2010
03.11

SYNOPSIS:  I took the bus to Shush – the ancient capital of the biblical Elamites, endured another day of staring and comments of all sorts, overheating all the same at 33 Celsius (in the 90’s Fahrenheit) under my scarf.  How even the mightiest of the mighty are reduced to dust.


Shush or Susa counts certainly among the most ancient cities Iran has to offer.  Recorded history puts the capital of the biblical Elamites here as early as 3000 BC.  That is impressive.  What is less impressive is what is left of it today.  Egypt’s pyramids stood the test of time, but little of that era remains here.  Shush continued its importance beyond the Elamites and under Darius in the 5th Century BC, a mighty Achaemenid palace city was built here, equaling Persepolis in power and importance.  You would never believe it looking at the few sad fragments of huge columns and the few broken double-horse pediments on site.  The most impressive structure at the vast, walled-in archaeological field is a medieval castle which turns out not to be medieval at all but a 19th century fortress, French archeologists erected in order to protect themselves from local bandits!

A city bus took me the 35 km to Shush for a mere 40 cents.  Same system as elsewhere:  The bus leaves when it is full.  After that, a new bus fills and leaves.  This amounts to about a bus every 15 minutes.  Bus etiquettes here are different from Syria or Lebanon.  Only same gender people are sitting next to each other unless they are family.  This results in frequent change of seating arrangements depending on who gets on and off.  For example, two men sat next to each other, one leaves and a woman gets on board.  She cannot sit next to that stranger but has to ask him to move next to another man so she can sit down either by herself or with another woman.  Today, we reached an impasse at one point.  Thankfully, there was a very old woman who then offered a very young man a seat next to her which he took after she assured him that it was all right.  I wonder if that was a breach of the law.

Another curious monument has made Shush famous for centuries.  Supposedly, the remains of biblical Daniel – the one who was thrown to the lions – are buried here and there is a shrine to commemorate him.  For hundreds of years this brought numerous Jewish pilgrims to the site, but after the stream of Jewish pilgrims dried up, Muslims continue to revere the shrine to this day.  The actual remains of Daniel (if they ever were his) are long gone.  They were last seen during the Mongol invasion of the 13th Century.  But the shrine is active.  The attractive and distinct spire-dome is from the 19th century.

Despite my scarf and my Iran-suitable outfit, I was asked to wear a chador in the shrine precinct.  That was a dilemma…  To ponder the problem, I headed to the women’s washroom.  There, in peace and quiet, I tried to figure this out.   The chador is a rectangular piece of cloth, usually black, which is worn by women in Iran all over.  Especially older women seem to prefer it over the alternative, a coat which is buttoned in the front and reaches to about your knees, called the manteau.   But many, many young women also wear it.  It is thinner and airier than the coat and in 33 degrees this makes a difference.  The problem is this:  It has to be held with one hand, the other hand disappears beneath.  I have seen women develop ways of wrapping the cloth under their arms, pulling it up with one hand, so that at least one hand remains functional.  But I have also seen this:  women keep their chador up with their teeth!  Yes, their teeth.  This is if they want to carry something or if they need both of their hands, for example, to get into the bus.  Quite frankly, this is insane, but this dress code is the law…

I swore that I would wear my loose western clothes and my coat in Iran so that I could keep my arms free, but here I was caught between a rock and a hard place.  I had to wear the chador but I also wanted to take pictures.  I was not going to use my teeth!  I was pondering the issue and searching through my backpack for a manifestation of a solution while observing the other women in the washroom.  The devout ones scrubbed their faces clean off all the makeup before entering the shrine.  The less devout made phone calls or ate sandwiches and I, the foreigner amongst them, kept digging in my backpack for a solution.  It was nice to be out of the sun and without a head scarf for a few minutes.  I found a paper clip!  Yippee – it did the trick.  I used it to fasten the chador under my chin, pulled up much of the fabric over my arms to relieve the paper clip of too much stress and had my hands free for the camera.  🙂  Thank goodness, I did not throw that paper clip away.  I remember thinking of it at the time and by some good inspiration, I kept it.  Out here there is use for almost everything sooner or later.

I entered the shrine. It was the typical setup.  A square shrine partitioned between the male and the female section.  Silver grid covered, with green cloth, under a mirror-silver dome.  Women were found in a variety of activities.  The devout ones prayed, kissed the shrine, were even found crouching on the floor saying prayers with their prayer beads.   The less devout were making phone calls, playing with their kids; one was charging her batteries.  Taking pictures is no problem.  I even said a prayer.  After all, as a teenager, I once memorized a 10 page poem by Peter Hertzsch dedicated to Daniel in the lion’s den.  Wish, I remembered any of it.

A small museum next to the archaeological field displayed some pots and a few more fragments of this or that.  That was about all you could do in Shush/Susa.  It breaks my heart to think of how much we have destroyed through wars and simply lost through time.  Rolling hills of dust and sand is all that is left.  One more testimony of the Elamites is ahead of me at Choqa Zanbil – a ziggurat, Nicola and I will see in a few days.

One good byproduct of traveling with Nicola may be that it will get easier to endure the constant and not always pleasant attention I am getting as a single foreigner.  My clothes and probably my face, too, give me away as a stranger instantly.  Every head turns, cars honk, teenagers whistle, and especially young guys make remarks in Farsi which I don’t even want to guess in translation.  The most harmless ones are when the few words in English they know are pulled out:  How are you?  Where are you from?  Hello?  Good.  Russia?  But when there is constant laughter and kids are following me, I have to take a deep breath and keep going.  It is uncomfortable and rude.  This is not the curiosity, I encountered in Syria.  I perceive it as harassment.

One on one the situation is different.  I have gone to the internet, eaten at the restaurant, had ice cream, etc.  In those cases, there is a friendly inquiry about where I am from, perhaps, about my name.  The situation on the street, however, is daunting.  I will have to develop a shell to endure this for another 45 days.  I am sure that if I had a man at my side – even a foreign man, this would not happen.  If there were a local man with me, I think it would be even less likely.  But I am alone and therefore an easy target.  Nothing is threatening.  Just hugely annoying and challenging on a mental level.  I just want to be left alone but it won’t happen soon, I guess.  Perhaps, in Esfahan and Shiraz where foreigners are part of the daily picture, things will change a bit.  I can only hope.

Good night.