We emerged from the hotel’s tiny lift a few minutes late. I wondered at first if we’d missed our guide; in the foyer’s mirrored morning glare I could see only the shy smile of the shrouded woman behind the reception desk. Then a man in a short-sleeved shirt stood from a cream sofa by the hotel doors, smoothing his trousers, scooping up his keys and papers. He had thick black hair, a flop of fringe and his shirt was tucked high in his pants. He shook our hands, my father first.
‘You must be Stefan,’ he said to my father. ‘And you are?’
His eyes flicked to my cousin and then me. We explained: one father, his daughter and his niece. Our guide shrugged.
‘Okay. Well. I’m Ali,’ he said. ‘Welcome to Esfahan.’
Alicja and I smiled at each other. ‘Our second Ali,’ we said, together. He frowned, shrugged again.
‘Our guide in Shiraz was Ali too,’ I explained. ‘He was lovely.’
That Ali, Shiraz Ali, had been an enthusiastic 25-year-old, a student of English literature and lover of Persian history and poetry. We’d spent two days with him, the first under umbrellas and a wet Shiraz sky. First Ali had steered us through the locals who crowded the tombs of the city’s famed poets, Hafez and Saadi, and then through the city’s mirrored palaces and dripping springtime gardens. We’d eaten chicken stewed with prunes in an old hotel courtyard and sticky Iranian ice cream in a dark alley in the bazaar. When we returned to our hotel in the cool and rainy late afternoon, we asked him to join us for tea. In the lobby’s coffee shop, a dimly lit annexe with high-sided vinyl booths lining its walls, we talked. He told us about the difficulties of managing an illegal Facebook account and his struggles finding a girlfriend who wasn’t obsessed with makeup and marriage. He was curious about us.
‘Why Iran,’ he said. ‘And why now?’
Because Dad had wanted to come back, I explained. He had good memories of the welcome he’d been given in Iran as a child refugee in the war. And his mother had died in this country; she was buried in Tehran. Ali had taken my father’s mottled hand across the table. ‘So Stefan,’ he said, ‘you have a little bit of Persia in you. I’m very glad you have returned.’
The following morning, Ali had climbed into the car coughing, dark-eyed but smiling. ‘I’m sorry, I’m sick,’ he explained. ‘But you need me, so I’m here. We go to Persepolis, okay?’
It was still raining when we left Shiraz and the car windows had fogged by the time we’d reached the city’s outskirts. As we drove north the skies cleared and became a blinding blue. I watched the apricot-coloured desert roll past like the backdrop in a children’s cartoon, listened to local music on the car radio. In the front seat, Ali coughed, blew his nose, nodded and laughed at the driver’s stories. Every now and then, he’d turn to his quiet clients, squeezed shoulder to shoulder in the back. ‘You all still here?’ he said, grinning.
At the ruins of Persepolis, thousands of holidaying Iranians were emptying from the car parks that fringed Persia’s ancient past. It seemed that in this crush of families on excursions with pushchairs and picnics we were, once again, the only foreigners. Women in black chadors and sneakers posed for photos with their husbands in front of ancient stone pillars; a group of teenage boys, hands in jean pockets, followed us. As we looped from monument to monument, Ali explaining what we were seeing in his serious English, the boys listened with their heads tilted in mock concentration. We smiled at our followers; our guide ignored them. Ali had no time for the curious stares or requests for photographs. He hurried us between landmarks, tipping his head quickly over his shoulder if we lingered too long. (‘Where you from?’ the boys called, even as we were walking away. ‘You like Iran?’)
Later, walking to the car park, Ali dropped next to me. ‘You’re very lucky,’ you know,’ he said, his head bent towards mine. ‘You and your father, you’re lucky.’
‘Are we?’ I asked. ‘What do you mean?’
‘I’ve been watching. You have a very good relationship,’ he said. ‘You respect each other. Most people don’t have that with their parents.’
This observation from a stranger, someone not much older than my daughter, was unexpected and intimate. I didn’t ask what had prompted it. I muttered a thank you, embarrassed, and Ali smiled, amused by my coy reaction.
Lunch was at a nearby outdoor restaurant, its many empty tables optimistically set with gaudy plastic cloths and tubs of cutlery. We sat under a shady trellis of vines, overlooking a stagnant pool with a fountain trickling at its centre. The waiter brought pieces of flatbread to roll around fresh green herbs and sliced onion and we drank chilled doogh through straws from plastic bottles. But Ali was subdued now, coughing into a handkerchief every now and then. We were going to Esfahan; he was heading home to Shiraz. We shook hands on the side of the road at a nearby intersection, trying to thank him over the dust and noise of passing trucks. He would probably catch a bus back to Shiraz, he said, he would be fine. He blew his nose as we pulled away. Our driver took us north, in a silent car.
Esfahan Ali, our Second Ali, wasn’t interested in talking about his predecessor in Shiraz. He was looking towards the glass hotel doors impatiently, gesturing at the bright Esfahan day beyond the shiny foyer.
‘Okay. So. Shall we go?’
The car parked on the street outside was another white Iranian Peugeot, tired but well scrubbed and smelling of air freshener. Dad took the front passenger seat, Alicja and I climbed into the back. Second Ali turned the key and the car engine rumbled roughly, but we didn’t move. Instead, he cleared his throat and began to speak. ‘So. I would like to welcome you again to Esfahan, one of the most beautiful Islamic cities in the world. Here, we have a saying, Esfahan nesf-e jehan. This means, Esfahan is half the world. Today you are lucky, because it is a beautiful day and not too hot.’ We would visit Julfa first, he said, the old Armenian part of the city. Then we would come back into central Esfahan, walk by the river and maybe have lunch. We would see the mosques if we had time.
‘But excuse me, please, before we go, your scarf.’ Ali cleared his throat again, pointed to my head. ‘You must have it on, even in the car.’
I knew I was supposed to be wearing it; I hadn’t realised it had slipped. I felt my face flush. It had been more difficult than I’d thought, wearing the scarf. More difficult still was getting used to the stares that came despite it. It seemed that no matter how much middle-aged skin I covered, I was unmistakably foreign. At first I thought it was the blonde hair that escaped around my face; maybe I moved with some kind of identifying Western sway. I’d watched the local women for clues. On Tehran’s busy streets, they walked with purpose under colourful, neatly tucked and folded headscarfs, their makeup flawless and lips highlighted in glossy red, their eyes in black. Light trench coats, nipped tightly at their waists, failed to hide either their feminine silhouettes or their Western-style jeans and high heels. There was nothing cowed about them, nothing that suggested discomfort. Even the women in full chador were billowing exotic creatures in black. It wasn’t envy I could see in those shaded eyes, I decided. It was disapproval, maybe even pity.
I’d been complaining about the scarf over breakfast only that morning, in the overheated and overdecorated restaurant in our hotel’s basement. I’d felt strangled, claustrophobic. It was unnatural to eat breakfast, I’d said to my father and cousin, wrapped up like a parcel. Alicja grimaced, but Dad was unsympathetic. He was preoccupied, trying to spread feta cheese like butter on his bread roll.
‘I always knew that wearing a scarf would ruin Iran for you,’ he said, not looking at me. ‘I even told Mum before we came that you’d hate it.’
‘What you mean by that,’ I’d snapped, ‘is that my complaining would ruin Iran for you.’
Now I felt Second Ali’s steady brown eyes on me in the rear view mirror, and remembered First Ali’s gentle aside to me at Persepolis. I was aware of my father’s silence.
‘I’m sorry, it falls,’ I said. ‘I forget sometimes. I’m still not used to it.’
Second Ali drove us south through Esfahan’s leafy streets, across the Zayandeh River towards Julfa. The boulevards were surprisingly wide and, on this sunny Sunday, unnervingly quiet. Tehran’s sprawling reach of roads and alleys had been haphazard and labyrinth-like; the traffic in Shiraz had been dense and pushy. We’d been warned it would be quiet in Esfahan today, the last day of Nowruz, the 13-day celebration of the Iranian New Year. Iranians would be with their families, taking their celebrations outdoors later in the day, in a kind of Muslim thanksgiving.
‘So do you have family, Ali?’ my cousin asked, next to me, breaking the silence.
‘Yes, one daughter,’ he said. ‘And a wife.’
‘And you can’t spend today with them? You have to work for us?’
‘No, it’s okay. I don’t like picnics.’
We drove in silence a little longer. This was the first Iranian car we’d been in that was music-free; I missed the cheerful backdrop of local sound. The city outside our window, without the usual press of people and traffic, seemed out of context. We could have been in any city, anywhere. Second Ali didn’t fill the gaps either. He was distracted; his attention flickered between the road ahead and his mobile, inert on his lap. I guessed he was a little younger than me, perhaps in his forties, with no trace of grey in his hair, but the skin on his face was slack and pouched under his chin.
My father spoke. ‘I’m glad we’re going to Julfa,’ he said to Second Ali, ‘because that’s where I lived when I was in Esfahan, 70 years ago.’
‘You were in Esfahan before?’ Ali asked. ‘What were you doing here?’
‘You don’t know about the Poles who were here in the war?’
Ali shook his head. ‘No. What Poles? I thought you were from New Zealand.’
My father told Ali his story, the reason for our visit. It was difficult to tell if our guide was moved; he was certainly surprised. Second Ali had lived all his life in Esfahan and made a living explaining its history to a now-slowing trickle of tourists. He hadn’t known the city once offered sanctuary to thousands of Polish children fleeing Soviet prisons. Perhaps Iran was so swamped in its own history of loss that there was nothing remarkable about my father’s tragedy. Perhaps our guide had crises of his own to deal with: his tense and unsmiling face made me wonder what they might be. Was it the uncertainty of making a livelihood as a guide for tourists who no longer came? Or was it simply a matter of timing? My father, now happily soaking up the sunny view from the car window in front of me, would be remembering the light, the smell, and the generosity of a different Esfahan, a Persian Esfahan. Second Ali would barely have known it.
‘So, you’re not normal tourists,’ Ali said, looking at us in the rear view mirror again. ‘What is the English word for tourists like you?’
‘Pilgrims?’ I suggested.
‘No,’ he said, shaking his head, ‘not pilgrims. No, not pilgrims.’