The young man from the reception desk came and sat next to me, quietly and with no apparent purpose. “Would you like to have something to drink madam”, he asked politely after a few minutes of silence.
“Oh, that will be nice”, I answered back graciously, not really in need of tea, having already drunk copious amounts of it in the city’s various shops, tea houses and restaurants during the day.
He brought tea, I thanked him. He regained his sitting position and after two or three sips, he asked me if I would like to have something to drink. I gave him a side look, unsure of what he meant. He had just brought me tea, what other drink could he offer me? “Thank you, tea is just fine”, I answered with a smile, in case I was perceived as unappreciative of his attentive service.
He did not leave. He continued sitting there companionably while I was savoring my sweet Iranian tea, enjoying the ambience of the inner yard in the caravan-sarai I was staying with my travel companion---part of our three weeks traveling through Iran that had brought us to the ancient silk road desert city of Yazd. The caravan sarai was a recently restored building, hidden inside one of the many alleys of a local covered market that had seen shoppers bargaining with sellers for centuries in its continued history.
We had arrived the day before and after a day’s explorations, in a city that mesmerized us, we experienced a rare moment in one’s traveling that involved taking tea and smoking hookah at the rooftop, enjoying the sun setting through the city’s many wind towers that punctuated its rooftop landscape, listening to the Iman calling for prayers to the mosque, immersed in the magic of the moment in what might have easily be a cinematic cut.
The reception desk man’s voice interrupted me from my reverie. “Would you like to have something else to drink?” His question came with a slight variation this time. I sighed internally but decided to change tactic this time. The man was slow, clearly, but there was no need to be rude, I thought.
“Like what?” I offered back curious to see what answer might come my way. His soft reply was almost whispered, “Oh, something stronger perhaps?” Stronger than tea? Could he mean coffee, I asked. “No, no, something stronger madam.” What would someone offer me in Iran that is a strong drink but not mentioned by name? Could it be alcohol? Of course! It had to be alcohol, the forbidden drink in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
This time, I slightly turned my head to the side to look at him but not exactly directly in the eyes. “Yes, I could do with something stronger”, I said tentatively. “What do you have on offer?” I put in with a calm voice, hardly containing my excitement, but with some emphasis on the ‘stronger’ that told him I was ‘with him’.
“I am Zoroastrian madam, we are allowed to make wine for our temple from the grapes we grow.” I was, after all, in Yazd where Zoroastrians have practiced their religion for millennia. That very morning, my travel companion and I had visited the Atash Behran Fire Temple where a sacred fire has been burning continuously since 470 AD--- the mother of all fires as it involved the gathering of 16 types of fire, including fire from a mint, a baker, a potter, a goldsmith, a brewer and one produced by atmospheric lightning. Could this be true? Was this man offering wine produced for this temple?
I could hardly believe our luck. We had spent a great deal of our time in Isfahan, days before, trying to get some alcohol to celebrate the New Year. Our Armenian friends had mentioned that one could get wine in some of the shops in New Julfa, the Armenian quarter of the city, but we had to be discreet. We did find an Armenian shop opposite the Vank Cathedral and spent considerable time pretending to shop food, trying to find the right time and way to ask for the most desired item in our shopping list. The Armenian shop owner, careful not to mention anything that would have incriminated him, had said that it’s possible but he was not committing. We had to wait.
We had gone outside to wait on the entrance steps of the Armenian Church for a long while until I got fed-up. This was not how I had planned to spend my time in this amazing ancient place with dozens of blued tiled mosques, markets and tea houses under the old bridges, yet to be experienced. My travel companion had become crossed with me, accusing me for changing my mind, adding the “like all women” bit that had annoyed me and my feminist convictions. “And what is wrong with that”, I had asked. “Isn’t one allowed to change one’s own mind, woman or not?” I was pissed off with him. Our traveling together was growing tiresome and it would end in taking our separate ways.
But meanwhile, our quest of alcohol that started as a ‘braving the Iranian authorities’ project ---something to tell our friends and family back home--- was keeping us busy. We had returned to our hotel empty handed to get some rest before going out to a restaurant to celebrate the new year---a dull affair in a beautifully restored old building with arabesque tile fountains and low atmospheric lights but the same food we got everywhere we went, shashlik and rice. But not wine! I suppose it’s part of human nature, to want something that you cannot have.
The young man sitting next to me with the quiet, almost murmuring voice, suggested that if we wanted some wine we would have to go with him to his home after he finishes his reception shift. I said I would consult with my travel companion, who was posing as my husband during our trip so we could share rooms---something no hotel owner believed of course but went along with the pretending in order to comply with the Iranian morality police requirements.
I interrupted his reading as I stormed into our room exclaiming our luck, “you will not believe it but I think we have just been offered Zoroastrian wine.” That was enough to get his attention. We both agreed that we would take up the offer. Finally, our alcohol story was building up to a respectable suspense level.
We waited in eager anticipation for our nocturnal adventure. At the reception, the young man told us that he would not finish before midnight. So, we tried to stay awake and around 12 o clock he knocked on our door.
We followed him quietly along the dark labyrinthic alleys to one of the exits out of the market and got into a car with other people. Introductions went around and off we drove to some house in a nearby neighborhood where we were invited to go in. We were a novelty and on parade. A room full of people, food on the floor in Iranian style, women dressed rather revealingly ---in contrast to their covered bodies in public. Another round of introductions, invitation to sit and eat and drink--- questions about life in the West dominating the conversation.
But this was not meant to be the place where we were going to get our promised strong drink. Back to the car with more people joining us---not sure how many we ended up to be but it felt more like a train compartment --- music on full blast, vibrating through our bodies and off we went, driving for a long while in the middle of the night, serenaded by the voices of our companions who seemed to be having a great time.
Ed and I often exchanged side glances, trying not to look worried but conveying our unspoken concern of “this could go really, really wrong!” These young Iranians were out of control, perhaps under some substance. Iran was flooded with cheap opium from its neighbouring Afghanistan. We had heard so many stories about addiction in our traveling through the country.
Finally, the car came to a stop outside a house in what looked like the rural outskirts of the city. The young man invited us to go inside, just me and my friend. We entered a dark house, walked over bodies sleeping on mattresses on the floor and finally the man found what he was looking for, a small bottle containing some liquid. He handed it to us with an apple and waved us goodnight.
That was that! We asked how much we owed him and he replied ‘nothing’, it was a gift. We walked back over the sleeping bodies and out of the house and into the car which took us back to the caravan sarai---hoping along the way that we would make it alive and if we did, hoping it would be to our room and not to a police cell, for our driver and car companions were clearly ‘high’. That last part of our journey was surreal. Did it happen? We had the evidence of it, a small bottle, two quarters full, containing a murky looking liquid which we took to be the promised wine.
We rushed to our room full of relief, solemnly sat down and placed it in the middle of the bed. “So, how do you propose we drink this”, Ed asked. “Let’s take turns”, I offered bravely. We did. We each must have had about three gulps and by the third one we were already tipsy. This was strong stuff, not your average wine. We fall asleep exhausted from our long day and excitement, happily sedated from our first taste of alcohol in two weeks of traveling in the land of forbidden alcohol consumption.
All I remember after that was Ed waking up before dawn, grabbing something and walking out. “Where are you going?” I asked sleepily. “To empty the rest of this in the communal lavatories, we don’t want this to be found in our room tomorrow”, came Ed’s hazy reply. I went back to sleep feeling faintly relieved that Ed had the presence of mind for such caution.
Ed was Jewish, traveling on one of his two passports that had no stamp of entry into Israel. Iran does not allow travelers who have been to Israel to visit the country. Ed was just cautious….
“Drink wine. This is life eternal. This is all that youth will give you.
It is the season for wine, roses and drunken friends. Be happy for this moment.
This moment is your life.”
Top photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Zoroastrianism#/media/File:Faravahar.png