I was in the subway, floating freely through the narrow corridors lined with nonsense posters on grey walls, when I first saw the fire. It came without warning, the flames licking upwards from nowhere, filling the small space with smoke instantly. I ran, in a panic, into it and not away. To my left I saw a stairway and climbed, my pulse racing, only to find an iron grate blocking my way. In vain I kicked at it, the smoke filling my lungs and choking away my breath.
In that instant of helplessness I awoke, gasping and kicking at the seat in front of me. I was on a bus, bound north through the desert towards Isfahan, the other passengers dead asleep. I felt a moment of pure vertigo, the unreality of the solid world hitting like a wave. Then it settled, and the mountains continued to slowly roll past the window. It was a nightmare as vivid as I've had in many years.
Half an hour later we stopped at a shack in the desert for a break. I smoked a cigarette, noting only to myself the pure irony. Still, the nightmare unnerved me deeply.
The sky was, as it always was, a strange pale grey color with only a tiny hint of blue - a metaphor so painfully obvious I hate to even mention it.
We had left earlier that day from Shiraz, a small, ancient city that had been everything I expected Iran to be. Green grass filled with the young and old, men and women, sprawled out, talking and laughing without fear. Our presence was greeted with a extraordinarily friendly kind of fascination and we wandered freely around the streets making friends with everyone in our path. We had walked through the majestic gate of Persepolis with it's iconic bearded sphinxes and stood below the cliffside tombs of the great kings Darius and Xerxes. I watched an old man worshipfully caress the tombstone of a poet.
It was all over too fast and I longed to stay in Shiraz badly. Unfortunately, things were a little more complicated.
Many of you reading this will be familiar with my personal history with this country. It's impossible to live in southern California and be unaware of the vast number of Persians that call it home. It is a mirror image, in many ways - from the long dusty desert highways to the sprawl of Tehran, a city that lives in the shadow of mountains that could be the San Gabriels through a zoom lens. I spent years with people important to me speaking of it daily with equal part reverence and disgust, love and hate and fear and nostalgia. It loomed like a storm cloud in my mind for so long that I knew I would do whatever it took to go.
My research led me to a travel agent and via email I worked out a timeline and an eye-watering cost - one thousand euro for 8 days. This would get me a visa and accommodations and some inter-city travel but most importantly it would pay for a guide that would be my constant companion. For every other country in the world, you can walk in, stay anywhere you like as long as your visa allows, and walk out. Americans are legally obligated to be lead around like lost puppies.
The reasons for this are best found elsewhere, but I will tell you that the American embassy in Tehran still stands untouched save the bold and colorful lettering on the front pronouncing "DEATH TO USA" and a whimsical rendering of the statue of liberty with a skull face. The building, by the way, is now known on maps as, seriously, "The Den of Espionage."
I boarded the plane in Istanbul without incident and a slept fitful couple of hours. We landed before the sun rose, and I groggily joined the "foreigner" line at passport control. With maybe ten people in line before me, the entire computer system went down. We spent the next three solid hours standing around staring at the walls before anyone heard the magical thump-thump that signified a blessing to enter the Islamic Republic.
Unsurprisingly, when I got to the front and presented my navy-blue passport to the man behind the window, he got a look of nervous irritation and called his boss over. They conferred for a while and then, taking my passport, led me away down a series of corridors and I was asked to sit and wait. As I sat and waited and tried to stay awake two armed policemen approached me and loudly demanded my passport. I tried to explain that another officer had taken it but they didn't speak enough English to understand. As panic began to set in, the first officer return and placated the other two. It was my first and only encounter with the police in Iran - I had been warned that getting through the airport would be the toughest part and so it proved.
The policeman led me again down a series of hallways into a small cubicle where I was fingerprinted using a shockingly awkward windows-based scanner and entered into a database which will undoubtedly come back to haunt me during world-war 3. With the sun having risen hours ago, I was turned loose into the airport where my guide waited with Allison, another American that had made the trip.
It wasn't until Isfahan that I started to grasp how deeply ran the contradictions at the heart of this country. Our guide, on the first day, had made it a point to tell us that he was not there to monitor us, which is one of those statements that you wouldn't need to make if it weren't at least in part false.
I was born with an innate distrust of authority, but generally trusted our guide, partially because he seemed like a nice guy around my age and partially because he was quite open about a number of shockingly personal things that I certainly can't repeat here. He told us without hesitation that he participated in the 2009 riots for fun and took us blithely past the intersection where a young woman was gunned down by a police sniper. He was easy-going in the extreme and largely apathetic about politics.
I still felt an agenda. It was the responsibility of our travel agent to submit an itinerary to the government in order to secure our visas. What they submitted was inexplicable to anyone - a brutal whirlwind through the massive capital city of Tehran and beautiful, friendly Shiraz then a leisurely 5 nights in Isfahan - a sleepy, conservative, religious town. I felt like we were being parked where we were least likely to get into trouble.
Desert faded gradually to suburbs, the mud huts along the lonely highways becoming bare concrete apartment buildings surrounded by the darting and weaving cars and motorbikes of a major middle-eastern city. Our hotel in Isfahan was tastefully decorated with neon lights and flashing strobes, with marble staircases and mirrors covering every flat surface. "The Godfather" theme played in the elevator every time you closed the door.
It was late in the day when we arrived, so our guide pointed us in the direction of the main square and let us wander. I walked around it and wasn't thrilled by the kitschy shops and chatty carpet salesman so I continued on, passing through busy streets with little sense of where I was going. It took three blocks to realize something had changed. Gone were the surprised smiles of passers-by, replaced by chilled expression and a deliberate avoidance of eye contact. It felt different somehow from the anonymity of a big city in a way I couldn't quite put my finger on.
I didn't intend to walk very far but, lost in my thoughts and the scene around, my feet carried me.
What I found knocked me over. A river runs through Isfahan, shallow and still. Fountains spray water high in the air and graceful, anachronistic arched bridges span the distance from shore to shore. Green parks border it, filled with the young and old. It was beautiful in the extreme but the serendipity of stumbling onto it took my breath away.
Walking across a bridge I paused in the middle to look out on the water and feel the breeze on my face.
On the other side I sat in a cafe and had my first in a long series of Iranian hamburgers, a thin layer of beef in a huge roll with pickles and ketchup. I would never have expected how much 'fast food' there is - fried chicken and pizza too. Sometimes it's a strange caricature of its American counterparts. Besides the endless supply of Kabob, beef and lamb mixed and grilled on skewers, such fast food is the staple of restaurants in Iran. Traditional food is cooked at home or eaten on special occasions only. I sampled precious little of it, and honestly - it was better in Los Angeles.
It soon grew dark and I got a cup of tea from a street vendor and sat in a park smoking, watching the sun go down. Young couples around me spoke in hushed tones and families spread blankets down and ate while the children played. It all seemed so happy and normal.
But, in my quiet corner of the park, something else was going on. My first clue should have been the group of young guys that sat down on the same step as me and started playing Queen songs on their cell phones. The group grew larger the darker it got, and finally a few of them approached me.
The first to speak was dressed all in black, with slicked down hair and thick layers of eyeliner. Behind him were two men that wouldn't look out of place in "The Village People." I realized with mild, amused shock that these were openly gay men. They introduced themselves politely and I greeted them, shook their hands.
"Are you married? Do you have a girlfriend?" the man in black asked me. I shook my head, and they glanced at each other.
"So, are you gay?"
I laughed and shook my head again. They laughed with me and gave me a chiding look.
"You know... you're in a park for gays."
I look around, and indeed the couples had all moved away after the sun went down. The families had moved to other patches of grass. I was surrounded by a dozen men, all chatting and laughing with each other in a way that seemed somewhat more than friendly.
"Sorry! I was just having a cup of tea and watching the sunset." They all smiled and turned away, no longer interested. I thought a moment and decided this was too interesting an opportunity to let go.
"You know," I offered, "everyone in America laughed when Ahmendinajad said, 'there are no gays in Iran.'"
They howled with laughter and the man in black replied, the humor gone from his voice, "he's so stupid. They would kill us for what we do, but we just want to be free."
I nodded and told him, "we all want you to be free, everyone in the world. You should be free to do what you want, with whoever you like. It's sad and ridiculous what the government says."
He smiled and thanked me, and then we fell silent. One of his friends came up behind him and looked at the conversation going on. His friend gave me an arched eyebrow and said to him in Farsi that his American friend is pretty cute, and then to me: "would you like to see me... later?"
I realized at that point that no one was interested in conversation and politely made my exit.
The next few days our guide led us from palace to mosque and back again. Photogenic though they were, it was repetitive and frustrating. Allison, was equally dissatisfied. Given the tremendous sum of money we paid to get here, it wasn't thrilling. Moreover, we found our frustration with Isfahan growing - people were callous and disinterested. The conservative, reserved nature of the city made real interaction difficult. We both agreed - we didn't come this far to see churches, we wanted to get to know this beautiful country and its people in a way deeper than a postcard.
But by night, we were free to roam, and I returned to the bridges and its parks. Carefully avoiding the area I had been before, I wandered and stuck up conversations with anyone bold enough to say hello. I spoke to two young women, both college students (one studying economics, the other microbiology) who were aghast when I told them where I was from.
"Why would you come here from California?" one gasped. "This country is a prison." She touched the black scarf on her head.
I was about to reply when her mother approached, cloaked head to toe in black. I tried to say hello and keep the conversation going, but the mother turned away and made it clear I should go.
Another night, in Khomeini Square, at the center of the city, I was adopted by an entire family that insisted on feeding me and talking to me as best they could manage well into the night. One father good naturedly, but seriously, offered me to marry his daughter, who looked barely a teenager. I politely declined but happily shared my pack of cigarettes with him and the other group of men who sat apart playing poker on the grass. I spoke at length with an older uncle of the family, who knew English well and wanted nothing more than to talk about how the USA and Iran should be making peace.
As every Iranian I know does, wearing their hearts on their sleeves, his nieces told me that the kind, friendly man's wife had been robbed in Tehran barely a month ago and shot dead in the street.
Every morning Allison and our guide and I would meet for breakfast and swap tales of who we had met and what we'd seen. And then, we would trudge off to photograph another bazaar and another bridge. Our frustration grew.
When our guide admitted to us openly that he had nothing left to show us in Isfahan and didn't know why we had been scheduled to stay here so long, I decided to pull rank. Diplomatically but firmly, I told our guide that we felt like our valuable time was being wasted and if there was nothing more to see we should leave.
An hour later we boarded a bus to Tehran.
Tehran warmed my city-boy heart. Our hotel, simple and clean, was located in an alley behind a tire shop. The neighborhood surrounding it was a collection of auto-parts stores, the streets dirty and littered with trash. It was a one-way street but that didn't really seem to be a rule anyone cared to follow, the motorbikes weaving in between rusty hatchbacks like insects.
I found it amusingly charming for a while, until the first time I had a cab try to drop me off in the middle of the night and the driver couldn't come close to finding it. Walking those streets very late was not something advisable.
Five or six blocks from the hotel would lead you to the main square of downtown. Like many middle eastern cities I would come to visit, this was a hub in geography only and functional rather than aesthetic. Cab drivers congregated there, drinking tea out of large thermoses in their trunks. Stores selling cheap electronics and knock-off DVDs surrounded it, and mysterious people stood in the street after dark selling, I'm guessing, drugs.
For reasons unfathomable, I once saw a chicken cross the road. No joke.
Khomeini square's redeeming quality was its large metro stop. The subway in Tehran is limited but modern and gorgeous, spotlessly clean with high ceilings and, in many places, chandeliers. The cars are recent, efficient and air-conditioned. I found it so curiously juxtaposed with the rest of the city, like Tehran modernizes from the inside-out. (In a few days I would figure out that it modernizes from the outside-in as well.)
Tehran was a world away from the city we left. We were ignored still, but not because of a conservative xenophobia, but because we blended into the vast melting pot of a modern capital. But not too much - people still did a double-take sometimes when we passed, and we were still aliens.
But it was a good thing again. People, especially women, were far from conservative in Tehran. On a bus, a pretty girl stared at me for the whole ride while gossiping and giggling with her friend. I smiled and waved, and my guide SMS'ed me from the next seat - "they're talking about you and wondering what foreign guys are like." Once, I was crossing the street and an entire carload of girls screamed at me. It wasn't bad for the ego.
I became more gun-shy about engaging men, though. One group of men were really keen on telling me about their meticulous workout routines and wanted to know my phone number. I gave it, and one of them texted me repeatedly late at night wanting to know what I was doing. But gaydar is impossible here, men's fashion is so flamboyant in contrast to the women - every couple looks like David Bowie married Emporer Palpatine.
But, even the palaces and mosques and bazaars were somehow more interesting. The last Shah's home, as opulent as all those of his predecessors, was a fascinating slice of history, a portrait of Iran at it's most cosmopolitan. His wife's art collection is still housed there, including a Warhol portrait of Mick Jagger. That it still stands, unmolested, is a powerful testament.
With some new confidence that I could have input into our plans, I pushed our guide to take us up into the mountains. We hiked up a trail filled with people, sitting among rocks and streams, laughing freely and reveling in nature, a world away from the streets below us. Every generation of Persians had climbed these mountains, and every future one would just the same. We sat in a cafe on platforms set inches above a flowing river and reflected on our journey, now in its final days.
That night I made a journey on my own, out to the far suburbs of Tehran, to meet a young English student who wanted to meet a foreign visitor and had invited me to her home. I was interested to speak at length with someone who lived the life of a young woman in this place, so I got on the train. This was not as simple a trip as I had expected, for two reasons. One, I couldn't pronounce the name of the station I wanted, as contained the throaty "guh" sound that my white-bread voice box can't produce. Secondly, it was rush hour, which in Tehran is apocalyptic. It took a full three hours.
We sat in a dimly lit park by her home and talked for several hours that night. We spoke of life and the future, of heartbreak and anger and hope for what would come. She told me of her fury and desperation to leave, to seek a faraway place where she could be free. Many years of toil lay ahead for her, hard work and a lot of luck, just to have what we took for granted every day. It made me angry. The sheer misogyny and oppression of robbing a human being their right to judge for themselves what is right.
I told her she would always have a friend to turn to if she needed one.
We took a drive with her family in her sister's tiny Renault, screeching tires the whole way, one of the most insane rides I've ever been on. Women, her sister explained, while nearly running a taxi off the road, have to be aggressive to be taken seriously. They took me to a huge mall filled with fancy stores, including a gigantic one that looked suspiciously like a Target. We ate pizza with beef and ketchup in the food court.
In life's fashion, it all ended in the least expected way - standing on a balcony very late that night smoking cigarettes one after another and watching the way a blinking red stoplight threw shadows across the trees.
We talked more, of poets and books and life and in a quiet moment I touched her arm, an innocent gesture that a moment later suddenly felt so intimate and dangerous. I thought of my dream, of choking and kicking at the walls.
I left then, my flight was in just a few hours and I would sleep not at all.
In my bones I felt the simultaneous desire to go and to stay, that I knew this place but understood it not at all. I found myself wracking my brain to think of how stay, or return, and in the very next thought relieved to be gone.
But the decision was made for me, long ago. In the quiet dark of the early morning I boarded a plane to Damascus.
See the rest of my photos from Iran on Picasa