The border was a fervent marketplace, with all the traits we had come to expect. Taxis awaited customers crossing on foot, men sat next to empty wheelbarrows ready to ferry goods across, and bystanders with stuffed leather jackets converted currencies with their backs to the border guards. Others still, stretched out their arms at every truck window, selling water and cigarettes.
At dawn, two trucks already separated us from the front of the cue. We had been cautioned – arriving just a few hours after the gates opened would imply a day of waiting behind exhaust pipes or, at times, the postponement of the crossing to the following day.
During the wait, torpor slowly gave way to anxiety. No matter how prepared we were, the possibility of not making it through still existed. A document could always be missing in the eyes of an unsympathetic officer.
When our turn arrived on the Azeri side, we were led to a hangar for an inspection. The border guards played our fears in their favour. In Ankur’s translation from Russian, their line was straightforward: ‘leave your alcohol with us, if we don’t find it, the Iranians will, and they will not like that’. As I left them a bottle of unfinished whiskey, they cheerfully repeated the same line, this time asking for gold instead. Noticing my stupefied expression, the youngest guard started repeating sternly the words ‘gold, gold, gold’ in English and directly facing me. None materialized from our car. Weeks later though, a whiskey bottle did. Caspar had carefully hid one in the boot as a precautionary measure, knowing that Ankur and I would have abandoned it all, leaving none for times of need.
Once through, we waited in no man’s land to be allowed into the Iranian checkpoint. Ayatollah Khomeini scrutinized newcomers from a poster hanging on a cement wall. His grave expression scared and excited me at the same time. Beneath him, two young soldiers guarded the entry. They had the complexions of adolescents, their army clothes showing no indication of their rank. After a while, they opened the gates and smiled as we passed by.
The checkpoint was a gigantic parking lot with buildings scattered throughout. Each building was pierced by rows of small windows staffed by clerks from the inside. Outside, dozens of men stood with no apparent sense of urgency. These latter men were the fixers, their sole purpose being that of making foreigners’ life easier, for a small fee. The crowd assigned one to us and, within minutes, he was sitting in our car, directing us around the parking lot, taking our documents to the small windows, and leaving us with trails of meaningless paper.
Once we had gathered all the necessary stamps, the inspection began. A guard dressed in civilian clothes and with a thick moustache came towards us. As I opened the boot, he quickly lifted his hand to point at the books we carried; an overly ambitious catalogue of tomes that had been amassing the dust of the same roads they described. He diligently looked at each one, quickly skimming through the pages from cover to cover, as if hoping to find forbidden leaflets hidden amongst the folds. To our surprise, he then ignored the rest of the car and welcomed us to Iran.
The sight of the open road ahead released me from all my fears. I self-congratulated myself for the speedy crossing. I daydreamed of returning home to patronize all fearmongers with a simple statement: “travel is easy, trust me”.
The fixer awaited us outside the gates for his compensation. I handed over my newly converted Iranian Rials with a smile, which he reciprocated with an even bigger one. Only a half-hour later I would realize the size of his smile had been directly proportional to my stupidity. His enthusiasm caused by the fact that I had mistakenly paid him ten times more than I had planned to. He took my poor currency conversion arithmetic as a generous tip, and quickly returned to his duties before I could change my mind.
As was typical on the road, contempt was soon overtaken by its half-sibling confusion. Signs were mostly written in Farsi, and few things could be bought with the comforting certainty of a fixed price.
At gas pumps, negotiation was a prerequisite for all exchanges. Fuel itself was often cheaper than water. But diesel fuel, on which our car run, was reserved to cardholding truck drivers. Throughout the country, we would have to rely on friendly truck drivers willing to lend us their fuel card.
Ankur would usually lead the negotiations. He seemed to treasure these small contests. I kept a distance. My poor stamina weakened his strategies.
It was during one of these negotiations, as I sat comfortably in the driver’s seat, that I decided to turn on my phone. I did not expect to have a functioning network coverage for the upcoming weeks so the previous evening I had sent out a number of reassuring messages to friends and family. And yet, within a minute my phone picked up a network, flooding the screen with messages. All from one person: my girlfriend. She was breaking up with me.
At first, I was angry. For she was not just breaking up with me, she was breaking what felt like an unwritten rule. Break ups should not happen via a text message. The messages seemed to steal the lyrics from a pop song, their banality felt unfair. I only saw the details in the act, forgetting the outcome.
I knew the phone was the Achilles heel of romanticism. The same romanticism that had feverishly nourished me thus far. I knew there would be no return to Ithaca. And days of hoping. Hoping to dock in the same waters one departs from. A hope, nothing more. Ulysses returned to his island in disguise, and Penelope had her suitors after all. But it was not Penelope’s faithfulness I desired. It was ignorance. The destination to be fixed in my mind, and my mind only. The present to speed through in front of my eyes. The road to be an escape, a postponement. Instead, I now fluctuated between here and there, between Ithaca and the seas.
For a while, I remained locked in thought. Ankur awaited in silence, letting the repetitiveness of the road to soothe me first. The Dire Straits played in the background, as they often did. We only had one CD, and it was theirs. We would often sing together. This time, I waited for the guitar to launch on one of its ending solos. The momentum to rise in a chase, blindfolding me. Its thrust leaving me to think the song could only just have started; its energy too strong to fade. Then suddenly, the notes would turn. And tricked, I would gasp for more.
We drove all day. The route bordered the Caspian Sea at first and, after a few hours, turned inland into the Elburz Mountains. Potent rivers cut through the valleys, leaving scars of mud across the wet grass.
I had read of these lush places. To me these were “the Valleys of the Assassins”, the title Freya Stark had given to a book on her travels in the region. The so-called assassins were the Nizari Ismailis, who run an amorphous state from their fortresses scattered in Iran and Syria. Between the 11th and 13th century, they terrorized the leaders of adjacent regions with their targeted killings and guerrilla tactics – all planned from unassailable strongholds perched on mountaintops.
On our way to Teheran, we were passing by what had been the capital of these strongholds: the Alamut or the Mountain of the Assassins. The subject of many legends handed down from the crusaders to modern orientalists. Famous amongst these is the one shared by Polo, who tells of the “old man of the mountain” or Ala’u-‘d-Din, a ruler of the Alamut. Ala’u-‘d-Din would attract young men to his stronghold; a paradise of food, women and hashish, from which some have controversially argued the name assassins originates. Once drugged, these men would be left to awaken outside the walls of this paradise they had become enamoured with. The price to pay to be allowed back in was steep but straightforward: one had to follow the assassination orders of Ala’u-‘d-Din.
While being alluring, these stories of esoteric recruitment strategies may fail to do justice to the true nature of the Nizaris Ismailis. According to historical evidence, Alamut was probably the home to a famous library, a hedonistic paradise of sorts.
Today, not much is left other than a few ruins and views spacious enough to fit both imagination and doubt. Thorny questions remain. Was the Alamut a symbolic or terrain paradise? Were its inhabitants assassins, librarians or both?