Pictures: Beijing

All Photographs Copyright © Ben McKechnie 2011

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Of Borders and Baha’is

As the train slows to a halt, the sweet-scented breeze from the window dies to a chilly, asthmatic breath. The compartment door is slid quietly open by a stealthy intruder. A torch is shone in my eyes. ‘Pazzpuuurts for leaving of Tuuurkey’, groans the guard, sounding like a hinge in need of oiling.

Five of us stumble from the train, gravel under feet, and come to huddle in a tight circle. A spotlight perched high on a Turkish guard tower illuminates our breath. It appears like steam over a jet black canvas. Studying the vapours provides a welcome respite from conversation. That is until Sylvester appears and opens his mouth.

“Gentlemens. You are maybe confusing why are we stop here. Let me to tell you. This is end of Turkey. Over there one kilometres is Iran. See train is locked. We go now to stamp passport in that building”.

We’re like cattle in a cramped abattoir. Strip lights flicker and green railings mark out a snaking path for the queue to follow. Once all of the passengers are inside, the door is locked. Our group of five are encouraged to the front of the queue. A circular stamp is clunked down onto my Turkish visa. It bears the word ÇIKIŞ – EXIT – in bold black lettering, the name of the border crossing – VAN; although the city is now 80km to our west – and the date it became less than three hours ago. May 1st, 2010.

Sylvester introduces me to his wife as we wait outside between the office and train. I see an opportunity to pursue an invitation to their home in Tehran. I press them for details about their lives. Sylvester peers around cautiously before whispering

“Government in Tehran, mullahs in Qom… they make life hard for us. I see you want to know why. This is a secret. We are Baha’is.”

The Baha’i Faith. Founded in 19th century Persia by a man proclaiming himself to be The Bab. The Gate. Its followers have been persecuted ever since the day he began drawing a crowd. Harassed in ways including – but not limited to – the ransacking of homes, desecration of cemeteries, the banning of followers attending university and holding government jobs, and even more severe. Examining their core tenets, you begin to understand why they might not be too popular in the region. Total equality of the sexes and the peaceful unity of all mankind being two examples of the particularly ‘dangerous’ beliefs that they hold.

I climb wearily onto the train and find my bunk. It will lurch towards the Iranian border post soon. Any minute now, I’ll hear the rumble of diesel engines coming to life. We’ll advance eastwards, across a line on a map and into a different world. We’ll be herded off and into another cramped room; visas scrutinised by quizzical faces, faces studied by questioning eyes.

But the train goes nowhere. It just sits. Motionless upon that line on a map. Lying here in the secrecy of dark, some words come into my head. Strangely I can’t place where I’ve heard them before. They’re crystal in their clarity, so I’m certain I must have done. Then I remember. A long time ago, an old teacher – long dead now – would make us lay our heads on desks and rest in silence. Minutes would pass, then we would hear his mellow voice wash over us.

The clearest reflections are seen in water when it is calm and still. And so it is with us. Our clearest thoughts are found when we are serene and still like the water in a pond.

Time would lose meaning. How long was spent in silence before he would speak again, I do not know.

Now, listen only to the sounds inside the room.

Inside a cramped sleeping compartment, there comes the sound of someone in the bunk below twitching curtains. Metal rings scratch softly along a rail. Click. A torch is turned on. Pages of a book rustle. A lost page is found. Then finally, after some minutes, the sound of each person’s breath can be heard.

Now, listen to the sounds outside the room.

At a Turkish border post, the crunch of gravel under foot as someone walks by the window. Faint laughter. Perhaps it’s sailing down from the guard tower, where two Turkish guards keep lookout and exchange jokes to pass the time. Inside the train, a toilet flushes somewhere. Once its dull gargling has ceased, all that can be picked out is the weak hum of an electric light in the corridor.

And finally, listen to the sounds inside yourself.

Inside a twenty-four year old, meditating in the Middle East, there is heard the sound of blood swooshing through temples, coursing through veins and pounding in and out of a steadily beating heart. When thoughts enter his mind of what lies ahead in the coming months, everything is replaced by the thundering of a rapidly beating drum.