Saturday, November 13, 2010
Journey Through Iran and Afghanistan by Nicholas Jubber
Parties like this take place every night in North Tehran, charged not only with the usual chemicals you would expect at a gathering of twenty-somethings, but the added intensity of what might happen if the authorities turn up. Sometimes there will be a rap on the door and a bearded officer will be standing outside. Depending on his mood, the partygoers' excuse (“Officer, peace be upon you, we're celebrating the birthday of the blessed imam's holy sister!”) and how much they can offer as remuneration, he will either let them off with a caution or bundle them into a SUV to spend a night behind bars.
No such visit has broken up the party so far tonight. At the back of the flat, a few people were gathering to talk away from the music. Some of them were discussing the latest escapade of the pop star Britney Spears. A couple of others were gossiping about an Iranian soap actress who had broken up with her fiance. Struggling to keep up with the fast pace of the chatter, I pulled up a stool at the breakfast counter and sipped my vodka.
“So you're the English boy!” said a voice beside me.
I turned, peering through the fug of smoke and located her: a young woman in extremely high heels, a black miniskirt and a white collared shirt with a necktie draped over her shoulder (the latter was a deliberate act of rebellion – they are banned from state offices and storefronts, as a symbol of Western decadence). She offered me a Pleasure Light cigarette, took a sip of my vodka as I was fiddling with my Zippo, and asked what I was doing here. I talked about a book I'd written – I thought it would impress her but she just shrugged, her shoulders catching the light as they rose.
“It was about the past,” I said, “So now I want to look at the present.”
“The Tehran is exactly the right place to be.” Mischief was glimmering in her eyes as she drew on her cigarette. “You will find that it is a very modern city. We have the most traffic accidents, and the worse smog...and the most heroin addicts, of course!”
She was laughing. She tipped the rest of my drink down her throat and leaned towards me.
“But it isn't all bad,” she said. “We also have the biggest number of Internet bloggers outside America – so even if we are choking to death and overdosing, at least we are telling the world about it!”
We sat together for a while, me with another vodka and she with a glass of red wine
“It's what our poets always drank,” she pointed out, adding with a droll smile, “and it always makes me think deep thoughts!.”
Among these thoughts, it transpired, was disapproval of my plans.
“So what about the history?, she asked, leaning toward my cupped hands to light another cigarette. “You don't want to write about that too?”
“Well...” I hesitated, looking into her eyes, sparking on either side of the flame. “I suppose...I want to find out what's going on today.”
Again she was laughing. “So you obviously don't know what this song is about?
I turned an ear to the dance floor. It sounded like thrash metal- crashing drums and manically plucked guitar strings, although the singer had a strangely soulful baritone voice, drawing you into the whirlpool of noise. It was impossible for me to make out the words: Not only was the drumbeat too loud, there was the rush and thrum of people's feet and bodies as they crashed against each other and the roar of the more excited men, chanting over the lyrics.
“I wish it was as easy as you are thinking,” she said, sliding off her stool and flashing me one last smile, “but you know, the past times and today, they are like a tortoise and its shell. Even if you can pull them apart, it is not a good idea.”
I was still trying to work out what she meant, testing her words in my head, enjoying the tang of my first Persian riddle, when I felt an arm on my shoulder. Beaming over me, with dance sweat dripping down his curls, was Sina.
“Hey! Why are you alone?” he exclaimed indignantly. He grabbed hold of my arm, towing me back into the living room. “You know,” he said on the way,” I think my baba would like this song.”
His father was a wonderful and in many ways very eclectic man. But he wasn't exactly what you'd call a heavy metal band's target audience: a middle-aged academic, specializing in ancient Persian folklore. The idea of him turning up in this underground honky-tonk, taking off his homburg, and leaping about to the beat was utterly fantastical.
“Because,” said Sina, “the words they are singing are from Shahnameh.”
“You mean from a thousand years ago?”
“Of course, Nicholas! What else?
“No, it's just...well, where I come from, it's just...medieval poems and pop music, they don't usually go together all that much.”
“Really?” Sina wrinkled his nose, as if I must have been spawned in some kind barbaric hellhole. “Well,” he said, “poetry is poetry, isn't it?”
Mashad, Eastern Iran.
“Oh. My. God.”
One glimpse is enough to rip out my optimism – like someone came along and extracted it with a knife.
The bus is the last in its row, each more battered and less brightly painted than the one before, its roof heavily crushed by boxes and buckets strapped on with string, and a larger pool of water rising around the wheels to trap them in a glue of mud. All the buses in the station looked decrepit, but this one was a parody of the rest. It looks like the worse bus in the world.
A man is standing over me, wrinkling his nose at my ticket. It turns out he's the driver.
“Why do you go to Afghanistan?” he exclaims. “You think this is a country for tourists?”
His laugh is throaty and thoroughly disconcerting. Had an old man behind me not set his arm on my shoulder, I might be making a dash for the bus back to Tehran.
“I am a traveler like you.” he whispers.
This man has skin like walnut bark and wears a gray waistcoat over his knee-length shirt, under a brimless woolen cap that looks like its been woven from his beard.
“I have been on a pilgrimage,” he continues, “to the Holy City.”
“You are a Hajji? You've just come back?”
“No, no, no!” His teeth gleam gold between his parched lips. “I went thirty years ago. I couldn't afford to go now!”
His small gray eyes shrine through the creases in his skin. He seems to be kind, so I decide to stick with him.
“Afghanistan is a good country,” he says poking his nose between the headrests in front of me – we have settled inside the bus now. He squinnies his brow, before adding, “It was a good country.”
“When?” says a man in an ocean-colored polo shirt who'd taken the seat across the aisle from mine. He looks like he should be on vacation in Hawaii.
The Hajji looks up, frowning, then in a burst of inspiration he declares, “In Kaiser Wilhelm's day!” He raps the headrest as he explains, “There was a train.”
We wait an hour for movement. When it finally comes, there is a terrible groan beneath us, as if some wild beast has been stretched out under the chassis, then a tick-tick as the engine rattles to a stop. Is this bus not even capable of forward propulsion? But I can hear a noise swelling around us, suggesting another cause for our pause. Gingerly, the Hajji lifts a pleated nylon curtain to peer through the window. I notice an anxious expression creeping across his face.
“Mujahideen,” he whispers.
A wave of sunlight washes through the door: a swamp of flailing limbs, enormous beards, long torn gowns. Boxes fly down the aisle, burlap sacks pile on the seats and around the steps in the middle. Buckets clatter on top of them, all the way up to the Formica ceiling, as do more sacks, plastic bags, and finally – shunted through the door, defying the tiny space that's let – a Honda motorcycle.
“They are fighting men,” whispers the Hajji. “Do not say you are a foreigner.”
All of them are dressed in baggy trousers and knee-length shirts. - the traditional Afghan costume known as shalwar gameez. I bought a set for myself just yesterday, knowing I would need it in Afghanistan's troubled south, but I haven't put in on yet, so it will be easy to identify me as an outsider. Hiding my tell-tale Roman scripted notebook in the overhead rack, I excavate an enormous green-jacketed hardback out of my pack. It's the only Persian book in my possession – the language not only of the Iranians whom I'm leaving, but also of a large number of the Afghans among who I will be traveling. Tooled across its spine – a gorgeous cluster of golden dots, elaborate curls, and long barbed stalks – is the word Shahnameh – Book of Kings.
“ You are reading that?” asks the Hajji, his golden teeth flashing in his gasp.
The man in the ocean-colored polo shirt, whose name is Wahid, is more proactive.
“Here,” he says, leaning across the aisle and reaching for the book, “give it here.”
He turns the pages delicately, and familiarly – as if he's caressed these very pages in the past – and when he comes across a verse he likes, his mouth expands to the size of a tea saucer:
Mayaazaar mui daneh
Ke jaan daara u jaan e shirin
Oh stamp not the ant that is
under your feet
For it has a soul and its own soul
The Hajji smiles, his eyes as bright as his gold teeth, repeating the verse in a whisper, as if to memorize it for himself. I have come across plenty of poetry aficionados in Iran – on a few occasions I've even attended poetry circles where traditional instruments were played as people recited from their favorite authors. But I was advised not to expect this sort of thing in Afghanistan. “They are murdering brutes” was one of the less cryptic descriptions I heard. So to watch polo-shirt wearing Wahid, his eyes glued to the pages and his lips quivering to the rhythm of Ferdowsi's the thousand year old verses , is reassuring. Maybe the Afghans won't be as formidable as I've been warned.
I has spent eight months in Iran before I finally set out for Afghanistan. Eight months of incredible comfort with the kindest of families in a gated house in North Tehran. For more than half the time, I was actively planning a journey to Afghanistan - a grand old romp through a distant and seemingly treacherous land. But whenever I was on the verge of setting out, something astonishing would happen: I would stumble, quite by chance it seemed, on an absolutely unavoidable reason for delay.
Even when I did finally set out, I decided not to let my fellow passengers in on what I was up to.
“If you tell the Afghan's your plan,” said my host in Tehran – his brown owl-like eyes gleaming with the warning – 'they will tear you to pieces!”
So I'm keeping my mission under wraps, hidden in my backpack and when they ask me what I am doing here, I only give them a vague indication of my route. “I suppose,” I say, when the Hajji asks me, “I want to find out if Afghan and Iranian culture have much in common.”
“Oh yes.” he says excitedly, “we are the same. We are both Aryan, we have the same poets -Hafez, Ferdowsi, for example – and our music is also similar.”
“No we're not! declares Wahid, stamping his foot on the runner. “You know what we call the Iranians? You know?”
His mouth twists into a scowl and he screws up his nose, preparing me for the most offensive put-down in history.
“We call them,” he announces, “sandwich-eaters!”
It isn't quite the slap-down I was anticipating, although it makes sense – given all the sandwich restaurants I've encountered on the Iranian streets. Afghans, as I will soon learn, do not generally indulge in “Westernized” snack food, preferring to stick to their traditional dishes.
“They aren't tough like us,” continues Wahid. “They don't know what it means to be a man!”
As if to underline his point, he drops the green-jacketed copy of the Shahnameh directly into my lap. I dare not utter a sound, lest he decide that I am a sandwich-munching sissy. Now, drawing closer to me on the seat, he appears to be continuing his test of my physical endurance, by squeezing my shoulder under his paw. His face, however, is turning softer, his eyes lightening up with a new thought.
“Mind you,” he says,” have you been to Shiraz?”
“The women!” He chuckles, looking around to check the Hajji isn't listening. “I went to Shiraz,” he whispers. “I thought I was in paradise!” He squeezes my shoulder even harder, before drawing back to his seat, shaking his head as he adds in a loud voice, “a country of sandwich-eaters!”