PART II: If you want the ultimate pleasure step on a landmine

After waiting for many hours in the long queue outside Turkish customs we crossed the snow and mud of the border. It was 2 in the morning when we finally got into our coach again, this time on Turkish soil. The moment I climbed back into the coach the difference was apparent. Despite the wet clothes, the muddy boots and the exhausted faces, it was obvious we had entered another land. Women were removing their headscarves and putting on make-up, and men were insisting the driver take them instantly to a supermarket to buy alcohol. Since everyone had had a really hard time at the border, the driver agreed to take us to a bar nearby so that we could wash and have coffee or a drink. Moreover, everyone in the bus insisted we celebrate the New Year as well as my escape in the nick of time.

It was the first time I had ever been inside a bar. Everyone ordered beer, bottles of vodka or whatever spirits they could get their hands on. They all insisted—since I no longer needed to do military service—I be allowed to drink a pint, or at least have a sip. And I did, excited at the thought of telling my friends that I had drunk beer!

But the party was soon over and the driver summoned us to the coach. It was time to go. Everyone got in with their bottles. And then the real party began. The driver took out an illegal cassette of Persian pop music and played it while the passengers drank and danced.

We were in the middle of nowhere, driving through the dark along the twisted, snow-covered mountain roads near Erzurum, close to Mount Ararat. We were all dancing and singing, happy to have left the land of restrictions. I, feeling the warmth of alcohol coursing through my veins for the very first time, had no idea I was drunk.

It was pitch black outside. There was a steep drop on the left and a wall of rock and snow on the right. The road was frozen. I didn’t care. For the first time in my life, I was not worried about a thing and I believed I had earned it. I simply sat there, soaking in the sight and sounds of song and dance and revelling in the kind of happiness that lasts for a brief time. Then, as if to show us once more that everything in life is temporary, it passes away, leaving behind traces of a pleasant memory, the hope to carry on and the promise that, some day, it will be back.

Our trip from Tehran to Istanbul took four days, most of it through Turkey. After the initial outburst of joy, most of the journey was dominated by the unbearable sounds of the Iranian passengers drinking day and night, singing and dancing, intoxicated with their new—and temporary—freedom. No matter how much I enjoyed this freedom, I resented being on that coach. The first day of celebration was exciting but soon I grew bored. I was curious to see everything I could in this new country, in the outside world; I thought it might be my last chance to see a place in the world other than my own . . . And Turkey was such a beautiful country. However, until we said our goodbyes at the Istanbul coach station and took a taxi to our hotel, there was no chance to discover any of it. But then, as soon as we had settled in our room, the mysterious and enchanting atmosphere of Istanbul beckoned me.

Istanbul is, in my opinion, not the most beautiful capital in the world but certainly the most exotic. As soon as you enter the city, you can feel and smell its unique quality. The only city in the world located on two different continents, Istanbul is, literally and virtually, the bridge between the East and the West, between Asia and Europe. And it has reconciled the paradoxical attributes of these two continents: the exotic, fairy-tale ambience full of modesty and Oriental warmth on the one hand, where any of the young lads passing by could be Aladdin with his magic lamp, and the modern, Western lifestyle on the other, with its aspiration of ‘progress’ for all. This grew even more obvious when you noticed that the young Aladdin was not clutching a magic lamp but a Walkman playing Michael Jackson or Madonna. Walking along the narrow Oriental-style alleys that open into modern highways creates a certain feeling in the soul that compels one never to forget Istanbul. The Western bars sit right beside traditional coffee houses, and modern skyscrapers beside the 1,500-year-old Hagia Sophia, a Byzantine church transformed into a mosque after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in the fifteenth century. The church-mosque itself shows how different identities can merge to create a new one, the very paradoxical identity of Istanbul. In ancient Greek, Istanbul means ‘the city’. And what an appropriate name. As if trying to mark the very essence of a utopia that no one has ever defined in the literature on the subject: the convergence of paradoxes.

I didn’t want to lose any time: I wanted to see everything while Mum and Dad debated my fate. I knew the outcome in advance and I didn’t want to waste any time. We went from street to street; we took a boat and crossed the famous Bosphorus Strait that marks the boundary between Asia and Europe and stepped into the Asian part of the city. We walked in the traditional Bazaar, where Dad bought the latest fashionable jeans for Golnar and me; we ate delicious kofta while Dad smoked the narguile; and we all listened to Turkish pop songs played on the latest stereo systems.

Before I knew it, our time was over and we were on the same coach, going back along the same road with the same travel companions. They were all astonished when they saw me on the bus and couldn’t believe that after all the stress and strain of getting me out of Iran I was on the way back. And voluntarily too.

‘Arash loves his country,’ Dad explained proudly ‘he has no reason to leave it. He wants to stay with his family.’

True, I loved my country but I had very good reasons for leaving it too. For one thing, I didn’t want to die or lose a leg running across a minefield, shouting ‘Allah-o Akbar’. Nor did I want to look over my shoulder after every two steps in case a Committee patrol appeared out of nowhere to seize me because of my hairstyle, my new jeans or the Michael Jackson’s Greatest Hits cassette. I had bought the cassette in Istanbul hoping to be able to smuggle it across the border and impress my friends back in Tehran by being the one who owned the only original Jacko tape.

The dancing and drinking resumed on the coach, although this time something was different. When we left Iran, the celebration had been by way of an explosion of several year’s suppressed need for fun, released in all too short a time. On the way back, the dances and the songs had a touch of sorrow and nostalgia. It was the dying breath of that freedom: glimpsed, enjoyed and now to be lost once more.

This time I wasn’t disgusted at all. My heart bled at the sight of those young boys and girls approaching what they called ‘the prison’ even as they sang songs about the beauties of their homeland. A woman, about 26 years old, with long black hair and beautiful, sad eyes, wearing a white T-shirt and tight jeans, stood in the middle of the bus and asked everyone to be silent for a moment. Then she spoke. ‘Listen, friends, I always dreamt of becoming a singer. I had joined the Opera of Tehran after graduating from high school when the Revolution happened and women were banned from singing. Now I’m only able to sing when I’m alone.’

She stopped to catch her breath. The whole bus was listening in silence.

‘Now that we are approaching the border,’ she continued after a slug from the bottle of vodka in her hand, ‘I’ve got the feeling that I will never have the chance to sing in public again. Will you be the only audience I will ever have? Will you let me imagine that this small coach on this slippery road is my stage and you are my public? Will you clap for me when I finish?’

No one spoke. Her romantic little speech had left everyone speechless. She took the silence as consent, gave the bottle to her friend, opened her arms and began to sing a song by Dariush, the famous Iranian singer.

Amidst all these alleys, connected to each other, Why is our old alley, the dead-end alley?

The entire coach burst into tears, not only because of the lyrics but also because of the enchanting and heavenly voice that suddenly filled the bus. The intense emotion of her performance and the tears running down her face created an effect that none of us would ever forget.

Amidst all these alleys, connected to each other, Our old alley is the dead-end alley.
The clay wall of a dried garden,
Full of memorial poems,
Stands between us and the great river,
Always flowing, like existence itself.

The sound of the river is always in our ears,
It is the lullaby for the sweet dreams of the children. But this alley, whatever it is, is the alley of our memories,
If it’s thirsty, if it’s dry, it is ours, it is our alley. We were born in this alley, we are spreading roots in this alley,
And someday, just like Grandpa, we will die in this alley.
But we are in love with the river as well,
We can’t wait behind the wall,
We have been thirsty all our lives,
We shouldn’t just sing the songs of regret,

Take my tired hand,
Let’s bring down the clay wall,
One day, some day, sooner or later,
Together we will reach the great river,
We will bathe our thirsty bodies
In the clear pure water of the river . . .

The coach fell silent, breaking into applause only when the tears had dried. The last few hours of the trip were spent in silence as everyone tried to finish the last drops of vodka before we arrived at the border.

That song enlightened me. I didn’t cry. I didn’t sob. While we were crossing the border, I was extremely worried about my Michael Jackson cassette. I had given it to the driver who had promised he’d smuggle it in for me. At the same time, my mind was elsewhere. I had just realized why Azadeh, Uncle Habib and Ahmadreza had died; why Hormoz was never going to see his friends again; why Reza Company and Hussein were in prison, why those young men volunteered to run over the mines; and why Dad had insisted I return to Iran. If everyone gave up, who would tear down the clay wall between the great river and us?

When I stepped over the border and re-entered Iran, I had already made up my mind. I would never think again about abandoning our little dead-end alley.