Back in Tehran
“God is the greatest (3 times). Glory to him who has subjected this (transport) to us and we could never have accomplished this (by ourselves) and to our lord surely we must return.” The plaque reads above gate 24, Tehran International airport. Prayer bellows from the speakers. Yet, people can’t be bothered. They shop, mill, eat and drink. I sit, sloth, tired, senses dulled, consciousness muted, glass-eyed, and heart a murmur; brain stew. Before me three 747s sit, the tips of their wings touch the snowcapped mountains in the distance, but we should rewind.
6:30pm – our group gathers in our Tehran hotel lobby. We are a menagerie of Brits, Aussies, Americans, Canadians, Norwegians, Swedes, Germans, French, and Vietnamese. We mill about with all the elation and trepidation of a freshman on Prom night. Our destination, the Armenian club, is the sole legal purveyor of alcohol in the whole of Iran, and they have food too…or something. We pack the bus, giddy with excitement. The whole lot has been dry for a week and the forbidden feels so good; it titillates the skin and heightens the senses.
As we arrive the copper colored gate is dark, heavy, iron laden. The paint chips lazily from its metal spires. We pass through greeting the rotund mustachioed guard who presides within a box-frame window. He grunts acceptingly to each of as we pass; a lazy and begrudging welcome if I’ve ever heard one. One of our members, Bobby, a thick accented New Yorker with neck tattoos and all the genteelness of a union boss, is of Arab descent. Our guard, now playing bouncer, tears into him with questions. The Armenian Club is strictly controlled, and Muslims are not allowed inside, Bobby has raised a flag. After some argument and the help of our local fixer we are in.
We line a long silk covered table with the elegance and subtleness of Donald Trump’s foyer. Vlad, our Ukrainian tour guide orders a smattering of appetizers for the table. Toasts are exchanged, memories recalled and affections voiced. It’s been an amazing week of discovery. There is a special place in all our hearts for our local guide, Akbar, the soft talking, kindly emotive, slipper clad prince of Shiraz.
From day one he has poured out his heart and shared his soul, coming to love each of us, we take the opportunity reciprocate our affections. Then, pleasantries dispatched with, we get to the important stuff, the booze, and MASSIVLEY overdid it.
Whisky on the rocks turns into a bottle, then two, then a third snuck into a Nalgene to go. Vodka shots follow shots of vodka and a glass of wine punctuates the proceedings. No one drinks water, no one cares.
Jonny sits like a Don at the table’s head. It’s his 30th birthday and he’s dressed for the part. He wears leather pants, laced up the side, a waffle knit sweater covered by a fur-collard puffy jacket with black silk sleeves. On his wrist two massive skull bracelets and on each hand a 2” round skull ring. At 11pm he leaves for the airport and we board the bus back to our hotel. Five of us have hatched a plan.
Now properly inebriated with a bottle of hooch to boot we plan to adjourn to a hookah bar. Exiting the bus we approach a taxi driver,
“Is there a hookah bar around?”
“Ahhh, hubble bubble, yes, but close at 12.” It’s 11:43.
“Another? far?” we ask drunkenly pointing into oblivion.
“No, everything close at 12 in Tehran”. We cannot be deterred. We have made up our little drunken minds and god damn it we are sticking to it. We have our friends stay at the hotel and a fellow American, Tommy and I, set out to wander the streets of Tehran looking for a Hookah to purchase.
We make it about ten blocks, checking in little corner store after little corner store. No luck. A young man in his early 30s sees us as he rides by on his motorcycle and pulls up. He asks where we are from and what we are doing, after much hand gesturing and a brotherly handshake he motions to hop on, and we do.
Now, three-up on a motorcycle, we slowly traverse the streets of Tehran, scanning each building for signs of life, finally coming across a small hookah shop. The owner is a mid-20s Iranian. Tall and built he pops the collar of his neon coral Polo as he talks fast and exuberantly.
We go for the whole lot, a small hookah, a brick of charcoal, a pack of mint shisha, and a lighter, we are good to go. Our new friend drives us back to our hotel as I navigate by aimlessly waving finger. We invite him to join in the festivities but he demurs.
We walk into the hotel, at this point most likely reeking of spirits, and ask if there is a smoking lounge. If not “perhaps a parking garage?” The bellman looks us up and down, politely nods and asks us to follow, then summarily walks us out the front porch and points us to the curb. Right.
At this point the flaw in our brilliant plan becomes obvious. Between swigs of scotch we realize that we have failed to acquire tin foil. Off one of us goes on the secret mission, returning minutes later with the magical metal leaf. Hours pass, the liquor dissipates and the shisha wanes.
4am, the bellman kindly returns to our stoop and suggests, quite insistently, that we come inside for the night. Sensible guy, unfortunately we are three sheets and sensibility is not a behavior we are prepared to reciprocate.
Back to the room we go, hookah in hand, booze now gone; three bottles, 3 shots, and a glass of wine deep in Iran.
415am. As we enter the room one intrepid soul mounts my bed and pulls the fire detector from the ceiling, he fails to unlock it with a quick turn and thus pulls the entire artifice down, its round body now dangling two feet from the ceiling, wires still connected. No worry, he ties a plastic bag around it and sets to lighting the charcoal with his lighter. When this fails he simply holds the lighter directly up to the shisha, attempting to toke the device like a 12” crack pipe. We are falling apart, time for bed. We exchange final goodbyes, emails, and promise to stay in touch. Our friends depart our room. Face to pillow.
I rise groggily catching my roommate out the corner of my eye. He is awake, backlight by the piercing glare of the sun he is typing on his computer and nursing a tremendous hangover. He looks over at me. Then, up to the fire detector hanging from the ceiling covered in plastic like some beleaguered Jelly Fish. “A bit dodgy ya?” Curious that he is up this early, my flight is at 11am. I have been told time and time again that I must leave at 7am and be at the airport 3 hours before the flight.
I roll over and grasp my phone, 940am. That can’t be right.
It is. I’ve slept through my alarm.
Frantically, I call the front desk to be connected to Akbar. He has checked out and left the hotel.
Our other guide? Gone as well.
I hug Francis goodbye, grab my bags and run downstairs. The receptionist calls the airport to let them know I’m coming as I hail a cab. Technically as an American I am not allowed to go to the airport alone, but caution be damned. A cab pulls up, a dark grey Saipa Saba. Its bumper is worn from years of tap-and-go parking, the inside a smoke laden aged-maroon. The driver is a man in his mid-50s. He has dark weathered skin, a five-o’clock shadow and a friendly presence. I ask the bellman to relay that my flight is in 1 hour and we must rush, he complies.
The driver obliges, grinning like a school boy as he bobs and weaves through traffic. He pops in a thumb drive and blares Adele, we harmonize together as we barrel through Tehran, mutual amused by the improbability of what’s occurring. Outside it rains, the sky dark and the roads wet. We are making it, its 10:22 and I can see the airport exit, I have a chance. We pull up, I thank him profusely, and shake his hand.
He pulls off his ring, a silver and turquoise ornament, and hands it to me, then insists that I take it as a parting gift to remember Iran. I try to say no but he insists. I have spent hours searching Bazaars for a turquoise ring and here it has presented itself to me. It feels almost scripted.
Only in Iran I think. All at once this stranger, this cab driver, this middle age man, comes to embody all that is Iranian, putting into perspective a week of experience in a single gesture; care, love, generosity, openness, acceptance, understanding, depth – Iranian traits all, and on display here. I try again to return it, it is too much, he has so little, but he insists. I give him a big hug and off I go.
I miss my flight, my first ever. As always someone is there to help. I make friends with the employees of Qeshm Air, they ask for selfies, we take loads. $125 later I’m on a direct flight to Istanbul, I actually arrive before my initial flight was scheduled to get in. The whole ordeal costs me about $160. I would have paid infinitely more for the experience.
Iran, just fantastic, you must go.