All Photographs Copyright © Ben McKechnie 2011
Swathes of diesel fumes are passing across my face, forcing their way into my lungs and embalming me from the inside out. I won’t fight it. I’ll inhale, gamble with a year of life expectancy, stick it out and strain my eyes into the murky twilight. The late evening glimmer is now merely an innuendo of what it once was. A suggestive, golden whisper of light that crests the mountains surrounding Lake Van.
Back inside, I’m bewildered at the sight of numerous Iranian women holding fresh kilogram tubs of Sana – a Turkish brand of margarine. They cradle them as though they were holding a new member of the family. Some children are eyeing them jealously. I saw the tubs on sale earlier and bought one thinking that they were going to start handing out toast, only to be told by Maisam that they were for taking home to Iran. Apparently Iranian margarine brands can’t compete with their Turkish counterparts, so families take this opportunity to stock up. I felt at a loss for ideas of what to do with such a gargantuan supply of spread. I’d already opened and plunged a dirty finger into it, defiling the product and wrecking my chance of a refund. I suffered a momentary sense of humour failure. My companions didn’t. The ship owner announced that toasted sandwiches were on sale and I seized the opportunity to get rid of at least some of the stuff. I bought two lamb sausage and cheese sandwiches. I asked for a knife and they gave me a plastic spoon. I then spread the top of each sandwich with a centimetre-thick layer of cold, hard vegetable oil spread. And by god did I force myself to like it.
I’m standing at the bar with Tom and Seb. Weak-minded Sylvester is congratulating us on our dancing. He’s leaning against the bar, which only serves to exaggerate his drunken demeanour.
“Where are you go? Oh, Tehran? What will do there? National Jewel museum good, very very interest, go here. Maybe you come to my home? My wife make Fesenjun. When leave Iran, where are you go next?”
“I’m planning to leave Iran by first going to Orumiyeh, then…”
“Yes, yes, Orumiyeh, yes…”
“…the border town of Piranshahr to…”
“…the Haj Omran border post where I’ll leave Iran and cross over into Iraqi Kurdista…”
“No! No! No!”
He has flipped, patting all over his body, checking his suit and trouser pockets with the desperation of an addict looking for a last hit. Did I say something wrong?
“What’s wrong Sylvester? What are you looking for?”
“Don’t go Iraq very dangerous don’t go Iraq! Quick give me pen paper!”
“I think it’s okay Sylvester. Iraqi Kurdistan isn’t Arab Iraq, it has its own border, government and they issue free ten day tourist visas on arrival. I’m not going to Baghdad, Mosul or even Kirkuk. Just Sulaymaniya, Erbil, Duhok then into Turkey.”
“Pen! Paper! Very dangerous, listen, you not go Iraq!”
I dig my pen and journal from my satchel and flip to a blank page. I can’t wait to see what he’s going to scribble that could possibly change my mind. He thinks I’m going to the beach in Basra when really I’m just passing through the autonomous far north of the country. He snatches the pen and journal from my hands. He’s frantic and sweating, completely desperate to change my mind. I’m touched that he cares. He clicks the pen and begins to draw a diagram, I can’t quite see, but the intense concentration is showing on his face. Then, abruptly, he stops drawing. Just like at the card table, his stare becomes vacant. His brain cogs are creaking in an effort to grasp what the task at hand was. A few more strokes of the pen and he turns my journal on the bar to face me. With a huge toothy smile, he presents his diagram of Iraqi danger to me. All that he’s drawn is a face. A smiley face! We both crease with laughter.
“I sorry! I forget what talk about!”
I don’t plan on reminding him. The state of knowing distressed him too much. There’s a second Iranian man sitting just down the bar. He’s laughing too from behind his thick rimmed glasses. From the look of it, he hasn’t shaved since at least Wednesday. Come to think of it, neither have I. I say hello and ask if he can speak English. He smiles and tells me he can speak ‘Optician English‘. He points to my glasses and asks me where I got them from. A British online store, I tell him. I take them off and he begins testing their build quality by tapping the lenses and bending the arms. He gives a derisive snort and tells me he could fit me with a much better pair. He takes my guidebook, finds the map of Tehran and marks the location of his shop.
“You come to my shop. I wait for you.”
The ferry groans as the water brakes kick in. Presumably we’re approaching the city of Van on the eastern shore. Out of the corner of my eye, I see someone approaching. It’s a man with beady little eyes and not a hint of a smile.
“The two ladies you danced with. They are very worried about what happened. They have husbands in Iran. They could get in trouble. You know if the border guards check your cameras and see pictures of these ladies dancing with you, they could be arrested and sent to prison? I’m asking you and your friends to delete any pictures that you have of these ladies. This is very serious.”
I can’t verify what he’s said, but it is Iran we’re talking about. Dancing in public is illegal and the possibility – no matter how small – that the morality police could invent an adultery charge based on photographs of a married woman dancing with a foreigner just cannot be ruled out. The punishment for adultery is to be stoned to death in public, which if there is a more brutal form of execution in existence, then I don’t want to know about it. We don’t even need to discuss what to do. To protect the ladies, we delete every single photo.