Cherries and Dahlia Petals
The final day of our magic carpet-ride through Persia began at the Setareh Hotel in Isfahan with our last ever full Iranian breakfast and colossal disappointment as the waitress solemnly broke the news that there was no moraba havij (carrot jam) because the people who had been there for breakfast the previous day had eaten far more of it than expected. Greedy fat buggers, I thought to myself, until I remembered that I had been one of them. But all was not lost as we were still offered the hot naans, the fried eggs, the sheep cheese, the selection of fresh fruit and the mushy dates on draught; all delicacies we had become accustomed to.
Bags packed, we headed off in Vahid’s Volvo to embrace the 500 kilometres of desert roads that would take us back to Tehran. I had always coped better with the last day of a trip if it had been packed with things to do. Today would be packed with things to do but most of those things would be looking out of a tour bus window at sand. ‘Live for the moment,’ I kept telling myself ‘this is still better than being at work’.
The journey was to be broken with a stop in Kashan, and on the way there we saw evidence of power stations and rock formations (a good name for a rock band’s album, I thought) to slightly break the monotony of lots and lots of desert. I loved the desert and the desert loved me. It had become my all-time favourite monotonous thing.
Mahtab’s amazing catalogue of sweeping generalisations about the characteristics of the inhabitants of Iranian cities continued today when she announced over the public address system on the coach that the people from Kashan were all very timid. She went on to say that in the aftermath of the 2003 earthquake that wiped out the entire city of Bam, killing 26,271 people, the Tehranis sent food and water, the Shirazis sent medicines, the Yaz’dis sent earth moving rescue equipment, the Isfahanis sent tents and blankets and the Kashanis shat their trousers. How refreshing it was to discover that cheap jokes weren’t confined to a place in my own little head.
The guide book told me that Kashan and its environs had been home to human settlements since at least the fourth century BC. We only had a couple of hours there to absorb an atmosphere created over the course of more than two thousand years so we were restricted to fleeting visits to the Tabatabei Residence and Fin Garden. The former was a beautiful house built by a carpet merchant around 1880 with a rabbit (a recent addition, I imagined) nibbling away at large multi-coloured ornamental cabbages planted with great precision in rows in the garden. Mahtab criticised the latter of these two sites because it didn’t have as many flowers as she had expected (maybe the rabbit had been there too), but what they had done with stone arches, running water, trees and fish was a joy to behold. It was also the place where Amir Kabir (oh dear dear Amir Kabir), Prime Minister of Iran from 1848, had been exiled and brutally murdered in the bath house because there’d been a bit of a cruel side to the way he had been governing the country. A police spokesman reported at the time that he’d merely slipped on a bar of soap. Either way, it was the unfortunate highlight of the final stop of our tour.
On the way back to the bus we had a few minutes to pop in to see the open air factory where rose oil and vast quantities of the rose water by-product were produced. This antiquated process appeared very similar to the way in which poitín (farmhouse whiskey) was distilled in Ireland. The lady in the gift shop said that after a couple of glasses of Eau de Cologne on a Saturday night she was anybody’s. It was a procedure very interesting to watch and very sweet smelling to sniff. Apparently the only place in the world that contributed more rose oil than Kashan to the Paris perfume industry was the region around the town of Kazanluk in central Bulgaria, not far from where the writer and poet, Turlough Ó Maoláin, currently lives but didn’t at the time and, in fact, had never even heard of it.
Our time in Kashan was a return to the peace and serenity that we had found in the places we had stopped before reaching Isfahan. It was lovely to be there but it lacked the sheer magnificence that we had got used to seeing at other historic sites.
Near to the holy city of Qom we stopped at the Mahtab Rest Area. Mahtab denied that it was named after her so we assumed that she must have been named after it. Actually I made that bit up because Mahtab wasn’t Mahtab’s real name. I mentioned before, near the beginning of my account of the expedition, that I didn’t want to reveal her true identity as some of my writing wouldn’t suit the people in positions of authority if they happened to read it. So I changed her name because I didn’t want to get her into trouble. Though previously I had known another Iranian woman who really had been called Mahtab, so it isn’t a completely made up name.
Anyway, this made me realise for the first time that some motorway service stations, although often much maligned, had names that were nice and even suitable for giving to daughters and sons. I pondered over the possibility of new parents in England thinking the same and naming their children Leigh Delamare, Charnock Richard or Tibshelf. I’d heard of kids having far worse names. And I could imagine a young mother opening a kitchen window in Twickenham to shout ‘Clacket Lane, your tea’s ready!’
I’d never been particularly fond of motorway services but this place made me think again. I might describe it as a twenty-first century equivalent of a caravanserai. It boasted an incredibly nice coffee shop with waiter service and a free chocolate with every drink, and a second free chocolate for those who asked nicely. In the gentlemen’s toilets there were more than fifty cubicles and incredibly there was a long queue of people waiting to wash their hands. Everywhere else I’d ever been in the world I’d never had to wait more than seven seconds, if at all, to engage in the soap and water phase of this process. Hand washing, I had noticed, had been a big thing all over Iran.
Mahtab said we couldn’t go to the holy city of Qom because we didn’t have time and it was a bit too holy for riffraff like us. It sounded quite interesting though, so she suggested that when we got home we should read about it on its website, which was www.qom.com, probably! Had Dot Cotton, the character from the EastEnders fly-on-the-wall documentary series on the BBC TV lived there we agreed that her email address would have been email@example.com but she didn’t, but just talking about it passed a few minutes on a tedious road journey.
Climbing back onto Vahid’s Volvo I said goodbye to the hot sunny weather that I loved. The weather in Iran had been Sunni for the whole of our stay but we had heard that back in Britain it was absolutely Shiite.
To compensate for not seeing Qom we were able to look out of the bus window at the nearby salt lake. It was the largest salt lake in Iran, apparently. It wasn’t a very interesting thing to see so goodness knows how disappointed we would have been if we’d gone to one of the smaller salt lakes.
Approaching the centre of Tehran on the coach brought a lump to my throat, partly because I’d bitten off a bigger piece of gaz (nougat) than I could chew and partly because Mahtab told us that she wouldn’t be joining us for the final dinner that evening due to the fact that she had airline ticket matters to attend to on our behalf.
More lumps appeared as I returned to our hotel’s eighth floor terrace where we had had our first breakfast naan and mushy dates on the first morning. The sun was setting, poking its last few rays through the layer of traffic pollution that blanketed the city. A sunset on a last day of a wonderful trip is never a good thing unless you’re totally void of emotion.
This throat lumpiness problem was then added to by the appearance of a bit of eye moistness as I leafed through my journal. I had asked my fellow travellers if they would write something in it. It gave them something to do on that long coach ride and it was handed back to me on reaching our destination. I saw that Mahtab had responded magnificently with some lines from what she said was her favourite poem. It was called Another Birth and had been written by a Persian feminist poet by the name of Forugh Farrokhzad who had died in a car accident in 1967 at the age of 32.
A couple of lines stood out:
I shall wear a pair of cherries as ear-rings
And dress my nails with dahlia petals
In this incredibly moving verse, the poet also wrote of a little girl blown away by the wind one night, with the suggestion that the little girl was Forugh herself. But the way I read it, it was Mahtab and what she had copied into my book was a plea for me to return to Persia one day.
Our plane was taking off from Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport at half past the most ridiculous hour of the night imaginable so, as we had hotel rooms, we had the opportunity to have about a third of a night’s sleep. There was a lot going on in my mind so I was wide awake. I wrote a bit in my journal but decided I wasn’t in the right mood for it. At that stage of the holiday there was nothing to look forward to so I just wanted it to be over and done with and to be at home. I flicked through the copy of the Quran that was in the bedside drawer, accepting that I wouldn’t understand the writing but optimistically thinking there might be some pictures. Looking up at the small brass arrow that you find on the ceiling of every Iranian hotel room to indicate the direction of Mecca, I unrolled the complimentary prayer mat but it did nothing for me.
Earlier in the trip, my room-mate, Kidderminster Andy, had politely suggested that I buy myself some earplugs so that his snoring, which he admitted was capable of causing structural damage, wouldn’t disturb my sleep. So I did and I politely shoved them up his nostrils, but to no avail.
At midnight, feeling bored and frustrated, I left the hotel and wandered a few of the almost deserted streets of the capital. A couple of policemen asked me what I was doing and if I was alright, probably because they were as bored as I was. A few other Tehranis washed their shop windows or swept the pavement outside their closed cafés. I looked at the artistic but gruesome and damning anti-American murals painted on the surrounding wall of the building that had been the U.S. Embassy prior to the upheaval of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Nearby on another wall there were painted quotes from the Quran translated from Farsi into English in a way that made them a little amusing. My favourite being:
They should not strike their feet in order to show the ornaments of their ankles to draw attention to themselves.
Of all the punishable crimes in the Islamic world, I hadn’t considered that this would be one of them and belatedly wished that I’d packed a few pairs of socks before leaving home.
Returning to the hotel I found Mahtab sitting in the reception area having a natter with the night porter. She had half an hour to kill until it was time to wake up the group for the journey to the airport. We had a bit of a chat, which comprised mostly of me thanking her for everything including the carrot jam. The night porter, using my camera, illegally took a photograph of me and her together, standing side by side but touching ever so slightly. She was a remarkable person who had really made our trip that extra bit special. Being a woman she was able to tell us a lot more about the gender discrimination in Iran than a male guide would have been able to. She had described her problems and fears, and her clever ways of dealing with them. Even if a male guide had appreciated the situation it would have been very unlikely that he would have described it to us. It was dangerous for anybody to do so. Mahtab was switched on politically and, although a practising Muslim, she was very much opposed to the Islamic regime that ruled her country. To many of the questions we had asked, her immediate reply had been ‘bus’, meaning that she would give us a full explanation and her opinion when we were back on the bus where nobody else could hear what she was saying. She was a fun person. She could be witty and sarcastic and the female members of our group, with whom she had spoken to a little more openly, told me that she loved a good old gossip. I sometimes detected sadness in her eyes but at the same time I suspected that she had a much, much happier life than most other Iranian women. I still sigh heavily every time I think of this.
The bus came, we climbed aboard and there was subdued chatter about the hilarity of passport photographs, remembering where car keys had been safely stowed ten days earlier and who would be picked up by who in cold, rainy London later that day.
At the front of the airport terminal building I felt very sad saying goodbye to Vahid as I moved to make my way down the steps of his bus. He’d been a great fella to have a chat with, even though for 99% of the time neither of us had had a clue what the other was saying. Usually at the start or end of a day’s journey, as we were getting on or off the big yellow Volvo, he would stand outside by the door of the luggage hold and help us with our bags, but on this occasion he’d been instructed to stay in his seat.
A serious looking Mahtab told us to stand on the pavement at the side of the bus and to not move. We stayed there for four or five minutes, not knowing why. And then, when she was sure that there was no one else around to see us, she hugged us all individually. These were huge emotional goodbye hugs. If we had been seen, especially by a policeman, Mahtab would have been in serious trouble as public physical contact between men and women was strictly forbidden by law. By the time I had really taken in what was happening Mahtab was gone, as if blown away by the wind one night.
We were all feeling a bit stunned as we took our bags from the bus. Entering the terminal building I looked back and saw it drive away. Beyond the revolving doors where armed policemen stood we had to go through separate channels for men and women where we and our luggage were rigorously searched by security officers of our own sex. There was absolutely no way a terrorist was ever going to get on a flight leaving Tehran. Boarding passes were issued after we had passed through security so, as we had already been split up as a group, we would all sit apart from each on the plane to London.
Most of us met up again at the departure gate. We sat looking at each other, drinking glasses of sweet black tea but not knowing what to say. Mike, one of our group members from Essex, broke the silence with ‘That was fucking awful!’ They certainly weren’t the words I had expected such a truly fantastic trip to end with but I had to agree with him.
On the eight-hour flight my seat was in the middle of a group of travellers from Iceland who didn’t want to talk about anything at all in any language, so I sat in silence with my thoughts. Hundreds and thousands of thoughts. Thoughts about the flawed beauty of a country where I had been made to feel so welcome by exceptionally friendly people with their gorgeous food, amazing architecture, fascinating history, even more fascinating culture and lovely weather. And thoughts about Mahtab, this exceptionally warm, knowledgeable, entertaining woman who, above everything else, was incredibly brave, given the circumstances in which she lived and worked. Even as I write this now, so many years later, thinking back to those exciting Persian days I still see her as one of the four or five most wonderful people I have ever met in my life.
With a broad, knowing smile on his face, a member of the cabin crew asked me if I’d like an alcoholic drink. I had a can of beer. It was black, Irish flavour beer… my absolute favourite!
And silently I toasted my dear friends in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Previous instalment (Part Eleven) - The Gaddafi Effect
Next instalment - Eventually there’ll be a Part Thirteen, and a prequel.
And here again are my photographs of the adventure, in case you haven't already seen them:
The handmade tile that I bought in the ceramics shop in Na’in depicting my dear friend Mahtab eating her breakfast naan.