Monday, 18 November 2013

Persians Poets and Pickpockets, 2002

Iran, October 2002.


In my first fleeting contacts with deserts (in Morocco a quarter of a century before and in Israel ten years before) I had felt intimidated. I had avoided venturing more than a few steps into them. Although I did not feel overt fear, the feeling of being a very small person next to a very big and dangerous desert was rather like the feeling one might have next to a great sleeping beast.

This time I wanted to look the beast in the eye; I would head out into the desert.

At least that had been the plan prior to arriving in Iran and experiencing its roasting heat. The constant thirst had initially caused me to doubt whether a desert trek were feasible. My coach approached the ancient city of Yazd, whose houses of baked mud were barely changed since Marco Polo had passed through on his way to Cathay. During the trip I had latched onto an Iranian academic studying a linguistics text. (“Hey, mate, are you reading Steven Pinker there? Respect, dude!”)   Bahzad pointed out through the windows the spooky fortresses crowning the hilltops around Yazd. In these “Towers of Silence”, he explained, the Zoroastrians used to lay out their corpses to be devoured by the vultures.

Towers of Silence - where the Zoroastrians would dispose of their dead

Getting off the air-conditioned coach, such was the blowtorch heat that my desert trek plan was well and truly binned for reasons mathematical, or perhaps thermodynamic. If you have to drink ten litres of water a day and can only carry twenty litres (weighing twenty kilos) then a range of two days is kind of limiting. The hard facts devalue the noble word expedition into the mundane day trip.

When you are consuming eight litres of water a day, a day’s supply weighs a ton. (Or, more accurately, eight kilos.) A desert trek worthy of the name must last at least two nights. One night is a jaunt; two nights a trek. (How should one categorise a week or a month? Sojourn? Oddyssey? Epic?) With a safety margin, three days’ supply was a minimum. I can only carry thirty kilos, so twenty four kilos of water was impossible.

And then, wondrously, after a week of being roasted my body began to acclimatise! Like a desert plant whose leaves are not thin-and-rustly like good old English leaves, but thick and waxy and clattery, my skin began to harden up. Instead of sweating buckets all day long, it decided to just accept the higher temperatures and stop leaking. From the outset I had deliberately drunk as much as was necessary to urinate: when you don’t go all day and your tiny trickle of urine is as brown as tea, you’re dehydrated. The water is so rich in waste that it’ll bugger up your kidneys. So, drink! Even if you are not thirsty, drink! And after a week of copious drinking, my output shot up and I could moderate my intake.

And so, having resuscitated the desert trek plan, I booked a taxi to drop me off at a point on the map where the desert road passed closest to a place called Chak Chak, 26km away as the crow flies according to a wondrous little piece of technology, a GPS, a satellite navigation device to become commonplace a few years later. The driver looked quite concerned. He helped me pull my 30kg pack out of the boot (11 litres of this was water) and waved at me as I crossed the road, burdened like a pack mule and trying not to stagger, and set off through the sandy scrubland. The day was past its hottest, but I had several hours of yomping before nightfall.

Iranians I had discussed this with were horrified. “Into the desert? This is madness. It is too dangerous!” “Oh, yeah? Well, precisely what are the dangers?” “The dangers? Well there are snakes. There are scorpions. There are drug dealers!” I told them that I didn’t believe about the drug dealers, that even if there were such people in the desert they would be unlikely to molest me. And as for snakes and scorpions, I would be tucked up nice and snug in my sleeping bag without any trailing arms or legs to be bitten.

The first few miles were rather an anticlimax. The desert’s surface was riven with great furrows a metre deep. Far from unspoilt wilderness, this was the work of Man. Iran is so parched that they have an ingenious way of harvesting the infrequent rains. They plough immense herringbone patterns in the areas around the towns. Through perforated pipes trickles enough water to fill great underground holding tanks. From time to time I would pass a boulder the size of my Mini that had been scoured out of the ground.

Every now and then I would reach a wadi; a dried-up watercourse which would obviously flow during the rains. Not surprisingly, vegetation would be at its richest in the beds of these wadis. This is not “desert absolu” in the Saharan or the Kalahari sense, but I suppose that the defining feature of a desert is the absence of water. The next available water was 21km away. Barring hiccups, I should be there the following night and with nearly three days’ supply, I had a fat safety margin.

At sunset, I found a nice soft cup of land alongside a wadi and spread out my clutter. First priority was a fire. There was enough dry vegetation around. Ten minutes of foraging gave me a respectable pile, and I brewed up on my living fire. To my surprise, some of the living shrubs were the fabled saffron! On the twigs of the saffron bush grow little moist buds of an intense yellow. A fellow traveller in Esfehan had paid about a tenner for a little glass tube containing just a sprig of saffron. And I had a king’s ransom of the stuff on two or three whole bushes. Unfortunately, Iran has export controls on it. So instead of lugging two saffron bushes with me for the next twenty kilometres…. I burned ‘em. In the world’s most expensive camp fire.

[Update 2013 – saffron doesn’t grow on bushes like this. Talking rubbish.]

Despite the distant lights of Yazd spoiling the sense of total isolation, I went off to sleep as happy as a sandboy. God’s in his heaven and all’s well with the world.

I was awakened by a shrill, chattering animal call just behind my head. It sounded like a staccato series of sharp intakes of breath. It put the shits right up me. Despite having over the years become God’s gift to outdoor survival, I had - duh! -neglected to bring a torch with me. So at two o’clock in the morning in the Dasht-e-Lut Desert of Iran, Brent was staggering around in his Y-fronts flicking a cigarette lighter in one hand and shading his eyes with the other saying in a wheedling weedy voice, “What is it? Who’s there? Oooooh!”

In the morning, no footprints were to be seen. Months later I concluded that this was a hyena.

During the night, I had drunk whenever I felt the need. It was with some consternation that I then realised that a third of my water had gone after only a quarter of the distance. I was working on the theory that you cannot restrict your water intake; that depriving yourself will only make you drink all the more later on; that a water-deficit is not sustainable. But most of these first 15 hours had been immobile; the next 15 hours would be spent chewing up the (huh!) sixteen remaining kilometres. A piece of cake!

Setting off at a brisk clip, by mid morning I found a ridge of mountains was barring my direct route to my destination: a Zoroastrian Fire Temple with the stunning name of Chak Chak. I had previously visited the place and had carefully 'marked' it in the GPS's memory. (Chak Chak translates as “drip drip”. Catch ma drift?)

 Look beyond Mount Brent. What do you see? Chak Chak - and its water - lies beyond it. These mountains are, within a sensible level of risk, an insurmountible obstacle.

And bang on my route, like an approaching whale, was the most darling little conical hill. Although the “brisk clip” - keeping going at a good speed - was an essential part of my water strategy, Mount Brent just had to be conquered. On the top (no, dammit, I’m going to call it the sodding summit) I posed for a heroic photograph (for a heroic backdrop, the Hargreaves Mountain Range) and claimed it for Queen and Country.

The mountains should have presented me with a nice little pass. They didn’t. According to the GPS, the straight line path to Chak Chak was over a row of mountains. The slopes looked plenty feasible, but I had to be cautious. Any climbing accident would be very serious. So I’d have to go around them, not over. From Mount Brent I was obliged to do a right turn, skirting the lower slopes to my left like a boat following a coastline. At each headland I expected to look left and see a nice flat path – or more likely a roadway – heading straight for Chak Chak. After all, when a taxi had brought me and a couple of other travellers to Chak Chak a few days before, we hadn’t gone up any slopes.

Eventually, my compass course took me over a low ridge. On the saddle-point, a delicious cooling breeze allowed my sweat-drenched clothes to dry out a little. By this time of the day - early afternoon - the heat was ferocious; furnace-like. Despite the need to keep clocking up the kilometres, I was clearly going to have to shelter. The onward slope down looked a lot more encouraging. To my left the sodding barrier of those mountains still barred my way, but ahead was a flat expanse punctuated by scrub and wadis. Surely, the road was just over there, curving round to the left and leading into the nice flat pass to Chak Chak. Heading down from the saddlepoint, I chose a deep little wadi for my midday pause. This course was still to the right of my destination; the intended 26 crow's-flight kilometres had risen to perhaps 40km: a bit worrying but still under control.

Working quickly I raised my shelter over the gully. On my trips I take a poncho, which is much lighter than a tent. Shaped like a lean-to, I pin down the low side, and then support the high side with tent poles and elastic bunjees. This time I stood my tent poles in the base of the gully to give headroom, and stretched out in the blessed shade.

Now, where do flies come from? Or rather, when there are no European tourists to plague, what do the flies live on? My intention of spending a serene couple of snoozy hours was thwarted by the first half-dozen flies. As fast as I killed them, another half dozen of the bastards appeared. If I stopped swatting them and tried to just endure them, they became a swarm. So, what to do? Follow Hargreaves’ Maxim No. 176: “In case of doubt, difficulties or danger…. Adapt, adapt, adapt!”

How to make a fly trap: Take one empty plastic bottle, cut it in half, put some sugared water inside, and insert the top cone, reversed.

The flies, two appearing every minute, lost interest in me and made their way in through the Cone of Death. An hour later, suitably rested, I broke camp and pondered whether to release Gahd’s creatures back to the wild. By this time, the bottle was audibly humming with hundreds of the bastards. Nah, sod it, I thought, let ‘em fry, and walked off.  

The water situation was becoming critical. I started on my penultimate bottle and took the firm decision that the final bottle would not be touched; it would stay in reserve. I set myself the binding rule that I would take a mouthful every ten minutes. The bottle would last for a good two hours, by which time I would be at Chak Chak where my empty bottles could be refilled under the eponymous drip drip of cool… clear…water. For the first half hour I maintained discipline, but by the fourth mouthful I was struggling; clock-watching. By the fifth mouthful I was counting down the seconds as the ten-minute mark approached. And as the sixty-minute mark approached, my left hand came up in an involuntary action and placed the bottle in my mouth. As my arm came up I was thinking, “No, no, you can’t do this. It isn’t time yet! No!”

Dasht-e-Lut Desert

Of course, this was just a little game I was playing with myself, but one can well imagine how in times of stress our basic instincts overrule the conscious mind; the thug of the hypothalamus calls the bluff of the authority-figure cortex.

At last I found the road, and politely refused a kind offer of a lift from a passing truck. The day wore on with my trudge trudge trudge. Dusk arrived and I broke into my final bottle. It was now vital that I replenish my supplies before halting for the night: at such low humidity one has to drink during the night.

At last Chak Chak came into view. Although situated in remote desert and perched on a steep mountainside, Chak Chak is a venue for an annual get-together of Zoraoastrians from around the world. Zoroastrianism was the religion of Persia for millennia; the ancient kings such as Darius and Xerxes who attacked Greece were Zoroastrians. When Islam began its expansion in the eighth century, they swept through Persia and forced most of its people to convert. Some of the Zorros upped sticks and legged it further East to India. They are still there today, the Parsis. Not all of those who stayed converted to Islam. A remnant of Zoroastrians survive today, many in Yazd, theiir nimbers dwindling due to strict intermarriage rules, i.e., those who marry non- Xorros are expelled.

It was now fully dark. A light bulb shone, up on the hillside. The path wound up to the monastery. As I arrived at the base of the hillside, just to spoil the spooky approaching-Dracula’s-castle atmosphere, a pair of French tourists hopped down the hill and drove away. I limped up the final few hundered metres and met the indigenous Zorros, asking if I could fill up. To my disappointment, there was no “Brother, we insist you share our humble meal and sleep in our humble dormitorium,” and the monk chappie showed me a water tap with its liquid treasure. 

I filled up and decamped back out into the desert. Water-rich! Yeah!


In Yazd, as I traipsed through the dusty alleys between sandy brown hovels, I came upon Mohammed Reza and his mates in a blacksmith’s shop. The Ladz of Yazd exchanged a lot of high-spirited crack (I mean craic) with me, and then flagged down a passing motorbike to take me and my rucksack to the famous mosque.

Yazd lads - blacksmiths and Mohammed Reza, a 'looker-on'

The biker looked like a dark and dangerous Mujaheddin, but as so often in Iran, people’s outward appearance belies their nature and he was a pussycat. After a few days in Yazd, I had got fed up with being glared at as I walked down different streets that I decided to kick back. “Salaam”, I gushed to an old man frowning at me from his squatting position in the gutter. He put his hand on his heart, cracked a beaming smile at me and salaamed me back with great good humour. Just because Johnny Foreigner has different rules about looking at strangers doesn’t make him a bad person. No, let’s put it stronger: if a visiting Brit somehow thinks that the foreigners are acting strange in their own country, well he’s the one with the problem.

I kept crossing Mohammed’s path as the days of acclimatisation passed. A quirky, slightly batty man with a naughty grin, I invited him for a cuppa, and asked where was best. He chose the poshest place in town. Not only did my budget stretch to tea served by a flunky in a bow tie, we would also have ice cream and a hubbly bubbly pipe. The posh place was an old hammam, and turquoise pools were set into the floor of this exquisitely tiled underground paradise. As is the custom, I removed my scruffy boots, and we squatted on low cushions. Mohammed was so pleased, so… tee-hee… thrilled at being here that he put his arm around my shoulder. He carried on giggling, and then put his hand inside my shirt, flesh on flesh. Nothing untoward here, you understand. Nothing ah… wooly woofterish. But I wasn’t very comfy with that, and removed his arm from my shoulders.

Tea for two for Mo and me.                                  Kind biker.

We went on to a mosque. A down-at-heel place, rather dingy inside, rugs around the walls, three or four men and a couple of women sitting there idly, “busy doing nothin’ “ as the song goes. For all his quirkiness, when Mohammed entered the place he took his religion seriously. He went all hushed and serious. In the middle of the room was some sort of structure, reminiscent of the central washbowls in a barracks washroom. Mohammed seemed to think that Allah lived in it. On the way out, having had a good old chitchat, Mohammed explained that one does not exchange goodbyes with one’s fellow worshippers; instead we say tarra to Allah in the washbowls.


Chilling in the mosque with a holy man.

Zoroastrianism is more spectacular.

I slept one night in a Tower of Silence. Apparently, when the corpses were laid out as dinner for the birds, the feast would be shared by vultures and ravens. Most of your muscle tissue would be ripped away by the vultures. Until, that is, 1970, when the Shah of Iran got so fed up with body parts being dropped on the tourists (what’s that just dropped in the road? Yeuch, it’s somebody’s ear! How gross!) that he banned the practice.

The Zorros believe that to bury a human corpse is to pollute Mother Earth. Since the Shah’s interdiction, they place their dead in sealed concrete coffins. Presumably, they are made to a gungeproof specification.

On my first night in Yazd, before the desert trek, I yomped my way south to a pair of these Towers, arriving at dusk. The final few metres were in almost total darkness, scaling slopes on all fours, working up a good sweat and breathing heavily. It occurred to me that if an old guy like me should have a heart seizure and pop my clogs up here alone in the Tower of Silence, the old birds might have become a bit peckish after three decades without a good meal. 

Zoroaster was a precursor of Jesus, a human blokie with a good channel of communication to a god called Ahura Mazda. He is the subject of the stunning Richard Strauss piece Also sprach Zarathustra. In the temple at Chak Chak they keep an eternal flame going. The roof of the cave is blackened by several thousand years of smouldering logs. They claim that it never goes out, but who would know; what does it matter?
Keeper of the Zoroastrian eternal flame


On my first day in Iran I was pick-pocketed.

Call me Mister Innocent, but I arrive in these exotic lands full of open-minded bonhommie and expecting the locals to conform to my preconceptions. My first act upon reaching Tehran was to leave it; I have an antipathy to capital cities; capital cities are always atypical of a country. By midday I was at the splendid river-bisected and mosque-infested city of Esfehan. Surrounded by a boisterous troop of schoolboys taking Mighty Mints off me as fast as I could click the little plastic dispenser. (This is one of my ice-breaking tactics – a low cost low weight freebie for the locals.)

But somebody was rummaging in the side pockets of my rucksack as I doled out the Mighty Mints with a big stupid grin on my gob. By the time I discovered the theft he was long gone. The little bastard had stolen three things held together on a nylon lanyard: Swiss Army knife, compass and red plastic whistle. I started ranting at the remaining kids, and one of them suggested who the thief might have been, and where he lived.

So, like the Pied Piper of Hamlin, I am traipsing through the streets of Esfehan surrounded by a gaggle of adolescents. We reach his house. We bang on the sheet-metal front gate. He comes out. He denies everything. But in his hand, which is in his pocket, is my whistle. “Oi, you little bastard! That’s my whistle. Give it back!” Despite this piece de conviction he claims only to have picked it up after the real thief had discarded it. He denies having my compass and knife.

At that moment a car stops, and the driver asks just what the hell is going on in this riotous assembly on the street. He is dark and intense and deadly serious. When we tell him, he turns on me. “You should not be here. This place is dangerous. Go away. Now. Leave Esfehan. Leave Iran.” I squeak up: “OK!” and leg it.

But the next day I get an attack of righteous indignation. Sod this. Why should I walk away from this? I’m going back there. I find the house. The mum is there with the thief’s little brother. I explain as best I can with my Lonely Planet Phrasebook. I have been robbed by a duzd. Her son. She calls her hubby. Hubby looks embarrassed. Says to come back at midday. I expect him to get his son from school and force him to grovel to the poor English tourist. But when I return at the appointed hour, there’s nobody home 

After banging like hell, I buy a bottle of pop in the shop next door. The shopkeeper takes an interest in me. I ask about the neighbour. I sketch the articles I am missing. I do a body-language demonstration of yesterday’s theft. He calls his son out, explains the story, and then sonny climbs the front gate. I am crapping myself in case the family come home to find us burgling the place. Two minutes later, sonny comes back out. He has my knife and compass! I mumble my thank-yous and then get the hell out of Dodge.

As I leg it down the road, a voice calls out, “Hello, Mister!” After my bad experience, I am tempted to put up my defences and reject any approaches. But I tell myself that the plan was always to be open and receptive; that a single bad experience must not be allowed to ruin the whole holiday. So I hello him back.

The guy is a soldier on leave. He lives two streets away. He wants to invite me home for dinner with his family, named Bakhari. I leave my boots downstairs in the hall. Upstairs we all squat on the carpet. The soldier has a pretty young wife and a baby daughter. There is a younger brother and an old hag of a granny who brings me tea and food, all placed on the carpet. “How old do you think our mother is? Go on, take a guess!” I think that seventy is probably too high. Maybe just sixty, but to get it wrong would upset them all. This game isn’t worth playing. “Oh, I have no idea. You tell me: how old is she?” “She is forty eight!” This toothless old crone is younger than I am! What a ginormous faux pas that would’ve been. Iranians all look older than their age. Another family who  invited me in were the Ruzbehs. I had met their son Martin, who had proudly explained that his father was a retired colonel in the army which had repelled Saddam's attack on Iran's oilfields at great cost. These are proud and educated people. It is foolish to attempt generalisations on such fleeting glimpses, however my glimpse was of kind, open, hospitable people.

Kind family who invited me in: The Bakharis

Another kind family who invited me in: the Ruzbehs

Near Shiraz lie the magnificent ruins of Persepolis.

Persepolis or Takht e Jamshed
If the name Shiraz sounds familiar, it is: The grapes which originated there make a splendid wine, made all over the world but not not in the Islamic Republic of Iran which is dry. I am told that there is a booming trade in grape juice; now, home brew being illegal, why would anybody want large quantities of grape juice?

Written on the walls of Persepolis are cunieform texts by Xerxes, Artaxerxes, Darius…. names to conjure with indeed. In the bible “Darius the Mede” was the man who conquered the competing empire of the Babylonians and released the captive Jews from their enslavement “by the rivers of Babylon”. I slept on the rocks just above the tombs of these great kings. Up there were some form of workings: nothing spectacular, but they ould have formed part of the winching mechanism used whilst the tombs were cut into the cliff face below.

On of my early formative experiences was watching “swords and sandles” film epics such as Three Hundred Spartans in which the clean-limbed and western-looking Spartans are beseiged by the scowling swarthy black-hatted fuzzy-wuzzy Persians from the evil East. Of course, the Persians were unfairly blackened. This magnificent city was every bit as elegant and civilised as Athens. Their kings were buried in rock-cut tombs in the cliff face that looks over the gently sloping site. The view is stunning. The tombs of Artaxerxes II and III were blocked off by scaffolding poles, but a crafty guide was making a bit on the side using his little spanner. For a pittance, he let me into the cool rock cavity and I hopped up onto the massive sarcophagus of a Persian emperor.

The Greek-Persian war was won decisively by the Greeks. Alexander conquered the Persian Empire. When he took Persepolis his troops burnt the place down, either accidentally or deliberately. The Iranians disagree that it is called Persepolis, a name Greek in origin. It's rather like Hitler had renamed Paris Frankstadt. It was called Parsa in the day (we're talking about 300 years before Caesar) and under the Muslims it is called Takht e Jamshed.


Magnificent Persepolis. Note the body language of the visiting surrogate king.

When I had arrived the previous evening, night was falling. I decided to kip out in a stand of trees. After offloading all my clutter, a couple of dodgy kids riding a horse came up to me and cadged a fag. They started telling me a better place to camp, at the corner of a maize field which was surrounded on three sides by plouged earth. Sure, I thought. As if I’m going to give away my location to a scouting party for a band of brigands. They proceeded to pillage the maize field, presumably for horse feed. As soon as they cleared off, I headed in the opposite direction for some privacy. But from time to time I would see a white trail appear in the semi-darkness, and realise that I was being quietly stalked by these kids on their horse, whose hooves were quietly kicking up the dust. Eventually, I found a little gully and skulked down to observe. My little friends were carrying out a systematic search of the area.

To keep my position secret, I had to camp in the maize field. No fire. No torch. No noise. When I stuck out my head to observe the corner they had proposed, a group of people were gathered there. But they didn’t know where I was, even if they had any ill intent.


Before founding the magnificent Persepolis, the rock-tombs of the kings were sited in the nearby Naqsh e Rostam. Here lie Darius I, Darius II, Artaxerxes I and Xerxes. Over every tomb, up over our heads, is carved a likeness of the king and the winged figure of Ahura Mazda. Darius is referred to in the Bible as "Darius the Mede", the king who defeated Babylon and liberated the Jews from their captivity by the rivers of Babylon.

Tombs of the Kings of Persia

It got dark soon after I arrived, so I decided to leg it round the corner and see if I could climb up to spend the night on top of the cliff. When I got up there, there were rock-cut structures associated with the building of the floodlit tombs below - some form of winch arrangement. I had to be careful not to slip and fall fifty metres. In the end, I tired of trying to attract the attention of my mate the security guard as he tatted around his shack. He didn’t see my torch or hear my whistle. Next morning I appropriated his washroom for a luxurious shave, and to replenish my water supplies.

It was time to head back towards Tehran for the flight home. I strolled to a main road intersection a couple of miles distant to flag down a passing coach. A traffic cop had a decent-sized shed there. He invited me over, made me tea, gave me a cigarette. I then go to the roadside to await a coach, but he beckons me out to his 4WD squad car, puts my pack in the back, and tells me to get in. I… er… think everything is cool. I go to get in the front passenger seat (where an equal sits) but he waves me to the back seats. Oh, dear. His colleague, whom I hadn’t known about, gets in the front, and we head off north. I have explained that I’m heading towards Esfehan (400 km away) and then Tehran. They surely are not going to drive me all this way. We have a good old chitchat, with much exchanging of cigarettes (God bless ‘em, the great tokens of laddish unity). The body language signals are all on green. Gulp. After a few miles they pull over. Gulp. We are on a dead straight stretch of road. A coach appears, and my man stands with his hand raised, all cold supercilious authority. When the coach stops, just past us, I make to run to the door, but he shooshes me to stop; it’s undignified; we’re in control. The bus driver is furious that this copper is trying to foist an infidel tourist on him, and drives off. The next coach is similarly overcrowded, but the centre-man on the front seat gives up his place for me, and stands the whole trip.

I get out my GPS and tell them how far we are from Esfehan. (Word goes back along the coach… he has a wondrous little device.) People behind begin to tap me on the shoulder. Where am I from? Ah, Inglistan! (Word goes back along the coach.) Do I have family? Bale.. do dochtar. Stephanie, hijdah, and Nathalie bist-o-se. (Word goes back down the coach: he has two daughters….)

The Iranian people are the most hospitable on the planet. As a shameless attention-seeker, to have people taking an interest in the petty details of my petty life is most rewarding. They are piss-poor, but as friendly and courteous as can be. Somebody asked me what we thought of Iran in the West. I replied, “In England, people laughed when I said I was coming to Iran. They said that Iran is a dangerous country, a nest of terrorists; they would cut my throat and dump my body in a ditch.” The person was appalled. “Buy why? Why do they say such bad things about Iran?” “The newspapers tell us this, that the people of Iran are all bad people.”

In an underground restaurant in Yazd, the place where Mohammad Reza and I had shared a hubbly bubbly, I later had a meal. All alone at my single table, I was called over by an English-speaking man, a tour guide, to sit with him and his colleagues. As the conversation wore on, his driver leaned across the table and spoke to me in Farsi. “What did he say?” “My driver said, ‘Tell Mrs. Thatcher and John Major to send British SAS to come to Iran and kill the fucking mullahs’.” I was appalled: “We must not speak like this! I did not come to Iran to talk politics. It is dangerous. I will talk about football, about family, about food, but not politics!”

Iran is a young country. Unlike England where the streets are full of old fogies, Iran has such a high birth rate that there are young people everywhere. Twenty years after the fall of the Shah, they do not remember the Islamic Revolution, and have a hankering for western goodies, material and cultural. My tour guide confidently predicted that there would soon be another revolution by the supporters of the popular President Khatami, who was losing so many struggles with the mullah-dominated courts.

With the exception of the pick-pocket episode, I never felt in any danger in Iran. Although they are repressed and poor, they have many values, such as family values and sociability, which we in the west have lost.

An ancient form of air conditioning

We Europeans hear all the bad stuff about Iran; we are blind to the many positives. They have poets and philosophers on a par with our Shakespeares and Aristotles. In a queue somewhere I got into conversation with a dishy young teacher (in full burkah) trying to control a gaggle of unruly pupils. In my Lonely Planet was a passage from Hafeez or Rumi or Omar Khayyam. I asked her to read it for me. The mere sound of the words was hypnotic. It was almost mesmerising. Where poetry is concerned I am a barbarian; I just don't get it; I say brusque things like, "If there's any meaning there then why don't they just come out and say it rather than dressing it up in all these silly flowery rhymes?" Although I could not understand the words she spoke, this young teacher may just have helped show me that poetry isn't just frilly froth.

One small passage by Omar Khayyam goes:

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.


My Iranian holiday was a stunning, vivid holiday, which I shall look back on fondly forever.

No comments:

Post a Comment