Week 6: Iran
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This is the last in a six-part series of my journey from October 2000 to June 2001. This particular article is a long one so you might want to read it in pieces. While there were several components of my trip that I did not write about in any these articles (Spain, Amsterdam, Morocco, Turkey, and Germany), I felt that the pieces that I did submit were most representative of the effect that my journey had on my life while simultaneously being the most interesting to the audience of Iranian.com.
All the while in Pakistan I looked forward to reaching Iran. After my grueling 48-hour bus ride through the Baluchistan desert, I reached the border village of Taftan, Iran. Here is the last paragraph from my :
We finally made it to the Iranian border. I could barely contain my excitement! I gave Shane my American passport because I didn't even want it to be on me in case they searched me. Shane went ahead with absolutely no problems. He went on ahead and I told him I would meet up with him in Bam. I got to the counter to have my passport stamped and the official looked at me. I smiled hopefully back at him and he smirked and said in perfect Persian “You are going to have to step into my office…”
I sat and waited for the mysterious border patrol captain. I waited for an hour. In that time a few people passed me and went on to Iran – traders, locals, and workers passed me, looking at me curiously. Many Afghanis were going to Iran in groups – apparently part of some sort of religious pilgrimage. After 90 minutes, a guard came to me and told me the captain was ready for me and I should go to his office and pointed to a door.
I opened the door and went inside; the captain had a small alcove decorated in typical Persian style. I took my shoes off and sat down, nervous. He was sitting at a desk going through paperwork and looked at me angrily. Then he began the questioning: terse, relentless questions fired one after another from behind his huge desk. I began to sweat while I wondered what the questions he wanted to hear were. What was the “correct” answer? I didn't mention my parents were divorced and my mother re-married an American man. I didn't mention I wasn't Muslim. But really I didn't have much to hide. He asked me what my father did, what his father did, where my family lived in Iran, what they did, why I couldn't speak better Farsi, where I went before this, where was I going? I had my story straight: I was using only my Iranian passport which only had a stamp from Pakistan so I said I flew to Pakistan from the USA because I couldn't get a flight from DC to Tehran. It was all a bit too weird for him – he had apparently never seen a case quite like mine. Then the showstopper: what was my phone number in the USA? I dared to ask him why he needed that. He answered with an uncharacteristic smile that he wanted to bring his family and open up a Persian restaurant. I suppressed an outright laugh and managed to smile and say I thought it was a great idea and that America could use more. I proceeded to give him a fake phone number and I was on my way.
Outside, I found myself waiting for a random blue van which takes people from the border to the nearest town. I was the only Iranian around – everybody was Kurdish (?), Afghani, and Pakistani (and some other ethnic groups I didn't recognize by their distinct clothing). In the van, on the way to Zahedan, the van was stopped five times and officials came onto the bus and looked around at people – the questioned the suspicious ones. I tried to look ahead and “look normal” but I stood out like a sore thumb. Every time, without fail, I was questioned and then taken off of the van to the superior officers. They all gathered around, curious about my situation, they stared at me and looked at my passport picture and my visas. They argued a bit and shouted at each other and eventually let me get back on. By the time we reached Zahedan, the whole van knew my story and wished me well. In between these questioning-stops, I caught glimpses of rural, southeastern Iran. The women were black ghosts, everything was dry but clean. The propaganda on the walls was extremely prominent and blatant. It was EVERYWHERE. Pictures depicting soldiers killing other people, hailing soldiers as deities. In Zahedan, I was to transfer to another bus and be on my way to Bam. While waiting, I had my reward: Persian food. I sat down at a restaurant and asked for a menu. The man smiled and said they have two things: Chelo Kabob, Chelo Morgh. That was it. I was expecting Ghormeh Sabzi, Ash Reshte, Shirin Polo, Lubia Polo, I expected everything my grandmother made. Later I realized that the only things people eat in Iran outside of their homes are these two dishes. I was extremely disappointed. It was also impossible to remain vegetarian in Iran so I gave that up. I ordered a Chelo Morgh. After a few minutes, a small crowd gathered around my table watching me eat and the brave souls would question me: who was I? What was I doing here?
I got onto my bus headed for Bam and marveled at how nice the bus was. I was used to the shoddy, dirty buses in Pakistan and India and southern Thailand. But these buses were nice – and this bus was shoddy in comparison to other buses in Iran! Iran obviously was a more wealthy country than the ones I was in before. I arrived in the oasis town of Bam at about 8PM and could barely contain my excitement. After a long search, I found a hotel room – it smelled horribly but I didn't really care at that point. I had my dinner at the hotel that night. Chelo Morgh of course. Afterwards I walked the streets of “downtown” Bam, just staring in wonder at the street scenes. I was so happy. I overheard Farsi everywhere – what a treat. I saw families hitting the ice cream stands in droves. Gangs of young boys walked the streets together. Girls wandered around giggling and speaking in secret. I was still used to being alone so I just chilled out and enjoyed – truly enjoyed – walking along these streets. I was timid, though. I was still in shock from being here.
An excerpt from my journal:
That's when these feelings started … weird feelings, like scenes from a past life – like images from my mother's childhood eyes were flashing inside my brain. It was quite dramatic (although not as much as I'm making it sound) and, somehow, made me feel even further removed from my 'roots' rather than bringing me back to them. People looked at me like a freak of nature, from another planet and not just another country. I felt like I was scaring these people.
But those great feelings of identity with a culture, it was actually more of a yearning to fit in, rather than a real identity. I realized, for the first time, how un-Iranian I really am. Although my early childhood was somewhat similar to those of these children here, my childhood as a whole was very different. The language barrier was an obvious hurdle to jump, and I have been doing that each day better and better.
My taxi driver was the same age as me, and that brought even more images crashing down: of me in his place, living here, trapped. It could have just as easily have been me and that is no clichÈ, it is truth. The Iranians on the street say “Hello Mister” (in English) to me instead of “Salaam”. It's embarrassing. I guess I could try a little bit harder to look like an Iranian but that is doing a complete overhaul and Iranians dress too nice for me to keep all that clothes in my backpack. And I don't want to cut my hair.
I thought that having a beard would make me look Iranian. But that definitely didn't work. I was a 6'4″ sore thumb from the Planet Wanna-Be-Iranian. It didn't make me feel good. But I met people on an hourly basis that wanted to talk to me. What does it mean to be Iranian? It means you are a good conversationalist, for one thing. I enjoyed talking to these people, until I was answering the same questions over and over again. The Iranians were *extremely* friendly but not plastic, “shiny happy people” like Thais – they made sure you understood that they were there for you if you needed it.
I hit Arg-e-Bam the next day and met two tourists from Barcelona: Marc and his girlfriend Helena. I loved speaking to them in Spanish and we hung out for a few hours. I did a lot of Spanish-Farsi translation: what a feeling. I only studied three months of Spanish and here I was translating between two languages and neither was my “mother tongue”. I helped them around Bam and we eventually caught a bus together north. They were bound for Isfahan, I was going to Kerman. I am still in touch with Marc and we speak regularly via email.
From my journal: After meeting people, some of them start complaining about their life here and how they have nothing and how much they envy the fact that I live in America. This made me feel weird. I think the reason that Iranians complain is because maybe before the revolution they were better off and now they are not – so they feel like they have a right to complain and they aren't necessarily 'used' to having less. I mean, nobody in Pakistan or India was complaining and some of them had absolutely nothing.
I stayed for a day in Kerman and hit the old bazaar. Of course the whole bazaar is staring at the 8ft brown giant with the sunglasses and enormous, hideous backpack strapped on like a rocket pack, complete with waist belt support system. From Kerman I caught an overnight bus to Shiraz. I was moving faster than normal because I was itching to get to my grandmother's place in Tehran. At this point in my 9-month journey I was pretty tired of sight-seeing. I wanted something familiar.
I arrived at Shiraz at 4AM and got a hotel (near the impressive Arg-e Karim Khani) and got some well-deserved rest. At noon, I woke up and walked the city. I really enjoyed Shiraz. It's wide lanes of traffic, clean sidewalks, nice buildings, and beautiful university area is all attractive. It's not too big (like I've heard Tehran is) so you still get the small town atmosphere. Then, of course, there is the best part of the city: the Tomb of Hafez Park. I stayed there and at the chai-house in the back for hours. While smoking ghalyun at the chai-house sitting on some cushions, a group of old Italian tourists came and made a circle around me because there was nowhere else to sit. I loved just sitting in the middle of their circle and listening to their Italian. As a matter of fact, Iran reminds me a lot of what I think Italy is like. Honestly. It reminds me a lot of Spain at times, but I think Italy (central and southern) would be even more similar. It's hard to explain how, but the side streets, the midday fiestas, queuing up to buy fresh bread at the local store and taking it home, long conversations between old men on the street, picnics in the evenings, … and the people even look Italian at times.
In Shiraz, at the Hafez park, I met Bahram the shoe salesman – whom I dubbed the Turk from Tabriz (25 yrs old). We talked and talked and I went back to the chai-house for more chai (that's 'tea' if you didn't know by now) and I practiced the gentle art of drinking tea Persian-style (sugar cube in the mouth, scalding tea, slurping from the plate). Afterwards, we looked for a bite to eat and then I bumbed into Muhammed from Marvdasht (50 yrs old?). This was a night I shan't forget any time soon. This guy Muhammad had a skill where she could (attempt to) tell you all about your character just by looking at you and even more if he knew your name. He was like an old magician with eyes darting wildly all over the room in search of clues to your character. The three of us ended up going to dinner together and talking for hours on end. What did we talk about? We basically sat and analyzed each other based upon what little we knew of each other.
The next afternoon I visited to my favorite site in the entire world: Persepolis. But, I couldn't really enjoy it because I am so sick of site-seeing! But I did enjoy it immensely and especially enjoyed the few classes of school children there (one of them ~17 yr old girls and a few classes of dumbstruck children). I also met a female pair of Australians and chatted with them overlooking the most beautiful ruins on earth.
I hit Yazd next, I arrived at 4:30 AM on an overnight bus from Shiraz and got into a taxi. I told the taxi driver that I just wanted to find a place to eat some breakfast. The problem is that, in Iran, nothing is open until 9:00AM or so. So the driver and I talked and talked about girls and he took a liking to me. Finally, he let me in on his secret place. He told me that he knew of a place where I could have breakfast, even though it was 5AM. He dropped me off at an alleyway and pointed to a corner and told me to just wait there until it opens. I waited there with another Iranian guy for twenty minutes. Then, an old guy with a cigarette comes and creaks open the door. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. We walk in the small hole-in-the-wall, a cellar of sorts. The old man opens the lid of a brick hole in the wall of sorts and pulls out three full heads of lamb, complete with shocked looks on their faces. It was the weirdest thing. I stood frozen but was determined not to falter – I wanted to be a 'real' Iranian so I just followed the lead of the other men in the cellar. I sat at the table along with a couple of hard-core Iranian men and we chowed down. The old guy picked apart our heads for us so we just had a nice plate of guts on our plates and a big piece of bread and some bowl of face-juice. I poured cup after cup of lemon juice into my bowl. I swallowed it down and barely kept it down.
After that, I walked the streets of Yazd in the early morning before the town was awake. I studied the map and visited many different parts of Yazd, all while tasting my breakfast and feeling it sit in my stomach, unwavering.
At this point, I had still not met up with Shane, the Australian who had my American passport. I was in touch with him via email, though. In Yazd, I met Mozi, Mohsen, and Mostafa, three guys my own age that I ended up spending a week with in Yazd and making life-long friendships with. I stayed with them (I never spent a night in a hotel in all of Yazd). I had the time of my life in Yazd. Three of us riding on a motorcycle to a picnic of bread, yoghurt, and laughs in a park where families are congregating and loving life. I could go on and on about Yazd. I practice Farsi in a Yazdi accent, courtesy of Mohsen. I visited sights but I was a part of Yazdi culture for a week. I have so many interesting stories from that great town… I am still in touch with my great friends from Yazd.
From Yazd I moved on to Isfahan and found a hotel. I met up with Shane on the main square in Isfahan (Naghs-e-Jahan) and got my passport. Shane had found a group of twenty-something tourists and I took them to a restaurant and translated for them. It was great. Sitting there with my foreign friends at a chaykhaneh, I met a guy and girl my own age. They were 24 and 23 years old, university students from Tehran attending school here in Isfahan. One month ago they were girlfriend and boyfriend and they were caught by the morality police (Komiteh) and were forced to marry right then and there in the police station (quite funny but embarrassing for them). Now they lived in the dormitory and their parents are angry and don't let them live in the parents' home. The guy (Mojtaba) invited me to his dorm room that night so I said “Why not?” and that night I took a taxi to their university to hang out with them. Thus began my unforgettable night with a group of great friends studying at Isfahan University…
I found my way to his dorm room after catching a taxi to the university. So then some guy comes in and says (in Farsi) “So you're the American?” and then more people come in and the whole floor, seemingly, knew about “The American” and how I was coming to stay the night. I met guy after guy, never meeting the one guy who invited me to come to his place. But I had dinner with one of them and then we all went out for a walk around the campus and they showed me around and I learned the differences between life at my school and life at theirs. I also could imagine clearly what my father's experiences at college must have been like, which was even more interesting. This was the second best univeristy in Iran and so all the kids here were at least extremely intelligent, technically speaking.
Then, five of us decided to go up into the forest behind the university (it's far outside the city) and have a little bonfire and just talk, something they apparently do all the time (needless to say there is not a lot to do, socially speaking). We went out there and they asked me questions about my travels and were especially interested to know what I learned from Gotama the Buddha and what he had to say. They told me about their lives here and they asked me to sing “Hotel California” for them because they could never get the words right. At this point in my journey, I was used to singing and dancing for people so I obliged.
We talked about relationships with girls and guys and got pretty damn explicit and I even had to explain what gay (homosexual) people are and I attempted to explain WHY they were that why. I learned some things about Iranian youth that aren't really fit for print and I taught them some things as well. We laughed and laughed under the start, sitting in a circle by the glow and warmth of this rather large bonfire.
Making our way back to the dorm, we entered the room of another guy where they were having a small party because of my arrival. That's when it got really Iranian:
Iranian dubbed cassettes playing on the tiny boom box and the room is full of ~12 Iranian guys trying to out-joke the other. We started playing Hookm (the classic Iranian card game) and of course they are all professionals because they have not much else to do. They are smoking cigarettes and telling jokes so fast that I can't understand but I was definitely “ON” that night because my hands were amazing, beginner's luck. We played and played until they brought out the watermelon. That's right, a watermelon. All 12 of us gathered around the treasure chest and everybody groaned with ecstasy when the first incision was made (of course, by the oldest person there). I was given the first piece and affirmed it was sweet (“shirni”) enough for consumption.
They taught me about Sufism and what they knew about it (very little). We went to sleep at 5AM in different rooms. The next day I had planned to go to one of the classes with one of the kids but we overslept that class by about six hours. Rameen told me that he was driving back (in his car) to Tehran that afternoon and I was welcome to come. It seemed to be perfect timing so I jumped in. So we spent 7 hours in the car and had a grand old time talking and having me practice Persian while he practiced English. We drove through the 'holy' city of Qom and I saw the streets of this place, chock-full of mullahs all over the place. These guys scare me a bit.
I arrived to Rameen's house at 10PM and his wife had made a great meal for us (my first fantastic home cooked meal in Iran, but definitely not my last!) and we hung out for a while and then they took me to my grandfather's house. I walked up the steps and my grandparents' genuine, welcoming smile morphed into a forced one when they saw my beard and shaggy hair. My grandmother laughed and my grandfather was mortified. We sat for a few minutes and then I implored them to go to sleep (it was 11:30PM, they had waited up for me). Right away my grandfather made plans for the next day to take me to the hairdresser's and cut my hair and then go buy me new clothes. I am sleeping beside him in his large bed and it's so great. My great-grandmother is also staying in the house, it's fantastic.
I stayed for weeks in my grandfather's house in Tehran. I loved every day. I visited my family from my mother's side and father's side. I have all types of family in Tehran – some are modern, European, and stylish and some are conservative, traditional, and studious. I loved to see the different faces of Iranian youth.
I told stories all the time, to my family, to friends, to people I met on the streets. I love Tehran. My cousins took me around to all different parts of the city. The one thing I didn't get to do was go to a hammam in the southern part of the city. Generally, I didn't spend enough time in the poorer sections of town. I wanted to see the 'real' Tehran. But Tehran also took me by surprise. It was the first modern, Western city I had been to since Madrid, four months ago! It was common for me to be stuck at times during the day in Tehran, suddenly I'm quiet and just watching what's around me and I feel so confused – what am I doing here? Is this my life? Is this my future? 'Modern' life? Am I even happy here? These people don't look so happy! When will I go 'back' to the villages I felt so connected to? Is this my only choice in life? To live in these big modern, Western cities? Am I forcing myself to like this type of life? Would I really be happier living simply? Or did I just scratch the surface of those villages – would I become bored after the novelty wears off? Then would I clamor back into a beautiful car and clean, new clothes and breathe the fresh fumes of the taxi in front of me? Was that all it was? A tourism trip? A fleeting holiday? Another photo album? Another bunch of pictures on my website? A checkbox finally checked on the to-do list of life? A list of countries I can tell people I've visited? Or was it so much more than that? As I've learned from Vipassana, these answers will come from inside, nowhere else.
I got to know people in my family whom I didn't even know before. I asked the elders to tell me all the great stories about my family. I learned of my uncle, who was valedictorian of his university and has a picture of him accepting the prize from the Shah of Iran at age 24. I heard stories about my cousin, who was the leader of an organization in Iran hated by the revolutionaries and was executed in the street along with his wife – his name announced in glee on the radio as an enemy destroyed, leaving his two genius sons behind, now living with my aunt. I heard my cousins and great uncles reciting Rumi poetry, stanza after stanza, from memory. I visited my cousin's elite friends in postmodern apartments in northern Tehran where it looked like I was in an apartment in NYC. I visited the prestigious Sharif University alongside one of my cousins who is a recent graduate. My uncle was a political prisoner for 30 months in an Iranian prison for something he didn't do, while the culprit escaped to America. Another uncle wrote his own dictionary and has written so many books that are still used as textbooks in Tehran universities today. I heard stories about my father from the perspective of childhood friends. I heard about how he placed in the top 10 on the national scholastic tests to enter university.
On my last day in Tehran I reflected and wrote in my journal: I realize how little I have seen, how little I have done, how few people I have met, how huge the world is, how there is a world I am totally ignorant and unaware of.
From Tehran I caught a 48-hour bus to Istanbul (complete with crazy stories along the way, check my website) and spent a few days in that great city. I flew from there to Berlin and stayed there a night. From there I flew home and began a formidable challenge: adjusting to life in the USA after changing so much over the nine months of my trip. This is something I still deal with on a daily basis. I still yearn to travel – this summer I am living in Athens, Greece to work for a large software company there. I will travel much more and live different lives within this one before I die. Thanks for reading about my trip and I appreciate any comments you have – feel free to email me. For those of you who have specific questions, you might have some luck going to my website first (see below).
The stories, memories, and photos of my journey aren't done justice by this set of articles. If you want to read or see more about my trip, feel free to visit my Globetrotter website:
School children resting in the shade at Arg-e-Bam in southern Iran.