Breaking barriers, building diplomacy
by Gery and Suzanne Warner
I was delighted at this unexpected visit. It would allow me to practise my long neglected Parsee on these new victims. I opened the door with As-Salaam Alaikum and whatever else I could manage, then took them on a quick tour of my humble abode. My Persian guests had called on George, who held a prestigious job as Governor of the US Northwest Polo Circuit, to hobnob. They were about to host the 83rd Federation of the International Polo Ambassadors’ Cup (FIP) tournament and, by the way, would I like to play?
Truth be told, I already knew what I wanted to do and that Suzanne, my wife, typically the co-conspirator in these adventure matters, would certainly go for it as well. “We’re in!”
A few weeks later, in spite of our parliament banning the Iranian embassy from Ottawa, our visitors had the visas arranged through the Pakistan Embassy in Washington. We were off to Iran and man, it felt good. We were on our way to play in a land steeped in polo history and whose culture, poetry and visual arts are intertwined with my hobby of the last 30 years.
Of course, there was the gorilla in the room: The news reports and all the controversy, the mass media demonizing Iran with all the usual propaganda the government uses as pretext and prelude to war. Yet whatever the mainstream media was uttering was at odds with what I knew of the peaceful nature of modern Iran and the fun-loving character of the Iranian people. Would Israel or the Americans bomb the place? Probably, if they could. And to put it mildly, our foreign minister could do a better job of representing Canada; his statements on Iran were ignorant at best and, at worst, served foreign powers. We wanted to see the real Iran again for ourselves, unfiltered by political posturing.
And so we found ourselves off to a polo tournament and the best jaunt ever. We arrived bleary-eyed at 1:30 in the morning, after long flights from Vancouver to Frankfurt, and from there on to Tehran. A well-dressed man at the ramp held up a sign with our name and guided us to the “CIP” lounge, a quiet place with a divan and coffee tables laden with tea and little cakes. What a welcome sight for weary tourists.
Remarkably absent was the Western penchant for ‘security’ – armed police, sirens, walk-through X-ray scanners and other off-putting recent developments. Compare that to our own airports or even the rude treatment we get at our USA borderland crossings.
A few days into our trip, we found that Iran, contrary to current media reportage, was a safe, inviting and truly beautiful country. Streets with no fear bustled with a cheery, healthy citizenry. Families picnicked on the boulevards. Muslims, Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians all mingled in harmony. Throughout 1,500 kilometres of Iran, we saw no wild-eyed fanatics. Has the world been misled by our media?
Ready smiles and warm hospitality met us wherever we went; our Iranian hosts took care of every wish and then some. As it turned out, this FIP tournament was a big thing. The media were out in full force: CNN, NBC, local news and documentary videographers. Flashing cameras and frequent interviews with local TV instantly turned each of us into a Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie for a fleeting week. Whenever we emerged from a meeting or a transport vehicle, media recorded our every move. Apparently, they found it to be a very newsworthy event.
Our host, Hamze Ilkhanizadeh, put us up at the finest hotels and daily lunch and dinner stops featured delicious, healthy local fare: Zereshk Polo O Morgh (Barberry and Chicken), Lulu kabobs, pomegranate sauce, Basmati Pilaf, Persian cucumbers, sweet melons, etc. Me, I’m a fussy eater, but our guide assured us I could relax: Iran was GMO-free.
The few of us who arrived in Tehran early enough had the great benefit of relaxing with the Ilkhanizadehs for a day at their luxurious home and our practice game, arranged by Hamze, was a short walk down a meandering stone path shaded by tall mulberry. We were princes for a day, with all horses tacked and ready for us to mount.
Friday, we watched the women’s game with hard-riding Persians and two English sisters, all wearing hijab with characteristic aplomb. The next day, Saturday, six teams played to decide the line-up for next weekend’s finals. We visitors were mounted on big thoroughbred-Turkoman crosses – fast, agile and tough.
Playing Iranian polo was a mind expanding experience. For me, it was a short cut across the millennia of polo. Even the oldest of our western polo is parvenu in comparison.
We toured ancient Persepolis, Cyrus’ tomb, mirrored palaces and bazaars where sights, sounds and scents made the head spin. Executive buses kept us cool and comfortable while we watched the Iranian countryside slip by.
Our hosts Hamze and Siamiak Ilkhanizadeh and their elegant wives had treated us, a group of foreigners, to the journey of a lifetime. Their marvellous Iranian hospitality drew us into friendship with a large, talented and growing international polo family. Exhausted, but happy, players left with armloads of trophies, prizes and presents, with hearts full of wonderful memories and, best of all, new lifetime friends.
What a place, what a time, what a people. What a game!
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