This is the room that leads to Iran. It is oblong. A door at each end. Bare but for two portraits, one above each doorway. General Kemal Ataturk watches over the edge of his land from the western door. The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini from the east. I walk to what feels like the middle of the room and stand like a flamingo, balancing between countries. I fall back onto both feet when a group of women blows through Ataturk's door. They are ancient and wizened, tiny, all of them, and wrapped in white veils. They flutter around each other, then squat on the floor holding fistfuls of fabric under their chins. Their teeth act as an extra set of fingers, gripping and tugging their covering constantly, obsessively, as though they could work at it all day and never get it quite right. They are so skittish that the slightest thing - a door opening, someone walking too close to them, a question directed at them - sends them scurrying off in all directions. They shriek and scatter, veils flapping, feet shuffling, until they regroup. Gradually their pitch drops, the movement settles, and they return to quiet chatter and the business of covering themselves.
WHEN we bought our bus tickets in Istanbul, we were told the trip to Tehran cost twenty-five dollars and took twenty-four hours. We are a big meal at the nearest food stand and spent the last of our Turkish money on a bit of fruit and bread for the journey.
Eventually, somewhere in hour thirty, we asked our neighbour in the seats behind why we were still on the Anatolian Plain. He smiled and explained that twenty-four hours is the "poetic" time, the time it would take, say, a good car if it drove without stopping. Maybe a German car. But you see this is an Iranian bus, with many old parts and small speed, and we will stop for toilets and praying, and then there is the border, which can be very slow. So the real time is more like two or three nights.
Khosro befriended us the moment we got on the bus in Istanbul. "Excuse me," he said when he heard us speaking English. "Will you travel to Iran?" We nodded. He sat back and translated for his friend, Hossein. A few seconds later, Khosro sat forward again and poked his head over the tops of our seats. "Excuse me, your choice it is?"
We were not out of Istanbul's city limits before the first person walked to the front of the bus with a box of cookies and offered one to every passenger. A few hours later someone else offered dates, then sunflower seeds, then something that resembled candy floss. Khosro and Hossein passed bread, cheese, and vegetables up to us at regular intervals. When I thanked them for the eggplant caviar, which was delicious, they insisted that we take three cans. No, four. Here's another. The old women in front of us stuck their hands through the seats from time to time, reached for my hands and filled them with nuts. The couple across the aisle handed us a bottle of orange soda every time we looked in their direction.
We were also not out of Istanbul's city limits before the bus had its first of I'm not sure how many collapses. More than five. Each breakdown prompted men to get off the bus, gather around the engine with one hand up to their chin and look perplexed. Some prayed by the side of the road. I never saw anyone but the drivers do anything to the engine but stare.
The rest of us stood off to the side and got acquainted.
Khosro was in Istanbul to apply for a tourist visa to the United States. He took the bus from Tehran (poetic time: 24 hours; real time: 75 hours), spent two days making his visa request at the American Embassy in Istanbul, and is now on his way back to Tehran. His visa request was denied, but he plans to try again next year. Hossein came along to keep Khosro company. Did he enjoy Istanbul? Yes, very beautiful, though he only saw the Blue Mosque and the American Embassy.
Most of the other passengers had gone to Istanbul to apply for visas to Emrika as well. No one had been successful, but most were planning to try again next year. Everyone brought at least one friend or family member along for company; one man brought six of his cousins. There was a family on holiday, several people on religious pilgrimages, and a young couple returning from their honeymoon.
They were proud and nervous, this couple, awkward with each other, giddy at the idea of each other. He was older, much older, and tried to look confident. She was younger, young, and in awe of the world. Maybe fourteen. They kept to themselves during the trip, spent a lot of time smiling, and spoke to each other through quick, shy whispers. Occasionally touched hands in public. Prayed at every opportunity. She was the only woman on the bus in full hejab: a black floor-length coat and headscarf, folded tightly around the face, covered by a chador, the swath of black fabric draped over the head and arms. The older women wore veils, and these were in white, the colour of mourning. The younger women dressed in shirts and trousers, some in dresses, one in jeans. A handful wore headscarves.
Until we neared the border. When coats and scarves were pulled down from bags and the costuming began. The woman across the aisle yanked out a blue trenchcoat and donned it in the aisle, rolling her eyes as she did so. She threw on a purple scarf loosely; her teased hair held it several inches above her head.
The last stretch of Turkey was slow. A series of roadblocks had been set up by soldiers deployed in the country's eastern corner to fight the Kurdish insurrection. This was a war zone, we were told. So security had to be tight. And it was. So tight that the only way to squeeze between the tanks parked across the road was to wedge a few bills into the fist of the soldier who checked our passports. And then into the fist of the other soldier, and his friend, and the one who threatened to take us all off the bus and go through our bags one by one. An extra few for him. We were required to pass through eight of these "security checks" in the space of an hour. Some took cigarettes from passengers as they were checking them; some haggled directly with the driver. One group of soldiers dispensed with the ritual of looking at passports and simply boarded the bus saying they needed money for tea.
Forty unpoetic hours after leaving Istanbul, we reached the edge of Turkey.
ONE of our bus drivers appears with an armload of passports and exit papers. Passengers have been cleared and can proceed to Iranian Customs.
There is a scramble at the Khomeini door, where our busmates struggle with their luggage. Some have set up an assembly line to transport their wall of boxes. The man with six cousins has each of them dragging at least ten bags. I trade winks with a woman from the front of the bus, whose hejab consists of a kneelength crimson coat with bright blue buttons and a patterned scarf. ("She's a Tehrani," Khosro explains, "so her hejab is very, hm, soft.") I gather my things and follow -
Wait - I'm forgetting something.
Damn. I promised I wouldn't do that.
(The last time I travelled with someone, I completely forgot about him. We were in China, ate red bean pancakes for breakfast and walked to the train station together; that much I remember clearly. It was crowded, oh Mao, very crowded, and the train was delayed. It's the next bit that's fuzzy. I was in the middle of a good book - did he say something about going to find a toilet? - when there was an announcement and the train arrived at another platform. The crowd produced the standard hysteria required by such a decision: yelling, barking, tripping, kicking, squeezing, grunting, dodging, catapulting, etc. I joined the fray, was flung onto the train - book still in hand, mind still in book - squeezed onto a bench, read several chapters while eating boiled peanuts, warm beer, and a stale moon cake. Fell asleep. Awoke. Fluttered my eyes and brought the faces of the people around me into focus, looked around, gasped, drained my face of blood and cupped a hand over my mouth.
Only later did I learn that the train had not, in fact, arrived at a different platform. I had simply boarded the wrong train. To a destination six hundred miles off course, near the Laotian border.
I am quite determined not to do this again. For one thing, there are far fewer trains in Iran. For another, this is the only country in which I could not imagine travelling alone. Therefore the obvious destination for our honeymoon. Which this is.)
I step back from Khomeini's glare and retrace my steps, squeeze through a crowd of Afghanis, back across the point of balance, through the group of old women - scream skitter settle - and behind a pile of burlap sacks, where I left Ian sleeping an hour ago.
He looks content. Wears the beatific expression of someone resting in a bathtub. He has arranged the sacks and bags around him into a pillow and backrest. His own pack he cuddles like a teddy. I kneel beside him and touch his forehead - kissing in public isn't illegal on this side of the room, but best to get out of the habit - and he shudders awake. Bolts up in a panic and checks for his pack, his moneybelt, his glasses. Check, check, check. Relaxes. Notices me. Smiles.
"Time to go."
He bristles. Says "oh" in such a way that he looks like a fish, holding his mouth in an open pucker long after the sound has gone. I stick my finger into the o-shape until he takes a deep breath through his nostrils, and reinflate him so much that he jumps to his feet and stamps around a bit. Says "whoa" and "hokay" and "whoohoo" and swings his pack over his shoulder.
We wend back towards the eastern door, take an audibly deep breath and walk through.
So far Iran is a big, square concrete room with a lot of people in it. Unlike Turkey, the room I just left, people here are standing in lines. Twelve straightish lines that lead to twelve bearded men. Behind them is a row of curtains. Behind those, presumably, is the rest of the country.
We join a line with Khosro and Hossein and wait.
Four hours later our line has moved by fifteen lengths of my feet.
Four hours after that our line has moved by twenty-two and a half lengths of my feet.
Four hours after that our line has not moved at all, but we have eaten several handfuls of sunflower seeds, and some figs. Supplied by others in line.
Two hours after that we move so quickly that Ian and I are the next in line. The couple ahead of us is being asked to unpack every one of their eighteen bags. Clothes, linens, pillows (seams ripped, insides checked), canned goods, packaged foods, toys (taken out of boxes and inspected, one stuffed bear ripped open and searched), towels, breakable items (protective paper unwrapped and stacked in a heap to the side), reams of fabric, cassettes (confiscated), children's books (one with illustrations of a blonde-haired mother in a sleeveless dress, confiscated), cooking utensils, books (perused and approved). The couple is instructed to move to the next table to repack. Their belongings, once neatly folded and wrapped, are now littered across the inspection table and spilling onto the floor.
Without a word or a huff or a protest of any kind, the couple gathers their things by the armful and transfers them to the next table. The inspector stands back. Watches. Points to a few items that have fallen on the floor by his feet. Looks away as the woman crawls under the table to retrieve them. Stares into space and tells them to hurry it up. Digs something out of his ear and flicks it onto the floor.
Once the table is cleared, the inspector motions for our bags. He asks Ian to unzip his pack and kneads through a handful of clothes, then pushes the bag away. Reaches for my bag and does the same thing. Flips through my journal as though he were fanning himself, replaces it, pushes my bag away. We zip up our bags and move towards the curtained section of the room.
"Your passports are very golden," laughs Hossein as he places his bags on the table and begins unpacking things piece by piece.
Ian and I are guided in two different directions. He to the curtains on the left, I to the curtains on the right. Behind my set are three women in full hejab and full moustaches. Like none I have seen on any woman before. Not just a dark fringe above the mouth. The sort of moustache that would make any adolescent boy jealous. None of the women smiles. They sit slumped in their chairs, their eyes drooping down into their cheeks. The most hirsute woman beckons me and asks me to raise my arms, which allows me to survey her at close range. And she me. She does a cursory body check - shoulders, back, abdomen, legs - and asks me to explain the lump on my stomach. I unbutton my coat and shirt and show her my moneybelt. Fine, she nods and pushes me away. The three women continue their conversation. I pass through the final set of curtains and move outside.
It is a parking lot full of buses and hundreds of people either preparing for or recovering from the border. I weave around vehicles in various stages of packing and unpacking - goods spilling from every orifice - but do not see our bus. Instead, I find a shack with a few tables and a samovar. I peer into the place and trade smiles with a roly-poly Mongolian-looking man in a fur hat and padded coat. He points to his thermos of tea and offers his cup. I accept. After wiping the stool next to him with his sleeve, he tosses his remaining tea onto the floor, refills the cup and passes it to me. Very smilingly.
After forty hours on the bus and fourteen on the border, this tea feels like a jacuzzi. I close my eyes and sigh. The man laughs. Pulls some leather-stale bread from a bag in his coat and rips several strips off for me. I dunk and devour, then thank him in Chinese, Russian, Farsi, Arabic, and English. I can't tell if any or all have been understood. He smiles and nods constantly whether I am speaking or not. Halfway through my second cup of tea, someone leans through the doorway and shouts. My friend sits up and responds, apologizes to me - his bus is leaving - and packs up his thermos. He leaves me with a handful of bread strips and winks with both eyes.
In his place sits a young man who offers tea he has bought at the counter. I thank him and accept. He is from Lahore. Do I know it? Well I am welcome to visit. Very beautiful. And me? Canada?! He has a brother in Canada. Maybe I know him.
"Umhm ..." I sip my tea and accept a cookie.
"He lives in city Montreal. He is artist. Painter."
"Umhm ..." I take another sip.
The man fumbles through his belongings and brings out his address book. Flip flip flip. Points to his brother's name.
"Umhm ..." I take another sip of tea and glance at the book, take a deep breath through my nostrils then cough hack choke gasp cough cough choke and wipe my mouth.
He's the ex-boyfriend of an old roommate.
"He is a friend," I tell the man, who flutters his eyelashes in disbelief. Points to the name and address again to be sure I haven't made a mistake. "I lived on the same street," I tell him until he believes me. The man shakes his head and flutters some more, then leans back and explains to the men standing behind him. They come over to inspect the address book and to have the coincidence explained three or four more times. The shack owner offers us complimentary tea, but before we take our first sip, the man - Jamal, pleased to meet you - is called away by a friend. His bus is leaving too. Jamal rips a page from his address book and gives me his name and address. Invites me again to Lahore. I thank him, but tell him not to expect me soon. I write my name and address next to his brother's, turn to give the book back and see Jamal's eyes full of tears.
"My brother is happy?"
I look at Jamal and think back to the last time I saw his brother. Cold, depressed, and lonely. Chain-smoking in his tiny Montreal apartment, sipping tea and staring into space. Telling me how tired he is. Tired of living in such a violent country. "Canada," he told me one day through squinted eyes and smoke rings, "is full of violent cowards. People believe they are gentle, but they attack in quiet ways. They use their intellect, their knowledge, always trying to prove they are smarter, more important. The man with no ego is the gentle man. Canada is a land of civilized barbarians."
Jamal looks pained and waits for a response.
His bus honks. It is stuffed full of people and belongings, the goods tied down to the roof increasing the height of the bus by half again. Jamal puts a hand over his heart, bows his head, then runs onto the bus. He turns around in the doorway and waves, leaving a smear of white in the air where he has left me his smile.
I WANDER back to the main building and catch sight of Ian pacing outside the women's exit. Both arms fly up like a puppet when he sees me. I approach him with all sorts of "you'll never guess who I just ran into" enthusiasm, but he cuts me off with all sorts of "where in the hell have you been" rancour. He is too upset to find my story the least bit interesting. I am too excited by my story to apologize convincingly. I agree to be more considerate in future - ahem - and he agrees to grant me a one-hour window of spontaneous exploration before getting worried.
Before we have made up completely, the sound of our English conversation has attracted the attention of two black marketeers, who offer to exchange our dollars. Ian and I lower the volume of our bickering and go in search of our bus.
It looks like a dinosaur that has just had its guts ripped out. Once the mass of boxes and bags and sacks and containers strewn across the ground are piled into and onto our bus, it will resemble the one Jamal rode away in. Until then, it is an armoured beast with open wounds. Khosro and Hossein seem to think we should be on the road again very soon. Poetically speaking.
The money-changers have followed us and continue their offers. "It is a good price," Khosro assures us. About eight times the government rate. We make the exchange just as our bus is leaving. Three and a half hours later. Just before dark.
The bus moves slowly onto the road. I hear a clinking sound and watch the man beside me pull airplane-size bottles of Johnnie Walker from his socks and stuff them into his bag. "Oh my G--" Ian gasps. The man looks up and smiles, shrugs sheepishly and continues. He transfers more bottles from various pockets and stows the bag under his seat.
Not a mile along, we pull into a cordoned area and stop. A man boards the bus and asks people to get up from their seats two at a time. He checks passports, then all seats and curtains - finds nothing - and debarks. We wait. A second man appears and the bus turns silent. So silent that I feel the air tear and crinkle as people breathe. This man is dressed entirely in black, wears very short hair and a thick beard. He stands at the end of the aisle and scans the bus, gouging into people's faces with a look of intense suspicion. He walks slowly, up and down the aisle, stopping periodically and erratically to ask questions or to see identity papers. He speaks in a whisper. He walks past our neighbour across the aisle, then takes steps backwards until he is beside him. Leans down and whispers into his ear. Our neighbour looks straight ahead and replies in a whisper. The bearded man asks a number of whispered questions. Our neighbour fixes his gaze ahead and whispers his answers. The bearded man straightens up and moves on. He looks Ian up and down and asks for our passports. Squints as he compares our pictures with our faces, then walks away with our passports and asks something of the driver. Again, whispered. The driver follows him back to our seats and points to our luggage. The man surveys our packs and returns our passports. Follows the driver back down the aisle and leaves the bus. The driver closes the door and pulls back onto the road. The air shatters into a thousand conversations.
Khosro's face pops up behind our headrests. "Welcome to Iran," he laughs. "Do not be scared from these men. They need for respecting, so we do not speak. It causes that think they are important."
A few miles into the country, we stop at a roadside restaurant. Khosro and Hossein go back into the kitchen to make sure it isn't poisonous - I think it's a translation problem - and order food enough for all of us. Glasses of yogurt, plates of kebab, bread and tomatoes. Four other passengers join our table: a couple from Kurdistan (who join us only after I invite them and then insist), and our bus drivers.
We have two drivers. While one drives, the other stretches out at the back of the bus surrounded by pillows and tasselled curtains. (The first time I saw the relief driver lying in the resting place, hands crossed over his stomach, I thought we were transporting a dead king.) When he is rested and feels like driving again, he walks to the front of the bus. The two men wind their limbs around and through the other's, gradually passing off the pedals and the steering wheel. While the bus is in motion.
The couple are two of the jolliest people I've ever met. People who, even if they are looking out the window saying nothing, are smiling. Nasreen sits beside me with her three-week-old baby. The infant is swaddled into being an inanimate object and has not made a sound since we left Istanbul. It is buried under Nasreen's layers and layers of colour. Crimson and sapphire skirts, scarlet and ruby and indigo scarves, a ruffled plum blouse and a black shawl. Her skin is coarse and fair. She laughs like a crow. Since meeting me a couple of days ago, she has taken to holding my hand at every opportunity, unless I say something she finds funny, in which case she swats me on the arm. Her husband has red hair, wears loose brown woolen trousers and a wide sash. His eyes are iridescent green - like fish scales - and disappear completely when he smiles.
Nasreen has still not recovered from learning that Ian and I are taking our honeymoon in Iran. The first time it was translated for her, she squinted her entire face and said ehhh? After clarification and confirmation from us, she doubled over laughing and announced the news to everyone within earshot. Now, every time there is a lull in conversation, she says honeymoooon and pinches my cheeks.
When the food arrives, half of it is doled out for Ian and me, the other half among the remaining six people. Protest is useless; we are the only ones at the table dissatisfied with the arrangement. Between bites, Khosro and Hossein are trying to convince us to come with them all the way to Tehran, but we explain our plans to get off in a town called Tabriz, in Azerbaijan province. Where we have friends, I tell them. Because I don't know the Farsi word for acquaintances.
When the bus moves back onto the road, the place breaks into song and dance. People are clapping, snapping their fingers, singing and dancing in the aisles. An old man who has been asleep for most of the trip is twisting up and down the aisle to the cheers of everyone on the bus. Nasreen giggles and ululates until the roof vibrates. Her husband gets up and dances briefly, but is quickly embarrassed and collapses his head into Nasreen's shoulder. The fiesta goes on for at least an hour, when we are pulled over again by security.
This time a simple passport/identity paper check results in Nasreen's husband being taken off the bus for questioning. "He is Kurd," explains Khosro. "It is hard for them."
One of the drivers stands up at the front of the bus and makes an announcement. Khosro strains forward to hear. The driver speaks for ten or fifteen minutes, lays a hand over his heart and returns to his seat. Khosro translates:
"He told that in this time, he told us story from his hadj. It is his travelling to Mecca, important travelling for Muslim peoples. It was very important travelling for him, time to meet many Muslim people from all part world. Everyone think like brother and share. Time for seeing power of God a lot and thinking very close about God. He told about many people, brothers from Syria and Iraq and many other place. All brother in God, all -"
Nasreen's husband climbs back on the bus. Behind him is a soldier, who waits at the front while Nasreen is woken and told that they must take their things and get off. She is exhausted but acquiescent. She bundles her baby in her arms, gathers her skirts and shawls, offers tired goodbyes to the people around her and follows her husband off the bus.
When we pull back onto the road, the bus is quiet. People around us speak softly. Phrases full of tsks and raised eyebrows.
"What will happen to them?"
Khosro and Hossein discuss it among themselves - grumbles and lip-shrugs - then look at us with apologetic smiles. "Maybe for more questions," says Khosro. "Maybe it is for war in Turkey. Kurd make big problem. Maybe soldier are afraid from these problems."
He leans back in his seat, grumbles a bit more with Hossein, leans forward again. "Excuse me. In this country has many problem. Please try enjoy. Most important you enjoy our country."
He leans back in his seat, grumbles a bit more with Hossein, leans forward again. "Excuse me. Please. Most important you enjoy your honeymoon."
I have come to this place because it frightens me; because it frightens the world. And because I don't believe in fear. In giving it such power.
I am a sculptor. I walk to stone and sit with it. Walk around it and touch it, stand back from it, stare at it with my eyes closed until I see its spirit. Trapped in petrified form. Then I release its image.
I have come to release spirit from stone.