A Thousand And One Nights

   “We like to buy industry and the most modern weaponry. We do not, however, desire to import Western belief.”

Thirty years ago, Ayatollah Khomeini spoke these words. The tree, religious leader and revolutionary founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran himself set the course for my business trip to his homeland. When it comes to Western technology, when it is about products of the electronic entertainment industry, about jet fighters, desalination plants, BMWs, oil refineries, or about two butane vaporisers by Buss-SMS-Canzler, even Islamic fundamentalists are ultra modern. But only then! From their perspective, technological progress doesn’t give you peace of mind. You can only find peace of mind in Islam and in mosques. That is why I, a Christian and technician, can’t find peace of mind there. At least I’m allowed to work there, but not to think. Neither left nor right, much less laterally. For me, who likes to muse about anything and everything after having finished the work for the day, this was the biggest challenge during this trip.

   The second biggest challenge consisted of being impartial when immersing myself in this new country, being free from all prejudices. Just go there, have a look around, listen to what the people have to say and then form my own opinion. As a consumer of Western media, it’s unlikely that I will succeed. My brain is programmed in Eurocentric code. Just hearing the word “Iran” sets alarm bells ringing for me. My thoughts race automatically, crossing the axis of evil. They are inevitably confronted with the outposts of tyranny, running through a theocratic state where radical fundamentalists and suicide bombers are instructed in Islamic schools. Where the Hezbollah, the political party of God, marches with raised fists and slogans of hatred, and calls for protests against “Satan America” and burns US flags. Where Al-Qaeda calls for holy war. Where the “Zionist construct” of Israel has to disappear from the map and each infidel of this world should be converted to Islam; where the ultraconservative head of state, Mahmoud Ahmadinedjad, provocatively accumulates uranium and, together with his supreme court judges, takes care to put his people in their place by banning extramarital sex, drugs, rock and roll, and even a single drop of alcohol.

   In short, for me, a Western believer in Christianity, the journey to Iran was highly dangerous. And, at the same time, deadly boring. Many of the things that mean great fun for us dissidents are strictly forbidden there. However, because I am an SMS service technician and because Khomeini has a technocratic attitude, there were two solid reasons for me to travel there: the two butane evaporators my boss had sold to Iran.

  •    Before the ink on the contract was even dry, I could already picture myself on TV since I was the one supposed to set up and implement the evaporators. To be precise, I could picture myself in a video message. Jan Hofer, the Tagesschau32 anchorman, would announce, “German field service technician abducted in northern Iran!”

       Despite the poor quality of the image, I could recognise myself immediately by the SMS company logo sewn into the breast pocket of my blue work jacket. I saw myself sitting with a hunched back, cross-legged, on the naked concrete floor of a cave-like dwelling, blindfolded, unshaved, an emaciated expression on my face and hands cuffed behind my back. The front page of the current Jumhori-yi Islami, Tehran’s daily paper, was lying in my lap as evidence. Next to me sat a masked man. Only the area around the eyes, reminiscent of a slim embrasure of an invulnerable fortress, was unobstructed. An automatic weapon leaned against the wall. As if the turban wearer was preparing a sacrificial lamb for the feast Shabe Jalda, he raised his palms towards the sky and spoke in singsong the holy words of Islam – “Allahu Akbar” – God is almighty. Then, he demanded ransom: a seven-figure dollar amount and the immediate release of six Islamic fundamentalist Mujahideens. In addition, he asked for the entire technological documentation including detailed drawings of the butane vaporisers. In times of skilled worker shortage, the value of a German service technician is extremely high. A sort of breakup ended the video message. Everything had been said. It was time for action now...

       My attitude towards Iran, hammered into my head by Western media, had stiffened. And if it wasn’t for the heart of a technological fanatic beating in Khomeini’s chest, there wouldn’t even be two reasons left for me to go there. But my naïve gift from above, being capable of talking myself into being happy in critical situations, helped me once again this time. As if I was carrying a ticket for Thailand in my pockets, I packed my suitcase in high spirits, went to Düsseldorf airport agog with curiosity and took a seat on a plane of Turkish Airlines. As per the contract between my boss and our customer, my travel destination was expected to be Tehran: Iran’s capital in 2011. I never got there, though. At least not for the time being because, in my head, I was flying back! Not from Istanbul, where the aircraft had stopped over, but from Constantinople. Straight to the Iran of ancient times! To the Persian Empire, to the biggest and oldest empire the world has ever known! When the Chinese Qin Shinhuang thought that it was about time to create an empire in his native country in 221BC, the Persian Empire founded by Cyrus II was already running at full (cultural) speed for 300 years. After the Chinese had founded their empire, another 2,092 years pass by before the Prussian King, William I, proclaimed our German Empire. Admittedly, it had its downfall only 47 years later. Back to Constantinople airport.

       In the meantime, I and 240 other passengers had – abracadabra – boarded the magic carpet of Iran Air. I had seated myself in my reserved spot in business class when I heard a familiar voice singing from the cockpit.

       “I can show you the world shining, shimmering, splendid.”

       The enormous thrust of two Rolls Royce Persian rug engines© squeezed me into my seat – while the image of a fairy-tale orient formed in my head. I felt like a child who prefers living in dreams rather than in everyday life. I was on my way to the realm of legends, in search of life’s secret magic spell: on my way to the roots of Alif Leila Wa Leila – the colourful, secretive stories, barely exhaustible in their depth, from A Thousand And One Nights. And Aladdin is the pilot! It is well known that feelings of elation that you talk yourself into tend to be short-lived, just like those in a wonderful dream without a happy ending. When you fall for no reason and fall... and fall... and one second before hitting the ground, you are startled and wake up with a jerk drooling from the corners of your mouth.

       While I was still flailing my arms and legs in shock, I realised that I was in a cabin of a plane, a place well-known to me and a place where I had always felt safe. So far, at least.

       The screen in front of me indicated five minutes to landing. I read ‘Tehran’ next to the little star representing the destination on the map of the flight status. All of a sudden the alarm bells were ringing in my head. “Iran’s capital!” I spoke under my breath, “the centre of the rogue nation!” thereby tagging my destination with a term used by the US administration under George W. Bush. The next question I pondered was obvious.

       “What’s on board an Iran Air plane?” The answer was logical. “Rogues!” – Sleepers based in Europe on their way home for the holidays.

       I was terrified. I got the feeling that one of these holy warriors, who wants to secure a spot for himself in paradise had entrenched himself in my mind; he was ready to fire the explosive belt tied around his waist in the name of Allah. To get an overview of my abnormal situation, I carefully peeked over my backrest. Like a sniper, I conspicuously looked around from row to row and - Oh dear! I didn’t want to believe my eyes. When my eyes met the iron curtain separating business from economy class, an impulse made me jump from behind my firewall. Curiosity got the better hold of me. I rushed to the back, scanned the passengers with the alertness of an FBI agent in action, one by one until I got to the last row at the rear of the plane. On the way back to my seat, I reconsidered my situation and concluded, “Damn, if I had just not shaved after my bike tour!”

       I was the only one on board who (a) was not wearing a turban and (b) didn’t have a full grown beard. Even the female flight attendants had scrubby beards and bushy eyebrows pointing aslant to the bridge of their noses. I was surrounded by nothing but the gloomy characters you usually get to see only on title pages of newspapers after bomb attacks. Hook-nosed guys you wouldn’t want to encounter on the streets even on a bright sunny day, let alone be with on the same plane. I couldn’t help suspecting that our lovely Mrs. Haustein had, once again, only looked for the cheapest tickets when booking my flight. And, she wouldn’t have paid attention to the fine print – ‘Home leave’ in Iran. An offer you shouldn’t oversleep!

       This coded order – a programme to return all Iranian sleepers from Europe – was the logical explanation as to why I was the only one on board who was (a) clean-shaven and (b) wearing a baseball cap. And that’s why I was (c) watched furtively and suspiciously by 480 sinister eyes. This was no figment of my imagination. I could sense their evil stares. Feeling ill, I shut my eyes tight. I talked myself into believing that the stale thoughts of a Westerner were playing a mean trick on me. “Think positive!” I drummed into my head. “Try to see the good in humans and everything will be fine!” It wasn’t such an easy task, considering that I was on the plane with 240 rogues.

       I hesitantly opened one eye. Then the other. I looked to the left, saw the empty window seat and the oval plane window, but I couldn’t recognise anything positive about it apart from the fact that it was hermetically sealed. My eyes wandered to the right, to the plane’s centre row of seats. Two bearded guys, wearing grim looks on their faces and turbans, sat there. (My alarm bells automatically went off again). Two rogues! Mujahideens – scrupulous religious warriors wearing explosive belts underneath their robes. Goddamn! “Think positive,” I chastised myself and ordered my eyes to slide over the turbans to the opposite row of window seats. Only the aisle seat of the two was taken. To my surprise, it wasn’t occupied by a villain, but a villainess. One of the sorts you’d like to encounter in the street during sunlight or at nightfall. In all the confusion due to my perception being poisoned by Western media, the woman, in her mid-to-late-twenties, hadn’t caught my eye yet. To get a better view of her, I slid forward to the edge of my seat and turned my head to the right. This resulted in attracting the attention of all the beards in the centre aisle.

       “I didn’t mean you!” I wanted to yell at the guards of the theocratic Islamic state. I bit my lip, however, and employed a trick I had previously learned from some of their fellow countrymen. Instead of reacting to their menacing stares, I averted my eyes by turning my head slightly to the left, conveying the impression that I wasn’t interested in them but in the oval plane window next to me. Instead of doing that, I turned my eyeballs as much as possible to the right, to the utmost corner of my eyes until she came back in sight. The bearded guys couldn’t notice it from their restricted point of view. Unlike them, she didn’t have a turban. And no headscarf, either. She was wearing her hair loose! She was reading while her maroon, naturally curly hair, slightly longer than shoulder-length, fell sideways on her face. My gaze was entangled in a dense shroud of hair. I sensed how the corner of my eyes was starting to burn from peering. “If a tower clock were to strike now,” I heard my grandmother admonishing me in an attentive tone. “My eyeballs, dear grandmother, would remain in the corners and thereby improve my sight immensely.”

       Then she (the villainess, not my grandmother) turned the page of her book and mechanically tucked a strand of hair up that had fallen into her face. She tucked it behind her ear. She did it the way women wearing long hair unconsciously do countless times each day. Now that she had raised the veil, I could see her face. Thank Allah, she didn’t have a beard! Neither did she have a typically Persian hooked nose. Her facial features were softly brownish, like ebony. She smiled, apparently amused by a passage in her book.

       Several sentences later her smile widened to a truly refreshing laugh with two pure white rows of teeth showing. Congratulations to the author of the book who must have cleverly instigated the punch line, stalling and all of a sudden releasing it, eventually manifesting the beauty of his reader as a whole. Then her laugh ebbed away, becoming a smile once again. She put the open book in her lap, raised her head and looked around the plane’s cabin, brooding over the accomplished passage. That was when her eyes met mine. Her eyes were slightly almond-shaped, expressive, innocent, and unfathomable – two pitch-black eyes surrounded by incandescent white, so big, so beautiful and so clear, just like two marbles, with eyelashes so thick and long that even without mascara they make the dream of erotic eye batting come true. I named her Jasmine and – abracadabra – the world around me transformed once again.

       “I will show you the world...

       I could hear Aladdin singing from the cockpit again

       „ … shining, shimmering, splendid.”

       Since Aladdin too, besides his lead role as an actor, is (just) a man, I assumed that his singing wasn’t directed at me but at Jasmine. Just like in the fairy-tale when the pretty princess secretly mingles with the people, immersing herself in the bazaar district where she encounters Aladdin, the monkey Abu, and the travelling salesman who sells original Babylonian Tupperware, which makes farting noises when you open it.  I sensed a pang of jealousy triggered by the figment of my imagination that this cartoon character in bloomers could snatch Jasmine from under my nose.

       From my seat, I looked over to her. She was just putting her bookmark between two pages of the book. “It’s now or never!” I told myself and began to sing as well but louder than Aladdin.

       “I can open your eyes. Take you wonder by wonder”

       Jasmine closed her book, entirely unimpressed and without even the faintest of reactions to my singing. I gave everything. And this time even louder...

       “A whole new world. A new fantastic point of view”

       ...but to no avail.

       Engrossed in thoughts and occupied in her own world, she put the book into the handbag on the seat next to her. She zipped it up and unfastened her seatbelt, slid to the edge of her seat, arching her chest and putting her head lightly back and ran the fingers of both hands through her more than shoulder-length hair. I didn’t give up!

       “No one to tell us ‘no’ Or where to go. Or say we’re only dreaming”

       She got up. And my voice failed me.

    […]

    Tehran, Iran, July 2011
    Stephan Thiemonds©
    "359° - Worker, Writer, World-Traveller"