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29 Apr 2009 16:30No Comments

What's it like not to see Iran, but feel, smell and touch it? This is the first installment of Mani's travel log to Iran.

By MANI DJAZMI en route to Tehran

[Tehran Bureau] passport: Everything has its price. The price of the cheapest return flight from London to Tehran -- apart from, well, the price -- was an eleven-hour journey, involving a changeover at Istanbul's Ataturk airport. (It's a five-hour direct flight). So when I boarded the plane for Tehran, I was looking forward to putting on my iPod and drifting off for a few hours.

It was my first visit to Iran in four years and I was looking forward to experiencing Nowruz for the first time proper. What I didn't want was to sit next to an Iranian who's a martyr to ill health. You know the type: the kind of person who spends ten minutes detailing their various ailments, another five on who their doctor is and then five more on how, despite everything, they try and make the best of it and thank God for the good things in their life, one of which is presumably an indulgence in self-absorption.

This was Mina, a woman of around 60, with a voice like chalk being scraped down a blackboard, and definitely up for talking. I was sitting in the middle of three seats with another person on my left. But as I am blind, and they had remained silent thus far, their gender, age, voice-annoyance-level and favoured topics of conversations were, as yet, undetermined.

"I hope you don't mind me swapping seats with you," said Mina who had originally been in the middle seat and was now sitting alongside the isle. "It's just that I have a problem with my circulation and need to go for regular walks." "Not at all," I said, hoping that the conversational cul de sac down which I was leading her would put an end to things and give me some peace. "If you need anything, just let me know," she offered as the plane lifted into the night sky, tilting me back invitingly against the headrest.

"Excuse me, you seem very familiar," Mina suddenly squawked at the person on my left. I was torn between relief that the spotlight had moved off me, childish glee that someone else was now the focus of attention and annoyance that my best-laid plans for sleep were once-again being scuppered.

"I don't think so," said the person on my left, who turned out to be a man. "You don't recognize me?" persisted Mina. "No. I'm sorry. Have we met?" "We certainly have," said Mina, injecting something of a twinkle into her voice. This suddenly had the potential for interest. I listened on...

"Your first name is Reza I think," Mina said. "Yes it is," said Reza, with a mixture of surprise and understandable disconcertment, which only increased when Mina played her ace card and correctly told him his surname. All thoughts of sleep, for the moment at least, had gone. This was well worth staying up for.

"Did we go rowing together once in Germany?" asked Reza, obviously hoping to hit the jackpot first time. "No, that wasn't me," replied Mina with, what I thought was a hint of disappointment in her voice. "I'm sorry, I have a terrible memory. Didn't we do a tour of museums once?" "No," replied Mina again. You old dog, Reza, I thought.

"We were classmates at language school in London," Mina said. "Yes! You're right!" Reza exclaimed. I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt and believe he really did remember. "How many years is it?" he asked. "It must be nearly 40. I have a very good memory for these things," said Mina.

"So you know each other then?" I said, feeling that, as literally the middle man, I should say something. "Yes, we dated in London," Mina said shyly but happily. Of course I immediately did the honourable thing and offered to change places with Reza but he said he was fine where he was, so they continued to talk across me. It turned out that their relationship ended after Mina visited Reza in Germany, where he went to live after his London adventures. After that, their lives took them along different paths. Both got married, had children and got divorced before, after 38 years, they met up again on a random aeroplane. What are the chances?

"You should swap numbers," I suggested. Quick as a flash, Mina snatched up a pen and a piece of paper and took down Reza's home and mobile numbers and his email address. Then, after around two and a half hours of catching up and reliving memories of love's young dream, she suddenly remembered her poor circulation and got up to go for a walk. "Be careful, Mina jan," said Reza, throwing off the shackles of Iranian formality.

"Would you like us to give you any help?" asked Reza as the plane began its descent to Imam Khomeini International airport, which stands on the outskirts of nowhere. So it's "us" now, is it? I thought. "No thank you," I said, thinking that they'd probably prefer a more private parting. It would be farewell though, I was sure, rather than goodbye.

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