The night before we crossed the Iranian border

David Hielkema

25 November 2016

We are sitting in our car. Josephine on the passenger’s seat, I’m behind the wheel. It is dark outside, and freezing cold. In the distance I hear the trucks and cars driving on the high way. In front and behind our car I hear some people walking. I try to fall asleep, but I can’t. I turn around again, trying to get comfortable. I pull the sleeping bag closer to my body. I think and think. I think about tomorrow, because tomorrow we will cross the border. We will go to Iran.

We are spending our last night in Turkey at a service station. We arrived late and we are tired after driving 700 kilometres. We are still 300 kilometres away from the border. Our sleeping place is nothing more than a nightstop. And nightstops can be great sometimes.

The feeling of sleeping at a service station is like boarding a plane to a faraway country, but with a stopover. During your stopover you are obligated to wait, there are no other options. Therefor you accept your faith. You give in. It is the way it is. A nightstop is similar to that for us. It’s simple: we cook, we sleep, make breakfast and we continue driving.

After we have arrived, I start unpacking the car. While I’m busy getting the cooking equipment, I hear some noises behind me. Not very loud, but loud enough for my instincts to tell me I have to turn around. It feels like there is a dog next to me wagging his tail. When I turn around, light blinds me. I’m shocked and a scream-like sound escapes my mouth. I didn’t expect this. I thought there was a dog. Behind me I see the silhouette of a man. He drops his flashlight and I hear the man laughing, probably because I was scared. I hear Josephine laughing as well, she definitely laughs because I was scared.

The man has a shop behind our car and curiosity brought him to us. He invites us for çay. I, recovered from the shock, tell him with a smile that we will come by after our dinner. Who can refuse a çay after driving many kilometres on a cold evening like this?

Quickly we prepare our meal and eat it in our car. Time for some tea. We walk towards the shop and we see some men sitting inside. When we arrive at the door, we are wondering if we are still invited. The men, however, wave enthusiastically at us, gesturing that we have to come in. The man who invited us, our host, stands up and opens the door. He leads us to the sofa which has two empty seats. Gratefully we sit down.

After sitting down and getting an understanding of the space around us, we start sweating. Not because of the four other men who are here and start speaking in Turkish, which we do not understand at all, but because of the heat. There is a ‘woodstove’ that is “fed” continuously. Everything that is not of use any more gets thrown into the stove. Literally everything. The last twenty sugar cubes, because they bought a new package, plastic boxes, a blanket and a shirt, we witness each of those going into the fire. Josephine and I look at each other with amazement. Or amazement: probably we have only widened our eyes slightly, which for us is the sign that we are amazed, while the other men will not recognize this signal.

Left of me is a man with a moustache, he is heavy, he has a prominent belly, he is well groomed, has a lot of charisma and he talks with ease to us in Turkish spiked with some English words. Erdogan could have been his brother. We, after we have explained where we come from, where we are going and what we think of Turkey, become part of the furniture. We observe what happens and listen attentively to the others. Or actually, we listen mostly to the man with the moustache. It seems like he is giving a lecture to the rest of the men, while offering everyone cigarettes and lightning one after the other for himself. All of our faces turn red because of the heat and the smoke.

Our host walks around all the time. He tidies up, throws some trash in the fire, cleans the place, changes his clothes from his overalls to a beautiful suit with a great turtleneck, refills our cups again and again and gives us his warm smile. Sometimes he says something, but mostly he just walks around. You can see and feel his positive energy.

After our third cup of tea, the subject seemed to have shifted to religion. We hear the words Erdogan, the Koran, Iran and Allah. The volume of the conversation goes up and the man to the left of me talks loudly. For a long time it is he who speaks and during which he forgets all about his cigarette. After lightning it, he doesn’t take another puff. Josephine and I look with fascination at the cigarette and ask ourselves when the ash will fall off.

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The man to the left of me keeps on talking, until the man sitting next to Josephine interrupts him. This man looks like our host, he has a soft voice and is less charismatic. He talks for a long time, but he does not sound convincing. Nobody really pays attention anymore, but they try to not to show it. His speech gets interrupted by the host. He asks us if we want more tea. The last few words of the men to Josephine’s right are lost. No one says anything about it any more. 

The fourth man, sitting in front of us, does not say much. He is older than the rest, drinks only one cup of tea, doesn’t smoke, looks at his phone a lot and is physically further from the group. But, he makes his presence felt. He is the type that can have the last word in an argument because of his silent authority. He moves his body in a certain way when the other talk. It is through subtle movements, but you can see when he agrees and when he does not.

Josephine and I are enjoying the moment to the fullest. We wonder: will we also be welcomed like this in Iran? What will it be like? What can we expect? We watch the men, lively conversing with each other. We feel good. It is a great experience. An everyday life experience, not some miracle of mother nature, nor an impressive piece of architecture, but it means a lot to us.

After four cups of tea we say goodbye to the men. We put our sweaters back on and we walk to the car. We brush our teeth and we try to get comfortable in our chairs. Josephine quickly falls asleep, while I think and think. Tomorrow we go to far away Middle East.

Want to know what actually happened at the border crossing? I will follow up on that in my next story.

Special thanks to Josephine, for helping me translating this story.