Friday, May 29, 2009

MTNL Blues

A month after my internet connection went on the blink, it has yet to be fixed. I've called the 1504 helpline dozens of times, and the divisional engineer almost as often. Mr Kore, head of the Shivaji Park side of operations, who returned from vacation a few days ago, has been the recipient of daily calls as well. Each time I speak to an officer, I have to explain anew the same details: number, address, nature of complaint. Not only do the MTNL chaps have no system to keep track of problems, they have personnel with serious memory deficiencies.
After failing to provide adequate service and costing me thousands of rupees thanks to transactions I couldn't complete online, the company has stuck me with substantial 'broadband usage charges'. This for a month during which its network barely functioned and in which I was abroad for two weeks. I have written to an address provided on the website asking for email contacts of top officers, but received no reply. The firm trumpets its internet services but doesn't have even a semblence of a web-based response. The 'live' assistance cell has apparently closed down, for if, after calling 1504, you hit option '3' for 'online help', you invariably get an apology message.
None of the big private companies has extended its service to my neck of the woods, else I'd have switched ISPs long ago. While I wait for Reliance and Airtel to bring their fat pipes to my doorstep, I'm hoping the new government initiates reforms which will allow the mass sacking of underperforming MTNL employees (which means, I'm guessing, about 90% of the workforce). Just two weeks ago, the company's officers in the capital went on a wildcat protest, switching off service to Delhi Airport, resulting in planes being grounded for hours. I'm through with being held hostage in this fashion by a bunch of lazy, corrupt clerks and linemen, and am even willing to give up the landline which was the family's only telecommunications device back in the bad old days of state monopoly and which remains the telephone number of choice for many old contacts.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Kiran Subbaiah's Suicide Note

The warm reception accorded to Kiran Subbaiah's body of sculptural objects has led gallery Chatterjee&Lal to follow up the artist's solo show with a sequel titled Sleepwalker Daydream Part II, consisting of video and new media work.
The new show is full of interesting stuff, including two interactive creations, but the stand-out effort is undoubtedly Subbaiah's 2006 video, Suicide Note. I'd heard good things about it before, but saw it for the first time last week, and can confidently state it is the most accomplished work in video by an Indian artist that I have viewed till date. Here, finally is someone who can use creatively both the language of video and the language he speaks. I've often argued at conferences and in informal discussions about language being a central problem in Indian media art. Unlike painting and sculpture, which are purely visual, media art frequently incorporates text. In my experience, Indian artists are normally wanting in that department (they are also normally inept in their handling of video, but that's a different story). Whenever I've raised the issue of language, artists as well as fellow critics have usually reacted with politically correct outrage, or else dismissed the issue as insignificant. International curators, too, have been happy to select work based on its politics rather than its command of the medium. Subbaiah's resonant, ironic commentary is a crucial component of the work and adds immeasurably to the texture of the finished product, which ought to be the case in all video art.
Suicide Note is a poetic and comical meditation on life, death and art. The artist casts a cold eye over his field, extending from one of the earliest artworks created by humankind, the 25,000-year-old Venus of Willendorf, to very contemporary trends. The video projector screening Suicide Note is placed on a base that periodically swivels to shift the image to a different spot on a panoramic screen, mimicking a three-channel work. The deity presiding over the 25 minute exercise is Marcel Duchamp, who famously exhibited a urinal signed R.Mutt. Subbaiah echoes that revolutionary act by making a believable sculpture out of a toilet brush and signing it K.Subb.
Critics and curators have not yet given Subbaiah the attention he deserves. That's because his sculpture and video contain nothing identifiably Indian, nor do they engage with hot button political issues like globalisation, sectarian violence and sexual orientation. Hopefully, with Thomas Erben in New York and Chatterjee & Lal in Bombay promoting his work, he will gradually make it to the top tier of Indian art where he clearly belongs.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The IPL trophy and Tehran's Jewels Museum

The IPL trophy, like most prestigious trophies designed in India, is expensive and ugly. 2500 diamonds, 4500 yellow sapphires, eight rubies, lots of gold leaf and the labour of 14 craftsmen went into the trophy's making, along with zero imagination and delicacy. Its main features are a map of India with IPL crudely spelled out in the centre, and a batsman alongside, diamond-studded bat clutched in hands at an incorrect angle for the shot he's playing.
Seeing the trophy on SET Max reminded me of the Jewels Museum in Tehran, which we visited a couple of weeks ago. The museum, which showcases the wealth of Iran's former rulers, is housed in the basement vault of a bank, viewable by the public every afternoon. There are probably more diamonds, emeralds, rubies, spinels and sapphires in that room that in any other of comparable size in the world. The only similar collection accessible to the public that I can think of is the British crown jewels in the Tower of London, but I believe that Tehran's museum is superior carat for carat.
The problem with the Tehran jewels is that, like the city in which they are kept, they fail to transform wealth into beauty. Diamonds are naturally attractive, of course, but one expects that, when combined with other, equally beautiful diamonds, they will form a piece that is more than the sum of its parts. That expectation is consistently disappointed in the Jewels Museum.
Tehran was a small town that boomed after it was nominated capital by the new Qajar rulers in the late eighteenth century. Asia, at that point in history, was a declining force compared to fast industrialising Europe. The rapid progress of the smaller continent left monarchs in the east doubting their own value systems and the foundations of their societies. The confusion spread to everything, from administration to art and architecture. As a result, Tehran's palaces and mosques compare poorly with those of Esfahan, which was the capital of the Safavids during the 16th and 17th centuries, and represents the confidence of a civilisation at its peak.
The Qajar rulers inherited the jewels of the Safavids and those acquired by Nader Shah when he plundered Delhi. There is even, in the Jewels Museum, something called the Peacock Throne, though it is not the bejewelled seat depicted in Mughal miniatures and removed to Persia by Nader Shah. Having taken charge of a vast store of gems, the Qajars clearly didn't know what to do with them, and resorted to a sort of diamond-stuffing competition. Artisans seem to have been under instructions to stick as many gems as humanly possible on each hilt, crown, globe and goblet. This is not a strategy calculated to produce breathtakingly beautiful works of art, and indeed, Qajar creations are no match for what one has seen of Mughal and Deccani jewelled objects. The latter consist of diamonds and rubies utilised judiciously, in combination with highly skilled carving, metalwork and embroidery. They are opulent, but rarely appear vulgar. Tehran's Jewels Museum, on the other hand, contains a number of vulgar artefacts, some almost as hideous as the IPL trophy, though that is setting the bar very high.
There is an interesting change visible in the Jewels Museum when we enter the era of Iran's last ruling dynasty, the Pehlavis. The crowns and cloaks are much more tasteful than those of the Qajars, but they represent a completely European approach. Created by the most famous jewellers of Paris and New York, they symbolise the radical western tilt of the last Shah, which proved too much for the public to handle, particularly because it came without the democracy prized in Europe and the US.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The fate of INS Vikrant

I am as fond of our first aircraft carrier as the next guy; in fact, I'm considerably fonder. As a child, I walked more than once along a dock, marvelling at the immense bulk of the steel grey ship. I stood on her deck watching in fascination as screaming planes landed one after another, each hooking onto a rope just in time to preempt what seemed a certain slide into the sea. I lunched in the captain's cabin, and grew familiar with the ship's multiple levels, clambering up and down ladders and through thick metal doors.
At school, when I played battleships, none of the destroyers, cruisers or frigates mattered to me; I cared only for the aircraft carrier. When the news came that INS Vikrant was being decommissioned, I took it personally, though I knew she was in poor condition. Built by the British to serve in the Second World War, and never launched because of that war's end, she was completed a decade and a half later to be sold to the Indian Navy. By the 1990s, she was good only for the scrapyard. I didn't support the plan to turn her into a floating museum because it takes a lot of finesse to turn the cramped space of a battleship into a public repository. Having seen the Navy's efforts at creating maritime museums in Navy Nagar and on an island off Apollo Bunder, and found both efforts wanting in interest and rigour, I knew the Vikrant museum would display none of that finesse. It did, however, open for a while, and received a regular stream of visitors.
The administration then decided it wanted the project to break even or make a profit. It invited bids from developers who could use part of the floor space for wedding receptions and other commercial activities. Today's Economic Times puts a positive spin on the enterprise, pointing to seven companies ready to undertake the makeover. Hindustan Times, on the other hand, focuses on cost escalation: Initially, consultants "estimated the project would cost 124 crore. Nine years since, the cost has more than quadrupled to 500 crore".
The idea of turning Vikrant into a floating mall typifies the blinkered vision of the people in charge of Bombay, who believe in wringing every possible paisa out of every available square foot of space in town. The only way an aircraft carrier can conceivably serve as a shopping arcade is if its entire interior is gutted and refashioned. If that happens, what will be left to preserve of historical worth?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Democratic feudalism

India is heading toward democratic feudalism. While the channels speak of a youth vote, it really was a vote for second, third or fourth generation political strongmen and women. Gandhi, Abdullah, Pilot, Scindia, those are the names of the smart young leaders of today, many of whom are poised to take over ministries in this administration. They were also the names of the smart young men of the 1980s. Regional leaders like Sharad Pawar, Karunanidhi, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Sheila Dixit and Deve Gowda are preparing to pass on the baton to their sons, daughters, sons-in-law, while, in Bombay, the daughter of Sunil Dutt and the son of Murli Deora have won for a second time. The trend goes deeper than readily recognisable names. This morning's Times of India carries a story about four young female newcomers to parliament, Mausam Noor, Meenakshi Natarajan, Jyoti Mirdha, and Shruti Choudhry. Of them Shruti is grand-daughter of Bansi Lal, and daughter of Kiran Choudhry; Mausam, niece of Ghani Khan Chowdhury; and Jyoti grand-daughter of five time MP Nathuram Mirdha.
There seems no room for a new Sharad Pawar, Rajesh Pilot, Lalu Yadav or Ram Vilas Paswan to emerge. These people, and dozens of others like them, began from ordinary, even humble, beginnings and went on to establish a significant political base through the power of their personalities, their charisma, ambition and shrewdness.
We've seen a takeover by families happen in the Hindi film industry. Thirty years ago, there was one major khaandaan in films, the Kapoors, just as there was one dominant family in poliics, the Gandhis. Now the upper echelon of Bollywood consists almost entirely of sons, daughters, nephews and cousins, and the election of 2009 has advanced the process considerably within the political space.
To find people making it on sheer merit, one needs to look to cricket. Gavaskar Jr. might have gt more international games than he strictly deserved, but he was never more than a marginal figure. I can't think of any second generation batsman or bowler playing a major role in the current IPL. The very names of the teams, however, give away our feudal longings. Of eight sides in the fray, five have names with feudal connections: Rajasthan Royals, Royal Challengers, Knight Riders, Kings IX (or rather, Kings XI, my mistake, pointed out by Anonymous) and Super Kings.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Television Election

Though very happy with the results of the election, I was disappointed by the coverage of the event. It went in three stages after the ballot closed: First, the exit polls, then the count itself, and finally the post-count analysis. Exit polls could not be published before the final vote was cast, and details of who won and who lost were available in a matter of hours rather than days as used to be the case, severely curtailing stage one and two.
News channels, therefore, pinned their hopes on stage three. Permutations that would lead to the 273 seat mark would need to be discussed. Lots of scope for speculative chatter there. Unfortunately, this was preempted by the Congress securing over 200 seats. Arnab Goswami at Times Now went through an analysis of potential scenarios (Samajwadi Party in the government, Left support from outside, and so on) despite the matter having been laid conclusively to rest. Rajdeep Sardesai trumpeted CNN-IBN's exit poll (we were the ones who got it right, you heard it right here), though his channel's high estimate was 35 short of what the UPA actually got. Yogendra Yadav, an excellent analyst who was one of the people in charge of the exit poll, made no such self-congratulatory comments. CNN-IBN had picked a panel of intellectual heavyweights, which made for frustrating viewing because they weren't given time to flesh out thoughts that I was keen to hear. For instance, Ramachandra Guha would begin a train of thought involving Rahul Gandhi, Indira Gandhi and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, only to be interrupted by a commercial break or an anchor announcing a minister was on the line and ready to be interviewed.
Shekhar Gupta and Vir Sanghvi were much better on NDTV, even though they gave the impression of not being overly fond of each other. Both have a talent for analyses that are succinct without being cliched. I'm a huge admirer of Vir Sanghvi's political writing; it is always clear, cogently argued, and well structured. His columns have no rhetorical flourishes drawing attention to their style, but what he accomplishes is incredibly difficult to pull off week after week. If I headed a journalism course, I'd devote a module to studying his work.
On the other hand, I've never really taken to his television personality. I first saw him in a show -- I think it was for BITV -- in which the diplomat J N Dixit appeared alongside him, supposedly the resident expert but in effect a sidekick. The two sipped scotch and made hawkish, rather supercilious comments about international relations. Sanghvi's interviews with the rich and famous on Star were more engaging, but he rarely gave his interviewees enough space for their personalities to emerge.
On NDTV, he played the acerbic, keepin'-it-real critic, complimenting Shekhar Gupta's avuncular personality. Prannoy Roy was in reasonable form, which was a relief because he, after all, is the pioneer of election coverage on Indian television. It used to be greatly entertaining back when votes were counted by hand. For an entire twenty-four hours or more, Roy would say it was 'early days yet' while running the main news past us, before Vinod Dua came in with his 'quick recap'. The data piled up slowly enough for experts to pick it threadbare; candidates were interviewed as they sweated it out in counting centres; the swing-o-meter told us how the mood had shifted in state after state. Politicians were less media savvy, and therefore more revealing.
Back then, also, elections were fought around issues. The issues may have been diversions from real threats and challenges, but at least they existed. This time round, the opposition failed to focus on a single substantive point around which to rally dissent. Whether this was because the work of the previous administration showed no seriously weak link, or because the opposition simply looked in the wrong place, it fatally undermined the BJP's campaign.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Aleppo and the return journey

I've been back for two days but too lazy to finish writing the final installment of my travel blog. I say final installment, but I suspect more Iran and Syria related pieces will emerge in the future, about issues I wasn't able to cover while on the road.
In Aleppo, we stayed in a hotel within the famed souq, but found ourselves tired of bazaars. Beyond a point, they take on the same sameness that is criticised in malls. The difference is they're dirtier and noisier. We were in the vicinity of a dozen old mosques, the muezzins of which would sound off at dawn. The azaan would start from one minaret and be picked up by a succession of others, reminding me of the way stray dogs in my neighbourhood inaugurate a barking competition, although of course in this case the criers were not responding to each other. The biggest mosque of all, a 7th century Umayyad construction, had a special loudspoken prayer that began at 2.30am and continued, in an unbearable monotone for a full 30 minutes.
After two days of this, we moved to a hotel in the new city and were the happier for it. We took a day trip to the basilica of Saint Simeon, built in honour of a 5th century devotee of Christ who expressed his religious passion by living atop a pillar. Very like some yogis. Also like the said yogis, Simon did not like women around him, even forbidding his mother (herself later canonised) from visiting him. As his fame grew, he kept moving to higher pillars, and, when he died four decades later, he had spent his last years atop a 14 meter high pole. David Blaine eat your heart out. We were particularly keen to make this visit because of a film by Luis Bunuel titled Simon of the Desert, based loosely on the pillarman's story. How loosely? Well, for a start, the place isn't in the desert.
The basilica is a gorgeous ruin, and impressed us though we'd had our fill of gorgeous ruins by that time. It confirmed my sense that the Christian sights of Syria are more interesting than Islamic ones, though no match for pagan Palmyra.
Having moved out of the souq, we were able to discover a trendy new precinct in Aleppo that found no mention in our guidebook. It lies between the quaint renovated Christian quarter and the colonial district. The three together made for a stimulating evening's walking, ending with a nice meal in one of the many restaurants that have opened up recently, which offer the combination of comfortable seating, varied menu and reasonable prices we failed to find in Damascus. In one of these, I had the best chocolate fondant I have ever eaten. It's been a dish that has promised much but rarely delivered in my experience. This one was rich and melty and large and accompanied by a delicious vanilla icecream whose flavour felt natural.
Syria as a whole had come across as a bit dour, particularly because we didn't journey to the swinging beach resort Lattakia, so we were glad to see a fun side of the country in this affluent area of Aleppo.
After the requisite shopping for nuts and dried fruits (two categories frequently collapsed into one in India), spices, soap and local wine, we were ready for home.
The Syrians play a cruel trick at the airport, slapping a 1500 pound 'departure tax' on each passenger. We were considering how we'd spend the remaining Syrian money, and this solved the problem, even necessitating a dip into our dollar reserve. Anybody going to Syria, remember this final expense. If you are caught without cash, you'll be in big trouble, because most ATMs don't work well with international cards.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Damascus Steel

In Damascus, I was keen to find some good steel blades, gracefully curved daggers, scimitars, swords, menacing but attractive. But every shop in the souq had the same selection of tacky knives with ornate but badly finished scabbards. The vaginas were disappointing enough, what they contained was worse. (Couldn’t resist that comment. ‘Vagina’ is Latin for ‘sword sheath’).
I began asking why the blades we were being offered were so badly made. What I learned was that the low end of the market was being served exclusively by knives made outside Syria, mainly in India. Real Damascene steel knives were big and expensive, most were snapped up by Gulf Arabs who prized them, and who had been flush with cash these past five years.
On our last evening in Syria’s capital, we walked into a shop which had expensive-looking objects, high quality filigreed lamps, carpets and inlaid wood coffee tables. Asked if he had real Damascus steel blades, the owner nodded and led us upstairs. He pulled out a long knife and placed it on the counter. Even to our inexperienced eyes, it looked like more of the same stuff we’d been seeing, and we told him as much. He smiled and said, “I showed you that one just as a test. That’s from India. This one is real Damascus steel”. The blade he now produced was gorgeous grey-black crescent emerging from a wooden hilt, with a cover that combined leather and embroidered fabric.
The price quoted, 27,000 Syrian pounds (about the same in rupees, approximately 550 dollars) was beyond what we could have paid even after bargaining the price downwards. But we left the shop happy that Damascus had not completely lost its centuries’ old tradition of making the finest steel knives and swords.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Krac des Chevaliers: Crusader stronghold

At noon on Saturday, we left Palmyra and headed west for Krac des Chevaliers, a castle built by Crusader knights almost a thousand years ago, and subsequently strengthened by Ottoman rulers. Our bus dropped us off at a city called Homs, and we shared a taxi up to the fortress with two Czech tourists who were also travelling from Palmyra. They intended spending a couple of hours looking round the fortress before heading on, wheras we had booked a room in a hotel on the hill across from Krac. The landscape around us changed now, becoming lush green. As we passed fields of heather and wild flowers, flocks of sheep grazing on hillsides, groves of olive trees, we realised we'd spent most of our vacation in the desert or close to it I responded to the altered scene by turning teary-eyed. Also itchy-eyed. And suffered a sneezing fit. It was time to pop an anti-histamine, although I knew it would half knock me out for the rest of the day.
On seeing the view from our balcony, we felt vindicated in choosing to stay at the site overnight. Krac Des Chevaliers is a perfect castle: compact, robust, well-preserved. We strolled across to it at 4.30 and spent an hour and a half exploring its lower sections. Like most sights in Syria, entry is expensive: 150 Syrian pounds per head, much the same amount in rupees. We were told we'd have to buy tickets anew when we returned the next morning. The wind had picked up by this time, and we were feeling cold despite having taken the precaution of wearing two shirts each. Some of the tourists there had dressed as if they were in a sub-tropical beach resort rather than on a hilltop in the temperate Levant, and they were suffering.
We had an early dinner at one of the two restaurants in the neighbourhood, because we didn't want to step out of our hotel once we got in.
The only thing on offer at both places was a set meal. Syria appears to have no mid-range restaurant options. You either eat a 50 rupee Shawarma or shell out 800 rupees for a lunch or dinner. If you have plenty of money to spare, it's a better place for foodies than Iran because each big city has dozens of restaurants; but if you want a reasonably priced sit-down lunch, you won't find one in this country.
It has also become clear why Syrians are so much fatter than Iranians. We ate a lot of meat in Iran, but it was always grilled or stewed, and accompanied by salads and whole wheat bread. In Syria most things are fried, and there are plenty of rich desserts to follow the meal. In Krac, we had some mezze, then greasy roast chicken accompanied by fried cauliflower, fried aubergine slices and french fries. Though we're climbing up and down hills and trekking through cities and ruins at the same rate as we did in Iran, we can feel our bellies beginning to bulge thanks to all the fat we're ingesting.
Sunday morning at Krac was warmer, stiller. We were, again, virtually by ourselves as we peeked into a Gothic chapel here, a storage vault there, then climbed to the high turrets. We checked out of the hotel at lunchtime and made our way to Aleppo, the final city on our itinerary, from where I'm writing this post thanks to a working wi-fi connection and the UltraSearch proxy favoured by Syrians wanting to visit nooks of cyberspace the authorities dislike.

Friday, May 8, 2009


If Damascus didn’t quite match our expectations, Palymyra has exceeded them. Our original itinerary involved three ancient sites: Persepolis, Palmyra and Petra. Petra was thrown in doubt after the Jordanian embassy in Delhi said it would take at least twenty days to give us a visa, far longer than we could wait. We tried again in Syria, visiting the Jordanian embassy in Damascus the morning after landing, but were told pretty much the same thing: leave your passports here, come back after fifteen days and you may have approval, else it will take a month. Why not just put up a sign saying, “We don’t really want tourists”? By this time, we didn’t care overmuch: our trip so far has yielded such substantial pleasures, we will not return to India feeling we’ve lost out on anything.
We got to Palmyra late in the evening after a ride in which the bus driver played simultaneously a looped video on the monitor and his favourite music on a stereo. Having dropped our luggage at the hotel, we headed to the ruins. Most of the site is free and open to the public through the day; only the main temple and the theatre require tickets. Palmyra used to be an oasis town, a node in an important trade route. The spring has long since dried up, and the olive and palm trees that grow thickly beyond the ruins are now watered by a canal that has its source in a neighbouring town.
As soon as we walked past the first columns built back in the era when Christ was preaching, I knew this was the finest pile of classical stones we’d seen since visiting Ephesus a few years ago. The colonnades and temples are built of a stone that turns delicate pink in the light of the setting sun. Wandering among the pillars and archways, we were almost alone, barring a few fellow tourists, half a dozen camel riders and a peddler or three. That might seem like a lot of people, but Palmyra sprawls over many acres, leaving enough space for us to be by ourselves. I can’t think of any other major archeological site where one is allowed to wander unhindered even after darkness falls. Everything these days is cordoned off, leaving no doubt of its status as a tourist attraction. In Palmyra we could imagine more freely the kind of civilization that had built these imposing monuments.
This morning, the tourists were still thin on the ground when we got to the Temple of Bel. Palmyra is well connected with big towns that are two or three hours away by road, and many tourists prefer visiting on a long day trip. This is a mistake. If you ever come to Palmyra, make sure you stay a night or two. By the time the buses began pulling up we had got two hours to explore the place more fully. In the afternoon, we went to a couple of tombs close by, where the rich and their relatives were buried stacked in shelves four stories high. Then onto a fort that overlooks the ruins and provides a fine desert sunset. For dinner, we’ll head to the Zenobia hotel, a century old institution built within the grounds and offering a view of the colonnade. Life is good, even though President Assad the Second has made it tough to access Facebook and Blogger.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009


There is an immediate change visible around us as we move from the land of Khomenei and Khamenei to that of Assad and Assad. The people in Damascus are plumper, scruffier, almost slovenly in comparison with the clean-cut, well-dressed Iranians. Their speech lacks the sing-song gentleness, their manners the careful grace evident in Iran. There are children running wild everywhere: we saw hardly a single child alone on our earlier stop.
It is, of course, unfair to compare a country with one of the world's largest reserves of oil and gas with a neighbour that has very little of either commodity, but our minds cannot avoid making such unfair comparisons.
The oldest continually inhabited city in the world, Damascus used to be called. Now, more modestly, it is referred to as ONE of the oldest continually inhabited cities on earth, or the oldest inhabited CAPITAL city in the world. Coming after Esfahan, it doesn't seem great shakes at first sight: the mosques aren't as pretty and the products in the souqs as well-made. But the old town's history gradually draws you in. Here is the tomb of Salahuddin; here the road where Paul was baptised; here the spot where Imam Husain's head was brought and placed on display. If a mosque looks a bit like a church and the church like a Roman temple it is because Jupiter, Christ and Allah have been worshipped at the same spot at different times in history. In such circumstances, where one era overlays another without eliminating its visual presence, one ought not to expect harmony of design. If Iran was about the persistence and assertion of a clear identity, Syria is about confused identities.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Syria blogger problems

I think I've managed to post that last entry, Iran Primer, but I can't get access to view the blog. Maybe Syria has issues with Blogger, and that might have something to do with it... or not. In any case, if your comments on my posts don't appear within a day, assume it has to do with technical difficulties, not censorship on my part.

Update: Just confirmed that the Syrian government blocks Facebook and Blogger. No such issues in Iran, strangely. I can publish and edit posts, but can't see the final post. I can publish comments, but can't reply. I've got round the blockade temporarily by finding a cybercafe with a good proxy. Will try the same proxy from my hotel tonight.

Iran Primer

We’re in Damascus now, and Jabeen’s extremely glad to be rid of the baggy clothes and scarf. We’ll celebrate with a beer in a bit, but meanwhile, here’s a summary of topics that travellers to Iran might find useful. We stayed in Central Iran and in mid-range hotels, and conditions may differ in other parts of the country and in other classes of accommodation.

VISAS: Indians can get a 7 day visa on arrival in Iran. I know it is available for those flying into Tehran on Iran Air, but I'm not sure how it works with other carriers and other entry ports. Visa extensions are available in every city; Shiraz and Esfahan are supposed to have co-operative officers. Those applying for tourist visas in advance are required to take HIV, Hepatitis B and C, and tuberculosis tests. Pilgrims are exempted from these tests. Visa agents who arrange pilgrimages have a good equation with Iran consulate staff, and can get visas without the tests, but this can take upto a week. We paid 12,000 rupees for two tourist visas, and have no idea how much of it went for fees, how much to the agent, and how much was a commission for the visa officer. It would have been more expensive if we'd taken the tests.

AIR: It feels dry even on days when there’s rain. Take lots of moisturiser and a chapstick. Guidebooks talk of how polluted Tehran is, but the air quality we experienced was certainly no worse than that of the average Indian city. There’s often a smell of petrol or CNG in the air, but we are used to that.

WATER: The tap water is safe to drink, which is a huge change from India. I’m a votary of sticking with tap water when it is potable. It’s a terrible waste of plastic to drink bottled water everywhere. I recommend buying one bottle to start with, and then refilling it in your hotel before leaving for the sights. Every place you go, you’ll find water coolers offering the opportunity to tank up.
The central story in Shia history, told and retold every Muharram, is of the battle of Karbala. Near the tragic conclusion of their ordeal, Imam Husain and his group were denied water by the opposing general. Following this, the provision of drinking water is a kind of duty in Shia culture, and the Iranian state performs it very well.

BEVERAGES: It's a mystery why countries which were among the first to savour coffee have given it up for tea. Iran is one such. In recent years, it has substituted the long-brewed version of the beverage with tea bags. If you can't do without coffee, it is best to take along granules or pre-mixed coffee sachets and a small kettle; most hotels will provide plain hot water if you can't manage the kettle. Even where coffee is on offer, it's likely to be that sludge-like Turkish stuff or some weirdly flavoured brew. Alcohol is a complete no-no.

FOOD: It is neither cheap not extortionately expensive. A main course will set you back a couple of hundred rupees even at a roadside kababi. On the plus side, poultry and meat are generally of very good quality. Since there’s no liquor, you are expected to order salad and a cola to bulk up the bill. You won’t get seriously dirty looks if you order just a main, Iranians are too polite for that kind of thing, but expect to be asked at least three times about the accompaniments.
Apart from high end restaurants, no eateries will offer English menus with printed prices. We sometimes got the impression that the guy at the counter was trying to decide how much he should charge us for a dish. In the end, though, our meals usually ended up costing somewhere between 5 and 10 dollars for two.
Menus are restricted, you’ll find no 250 dish multicuisine restaurants in these parts. If 15 mains are printed, only five or six will normally be available. And they will be precisely the ones you had at previous meals.
Naans vary considerably in quality, though not in size (They are invariably huge). There is no way of knowing if you’re going to end up with flavourful, warm, fluffy bread or cold, stale, rubbery stuff. Among the interesting variations we came upon was a rectangle with very precisely separated char marks. Jabeen enquired about it and was told it was a ‘naan-e-machini’, never served at the best places. That machine-made naan was far from the worst we came across. Rice was another matter. It was uniformly excellent, perfectly cooked, the grains separate without being dry, almost as long as basmati grains but with a completely different, more subtle, flavour.
For Bombay readers who like eating at Britannia, I can confirm that a version of Berry Pulao is a standard item on Irani menus. The basic dish is the same, chicken buried under rice that's sprinkled with 'zeresht', or barberries, but the people at Brittania have added a fair amount of masala for Indian tastes.
Vegetarians will not have an easy time in Iran, though there’s good feta cheese at breakfast, and usually an aubergine-centred main course on offer. If you are vegetarian and also dislike brinjals, you’re pretty much done for.

TOILETS: Iranians have not taken to urinals, because of the Muslim fear of polluting splashback, so men have to pee in stalls. Guys need to be very careful in reading the signs, because there’s nothing in the facility itself that differentiates male and female loos. The toilets in public places are mostly squatties, and are fairly clean, certainly always in usable condition. Squirters are preferred to paper.

MONEY: Credit cards don’t work at all, and neither do ATM cards. Bring dollars, cash. There are plenty of moneychangers around, the good ones charge no commission, but might reject old notes. The love of crisp new dollar notes contrasts with a willingness to use faded, torn local currency. Some carpet sellers do accept credit cards, but that involves them paying commissions to agents in Dubai as a way of sidestepping the sanctions regime, and the 10 or 15% loss that involves will be passed on to you.

LANDSCAPE: The Iran we saw was composed of mountains and plains, plains between mountains, very flat patches of land ringed by hills. You never know what lies beyond the next row of hills. It could be farmland, or pasture or desert, changing startlingly from one to the other. Hills relieve the view of otherwise boring cities, the way the sea relieves the view of Bombay. Even in Tehran, an overgrown metropolis of little charm, one can always find visual escape in the snow-topped ridge looming in the north.
The landscape has conditioned Iranian culture in a number of ways: it is a landscape that is frequently harsh, though one that rewards effort. India, by contrast, offers a very easy way of growing enough to feed oneself, thanks to the monsoon and the high water table, and therefore, remained technologically backward, a nation dependent on the coming of rain each year. In Iran seeds will not flourish unless irrigated carefully. The story of Iranian agriculture is one of creating a massive network of qanats or channels, bringing water from the hills to farms. Having become experts in this, it was just a step further to create magnificent gardens with watercourses running through them. The Iranian garden is enclosed, shielded from the harsh wind; a private, meticulously cultivated paradise, not a sprawling estate open to the vagaries of nature. Iranian culture does not involve nature worship: nature offers many beauties, but they must be won through hard work, and can be taken away easily.
The worst period in Iran’s history was the invasion of the Mongols, a nomadic people who had no respect for agriculture or farmers. The system of qanats, built over millenia, was destroyed, and took centuries to rebuild.
Iran itself has its nomads; more than any country I have seen, it is a stage for the millennia-old tussle between farmers and pastoralists. Both groups, of course, have now been overshadowed by modern industry.

TRANSPORT: After the revolution, Iran was left with just one car maker, a situation analogous to India at the same point in history. Peugeot was to Iran what Suzuki was to India. The similarity, though, ends there. India now has over a dozen car makers competing for buyers; Iran has added just one: Hyundai. Half the cars you see on Iranian roads are Peugeots. That might explain something about France’s role in the ongoing debate about Iran’s nuclear programme.
Intercity transport is cheap and convenient, whether by road, rail or air. While air ticket prices are low, airports themselves can only be reached by expensive taxis. It is a 17 dollar ride to Tehran airport from the south of the city, more from the posh northern suburbs. That amount will fetch two luxury seats on an overnight bus from the capital to Esfahan.
The high fares charged by taxis within towns contrast with reasonably priced inter-city options. Few cabs run by meter: the final amount is decided after haggling, but is always on the high side. Shared taxis are a common way to get around places cheap, but we never figured out the routine. For those on a strict budget, it is imperative to use these shared vehicles. Intra-city public transport isn't great, aside from Tehran's expanding underground network.

I'll add to this list in the future and, of course, try and answer questions prospective tourists might have.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Esfahan (continued)

The weather's not been at its kindest since we got to Esfahan, taking some of the joy out of the trip. It's rained every day and there was a thunderstorm last night, thankfully after we got back to our hotel. But we've managed to maximise our time in the sun, and kept to tea houses, covered bazaars and palaces during drizzly periods.
Yesterday (Friday) most shops and sights were closed, so we went south to Vank Cathedral, the Armenian church serving a community that's been in Esfahan since the Safavid era. It was a shock walking into the church: a sudden flood of figurative imagery, technicolour, wall to wall and floor to ceiling, after days of arabesques and geometric, abstract motifs broken only by the brown friezes of Perspeolis. The cathedral contained a mix of naive Armenian-style paintings and oils in the manner of Italian and Flemish renaissance works.
It became apparent exactly how much of a shock the nude sculptures of Indian temples must have been for Islamic rulers and their armies.
We took a cab to the easternmost of Esfahan's historical bridges, the Shahrestan bridge, built in the Seljuk era about 800 years ago, and walked west for about five kilometers from there. The river is almost non-existent right now, partly because of the season, and partly, I suspect, because of a dam visible beyond the Shahrestan bridge, but the walk was great fun nevertheless. It seemed that all the families in Esfahan were picnicking in gardens and parks along the river. There were barbeques going, and games of handball, impromptu singing sessions, card players, even a jogger or two.
I haven't seen a single mali at work in these parks, but a substantial percentage of the revenue of Esfahan's municipal corporation must go toward their upkeep. There's some elaborate topiary on view as well: hedges in the shape of everything from birds to teapots.
In the evening we returned to Imam Square, and got drawn into a conversation with a local couple and their friend who was visiting from Shiraz. In Iran it's almost impossible to avoid dinner and homestay invitations, and difficult to wriggle out once the invitation has been extended. It's a great place for people who like making friends in new places, but Jabeen and I tend to have a pretty tight schedule, and though we welcome conversations, we never commit to anything more.
Only one of the trio who engaged us at Imam square spoke any English, and then only a few broken sentences, but that didn't prevent us from being asked very elaborate questions through gestures. The woman wanted to know from Jabeen: How long have you been married? Why do you wear no wedding ring? Do you have children? Why not? And so on. Having learned we have different surnames, neither wear nor carry wedding-related paraphernalia, and have not bred any progeny, she began to suspect that we were not, in fact, man and wife.
In the end we got away lightly, accepting their offer of an ice-cream treat, a sickly sweet combination of falooda and vanilla softee, but dodging the invite for a drive to Khaju bridge, dinner at their home, and a double bed for the night.
In five hours we take an overnight bus to Tehran. We will get there at dawn, and hopefully find the hotel has understood our reservaion request and has a room waiting. Check out / Check in time in Iran is usually between 2 and 3 pm, which is great unless you arrive at dawn.