Damascus-Tehran party express

I haven’t read the news for five days. It’s going to take a while to collect my thoughts and write anything about current affairz. In the meantime, this is what happened on the four day train I just took from Syria to Iran. I was a little delirious from heat at some points when writing this, so forgive any lapses of coherence.

I am the only westerner on this train. They find me something of a novelty even though I know a lot of Western backpackers take it. As I am travelling alone they give me a two-person berth to myself which is pretty sweet. I have a little desk which folds up to reveal a sink. There are bedbugs and squat toilets and a really shit restaurant. Every so often a guard will come round with something for you to eat and drink. I just got my breakfast box which contained: two pieces of round Syrian bread, a wheel of President cheese, two pots of apricot jam, two teabags, six sugar cubes, two plastic cups, a napkin, plastic knife and spoon, and a refreshing wipe. The refreshing wipe packet says ‘Do you want… refreshment?’ to which I reply hell yes, Syrian rail. This pretty much sums up my entire attitude to the journey so far. I am totally enchanted. Later, the meal boxes will start to get more and more amusing and less and less edible. My favourite – the one with a single tin of tuna and a fork. I have one book and many podcasts to last me the next two and a half days. I also have two articles to write. I plan to begin some kind of light calisthenics routine to keep me limber on the journey. My biggest fear so far is that I’m going to rack up a huge phone bill just calling people to say ‘Yo, I’m on a sleeper train to TEHRAN and I just got given a REFRESHING WIPE…’

my breakfast

Things are hotting up, quite literally, on the Damascus-Tehran party express. The feeble excuse for air con is whispering at me asthmatically and I’ve been gradually stripping off. The tucked away sink has become invaluable as every hour or so I just have a wash and feel better. I went on a walk up and down my carriage – everyone has their doors open and I can see women lying on their beds being fanned by their husbands. I’ve done some writing, read 200 pages of my book, and eaten lunch (bread, cheese, jam, cucumbers from Damascus). There’s not much to look at, just three-star Syrian countryside. I passed a smoke plume on the horizon and was all like ‘WHOA gotta photograph THAT’. The Facebook album from this train journey is going to be mad.

the famous smoke plume before I gave up on scenice photos of Syria

My compartment is between two elderly Iranian couples. Aziz is on my left; every time I step out into the corridor he gives me a glass of tea, almost as if he’s waiting with it in hand. He also fixed both my light and my air conditioning for me. Nasim and Fatima on my right invite me into their compartment for sesame buns and more tea. Fatima has made a fan out of a folded up meal box and she sits in the middle, fanning in turn Nasim, herself, and me. She finds it incredibly funny when she fans me. In fact Fatima is pretty much constantly giggling. I spend a lot of time just hanging with Aziz and Nasim in the corridor where there’s a breeze. Nasim and Fatima ask to take a picture of me. I ask to take a picture of them and they spruce up; Nasim puts on a shirt over his vest and Fatima tightens her hijab. They do the most hilarious Serious Photo Face I have ever seen. They tell me they went to Syria to visit Sayyida Zeinab; I decide not to tell them I went there four times in case they think I’m some kind of freak.

Nasim and cheeky Fatima

A Syrian policeman whose name I unforgivably can’t remember has taken me under his wing, shepherding me through the various stages of passport control. Every time I settle down for a nap I hear him charging down the corridor, roaring ‘ELIZABETH!’ and I know there is some further stamp or inspection coming up. We have long chats in the dismal restaurant which basically consist of him chain-smoking and telling me how great Syria is and me responding with diplomatically vague comments about Bashar and ‘progress’. At the Syrian exit point I escape to buy a can of Cheer Up (Syria’s ersatz 7-Up, of similar standard to the rest of the country) and he tracks me down in the middle of some Kurdish village, wagging his finger. ‘Where you go, Elizabeth?’ He lets me sit in the air-conditioned police office while he stamps the piles of Iranian passports. Police drift in and out and comment on my presence. ‘Watch out, she speaks Arabic better than you do,’ he tells one of them.

Proportion of Mayas beans eaten: 10% of tin. Proportion of Mayas vegetables eaten: 0% of tin.

I meet an excellent Syrian-Iranian family – Sahar, her brother Abdullah, and their mother. Their mother is Syrian and they are returning from visiting her family. They all speak depressingly good English and I am so tired I give up on Arabic and just chill with Sahar, who is 19 and studying French at Esfahan University. She tells me the story of when she went on a university outing, boys and girls together, and they all got arrested by the Basij and forced to sign a piece of paper saying they would never go out in mixed groups again. Sahar can be pretty acerbic about Iran. She way prefers Syria, saying she feels far more comfortable there. Her Iranian father loves Iran and Sahar reckons this is because he spends half each year working in Kuwait so gets a lengthy break. Maa fi horreya, she says, there is no freedom. Bas, ya’ani, maa fi horreya fi Suuri kamaan, ya’ani, hiya dawlah shurtah, I say. There’s no freedom in Syria either, it’s a police state. (On a side note, I think my over-frequent use of ya’ani gives my Arabic an unfortunate SoCal accent. ‘But, like, there’s no, like, freedom in Syria either…’) At least we can wear what we want, she says. Akiid, I agree. At the Iranian border Sahar tells me she has a funny feeling. ‘It’s the feeling I always get when I come back to Iran and I’m not in Syria any more.’ I feel bad for hating on Syria so comprehensively.

Turkish rail, German trains

beautiful beautiful beautiful Anatolian countryside

The boat across Lake Van takes forever. I meet an absolutely insane Syrian who is ‘cycling for peace’ around Syria, Turkey, and Iran. He does two things in each town he stops in: meets the mayor, and paints a picture. This is apparently his childhood dream and he is writing a book about the experience. He bears a strong resemblance to the professor from Back to the Future; his remaining hair is tied back in a straggly ponytail and he wears Lycra cycling gear despite the fact it is freezing out on deck. I go to the bar to get a cup of tea. The man next to me introduces himself as an Iranian policeman. My usual ‘oh shit, police!’ mental alarm bell (which consists of Baltimore corner boys shouting ‘5-0, 5-0’!) starts going off and I assume my least-critical-of-the-Iranian-government face, which I have of course been practising in front of the mirror as preparation for the trip. He proceeds to give me a short lecture on the archaeological attractions of south-west Iran, then writes down his phone number and says if I ever get into any trouble with the police I should give him a call.

Yahya, plastic artist and peace cyclist

sunrise over Lake Van

Nasim and Fatima insist I share their compartment with them on the next train and it is only with some difficulty and Sahar’s mad Farsi skillz that I dissuade them and convince them that I would rather be on my own. I am settling in to my four person room when the door opens and a young woman enters. She runs to the window where a man is waiting. They talk animatedly and he passes her a pack of cigarettes. As the train pulls away she starts to cry. Her name is Najmeh and she is from Tehran. She continues my overwhelming impression of Iranians as pretty much the best people ever by constantly plying me with food and drink throughout the trip. At the Iranian border we get off the train to wash and stretch our legs and I see my first ever Revolutionary Guard, live and in person. He looks about twelve and he is doing a magic trick with an orange for the benefit of another Revolutionary Guard, who snatches it away and tosses it to another. I am standing on the platform watching three Iranian soldiers playing piggy-in-the-middle with an orange and I think, awesome. I also think, Israel and the US better not attack this country. The train leaves and I kick it with Najmeh in our compartment. I get the vague sense she’s trying to set me up with her brother; she asks me if I would marry an Iranian and if it was a problem that he was Muslim. She tells me her brother is 20 and speaks excellent English. She shows me a video of him on her phone and makes me promise to come and see him when I’m in Tehran. The north-western Iranian countryside is some of the most beautiful that I’ve ever seen.

beautiful beautiful beautiful Iranian mountains

The whole thing takes longer than it was supposed to; having left Damascus at 7.30 on Monday morning, we get in at midday on Thursday. I have the vague sense that time has stopped while I was on that train. I meet Ben, get on a bus to Esfahan, roll up at Shiva and Hedayat’s (the couple we’re staying with), check my email, and I am stunned. I find it impossible to believe that anyone has done anything in the last 90 hours while I have been stuck in a Syrian rail timewarp, but Rob has somehow made it from Damascus to Jerusalem. Must have found a wormhole.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Damascus-Tehran party express

  1. j-gutz

    I WANT TO MEET CHEEKY FATIMA!

    that is all.

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