Azerbaijan/Iran 2008: Next time around, you better lose!

It was slowly getting cold and the thrill of the journey's initial, autumn sunlit hours had receded into oblivion. At the Wuppertal gas station, the October evening didn't bode for one of prismatic luster to any great extent. Traffic was anything but dense, yet there was still a lengthy road to travel. The only cars tanking up at this point were ones with local license plates, probably on their way home. The station was sort of nondescript – small, essentially hidden despite being just next to the highway. No restaurant or motel. Just pumps, bathrooms, snacks and soft drinks; a momentary stop of necessity, to keep from running out of gas. I'd been in the blatantly possessive embrace of hopelessness for quite a while by the time the clock's hands were aligned on the twelve, and the temperature was approaching zero. 
Following a period of complete inactivity that stretched on for an eternity a small, dilapidated Ford Fiesta with Berlin license plates pulled up. Its driver, a young man of dark complexion, filled the car up quickly and drank a coffee. “No problem.” - he replied in English, when asked if he would take me to Liège. “I'm from Persia.” - he explained, upon seeing question marks supplanting pupils within my eyes, to which these were involuntarily replaced by myriad images, in a lightning flash of associations. Iran... feral hordes, hateful foam oozing from their mouths at the mere thought of the West, which had turned away from God and the Truth, never to set a foot onto the path of righteousness... 
As we drove off into the night, I noticed a second man asleep on the back seat. The colored dashboard lights inside the car, combined with the highway's reflective lane markers passing steadily beneath its wheels, had a hypnotizing effect. This older man with a rugged gray beard, dressed in a sheep wool sweater, was the driver's father who had left Iran for the first time in his life to visit his son. They were traveling by night because the young man wanted him to see Paris at dawn.
We parted in Belgium. A quick coffee at the gas station snack bar, several minutes loitering amidst the cars being refueled, and less than an hour later I had walked to the hotel in Brussels, at the address I'd been given, where I recompensed my all-night's alertness with nearly a full day of sleep. The next morning after breakfast, I set out into the city to take a look at the center of Europe's capital, and finally assess this Grand Alliance with the Union that we'd been incorporated into with my own eyes... 
A summary overview of the central train station was all it took to arouse serious concern on my part. 
The club was packed to the rafters. The tightly placed tables and swarms of people crowding the bar boosted the level of creative adrenaline. I hadn't spoken French for over ten years, so I stuck with English for the discourse - just enough of it to avoid projecting complete nonchalance. The audience's laughter assured me they'd be able to handle the sung texts as well. My first standing ovation felt really good. After the performance, I decided I'd return to Poland by the same, time-tested method. The club gig in Brussels gradually receded from memory, though I continued to wait for the monetary component of the contest victory that, while bringing me financial gain and critical plaudits, had forever deprived me of the prospect of developing any of the seemingly promising friendships I'd begun to cultivate with some of the female finalists. When the email with an invitation to perform at a festival in Baku, Azerbaijan came, though – with an explanation that somebody there had heard something or other from someone in Brussels - I ascribed it to the upside of consequences that the jurors' verdict had generated.
The prospect of such a journey was quite timely for me, as I'd been totally immersed in studying Arabic for more than a year-and-a-half at that time, and had a mind mostly filled with pure Islam. Yet despite Azerbaijan being as Muslim as Poland is Catholic, this was the first nation living under the crescent moon I was ever to travel to – and perform in, at that. I knew about the Caspian Sea, that there was oil, cavior, and Nagorno-Karabakh... Most significant of all to me, though, was Azerbaijan's southern border with Iran, which now found itself within reach.
Iran is for fundamentalist Shi'ites what Saudi Arabia is for radical Sunni Muslims. A strict form of Sharia law (is there such a thing as a non-strict form?) applies there, which prescribes things like stoning for the crime of adultery, or the death penalty for carelessness in how one handles alcohol in public places. A hell of a thrill
Żurek, an aficionado of far-flung journeys into the wild, who had probably not yet made it only to the South Pole, assured me that licentious revelry of any sort would be completely out of the question, which I was convinced of definitively by the reading material in Lonely Planet. I saw the green light. I told my friends in the band about my plans right away, and proposed making it a collective adventure. The reasons for which they all had to turn me down came forth in a cascade, like beads from a cheap necklace some ruffian had suddenly yanked off of a child's neck. - How will we communicate there? - We'll get abducted. - They'll kill us. - I have a family, so I really can't take the risk...
A lonely journey into the unknown awaited me. I really couldn't blame them. I had only just gotten over my own misgivings.
It took me three weeks to deal with getting the visas; I was ready. I flew to Azerbaijan through Vienna. Kabul, Dubai – the departures board displayed at the airport named after the elder Aliyev, founder of a dynasty whose third generation is now accustomed to inheriting control over the family business.
Amidst the crowd waiting by the exit into the main hall, I saw a card with my last name printed on it. A short, lean and swarthy man in a black suit led me to a huge Mercedes. Here I was, in the land of oil and caviar. The afternoon sound check and concert played in a huge, breathtakingly located amphitheater convinced me, however, that the term “Caucasus logistics” doesn't have much chance of becoming a colloquialism that portrays that region's standard modus operandi in a serious or flattering light any time soon.
The guys caught an early flight out of Baku, before the morning call to prayer had even sounded, whereas I remained to enjoy a dinner of sheep's nuts, after which I took a taxi to the place where buses leave for Tehran – one a day.
Baku is a horribly expensive city, a lot more expensive than Warsaw. When the urge to spend twenty Manats arises, it's good to remember that every Manat is equivalent to a Euro. This fact can quickly moderate the enthusiasm that often accompanies the consumption of resources when abroad. The taxi driver put me out in the middle of some enormous apartment complex that, for as far as the eye could see, was reminiscent of a construction site that had been inhabited. A host of monstrous twenty-story, thirty-stairwell buildings displayed a florid kaleidescope of laundry being dried on balconies. There was a booth standing alone visible in the distance, with a bus next to it. Iranian license plates. Several men were engrossed in a game of cards. I walked up closer, bypassing a nearby rubble lot, and explained in broken Russian why I was there.
- Pasport. - a man of about thirty muttered in reply, in neither Russian nor English. I hesitated for a moment, then handed him the document uncertainly. He took it and exited the booth, leaving me there to languish under the silent scrutiny of the unshaven, potbellied card players, to the drone of an aging light fixture. - Pasport? - I asked, gesticulating, unsettled by the increasingly prolonged separation from the only document I possessed. One of the men mumbled something in Persian, and waved me toward the exit door with a burly hand clutching a stack of cards.
The inside of the bus made me think of a giant, time-battened coffin. The man in the driver's seat was taking notes as he intently flicked through the pages of a small booklet. My passport! I paid for my ticket. There was still a short while remaining until departure time. We drove out of Baku, despite most of the seats in the bus being empty. The impressive architecture of the over-invested center of Azerbaijan's capital was left behind us, and relegated to my memories. The surroundings began to appear progressively more under-invested as we penetrated deeper into the countryside, passing meager-looking sheep, decaying homesteads and dilapidated old Moskvitch cars clattering down the road. Despite all this the nation's Father, whose image adorned numerous roadside billboards, maintained a protective vigil over this land seemingly forsaken by Allah.
At around three in the morning the bus slowed down, rocking along a bumpy road leading through some deserted hinterland, and came to a standstill. The engine went off. The lights went out. Impenetrable darkness prevailed, the initial silence of which was gradually overcome by the snoring of a dozen or so men sleeping on the seats and floor. And there I was, by myself in the gloom, unable to fall asleep. I didn't understand why we'd stopped, and had no idea how long this would last. My understanding of why I'd found myself here at all was beginning to fade. The somnolent vibes emitted by the snorers intensified, along with a mélange of odors emanating from an array of socks and armpits... And this was what ultimately spirited me away into unconsciousness.
The morning which greeted us was hot and sunny. It was sometime after eight. The sunlight's gleam following a several-hour's nap was conducive to initiating a bit of small-talk. One of the passengers explained to me in Russian what the deal was, advising me while he was at it not to take any photos. I get the picture...  The border didn't open until nine. We gathered our bags, and then stood there watching the bus drive off to destinations unknown, as we waited meekly with no apparent purpose. The driver showed up unawares and gave the signal for departure. The passengers hurriedly snatched up their baggage, a bit weary after two hours of standing around dawdling. Before I was able to set off behind the others, the surprisingly forceful hand of a rather short and stocky government official in a slightly tattered uniform grabbed my shoulder. - Move! - They've gone! - he barked, in a voice that knew no resistance. Taking advantage of the haste with which the other passengers were preparing for departure, he was working in his own little show. We went through winding corridors, climbed some stairs, with any rational assessment of the situation rendered impossible by his constant urging me on, which served to artificially enhance the climate of distress. The whole mystery of this agitated runaround was dispelled when we reached a cubicle more or less the size of a shithouse at the end of the hallway. - Got five bucks on you? - some quasi-officer in a cap styled after the old Soviet dress uniforms snapped in Russian, with no hesitation. I quickly found myself sitting in the bus. Steadily we crossed over a small river and passed by some barbed wire-lined concrete barriers, until we reached a checkpoint manned by soldiers armed with heavy machine guns. I was entering Iran. The white customs terminal – a symbol of the immaculate, yet infallible nature of the path chosen fifteen hundred years ago by the younger brothers of Christ's followers – inspired mindfulness. Innervated by the color of purity, I made final adjustments to any behaviors I might be bringing with me from the Western World! Several women were hurriedly wrapping their heads in scarves before the entrance gate. There were groups of people nervously repacking huge bags. I realized that it was time to change into my long trousers. Apparently women were the ones responsible for carrying out effective customs clearances at the border crossing in Astara, while the men occupied themselves supervising their work. I crossed the border on the Iranian side without any hassles – no body searches, or questioning in some sequestered little room (which is standard procedure when entering Israel with a passport that contains visas from countries belonging to the “Axis of Evil”, where one has to prove one's own innocence as a matter of routine). 
On the street adjacent to the border crossing area, I was immediately swarmed by currency traders. The bus driver waited on us, casually puffing cigarettes. A quick transaction, settled verbally and hand-to-hand; I didn't even know what the official rate of exchange was. We left that lively little town traveling south, along the Caspian Sea, toward Rasht. A different world. Sheer valleys, with threads of local roads snaking through their depths, and... rice paddies. The atmosphere inside the bus became very friendly – indeed, brotherly. We ate a meal together, sharing food as well as the bill. Delicious, sun-soaked fried tomatoes, rice and lamb. When we disembarked that evening at one of Teheran's four gigantic bus terminals, we parted like a group of kids returning from summer camp in the Polish countryside – with embraces, smiles on our faces. The Iranian with whom I'd been conversing through a Russian 'translator' for several hours bid me farewell like a tender lover. On the one hand, in a country where men customarily display their friendship walking hand-in-hand - dressed, for example, in army uniforms - it's difficult for a visitor to rely on logic in the interpretation of such a farewell. The other side of it is that in the Muslim world, which restrictively limits access to women, these commonly practiced ways of demonstrating the camaraderie bred among men is also sometimes a traditionally accepted disguise for homosexual behavior. It's easy for the naïve as well as the savvy to get confused here... So we parted like two good friends. He wrote down his address in my Persian book, which I took as an invitation for the future. Despite being tired, I felt quite invigorated. I didn't feel like waiting. Quick lavatory freshen-up, ticket purchase. I had no problem finding the post my bus was to leave from. I was going to Shiraz. 
The fourteen-hour journey through Persia's arid, rugged valleys transported me into a zone of heat that had the effect of making the towns we passed seem deserted. Shiraz was a town of this kind. Surrounded by rocky mountains with an appearance reminiscent of a coffee and cream-colored Martian landscape, it is a veritable metropolis amid all this barrenness. The bus descended steeply into the heart of the city. We were surrounded by buildings with a color scheme that was simply a continuation of that of the desert. Frying in the subtropical sunlight, shells of the ubiquitous Paykan (the Iranian equivalent of our Fiat 126) soaked up the merciless rays of our provider-star. I headed for the hotel quickly by taxi. Lonely Planet offered suggestions for hotels, and gave prices. I took a quick shower and set out right away into Shiraz – the cradle of the Bahá'í Faith. This monotheistic religion – the world's youngest – is officially banned in Iran, and its followers persecuted. Their status is similar to that of Christians, back in the times when Christianity was still viewed as a heretical sect established by an Israelite apostate, as yet unknown to history. Therefore, my attempts at seeking out any symbols of Baha'ism whatsoever came to naught. I had something to eat with some Poles I'd met in the hotel corridor.
- We came to Iran to check out the hookers! - they boasted about the aim of their expedition. Tired by their company, the journey from Baku and hours of walking around in nearly fifty-degree heat, I returned alone to the hotel and hit the sack. A head filled with emotions and blazing sunlight made it impossible to fall asleep, as dusk slowly engulfed the city. The streets began to resound with activity. Tossing and turning under sweat-moistened sheets, half asleep, I listened through my first-floor hotel window to the noises of a busy street, which seemed to be undergoing some kind of resurrection. Shopkeepers' cries mixed in with the hum of the ventilator. Droning motorcycle engines would occasionally drown out the music coming from a restaurant across the street. They were all blended together, just as my sleep was intermingled with consciousness, and reached a fever pulse. Quiet finally prevailed sometime in the early morning hours. The night of sleeplessness served to remind me what the taste of loneliness is like. - It'll be a good while before I'm back home again... - I thought to myself, staring blankly at some water leakage stains on the ceiling.
 I'd had enough of Shiraz. I packed up my things in the morning and took a taxi to the station, to catch a bus to Isfahan. One day was enough for me to become weary of this desert agglomeration of over one million human beings. The driver of the Paykan was laughing and grinning ear to ear, persistently trying to explain something to me. The Iranians' attitude toward visitors is striking – they laugh a lot. They're eager to help out, and though it's pretty much impossible to understand what they're saying, the intention behind the messages they convey non-verbally isn't hard to figure out. The scenery we passed by on the road back up north wasn't that interesting to me any more; my attention was focused on the passengers. The man sitting next to me turned out to be a doctor. Thanks to his educated English, the dialogue was really quite coherent. As we approached our destination, he even insisted that I spend a few days at his family home. Remarkable. Persia had Islam imposed on it in the times of the Muslim conquests so, historically, the Persians have been living under its de facto occupation for over a thousand years, as both the culture and the religion of Persia's pre-Muslim reality were dominated by Islam. The exporters of Islam – Arabs – never invite you to their homes.
I spent the afternoon in Isfahan at Imam Square. Following the example of several Iranian families that were picnicking on the green, I bought myself a dish of 'goulash' of some kind and proceeded to consume it. Several guys sat down by me, checking me out with interest. – We are soldiers for Ahmadinejad. – they explained. They listened with innocent envy, as I named the American cities I'd seen with my own eyes. These young soldiers – fascinated by the West, who entrusted me with the secret of their critical stance regarding their own nation and leader – didn't conform to the images projected by CNN of a hostile Iran. My perception of a number of preexisting notions in my mind underwent a revision. I realized then that imperialism isn't necessarily a force diametrically opposed to communism, and that the critical portrayal of Iran one sees so much of in the Western media is nothing but propaganda, defending the interests of the American empire's waning dominance, which made itself so blatantly obvious during Bush Jr.'s rule. Geopolitical and ideological shenanigans of the huge and relentless have their consequences. These soldiers - who consequently didn't see Islam as their national heritage, and reproachfully disavowed the consequences of the Iranian ruling elite's policies – will have to wait a number of years following completion their military service, before they're permitted to leave their homeland. And this was what my afternoon on the green yielded.
I decided to return to Tehran by train, just for variety. In the hall of the enormous station building, I was the only foreigner. I took my place in the nearest line. The ease with which the lady cashier used her learned-God-knows-where English, as well as the fact that throughout the entire journey I'd yet to exchange a single word with a woman, induced me to shed the official tone of the conversation. There wasn't much time. I started asking her about various trivial things, kidding around a little. Despite my throwing out some none-too-simple commentary, she came right back with no hesitation. I didn't have to repeat myself. In a reality that's dominated by the male point of view, women have to be ambitious. Above all, they crave knowledge and invest all of their determination in its acquisition. In the surrounding of men, they have to rely on their wits as a matter of course, in order to lead the intellectual dance, to consequently be able to string them along. I found our exchange stimulating. I wasn't alone in this, though, as I soon found out. Moments later I was doing some coming back of my own, to somewhat heavier commentary, coming from several policemen questioning me in the station commissariat. I guess I'd gotten a bit too uninhibited at the ticket counter...
- What good? Iran good or Lahistan good? - asked the one with the mustache, once the mood in the little room had lightened up somewhat. He spoke the best English of the three of them. 
- Lahistan good. Iran veeeery good! - I answered five times to the same question, to the amusement of the uniformed men. The atmosphere in which I left the commissariat was not unlike that accompanying the conclusion of an official state visit. I decided for the future that I wouldn't ask questions of women in public places. 
Entering the platform was like boarding a plane – ticket checks, gates. We all go onto the platform at once, and wait together for the train to pull up. Evening came. Conversations in the train compartment weren't connecting that well, so we unfolded our bunks and drifted off, cooled by the steady draft from an air conditioner by the ceiling. A prolonged period of complete stillness caused me to interrupt my sleep. We had come to a halt in the middle of a desert, with some mountains visible on the horizon. To kill time, full of energy after a night spent in an air-conditioned compartment, we decided to find something out about each other. Our loud conversation drew passengers from other compartments. - What job? - asked someone standing in the corridor, to which I made every attempt to explain that I was a jazz vocalist, but to no avail. My repertoire of Arabic words just wasn't doing it, so I decided to try a brief presentation. The initial result of this was several moments' bewildered silence, after which the whole group burst into loud guffaws of laughter. They discussed something among themselves, shouting over one another, and then appointed a representative to show me what this singing stuff is all about. He crooned and wailed a religious chant of some sort, to the steady rhythm of the other passengers' clapping. Not wanting to lose too much face, I reacted to this with laughter as well. The remainder of the trip passed in a cheerful and friendly atmosphere.
Back in the capital, the wind driving the sails of my traveler's enthusiasm proceeded to die out. I didn't feel like seeing anything, or even looking for a hotel. I felt confident and safe to the extent that I even considered spending the night on a park bench. I moved ahead, in no particular direction. A Peugeot, distinct from the surrounding throng of Paykans in its color, lines and general style, stopped right next to me. - I'm looking for the bus station. - I replied, when asked if I needed any help. The driver, who spoke flawless English, seemed like the most together of all three of them. There was just enough space in the back seat for me and my backpack. The one I sat next to wasn't that talkative. He'd made his money on the drug trade with Japan. In a place where words may be payed for with one's life, a person learns to derive great enjoyment from observation. Feeling a compelling urge to submit to the benign yet insistent urgings of the guide, I accepted their invitation to do a bit of partying in the mountains without hesitation. I hoped they wouldn't offer me any vodka. After several hours of kicking back, enjoying various delicacies, we parted at the station without even exchanging email addresses. Waiting for the evening bus to Astara, I recalled the day that had passed. The girls that had joined us. Their dancing, minus head scarves. The nervous discomfort with which they focused, in their playful little dance, on the reactions of appalled passers-by. They had also come to enjoy a free afternoon by the river, in accordance with the vision of freedom and peace that had been instilled in them.
As it settled behind the horizon, the sun's immense vortex engulfed the city in a wide-ranging orange glow from the west. The muezzins bid the final bits of the day farewell with their dogmatic wailing. Their voices resounded majestically in an evening conglomeration, dissipating in the warm twilight air and fading into silence, along with the dwindling glow of the sunlight's last glimmers, to conclusively declare the arrival of night.
Buses depart out of Tehran in all directions, every hour. By early morning, I was back in the little border town where I'd begun my Persian adventure. I bought myself a flat-cake and headed toward the border crossing. The Iranian customs lady took a cursory glance at my passport and waved me away, pointing to the north.
During the Azerbaijani border check everything was going smoothly, until the information that I'm from Poland got around among the customs agents in the adjacent booths. The Polish football team had beaten Azerbaijan one to zero a day earlier. An initially amusing situation, based on a courteous exchange of jokes, was suddenly stripped of its original context. Once I realized that one of these uniformed and armed operatives sees a loss of this sort as a dishonor to his nation, and me as a representative of those who had insulted the Azeris' national pride, I did nothing but listen intently.
- You know, - the older customs agent concluded his extended monologue in Russian, offering me another maxim to improve my life strategies' efficiency,
- Next time around, you better lose!


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