Petra’s Kings (an article I wrote for TRVL magazine)

Brilliant, coral colored flames leap chaotically from an open fire in the middle of nowhere, attempting to lick the faces of anyone foolish enough to sit too close. There are a few. A feeling of acute isolation ebbs away with the intimate embrace of Bedouin hospitality. Khaled – the King of Petra, if nicknames are anything to go by – takes a lingering swig of gin straight from the bottle, before passing it to me.

The town of Wadi Musa, or Valley of Moses, stands as guardian of Petra. It is so named because Moses is purported to have passed though the valley with his followers. Their cracked lips and cries of thirst struck a chord in his altruistic soul and, without the need for dowsing of any kind, he struck the ground and out flowed fresh water. More than a thousand years later, the Nabataeans, the ancient people of Northern Arabia who built Petra as their capital, channeled water from this well to their city. These days, it’s a tourist town. I alight from the somewhat decrepit 250 kilometer bus service from Amman. The sound of Islamic chanting from aging speakers rings in my ears as I call Khaled to inform him of my arrival. I walk along dusty streets to reach the meeting point I’ve been instructed to go to, feeling the mild chill of a late evening in December as I walk past khaki colored buildings and shop fronts with familiar signage mixed with Arabic script. A flashy Orange cell phone store with the latest Samsung smartphone in the window stands three doors down from a fading yellow shop sign advertising Kodak 35mm film. Technology at least a decade apart, from obsolete to ultra modern, in the space of a few buildings. How quickly times change. Arriving at the roundabout in the center of town, I wait.

As it is in so many Middle-Eastern countries, the people of Petra and its surroundings come to you. Whether it’s sitting on the grass in Esfahan’s Naqsh-e Jahan Square in Iran, sitting in a tea shop smoking shisha in the Kurdish city of Van in Turkey’s far South-East, or frittering away time by the side of a road here in Wadi Musa; all you need do is wait. Well-preserved ancient ruins and natural beauty aside, it’s the people that keep you coming back to this part of the world. Around every corner is a selfless invitation to a family home, an offer of tea and a surprisingly frank discussion about almost any topic of conversation that you choose to pursue.

Loitering under a bright red and blue advertisement for Pepsi, I have my first encounter with one of Petra’s Bedouins. He saunters up with a swagger, wearing an army green shirt adorned with pin badges that hangs open four buttons to reveal a white vest. Covering his lower half are baggy, jet black Thai fisherman pants. On his head is a kuffiyeh, a traditional head cloth in the Jordanian style with a red and white hound’s tooth pattern. He introduces himself as Zay – a moniker – but a moniker which has stuck so hard he refuses to reveal his true name. Zay doesn’t take the local tradition of outlining one’s eyes with rims of charcoal lightly. It appears as if a neat yet overly zealous toddler has traced his eyelids with a beefy, black crayon. “Western women really love it”, remarks Zay with a knowing smile. I tell him that’s because he looks exceptionally like a well-known pirate from contemporary pop culture. “My friend, you know too much.” Deeply tanned skin and hair bordering on dreadlocks seal the deal. After the exchange of pleasantries, we broach deeper subjects. He’s one of the first Jordanians in a week that has lasted five minutes without hinting at how the Dinar bills in my wallet can become theirs. He acknowledges this with a look that is half regret, half pride. “We are different from city people”. Why? “Because of the mosque. We do not pray in them. We pray in our homes or outside in the desert. Money and mosque go hand in hand. It’s not our obsession. I make enough honest money from tourists with my job in Petra. If I come to you on the streets of Wadi Musa, then it’s because I feel like talking to you.” I bid Zay farewell with a handshake, just as a bright, Barbie pink Daihatsu jeep screeches drunkenly onto the roundabout. It’s not the regal sort of automobile Khaled the King would be seen in, that’s for sure.

Leaving Wadi Musa behind, South Korean manufactured pick-up trucks and brightly colored, Japanese miniature jeeps drive along curving desert roads, baking in lack of shade. Such vehicles must occasionally dodge a stray sheep or small child that has drifted into the road from a nearby Bedouin camp. In a land not blessed with fecund soil, the two main camps visible along this eight kilometer drive are built around the bases of the only two trees in sight. With tiny settlements radiating away from their trunks, the trees become symbols of fertility to be worshiped amidst their barren but beautiful surroundings.

Siq al-Barid, or Little Petra, is situated eight kilometers from the main archaeological behemoth of Petra. I discover that questions requiring facts as answers are met obliquely around here. How wide is this passageway? “As wide as a camel with medium fat. No more, no less”, comes the riposte. It serves me right for asking something so obtuse. All Khaled and his family need to know is whether or not they can shove a camel up here without lubrication. Emerging from the narrow shaft, you find yourself in an ancient suburb of Petra that was used as a trade and supply post. A petite, rock-hewn temple can be seen midway up a canyon wall, surrounded by formations resembling baked potatoes stacked atop one another. Giant hands have seemingly had fun kneading these over-sized tubers and have molded deep, concave thumbprints into their surfaces. Sights aren’t as grandiose as big brother’s down the road, but what Little Petra lacks in spectacle, it makes up for in intimacy.

Petra plays host to a thousand colorful characters, but if you were to meet just three then you could do a lot worse than Khaled the King, Ghassab al-Bedouine and Priscilla al-Daihatsu. An unholy trinity – two parts man, one part machine. I secretly christen my Bedouin hosts’ Barbie-pink mini jeep Priscilla, because I can’t decide on its gender. Unquestionably, it’s a queen of the desert, but is it all woman or more flamboyant man in drag? Either way, it oozes personality and only a small amount of engine oil; the kind of unfaltering beast, that even after 170,000 miles on the clock, can still take a daily thrashing without even so much as a whimper of complaint. The ride is fun for everyone. Priscilla’s backseat passengers must scramble and squeeze behind a driver’s seat that has given up on sliding forwards. They must then spend the duration of the journey using an arm to hold up the ceiling of the car, or instead be forced to sit leaning forwards at a spine-deforming one hundred and thirty degree angle. The car upholstery is pink throughout. The chassis is emblazoned with stickers and underneath the exhaust is partially held on with layers of duct tape. Once seated uncomfortably, Ghassab starts the engine. The jeep’s one working headlight flickers on, before roaring into the night.

Khaled is nicknamed the King either because his father is the chief of the entire Bedouin tribe, or because he owns one of the highest shops inside Petra, situated fifty steps before the top of the long climb up to the monastery. He is thirty-four, divorced and likes gin. Ghassab is Khaled’s cousin – one of hundreds – and is the owner of a giant boulder in the middle of nowhere. He is forty-two, divorced and likes chocolate. Ghassab was twenty-four when, in 1993, he met a beautiful girl from Germany. He courted her using all the tricks in the proverbial book and a week-long, whirlwind love affair ensued. Nights spent talking and laughing in secret mountain caves, huddled up under camelhair blankets, lying next to an open fire – thousands of years of which has left entering many of Petra’s caves feel like climbing inside of a lifelong smoker’s lungs, their ceilings inches thick with sticky black residue – but Ghassab forgot the golden rule of holiday romance – do not fall in love. She reciprocated however, and on a whim he flew to Germany with her where they married and lived for almost eighteen years. They divorced in 2011 and Ghassab returned to Jordan with dreadlocks, a love for Bob Marley, and a fair idea of how he wanted to live out the remainder of his life, here in the place of his birth. “I was born in a cave in Petra. I’ll die in one too”, he says, sucking on a Marlboro Red.

Their joint decision to turn a giant, hollowed-out boulder – roughly fifteen kilometers into the desert from Petra – into a livable home, was a reaction against the increasing modernization of the lives of Petra’s Bedouin tribe. In the last ten years, they have witnessed their families being moved out of camps and into ‘Bedouin villages’ – tiny towns of brick and cement houses, with a paved road and running water in the courtyards. Khaled’s English is stilted and slow as he tells me about the traditional life of his tribe. “We are used to living simply with nature. We only need the basic essentials of life. Food, water, a roof over our heads, and good company, which God provides for us in the desert”. This is juxtaposed against a back-story of roofs over heads provided by the Jordanian government. Moving into houses made of bricks must have been a sad day for Khaled and his family.

What they have achieved with their cave in the space of a few years is already impressive, but they aren’t done yet. The resourceful pair have plans for self-sufficiency; solar panels and composting toilets being at the top of the list. They try to never turn away a traveler in need of a place to stay. Neither do they charge a single dollar, despite knowing people would pay good money for this experience. “It has always been the way. Hospitality is rooted in our religion and charity is one of the five pillars. We were couch surfing before the Couchsurfing website was invented. Now we call it cave surfing”. It’s an adventurous eco-traveler’s dream, reachable only by 4×4, and only then if you know its exact location. Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, swings a right turn off the main road and then for twenty minutes traverses challenging terrain; dangerously steep inclines and vicious bumps that are absorbed by spines in place of the vehicle’s knackered suspension. Arriving at night, there isn’t any way of telling how magnificent your environs are. Through the cave’s doors you’re met with aromas of cooking, chain-smoked cigarettes and clothes that haven’t been washed in a week. But it is unarguably a home. Outside in the morning, you are met with a vision of paradise. The cave sits with palatial elevation overlooking an expanse of ochre land, while all around are fifty meter cliffs. Intense colors flood retinas and you’re bathed in complete silence. Ghassab breaks it with a shout. “Go free, my friend! Nature is your toilet!”

If there were any doubts about Khaled’s claim to being local royalty, a trip with him inside ancient Petra quickly disperses the last seeds. Other Bedouins are in deference to him. His guests are spared the hard-sell tactics of men with donkeys looking to take them for a ride. Even when Khaled isn’t leading me around, somehow it feels as though every Bedouin I meet still knows I’m his guest. Climbing a mountain, a Bedouin girl invites a friend and I to sit. Her name is Noora and she’s thirteen years old. She doesn’t attend school anymore. Her eyes are defined with thick rims of charcoal and around her head she wears a tight black headscarf. Noora calls to her younger brother and sister who,grinning cheekily, carry over a large silver tray holding lunch. “Please, eat with us”. Fried potatoes and tomatoes seasoned with herbs and salt are scooped up using flat-bread, all washed down with sweet tea infused with mint. Noora decorates my companion Sara’s eyes, before giving us some small plants called a-his-lan. Not a penny is asked for and their three grinning faces wave to us as we continue the climb.

Nobody can agree on the exact number of steps up to the High Place of Sacrifice, but they do agree that it’s at least eight hundred. Puffing and panting in the afternoon heat, climbing past altars once used for the bleeding and burning of animals – and possibly humans – the reward is a head-spinning three hundred and sixty degree view. To the south-east is the treasury, invisible up here, but to the north-west is the rest of Petra. To the east is Wadi Musa, its streets like creeper vines growing up the hill, making you feel very small indeed.

The year 2012 marked the two hundredth anniversary of Petra’s rediscovery by the explorer Johann Burckhardt, but from my high vantage point I prefer to consider its future. Whereas much of the Middle-East continues to experience uncertainty, Jordan is often seen as a beacon of stability, surrounded by politically volatile neighbors. So despite there being a civil war on next door, dont be put off visiting Petra and the rest of this intoxicating country.

Back at the Bedouin cave, I climb the outdoor stairs carved into the rock. Together with a Swede named Gustav, we stand on top and survey the moonlit scene. The cliffs form a natural auditorium and it feels as though we are the Pope and his entourage, looking out across Saint Peter’s Square. “What would you preach if there were one million people down there right now, waiting to hear you speak?”, I ask him.He thinks about it for a minute. “I’d remind them that we’re all infinite”. Deep, man. But Gustav can’t help being an idealistic, twenty year old hipster. Tonight there’s almost some meaning in those words. Maybe in the deserts of Petra, moonlight and perfect silence make philosophers of us all. 

A Sliver Of Sunlight

A sliver of sunlight penetrates the compartment as, disorientated, I find my bearings. I’d been expecting 3am to come. A sharp prod in the ribs and another icy waiting room. My fingers were secretly crossed for a back room interrogation from a bearded fundamentalist, seething with anti-western rhetoric. Confusingly though, they let us sleep. For all the time and money that it took to procure a visa, I’m now being propelled east across Iran’s West Azerbaijan province with documents unchecked.

I jump down from the top bunk and wrench open the curtains for my first view of the pariah state. The landscape floods my retinas. My knees are rendered weak. I steady myself against the window frame and drink in the view. Rippling, ochre hills studded with green line the track looking south. A miniature canyon carves its way through the valley floor between ridges. Such a scene gives way to a rolling plain that reaches out for miles towards a black mountain in the distance. A grey haired shepherd dressed in an old, grimy woolen jacket tends to a flock two hundred strong. Some of the sheep look up when they hear the sound of the approaching train, but quickly return to the more pressing matter of munching plants.

Next door in the dining car, I sit to drink tea with Maisam and his entourage. He explains why we were left to sleep.

“Border checks are to be made once we arrive at Tabriz. Just know that when we get there, soldiers will board the train and doors will be locked. They’ll empty your backpacks and search every inch for banned items, so have one last check before we get there.”

Prohibited items include alcohol, pork products, material critical of the regime, and any music, film or book that has been banned by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. I’m quite sure I left my copy of The Satanic Verses in Singapore, but there’s the small chance I dreamt it.

“Look out the window. The shores of Lake Orumiyeh!”

A permanent, hypersaline lake more than five times the area of the Dead Sea; Lake Orumiyeh is drying up. Not far from the train window, I can see where the water’s edge used to be. Now, mirages shimmer upon vast beds of crystalised salt. Rippling, pink apparitions on the horizon could be a colony of flamingos. An illusion or a reality? I strain my eyes across the blinding expanse of salt and focus on the shapes. I’m about to succumb to the urge to shut my eyes tight when one of the salmon coloured blemishes spreads its wings and takes flight. The bird soars until little more than a dot, a pinprick, a fleck of dust upon my glasses.

The train veers away from the salt flats of Lake Orumiyeh and sets course for Tabriz.

In the dining car: Brothers from Tehran

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.

Approaching The Iranian Border

Where the Iranian train should sit, there lies only empty tracks. They stretch into the distance, steel glinting under moonlight and a scarce overhanging lamp. When my eyes are fully strained into the gloom, each disappears like the trail of smoke from a flare.

More than an hour passes, then the train finally arrives and people pour from the doors. Noticeably there are more people leaving Iran than are going. Our women are headscarved and sombre. Theirs are animated, removing layers of clothes and adding layers of make-up. A beautiful girl catches me staring as she’s getting casual, undoing buttons at the top of her shirt. She flashes me a cheeky smile and squeals salam.

After finding our compartment at the front of the train, Tom, Seb and I drift into the adjacent dining car in search of chay. We’re beginning to snap. It’s been too long since the last cup. I want somebody with long fingernails to itch the delicate membranes on the inside of my skull. I realise that drinking strong tea at regular intervals from now on is vital if I’m to function like a normal human being. I accept caffeine as my personal saviour and am born again. Slightly more evil and quick to anger.

I’m served a glass of scalding hot water and a Derbsh brand tea bag. I unwrap its yellow and red paper packaging and dunk it into the cup. After allowing it to brew to the desired shade of golden brown, I pick up a sugar cube and am about to stir it in when I remember something I read about an Iranian custom. I look around the dining car to confirm its veracity and find one, two, three men inserting the sugar cube behind their teeth and under their tongue. They then take small swigs, wash it delicately around their mouth and over the sugar, before swallowing. I try the same and the entire sugar cube dissolves instantly and washes down my throat. I try a second time and the exact same thing happens. I’m going to get a pleasant high any second now. The sugar cube trick must be an acquired art.

Owling my neck around, I come to spy a fifty-inch South Korean made LCD television suspended on the wall to the right of the door we came through. Its sleek modernity is a future anachronism inside this carriage filled with tattered Persian carpets, caramel coloured curtains and fake pink flowers in plastic pots.

The food menu is written only in Persian Arabic script. It’s time to put my reading skills to the test. Four months ago, I lubricated my mind with Korean blackberry wine and sat on the kitchen floor to stare at homemade flashcards covered in unfamiliar scrawlings. There are thirty-two letters – four extra than standard Arabic to account for the sounds in the Persian language that aren’t present in Arabic – each taking up to four different forms. It’s read from right to left too. It wasn’t the easiest system of writing I’ve ever studied.

“Okay, it’s all kababs. This one is Koobideh kabab, which Lonely Planet confirms is minced lamb on a stick. This one is Joojeh kabab. Chunks of chicken. This last one is Bakh… I think it says Bakhtiyari kabab. No idea what it is but it’s the most expensive so it could be good?”

I sidle up to the hatch with a vague idea of the Farsi I’m about to dribble onto the counter. I need a drink for the confidence. Make that two. If I was as shunted now as I was last night, I’d have already bought everyone in the dining car a kabab and challenged the waiter to an arm wrestle for his most eligible sister’s hand in marriage.

“Salam. Do Bakhtiyari kabab va yek Koobideh kabab mikham”.

A smile spreads across his cracked lips. This guy needs a multi-vitamin. I genuinely think he might have scurvy.

When the plates come they hold three seemingly identical chicken kababs, flatbread, grilled tomato and more rice than I could ever eat in one sitting. A single-serving tub of margarine sits atop the rice. I did not order three of the same thing, but I am powerless to complain. I’m too hungry to even care.

When we’re finished eating, we decide on retiring to the shared compartment for a nap. After climbing up into my bunk, I close my eyes and feel the kabab gently churning in my stomach. The train gently clackety-clacks into the night. A cool breeze from the crack in the window washes the aroma of wild steppe grassland into my thoughts. Thoughts that fade in lucidity by the second. Two hours to the Iranian border.

The Lake Van Ferry – Eastward bound: Part Two

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…”

“Yes, yes…”

“…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.