The mustache was familiar, so was the bare beige colored office. A lonely tube of neon washed the room in pale sickly light.
I could only see one man’s face as the other was whispering very close to his ear. The eyes above the mustache would glance over to us, waiting on the couch. There were no uniforms, but the hierarchy was clear.
We had spent the last twelve hours on a boat lazily crossing a placid sea. In the heat and humidity everything seemed to move slower; halfway through the journey, fog enveloped us, removing the last pretenses of time and space.
As my single serving butter rectangle was melting on the rice, I spotted a cockroach scurrying under the rows of seats.
We were picked out at the passport line, somehow I had expected it. After being questioned in a first office, we were taken outside the arrival building to the police station next door.
The only english speaking officer turned out to be a young woman. Eventually, our answers satisfied them, and on the way out she gave me a piece of paper.
“This is my number. If you have any difficulties while in town, call.” She added “Put it in your pocket, don't let anyone here see it...”
A taxi took us into town. The windows were down, Eric Clapton’s Layla was flowing out of the speakers.
In hindsight, I think we got scammed.
He had approached us without looking up from his phone, asking for the time (hint #1? Don't cell phones show the time?). When he realized he was dealing with strangers he switched to the questions we would hear many times over:
- Where are you from?
- Do you like it here? (It was very important to everyone we met we had a good experience there)
- What do you do?
- How old are you?
- Why are you not married?
He might not have asked the last one, being that he would be the first gay Iranian to approach us on the trip.
He offered us to show us the sights, and especially a local holy shrine, Shah Cheragh. Two disappointments awaited us there. My friend refused to enter and I was not allowed to take pictures inside.
It turned out to be the most tastefully bedazzled thing I ever encountered. Except for the floor, you could not see the walls or the ceiling as they were covered in tiny mirrors bouncing the light off each other. The glitter was mesmerizing, akin to the low summer sun bouncing off ripples on the water.
On the way out he went to the tomb in the middle of the room and prayed. Once outside he asked to have his donation reimbursed.
“It is customary to leave some money at the shrine, I paid for you, don’t worry.”
He relieved us of the equivalent one night’s sleep in Shiraz or two coffees in Tehran's Modern Art Museum.
Plastic surgery is everywhere in Iran. The nose job in Iran is what the hair transplant is in Turkey: ubiquitous; or put less delicately, in your face. And so, sitting on the bridge of 33 arches, I was approached by a bandaged nose attached to a young man.
“Are you gay?”
Conflicting emotions arose. After the initial confusion I could feel pride rise in my chest. Not only was I being the object of desire, as same sex as it may be, I was also going to turn him down. Double dose of cool.
That feeling would not last long, as soon as I answered in the negative, his soon to be majestic nose turned toward his real interest: my travel buddy, Tolga.
Tolga was completely oblivious to the unfolding drama, and was still looking for pictures amongst the 33 arches. He was working hard, using geometry and perspective to match the picture in his mind’s eye, composing with fore and background, positive and negative spaces. But Tolga was also crouching a lot, his gluteus maximus would stretch his jeans, and in turn bend my new friend's imagination.
“How about your friend?”
“Not as far as I know”
He was a professional and I had no divine powers. If anything, I believe the future can hold anything for us, and therefore I had to concede:
My favorite memory of the entire trip led to a golden rule: always carry your T3 (small, fully automatic camera) with you.
Takht-e-Jamshid, was a half disappointment. I could not get a sense of the grandeur of the place. I walked up a nearby hill, but that didn't help. Going back down, feeling guilty for feeling bored, I started to notice gaggles of young students, covered from head to toe, excited to be on a school trip.
And then they noticed me.
A couple of buses full of students had come to the site and unloaded their energetic cargo of young girls. They moved in small groups, until one of them decided to approach me.
I don't remember what she said, how she started the conversation, but I remember her energy, barely able to find release in her english. Her pride to be the one who approached the foreigner—the guy foreigner—barely contained, she asked:
“Can we take a picture with you?”
I agreed on condition they would e-mail me a picture.
The news spread and more and more kept flocking to us to get their own picture. The designated photographer had to step back, and back, and back again to accomodate all the new arrivals into the frame, cameras hanging from her forearms.
For weeks after the trip I checked my inbox for the picture. I scoured the spam box in the hope of seeing an image of a pale, blond (where hair was still growing) guy surrounded by black clad science students.
As time passed, my hope faded, and so did my memory of the event. But the emotion of it is still vivid, vibrant, and pulls me back towards Persia...