I am happy to finally leave the big noisy polluted capital of Iran. There are cars almost everywhere. Middle of the dessert is the next stop on my journey. Sleepy Iranian small town life. Waiting for the night train to Yazd is already a sleepy affair. Travelling through Iran is smooth and comfortable. The railway station in Tehran looks like an airport, and like everything else, the trains are spotlessly clean. When I board the train, there are sheets, warm blankets and pillows, bottles of mineral water and a free newspaper. It is my fault that I cannot read Farsi, and it seems the letters just grin and smile at me. Some look like a stretched out tongue making fun of the illiterate traveller. The conductor at least tries to speak English, and I should appreciate that in the middle of the night I get woken up, to have someone poke his head into my compartment and announced, that he does speak English. The conductor is happy, and the other passenger – a student from Yazd – luckily as tired and confused as I at 2 o´clock in the morning, to skip prolonged conversation and goes to sleep as well.
I just do not understand why Iranian railways schedules an overnight train to arrive at six o´clock in the morning, plus being fast and efficient, they are going so fast that the train arrives half an hour before schedule. Dreaming of a table-tennis match that goes to 100 points, I should be thankful, to be woken up from a really silly dream. Weeks with no alcohol has caused me to have a really weird in-sleep-entertainment program on my dreamchannels. But I was leading 98:3. Just about to win. Sort of confused I stagger out into the cold darkness at Yazd station. A much more awake taxi driver grabs me and drives me into town, drops me in front of the hotel, and rides off.
The hotel is closed. I ring the doorbell as the cold creeps up my legs. Nothing happens. I ring more times, until my hand gets so cold, that I rather put it in a pocket. After some more ringing with the other hand, still nothing happens. Iran not being a country of all-night cafés, I walk off to find one. Yazd is a little dessert town. It is true what they say about dessert nights; they are freezing cold. Another f-word comes to mind. It is January and the idea was to travel away from Europe into a warm climate. Still two more days to Pakistan. But right now, I stand shivering in the middle of Iran, seeing ice on the pavement, and I have got nowhere to go. Walking should keep me alive though.
After half an hour of walking around, I see a lit shop in the distance. Pizza houses, burger-shops, bakeries, everything promising looking, are all closed. Just a lit window signals some warmth. I walk in and ask some surprised-looking boys for chai. Hot toddy would have been even better, but this is Iran. I finished my own whisky on the train before the Iranian border, thus entering this no-alcohol state completely pissed. I developed a taste though for extra-sweet strong tea, though, travelling in wintertime in the Middle East.
No chai, the boys in the shop say. We cannot really establish why there is no chai, since nobody speaks any English. One boy points to a big pot that is boiling in the centre of the room, and makes sheep sounds. It is too early in the morning to figure out what he is trying to tell me. I worked five years in a backpacker’s hostel, and met so many people early in the morning who made strange sounds and spoke no English, to still be puzzled. I ignore it and point at a stack of Coke bottles. Understanding, one of the boys runs and gets me a Fanta.
I sit down with my drink and warm my cold hands on the warm bottle. I look around. The shop is made of only two tables, some plastic chairs, and greasy tiled walls. The centre of the room is a huge stove with a pot on it, the size a family could bathe in. I need and like the warmth of it too much, to wonder what´s cooking. I couldn´t ask anyway. I gave up learning essential question in Farsi when I realised I couldn´t understand the answer anyway.
A big round man who looks just like a butcher comes in, shouts at the boys, looks at me briefly, ignores me then and gets busy with the pot. He drags a whole sheep-head out of it, looks at it, and then with a splash drops it in again.
People get up from the other table, more come in from outside and all have bowls in their hands, and queue with a happy faces. I take my orange drink in both hands and try to make a happy face as well. It is half past six in the morning, in a small dessert town in Iran. I just fell out of a night-train. I am cold, tired and hungry. But I sincerely hope, they don´t offer me the sheep soup. People in Iran I have met so far, have been extremely polite, friendly and helpful. I had to eat many dry cookies and drink more tea in a day than I normally do in a week. Yes, they might just offer some of the sheep-head soup.
I look through the window. It is still dark. I mean, I can´t even go outside, for the freezing cold outside was the reason to come into this warm inside. It is warm in here for there is a huge pot full of sheep heads boiling – it must have been boiling all night, I guess – and more and more people come, happy to get their soup for breakfast.
While people look at me, and some smile, and I smile, nobody offers me any. But then, when everyone has got a bowl full, the butcher looks at me sort of questioningly. I smile, hold both hands around my Fanta, and try to look happy. Then he grabs an empty bowl. Quickly I finish my drink, get up, pay and leave. Today, that was my resolution on the way, I would treat myself with burgers and chips for breakfast. Not sheep-head soup.
At 7 o´clock, the hotel is still closed. At least the sun is rising. Sort of pretty, if it were not freezing cold. I walk around the small town that is still sleeping. A mosque is right next to the hotel. I wonder if I should go in. They do serve tea in mosques, I know, and surely welcome a freezing traveller. Despite all propaganda due to weird heads of state – why not put all of them in a big pot and boil them overnight? – muslims are a friendly helpful lot of people. For the traveller Islamic countries are a good place to be. The Koran instructs it´s followers to be welcoming to strangers and travellers. It was written by a nomad. I stand in front of a huge wooden door, framed by small tiles, all beautifully decorated with little ornaments. But also the mosque is closed. Everything is closed in this town, except for a butcher´s shop with a huge pot of funky smelling boiling sheep-heads.
Today is Friday, I remember. A holiday here, maybe that´s why everything is still shut down. But then, this being a holiday, shouldn´t there be a muezzin up on top of that mosque and call for prayer at sunrise? Those amps normally get the whole town awake. And I´d be happy if just the receptionist from the hotel next to the mosque would wake up. As it gets brighter, and the sun sneaks over the horizon, there is still no sight of a mosque-operator. He must have overslept. I would love to sleep by now, but I keep walking to stay alive, and look at doorbells. Maybe one says muezzin? If I can wake him up, he can switch on the mosque, and wake up the hotel. But no sign at any door says muezzin. This being an old town, there are not even doorbells, but door rappers. Always two on each door. One for women, one for men to knock. Even if a sign said the muezzin lives here, which one should I knock on? Using the female one has the effect that the woman of the house opens the door, without a veil, for she assumes a woman is standing outside the door. That was the logic of having two doorbells, I believe. But me, not knowing which one is which, could result in seeing the screaming wife of a muezzin, running from the looks of a unshaven male European backpacker on her doorstep. This in a small religious town, could be a problem worse than not finding the top mosquito. Having no clue, I wonder where the muezzin is? In bed with his wife? Is he allowed to be married? Maybe he is deep in prayer? Or maybe he is queuing to get sheep-head-soup?
As it gets brighter the first sunlight sets the town on fire. The old sand and clay buildings shine golden. It is a beautiful sight. There was a reason for coming here after all. The UNESCO-protected old town is built from mud and clay. Even the modern buildings blend in, the heights are kept at the low level of the ancient ones. After a week in huge noisy polluted Tehran, I really like this peaceful setting here. If only I cold get into a warm place, dump my backpack and rest a bit, I am sure in the hot dessert sun it will be fun strolling around here. Or, even better, to sit down in a Café with a big bubbling shisha, hot tea and watch people strolling past. With sunlight on my face, and cold in my limbs, I keep marching on though. On a street corner there is a sign that says “Yazd Water Museum”. I guess one can surely say, that one is in a dessert, when water is kept in a museum.
The only water I see now hangs down solid from a tab at the road-side. Cold in the dessert comes immediately when the sun goes down, like a New York cop, and shouts “freeze”. However with the sun up now, they don´t come and shout “disperse” at the water drops clinging together and crowding the exit of the tap in a solid icicle. While there is lots to see in this town, there is not a police station in sight, where I could misbehave and be locked up in a warm cell. So much for being in a country marked as a police-state.
At 8 o´clock the hotel door is open. I walk in, get a room from a guy who looks like he had a good night´s sleep. I do not bargain about the price, I am in no state to do that, but just crawl under the blanket, on the bed, next to the heater. Like all heaters I have seen so far in Iran, also this one is hot, and has no button to turn it down or off. Not that I want to. I start defrosting under the woollen duvet, and even feel warm. My fingers are sore from the warm blood suddenly circulating in the cold hull of my outer body. I feel drowsy and am about to resume my dream and make those last two points in the table tennis match, so that I can sleep peacefully.
Then, just as I am about to fall asleep, the muezzin starts chanting. Or singing? Praying? Shouting? What actually is it, that a muezzin does? He goes on muezzineering for a long time, that´s for sure. It is Friday. The holy day. I guess it goes on for longer then? Whatever it is he is doing. Half asleep and half awake, I wonder if he had the sheep head soup, and now full of strength and energy goes all day? Or because he overslept obviously, he now has to do an extra shift to ease his conscience. But then, the monotonous singing makes me sleepy again. I guess, I just am goddamn tired. I always wait for the word “akhbar” to come and hope it is finished then. But the way the word “akhbar” is pronounced, it doesn´t sound like God is great, I think in my last awake stage after this long morning. “Akhbar” sounds like someone is hugging a toilet, vomiting. Yes, the muezzin did have sheep-head-soup, is my last thought. I fall asleep.
Copyright © 2007 Manfred Elian