Gripes and Goodwill In a 4-Bunk Sleeping Car

A series of occasional stories and pictures looking at life in foreign countries through the prism of time.
By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 9, 2008

KERMAN, Iran As the train slowly leaves Tehran's southern suburbs on its overnight journey to the Iranian desert city of Kerman, two passengers start complaining.

"How about those rising prices?" one man says casually, using a standard opener for a public conversation between strangers in Iran these days.

"With God as my witness, whatever amount I make, it's never enough to make ends meet," the other replies. "Reza Amani," he adds, holding out his hand.

"Siamak Zamani," the first man says. A firm handshake seals their new friendship. They laugh because their names are so similar.

Whether discussing life's problems or the burdens of the heart ("dard-e dell" in Persian), people here don't mind strangers eavesdropping, not even ones who introduce themselves as reporters.

Darkness falls as the passengers settle in for the 14-hour trip. Amani, 42, an extremely thin man with a big mustache, hollow eyes and sunken cheeks, pours hot tea from a thermos. Zamani, 45, lively and muscular, with a nose that must have been broken several times, takes off his shoes. The train carriage is made up of compartments of four seats and four fold-down bunks.

Life stories are exchanged before the train stops for the 20-minute evening prayer break.

"Ten years ago, someone told me to invest in a steel-selling scheme," Zamani says. "So I sold my house, but I got ripped off. Now I'm renting, but because of the inflation I can't pay my rent anymore."

He tells about the many fistfights and accidents he has been in, concluding: "I only have God to help me. No one else will, so I should fight."

"All my life I've been plastering walls," Amani responds. "What did it get me? I don't see my four children for three months in a row when I work in other cities. But what can we do?"

The train is filled with men like Amani and Zamani -- low-paid laborers sitting cross-legged on their seats while the train crosses the Iranian highland under a star-filled desert sky.

When an attendant brings chicken kebab and rice, the two men struggle over the right to pay the bill of about 3,500 toman, or $4. "Please, be my guest," Amani says, already holding money in his hand.

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