Thursday, January 18, 2018

From ‘'A Guest is a Gift from God'. Travels in Georgia’ by Conor McKeever

….age-old Georgian maxim that ‘A Guest is a Gift from God’…….

Tbilisi, their capital, has been literally wiped off the map by invaders over forty times……..Georgia is an enchanting land, its scenery is breathtaking. Few places on earth can match the snow covered High Caucasus that separate Georgia from Russia in the north, and that contrasts with the gentler valleys and exuberant rivers of the Lesser Caucasus marking its southern border with Turkey. To the west is the spectacular Black Sea coast, and to the east, where Georgia merges with Azerbaijan and Armenia, there is the beautiful stark semi-desert landscape tailor-made for poetry and contemplation.
Then there is Georgia’s farming land and the variety of its crops ………All rich and lush and natural with hardly an artificial fertilizer in sight. No wonder Georgia produces some of the most healthy and delicious food in the world.

The Georgians are rightly celebrated for their welcome to strangers who visit them in peace.

……….many of the roads throughout Georgia, are in serious need of attention, with potholes verging on the size of craters.

……..apart from their neighbor Armenia, Georgia was the second country in the world to adopt Christianity as the national religion way back in the fourth century, and they have carried on in their own sweet way ever since.

…….Georgia, with such a rich soil and wonderful climate, is a land of plenty. …….its own tea on the shores of the Black Sea and, of course, its magnificent wines just about everywhere but especially in the lands near the Caspian.

….Russia’s continued influence in Georgia, and the pressure it exerts on the country, is a national pre-occupation. The Russians are furious with the Georgians for cosying up to the Americans and to the West, and are showing their displeasure by encouraging some of the Georgian provinces to break away. At its most dramatic, this ‘encouragement’ has recently taken the form of an actual Russian invasion of part of Georgia……They already have managed to dislodge the Province of Abkhazia, with its beautiful Black Sea coastline, from Georgian control, and this has led to thousands of refugees flooding into Tbilisi…..including many children, could be seen roaming the streets begging, and sleeping rough in bus shelters and other public places. I noticed that people in Tbilisi seldom passed a beggar in the street without making some contribution however small. This is because so many of the beggars were refugees from Abkhazia who have lost everything. South Ossetia, which has a minority Russian population, is a Georgian province where the Russians can also spread discontent, encourage separation, and have most recently invaded.

……… ‘……We Georgians toast our friends in wine but our enemies in beer.’

Georgians are poor by our standards but no expense is spared when it comes to food and wine…….The Russian poet, Pushkin, once remarked that “every Georgian dish is a poem”, and visitors often say that even the Georgian names of our dishes sound like edible poetry.

Georgians have taken to the mobile phone with a vengeance, and they never switch it off. They call each other incessantly, and in the middle of explaining some …things, a Georgian colleague’s mobile would ring, and the lengthy call that ensued would disrupt everyone’s train of thought, and quite often derail the meeting altogether.

……..Georgia’s very greatest literary giant – Rustaveli ……..

The standard of driving in Georgia is appalling.

……irregular eating is a feature of life in Georgia. Our Western notion of punctuating our day with regular meals seems not yet to have caught on, and you can order the most elaborate meals in Georgian restaurants at the oddest times, and get freshly cooked even if you are eating ‘lunch’ at four o’clock in the afternoon in a largely empty restaurant.

………the historic mountain pass called the Gates of the Alans… the High Caucasus…….the road has been the main highway into Georgia from the north for up to three thousand years. At first it was only a bridle path, then was fashioned into a more recognizable road…….and finally widened and paved by the Russians when the King of Georgia, Irakli II, handed the country over to Orthodox Russia for protection from Georgia’s Islamic neighbours in 1783.

….the Alan tribe. They were great fighting men who from time immemorial had guarded Georgia’s northern frontier. The so-called ‘Gates’ are where the Military Highway enters the very narrow Daryal Gorge and runs high above the river for about twelve kilometres, with very steep cliffs on both sides, up to the border with Russia at the Devil’s Bridge.
‘It is spectacular and a bit frightening,’…… ‘Before the coming of air travel it was the only land route through the Caucasus to and from Georgia.’

....fortress monastery of Ananauri…… on the over-arching dome of the canopy….There in the torch light were vivid and magnificent frescoes depicting scenes from the life of Christ …….all painted on the canopy of the tomb over a thousand years ago………I experiences a kind of epiphany for I sensed for the first time how men and women in the Middle Ages must have felt as they entered their local church. Until the Puritans whitewashed over them, the walls of most of the churches of Christendom were covered in vivid paintings like this, and to those men and women, the great majority illiterate, the pictures meant everything. They would have entered the church, even more dimly lit by candles …….and it must have been easy to believe that the saints and martyrs covering all the walls and ceilings were actually present and worshipping with them.

……..Gates of the Alans. The valley had become a narrow gorge the walls of which looked a kilometer high, and along one side ran the road high above the thundering Terek River before both river and road disappeared into Southern Russia. I ……could see why travelers…..had been awestruck by it, why the Romans had considered it the end of the known world, and why it had stopped so many conquering armies in their tracks. Through this narrow formidable pass have come, over three thousand years…….some to trade, some to murder and rob…… the Gates of the Alans have always been a front line between nations and cultures……This is surely one of those places on earth where history and geography collide.

The knowledge of the average Georgian was often remarkable. Everybody seemed to speak two or three languages well; their knowledge of their history, literature and indeed world literature was formidable. I had an animated discussion about Oscar Wilde’s plays with a Tbilisi taxi driver…..It was not unusual to find Georgians who were familiar with the work of Dickens, the Brontes, Galsworthy and many others.

The country is beautiful of course, has a fascinating history, holds exquisite treasures, and its food and wine are literally incomparable. But it is the Georgian people that we all fell for in a big way. Their friendship, unstinting hospitality, and unique way of doing things and making progress in their own time-honoured fashion won our admiration, respect and love.

……..everywhere we went in the Georgian countryside is bathed in birdsong. It just proves to me that in the West we must indeed be killing our birds with darn pesticides on a grand scale……….Here the air is pure, the water is pure, the crops are largely fertilizer-free, and so the birds flourish……my abiding memory of Georgia will be the birdsong.

…….Georgian food…….is, quite simply, delicious!

……the magnificent Georgian institution, the supra, is something the whole world would do well to embrace………The supra is all inclusive: the dishes come thick and fast, the rich wine flows in abundance……….and the feeling of well-being and fellowship around a supra table must soften all but the hardest heart.

From ‘Diplomatic Incidents. Memoirs of an (un)diplomatic wife’ by Cherry Denman

In Milan, traffic lights are instructions. In Rome they are suggestions. In Naples, they are Christmas decorations.
(Antonio Martino)

I have never seen such appalling driving as in Libya……. These normally jovial, beautifully mannered people turn into demons from the depths of hell when they slide behind the wheel. …..Bicycles and Libya do not mix.

Expectoration in China was universal: even Deng Xiaoping had a spittoon by his chair when he met Mrs Thatcher, into which he emitted intermittent projectiles with total accuracy.

……….train journey across China……During the night, having finally dropped off to sleep, she was awoken by a strange, glooping noise, only to open her eyes to see her neighbor enjoying a midnight snack of chicken’s brains, which he extracted by holding the chicken above his head, and sucking them through its beak.

Peking railway station is a great place to introduce visitors to the real China…….It is noisy, crammed full of people and chaotic. Everybody shouts. There are families asleep on the floor, people with chickens in their pockets and babies in their backpacks. The whole space smells of tea, garlic, nylon and old socks. There is always a lot of excitement around the escalators: many of the peasants arriving from the countryside have never seen one before, causing pile-ups at the top and bottom like skittles as they hesitate, or fall over at the top.

Orson Welles ……. ‘There are only two emotions in a plane: boredom and terror.’

The abominable sin of sodomy is tolerated here, and all over China, and so is buggery, which they use both with beasts and fowls, in so much that Europeans do not care to eat duck.
(Alexander Hamilton, 1727)

Meat behaves differently in every country I have ever been to. Eggs can taste of fish. Water has sometimes to be sterilized that it is like cooking with swimming-pool water…..Potatoes in Cyprus are better than I have had anywhere else in the world, and the vegetables in Libya taste of sunshine, even if it is hard to get the sand off.

The main problem with Bing [nanny from Philippines], and one which we never quite managed to cure her of, was her obsession with her insides, particularly her women’s bits. After years of living abroad I have discovered that it is only British women who keep their internal affairs private. Everyone else discusses them in graphic, no-holds-or-holes-barred detail.

Nothing is mixed in Libya. People never meet the opposite sex, except when they marry or have a car crash.

In China, hygiene is definitely a state of mind.

I have had moments in French bathrooms, where frankly, if the smell does not kill you, the décor will.

Nothing will ever beat the joy of standing in the wings listening to Pavarotti singing………He held the 10,000 Chinese spellbound. The Chinese, who would talk incessantly and loudly through any other artistic performance, sat in silence, erupting at the end into deafening foot-stomping applause and chants of ‘Pa La Lor Ti, Pa La Lor Ti’, bringing him back for encore after encore, until he finally gave up, exhausted.

From ‘Right to Passage. Travels through India, Pakistan and Iran’ by Zeeshan Khan

…….Kolkata Airport …….in 1994……The unfortunately named Dum Dum Airport was a seedy place back then, but all that seems to have changed, including the name. Today Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport is a much slicker place and is consistent with all that India seems to be getting right these days……..At the international and domestic terminals I experience a graceful professionalism that is entirely new India. Young, educated, cosmopolitan, polite and exuding possibility, Indians today are a breath of fresh air after the rude and sullen apathy that can often accompany Bangladeshi ‘service-holders’….

………Patna ……looks like any small town in Bangladesh …..I’m only half surprised by this as I expected the much-neglected state of Bihar to look appropriately run down. ……..India has a smell all its own which ambushes your olfactory organs the moment you step out – a sweetish paan masala flavor, mixed with many different kinds of incense, Nagchampa and Chando mostly, and pata biri, along with bits of vegetarian body odour and channa from the roadside stalls. The smell begins right at the border between Benapol and Haridaspur and ends neatly before Lahore, like a kind of scent marking. Personally, I like it.

…….the Tibetans ……they are a sturdy lot and carry themselves with playfulness and positivity, like almost all the Tibetans I’ve met do.

….its clear that Buddhism has become almost exclusively the preserve of East Asian people. Just like Christianity became predominantly European after it got enmeshed in Greek, Roman and Norse mythology and now looks neither Semitic nor Middle Eastern, Buddhism too reflects precious little of the places that cradled its original expression, Bihar and Bengal, where the entire Buddhist world once came to refuel and where teachers …..departed from to take the faith to Tibet and beyond. These places no longer influence Buddhist discourse nor add to its colourful cultural landscape.

……..Ashoka’s …..another of his edicts where he says,
All religions should reside everywhere, for all of them desire self-control and purity of heart.

All across India, Muslim culture has developed a similar look and feel, incubated almost in an island that has kept it apart from its surroundings. Folk stories narrated by Muslims are often about Middle Eastern people, are of Middle Eastern events and places, and even include pre-Muslim parables from other now-Muslim lands, like the story of Rustam, which is actually Zoroastrian. They are rarely connected to the legends and stories of the place – and those are often relegated as ‘Hindu’ stories. Muslim moral and intellectual inspiration is usually sought outside of the Indian reference, and if they are Indian, they are usually Muslims Sufis and saints; never, for instance, Kautilya or Sri Choitonno Mohaprobhu, …….Muslim India removes itself from India’s history and puts itself in an India that is part-Persia, part-Afghanistan, part-Arabia, sometimes even part-Turkey. We share these stories and this sense of common space, to give us a social cohesion that is too many parts fantasy to be taken seriously anymore.
…….In India, Muslims were always the minority even when they were rulers and so an isolationist attitude was perhaps somewhat inevitable. What made assimilation even more complicated are the clearly defined ethno-religious lines in Indian society itself….. There were various permutations of caste, region, languages, deities – too complex a configuration for outsiders to be accommodated into…… spite of these, assimilation managed to take place in Bengal in a way that it didn’t in many other places in India.

…..the Sufis. The Chishti Sufis first came to Bengal in 1296……the Sufis were also changed by the place. They incorporated the practices and philosophies of Bengali yogis into their own spiritual paths…..and became comfortable with Bengali ……. Similarly, Hindu mysticism, after coming in contact with an Islamic worldview began rearranging itself according to a Sufi appreciation of the Divine as love. Beneath both these layers surged a Buddhist orientation, which dominated Bengali spirituality for over a thousand years. The confluence of these three mystical traditions in Bengal, encouraged by Sri Choitonno, resulted in Boishnobism, a creed focused on the love of God….Boishnobis would later join forces with the Sufis ….to spawn the Baul tradition …….arguably the most relevant vehicle for spiritual enrichment in my country.

Delhi ………it is said that nine (or eight, depending on how you classify them) capital cities have been built here, most in quick succession. But a telling 1,000-year gap between the first and the second cities speaks of Pataliputra’s supremacy during this time. Delhi oozes history and its one of my favourite places in the world.

India feels like a functional place, yes with many fractures along caste, class, race, language and communal lines, yet one that is trying to pull together, patiently, towards a common future. I observed with envy the positivity with which Indians engage with their country and their city. I watched people give up their seats for elders on the metro………. noticed the wide streets and developed suburbs, the orderly traffic and the respect for rules. Truly, India looks poised for take-off.

Punjabis have beautiful faces, men and women alike, and they carry themselves with a sort of conceit that is sometimes appealing but often also arrogant. I also see, as I have in Bihar and Delhi, plenty of women driving motorbikes and scooters.

I am Bengali, after all; we’re not particularly good at mazaaq.

The plane is in quite a state; the tray in front of me is broken and fastened with duct tape, the window is almost completely scratched, and when I hear the stewardess carry on in her heavily accented and archaic English, I cant decide whether its Bangladesh Biman or PIA that takes the cake for shoddiness.
We arrive in Lahore…the airport is seedy and much smaller than I expected.

Lahore looks like most South Asian cities, the noticeable differences being the way people dress and the script used in signs and banners. There is a conspicuous absence of women, except a few veiled ones who scamper hurriedly to their destination with their eyes down, almost apologetically. Virtually everyone I see is male and in shalwar-kameez that come in a range of unimaginative colours like white, light blue, dark green, black and light brown. And they are all in monotone – no mixing and matching, just one shade per person. Gone are the vibrant, brilliant colours that characterize most of South Asia and much of Southeast Asia, and I’m beginning to think that these are possibly the least colourful people in the entire region.  …..Very few people appear to be in western wear.
The other thing that stands out as strikingly different is the Shahmukhi script. Shahmukhi, meaning ‘from the King’s mouth’, is a subset of the Persian Nastaleeq script that was derived in Tabriz from the Arabic sript sometime around the 9th century, and in which Urdu is written. Shahmukhi is used to write Punjabi this side of the International Boundary, as opposed to Gurmukhi in India.

All Indian languages, including Bangla, Sanskrit, Gurmukhi and even Tamil are written in derivatives of the Brahmi or Indic script, which also spawned the Tibetan script and scripts for languages of an area known as Shubornobhumi in Indian literature. These are the Thai, Burmese, Lao, Cambodian, Mon, Javanese, Balinese and many other now extinct Southeast Asian scripts. It’s a huge family and it’s ours and it used to go right up to the Indus River and into parts of Afghanistan. In contrast, Iranian languages were influenced by cultures to their west and were written in the Sumerian Cuneiform script as well as the Aramaic script, borrowed from Mesopotamian civilisations.

I decide to go to Wagah Border, to see it from the Pakistani side…….. They certainly do it all with much more bluster, and their greater zeal is matched by their larger size. They are taller and hardier looking, and far more arrogant than the Indians …….. The galleries are segregated here; single men sit on one side, and families on the other. The architecture is much nicer on this side ……….. It’s less festive, but then there are fewer people as well. Still they do their best to match India’s revelry and do a pretty good job of it too.

Already, Pakistani public life feels contaminated by that edgy sort of severity and I find myself feeling quite worried for this place but grateful that we [Bangladesh] are no longer tied to its fortunes.

The bus station is ……..outside Rawalpindi. There’s an armed guard letting people in and out ………and I’m beginning to get less and less surprised by how many people in uniform – any uniform – carry weapons in this country.

Then I go and haggle with some taxi-wallahs to take me to the ruins. Both the dhabawallah and the taxiwallah don’t appreciate the attitude of entitlement I initially approach them with, an attitude that is almost essential in Dhaka sometimes. People here speak to and expect to be spoken to with a degree of respect; there’s an egalitarianism about the way they interact with each other and a basic amount of courtesy seems to be built into most conversations, regardless of rank or station. I like this very much, and will notice it throughout my stay in Pakistan. People aren’t as servile here, and there is far less bowing and scraping going around.

The Gandhara kingdom grew in that grey area between the Indian and the Iranian cultural continents. They used an Indic language but the Kharoshti script, which came from West Asian languages, while their immediate neighbours, the Kamboja ……. spoke an Iranic language but were considered part of Bharatbarsha. They were also consistently called ‘Kamboja’ throughout Indian history, from the time they had a Mahajanapada, sometime in the 8th century BC, all the way to the 10th century AD and even into the present. There is still a Kamboj clan living somewhere in the Punjab.

The on-site Taxila Museum is a real treat….Its one of the best site museums I’ve come across in South Asia, with a large, well-labelled collection ……..Taxila is the most visited archaeological site in Pakistan and there are also a few foreigners here. It’s the single largest gathering of foreigners I will see on the Pakistani leg of my route, and there are only about 10 of them. Tourism here has taken quite a battering since it all went belly up with the terrifying war on terror. ……….to Pakistan’s credit, they’ve done a good job of preserving the ruins at Taxila, which many in this country probably consider a ‘jahiliya’, pre-Muslim remnant of their past.

Moderate Pakistanis were already quite conservative to begin with – Pakistani society is naturally so, and religiosity is quite prominent in everyone’s lives. A lot of my liberal Pakistani friends wont drink alcohol and many of them try to be regular in their religious duties. Quite a few of them will only eat halal meat. ‘Liberated’ Pakistani women are sometimes more modest and often more religious than their counterparts from other Muslim environments ……… Ordinary Pakistanis tend to remain constantly aware of God’s pre-eminence, even in the most secular of contexts, and are imbued with an Islamic sensibility that is not particularly overt or self-conscious but governs their sense of tameez, mehmannawazi and adab or their decency, hospitality and manners.

………..Mujeeb Uncle, whose family migrated from India during Partition, tells me how the Indian Muslim civilization he belongs to, the one that sprung up in Uttar Pradesh and Hyderabad and revolved around Delhi, Agra and Lucknow, has been trodden underfoot in Pakistan, where they had arrived out of the fear, ironically, that it would be trodden on in India. …..he begins by telling me about …….how by 1947 Indian Muslims had become fearful and insular, and were struggling to preserve their culture in an environment that was increasing dominated by what they perceived as Vedic nationalism. This might not have been a problem if it weren’t for the paranoid conclusion that it would invariably lead to the persecution of minorities.
The truth is, Indian leaders were recalling Sanskritic civilization as a cultural force, to recover a sense of dignity and self-worth after nearly two centuries of subjugation. ……It wasn’t an attempt to stifle pluralism, since India’s character has always been pluralistic, and there has always been, even within Hinduism itself, plenty of room for differences. ……….Muslim India might have noticed that, had it not sat pompously on top of Sanskritic civilization, rather than within it. Even though there was considerable syncretism, by the 1940s Indian Muslim civilization saw itself as an alternative to rather than an extension of Indian culture……..

People here, especially in Punjab, seem very conscious about making sure they are on top, or at least of giving the impression that they are. Its uncomfortable, and on a national level, catastrophic. Pakistan is, after all, not a whole country but a collection of halves, cleaved out of territories with a memory of being an independent mulk, some time in their recent history. It is made up of parts of Kashmir, parts of Punjab, parts of Balochistan, parts of Sindh and parts of Pakhtunistan.

The pre-1947 Indian Muslim community’s fears of persecution and destruction have turned into reality, not in India but in Pakistan, and religion has nothing at all to do with it. Two nations, my eye.

………Lahore Museum …….These are some of the best pieces I’ve seen anywhere in South Asia, but sadly the museum is in a horrid state of disrepair. Its haphazard and dirty, and looks completely unloved. ….I remember getting a similar impression at the Indian Museum in Kolkata, the largest one in India and our National Museum of Bangladesh is quite the joke.
Considering how much we rest on the laurels of our historicity, its surprising how little we actually do to search for or preserve records of it. South Asia has all the ingredients for the best museums on earth – a history as old as time, Palaeolithic remains, clues to mankind’s journey into civilization, ancient cities, great empires, cross-currents of cultures, international trade, brilliant art, mythology, epic dramas, languages, ethnic diversity………… founders of religions, …….

I walk down the platforms [Lahore station]…..They are spacious, with kiosks and bookstalls every so many metres……They only have Urdu titles, though, which is quite different from bookstalls at Indian stations, which stock many English books as well………..the pungent smell of stale urine, unfriendly glances, soot-stained walls, broken doors and benches, and every other general symptom of extreme neglect. …….Unlike India (and Malaysia for that matter), both Pakistan and Bangladesh seem to prefer, for the most part, to let their colonial heritage fall apart. Perhaps it’s a kind of dismissive disdain for the humiliation it represents.

Islamabad is a well-developed, purpose-built city surrounded by the beautiful Margalla Hills…….It doesn’t have much of a soul either and is every bit the capital of Clerk-istan, where government housing and diplomatic mansions dominate city blocks. There are no chatty crowds or eccentric auto-rickshaws on the streets, only metered taxis that dutifully follow the speed limit. Its not unappealing; in fact it has nice landscaping, good parks, a few decent neighbourhoods, interesting architecture (including the very unusual and attractive Faisal Mosque) and a professional atmosphere that inspires a sense of confidence in its systems. It also seems like quite a safe city, but sadly has all the charm of a piece of toast.

Jovial wit and a light-hearted playfulness about serious issues is Pakistan’s strong suit. It makes their edges soft and gives their words a litheness that makes them quite endearing.

There are fewer beggars in Pakistan. Some cities have more than others but generally speaking, there aren’t too many. They are also less persistent and a simple ‘sorry’ tends to send them on their own way.

Casual conversations in Pakistani streets can be quite different from those in India. From the eavesdropping that I habitually do I know that Pakistanis tend to talk a lot about international relations, power, politics and Islam. Spirituality is present but thin on the ground, while religiosity, almost a precondition for being Pakistani, is thick. None of the philosophical debates elemental to Indian culture seem to feature here, but then again they didn’t seem to feature in India either. Indians these days talk about the economy and stock markets, and the trappings of success; they are up on their corporate jargon and frequently use words like ‘value addition’, and ‘key performance indicators’. They love being sexy, measure themselves and others by their pocketbooks, and are all set to conquer the world of high finance, fashion and fine living…….. Pakistanis are more conservative than Indians in almost everything except their opinions. People here state their positions and prejudices candidly, no matter how controversial or contrary, and don’t seem too concerned about niggling things like political correctness. They will quite happily say, for instance, that the Taliban are non-Muslim, that Americans are imperialist pigs, that the War on Terror is a war on Islam. They’ll tell you quite confidently that Pakistanis are better-looking than Indians……….They are natural and forthright with their comments, which belong to the alternative stream of thought, unlike the opinions in India, that are more aligned with a globally sanctioned narrative which tells us American imperialism is a force for good, and expects us to believe everything we hear on the news without being offered the smallest shred of evidence.

Pakistani hospitality is spontaneous and reflexive…… Hospitality is fundamental to Asian cultures and we all take it quite seriously. The Persians call it mehmannawazi, Indians calls it atithisatkara and in traditional Arab hospitality its rude to even ask your guest about their journey until you have looked after them for at least three days.

You can tell a lot about the average height of a country by how well you can scale the urinals in public toilets. In Malaysia I’m well above the average, but in Pakistan I can barely make it into the bowl.

…….Peshawar …….It’s one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the world……. Peshawar was called Purushapura once, the ‘city of men’. There’s a playfulness about the people here; they seem lighter than the people in Punjab and more laid back. Urdu has effectively evaporated, and everyone speaks Pashto on the streets – lots of it. Unlike the self-conscious and somewhat terse atmosphere in Lahore and Islamabad, here the streets are loud and raucous. Something about it all just says ‘bolder’.

I had tried to conceal my camera, since many conservative Muslim societies have an issue with photography…..

I begin to appreciate their melmestia – hospitality, Pakhtunwali style.

……….Muslims in India often tried to fasten their ancestry to an Ashrafi, that is to a Pakhtun, Turkish, Mughal or Persian bloodline, as part of a naked and absurd form of racism against Atrafis, or Muslims of darker, Indian heritage…… Droves of Pakhtuns (Pathans) settled in India after the 13th century, enough to make a demographic dent, and many kept moving east until they arrived in Bengal. They settled there, eventually intermarried and became part of the local fabric. When Babur, the Mughal, overthrew the Delhi Sultanate, another influx of Afghans, chased out by the Mughals from Kabul and Delhi, headed east and joined the Bihari Afghan, Farid Khan’s (Sher Shah Suri) ranks.
In the racially charged atmospheres of both Mughal India and the British Raj, descendants of these waves of Afghans probably asserted their ‘Central Asian-ness’ to escape the insults that flew at Indians of Indian origin…..It was essentially Brahminical Aryanism all over again; people rarely tried to claim an Arabic ancestry, since Arabs were essentially dark skinned mlecchas too. Unless, of course, it was a Syed ancestry, which was the trump card. It meant you belonged to the blood of Muhammad, and propelled you to a place in society reserved for the elect, a nobility of the purest race. Its all so hilariously primeval……… Pakhtuns were a distinct people long before they got mixed up with Middle Eastern Muslims and with Islam. The Rig Veda refers to a people called the ‘Pakhta’ living near Aryana in today’s Afghanistan, who went to war against the Tritsu – Bharata’s people, in the Battle of the Ten Kings. They also feature in Ancient Greek literature where they are called ‘Pactyan’…….

……..the Pashto language has no native words for ‘slave’, ‘servant’ or ‘master’. That’s not to say they don’t have a hierarchy, they do, but its one of respect and reverence – for elders, chiefs, Sufis, mollahs, householders etc. ……When Pashtunwali met the similarly uncompromising idealism of Islam, Pashtuns became entirely unconquerable in both body and spirit. …….all these battles have left indelible scars on the Pakhtun psyche. The energetic tribesmen, once colourful and ebullient, with music and poetry sitting comfortably alongside chivalry in a large, friendly heart, has spawned a severe and disturbed child …………

…….Multanis are darker and smaller-built than their mountainous northern countrymen.

As we enter the Saraiki belt, south of Punjab proper, people begin to dress differently. They wear colourful kurtas and shalwar-kameezes that aren’t monochromatic while some even have ……decorative noksha. They wear lungis, both checked and plain white, and also the straight white Aligarhi or Delhi-style pyjamas which are quite uncommon in the north. Women wear large white bangles and colourful, printed oornas, not unlike their Rajasthani counterparts further into the Thar. They walk boldly and don’t shrink in public as women in some other parts of Pakistan do, nor do they always cover their hair. Their rich, dark skin glistens and reminds me more of India than Pakistan.

……Multan train station, which is easily among the prettiest train stations I’ve seen anywhere, featuring cupolas and blue decorative tiles…….what sets Multan apart entirely from other Pakistani cities I’ve visited so far, or, any other South Asian city in fact, is its generous use of decorative tiles. These are called kashi, glazed ceramic tiles decorated with complex geometric or floral patterns and vibrant colours…….. They get their name from Kashgar, in Eastern Turkistan, now a part of China’s Xinjiang province ………

…………Mahmud of Ghazni …..ransacked Mathura, Krishna’s city and a sort of Medina for Hindus, destroying most of it and making off with all the loot. Ghazni’s heavy-handedness and his belief that he was on a holy war against Kaffirs sullied, almost permanently Islam’s arrival into India and made it far less appealing to Indians that it naturally might have been (adding insult to injury, Pakistan pompously named its nuclear-capable ballistic missile ‘Ghaznavi’ in honour of the Afghan warrior, something that even the cultural minister of Afghanistan at the time took exception to).

….. [Multan] People here are less eager to be photographed than they are in Peshawar…….The atmosphere is gentle and sublime and people carry themselves with a dignified modesty, keeping their voices low but their esteem high.
It’s remarkably different from the testosterone-driven schoolboy complex in Lahore and Islamabad, and I’m able to let my guard down without feeling like I’m being sized up …….

………..I …..tell him about my journey, a little bit about India (which all Pakistanis are curious about but most cant visit, and vice-versa)…….

Pakistani trains aren’t like Indian trains. In India, even second-class berths come with two meals, tea, a pillow, fresh sheets and a quilt. In Pakistan, first class is a cabin with an en suite bathroom and nothing else……… They also drive the trains very fast and stop suddenly……

While sitting in his office, a number of people come in, among them drivers and workers – all dressed in basic shalwar sets, and it is hard to discern any sort of rank because of these clothes. But mostly it’s the attitudes of the people – there is an absence of the sort of social insecurity that requires a demonstrated superiority, or inferiority, and this Pakistani, or more appropriately, Pashtun egalitarianism is particularly pronounced in Quetta. ……..Its links to anything ‘Hindustani’ are tenuous – the languages are Iranic, the air is less humid, the faces more crimson and many heads sport the distinctive grey-green Pashto turbans. They’re quite different from the Pakhtuns in Peshawar, who seem to be attached, albeit in a semi-detached sort of way, to an Indian zone. Being close to Kandahar, Afghani refugees stream into Quetta as well and push it further beyond the Indian cultural continent, wherever that ends.

The Pashtuns and the Baloch seem to get along fine ………considering the Baloch are so famously territorial. He [Hassan Uncle] tells me in Quetta at least, the Baloch and the Pashtun have become similar over the years and recognize each other as kindred. They both live in democratic, tribal federations that acknowledge the other’s territorial claims (Quetta actually belongs to the Pashtuns if it comes to that), are both notoriously independent, have always had a problem with authority and are allied in their mistrust of eastern Pakistanis. …….Some decorate their eyes with surma. Its certainly a boys town – there are virtually no women in public anywhere, but its not the combative atmosphere you find in some other all-male environments….

……….On the way I ask Hassan Uncle about the Brahui, another ethnic group in Balochistan …….they speak a Dravidian language. He points them out; they are completely conspicuous and are known for their flamboyance and very colourful clothes. ……they look delightfully mad, and smile as though they know things that the rest of us don’t. Their Dravidian language and culture is an anomaly is an Indo-Iranian cultural zone, and is the only member of the predominantly south Indian family this far northwest. I’d like to believe it proves that Dravidian, and indeed Elamite culture, if the two are related, once spanned the entire area between Babylon and India, before an Indo-European migration through Central Asia and Anatolia displaced them.
But the going theory doesn’t confirm this; instead it posits the Brahui as later migrants who moved north some time between the 10th and 14th centuries AD from Central India. This is because no linguistic influences from older Indo-European languages in the area, like Avestani or Sanskrit, is evidenced in their language, but they do seem to have borrowed prolifically afterwards, with the Brahui absorbing very many Balochi and Pashto words and enough Indo-European genes to make them virtually indistinguishable from anyone else in that area. But I’m not convinced of that theory – its quite unlikely that Dravidians would move north into the desert……………Today the nearly 2.5 million Brahui are classified as ‘Balochi’ and are Sunni Muslims. The original Khan of Kalat, the princely state which acceded to Pakistan and effectively created the province of Balochistan, was Brahui…..

Quetta produces quite a lot of very good fruit, which seems peculiar for a place this dry, but they have incredible quality and their cantaloupe is particularly sweet and delicious.

I chat with the bearded Frenchman………..He tells me how most Pakistanis only seem interested in talking with you after they have established if you are Muslim or not, something I noticed too by the sequence of their questions. Invariably, the second one after ‘how are you’ is ‘Are you Muslim?’ He also felt they just fire off a barrage of set questions, designed to measure him up and find him wanting, so that they could feel superior to him – superiorly Muslim.

‘Shia or Sunni?’
It’s the first of many times I’ll encounter that question in Iran……..

……..Zahedan; its quite an unattractive town, and is also dangerous for foreigners since the Baluchi insurrection employs kidnapping as a bargaining strategy. Just like in Pakistan, the Baluchi …..are viewed with suspicion here, but with an added element of mistrust. They’re predominantly Sunni, and Iran is uncomfortable with this ‘other’ in their midst. The city looks like a shabbier suburb of Geneva …..

The women are quite beautiful, and there are many more of them around than in Pakistani public places.

……board the bus………A group of young Baluchi boys sitting in the row in front of us pull out a bag of nuts and sunflower seeds and offer it to everyone around them, including us. It’s a very warm and inclusive gesture and something, as I will discover, very Iranian.

This [Iran] is the birthplace of ‘Khoda Hafez’. ….all throughout Pakistan, people say ‘Allah Hafez’ and its rapidly becoming the standard greeting in Bangladesh too……

Kerman ……..there are parks and green spaces and everything seems well tended and clean. Its not a chaotic, messy place at all and has none of the squalor of South Asia. There are lots of women on the streets, young and old alike….. They all smile easily, and don’t cut nearly as subdued and forlorn a figure as their Pakistani counterparts do.

Groups come and go, mainly young and mixed groups of boys and girls, perfectly comfortable to be hanging out together. No one finds it strange and apart from the loosely fitted headscarf, there’s nothing sequestering about the way people carry themselves, they seem comfortable in their bodies and no one seems to be interested in making them feel otherwise, unlike in parts of south Asia, where such a casual attitude to ‘free mixing’ would be a given a pornographic spin. Jealous and lecherous eyes might have made the women recoil there, but Iranians seems to forgo these baser indulgences, revealing the enduring urbanity of Persian civilization. They also have a gentle, courteous nature, which is completely genuine.
Young Iranian men sometimes look a little effeminate – they wear skin-tight clothing and are noticeably concerned about their appearance – quite unlike the rugged and more overtly masculine Pakistanis. Their manners and mannerisms are ‘Asiatic’, for lack of a better word, reminiscent of an East Asian kind of humility, which is familiar to me as a Bangladeshi. They seem to like each other’s company very much and a natural, almost childlike joy radiates from them; their edges are very smooth. The women are pretty but all have similar faces and dress very alike – blue jeans, black tops and single, solid-coloured scarves. …

We’re watching a session of varzesh-e bastani wind down at a zoorkhanesh….. Zoorkhaneh, which translates into the more recognizable ‘zaur khana’ in Urdu, means ‘the place of strength’ and is really just another way of saying fitness centre ….Its not just about the fitness of the body, but also of the mind and spirit……..the practice was developed as a way of preserving the physical, philosophical and spiritual integrity of Persian life……..The aim is to produce bastanikars, who embody martial skill as well as moral principles like kindness and virtue, entwined with Sufi ideals of Dervishism. Like many things Persian, varzesh-e bastani attempts to combine all of Iran’s inherited values, Islamic and pre-Islamic, to produce a code that brings out the best in a person’s character.
The highest form of a bastanikar is a Pahlevan ………It shares a number of features with the Indian malla-juddha wrestling style, and the oblong, aubergine-shaped wooden clubs used by bastanikars are acknowledged to be of Indian origin………The culmination of a session is kusti, the wrestling match between pairs of pahlevans. ….so kindred are India and Iran in this respect that in rural Punjab a champion pahalwan will be conferred the title of Rustam-i-Punjab or Rustam-i-Hind, invoking that legendary Iranian strongman……….Some also wear the Zoroastrian Faravahar symbol around their necks, along with their ‘Allahu’ pendants.

…..the motions of Iranian etiquette where offers are declined, insisted upon, declined again, and insisted upon again, declined again, insisted upon again and finally accepted…. Its all convoluted and superfluous but extremely charming, and a permanent feature of virtually every interaction with Iranians.

…..salted dry sunflower seeds…….Iranians eat these seeds by the hundreds and the sound of their shell being cracked open is an integral part of the soundtrack here. Iranian gaz is without doubt the best nougat in the world.

Iran’s highways are very well developed and ensure connectivity. Towers carry cables deep into the landscape and I don’t experience a single blackout or anything resembling South Asian loadshedding the entire time I am here. Its no small matter to be able to network such a vast and unyielding place ……

Mashhad, which means ‘the place of martyrdom’, is………with shops and restaurants, and wide pavements with kiosks and newsstands on them, reminiscent of New York City. It also has lovely gardens in the middle of the city…….. Quite a lot of Iran is laid out like this and if it weren’t for the Farsi writing and the women in chadors, you could easily be forgiven for thinking you are somewhere else. Even the faces might confuse you, since similar ones are found in France, Italy, Greece or Spain. There are even one or two that look Teutonic. But mixed in with those is an abundance – a majority in fact – of Middle Eastern and South Asian faces, mostly of the North Indian variety, and some that could comfortably pass off as Bangladeshi. Its easy to understand where the term ‘Indo-European’ comes from when you’re in Iran.

People are friendly and unlike parts of Pakistan, Iran doesn’t feel anything like a garrison or a military-run enterprise. Security personnel are scarce, and you don’t see semi-automatic weapons at every turn. This is a settled, civilian environment, more akin to India than Pakistan. Pakistanis and Iranians are similar in other ways, though – they both employ a lot of courtesy in their interactions with people, making the casual off-handedness one experiences in India and Bangladesh feel like a harsh and hostile approach.

….that large Iranian smile that looks like sunlight. People like these make mishaps worth wishing for.

Some words in Farsi do, in fact, sound quite Germanic. The negative ‘nisht’ sounds like ‘nicht’; ‘dokhtar’, for ‘daughter’ is exactly the same as the Dutch ‘dochter’, and remarkably similar to the German ‘tochter’; the word for ‘eight’, ‘hasht’ isn’t too different from ‘acht’; ‘is’ becomes ‘ast’ in Farsi and ‘ist’ in German; ‘thunder’ is ‘tondar’ in Farsi and ‘donnar’ in German. It has many similarities with English, Hindi and Bangla as well, though it seems to share the more throaty and angular sounds with the Germanic branch of our extended linguistic family.

And do you think that unto such as you, a maggot-minded, starved, fanatic bunch
God gave the secret, and denied it to me? Well, well, what does it matter – believe that, too!

……….the Persian penchant for picnicking. They simply love it, and do it anywhere and everywhere. They seem to be permanently prepared for it was well, as blankets and teapots are always at the ready, along with an endless supply of tea, tobacco, dried seeds……….

……..Fariduddin Attar……
Whoever can evade the Self transcends
This world,
And as a lover he ascends.
When neither Blasphemy nor Faith remain,
The body and the Self have both been slain;
Then the fierce fortitude that the Way will ask
Is yours,
And you are worthy of our task.
Begin the journey without fear; be calm;
Forget what is and what is not Islam

…….Ferdowsi…….Iran’s most respected poet……….the great poet who almost single-handedly restored the Persian language as well as Persia’s heritage following the cataclysmic Arab invasion….

The Mu’tazili refused to simply accept what religious authorities designated as absolute moral law, but believed instead that one must apply reasoned thinking to interpret and apply the words of the Quran. This was necessary, they argued, to prevent the clergy or political elites from furthering a partisan agenda in the guise of absolute truth ……The judge of truth for the Mu’tazili was ultimately human reason and not a religious authority, combined with revelation and spiritual intuition, which they acknowledged as deeper truths that cannot be known through reasoning.
They further argued that the Quran…..Nowhere does it encourage a blind acceptance of moral precepts…….. They were challenged by the Ash’arites who, while conceding that certain vital truths could be known by reason alone, argued that most could not be, and this necessitated a strict obedience to God’s commands and prohibitions……. only through divine guidance, incorporated in religious authorities, can moral behavior be achieved…..

The train from Mashhad to Yazd is very impressive. Its clean, carpeted and the compartment has a built-in television, with English news on it too. The interior is head and shoulders above any train I’ve taken in India, Bangladesh or Pakistan and perhaps even better than the one I took from Paris to Madrid. The bunks are soft and nicely upholstered, like a sofa, and nothing like those god-awful rubber-coated ones you get in South Asia. The windows are large, there’s good lighting and the sheets they provide smell like fabric softener.
The whole experience of train travel in Iran is very enjoyable and unlike the buses, which have hectic counters and late departures, the rails are professional and timely, with large, tidy terminals that have check-in counters…….

Whats more striking is the confidence with which women conduct themselves here. Unlike their Pakistani counterparts and a bit more like their Bengali ones, Iranian women are bold and assertive, and seem to be able to command the sort of respect they need. Unlike their Bangladeshi counterparts, however, and more like their Indian and Pakistani ones this time, many more Iranian women drive and run establishments.
The incidence of full-faced veiling is much lower than it is in both Pakistan and India. In fact it is non-existent. ……….None of the florid, fluid sensuality of soft Hindustani clothes, like the shalwar-kameez or the sari, draping lightly over the contours of a beautiful body, feature here………it’s a shame really, because the women here are very alluring and would look so much nicer in freer, more flattering clothes. Still, for all the fables about exotic Persian beauty, I’m not convinced that South Asian women aren’t more seductive with their rich, darker skin, their softer slopes, their sultrier sway, their larger eyes, larger lips and, well, larger assets, generally. They are just more feminine, and dress like women instead of this fairly androgynous business of jeans and stiff shirts. Speaking of androgyny, there’s a lot of ‘dandy’ in the men, and it ranges from the metrosexual to homosexual.
There also seems to be less of a gender gap between men and women – they don’t seem to stand too far apart on any sort of hierarchy that might exist between the sexes, and tend to talk with each other as equals.

Yazd has the largest (and largely resurgent) Zoroastrian community in Iran……… The teachings of Zarathustra runs in Iran’s veins, and their hearts never seem too far from a religion which, as Iranians like to point out, was the first monotheistic religion in the world. It wasn’t, of course, since the ageless religions of Indian tribes like the Khasi or the Munda or even of Australian aboriginals and Native Americans are essentially monotheistic……Yazd is still a pilgrimage site for adherents of the afith and has become something of a ‘return to roots’ centre for people of the Parsi diaspora. It has a famous Atash Kadesh, a fire temple and remains one of the last places in Iran where Ahura Mazda is still worshipped as the God of Wisdom and Light.

Muta’a is an Iranian Shia invention, which doesn’t seem to exist in other Shia traditions and it certainly doesn’t exist in a Sunni context. It allows for marriages that can be set for a fixed term, for a fixed sum, for the sole purpose of temporary companionship. Its an odd way around the issue of pre and post-marital sex, and is a great way for everyone to get laid without anyone getting stoned to death.

…Yazd…. It’s sparsely populated and like most of Iran, almost completely shuts down between 12:30 pm and 3:30 pm, the hottest hours of the day.

I notice that Iranians don’t eat as much meat as Pakistanis or Afghanis, or at least don’t eat it by itself as much. I later discover that its because of a Persian nutritional science that recommends combining food groups classified either as hot or cold, ……For example , animal fat, poultry, wheat, sugar, certain fresh fruits and vegetables and all dried ones are considered hot. Beef, fish, rice, dairy products, certain other fresh fruits and vegetables are cold. So a dish like say fesenjun containing walnuts, a hot food, will also contain pomegranate, a cold food. Taken to its perfection, a properly planned meal will account for the nature of the people consuming it, the season and even ailments, when combining the two types of foods. ……..from Greek writings which attributed illness to an imbalance in the body between opposing qualities, like heat and cold or wetness and dryness.
Yazd is a safe, secluded little town that has unbroken ways of living stretching back at least 5,000 years….being in a desert, it managed to weather both a western wave from Arabia and an eastern wave from Mongolia, to become something of a haven for people fleeing both. Marco Polo described it as being ‘seven days from Kerman by horse and out of the way of everything’. Its isolation also made it ideal for Zoroastrians, who managed to protect their religion here, and for a tax, were allowed to continue to practice it freely even after the Arabs had Islamised most of Iran……..Yazd became the centre for the faith and Zoroastrians from other provinces moved here to be able to retain their way of life. Its Fire Temple, though built in the 1930s with money from the Indian Parsi community, holds a flame that has been kept alight continuously since 470 AD but not continuously at that location, of course.

Zoroaster is said to have composed the Yasna Haptanghaiti and the Gathas, liturgical hymns familiarly named mantras, which form the oldest parts of the Avesta, and are in a language remarkably similar to Sanskrit. In fact, according to Mary Boyce, Zoroaster may have created a rift regarding two sets of deities and driven a wedge between people who had once considered themselves a single community. The event is mentioned in both the Avesta and the Rig Veda, as a religious war between supporters of the Devas, or Daevas, and supporters of the Asuras, or Ahuras, resulting in a permanent split between the Vedic Aryans or northern India and the Avestan Aryans of Iran……… One Daeva in particular, Indra, is singled out for rebuke in the Avesta while in the Rig Veda he is lauded as a hero, as are all the Devas …….. Its not clear which group won so its hard to tell if the Indians left Iran or the Iranians left India, or if they both left some place in Afghanistan and moved east and west. It seems likelier that the Indians won, since the Battle of the Ten Kings in the Rig Veda talks about how the Bharatas, with the help of Indra, triumphed over his opponents, one of whom were the Parsu, or Persians. No corresponding tale exists in the Avesta……..

Esfahan ……..a city vain enough to call a part of itself the world’s beauty spot, or the Naqsh-e Jahan and Iran’s most celebrated place.

…………maybe there’s some secret way that Persians know who’s been shown hospitality before, and then try to outdo the last person that showed it.

This is standard in all Iranian cities – good parks, public toilets and drinking fountains.

Like most Iranians, he’s not pushy at all and nods graciously….

…Hafez means something entirely different to Iranians. They keep a collection of his poems beside their Qurans and turn to it for answers when life becomes existentially complex – and find them there too, apparently. Hafez is no ordinary poet here; he’s a Seer and Najmeh.

They like India in Iran, but don’t particularly like Afghanistan or Pakistan, and think of them as outlying rogue territories. India, on the other hand, is a complete civilization as far as they’re concerned……

……..the gardens are full of people enjoying the open spaces with their families, something that has become a permanent fixture in my impressions of Iran, along with the sound of sunflower seeds being cracked open in mouths.

It was a Safavid-bolstered Mughal army……that returned to India and put Humayun back on his throne. It also brought with it a large contingent of Persian noblemen who changed the character of the Mughal court by infusing Central Asian Turkic culture with Persian influences, evident in the new styles of art and architecture, but most significantly in the new court language, which changed from Chagatai Turkic to Farsi. This ‘Persianization’ was also accelerated by the fact that Humayun himself was deeply enamoured with all things Persian……

Affectionate gestures are never far away in Iran.

Shiraz …..I check out of Ehsan Guest House…the receptionist [says]……
‘Why do you love India’
‘Because it’s the land of all religions.’

…..Khwaja Shamsuddin Muhammad Hafez………..

I have a thousand brilliant lies
For the question
How are you?

I have a thousand brilliant lies
For the question
What is God?

If you think that the Truth can be known
From words,

If you think that the Sun and the Ocean
Can pass through that tiny opening
Called the mouth

O someone should start laughing!
Someone should start wildly laughing now!

I have come into this world to experience this:

men so true to love they would rather die before speaking
an unkind word. Men so true their lives are His covenant –
the promise of hope.

I have come into this world to see this:

the sword drop from men’s hands even at the height of
their rage because we have finally realised
there is just one flesh we can wound.

…..Khwaja Shamsuddin Muhammad Hafez………..No one else, not Khayyam, not Rumi, not Saadi nor Attar is held in such high regard, though I’m not sure why, since any one of them seems equally deserving. But then I’m not Persian and I’m sure there’s something in the language that didn’t quite translate.

……….an Arabian inability to pronounce the letter ‘P’, but it is originally called Pars – homeland of a people calling themselves the Parsu, or Persians. Originally one of a number of different nomadic tribes, they may have settled on the Iranian plateau around 1000 BC and created the equivalent of the Indian janapadas, or early nation-states giving their names to the territories they claimed. History has recorded these people as the Persians, the Medes, the Scythians, the Bactrians and the Parthians and they collectively called themselves Ariya, or Aryan.
The Rig Veda has an extensive list of Indo-Aryan tribes as well, which mentions a tribe called the Parsu and another one called the Parthava – possibly early historical references to the Persians and the Parthians. The Pakhta are also mentioned, and Bactria, which comes from the Farsi word Bakhtar, corresponds to the Pakhtun word Pakhtar. Later Indian records also talk about a people called the Saks, who are possibly the Scythians. If those are true, then they are chronicles of the ancestors of people who later became the populations of Khorasan, Afghanistan, Sistan and Persia, and may originally have gone out from India., but where they came to India from, if they came from anywhere at all, is a different question altogether. The Medes settled in the west of Iran and the Persians near the centre, but the indigenous Elamites in Haltamti, to the southwest, who flourished here for over 2,000 years before the Aryans arrived, were the powerhouse in the area until they were overthrown by the Semitic Assyrians and by the 6th century BC, the Aryans had emerged as the new power in Iran.
The Persians were originally junior partners in this new Aryan alliance, and the Medes, from their capital in Ecbatana, created a kingdom called Media, which stretched from Anatolia to Afghanistan and became one of the four major powers in the region, alongside Egypt and Babylonia. We first hear about the Persians in Assyrian records where they are again called the Parsu and live in places called Parsua, Parsumash and Pashiru next to Anshan, the eastern half of what was once the Elamite realm.

…….the guide telling …..that Old Persian was written from left to right in the ‘nails script’, i.e. cuneiform, which looks a bit like a split box of nails, hence the name……….in front of me……is the Old Persian alphabet and its arranged like this:
Ka [Ku] Kha Ga [Gu] Gha Ja [Ji] Jha Da Di Du Ta [Tu] Tha….
It’s an uncanny and unmistakable resemblance! ……Persian writing in the past followed a pattern that Indic languages have used throughout the ages……….

………the Parsi group……I catch up with the group……..they take me to their high priest……I ask about the relationship between Avestani and Sanskrit, which he says are so similar to one another that they could have easily been dialects of the same thing. He then tells me how the Vendidad, a part of the Avesta, and the Vedas contain similar characters and references, and that Hapta Hindu in the Vendidad is Sapta Sindhu in the Vedas or the Indus Valley river system to us…….he tells me that their legends say North Indians and Iranians belonged to a federation of Aryan tribes that migrated from the Arctic region to settle in the lands between the Tigris and the Indus, over 9,000 years ago – throwing everythin that I’ve read in modern history books completely out of sync.
The 100,000 or so Parsis in India and Pakistan have since shed all traces of their Iranian culture and are now more or less assimilated into their local settings……the heritage of Parsa has become shared between the Iranians and Parsis – Persians kept their language but lost the religion and the Parsis lost the language to keep their religion.

Like most Japanese, he’s unassuming and self-censuring; you’d never guess by seeing him that he’s trodden so many terrific trails.

Iranians always offer you things when they meet you ………..Seeds, fruit, candy, lifts in cars, protection from a drug-fuelled robbery or death – it’s a boundlessly warm and generous culture.

If there’s anything the Iranians are, its abundantly accommodating.

…….Mr. Jaffar, the night receptionist and a polite, personable gentleman……..This leads us into a conversation about Zoroastrianism, which Mr. Jaffar insists was moral and decent and in no need of being replaced by the Islam of the Arabs, for whom he appears to have little respect.
‘Islam is not a problem; the problem is that it was conveyed in the rough tongue of a rough people.’

………..people speaking in Farsi, which has many words ending in the sound ‘am’ – nadaram, biram, mutsakaram – that makes them sound similar to words in Vedic hymns. People smile and gesture amiably as I pass them on the street. Most Persians have a soft, kindly nature and its easy to appeal to their sense of compassion…….Mr. Jaffar had told me…….
‘Arabs are hard; they look at people ferociously. They are not peaceful, but we are basically peaceful. I wish we could have been left in peace and not invaded so often. Arabs, Turks, Mongols …..peace has been hard to preserve in Persia.’
I wanted to remind him about the number of times an Imperial Persia didn’t let its neighbours live in peace either, especially India……..Iranians have numerous blind spots about their own faults…..

……bus to Ahvaz, in search of the greatest surviving Elamite ruin in Iran, the Chogha Zanbil ziggurat………Iran’s ethnic fabric is a tapestry as diverse as South Asia’s, but with a tendency towards lighter rather than darker skin. My own face is, as usual, a ‘middling’ face but I can more or less get by undetected anywhere between Bangladesh and Turkey.

….going to the counter to buy my ticket, where the usual ensues:
Koja hastid? Keshwar? Pawkistan? (suspicious), Hendustan? (amusing), Bongladesh? Koja Bongladesh? (oblivious)’
Some rare people know where it is though, since they’ve known Bangladeshis from their time as migrant workers in Gulf Arab countries, and tell me we’re a happy, friendly bunch who speak fast and write funny.

Iran is hardly a homogenous place. Only the central provinces are Persian in the truest sense and nearly all the edges contain large populations that are associated with neighbouring culture, some related to Persians, like the Kurds, and others not, like the Azeris, who are Turkic. Khuzestan is particularly not Persian, and the half that is not Arabic is Luri, a people related to both the Persians and the Kurds but distinct enough to self-identify as someone else.

[Khuzestan] A prevalence of the dishdasha, or thobe, the tunic that Arabs everywhere from Morocco to Iraq enjoy wearing, also gives this place an added Arabian feel. I haven’t seen these since I left Bangladesh where, oddly enough, they feature quite a bit. To their credit, Pakistanis don’t imitate Arabs in their dress sense and prefer their own South Asian shalwar-kameez style. Nor do Iranians, who wear the ‘Shalwar Shirazi’ if they aren’t wearing western gear, but they don’t wear it often enough; it’s a very smart pair of trousers and I’m keen to get one myself.

……..I look for a moochi, a cobbler……he says… broken Urdu,
‘Hum Afghani, Urdu samajta he. Bangladesh accha hae lekin Pakistan bahut Shaitan!’
………..I feel compelled to defend our embattled cousins, the Pakistanis…… which he says,
‘Kyun, tum logo pe zuloo, nahi kiya un logo nai?’
‘Ha kiya, lekin…’
‘Afghani ko bhi kartay hai.’

He’s Arab-Iranian and everything about him, from his body language to the way he speaks, tells the difference between Persians and Arabs. For one he is more overbearing than many of his Persian countrymen and has less regard for etiquette. He is distinctly less courteous but also less shy, and carries himself in a bold, almost domineering manner…….But he’s a friendly person and his brash approach is also honest and cheery. There’s a wild sort of spontaneity about him that is very Arab, and very enjoyable.

There are subtle differences in the way Iranian Arabs and Persians carry themselves – the Persian penchant for dramatic overstatement is not shared by their Arab compatriots, who seem more conservative generally.

Nearly all of my encounters with Arabs, from good friends to total strangers, have revealed an understated, unexaggerated quietness, especially in regards to magnanimity. Its markedly different from South Asian or Persian varieties of the same quality, which are often accompanied by much fanfare and considerable embarrassment for the guest. By contrast, Arabs seem almost uninvolved, almost as though they consciously don’t want to take any credit for it – as though its not their hospitality that is being enjoyed, but hospitality in general, of which they too are recipients. I will miss this………

The Tehran metro……….is a work in progress…….The trains are clean, punctual and like Delhi, have a women-only car as well.

Tehran has lots of parks and open spaces where one can sit and take in the view, but its most attractive features…..are its murals. I’ve seen beautiful wall art all over the world, from graffiti along train tracks to professional pieces commissioned by cities, but Tehran’s massive, three-dimensional murals are really something special to behold. Painted along the sides of multi-storeyed buildings, these beautiful works of art create optical illusions that make a dead end look like a road to a meadow………they are mostly the work of an artist called Mehdi Ghadyanloo………loads of them all over the city

The least attractive feature of Iranian society is the abundance of nose jobs. Throughout the country, but more so in Tehran, women can be seen with white bandages on their noses – telling signs of their plastic ambitions. Even worse, getting a nose job has become a prestige event and many women wear bandages just to look like they have had one, because it means they are well-off enough to be able to afford it. Its quite a sickness and even men are afflicted by this…….

My first impression of Tabriz is that its quite definitely not Persian in its orientation. The taxi drivers who accost me as I alight from the bus are much rougher and don’t bother with the usual pleasantries that go with most interactions in Persia proper. They are Azeris, related to the Turks, and I suspect they are a sterner lot………I turn the TV on for company, and after a bit of channel-surfing, find Amitabh Bachchan’s Kala Patthar playing – in Farsi!

Shams-i-Tabrizi is one of Sufism’s more controversial characters. His story is full of conflict……. His demeanour was deliberately affronting and he challenged established hierarchies that were not biased towards the less fortunate. He was also most unconventional in his religiosity and would make it a point to attack every flimsy, untested belief, questioning the legitimacy of anything that blurred the line between superstition and real faith. In short, he was a raging force for Truth, stopping at nothing to make it known, and in his brief time on earth, he managed to make many enemies. But he was also deeply revered, most prominently by Jalaluddin Rumi, who is said to have fallen completely under his sway.
………Rumi’s own family questioned the nature of their relationship, implying that it was lewd and homoerotic……….They were lovers, that is true, but lovers in spirit……..

……..the almost rude straightforwardness of the Azeri people. They are quite curt in their manner and unlike the Persians, generally a bit severe……I don’t see too many colourful young Iranians carrying on in that supple, flirtatious manner of theirs. It’s the Turkic element, I think, present in Pakistanis too, that makes them a bit cold, and seeing as I’m going deeper into Turko-sphere. I start to feel a bit nostalgic for playful Persia.