On the road to iran

Originally published in The Guardian Newspaper on 10 November, 2015

There is no greater calling to American youth than the road. In high school English lessons we read John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and rode with the Joads along the migrant route to California. At universities across the country, freshmen follow Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road. Over generations, the American road trip has grown into a rite of passage.

Baptism by travel in Iran is different. It is written in rhyming couplets and memorised by the masses. In 1010 Ferdowsi captured 1,000 years of Iranian identity in the Shahnameh. Two hundred years later Saadi travelled like a vagabond between city states that no longer exist. Their poetry has become sacred texts, their stories fixed in memory and passed down generation to generation as a collective experience.

The American road comes on fast. It is direct, hurtling itself forward and launching the traveller into a new place - the next town, a rest stop, somewhere else to exist. In 1956 President Dwight D Eisenhower signed the Interstate Highway Act and extended the road 41,000 miles into the American identity. Rural became suburban and suburban sprawl stretched across the land like a blanket.

The Iranian road doesn’t come on so fast. It unfurls at the pace of history. Travel in Iran takes you to different eras and different parts of a turbulent history – whether slow-speed trains or single-lane sagging highways that wind through mountain passes and endless desert salt flats. Hours and miles in any direction correspond nonlinearly to time. The silk road crossed Iran for millennia and its remains litter the highways of the country. Some towns died off, others fell to conquest.

The road didn’t create Iran and Iranians didn’t create the road, it is just there. Unlike America where the road races into the future, the road in Iran goes back so far it’s hard to contemplate a day when there was no road and no people. The American frontier lends itself oddly to untamed nature. The Iranian landscape is pocked everywhere with the remains of things: an abandoned village, ruins of a temple, a caravanserai on the road to nowhere.

The first road trip I took in Iran was in the summer of 2012 with two friends in a Peugeot 405 assembled by the Iran Khodro company. We headed west from Tehran along the main highway. Outside the capital, honking and haggling is replaced with golden fields of matted grass, a concrete plant and occasional gas stations, until you drive into Qazvin, which feels more like a town than a city. We stopped to visit the covered bazaar which was closed for renovations, but we had a chance encounter with the chief engineer who gave us a private tour.

Later we travelled north along the Caspian Sea, which glowed turquoise as we crossed estuaries on Sassanid-era bridges. Rising into the Alborz mountains, the air was cooler and the road undulated softly, sagging heavily under the weight of trucks as they dipped in and out of towns and villages.

In Sarein, known for its thermal springs, there were other passenger cars. We drove up, down and across the main road through town for an hour before we found a place to stay for the night. We stretched our legs and bodies in thermal baths that smelt of sulphur with throngs of half-naked men who jumped in and out of different temperature pools, laughed and rough housed, and gave each other massages.

We turned west at Astara and back up into the mountains in a convoy of 1950s Mercedes trucks. We drove for hours on end and the only other vehicles we saw were trucks filled to the brim with goods covered in canvas and slogans like ‘Ya Ali’ and ‘Ya Abolfaszl’ stencilled on their mudflaps.

In Ardebil province, birthplace of the Safavid dynasty, we followed the wake of a 6.4-magnitude earthquake that crushed mudbrick mountain villages. We drove slowly through Ahar one evening - transformed into a tent city overflowing with people seeking help, too afraid to go home.

Everyone was on the main road through town. Yellow excavators idled neatly next to empty trucks; children longed anxiously to play; adults lined up at the Red Crescent tent for food or medicine or both; and conscripted soldiers in faded green fatigues lingered everywhere. It seemed they were waiting for time to start up again.

And so we settled into the rhythm of the Iranian road. One day, just after midnight, we accidentally drove up to the border of Azerbaijan at Jolfa and were turned back by a nervous young soldier and told to look for a place to stay a few towns over. Again we cruised the main drag of a small town until we settled on an unfurnished room with blankets and pillows for the night.

We travelled along the Aras river near where the prophet Zoroaster was born in 1300BC. The road was blocked by neatly stacked rocks wrapped in barbed wire and another conscript flagged us to a stop. He was young and lonely, and waved off his superior who yelled from a lookout to move us along. Further west along the Aras from here lie the St Thaddeus monastery and St Stephanus church, both founded in the 1st century.

The open road was a relief from the isolation I felt in the city and a chance to reflect on the chaos of emotions that is love in Tehran. In the quiet I could listen to my own thoughts and I began to express them. At Kandovan, a village built directly into the mountains, I made a confession, the type you can make only to someone on the road. It was a confession born in the bond that comes from hours of silence and the hum of soft rubber over asphalt. And then there were no more roads left except the one we had come down and it was time to go back home.

We took a route through Zanjan, stopping at Soltaniyeh to see the remains of a walled city built by a grandson of Genghis Khan. Then one last stop for a tea and something to eat at dusk before we started back on the main highway. The last unknown road of our trip was a service track along an irrigation canal.

Over the next year and a half I spent in Iran there were other road trips and confessions. As much as I opened myself up to the road, it opened up to me. In that way I was an American, carving out my future. And yet I was an Iranian, walking through my past.