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Authors: David Yeadon

Tags: #Nonfiction, #Retail, #Travel

Back of Beyond (31 page)

BOOK: Back of Beyond
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Boar-ing Days by the Caspian Sea
 

Don’t ask how I got there.

It’s a long story and I’m in Tehran only sort of semilegally. The problem in post-Shah Iran is that almost everything is illegal or dangerous or “not advisable” for western “Satanists.”

Fortunately, in another lifetime there, I had developed many strong friendships during my two-year stint as an urban master planner working under the hovering eye of the Shah and the Shah’s wife, the Empress Farah (once a trainee architect), on the future plan for Tehran’s growth. Having a king and queen as overseers led to many strange occurrences, and I can’t resist relating one of them before the tale of this particular adventure begins.

It was sometime back in 1968 and we were all in the Shah’s palace, the Saltan Atabad, high in the foothills of the Elburz Mountains that tower over the city. We had been summoned to present our projection for population growth in the city over the following thirty years or so. The figures were alarming. Even assuming a scenario of moderate growth, we had concluded that by the end of the century, the capital would find itself home to over sixteen million Iranians, up from a mere two and a half million at that time.

The Shah stared at us incredulously. (The Empress smiled benevolently as she always seemed to do.)

“And this is the basis upon which you would design your plan for the city?”

Our team leader coughed. “These are the projections, Your Majesty, following a very careful analysis of population characteristics, longevity factors, migration trends, birth rate statistics, and…”

The Shah raised his hand and our leader stopped abruptly in midflow.

“I will issue an edict.”

A sudden flurry of activity. Ministers shuffled papers, assistants opened large red books, two finely dressed gentlemen, who appeared to be acting as scribes, stood formally by their high desks, with pens poised over single sheets of gold-edged paper.

The Shah looked around to ensure that all was ready and slowly made his pronouncement as the scribes scribbled.

“This is my edict. By the year 1995 the population of the city of Tehran shall be no more than five and one half million. We shall create other alternative growth centers in other of our major cities, and the plans for the future of the capital shall be prepared based upon this edict.”

Utter silence.

The ministers bowed their heads, and then bowed lower in acknowledgment of the edict. The scribes underlined the statement. We could hear pens scratching on fine parchment.

“I will expect to see the first submission of your draft plans in one month,” said the Shah and then waved his left hand as a sign that the meeting was over. The Empress continued to smile benevolently.

So the audience was at an end. And that’s how decisions were made in Iran in the era of the Shah’s “White Revolution.”

We looked at our team leader, an Iranian architect with many years of hardball planning negotiation experience in the United States. His head was bowed as low as those of the ministers. The Shah rose; we rose and were led off by uniformed protocol pilots back into the richly decorated antechamber where we could do little except stare at one another in utter disbelief—and dismay.

 

 

But those days were long gone. Many of my friends in Tehran were gone too, some to safer havens in the United States and Europe, others caught up in the tangled terror of the Khomeini purges and never heard of again.

“Why on earth have you come back?” I had found one of my old colleagues, a brilliant architect, and now a lowly official in some sub-subdepartment in a bureau of a division of a ministry that had nothing at all to do with city planning.

“I wanted to see what has happened since the revolution.”

“You’re mad.” He looked at me, worried and thoughtful. “You shouldn’t stay in Tehran.”

“I don’t want to.”

“Good—I think it’s best for you to leave as quickly as possible.”

“That’s fine. I want to go north again. To the Caspian Sea.”

“Why?”

“I spent a lot of time there once with some people on the marshes west of Rasht. I’d like to go back.”

“The passes are still blocked. Spring is late. You won’t be able to get over the Elburz Mountains.”

I hadn’t expected this. Usually by May the passes are clear.

“Okay. I’ll go east on the Mashad road and cut across near Shahrud. The mountains are lower there.”

“You’ll be in Turkoman country—almost in the U.S.S.R.!”

“Great. I’ve always wanted to see the Turkomans.”

My friend was not impressed by my casual itinerary.

“Well—at least you’ll be able to buy some hats,” he said, referring to the exotic Persian lamb headgear of the Turkoman tribesmen.

“Fine. I’ll buy some hats—I’m getting two adventures for the price of one.”

“Depends on the price you’re willing to pay.”

He always did have a kind of gloomy Iranian humor, that friend of mine. But he was also dependable.

Somehow he arranged for me to borrow a well-worn Peugeot, and I was ready to set off a couple of days later. I’d seen little of my old haunts in Tehran; my friend had made me a welcome guest in his house on condition I stayed indoors. Irritating but sensible I suppose. I had no wish to see the inside of one of Khomeini’s houses of horror.

The little bit I’d managed to see of Tehran was depressing. The fancy boutiques and European fashion stores that once lined select parts of the broad avenues had virtually disappeared. Some of the hotels were still open but rather down-at-the-heel, their swimming pools closed and their bars, once packed with Western oilmen and get-rich-quick entrepreneurs, were seedy laughterless places now, serving mainly doogh (a sort of fizzy sour milk) instead of their once notorious cocktails.

The killer taxis were still around though, clapped-out Mercedeses and Iran’s own Peykan, using the 1960s British Hillman design, careering wildly along the graffiti-lined boulevards (anti-American slogans were still a popular form of street art) with their drivers surrounded by dangling worry beads, family photos, gaudy-colored postcards of Islamic religious leaders, and plastic dolls dangling on beaded threads.

Scattered along the dusty, dreary sidewalks were the old peddlers’ carts crammed with ballpoint pens, razor blades, matches, batteries, cheap lighters and cheaper sunglasses, flaky wafer-biscuits, watch straps, and cigarettes sold individually. But gone were all the statues and framed portraits of the Shah’s father, Reza Shah, and the Shah himself. The Ayatollah was everywhere, his stern gaze watching over every house and every shop, ensuring obedience to all the strict Islamic codes of behavior. No more primped Tehrani females from the affluent mountain suburbs of Shemeran displaying their newfound wealth in the latest Milan and Paris fashions. Chadors were obligatory now, those black head-to-toe shrouds that the Shah had tried so hard to discourage. Women had been slammed back into Islamic modesty to become shadowy and submissive looking once again.

Ah—but at least one delight remained. Iran’s wonderful national dish, the chelo kebab, still provided daily sustenance in the form of barbecued strips of lamb served with broiled tomatoes, segments of raw onion, dishes of pungent torshi pickle, and those succulent mounds of the best rice in the world, mixed into a rich risotto with melted butter and raw egg yolks and sumak spice. One could still live well on such a feast in spite of all the changes.

 

 

Once on the road, I felt better.

Tehran dribbled out across the desert in a chaotic plethora of unpaved highways and half-finished buildings (so much for our grand master plan). Vistas of mountains and sandy plains opened up as I banged through the potholes, heading east toward Mashad, an ancient city filled with religious fanatics and a place I hoped to avoid.

After a hundred or so miles, any pretence at paved road ended, and I was back on the once-familiar sand tracks, leaving dust clouds in my wake as I bounced along under a hot afternoon sun.

Over the desert hung a peculiar light, a steely sheen that crisped the contours and made flocks of wandering goats seem stereoscopic against the gold-beige wilderness. The old Peugeot bumped and rattled under a flaying sun. A distant shepherd, leaning on his staff, seemed to be dancing to a slow steady rhythm in the heat shimmers; inverted cones of spiraling sand, a string of dust devils, joined in the gyrations. One of them left the formation and headed straight for me with malicious intent. I’d had experience with these devils on other journeys and slowed down to a crawl as it swirled across the quivering plain. It didn’t make much difference. The creature had aimed itself well and hit the car with the force of a demolition derby pileup, knocking it briefly onto two wheels and smothering us in a sandy maelstrom, before scampering off again to do battle with a line of low dunes on my right.

Feathery plumes of gold-edged clouds floated above the desert. It was so empty: A few bleached bones at the side of the track; two scrawny camels blown up to Spielbergian monsters by the gyrations of the air; mirages of great lakes spread everywhere across the flats; a single hawk, or an eagle, riding the thermals in sweeping Art Nouveau curves.

As the heat intensified the desert seemed to lose whatever minimal color it had retained in the morning, as if the sun had sucked at the last of its life and pounded it on an anvil into a flat, ringing nothingness edged by malevolent black-boned ridges of brittle rocks.

There was little traffic, but the huge Mack trucks that once thundered by the hundred across these empty wastes had left their souvenirs in the form of endless corrugations in the roadbed. Now, as desert travelers often relate with complacency, driving corrugated roads is merely a matter of pacing, finding the right speed so that you ride them as if in a hovercraft, rather than hitting each one like a dinghy in hard surf. And in theory, they’re correct. Given a straight sand road, the corrugations usually form an even wave pattern. But unfortunately, with typical Iranian illogic, the road twisted like an inebriated boa con-stricter across the level empty land. There was no apparent reason for its ridiculous alignment, but it meant that the corrugations constantly changed wavelengths as the trucks had slowed and then accelerated after each of the inane curves. No sooner had I achieved a nice steady rhythm, usually around forty mph, then there’d be a bend and then another bend, and the flow was lost in a welter of ruts and rocks.

After three hours of this nonsense I felt like a burst bag of Kitty Litter, and what made it worse were the knocking sounds, metal on metal, coming from the front of the car. Crankshaft, burst gasket, cracked cylinder? I’m not much of an auto mechanic, and my mind boggled with the possibilities. After another one hundred miles of tortuous track my patience was shot and my cursing had increased to blood-vessel-bursting intensity. I had to get whatever it was fixed!

I was nervous. My direct contact with Iranians had been very limited on this trip. I wanted to be as anonymous and inconspicuous as possible. But there was no choice now.

After another twenty miles a gas station appeared, a typical desert setup with a single hand pump and the owner’s house, a mud brick affair with four beehive-domed rooms facing onto a muddy courtyard. And that was all. Beyond the house was desert and more desert and hazy outlines of distant mountains.

I wasn’t sure what to expect and certainly not the welcome I received. The owner greeted me like a long-lost cousin, leading me to his house for tea (
chaii
) and serving slabs of elongated pizza-shaped bread (
nan-e-barbari
) baked by his wife in a domed oven. She sat, wrapped in a chador, on the doorstep of one of the rooms, carefully sorting rice for the evening meal on a blue cotton cloth. Each grain was examined thoroughly. Broken grains and other extraneous bits of straw and dirt were pushed off to the side. The pile of acceptable rice grew very slowly. Five children, lined up by height, stood watching.

The owner inspected the car carefully and returned to the house to explain that one of my shock absorbers was damaged and needed immediate attention.

“Do you have any shocks here?” I asked in stumbling half-forgotten Farsi.

He laughed and repeated the question to his wife who began giggling behind her chador, along with her children.

“No—no shocks. We have nothing!”

Wonderful. Stuck in the middle of nowhere again.

The owner, whose name was Hassan, then began a long explanation that I found hard to follow but which seemed to indicate that he had a friend who was expected that evening who could fix everything so don’t worry, have some more chaii and stay for dinner.

So that’s what I did. The friend didn’t arrive until dusk, by which time Hassan had set me up in my own room in his house (three of his children were quietly instructed to remove their bedrolls into their parent’s room) with a freshly beaten carpet on the mud floor and some pillows for lounging on. The friend didn’t have any new shocks either but possessed the Iranian skill for improvisation. Somehow with a lot of hammering and cutting up of strips of old rubber tire and more hammering he managed to salvage what was left of my own shock and make it workable again. By the time he left it was dark and dinner was cooking.

“You will stay with us tonight,” Hassan insisted. “We are pleased to have you in our home and to share our food.”

And what food! The most exquisite needle-grained rice served with golden fragments of
tahdeeg
(the crisped rice from the bottom of the cauldron), a slow-cooked
khoresht
(stew) whose basic ingredient was a whole goat’s head (no, I didn’t eat the eyeballs) and tiny kufteh kebabs of lamb mixed with spices and broiled over a charcoal stove. “
Kheili khub!
” I said to Hassan’s wife when we had demolished the meal. “Very, very good.”

Later on Hassan brought a plate of sweet honey cookies smothered in yogurt
mast
, which we ate slowly, sitting by the courtyard and looking across the desert. The moon was out, full and silver, and stars filled the sky. The children had gone to bed. A warm breeze blew in from the west…I suddenly missed my wife very much. This was the Iran we had known and loved together so long ago, and in spite of everything that had changed in that country I was happy to be back. Only one wish. I wished Anne could have been there with me.

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