Iran? Of all places! With your infant child? Why?
Continuously answering the questions posed by a hundred people before we even left was perhaps the most annoying aspect of planning a trip to Iran. Wasn't Iran the place where orchards grew hand-grenades and jihadis manned supermarkets? The well-wishers ended their questioning only after giving us a "we would have made better parents" look.
Domki, our seven-month-old daughter, didn't seem much bothered. We practiced our limited Farsi on her and whenever we shouted "Kuchak" (small one), she laughed hysterically.
Iranians have a more positive reputation that's well-founded: a love for babies. Lobo even considered fixing a Farsi poster on Domki's clothes saying in Farsi, "I am a baby and catch infection easily, so don't kiss me please." Indeed, Domki was adored by everyone we met in Iran. Groups of young girls, in particular, would stalk us, reacting with "ahs" and "ohs" to Domki's every gesture. But strangely, Iran was also a country with a fertility rate as low as China's. What happened to Khomeini's call to flood the species with Iranians so that the nation could have an army of 20 million? Fatemeh, a 20-something staffer at our Tehran hostel, who wore dense piercings in her lips and brows, explained, "We Iranians do love babies, but only other people's babies."
After a short stay in Tehran we went to Tabriz by train. When our child woke up the next day, she played delightedly with a ZamZam Cola bottle. We had brought along a dozen ridiculously priced toys, but once in Iran, this great symbol of anti-American consumerism was all she wanted.
At Tabriz, both Lobo and I conducted writing workshops at two local universities, one of us managing the baby while the other taught. Most of the students were women. Confident, curious, polite, and smart, they all wanted to leave Iran. After one class, a couple accosted me once I was left alone.
"Sir. We are so into one another... We want to travel together... We want to understand each other more.... Please tell us how we can do that?"
I was no Love Guru but having read numerous self-help columns, I spelled out some dumb-nothings, "Chart your own path. Share activities and interests..."
"But how do you Iranians find partners? Dating sites?"
"No Sir, they are banned. We mostly find our match scanning Instagram!"
At the famed Bazaar of Tabriz, dubbed the largest market in the world, we walked the narrow alleys smoothened by footsteps from a thousand years. Under glorious arches and domes, small shops were selling hijabs, spices, kitchenware, and carpets. Heads of female mannequins had been hacked off to avoid display of women's hair. But next to these were bundles of underwear whose bums were printed with "Star Baby," "Sponge Bob," "High Adventure."
Old porters lugging overloaded carts struggled through the ups and downs of the bazaar lanes, panting "Ya Allah" to ask for right of way. Upon seeing Domki, they paused to straighten their backs, touch her cheeks and say "Mashallah, Mashallah," blessings to protect her from the evil eye. Around me I heard "6-4-1-3, 3-2-1-6, 1-1-1-1." People were speaking out number quartets all around me, debit card pins that Iranians were not shy of sharing with the shopkeepers.
One evening we went for picnic to Kondovan with the family of Dr. Amini from the Shahand University. With its landscape of giant termite-mound shaped rocks pockmarked with cave houses, the high altitude village was straight out of a fairy tale. As we passed by their caves dodging well-loaded donkeys, the residents, with their weather-beaten faces, came out one by one like zombies, holding tiny spoons dipped in honey, insisting on a sale. We found an elderly woman without a spoon and went inside her cave. There she took out a spoon as well.
She said, "Here the honey comes from the stone because there are no trees here, no flowers. The bees drink the stone."
"It gets very cold in winter. If it snows, we are cut off from everywhere. We have been living here for generations. We know only this life. The young people are leaving. But some are coming back too because there is tourist money."
Outside the village there were several restaurants, all decked in bright neon lights, all empty. "On weekends, this place is packed," said Dr Amini.
Rani, his wife, said, "We have come here many times and every time this place looks different. Like where are the toilets? The old toilets seem to have now become the municipal office."
Another day, we went to the coloured mountains of Aladaglar. These "rainbow" mountains missed most of the promised colours, coming only in whites, reds, and oranges. It was a dead land with barely a sign of vegetation. As soon as we began trekking, we realized how significant inventions the sun hat and the umbrella were for mankind. The sun, forgetting that it was early winter, blasted its rays in full force. Struck with intense heat, Domki flayed around her head, arms, and legs. She screamed hysterically; perhaps unsure of what this force was, begging the world to let her survive. Lobo tried to comfort her through breastfeeding while I used a jacket to make an ill-formed umbrella. And so we trekked for 30 minutes, our distraught caravan not getting very far.
Once back in the car, the air condition venting a full blast, cheesy Iranian pop on stereo, Domki slept as if nothing had happened. My mind wavered to the journeys undertaken by Yazidi families fleeing from ISIS, Rohingya families escaping from the marauding Burmese army, orangutan mothers running from a rainforest-clearing arson attack, passing through unforgiving nature, babies wailing from hunger and exposure. We could return to comfort the moment we wished to. As for them...
Chastised by Aladaghar, we turned less ambitious with our travel. We dropped the long road trips to scenic Jolfa and hyper-salty Urmia Lake. We settled for small indulgences, drinking the gravity-resistant sticky, nutty, sugar-infested milkshakes and carbo-loading ourselves with Yeralma Yumurta, a wrap stuffed with mashed potatoes, boiled eggs, and a sinful dose of butter. We visited the blue mosque of Tabriz, a World Heritage site. Few of its famous blue tiles survived the great earthquake of 1780. But on its vast carpet-covered floor, Domki rolled around with a sense of freedom and joy.
When we visited the 19th-century houses of the city's traders, she waved her tiny hands to catch the rainbow coming out of the elegant stained-glass windows. Evenings, we strolled along the pleasant walkway beside the ruins of Argh-e-Tabriz. Criminals were once pushed to their deaths from the top of this citadel. These days, a man stood beside its fence selling children's books, constantly slapping one book with another to discard the dust from the streets.
With time in our hands, I dared clipping Domki's nails. I was a smooth operator with the first four fingers. Lobo lavishly praised my skills. But at her right hand's pinkie, I cut her flesh. She screamed. A deluge of blood gushed out. My white t-shirt turned a complete Mark Rothko red. Her wailing stopped after some comforting, but the bleeding wouldn't. We held her hand high as minutes turned to hours. Lobo was crying, searching furiously on the internet. Online, some experienced parents advised that baby blood could take two hours to clot. It did take us all of those hundred and twenty minutes.
To get the wound bandaged properly, we took Domki to a doctor. When we asked a shoe-repair man for directions, a crowd gathered around us. Everyone looked distressed seeing her finger. Two young men guided us to a clinic. As the nurse, a man my grandfather's age, washed and then bandaged Domki's wound, she cried and screamed. Nothing could comfort her. The helpless crowd hummed softly, "Ohho, Ohoho." Those were the longest five minutes of my life. Would our baby have any faith left in humanity after this?
When we asked about payment, the nurse said, "How is that possible? She is a baby."
We insisted thrice, as was supposed to be the custom in Iran. We insisted thrice again.
"Don't mention it anymore," he said, and the crowd echoed. "She is our child."
By next morning, the impressive bandage put with such heroism had come off. But Domki's wound had healed.
On our way out of Tabriz, two official-looking men approached the check-in counter at the airport just after we were done.
"Have you seen Shivaji Das?" one of them asked the counter staff.
"That's me," I said.
"Will you both come with us?" he said in English.
What did we do? My heartbeat was accelerating; all those stories about Iran, about tourists being jailed at the notorious Evin prison under suspicion of being spies.
Just then, I saw the office boy from University College of Nabi Akram running towards us, holding a stack of papers. It was all clear to me then. The university had requested us to sign certificates for all the attendees to our workshop, but we all had completely forgotten about it.
The official-looking man said. "Our office is right here. You can sign there in comfort."
"But our flight will be leaving soon!"
"We are from the airline. No flight can leave without you. Even if it takes a few days."
At the office, there was a grand table with an empty chair.
"That is for our big boss. Please sit there and sign. Now, you are our big boss. Tea for you Sir, Madam?"
I signed over 50 certificates and then made way for Lobo to sign.
"Oh, our boss changed so quickly."
All of us took pictures of us posing as their boss. When we handed over the certificates to the relieved office boy, he showered Domki with kisses and blessings.
At Isfahan, we went every day to the Nashq-e-Jahan square, one of the largest public squares in the world, home to Safavid-era architectural wonders of Shah Mosque, Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, the Ali Qapu Palace, and the mediaeval bazaar. There, in what seemed like a well-established custom, Iranian passers-by took photos holding Domki by one arm, their own baby on the other. As the sun set, the numerous arches surrounding the square lit up, turning into luminous drops of gold. Those moments, I would throw Domki high up in the cool air and catch her as she fell, and she would burst into laughter at this center of half of the world.
We spent our evenings at the famous bridges of Khaju and See-o-se. At Khaju Bridge, Domki clapped with her tiny hands to the ululations of elderly men who came every evening to practice their singing, the gurgling steam below their only musical accompaniment. We would cap the day with a massive fruity ice-cream, the vendor looking approvingly at us as we licked each serving. Those moments, we were only slightly older than Domki.
Lobo delighted in breastfeeding Domki at Isfahan's famous landmarks, the square, the Armenian Church, the bridges. Breastfeeding in public was very acceptable in Iran and for once, the veil that Lobo was forced to wear proved useful, to cover up things when required.
In Iran, we frequently used the local ride hailing apps, Snapp and Tap30. Their friendly drivers often spoke fluent English and the conversations would always lead to the driver asking, "How is Iran?"
Most would go on to answer themselves, "Iran is good. Iranians are good. It is our Government..."
One of them said, "We have so many problems right here. Our currency is worth nothing. This whole country is actually free for foreigners like you. But for us, we can't even afford bread. But our government will rather go ahead and tickle things in faraway Morocco. Why?"
Once I asked if they were scared when the Saudi oil installations were bombed. Did they think that war would break out?
The man said, "No, our government is very smart. They know up to what point they can stir things. Just when war could break out, they stop. It is always like this. So we were not scared. Anyway, there is no hope here. What can go worse?"
"So you are sure the Iranians did the thing in Saudi?"
"Of course, who else?"
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