I have always wondered why I feel attracted to one of the darker
corners of the world. On a recent trip to Iran I suddenly had this
feeling of attraction again. Sitting in a taxi driving me through
nightly Teheran I was overcome by old memories and had one of these rare
moments of total satisfaction. As I was recognizing roads I used to
roam and the driver's chatter brought back Iran's language back to me, I
wondered how the intenseness of these feelings could be explained.
The last time I had had this feeling before was in the same country,
when I was approaching a bus terminal. Knowing that I would soon explore
a new place and the bustling atmosphere of the terminal, I was also
invaded by this sensation. Other memories include taking boats to set
over the Red sea, riding Sudanese lorries through the Sahara or boarding
planes to Morocco. The feeling is best described by a sensation of
unlimited freedom, certainty about the future and a deep satisfaction.
One explanation for this is that traveling gives me this sensation of
freedom. Travelling to a new place means leaving behind obligations;
unlimited opportunities seem behind the horizon; no need to take any
decisions now, only the focus to arrive at the other side. These are
certainly attractive traits for me.
But this still leaves open the question why I feel attracted to the Middle East and not to Iceland.
I certainly like the friendliness and pride of the people in the Middle
East. Like for example the taxi driver, a dignified 60 year old man with
white temples and friendly sunburnt face clearly marked by the
experience of his life, who would drive me from my hotel to work and
back every day. Eventually we got to chat and I noticed his excellent
English, much better than the current generation's. He told me that he
was a military man and how he would be trained by American instructors
in the Shah's army. He spoke about why he was driving a taxi instead of
enjoying his retirement after 40 year in the military. After the Islamic
revolution, a second military, the revolutionary guards, were created
by the authorities as a safeguard against the regular army which was
deemed to have been too close to the Shah. Nowadays resources are above
all pumped into the revolutionary guards corps and the regular army
starved of funds, so that while revolutionary guards enjoy a comfortable
life in retirement, regular soldiers need extra jobs to make ends meet.
Yet it was with pride that he showed me his war hero card, he was
wounded in an Iraqi attack on his missile battery, and I could see in
his honest eyes how there was no doubt that he would fight to defend his
country even though his new masters were about to starve him.
But while Middle Eastern people are certainly among the world's most
friendly, there are also friendly people elsewhere. How is it that I
precisely like the Middle East so much?
There is a fascination about the place that has a powerful appeal to me.
Ever since I first saw the Arabic alphabet I have been enchanted by the
letters and I am enthralled by oriental architecture. In Iran to this
come overwhelming mosques and the beautiful parks. There is something
about 1001 nights to them, especially at night when they are lighted in
red, green and blue colours and one thinks to spot trolls and other
creatures walking through the trees and bushes. Fountains and springs
are another characteristic of the country. I remember walking through
Isfahan at night to visit the many bridges spanning the river Zayande,
when we suddenly saw a fountain combining the mysteries of 1001 nights
with those of Iran's waterways. On a concrete square small fountains
arranged in a quadrat and illuminated in different colours would rise
and sink in turn. Children would play, yet a silence hung over the
place. The fog that seems to suffocate public expressions of joy, mind
boggling in the light of playing children and pickniqing families, yet
an omnipresent cult is holding down emotions as a tribute to the martyrs
in a country that seem to be driving with the emotion hand brake put.
I suspect that my fascination also has something to do with this darker
side, for freedom certainly lacks in many places of the Middle East. Yet
it is precisely there that I feel most free. This begs the questions if
I don't need oppression to feel free? Maybe freedom is like oxygen, the
more you lack it the more you need it and the more aware you get of
your need for it.