In Mashhad I got adopted. I learn normal, everyday life of an Iranian family, get to know the rhythm of a big city lifestyle and meet interesting people.
Vahid has an appointment at the dentist’s so I join him to repair my tooth as well. Doctor’s office is modern and doesn’t differ from those that I see in Poland. Just the prices are higher. Still it’s quite a relief because I also went to a dentist in Turkey. And although the Turkish dentist did her job earnestly, still I had the feeling as if I stepped back in time. No, I couldn’t see the pliers around, but I asked twice if the filling would be white and fixed with laser. In Iran everything goes smoothly though. Doctor Nosrati can speak English about medical issues. I learn that many people from the richer countries of the Persian Gulf come to Mashhad for medical tourism. Plastic surgeons doing nose jobs are particularly popular. In fact I often see people on the streets proudly wearing white bandage in the middle of their faces.
Mashhad is famous for its Imam Reza shrine which, like Mecca, attracts thousands of pilgrims. The shrine is huge and, apart from the mosque with Imam’s tomb, there is a museum, a hospital, a library and a canteen. On its many courtyards there are carpets rolled out during the day. People spend their time sitting there, sometimes submerged in prayer and sometimes spending time with their families in more picnic like atmosphere. But the further you go, the deeper the emotions are. Near the tomb a lot of women cry and push each other to touch the grate of the tomb in religious ecstasy. Thousands of volunteers of every age work at the shrine. 70-year-old Vahid’s father spends from 6 to 12 hours every week helping to hand out Qoran or put away pilgrims’ shoes.
I meet Massi and Samane, two young Iranian women, who are complete opposition of women in chadors. Nail polish, high heels, cigarettes and original outfits. They are full of interests and hobbies and show me different, modern and international face of Iran. We ride through the city listening to Sinatra’s ‘My way’ played at all volume.
In the evening I submerge in western rhythm of the big city. I sit in a cafe which could as well stand in Warsaw or in London. I drink caffe latte and eat the same cheese cake that I had in Greece and in Italy and which doesn’t resemble cheese cake at all. I look at Iranian girls dyed blond and wearing fancy clothes and I listen to British rock. With one leg I stand in the western world but with the other I remain here because as soon as I cross the threshold I will be again in the land where cucumbers are fruit, you eat saffron ice-cream and mullas walk the streets.
‘So what do you do when you need to use the toilet?’ – asks Vahid in a surprised tone when we talk about parks. I don’t really know what to answer and I feel as if I arrived from the bush to the civilization for the first time.
The ability to make a picnic in absolutely every place on Earth is a typically Iranian phenomenon. They can have it on a pavement in the middle of a city or near to a factory. Still the best place is a park. When on Friday, which means Sunday here, we get to Vakil Abad, the park already starts to be filled with people. Instead of normal benches, there are tahts and all the park is full of light posts which light every single alley at night. There are guards patrolling the paths and you can smell the smoke from barbecues and fires in the air. Drinking water is available, not mentioning something as obvious as (clean) toilets. You can buy snacks and hot drinks in a small shop. There is also a mosque because a mosque or at least a prayer room is in every public place in Iran.
I go to Teheran to get visas for the next countries. I come running to a bus stop to get to the station and ask around if that’s the right bus. It turns out it’s right, so I get on it quickly before it leaves. The doors close and suddenly I feel the weight of the looks of absolutely every passenger. It turns out I got on the men’s part of the bus. Nobody says anything because people here are kind and understanding but I change to the women’s part at the next stop. Only afterwards I take a closer look at the stops and notice that some of them are divided in a man’s and woman’s part.
In Tehran I spend most of my time in different means of transport trying to get to embassies through crowded streets. I waste time in traffic jams and breathe nothing but smog. I escape as soon as I can.
The train back to Mashhad is surprisingly comfortable. There is a ticket inspector in each compartment taking care of passengers. I am set down with other women. There are four seats which change to beds. You can get dinner and hot tea on the train. Everybody unpacks their food because it’s Iran. The women from my compartment ask me why I don’t wear any lipstick or mascara. In fact I am unusual here because a lot of young women wear heavy make up.
We go to a desert for the weekend and I meet a big group of Vahid’s friends. I ride in a jeep and we jump on dunes speeding through the backcountry in the dark. There’s a lot of laughter. We put up the tents by the light of the fire and the guys capably prepare dinner. Although we are here on our own and nobody is looking, everybody follows the rules of men-women separtion. No girl takes off her hijab. There’s no alcohol, someone smokes a water pipe, there are no excesses. Everyone is impeccably kind and polite. Masa plays sitar, somebody tells a funny story. Then I realize for the first time that maybe what we see as strict rules imposed from outside is actually the culture that these people inherit and grow up with and is something natural.
You can’t escape your fate. Today proved it twice to me.
I was supposed to see wild camels here and finally I see them! When we pack the tents and drive out of the dunes there’s the whole herd by a puddle in the desert. They drink and then walk away swaying. I couldn’t have left this country without seeing them.
In the evening Hoseyn, hosting us in Deyhook, asks where I come from. I explain in Farsi because that’s something I can do perfectly. He looks at me curiously and says: ‘You were hosted by my sister two weeks ago!’ I couldn’t be more surprised. Indeed I stayed with his sister two weeks ago and some 200 km away, on the other side of the desert. I was even given Hoseyn’s phone number but I didn’t plan to visit Deyhook then. But somehow, in this 77 million people country, we were supposed to meet.
In the morning Hoseyn comes with a camera because in Deyhook you don’t meet foreign visitors every day and asks me to record an interview. I stand in this old, ruined house with my socks and the sandals on and I explain how beautiful the small villages off the beaten track are. I speak in all honesty but the situation is a bit absurd. The guys from the group put an old brush on some stick and pretend it’s a microphone jib and I try not to laugh.
In Deyhook a woman does her laundry in a narrow canal with clean water. These kind of canals are in every old oasis. Most of them are dry because oasis are mostly abandoned. In the past a web of canals spread through villages and fields and served as taps with running water serve us nowadays. Systems of underground canals supplying desert villages with water was a masterpiece of ancient Persian engineers.
We go with Massi to Ferdowsi tomb. Ferdowsi was a Persian Homer and visiting tombs of national poets is an inseparable part of Iranian culture. ‘Tomb’ means a park with a memorial and park means picnic in Iran. There’s a small museum with a plate saying: ‘In homage to great Ferdussi Polish soldiers of far Sarmacja, 1943.’
Samane joins us for dinner in a restaurant. We eat delicious dishes of Iranian cuisine although most of the menu is made of Italian food. On the walls of this elegant place there are huge pictures of Paris and London. Waiters in uniforms serve us our dishes and a goodbye nonalcoholic mojito.
Woman’s Day is not celebrated.
In the evening I can watch the Champions League match transmitted by public TV. And I watch with bated breath how Barca wins over PSG in the last 30 seconds of the game!
Vahid has another visitors, an Austro-Ukrainian couple with a child. We spend the afternoon in a 5-star hotel where Vahid works. The hotel is monumental, sumptuous and a bit kitschy but you can drink real hot chocolate. In the lobby there are armchairs and sofas in the Luis XVI style so typical for Iran and huge chandeliers hang from the ceiling. They receive visitors from Kuwait mainly and the splendor is for them.
In the evening small Naser watches cartoons but at prayer time the show is interrupted because all TV stations transmit azan, the call to prayer.
When I come back the third time to the passport office in Mashhad, I can recognize faces of some immigrants. We meet in different queues dealing with endless papers. A young Pakistani guy helps me to check if my documents are all right although we only communicate with body language. The office workers don’t care about anybody and efficiency certainly isn’t their priority. They are submerged in piles of Afghani passports. When, after two hours of waiting in line, I arrive a decision maker’s desk, I see a note in English saying: ‘Patience is the key to apprehension and prosperity is for those who endure.’ These kind of Qoranic verses hang on walls and fences of many public offices.
We go with Anna and Michael to a village called Kang. This beautiful although run-down place climbs up on a mountain slope. Small balconies hang precariously on curved, wooden beams and donkeys carry sand for a construction site through steep alleys. You can smell the manure and hear the bleating of goats and sheep.
In the evening we organize a Ukrainian-Austro-Polish dinner and future telling because in Ukraine on Monday 13th you tell the future. I add St Andrew’s wax fortune telling. Why not.
Carpets are drying on fences. Plenty of people go shopping. On roundabouts and squares complicated, multi-storey decorations of fresh flowers are built. They paint curbs with fresh white and railings with fresh yellow. Everywhere there is cleaning and renovation before the holidays.
Mud silently fall off the walls of the caravansarai in Masinon. We are on another desert trip, this time with Mr Shiri. It rained before and the ground softly bends under our feet. Some kids from the group kick the mudbrick wall and another pieces of the past fall instantly under their feet. I wonder how many places disappear slowly and silently in this beautiful country.
They tell us that in the past people built watch towers, one within the sight of another. Smoke signals warned former inhabitants of this land of Turkmen invasions. In the evening there is a traditional dance show.
Mother’s Day in Iran. It is celebrated with flowers like in our country.
We go for holiday shopping. Fish swarm in small aquariums on the streets and everybody sells pots of fresh, green wheat. We go to a spice shop. In its run-down interior there are a-hundred-year-old pale blue drawers and all the place smells of unbelievable mix of herbs. ‘Cinnamon shops’ exist for real.
30.12.1395 New Year’s Eve
Today it’s Norouz – New Year. They tell me that each year New Year starts at different hour. This years, who knows why, it comes at 2:00 p.m. Mysteries of Iranian calendar. Vahid’s brother and his wife come and we prepare New Year’s table. The table has to have seven things that start with ‘S’ and these are: an apple as a symbol of health, a coin which means prosperity, fresh wheat symbolizing the renewal of the nature, some red spice for love, garlic for health, a wheat pudding meaning good harvest and a clock meaning I don’t know what. Plus obligatory Qoran although it doesn’t start with ‘S’. Apart from these things there are also those exhausted fish, vinegar, a calendar, cheese cake, saffron water and eggs. The tables differ depending on a family and everybody names the mandatory seven objects differently. You can see those tables on the streets and in shops like Christmas trees in Europe. When the clock hits 2 p.m. everybody hugs and wishes Happy New Year to each other. The TV transmits a speech of the supreme leader of Iran and then of the president. There are no fireworks.
Norouz is a long holiday. From today people pay visits to their family members and friends. Fruit, pistachio and tea is served to guests. The visits happen according to family hierarchy and each of them should be returned. All Iran is in movement because everyone goes back to their home towns. In TV they show endless traffic jams on the main roads.
I leave Mashhad to cycle towards the Turkmen border. I have to walk under the Qoran and they pour water on the street to wish me a safe and happy journey. And I feel as sad as when I left my own home.
‘What did you know about Iran before coming here?’ – this question always appear in conversations with the Iranians. This time it’s Mohammad who asks. He came to speak with me in English. I am at a Red Crescent point where I spend the night. Mohammad, like so many other young Iranians whom I talk to, has higher education, good knowledge about the world and a feeling that Iran could do better. He also has, like so many others, the painful awareness that Iran has bad reputation abroad. We both realize how unfair that is.