On Andrew’s first visit to Iran in 2003, he learned that the kindness of strangers can redefine one’s idea of hospitality.
I didn’t know what to expect from spending Christmas in Iran, but I wasn’t expecting to be standing by a dusty road in Khur, an oasis townin the Dasht-e Kavir desert, waiting for a bus to Tabas. It was noon when an ageing Land Rover pulled up and smiling army engineer Vahid told me the next bus to Tabas wasn’t until 11pm. Lunch at his place, Vahid suggested, was a better idea. Lunch was delicious – oranges, flat bread, cheese, dates and tea. Vahid’s brother-in-law Sadeqi sat beside me, feverishly polishing shoes for his cousins’ wedding that afternoon.
An hour later I’m the surprise guest of honour at the wedding of Ali and Maryam. The typical courtyard home was a tumult of traditional, non-alcoholic and largely sex segregated good cheer. Ali danced his way into a new suit and a delicious meal was had sitting on the floor. By the time Vahid dropped me at the 11pmbus I was halfway to redefining my concept of hospitality.
I awoke in Tabas to the news an earthquake had destroyed the historic city of Bam and decided to travel there to cover the disaster. Bam was 700km south across the desert and after a 90km taxi trip I found myself beside the road again, waiting for a bus that wasn’t due for six hours. This time, however, my luck was in. Within two minutes of deciding to hitch I’d squeezed into the cabin of a truck with driver Rustam and three of his friends. The journey south was sombre yet starkly beautiful. After sunset we stopped for a dinner of bread and kebab. Rustam not only insisted on paying, but returned with a bottle of home-distilled whiskey, insisting it was his obligation as host to provide an after-dinner drink.
At 10pm the hydraulic brakes failed on a downhill into Zarand, a regional centre still 200km from Bam. Rustam told me the truck must wait for repairs, and that it was too dangerous for me to stay. He flagged down a pick-up carrying two bearded men who agreed to take me to a hotel in Zarand. The men barely spoke a word of English and what little I could make out concerned the ‘hotel Hossein’. We reached Zarand, gassed up and were driving out of town again when I started to feel a little anxious. My requests for a hotel or mosaferkhaneh (guesthouse) were being ignored and we were now on a dirt road in total darkness. A small village appeared and when we stopped outside a large, metal gate, I briefly considered jumping out. But when a woman appeared I knew it would be alright.
My driver was, it turned out, called Hossein and his one-room home was the ‘hotel Hossein’. We sipped tea and ate apricots, walnuts and oranges while his wife and six children watched fascinated by the stranger with the photographs of kangaroos. The next day I made my way to Bam. By noon, I’d become the first foreign journalist to reach the devastated city. That’s another story, but I’ll always remember the journey that redefined my idea of hospitality.