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Lessons of Bam


04 Aug 2010 18:085 Comments

[ passport ] In the early morning of December 26, 2003, a powerful earthquake, 6.6 on the Richter scale, hit just outside of Bam. I learned the news in Morocco, where I was staying in a guesthouse. I found the owner weeping in the lobby as he watched television images of lifeless bodies being pulled from the rubble, mothers wailing, and children crying, dust-covered and confused without their parents. Tragically, 27,000 of the 43,000 residents of Bam lost their lives. The city had been devastated in a matter of minutes.

At the time I had never been to Iran. But I had dreamed of visiting Bam and its picturesque citadel, the Arg-e Bam, a giant 2,000-year-old city on the Silk Road that appeared to be made entirely of mud.

When I finally made it to Iran, I was told that there was nothing to do in Bam anymore. It would be "depressing" to go there. A diplomat in Tehran warned me not to travel east of Kerman -- and definitely not to Bam. A lone Japanese tourist visiting the now empty ruins there had recently been kidnapped by opium smugglers. Still, framed posters of the city, with before and after shots side by side, hung in hotel lobbies, restaurants, and Internet cafes, gently reminded me that it was still there.

Instead of continuing to wonder how Bam was recovering, I decided to go and find out for myself. A friend gave me a contact, Mr. Akbar, a local legend who runs a budget guesthouse. When I called ahead to make sure there was room, he joked that his lodgings were "full."

At the bus depot, a tall lean man with white hair and a long friendly face greeted me: Mr. Akbar. As the only foreign traveler, I was easy to identify. We drove through the city, which resembled a giant construction site -- 95 percent of the buildings had been destroyed. Mr. Akbar informed me that before the earthquake his guesthouse was always fully booked, but now he considered it lucky if he had just one guest per night.

Because of the kidnapping of the Japanese tourist, who had spent time at his guesthouse, Mr. Akbar let me know that he would see to it that I was never alone in Bam. I told him that, having just come from Zahedan, I was used to this.

Once we reached his simple, newly constructed single-story building, he let me have my choice of rooms. I settled for one with two double beds covered in white satin bedspreads. The tiny shared bathroom was so new that the white tile appeared fluorescent. On the side of the sink, rather than soap, there was a can of caulk.

It was the middle of the day -- too hot to go to the citadel. Instead I joined Mr. Akbar on the back porch, a basic slab of concrete with a tarp for shade. Our view was of a small patch of overgrown grass littered with construction materials, rubble, and an unassembled toilet framed by a grey cinder block wall. An adorable brown baby goat named "Sweetie" grazed around the construction materials, munching on tall green grass, unfazed.

Mr. Akbar explained that he is a retired English professor. When he was younger he traveled all over Europe by himself, enjoying the international traveler community of the hostels. Inspired by those experiences, after his retirement he indulged his fantasy of hosting guests from all over the world and opened his own guesthouse in Bam. It quickly became the place for international travelers to stay. Of course, our conversation soon shifted to what happened that early morning of December 26, 2003.

Christmas Day was a celebratory one at Mr. Akbar's guesthouse. The guests and the Akbars shared a feast and played music together. Mr. Akbar went home to his other residence after dinner, while his son, Mohammad, slept at the guesthouse to tend to the visitors' needs. Then the quake hit.

That morning, Mr. Akbar and his family along with travelers pulled as many as they could from the rubble with their bare hands. Mohammed was one of those pinned in the rubble, unable to move or scream for help. Fortunately, Mr. Akbar knew where Mohammad slept, so he knew where to dig to try to rescue him -- he was freed after just four hours. Sadly, two guests did not make it: one was an American on a guided tour, the other a British man riding a motorcycle along the Silk Road. Mr. Akbar's eyes watered as he spoke about his last conversations with them. He kept telling me how nice they each were.

The first days after the earthquake Mr. Akbar and his family lived on the street outside the guesthouse. It was freezing. They had no change of clothes and nothing to eat or drink. At night, they huddled together to keep warm. A few days later they moved into a tent. His guesthouse had been a meeting point before the earthquake; thanks to his charisma, excellent English skills, and extensive knowledge of Bam and its inhabitants, it was no surprise that the tent outside of the fallen guesthouse became a de facto meeting point for the NGOs that descended on the city. He and his family -- most of whom speak English -- began working as translators. Mr. Akbar said that there was no time to reflect on what happened, they just had to act. His was the first "hotel" to reopen, offering free food and tents to sleep in. Instead of housing tourists, he was now housing aid workers.

Determined to rise from the ashes, Mr. Akbar is building a newer and even better multistory guesthouse right next door. His telling face once again shifted from triumphant to grief-stricken as he spoke of his 48 close friends who died in the earthquake. It may sound like an exaggeration, but Mr. Akbar is so outgoing that I really could see him having 100 best friends. Most evenings he sits outside his guesthouse on a plastic stool listening to his portable radio, chatting with nearly every passerby on the dusty street still strewn with rubble and refuse.

Since there were not many things to "do" in Bam, I spent my days learning about the rebuilding and getting to know Mr. Akbar, his son and daughter, and his wife, who lives across town -- I went there for many of my meals. Mohammad took me to graveyards that were as big as cities and piles of rubble that were as high as the foothills. I asked him if any of the NGOs assisted him with the psychological trauma of being pinned under rubble for several hours.

He replied, "What can they do? Nothing really." He explained that when so many people have lived through the same exact trauma it "takes the pressure off," making it easier to heal somehow. Mohammad spoke about how we all have to die sometime and that we don't really have a say in whether it takes place sooner or later.

After we walked around a few cemeteries, Mohammad took me to the Arg-e Bam, where he used to guide guests for at least three hours at a stretch. Now, he said, he is lucky if he can make a tour last an entire hour. The day that we went, there was no one there except us and the workers reconstructing the citadel brick by brick, a UNESCO-aided project. I watched as Mohammad found newly reopened "alleys" in the old city, allowing him to visit places he had not been to since before the earthquake. These spots were now just piles of rubble, yet he smiled and laughed as he told stories of happier times when he brought tourists here to drink nonalcoholic beer and smoke water pipes. Like his father, Mohammad speaks several languages, loves to be with people of various cultures, and has a passionate curiosity about the world.

We found some shade under a newly reconstructed arch, and Mohammad told me more about the friends whose graves we had visited earlier that day. One of them died with his new bride as they slept together on their wedding night. He told me that his long-time girlfriend had also perished, almost as if it was an afterthought. When I expressed my horror that he had lost so many so close to him, he reminded me that the lives of everyone in Bam had been affected by the earthquake. He said that everyone knew at least 20 people who had died, and many lost their entire families. Actually, he explained, he feels like one of the luckier ones.

I spent my last evening in Bam talking with Mr. Akbar over tea and a bowl of grapes. My host had proved himself to be positive and jovial, but also a hardcore realist all too aware that life can turn in a heartbeat. His mantra seems to be, As long as you are still here on earth, you had better really live. Because of that the conversation shifted to love and romance. He told me about leaving the love of his life back in Europe 40 years ago, something that still pains him. He says in those days he had no choice; he had to return to Iran and answer to tradition by marrying locally. He lectured me on how lucky the younger generation and I were to be able to choose.

Mr. Akbar then inquired why was I single, why was I traveling alone. When I did not have a solid answer for him, he asked me if I was a lesbian. He let me know that he was cool with that -- bisexuals and lesbians passed through his guesthouse all the time, he said. Not quite sure where he was taking the conversation, I let him excavate a man from my not-so-distant past who had broken my heart. He asked how, given all of what I had just seen in Bam, I could waste another precious moment being sad about some loser back home. He was right.

Mr. Akbar took me to flag down a bus on the roadside the next morning. His head lowered as he waited and he grew quiet. Maybe I was reading too much into it, but I thought he was sad to see me go. For the time of my visit, he had been able to return to his true character -- the charming man with all the wild stories and solid advice, the character you remember more than any 2,000-year-old city. As a bus approached and slowed, kicking up clouds of dust, Mr. Akbar handed me several of his business cards: "Tell tourists to come to Bam -- we're still here and open for business."

Michelle May is a San Francisco-based travel writer and blogs here.

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Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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akhe in che chertie bejaye mosighie matn gozashtin, az seraj khoda biamorz ke too zelzele fot shod ya shajarian vaghean ke!!!!

ramona / August 4, 2010 7:02 PM

Beautifully written.

Banafsheh / August 4, 2010 9:34 PM

Or course he was sad to see you go! Who wouldn't be? You're a gracious and articulate guest -- and your writing reflects your empathy, intelligence and kindness. Beautifully done.

Jeff Greenwald / August 5, 2010 12:57 AM

wow, it's so lovely and touching.

wobbie / August 5, 2010 11:26 PM

Michelle, Thank you for the glimpse of a city with such a rich history and caring people. I hope to hear that their rebuilding efforts are going well. A well written and very touching story!

Sheila Meneely / August 8, 2010 2:08 AM