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Mohammad’s Melon Truck Tour

How much is generosity an integral part of Iranian society?

July 9, 2000

How much is generosity an integral part of Iranian society?

I arrived in Mashhad at midnight. The air was cool and soft as I emerged into the noise of the airport taxi pit. A crowd of black mustaches and jangling key chains approached me, saying in Farsi: "Taxi, sir!" "Where to, sir?" "Please, sir, be my guest."

I was tired and eager to sleep, so I accepted the offer of the first driver who addressed me — a thin man in a red shirt and black sandals.

On the way to the hotel, the driver, as most do, complained bitterly about the economy and the clergy. "We have nothing. Nothing! No jobs. No money. No means to make a better living! These mullahs are killing us!"

"I have to work 18 hours a day, driving this damn car just to make ends meet," he said, angrily. "I have a young boy! He is eight years old. I only hope he has a better life than I have."

As he complained about rising meat prices and the "corrupt fools" in government, I drifted in and out of sleep, waking every few minutes to the rising cadence of his diatribe: "worthless tomans," "idiot ministers," "wrecked economy."

At some point I cannot recall, I shut my eyes — and no longer heard his voice. When I awoke, the car was parked outside a red neon-lit hotel. The driver and my bags had disappeared.

Panicked, I rushed out of the car and into the hotel lobby, where I noticed a sign. It was the same hotel at which I had reserved a room. I saw the driver, sitting on a couch by the reception desk, smoking a cigarette. My bags were neatly arranged at his feet.

"You seemed to be having a good dream," he said. "I did not want to wake you."

Momentarily flustered about how to respond, I tried to give him an extra tip, but he refused. "It's not necessary," he said, handing the bills back to me. "You were asleep. I needed a cigarette. Very simple." Later that night, I berated myself for cheapening his gesture of kindness with money.

The next day, I had breakfast consisting of hot flat bread, feta cheese and sweet tea in the hotel lounge. It was a modest hotel. Middle-class Iranians as well as Pakistani and Indian Shi'a Muslims stayed there, within sight of the glittering gold domes of the Imam Reza shrine.

Just then, a thin middle-aged Iranian man with hollow cheeks and a bushy black mustache approached me, speaking in broken English. "Hello, my friend, are you from de Pakestan?"

Quickly, I responded in Farsi, hoping that it would send him a message that I was not a tourist to be hustled.

"You were reading an English newspaper," he said, apologizing. "Usually, it's Pakistanis and Indians who read the English newspapers."

He began talking, telling me about his job: night desk work at a hotel popular among Pakistani visitors. "I have learned some Urdu," he said, referring to Pakistan's language.

"The Pakistanis love Iran very much, especially the rich ones, the gold traders and the businessmen. They quote our poets Hafez and Saadi. Did you know that their own favorite national poet, Iqbal, I think his name is, wrote in Farsi?"

I nodded, remembering some of my own encounters with Hafez-quoting Pakistanis and the endless paeans to Mohamniad Iqbal — the Islamic scholar who wanted a homeland for India's Muslims — I heard in my Pakistan trips.

"They also think Iran is so wonderful because they say that Iran stands up to America and the West," he said. "Well, at least somebody loves these mullahs of ours," he laughed.

"Sometimes, I give tours to rich Pakistanis from Dubai and Saudi Arabia. They want to see more of Mashhad than just the shrine," he said.

"They make a lot of money in Saudi Arabia. For them, Iran is very cheap."

Iranian ta'rof — conversational ploys — dictated that I offer him a seat to join me for breakfast. The same ta'rof routine impelled him to say no, refusing to "trouble me."

"Befarmah," I said, pointing to a chair next to mine. "Be my guest."

"Thank you," he said, sitting down, failing to live up to his side of the unwritten ta'rof deal.

"My name is Mohammad. Just call me Mohammad," he said. The "just call me" part signaled that he was being purposely informal, unlike most Iranians who use their last names on first greeting.

Before I knew it, I found myself accepting his offer of a city tour. By 3:30 P.M., half an hour later than our scheduled meeting time, I began to worry that Mohammad would not show up at all.

Suddenly, a rusty melon truck pulled up beside me. Mohammad leaped out of the truck with a big grin.

We greeted and embraced like old friends. Mohammad introduced me to Saeed, "the tour company's driver," his cousin and a local melon distributor. Saeed and I greeted each other in the Iranian way, one hand on the chest, a slight bow of the head, and a flurry of flowery pleasantries.

"I am very pleased to meet you," Saeed said, bowing slightly.

"The pleasure is mine," I responded, hand on my chest.

"I am your servant," he said.

"No, I am your servant," I replied, appropriately.

Saeed was a bulky fellow with big tufts of black hair waving across his head. He had sad eyes and a pleasant smile.

"OK, let's go, Mr. Afshin," Mohammad said. "This will be the best tour you have ever had. First, we will go to Doctors' Intersection. As a journalist, that area should interest you."

When we reached the four-way Doctors' Intersection, so named because of its proximity to a medical school, Saeed stopped the car and Mohammad stood up amid the melons, waving his arms in the air.

"See this, Mr. Afshin. This is where the students demonstrated. May God bless them," he said.

In July 1999, student demonstrations rocked the country. In Tehran, Mashhad and other major cities, Iranian students poured into the streets to protest a police attack on a Tehran University dormitory.

During the demonstrations, students chanted slogans for freedom and democracy.

Authorities badly beat many students, a few of them fatally. I remember the harrowing stories they told me of chain-wielding thugs working with the police to attack them.

To this day, Iranians talk about the summer of 1999 student revolts. Many wonder when the next big revolt will occur.

Had Mohammad seen the student revolts? I asked, standing up to survey the intersection.

"No," he laughed. "I was too scared to go near them. Revolt is for students, not for old men like me. Of course, I support the students," Mohammad added, standing up to face me.

"They are the future of our country. It is so sad to think that some of them are in jail now. So very sad. I remember the student protests in 1978 and 1979. They took place near the same area. It is a shame. There is always something our students need to protest."

As we approached Martyrs' Square (formerly Shah Square), Mohammad asked if I would like to see the train station.

"It was built by the Germans," he said, "more than 50 years ago. Those Germans really know how to build."

We pulled into the train station's parking lot. There was something of 1930s Germany in the station's design — all towering columns and ornate ceilings and intricate white plaster work on the walls: all orderly, white and cold.

Mohammad gazed at it, impressed. "Look at this," he said, as we walked in the station staring at the ceilings.

"It is beautiful,” he said. “We Iranians could never do such a good job, even if we built this today."

"That is all the past, Mr. Afshin. We do not know how to build like that anymore," Mohammad said. Saeed nodded his head up and down as if to show his glum agreement.

It was typical self-flagellating Irani cynicism, the sort I heard all over the country.

Remarkably, for a people with the capacity for so much cultural arrogance toward their neighbors, Iranians also beat themselves mercilessly as "inferior" to the West, unable to do anything right.

In defense, I reminded him of some of Iran's extraordinary architectural achievements.

"Life is hard," Saeed said. "The economy is bad. Prices rise every day." It was familiar talk, Iranian talk, of prices and inflation and economic pain.

Ayatollah Khomeini once angrily dismissed an aide who spoke too much on the matter of economics. "This revolution was not about the price of watermelons," he said. Today, however, the high price of watermelons, meat, cars and housing seem to be all Iranians talk about.

After short stops at a park and a museum, Mohammad dropped me off in front of my hotel. We embraced and said good-bye.

Saeed also emerged from the driver's seat to say good-bye. He bowed slightly, hand on his chest.

"It was very nice to meet you," he said. He reached into his car and pulled out a fat, yellow, heavy melon and extended it to me with two hands. "Enjoy it, Mr. Afshin. I am at your service. It is one of the finest."

We said good-bye with the traditional kiss on each cheek.

Adapted from “Persian Pilgrimages” by Afshin Molavi. Copyright