Tuesday, January 2, 2018

From ‘The Ministry of Guidance invites you to not stay. An American Family in Iran’ by Hooman Majd


………paperwork is something the Iranian bureaucracy, the single largest employer of Iranians, excels in……

Unlike Western classical music, Iranian classical music coexists – and is equally popular among all age groups – with contemporary pop.

……life is shameful? Yes. The idea that life in this world can be (or even is) shameful resonates with Iranians, a Shia people who, regardless of their piety or lack of it, are culturally programmed to imagine human behavior as ignoble; as ignoble as the prophet’s successors’ murder of his offspring, and as ignoble as the tyranny that they suffer no matter what leaders rule them. There’s certainly an element of self loathing to it……

The Islamic Republic has raised the literacy rate to over 90 percent, educates far more women than men in its universities, and has made great strides in medicine, science, and the arts, all while insisting on a veneer of Shia Islam.

………..no one in Iran, not even secret policemen on a mission, will miss their lunch.

………the long Persian tradition of absolute monarchy, of state or aristocratic control over its citizens…….I again wondered if there was something innate in our culture that consistently produced men and women who happily worked to subdue free thought and opposition to their sociopolitical system, or in feudal times, opposition to what was essentially serfdom.

…….children in Iran, boys and girls equally are considered precious, conspicuously so. Too precious at times…….mothers refer to their sons as doodool talah – golden penis …….

Unlike Westerners, Iranians are entirely comfortable expressing their thoughts on children and child care to complete strangers…… Iranians’ solicitude toward children and their well-being is annoying and touching at the same time.

…….for an Iranian there is almost no greater contribution to a sense of self-importance and vanity than to be seen in public comfortably conversing with a foreigner in his or her own language, English ranking highest. Oddly for an Islamic country, its usually women who insist on stirking up a conversation with farangis (foreigners, from the root word farang, which once meant “France” but now denotes “anywhere not Iran”)………

How, she wondered, could a people so polite, so gracious, and so orderly in normal life turn into Nightriders of Mad Max fame and transform Tehran, with its utter ordinariness and occasional beauty, into a dystopian nightmare of homicidal drivers and impotent cops?

…….Tehran …….the city is also an architectural disaster; a hodgepodge of the monstrously ugly new and the gracious but deteriorating old ……the newly constructed high-rise apartments and office buildings – none designed to reflect anything other than the enormous sums of money spent – add to the feeling that the city makes no sense…….but nevertheless it functions………to the lush parks that the city has built and maintained ……to the oddly clean streets and pristine water supply, it all does work. And the culture – a mash-up of self-deprecation, prescribed and proscribed behavior, a superiority-inferiority complex, and a Shia sense of martyrdom, prompting Tehranis to proclaim their fellow citizens, and even themselves, savages – endures just fine…….applies to all Persians. Still, the paradoxes of Iranian life are on extreme display in Tehran, visible to everyone…

Unemployment is staggeringly high here – government figures in the low double digits are widely believed to be supremely optimistic ……….the mingling of unmarried men and women and the absence of any bars, there’s very little hope for them to have any real pleasure in life.

…….everybody – even strangers on the street – would give advice on what our son should and shouldn’t be doing …….Iranians are obsessive about health and well-being. I’ve always maintained that Iranians are the world’s biggest hypochondriacs – after the French, perhaps ……..and that they take not just love, but self-love and vanity, to extremes……..There is almost nothing an Iranian wont go to the doctor for …….Pharmacies, all spotless and modern, stand on every corner in Tehran exactly as in France, and twenty-four-hour drugstores dot the city…..The sheer number of pharmacies, and the astounding number of doctors…….Pre-Islamic Iranian superstition, as well as Islam’s acceptance of the notion of the evil eye, makes every Iranian bazaar or trinket shop into talisman and espand [a wild rue, it is burnt to provide protection] central….

Ghahr. Ghahr, ghahr, ta roozeh ghiamat, ghahr. “Sulk, sulk, until the day of reckoning, sulk.” And boy, do Iranians know how to sulk. Sulking is a high art among them……..The various forms of sulking have always been a part of the Iranian national character……is also common among friends, in business, and of course at the highest levels in politics……

……the endless cups of sugared tea Iranians consume with abandon, both before and after a meal …….

……he was in the mood, as almost every cab driver in Tehran always is, for complaining….

……..Persian politesse, including the often infuriating ta’arouf – the back-and-forth niceties, self-deprecation, and faux-embarrassed apologies in transactions that involve money – is in abundant supply.

Is it the population and education explosion, unmatched by opportunity, that makes Iranians, particularly big-city Iranians, bemoan the dog-eat-dog culture that they insist has replaced  their true one? Or is it the semi-isolation from the world economy due to an anti-Western phobia on the part of the regime and an anti-Iran phobia on the part of the West?

....an assisted living facility for seniors. But the facility had flopped: assisted living is a concept yet to take off in Iran, since the culture still demands that seniors live with their children, who should be perfectly capable of and indeed happy to assist them.

……obtaining a good source of liquor is easy, too. A visitor may be forgiven for thinking that everyone drinks in the Islamic Republic, since there seems to be no shortage of alcohol or of entrepreneurial suppliers, but of course it is only in the big cities, and among the more secular classes, that drinking is a regular pastime. Liquor comes into Iran via a number of sources: across the borders from Turkey, Iraqi Kurdistan, Azerbaijan, Armenia, or in small boats from the Persian Gulf countries . Iran’s Christian (mostly Armenian), Zoroastrian, and Jewish minorities can legally manufacture liquor for their own use, but they are technically prohibited from selling it to their Muslim compatriots or even serving it to them. Naturally, that doesn’t stop some in the community, mostly Armenians, from entertaining the rather lucrative and easy business of selling aragh, the traditional Persian vodka distilled from raisins…….

Beer, although available almost as widely as spirits, is not as popular in Iran, for it doesn’t offer the same bang for the buck……

Oddly, its almost impossible to get Russian vodka in Iran, even fake, when Iran shares a border with a number of former Soviet republics and is on friendly terms with Russia….

The pool, like everything in Iran, was spotless and kept obsessively clean by the building staff……..Karri had expressed relief at the city’s cleanliness, despite its awful pollution, and was surprised that drinking water straight from the tap was not only okay but as commonplace as in the United States…..Street sweepers and garbage collectors, who worked seven days a week as opposed to the twice weekly we are accustomed to in New York……..

…….before the revolution Khomeini had in fact denied that he would enforce the hijab. Secular women who wore chadors in street protests against the shah were doing so out of respect for Khomeini, not out of religious belief…….Few Iranian women who supported the revolution imagined that hijab would become compulsory ……..

……Iranian men, peacocks all, have always been unashamed of primping

Many Iranians have simply given up on the system but are unwilling to do anything about it, fatalistically resigned to a political order they mostly cannot abide. Fatalism, a strong trait of Persians, has partially prevented them, and their many governments, from making the progress they might deserve. ……..Many other Iranians too complain loudly but seem otherwise inactive.
The loudest complainers in public are often older Iranians. …….The Iranian sense of fatalism is often intertwined with a voracious appetite for conspiracy theories, perhaps adding to the inertia of would-be revolutionaries………Iranians today hold too many wildly differing views of what the country should be to form any real united opposition to the regime….many Iranians still supported the system; and a great number of them were deeply religious and would never abandon their beliefs that Islam must play a role in politics and society at large, and that the Islamic system was just.

She had wanted to teach yoga in Iran, but it proved rather difficult, both in terms of finding a space that wouldn’t attract the attention from the authorities (obtaining the license to operate a studio which would have had to be a women-only affair, would be onerous) and in terms of getting people to commit to classes…….Yoga is common enough in Tehran (despite some clerics’ rulings that it is un-Islamic) which even boasts a Farsi-language yoga magazine that is sold at every newsstand,

Iranians love parties. They’ve always loved them and love any excuse to have one, even if the excuse is simply that it’s the weekend, and hey, there’s nothing else to do in Tehran. They loved parties during the shah’s time, too…… There are two drawbacks to accepting an invitation to an Iranian party then: first, all that wonderful food wouldn’t be served until the last guest arrived, and since every Iranian thinks they have to be the last to arrive anywhere, that meant ten-thirty p.m. at the earliest for an eight p.m. party, or as late as one a.m. in some cases.
Second, for some inexplicable reason, Iranian parties would start with great music, from the latest hits to good and even esoteric alternative rock, but after dinner would switch to bad Iranian dance music, prompting the women to drag the men out to dance with them, or vice versa…expert dancers all….

Before the Islamic Revolution, Tehran had boasted cabarets, nightclubs, and many bars (but few really good restaurants….)………But going out to a cabaret or club was never fully a substitute for entertaining at home, a proposition that Iranians have always considered as it shows off the home d├ęcor, cooking skills, good taste, and general graciousness of the host and hostess in a society where showing off and exercising one’s ta’arouf go hand in hand and seem to be the foundations of almost every party.
Partying in Iran is not restricted to the secular or Westernized elite, although the kinds of parties the devoutly Shia – the more affluent ones anyway – throw are radically different, though no less frequent.

Every Iranian house that is about to receive guests will have huge bowls of fruit on every coffee and side table, and bowls of nuts – pistachios and almonds – so huge and deep that it would take ages of snacking to get to the bottom, and other bowls of snacks, and often plates of pastries too……..Dinner means at least two but preferably three or four completely different main courses – always fluffy white rice accompanied by lamb or chicken-based stews along with other mixed rice dishes – as well as a handful of different salads and soups and other dishes, plus the obligatory sabzi, a plate of washed greens – basil, mint, radishes, watercress, or whatever – with cheese, walnuts, and spring onions on the side.

Intensely religious families throw rozeh parties with some regularity on religious holidays – frequent enough in Islam, but even more frequent in Shia Islam, with its imams and various other martyrs to celebrate. At such parties a mullah will melodically bespout an episode from Shia methodology, while men and women in separate rooms weep at the injustice perpetrated on their saints and the unfairness, the shamefulness, of their own lives. But in the aftermath of the recitation, these parties are usually as merry as any other, and food and nonalcoholic drinks are served, and laughter and jokes, though appropriate and not bawdy, are heard.

….there are no Iranian parties anywhere on the planet where children, from infants to teenagers, are unwelcome, whether the hosts and hostesses are prepared to handle a child in their home or not. ……..

…….Iranians’ indifference to all forms of pollution, especially the kind they’re responsible for creating.

………..Iranian would-be matchmakers, a profession almost all Iranians – from the deeply religious to the Westernized secularists – consider their second, if not first, in a culture where meeting potential partners is limited to gatherings at parties and introductions made by family.

Iranians living in Iran have to be extremely wary of associating with foreigners, especially diplomats, who are often assumed to be spies. Iranians who are completely uninvolved in politics, especially artists, will accept invitations to embassy parties, but no Iranian official, present or former, and no one with any political ambition, would be caught dead speaking to a Western diplomat, least of all while the West was pressuring Iran with sanctions and military threats ……….

The expat community in Tehran is miniscule……….

………..Tehran …….perpetually smoggy….sprawling metropolis……

Islamic Iran has successfully instituted compulsory education for its children, achieving a very high rate of literacy compared to that of any other developing country, but some children are left behind: illegal Afghan immigrants without the papers necessary to register at school, or the children of impecunious parents – some drug addicts and others just plain poor - ………

It is hard to find slums in Tehran…..of the kind we know in Third World countries, and hard to see very much abject poverty anywhere, which is some credit to the revolution. But the gap between the haves and have-nots is growing…….

I always knew that Iranians were fond of traveling………the great interest everyone showed then in having me tell them stories of far-off lands and of the journeys themselves. Iranians have always been curious about the world beyond their walls, and have intrepidity built into their genes, but before the advent of cheap air travel very few could afford to venture far beyond the country’s borders.

Only a handful of countries allow visa-less entry by Iranians, including Turkey and, more recently, Georgia……..

Iranians love nature, and the number of parks and green spaces in Tehran created by successive mayors, and their popularity with the citizens, is a testament to that. But they may love their cars just as much………right by their cars, families had set out carpets and cushions to sit on ……….A short, very short walk would have placed these families right in the middle of nature, away from the fumes of cars and motorcycles and the ugly asphalt, but being next to their cars and still in view of nature probably appealed to them more.

Flying anywhere in Iran is cheap and relatively easy, but ………private carriers use outdated equipment. …….the forty-year-old Boeings and Soviet-era Tupolevs have an unfortunate record of falling out of the sky……..Sanctions on Iran…..have meant that, despite its massive wealth in both the public and private sectors, Iran has been largely unable to upgrade its fleet of civilian aircraft since the revolution……. trains in Iran are a good, if time-consuming, alternative to flying, as are the buses, which are surprisingly luxurious and ridiculously cheap.

…………the dwarf the hotel had hired since my last visit……..He seemed to be unperturbed that he might be an object of amusement if not mockery by hotel visitors and particularly their children, in a country where political correctness, as it applies to the differently abled (excepting war veterans) has seemingly not arrived……

Yazd, being smack-dab in the middle of the desert……clean air, bright sunshine, and incredibly friendly citizens – no hustle and bustle, shoving, and the generally boorish demeanour found in Tehran and other big cities, not even in the Yazd bazaar.

………..the Iranians’ internal conflict over their history and their faith.
Iranians are an immensely proud and supremely nationalistic people, men and women who glory in their nation’s ancient past and have always been dismissive of, if not downright racist toward, the Bedouin Arabs who brought them their faith. Even the most pious, and even some of the clerics, have been traditionally anti-Arab, which explains to some extent an Islamic Iran’s difficulty in maintaining good relations with other Muslim countries in the region. It also creates a contradiction, in revering an Arab prophet and Arab Shia saints whose people Iranians believe to be inferior. Some of the youth of Iran today, who chafe at the restrictions on their lives and disdain the theocracy that places them there, and who dislike Arabs anyway, look to their pre-Islamic past both for assurance that their nationalism is founded and as a symbol of protest against the religion that they feel was forced on them by Mohammed’s armies centuries ago and by the ayatollahs today.
There is no greater symbol of Persian glory than the Farvahar, which was even a part of the shah’s Pahlavi coat of arms. One sees the winged sun pendants around the necks of young men and women everywhere – every jewelry shop in Iran sells silver and gold versions in all sizes.

Iranians are as tribal and chauvinistic about their hometowns as, say, New Yorkers are about Midwesterners……..

………Naghsh-e Jahah Square, the largest in the world after Tiananmen in Beijing, built by Shah Abbas in the late sixteenth century…………Much has been written about Esfahan, about the magnificence of the square and the mosques and palaces that surround it, and it has a magical quality that words and images cant quite describe. Nesf-e-Jahan, as Persians still vaingloriously refer to it: “Half the World.” ………..I always suspected the Esfahanis, known in Iran for their business acumen and even their cunning, were simply masking their true selves by being standoffish and sometimes even rude.

…………faloudeh, a uniquely Iranian iced concoction of starch noodles, rose water, and lemon juice………

It is an experience that many tourists and visitors to Iran share – Iranians, even deeply pious ones, opening up to a foreigner, treating them as guests of honor in their country no matter their origin, and displaying the kind of hospitality to strangers that is unheard of in the West.

……..Esfahanis ……..in their veneer of arrogant pride and haughty attitude, the general demeanour of those who live in what they believe is the greatest city on earth, indeed, according to them, half the world.

By the time we said our goodbyes, his present to Khash of a gold coin in hand (the traditional gift for a newborn family member)……..

…….President Khatami told me …….. “We have always wanted freedom, democracy, human rights, and so on…….but we have never instituted the culture for them……….We haven’t figured out how to reconcile those concepts with our culture. We cant be completely modern, or reject all modernity. Neither works in our culture, as much as we might try.” ……..The culture he referred-to, which he is proud of………is one of beauty, poetry, hospitality and manners, yet was still very much formed by Shia Islam: mournful, strict, and austere. Islamic culture never fully supplanted an ancient Persian culture that revered power and authority, whether exercised by tribal and village chiefs, priests, or kings and “kings of kings,”………..The political culture of Iran has always been authoritarian, and what Khatami was saying was that reconciling Persian culture with the concept of democracy meant that the political culture had to change, yes, but also that other elements of Persian culture and even of Shia Islam (which unlike Salafist or Wahhabi Islam actually allows for interpretation) had to adapt.

……….a society where three-quarters of the population was under thirty.

It has always been this way in Iran, since before the time of the ayatollahs and Islamic-approved curricula: know the facts, but don’t present opinions that might conflict with any shah- or state-approved message. And since it has also always been impossible for anyone to know exactly what might offend at any given time, leaders have most often kept their opinions to themselves. Ahmadinejad is a glaring exception……….

………it’s the paradoxical nature of Persian culture. While creative thinking abounds in Iran, it is often kept close to the chest for fear of not just political repercussions but ridicule. Hence a culture that reveres poetry above all tends to disdain artistic endeavours as impractical; the great Persian poets are quoted every day, and their contributions to math, science, and medicine are almost equally heralded, but no consideration is given to the idea that perhaps it was their creative thinking that led to advances in science in the glory years of the Persian empires – advances that Iranians boast of but that have ceased, leaving Iranians at a loss to explain why.

But conspiracy, and the concept that there is always something hidden in any news we hear, is not just an obsession of ordinary Iranians; its part of Iran’s political culture.

………for most Iranians, the concept of animals as pets is alien………


If anything, Iran is a land of contradictions, and Iranian-ness a mess of contradictory emotions…..

From ‘A Time of Madness. A Memoir of Partition’ by Salman Rashid


….to drive me to Amritsar through a landscape where men did not wear the baggy shalwar of Pakistan. They were dressed either in the narrower pyjama and shorter kurta or Western trousers and mostly chequered shirts, for some reason. And there were colourful Sikh turbans to paint the landscape. Women, other than the occasional bindi, were dressed just the same as women on our side….. However, two cultural shocks awaited me as we neared town: girls in jeans and t-shirts zooming about on scooters and pigs rooting in garbage dumps…..The surprise was that very few men ogled at them……in Afghanistan …..earlier. After years of warfare and ten years of the soul-destroying madness of Taliban misrule in which women were non-existent except as perambulating shrouds, they had suddenly reappeared in all their glamour and beauty. Yet the men in Kabul and Herat, the two cities I visited, did not stare; they simply minded their own business while the newly visible women went by in colourful glory.
Here in our own good land [Pakistan], we molest passing women with our eyes all the time. There appears a well-wrapped shrouded creature with only eyes showing through a narrow slit and all available men leave whatever they were doing to scratch their crotches and ogle. Their heads turn like radar antennas with the passing swaddle of clothing…………These staring Morlocks would very likely go berserk seeing the bare legs and arms in Amritsar…….towards the end of my Indian travels I realized that in Pakistan we hide our bellies under our voluminous shalwar-kurta suits; in north India most of the men I saw wore Western attire, making their girths apparent. In addition, Indians, it appears, do not suffer from scrotal scabies that Pakistani men are universally afflicted with…..

In Pakistan, trains are lumbering slowpokes in which it is almost impossible to manage a cup of tea without spilling even as they crawl along at less than 100 kilometres per hour. The tracks – those few that still operate after most have either been uprooted or simply closed – are antiquated …….With most lines shut down and less than a hundred serviceable locomotives, we had trains running only on four major lines and none of them operated on time. …….From more than 1,200 functioning railway stations inherited from the British at the time of Partition, there were less than 500 working in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Whereas India laid several thousand kilometres of new track (and revamped all outdated ones) to take high speed trains, Pakistan Railway continued to trundle along in an age warped to the 1940s.
Not only were no new tracks laid, some two dozen branch lines were closed and simply abandoned in the 1980s. those who lived by the side of the tracks filched the steel and fittings. Disused railway stations were permitted to be annexed as private residences by anybody who felt so inclined. No action was taken when ordinary folk took over railway land to build upon it. In a word, Pakistan Railway was a microcosm of the rest of the country, which had been turned into a free-for-all by the military dictator of sham piety.

……….down the Solan main street [near Simla] …As I was walking along the footpath …..the side door of a parked lorry suddenly flew open and I had to jump out of the way to avoid being hit. The man about to alight immediately pulled the door back in, and addressing me as ‘babu sahib’, offered a very profuse and wordy apology. In Pakistan this is never done. No one ever apologizes, especially when the other is a stranger. I have been in hundreds of situations where any decent person would express regret and the only time it ever happened was in Chaman on the Afghan frontier in Balochistan.

The air-conditioned bus left …..past …….Chandigarh, we were in countryside that could have been anywhere in Punjab on our side of the border – the only two differences being the t-shirt and jeans-clad girls riding their motor scooters and no one staring, and the ‘English Wine and Beer’ shops on the main streets of even the dumpiest little village.

….in the vicinity of Lambra, we drove by a pipal tree smack in the middle of the road with the traffic passing it on either side. For a Pakistani this was a gross aberration…….. Our district administration bureaucrats routinely destroy hundreds of years old banyan trees of huge bio-masses ………and replace them with date palm or shrubbery. ……In India they still value trees that our ancestors worshipped eight thousand years ago in the cities of the Indus Valley. In Pakistan we think nothing of destroying them. …..

…..There are no Muslims in Pakistan who do not believe in true Arab blood for themselves. Even thoroughbred Rajputs, Jats and Gujjars, all Indo-Aryan peoples, sing of some ficticious Arab ancestor, a valorous general to boot, who descended upon the subcontinent with the army of Mohammed bin Qasim……..Interestingly, this silly eagerness to claim Arab ancestry goes back to the sixteenth century. Abu’l Fazl, official chronicler of the court of …..Akbar the Great…took a derisive swipe at it.

Inured by centuries of marauding incursions by plunderers of every hue coming down after reducing Afghanistan, the Punjabi peasant has learned never to give up. If there is one virtue he, regardless of his creed or caste, can truly be celebrated for, it is the ability to toil unremittingly again and again and again….

In Pakistan, tomb-worshippers revere only those non-Muslim burials that have posthumously been converted to Islam. …All other known Hindu shrines have, at best, been neglected and at worst vandalized.

….the border remained largely porous until the 1965 war. Thereafter the security state that Pakistan quickly became clamped down hard and Punjab suffered. Indeed, it is only Punjab that suffered, first during Partition and then again with the Iron Curtain falling across the border.
Residents of districts of Balochistan bordering Iran can freely travel across the border by acquiring a rahdari – right of passage - ………the same is good for Iranians. Likewise the districts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa abutting Afghanistan. It is another thing, however, that Pathans on either side of the border care not a whit for the document and generally come and go as they please. Similarly the people of Gilgit-Baltistan and Xinjiang province in China have a free run of the other country with a rahdari. In no case is a visa needed. The same facility was denied to Punjab on both sides of the border.

Thankfully for me the generation that harped on the ‘immense sacrifices Muslims rendered for Pakistan’ has passed. We no longer hear this slanted phrase. I could have told them that it was not Muslims alone who sacrificed for Pakistan. There were as many – if not more – Hindus, Jains and Sikhs who, being economically way better off in west Punjab than the Muslims of the east, forfeited much more for us to have Pakistan. But that is a loss we prefer to ignore.
If the Indian government quickly formulated procedures for claims of property from incoming refugees, Pakistan did nothing of the sort……Unlike India where there was not much abandoned property to go by, Pakistan, had a surfeit of rich lands and huge mansions left by fleeing zamindars and businessmen. Pakistan swiftly became a free-for-all real estate Mecca.
Even as incoming refugees enriched themselves with abandoned assets, natives broke into evacuee properties to become their owners – some of these properties were the very ones they had volunteered to protect until the madness passed and the real owners could return to reclaim them. But within days of the great divide, everyone knew that those who had departed were never returning.
The Pakistani bureaucracy became part of this culture of plunder. …….It was as if Pakistan was created as a short cut to wealth for not so rich Muslims. Affluence was not an outcome of years of hard toil, for refugees and natives alike in the new Pakistan, this sudden enrichment was windfall………What was easily acquired during the unsettled years immediately after Partition, taught Pakistanis to live by flash.

…….The same bias led us Punjabis to visit injustice upon Sindhis….. One afternoon we were driving across an utterly unpopulated scrub desert…..we came across a man on a bicycle….. the army subedar of our escort, a Punjabi from Chakwal, riding in the back seat…. ‘Oye! Come here, you!’ he barked and the poor cyclist almost froze with terror. He dismounted, let his bicycle fall to the ground, saluted and just stood there immobilized with fear.
When we were done with the poor man, I said to our subedar sahib his behavior was exactly what had alienated the Bengalis. Now it was the turn of the Sindhis. The man shocked me when he said they deserved to be treated like this for they too were Hinduized. He was referring to the Sindhi custom of joining the hands in greeting.

According to Rajmohan Gandhi, the emergence in the 1880s of a number of Punjabi, Urdu and English language journals representing the Singh Sabha, Arya Samaj and Muslim viewpoints, led to an expansion of the religious debate. Rather than mitigating the divide, political leaders on both sides were bent on deepening it. It seems this was not without a nod from wily Raj officers.


Friday, December 1, 2017

From ‘There are no Gods in North Korea’ by Anjaly Thomas




Mongolia is a country of less than three million people and for each person there are five animals, most of which are roaming free across this vast and so incredibly beautiful country. …Friendliness is ingrained culturally among the Mongolians and the harshness of their daily life hasn’t changed that unique quality. …The Mongolian psyche and persona, as well as its fledgling tourism industry, appear to be based almost entirely on Genghis Khan and his exploits, from the name of the airport to his face on the currency and the most popular brand of beer. …In Mongolia it is said that in life you should ride your invisible horse of luck. ….Of all the places I’ve visited in Mongolia, the Gobi is by far my favourite….because its forbidding beauty challenges the imagination, and because the Gobi people are the hardiest, yet friendliest people in the world. ….Ulan Baatar ….It is easy to get around, either by a bus, taxi or if you like, walking…..What surprised me most about this city was that culture shock was almost non-existent. I suppose their friendliness breaks down this barrier quite easily …..

There was no escaping the chipathi in Kampala, a legacy of the Indians who came to Uganda years ago with their chapathi. Idi Amin may have shooed away the Indians, but he couldn’t kill their flatbread which eventually overthrew posho (a starchy meal made of maize flour or cornmeal, with millet flour and is a native east African dish) as the national dish…… I fell in love with the Ugandan beans….

…..the only existing proof of Ugandan history – the Kasubi tombs …..the burial site of the Kabakis, the kings of Buganda which is a sub-national kingdom enjoying autonomy from the State.

….Africa. It is as different and as varied as nothing else in this world……Tanzanians liked Ugandans a little more than Kenyans who saw themselves as the ‘ruler’ of the three because of higher tourist footfalls, volunteers and charity organizations and because they were more often in the news, whatever the reason. Ugandans and Tanzanians did not place much trust in the Kenyans, who drew the last straw when it came to honesty.

….the Nile cruise was the best ever decision I have made in my life…..I could never have imagined this vastness. It was mesmerizing to have the world’s longest river flowing around us.

…..they giggled in that strange Chinese way….

Why are the Chinese not like the Thais who start their day with a smile and a purpose that is so tourist-centric? It would be so helpful if they did. I wish there was a way to get them to react.

…..China …..People spit too much, even around food. So, so disgusting….What is worse is that here they don’t really care about the tourists. Its definitely not like that in Thailand or Turkey. Here if you think you should get special treatment for being a tourist, you can think again ….Food on Chinese trains is quite uninspiring and I want something that does not look or smell like noodles. Railway platforms here do not have food stalls – like in India. ….I often felt the Chinese lacked in hospitality and inquisitiveness. …Why did the Chinese lack the curiosity so common to other South East Asian countries? ….China definitely is not a solo-traveller destination …..It is a land of frustration, fascination and some fun ….Taxis in general have been a constant source of disappointment. They never stop, never arrive on time and never go where you want to …if they speak your language, your options are limited to paying a lot over the meter…….

Indians who miss their flights when on a holiday are not the best people to be around……

There are some things I miss about Africa in general, starting with laughter. Every person I have met will always greet you with a loud, belly-deep, thigh-slapping laughter….I have never met a happier person than a laughing African.

From ‘Hitchhiking to India in 1962. India, The Balkans and Greece in 2015’ by John Waller based on the diaries of Andrew Macalpine




The Yugoslavs are the most wonderful people we’ve seen. Very poor, but cheerful.

Yugoslavia is remarkable in its variance from the flat plains of Croatia to the patchwork quilt of Serbia and finally to the barren harsh beauty of the mountains of Macedonia. The Slovenes in the north and the Macedonians in the south are cheerful and friendly but otherwise our feelings have been blurred by the poverty. The communist system is a failure and one can only wait for the change.

Tragically, few countries in Europe lost a higher proportion of their Jewish population in Hitler’s Final Solution than Greece. ….The personal costs of the war in Greece were immense: the elimination of the Jews; the 250,000 people that died directly or indirectly as a result of the famine between 1941 and 1943; and the anti-guerrilla campaigns of 1943-44 when villages were wiped out as acts of revenge….It was also the economic cost to the Greeks that turned the Greeks against the Germans. ….After the war and the Axis defeat, the Communists fought on against the elected government leading to the Civil War which ended in 1949. In the Greek mountains from Western Thrace in the east, through Macedonia, where the guerrillas were strongest, to the Pindos in the west, Greeks killed Greeks. Over the 5 years of civil war at least 60,000 Greeks were killed. On top of this, more than 50,000 Greek speakers were refugees, mainly to Communist Yugoslavia….The exodus from Greece continued in the 1960s; there was no work and little food in Greece.

1453 is a year etched on the heart of every Greek – the year Constantinople fell to the Ottomans. On Tuesday 29th May, the final vestige of the over one-thousand-year-old Christian Eastern Roman Empire was ended. Tuesday is still an unlucky day for the Greeks…The Ottomans were respectful of the other ‘Peoples of the Book’, welcoming for example, the huge Sephardic Jewish population after their expulsion from the Iberian peninsular in 1492…..At the peace conference in Lausanne in 1923, it was agreed that 1.3 million Christians, both ethnic Greeks and Turks, were to be expelled from the new Turkey in exchange for 480,000 Turkish-speaking Muslims stayed in Western Thrace and slightly more Greeks remained in Constantinople, though perhaps only 2,500 still live there today. ….The only good thing that came out of this tragedy was that Greece, as a country, became the most homogenous in the Balkans.

…at the Turkish-Iranian border……the truck drivers waiting to clear customs….were from Pakistan …..With great charm and perhaps some concern, they agreed to take us to Tehran…..a theory I was formulating: the further east one travelled, the more friendly and hospitable were the locals.

Almost as soon as we were in Iran an impressive and dramatic change occurred in the landscape. From moderately cultivated land even in the remotest parts, we came across enormous expanses of semi-desert. The only thing relieving the monotony of the brown was the arid green scrub. We saw our first camels……this country is very dusty….Iran is a great plateau of desert and barren mountains.

…an Iranian proverb, which says, ‘Isfahan is half the world.’

…..Iran…..the further east we go the less we see of the peasant woman, who remains in her home all day and only goes out for shopping. When she does, she is so heavily veiled that one can only see the eyes peeping out from two slits in the great loose gown she wears. This seems to be the source of the Latin conception of women for especially in poorer Italy and Spain they are very much the housewives and child-bearers.

Persia is by far the dirtiest country we have visited so far….Although the food in Turkey was very greasy it did at least have variety. Kebab was only one of the many dishes. In Persia, kebab is the only dish. It is eaten with a pancake-like bread, which is always tough unless absolutely fresh…..In Turkey, there were salads. In Iran there were none. The food is quite expensive.

In Turkey, the Moslem religion didn’t seem to have any hold on the people. Whereas in Persia it seems very strong.

….old Persian proverb: Oh God, having made Multan, Sibi and Dadar, what need was there to make hell.
Another Persian proverb: People found shivering in hell were from Multan.

…Multan…The people are very primitive. No cultural tradition at all which there was in Persia.

The Pakistan people have a code of hospitality, which must be seen to be believed. This is the most wonderful country I have ever been in.

Indian music has much that is rhythmically similar to West Indian music……Aurangabad …..Two Moslem friends had known each other for 8 years yet had never met each other’s wives

…convoy of Sikhs….all three lorries stopped ….they were set to do their weekly wash in the nearby mountain stream ….Modesty…prevents them undressing further and they always retained the towel-like cloth around their loins. It always strikes me as paradoxical that men who exhibit as few inhibitions amongst themselves as the Indians – they seem unable to forbear to handle each other when talking and to see two men walking down the street in Bombay holding hands is as common occurrence as it is in Iran – that men who show so little restraint in their day-to-day physical relations should fall short of an act that even the most conventional of Europeans would consider normal – namely exhibiting one’s naked body before friends.