When I was dressed like a penguin and handed a red rose flower, I knew it was going to be a unique and memorable sojourn.
This was the trip to Iran. My maiden travel to the Middle East part of the world, Iran. I was visiting the country to attend a media event dubbed ‘Khorsheedmediafest’ loosely translated as ‘sun’, symbolizing ‘to enlighten’.
Unlike reservations expressed by some of those who I had informed, based on undeniable narratives about Iran-majorly from western media depictions, your guess is as good as mine. I was upbeat about the travel and was looking forward to exploring the country and its people.
But I had to make some little adjustments. Being an Islamic country, it was obvious that I would be needed to cover my hair and put on maxi dresses or trousers. That called for a little shopping to add onto what I have in my closet as a coastal lady.
The festival was held in the City of Masshad, they call it a Holy City. How I wish my flight to the country was during day time. It was a night flight from Doha, Qatar and I landed at the Airport in Mashhad City at midnight. At this point, I covered my hair before stepping out of the plane. But when I stepped out of the plane, I knew I was going to have an awesome stay; that culture shift was in itself quite an experience.
The night air was fresh, the weather just cool, neither cold nor hot. While I was being ushered in and led to the exit, it occurred to me that we were a number of us, journalists. Female journalists from 45 countries across the world were attending the festival, a four-day event themed Women narrate, Illuminate, Illustrate, and Initiate Change.
Before I could say ‘Hi’ to my fellow scribes, we were all handed red rose flowers by a Persian lady who later at the event played the role of a translator. With my characteristic broad smile, I took a moment to smell the rich scent of the red rose. On our way to our accommodation, I noticed it had rained as the streets were well lit. We were caught up in a little traffic, thoughts of the traffic snarl-ups in my home city of Nairobi will cross my mind.
But how would I inform my folks that I have landed in Iran? My local cell phone lines could not roam in this part of the world. I had to be connected to Iran cell though my phone’s connection was a bit erratic. Once I was connected, I realized there was free Wi-Fi, not just at the hotel, but also along the streets we visited.
My first meal was breakfast, I had travelled with a colleague from one of the media houses in Kenya. It was a quite task for us trying to choose what to eat, we could hardly tell what food it was. We had been served buffet, but I remember going for bread, butter and black tea, then juice. I would settle on something, it was a stick that had large crystals of sugar stack around it, I thought it was candy and kept it aside to gobble later, only to realize it was sugar that I was to stir in my tea. Persians’ sugar stirred in tea is not the usual small tiny crystals scooped on a teaspoon. Theirs is a large crystal stuck around a small stick, mimicking mshakiki; it’s called Persian Nabat or Saffron Sugar Sticks.
I had wanted to serve boiled eggs, but noticed the shells were white. I couldn’t ask, so I didn’t serve. You see there is language barrier, we had served a bit late and we couldn’t find our translators. We had to make do with what was familiar to us at that point and time.
Our first trip was to a health facility. I would call the travel here an eye-opener, our bus driver was a woman. I had mixed feelings, based on what I have heard, shocked, and at the same time encouraged. She told me she had been in the business for the last 3 years. At the hospital, I noticed most of the employees from the maid servant to the high-level doctor, were women.
Our next meal was lunch. I served fish, chicken and rice. At dinner time, I had made some new native friends. Though their English is not as eloquent, we could nonetheless understand each other. There was lamb meat, they call it Kebab, vegetables like brinjals among other familiar foods.
It was obvious I wouldn’t serve the foods I knew, I had found a native friend: I had to sample their foods. I sampled a few, and I really liked the ‘Fesenjun’. It comes across as our Biriani, but the stew is of ground walnuts, pomegranate molasses, cubes of chicken breast and saffron served with rise. Mark, you, I had spotted the fesenjun at lunch time but I had not dared to serve.
While serving, I noticed there was quail meat, it was next to chicken. I wasn’t going to serve quail; no, but my friend did. She however didn’t serve chicken. Out of curiosity I wanted to know why she picked quail over chicken. She told me the two delicacies cannot be consumed together. Persians describe meat out of animal’s behaviour. Quail is descried hot owing to its wild behaviour, while chicken is cold meat.
My highlight in Masshad City was a visit to Imam Reza Shrine. It started with the dressing. All of us were dressed like Penguins and covered to our toes with a pair of socks. At the gate, we were given red rose flowers. Then we walked into the museum. It was breath-taking, I must admit. The ambience, the ancient walls, a sight to behold.
Imam Reza’s holy shrine is the most significant element giving identity to the Holy city of Mashhad. Mashhad means a place where a martyr was buried. The City is of exceptional examples formed based on the Shia’s and pilgrimage culture. Imam Reza, the eighth of twelve Imams of the Shia Muslims was buried at the shrine. Millions of pilgrims visit the highly revered shrine every year.
My stay in Mashhad city wound up with a visit to the Great Khorassan Museum, one that was filled with awe; the beautiful and sparkling gemstones safely locked in transparent glass stands, were a sight to be-hold. From emeralds, turquoise, demantoid, quartz, just to mention a few.
In Tehran, the capital of City of Iran, I was reminded of our capital City, Nairobi. From the weather, businesses, to traffic, motorbikes are in plenty and move at a supersonic speed same to the vehicles. The city is densely populated. Tehran’s population during day time is 14 million people. At night, the number goes down to 11million owing to commuters leaving the city and retreating to their homes. In down town, at some point I could catch some smell of stinky sewage in the air.
One thing I also noticed is, women and men don’t shake hands in this part of the world.
We moved in groups and of course with the locals; remember the language barrier. We got an opportunity to do some shopping and our translators came in handy. It was a hard time for them I must say, negotiating for each one of us in the group; and Kenyans are renowned for the art. One thing, I noticed, is that items in Iran are relatively cheap. Transaction is done in Iranian rial or dollar. I remember facing a few challenges though when I gave out 100 dollars and the shopkeepers could hardly get some ‘change’ for it. It forced one of the event organizers to pay for the items. I sorted him out at the hotel where we had been accommodated, the Ferdowsi International Grand Hotel. I remember giving out a 50 dollar note and I got a whole bunch of Iranian notes, some written 500,000 Iranian rial. I had to keep this as souvenir.
The hallmark of my trip was a meeting with the Iranian President at a round table. It was at one of the conference rooms at the House of the Leader. They call it the House of the Leader, instead of State House or White House. The President, Ebrahim Raisi, emphasized to journalists the need to find the right narrative while reporting and creating the real perception in the mind of people.
The Khorsheed media festival which is scheduled to be marked after every two years seeks to discuss women’s role in helping raise their voice and shape public opinion on the true status of women in various countries across the world.
It was very exciting and memorable. Indeed, the foray was worthwhile and has definitely expanded my understanding of the world we live in.