By the time Garmeh let us free, Caspar and Ankur had both recovered. They carried me to the backseat, where I laid down half-asleep - my eyes below the window’s line of sight. The route to Mashhad, in the Northeast of Iran, was our longest one-day drive. A record that allowed us to infringe our night-time driving ban. An unwritten rule motioned in favour of our families’ peace of mind, which we had become accustomed to disregard as exhaustion surpassed caution, prompting lie-ins and minimal route planning.
As we entered into Mashhad, the headlights slowly faded rendering us invisible on the dark motorway. The switch had melted, exhausted by the distance. Only the intermittent honking to signal our presence to neighbouring drivers revealed our furtive entrance into the city. The car, which by now had acquired humanlike status in our imaginations, had decided to act as the rule enforcer.
We stayed at Vali’s hostel, described by our guidebook as a poorly lit basement thoroughly covered in carpets and the cheapest place for foreigners, the latter being our attribute of choice. In the morning, Ankur embarked on a haggling contest with the hostel’s owner, a worthy challenger given his side job as a carpet merchant. Caspar and I headed into town greeted by the second call to prayer of the day – an unusual Hendrix-like concert of electric guitar sounds transpiring through a creaky megaphone. I followed him from one café to the other, often finding myself staring blankly at carrot juices, unable to converse, but sufficiently content of having moved pass a comatose state. Unwashed cucumbers had chastened all three of us, and finally I was getting close to paying the last share of the team’s dues.
A wide avenue studded with a composition of hotels, souvenir shops and eateries led to the city’s holy shrine. The buildings’ disorder was eclipsed by the even greater cacophony at street-level. There were faces and garments from across the Middle East; a diversity not solely a product of tourism and its transience, but also of the city’s long-standing status as a safe-haven for refugees; whether Kurds leaving Turkey in their numerous Diasporas, Turkmens escaping starvation under the Soviet Union, or more recently, Afghans leaving their war-torn country.
While rarely being on Westerners’ route, Mashhad is one of Islam’s major pilgrimage sites. Born as a caravan stop along the Silk Road, it became the home of an immense shrine honouring Imam Reza, the eighth Shia Imam, who died there during his travels in the 9th century. Through time, the city’s name evolved from Sanabad to Mashhad, which in Farsi translates as “the place of martyrdom”. Religion and the shrine, rather than trade and a bazaar, became the city’s centrepieces.
Trade though left its mark. The geographical advantage that had allowed for its occurrence, often turned into a misfortune as trade routes became the preferred path for invaders, leading to a cycle of ransack and prosperity common across the Silk Road. Fearless nomadic invaders adapted to the comforts of aging in a city, only to be supplanted by the empire-building ambitions of other nomads.
On the walk back to the hostel, a café caught my eye. It was plastered inside out with a laminate of fake wood. Outside, young men sipped espressos. Inside, the owner greeted us with a broad smile and a finger pointed towards a shelf filled with colourful coffee bags. Every detail seemed well studied: his satin waistcoat, the vintage iron prints decorating the walls. He diligently presented one coffee bag at the time, spelling out their labels: “Starbucks”, “Lavazza”, and “Ferrari”, amongst others. All equally foreign to an Iranian ear.
We saw it as a fine example of the Westernization that conservatives so despised. To our eyes, Iran was a constant conflict between two opposites: modernity and conservatism, secularism and religion. Addicted to the simple elegance of dichotomies, wherever we looked, we saw two colours.
And yet, that day we had both seen the downsides of our addiction. For a while, we had remained half-seated on a marble pediment facing the heavily gated entrance of the shrine. We observed the crowds of pilgrims, mesmerized. Hijabs worn with jeans alternated with burqas, men with thawbs, beards and skullcaps walked by others matching slim polos with aviator sunglasses. All levels of piousness were on display. It was a colourful spectacle revealing that Iran’s reality, like colour, lies on a spectrum.
Cornered between two Stans, I often felt the attraction of heading east towards Afghanistan, following the route taken by Byron in the early 1930s from Mashhad to Herat, and many other writers who had traced my dreams of Central Asia. Afghanistan felt like the ultimate test for explorers to prove their worthiness - walking a thin line between welcoming beauty and avoiding evil. A risk-reward trade-off I was unprepared to take.
Instead, our route went north into Turkmenistan - a country known to us only for its eccentricities. First amongst these was the requirement to wash our car before entering Ashgabat, the capital awaiting us just beyond the border. The local police deemed dirty cars out of place in a capital on the edge of a desert country. We were ready to abide – after all, obtaining a visa had involved swallowing our freedoms to accept a fixed and time-limited itinerary, in pre-paid hotels - all topped off by an on-board guide.
As we left Mashhad, a light layer of dust suffused the landscape’s colour. The wind forcing passers-by to squint with their arms protectively reaching out as shades of their eyes’ length. A couple on a motorbike struck me; their clothes flapping tensely, they drove at the rear of a truck, close enough to have no braking distance - which to them was close enough to take cover from dust’s path.
The open horizon was slowly punctured by mountains, as the road went from straight to windy, from sombre to lush, humid and finally wet. Within a few hours, we were up amongst the mountains in a patch of land, enclosed by cities’ names, yet itself nameless to us. We drove on through an ever-thickening fog, rummaging through our backpacks for layers of clothing that had laid untouched since the cold nights in Georgia.
The solitude along the road was in stark contrast with the bustle of Iran. We felt the absurdity of our presence in a place that otherwise seemed forgotten by the world. We were interrupting our surrounding’s routine, and that excited us. Even in the nothingness of nature, the mind appraises the sense of one’s own significance. Even where humans seem to have left no marks, the ego finds its place.