“Get off!” the man shouts, pulling on our car door handle. “Get off! Get off!” he yells continuously, the only English words in the stream of incomprehensible Farsi. “Get off!” he screams, grabbing a shotgun from the hands of a soldier standing next to him. “Get off!” his saliva spatters the side window of our homebulance. Only a thin sheet of glass separates us from the screamer whose knuckles turn white, clenching on the weapon.
Fifty kilometres beyond Isfahan, the oil leakage turns into an oil waterfall. We call a mechanic recommended by friends. His workshop is located at the outskirts of Tehran.
“Sure! No problem! I will have a look, but only tomorrow morning. Today is Friday, and the workshop is closed.”
Of course! Not only it is Friday today – Iranian “Sunday” – but also it is Friday the 13th.
The road from Isfahan to Tehran is fantastic. Smooth and wide, it’s asking push the pedal to the metal. If we did so, however, we could have gotten nowhere at all. The warm September sun begins to slide behind the horizon. We reach the garage at the outskirts of the Iranian capital long after the sunset.
We stop at the expressway side street, just opposite the workshop. Around us only truck dealers, mechanics and some kind of plant, which looks like a gravel pit. The industrial district, without a living soul around. We definitely won’t disturb anyone until tomorrow morning.
A few minutes later, two men show up at the open side doors of our homebulance. They speak in Farsi and direct their flashlight beams straight into our car and our faces. Handcuffs dangle from their belts. We slam the doors shut right in front of them.
Further conversation with strangers continues through the half-opened window of the front cabin and with the help of a translator – both men speak only in Farsi.
They ask for our documents. We refuse to give anything as we have no idea who they are. They say we cannot park here. Well, we didn’t know – there is no warning sign or anything like it – but no problem, we will drive off. We cannot leave now because the police are on the way. OK, we’ll wait and explain everything.
A moment later, two cars pull up – both unmarked. From one of them, a yelling man jumps out. His apparent goal is a full intimidation. Three more men appear behind his back – two in plain clothes and one in a military uniform with a shotgun in his hands. Only the soldier keeps his distance. “The Screamer”, straight away is trying to open our front door. Others try to get in the homebulance through the side and back doors, and even through the sunroof. When their efforts fail, “The Screamer” snatches the shotgun from the soldier. He approaches the car and yells at us to get off. We refuse and call the Polish embassy in Iran.
With the help of the local negotiator assigned by the embassy, we learn that the men belong to the Iranian military police. They came because we parked in a prohibited zone. They also have noticed a dashcam on our windshield, which instantly makes us spies. They want to see our documents and the interior of the homebulance. The dashcam – bought in India in case potential accidents – we give away without hesitation. The documents we do show, but only through the window, similarly to the homebulance interior. Nobody gets in, and we are not getting out, unless in the presence of the Polish embassy representative.
While “The Screamer” and the negotiator lead a phone scuffle over our situation, the rest of the men talk to us about the latest volleyball match between Poland and Iran. They ask how do we like their country and what adventures did we have so far; also they invite us to their home for dinner. Finally, the situation alleviates and a decision is made to escort us from the unfortunate place to the nearest gas station, where we will be able to park for the night. Once we confirm the said location with the officers, we set off …in an escort of three unmarked cars. Before we can finish the thought that it does not look like we were going to the gas station – the escort begins to slow down in front of the police headquarters. We deliberately pass it and stop only when one of the escort cars cuts in front of us. “The Screamer” jumps out of it. This time, however, we also start screaming, clearly deceived when the situation seemed to be resolved.
“We didn’t do anything wrong! Parking in the wrong place is not a reason to treat us like this! You have no reason to do so! Additionally, you are fooling us and lying straight into our faces! You were supposed to lead us to the gas station, and where did you take us? To the police station?!”
Although the gendarmes, men are, above all, Muslims and the legitimate label of the liar makes them abashed. Everyone but “The Screamer” that is. He still tries to find something on us. He even involves the police station commander, who just woken up from sleep, appears at our doors. The commander tries to prove that we do not have the correct documents for travelling around Iran by car. We do. Then, he tries to undermine the validity of our entry stamp, which is punched not in the passport, but on a separate e-visa sheet (in accordance to the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs regulations, so that the Iranian visa does not prevent visits to other countries). This attempt also fails. Finally resigned, the commander calls the traffic police, who have no idea why they are being called upon. “The Screamer” screams out the whole story again. To keep him happy, the traffic police check us in the Interpol database. In the meantime, our escorts disappear one by one, wishing us a good night and safe travels. The commander also disappears. Eventually also “The Screamer” himself, to whom the traffic police were unable to provide satisfactory results.
The whole commotion ends one minute after midnight – on September 14th, 2019.
The next day, when we tell the story to our Iranian friends, they are not surprised.
“Two months ago, near Tehran, they jailed some travellers and vloggers from Australia. The couple is in custody until now. According to official reports, they flew a drone over the capital, which is prohibited. According to the unofficial information – they parked in a no-parking zone. Because they are foreigners, the Iranian government will use them as a bargaining chip in the exchange of prisoners”, says Ali Reza, our Couch Surfing host.
Yes, we know the story of an Australian couple (who was released shortly after our departure from Iran). Just as we know the cases of other foreigners detained in Iran for potential espionage, including Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe – British-Iranian employee of the charity foundation; or Australian-British academician Kylie Moore-Gilbert. The Iranian political game that involves the detention of foreigners is escalating with the change of world stage politics concerning the country. The USA withdrawal from the “Iran nuclear deal” (JCPOA), the implementation of sanctions plunging Iranian economy (and finally the assassination of General Soleimani, which took place after our departure from Iran) are key factors that, according to world’s opinion, may contribute to an increase in the number of political arrests. In case of Poland, there was a February 2019 conference on building peace and security in the Middle East, organized in Warsaw, to which Iran – the main reason for the meeting – ostentatiously was not invited. With all these events fresh in mind, turning our homebulance into a fortress seemed like a logical decision. And the correct one, as it later turned out.
“You as foreigners, are lucky”, Ali Reza continues. “You have embassies and governments behind you who, if necessary, will do anything to get you out. We – Iranians – have no one. We feel as if we are hostages of our own government.”
We don’t have to search long to find echoes of Ali Reza’s words in Iran’s daily life. In the crowded Tehran metro, we meet a musician. In tune to his tambourine, he sings a satirical song full of allusions to the Iranian President Rouhani and the Supreme Leader – Ali Khamenei. People gathered in the wagon discreetly offer donations to the performer, for the smile he put on their faces. A smile devoided of gaiety.
“Although funny, it is not a joyful song”, one of our fellow passengers says to us. ”Under all the jokes lies the exact picture of the situation in our country: the Supreme Leader who pulls the strings of the puppet president; clerics who impose more and more rules and regulations on people, making us miserable. And Allah doesn’t want people to be miserable. He only wants our happiness. It is politics that distorted his real voice”, the fellow passenger pauses, lowering his head. ”And this musician is a courageous man”, continues the man after a moment, throwing a donation to the musician’s tambourine. “He knows perfectly well that at the next station they can wait for him and he may end up in prison for many years, but he sings anyway.”
At the bazaar in Isfahan, we meet an Iranian man, who speaks to us in fluent Polish.
“I heard you speak Polish. I have many friends from Lahestan (Poland). Beautiful people and a beautiful country. If I could, I would live there.” Mohsen invites us for tea to his small electronics store. “Just a few months ago, before the sanctions have been enforced, I had a larger place, but now I can’t afford it.”
“Yes, Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal and imposing sanctions is a real economic tragedy for Iran”, we comment.
“Hmmm,” Mohsen muses, “the sanctions are bad, but it wasn’t good before the sanctions either. Our bad economy, we owe to our government, which instead of improving the living conditions of Iranians, loads money into the armed forces. Iran is a wealthy country. We are sitting on oil fields like on a throne, but ordinary people do not receive the money from it. Our leaders are more worried about women not wearing chadors than about the bad condition of the citizens’ lives. And Trump? At least as president, he keeps his promises to the Americans. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want Iran to become a second Syria or Iraq, but only the external pressure can change our situation. Internally, we have no alternative to the rulers, and if the opposition appears, it is suppressed in the bud.”
Forough – a beautiful young Iranian miniature painter, whom we met in Shiraz – adds her complaints to the list.
“In Iran, there is a lack of freedom. I worry all the time if my headscarf properly covers my head because otherwise, the police can stop me. I can even be arrested for it. I am not able to get rid of these fears, even when I travel. I often go to Turkey – normally it’s hard to travel with an Iranian passport, but for Turkey I don’t need a visa. Even there, however, I feel uneasy when I’m without a headscarf. When I go out to a party, I constantly have an impression that the police will come and lock me up me for violating the Sharia law. Life in constant intimidation is not normal. It should not be. In Iran, unfortunately, it is.”
In travelling, Forough found her private rebellion. Many others whom we meet during the journey through Iran, take a bit different rebellious approach. Snowboarders on Mount Tochal show their attitude through hair dyed in a rainbow of bright colours, dreadlocks sticking out from under the helmets and earrings adorning the faces. Some go a risky step further.
In the cable car carrying us down from the slopes, we encounter a thirty-year-old man. We talk with him about his favourite film – the Polish “Cold War”, the band “Hey” – also Polish, about post-communist transformations in Poland and the transformation of the country after joining the European Union. A few minutes into the conversation, our fellow passenger pulls out a silver cigarette case with intricately rolled joints. The expression of amazement on our faces he comments:
“If they catch me, they catch me. Tough luck. Iranian leaders have already banned everything. You can’t even breathe freely. So if I’m going to do my time for something, at least I’ll do it for something that gives me pleasure.”
Our friends from Tehran, who organized a New Year’s Eve party for us, follow a similar principle. Instead of head scarfs, the ladies greet us in mini cocktail dresses and a beautiful make-up. Music roars from the loudspeakers, and instead of champagne, we toast the New Year with homemade, illegal (like any alcohol in Iran) raisin moonshine.
“Everything that happens here can get us in deep, deep trouble. Including detention”, says our hostess, a student renting the apartment in which we party. “A joint assembly of men and women, alcohol, music, short dresses – it all hurts clerics. Our joy hurts them. It bothers them that they cannot control us with the rules and orders of Sharia law, and their interpretation of religion. Our religion is good. Only the clerics transformed it into something that repels people. Because of this distortion, they also distort the image of our country. And this is what hurts me the most.”
What the government distorts is corrected by the Iranians themselves — their legendary hospitality above all. Everywhere we go, they welcome us with open arms – they feed us, invite to share their home and meal only because they are genuinely happy that someone is visiting their country. The country beautiful historically and culturally. With accidentally met people we picnic on the lawn in the middle of roundabouts, because Iranians love picnics. They love to be surrounded by nature and enjoy life, despite it being so hard on them. They always treat us like a family. They share their worries and joys with us. They take us under their wings, risking even their safety.
By chance, we get to the beautiful surroundings of allotment gardens. Behind the walls made of adobe [building material made of clay mixed with straw], there are olive and apple trees, and vineyards. A crystal-clear stream flows between the plots of land and brings salutary cold water in the September heat. Late in the evening, people from the neighbouring village show up offering us freshly cooked vegetable soup and a pile of bread. The next days bring more visits. Villagers come with fresh or boiled corn, with bunches of grapes and melons as big as the sun. They come with a smile and a sincerely overjoyed heart at the sight of guests. Sometimes they just glimpse at a homebulance, sometimes they sit with us and talk for hours. They come one by one or in whole groups, whole families. Sometimes they visit us several times a day – now and then with a new family member who cannot believe in our presence, who must see for himself and leave with the proof in the form of a selfie. In this distant country, they make us feel like at home.
And then, a black-clad gentleman appears. A walkie-talkie in his hand and a grimace of importance on his face. Without introducing himself, he asks for the documents and a reason for our stay. When we refuse to show our passports, he calls the police. Before the patrol car appears, the whole village is at our side. Grandmothers who fed us, the youth with whom we had long-hours discussions, housewives and their husbands who were sitting by the fire with us. When the policemen reach our campsite, they don’t know whether to check us or save the black-clad man from the looming lynch. Finally, they kindly ask us to leave the camp, and with the wishes of a peaceful onward journey, they give their numbers in case of any problems. When we reach Shiraz in the evening, a message awaits us in the mailbox:
“Dear guests Aleksandra and Andrzej, my friends and I have met with you many times over the last few days. We talked about many things – Homayoun Shajarian [classical Iranian musician], Keyhan Kalhor [composer and kamancheh musician], Polish volleyball, your trip and experiences in Iran. We spent unforgettable moments with you, and we would like to thank you for very personal discussions, for visiting our village and for letting us share our culture with you. At the same time, we sincerely apologize for the events of this morning and for having been mistreated. It is not the way the guest should be treated. I, my friends and our entire village are very sorry about this, and once again we sincerely apologize to you. We hope that despite everything you are happy with the visit, and we will see you here again. Please, do not judge us through the prism of one man who in no way represents our feelings or views. With warm greetings, Ali.”
No, we will not judge Iran through the prism of one man – neither “The Screamer” nor the black-clad man. We will not judge Iran based on a group of people holding power or through their intimidation and tyranny. We will not judge it through the prism of black propaganda flowing from the media. No. We will look deeply under the shell of political games. Where ordinary people live their beautiful lives. People wonderful in their hospitality and love of life, who enjoy it despite the restrictions and oppression they experience every day. People beautiful in their openness to others, friendly and affectionate. It is them, who are the real essence and the true face of Iran.