Hospitality III

Thursday Bazaar, Minab
February 10, 2011

It was just that type of experience I travel for: arriving into an unfamiliar city to be immediately welcomed with an invitation to stay in a local's home. When I accepted I was brought back and offered tea and homemade dinner. It was perfect... until my host lit up his crack pipe.

How is it I wound up spending the night in a room with somebody who had a 30-year habit?

I left Bam Tuesday morning, taking a series of shared taxis down to Minab, a small town just off the mouth of the Persian Gulf. It was evening by the time I completed the last leg. I first enquired at a central hotel my guidebook said had reasonable rates. But, prices had gone up. They were asking the same amount for a room as the amount I had budgeted for an entire day traveling in Iran.

Haggling for a lower price wasn't able to knock more than a couple dollars off, so I walked on. I assumed I could find some simpler, cheaper guest house somewhere else down the road. Not two blocks down a young man standing in a doorway called out a hello.

When curious people on the street call me out as a foreigner, I usually nod, wave and say "hello" back to them--but break stride only when I feel like making casual conversation. This time, I figured why not stop to chat? It was dusk... not too late to say hi then find a place to stay. Maybe this guy might even have a lead on some other hotel.

I stepped through the doorway where he stood to find myself in an automotive repair shop. The young man and I chatted for not even a couple minutes before we found that his ability in English and mine in Persian didn't add up to much conversation. He motioned for me to wait then stepped through a back door into a yard behind the repair shop. He returned with a far older man who was so thin that his clothes drooped from his frame, hanging loosely about his build. He looked to be about sixty. He was distractedly handling some sort of electrical wire. We shook hands. He spoke excitedly in heavily accented but flowing English:

"You are American! I was in America for four years. I worked for the Iranian Navy. I think I still have my card... ".

He fumbled through his wallet and pulled out a type-written ID card that showed he had indeed been serving alongside the U.S. Navy in 1974. That explained his fair command of English.

I made polite enquiries about his time in the U.S. before getting to my real reason for stepping in:

"You wouldn't know of any mehmanpazir or basic hotel here in Minab, would you?", I asked.

"There's one over there up the street... ," he pointed in the direction I had come from.

"I just went there. Their prices are a little expensive," I said.

The old man didn't pause: he immediately invited me to stay at his home.

"You can stay with me for as many nights as you are in Minab. You can stay forever, if you wish," he said with that quick display of hospitality that is so common across Iran.

I accepted. He was old, friendly, and spoke decent English. I was in need of somewhere to stay for the next two nights. Perfect.

I rested on the upper bunk of a metal-framed bed in the back break room until the old man, Niyaz*, got off his shift. He closed up shop together with the man who initially called out to me on the street. I sat on the back seat of Niyaz' motorcycle; he drove us about ten minutes through the city, to the outskirts, then finally down some muddy roads that required puddle-swerving to get to his front door.

I was led inside to the guest room with much apology for what a simple home he lived in. Niyaz introduced me to two of his teenaged sons. His wife and young daughter kept mostly to another room. We men passed the evening watching a DVD dubbed into Persian: Ali, a recent film chronicling the life of the prize-fighter. I found it an odd coincidence that it was the last time I was visiting the Persian Gulf that I learnt the boxer is known across Iran as "Muhammad Ali Clay"--which is how the film referred to him.

Tea was later in coming than I expected. Or maybe I was thirsty because the the guest room was a touch too warm. Dinner was simple, a single dish of rice with small peas. We talked late into the night. I was happy.

Approaching bedtime, after his sons had left the room, Niyaz excused himself and sat on a patch of the carpet across from me. I hadn't noticed what he was doing until he called direct attention to it:

"Excuse me, I need to do my drugs."

In front of him was something I'd seen only in films: a long, hollow glass stem jutting out from a glass globe about the size of a golf ball. Niyaz pulled a minute plastic pouch the size of a fingernail from his wallet. Inside was some sort of white powder. Focused, he managed to pour the grains into a tiny hole atop the ball. When the pouch was empty he held the flame of a small butane torch beneath the ball. The powder melted into something viscous and opaque that clung to the interior the glass.

Niyaz began to puff, holding the stem of the pipe to his mouth. Holding the torch beneath the globe, he would roll the stem between his fingers every so often to melt different parts of the residue lining the interior of the sphere. The area being heated by the torch would go from opaque to translucent. Smoke swirled inside. Every now and again a wisp of smoke or a small smoke ring would waft out from the hole atop the ball. There was no odor.

It was too late to leave to stay elsewhere.

"What are you smoking?", I asked Niyaz casually, as if I was enquiring which brand of cigarette he preferred.

"I don't know the English name," he said.

"Is it cocaine? 'Crack?'," I asked.

"No. It's not cocaine. It's something that we call 'shishah'. That means 'glass' in Persian."

(I made a mental note to be careful on the rest of this trip through Iran when enquiring about hookah lounges. Shishah is common slang for the water-pipes used for smoking fruit-flavored tobacco, referring to the glass base holding water to filter the smoke. That's the word more commonly used in Pakistan and some Arab countries to refer to hookah pipes. In Persian the word is "qalyan".)

"What does this do to you?", I asked.

"To me, nothing. Nothing but make me addicted. But, I am an old man. In Tehran the young people use it for parties when they want to really make love. Especially the girls."

Niyaz continued on:

"I used to use opium. For over 30 years that was my drug. I began after the revolution. When they banned alcohol that's when all the young men started to use drugs. Now, probably 90% of men here use drugs. Of course, if you have any drugs in Iran the penalty is hanging."

"How long have you been smoking this drug?", I asked Niyaz.

"About 6 months, now. When it was new 2 years ago it came from Colombia. It was really expensive, about 140,000 rials ($140 USD) per gram, then. Now it's made in Tehran so only 15,000 rials ($15 USD) per gram."

"It's not opium or cocaine?", I asked.

"No. They make this with chemicals. Some kind of ephedrine," Niyaz said between draws at the glass straw.

"Does your family know?", I asked.

"My wife knew that I used opium. But she really doesn't like me using this. So I hide it from her."

"Do you worry about what it will do to you?"

"No. Not to me, but to my family. The money I spend on this I could spend on something for my children."

After Niyaz put his paraphernalia away it was finally time for bed. He asked several questions to ensure that I had everything I needed for the night:

"Is this, what-do-you-call-it, 'pad?', good for you to sleep on? Do you need another blanket? Do you have sleeping clothes? You may turn off the room light whenever you need. Or you may leave it on. Whatever is your wish." He picked up a flashlight. "Here is another light if you need in the middle of the night."

He spread a mat alongside the one where I lay and changed into pajamas. I turned the room light off but left my clothes on and pondered the situation. Niyaz began to snore within minutes. I jammed earplugs into my ears and fell asleep, myself.

I woke up at 8:00, eager to leave. That was the hour he said he was due in at work. But Niyaz was in no hurry.

"First, I smoke," he said.

He sucked at the glass globe, again.

Around 9:30 he brought in breakfast which his wife must have prepared: cream cheese, flatbread and fried eggs. I ate as little as I thought would be polite, hoping to leave sooner.

Even before I finished breakfast Niyaz was shuffling around the room: picking things up, looking for something.

After a few minutes I asked what he was looking for.

"My drugs. I had more."

"What did they look like?"

"They were between two pieces of paper. Like this," Niyaz placed two business cards together.

I made a cursory inspection of different spots around the room. I hoped he didn't suspect me of taking his stash. After looking in the same places several times but not finding what he was looking for he shouted through a curtain that partitioned the room where we were seated from the next room:

"Have you been in here?"

"No. I haven't," his wife shouted back from somewhere on the other side of the curtain.

Eventually Niyaz located his stash where he had left it: in the fold of an old briefcase. He celebrated by smoking again; we sat on in the room for another two hours.

As he smoked his second round of the morning he told long tales of his time in the Navy. There were escapades involving all his clothing being stolen during martial law in the Philippines. There was a long romance with a young woman in South Carolina with the wonderful name of "Harmonius". I was torn between wanting to get out immediately but also wanting to hear how the love-story ended.

Niyaz insisted that I should stay on several more nights. I insisted that he had already been far too kind and generous. I should just find a hotel for the rest of my time in Minab.

"Of course, not. You are welcome to stay here. And if you went to a hotel, I would tell them that they should not accept you because you are already my guest," he said, beaming.

I countered with what I thought was a transparent but face-savingly polite fib: I had decided to move along from Minab that very day. I questioned to myself why I was trying to conform to social niceties instead of just getting up and walking out.

Aside from whatever it was he had been smoking, Niyaz had actually been a wonderful host. Attentive, entertaining, generous, providing me food and a place to sleep. I didn't have concerns about my own safety or my posessions being in his house. The hotels around town were expensive so having a free place to stay was tempting. But when he casually mentioned that the penalty for drug posession is hanging... even if he had never been busted in his 30 years of opium-smoking I didn't want to have any association whatever.

We finally got out of the house at noon. As we rode his motorcycle into town, Niyaz spoke animatedly: "Be sure to let everybody in America know the truth of how hospitable Iranian people are!"

I thanked him profusely and promised that I would.

* A pseudonym