Unveiling Iran thumb by thumb

loading Hitchhiking at Persepolis.

Hitchhiking gets a traveller into the heart of a country more easily than anything else. In the process, deep misconceptions are dispersed.

My mobile phone rings just as the ferry reaches port and the queue starts to move. I glance at the screen: it is an unknown number and I can’t ascertain the country code. I decide to answer, regardless of the passengers pushing from behind.

“Marco!” It is the only sound I understand before a legato of fast, foreign words fills the earpiece. After a moment of confusion, I manage to picture the man on the other end of the line. Hossein! He’s very far away, across half of the world. Memories are evoked; the colours of the Malaysian ferry platform on which I am standing fades and the sea around me evaporates into desert dust. I close my eyes and follow my mind into the past…

I’m standing by the side of an Iranian motorway just outside Mashhad. The midday sun is a burning light bulb high above the sky, while a line of cars and ancient-looking lorries zooms past me towards the never-ending horizon. Javad, a young Iranian father with whom I shared long conversations about Persian music and the powers of Jimi Hendrix’s solos, is standing between me and the side of his black car, holding his daughter against his chest. “Are you really sure you want to hitchhike?” he asks. “Can’t I take you to the bus stand instead? Will you be safe?” I lean forward and hug him to stop the flow of his worries, but I know I can’t.

Since I crossed the border from Turkmenistan into Iran and hitched my first ride in a freight truck, I have felt protected and cared for far beyond my real needs. Javad was my first Iranian host. Sitting on the floor of his suburban home in Mashhad, we shared meals over carpets sewn with gold thread. All the while, we talked about the revolutions in the East and West, and how those cultures have clashed in Persia. We celebrated our short encounter with wine, plucking pistachios and nuts from leaf-shaped trays and sharing thick spreads of mouth-watering cheese over three different kinds of crispy bread. It breaks my heart to see him wave goodbye, and he stops the torture by speeding away, disappearing into the traffic.

I feel sad, but I have to proceed. I stretch my arm out at the flow of speeding vehicles, and I wait… five minutes? With a screeching halt, a rusty lorry pulls over a few dozen metres ahead of me, and I start to run.

Desert highway.

Hijacked to the heart of Persia

My original plan was to reach the desert city of Yazd, admire its ancestral irrigation system, the qanat, move on to the splendour of Esfahan’s colourshifting mosques and ultimately visit the archaeological grandeur of Persepolis before proceeding to the north. However, plans are made to be changed, especially when your last ride drops you off at the side of the road in the small town of Torbat-e Heydarieh at dusk (I pondered how cool it was that the driver could manage the steering wheel with his right hand and hold a cup of tea outside the window with his left to cool it down in the wind). People approach me and I try to explain my situation using hand gestures until a student jumps out of his car and curiously enquires in halting English where I’m going and what I’m doing there. When he realises that I’m trying to hitchhike to Yazd, he insists, horrified, that he must accompany me to the bus station immediately. He doesn’t let go of me until I tell him firmly that I know what I’m doing. Only then does he get back into his car with an extremely puzzled expression across his face.

Truth be told, I should have followed him to the bus stand – the next people who stop for me crash my plans immensely. Their truck approaches slowly. A man leans out of the passenger window as the vehicle swerves ahead of me, chugging to a halt. The man opens the door with a push of his arm and motions for me to come closer. When I reach him, I freeze – I am face to face with the Persian version of Osama bin Laden sans turban. “Sayeed,” the man says with a bow. The driver, another smiling lunatic, leans over the passenger seat to grab my backpack. “Hossein.”

It doesn’t occur to me at first, but I come to realise it after a couple of hours spent at the back of their truck: I have been kidnapped by Sayeed Hossein, a terrible duo of Iranian hospitality-terrorists. They don’t allow me to pay for any food or drinks, they speak no English besides a string of menacing orders such as “Shut up! Sit down! Stand up!” and they stop every hour to rest and smoke hookah on the side of the highway.

Literally hijacked, I find myself in Kerman and finally in Sirjan after a twoday trip that should have taken only 10 hours. I’m nowhere close to Yazd, but that’s not important anymore – this is a unique opportunity to experience the working life of Iranian truck drivers. Moving north to south from Mashhad to Bandar Abbas on the Persian Gulf almost weekly, they are the self-employed lymph nodes that distribute goods across the barren depths of the Dasht-e Kavir and Dasht-e Lut to the deserted doorsteps of western Afghanistan.

Breakfast with truckers.

Back at his home in Sirjan – a collection of sun-scorched low buildings surrounded by grey sand and stones by the side of a highway – Hossein does everything he can to make me feel welcome. His wife and sisters, veiled and conservatively dressed even inside their home, spend their time between the kitchen and in front of the TV, shuffling dozens of local and American music channels and soap operas provided by a satellite receiver. “Sit down, home,” Hossein dictates. Once again, I am happy to obey the command of my “kidnapper” and let myself slide into the intimate comfort of his home at the edge of a sea of sand.

Half of the world

A few days later, as I stand in Imam Square, Esfahan, the vastness of the desert has transformed into a sublime array of architecture that encompasses a totally different pace of life. “Esfahān nesf-e jahān ast,” they say. Esfahan is half of the world.

Regardless, I feel like I’m in a new one: a planet dotted by marvellous fountains and patches of immaculate green grass where a multitude of chatty locals spend their time reading, playing cards, and eating dairy and baked delicacies out of their picnic baskets. A few horse-drawn carriages make the rounds of the square, their wooden wheels clattering against the stone pathways as they frame an exquisite compendium of lives young and old. The headscarves of most girls are slanted back, showing mounds of puffy hair on their foreheads; they are the indelible sign of a strong desire for a new cultural revolution.

And then, someone taps on my shoulder. “Excuse me sir, I am a young filmmaker and I’m collecting material for a documentary on modern youth and Islam. Would you mind giving me your take on religion in the West?” Thus, I find myself sitting under the entrance of the Jameh Abbasi Mosque, the camera of an alternative thinker shoved into my face, discussing the struggle between religion and modern society.

Activists, thinkers, culture jammers. The Iranian youth I meet is all this and more. Helped by a friend of a former university colleague in Malaysia, I get to experience the hospitality of a warm, modern Esfahani family. The mother asks me if I’d like to stay with them for a couple of months, passing her fingers through her freshly-permed hair. She’s finally able to express her feminine nature, albeit only inside of her home. On the same night, I meet a Georgian punk musician with tattoos covering his body from the back of his hands up to the base of his neck. “I love Esfahan, I want to live here,” he tells me as we shelter in the tranquillity of a mutual friend’s apartment. “It certainly mustn’t be easy in this country if one is a woman, but I love the forward-thinking attitude of the people here. It’s far better than in Tbilisi, trust me!”

I take his word for it, as the conversations between me and my hosts literally race through every aspect of contemporary society, politics and the arts. In the wee hours of the morning, I get taken out for a stroll in the moon-lit splendour of the Khaju Bridge. It is here that I feel grateful and fortunate for my decision to venture into the heart of Iran.

Hitchhiking helped me to get under the surface and “unveil” the Islamic republic. Under that black veil, I found the most charming, literate and hospitable people. It’s impossible to forget them.

Marco Ferrarese is a musician, author and travel writer. He has written about overland travel and extreme music in Asia for a variety of international publications, and blogs at www.monkeyrockworld.com. His first novel, Nazi Goreng, is available at bookstores. Follow him @monkeyrockworld.

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