Holiday destinations don’t come with more surprises than most locations in the Middle East but Iran is definitely the most entertaining of them all. Mainly due in part to the wild intrigue that your presence alone can strike in the people you meet. You see, not many tourists visit Iran and those that do tend to stick to what they know and go along a well trodden route. I think this is a result of a few bloggers and guidebooks being the only resources available and apart from one or two, they are all pretty much the exact same. If you like looking at mosque after mosque, then by all means go for it.
We on the other hand, can’t stand travelling in a way we are told to by a guidebook that cares more about making sure they sell as many copies of their book rather than deliver an exciting adventure for their readers. So we’re there, sitting at the side of the road with our thumbs held high in the air as usual. We’re holding a sign with some squiggles a man had splashed on it earlier that day pointing us towards a town which we won’t name here as it might be easy to narrow down our host and we treasure their privacy very highly. A town with very little to report on from reading online and only one person in a blog we found 6 pages deep in a Google search seemed to have gone to.
Having eventually swung a lift to this tiny remote town, we were now faced with another dilemma, where the f*ck were we going to stay. There seemed to be only one hotel in town and we couldn’t seem to find it. Not giving into any sort of panic, we parked up in a desolate park to take shade under a tree. Using the file of my nail clippers to bluntly stab my pomegranate apart, we began the ritual of rifling through Couchsurfing in the hope that someone is this semi-city would be online regularly enough to see a request ping on their screen. A few hours of wandering from cafe to cafe, stealing the ever crawling “Wi-Fi” that resembled nothing more than a rumour at the best of times, we eventually got a hit! A man who seemed to delay and delay, to the extent where we though he’d never appear. Falling asleep in the middle of a roundabout due to pure exhaustion, we awoke, startled by a very concerned looking man but finally to a reply from our host rushing to meet us in 5 minutes time.
Swinging our hefty backpacks on the curls of our spines, we set off marching to meet our host. A large man with curly hair met us with perfect smiles. Wasting no time to get into the swing of prime Iranian hospitality, he brought us around to every shop and restaurant. You see, being someones guest in Iran is very different from having a guest in the western world. When we host someone, we invite them over, maybe cook dinner but we intend on going about our own routine in usual fashion. However, in the middle east you’ll find your host taking entire days off work, touring you around the town and bringing you for millions of small cups of tea while constantly saying they are a terrible host and they wish they could do more. The thing is that, having a lot of guests makes you a more respected person in Iran. People will say “Ah, they are good people, they usually have a lot of guests”. So it’s a rather prestigious thing to have a lot of guests. In Ireland, people often roll their eyes when they have to host someone. Usually accompanied with comments like “As if I have nothing better to do”, in a rather bitter sarcastic tone.
In saying that, Iran has the Taruf system which I found rather shit if I’m completely honest. Essentially, it’s where you offer something with no intent of actually offering. As bewildering as this seems, it’s a simple nicety that can catch you if you are not looking for it. Say for example you compliment a mans jacket, he’ll begin to take it off and give it to you. You have to refuse several times, generally about three times before you know whether the offer is genuine or not.
On a separate occasion while on a train through the stunning Kurdish region of Iran, we had one man offer to host us (not at all uncommon for complete strangers to want to take you in) and we gladly accepted. We decided we would get off the train early change our entire plans and just before we arrived at his village and were packing up our bags, he completely changed his mind proposing it would be impossible to feed us and we would have to buy our own food but there was no shop to do so in his village. He then slipped out, gave a sheepish smile and walked away. We had been fooled by Taruf and never saw it coming.
Anyway, I digress. Our host was doing an amazing job of bringing us all over town showing us every nook and cranny (I mean everywhere… including inside the newly built secondary school, his friends office and a place serving small pots of stew. Each place more random than the last). If there was a man running in this town for mayor, it was going to be our host, who will remain un-named for obvious reasons. Everyone knew him, passed him waves, nods of approval and/or stopped for a quick chat. This man was genuinely loved and we had no idea what made this unique individual so special!
Managing a local cinema didn’t seem like the kind of job that gave the gravitas of being the most known face around town but this guy truly was a local celebrity. Dropping our bags in the film room filled with Soviet Era reel machines from the 1970’s (America’s trade embargo means a lot of stuff in Iran, had to come from Russia regardless of how archaic it is), we continued our tour. Business being pretty poor, we got a tour of the empty film screens and given a brief insight to Iranian film before making our way to the house.
Before you read any further, destroy what you think an Opium Den is. It’s a place where people gather to smoke it but it is by no means filled with undesirable people. We only met beautiful and friendly people who wanted to know more about us and where we came from.
Now when you think house, you think furnishings but there was none to be seen anywhere. I mean, I know they sit and sleep on the floor but there was nothing…except, a small gas stove in the corner.
Settling into our new humble abode, two men enter, do the formalities of saying hello and then proceed to take off their trousers. Rather astounded at why they were removing their trousers and feeling the awkward urge to keep mine on, I asked our host what was going on.
“They are getting comfortable! You can too if you like”, smiled our host to which I slowly replied “I think I’ll keep them on for now. Is that normal!”. “Ah you see, these are very wealthy men. This man here has a food processing and packaging company and is extremely successful. His friend is also a very rich man and has several car sales lots in this region. They come here to relax you know, how you say…chill?” he explained.
Having felt like my question wasn’t really answered but deciding best not to ask any more questions and wait out this awkward moment, my host disappeared into a room at the back of the house. Reappearing only moments later, brandishing a small wooden box that when opened, revealed a wide array of small slender pipes about the length of a standard ruler. Accompanied by small metal rods and a large black bag of what I soon learned was Opium. The men took turns breaking off small chunks and softening it on the heat of the gas stove until they flattened it into the shape resembling a well trodden piece of chewing gum. Heading up the metal rods and crossing it against the Opium for one another as they took hit after hit. They began to smile, converse loosely and appear very well put together. Now, conventional thought would have told me that this drug is poison. The British flooded China with it to subdue the population in an attempt to rule it. It’s derivative heroin, is one of the most addictive and destructive drugs in the world and it’s work can be seen in many victims strewn out along the streets of Dublin. However, these successful business men on their lunch break were smoking up before heading back to their shift. Simply astounded we sat there and watched them smoke over and over.
On one of the nights, we acquired Vodka from the black market and spent the night swirling around the den listening to 90’s pop classics through an old television set parked in the corner while everyone smoke into bliss. People were dancing, laughing, rejoicing and some getting intimate…like full-on sexually intimate as if there was no-one else in the room! This was turning into a full on orgie and no-one seemed to really care all that much either. To be honest, I didn’t care at all! My thoughts and perceptions of Iran as a conservative Islamic country were completely busted by the discovery of such intense counter culture. The feeling of restraint and suppression by their regime breeds this desire to rebel completely. It’s not uncommon at all in Iran to go to a party in a house and as soon as you find the doors closed, everyone takes of their Hijab and dawns very scantily clad clothes altogether. I would go as far as to say they are more liberal in their own way at times.
During our few days there, we met several frequenters to this station all who seemed like outstanding members of society. One man in particular who came around quite a lot was very keen for us to try it. when I shared my beliefs of the substance, he simply laughs at me. “You drink alcohol a lot in your country, yes?” he urged slowly with a coy smile. “Far more than I’d like but I guess that’s part of who we are as a culture and a society. We grow up with it at every single occasion and family gathering. I guess we like a party and I suppose, as a country we don’t hide that fact”, I replied. He laughed heartily but eventually halted to utter a very interesting perspective. “You see, it’s all about money friend. If I were to tell you to take a drug that would make you do things you regretted, hurt people you loved, lose your balance, act out loud and angry, make you feel sick when you had too much, leave you with with very bad headache next day and it costs you a lot….well you would probably not take this drug. But you know it is alcohol I talk about, yes? Opium, I smoke, I relax and I go to work or continue with my day. I don’t want to fight anyone or cry about my feelings. I simply just talk with my friends and socialise. Everything in moderation my brother.”
As he wrapped up his sermon, with several men stooped around the stove slowly drawing deep breaths filled with the alluring fumes of the Opium, many were nodding with him in agreement.
“What about the money? I mean you mentioned it’s about money.” I retorted. “Ah yes, everything is about money dear! America’s War on Drugs, was a great tool to let them stick their nose where they wanted. They demonised all drugs and not all drugs are bad you see. Alcohol is on every corner and is far more destructive but as long as the money flows to the right people, then alcohol will always be ok in America. They tried to get rid of it once and look what happened! Anyway, you are smart, I’m sure you can figure the rest out.” He said through a slacked jaw.
And thus, the man I had been judging with speculation inside my head had made more sense in his council than most before him. For days, the conversation was philosophical, inquisitive and thought provoking. Daring to stray from the mosque-trail of Iran was definitely a conquest worth taking.