Varzaneh, 26 April 2018
We left after work. It was a 3-hour flight to Istanbul, a 3-hour wait then another 3 to Tehran, which got us in at 06h00. I reckoned that between disembarking, visa and luggage it would take two hours, which it did, but only by dint of incompetence, since ours was the only arriving flight. I had the 150 euros for the visa, paid it quick, queued for the visa, got it fast, then joined the 50-long queue for foreign passport control just as the last Iranians passed through, which speeded things up. I got through but Mariarosaria’s 75-euro visa didn’t register on the machine, so the man kept her waiting, trying again every few passengers, till they had all gone. Only at that point did he send her back to the visa counter, where they fixed it in ten seconds. We had arranged for a pick-up from the hotel, which didn’t show. I made an expensive call to them and they said oh, you’d like to be collected; should we send someone? No. Now we needed cash. Asked at info: over there, after passport control.
Passport control didn’t let us through, sent us to the kiosk upstairs, which was closed and had a sign in English saying Iran no longer accepts $ banknotes. The airport manager sent us back to passport control, which let us through this time. As we got to the head of the queue the cashier said ‘bank closed’. Guidebooks tell you not to show anger, but I hissed at him: we have been here for two hours. We have no money. He changed our $.
The hotel gave us a room immediately where we slept all morning at no extra charge. We saw the Iran and Islam museums in a daze then looked in vain for a restaurant recommended by the hotel (since its own had closed for dinner). Found a snack bar, slept.
We asked at reception if they could call and book us a bus ticket to Khoor, but she said the simplest thing (for her) was to go there. So we got there at 09h15; no bus till 13h30. Then it was 14h30. It finally left, after returning to collect late passengers, at 16h00. The journey was supposed to take ten hours, I didn’t know if the driver had understood where we wanted dropped off, the hotel didn’t answer the phone so we didn’t know whether the room would be kept for us or indeed where in Khoor it was. It all worked out.
Next morning a car was there to take us to the oasis at Mesr, where no one spoke anything other than Farsi. We communicated, when necessary, by phone, through a sly middle-man.
We were meant to take a drive in the desert that afternoon, but as we sat reading in our room the light from the high window was suddenly eclipsed as the wind picked up a cloud of sand, followed by lightning and rain. As if the village had been swallowed. So we kept on reading. We’d brought a couple of guidebooks, Rumi, the Koran and Teach Yourself Modern Persian. I started on the alphabet. The previous owner had been a Dr Aboussalam of Geneva. In 1964 he had worked his way through it, completing the exercises carefully in pencil.
Lesson 7. H. Persian h has several possible forms:
(i) At the beginning of a word it is written (x)
(ii) In the middle of words it is written either (xx) (a rare form) or (xxx) (a far more frequent form).
(iii) At the end of a word, h (which as a consonant is always sounded) appears as (xxxx) (a rare form in handwriting but common in print) or (xxxxx) (in handwriting but never in print).
(iv) Standing alone, h is written xxxxxx or xxxxxxxx. A final or lone h is used also to indicate a short vowel, é, or occasionally a at the end of a word.
To each language its own pointless complications. Returning to the Latin alphabet after the Arabic is like decimal sums after the inanities of imperial measure.
That was what it took: a night flight, six hours in a bus station and ten hours on the bus to get M to sit down and read and me to start a language I have no intention of speaking. Had there been a guided tour of Iran at the right time we’d have gone for it, ticking the sights off of my list one by one, but the business of waiting when you have to, waiting out a sandstorm or for a bus, does help extract us from routine.
On the way back to Khoor, after our desert trip, the taxi driver had I guess learned to drive under the British, because he tended to drive centre-left. He was a bit deaf, to judge from the music. He’d take a bunch of papers out of his pocket and examine them, clap to the music, and try to figure out how his mobile phone worked. Three times he took out his dentures and adjusted them. I was glad to get out of his car at the Khoor bus stop for Naeem. Still, when I heard that the next bus wasn't for four hours, I fairly quickly agreed with him on $50 for the 150km across the desert. We had avoided internal flights because of their annoying habit of crashing for lack of spares, and avoided the big city because road mortality is dreadfully high. Regulated buses are safest, but sitting around for four hours outside a hardware store was too much to contemplate.
Towards the end of The Magnificent Seven Yul Brynner says that the coward dies many times and the brave man dies once. Me, I’m that coward. I couldn’t believe how old Ali took blind bends in the mountains on the wrong side of the road. We made him stop for lunch at a truck stop, and I prevented him using his phone, but I was glad to see the back of him.
And yet, only 36 hours later, we were hurtling across the desert at dawn in a peeling Peugeot. I rode a camel once, it was a translation error, thought I’d paid for a guided walk. I read somewhere, in Biggles I think, that when a camel walks it’s uncomfortable. When it canters it’s worse. But when it gallops it’s totally smooth. This Peugeot doing 125km/h along a bumpy road was like that. You could hear the engine gurgle as if the pistons had no real contact with the cylinders or the tyres with the road. The windscreen was already cracked so one more of those pebbles would have sprayed us with splinters.
The brakes – had they ever been tested? 20,000 deaths a year on Iranian roads. Was I going to be one of them? I settled down in the back seat to examine my conscience. Was I ready to die? But I’ve hardly done anything wrong on my own initiative for years; I delegate all that to my elected representatives, to my pension fund and the banks. M is one of the brave; sat there admiring the desert. She has time to sit and read what takes her fancy – just now, a book on Iran by Polk, who likens Herodotus to a Greek CIA man. It might take one to know one.
We visited an Abassid caravanserai that Dutch bikers frequent, it seems, and we startled a flight of over 300 pink flamingoes on the salt flats.
Money. At the airport they gave us 8 million rial for $200, and a receipt. I got through that in five days and went to change some more in Naeen. Pleasant town, a single-arcade bazaar about a mile long. The official money-changer had a shop just off the main avenue; glass front, open counter like a travel agency, with an old lady who went out to look for the boss, momentarily leaving me alone in the place. He came in and took his cash from an unlocked drawer behind the counter. He gave me not 8 but 10 million rial for $200. No receipt, didn’t want to see my passport. Odd. In Mesr (where we had no common language) the people in the hotel were crofters: a lad, his mum and perhaps his sister. They managed their camels and tourists, they took the money, charging roughly double the going rate as we then discovered. But we reckon they didn’t get to keep much of it. The middle-man had charged us $20 for the taxi there; the local lad charged $10 for the return cab, and got a dressing-down on the phone when he told the boss. Didn’t need Farsi to understand that. Those crofters pay through the nose for not having English to deal directly with tourists.
There are two obvious genders in Iran: one wears dark costumes that don’t give much away; the other disports in colourful, tight-fitting apparel and dances on occasion with fluid, lilting gestures. I wonder, at times, if the men fear they would cease to exist if they didn’t talk. You see them at it for hours on end. They could earn as sundials where they sit, in gardens, or stand around on pavements.
The Greeks had democracy and slavery and women didn’t count. The Persians had neither institution and women, noblewomen at least, had formal power. The Greeks had gods who behaved like romantic geniuses – spoiled louts. Humans who dealt with them were engaged in politics, not worship. The Persian Zorastrians had one God, one opposing power, and a couple of deities assimilated from earlier local cults – one of which, Mithras, made it as far as London. But God is God; there’s no way around Him, and no higher court of appeal.
Esfahan, 1 May.
Other Tourists. I was sitting next to them as the receptionist offered sight-seeing tips to a new arrival, who said ‘No, that won’t be necessary: my wife and I are not like other tourists. We go to different places’. Mid-sixties, unironed shirt and trousers, sensible trainers. He even had a camera poking out from his sternum (a retro touch, I admit). This wasn’t Indiana Jones. And later that day he and his wife were visiting the same mosque as me and my wife, and a party of French tourists. He was Dutch or German.
One thing about tourists is that, like the regulars at a swimming pool, we rather wish the others weren’t there – even though the set-up depends on numbers. When we take photos we try to exclude the others from our shots. Methods vary. Those in big groups, your typical tourists, are cushioned from the foreign country by the impromptu society they form. The guide with the umbrella, the souvenir vendor, are their main points of contact. Couples or small groups who had decided to travel together say to their friends when they get home ‘yes, you should go there soon before it’s spoiled by tourism’. Young people call themselves backpackers, not tourists, but they don’t usually show much more interest in the country than anyone else. They obsess on cost to the extent of skipping the main attractions with their entrance fees. This isn’t necessarily because they are poor really – they came by plane, they bought the visa – but because they want to cover as much time and space as they can with the dollars they have. They are spread thin. Nor do they necessarily know or learn much about the place. They talk to each other, swapping notes about hostels and locations – almost in the sense of film sets. The foreign country gives them the chance to meet others with a new intensity. It’s youth; it’s really good. Older people get to know their body in new ways. At home it’s all arranged, but abroad we have to think about our skin, our bladder, our stomach in ways that – if we’re not in an organized group – take up as much time and energy as seeing the sights. But do we see them? And what are they anyway?
Yazd, 5 May
Did I say stomach? After Esfahan we took the bus to Kashan, where the Magi set out from, so I hear, but after a long stroll in the bazaar and a meal in what looked like a cool Danish rehab of a traditional house, I went down with traveller’s diarrhoea. Bouvier is the only writer I recall describing this, and with more grace than I could manage. Minimum essential info: in the course of the morning I lost much more fluid than I could imbibe, and was becoming nauseous anyway and unable to swallow much. M. went to ask the manager (who had no English) to call a doctor so I could get something at least to block the bug for the next day, when we had a five-hour train ride to Yazd. As they were trying and failing to get through, two guests, husband and wife, announced that they were doctors and asked if they might help. Next thing I knew they and their children (a boy of 10 and a girl of 12) were in our room, smiling and asking questions. I said I knew it wasn’t serious but it was inconvenient, and they wrote me a prescription for various Western and Persian remedies. Asked if I wanted an intravenous drip, but I preferred not. Fine. They said I should eat just plain rice.
The hotel manager didn’t see to it but some time later a dish arrived, which we suspect the surgeon doctor had prepared herself. As I was trying to eat it something happened that M had seen four or five times too often: I made a bolt for the toilet to vomit. Next thing I knew my cheek was on the marble floor, not terribly clean, and wondering why. M was at the door shouting Doctor! The other doctor came in, got me on my back with my feet up the wall, and I saw an upside-down caste of about a dozen people come in: the manager, the driver who had brought us here because the other hotel screwed up our booking (he spoke English and was a spiv) two emergency medics radiating youth and enthusiasm (and smelling a lot better than I did), the doctor’s children and another young woman. A lady who interpreted the questions of the senior junior medic, who was very excited and spoke very fast, and her husband. That couple was based in Paris – he since he was 17, so I’m guessing mid-fifties. I was being asked if I could walk, which I did, through the crowd, none of whom seemed bothered by this malodorous old guy in ill-buttoned pyjamas. The medic took a selfie of him and me.
So we didn’t get to see the sights of Kashan – the homes of 19th-century merchants who had made their pile in carpets, who got their brass in samovars – but we were delighted by the warmth and generosity of those people. No one would admit to having called and paid the emergency medics. It all reminded M of being in Naples, where nothing happens without company. And these weren’t people who needed us: they were all well enough off. One left his number but only in case we might need something explained over the phone to a Farsi speaker while we were still in the country.
Actually, before the train at 2 the next afternoon we did get to see one of the sights, a formal garden out of town billed as a model for Moslem gardens from India to Spain. I really wanted M to see it since she loves gardens, and because she had worried and cared for me every minute of 30 hours – not just the bug, but mosquitoes, cold air-con etc.. It was out of town. The taxi waited for us at the top of a road with a football-match crowd heading down it. But there was no match: we were all going to the same garden. All Iranians except us and an Italian couple we heard. The garden was not big. It had more trees than flowers and a lot more people than trees. A toilet stop and we left, on to the station. I had perhaps mis-booked, because instead of seats we had two berths in a 4-berth compartment. The idea had been to watch the desert passing by, but we stretched out by turns on the Iranian National Railways cotton sheets.
Bazm, 8 May.
I’ve been reading their book, that threatens hell whenever it draws breath. Thuggish punishments, heaven as a pleasure garden. A few stories from the Bible – very few – reduced to cautionary tales. Its strength is in relentless repetition. And yet God is compassionate and merciful. It tolerated poets it disapproved of. And science flourished in Persia whereas, centuries later, the Church was putting scientists to the question. We really wouldn’t be where we are without them. Not because they preserved the Greek classics till we could start reading them like adults, but because – in Persia especially – huge advances were made on what the Greeks had done. And when you hear the megaphones blare at opening time, like some hellish karaoke, you have to imagine what it must have been like when the muezzin, having climbed his spiral stair before the dawn, drew himself up and let loose.
(That’s the dome of the main mosque in Esfahan, by the same Shah Abbas who had the network of caravanserais built, and who commissioned the painting, later on, that so reminds me of Khayyam.)
The places we’ve stayed. The Tehran hotel was a typical soul-chewer. Khour – helpful and friendly. Naeem very fine and not expensive. The Varzaneh back-packers’ hostel was so cheap I asked the owner how he did it. Said he made about half a euro per person per night. His mother cooked the simple, light meals, he had a couple of European volunteers, he brought in a musician for birthdays and the men danced, he did a very thoughtful lecture on Persian medicine (though he exaggerates the evils of tea-drinking) and he kept a fleet of local taxis in work during excursions to caravanserais and afternoon trips to salt lakes and sand dunes. Then there is the Mehr Chain, which is big in Yazd. When we got to the Fahadan Museum Hotel (nine times the price of the back-packers’ hostel), I asked for a bowl of plain rice, on doctor’s orders. They refused to provide it, saying that in Iran all rice is cooked in oil.
After two nights, as per booking, we were to spend the third night in the Nakhl-e mehr, 500 yards from the main hotel. It consisted of two rooms in a sunken courtyard, padlocked and bolted, no staff, with dangerously filthy toilets (public toilets are usually cleaner). For this they had taken 82 euros in advance. When we demanded a refund they were ready with an expensive upgrade elsewhere. The whole place stank of State enterprise and siphoned cash.
And now we’re in Bazm, run by Super Mario, who explained to us that he’s a farmer. One night two German bikers asked him for shelter, so he and his wife put them up. Two months later six more arrived. Reluctantly, because they hadn’t the space, they obliged, refusing payment. But the Germans left them 200k. Since it took him a hard day’s work to earn ONE thousand rials, that got him thinking. In short, he is one of life’s natural businessmen and likeable with it. He’s got a beautiful orchard, a riot of animals, one daughter at Yazd studying tourism and another who wants to be a doctor. He’s famous. He is part nomad and his wife is from the Obedi nomad group he took us to visit. This is part of the package. I feared embarrassment, but by luck M and I were the only guests that evening (there had been 27 the previous night).
Werner Herzog once said when there was anything important in his life he walked to it. When his mother was dying in Munich he walked there from Paris. Don’t recall if he got there in time, but I’ve often thought on that. I’m sure that, if you travel somewhere by plane, you’re not really there. It has to be by land or sea. If that’s right then for decades I’d never been north of Shetland, West of Donegal or south and east of Armenia. (Here’s me at Lake Sevan, 1981:)
Never outside Europe, really. Recently, on by way back from central Siberia, I got off the train at Vladimir, east of Moscow, and thus linked up with my early train journey there from Glasgow. (Here is my photo of the Church of the Intercession on the River Nerl, near Vladimir, 1980:)
So now I’ve been as far east as somewhere north of Bangkok. How I’d love to go east through Pakistan but don’t dare. M was there for work a few years back, when it was rated the most dangerous place on the planet. Or maybe go from Erevan across northern Iran and through the former Soviet Stans. Anyway. Last night we were taken up to visit some nomad families. The deal is we bring a few practical goods and they give us a cup of tea and humour us. We ask each other simple questions through the driver – Super Mario aka Abbas, and move on. They summer in the Zagroz Mountains at 2600 metres. With the first snows they head south towards Bander Abbas, about 500 km away, in a dozen stages. In the first tent – plastic sheeting since it’s too rainy yet for their proper tents, and rugs on the ground, the shepherd so resembled my cousin Peter Friel. The second family was the in-laws of Abbas, one toddler with eyes like two blue moons, a friendly or at least tolerant bunch. Then we were heading off, but Abbas had to collect some veg he’d ordered. M and I sat in the car, but the old boy wanted us to come in for a cup of tea, so in we went: a breeze-block shed, rugs, a gas burner. He reminded me of an old friend, I still can’t recall which. Are you cold? I said. Oh yes. Abbas said ‘He’s from Scotland’. I said A lot of rain and wind from the sea. Cold. He said ‘That will be a good place for sheep.’ It certainly is, I said. He nodded. And, I said, there are no wolves! He glowed, ‘That must be grand!’ The thing is, I began to think Herzog is right.
There IS a value in the practice of walking and bringing all you have, from the ledge of the great Zagroz to the Persian Gulf or Indian Ocean, knowing at each spot where your flock can graze and where to pick thyme to make tea for your guests. M asked what their religion was. Abbas paused and said Islam of course, but without the mosques and calls to prayer. They believe in God. Flashback to Eigg when I was young, sitting in a jeep in the rain with old MacKinnon, ceremoniously quaffing MacEwan’s Export as he explained it wasn’t the God of the Church he knew but the God of the tides and the flowers. I should have walked from there to here.
Geneva, 11 May.
When we got to Shiraz the Americans pulled out of the nuclear weapons deal with Iran, which fired rockets from Syria into the Golan. Israel, which had been waiting for that knock on the door, promptly flattened every Iranian military outpost in Syria. The nuclear deal made the national news, the local conflict didn’t, but it all connects. The first accumulation of power and bling was west of Persia between the rivers. The first worshipers of one God were established to the east by Zarathustra, a long time later. Cyrus the Great of Persia took Babylon and let the Jews go back to Jerusalem. Indeed, he sent two of his advisers, the prophets Enoch and Nehemiah (I think) to supervise the building of the Temple. They called him the Anointed of God. Did he know that? If so, did it make him think he couldn’t lose? But he came to a bad end, decapitated, his head dunked in a skinful of human blood, by a Scythian queen who had vowed she’d give him more than he could drink, if he invaded. His simple mausoleum still stands on a high plain near Persepolis, partly because for a long time it was rumoured to be the tomb of Solomon’s mother, and was thus honoured by Moslems.
In Cordoba, Granada and Seville there’s a strong impression of a sophisticated Arab people overrun by unwashed Christians. But the sophistication is Persian, not Arabian. In a classic reverse take-over, Persian culture suffused early Islam. We talk about Arabic numerals; in Arabic they call them Indian. They’re Persian. And the Persians have been over-run so frequently since Alexander the Great. The day we went to Persepolis to see his handiwork it was wet and windy, and so cold I couldn’t stay.
For the trip, our Danish neighbour had lent M some clothes she’d had made in Pakistan. One willow-green outfit in particular drew more admiration than I’d have believed – smiles, questions, praise ‘You don’t look like the other tourists! That’s so beautiful!’ The aesthetic sense is there, and pride in appearance (I confirm that Iran is the rhinoplasty capital of the universe) but almost all the women are happed in black. In cities, some of the younger ones push the boundaries of the dress code like adolescent girls in school uniform. In the land that invented tolerance. Ah well.
We saw the tomb of Hafez and I thought of Eddie Morgan. But I thought more of Omar Khayyam, buried in Mashhad, in the north-east. In Persia he was famous as a mathematician and scientist; the poetry was a side-line.
Here with a loaf of bread beneath the bough
A flask of wine, a book of verse and thou
Beside me singing in the wilderness
Ah, wilderness were paradise enow.
Khayyam's was the first blithely nihilist verse I’d read. A copy of Fitzgerald was in my grandparents’ garden shed (aptly enough, now I think on it), probably left there by my uncle, a Catholic theologian. I loved it. I still do. In our own garage, before we traveled, I came across a box of my own books and resolved to leave copies wherever I go from now on. So one was left in Verzaneh, one in Yazd and one with a miniaturist in Shiraz whose work we bought. If it makes anyone smile the way M’s willow-green outfit does, I’ll be so happy.
He lives in Geneva, and ran the language service of the World Health Organization for 15 years. The struggle to manipulate / part survive defective systems informs his work. He's a founding member of Poésies en Mouvement and panjandrum of Molecular Press. His Collected Contraptions is published by Carcanet.