Day 20: Political Minorities and Police Interrogations
Planned Sightseeing and Change of Plans
After last night’s busy evening we decided to start cycling only in the afternoon so we can do the hosts a favor and stay a bit longer with them. Therefore we planned to visit what they call the “jungle” of Golestan in the morning by car. Jungle sounded great, we were thinking of dense rain forests, maybe some animals. However, once we started driving around, we realized that what they refer to “jungle” is equivalent to a European forest. It was still nice to see all those trees in this beautiful landscape, but having been in a jungle in Colombia and Brazil, it was a bit of a disappointment.
However, it turned out soon that showing us the jungle was not the main purpose of the trip, but they showed us first a Koran-school where Lucie could observer for half an hour girls learning the Koran, then after a one hour drive through some beautiful remote valley, we stopped at an Islamic Culture Center, where I had the honor to join the noon prayers together with about 30 other men of all ages, the same for Lucie with a few women less. Fair enough, that was interesting to see once, but then things took an unexpected turn.
Interrogation by police
After the noon prayer one member of the mosque was asking for my passport. I was really surprised why they would ask for my passport inside a mosque, and as nobody spoke proper English, I even was concerned more. I cooperated and gave them the passport. When they returned with the passport however they were asking me for Lucie’s passport, which of course was not in my possession. I was wondering why they ask me that and I tried explaining them that they should get the passport from Lucie directly, but she was in the other building with the women. After about 30 minutes we all went together to Lucie and it turned out she left her passport at the host’s house. After forwarding at least a digital image from her phone it seemed to be ok. I then went to the police officers and had an interrogation of around 20 minutes with some standard questions, but also questions like “How is it with the Turkmen” and “Did you get bothered by anyone?”. Side note: The Police officers were not Turkmen, but Fars (Iranians). After answering all the questions, I could leave the room.
Being special guests at the Islamic cultural center
After that unexpected police appearance it was time for lunch. We were special guest at the cultural center and got a delicious lunch served in a separate room. We ate for quite a while. The food was typical Turkmen food, which is a bit different from the Iranian food we enjoyed the last two weeks.
After lunch, we had the honor to talk to the head of the cultural center in his office. We spoke for quite a while, and suddenly 3 non-Turkmen persons entered the room. We first had no idea who they were, we just accepted their presence.
Second Interrogation by civil policemen
After these men joined the group, they started asking the same questions as the other policemen before and wanted to see our passports (again). I was very surprised to hear that these guys are civil police (I guess detectives) who were coming from quite a bit away to meet us. Officially, we were told that they want to make sure we are safe and were treated accordingly, but I think there is more to that, because otherwise they would not have come with 3 persons from far away. I started to get worried a bit, because I had the impression the first police interrogation went well. But after another 30 minutes of interrogation, those policemen left again. After that we could finally go back to Badianly where all our luggage and Lucie’s passport was. It was a strange and unexpected experience today, because so far we did not notice anything about the police here in Iran for the past 20 days. Of course this additional delay also meant that we won’t cycle today anymore, so tomorrow we get up at a decent hour and try to catch up a bit. We should be in Mashhad in 3 days, but I doubt we manage to cycle 400 km in this hilly terrain, so most likely we will have to go for another bus transfer.
Analysis of the situation
Lucie and I of course discussed today’s events a lot. We are not sure why we created that much interest to the police, but we have a theory. Since the Turkmen are an ethnical minority I can imagine that here are some tensions between them and the Fars (that’s how the Iranians are called). Even though they both are Islamic, the Turkmen are Sunnites but the Fars are Shiites. Usually in Iran we always saw the portraits of the two leaders of the country (Ayatollah Khomeini and President Rhamenei/Rohani). We did not see any of these portraits in any of the Turkmen home or in the Islamic Culture Center, instead two other portraits. Therefore I assume that there are religious differences and therefore the Fars are suspicious or pay special attention when tourists visit the Turkmen to make sure we are not Journalists (which explains also why they asked for our occupation and future travel plans). Well, for now it seems everything has been sorted out. I hope we will not meet any police again regarding this matter, even though they were always friendly and had a neutral position towards us.