Our train is panting at a small nondescript station. It’s quite late in the evening. Namaz stop. Many passengers have gone to offer their evening prayers at the adjacent mosque. But not all. Many are using this as a cigarette break. Some others are simply stretching their legs. I see no point in sitting inside my coupe. It’s quite chilly outside. I take a few quick snaps. Soon a guard with a menacing automatic rifle and a very broad smile advises me that photography is prohibited on the platform.
I have taken thousands of snaps all across Iran. This is only the second time that I am stopped. The first time was on the evening during which I, Sayad and Tahmineh had set out for Milad Tower in Sayad’s car and had lost our way in central Tehran.
My cell-phone clock tells me it’s already half past nine. There’s no point in trying to locate Milad any more, although Sayad has just returned with a new set of directions from a pedestrian. As he climbs into to the driver’s seat, I tell him that maybe we should try and search for a decent restaurant. Tahmineh says that she’s hungry too. We turn around, take a turn and right in front of us etched on the pitch-dark moonless sky is the dazzling Milad, not very near though. I take a few snaps.
But my real attention is elsewhere. The street has broadened here and seem to have merged with a narrow patch of land on the left side, behind which is a short wall, and behind the wall down below, probably, a sewerage canal. On this strip of land has been arranged a campfire. A bunch of young lads have made fire in what appears to be a large road-side trashcan. Chairs and stools have been arranged around it, and a lovely glass-jar shisha, or qaliyan in Farsi, is being passed around. Kebabs are being grilled on charcoal on one side, while on another, tea is bubbling in a large black kettle. Oh! That’s where I want to be. With those guys.
Sayad parks his car. In a flash I am out with my camera. And in a flash the youth are on their feet in a loud protest. I am taken aback for a moment. Sayad introduces me as a Musafir and wants to know what the sore point is about. Musafir? The mood melts in a moment into loud laughter. “Oh! Musafir? We thought he must be a journalist!” (Look at the irony, I tell myself). “As you know none of this is really legal. So…”
Who cares about stupid legality? Are those kebabs for sell? Of course they are. Come, come, come barodar, have a seat. One of the guys quickly poses for a shot. Everything is very cheap, hence cups after cups follow; kebabs after kebabs: baal-e-juzeh, chicken wings, jegar, liver, del, heart, gholveh, kidney, khosh goosht, intestine. All chopped into inch-size pieces, spiced and gilled on open charcoal fire. C’est délicieux.
My Tabriz host Mehdi tells me a few days later that ideally the kebab-mix that I lapped up in Tehran should have also included grilled testicles of sheep, because that apparently tastes simply out of the world. Hearing about it I quickly murmur my deep thanks to the God of Time, who decides on those amazing coincidences in life that opens up so many doors before us, and shuts others. Thank god Mehdi is telling me about it now, long after I have gorged on and digested the kebabs that evening in Tehran. An omnivore as I am, chewing on some unfortunate sheep’s balls would have been pushing the border a little too far even for me. And the knowledge that some of the pieces stuck to those sticks on fire might be Mehdi’s delicacy, could have marred such a wonderful evening. Ignorance, however, is tasteful. The night proceeds. The chill sharpens. The flames leap up. More tea. More kebab. More chillums of strong tobacco. Rarely have I had such an adda in my life. I actually surprise myself: every winter at our home we have almost similar charcoal grill open parties in our small garden. Friends and folks stay glued till they can’t carry themselves any more. Besides all the food and flame, however, on such occasions the real glue is always the molten fire. Bottle after bottle are polished off at dizzying speed. Take that away, half the charm is lost. But not here. Consumption of alcohol by Iranians is prohibited in Iran. Of all the homes I have visited in the country, only in one did I see a well stocked bar. That person is also a Muslim. So I guess, in Iran too there’s a way if there’s a will. Some of it flows through the porous border with Turkey, I am told. But 90 per cent of the Iranians are quite content without the vital freedom to be drunk. Although, I have a hunch, if there were to be a revolution again, this grave repression would probably be quite high in the list of injustices meted out by the ‘Mullah regime’! As the clock proceeds towards midnight with a heavy heart we force ourselves to say Khuda Hafez. That’s because my flight to Khoy, in West Azerbaijan, in northern Iran leaves at six in the morning tomorrow! And from there, after a couple of days, I am to move to Tabriz, in East Azerbaijan.
Photo Credit : Nilanjan Hajra