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June 8, 2021

Ibn al’Sabil—literally “children of the road”—are travelers who have no means of continuing their journey. An Islamic term, it best describes the people of the lands where all faiths originated.


One dark November midnight, I was returning to Tehran from a road trip to Iran’s northeast. I had journeyed there with an unlikely group of twenty travelers who considered themselves mystic followers of Rumi, the great poet and Sufi. The reason for this trip was a visit to the modest resting places of two other poet-mystics who are not as internationally trendy as Rumi. Graves of dead poets might seem a strange tourist attraction, but not here, where poets are as esteemed as prophets.

Yet on the road back to the capital from our pilgrimage, we mystic travelers were hardly continuing our spiritual soul searching. The inside of our very un-spiritual Hyundai minibus was more like a cramped dance club as we awkwardly moved to a tune played on Spotify that echoed from the speakers. The confinement of our South Korean vehicle was hardly an obstacle to mobile party making—until about midnight, when the internet abruptly cut off.

The reason for this bizarre development involved protests in the cities over petrol price increases that we out there on the road had no idea about. My mystic friends and I were literally in the middle of nowhere, in the endless darkness of a vast desert, the only signs of civilization the occasional dim highway light and headlights of a passing car. Luckily, our driver was a frequenter of these desolate roads and knew the way like the back of his hand. At one point he followed a sign that led us off the main highway. The sign read “Caravanserai.”

Our driver proceeded with a confidence we mystic travelers did not share, for no deity can drag us back from the swallowing darkness of the desert. Already sent back half a century in time by the sudden absence of the Google Maps or GPS, the road our driver took threw us back two millennia to a branch of the Silk Road. Slowly our minibus indeed approached a caravanserai, built sixteen hundred years ago. Renovated in the 1600s by the Safavids, it has been functioning as a travelers’ inn since then. A refuge for the weary like us, the building we approached as our minibus came to a stop near an ancient wooden gate, well past three in the morning, looked utterly deserted. As we descended with our groaning joints and grumbling bellies, snow began to fall—how freezing it can get in the same desert where the highest temperature in the world has also been recorded! Such is the nature of this land, but in our shivering we hardly gave thought to such wonders.

The ancient gates opened slowly and a woman ushered us into a vast courtyard and a dry Persian garden. The surrounding structure included rooms for travelers, stables for horses, and common chambers. The woman was the keeper of this ancient inn, along with her husband and son, who took us to one of the adjoining halls to be warmed and fed. We dined in what used to be the stables—the irony of which was not lost on us. But our host was hospitable and this ancient oasis was warm, so unlike the harsh desert outside and the violence going on in the metropolis.

Ghasr-e Bahram Caravanserai, Semnan province, Iran

Given western Asia’s unforgiving nature, one might imagine that traveling in old times would not have been the best of ideas. But long before Western adventurers arrived, to get from one point to another people of the East braved harsh mountain ranges, salty lakes, and deserts where snakes are crazed by the scorching heat. Caravanserais functioned as ancient hotels but were also places of cultural exchange. Landmarks of Arab and Persian classical literature such as Saadi’s Golestan and One Thousand and One Nights would have never existed if strangers from distant lands had not met in the caravanserais—travelers with different cultures and worldviews who brought stories from Istanbul, Shiraz, Damascus, Baghdad, Alexandria.

Such a whimsical description does nothing to lessen the fears of the journey, however. With unending sand dunes, merciless sun, and only thirst as companion, it is no surprise that monsters and trolls, goblins and demons, dragons and fairies all appear to wanderers at the peak of exhaustion, and all have a special place in the literature of travel in Middle East. One recurring theme involves a demon appearing in the guise of a friend at nighttime who invites the traveler to a feast or promises to show them the way, only to lead them to a stray path and then disappear with the dawn.

Another key figure of Persian and Arab literature is the sãrban who conducts the string of camels for the travel party. He knows the way by gazing at the stars and leads the camels by singing to them, and thus is the subject of much poetic imagery. Sãrban ignites contradictory feelings, for he takes travelers away from their homes and loved ones, but without him the travelers’ demise is a certainty.

The journey is only a representation of a practice of soul searching that would bring an unlikely form of salvation. Not the kind of afterlife redemption religion suggests, nor the definite solutions all -isms and ideologies prescribe. It is the revelation a wanderer can only find in the simple moments. The concept of taking pleasure in the mundane is still alive in the cultures of the region. Iranian contemporary poet Sohrab Sepehri writes: “Salvation is close, amidst the flowers in the garden.” In this part of the world’s harsh geopolitics, it is no wonder that a simple flower suggests a miracle or salvation.

Derived from another poem by Sepehri, Abbas Kiarostami’s film Where Is the Friend’s House? (1987) is perhaps the best recent exploration of the journey concept and its predicaments in Middle Eastern culture. It follows the story of a schoolboy in a remote village in Iran who sets out on a quest to return the notebook of his peer. He has taken it home by mistake, and his friend will be disciplined should he fail to submit his homework in the morning. Along the way he encounters false leads, dead ends, and distractions.

The destination is even less important in Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry (1997), an absurd story of a man who plans to commit suicide and has already dug himself a grave, but now looks for a proper candidate to either bury him in the morning if he has killed himself or help him out of the hole if he has chosen to live. The choice (or the destination) entirely loses its significance as he drives around a barren land and interviews different candidates, revealing their worldviews and inspirations for continued existence, which are often as simple as the taste of a cherry.

Whereas Kiarostami’s oeuvre is marked by village people revealing the poetry of life while traversing rural roads that seem to go on forever, a younger generation of his countrymen use the concept of journey and travel to unveil the paradoxes of the middle class who are tangled in the webs of modernity versus traditional concepts of honor and prejudice. In Asghar Farhadi’s About Elly (2009), a simple trip by a group of friends spirals into horror when Elly, a girl among them, disappears in the sea. The journey seems to stretch forever as deceptions are constantly interwoven, and by the end it seems that we, the audience, are likewise stuck in a journey toward an endless bitterness, as a quote from the film suggests: “A bitter end is better than an endless bitterness.”

Kurdish director Bahman Ghobadi explores the bitterness of an endless journey by following the actual roads Kurdish people take while smuggling heavy loads along the border of Iraq and Iran. A Time for Drunken Horses (2000) follows the struggles of Kurdish children whose poverty and treacherous journeys are passed down generation to generation in a never-ending cycle of misery.

Afghans fare no better on their own roads. The most prominent contemporary literary work of an Afghan author, Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner (2003), is about a journey to the past: a successful Afghan emigrant returns home to rescue the lost son of his dead friend. The cause seems heroic and thus potentially attractive for Hollywood studios, but the story is really about the ceaseless journey of a society through the meaninglessness of war and violence and the futility of an individual’s search for salvation.

An absurd journey back to a homeland one no longer knows is perhaps best exemplified by Mohsen Makhbalbaf’s film Kandahar (2001), which follows an Afghan woman who returns to Afghanistan at the peak of Taliban regime to prevent her sister’s suicide; the sister has expressed the desire to kill herself at a certain time in a letter. But her cause gradually becomes meaningless as she travels through the remnants of her country. From horrifying Quran schools, to doctors who examine female patients through a hole in a curtain, to men who wear fake beards out of fear, to children who rob corpses, to handicapped people racing for artificial limps, to women who color their nails under their burkas, the absurdities she witnesses are only rivaled by the absurdity of three decades of ceaseless war and extremism.

This journey full of terrors that people of Middle East have been stuck on has lasted more than a century. Now that the sãrbans can no longer read the stars, there is no oasis in sight, and destinations that are only mirages salvation seems more out of reach than ever. Faith, ethnicity, language, and national identity have proven to be demons in disguise, thrown into this mix by Western theorists that only led them away from home and destination alike.

The predicament of being stuck on the road is not isolated to any one nation nor the followers of a certain faith; it is common to many societies in this ancient land. A journey to a promised land for the Israelis has clashed with the Palestinians’ own road toward acknowledgment as a state. The passage of the broken Ottoman Empire to a modern secular Turkey turned conflicted as leaders believed more in rebuilding imperial Turkish nationalism and less in a global future. A transition to freedom and independence in Iraq and Syria is stuck in unprecedented bloodshed and violent militias fighting over the remnants of ancient civilizations. For ancient nations like Iran and Egypt, the journey toward democracy led to religious tyrannies, with both peoples stuck in a U-turn between historical nationalism and religious identity. And a simple walk to school without the fear of explosions and death now seems impossible in Afghanistan as the United States abandons them on the deserted road like a beast whose friendly disguise is blown by the first morning light. For all of them salvation seems a lost dream, far away and dim.

Some prefer to hit the road in a more literary sense and search for real-life salvation elsewhere. Nevertheless, they are also stuck on a long road full of fears. Whether a sea goddess who topples immigrant boats in the Mediterranean, a troll who imprisons refugees in inhumane Australian dungeons, dragons breathing fire on immigrant camps in Greece, or a sphinx asking riddles at the European borders, the demons of this road have only grown more dreadful. And even if they are braved and the wanderers reach their destination at last, their host may well prove unwilling and unhospitable.

Shabrang Behzad is an artist, author, and translator based in Tehran.


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