By the clock, Tehran is exactly two hours behind India. Sharp at quarter to five, a voice – first in Farsi then in laboured English – announces that we are ready to land at Imam Khomeini International Airport. The enormous lattice of lights, fast closing in, tells me we have arrived at a bustling city. The sky is still dark.
Tehran. The airport is much less plush than that in Delhi. Most of the signs are in Farsi. There is nothing really that stands out, except two huge photographs. Over the next weeks I notice the same pair of photographs peering over all public and private facilities: at train and bus stations, sprawling bazaars, government offices, along all major thoroughfares and even hotel lobbies. With a benign untiring smile these to two faces keep a watch over everything that happens in Iran.
Ayatollah Ruholla Musavi Khomeini and Syed Ali Hosseini Khameni, the past and present Rahbars, Supreme Leaders, of Iran. But nothing indicates that I have entered into a “dangerous Mullah regime”, although I was so warned repeatedly. Before my trip, well-wishers were never tired of reminding me that I should not flaunt my journalist identity. One of them attached in a mail a recent report of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which said, “Iran is consistently the worst jailer of journalists”. Not only Indian friends, Sayad, in whose home I was to stay in Tehran, warned me in clear words, “You are coming on a tourist visa. Rein in your natural journalistic inquisitiveness.”
My visa application, however, states my occupation clearly. In the queue at the immigration counter one of the Indian families with the Hijab-and-Burqa-clad women faces prolonged questioning from the officer. Butterflies return to my tummy. My turn. I pass on the passport. The officer, with a stone face, skims through the pages. Pauses. Oh God, that’s the US visa and it’s still valid, and it looks uncannily similar to the Iranian visa, which is on the next page. But the gentleman quickly turns the page. Feels it carefully with his thumb and index finger. Bends the page a little. Looks straight into my eyes for a fleeting moment. Bang-bang goes the stamp. A hint of a crease on the stone: Khush amadeen.
Collecting my two suitcases from the baggage caracole I push the trolley out of the terminal building and intently start scanning faces in the crowd of visitors outside the gate. That must be him. Sayad. A tall young man, in his early 30s probably, with a square clean shaven bespectacled face, is desperately waving at me. I wave back. Sayad hustles through the crowd and takes hold of me in a long bear-hug. Steps back. Grabs my right hand in an iron grip and shakes it for the next two minutes. Another bear-hug. Every pore of my existence feels how deeply I am welcome. Presently he grabs my large heavy suitcase, leaving the small lighter one for me. He couldn’t find a parking space at the lot and has left his car in a ‘strictly no parking’ zone, which is a little distance away. We have to walk, and he is terribly sorry about it. “That’s alright,” I assure him, and protest, “Please. You shouldn’t be carrying my suitcase. I can drag both of them along.” But Sayad dismisses the suggestion. His simple logic: “You are a Musafir in my land!”
I get the first taste of Iranian mehman-nawazi!
In my 20 days in Iran, irrespective of gender, age, class, region, I never, not for once, experienced anything else from anyone. Even if someday I forget everything about this trip, I shall remember the natural hospitality that I was accorded at every step in Iran. And out of that I shall never forget one particular incident.
Varzaneh is a village of some 3000 families, right on the edge of the desert, about an hour’s drive from Isfahan. I am the lone guest at the Yasana Guest House, a one-storey facility of three rooms. It has no staff. Not even a gatekeeper. The owner of the guest house has given me the key to the main door and left for his home nearby for the night. Around eight o’clock I feel hungry and realize I have nothing to eat. So I step out on the street. In the afternoon I had a falafel roll for lunch with my local friend Javed
at a tiny restaurant about a kilometre away from the guest house. I set out for the same joint. The streets are totally deserted. Doors and windows of every house are tight shut. Not a single shop is open. I hope the restaurant would be, and increase pace, the sound of my steps following me. I begin to have an eerie feeling. There’s not a soul around. But it’s not that. It’s something else. Streets are brightly lit, with trees and buildings casting long shadows. A sharp cold breeze is blowing in from the desert. But it’s something else. Then it suddenly occurs to me: not only are there no people, there are no dogs either. Not a single one.
A street without a dog? What could be more bizarre for an Indian? I realized I had noticed this in Tehran and also in Isfahan. Subsequently I was to notice the same all over Iran. During my whole journey I came across only one dog. In Neyshabur, at a lonely park. A large mongrel was being walked by its master. It licked me to its heart’s content. That was it. Nowhere else. Somayeh, my friend in Shiraz had later told me, “You can keep a dog. But if any of your neighbours complain of disturbance because of its barking, or something, to the municipal authorities, a van will come and simply take the dog away.” Street dogs of course are unimaginable. In the bustle of the cities this absence didn’t stand out. But in this village it was really eerie, particularly because Indian nights have a very special relation with street dogs.
I keep walking along the human-less, dog-less streets. After a while I notice a brilliantly lit shop. A Sheeriny. Shireen in Farsi means sweet. Sheeriny is a shop that sells sweets. It would be prudent to buy some for tomorrow morning, I tell myself, and enter into the shop. At least 25 varieties of sweets are displayed in glass showcases. A very old gentleman in a grey suit and a grey hat is standing behind the counter. He welcomes me, and asks, “Az Pakistan?” I quickly correct his mistake, “Na, az Hind.” I pick six. All of them are dry sweets. He puts them in a box and gives the box to me across the counter. “Quimatesh chand ast? How much?” I ask, reaching for my moneybag.
“Hich. Hich,” he waves with a broad smile, “Nothing”.
I am startled. What is this gentleman saying? I ask the price again. And it becomes clear that he won’t accept any money. My Farsi is too weak to explain to him that this is very insulting for me. I can only gesture vigorously. He is unfazed. We stand face to face, the wall of language in between. Suddenly he reaches across the counter, grabs my hand, looks straight into my eyes and says, “Musafir. Musafir.”
Floating on the foam of Sayad’s constant chatter we start off on his dilapidated Peugeot Sedan for his home on Mortazavi Street at South Tehran’s middle-lower-middle class Navvab district. The Tochal peak of the Alborz mountains on the north of the city has just begun to catch the first flames of the rising sun.
Photo Credit : Nilanjan Hajra