be Kerman bordan?”
“It’s already ground and ready to use. Because I know you won’t do it yourself otherwise.”

The other idiom that I learned while in Kerman was related to pateh, the traditional cloth woven in this city.

پته کسی را روی آب ریختن
Pateh kesi rā ruye āb rikhtan, to throw someone’s pateh in the water

The English equivalent of this would be to call someone's bluff. Pateh is made with colorful yarn, and with a good quality pateh, the colors will not bleed if it gets wet. That’s why when you want to call someone’s bluff, you say you will throw their pateh in the water.

I bought this cloth while I was in Kerman, and just the other day, I accidentally knocked over a glass of water on it. I am happy to report that the colors did not bleed whatsoever, so now I’m even more sure that I got a good quality one well worth the price!


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