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Speaking about Iran implies dismantling a stereotype. The images from Iran that have reached us through the media in the last 20 years are as truthful as limited. Mullahs (Shia religious leaders) feverly addressing masses, women covered top-to-toe by black chadors pressed among their teeth, enraged theology students setting fire to an American flag. All is nothing but a fraction of reality, repeated with enough frequency to convince the average audience that Iran is a country inhabited by hostile, soulless people.
Especially after 9-11, such emblems of Islam automatically trigger rejection and at the same time block any perspective of the whole picture. Who suffers in Iran? And why? Questions that seldom reach us. The government at its turn attempts to replace one cliché with another one, and circulates another slice of reality: Iran becomes a land of nightingales, rose gardens and kind men who take their hand to the chest and invites you a cup of cay (tea).
Maybe I carry myself a mix of the both clichés as I leave the truck stop at Doguzbayazit, Turkey, where I stayed overnight. Under a heavy snowfall I hitch a ride with a Ford Transit van to the very border. Hitching into Iran may sound an improbable scenario, but it is a well trotted path, first opened by the hippies in the 60s in their overland trail to India, and now kept tidy by a precarious trickle of dedicated hitch-hikers who refuse to swap the charm of distance for the shortcut of airlines.
In the north, the majestic Ararat is still covered by dense fog. The Iranian border official stamps my passport and, at the sight of my Afghan and Pakistani visas, asks me: “Until when are you going to travel?” It was Rumi, a Persian poet, who confronted with such question, replied: “Until you stop me”. But the fear of a misunderstanding keeps my lips sealed. Afterwards, I am accompanied to a Tourism (Monitoring) Office, where a man with glasses who speaks English with a girly cadence requires my opinion about Iran’s right to produce nuclear energy. Then, assuring his voice represent that of 70 million Iranians, says: “We like our president to be radical.” I exit the costumes complex and hit the road. At last, alone with Iran. A sign welcomes me into the country in the name of the University of Maku, the border town.
I reach Tabriz swiftly. Among the flock of Paykans (the equivalent of the Trabant in the communist countries) that storm me as they shout out “taxi? taxi?” the driver of a Peugeot 206 who understood my intentions stops. Amin is the chauffeur of Nokia’s manager at Tabriz. When a dog crosses the street, Amin says: “His name is dog”. I pay my miles with intensive English teaching until we get to “A dog is crossing the street”.
Sit down in a park in Tabriz (where I ended up camping), my attempts to spark local hospitality only stick me to university students eager to know my impression of their country. They ask with joy and pride, they know beforehand that the Iranian cities, with their perfumed and dressed citizenship strolling tree lined boulevards offer the sharpest possible contrast to the expectations of most of foreigners. Some travelers, gazing at the pastoral pace of life, commit the mistake of accepting first hand the packaged official version: Iran is a victim of international complot. It is also that, but a successful navigation of Iranian reality means piercing peace, and reconstructing the silenced screams. But night in Tabriz falls beyond any philosophy. I walk thee streets looking for someone to point me a pace to camp, until the man in the picture goes out of his way to take me to a park.
The most obvious step after Tabriz would be to advance towards Teheran, the 12 million soul’scapital. Instead, I feel the impulse to get out of the map and start my Iranian adventure in the tiny villages of Azerbaijan province, forgotten by cartographers and governments. As the name suggests, I am just miles away from the neighboring independent republic of the same name. The people here are called Azeri, and their language is an older version of modern Turkish. The snow capped mountains get amplified after each twist of the road that, after Hurond –the last mapped village- looses the asphalt and dribbles sleepy mud brick hamlets nestled in the slopes. When I ask someone in the streets of Hurond about the next villages the entire town forms an assembly. Nobody agrees in the exact amount of kilometers from one village to the next one, but for me is enough to have the order in which they will appear in front of my steps.
Three days vagabonding out of the pavement, hopping in motorcycles or tractors, giving substance for conversation in villages where men walk the streets as brotherhoods dedicated to discover the ultimate stylish pirouette with their praying collars. The presence of a wanderer ignites the joy of the locals in a culture where hospitality is such a priority. Yet, they can hardly understand my reasons to be away from home if I am not on a business quest. All through Muslim history, traveling has always been closely linked to commercial endeavors. “What is the joy of the traveler?” –they inquire. The non pragmatic side of movement, a total mystery to them.
Eventually the conversation switched to politics. With astonishment I discover that people in a weath producing village are concerned by Teheran’s struggle to enrich uranium. At the same time, a bit in a schizoid way, they complain that the government doesn’t pay any attention to their villages. Again, in order not to argue with 20 people who don`t speak my language, I prefer to say I can’t agree more with Iran enriching uranium, platinum or oregano….
No village lets me go without a lunch pack, which the next village will never let me open but supply their own. When pavement reappears in Qareh Agaj village, again in the map, I can hardly close my backpack due to an excess of apples. At this point, I can say that mountains give warmth to its inhabitants in the same way the palm of the dandy warms a cup of cognac. I stay overnight in Ardabil, northern city famed for its carpets. After exposing myself to the hospitality of a dozen Azeri villages I can appreciate the privacy of a creepy showerless mozaferkhune (guesthouse).