Kashan, a symphony in gold and turquoise

Kashan…A jewel of a city in the semi-arid center of Iran. I went back to Iran after 20 years. I visited several historical houses in Kashan and enjoyed my first visit to this region. This is one of them, built around 1880 with exquisite mirror and stained-glass work:

دردانه روحانی خانه طباطبائی کاشان roohani kashan

A much smaller example is the hotel we stayed in; this amazing boutique hotel (below), the “Manouchehri House“, revived from its ruin by the good taste of its owner, Saba Manouchehri,  her super talented designer, Shanhnaz Nader Esphanahi, and Akbar Helli the traditional architect and master repairer of historic houses. Going from this (picture not mine):

manoucheri house before picture michele roohani

to this:

خانه منوچهری دردانه روحانی کاشان

and this:

manouchehri House Saba Kasahn Dordaneh Michele Roohani

This is the view from my room:

Kashan watermelon michele roohani

A first floor room with three beds for my parents and myself. Even the bed covers (designed by Shahnaz Nader Esfahani) are custom made for the hotel and purely Iranian:

bed cover shahnaz nader esfahani manouchehri dordaneh

Still jet-lagged, I could’t sleep well the first night and I saw the sun rise after having stared in delight for a couple of hours at the moonlit garden:

manouchehri house michele roohani

We had to take advantage of our short trip and a knowledgeable guide so we hurried to the breakfast area,

saba manouchehri dordaneh roohani michele

and tried to remember to take a look at these cute garden sculptures upon our return to the hotel!

persian sculpture michele roohani

We had our Persian tea and out the door:

tea chai dordaneh rouhani iran

Our first stop was at the Tabatabaei House. This splendid house was built in the 1840s for the affluent Tabatabaei family.  It was designed by Master Ali Maryam. It has 40 rooms and more than 200 doors:

tabatabaee house kashan iran rouhani

It is the same house that you see at the beginning of the blog post. I was amazed at this majestic balcony and its ceiling that looks like a traditional Persian rug (below).

tabatabei kashan rug ceiling michele roohani

Kashan is world famous for its beautiful rug weaving tradition,

kashan rug dordaneh roohani

and I can very well imagine Mr. Tabatabaei asking his architect to create a rug on his ceiling like the rug he must have had at his feet:

ceiling rug kashan michele roohani

It doesn’t happen  often  for me to be overwhelmed by what I see and hesitate about what to shoot but I was taking pictures left and right and no time to take notes… 😉

historic house kashan roohani

But I remembered to take a picture of myself!

dordaneh roohani Tabātabāei house kashan

The colors on these pictures have not been processed — the golden glow that you see everywhere is real:

tabatabei house sunset dordaneh rowhani iran

The intricate stucco work on the walls is even more beautiful in the midday golden light:

tabatabei facade kashan michele rouhani

The persians are historically known in the art of plastering:

tabatabaei house stucco michele roohani

The stained glass is omnipresent in all of these old houses,

kashan vitrail dordaneh roohani

Some are exquisite!

Boroujerdi stained glass windows kashan michele roohani

We decided to go to the bazaar for lunch. Iran, the pistachio capital of the world is a heaven for nut lovers:

persian nusts michele roohani

I found this guy’s expression in front of the sheep’s heads hilarious! The local Chelo-Kabab,  the only thing that Shahs and Mullahs equally love and agree upon, didn’t disappoint us. Chelo-Kabab is the national dish of Iran consisting of steamed basmati rice and lamb kabab.

chelokabab michele roohani

After lunch we headed to the Fin Garden. A Unesco world heritage site, it is a historical Persian Garden that symbolizes the earthly paradise. Designed for Shah Abbas I and completed in 1590, it is the oldest garden in Iran still in existence.

Fin kashan pool michele roohani

Water runs through it (it houses Kashan’s Fin Bath) and beautiful trees and flowers and water sources everywhere have a heavenly effect on people.

Kashan ceiling paintings michele rouhani

Flowers are everywhere on the ceilings and walls (above) and outside like the omnipresent pomegranate and roses:

pomegranate michele roohani kashan

Kashan is like Grasse in France, the capital of rose essence, Gol-Aab:

kashan rose michele roohani harper

and some more ceilings:

Fin ceiling kashan dordaneh roohnai

and more gorgeous frescos:

fin kashan ceiling michele roohani

I loved this image of this tired chador clad lady:

chador woman fin garden kashan michele roohani

The next day took us to a famous bath or hammam: Sultan Amir Ahmad Bathhouse. I want to take you first to the roof—very typical of the ones in this region, it lets the sunlight in. You will see these roof domes again from inside.

Sultan Amir Ahmad Bathhouse dordaneh

Thes multiple domes  contain convex glasses to provide sufficient lighting to the bathhouse while concealing it from the outside:

Sultan Amir Ahmad Bathhouse ceiling dordaneh

The bathhouse is a traditional Iranian bathhouse from the 16th century. It has two main parts:  Sarbineh (the dressing hall) and Garmkhaneh (the hot bathing hall). The following image is of Sarbineh with its octagonal pool and its 8 columns.

Sultan Amir Ahmad Bathhouse michele roohani

The interior of the bathhouse is decorated with turquoise and gold tile work, brickwork and amazing plasterwork:

Amir Ahmad Bathhouse kashan dordaneh

A symphony in gold and turquoise…Sultan Amir Ahmad Bathhouse dordaneh roohani

Me being a Roohani (religious in Persian and a common last name like Smith) and the new president being a Roohani, you would think this dude could be my dad or an uncle:

mullah dordaneh roohani kashan

My dad—Morteza Rouhani— a retired pediatrician and not a mollah (here with our kind guide, Abbas Ghamkhar), was tired of following my mother and me around . Everybody asks me but my father has  no connection to the Iranian President!

doctor morteza rouhani dordaneh

Another great tea (I call it paradise in a glass) and we were ready to head to another historical house.

persian tea naser-al-din shah dordaneh roohani

The same person who built  the Tabatabaei’s House later  built this one, the Boroujerdis House for Mr. Tabatabaei’s newly married daughter. It is considered a true masterpiece of Persian traditional residential architecture. It has a funny story:

Boroujerdi house main facade kashan

The groom not being from Kashan, was not accepted first as a good suitor (he was in the tea making business) and to show his wealth in spite of not being one of the Kashan nobility, he asks the same architect to build his home with samovars and teapots in the exterior wall carvings! I was laughing taking these pictures:

Boroujerdi samovar kashan michele roohani Iran

There are great plaster and stucco works of fruits and flowers and wall paintings by the royal painter Kamal-ol-molk, and three 40 meter tall windcatchers which help cool the house to unusually cool temperatures.

Boroujerdi house kashan dordaneh roohani

A windcatcher (below) is a traditional Persian architectural element to create natural ventilation in buildings:

windcatcher boroujerdi house kashan michele roohani

and this is what’s happening inside the dome, magnificent ceiling,

boroujerdi ceiling dordaneh rouhani

after magnificent ceiling…

Borujedis house kashan dordaneh rouhani

I wished I could have made a better travel log about this mystical place:

dordaneh rouhani boroujerdi house kashan

One last image from the other side of Tabatabaei House—after all we started the blog with it:

tabatabei dordaneh rouhani kashan

Ok one more:

stucco work historic house kashan michele roohani

We went back to Tehran, tired but happy. Guess what we drank the minute we got home?

persian tea glass michele roohani

I will keep a great memory of this beautiful city—home to my favorite poet, Sohrab Sepehri. This swallow kept us company at our hotel, the Manouchehri House:

swallow kashan manouchehri michele roohani

A poem of Sepehri in English:

“I am a native of Kashan
Time is not so bad to me
I own a loaf of bread, a bit of intelligence, a tiny amount of taste!
I possess a mother better than the leaf
Friends, better than the running brook

I am a Muslim
The rose is my Mecca
The spring my prayer-carpet
The light, my prayer stone
The field my prostrate place
I take ablution with the heartbeat of windows…”

in French:

“Je viens de la contrée de Kashan.
Ma vie somme toute n’est pas trop difficile.
J’ai de quoi vivre, un brin d’intelligence, un minuscule talent.
J’ai une mère plus douce que les feuilles de l’arbre.
Des amis plus limpides que l’eau courante.

Et un Dieu présent quelque part, tout proche:
Parmi les feuilles de giroflées,
Au pied de ce pin élevé,
Sur la face consciente des eaux,
Dans les lois du monde végétal.
Je suis musulman.
J’ai comme direction de la Mecque une rose.
Comme napperon de prière une source.
Comme sceau de prière la lumière.
La plaine est le tapis de ma prière.
Je fais mes ablutions aux vibrantes fenêtres de la lumière.”

and in Persian:

اهل كاشانم
روزگارم بد نيست.
تكه ناني دارم ، خرده هوشي، سر سوزن ذوقي.
مادري دارم ، بهتر از برگ درخت.
دوستاني ، بهتر از آب روان.

من مسلمانم.
قبله ام يك گل سرخ.
جانمازم چشمه، مهرم نور.
دشت سجاده من.
من وضو با تپش پنجره ها مي گيرم.


Nicolas Bouvier, the Master Traveler

This is my blog’s fourth Anniversary issue and what better subject than the amazing Nicolas Bouvier! He traveled from Geneva to the Khyber Pass in Afghanistan in 1953-1954 with his painter friend, Thierry Vernet.

I read his great book, The way of the world, last year; it started a bit slow but once that he got to Iran, I was hooked. This map traces their journey from Europe to Asia where Bouvier starts in Geneva and ends in Afghanistan:

His friend, Vernet,  has kept a visual jounal by drawing what they see together and what Bouvier writes:

These images are my interpretation of their work and an homage to this delightful journal. “Ten years in the writing, The Way of the World is a masterpiece which elevates the mundane to the memorable and captures the thrill of two passionate and curious young men discovering both the world and themselves.”

They traveled with a small Fiat Topolino (above and below) that took them through hell and paradise!

What was striking about this little book was the fact that I didn’t have to lower my expectation of excellence: Bouvier writes with the ease of the poet that he is and the attention of an enthusiastic humanist…

He talks about “women buried in their floret tchador”: femmes ensevelies dans leur tchador à fleurettes.

He talks about how “Iran, the old aristocrat, who has experienced everything in life … and forgotten a lot, is allergic to ordinary remedies and needs special treatment. The gifts are not always easy to give when children are five thousand years older than Santa Claus.”

After finishing the book, I got curious about the writer and started the “research”! I compiled many images about this master Iconographer, I watched many of his interviews—from his youth until the last years of his life— and he sounds as fresh at the end as he did in the beginning.

The Swiss television has a great archive on the subject.

I have to admit that the year they spent in Iran was the most interesting to me— even though Serbia, Turkey, Pakistan and Afghanistan had their own exhilarating charm. He even talks about my old school, Jeanne D’Arc of Tehran, in the years before my birth. The next couple of pictures of Bouvier are from their time in Tehran; this one from a modest hotel’s balcony:

He’s typing in the nude in the heat of the Iranian summer:

Most of all I loved the winter they spend in North west of Iran, in Tabriz:

The way he describes the long quiet winter in that city transports the reader to the depth of our common humanity; I laughed when he talks about the smell of hot Persian breads, Sangak and Lavaash in the snow or when he describes the frozen mustaches and beards of men in the freezing cold, the boiling water of samovars and the fact that everybody thinks only about three words: tea, coal and vodka!

Speaking of Persian breads, Bouvier suggests that only a very old country can make luxuries out of most banal routines;  this bread has been thirty generations and a few dynasties in the making…

I was overwhelmed with nostalgia reading his beautiful poem about the onset of winter (Zemestan in Persian) in Tabriz:

I couldn’t find it in English so I translated it myself; first the original in French:

Les grenades ouvertes qui saignent
sous une mince et pure couche de neige
le bleu des mosquées sous la neige
les camions rouillés sous la neige
les pintades blanches plus blanches encore
les longs murs roux les voix perdues
qui cheminent sous la neige
et toute la ville jusqu’à l’énorme citadelle
s’envole dans le ciel moucheté
C’est Zemestan, l’hiver
Tabriz, 1953

Bleeding open pomegranates
under a thin layer of pure snow
the blue of the mosques in the snow
rusty trucks in the snow
white guinea fowl whiter still
long red walls lost voices
who walk in the snow
and the whole town to the huge citadel
flies in the mottled sky
It’s Zemestan, winter
Tabriz, 1953

These images are based on the following books:

Bleu Immortel and The way of the world.

I read the “The way of the world” in french (L’Usage du Monde) but it has been lovingly translated by Robyn Marsack; I recommend it to all of you.

Que votre ombre grandisse or May your shadow grow!


Between Hope and Chaos, 165 years of Iranian Photography

The Quai Branly Museum presents the second PhotoQuai, the trendsetter biennial event dedicated to non-Western photography until November 22, 2009. Catch it if you can.

I was inspired to create this poster here and the clip at the end of the post:

ahmad ali photoquai iranian green poster paris michele roohani

Some of the images were breathtaking and I would like to share them with you.

abbas kowsari photoquai iranian photography

The above image is from Abbas Kowsari; I call the next one by Gohar Dashti, “tea and tank”!

gohar dashti tea and tank michele roohani photoquai

The Artistic Director of the Photoquai biennial is my friend, Anahita Ghabaian Etehadieh, Iranian founder and owner of the Silk Road Gallery, the only establishment in Iran dedicated exclusively to photography.

anahita ghabaian photoquai 2009 artistic director michele roohani

These two women were photgraphed by Bahman Jalali, one of the two curators of the exhibition:

bahman jalali musician women photoquai michele roohani

More ambitious than the biennial itself, is the homage given to a sample of 165 years of Iranian photography, in the museum. It gives an overview of Iranian photography from the end of the 19th century, with the portraits from the Qajar era, up until the most contemporary works by major Iranian photographers. An uneven, discontinuous road full of great surprises…

qajar women naser el din shah michele roohani photoquai iranian women 19th century

The above photos were taken by Naser Al Din Shah himself, a photography enthusiast, and the following ones are by Armenian-Iranian photographer Antoine-Khan Sevruguin:

photoquai iranian qajar women Antoni Sevruguin michele roohani

I love this shy Tar player:

photoquai iranian photography Antoni Sevruguin tar player michele roohani

The exhibition was especially interesting to me in its depth if not breadth of the older photos. I love these cute children photographed with their father in early 20th century peeking out of their hejab:

photoquai iranian photography family Antoni Sevruguin michele roohani

The  exhibit spills into 20th century with masterpieces like Kaveh Golestan’s images of Iran Iraq war:

kaveh golestan iran iraq war soldier with quran photoquai michele roohani

This visual storytelling will continue in the Musée de la Monnaie, museum of the French Mint and Treasury until December 20th. The exhibition is called “between Hope and Chaos” dedicated to 30 years of Iranian photojournalism, the three most recent generations of Iranian photographers between the 1979 Islamic Revolution and 2009.

I would look for my favorite works exhibited by Newsha Tavakolian:

newsha tavakolian photoquai naghsh rostam snow michele roohani

I prefer this one that I got from her site—there is something otherworldly about Persepolis under snow…

newsha tavakolian persepolis under snow michele roohani

and Jamshid Bayrami’s:

iranian women parying jamshid bayrami michele roohani photoquai

Photoquai tries to highlight and promote artists unknown or little known in Europe encouraging cross-cultural dialogue across the globe.

reza deghati photoquai biennale commissaire de l’exposition pour l’asie micheleroohani

A promenade along the Seine at quai Branly had been transformed into an open-air exhibition of photography where 50 photographers, chosen by the likes of Reza Deghati, the phenomenal Iranian photographer, exhibit their work.

Watch a great clip in TV5 here (even if you don’t speak french!)

165 years of Iranian photography here

PhotoQuai, Quai Branly Museum here

Iran, between Hope and Chaos here

Desperately seeking Rostam

It’s 3:00 am Los Angeles time and I can’t go to sleep—I am worried about the possible bloodbath of this latest showdown between the Iranian regime and people; looking for a favorite verse takes me to Ferdowsi who’s poetry has been super-relevant during the past week.

rostam killing the white Demon (Dive) micheleroohani

The following is when people are asking Rostam, the most celebrated mythical hero of Iran, to save Iran—From the book of Kings, Shahnameh (composed by Ferdowsi between 980-1010 AD)

“You are our refuge, our last hope, our one
Protection now that King Kavous has gone;
Alas, Iran will be destroyed, a lair
For leopards and wild lions will flourish there,
Our land will be a wasted battleground
Where evil kings will triumph and be crowned…”

سپاه اندرایران پراکنده شد
زن و مرد و کودک همه بنده شد
دو بهره سوی زاولستان شدند
به خواهش بر پور دستان شدند
که مارا زبدها تو باشی پناه
چو گم شد سرتاج کاوس شاه

دریغ است ایران که ویران شود
کنام پلنگان و شیران شود

getty images iran june 20th

Read Roger Cohen’s great eyewitness account in NY Times (June 20th 2009); he shares with us what CNN and Youtube can’t: amazing journalism.

Cohen’s view about Iran’s youth must be devastating to the regime.

زنـانـشـان چـنـیـنـنـد ز ایـرانیــــان

چگـونه انـد گـردان و جنگ آوران


Hillary Clinton in chador and the three KH’s—Khomeini, Khamenei, Khatami

Hillary Clinton in chador is not as far-fetched as we may imagine! Ahmadinejad is already calling for a mutually respectful dialog and the white house is more than eager to oblige…

hillary clinton in black chador iran michele roohani scarf

It took a Nixon to go to China and it will take a Clinton to go to Iran. Only the one who threatened to “obliterate” Iran can now go and mend the thirty year wound between the Great Satan and the Angelic mullahs…

The United States needs Iran’s cooperation to take care of its problems in  Iraq, Palestine (read Hamas and Hezbollah), Afghanistan and now Pakistan. To understand a bit better I suggest reading Roger Cohen’s articles from Tehran.

khomeini khamenei khatami cartoons

Now I would like to clarify once and for all, the mystery of three KH’s for my foreign friends— it’s been unfortunate and confusing that the three important leaders of the islamic republic have last names starting with a KH.

These are not the same person even though they do look alike with that black turban but let’s remember the actual ranking:

Khomeini (the leader of the islamic revolution who—20 years after his death—still induces nightmares for the foreign leaders),

Khamenei (today’s supreme leader since Khomeini’s death)

and Khatami (twice president of the islamic republic).

khomeini khamenei khatami islamic republic

On a less depressing note, I recommend reading Michael Axworthy’s  book about “the remarkable perseverance of Iran’s cultural identity”—in spite of the turbans and the KH’s…

Michael Axworthy history of iran michele roohani

I am a big “Law & Order” fan; who knew that Ahmadinejad will be mentioned in one of the episodes. If this is not a sign of things to come people I don’t know what is! It’s amazing all the positive coverage Iran is getting; maybe they have hired a PR firm…

The Ayatollah begs to differ

I took Hooman Majd’s book, The Ayatollah begs to differ, to bed and before I knew it, it was five in the morning! I was moved to tears and laughter by this affectionate account of his trips to Iran.

The Ayatollah begs to differ hooman majd

I recommend it to Iranians especially if they have been living outside their country for a long time like me (30 years) . It will be interesting to non-Persians as well to glimpse the enigma of today’s Iran. Majd surprised me page after page with his acute observations and sharp insights into Shiite Iran’s psyche.

hooman majd the ayatollah begs to differ

I learned about him first thanks to Jon Stewart’s interview on the Daily ShowI was happy to see his book make the best book list of 2008 on the Economist and L.A. Times.

Newsha Tavakolian cell phone mosque

I am wondering how this American Iranian grandson of an Ayatollah, who’s served as the interpreter to two Iranian presidents (Ahmadinejad and Khatami), can go back and forth between his two countries after writing such a naked account of his visits to Iran.

It would have been good to see some of Newsha Tavakolian’s amazing pictures accompany his book—they epitomize the “Iranian Paradox”.

Newsha Tavakolian driver mom

What I really appreciated about this book is Majd’s quest to explain, in a simple way, the notion of Shiite Islam to the uninitiated (self flagellation et al…). Vali Nasr has already talked at length about the subject in The Shia Revival, as well as the super hip Reza Aslan, the writer of  No God but God but Majd’s book is an easier read and peppered with funny stories.

Newsha Tavakolian rozeh

After Shirin Neshat‘s images of Rozeh (Majd calls it a passion play—as in St. Matthew’s Passion—about the martyrdom of Imam Hossein), Tavakolian’s pictures are the most haunting to me. It’s interesting to see the similarities between the Iranian/Shiite religious processions and the catholic/Italian version below:

eduard de pazzi italian procession black

Check out Eduard de Pazzi’s beautiful images here.

eduard de pazzi italian procession catholic

The Ta’zieh is universal and this comes from the great grand daughter of an Ayatollah!

The author describes the book in his own words

Visit Hooman Majd’s website to learn more about his book.

Visit tavakolian’s website’s to see more of her rich collection.

Read Aslan’s review of The Ayatollah begs to differ in the LA Times.

A Persian in Venice

My smile got bigger and bigger as I continued listening to Professor Riccardo Zipoli talking about Iran in his near perfect Persian; but then I got a bit frustrated remembering that in spite of speaking three languages myself, I have to applaud every non-Persian who can say 4 words in my mother tongue! Listen to him talk here to see what I mean by Zipoli’s flawless Persian.

zipoli kohguilouyeh

These two pictures are from the Professor’s huge archive. He has a soft spot for the rural landscape/people of Iran.

zipoli tchador

Born near Florence, teaching in Venice, reciting Sohrab Sepehri better than most of the natives has endeared Zipoli to Persians. I particularly like his Tree series. You can find more of his pictures on his site.

zipoli tak-derakht

Looking at these images made me nostalgic so I went to look for some pictures from my last trip to Iran about 14 years ago. Here is one of my favorites from the Shah’s Mosque in Isfahan, a marvel of Safavid art. I still remember my awe in front of all these magnificent architectural wonders.

michele roohani turquoise mosque

“If you come to visit me
Come gently and slowly lest the fragile china
Of my solitude cracks”
به سراغ من اگر مي‌آييد،
نرم و آهسته بياييد، مبادا كه ترك بردارد
چيني نازك تنهايي من
“Si vous venez m’y chercher,
Venez-vous-en donc lentement et doucement
De crainte que ne se raye
La porcelaine de ma solitude.” Sohrab Sepehri

And for all of you people who are still looking for a Persian in Venice, I am sharing this picture I took some years ago.

michele roohani venice gondolas

Picasso and Farah Diba pahlavi

Farah Pahlavi, the queen of Iran, is still alive and well, but people are not talking about her much. Things changed when it was reported last month that “the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art has put on display an exhibition that art experts call the most important collection of modern Western art outside Europe and the United States.” In the 1970’s she collected great works of art – about 150 paintings – by Picasso, Monet, Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock, etc…


farah pahlavi coat mirror micheleroohani

I bought some old Paris Match magazines some years ago in Paris spanning from 1958 through 1969. It was interesting to see her on the cover from practically the minute she met the Shah in Paris. I put some of the photos from Paris Match together to share them with you.


farah diba pahlavi micheleroohani hotel crillon

She lived a Cinderella story that turned sour at the age of 41 after the Iranian revolution of 1979.


farah diba pahlavi micheleroohani crown bride tiara

In spite of my belief that monarchy is absurd in the 21st century, it seems like I can’t shake my affinity for this lady; the fact that we both went to the same school (Jeanne d’Arc of Tehran) and had to endure the same French nuns may not have much to do with it.


farah diba pahlavi micheleroohani 3 faces

The deposed queen has somehow survived the animosity that follows the Pahlavis wherever they go. At the minimum she should be applauded for amassing a collection of priceless art, as opposed to worthless shoes or stolen jewelry (see Queen Elizabeth and Imelda Marcos).

Her good reputation lasted way longer than her jewelry.

Two of her kids committed suicide: Leila and AliReza Pahlavi; that would be way more painful than losing a country. Aside from her oldest son, the other three never really had a chance…