What’s Trending in Iran

The bandage of honor…

Have you read about South Korea’s craze for cosmetic surgery? The ideal look is that of a living doll. Tiny, v-shaped jaws, large eyes with double eyelids and carefully dimpled smiles are all the rage. These are women in their late-teens and early twenties whose desire to look different has turned South Korea into the most cosmetically enhanced country in the world.

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But hold on. S. Korea has some competition half way around the world: Iran. The first time I spotted an Iranian woman walking down the street in full nose bandage I was in Zanjan, part of Iranian Kurdistan. I figured she’d been in a car accident. Then I began noticing more such bandages, seeing some everyday, on men AND women. So I researched it and talked to some locals. Here’s what I discovered :

Up to 40,000 cosmetic surgeries take place in Iran each year, per the Iranian Association of Cosmetic and Plastic Surgeons. Of those, more than 60 percent are nose jobs. That puts Iran among the top 4 countries in the world for new noses (email me if you want to know the other three), modifying from the proud dorsal bump on the bridge to something, well, more South Korean!! Or should I say new South Korean… thin bridge, upturned button at the tip… like a doll.

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Everyone I asked agreed that promenading the streets with your nose bandage on is a status symbol. In fact, those who can’t afford a nose job will self-apply the bandages to simulate one. You can imagine what a relief it was for me to dwell on something as a-political as nose jobs, especially after those road blocks and armored personnel carriers in Turkey.

Iran is the 18th largest country in the world. Its landmass is equal to at least two Frances, the concept of which is pretty frightening, because imagine having to eat twice as much Escoffier cream sauces and listen to double Johnny Hallyday. Its 80 million citizens are highly educated, as befits one of the world’s oldest continuous major civilizations. Remember that when you read ‘Persian Gulf” those aren’t just syllables. They’re referring to Persia as in Persian Empire, testimony to the fact that Iran has held sway over that region and a whole lot more for more than two millenia.

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Which is to say, do not confuse Iran with Arab countries. It’s not Arab. It’s Persian. Different language, different physiognomy, different version of Islam and very different food. Women are an integral part of the society, working in all areas. Here’s the thing though: stats say that unemployment is 12%. But our acquaintances on the street said it’s more like 50% and I believe them. Iran has, no secret here, been hard hit by decades of sanctions. Most all commerce stems in one way or another from the government, as there’s little trade (leaving out opium, of which more later) to nourish entrepreneurship. Since the largesse of that government shifts with the whims and connections of each new president, it’s tough, if not impossible, to build a reliable business of anything.

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Yet the country bustles. There are roads being built everywhere, with concomitant gravel pits also found everywhere. Hundreds upon hundreds of square miles of gently rolling ground below those haggard mountains is plowed chocolatey earth, or harvested golden stubble, despite the near total absence of tractors or combines. Cars, many of them French, zip heedlessly along the highways between cities, causing a horrifying 800+ deaths a month. Iranian drivers are by far the worst we’ve ever had the honor to drive among. And they admit it! No, they laugh about it!! Were those real Peugeots and Renaults? NO!! They were fakes: a genuine Peugeot carapace over a Chinese interior and engine. As our Iranian acquaintances said, it’s really easy to tell the ersatz from the authentic: the former break down irretrievably after a few thousand miles.

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Despite our long days in the car, or perhaps because we never stopped except for fuel and an occasional lamb heart kebab en route, we often had time for a stroll through the main bazaar at our day’s destination. Consider these the equivalent of a town shopping mall, a sequence of interwoven arched stone alleys selling everything from children’s shoes to kitchenware to the usual melons, squashes, tomatoes and everywhere, pomegranates.

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We met extraordinarily open and generous people in our two weeks in Iran. University students, a city clerk, a software entrepreneur from Tehran, a civil servant, a combine driver and his entire family, a woman hurrying from the bakery home who tore off a hunk from her gorgeous fresh load when we saw us ogling it. And others. If there’s a primary trait of Iranian people I would have to say its intelligent curiosity. And hospitality. And warmth. And culture. OK that’s four. You get my point. And if you don’t, let me make it explicit: Iranians are an unusually erudite and big-hearted people. Would that we were all so.

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Whether in a bazaar or on the street, without exception we would have a young man or two sidle up behind Bernard to announce, with a gracious smile, “Hello, how are you?” followed quickly by “May I walk with you?” From this would ensue an hour or two of interesting conversation as we walked around, or stopped for tea together. I absolutely cherished each of these encounters, as they provided our main, no our only, contact with Iranians. And each one resulted in a invitation to come home.

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Part of me felt like the pound puppy of the day, so fervent were their entreaties and so desirable did it make me feel. Every invitation, whether “My parents would be honored if you would have dinner with us,” or “Please come and stay in our village home for a few days,” was genuine, and seemed packed with both a longing to engage with foreigners and a deeply felt strain of hospitality that would not let said foreigner escape without giving him or her something of oneself.

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What with Persia being such an exquisite empire, there are huge numbers of antiquities to be inspected, but we saw hardly any. That was due primarily to the route we were assigned, which burgeoned from the promised 340km to a monster 550km, which took minimum 8 hours. This left lots of time for fretting about whether we’d arrive before dinner, but little time for ambling among fallen columns and impressive carvings.

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What we saw instead was a broad swath of the country where tourists do not flock, in particular the Kurdish sector next to Iran’s border with Iraq, on the west side of the country. This is rugged extremely mountainous terrain. I’m talking vertiginous brown, barren mountains that are pure rock, pebbles, boulders,—jump right in with every word for “hard, unbreakable substance” that you can imagine.

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It’s a landscape hospitable to sheep and goats, of which there are a lot, both alive…

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and not so much…

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The land we drove through struck me as so hostile to people that I have no idea why emperors would expend human lives to hold onto it. Then again, Iran is so strategically placed, providing access to the open sea from the Caspian, and needing to be traversed by any trader from the Far East who wished to reach the Adriatic, that the prettiness of its landscape may not have been part of the decision matrix when Darius III mused “Keep it? Or see if that upstart Alexander wants it?” I speculate that perhaps the generous nature of the Iranian people is in direct proportion to the ungenerous land where they live.

For ten years now Iran’s been suffering from a drought which is as devastating in its local impact as it is far reaching in its longevity. Entire river beds have been dry as sangak for eight years. In Isfahan the noble bridges of antiquity span cracked ground on whose shore unused pedal boats wait for the one day a year water is released from an upstream dam to create the majestic river that once was.

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We were in Iran during the month of Muharram, second holiest month after Ramadan. One particular day marked the festival of Ashura, when fountains ran red to mimic the blood of the martyr, entire villages blocked the streets, (through which we had to pass, of course, in order to get where we needed to go) with the men in slow procession dressed in black and smeared with mud, a mordant banging of drums competing with blaring chants. I found it all vaguely threatening, though in fact it was a day of remembrance and sadness. But then we stopped to help one of our group repair their disabled car on the outskirts of one such town. While we offered moral support, tools and mechanical chops by the roadside for an hour, no fewer than four cars stopped, every one of which gave us food, or invited us to their home, or both.

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In the old village of Ghalad, just north of Shiraz, we walked up cobbled lanes, past the garden of an old woman. It’s shallow canals were choked with yellow leaves. Apologizing for having nothing to offer us in her home, she picked a handful of small apples and a pomegranate for us instead.

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And then we found Shahpur. Lovely Shahpur, teashop owner and opium addict, who gave us tea, taught Bernard the truly proper way to smoke a qaylan (hookah), declaimed the poetry of Hafez, and shared his utterly delicious, intensely savory pot of dizi (lamb stew) with us, too. Because of Shahpur I learned that opium is weighed in reference to a chickpea as measure, and that smoking it three times a day, as an addict will, wreaks havoc on your teeth. There’s a whole story on that afternoon alone, which I think may appear in my next book, due out this fall.

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We did have a couple of spare days each, in the uber-historic cities of Isfahan and Shiraz. The mosques were fabulous and beautiful,

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and no one stops you from making yourself at home in them…

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yet somehow they did not captivate me. I guess I prefer encounters with people to viewing of monuments where, despite that I did things that I probably should not have, and despite the omnipresence of Ayatollah Khomeini and current supreme leader Ali Khameini, no one bothered me.

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Posted in Dispatches, Turkey | Leave a comment

Turkey Variations

Of harvest and blockades…

I have bought a Mavi boncuk to protect us from the evil eye. It’s a mother one with twenty baby boncuks dangling from her. I figure the more protection the better. By the time we reach the border I’ll be very glad to have them on my side.

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Each time I’m on a long drive I’m reminded how much a country differs from what I’ve imagined. I’m talking about the ordinary parts of a country, the towns and scrappy villages where people go about their work and their lives absent the intrusion of outsiders, and how the ordinary can become exquisite when looked at with an eye willing to be charmed.

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What I saw in hills southwest of Ankara:
Dense forests of lodge pole pines with ferns brushing the forest floor and purple crocus in the dappled sunlight. Mountain hamlets with houses built of wood slats. A plateau at 5000′ with juniper and dry bunch grass, while in the plains it’s tomato harvest time along with pale sage green pumpkins, bushels of onions and yolk yellow, speckled green and orange melons, round and football-shapped, with names like asan bey, altınbaş, dilimli and halac. Ivory pumpkin seeds dry on mats in the sun, the smashed pumpkin husks making neat orange lines in the fields, to be plowed back in as fertilizer.

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Between Ankara and Cappadocia, the tan hills roll to the horizon and the sky is hazy with dust from gravel pits. Towns host hundreds of skyscrapers, with eerie black holes for windows, perhaps erected in expectation of EU entry and its anticipated prosperity, but for the time being empty. Then it’s back to fields with their great shiny slabs of freshly tilled chocolate brown earth, rumpled gullies shaded by willows and candlestick poplars, green leaves speckled russet and lemon gold by the coming Fall.

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I have my moment of Zen in a nameless hamlet in the hills west of Kirikkale, where an old man steps outside his house. His white eyebrows, snipped to short white quills, waggle like crazy when he sees me there, appearing as if out of thin air because Brunhilde was parked out of sight. Strands and tufts of newly shorn fleece drying in front of his home had drawn me over to photograph.

He doesn’t hesitate one second, as if I’m a mirage which might vanish if he doesn’t act. I’m whisked behind the whitewashed walls, introduced to his wife who is scrubbing the living room walls. Dressed in flowered mauve headscarf and floor length indigo skirt, this small woman with her warm brown eyes and an aristocratic hawk nose beams up at me, taking my hand in both hers, then murmurs a long blessing from Allah for me.

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Meanwhile her husband has snipped parsley, chives, and arugula, plucked some ripe tomatoes and cucumbers to slice, emptied the fridge of olives and feta, taken out bread, honeycomb like hammered bronze, cubes of sweetened nut paste, dry biscuits. On their tiny four burner gas cooktop boils a two-level pot, where tea will steep on the top while water to dilute it bubbles below. The kitchen floor is covered with clean pressed cardboard.

Already my host has carried a little plastic table and chairs into vegetable garden. He tours us through, pointing to eggplant and sweet peas and gourds. He keeps birds and rabbits away with a small slingshot. Picking up a handful of pebbles he tosses them on the ground and makes a motion of distress as he sweeps his arm around the tomato plants: a hail storm has battered his crops.

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Now the tea is ready. A cloth is spread on the table, held down by a china bowl of white sugar cubes. We sit under a grape arbor, eating tangy fresh herbs, warm ripe tomatoes and sipping hot strong tea. As I leave, I pick up a handful of wool tufts. Despite being in the sun they’re still moist from its recent laundering. The wool smells sweet, like clean ground, good air, open fields.


Closer to the border
Through the hills we come upon a PKK roadblock where enough effort has been expended to shovel a dirt track around the concrete barriers. but not so much effort that the barriers themselves would be removed.

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The PKK are active in eastern Turkey, the street fighting happening further south (but not much further), while in our part they are mainly active with spray guns.

We’re in sheep country and therefore dog of the day is the large and leonine Anatolian sheepdog.

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One came down the hill next to the shade tree where we’d pulled off for lunch. He has ears trimmed like a fighting dog but moves slowly . No flock in sight. He lies down in a spot of shade of his own. Right then I lose my appetite for the sausage sandwich I took out the night before at a kebab café in Kahta. I toss pieces to the old fellow who wags his tail with each gulp. I imagine he’s too old to guard the sheep and now has to fend for himself. I’m his lucky day.

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The further east we go the more covered are the women, now uniformly head to toe though in garb varying from full black chador to gay contrasts of yellow, red and green. And, too, the more there are Jendarma (military) checkpoints of concrete barriers manned by handsome clean shaven young Turks. In Turkey, all men of 20 years must do 15 months of service. I take to offering my box of cashews, almonds and raisins as soon as Bernard pulls to a stop, my theory being when you accept offered food you can’t make trouble. I’m proud to report Batistou has been a selfie subject; his disheveled bug-splattered face seems able to disarm any incipient tension.

We’re stopped six times but it’s quickly apparent these young soldiers just want a change in the monotony of checking little white mini-sub-micro compacts, a chance to look inside a foreign car and say a few words of English. The initial stern glare shifts quickly to a friendly smile when they see us smile.

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On the day we head to the border of Turkey with Iran, our road is well and truly blocked by concrete barricades and boulders. This time they’re impossible to get through. We head back to the nearest town and after some tea and palaver are directed to a side road with lots of shaking of heads, slashing of arms and discouraging expressions. We set off cross-country on ever smaller and more rocky dirt tracks.

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The adventure adds several hours to our drive, but shows us that in the hidden hills of Turkey people still live without electricity or running water, still heat and cook using cow dung, still live in rough stone houses. Still ride a horse to get a distance from home.

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I’m back on the Continent

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…of Europe, for a happy reunion with Bernard and Brunhilde, whom I last saw at Yangon port in Myanmar last February. Brunhilde, that is… I saw Bernard just ten days ago…..

It’s a big leap from Japan to Croatia though, so to ease the transition I’m sending this intermezzo: a short film of a place I never expected to be on this trip.

Before you look at it, can you guess where it is from the three photos below?

And then you’re free to enjoy the short video. Take it in as you would the tiny scoop of lemon granita offered during a rich seven-course meal, as a bit of icy refreshment to clear the palate for things to come.

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See you next in Croatia!

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And then we were there

We arrived in Tokyo…

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…two round pegs presented with a lot of square holes. In true symbiotic sisters style, we blended our differences smoothly and found creative solutions to every hiccup in our plans. We were a great team and being together made our trip so much richer.

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Viv applied her superior map-reading skills with aplomb, making sure we were always where we wanted to be, or at least close enough to turn around and get there. Yes, I know I’m supposed to be the navigator, but it was such a relief not to have to figure how to get where we were going that I was happy to cede the responsibility.

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In exchange, I anointed anyone who would listen with my four words of Japanese, along with plenty of English words spoken with my notion of a Japanese accent, yielding us so many bows even Carson the Downton Abbey butler would have been impressed.

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Viv was able to satisfy a surprisingly constant craving for chocolate croissant thanks to the Japanese love of French patisseries, while I was able to indulge my love of unusual diets with nori and beef sukiyaki for breakfast. We walked enough to take the edge off my energy and sat down enough to soothe Viv’s blistery toes.

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We visited the sushi bar Bernard and I frequented last year, for the best sushi ever. We sampled a Japanese version of farm-to-table cuisine which was odd, but I must say very fresh. And we indulged in teppanyaki (teppan for steel plate and yaki for grilled), a Benihani-style meal cooked on an immense griddle right in front of you. Sake was, shall I say, ever-present.

Tokyo impressed me again, with its vibrant youth, …

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…astonishing architecture…

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and what I imagine as a purely Japanese accommodation to intense crowding, something that I can only describe as a way of looking ahead that both acknowledges and is blind. I don’t think I’ve ever felt quite so conspicuous yet so invisible.

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With some trepidation we made our way to Tokyo Station to take our first Shinkansen bullet train south to Hiroshima. By the way, shin means new and kansen means track or trunk line, thus the new rail lines developed starting in the mid-1960s.

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Turns out anyone with a modicum of big train station experience–which we certainly have, what with growing up around NY’s Grand Central Station and traveling through many of Europe’s finest–can navigate Japan’s train and platform issues. That everything Japanese is also written in English is, ahem, helpful.

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Ever mindful of what and where we would next eat, we were thrilled to learn that the Japanese propensity for food halls extends to the central station, which has a massive area full of shops selling all kinds of food for the journey ahead.

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We searched out this option in every main station, giving Viv repeated opportunities for sandwiches and salad, and me a chance to buy bento boxes artfully crammed with fish bits, rice clumps and vegetable mounds.

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In our day and a half in Hiroshima I will speak for myself that I was stunned by the peace park’s implication that Japan had simply been adventuring for extra mineral sources in the previous many years before the A-bomb was dropped, and thus merely a misunderstood innocent bystander. Here isn’t the place to discuss this more, but if anyone’s interested, please feel free to email your thoughts or questions.

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More rewarding was our day on Miyajima, a lovely island shrine close to Hiroshima in the Seto Inland Sea. Though it is heavily touristed, our guide Keiko, who grew up in Hiroshima and Miyajima, took us away from the crowds.

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There was lunch at a tiny sidestreet cafe, where we had an excellent rendition of the Hiroshima classic, okonomiyaki: thin crepe heaped with shredded cabbage, fried pork strips and a messily fried egg, secret sauces dribbled and splashed over all. Okonomi means roughly ‘what you like’ and yaki of course, means ‘grilled’.

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I simply could not refuse a plate of plump grilled local oysters, which are farmed on 50-meter ropes dangling in the sea between the island and the Hiroshima shore. Hiroshima Prefecture produces close to 30,000 tons of oysters a year! I shared them, politely if reluctantly. Japan is a polite place and I guess some rubbed off on me, if only temporarily. Dessert was a tall glass of the same sake served Obama on a state visit to Japan. Well, probably not the exact same sake, but you know what I mean.

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Our two and a half days at a ryokan in the Gion neighborhood of Kyoto made me wonder how the Japanese ever survived living in houses made of rice paper, thin wood strips and grass mats. They’re beautiful, serene and really cold!

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On the bright (if chilly) side, this gave me the perfect opportunity to test if one really can fit a round peg in a square hole.

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I also made friends with the owner’s Shiba Inu, warming my fingers every morning in his incredibly plush fur.

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One evening our day of wandering gardens, shrines, pagodas and shops ended in our ryokan room sitting on the floor being served a kaiseki dinner of 15+ different sashimis, each more jewel-like than the next (space heater blazing). Another evening we peeked into what looked like a 10-seat kaiseki restaurant and knew we’d discovered Gion’s best kept secret. We reserved immediately. Turns out it was a Chinese stir-fry kitchen dressed up to look Japanese. We made the best of it, ordering from the somewhat limited English list of dishes politely written out for us in advance, and then pointing to what our neighbors had ordered, which looked far more interesting.

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In Kyoto in particular the contrast between old and new reached its most destabilizing: Japanese tourists in rented geisha outfits, mincing around thousand-year-old pagodas and Kyoto’s wearing what looked like surgical masks to shield against cedar pollen allergies.

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There was the back side of a shinto shrine that was mossy, reverent and quiet, and the front side mobbed by thousands of visitors. The calm cool rustle of a dense bamboo forest and the continuous press of street traffic.

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There was the brisk tiled subway stop and the steamy local ramen shop serving a pork broth so densely rich and flavorful it clearly must have been made the way ramen was centuries ago.

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We had hoped cherry blossom season would already be in full swing the week of our visit, but cold weather delayed the blooming. It felt like we’d arrived late for a show and were refused access to our seats, though in truth we were on time and the show itself was late. As with any preview we felt special indeed to see even a snippet of what would transpire in a few days’ time.

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When our last day was finished we agreed we had packed a mother lode of experiences into our time together, that Japan was likely the most unusual place either of us had ever visited, and that it would take weeks of being back to our normal lives to even begin to process all we had seen and done. It was marvelous. It was draining. It was everything a sisters’ birthday trip should be.

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Here’s a little film, just for the fun of it.

Posted in Dispatches, Japan | Leave a comment

Al-Said, not Al-Saud 3

It Went Plunk

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Picture me traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound….. I’ve left Misfat Al Abriyyin…..I’ve entered the Twilight Zone…. Otherwise known last Thursday in Muscat as the Royal Opera House. Visualize an imposing modernesque Arab hall flanked by stately palm trees, gold light from crystal chandeliers beckoning us across a broad esplanade.

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As we enter through lofty Arab-style arches I walk carefully across the over-polished marble floor, mindful not to slip and embarrass myself with a shrieking “whoops” and splat. Blonde marble pillars soar 3 stories through the atrium. One second Bernard is at my side, the next second he’s gone. Having arrived in jeans at a hall where formal attire is decreed, he’s been politely but firmly escorted to a dressing area where he’s kitted out in a white dishdasha and a beige turban embroidered with scarlet foll-de-roll.

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At 7pm sharp the red velvet curtain rises on a full production of E. Kalman’s The Csardas Princess, performed by the entire cast of principals, choir, ballet AND orchestra of… wait for it…. wait for it! …. the Budapest Operetta And Musical Theatre. This is not some lesser roadie production. Everyone from Budapest has come along, including stage hands to put up the massive set, as well as lighting crew, hair dressers and costume department for those turn-of-the-century gowns and wigs.


You have to understand that here in Muscat, the primary form of entertainment is to drive one’s Ferrari round and round a one-lane street loop of no more than a tenth of mile, revving the engine. If it’s National Day, as it was Nov. 18, you’d add honking, and waving a white, red and green Omani flag. (Now that you know the flag colors you will understand why the highway decorations stretching for many tens of mile, are not for Christmas.) When you’re tired of squealing your tires for 10 feet, you’d indulge in the one other form of fun in Muscat: taking the entire family for spa day, Moms and little daughters to one side for mani-pedi’s, fathers with little sons down the hall for full body massages.

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Back to A Night at the Opera: There they were, a group of classically trained lyric divas imported –perhaps on the Sultan’s 747?– to perform this bit Hungarian froth for one night only in the plush red and gold interior of an opera salle which, apart from the Arab-style curlicues gracing the loge boxes, looked suspiciously like a mini Metropolitan Opera. That, and the seat-back libretto translations available in both Arabic and English, were the main signs that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore (to mix movie line metaphors). On stage, Hungarian arias soared and feet in red boots stamped a Csardas rhythm. Since a Csardas ia an old Hungarian tavern dance the audience thought nothing of clapping along during the operetta’s wilder moments. I joined in, happily freed from my Western straitjack of serious attention to classical music. Bernard tapped his fingers and shot me a smile-frown for my appropriate inappropriate behavior.

And now, briefly, to that mysterious room in the wadi village of Sayq, where you last saw me.
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It turns out the lavish buffet of Omani sweets and fruits were on offer all day, every day, for 30 days, in observance of the birth of a baby in the family. The Omani way is for people to come by, greet the new baby, and bring food. During that period the household room otherwise reserved for men is opened to everyone. Then, in a fit of massive cleaning, everything’s washed and the sexes go back to their former separateness. We arrived on Day 17, thus were welcomed to sit and indulge. Kids ran in and out.

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The family patriarch– a slight serious man with trim white beard– glides in looking, if this is possible, both happy and mildly unsure whether to approve. He nods, wishes us peace, then adjourns to the nearby minaret to call the faithful to noon prayer.


Our visit began with the traditional offer of kahwa, Omani coffee laced with cardamom, which you sip while eating a date as a sweetener. From there we were urged to help ourselves from dishes of dense Omani treats. As these were all homemade they were tooth-achingly sweet and utterly delicious. My favorite was the Halwa, thick and sticky as old molasses, chunked with sesame seeds and almond slivers, the dense paste itself spiced with saffron, cardamom and nutmeg, scented with rose water and sweetened (traditionally) with date syrup. There also was a sweet that looked like peanut butter, but tasted like solidified dulce de leche. And one that looked like thick, smooth porridge, but tasted like sweetened tapioca, which it probably was.

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I, naturally, indulged as only an adventurous food lover would. Bernard kept nodding his head that he’d join me on the floor, but given that he can’t sit cross-legged comfortably, I knew that wasn’t likely to happen. More important, as soon as he’d perched himself on the wall bench, he was plied with infants, so could not, in all politeness, move.


Here’s an interesting tidbit: Of Oman’s estimated 4 million population, over 40% are foreign workers, mainly from India and Bangladesh. All but one of the coffee shops where we stopped for a fresh juice or snack during our drive each day, were run by Indians and served only Indian foods.

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Here’s another bit: In this country where wadis are the only viable place from which to craft a village life, isolation is a product of geography, not choice. Thus it’s entirely common to marry a close family member.

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Nora, the lovely young woman I spent an hour talking to in Sayq village– in between nibbles of boiled sweets–, kept referring to her mother-in-law as Auntie. I thought it was a friendly mis-translation.

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“But she’s your mother-in-law, yes?
Yes.
So how can she be your Aunt, too?
She’s married to my father’s brother.”
And you’re married to her son?
Yes.
So she’s your Aunt AND your mother-in-law
Yes.
And you did this of your own choice? No one told you you had to marry each other?
No. We chose each other. And we’ve known each other since we were small.”

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Assured that I had it all straight, I took another spoonful of halwa, to keep my mouth occupied while I pondered the obvious. However, based on the stupendous cuteness of her 10-month-old daughter, who quietly amused herself with Bernard’s mustache while sitting on his lap for an hour, there was no problem with that marriage!

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There have been other twilight zone moments….

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Yusef, in the village of Mibam above Wadi Tiwi, appeared from an apricot colored house next to a spreading plane tree. I was alone, waiting for Bernard to back the car around into the shade. As if materializing from thin air, Yusef was beside me, with softly curling hair and a ready smile, offering to show us through the village palm groves, along burbling falaj, down to a pool where we could swim.

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A couple days later we drove into the desert, our destination a tree 50km into the Wahiba Sands. When you’re miles from nowhere in the middle of a sandy expanse, a tree is an uncommonly friendly sight. We had just set our camp chairs underneath, sitting with arms and legs splayed to enable the soupçon of breeze to cool us, happy in the quiet emptiness of the desert. Then Rashid appeared, ripping down the tall flank of a dune in his 1/4-ton Toyota pickup, pulling a red-sand U-ie and spewing me with pink-orange dust as he screeched to a halt. Or would have screeched had he been on pavement.

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“Getting water for my camels,” he signed, gesturing further that he had four baby ones just a dune or two away. Rashid was a man on a mission. He grabbed a fat black hose, jammed it into the 300-gallon tank in his pickup bed, marched over to the Honda generator that served the pump which pulled water out of the oasis well, and while the water level in the tank slowly rose, made further friendly gestures about eating.

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Omani being friendly and hospitable, and this being more his oasis than ours, I offered him dates and Britannia digestive biscuits. Good start. He took several of each and nodded happily. I then thought to offer him a slice of German fruitcake from a package I’d found at a town shop. This’ll make us fast friends,” I thought, already dreaming of visiting his camel babies. Rashid looked at the stock tank, which was nigh full, stuffed stuffed the whole fruitcake in his dishdasha and drove off.

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I’ve walked a few beaches of sand and ocean-smoothed pebbles, my head down, oblivious to everything but my search. Once again I’m 5 years old, searching for shells. This time I found a few purple, speckled cowries, a scallop shell, some frosted green sea glass.

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I’ve camped one last time in a stony wadi, sitting on Persian carpets watching thunderclouds pile up like cushions after a casbah pillow fight. It’s when camping in this alcohol-intolerant country that the true nature of our group emerges. That night we wobbled to our tents hoping we’d not be washed into oblivion by a flash flood rampaging out of the slot canyon behind us.

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I’ve floated on a sleepy dhow in the Musandam fjords, watching a waxing crescent moon rise over cinnamon hills.

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And then, my camera fell into the sea. Really.

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So that’s some of Oman for you. We have a pressing engagement tonight: One week post-opera and we’ll be perched (like Lily Tomlin’s Edith Ann in that oversized rocking chair) in the Gold Class VIP section of the local cinema. The normal theatre row holds 20 seats, but the VIP row holds only six sofa-sized seats. On screen: Spectre!! Here’s how you say James Bond in Omani: James Bond.


And that’s the truth……

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