The Silk Road Embrace

abstract art

The sphere upon which mortals come and go,
Has no end nor beginning that we know;
And none there is to tell us in plain truth:
Whence do we come and whither do we go.

Omar Khayyam
(Translated by Ahmad Saidi)

Day One: China
“Attention Please! Dear Passengers, welcome to tour number 1357 onboard the Express Silk Road Train. Please leave all your belongings in your private cabins and attend to your seats in the passenger carriage. We will take off in approximately ten minutes.”

Haiyu unpacked in his small wooden cabin. He knew his electrical devices would not be allowed on the train and only brought three sets of comfortable clothes and underwear. There was no need for other personal items; the luxury cabin included all he would need, from a toothbrush to a shaving kit. It wasn’t his first time onboard the ESR train, and he knew what to expect. He even felt a familiar welcoming vibe, as if the room warmly embraced him. He wanted to pick something from the small wooden bookshelf filled with paper catalogs and books, then plunge into the white sheets and go through his tour catalog, have another look at the cities he would visit, and explore the main attraction sites in each of them, but the announcement was repeated for the last time.

As he entered the passenger carriage, the green-lit arrows guided him to his seat. Two rows of single brown chairs covered both sides of the wooden carriage. He shyly said hi to the other passengers sitting in their places and walked to the end of the carriage to his seat. The comfortable leather chair embraced him as he sat down. He didn’t need the instructions announced as he knew what to do. He placed his feet on the footrest and allowed the automated metal band to circle his ankles. He did the same with his hands, placing them on the chair handles and letting the band cover his wrists. It was time for his neck and forehead cover. As he sat in complete position, the first destination was announced.

“Dear Passengers, a train attendant will ensure all your control bands are correctly in place. We will begin our journey shortly after, arriving at our first destination, Xi’an in…” He couldn’t hear more as he dozed off just before the train wheels started to turn.

He woke up to the sound of the announcement. They had arrived. The control bands were already removed. He stood up and followed the rest of the passengers out of the carriage door to the rail station, which was a short walk to the cultural square that led to the Yongning gate. He could hear the tour guide in his ears, explaining that there were no railroads at the time of the Silk Road, and this station was built solely for the ESR train. He already knew all this and didn’t care to listen to the rest of the tour plan and details. The only thing he took notice of was the time they had to be back on the train for lunch. He had four hours to visit the city. After lunch, they would see Dunhuang, another city in China, where they would visit the ancient Buddhist sites and take an hour-long camel caravan ride to experience how people traveled many centuries ago. He already knew this would be everyone’s favorite part of the trip. He had enjoyed it on the previous tours.

Haiyu separated from the group and walked towards the square, filled with stalls and booths selling food, spices, musical instruments, souvenirs, and more. After four visits, he could now tell what remained the same and what details were added or modified. The three little Chinese girls in their cheap, dirty gowns, running around the stalls and playing hide and seek, were was new to him, but the medicine stall was a recent addition, and the two elderly men sitting behind a wooden table and playing mahjong were a familiar sight. The tour guide’s voice in his ears gave information about every place he visited, spanning 1700 years of history. There were too many details to keep up with. The prominent historical landmarks were enough for him as the place spoke for itself.

The food stalls, filling the early summer air with spicy smells of grilled and fried vegetables and meat, made his mouth water. They were not allowed to mingle with the locals and couldn’t eat or drink anything outside the train. He took in the delicious smell with a deep breath and let the lively market sounds fill his ears: the children laughing, the men advertising their merchandise, and the young boy playing the ancient drum. The first-time-tourists preferred to go up the Great Wall. He was on the shorter ESR tour, and they only had half a day in the city. He knew from his first tour that the Wall stroll would take so long. So, he walked to the gate, heading straight towards the Bell Tower.

He knew what he would expect. He had felt it the last three times he had taken the ESR train tour. First came a proud feeling, a sensation of belonging, a marvelous gratitude for being rooted in this colorful culture and a descendant of such a great nation. He would indulge himself in the feeling as he walked around the Xiangzi Temple, the Great Mosque, and strolling around Lianhu Park, the whole time suppressing the guilt that strived to surface. As the hours passed, he could no longer keep it down. The guilt would take over his entire body and mind. Was he responsible? Surely not. But he still felt responsible, wanting to do something. Was it not the whole point of the tour, making the tourists feel ashamed and convincing them to contribute to the project? Whatever it was, it had worked on him.

There was another reason that he took the tour again and again. The guilt, shame, and donation cycle worked fine the first time, and Haiyu convinced his father to give a large donation. He did indeed enjoy visiting China, but he longed for another experience in another city, two days on the tour. The first time he got on the ESR train, it was a full tour that took four weeks; a whole week was dedicated to China. The tour covered all the major cities on the Silk Road, starting from Xi’an to Istanbul, crossing over 33 cities. But he couldn’t take that much time off and couldn’t explain why he wanted to go on the tour again, so he chose shorter, five-day tours that only crossed 13 cities. It was better this way; he reached his desired destination sooner, in two days! He felt excited by the thought.

The tour guide’s announcement in his ear pulled him back to the train station. He had lost track of time again.

Everyone was already at the train station when he finally got back. They went in one by one. He was the last to board. He sat on his chair and closed his eyes as instructed by the train attendant. He then opened his eyes and waited for the control bands to unfasten. He stood up, following the rest of the passengers to the restaurant carriage. He was hungry and wanted to eat everything he had seen in the market: cold noodles, dumplings, and more…

Day Three: Iran
Haiyu had an amazing dream filled with blue domes, dark blue and turquoise tiles, magical geometrical patterns that seemed to spread towards the blue sky, and stone floors and walls, a reflection of what he had seen on his second day of the tour in Samarkand and Bukhara. He woke up feeling hungover from being drunk on colors and shapes and perhaps the Uzbekistani wine he had a little too much of last night. He was glad that the two cities of Uzbekistan were included in the short tour of the Silk Road. The tour managers surveyed to keep the most attractive destinations in the short tour. The remaining cities were all his favorites except for Rey, also known as Tehran. The guilt that overcame him when visiting the city was too heavy to bear. He only visited the city the first time, drowning in sorrow and shame for all that was irrevocably lost. He spent the Rey tour the last two times in his private cabin, reading and thinking. He intended to do the same that exact afternoon. But first, it was time for his favorite part of the tour, the reason he was on that train for the fourth time in one year.

He was the first to leave the restaurant carriage after having his Persian breakfast, the fresh local bread with Sarshir, honey, and sweetened chai. He wouldn’t mingle with any other passengers. If they knew who he was, the son of one of Earth’s most famous and wealthy men, he couldn’t get away from them so easily, and he just wanted to enjoy his time on the tour. He hurried to the passenger carriage and sat on his chair. He would have to wait at least another forty minutes or so before all the passengers arrived. He didn’t mind sitting alone and recalling what he had seen the last two days. The train had supposedly crossed Turkmenistan and entered Iran last night while they were sleeping. Surprisingly, Ashgabat had not attained enough votes in the short tour survey for the train to stop in Turkmenistan, but four cities in Iran had, making the tour managers devote two days to this country. Finally, all the passengers were seated, the control bands were in place, and the day’s tour began.

“Our next destination is Nishapur,” Haiyu heard on the announcement as he closed his eyes with a smile.

After visiting the ancient caravanserai and the beautiful garden and tomb of Attar of Nishapur, it was time to go to the shrine of Omar Khayyam. For the convenience of the tour, the locations were brought together within a short walking distance. The tour guide explained this to Haiyu’s ears, providing information on the actual distance between the locations. The guide had given the same information for the previous cities. Also, she gave notes on the changes made to each attraction. Most were modeled after their last appearances before the Great War. Haiyu preferred those refurbished in the 20th or the 21st century, brought to life again by local artists who kept the old glory of the old structures and themes but also added vibrant new looks to the landmarks. The Khayyam Shrine was one of those rebuilt in the 1960s by Houshang Seyhoon, the famous Iranian architect.

Haiyu walked down the path between the tall pine trees and passed the weeping willows and the rose bushes toward the marvelous shrine monument. It consisted of ten white and blue pillars containing calligraphed poems of Khayyam. The pillars came together to form a domed roof. He was greeted by a soft breeze, so light and pleasant that he thought Khayyam himself welcomed him to his burial site. His heart started to beat faster as he took more steps to meet the most beautiful and mysterious girl he had ever seen. The girl Haiyu had spent all his holidays to come and see in the last year. He somehow felt he knew her as if he had known her before. But he couldn’t record anything on the tour, and his memory yielded no results when he searched for her online. He did know what he was expecting to see right then and there.

The girl would stand in front of the tombstone, under the dome, surrounded by a group of visitors, men, women, and children. At first, he could only hear her voice, reading aloud the poems of Khayyam in Persian for everyone. Her voice, soft but bold, would pierce through the dome and spread between the pillars of the shrine, quavering his heart. He had never heard anything so beautiful, so rhythmic and strange. It wasn’t just the eloquent soft nature of the Persian language as he had heard it before throughout the Iran tour. Hers had some celestial vibe that he could never fully comprehend . Maybe it wasn’t even the poem; the girl’s voice transcended the poetry and trembled his heart.

After reading a few poems, the crowd would cheer for her and gently disperse, making her visible to Haiyu. He would see her then in full. Her wavy, long brown hair covered her bare shoulders. Haiyu’s eyes would move down from her hair to stare at the beautiful azure dress she would be wearing, with golden golabton embroidery on its top. And then his eyes would roll down to her bare legs and golden sandals. Then he would look up again to glance at her face, her bony nose and cheeks, her big black eyes framed with a thick layer of eyeliner, and her lips as red as the Persian carpet backgrounds. Makeup was indeed an Eastern tradition, but it turned into a most admirable piece of art on the girl’s face.

He would watch her elegantly walk up the shrine stairs and sit on a bench, looking at the shrine. She would then take out a cigarette and light it, smoking with pleasure and whispering something as if she was sitting across from a lover in a café, confessing shyly to her love. Haiyu had looked around the last three times he had been there to see if anyone had noticed this beauty. Still, the other tourists were more interested in the garden and the monument, oblivious to what the heart of the tour was, the heart that had conquered Haiyu’s heart. The last time on the tour, even though they were not allowed to mingle with the locals, Haiyu walked up to her and sat on the bench beside the girl, trying to make out what she was whispering. It sounded like poetry or confabulation, he couldn’t say. He sat beside her until she delightedly finished her cigarette and walked off. The girl couldn’t see Haiyu, of course. There was no point in trying to talk to her or to convince her to have another cigarette and stay longer. Eventually, he had to go back to the ESR train.

Hoping for a similar experience, Haiyu took bigger steps towards the shrine. The crowd was gathered around the tombstone, but he couldn’t hear the sound of the girl’s poetry, only the noise from the crowd. As he took a few steps closer, the crowd eventually scattered, and there he was, standing in front of the tombstone.

The girl was not there.

He felt a sudden emptiness in his heart and a cold sweat rolling down his back. He looked around. There were no signs of her, her voice, her body, her eyes, the movement of her dress skirt, and the weird smell of her cigarette… The whole shrine, the garden, the city of Nishapur, the entire world felt frozen, still and empty, vacant of any sound or movement, as if time had seized and life had suddenly left the planet. His heart was beating faster, though the loud bumping of his heart made up for the silence that had devoured the Khayyam Shrine. He felt a drop roll down from the corner of his eye, and as he blinked to get rid of the tear, he started seeing and hearing again; the tourists were roaming around the place with admiration and awe. But it was true. She was not there; perhaps she was omitted as one of the new adjustments in the VR tour upgrade, a tasteless and heartbreaking change.

He didn’t want it anymore, the whole tour, the Silk Road, visiting the ancient cities that were all just rubble and dust now. He wanted to get back. He couldn’t carry on. He just had to remember the emergency exit code. He should have attended the pre-tour meeting but thought he knew the drill after three travels. The hole in his heart seemed to be getting larger with every second, dragging him into an abyss that swallowed him. He sat down on the floor with his back against the tombstone. His legs and shoulders were trembling. Could he have a panic attack in the VR? He wasn’t sure, but he was scared.

He shouted: “Out! I want out! Right now… Out!” He repeated this until his eyes were closed and he fell asleep.

Haiyu could feel the metal band across his forehead and around his ankles and wrists. It took longer than he anticipated for the control bands to unfasten. He got up anxiously and walked in haste as he crossed the carriage corridor to the private cabin carriage, ignoring all the other tourists sitting still on their chairs and roaming around the VR through their control bands. As he entered the cabin carriage, he heard a voice from behind.

“Mr. Haiyu Chen,” the female voice called to him. It was a familiar voice, bold but soft.

He turned back to see who was calling him. It was the girl! The same girl from the VR, with the same long curly hair and big black eyes. She was wearing a simple green dress and less makeup, looking even more beautiful than he had seen in VR. Could it really be her? Was he still in a simulation? Maybe he fell asleep on his VR chair, and he was dreaming. She approached him.

“I must say I didn’t expect you to react that way to our minor modification.” It was her, indeed, in flesh and blood. She brought her hand forward to shake his hand.

“I’m Darya Tehrani, one of the designers of the ESR tour, and I’m so pleased to meet you.”

Haiyu shook her hand, warm and soft as he expected. He tried to introduce himself properly, but Darya interrupted him.

“I know very well who you are, Mr. Chen. Your- or I should say your father’s generous donation to our project has been a bliss for us. I hoped to meet you in the pre-tour meeting to thank you in person, but you didn’t attend it.”

“I thought I didn’t need to hear the instructions again,” Haiyu replied apologetically.

“I understand,” she said with a polite smile.

He lowered his head in reply, unable to handle the overwhelming beauty of her lips and cheeks.

“Is it OK if we go to mine or your cabin for a chat? There are some things I wanted to talk to you about.” She asked with her bold voice again. “The other passengers will be back soon, and I can’t be seen in public… the restaurant and such.” She explained.

Haiyu gladly accepted and invited Darya to his small wooden cabin.

Haiyu sat on the bed, and Darya sat across him on the only chair in the room; her sitting position was precisely the same as when she sat on the bench and smoked in the VR. Haiyu looked down, trying not to get into details that would distract him again.

“You know that we have been monitoring you… so I’ve seen you too before, just not in reality,” she said shyly. Haiyu knew that. He had signed a consent form for observation and data gathering every time he came on the tour.

“So, it was really you in the VR?” He asked excitedly.

“Yes. The narrative comes from a memory my mother had when she visited the Khayyam Shrine three years before the bombings. Of course, at that time, the woman my mom saw was not wearing such a nice dress; she had compulsory hijab. But we modeled the girl on me, and I chose the outfit and makeup.”

“Why remove it then?” Haiyu finally asked his question.

“Because of the smoking!” Darya laughed. “Some tourists had found it offensive and degenerating.” She explained.

Haiyu frowned, not understanding the relevance. He wanted to say that there were so many other narratives that were not politically correct in their time, but they weren’t deleted. But he couldn’t come up with examples, and Darya moved on to her next question.

“You were having a panic attack. Do you know why? We need to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

Haiyu didn’t know how to answer her.

“I was dissatisfied, I guess…” He tried saying something and ended up looking down at his feet again to hide his blush.

“We do need to do a medical check.”

“No! No! No need, I’m totally fine.” Haiyu resisted. He couldn’t tell her that he had fallen in love with her image and now with her.

There was a knock on the door. Haiyu opened the door to a train attendant. She was holding a tray in her hands. He took the tray and placed it on the small coffee table.

“I asked them to bring your food here. I didn’t want other passengers to question you in the restaurant.”

How considerate, he thought. He thanked her and looked at the two similar plates.

“It’s called Cholo Kabab, you’ve had it before, right?” He had, indeed, and it was truly delicious.

Darya picked up her food and started eating. Haiyu mirrored her. He was hungry. The VR made him tired, and after four hours, his body needed lots of water and food to make up for all the lost energy. They kept on eating for a few minutes. After eating a few spoons of her saffron rice and kebab, Darya put down her plate and started talking again.

“I know from your previous tours that you skipped the Tehran tour. Can I ask why?”

“The full tour spends a whole day in Tehran,” he said, trying to establish solid grounds for his reason. Darya stared at him, waiting to hear the rest, nodding. Of course, she knew the tour details. But he had to say it anyway.

“The first half of the tour-before lunch-was the historical sites. That part didn’t disturb me. It was the second part where we visited the modern Tehran sites, just before the bombings.” He paused and continued, Darya nodding again to show she understood.

“I couldn’t bear it, knowing that this beautiful and lively city was burnt to the ground within minutes. I couldn’t think of anything else but the six million lives lost in less than an hour.” He was ten years old when it happened. The war had already started in the Middle East. Tens of thousands of lives were lost in just a month. Then it spread: the greediness, the hate, the political propaganda, more hate to justify rightful revenge, and the uncontainable violence, dragging other countries into the conflict. It didn’t take long for the first-ever hydrogen bomb to be used, falling on Tehran, followed by two more within a short time. He saw it all on Instagram: the blast, the smoke, the fire, and the rubbles and dead bodies that paved the destroyed city afterward. This was the point of no return, with nukes and more bombs destroying city after city in the Middle East, killing more people by the second and turning life as once people knew into a foregone memory. It didn’t stop there; it was keen to spread from China to Europe, just like the Silk Road did in ancient times, with one difference, there was only one commodity being moved along: destruction.

Haiyu became quiet. Darya bent over and gently put her hands on Haiyu’s.

“I was six years old when it happened. We lived in Shiraz,” she said with a lump of sorrow that she tried to swallow.

“We ran to Kurdistan and escaped to Africa. It was the only refugee route open for us,” she said in a low, sad tone. This time, Haiyu tried to comfort her by caressing her hand.

Haiyu could relate to Darya to some extent. His family was also forced to move when Canada became involved in the war. Being the second generation of Canadian-Chinese born in Canada, his experience of displacement was different from Darya’s, he never left his country of birth. It was not during the bombings and the killings, but after the actual war, that they were forced to move to help enforce the cease-fires, although it was too late. Many Asian and Middle Eastern people were relocated from the main Canadian cities in the south to the northern regions. The Arabs and Iranians living in Canada were eventually sent to MERC (Middle East Refugee Camp) in Africa, but the Canadian-Chinese remained in Canada, building modern, domed cities to survive the harsh climate. He was fifteen when they moved to Yellowknife and twenty when they finally settled into their big, modern mansion in New Toronto. The first time, having to leave his birth city, Toronto, impacted him on so many levels, making him introverted with severe depression episodes. But he was wise enough to know he was one of the most privileged people on Earth, not being at the war crossroads and under direct attacks. He explained this to Darya, trying not to sound boasting or victimized, for he knew he was just lucky at the time and that the real victims were people who lived in the Middle East, like Darya.

“Never mind now… We are all trying to move forward.” Darya said, pulling out her hand and trying to go back to her confident self. But Haiyu liked to see her like this, emotional and fragile; it evoked the same feeling as the poems she read in the VR.

Darya insisted on returning to the food and promised not to say anything upsetting again. Haiyu finished his kebab and most of his rice and drank his Sharbat Skanjbin, the lovely Persian drink made of mint, honey, and vinegar. He was still not sure why Darya had come to see him. Was it to make sure he was OK? Did she want to know the reason he wouldn’t visit Tehran or something else? Darya looked at him as if she was trying to read his thoughts. She drank her Sharbat too.

“I have to ask you a question. Although you will have to undergo some medical checkups for us to make sure you’re OK” she said. Haiyu didn’t interrupt her, being eager to know what she wanted.

“When I said we were monitoring you, I didn’t mean just observing. We monitor your heart rate, your hormones, and more.” She continued, “Of course, with your consent, that we already have.”

Haiyu nodded.

“We have observed something in your previous tours that we hope you can clarify for us,” Darya said, but she seemed hesitant to ask immediately.

“You see, for this project to work and for more people to join our cause, we hope that people on the tour experience different feelings, not just excitement, joy, and shame. We want them to feel strong emotions towards these cities and places so we can convince the standing governments to chip in and help us rebuild them,” she said with her bold tone again, as if pitching the idea to a wealthy politician, which he was in a way.

Haiyu knew all this anyway.

“It has worked, hasn’t it?” Haiyu replied.

“What we need is for people to fall in love,” she said, trying to keep the surprise in her punchline. Haiyu was indeed surprised.

“Of course, we can derive our conclusion based on our data but it would help us to know your true feelings. It could be a huge groundbreaker for us, knowing that we have had the impact we were looking for,” she said, and trying to convince him further, she added, “We will not reveal any names, just the findings.”

A knock on the door disrupted the conversation. A train attendant entered with a tea tray. He took the food plates out with him. Darya poured the saffron and cinnamon tea from a pot into the cups and put a nabat in each. She handed him a cup.

“Will you help us, help me?” She asked in a coquetry tone.

“I love all the cities I visited, that’s for sure.”

“But you loved Nishapur differently?” She asked smartly. His answer was positive, but he wasn’t ready to give it yet.

“I will tell you, but first, I want to know about the poems you read in the VR and the whispers you had on the bench,” he said, trying to delay his answer.

Darya smiled victoriously. She drank her tea, put down the cup, and sat beside him on the bed. She started reciting the poems precisely as she did in the VR recording. When she finished the Persian version of all twenty poems written on the Khayyam Shrine pillars, she started translating them one by one, looking straight into his eyes. Haiyu had finally achieved what he wanted from the tour, magically more than he expected.

Haiyu gave Darya his answer when he could no longer restrain himself and kissed her. She replied to his response with another kiss…

Day Five: Turkey
Not only had he missed the Tehran tour but also the Zanjan and Tabriz stops on the fourth day of the ESR tour.

He did yearn to see the blue-tiled dome and the sandy bricks of Sultanieh; and the knife bazaar in Zanjan; and also the mystical labyrinth of Tabriz bazaar, that seemed impossible to figure out: the Persian carpets and handicrafts; and the colorful spices that would take his breath away. But he wouldn’t trade any of that with a moment he could spend with Darya. The day was spent among the white sheets of the bed, making love, reading poetry, and getting to know each other.

Darya had told him about her life. Her family had fled Iran when the war broke out, and they were stationed in Africa’s Middle East Refugee Camps. Other Iranians and Arabs living in Europe, Canada, and what remained of the US were gradually forced to move there within a few years after the war, and the city expanded to become the tasteless, chaotic, and shapeless city of MERC after thirty years. Darya told him about the constant fight for territory and neighborhoods between Arabs and Iranians, the slums that grew larger by the day in the south of MERC, and the homeless living on the streets. There were no jobs or opportunities. After thirty years, most people still lived on humanitarian aid, the food and other necessities distributed every week. The crime rate was devastating, with no proper law enforcement to keep order and control.
Darya considered herself privileged, living in the best part of MERC in the north of the city. She came from a well-educated and wealthy family—her mother, a university professor before the war, taught in the MERC’s first high school. Darya was one of the few who got the chance to study because of her mother. Her father, an engineer, was among the city’s founders and had introduced her to the Silk Road Revival Project as a cultural ambassador. She worked with them, and after seven years, she was promoted to designer. She considered herself very lucky, not just because she had a good education and job, but for being a part of something she truly believed in, connecting the past to the future. The more Darya talked about herself, her life, and her ideas, the more Haiyu fell for her.

The ESR train had exited Iran last night and arrived in Istanbul that morning. He had his medical checkup that morning, and after that, he refused to go on the tour even though Darya had insisted. He had already seen the city, and as marvelous as it was, it couldn’t compete with Darya’s mythical beauty. They had stayed in again, having their Turkish breakfast and lunch in the cabin. It was time for the afternoon rest, the last meal on the tour. Haiyu hoped for baklava and Turkish tea or coffee. After the tea, all the passengers would gather their things and leave the train. Haiyu had already packed, waiting for Darya to come out of the shower and order their last treat. He was practicing the poem Darya had taught him. He kept murmuring it to get it right in Persian and to read it back to her. He needed her to be smiling when he would bring up his proposal.

She came out of the shower wearing a robe. She didn’t look at him at first as she was drying her long hair with a towel. Haiyu tried his best to surprise her.

در دایره‌ای که آمد و رفتن ماست
او را نه بدایت نه نهایت پیداست
کس می‌نزند دمی در این معنی راست
کاین آمدن از کجا و رفتن به کجاست

Haiyu recited the Khayyam poem in Persian, trying to hide his English accent and receiving praise and a smile. But from Darya’s loud laughter, he found out he had messed up the pronunciations. He did receive her affection as she sat beside him on the bed. Her laughter soon faded, and her eyes became sad.

“I have to leave now. So do you,” Darya said.

“But we haven’t had the evening tea yet,” Haiyu protested.

“I’m going to my cabin and order your tea,” She replied as she stood and picked up her dress. Haiyu took her hand.

“I want you to stay with me. Not just now, after we get off the train and return to the city.”

“Your city, you mean? The new Toronto?” She asked.

“Stay a few days, weeks, as long as you want. Come live with me for a while. We have a big house, lots of rooms…,” Haiyu insisted.

Darya shook her head.

“I can’t. My diplomatic visa expires in two days. I have to go back to MERC immediately.” Her voice was shaking as she said the words.

“I can fix your visa problem. You know I can.” Haiyu tried to convince her.

“I know you can. You can do anything you want with your father’s AI company, his political influence, and all that money and power. But there are things you cannot fix. I have responsibilities to my people, to my lost country,” Darya explained as she put on her dress.

“I promise if you stay with me, I will convince my father to donate more money, even help accelerate the Silk Road project.”

“The project is not my only responsibility. I have other responsibilities as a woman… you know what I’m talking about,” she said in a sad tone.

Haiyu took her hand and pulled her to himself, making her sit on his lap.

“There’s a way out for anything,” he said in a promising tone.

“Not this one. I’m already spoken for. So many of my people died, and we need to rebuild our race. I have this responsibility to produce pure-breed Iranian babies. It’s the law that politicians like your father helped to enforce,” she said, trying to get up.

“Those arranged matchmakings and child bearings are just formal. We can still be together,” Haiyu said in an appealing tone. Luckily, the Chinese population was not affected by the war the way the Persians and the Arabs were, although more than 30 million Chinese were killed in the China bombings. Still, if he ever wanted to have a child, it had to be with a purebred Chinese girl. This was the law, and Darya was right about it.

“What about us? The last two days? Did it even mean anything to you?” he asked, doubting Darya’s intentions. Was it just a fling for her? He was already all-in for the Silk Road project and Darya didn’t need to convince him further. He dismissed the thought immediately. The way she made love to him was more genuine than he had ever experienced before.

“I enjoyed it truly. You know I did,” she replied.

Haiyu was convinced it was a mutual feeling even though Darya wouldn’t admit it then and there. He didn’t want to let her go. He kissed her forehead and took in the fresh smell of shampoo from her hair.

“What happened here on the train, should stay here. It’s too risky for me.” Darya explained. She finally got up and went for the door. Haiyu followed her.
“So, you’re just leaving me?” he felt helpless. “When will I see you again?” he asked desperately.

“I don’t know. Maybe I can come to New Toronto again someday, but we can stay in touch if you like,” she said. Then she remembered something, and her eyes sparkled.

“I will try to send you the Nishapur VR recording. You can see me there and practice your poetry!” she said with a smile, trying to change the mood. Haiyu definitely wanted that, the recording and staying in touch. But it wasn’t enough, not now. Not after two days of embracing her in his arms, feeling her body, and being dazzled by her mind. He wanted to be with her forever, although saying that aloud could scare her off.

“I will get in touch with you as soon as I get off this train. You know I’m not giving up on you, not so easily anyway,” he said, standing by the door to see her out.
One last kiss and then goodbye…

Day Seven: Canada
Back home, Haiyu impatiently waited for a response from Darya, even though he knew she was still on her way back to MERC. He had sent her a trivia, explaining that both their names had a similar meaning. Darya means “sea” in Persian, and Haiyu means “sea area” in Chinese. He was fascinated by this random connection, and he wanted more connections on so many other levels. He wouldn’t go on the ESR tour again. It was time for him to face the reality. Experiencing past glories in virtual reality was a passive act, although it would help the revival cause by raising funds. It wasn’t enough. He could do more. If anyone could, it was him. He had all the resources, money, influence, and time. What he lacked was a meaningful connection, a reason, and motivation to drag him out of his passive, melancholy mode. He had that now, thanks to Darya.

There was a gap between what he knew about the world before the war and what they aimed to rebuild in the future. This gap was filled with the pain and suffering of the people who lost their countries in the war. He knew now that the only sustainable bridge between the past and the future had to go through this agony. Ignoring it wouldn’t help. There would be no future, no rebuilt cities and revived historical sites unless the existing pains and problems were properly addressed and solved . He knew he could help, and for the first time in his life, he felt happy and purposeful. He had to find a way around all the new rules and encumbering traditions, to help Darya with her goal, and to win Darya’s heart for good. It wouldn’t be easy, he knew that. But there was only one way to find out.

He booked the first flight to MERC and started packing.

Author: Zoha Kazemi

Zoha Kazemi is an Iranian speculative fiction writer. She was born in 1982, in Tehran and is currently living there. She has an engineering BS and an MA in English literature. She started writing and publishing stories around fourteen years ago and writes both in Farsi and English. So far, she has published 14 novels, a short story collection, and a flash fiction collection in Iran. Her novels “Rain Born”, “Year of the Tree” (translated by Caroline Croskery, Candle and Fog Publications) and her story collection “Time Rider” (translated by Amir Sepahram, Knotted Road Press) are available in English. She has won the Noofe award for the best speculative novel of the year in Iran, two times in a row for her dystopian novel “Death Industry” and her post-apocalyptic novel “Rain Born”. Her first sci-fi novel “Pine Dead” was acknowledged in the first Noofe award. She has also written other dystopian novels like “Humanoid” and “The Juliet Syndrome” which is a best seller in Iran. Zoha has published a three-volume novel for young adults called “The World of Lollipop People” and a fantasy novel titled “The Covering Dust”. Her latest published book is a dystopian-crime novel titled “Purging of Murder Chipsets”. She has a thriller-fantasy novel for YA named “The Mehrzan Gate” under publication. Zoha owns a bookshop in Tehran named “Rama Bookstore” which specializes in speculative fiction where she holds many events, like book signings, creative writing workshops and story writing contests.

Artist: Helia Yazdani

abstract art
The Silk Road Embrace

Helia Yazdani (Born 1998) is a young Iranian Comic Artist and Illustrator who uses an artistic style of saturated and sharp colors and bends usual rules of shapes and form to convey a story. She is a graduate from Soore Art University-Iran and has won multiple awards for her comic works in Iran including the 2024 Rama Comic Contest.

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