Tabriz, 22-24th November, 2012
There ‘s probably no worse time to enter Iran than the day before Ashura. The country’s devout masses are out every night, literally whipping themselves up into a frenzy with chains and lashes; all of the shops are closed and there’s blood in the fountain in the centre of Tabriz.
It’s not real blood, of course, but Milad pretends it is as he fills his plastic cup with some and pretends to drink it – “Aren’t I sacrilegious?” he giggles. The cup is recently emptied of tea, one of many food and drink give-aways around the city. This is definitely the best thing about Ashura.
Having never travelled in a Shi’a country before, I knew little of Ashura. My host’s mother, a devout Muslim, asked if I’d heard of the terrible tragedy? Imam Husayn has been murdered! It was a while before I realise this happened 1,400 years ago, leading me to reflect on the differences between Christmas in England and these ritualistic self-flaggelation marches through the major cities of Iran. Interesting cultural differences, to say the least.
A man and woman on a motorbike stop in front of us, grinning. “Salaam!” they say, handing us some packages. We thank them and they speed off. I pass mine to Tim first to check if it’s meat. It’s not, it’s potato wraps! We devour them as we’re walking.
I arrived in Iran yesterday on foot from Armenia, alone, unprepared and looking a little like a bundle of rags with a backpack. I was pleased to hear a girl had offered to host me, hoping for clothing advice and a shopping trip, but when I saw the prices of coats in the bazaar, I decided I had to wait. She was sadly far too shy to give me any advice, but would later give me a new-looking ‘old’ coat and a beige long-sleeved top, setting off a trend of clothes-swapping that would continue throughout my time in Iran.
Other than coats, though, Iran is cheap for foreigners. $1 = 12,253 rials, according to the internet on the day I entered Iran. Imagine my delight then, when I was offered 28,000 rials for a dollar at the exchange office at the border. To confuse things further, nobody thinks in Rials anyway – all of the prices are shown in Tomans, which are around 10 Rials. $1 = roughly 3,000 Tomans, or 30,000 Rials – confused? I am.
“Hm, ok, let’s just…” Milad swings to the left abruptly and rounds a corner, then turns back on himself. We come to the edge of the corner as two girls reach the other edge. Awkward “hello”s are exchanged around the edge of the street corner and one of the girls hands Milad a dish. He thanks her and the girls are gone in the flutter of an eyelash. “That was your girlfriend?” I raise an eyebrow. “Actually, we’ve never met before – only on Facebook. It’s too dangerous. If the police see an unmarried man and woman on the street together, they can arrest you.”
It’s not the first and certainly won’t be the last time I’ve heard such things, though many people will later tell me this is exaggerated. Milad is young, though. The risk is higher for younger couples, since it’s more obvious you’re not married the younger you are.
Milad, Tim and I buy plastic spoons and eat our soup in a park, away from people’s stares. It’s simply not done, apparently, to eat food on the streets of Iran. As we’re finishing, I remember something – “Surprise!” I pull out the bar of 95% dark chocolate I’ve been carrying since Armenia. Milad is almost ecstatic, claiming even this amount of cacao is tough to get hold of here.
Dazed and high on cacao, we saunter down the streets. Milad gets a phone-call from some distant aunt. “Now we must go to another part of the city”, he says when he gets off the phone, “my aunt says they are putting out tables. There will be free food there soon.”
My own phone is still out of order, awaiting activation. To buy a sim card in Iran, you have to give your fingerprints and address. I remember my sim card purchasing experience well – the wrinkly man scowling at me from behind his glasses…
“Hotel?” he asks again. My host fiddles with her bag. The thing is, I’m not staying in a hotel, I’m couchsurfing – which is basically illegal in Iran. I whip out the fake guest-house address I copied from the internet, in case of awkward questions on the border…
Actually, they hardly asked me anything on the border, only – “Do you have friends in Iran?” “Not yet!” I replied, and the guards stern face cracked into a grin. Correct answer, I noted to myself for future reference.
I say my goodbyes to Milad and Tim at the bus station, wishing the latter the best of luck on his cycle-tour through the country. I only wish we could hitch-hike together. I board the bus to Tehran, hoping my sim card will activate soon and flood me with invitations from hosts in Tehran, preferably before I arrive…