So, I got the hell out of Tehran. There’s still loads more there I’d like to see but I needed to get out of the big city and get somewhere calmer, and I’ve scheduled two days to finish off the capital at the end of the trip. One overnight bus later I was in the north-west town of Tabriz, once upon a time the capital of Iran/Persia (along with at least three other non-Tehran cities).

Tabriz was really nice – smaller, more manageable. I wandered around and visited the Blue Mosque which was destroyed by earthquake centuries ago but is only now being rebuilt, checked out the Poet’s Monument which is a study in concrete, and trekked out to the village of Kandawar in which houses are carved out of these bizarre stone outcrops in the mountains. I also discovered a street-snack called “potato egg” which is literally a boiled potato and a boiled egg mashed into a large flat piece of lavash-style bread, generously seasoned with butter, salt, paprika and oregano. With such a sensational starch bomb costing only 60 cents a pop I never wanted to leave.

At regular periods throughout my three days in Tabriz I was stopped by locals who wondered where I was from, welcomed me to Iran, and generally wanted to chat. This beautiful aspect of Iran was quickly becoming a dominant theme of the country.

Another overnight bus later I was in the central-Iranian city of Esfahan and after only one morning here I decided to create a drinking game. However, with Iran being a dry country the game can’t be played with alcohol so it’s instead played with Zam Zam Cola (Iran’s local Coca Cola). The game is called Zam Zam Slam and the rules are very simple: every time a local stops you and asks where you’re from you have to drink a Zam Zam; every time a local welcomes you to Iran you have a drink a Zam Zam; and every time a local wishes you a pleasant stay in [insert town here] you have to drink a Zam Zam. First one to pass out in a diabetic coma wins.

After a pleasant morning and early afternoon wandering semi-aimlessly around the city and the bazaar I got chatting to one of the bazaaris (stall holders). Ali is a 33-year-old high school teacher of English but he uses his whopping four months of school holidays a year to work in the bazaar to help save money so he can buy a house. You see, he’s engaged to be married but his mother-in-law won’t let them get married until he has bought a house because the bride’s family provides all the furniture and mother-in-law refuses to have said furniture ruined by being continuously moved from rental property to rental property. Fair enough.

I sat around Ali’s store for ages, drinking hot, sweet black tea. We talked about English grammar rules, the comparative costs of living in Australia and Iran, the differences between teaching methods in the two countries, and a million other things. When Ali was relieved by his “assistant” (a young boy of about ten-years-old) we headed off to grab some lunch at a traditional tea house. He lead me up a maze of streets and down into the basement of a seemingly abandoned building. Under there was a dark, cool, grimy room furnished with tired and dirty cushions around the edges, a dormant fountain in the centre, and a tiny TV in the corner blaring Pirates Of The Caribbean dubbed into Farsi. Two old men were lounging in opposite corners, smoking water pipes and looking as though they’d long ago stuck permanently to the rugs.

We ordered dizi which is a mutton and chickpea stew served with bread and raw onion. First you pour the broth into a bowl of torn bread and eat that, then you use a heavy metal pestle to grind the solid stew bits into a mash to be eaten inside pinches of bread, and in between mouthfuls of stew you eat slices of the raw onion. It was bloody delicious.

Next came a water pipe and endless cups of tea. Ali went back and forth between talking to the other men in Farsi (mostly about football, he said) and talking with me in English. He told me the story of how he met his fiancee. Ali comes from a traditional family but he asked for his parents’ permission to choose his own wife, which they granted. Soon afterwards he was at a mixed gender teachers’ conference (his fiancee is also an English teacher) and he used the opportunity to “check the women” and choose some likely candidates. He pointed out those candidates to his manager, who spoke to the women’s manager, and enquired about marital status. Ali’s favourite was indeed unmarried and the manager procured a phone number. Ali got his sister to call the woman’s mother and arrange a meeting. After three supervised meetings in the woman’s home an agreement was made to marry and a mullah was called to conduct the engagement ceremony. After that, Ali and his fiancee were permitted to make physical contact.

We’d been at the tea house for about 90 hugely enjoyable minutes and Ali had to get back to work, so we wished each other well and I headed back to town, scoring another half-dozen Zam Zams along the way. That evening I spent two hours sitting on the grass in Imam Square talking to two brothers and a sister who all study engineering at the local university. As dusk settled the call to prayer was carried across the square by the hot breeze, partially drowning out the conversations of the hundreds of families gathered on rugs eating picnics.

I won Zam Zam Slam that day.

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