Mashad, 1st-10th December, 2012
When I realised I’d be having a birthday in Iran, I began thinking about where I might celebrate it. I originally opted for the now ruined city of Bam, simply because I read a story about it once that quite enchanted me and spending a birthday in a desert city seemed like something only dreams are made of. However, my life being what it is: a tumbling of synchronicity with little space for planning, I found myself turning thirty-two in Mashad, Iran’s second biggest city and one of it’s most devout.
On the train to Mashad, I’m asked by the girls sitting across from me if I’m Muslim. I’m originally puzzled by this question as it’s not one I’ve been asked often, but later come to realise that the sole reason any foreigner would usually go to Mashad is to visit Imam Reza’s shrine, a huge elaborate gated construction attracting thousands of holy pilgrimagers each year. I, however, am not at all intent on visiting this world-famous shrine, but on meeting an Iranian anarchist I’ve been emailing for the past three years through the Couchsurfing website.
The train ride to Mashad is a long, arid track through an endless desert. The sun settles down to sleep on the dry earth. I write pages and pages, filling my notebook with synonyms for heat, sand, earth and sunsets.
Another CS contact comes to meet me from the train station, along with his couchsurfing guest Michel. Michel is a musician, originally from Spain. He spent the previous few years living in Syria and has come to Iran in search of an Afghan rubab teacher. Mashad is close to the Afghan border and it’s here that the majority of refugees first arrive. Michel and I, being the only foreigners in town, bond quickly and spend most of our time together, particularly while our Iranian friends are busy with work and university.
There are certain stereotypes associated with the city of Mashad: devout, pious, conservative, traditional. As though in direct opposition to this, my new Iranian friends are highly progressive by anyone’s standards: critically minded about not only the power of their own government, but power in general; environmentally conscious; sensitive to gender issues and hyper-aware of their own constrained place within their culture. I meet people practising open polyamorous relationships. I meet a vegan man who’s living in nature, teaching himself about Permaculture and digging his own compost toilet. I meet a university student who’s setting up the first independent student-controlled newspaper (depending on your definition see the bottom of this post for update) since the Islamic Revolution. I meet strong, independent feminist women who are assertive about their sexuality. I find myself making bonds quickly and feel like I somehow ‘fit in’ to the cultural bubble they’ve created inside a spacious shared flat in the centre of the city.
On the streets outside, it’s a different matter. I am apparently an object of intense interest and curiosity. Heads turn, eyes follow. To make matters worse, Mashad seems even more polluted than Tehran and I can barely breathe.
Without the usual access to alcohol enjoyed by young people around the world, I’m finding Iranians to be particularly creative in organising social activities. There are theatre recital evenings; night-time football matches; discussion evenings and mountain treks. And of course, despite it’s prohibition, there’s alcohol.
As the date of my birthday draws closer, it becomes clear the only place to spend it is here in Mashad with my friends. I’m notorious for having terrible birthdays and all I want is good company and preferably something to drink. This arrives, in abundance. It’s not so hard to get booze in Iran if know the right people. Fortunately, we do. A huge four litre bottle of aragh is procured: Iranian homebrew. My birthday is singing, dancing and merriment, with plenty of food and good company. It’s my best birthday in years.
*UPDATE I have been informed of this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iranian_Students_News_Agency but whether it qualifies as “independent” or not depends on your criteria.