Cycling in Iran, summer 2017
I was sick of cycling in the endless, straight desert. The now-familiar ritual of crossing an international border seemed to herald a new beginning, a change of pace. It held promise.
I came into Sarakhs County from the north-east, crossing the border from Turkmenistan. The contrast against the post-Soviet countries in which I had spent the past three months was striking. The smell of burning two-stroke oil and the childish roars of the accompanying motorbikes filled the air, a sound that had been unfamiliar in the Central Asian republics. No longer were roadside food stalls lining the pavement cremating eternal skewers of shashlyk, now the cafe-owners were boiling rice and roasting spiced chicken indoors. Some of the changes I had expected – everywhere the Arab script; women in deep black full-body chador, owing to the deeper conservativism in the east of Iran – and yet I still found myself struck by these novelties.
That night, my first night cycling in Iran, I reached the county’s eponymous capital, not far from the Turkmen border. First nights can bring with them all sorts of questions and difficulties, and a solid roof over your head helps you to adjust, so I found a guesthouse in the city centre. About a month before my arrival in the country, the Iranian government had artificially devalued the rial to combat inflation, effectively halving the costs for an outsider. As a result, the guesthouse was so cheap that I felt some guilt simply handing my money over, but as I did so the proprietor flashed me a huge smile and took the cash with visible joy. I guess we had both won out.
I wandered the streets of Sarakhs looking for food, stopping at a simple cafe wedged between two larger buildings and ordering a meal at random from the menu. Three months of Central Asian flavours had descended into a homogenous mess, a sea of laghman atop which rode the endless aromas of dill and mutton fat. The Persian rice provided a welcome relief: the spices of the morgh polou were simple but provided the novelty I had desperately craved. The scents of roasted cumin and burning onion wafted throughout the cafe, and even in this unassuming eatery with its plastic chairs and disposable cutlery, the ritual of hospitality was evident and ubiquitous.
My second day cycling in Iran, I spent the night at the home of a middle-aged couple, around the age of my own parents. I had been cycling as the sky approached dusk, and saw a man tending to his small plot of land by the side of the road. His name was Bijan, and after greeting him, I asked if I could set up a tent in his yard. He had an initial wariness towards me, but over the course of an hour of attempted conversation in a broken Farsi-English, he had decided that I was trustworthy enough to invite into his house.
Inside I met Laleh, his English-speaking wife, who instantly greeted me with warmth and instinctively offered various plates of food. She had been a teacher before retirement and was forever pained by her country moving in such a radical direction during her lifetime. She apologised for her husband’s hesitant welcome, explaining that their political views could be problematic for them, and that suspicion in the face of the unknown was simply a necessary defence mechanism. Laleh yearned for a freer Iran, a pre-revolutionary Iran, an Iran where she could step outside without wearing a hijab if she so chose. Instead, she felt that she had no option but to build herself a fenced-in dream life in which she rarely left her home. Freedom for Laleh was now an idea that she manifested on her own terms – she experienced it through domestic life, through photography, through memory and through the international shows that all Iranians seem to watch on illegal satellite television.
Pre-revolutionary Iran was for Laleh the ideal time to be a secular woman, and the establishment of the Islamic Republic brought about swift changes to the country that challenged her professional conduct and broader lifestyle. The idea of having a Supreme Leader and a council of mujtahids to enact Islamic law ran counter to her deepest-held ideals, and the system lent itself to corruption and decisions that went against the broader will of the Iranian people. The gradual shift towards a conservative homeland led to her sense of defeat: if she could not leave their property without wearing a hijab, and could not teach freely and honestly, then she preferred to make the most of her life at home, waiting for another revolution or perhaps waiting for nothing at all.
Dinner was ghormeh sabzi and fesenjan, dishes which carried strong flavours of whole lime, pomegranate and walnuts, combinations that reflected the unique Persian character. While we ate, Laleh explained to me the personal significance that she had found in wildlife photography since retiring from teaching, seeing in it a means of being both creative and true to herself in her now-diminished world. After dinner, we toured the house, and she showed me her photographs of various animals taken around their property. Small, finch-like birds were perched on branches, an eagle caught mid-takeoff, the occasional photo of a small lizard or anthill. Laleh would spend hours wandering around their home, camera and tripod in hand, waiting to chance upon fauna of any kind, although birds seemed to have captured her interest above all.
By this time, the sun had already set. Unwilling to let me sleep in my tent, Laleh and Bijan accommodated me on the spare bed in their front room. I didn’t put up too much of a fight – between long summer days of cycling, a comfortable bed is hard to refuse.
On my third day of cycling in Iran, whilst along the National Highway 22, an off-white sedan from the 1980s pulled over around fifty metres ahead of me. The driver, alone in the vehicle, climbed out and hastily waved me down. He seemed in his late twenties, tall and thin, and had an air of permanent worry about him, as though every nearby movement could at any moment turn on him to spell disaster. Alongside this, he also had an air of kindness, and he greeted me with a smile.
“Hello,” I called out as I approached.
“Salam, friend. Esm-e Hashem,” There was a dumb pause during which we smiled at one another, wondering where this would lead.
“Chai?” This Hashem was motioning the action of drinking tea.
I accepted the offer. Hashem reached back into the car over the driver’s seat and took out a thermos and cup, and then fished around for a tea bag under the dash. Standing there watching him, I caught a glimpse of a Twinings Earl Grey label. It had been a long time since I had tasted Earl Grey, and I struggled to imagine the series of events that might have brought this teabag to the the far corners of Razavi Khorasan Province, only to provide relief for an Australian cycling in Iran. I tried to convey this to Hashem, but his English was almost as limited as my Farsi, and it was clear that he did not understand.
He poured himself a tea, and taught me the Farsi words be salamati, cheers.
“I live Mashhad,” Hashem grunted with a sugar cube held between his teeth, as we each sipped on our tea. The early afternoon sun was unforgiving in the cloudless sky.
“You go Mashhad, go my house. You can, baleh.”
Mashhad was about seventy kilometres from where we stood, and I expected to be there by day’s end. Creating a new contact on his phone, I gave Hashem the number of the Iranian sim card that I had bought two days prior in Sarakhs. He called it immediately.
“When you go Mashhad, telephone.”
I assured him that I would. The bergamot flavour was refreshing in the heat, and gave a welcome reminder of home in the Iranian desert. When we had finished our teas, Hashem took my empty cup and climbed back into the driver’s seat.
“Khodafez,” he called out. “You go Mashhad, telephone!”
Hashem pulled away, leaving behind a cloud of beige dust, a cloud comprised of the dirt and sand that forms a thin layer over all surfaces in the east of Iran.
That evening, I came into Mashhad from the south-east. It was a Saturday night, and the streets were full of young men and families, alive and active in the evening warmth. Cars and motorbikes crowded the streets of Iran’s second-largest city, and recklessly zigzagged in front of my bicycle, always threatening to send me careening into the deep gutter running beside the road. The sounds from every direction, car horns and engines and shouting, were amplified as I entered a tunnel leading to a huge underground roundabout, as the traffic bunched ever tighter. I stayed hard to the right as I entered, cycling almost on the kerb as vehicles passed within inches. To continue past the first exit, I stopped, waited for a break – or at least a thinning – of traffic, and pedaled hard. This was met with the piercing sound of car horns, which I had no choice but to ignore as I continued through the passage. At the second exit, I rose out of the roundabout tunnel to street level once again. Cycling in Iran was proving to provide some unexpected challenges. Pausing by the roadside, I turned to look behind me.
The centre of Mashhad is dominated by the Holy Shrine of Imam Reza, the entire complex of which sits above the huge roundabout. As I gazed over the shrine, my vision was filled with the light blues and golds of Islamic architecture, and countless arches, mosques and domes covered the skyline. Imam Reza is considered by the majority of Shia Muslims to be the eighth of twelve successors to the Prophet Muhammad. In the ninth century, he was appointed as the crown prince of the Abbasid Caliphate, whose rule stretched from the Pamir Mountains of Central Asia in the east to modern-day Algeria in the west. His time as prince was to be short-lived, however: he was poisoned shortly after receiving the title. The site of this poisoning was a village named Sanabad, which grew to become the city of Mashhad. As pilgrims came in increasing numbers to visit Imam Reza’s burial site, a wooden chest was built to cover his grave, around which was constructed a shrine that survived a series of sackings and grew to become one of the holiest sites for Shia Muslims.
With my legs planted either side of the bicycle, I opened my front-right pannier bag, took out my phone and dialled the first missed-call number.
“Hashem? It’s Cameron, the Australian with docharkhe,” I said, unnecessarily using the Farsi word for bicycle.
“Hello Cameron, you are Mashhad?” Hashem’s voice seemed a mixture of surprise and enthusiasm. “Where are you?”
“Holy Shrine,” I replied, looking around. “On Shirazi Street.”
Hashem intimated that he knew the location and would be there soon: “I see you with docharkhe, big cycle, no problem.” I clambered off the bike, happy to have some relief from cycling, and sat beside the road to wait.
Around twenty minutes later, the familiar weathered car came to a stop beside me and let out a series of beeps. Hashem climbed out and walked over to the pavement, offering a very brief handshake.
We walked together to the driver’s side door, wheeling the bicycle alongside. I climbed back onto the bike as Hashem sat himself behind the wheel. Without warning, he reached through the open window and took hold of my right handlebar. The car lurched into motion and I held tight, pedalling hard in an attempt to match the speed of the vehicle. We increased to twenty, thirty kilometres per hour as a line of cars gradually built up behind. My bicycle was heavy, laden with luggage, and with the constant sideways pull from Hashem it started to destabilise, wobbling from side to side. I cried out.
“Stop! No more, no!” I shouted. In the pressure of the moment, my mind went blank, and I could think of no other words to get my point across quickly.
Hashem had been focused on driving, unaware of what had been happening, and glanced to his left. Seeing the desperation on my face, he let go, and I regained control and drifted behind the car, now struggling to maintain speed as we rose up to an overpass. The other vehicles caught behind us had remained surprisingly silent, patiently following the duo of car and bicycle. We carried on in this way for some time, crossing the city at the pace of a runner, blue bike following white sedan.
Hashem’s family home was a simple beige apartment, although with a surprisingly large number of rooms. It was clearly built to accommodate the unpredictabilities of social life in Iran: the Persian family seems an ebbing, muddled idea, in which a distant aunt might drop round unannounced for chai, only to ultimately stay for months. His mother welcomed me inside, instantly and instinctively offering sweets and tea, and introduced me to her daughter and second son, along with their respective partners. True to form, it was difficult to distinguish between guests visiting for the evening and permanent residents. The apartment had plain furnishings: a plastic tablecloth lay over the small dining table in the combined living room and kitchen space, and Hashem’s bedroom comprised a single bed and a television sat atop a chest of drawers. Before long, a number of guests had come and gone, and their home never seemed to go long without activity of some sort.
I found out that Hashem was already in his thirties but unmarried, a relatively uncommon situation for a man living in this part of Iran. People here seek marriage early in life, and have children shortly thereafter. He was energetic, almost to the point of being unhinged, and lived his life very much day to day, jumping between odd jobs and rarely settling in one location for longer than a quarter of an hour. Now that he was home, he took a pocket Farsi-English dictionary from the shelf and held onto it for the duration of my stay. I found myself wondering how often the dictionary came in useful for him when there were no Australian cyclist visitors.
Late in the evening, Hashem and his mother took me to the rooftop of their building. An extended family sat there in the summer night-time air, some of whom I had met already. They all greeted me in turn, men and women alike, with a convincing enthusiasm. They were keen to practise the little English that they knew, and it was clear that I was quite a novelty for them. However, before long they were talking once again amongst themselves, and I was able to drift into the background. It was not the first time that this had happened to me – feeling myself becoming effectively ornamental in foreign surrounds – and I relaxed to a state of observing with interest the discussions, though without any understanding of what was being said.
These conversations between family members were lively and loud, and often sounded on the verge of breaking out into an argument. However, just as someone seemed on the cusp of exploding in rage, the other party would break out in a smile and laugh it off, and all was forgotten moments later. After a time, I positioned a cushion behind my head and lay back looking up at the night sky. The lights of Mashhad were creeping into my periphery, drowning out the stars, and the cooler night air was a welcome change from the daytime.
At one point, while watching the empty sky, I felt the conversation turn to me, and so I glanced over at Hashem. Sure enough, most of the family was looking in my direction.
“We go Holy Shrine?” Hashem suggested.
“Weren’t we there today?”
“Yes, but…” Hashem paused for a moment, and reached for his dictionary. He flicked through for a moment. “But, now we go inside mosque.”
I checked the time. It was almost midnight, which seemed a little late for a pilgrimage, but I was not particularly tired and thought it best to seize an opportunity when presented.
“Okay, why not?”
Hashem smiled and jumped up. In seconds, he was up and away, rushing down the apartment tower staircase and shouting khodafezes to his family, as I trailed behind. I couldn’t say exactly what Hashem had in mind when suggesting a visit to an enormous mosque complex in the middle of the night. But I also couldn’t deny that the unpredictabilities of life in Iran were starting to grow on me. It was proving to be a country that was nothing if not surprising.
Experiencing life as a passenger in Hashem’s car, I could see that his driving style matched his erratic personality. We weaved through the motorcycles and buses of Mashhad, with Hashem laying on the horn often. Before long the lights and colours of the city centre sat before us, and I was descending once again into the underground roundabout that sat beneath the Imam Reza Holy Shrine. Just before the first exit, we pulled off to one side into a covered parking area. After finding a parking space, we left the car behind and Hashem led me to an escalator. I had already noted on several occasions that the Iranian infrastructure could be surprisingly developed, and great care had been taken to keep this particular area clean and functional. We rode the escalator up to the grounds.
Most of the initial area around me was empty space. We rose up to a vast courtyard that was open on three sides, with the fourth closed in by a giant arch signalling the way towards the centre of the complex. Up close, the pale blue of Islam set against the constant glimmer of shining gold was even more striking. The entire area was lit by a series of floodlights, and in the mixture of brightness and warmth I lost my bearings of time, finding it almost hard to believe that it was late at night. Hashem and I crossed the courtyard and passed under the arch. I was still wearing my cycling shoes, and occasionally the recessed cleats would clunk against the tiled floor, resonating across the square and sounding like the talon of a high heel.
The arch led to another courtyard, this one fenced in by high walls, and I felt as though I were inside a great golden castle. The space was animated with a range of people: Islamic scholars discussing amongst themselves, picnicking families, and huge numbers of young men crossing from one place to another with intent. It was hard to differentiate the casual tourists from the pilgrims, and the pilgrims from the Mashhad locals who used the space for leisure. Hashem led me on, as we wandered through an endless series of courtyards until I lost count of the number of arches we had passed under. The entire complex was enormous and each space looked much like that last, making it easy to lose one’s bearings. As we walked, Hashem and I conversed as best as we could. Hashem was interested in Australian Muslims, and he seemed to find the idea almost humorous – in his mind, Australia was effectively England, and England was synonymous with Christianity. Like most locals that I would go on to meet whilst cycling in Iran, he was quite fond of the idea of the two religions coexisting, but he had never really witnessed it occurring on any sort of significant scale.
We finally came to an archway that, rather than backing on to another courtyard, led inside a building. This was the beginning of the shrine itself, the mausoleum that held the body of Imam Reza. Hashem was full of even more nervous energy than usual, unsure if he risked landing the both of us in trouble for taking a non-Muslim inside. However, after a brief conversation with one of the guards, we wandered through the men’s entrance. Often in Iran, the separation of men and women seems largely symbolic: the sexes are split at an entrance, only to come together again the moment they step inside. But at a holy site such as this, the division seemed to be taken more seriously, and the men and women were funnelled to different sides of the tomb itself.
Matching the complex outside, the interior was covered in reflective gold surfaces, which were now mixed in with pale greens, and everything shone brilliantly. People took up most of the floor space: scholars reciting to themselves from the Qur’an, people knelt on prayer rugs, small clusters of men having intense, quiet conversations. Hashem reached to his side, took a plastic bag from somewhere out of view, and passed it to me.
“Shoes,” he requested, and started removing his own.
I followed accordingly, unlacing my road-worn shoes and placing them inside the plastic bag. Even through my socks the floor was soft and surprisingly cool.
“Careful,” warned Hashem. “Your money. Bad men.” He mimicked the action of stealing my wallet. It seemed unlikely that someone would come to one of Shia Islam’s holiest sites with the intention of pickpocketing, but I thought it best to heed his advice all the same, keeping one hand hovering over my right pocket while I held my bag of shoes in the other.
We moved on through the mausoleum. The following room was denser still. No longer was there enough space to lay out a rug to perform prayers, and there was a general shuffle of activity towards the next room beyond; it clearly served as the focal point, drawing all bodies and attention towards. As I paid closer attention, I noticed a sound coming from this room ahead: the constant murmur of voices in discussion was gradually being replaced by a higher-pitched drone, with the occasional louder cry rising distinctly above the noise. Suddenly, Hashem took me by the hand, forcing me to abandon my wallet-guarding. He shot me a look, tilting his head towards the room in front, and then started pulling me through the crowd.
We were squeezing through the tight spaces between bodies, constantly bumping our bagged shoes against arms and thighs. One thought stayed in my mind: the density was somehow like a packed crowd in a small, sold-out club show, everyone facing the front with revery. And there we were, trying to muscle our way towards the stage. With every new movement, I felt that we had reached our limit and could not possibly push ahead further, but Hashem kept dragging me through until we passed under the final arch and into the room containing the tomb of Imam Reza.
Inside this new room, the noise became louder and more defined. Instead of a broad hum, the sound was now made of clear, individual voices crying out. Whether they were crying out in prayer, in anguish, in sadness, it was hard to say. The two of us made one final lunge towards the front of the crowd. From this vantage point, I could see the top half of the grill surrounding Imam Reza’s coffin about five metres away, and I took a moment to observe the crowd around me. Men were everywhere lunging towards the cage, arms outstretched in front of them as they clawed at the air. The truly dedicated had somehow forced their way to the front, and were touching the lattice, with some holding on and refusing to let go. Their faces were pained, contorted in a violent sadness unlike any I had seen before. On the far side of a fence, I could see the separated women dressed in chador grabbing at the opposite side of the tomb with the same intensity. Right next to me stood a man in long robes, with one hand against his face, crying at the top of his voice as his other hand clutched at his heart. It seemed that these people were reliving the funeral of their saint, more than a thousand years after his death.
The hysteria was discomfiting. I stood there with my mouth half open, barely knowing where to look. How does this situation exist, here in this corner of Iran? What led to this event? The man Imam Reza led a life so distant, so removed from the daily realities of an Iranian, and yet he is able to be the sole inspiration for this scene of devotion. Wherever I went, the Islam that I came across in Iran was moderate by nature. But still, the abstract ideas of a religion had led to a passion and an intensity that felt very real here in the Holy Shrine of Mashhad. I had never really witnessed a crossover between the solid and the intangible like this. There was an extremity in the reaction of these people that felt out of step with the reality of the rest of their world. Perhaps I was just naïve in underestimating the pull and sway of a community built on religious foundations.
Suddenly, a movement pulled me out of my stupor. Hashem had been holding on to my hand all this time, and as he pulled on it slightly we looked at each other for a moment. Then, without warning, he quickly pulled me back through the crowd again, back the way we had come. Once returned to the preceding room, still amongst a tight crowd, Hashem took out his phone and took a photograph of me in front of the now-distant tomb. This was just a tourist site in Mashhad like any other, after all.
Every city hides a myriad of events and experiences beneath its surface. The exterior of daily commotion and humdrum aids in giving an impression of the ordinary, even among a population such as Mashhad’s two and a half million. Yet the smallest of cities will still hide a world of extremity and fervour all of its own, where the tension underlying daily interaction boils over and is expressed in one way or another. When I was entering Mashhad, cycling past the street vendors and auto mechanics, as I rolled past the cool blue exterior of the Holy Shrine complex and its manicured courtyards visible to the passerby, I could not have guessed at the scene lying within. And so it is in any country, in any city, indeed in most of our interactions between individuals, as the comfortable normality of day-to-day life masks another world entirely beneath.
I looked over at Hashem in the driver’s seat as we drove back down Shirazi Street. He had a dumb smile on his face, and he had nothing out of the ordinary tonight. I struggled to find the right words to express my thoughts.
“Those people at Imam Reza’s tomb were very religious,” I tried. This was met with a confused look. Simplifying it further proved challenging.
“Holy Shrine, here. Very… Islam.”
“Yes, yes, in Iran, people are Muslim,” Hashem replied with a big smile, probably feeling pity for my ignorance. It was futile, there was no possible way to get my point across. Maybe, I thought, a scene like this will always be normal when you spend your life, from child to adult, in a location cut off from the rest of your country, cut off from the rest of the world, by a thousand kilometres of desert. When a trip to another city, another culture, some other contrasting context is a rare occurrence, you have no concept of how unique your own home might be. Maybe this is how culture is preserved. I wondered whether Hashem would ever have the opportunity in his life to view his home, his culture, or his religion from a point of objectivity. It was entirely possible that he never would. But at the end of the day, he was still the type of person to offer a thermos of tea to a stranger on a bicycle at the side of a desert road, and that surely counts for something.
Cycling in Iran Photogallery