As I stepped towards the airplane door, my heart began beating in my ears. I could hear the blood rushing through my body, feeling a hint of adrenaline, stomach began to tingle with anticipation. What was an American boy from the Midwest doing on the other side of the world in a small city blown off the tourist map by Iraqi bombs?
The pull that led me here was a feeling I could never describe, yet it was in me, a need to be here, a vision I had only seen in my mind from her stories of date trees and burning sunshine and happiness.
I stepped through the doorway and the bright sun gently soaked into my skin. A palm tree waved at me in the distance. I closed my eyes, tilted my head, and took a deep breath. The air was crisp on this January day.
What day is was exactly, I wasn't sure. I had been in Iran for three weeks and lost track of time, but then so had most of the country for the past 20 years.
The familiar scent of oil refineries rolled through my senses. I had been around refineries most of my life. I remembered when my father would take me to his office when I was a child. I would play on the floor while he worked at designing the giant pipes and towers that looked imposing and impossible to understand.
My father had taken these same steps 35 years ago, before I was born, when he came to help build refineries for the Shah. Now, I walked down the stairs and took my first steps onto the pavement. I looked up and read the English sign “Ahwaz Air Port.”
We drove near the Karoon River and checked into what used to be the Astoria and is now the Fajr Hotel. Everything in Iran is now and then. Now, after the war, and then, before the revolution. Now, in the modern age and then in the empire befallen by Alexander. I felt it, too. My life was now, and then before I left home.
I received the usual looks of curious confusion from the staff. Since it was Ramazan, the hotel was deserted. Not even the lights in the lobby were on. The interior was laden with beautiful, polished hardwood and the hotel had a heavy feeling to it, dark, empty, sad.
The doorman broke the malaise, “Hello how are you I'm fine,” he said all in one sentence with a thick accent. It was all the English he knew, so he said it a few more times. He was an older gentleman dressed in a hotel uniform with a wide smile displaying some missing teeth.
“Haaleh shomaa aghaa?” I replied to a surprised look. I tipped him 500 tomans for nothing, just because he was there. My guide, Mahmood, was checking us in. Why can't we get going, I thought? Everything here takes so long to do.
After endless talking Mahmood came over to with a grin and exclaimed that everyone in the hotel was very excited because there was another American checked in and they put us in the room next to him. “What in the world was he doing here?” I mumbled to myself.
The clerk was very proud of this. He could now go and brag to all his disbelieving friends tonight that he had not one, but two crazy Americans vacationing in his hotel.
The three doormen each carried one small bag for us to our rooms. I guessed the tips were probably slim to none lately. I tipped each one a few thousand tomans. They wouldn't stop thanking me so I gave them some more just to go away. This came back to haunt me later when the three got in a loud argument over who would carry my bags when I checked out.
We headed out later and approached a venerable Peykan taxi. I sighed and held the moment, staring at the Karoon while Mahmood negotiated a price. Finally, I was on my way, my journey of thousands of miles from American's heartland was about to be fulfilled in the next few minutes.
Before I climbed in, my eyes locked onto an old man across the road from my hotel. He was very thin, dressed in loose black clothes and a worn velvet cap on top of a weathered face filled by a wiry white beard. He was bent over while dragging a tree limb piled high with smaller, broken branches. I wanted to help him, to help him drag that heavy branch. I wanted to walk over and say, here, you don't need to worry about feeding your family and gathering firewood from the streets because I will give you a thousand dollars.
But how could I lift up every person I had seen on my trip that I wished I could help, without going back first to the children without shoes begging in Tehran, or the old lady sitting with her face covered by her chador with a wrinkled outstretched palm on the street corner in Esfahan, or the young mother in Shiraz who was crying while holding her baby, counting her rials outside a grocery store?
What a country, so rich in resources and so much oil under my feet. Right across the Persian Gulf, are other oil countries with wealth beyond wealth. I was angry, but I let it go and sat down. I didn't come here to change a nation, I came to change something else. With map in hand, we sped down the road, anxious to find what my heart was searching for.
The next few minutes felt like waiting in line for my first roller coaster – dying from anticipation of what it would feel like to rush down that track. Please let me out of this damn cramped Peykan. We started walking around the streets looking for a street sign, or anyone to give us directions.
We had already driven by this same intersection three or four times. Great, we have the only taxi driver in Ahvaz that can get lost. I told Mahmood, “Nice choice for a taxi… ask that man over there if he knows where the house is at.”
The innocent bystander was not under 75-years old, white haired, walking with a cane, minding his own business. With the look on his face, we brought back some memories from another time when he probably had had a much quicker step, danced and drank, and thought this charmed life in his beautiful corner of the world would never end.
From the pointing, I knew we were in luck. Everyone back then knew that house. I was looking for the most famous family in Ahvaz. But that was the old Iran. After fleeing the Iraqi bombs, the family never went back, and sometime between then and now sold the house and that was that.
This particular doctor who built the house was loved and adored by his patients, his students at the medical school, and his family. His greatest accomplishment, though, was his youngest daughter. I thought if I could understand where she started, where she grew into her strength and fiery spirit, things could change.
I was here on faith, and faith hopes for all things. I needed to feel the dirt under my feet, to walk her steps, to see her city and her country, to know all that made her. This was her home, her dream from the old Iran, the perfect life.
We drove a minute, and parked. The street was lined on one side with homes, all similar two-story style with date trees, flowers, shrubs, and small walls enclosing the yards. They were all in various states of disrepair, only dim reflections of their former beauty. I have only my mental pictures to guide me, but I knew exactly which one it was.
The big second story porch next to the date tree, exactly how she described it. It was on a corner lot, having a five foot wall enclosing the front yard. We entered through the front gate and knocked on the front door.
While looking out into the yard, I tried to imagine a child with long dark hair playing with her friends, coming home from school through that same front gate I just passed through, picking a flower for her mother, running up these steps through this door, carefree, safe, home. She was born in that house. This was hallowed ground to me. Her mother's rose bushes were still there, amazing, after twenty years.
The current tenant was very happy to show us around, but he was embarrassed with the home's condition. This is the now, after the war, and my mind is in the then, so it didn't matter to me. My personal pilgrimage was not finished. I climbed the outdoor stairs leading to the second story balcony. It overlooked the front yard and the street, the perfect vantage point to shout to neighbors walking by and invite them in for chai.
The perfect point for a young mischievous girl to get her mother's broom handle and knock the dates off of the tree while her friends picked them up on the ground below, without mom catching them, of course. The long leaves of the tree bounced lazily in the breeze before me. I closed my eyes, and my spirit whispered to her, “please come back, for I have found you.”
Kendal Sheets, 32, is a patent attorney, athelete, and sometimes writer, currently residing in Gaithersburg, Maryland.