When surprises cease to surprise

A 14 year old boy pointed his gun at me, as I crouched nervously on my haunches. We were squatting with about 20 others in a circle while the leader, a smartly dressed man with a beard, was conducting things from the centre of the ring. There must have been 200 other men in the large room with us.

They had all warned us not to go to Iran. Mum certainly wasn’t pleased.

“What would you want to go there for?” was the most common reaction, followed by “Isn’t it dangerous?”

I thought of this as we waited to see how the situation would unfold. Throughout our time in Iran it was a common theme to have no clue what was about to happen next, and this was certainly no exception. I looked at Henri, who was doing well to conceal his terror. We were petrified at being called into the middle. There was just no way we could possibly match the dancing, all fluid and sinuous and with genuine affection.

The circle was filled with guests at the wedding we’d been invited to, the smartly dressed man the groom, a cousin of Hamid, the friend we’d made in Isfahan. The 14 year old boy’s gun was his fingers twisted into the shape of a gun, which he would occasionally point at me in fits of laughter until I returned fire in a game that lasted all night, although I have no idea of it’s meaning. Right now the groom was bringing individuals up one by one to dance with him in front of everyone.

It is worth mentioning that we had only met Hamid two days earlier, almost too predictably over a cup of chai in a carpet shop. His willingness to acquire extra invitations for two white westerners, with no commercial gain on his end, was our first introduction to the famed level of Iranian hospitality.

Based on the family’s level of conservatism, weddings in the Islamic Republic are either all together as in the western world, or (after a brief but extravagant ceremony) split into two parties based on gender. We’d watched at the start of the night as the bride and groom walked down a makeshift aisle to sparks and flares, releasing two white doves into the night sky, before saying goodbye to the girls and going into a separate hall.

What followed was six hours of food, dancing and selfies as we came to terms with our celebrity status at the event. Happy and gregarious Iranian men came from everywhere to introduce themselves, hugging and kissing and welcoming us to Isfahan. It seemed everyone wanted to dance with us, to know what we did for a living and to tell us about their relative in Sydney.

After our turn in the middle we were beckoned over to the table of Imam, a tall, mischievous looking character who was probably the least conservative of Hamid’s endless line of cousins. With a dangerous look in his eye he reached into his jacket and pulled out no less than 20 small cucumbers, placing them on the table. This seemed extraordinarily random on face-value, but we didn’t question it given Iran’s aforementioned penchant for producing surprises. The cucumbers turned out to be chasers for arak, a lethal home-brew spirit which I found almost undrinkable, but ended up drinking quite a lot of. While alcohol is illegal nationwide, a blind eye is turned to occasions such as this.

When the DJ’s eclectic mix of Arab-disco and Pitbull concluded we filed out of the building, waving goodbye to the happy couple as they got into their car and drove off. This however, proved to be a false conclusion. With Hamid at the wheel, and eight of us in the car, we sped off after the newlyweds in a convoy totaling 30 cars all swerving and maneuvering at high speed and waving white towels out of the window on the Dazgerdi Highway. The game seemed to be to get as close to the bride and groom’s chariot as possible, without touching it. Every 10 minutes or so we would all pull over to the side of the road, or down a sandy back alley, for some more dancing and fireworks before piling back into Hamid’s car for another game of cat and mouse.

The race ended at the bride’s mother’s house, where (after more fireworks and you guessed it, dancing) an unlucky sheep was slaughtered in the name of love. While seemingly in the middle of nowhere, we turned around to find our taxi driver from the start of the night ready to take us home – having waited for six hours and kept up with us in the speedy procession.

We might have been surprised by this level of kindness but by now, we were getting used to it.

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