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.
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.
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.
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.
“Come to dance, my friend… yes, yes. You there! Now to dance!”
The seating lounge is becoming a sea of hijab. Women everywhere are preparing for entry to the Islamic Republic as though there was an Iranian intelligence agent on board. Justified or just paranoid? Five hours of pleasant cruising lie ahead before anyone really needs to cover up.
The man imploring me to dance is the ship’s owner and possibly the informer the women are afraid of. They nervously glance in his direction and wince each time he barks. Anyone that accepts his invitation to dance could be photographed doing so and reported to the Iranian morality police. I’ll keep my entrapment hunch quiet for now and concentrate on avoiding his attention.
His hands are the size of bear cubs and could burst my head like a plump blister. My travelling companions sitting to my left appear to be exempt from his harassment. His attention is only on me. This has been a recurring theme on my travels. What about me arouses the attention of sadists? Whatever it is, his persistence makes it hard to keep pretending that I can’t hear him.
Not long ago one of his subordinates pressed play on an ageing CD player unleashing a frenetic wave of Middle-Eastern dance beats over the audience. I look up – mistake – his eyes are now locked to mine. Like a sheep in a tractor beam, I’m rising slowly from my seat. I plead at the others to join me but they’re examing the floral pattern on the carpet like labotomy patients. His paws clamp around my wrists, no backing out now for sure. A last ditch attempt to lure Shirazi school director Maisam up to the front with me is in progress, but his eyes are beaming back a message that this experience is no one’s but mine. It will be a priceless moment. There’s nothing to fear, they seem to say.
I’m dumped in front of one hundred men, women and children, inside a spotlit circle that I suppose marks the spot where I am to perform. Lights are being dimmed around the room making heads buried in books have no choice but to look up. Everyone here – looking at me, studying me – the bass surrounding me, invading every orifice and vibrating my internal organs.
He hand picks two Iranian women and brings them to the front. They look genuinely terrified at the prospect of dancing with me. At least the playing field is even in that respect. The orchestrator of this display is obscenely animated. He’s barking dance related orders in an effort to get us moving, while all the time clapping his hands and shaking the top half of his torso like an obese, balding belly dancer on amphetamines.
No one in the audience is clapping along. People look fidgety and nervous. Here’s a curious thought. What if I can feed off their apathetic vibes and channel them into something resembling a hint of confidence? They are palpably expecting very little of me. In fact, they couldn’t lower their expectations any more if they tried. I’m never going to see these people again, so to hell with it, let’s go!
A few people begin to clap. It’s an awkward, out of time clap like Koreans clapping along to Happy Birthday – if you’ve never heard that then you haven’t lived – but it is lifting the atmosphere. I’m nodding my head to every second beat and clapping too. Buying some time while I figure out what to do next. The two hijab ladies are facing each other to dance which leaves me edging towards them like an asteroid heading for earth – in that I’m either about to cause some serious dancefloor damage or break up upon entry.
I’m noting their every move in the hope that a little of their exotic Middle Eastern style – which to an outsider seems to involve a comical over-use of the arms – rubs off on me. Any second now I’ll bust out with it, I can feel it brewing up inside my chest like a dark storm cloud on the verge of shedding its load. I hope it’s that and not a heart attack. Their arms are raised high above their heads, each one moving independently of the other, hands forming shapes like birds’ heads. You can just look at their hands and ignore the rest. Squint and you can imagine two pairs of flamingos locked into an intense mating ritual. I think I’m ready to show my feathers.
My shoulders are convulsing, arms flailing and mouth grimacing into an idiot grin. Lights and teeth flash, beats and hearts thump, the ladies won’t turn to dance with me but that doesn’t stop me from trying to infiltrate their personal space. I’ve done this more times than I care to remember in clubs around the world and it usually ends in rejection. I’m thinking tonight will be no exception but one of the women, the shorter and more nervous of the two, goes to sit down, leaving me alone with the more gregarious one. She’s got a bright pink and purple headscarf – in direct contrast to the absconder’s mud brown veil – what does this even mean?
I’m staring into her eyes and she into mine. I have no idea what is appropriate in this situation. Should we inch closer? Is her husband watching me, ready to pounce if I overstep an unknown fine line? The mere thought brings waves of self-consciousness flooding to me. Am I thrusting my hips too much? I am definitely thrusting my hips too much. Of course, she is not. Without realising, I’ve switched from my attempt at an Iranian style to something straight out of a hip-hop music video. This deeply conservative corner of the world requires that I switch back immediately.
I wipe my brow and look into the crowd to find two or three couples slapping each other on the arms, pointing at me, throwing their heads back and letting rip with laughter. I’m just relieved to be getting some kind of reaction. Over in the corner where I left my companions, I can see Tom and Seb fist-pumping the air and shouting encouragement. Anna is laughing and shaking her head. I take a bow and return to my seat, fighting the urge to offer an apology to the families in the room.
“Maisam. Be honest. How did I do?”
“Well Ben, it certainly was interesting. I’m thinking you’re new to the Persian style!”
I get the feeling I’ll be familiar with it soon enough. Before I’ve time to think, the ship owner is back with renewed resolve in his eyes, scanning the audience like a terminator and once more straying too close for comfort. What could be the benefit of dragging me up for another round – if only to satisfy his insatiable need for human suffering? I’ve just answered my own question. I look away, open bag, root around, find nothing, panic, sit on hands, feign narcolepsy – and it seems to have worked. He lunges straight past me and seizes an old Iranian man by the wrist. Using Bruno and the Americans for comparison, I’d place him at seventy-six. Despite his age, he’s perfectly capable of defending himself against his tormentor, but to my surprise he leaps into the air laughing. It’s as though he can’t wait to blitz the dance floor. His skin is tanned a golden brown, his full head of white hair is bouffant and his energy levels are reminiscent of a Border Collie. He is the archetypal advert for a life-long Mediterranean diet. Except he’s from Iran. Perhaps the place is full of old men like him. Do Iranians love to dance? Only time will tell.
The crowd is warming up from their rigamortis. The ageing Persian stops by my side and tugs me from my seat with a smile so white it could dazzle a fox. The recently administered endorphins stop my heart from sinking. He must want to teach me a thing or two about Persian dancing. Time seems to slow down as he looks into my eyes. As with Maisam, I can feel some message being communicated. He can tell I’m uneasy but just go with it. I’ll guide you. Is this some ancient Persian art of telepathy?
I don’t feel the slightest bit nervous any more. Adrenalin in my veins has been replaced by tingling on the back of my head. I’m ready to get back up and learn from a master. Breathing in deeply, I let myself go.
The train grinds to a halt. I take a long swig of Efes Extra. The bar has sold out of regular Efes – less than twenty hours into the journey – so all that’s left is the fierce 7.5% abv version. Alcohol is banned in the Islamic Republic, so this is my last chance to get drunk for a very long time. The involuntary detox starts tomorrow when we disembark the Turkish train, so the extra strength is fine by me. Bruno says
“I hear sometimes the train stops for up to twelve hours. Turkish soldiers sweep the track ahead for bombs planted by the PKK. The Kurdish militants. I wonder how long we’ll be stopped for”.
We’re a long way from the Turkey of package holiday fame. Sitting ten metres away on parallel tracks is a disused train bearing the logo TCDD. Its white paint is rusting away in places, but its red and blue horizontal stripes remain bright. Between locomotives, underneath a wilting tree, sit four railway workers on wooden crates. They’re passing the evening drinking tea, talking, laughing, chain-smoking, and despite the probable infrequency of passing trains, not a single one of them has looked over, pointed or done anything to acknowledge our arrival into their world. It’s as though I’m an invisible observer. Maybe it’s the warm, heavy, post-coital glow that super-strength lager induces, but I’m feeling detached from my own body. The longer I stare at them, the more it feels like I’ve moved through the window and am hovering somewhere overhead in an attempt to listen in. I should’ve eaten something before hitting the sauce. I’m feeling quite bizarre, but in the name of living fast, I continue drinking.
I’m so hungover that I’m having trouble working out exactly what animal’s anus it is that my mouth tastes like. I’m detecting a hint of weasel excrement. Last night after the fourth Efes Extra, I went for a walk up the train with a German girl called Anna. The train had pulled up at a station, characterless in the darkness, and I opened the door to get off. I missed the steps and fell, hands first onto concrete and gravel. While searching around for the pair of glasses that had abandoned my face, the train began chugging off. Hastily jumping through a moving train doorway for the second time in twenty-four hours, I dragged my right shin across a sharp piece of metal protruding from the steps. Blood gushed down my leg, dampening my socks and causing me to laugh like a maniac. Back in the dining car, Anna took a napkin to my cascading shin and the barman, half cut himself and feeling sorry for me, slammed down a pity beer. Free of charge. I really didn’t need any more but I graciously accepted. Everyone was enjoying themselves and I was, in the moment, convinced it was my nonchalant disregard for personal safety that had helped to lubricate the atmosphere. The train staff had clocked off and were sitting amongst passengers, sipping beer and setting the world to rights. Bruno and another German traveller, Sebastian, looked content locked into a discussion in their native tongue. Dutchman Tom and Ricky, a Chinese-Australian, were also hitting it off. I took my cue though and quit whilst marginally ahead. I hobbled back to my compartment, downing a bottle of mineral water as I went. In my bunk, I closed my eyes. Normally my mind would’ve raced to digest the day. Instead, I felt myself drifting further and further into nothingness.
Now it’s eleven in the morning and my first cup of tea is kicking in. A smartly dressed Iranian man with glasses and pristine goatee beard approaches the table. In perfect English he says
“Hello. You must be Ben?”
“How did you know that?”
“You were still sleeping this morning when I introduced myself to your friends here. They told me about you and I have something I’d very much like to discuss. How about you stop by the compartment in, say, an hour or so?”
I knock an hour later and Maisam whips open the door to reveal a compartment at full capacity. I still have no idea why I’m here. I’ve just turned up out of curiosity.
“Ben, welcome! Let me introduce the others. This down here is Iman, up there is Komeil and over there in the corner is Ali. Sit, please, make yourself at home. My colleagues and I were in Istanbul for a conference on child psychology. Actually, I tell a lie, it was in Izmir. Tell me Ben, are you planning to visit Shiraz?”
I tell him yes, of course I’m going to Shiraz. It’s famous for being the heartland of traditional Persian culture, the original home of Shiraz wine, and I wouldn’t miss the tomb of Hafez or a trip to Persepolis for the world. Maisam Hosseini thinks this is good news. Very good news indeed. He’s the director of a private language school in Shiraz.
“It is in a beautiful situation. The classrooms are around a typical Persian courtyard with fountains, gardens and places to relax. Your friends in the dining car told me you’re an English teacher. This is correct?”
I see where this is going now. They weren’t lying, I tell him.
“Excellent. Then I would like to invite you to visit my school. The children would love to meet you. Is it okay to ask you a few questions? Please tell me if it’s not”.
I say of course, fire away, then I notice the video camera he’s holding and instantly regret it.
“Great! My friend is going to film us as we talk”.
This is not what I want to be doing right now. Hungover to hell and filmed for the viewing pleasure of a hundred Iranian children, but the red light flickers on and the job interview commences. Why did you get into teaching? Do you have a message for the children? Yes, stay clear of Efes Extra! Why are you coming to Iran? The story I told to Bruno would be wasted on a bunch of Iranian kids and I haven’t known Maisam for anywhere near long enough to judge his political leanings. I play it safe and spin some easily translatable tourist waffle. Iran is so beautiful, I want to try all of the food, visit baking deserts, soaring peaks, a Shia mosque during Friday prayers and make lots of new friends with people my own age. Actually, it’s all true. I just keep my mouth shut about the green movement.
Once the surprise interview is over, I write down Maisam’s contact details in the back of my journal. He seems genuine and could be a good contact to have in the months ahead. Who cares about political allegiances in times like these? Even if his ideology was the polar opposite of the people I’m travelling to meet, this would still have been an interesting game of football in No man’s land. As I walk back to the dining car, I think about Maisam’s sharp suit, fluency in English, a language school where he’s the boss, and his lowly Iranian passport affording him visa-free travel rights to just fourteen countries. Then I think about my scruffy Thai fisherman trousers, flip-flops, basic Farsi skills, yet the best passport in the entire world, affording me visa-free travel rights to one-hundred and fifty-nine countries. All Maisam and I have in common is the age of twenty four.
The dining car smells of body odour, sweet Turkish tea and a rogue cigarette. I crane my neck around to investigate the source and spot it hanging from the barman’s mouth. He’s making a sandwich, hopefully for himself. I’m glad to have found three new companions for the journey ahead. Together we’re playing cards and drinking tea so strong and sweet that people are starting to tick and drum on the table. I wonder where this next cup will take me. A bizarre palpitating armpit, perhaps?
Ankara behind us, the train is now well on its way to Kayseri; a mountain-fringed city of one million in the Capadoccia region. Despite the impressive scenery, my attention is firmly on the 6′ 7″ giant bouncing off each table on his way down the dining car towards us. He’s wearing an experimental combination of suit jacket and trousers with a polo shirt and Converse All-Stars. Stopping by our table, he leans low and takes an over-the-top bow. Without stopping for a chat, he straightens his back and walks backwards. With the grace of a drunken ballerina he takes another bow and exits the carriage.
“Okay then. He’s hammered”.
Five minutes pass and the goofy gent returns to kneel at our table.
“Helllooo! I am Sylvester, from Iran. I, uh, I speaker the English!”
All of the signs point to Sylvester being drunk, but it’s 11am and I can’t smell any alcohol fumes on him.
“I see. You play card. I know a card games. Show you? It’s hard”.
“Okay, Sylvester. Teach us a new one. We need it. Shithead is getting too easy”.
Grinning, he grabs the deck and shuffles sloppily in slow motion. Looking around the table, I think I speak for everyone when I say we feel guilty for assuming Sylvester was drunk. The signs now point in the direction of brain damage from a head injury. Smiling away to himself, he deals to us clockwise until his hands are empty. He looks from the table to his hands and back again, then one by one at each of us. His wide smile fades slowly, but before it disappears completely his face erupts into wonderful laughter. I want to shout at everyone to laugh with him, not at him.
“I am so sorry! I forget the game!”
And just like that, he’s gone again. Go forth, Sylvester. I hope you find whatever it is you’re looking for.
The late morning sun is casting few shadows and occasionally I’m blinded by the glare. Outside looking south, the pale grass is crying out for rain to fall. In the distance I spy a raging river meandering across the plain. Across the aisle, a dark-haired man sits at a table with what might be his wife. They look so peaceful. She alternates her gaze between the scenery and the man. He’s busy with a thick, leather-bound book. The pages look like thick sheets of cream canvas. Spread out on the table are calligraphy pens and pots of coloured ink. I go over and ask what he’s doing.
“A good conversation starter, isn’t it? It’s how I document our travels. On each page there’s an illustration of what I can see and some lines of poetry or quotes. Whatever seems appropriate at the time”.
“It’s beautiful. Are you hoping to publish it?”
“Thanks! I’d never even thought about publishing. Too personal. Maybe I’ll pass it on to my children one day. Not that we have any children yet”.
I take a stroll through the train. In The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux wrote about his time aboard the Lake Van Express. Same tracks, different train, some thirty-five years ago. Back then this was part of the Hippy Trail. The infamous route began in Istanbul and travelled across pre-revolutionary Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan before reaching India. Theroux encountered hairy chiefs at the windows of these corridors, staring out into the distance with glazed eyes. Some smoked and talked mysticism while others meditated, played guitars or stared into the eyes of their squaws. Theroux’s train was alive and packed with travellers anticipating the glory of Persia, the fields of cannabis fluttering in the warm breeze of Afghani Badakhshan and the welcoming embrace of Goa. How times have changed. The travellers aboard this train number ten at a push. We still pass the time with tea and cards – and we’re excited – but there’s an air of uneasiness I’ll bet was absent in 1975.