Now, if you don’t have time to read all of the stories, at least read this story. The people involved deserve it.
I just had some really tasty soup and a cold drink in a small shop in Marand, a mid-seized city in the north of Iran, when I continued my journey over one of its main roads. Five minutes underway when all of a sudden a young men – light-colored eyes, growing his first beard, orange shirt – cycled next to me. ‘Where are you from,’ he – just as a lot of his fellow countrymen and women do – started the conversation. His name, Amir Hossein. ‘You know Yashar? You must visit Yashar. He has a café.’
The stomach full, my thirst lessened and the fact that Sina, a truck driver whom I met earlier on the high plains of Armenia, was waiting for me in Soofian, a city forty kilometers down the road, made me hesitate. ‘You really should go,’ he persisted with twinkling eyes. ‘Okay then. Let’s go,’ I answered. We turned around, I followed him through the traffic and before I knew it, we were standing in front of a wooden door: café WE. ‘This is it. Come!’ We walked up some stairs and entered a small room, dimly lit, beautifully decorated, instrumental Iranian music in the background. There were no customers.
While Amir went away, I sat down and a waiter approached me. ‘What can I get you?’ I ordered an espresso with ice cream. When the order found its way to my table, another person came up and introduced himself. ‘Hi, I am Yashar. This is my café. What do you think of it?’ It was too early to form a well-informed opinion I told him, but I liked the atmosphere. ‘Thanks. Soon people start coming in so I need to work, but if you like you can stay and we can talk later. I have an interesting story to tell you.’ With Sina in the back of my mind, I felt like leaving after the espresso. If Yashar hadn’t said that mystifying last sentence, I might have left. I didn’t and in hindsight, it was the right choice (I would catch up with Sina in Tabriz).
The decision being made it, I started exploring the café a little further. There was another floor with two balconies that overlooked the street and the city. Also there was a rather big painted map of the world on a wall with messages from visiting travelers and a bicycle in the staircase, both subtle hints regarding ‘the interesting story’. And there was a boy, still a child, called Ali, helping around in the café.
I found myself a table in the café, sat down and started doing what I love most while traveling: quietly observing the world and the people around me. One by one, people kept pouring in. Men, women, young, old. I began taking notes when two women asked if they could join me. ‘Of course,’ I said. Both speaking very good English, they told about Iran and how it is, living as young woman in an Islamic republic. They, as many other people I had spoken to in the last couple of days, were pretty straightforward, telling me it was quite difficult, oppressive and restrictive. If they got a chance, they would like to go abroad. I felt privileged once more when we said goodbye to one another.
Not long was I by myself when Ali jumped on a chair next to me. His curiosity was stronger than his work ethics, which I liked. We talked a little, I learned him a new handshake, he showed me his bike (named: Flash). I gave him one of my bracelets, he learned me a trick. I took a picture with him and Yashar and printed it for him (he carried the photo carefully wherever he went before placing it in a spot he could watch it from every corner of the café), he kicked my ass playing noughts and crosses.
I was still trying to beat Ali when we got interrupted by two students. They were sisters, twins and both as curious as Ali was. We talked about living and studying in Iran, English literature, make up, philosophy, social media, etc. One thing they made very clear to me: it’s hard for foreigners to understand how it is, living in Iran, especially living there as a woman. Before coming to Iran, I read an interesting book about the last Shah and the revolution in the seventies. It learned me that changes in Iran suddenly arise, as if choreographed by a single architect. The under current grows but they hide, they wait patiently for a sign before suddenly erupting, sacrificing everything, not sparing breath nor blood for the change they think is necessary. I asked them if they could feel such a change was on the horizon. They were rather pessimistic. Do you think it is worth fighting for a change in the beginning? Their honest answer: they didn’t know. Shakespeare and existentialism got us out the negative spiral and we laughed, wished each other all the best and said goodbye.
New customers came in, old ones left. A guy looking like Pitbull (Mister Worldwide) offered me a drink and showed me pictures of his motorcycle and scarcely dressed women. An enthusiastic guy told me about all the wonderful, bottom up, sustainable initiatives he had started throughout the region. I felt hope. Someone’s birthday was celebrated, they gave me cake. It’s was a real treat, sitting in the café, observing and meeting new people, Ali never leaving my side.
The evening turned in the night, people left and Yashar, Ali and the employees cleaned cafe WE. We went to Yashar’s parents place and ate. Well after midnight, Yashar had time to tell his interesting story. As all good stories began long ago, so does this one. Yashar, being sixteen back then, was attending his last year of high school when he met a French cyclist in his hometown who was traveling the world by bike. Able to speak English as one of the few around, he learned through the cyclist about the two-wheeled adventure, became intrigued and offered him a shower, food, a place to sleep and above all, companionship.
The introduction with cycling tourists sparked two ideas within Yashar. First he realized, I can travel by bike as well. So he started exploring his own country on two tires. He climbed mountains, followed rivers and crossed the desert. Through his travels, he also found out in which way he could help future cyclists in the best possible way, since that was his second idea: host as many cyclists as possible and give them a warm welcome.
As time went by, more and more cyclists found their way to Yashar’s home. Especially after close friend Akbar Naghdi, the famous Iranian ultra marathon runner who ran the last miles of a marathon with an American flag – showing his solidarity to US marathon runners who couldn’t compete, wasn’t allowed hosting any foreigners, Yashar picked up his game. He started hosting more people, waiting for them on the highway, coming from Julfa. In once case, his hospitality led to eight cyclists staying there at the same time. In another case, Yashar’s place of rendezvous led to a marriage and eventually even a child. Up to this point, Yashar has met over a 1000 cyclists and hosted at least 800 of them, coming from more than 30 different countries. All the while running a café, which is a true recommendation for meeting locals and therefore worth paying a visit.
Although this story is about to end, there will likely be a follow up. Why? All the travel stories and foreign sounds have made Yashar curious to our cultures. He wants to travel himself as well, across borders, by bike, meeting people like you and me. Unfortunately, while not choosing for the army or studying but rather running a café (which is a brave decision on its own if you’d asked me) he cannot travel because he has no passport at the moment. In the near future, we, as a global community, can help him by donating a small amount of money so he is able to buy his passport without needing to join the army for two years or spending unnecessary time in classrooms (higher education in Iran is not that good, locals say). So, please stay tuned, wait for the architect’s signal and go, precisely as the Iranians do.
PS: Amir Hossein, thank you for the safe escort to Soofian. Also a shout out to you for the beautiful singing along the way. Take care, brother.