Written and photographed by Peter Kiernan
Another long bus trip in Iran lay ahead of me. I had been in the country just over two weeks and was still pleased that I had an extra week to go on my transit visa. Originally my visa was to last only five days, but I managed to get extensions at the police headquarters in Tehran and Shiraz.
I had passed through Isfahan, Yazd, Shiraz and had stayed in Kerman about three days. I was the guest of a local Komite (revolutionary committee) guard, who was surprisingly liberal in his outlook and who appeared quite indifferent to enforcing the principles of the Islamic revolution.
While in Kerman I took the chance to see the deserted medieval city of Arg-e-Bam (top photo). This place was one of the most spectacular sights I have seen in my life, not least because I was practically the only one there. Also, I visited Mahoun, the town in Kerman Province with two beautiful places, the tomb of Shah Nematollah Vali, a Sufi dervish and the Bagh-e Tarikhi, a Qajar era garden.
The tomb was policed by a grumpy guard who didn't appreciate my presence at all. That is, until, for a small sum of money, he let me climb the narrow, spiral stairs of one of the tiled minarets to view the beautifully barren landscape around the village.
At the Bagh-e Tarikhi I was greeted by a group of about 10 agricultural college students having a day out. None of them could speak more than basic English and my knowledge of Persian was sparse.
Yet in Iran that doesn't stop friendships being made and at the end of the day I was sorry to see them go. Their polite curiosity made it one of those moments in Iran that I remember very fondly. They mean a lot to you when you travel on your own.
The next day I went to Mashhad. The bus trip is about 14 hours and I would be arriving at my destination at about 3 o'clock the next morning. Mashhad had a different feel to it than other Iranian cities. The people seemed more reserved, and being the major pilgrimage city in Shi'ite Islam, it also felt more conservative. While in the rest of Iran, I encountered much more secularism in the daily lives of the people but here, religion seemed to rule.
Close to Mashhad is the tomb of the famous Persian poet Ferdowsi. I became interested in the Persian literature of Hafez and Sa'di in Shiraz, so I wanted to see what Ferdowsi's works had to offer. Going there on the local bus, I met a young Iranian student in his early 20s who was quite suave looking.
His name was Ali. He wanted to practice some English so we started talking, and in the usual Iranian way of doing things, I ended up at his house to see his parents and have lunch. He was from the outskirts of the city and he lived with his parents in a new spacious house filled with beautiful Persian carpets.
After lunch, Ali and I went to Ferdowsi's tomb. It was getting cold as it was mid-afternoon in November so Ali lent me a sweater. This sweater would be the cause of an interesting incident the following day. Ali caught a taxi back to the city with me after visiting the tomb. But living on the outskirts he got off before I did. We said goodbye and the taxi drove off before I realized that I was still wearing his sweater.
I had no idea where he lived and I couldn't see him in the street so I began to wonder how to get it back to him. The next day I was booked on a tour of some of the sites around Mashhad and then I had a flight to Shiraz that evening. The only thing I could do was leave the sweater at the hotel reception and hope that Ali would figure out that I had left it there. Luckily, he knew the name of my hotel.
The next morning I was introduced to an Iranian mother and daughter by the travel agent who booked me on the tour. He approached them and asked them to look after me as the tour was being conducted in Persian. The daughter, Laleh, was very beautiful. English was her first language as she had been educated at an American college in Turkey. Her father was Turkish and her mother was Iranian, and she spoke with a slight American accent, due to her education with American teachers.
She had finished school and was living with her family in north Tehran, waiting for acceptance to Tehran University. To spend the day with them was refreshing, as travelers to the Middle East usually only meet people of the same sex (although this was less so in Iran than in the Arab countries I traveled in). When I returned home from my trip, I got a letter from Laleh who by then had moved to Paris.
She had not been accepted to Tehran University and was living with relatives in France trying to get into a French University. Laleh hadn't been there long and she was still upset at having to leave her family and friends. After another letter where she seemed much happier about living in Paris I lost contact with her.
The tour bus made a detour for me and dropped me off at Mashhad airport. I waved goodbye to Laleh and her mother, but the tour guide wouldn't let me leave until I said something in Persian into the microphone. Thankfully, I got away with a mere "Khoda Hafez" (goodbye) and I was off, feeling a little sad at having to leave Laleh.
At the airport lounge I saw Ali's father. He was waiting for someone to arrive and I immediately thought of telling him about Ali's sweater. Unfortunately, he did not speak English so it was going to be a challenge. At the airport there were many Arab Shi'ite pilgrims, mainly from Bahrain, who were flying home via Shiraz.
One man who was fluent in English came up to me and we started talking. I told him about Ali's father being here and the sweater that was at the hotel. While this man spoke Arabic he didn't know Farsi so he couldn't help on his own, but knew an old Arab who could speak Farsi. Unfortunately this man could not speak English, so the English-speaking Arab had to be involved as well.
Being Arabs, they were happy to help and the three of us trundled off to Ali's father. The old Farsi speaker explained that I had something to say, and you can imagine what it was like, the four of us standing in a circle trying to communicate in three languages. I told the English speaker that I was left with Ali's sweater and he could pick it up at the Hotel Asya.
This was translated into Arabic and then into Farsi before Ali's father knew what I had to say. He merely smiled and said "Don't worry. Ali will pick it up," which was then translated into Arabic and then into English. It was a bizarre scene that you'd only expect to see in a movie.
From Shiraz, which I was visiting for the second time, I took a bus to the Pakistani border through Zahedan with two Germans on their way to India. I had managed to stay three weeks in Iran, and it didn't seem to be long enough. One day I hope to return. And I also hope Ali got his sweater back.
The author traveled through Iran and other Middle Eastern countries between August 1993 and March 1994. He does freelance writing about travel and Middle Eastern issues.