The darkness brings a chill as nighttime falls in the Iranian city of Kerman. The battered, silver Iran Khodro saloon in which I’m a passenger advances down an avenue lined with Sycamore trees. I roll down the window to let my hand ride the wind outside. It undulates rhythmically along an invisible x-axis, as though it were a magic carpet riding the updraft.
Mentioning that you’re travelling to Kerman, particularly if going alone, draws mixed reactions from Iranians. Iran is the largest producer of pistachio nuts in the world and they’re all grown here in Kerman province. Its annual yield is over twice that of the world’s second largest producer – the USA – which, as you might imagine, is fine fuel for national pride. Contrarily, its proximity to the border with Afghanistan’s Kandahar province means the area has a darker association. Drugs. From what I gather, I’ll eat exceptionally well before expiring at the sweaty hands of an addict. Everyone’s got to go somehow.
Iranians have turned stereotyping into an art form. The inhabitants of each of the country’s major cities are attributed, lightheartedly you might hope, with specific characteristics by the inhabitants of others. Behind closed doors, people from Shiraz – Shirazis – are said to be booze-guzzling party animals. Esfahani merchants are ruthless, penny-pinching scam artists who wouldn’t give a discount to their own grandmothers, let alone to a guidebook wielding tourist. The men of Qazvin, whether fairly or not, are demonised as predatory homosexuals in front of whom it would be unwise to bend over, even – or perhaps especially – in the middle of a crowded bazaar. Kermanis, according to Tehranis at least, are mostly muggers and junkies who would steal the flip-flops off your feet while you walk in order to buy a few crumbs of pure Afghan opium. Either that, or they’re dribbling, incoherent nut farmers with brains the size of a single unit of their crop. True or not, Afghan opium and Persian pistachios are almost certainly the best in the world, so at least one positive stereotype can be said of Kermanis. They have exceptionally high standards.
There’s a manmade stream called a Joob flowing along the sides of each street and tree-lined boulevard in Iran. Reckless driving, of which there is plenty, is met with a cautionary cry from passersby.“That maniac is going to end up in the joob!” Indeed, after only twenty-four hours in Iran I saw a rusty, soon-to-be-rustier Peugeot that had backed into a joob in Tehran. Its front tyres were a metre up in the air. A small crowd gathered, some to gawk and others to help the driver clamber down from the door. Plenty of others merely strolled past. Seen it all before, their rolled eyes seemed to say.
My accomplice Reza and I hop the joob and enter a small grocery store. The man behind the counter is young, early thirties, but has skin that’s graying beneath a tan and a brown comb-over from right to left. He wears a light blue polo shirt and a smell of stale sweat lingers, but from him or the last customer I can’t tell. Reza, seriously lacking in English, uses his best gesturing to get across the message that I should make myself busy looking around the shop. It seems a deal is going down that I’m not to bear witness to.
Exotic to my eye, the grocery store’s shelves hold a marvelous array of products. Multicolored tins and shapely jars are stacked to the ceiling, holding a dazzling variety of fish, olives, vegetables and meats. A rickety wooden ladder stands by to access the higher levels. There are no imported Western brands here that I can see. In the fridge, however, my eyes come to rest on some familiar colours and logos; Coca Cola and Pepsi. Despite the strict Western sanctions against Iran, these companies have clearly found a way around them. Their products are not imported either. Astoundingly, they have factories in Iran, and continue to battle it out for market share along with the local Iranian Zam Zam cola.
A woman severely dressed in a chador, a full-length swathe of black cloth designed to cloak everything but the face from view, stands next to me. Her young son clutches at her hand and the fabric of her chador while staring up at me with watery eyes. She gives me a stern, disapproving look up and down, but our eyes only make contact for a fraction of a second. When they do, it seems to be the reason why she shoots her gaze towards the floor tiles, before dragging her boy briskly from the shop and into the night. I go to the door and watch the long material of her orthodox outfit trail behind in the late evening breeze. At last the shop floor is empty except for Reza and I. The owner emerges from the back and is introduced to me as Ali Reza. He hands Reza a black plastic bag. There’s a two-litre plastic bottle inside. Ali Reza winks and promises to meet us later. We hop the joob and drive.
Reza parks up on a dark lane. He passes me the plastic bottle, fetches two paper cups from the glove box, and signals for me to fill ‘em up. We knock them back in one. It’s moonshine; fiery-strong and burns a trail down into my stomach. His fingers indicate that I should keep them coming. Two, three, four cups bring tears to my eyes and laughter for no other reason than to laugh. Reza shakes his head like a horse and let’s out a Persian yaahooaa! I think I already know the answer, but I mime Islamic prayer to ask whether he practices the state religion. Laughter and ‘No, no, no’ is his reply. I feel the booze in my legs, arms and rapidly loosening tongue. The language barrier poses no problem anymore. I pour each of us a fifth.
On the ramshackle wall across the lane from our car is a poster of an old, grandfatherly face, torn across so no jaw remains. As incongruous as it seems, the ghostly dead eyes of Ayatollah Khomeini, leader of the Islamic Revolution of ’79, observe and judge while we drink. As a sixth cup reaches my lip, a deafening yell tries its best to perforate my ear drums.
Allahu Akbar / God is the Greatest
The call to prayer rings out on the other side of the wall. It’s time to move before we’re discovered by people flocking to evening prayer. Unlike the car, Reza is well oiled and keeps a heavy foot on the gas pedal as we cruise out of the city. My hand finds its way to the open window and floats outside, riding the wind once more. I give in to the drink, allowing my eyes to get lost in the constellations of an unpolluted desert sky.