DECIPHERING THE BLUE (Pt. 3) | Isfahan
Everyone in Isfahan owns a copy of Hafez | Truth
While the eternal poet might not be as revered in Isfahan as he is a few hours further down south in Shiraz (where his tomb rests and a garden commemorates his verses that have endured over time), his is still a presence that is hard to pass by. Isfahan infuses a certain rare romance into your soul, and Hafez lies at the heart of this amorous conspiracy. The people here are polite to a fault, their courtesy and hospitality sometimes expressed in shy overtures, often conveyed through impromptu invitations to their homes, a meal, and the obligatory cups of chai. Even in the midst of its frequent traffic jams and beneath the sway of haze and pollution emanating from the city’s industry-thick fringes, there is a cadence to the streets and to the way of life inhabiting them. And often, it seems as though it is Hafez who is chief instigator in Isfahan’s distinguishable air.
Most homes, cafés, and restaurants here carry a few volumes of his poetry. At Café Narvan (9 Qeysarieh Bazaar, North Sq., Naqsh-e Jahan), the frozen in time simplicity merges with a bohemian atmosphere that results in note-perfect spinach pasta and excellent renditions of cosmopolitan coffee residing snugly beside a variety of flower and spice infused teas that can only ever be old world. As the exotic petals imbue their creations with sudden magical floods of turquoise and cerise, Hafez stares down at you from seven beautifully etched volumes perched on a shelf. In another example, Firouz Sherbet (Hakim Nezami St., Jolfa Quarter) – the tiniest of chai khanehs, or teahouses, with every inch of its décor and walls embellished with art and blue-kissed beauty – also welcomes you with a few of his volumes. Hafez’s verses are known to be a marker of the future here in Isfahan; you silently express a desire, someone intimate with the craft turns to a random page and a specific line from one of his volumes, and the words either confirm or deny the destiny of that particular desire.
There is much beauty here, but not much style | Myth
Amidst all the days-gone-by essence and a vibe that appears frozen in centuries past, Isfahan surprises you with its own interpretations of contemporary. The young are restless here, as they are anywhere in the world. And creative expression is rife, using Isfahan’s celebrated art forms of miniatures, ceramics, and vividly coloured tiles, and evolving them into something fresh and tangible.
At Hermes Café, for instance (Jolfa Alley, Nazar St.), modernist chandeliers and a plush black-and-white palette create a somewhat cubist dining environment, housing pastas, pizzas, burgers, and the ultimate nod to modern playfulness – a built-in Instagram machine. The Abbasi Hotel’s Courtyard Teahouse (Amadegah St.) is a prime example of old-world artistry meeting modern-day flair. It’s located within the caravanserai-turned-luxury complex’s gardens, and provides a collage of atmosphere, history, fountains, excellent Continental and Persian fare, and front-row seats to Isfahan’s stylish set. Your firmest proof of the city’s sophisticated accents can be found in the people though, especially some of the young women, their increasingly nonconforming hijabs embroidered with patterns and inflections, their clothes hinting at an elegance closer to that found in Tehran, their minds increasingly gravitating towards cultural examinations, creative pursuits, and even political emergence.
Tourists are few and far between | Truth
And such a giddily happy truth it is, too. While Iran may be opening up slowly and tourist arrivals might only increase in the days to come, this is still a land some way off the usual radar. Paranoid global media and preconceived notions having cemented their influence over the years, tourists in particular are loathe to veer too far from the established roadmap; it’s the intrepid traveller who usually has Iran, and in turn, Isfahan, on his or her mind. In a way, you hope that Iran’s cloistered status remains intact, to an extent, thus protecting it from influx and globalisation’s usual formulaic ways. There’s a particular charm in exploring a canvas relatively untainted by the usual tourist traps, in viewing and immersing yourself in images gathered from an untainted prism, in getting to the heart and soul of whatever constitutes place.
And this is a place where saffron farms collude with pomegranate orchards and rosewater carnivals, a place where mounds of crumbly, doughy nan-lavash and nan-sangak form the heartbeat of every breakfast, a place where the kiss of saffron and the playfulness of unprocessed sugar swizzle sticks greet you in elaborate tea ceremonies; a place complex in nature, its mother country sometimes teetering on the edge of authoritarianism before finding a way towards something resembling moderation, a place where a large nuclear research facility lives hand in hand with artistry and poetry that can be hard to shake; a place where filtering the truths from the myths is a continually rewarding process. In Isfahan, as it turns out, yesterday and today are fluid, and ultimately, interchangeable concepts.
Final Part of a 3-Part Series. First appeared as the Cover Feature in National Geographic Traveller, India (August, 2017) ~ http://www.natgeotraveller.in/paradise-found-uncovering-the-layers-of-irans-most-elusive-city/*