Photo Essay: Iran Through a Canadian Lens

“Iranian hospitality has stolen our hearts”

 

By Muslim and Nevin Harji

Muslim (right) and Nevin Harji just before their journey from Istanbul to Tehran. The Harjis write: ‘We have travelled by train in China, Africa, India, South East Asia, Europe, Canada, the United States and many other places in the world, but this train ride from Istanbul to Tehran tops them all, with the possible exception of the train ride through the Canadian Rockies.” Photo: Muslim Harji collection, Montreal, PQ, Canada. © Copyright.

Editor’s Note: Muslim and Nevin Harji of Montreal, PQ, Canada, have returned from an extensive trip through Iran where they felt the warmth of the Iranian people and experienced their rich culture. They recently shared their magnificent collection of photos with their relatives and friends around the world, including Simerg. With the Harjis’ permission, we are now sharing their story and photos with our world-wide readers in two parts. In this first instalment, we present a portrait of the deeply affectionate Iranian people and their simple, yet delightful, foods. In the second instalment, we will be showing some of the architectural splendours of Iran along with a unique selection of photos of the legendary and historical fortress of Alamut, where Ismaili rule lasted for over one hundred and fifty years after the fall of the Fatimid Empire. An account of their adventure follows.

During October 2012 we made an extensive and exhaustive four week trip through Turkey and Iran, with a brief stopover in Dubai. We used only local means of transportation – local trains, Savaris (equivalent to Kenya’s matatu), local buses, long distance buses (Volvos or Mercedes VIP buses), metros, ferry boats and anything that had wheels or could float. We spent the first few days in Istanbul where we visited the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.

ISTANBUL’S MOSQUES

The mystical city Istanbul hosted many civilizations since centuries, of which Byzantium and Ottoman Empires were both the most famous ones. The city today carries the characteristics of these two different cultures and surely Hagia Sophia is a perfect synthesis where one can observe both Ottoman and Byzantium effects under one great dome. Once a church, later a mosque, and now a museum at the Turkish Republic, Hagia Sophia has always been the precious of its time. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. © Copyright.

The cascading domes and six slender minarets of the Sultanahmet Mosque (better known as the "Blue Mosque") dominate the skyline of Istanbul. In the 17th century, Sultan Ahmet wished to build an Islamic place of worship that would be even better than the Hagia Sophia, and the mosque named for him is the result. The two great architectural achievements now stand next to each other in Istanbul's main square, and it is up to visitors to decide which is more impressive. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. © Copyright.

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THE SCENIC TRAIN RIDE

Istanbul to Tehran distance is approximately 2000 kilometres (1200 miles). At Lake Van, the Harjis took a ferry to cross it, and continued their journey to Tehran. Map adapted from Wikipedia.

From Istanbul, we took the “midnight express” to Tehran. The five-day journey took us across the whole of Turkey’s Anatolia plains, across Lake Van (the site of the recent earthquake) on a rickety ferry, into Northern Iran and finally to Tehran. We have travelled by train in China, Africa, India, South East Asia, Europe, Canada, the United States and many other places in the world, but this train ride from Istanbul to Tehran was astounding and topped them all (with the exception of the Via Rail ride through the Canadian Rockies).

The view from the train cabin. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. © Copyright.

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OUR MONTH LONG JOURNEY

When we arrived in Tehran we found it to be a bustling, fast moving city with a population of 16 million people, and with the craziest drivers in the world. After a few days in Tehran, we ventured up North into the Alborz Mountain range to the quaint village of Ghazor Khan, the base of the historic Alamut Castle. The next morning we trekked up to Alamut Castle – quite an uphill hike! From Alamut, we bussed back to Esfahan via Tehran. Naqshe-e-Jahan, the heart of Esfahan, is surrounded by the Char Baghs and is one of the most wonderful sights we have ever seen. No words can describe this heaven on earth. From there, we crossed through Southern Iran to Shiraz via Yazd, Chak Chak, and Persopolis, and after just about a month on the road, took a flight home via Dubai in early November.

Attaining the summit at Alamut is a breath-taking and exhilarating experience. The fortress complex, one soon discovers, sits astride a dangerously narrow ledge of rock resembling the handle and blade of a knife. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. © Copyright. More photos of Alamut to follow in the next instalment.

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PORTRAITS FROM IRAN

Iran is full of rich culture and history with contributions in all facets of human progress and endeavour – in science, math, logic, poetry, engineering; the people of Iran have a love for nature; parks and gardens abound, and families picnic in the parks; the Iranian people have a love of humanity – they are outgoing, friendly, generous to each other as well as to visitors; they are also deeply passionate with deep running emotions, they are fun loving and full of spirit; everyone recites and writes poetry.

Muslim and Nevin Harji (2nd and 5th from left respectively) seen with their Ismaili hosts in Teheran. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. © Copyright.

Iranian women have it all – charm, fun, and intelligence. The Harjis found this student lively, full of intelligence and great at debating. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. © Copyright

Ablution before prayers at the Jummah Mosque, Shiraz. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. © Copyright.

A couple in Gazor Valley enjoying dinner and whispering the love verses of Saadi and Hafez to each other. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. © Copyright

Nevin Harji with a group of Iranian High school students and their teacher visiting the Imam Mosque (Masjid-e Jam 'e Abbasi) in Esfahan. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. © Copyright.

A portrait of an elder at the Albozor Mountain. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. © Copyright

At Alamut, meeting with the team of experts from University of Tehran in charge and overlooking the excavation project. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. © Copyright

"Tehran by night" with the Ismaili family. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. © Copyright

A Jummah (Friday) picnic in the park. Family and family time is highly valued in Iran. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. © Copyright

There are no words to describe the hospitality, kindness, love and gentleness of the Iranian people. So far we have ventured into over forty countries, but never have we experienced such generosity. Our bodies may be back in Montreal, but Iranian hospitality has stolen our hearts which are probably somewhere either in Esfahan or Shiraz.

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THE FOODS OF IRAN

As a general description, food in Iran tends to be colorful, healthy and simple. Taste is added via herbs, light spices and fruit and the resulting dishes are mild as opposed to spicy. To taste true Iranian food, it is necessary to eat at an Iranian’s home. Most restaurants in Iran limit the food they sell to different types of kebabs and there is, therefore, very little variety.

Nan Sangak (stone bread), is the most famous and most delicious Iranian bread. Nan Sangak is baked over hot small pieces of rocks/stones. Photo: Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. © Copyright.

Nan Sangak (stone bread), is the most famous and most delicious Iranian bread. Nan Sangak is baked over hot small pieces of rocks/stones. Nan or Noun in Persian language means bread, and Sang means rock or stone. Iranians eat most of their traditional foods with Nan Sangak. Iranians love Nan Sangak for breakfast, lunch and dinner! There are Nan Sangak bakeries in every corner of every street, thus Iranians rarely make nans at home.

Fresh nans off the stone tandoor. Calling home...how many? while another customer has his palm full. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. © Copyright

Dried Fruit and Nut shop, Tehran. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. © Copyright

...And more nuts. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. © Copyright

One of the distinctions of the Iranian cuisine is the subtlety of the seasonings, which limits the use of garlic so as not to offend others. Onions and garlic are used only with discretion, but cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, saffron, paprika, nutmeg, turmeric and dill are used with artistry: never overpowering, always gently enhancing the main ingredients.

One of the distinctions of the Iranian cuisine is the subtlety of the seasonings, which limits the use of garlic so as not to offend others. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. © Copyright

To balance the natural sweetness of fresh and dried fruits used so often in cooking, the Iranian cook adds judicious amounts of tartness by using one of the following: VERJUICE, the sour juice of unripe grapes, lemon or lime juice, strips of dried limes, dried tangerine peel or tamarind. Powdered SUMAC, with its chili-powder appearance and sour taste, is a seasoning often used for broiled meats. Pomegranate juice and seeds are often used both for color and tartness.

Fruit and vegetable stall in the bazaar. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. © Copyright

The climate of the Middle East is conducive to growing fruits, and the orchards and vineyards of Iran produce fruits of legendary flavor and size. These are not only enjoyed fresh and ripe as desserts, but are also imaginatively combined with meats and form unusual accompaniments to main dishes.

While the eggplant is the “potato of Iran,” Iranians are fond of fresh green salads dressed with olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper and a little garlic. Vegetables such as pumpkins, spinach, string beans, varieties of squashes and carrots are commonly used in rice and meat dishes.

Trucks carrying dried fruits and nuts selling on the highway. When certain fresh fruits are not available or are in short supply, a large variety of excellent dried fruits, such as dates, figs, dried apricots and peaches are used instead. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. © Copyright

Our hostess in Esfahan had especially prepared Basmati rice with berries, kebabs, lentil barley soup and a mixed garden salad. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. © Copyright

If you are fortunate enough to experience Iranian hospitality, then you will be extremely surprised by their warmth and eagerness to ensure that you are well looked after. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. © Copyright

Dizi, or Ab-Goosht, is one of the most traditional Iranian food, that is eaten with Nan Sangak. Goosht in Persian language means meat, and Ab means water, so Ab-Goosht means water and meat. It is cooked mainly by boiling beans and legumes, meat, potato, tomato, onion, and a lot of water. Eating Dizi has its own tradition and techniques! You must soak your nan in the sauce of dizi and enjoy it with soft-boiled meat and vegetables on the side.

Leisurely enjoying a Chelo Kebab, Doough, (lassi) and a traditional Dizi. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. © Copyright

Dining in Iran is a leisure activity...No fast food, no rush, just pure pleasure. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. © Copyright

Many traditional dining rooms have live recitals of gazals (poetry) while the patrons are dining. The recital is usually accompanied by a santoor, a lute, a duff, and a violin. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. © Copyright

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 IRAN’S NATIONAL BEVERAGE

The national beverage of Iran is sweet, clear tea, often sipped through a sugar cube. Sweet tea starts the day, breaks the work hours, may accompany social or business engagements and sometimes meals.

Agha's Chai shop in Shiraz, where he sells different varieties of teas. This tea shop has been in Agha's family for generations. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. © Copyright

A street vendor in Tehran serving steaming hot chai. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. © Copyright

Muslim Harji and friends savouring Agha's hospitality. Sharing a cup of chai with Agha's family on a Jummah picnic, Darvaz-e-Quran Park, Shiraz. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. © Copyright.

Date posted: Monday, February 20, 2012

Last updated: Thursday, February 24, 2012.

Next (Week of February 27, 2012): The Ismaili Fortress of Alamut.

© Copyright: Muslim/Nevin Harji. February 2012.

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About the writers: Nevin and Muslim Harji live happily in Montreal, where, over the last 35 years, they have raised two children and run a successful business. Upon retirement in 2004, Muslim and Nevin truly started to explore the world. All told, together and individually, they have visited more than 40 countries around the globe, experiencing the beauty of the Middle East, the exoticism of Asia and the wonders of South America. Kayaking the Magellan Straights, exploring Palmyra by camel, hiking up to Alamut Fort in Iran or travelling by overnight train in India, Nevin and Muslim have always favoured unique ways of experiencing the countries they visit and plan to continue fostering their love for travelling the world.

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26 thoughts on “Photo Essay: Iran Through a Canadian Lens

  1. Thanks for sharing. Beautiful pictures. Fun to meetup with different people and different lifestyles. Keep on traveling and have fun while you have your good health. May you always have fun and enjoy more travels. Ya Ali Madad.
    Rozmin and Taj Awadia

  2. Iran to me always seemed far away and remote but having read your stories and seeing all those beautiful pictures makes me want to go to Istanbul and Iran! I would love to travel the same route you and Nevin travelled. Enjoy your travels and am looking forward to more stories. Thank You!

  3. Simerg – you wet my appetite! Thanks so much for making Muslim and Nevin Harji’s remarkable adventure available to us to view. So useful to prove to us that our bretheren Ismailis live also in Iran so peacefully as they do in the world over. Many thanks!

  4. Dearest Muslim-Uncle and Nevin-Auntie,

    Marvelous pictures. Thank you. Do please come and visit us soon in NYC (we live in the posh borough called Jersey City!)….. Mawlana Rumi remembers the two of you fondly (your marbles and twirling dervish). Nasim-baji is with us for the month.

    Salaam aleikum, Kelly

  5. Fabulous. Looking forward to part 2 of your piece. Your love of travelling and documenting your adventures is very evident and much appreciated as it transports the reader to that place and moment in time. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Thanks to Navin and Muslim for sharing these beautiful photos. It is interesting that I’ve barely seen these pictures of Iran in the media here.

  7. Enjoyed your article thoroughly. I have studied in Istanbul. Its a lovely city with amazing beauty. Thank you for sharing.

  8. HI Muslim and Nevin,

    These photos remind me of the beautiful television serie called “Inside Islam”, which gave me many hours of joy learning of the beauty and affability of the muslim people and Muslim Culture.

    You are beautiful people and I miss you a lot.

    Thank you,

    Alain

  9. Thank you for sharing your experience of a wonderful trip. Photos are so lovely that tell a tale. Your piece is a very good source of encouragement for many more people to do the same. Good luck on your next trip and keep us posted.

    Fazale Laxmidhar, Mississauga.

  10. Navin and Muslim,

    You are very lucky to visit all these beautiful places, and sharing your experience with every one. Your piece made me feel that I was travelling too. First when we got married my husband had a choice either to choose Iran or Scotland. I chose Iran in 1979, but unfortunately We couldn’t go there because of the political upheavels then. I am still longing to visit Iran and Turkey one day.

    Enjoy your travelling.

    Jameela Khalfan

  11. Pictures speak louder than words…you have encapsulated the love, beauty, hospitality, values and culture of a country and its wonderful people through spectacular photography that speak volumes! Keep on travelling and capture the richness and beauty of this vast and diverse world for us!

  12. You two definitely have a lot of energy. You know very well how to enjoy the native culture and life. We admire your adventurous spirit.

    Mehdi Shallwani and family

  13. Lucky you. You have worked for this luxury of travel and hospitality of the brotherhood. I am sure this will prompt a lot of Ismailis of your taste for travel and discover even more of the treasures our pluralism will bring for us.

    Well Done.

  14. We have been to the Middle East and Gulf as well as Africa. All places are beautiful and people are kind and generous and very hospitable. I don’t understand why other countries would wish to destroy Iran’s rich Muslim heritage.

  15. Nevin and Muslim
    Really enjoyed reading about your travel experience – makes us appreciate the art, culture and warm hospitality of the Iranian people – we need to learn more about that rich culture which has made a major contribution to our human civilization…

    Thank you!

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