The young and the restless

An antique town in central Iran, Yazd is poised between two deserts that stretch to the Afghan border. Its low skyline is disturbed only by blue-tiled mosques, mud-brick domes and badgirs, box-like wind towers that have for centuries caught hot desert breezes and transformed them into cool interior ventilation.

You can lose yourself in Yazd’s meandering alleys, so I’m grateful that my new friend Mohsen helps me find my hotel, the old Malek O Tojar—once a merchant’s house—in the belly of the Panjeh-Ali Bazaar.

Mohsen and I met on the bus from Shiraz to Yazd; a country boy, he’s heading home for a few days’ leave. At age 25, his computer studies have been interrupted by two years’ national service: ‘All young Iranian men must do this because, you know, the Americans ...’

We head for an old caravanserai in the desert, now under restoration. Mohsen points out a qanat, or water channel, running underneath us and surfacing in the courtyard. ‘We have had this system for 2000 years. The water comes down from the mountains underground, the channels all dug by Yazd men.’

In the Desert of Emptiness, munching on pashmak, a local spun sugar sweet, Mohsen talks of love and marriage. ‘Does a man in Australia have to provide a house and a car for a woman before he can marry her?’

I laugh and shake my head.

‘I don’t want a girlfriend,’ he says, ‘that’s just for sex and fun. I want a wife and children, but how can I think about this? There’s no work for young people and jobs pay very low salaries. I am homesick for Yazd, but there are no jobs here.’

Like three-quarters of Iran’s population, Mohsen is under 30, a child of Ayatollah Khomeini’s social revolution that spent big on literacy, education and primary health care. In the revolution’s early days authorities encouraged big families to create an army of Islam. Instead it got an army of unemployed young.
That night at a teahouse I chat with a young man who can’t wait for the Americans to come. ‘You don’t know how I hate these people—the mullahs and their Swiss bank accounts, their big Mercedes.’

I was gobsmacked. ‘You see Iraq next door and you want Americans here?’

‘You know, my cousin is learning Persian dancing. If the government finds out they will close it down. Persian dancing! Governments do what they like, what can we do to change things?’

Next morning I am on the bus to Esfahan, the jewel in the crown of medieval Persia. In the late 16th century the Safavid ruler Shah Abbas the Great moved his capital from the north near the troublesome Turks to strategically safer Esfahan in the desert. He secured the borders that Iran has today, more or less, and defined Persian national identity by promoting Shi’a Islam over the Sunni Islam practised by the Turks.

Esfahan retains Abbas’s legacy of tree-lined avenues, palaces in pleasure gardens, mosques with gorgeous tiled and mosaic ornamentation, a labyrinthine bazaar and charming 17th-century footbridges arching the Zayandeh River. You can laze in the winter sun for hours at an outdoor teahouse below the Si-o-Seh (Thirty Three Arches) Bridge.

The cultural heart of Esfahan is the Imam Khomeini Square, but many locals still prefer its old name, Naghsh-e Jahan, Map of the World. It is a huge but intimate courtyard, flanked by two of Islamic architecture’s great triumphs—the Imam and Sheikh Lotfullah mosques. The square is essentially an enclosed Persian garden. The old Persian term for enclosed space is par deiza, from which Christians derived their paradise.

Drinking chay in the teashop above the bazaar at the northern end of the square I listen as Ramin, a young carpet seller, and a visiting Norwegian, discuss the great Sufi poet Hafez, then oil politics, while we watch the dome of the Sheikh Lotfullah Mosque change colour from cream to pink as the light changes.

‘Do you know there are 13 million people in Tehran, and five million cars?’ says Ramin. ‘The government is worried about pollution, but oil is so cheap. How crazy is that?’

In Yazd, country boy Mohsen pines for a girl he can’t afford to marry. The government pays out a whopping ten per cent of its GDP in domestic oil subsidies. Housing assistance on the other hand could—maybe—placate a generation of young Iranians.

‘Hello, are you American?’ Her English is faultless, as is her makeup, and she has trained one long black curl to fall outside her hijab. Under the mandatory long blouse that must cover her backside she wears blue jeans. Her question has upset many European tourists, she says with a laugh that echoes around an empty handicrafts shop. Like many Iranian women, by default or design, she is choosing a single life. ‘We need to be free, and I don’t mean this,’ she says, touching her hijab. ‘I mean other, more important things.

How will I be able to know a man after three meetings in my parents’ house? We cannot meet in public—police will come. Believe me, it still happens here in Esfahan. I am 31 years old, I have a BA and I work here. The politicians have done nothing for us.’

Now there’s just a bus ride back to Tehran. I am finally riding in a Volvo, considered luxurious by my fellow bus travellers. We pass within miles of the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility, buried deep in the desert just south of Kashan, where Shah Abbas the Great lies entombed.

Jan Forrester is a Sydney freelance writer



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