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A Tourist in Zahedan

by MICHELLE MAY

29 Jul 2010 21:306 Comments

[ passport ] If you tell your average Iranian that you want to go Zahedan, chances are they will think you need your head examined. Zahedan is normally associated with opium smugglers, kidnapping, and religious tensions -- not tourism. Of course, I didn't expect anyone to get it. I wanted to visit Zahedan for the same reasons I go many places: a friend told me colorful stories of the city and the wonderful people he met there. I was also lured by the promise of camel races, the availability of beautiful Balouchi mirrored fabrics, and the hints of Pakistan, just across the border.

Getting to Zahedan was half the fun. The final stretch was a long, dusty, hot ride in a jalopy-like bus that blared Pakistani music. We stopped in the middle of the desert to pick up large plastic vats of gasoline that were camouflaged and hidden under burlap bags. The fumes from this new cargo were so strong that many passengers became sick. Not too long after that, a policeman and three shackled prisoners waved us down and hitched a ride. Despite what we hear in America, Iran is actually a safe place to travel. I must admit, though, journeying alongside smuggled gasoline and chained prisoners with little police support was completely off the radar of what I was used to.

As we crossed from Bam to Zahedan, a tiny Toyota pickup carrying men with covered faces came out of crags in the distant pointy mountains. This happened occasionally. They carried rifles and flagged us down for one thing or another: a vat of gasoline, money, a cigarette, a ride. I prayed that it was not for the prisoners on board and that they were not looking for hostages.

The girl in front of me had two black eyes and a large bandage on her nose, with two metal strips taped to the side maintaining its shape. I assumed that she must have gone to a bigger city like Shiraz or Tehran for a nose job. I was spying on her as she dabbed old blood from her nostrils with a tissue when the bus abruptly halted in the middle of a lunar landscape. There was a giant white building a few meters away with white bars all around it. A sign in English said "Prison." My fellow passengers and I breathed sighs of relief as the skinny policeman nudged the three manacled prisoners off the bus.

Five minutes later, I had an anticlimatic arrival in Zahedan. Instead of defending ourselves from gasoline smugglers and prisoners, I was faced with a skirmish of taxi touts, something I associate with India rather than Iran. Scruffy taxi drivers yelled and pushed each other, fighting over who was going to drive the one obvious tourist over the Pakistan border, where I was not, in fact, headed. A man, no more than 25, with biceps bulging out of his tight white T-shirt, beeped his car horn to get the taxi touts out of the way. He pulled up in their place, saying something to me out his window that I did not understand. What was most appealing about him was that he looked like neither a taxi driver nor a kidnapper. The girl with the nose job and her mother put their bags in his trunk, smiled at me kindly, and motioned for me to get in the car. The Adonis muscle man in white said, "Zahedan. Danger. Police."

Wanting to escape the taxi touts, who were now embroiled in a physical altercation, I got in the car with the Adonis, the girl with the nose job, and their (presumed) mother. As they drove me to my hotel, they introduced themselves. I could barely pronounce, much less remember, their names. The Adonis raised two fingers and made air scissors. As he drove, he mimed cutting off his nose, pretending to be in pain, paying little attention to the road. He then pointed to the girl, who I took to be his sister. She giggled. When we arrived, I thanked them profusely, relieved that it was not some elaborate kidnapping scheme. From that point on, I was with mandatory police escort for the rest of my stay in Zahedan, most of the time anyway.

I must admit, I was a little excited to experience my first ever police escort. It felt like a potential bonding experience between me and Iran. Buying fabric at the bazaar was the only definite item on my agenda. After I dropped my bag in my room, the helpful hotel manager called the police to let them know they had a "customer" (there was no cost for the police escort). About 20 minutes later, three cars arrived.

First we had to go to the police station and register my arrival. The process took a while and the police chief appeared to be in no mood to expedite matters. For over an hour, I sat on a bench in his office as crack addicts, bag snatchers, and young reckless drivers were brought in and locked up. At one point, a very sad scene unfolded in the courtyard. A man brought his mother to the station; she was kicking and screaming as she tore off her headscarf and manteau. Afterward, she lay on a small patch of grass as her son tried in vain to console her. A few minutes later an ambulance came and took them both away.

Five policemen in their 20s from different parts of Iran -- none from Zahedan -- were my inaugural escorts. One spoke English, so I tried to describe the Baluchi fabric that I was hoping to find: red, black, with tiny little mirrors all over. As we walked to the bazaar, I was distracted by how differently people dressed in this part of Iran: men wore long white robes and round religious caps, many with long beards; many women were wearing the burqa.

balouchi+fabric.jpgOnce in the bazaar, we were far from invisible -- everyone stopped what they were doing and stared at us. My escorts paid no mind. They kept moving, pointing to different fabrics that were anything but Balouchi: machine-made "silks," flowery patterns, and polyesters made in China. They insisted that this is what Balouchi women wore, and I didn't doubt them. When I finally found what I was looking for (pictured), the bartering process began, with translation provided via policeman. This was the worst way to get a good price. As we attempted to negotiate, several skinny young boys with big smiles and dirty, baggy clothing approached us. "Hello, how are you?" they giggled and ran. After I said hello back a few times, they started to crowd around, as did random ladies draped in burqas, watching the bidding war, and examining the red, black, and mirrored Balouchi fabric that they had probably never given a second thought to until that moment.

We tried to get a better price. If I bought five, would they offer a discount? As I tried to explain this with sign language, the policemen started to swat the young boys away like flies. The policeman who spoke English casually explained: "Afghanis." I stopped the bartering, horrified by how the boys were being treated. I put my hands on two of the boys' shoulders and said, "My friends." The police officer rolled his eyes. He must have been thinking, So buy your friggin' fabrics already, lady.

Since the seller wouldn't reduce the price, I suggested a dramatic "walk away" to see if he would call us back and lower the figure. The seller remained silent as we walked off in a huff. We looked at other stalls with mirrored Baluchi fabrics, but none were as good as the first guy's merchandise. I had to rein myself in. I did not come all the way to Zahedan on that crazy bus and obtain police escort not to buy some quality fabric, did I? We went back and bought five pieces. No discount.

My experience shopping with police escort was like dragging a boyfriend or brother shopping, times ten, except these guys did not even know me and I felt obnoxious for being so concerned with souvenirs when life in Baluchistan is so hard for so many. On the way back to the station, we walked by an ice cream parlor packed with smiling families. I ran in and purchased two large tubs of rose-flavored ice cream as a thank you to the cops. We took the ice cream back to the station to surprise the other officers. The chief who had dragged his feet earlier seemed appreciative but still made me wait another hour for an escort home.

As more and more new prisoners arrived and were shackled, the sun set and the sky turned pink.

August 2008.

Michelle May is a San Francisco-based travel writer and blogs here. The next installment will be her feature on Bam.

related reading: Zahedan and the Vote | Letter from Zahedan | michelle may The Abduction | An American in Iran

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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6 Comments

I have never been to Zahedan,I wish to go there actually! I want one of those clothes this lady bought 5 of them LOL

Anonymous / July 29, 2010 8:23 PM

Wonderful recount, which matches with my experiences in Zahedan, although minus the police escort. I guess Ms May was watched closely for fear of being abducted by local Baluchi smuggler gangs and being a spy (typical Iranian paranoia, especially in that border area). The different nationalities of police officers are accurately observed, but the same goes for students at Zahedan University, coming from different parts of Iran.
Unfortunately Sistan and Baluchestan is notoriously underestimated by Iranians. I miss its cultural singularity and overwhelming landscape, reminding me of haft aseman (seven skies).

Arshama / July 29, 2010 8:52 PM

That's a wonderful story, I was surprised to see it was two years old! Really a great picture of the country and people, and you have a great sense of fun! I look forward to reading many more...

Jeff / July 29, 2010 10:52 PM

hi! it's so great, and the video is awesome! i want to go to Zahedan, i even want the sandstorm!!

robbie / July 30, 2010 1:47 AM

Sounds like a good way to end up like 3 people in the next story. But I'm sure it's great fun up 'til the time your mama is crying on tv for a year.

muhammad billy bob / July 30, 2010 6:33 PM

What an experience. I definitely sympathize with the run for fabrics. Great videos too :) Can't wait to read more.

Loreen / October 25, 2010 9:11 AM