As we park the car and walk along one of the streets exploring the old buildings and the small shops, we discover an Armenian church that was founded in 1874 – the Church of Mother Mary. Excited, we ring the bell several times hoping to meet local Armenians, but nobody comes to open the door. “It’s not surprising,” says our friend, explaining that many Armenians either moved to Tehran, or have left Iran.
While we stand in front of the church doors waiting for someone to appear, an old man approaches us and shows us a photo of himself. “Take a photo,” he says, posing in front of our cameras. Turns out, we reminded him of a group of TV journalists that visited Bandar-e Anzali some time ago. They couldn’t get their boat out of the sea, so they called the old man to help them, which he did and he was proud of it. Now, thinking that we are journalists, he wanted to share his story.
We leave the old man in the front of the church and take a walk along the seaside boulevard, enjoying the warm weather and observing the port and the ships, and the locals spending their evening by the sea. Nima treats us with a plate of “baghali” – cooked fava beans spiced with salt, sumac and vinegar. Then we drive to another part of the city to walk on a sandy beach. The Caspian Sea is dark and gloomy, the big waves hit the shores with a loud roar.
After 27 years of separation I see the Caspian again. Born on a small island near Baku called Artyom, I remember dad taking us to the beach just 3-4 minutes walking distance from home. But after we were forced to leave Azerbaijan where massacres of Armenians were taking place, the sea remained a symbol of the first three years of my childhood. And now the memories come to life as I stand on the wet sand and look far at the ships in the open sea.
We walk on the beach, taking photographs, collecting sea shells and doing crazy things to unleash our emotions. Local girls and boys, men and women pass by us not quite understanding what’s happening and what are these strangers doing. Someone’s starting a fire on the other side of the beach. The daylight fades away slowly, accompanied by the music of the waves.
On the way back to Rasht we make a stop in the town of Khomam to try a special local sweet called “yakh dar behesht” (ice in paradise) – mashed fruits with ice. Back at home, Nima’s mother prepares an amazing dinner – rice with saffron, mirza ghasemi, shishandaz, torshe tare, borani – dishes that are representing the traditional cuisine of Gilan province. As aunt Soosan explains, local food doesn’t contain a lot of meat and there are many vegetable dishes, making the province a heaven for vegetarians.
Monday, November 16, 2015. Tired and exhausted from the previous day’s hitchhiking trip from Tabriz to the city of Rasht, we sleep until noon. And after the late breakfast, as our friend returns home, we leave Rasht to visit Bandar-e Anzali, a harbour town on the shores of the Caspian Sea in the Gilan province of Iran. Translated from Persian, “bandar” means a port. Known as Bandar-e Pahlavi before the Islamic Revolution, the city was founded in the early 19th century. The Anzali lagoon divides the city into two parts. In May 1920, the Russians occupied Bandar-e Aznali and declared a Soviet Republic of Gilan (officially known as the Persian Socialist Soviet Republic), which existed only until September 1921.