Zurkhaneh – “House of Strength”

One of the most unique experiences I have had in Iran was getting to watch the zurkhaneh, an ancient mix of sport and religion that is thousands of years old. I am told that it began during a time when the Iranians were ruled by other nations and they were not allowed to train for war. They created this form of exercise to represent said training but incorporated ritual and religion into it, primarily Sufism along with Mithraism.

The one hour performance is accompanied by the singing and drumming by a leader who is singing verses from the Iranian epic the Shahnameh as well as poetry from Hafez.

Each of the exercises is designed to represent a different weapon:

Representing the Sword

Representing the Mace

Representing the Bow & Arrow


In Which I Wear Hijab

Your reading this will mean that I have successfully made it to Iran and found wifi. I am more worried about this second bit, though I will confess that nerves have fully set in (along with the excitement)! 

I am currently on the plane to Tehran after having met a lovely woman in the airport who showed me all of her photos of Yazd, a city I will be going to. We communicated in broken English and lots of oohs and ahhs. She was quite excited that this is my first time in Iran…and my first hijab experience. 

Speaking of hijab, I will look like I am wearing a blanket on my head compared to all of the other women in their stylish scarves. I look forward to mastering the art of wearing it, but I also am certain I will be glad to remove it. Most of the women on this flight are not wearing it. Should be interesting to see the frenzy as we all put them on before landing.

Now, the adventure truly begins. To all of you who love me in spite of my so called insanity, who have supported me even when you sometimes had to fake it, I am eternally grateful. And I promise that I will be safe, careful, and respectful of Iranian laws and customs. 

What to Read Before a Journey

When taking an international trip, I spend a lot of time preparing myself, physically and emotionally, by reading a variety of books about or set in said country. Here are the types of books that I typically read prior to a journey.

Travel Guides
I always begin with travel guides, but the difficult part is deciding which travel guide to choose from. Lonely Planet, National Geographic, Rick Steves, Rough Guides, Frommers and many more! Don’t just buy what’s at your local book store simply because it’s there, you can spend a lot of money on information that is free online or difficult to navigate. After purchasing more than a couple of travel books from a variety of Publishers, here are my top publishers:

Lonely Planet: This is by far my favorite, and it’s the easiest to find in your local book store. I think they do an excellent job of laying out information in an easy to read and interesting manner. My least favorite is by Bradt. I find the information is dense, doesn’t intrigue, and is generally more tedious to read. Before you buy any travel books, be sure to check out your local library. I found the Iran Lonely Planet there, saved myself $20.

In addition to tradition travel guides, keep your eye out for cultural and language guides. I’m currently reading a well written cultural guide to Iran published by Culture Smart Guides. Remember, even if you’re going to an English speaking country, the culture can still be quite different than our own!


Who has time for work with all of these books?!?

Historical Fiction
Reading fiction stories set in your destination country can help understand a culture and ignite your imagination. Prior to my trip to Turkey, I read a number of entertaining stories by Jason Goodwin, setting the stage of the Ottoman Empire and the age of the Sultans. I read “The Persian Boy” about Alexander the Great’s time in Persia in preparation for my upcoming trip to Iran. To find a good historical fiction set in a particular country, just do some googling (and let me know if you need help!).

Non-fiction is an especially good way to understand more about the political situation in a certain country. For Iran, I’ve already read “Jasmine and Stars: Reading More than Lolita in Tehran” as well as “Iran Awakening.” I’m also currently reading a couple of memoirs written by women (modern and not) who have lived and traveled in the Middle East. I’ve learned a lot about the current political setting as well as some history of how we got where we are now. And, I’ve been inspired by the people who have traveled before me. Again, a good Google search will be a great source of suggested books.

Culturally Important Books
Last, but certainly not least, I try to read books or stories that have cultural significance for the locals. Reading books that they love and admire can give you a great window into the culture. For example, in Iran I’m reading the Shahnameh, or Book of Kings. It is the National Epic Story of the Iranian people, detailing the historic (and non-historic) link between the early Zoroastrians and the Muslim conquest and subsequent rule. I’m also reading Hafez, an Iranian poet who is beloved by Iranians. I’ll even be going to his tomb while I’m there.

Reading prior to a trip is a great way of traveling long before your actual trip takes place. It helps mentally gear you up while teaching and entertaining you at the same time.


There are a number of cooking classes in Turkey created just for tourists. I was tempted to look into them more, but then it dawned on me… I don’t like to cook!  I prefer eating, so at most, I think I’ll stick to a culinary tour. BUT, I was just reading about an art form called Ebru.  Ebru is an art form in which ink is floated on water and swirled into various patterns. Paper is then set lightly on top, thus soaking up the color.  I love art and trying new mediums, so I thought, I wonder if there are any courses for tourists in Istanbul?  And lo-and-behold there are!

Here are some courses that are available for my future reference:

"Women and Islam" lecture

Tonight I had the privilege of attending a lecture at the Rosegarden Turkish American Cultural Center here in Portland. I signed up for their mailing list a while ago to follow any Turkish language classes and read about this lecture in one of the emails they sent out.  It was given by Dr. Sophia Pandya from California State University, Long Beach, and I really enjoyed it.

First, I should tell you how nervous I was when I arrived.  The building is pretty much unmarked, the only reason I knew I was in the right place was because I saw women with the hijab entering.  I wondered if I was inappropriately dressed (tank top and capris) but decided to venture in and find out.  When I came in the door, there were only men, so I tol done who approached me that I was there for the lecture and he walked me to a room where the women were waiting.  So in I walk, only about 1/3 of the women wore hijab but I was definitely showing more skin than anybody else.  I asked if I should cover up and they said absolutely not, from then on they did nothing but smile at me, introduce themselves, and inquire as to who I was.  They were simply lovely.  One young woman I met, named Selen, was especially helpful. She has been here in the US for about 2 years having come from Istanbul. Her husband got a job here so she’s working on a Master’s degree at PSU in Engineering.  She graciously answered my questions, made sure I understood where to go and when (not that it was complicated, I just didn’t want to offend anybody so was slightly more careful than normal).

The lecture itself was an excellent introduction for me. Even though I have a B.A. and a Master’s degree in Religion, both degrees focused on Christianity. I know so little about the history of Islam as well as the culture.  Dr. Pandya started by showing us clips of American movies and shows depicting Arabs.  It was horrifying.  American’s have done such a great job of depicting Arabic Men as evil and dangerous and Arabic Women as timid and beaten.  We have depicted Arab nations as being backwards and uneducated.  It made me think about what a responsibility Hollywood has to be more cautious about its’ depictions of other cultures. Hollywood has the power to do a lot of harm to people.

In discussing the patriarchy of Islam, Dr. Pandya started by reminding us that the Prophet Mohammed was actually quite progressive. He made it so that women could inherit property, he consulted women on matters of faith, and he in general made life a bit easier for women.  The patriarchal part of Islam came later when the center of the Islamic Empire was moved from Damascus to Persia.  There, Islam encountered Zoroastrianism, which as it turns out was very patriarchal.  Unfortunately, Islam picked up may of its’ ideas from Zoroastrianism that often hurt women.  It was interesting to understand that history. I did some research on Zoroastrianism in Graduate school, but really only focused on early Zoroastrianism, nothing past Jesus.  I do believe that Zoroastrianism played a huge part in the apocalyptic world of Judaism and Christianity, but I had never thought about some of the other roles it had played. I need to do more research on it I guess.

I really loved the stories of women here in American who are helping to change how Americans view Islam as well as the face of Islam as a whole.  There is a movement called the Hizmet (which means service) also known as the Gulen Movement that is focused on inter-faith dialogue, education, and helping people who are in need.  I gather that the Rosengarden Center here in Portland is part of the Hizmet movement.  They put on meals during Ramadan for non-Muslims to introduce us to their practices and to share their beliefs in general.

I’ve emailed Dr. Pandya to see if I can get a copy of her presentation because there were some other points that I want to share (but silly me didn’t bring a notebook to take notes).  Overall, I’m so glad I went!  I will definitely be going back to the Rosegarden for more activities!