(posted with a small delay, we have already arrived in Tajikistan and are spending a few days in Dushanbe)
We are currently speeding North on a luxurious sleeper train, from Shiraz to crazy hectic Tehran
From there we will fly to Tajikistan. Booking and paying for the train online went really well with the service of iranrail.net, highly recommended. The trip takes about 15 hours and we are sharing our 4 person cabin with a relaxed middle aged Persian couple from Shiraz. The man speaks a little English which he picked up during his studies as an electrical engineer some 40 years ago. We see the sun set over the desert, we share some of the food his wife has cooked and we talk a little bit. Apart from the usual questions about where we are from, if we are religious, if we are married and have children they are strangely preoccupied with what kind of sunscreen we use. Which brand? In which country is it made? Another question: do I wear any make-up? What do I do about my eyebrows? It´s a hilarious conversation full of misunderstandings. I end up pulling out my bag of toiletries, showing my minimalist make-up collection of powder, mascara and eyebrow pencil (hey, a cycling girl needs to feel she´s not entirely ´sauvage´ every now and again) Marzieh doesn´t use make-up but she tries my Chanel perfume, much to her husbands delight. Is it for men or for women? How much does it cost? Who from the two of us is French? Not French? But Chanel is from Paris?
Apart from chitchat we have some time to reflect. It´s been quite a month, traveling around this special country. On the one hand we are sad to leave. The people and the overall vibe have been amazing. The Dutch are always proud to have the word ´gezellig´, meaning something like conviviality. Well, the Iranians have the concept of ´gezelligheid´ down to a T, and much more so than the Dutch! We have stayed over at the houses of strangers who have quickly become good friends. We have had many short conversations in the street, starting with a smile and a hello and sometimes ending in great conversation about politics, religion, life, everything under the sun. Discovering beautiful nuances and contradictions in the many different ways one can be muslim. For instance the girl I speak to on the bus who squeezes her preference for hejab and a love for all things Hollywood and Taylor Swift into one sentence. We have had cups of tea with a family camping at a bus station and carpet sellers in a bazaar. We have been invited for lunch and an afternoon nap with another family. We have camped in a park between other camping families who were all cooking enough food to feed an army. We have been flirted with, whispered, ogled, laughed and smiled at as we were wandering around the busy bazaars or hanging out in the parks. Some people approached us because they could speak freely with us, without fear of being reported. They would launch fierce critical attacks on the government and religion. There have been some beautiful moments where it was possible to communicate without any words at all; when an older woman during prayer time at a mosque expertly rearranged my awkwardly adjusted chador before taking it off me with a big ´nah, why even bother´ smile and a hug. We have enjoyed the gentle and polite curiousity and ease of connecting with people enormously.
Marzieh has more questions, her husband translates. Your rings, what are they made of? We got two (fake) wedding rings in Tblisi. I tell her they are made of bronze. Not gold? Hmm. No gold ring, but my husband has a heart of gold, I tell her with gestures. Awww. Her husbands heart is made of iron, haha.
The nighttrain from Shiraz to Tehran has a restaurant car and we see a Persepolis rock tomb glide by from behind purpe velveteen curtains and plastic tulips. We end up being interrogated by a group of teachers who are on their way to a conference in Tehran. They are great fun, apart from the serious advice to spend one hour every day reading the Koran. In between the hundreds of questions (Dutch taxes, salaries and pensions etc etc) and selfies one of them recites famous Persian poetry for us, beloved by all Iranians. Something along the lines of ‘your hair makes me cry. Your eyebrows are like fire. Your eyes pierce my heart’. We will miss these people who are rightly proud of their rich history and culture.
There are also some things we will leave behind that will be quite a relief. I will not for one second longer than is absolutely required by the Iranian law wear the headscarf. I will not miss being treated like a second class citizen. As a woman I am often ignored in conversation, not allowed to shake hands or directly speak with men, required to sit in the back of the bus and to use different entrances and spaces in mosques. I never expected the hejab to be such a nuisance until I was obliged to wear it every moment I stepped outside. It is hard to explain what is so annoying about a piece of fabric around your head but just the fact that it is always there, how it subtly limits your hearing, vision and range of motion and how you are forever checking if it is still in place. Especially this last bit really got to me. I was constantly checking if my head was covered even though I do not agree with the patronizing idea that women are like delicate flowers that need special protection. Or sweets that need a wrap to protect them from flies, as one hejab promotion poster showed. From our easy lives in the West it is so nice and easy to think you will be the rebellious and the brave one when push comes to shove. Then when I do find myself in a situation where the law requires me to give up some of my precious personal freedom I do so with just about zero resistance, apart from writing a blogpost about it. Grrr. The opinion about hejab in Iran is divided; some people love it, as one male taxi driver confessed after he asked me how I felt about it. Other people, men as well as women, hate it and even go as far as to apologize to me for having to put up with it in their country. There are as many different ways to wear it as there are women. From a gauzy piece of nothing over a heavily made-up face to women wrapped in an all black head-to-toe chador, held with the teeth so she has her hands free to carry the shopping underneath her tent. Apart from the monitoring of my appearance we will not miss the monitoring of our internet use either, which we worked around by using a VPN tunnel with the excellent ExpressVpn app. Despite us pertinently not agreeing with it, actually experiencing the dark force of state control has been an interesting experience.
In the morning Marzieh is fervently praying, whispering koran verses. Her husband looks pained and complains his wife is way too religious. He says it would be better if they were more of a match in this respect. Marzieh offers a beatific smile to her husband with the iron heart.
Marziehs husband also wants to talk. He, together with many others we spoke with, is concerned about his country. People worry about the ever worsening drought and the poor economy caused by the sanctions. People everywhere tell us that the dry riverbeds we see would normally have some water at the end of the summer season, but that the water is becoming less and less every year. Climate change is a real problem here, but at the same time everybody uses airconditioning and polluting cars. A lot of people mention the state of the economy and how it affects them. The sanctions have serious implications for the lives of normal people here. The sanctions mean for instance that it is impossible to use (American) bank- or credit cards, so trade is virtually impossible and the carpet sellers cannot export unless they have a trustworthy foreign partner who can take payments for them abroad. People complain about the poor quality of goods they have to buy, such as Chinese made cheap plastics and Iranians pride Paykan cars. Customer service, insurance and state support are at best unreliable if at all existent, leaving people stressed out and overworked. Men are trying to provide for their families as best as they can by working mutiple jobs. Considering the difficulties the Iranians face in their everyday lives it is even more amazing to experience their incredible warmth and cheerfulness.
When we get off the train in Tehran we say goodbye to Marzieh and her husband. Another fabulous couple who have made us feel at home in Iran. We are on our way to meet a couchsurfing host in Tehran and then we will finally be reunited with our bicycles. They have been peacefully resting at Hoseins place, our first host in Iran. Soon we will be done with the easy life and get to work. The Pamirs are waiting!