Saturday, June 8, 2013

Topless in Zeinnoddin

FAQ #5: Will you have to wear a burqa?

A: No. As a matter of fact, you are unlikely to even see anyone wearing a burqa, as that is more of an Afghani/ Pakistani thing. The more religious Persian women wear a chador, which is kind of like a big black sheet, worn over the head and covering the body (but not the face). The majority of women just wear a head scarf, often worn as loosely as legally possible, a long-ish fitted top and jeans.

It is mandatory to wear a head covering, as well as a top that conceals the hips and arms, but lest anyone think that Persian women are unfashionable, they would be sorely mistaken.  These ladies rock the head scarf.

There is even an odd fashion trend that has emerged.  I first noticed it on my Tehran-Shiraz flight.  The flight attendant had either an unnaturally elongated head or a mass of hair under that scarf to rival Rapunzel's.  Picture the creature from the movie Alien, that kind of shape.
Then I saw this look again... and again. Either their oft-discussed nuclear program had resulted in some freaky cranial mutations or something was up with the ladies of Iran. Needing to know, I asked Yasna what was up.

The answer is in the hair clip.  All the bazaars sell these hair clip/ scrunchy hybrids that are meant to be worn on the crown of the head, giving the wearer a massive conehead effect that is all the rage these days.  Most are about as large as a fist but some can reach the proportions of a NBA regulation-sized basketball.

I never had the confidence to pull off the alien head but I did find that coordinating my scarf to my outfit had become a part of the morning ritual. Wearing the headscarf was not nearly as onerous as I had expected it to be, you quickly get used to it, but I won't lie, the second I stepped foot on my departing flight, I tore that thing from my head so quickly that I am pretty sure I whacked the person behind me with it.

That is not to say that I wore it 24/ 7 while in Iran.  The law mandates that the scarf be worn in public, but private homes, hotel rooms and even one Armenian restaurant in Tehran are exempt.  Also, any times there is no one else around, such as in the desert- not really a legal exemption, but a practical one- the head scarf could quickly come off.

One such place was the Zeinnoddin caravanserai.  There was a time, during the period of the Silk Route, when you would find a caravanserai, or inn, every 30 kilometers or so.  This is because that was the average MPG rating on a camel.  Traders would travel all day and bed down in a caravanserai for the evening, with their animals and wares safely housed in an inner courtyard. Few of these structures remain and even fewer have been restored.

Midway on the road between Kerman and Yazd,  the Zeinnoddin caravanserai was built over 400 years ago and underwent a three year renovation a few years back.  It is now a hotel and restaurant, sitting smack dab in the middle of the desert.

As it is its own enclosed little world, headscarves are not required, and a very casual vibe permeates the premises.

The traditional rooms are separated from the hallway by a thick curtain and come equipped with little more than a mattress on the ground.

Without a doubt, the coolness factor in staying in a 400+ year old caravanserai, is off the charts.  Imagine the stories these walls could tell. But once you take that in, the fact is that you are sitting in the middle of nowhere, most likely without camels to rest or goods to trade, so if you are a restless sort of traveler, it can become a bit boring.  As well-designed as these ancients inns were, no one apparently had the foresight to install a good wifi network.  So the result is that you end up lounging around quite a bit.

Sometimes, you lounge on the roof, with a view of the nearby mountains, and an endless supply of tea.  This is particularly impressive in the evening, when each and every star is visible.

Other times, you lounge in the courtyard, with yet more tea and a good book or a board game to pass the time.

It was during one of these periods when I had one of my odder encounters.  During the day, tour groups are brought in to view the hotel and visit the small gift shop.  This particular afternoon, it was a German group.  Yasna and I were chilling in the courtyard, when an older German guy came over and joined us.  He was agitated because his wife was shopping and they were going to run out of money and they could not get anymore and it was all the fault of the stupid Americans and their stupid sanctions and and and...  Yasna and I exchanged glances but it was too hot and honestly I could not be bothered.  On and on the guy went about the stupid Americans, until unable to get any conversation out of it, he changed tacts and asked me what I thought of the election. "The last one?  The one we had in November?" I asked.  No, he wanted to discuss the Iranian election.  I told him I really did not know much about the topic (At this point, the candidates had not even been announced).  His bag-laden wife had now joined us and was certain that I had misunderstood the question.  In the tone of voice you would use to speak to a particularly stupid 5 year old, she very slowly said "Your people are having an election.  What do you think about the election?" "Huh?! My people?  I'm from Florida."  (confused look) "In America!!  I'm Cuban but I live in America" (more confused looks).  Finally, she got a look of understanding "Ah!!  I see.  So you are married to an American?"  "What?!!  No, I am not married.  To anyone."  The couple looked to each other, bewildered.  He decided to resolve this by once again changing the topic.  "So, which passport did you use to get in?" "My American one.  I do not have a Cuban passport."  "But what about your Iranian one?  Why did you not use your Iranian one?" Me, trying my best to suppress a scream "Because I am not Iranian!!!  I do not have an Iranian passport!! I am a tourist!  I am visiting Iran!!  Just like YOOOUUUUU!!!!"  Yasna, who had been silently giggling for the entire exchange, interjected  with "She is from America, you know, as in the stupid Americans and their stupid sanctions."  It very suddenly dawned on them that they no longer wanted to lounge in the courtyard with us.  The good news was that, at least in the eyes of a geriatric German couple, I was blending in...

Around 4 in the afternoon, perhaps sensing my restlessness, Rashid, one of the inn's employees invited me to join him on a walk.  Rashid, as well as the rest of the staff, are all Baluchi's, an ethnic minority from the southern part of the country with its own language and style of dress.  His English was limited so we walked along in silence, but I noticed he would get very excited whenever we would spot animal tracks, primarily gazelle and fox prints.  I had heard rumors of Iranian zebras in the area and was hoping one would cross our path.

But, alas, it was not to be.  The most we saw was one disgruntled lizard who was not too keen on having his picture taken.

By the time, Rashid and I returned, the sun was setting and the hotel had been overrun by two tour groups, one American, one Italian, both sharing a median age of prehistoric.

Any hopes that I had held out for a late night, campfire sing-a-long, as Yasna had experienced on her last visit,  were quickly extinguished.  Instead, we had an early bird dinner, a short Baluchian music and dance performance during which much "Mildred!  That music is too loud"- style grumbling could be heard and topped off the night with the afore-mentioned star gazing.

The next morning, we kicked back while agitated guides tried to rouse the cast of Cocoon and load them on their respective buses.  Soon enough, our driver would appear and it would be time for us to re-don our head scarves.

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