The first time I meet Ali, DJ Ta’aba is blaring from his speakers and a cigarette dangling out the door of his cab. “Hostel?” he says, with a gap-toothed yellow sweet smile. “Yes,” I say, and tell him the name of a hostel whose name I forget now. “Better hostel I show you,” says Ali, “Very good hostel.” It is an unholy hour of the morning, and I am tired out from the journey and a stomach bug I’d caught in a godawful, abortive visit to Shiraz, so I agree promptly.
To Dalan Behesht we drive, with DJ Ta’aba’s dulcet tones booming in our ears and the smell of a Bahman cigarette permeating the morning air.
Dalan Behesht is a great sort of hostel – a large common area surrounded by many small rooms. A breakfast that’s good enough for a hostel – toast and fruit and tea and coffee, and I forget what else. In the evenings, the hostellers and the receptionist, Agha Beyghi, sit and chat about much under the sun, including the political situation in Iran.
In the midst of the conversation, a topic I am in love with turns up. Beyghi wants to study yoga, he says. Now, I’d only just begun teaching yoga, and I am vastly excited by any opportunity to teach and gather guinea pigs for my teaching experiment, so I readily shared Beyghi’s enthusiasm. So we set up a class, along with C and M, who are from a small town near Marseilles and are in Iran to much parental worry. I tell them, laughingly, of convincing my parents of staying in Istanbul, and calling them from Tehran to let them know of the momentous journey. We find we share strong opinions about the wonderful hospitality, food, culture and the beautiful, diverse landscapes of Iran. Iran isn’t unsafe; Iran isn’t worrisome. As a solo female traveller, I never had a moment of worry, I tell them; I felt perfectly safe even in the company of perfect strangers.
Speaking of strangers. Outside Yazd lies the desert. A vast, dusty, beautiful desert. Hardly barren, and filled, on a Friday afternoon, with revellers galore and endless numbered cars. Ali and I, along with his friends – complete strangers to me who didn’t speak a word of English – take ourselves to the desert for a spot of desert-driving. One of them owns a factory outside of Yazd, and the other, Alireza (every second man in Iran seemed to be called Alireza), is a self-proclaimed cool guy, sunglasses casually hung in the top pocket of his shirt. He is also a champion desert-driver, putting the car through moves I’m certain it’s never seen before, racing across the sands like it was a competition against the mountain of dust we were kicking up.
But the desert in Yazd is far from barren. Pools of water stretch as far as the eye can see. They froth and foam at the edges, and men swim in it often. “You cannot go far into the desert,” says Ali, “You will get lost and it will get cold at night.” I agreed heartily; I had no intention of being lost in a desert with a sense of direction as crippled as mine. So we walk across the desert, watching families enjoy their day off, and Ali tells me about his family.
“I am from Mashhad,” he says. “I come here 10, 15 years ago. Now I live with Papa.” His father is an invalid, and his sisters are all married. “But I am not married,” he says, with a shy smile. When I probe, he shrugs, which I take to mean that the opportunity never arose. But perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps he chose to stay and care for his Papa. Perhaps the girl he loved married someone else. Perhaps he is happy alone. He certainly seems so. He laughs (he laughs a lot) at my ruminations, shakes his head, and indicates that it is time to head back.
The sun is down and the desert is packed, packed, packed with people and cars by the time we get back. Friday nights are wild desert nights, I find out. There is a huge circle of cars, boombox speakers strapped to their boots. There is Farsi EDM playing that would put DJ Ta’aba to shame. There is a bonfire in the centre, bottles of alcohol strewn around. There are men dancing – no, thrashing about in a weird aggressive drunken dance – all around the bonfire. And there are no women in sight – not a single one. I am fascinated, but Ali thinks the night, with its canopy of stars, is a better time to visit the desert than sundown, so we get into our car with Omid and Alireza, and drive out of the desert leaving dust-whorls in our wake.