Iran IV

A long downhill of 25 kilometer made it easy to reach Khorramabad, the capital of Lorestan. I’d asked a taxi driver along the road how hilly the route would be, his answer that it is going to be downwards only is questioned by me, but he was right: finally I made a 90 kilometer day again and I end up in Khorramabad.

The naked little penis

Reaching the capital of Lorestan is an achievement, I feel so. It could be seen as painting a huge canvas, where you see the developing of an effort, you start from nothing to where you have reached at present. Opening the map of Iran shows that I am almost at the middle of one side of the map. Nevertheless, my arriving in the almost middle seem to be celebrated with the rest of the people of Khorramabad. The welcome in this town is huge and overwhelming! Cars, mostly with young men, drive alongside me, making big buses slow down. Men on motorbikes tag along too and even women hang out of the window of their husbands car to wave at me, cheer me on. The main road cutting this capital into two seems to be never ending, thus the buses keep driving slowly behind me, continuous overtaken by a tiny woman on the bicycle, a rare view in Iran.

While concentrating on the traffic I can hear the soft tones of religious music, soothing my mind while maneuvering through town, accompanied by a motorbike-taxi who will bring me to a mosaferkhaneh. Cats hare away down the road, squirm to reach the other side safely. Men in turbans and long cloaks stand next to the road, flagging down a taxi without any movement made. Women in chador appear to be cold and afraid of any eye contact, the corners of their garment hold between their teeth. The buzz of this town is warm and welcoming, as is the green neon-light bathing around the mosques. Then I am delivered at a mosaferkhaneh, my bicycle and collection of panniers is carried upstairs. I get a cozy little room where it’s warm. A hot shower awaits me. A restaurant next door serves me huge portion of rice and kebab. Perfect, isn’t it? Little do I know, but this cozy mosaferkhaneh houses an exhibitionist: later on I get to see his manhood on full display.  I was not impressed with it…

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It’s all about money

Khorramabad being connected by a major route towards Tehran make me decide to get the money I forgot to take with me. The Dutch embassy received the money my mother send, I could be saved soon. I buy a bus ticket to Tehran the day after I arrive in Khorramabad.

I quickly wash all my laundry, dry it on the rooftop overlooking an impressive castle. I make sure my bicycle is stored safely. Pack the most necessary things in one Orlieb bag and the rest of the bags is stored somewhere else in the mosaferkhaneh. Then I am on the bus, a massive vehicle feeling like a king on the road, high and dry. But behind glass and shielded from the conditions of being outside. I miss the compass which tells me what the direction is I am going. I miss the mirror to see what’s behind me. I have no clue about the altitude I am at, I can not read a thing about these pleasant facts. I just sit and it feels like I am watching television. We are going fast and the beauty of the earth is passing me way too rapidly. It dawns on me how accomplished the Iranians are, traveling by luxury coach is no adventure at all. There’s no such things as chickens under the seats or above our heads. It’s boring travel. Devoid of the charms of rusticity. Some excitement comes to me when I reach Tehran in the middle of the night and change to a bus to Tabriz.

Past seas of green neon-light, newly built fairy-like mosques bordering perfection. Past endless ranges of barren mountains, where sheep marvel and their shepherds wander far behind. Past people waiting for another bus, cold and dressed in black or in jeans dotted with too many highlights. Past road restaurants where no decent food is to be found, people still friendly to my dazed and slow approach.

The real capital: Tehran!

I just love the excitement of the capital, the myriad of taxicabs plotting the roads, crowded even in the middle of the night, crisscrossing like it’s a computer game. The beautiful language spoken like a love song, the many high buildings painted as a dedication to the martyrs offered to countless fights. Even peaceful trompe de l’oeils which shows the artful side of the Iranians once more, just like television shows beautiful arty programs, though heavily censured. Roads seem to tumble over the other, playing hide and seek, while the majestic mountain Damavand is keeping an eye over it’s citizen below. Tehran is a spectacle and soon I am accompanied by the driver of the Tabriz bus, who shows me the toilets and brings me back to the corrects bus. Off we are. Another lengthy drive through Iran. Where I cycled far down, I am brought back to the beginning, all up North, to the province of Azarbayjan.

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Muharram

‘Some terrible religious kind of music is going on,’ someone told me. The owners of the mosaferkhaneh make funny faces when television shows about Muharram. To them this religious expression might be too much. For Mariam, the religious girl who sells me a bus ticket to Tehran, beautifully dressed in chador, her face beams when she explains me about Muharram. The countless flags above the streets in town I cycle through are somehow a little of a contrast to the red water sprayed from the fountain in the middle of Tabriz. After the Muharram reached it’s peak continuous mourning prayers sounds from the loudspeakers of the mosque, disliked by some but I can see the charm of it. Shops are closed, everything is shut down.

Men dressed in black take part in a slow procession where a few women hurled together in the back, almost as if they should not be there at all. The men in Tabriz uses plastic swords and bundles of plastic chains to beat themselves over the shoulder with while the men at the coast uses real, albeit light chains. Expressions of grief such as beating the chest, beating and hitting oneself with chains and swords or knives are common features of the mourningprocessions. In some countries it can become a real bloody spectacle, here I see a very timid copy of what I expected. No heroic scenes. After all, we are in Iran, a very mannered, developed country. All I get to enjoy is the beating of massive drums which drills right through the core of my being…

Shia muslims begin mourning from the first night of Muharram and continue for ten nights, climaxing on the day known as Ashura. The last few days up until and including the Day of Ashura are the most important because these were the days in which Hussein and his family and followers were killed by the army of Yazid, at the Battle of Karbala (now Iraq) on his orders. Surviving members of Hussein’s family and those of his followers were taken captive, marched to Damascus, and imprisoned there.

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‘You don’t want someone just like you! That’s like being in love with yourself!’Darryl

I am in Tabriz for visiting a friend, and I do so in the time of Shia mourning. People are silently crying in the streets, light rain drop down often and it’s rather cold, sad sounds erupts from the mosques and more than ever people seem to be dressed in black, a bigger contrast than Kurdistan is not to be imagined within Iran. One day, where I dare to hoist myself in a Reebok sport legging with a long blouse across it, I receive too many stares. My friend and me also receive many guys who tag along, eager to practice their English or have their hard to discard prejudices against the West confirmed. Walking on my own is a silent experience where walking with my friend is just a matter of time before we loose our privacy. One of these guys is real cool, Ali, a dancer says: ‘Dancing let me forget all my sorrow’s’, and I believe he has got enough. People in Iran are often complaining, about the system, about the mullah’s, about their imprisonment, as how they see it.

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I am free to choose

But people in Iran are not. A question often addressed to me is: ‘What do you think about the headscarf? Do you mind wearing it?’ I can honestly say that I ‘like’ wearing it, but I have to explain my answer, which I often don’t get the chance for because the guys who ask me this question are usually not so happy with this answer and just move on to the next question. A fact is: I am free to wear the scarf. Either I come to Iran or I don’t. The women in Iran must wear the headscarf. As they also must cover their bottom. Women are still halted on the streets if their bottom is not covered, asked for their passports and get reprimanded, as the Azerbayjan woman from our mosaferkhaneh was. I feel a lot of sadness in the streets of Tabriz, perhaps even more than in Kurdistan. The change from Iraq to Iran was a most obvious one: people are sad. Oppressed. And quite a few want to vent their disagreement, although this could turn out ugly for them, they might be overheard and betrayed. Wearing the veil is obligatory as it was the opposite many years back. Can you imagine, in the 1930’s, the ruler of Iran, Reza Shah, forebode the veil and the chador for women, and the turban for men. Can you imagine how it must have felt? I definitely can. Oppression is never good, but what about being forced not to wear what you are used to?!

Being a tourist in Iran however, can’t be more of a warming experience. And Muharram adds some extra to this hearty welcoming towards the foreigner, as we are happily surprised one day. I have to admit that since being a cyclist in countries as Turkey, Iraqi Kurdistan and Iran the hospitality reaches such a degree that I almost start to expect places to sleep, plates with food and little purchases being free. I never expect them though, and my reaction will never be such. Perhaps the surprise is less big and perhaps my acceptation to these loving gestures is less unmannered. As I have found out: refusing something which is given to you is rude. But after we have eaten a complete meal consisting of chicken kebab, rice, yoghurt and milk, the waiters, all gathered around us, wave us goodbye. ‘Free!’ However we try to pay for this meal, we are firmly requested nót to pay. It is Muharram and all meals are free today. For every one.

Overflown with a warm feeling of how religious celebrations can be touching, of how religious countries are warm and loving, of the contrast between what’s being said and what’s being felt. The morning fresh and most shops still closed we search for bread,  my steps bigger and faster to keep up with my friend’s pace, a man points us to a place we can find the kind of bread he holds in his arms. We did not ask him, he just saw our eyes cast on the bread carried underneath his arm, and point us the way. Without words. Then, our eyes peep through a little window where the bread must be distributed from, instead we are invited. Into a room full of men dressed in black. There’s no woman to be seen but I assume I am okay as a traveler, and well dressed nevertheless. Bread is laid out on plastic sheets in front of us, a plastic cup with a heap of butter and a pile of fresh raw honey accompanied with chai. I am delighted once again, on my own never such a thing would be happened. Together, I discover new events.

Our stay in Tabriz is very pleasant. The mornings are filled with large breads, butter, honey and pots of chai. Where the mosaferkhaneh seemed boring at first it turns out it only host people from Azerbayjan, and all are here because of cheap beautification of noses as well as cheaper treatment for cancer. No Azerbayjani is here for pleasure. They all cross the border, some monthly, to visit the hospital. The afternoons are pleasant too, strolling around the bazaar, planning early evenings. We eat our evening meals in restaurants so small I can’t even stand upright. Iranians flow past us in the streets and the feeling I derive is one of unity, the world we are in is just fine.

Where this mosaferkhaneh has no garden filled with marigolds, it does have a garden filled with golden and red autumn leaves. And although our mosaferkhaneh has no chaikhaneh, we visit one every day, a place where I have stayed on my previous visits to Tabriz.

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The alien affair office to extend visa

The friend and I decided to be a married couple. That’s easier. It’s always a hassle to decide what to be in Iran when accompanied by a man. Not for the immigration police, I find out soon. We enter the Alien Office together, something I find not such a good idea, but well, since we are in the building together and my friend is the one all officials talk to, I have little to bring in. Sitting in front of the police officers who can extend my visa, I am hopeful, but being here a week before the visa expires, they ask me to come back the next week.

Which is what I do. By then I come back alone. Suddenly the police officer despise me, being a woman alone where before I was a woman with a man, what a degradation! All the same, I need an extension and we never lied so my story’s are still identical as a week before, except that I am alone. I have to negotiate about an hour before I get the immigration police willing to render me a month extension in Tabriz. First he wanted to send me to Tehran, then he wanted to give me only a week, I answer he’s not very fair to me: ‘You promised to give me a month last week. You have said ‘come back next week and I’ll give you a month extension’, and now you say the opposite. I am on a bicycle, how am I ever be able to cycle from Khorramabad in a week to Bandar Lengeh? I need a month! At least.’

‘Then, go back to your hotel and get a statement which say you were there the whole last week,’ which was what he had said to me the previous week: ‘If you wait a week in Tabriz then we will definitely give you an extension for a month again.’ It happened I did stay a whole week, not exactly waiting, but a week it was that I stayed. The officer want more than a statement, after having close to interrogated me for half an hour about my marital status and the reason how, where and why I met this man who was with me last week. Plain curiosity.

But I do get a month extension. On the spot. Merci, merci, merci…

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Still being a nomad, on the highway, downtown…

The same night I am off to Tehran, to get the money transferred by my mother to the Dutch embassy. One of the Azerbayjani guys staying in the mosaferkhaneh puts me in a taxi just before midnight. The taxi driver chases the Tehran bound bus on the highway, where he doesn’t succeed to find one. He then decides to deliver me to a couple in their car, driving to Tehran downtown, by then, in the morning the sun as a glimmering red bullet above it. Traffic a race, being in this car feels like on my bicycle, sliding through each crack of space. I am delivered in the heart of Tehran, right into the arms of a Tehran girl who puts me in a taxi, confiding to me she don’t like people who are against America: ‘What do they know? They have never been there?’ I am not against America, and I hate people who say who are!’ she continues, ‘I would love to cycle, like you, but we can’t. It is not forbidden for us, but no woman is cycling, so would I cycle, people will think bad about me. Woman can’t do many things here,’ I am therefor happy to hear she likes her job. ‘No problem if I come later, I have to help a guest to my country. It is my duty,’ when she hands me over to another taxi driver who will bring me to the Dutch embassy. The taxi driver lied a bit when he said he knew where the Dutch embassy was, driving around for about an hour. Delivered at the embassy I slide so easily through it, I am amazed, as well as by the absence of head scarfs, covered bottoms and no chai offered…

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panorama II

A few more taxi rides are necessary to get me onward from the embassy. I highly enjoy these rides where the only thing I have to do is watch out of the window, besides answering the taxi driver his questions, the usual ‘yes, I am married’. The majestic mountain Damavand is hurled in snow, in cold, and, as I see it, in love. The mountain as mother of this city. The city which continues to renew itself, where my eyes becomes round and big by the sight of the many motorbikes, streaming past as if it are busy humble bee’s. The music in the taxi swells, pure sounds of a single string instrument fill the yellow cab until a heavy instrument preludes. The young, friendly taxi driver put on his dark sunglasses, and just when I want to ask him who the artist is who composed this beautiful piece of traditional music, a voice is joining ‘I want to lick your body’ and ‘I want it and you have it’…

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Back in Khorramabad, the bus driver in his giant vehicle is so charming to let me off right in front of the mosaferkhaneh, he even brings my luggage upstairs and makes sure I am safe, although his stepping into my room is a bit too much for Iranian conduct. Later on, the exhibitionist who’s showing himself for the third time and now fully naked on display, is too much liberal Iranian conduct too. I ask the hotel owner to have his door closed and with some more ease to move round, I continue cleaning my bicycle on the rooftop. Then Darryl comes back to join me some more on my cycling adventure and off we are…

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Darryl and me, reunited on the bicycle

We have made some kind of a plan and are heading for the minor roads. It’s cold and rain falls often. The altitude hovers between 1000 and 1800 meters where we go up and down ceaselessly. It’s dreamlike beautiful. Like we ended up in Harry Potter lands, high steep walls and peaks, mountains as if they are pushed out of the earth with a forceful 90 degrees angle. Lines and ridges, inlet and crevices. Soft autumn tones matching delicately with the sheep, while voices of the shepherds reverberate against the steep walls, black and gripping onto the rainbow. Ask me where I am and I can’t answer you, it’s a sheer beauty. Untouchable, unrealistic. In this incomprehensible beauty Darryl is tough. ‘We, Australians, are always to be seen in flip flops and a T-shirt,’ so much seems true. He’s not wearing gloves, no woolen nor plastic ones. Darryl doesn’t have a rain jacket, neither such a simple item as a scarf around his neck. His black leather shoes are often thoroughly drenched, where he will wear his sandals, even when it is as cold as 5 degrees. Being high up in the hills, with a constant rain and often long downhills where the body is not warming up, Darryl is exhaustively cold, but he never complains.

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Finally I feel back where I belong, on the road, in the countryside without having the security of a place to sleep. We even missed out on the last shop selling food and are by now cycling without food. When darkness approach us, it’s Darryl who wants to keep cycling, in the hope we’ll find a mosaferkhaneh. I know we are not going to find such a thing and Darryl is forced to sleep the night at a family. He is not keen on this, while I really enjoy it. The instant invitation, so easily and unstressed, the convenience of straighten the legs and just wait for a delicious meal to be prepared. Darryl find he needs to entertain the crowd, talk through the evening like he’s the host of a talk-show. And while he continuously talks I see the family frowning and thinking ‘when is this man going to stop talking, and start eating the food I prepared?’ I see my stay as an exchange, not as taking advantage. This traveling is interacting with the people: a cyclist who pass through their village and they who take care for me.

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Traveling by bicycle give a whole different view of a country. I am for the third time in Iran and never have seen it so deeply, intense and detailed. I see all crevices of society. Everything. The poor who’s toiling, the food he’s preparing. The love he’s mixing it with to serve the guest. The guest who’s leaving with a heart filled of gratitude. Cycling in Iran is a lesson in acceptance, the pure meaning of the word…

Sefid Dasht comes close…

And as I wished for staying with nomads, we never come closer than visiting them. Darryl, a specialist in making friends -easier for him than for me as a woman- have his new friends leading us the way to a tiny settlement. Their black woolen tents soppy wet and the maze of the hand woven textile has big openings yet no raindrop is entering. These Bachtiari is where I stayed with years ago, together with Remco, so my desire to visit them instead of staying with them is acceptable. While our new friends get teary eyes of the smoke collecting underneath the tent, I bend down to sit with the woman, however set up it all may be. My hunger for this utterly basic life-style has never left me, the atmosphere of the Pakistan Kalash valley is touchable. Rain keeps dropping down on the black removable ceiling above us, Darryl walks around while an angry sheepdog is trying to get a hold onto his bum. ‘Very, very animals,’ says the friend of Darryl, what means as much as that the Bachtiari have many animals. However, his translation of what the woman says is most probably impeccable, ‘I’ll pray you will have a baby,’ and I only wish she won’t pray too hard.

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 Iran 4: from 8th of November to 20th of November 2013

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