25th December, 2012 – 3rd January, 2013 , Isfahan and Tehran
My bus has just pulled in for a thirty minute break at a mangy service station when my phone rings. It’s Emée. She, Hrach and two French guys have just arrived at the Iranian-Armenian border. I’m so happy I could cry. “Let me speak to him!”
“Hey!” Hrach’s voice rings through the phone – clearer than the Iran-Armenia phone connection could ever mange. “Hey! Where are you?” They’re at the border, on their way to Tabriz. “Come to Isfahan,” I tell him, “I’m on my way to Isfahan now”. “I’m gonna go to Tehran?” “No, Isfahan! I’m going to Isfahan!” “I’m gonna go to Isfahan?” “Yeah, come!” “Ok, I’m gonna go to Tehran and then to Isfahan.” “No! Come straight to Isfahan!” “Ok, let’s see what’s gonna happen…”
I’m in Isfahan waiting by a bridge. I was delivered here at 7am by my host and told to wait for one hour, when I would be collected by Rahmin, my host’s friend and my friend’s lover from a year and a half ago. I’m excited to meet Rahmin, having heard so much about him from Claire. Unfortunately, it’s very cold. I don’t completely understand the logic behind waiting by this bridge in the cold at 7am in the morning, but I trust my host and dutifully comply. When I begin shivering, I get up and take a walk: up the river, down the river. I should probably mention that this is more of an ex-river. The river itself has dried-up, apparently part of a government plan to build an underground metro system at some point in the future. When my friend Claire was here a year and a half ago, she and Rahmin saved some fish that were drowning in oxygen in the recently dried-up river. I think of this now and smile. I smile also at the “no swimming” sign, the beached paddle-boats and the woman taking a short-cut across what was once the river-bed. Behind my smile though, there’s a frown. Why has the Iranian government dammed this river? Did anyone try to stop them?
A text message arrives from Rahmin after the appointed hour: something came up. He can meet me at 1pm. 1pm?! I have to wait here in the cold until 1pm?!? No way, not going to happen. I see a girl sitting on a bench. She gapes at me when I ask if she speaks English – she’s just on her way to an English exam. Well then, this will be good practice. I ask how far I am from the centre? Is there a coffee shop? A cafe? Anywhere at all I can sit and write? She says no, I’m far from the centre. She tells me to follow her.
It’s becoming obvious this girl doesn’t know the area at all, but I asked for help and now she feels responsible for me – even if it means being late for her very important English exam. She asks a woman for directions and when it becomes apparent that the woman knows the area, I beg the girl to go and let the woman show me the way to a cafe. She looks relieved and hugs me, before running off to her exam.
The woman invites me to her house for tea, where she introduces me to her teenage daughter, who is also studying English. The woman smiles at us speaking English together as she makes me tea and lays out slices of cake and fruit. It’s a typically Iranian experience and one I’m very grateful for.
The daughter asks if I have a boyfriend and where he is. I tell her about Hrach in Armenia, and that he’s now on his way to meet me in Iran. She tells me there’s a big Armenian community here in Isfahan, something I’d already heard about. My friend David recommended finding the Armenians to procure alcohol, since laws are a little different for Christians in Iran. “Today is an Armenian holiday”, she tells me, “it is a Christ-fest”. It takes a moment for what she means to sink in – today is December 25th, and I hadn’t even noticed! I begin to laugh. Since the age of fifteen I’ve been trying to avoid Christmas completely and this is the first time I’ve ever managed it.
Emée is no longer with Hrach and nobody knows where he is. Having come to Iran to meet me, now he’s apparently vanished. Feeling extremely impatient, I book a night-train to Tehran to look for him.
My train rolls in at 5am. Somehow I make it to my friend Komeil’s apartment, where I’m surprised to bump into a guy I met in Georgia, who is now staying at my friend’s house in Tehran with another guy I met in Yerevan – what a tiny world this is.
I’m frowning over a tarot reading on the question ‘Where is Hrach?’ when my telephone rings. It’s 5pm, two days after I spoke to him at the border. “Hey!” “Oh my god, where are you? I was so worried!” “Yeah, my phone didn’t register for a long time and I didn’t write your number down and I forgot to bring my charger and… yeah, sorry. So I’m coming to Isfahan?” “No, I’m in Tehran.” “Oh, you’re in Tehran? But I bought this ticket for Isfahan…”
Two hours later I meet Hrach at the metro station close to Komeil’s apartment. We didn’t see each other for almost six weeks. “Hey!” He says. “Hey!” we smile at each other, go to embrace and then remember where we are. Fighting stronger impulses, we steal a quick hug and begin walking together, sneakily holding hands.
After a couple of days hanging out with friends in Tehran, Hrach and I take a bus back to Isfahan. The plan is to find Armenians in Isfahan and celebrate Christmas with them. ‘Christmas’ in this context, actually means New Year. Armenians, being from the Orthodox branch of Christianity, celebrate Christmas on 6th January, but New Year is a bigger celebration, according to Hrach.
We find the Armenian part of the city. There are Christmas trees and Armenian writing. All the shops are called ‘Ani’ or ‘Ararat’. A giant Father Christmas looms over a street corner.
The plan: We find an Armenian coffee shop. Hrach will greet them in Armenian and they will welcome him like a long lost brother, invite us for Christmas dinners and drinks and parties and ply us with alcohol.
We find a coffee shop. On sitting down, the waiter comes to take our order. Hrach greets him in Armenian. “Are you Armenian?” The guy asks him, in Armenian. “Yeah”, says Hrach. He explains that he grew up in Syria and is now living in Yerevan. They chit-chat a while, me smiling and sipping coffee and witing for the inevitable news of all the parties we’re being invited to.
The guy goes off to serve someone else. Hrach leans over and whispers into my ear – “I just realised something – I don’t want to hang out with Armenians.” “What? Why not?” I hiss back, although the guy probably doesn’t speak English. “I don’t know, I can’t explain it. They’re just so… Armenian.”
We take the bus back to Tehran, back to our Persian friends. It’s Azadeh’s birthday and we intend to celebrate it with her.
This will also be the last time I see Emée for the foreseeable future. My last chance to say goodbye to my travel companion of most of the last three months.
In a few days I’ll be back in Yerevan, three days before Armenian Christmas. The city will be covered with tinsel and Christmas trees and I will realise that I have, once again, failed to hide from Santa.