Reza's Travel Blog

Travels to Bombay and beyond...

January 30, 2005

Bombay, Iran 1996-97

Bombay, Iran, Dubai, Beas

Yes, Bombay is now Mumbai. I personally don’t like the name and continue to call it Bombay. Bombay continues to become more westernised. Cellular phones are everywhere, a new magazine is launched every month, ads are slick, people shop at Benneton, Mexx, Nike etc. I should point out that this is the lifestyle of the middle class and the rich. 60% (6 million) of Bombay’s population live in slums without running water or sewers. You do see an occasional satellite dish on top of a ramshackle hut. Getting a place to stay in Bombay is its biggest problem. Bombay is a relatively small island nestled by the west coast of India. There is no room for it to grow and so Bombay becomes more and more crowded as people from all over India pour in. Bombay is a mix of New York and Los Angeles. It is India’s financial and commercial capital, the main port, as well as the entertainment and film capital. The film industry here, called Bollywood, churns out fantastical movies where every 10 minutes the hero is chasing the heroine around a tree singing about her alluring beauty. Unfortunately, this year I did not get to see a good masala film (masala is Hindi for mix of hot spices). The cinemas were on strike. Last year when I was here I saw four - more than I had ever seen in all the time that I had lived in Bombay. Leaving a place makes you appreciate it more.

On this three week trip I have spent only about a week in Bombay. A couple days after I got here, I left for Iran with my mother for a week. We went to Tehran, where my mother’s family lives - her mother, two sisters and a brother. She has two sisters in California, a brother in England and another in Zanzibar, Tanzania. So eight children in all. My mother and her family lived in Zanzibar and only moved back to Iran 30 years ago. Now they are scattered all over the world. I use to go to Iran every year when I was a kid until 1977 before the revolution began. So I had not been back for almost 20 years. I did not remember a whole lot from my childhood visits except for making mischief and wanting to watch cartoons (we didn’t grow up with TV in Bombay). So this visit was with new eyes. Tehran reminded me a lot of Mexico City. It is a large city surrounded by mountains. So it shares the same problem - pollution. Iran seems to be doing better economically - there is a lot of construction activity going on. The average person has a hard life though. Inflation still chews a big hole in the pocket and though basic necessities are in no shortage, it is expensive. So where is all the oil money going - into the pockets of the mullah regime. I will avoid getting on a soap box for too long: Corruption exists all over, but corruption in the name of God and the Islamic Republic is very low in my eyes. The mullahs preach the virtues of Islam but are getting prosperously fat in their anonymous villas in the suburbs.

It was good to see my family and spend time with them. I went carpet shopping in the bazaar. One needs patience to carpet shop. You see hundreds of carpets and walk to shop after shop through the narrow, covered lanes filled with other shops selling everything from microwaves to safety pins. I knew the kind of carpet I wanted and it was only a matter of time before I found it lying under a dusty pile of other carpets. I did not find it the first day. In fact I did not find it until the day before I left. After seeing hundreds of carpets I found the one I wanted. It is not a typical Persian carpet (farsh) - which have mostly floral, ornamental designs. I bough a gilim - which is more “folksy” - a geometric design with primary colours. It is like the difference between a lush orchestral piece of music and a traditional folk dance.

My mother and I also went for day trips to Isfahan and Shiraz. Isfahan has some of Iran’s most beautiful mosques and buildings. The old saying goes - Isfanhan, nesf-e jehan - If you see Isfahan, you have seen half the world. Isfahan has been the seat of many dynasties of Iran, and their generous patronage left behind some of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen. Islamic art and architecture was so rich and sophisticated. It amazes me how they built these places with basic tools and a lot of muscles, sweat and brains.

Next stop was Shiraz, the city of roses and nightingales, the city of beautiful gardens, the city of two of Iran’s most famous poets - Saadi and Hafez. Shiraz lies in the hills and desert of Southern Iran (the land reminded me of West Texas by the Davis and Guadalupe mountains). My father’s family came from Shiraz, and thus my name. They had a shop in the bazaar - Bazaar-e Vakil. My grandfather chose to move to Bombay in the early part of this century and opened a shop here. The rest as they say is history.

An hour outside Shiraz are the ruins of Persopolis, the capital of the Achemenid dynasty of Persia (around the 4th Century) - its most famous king being King Darius. This was before the advent of Islam - the Achemenids were Zoarastrians (one of the oldest religions in the world). Inscribed on the walls of Pesopolis - I am King Darius, King of Kings, King of 28 nations. Yes, the empire ranged far and wide from Ethiopia to the Central Asia. Persopolis was burned down by Alexander as he raged over the continent of Europe and Asia and that ended the reign of the Achemenids. The entrance to Persopolis is guarded by two winged bulls with human torsos. My mother had been to Persopolis before - when she was expecting me. So I suppose it was the second time for me. I was peeping out of her belly button when I first came :-)

Back in Shiraz, among the places we visited were the tombs of Saadi and Hafez - the famous Sufi poets. I have read them both, but my favourite Sufi poet is still Rumi. His tomb is in Konya, central Turkey. Maybe someday I will visit it. Here is an excerpt from a poem by Hafez describing Shiraz:
If there be on Earth an Elysium of Bliss,
It is this, it is this, it is this.

Back in Tehran I went on a hike up one of the mountains that circle the city - Samuvac. Clear mountain air, towering birch trees, deep blue sky, a view of the whole city, snow capped Mt. Damavand (Iran’s highest peak) nestled among the other peaks of the Alborz range in the distance. Aah, this is bliss, this is bliss, this is bliss :-)

The last two days in Tehran, I spent visiting with my mother’s cousins and friends. They all remember the naughty kid I was. (My dad use to call my brother and me “ the Demolition Crew”) I don’t remember that :-)

On the way back to Bombay from Tehran, we stopped in Dubai (United Arab Emirates) for a day. Dubai has intentions of becoming the Singapore of the Middle East, which I have no doubt it can be. It is one of the cleanest and most efficient cities that I have been to: glass and steel skyscrapers, wide roads, big shopping centres – bland for the most part though . Dubai is a shopper’s paradise. The blurb for Dubai Airport is Fly, Buy, Dubai. I think that sums it up quite well.

I was back in Bombay for a day and then headed up to a small town - Beas - in the state of Punjab in north-western India. Beas is named after the river that runs by it - the river Beas. It is one of the five major rivers that run through this state. Punjab literally translates to five rivers. This state is famous for its farming and industry. It was the birthplace of the Sikh religion. I spent a peaceful week there with a few friends. An interesting historical note: Alexander the Great who I mentioned above ended his campaign across Europe and Asia at the banks of the River Beas. The story goes that he and his armies reached the river bank and a huge rainstorm turned the calm river into a flooded, raging torrent. His tired troops did not want to cross and they turned around. There is another more interesting story. When Alexander came to this area, he heard that there was a holy man that lived close by. He sent one of his men to tell the holy man to come and see him. But the holy man said, tell Alexander that if he wants to see me, he will have to come here. So Alexander went to see him. The holy man told him that you are the poorest man in the world. You have conquered and looted all these nations, but when you die, you will take nothing with you to your grave. This had an enormous impact on Alexander. Soon after turning around and returning through all the lands he conquered, Alexander died. He was only 31. He asked that when he was buried to have his hands outside the caskets, empty palms facing the sky to show that he had died empty handed.

I have spent my last few days of my vacation in Bombay hanging out with my family and friends, visiting some of my favourite restaurants, shopping a little and packing my bags. I am off to London for two days, before heading back to Austin. Three weeks, four countries - Phew! I will need a vacation to recover from this vacation :-)