Shiraz, Iran

Bam is blistering hot. Even in mid-April the noon day sun beats down with a ferocity that sends me straight to the nearest teashop. So it was very early morning when I explored Bam’s main attraction, a four square kilometer walled ghost city. The Arg-e-Bam was inhabited over the last two millenia, abandoned only when fighting among its Muslim, Zoroastrian, and Jewish inhabitants drove people outside its walls. Most of the other mud-brick old cities I’ve visited in Iran are still inhabited, and in some ways the melancholy desertion of Bam makes it easier to imagine the thousands of years of soldiers, traders, craftsmen and housewives who have trod on its dusty lanes. It’s a complete but lifeless city, from the bazaars, to the mosques, to the citadel on a hilltop looking down on it and over its walls.

Sadly, the Iranian government has begun full restoration of parts of the city. Not only do the recently built perfectly formed structures interrupt your gaze over ruined ramparts and towers, but the modern yellow bricks look ridiculous next to the ancient sun-baked mud. Luckily, they have not yet reached far beyond the entranceway, so much of the city remains in spectacular shambles.

By the time the sun rose high in the sky, I headed for a teashop which I had staked out the day before. Since there are no bars and hardly any restaurants, Iranian teashops fill the void and are the social gathering place for Iranian men. They all have a similar look: whitewashed walls covered with paintings of the most important prophets, fluorescent lights, and a bit of a makeshift seating area. There is usually no music, but the shop is filled with the bubbling sound of water pipes which stand on each table with an unshaven old man attached to its end, looking like a permanent fixture. At first its a bit daunting to walk into one and sit down, but the routine has now become very familiar. I walk in and no one says hello, but they peer curiously and discretely. Slowly, the man most confident with english inches closer and closer, until finally he says “Hello Mister, What is your country?”

The string of questions is always the same. “How many days in Iran? You go Esfahan?” and so on. Gradually, the ice is broken until a man feels comfortable enough to tug painfully on my beard and say “You look like Iran man” which wakens the hubbly bubbly men into a cackling fit. Sometimes things get serious, and political commentary has not been unusual. When I comment on how beautiful Iran is, one man whined “Iran no good. No whiskey. No music.” Another offered to me “President Rafsanjani [at one time Khomeini’s hardliner for all practical matters], inside his home, heroine, cocaine. Outside the home, Allah akhbar!”