I came back from a one week trip to Iran yesterday. It was generally an uneventful trip, quietly dealing with family and personal matters. But the last night I spent there made up for the quiet time!!
I was at home with my parents and Saeed turned up, as he had been doing regularly. To mark my last night in the holy city of Mashhad, Saeed thoughfully had a transparent plastic bottle of mineral water with him. Of course we knew this was not mineral water, but good quality home-made booze which is available easily on the black market, through trusted parties. Ever since the revolution Iranians have been fermenting and distilling anything that moves.
I got a bottle of Coke and some ice from the fridge. (Coke is the preferred mixer for this home-made vodka.) We had a good quantity to drink. The day had been a positive one, and this was a nice finale.
At around 11.30pm Saeed’s friend phoned him on his mobile. (Iranians all have trendy looking mobiles and are constantly using them.) It was a friend whom I had met once, inviting us to a party of another friend. Saeed handed the phone to me so I could be invited in person. “Hello Doctor”, he said in a slurred voice. (If you are a Doctor or have a PhD, people refer to you as such, as a mark of respect, until you ask — or more accurately insist — that they call you otherwise. Even then the game will continue in the typical Iranian self-depracating way. Addressing people is a complex art in Iran, depending on rank, relative age, relationship, etc.) This guy was clearly drunk and could hardly say his words in the right order. Nonetheless, we exchanged pleasantries, I said how I always remember the time we spent together at his house, and we agreed to join the party.
I had a shower and changed and Saeed went around the corner to his house to do the same. We set off around midnight, Saeed driving, although the party was only a couple of streets away. I was looking forward to getting out of the house and meeting some new people. Not having planned to go out, we had had raw onions with our meal (rice and kebab) so we both started chewing some strong peppermint gum in order to be more socially acceptable.
As we approached the house in a narrow lane, I spotted a police car ahead, coming towards us. I alerted Saeed who had not seen it. Because of the way cars had parked, one of us had to wait for the other to get by. My vote would have been to wait for the police car, but Saeed had other ideas. He sped ahead, blocking the patrol car, and even slowed down right next to the police car, looking for the house number, slowing the other car’s exit. I guess the tactic was machismo, to show we had nothing to fear from the police, but this was going too far. As we passed, still peering at house numbers, the patrol car backed up so drivers were level. At this time I regretted having left my incontinence pants behind!
There were two people in the police car. The officer, and a junior next to him. He asked for Saeed’s documents which he provided, jovially adding he was Saeed, at his service, and introduced me as “Aghaye Doktor” (i.e. the Doctor, made even politer by adding “Mr” in front of it) who is visiting from abroad. They parked the cars and he asked Saeed out to talk to him. I spent a few quiet and uncomfortable moments in the car, wondering if there was a chance of catching my flight out of the country in 24 hours’ time.
The officer was a softly spoken, smiling man, but the thought of getting 90 lashes by a good looking smiling officer didn’t seem more attractive than by an ugly, angry one. He came to the driver’s window briefly:
“Mr Doctor, where do you live?” he asked gently.
“Oh, London” I said, with a big smile trying to give the impression that it was so lovely to be home after all these years.
“And what is your doctorate in?”.
“Physics” I said with an exclamation, hoping to divert the conversation.
He went back to Saeed outside. I could only hear parts of the conversation. He was asking where we were going. Saeed said number 35, which we were parked outside. My fear now was that they would insist on coming into the house with us. In the past parties have been stormed and all guests and hosts arrested. As it happens we had the wrong number. (Remembering how drunk the friend at the end of the phone was, that is not surprising!)
The officer came back to the car, this time at my window, still with the most charming smile. I unsuccessfully tried to increase the distance between our faces to more than two feet, and chewed even more strongly on my industrial strength peppermint gum. Of course the onion was the least of my problems right now! (Actually, I remember that a trick after drink parties in Iran just after the revolution was to eat some onion, because the police would smell for alcohol, and got a whiff of onion instead.)
“Mr Doctor“, your driver seems to be drunk. In your opinion is he in fact drunk?
“No, officer. Believe me, I really don’t think he is drunk“, I said, with a serious expression mimicking that of a real doctor.
“Oh, but I think he is you know“.
“Officer, I really really do not think he is drunk.” I said, pressing my palm to my chest, signifying honesty. Actually I didn’t lie. Sure, he had a few shorts, but a long way from being drunk!
What I didn’t realise at this point was that the officer was hinting to the western-living Mr Doctor that a little lubrication of the palms might solve the problem — and the lubrication from Mr Doctor might be more generous than that from just another driver in town. Clearly he was wasting his time with the naive Mr Doctor, so he went back to Saeed. I could not bear sitting in the car any longer. I went out and started a bonding exercise with the officer. (Being the older person gives you a lot of social flexibility in Iran.)
“Jenaab Sarvaan” (Mr Officer). I looked deep into his eyes and put a hand on his ample upper arm. “I am telling you, this man is not drunk. Believe me.”
I have to say I was not prepared for the next line from Saeed.
“But Mr Officer“, protested Saeed, “I am telling you, I am drunk. Mr Doctor doesn’t know. I had a drink at my house and just went to pick up Mr Doctor. Believe me, I am drunk. Not only that, I am going to my friend’s house to drink some more.”
At this point Saeed pleaded with me to go back into the car and let Mr Officer deal with him. I went back and slumped in my seat, drained and confused. Sure, Saeed was protecting me by getting me out of the equation, but is that not going a bit far? (Drinking is an offence in Iran, whether or not you are driving!) Saeed is an intensely social creature and can charm a snake, but I wasn’t optimistic at this stage. I caught part of the conversation again:
“Would you want me to take you to the station“, asked the officer.
“I know you won’t take me to the station” said Saeed. “If I thought there was a chance of that, I wouldn’t confess so readily to being drunk!” In a sense Saeed was appealing to his humanity and had been super-honest with him, and now challenging him to reward his honesty by arresting him.
Shortly after I could hear that there was some kind of resolution, and Saeed’s mesmerising banter was music to my ears. I saw big smiles on both faces and the two of them were shaking hands. (I learned later that 10,000 toomans — around $10 — was exchanged during the handshake.) I decided to go out of the car again, just in time to hear Saeed say “Officer, I have some good stuff. Would you join us some time?” The officer looked at me and him and said no, he didn’t drink. As he got in his patrol car Saeed said he really wanted to be friends with him and could he have his mobile number. He dictated it and Saeed put it directly into his own mobile phone. What name should he put, he asked, this time interrogating the officer who was now sitting in his car.
“Just write Hamid“, said the officer.
“I will write Hamid joon“, said Saeed, emphasizing the “joon”. (“joon” is the informal of “jaan” which means “life”. So it would mean “My dearest Hamid” or “My darling Hamid“.)
I shook hands with the officer too and we parted ways, onto our next drinking destination. The next day Saeed called Hamid and reminded him of our encounter. He asked which car we were driving, and Saeed told him.
“Ah with Mr Doctor, yes?”
“That’s the one. Hamid joon, I am looking for someone to share a few glasses of good stuff with me. Are you on?”
“I am at your service” said the officer!