Saturday, 10 November 2007

Persia (Chapter 6, Teheran, Persia)

As always we were extremely interested in the state of the road ahead of us, this time to Teheran. Ideas on conditions varied, from good to impossible, according to the whim of the speaker and whether he wanted to put our minds at rest or alarm us. As always, too, we knew our asking was really pointless. It had to be tackled in order to find the answer, but enquiring was hard to resist. In general the road was worse than we had expected. With a good tarmac road under our wheels we could have reached Teheran in three days with ease, as it was we were on the track for nine. I believe that for most of the six hundred kilometres (which doesn't sound much, said quickly) I was in second gear. The ribbon, alternately mountainous and flat, was deeply corrugated from one city to the other.

We passed through a number of small towns where the road deteriorated rather than improved: Mianeh, Nikpei, Nimavar. On the seventh day-more dead than alive-we reached Kazvin, about fifty miles from the shores of the Caspian. Had the road been metalled we would have shot across the intervening gap and spent a few hours soaking our tired bodies in the sea. As it was, we spent the night in a deserted caravanserai just outside the town. It was normal for us, even with a late night, to waken as soon as the sun rose, but within the four mud walls of the once bustling night stop of camel-trains, we slept, with only insects and a stray dog for company, until two in the afternoon. When, still drooping and aching in every joint, we remounted for the last stretch, it was as though we had stopped for only a few minutes. On arriving in the capital, utterly fatigued, we made our way through the streaming crowds, gasping in a temperature of over a hundred degrees, past numerous Pepsi-Cola signs to the haven of the British Embassy.

So tanned were we from the days of burning sun and wind, that the Security Guard could not at first believe that we were English: finally convinced, his first question was, 'Have you heard the latest test score?'

'No,' I replied tartly, 'we have not; but we did hear that the Embassy might give us washing facilities and advise us on a reasonable hotel.' We were shown to a wash-room and later ushered into the presence of one of the secretaries, who only seemed able to recommend the most luxurious hotel. We received no constructive suggestions, no friendliness, merely a few officious platitudes. Finally, we found rooms on the top floor of a crowded hotel which gave us a wonderful view of the street below and of
people in the tenements opposite.

One falls easily into the life of Teheran. Shaded streets, mosques, fountains, and the smell of the East blend with a city that is civilized, permanent, and familiar. Furious little taxi-cabs, many of them English cars, dart skilfully in and out among the pedestrians. Here one can buy French daily newspapers, see some excellent modern architecture vying with bazaars of ancient Persia, buy absolutely all or any of the latest commodities of modern living in the wide shopping centres (including Pepsi-Cola), dine in a first-class air-conditioned restaurant, or eat syrupy-sweet cakes and drink the yellow wines. One cannot be bored in Teheran.

It was obvious, on that first evening, that the last savage stretch of dust and desert had not left our little expedition unscathed. Nita complained of a dizzy headache and a terrible heaviness in her legs. I dosed her with aspirin and put her to bed early. For a few days we would forget all about the track. The grace, the gaiety of Teheran, on that first day ended with Nita running a high temperature. It was stifling in those upper rooms too, and, tired as we were, it was one o'clock before I finally switched off the light. The hot night air came through the open windows in waves of oven-heat. The sheet beneath me was soaking wet. The heat of the desert is preferable to the gasping furnace of the city.

The next morning Nita was feeling worse. I told her to try and sleep while I went in search of a doctor. The British Embassy were coldly helpful and suggested I try the resident doctor who might be able to 'administer'. They were a bit scornful of the symptoms, putting it down with certainty to 'Teheran Tummy', which every newcomer has to suffer, the water being piped by the open drainage system, with no sewerage. I wasn't too sure; when we were in West Africa they had told me my malady was 'Kano Tummy'; and it turned out to be a severe dose of dysentery. I got the doctor to my wife with all haste. He confirmed the general opinion: it was indeed that sapping, but fortunately transient, 'T.T.'; he warned us about drinking the water and prescribed a diet of mast (yoghourt) for the next three days. Nita smiled wanly at this-yoghourt was one of her pet aversions. But for three days it was all she ate, and it effected a rapid cure.

We celebrated her first day out of bed by buying another pair of jeans to replace the torn and sun-faded pair she had been wearing since leaving home. In three days she had lost exactly a stone in weight, and the little Jewish tailor had trouble finding a pair small enough to fit. We spent the cooler hours of the morning walking around the huge underground bazaar and while we were haggling over a square of silk, three young men introduced themselves and helped us to acquire the scarf at a reasonable price. One of them, a strong-faced, athletic-looking fellow, turned out to be the long-jump champion of Persia, Nasser Najen. We chatted with the champion and the other two, who were his brothers, for quite some time, finishing up lunching with them and receiving an invitation to visit the city stadium that evening to watch the jumping practice.

Most nations take their sport seriously, but the Persians take theirs more seriously than most. There was a practice football match in progress when we arrived and I have rarely seen a more exciting display of skill and enthusiasm. The pace-in spite of the heat-was fast and unabating. Most of the moves were cunning and full of inventive sparkle. It was a great pleasure to watch. The Teheran stadium has everything a sportsman could wish for. In addition to the main arena, there were all sorts of smaller grounds, open-air swimming-pools, tennis courts, cycle-tracks, and games squares. We watched Nasser Najen limbering up, then finally discarding his track-suit to give a display of co-ordinated beauty of motion that was undoubtedly in world-championship class.

We talked for many hours to this fine athlete, and his views on his country were well formed and critical. He told us that everyone was aware of decay, both religious and social, but apathetic about doing something to arrest it. The greatest need was for education-to teach, among other things, integrity. There was too much corruption, too much graft. And the contrast between primitive villages and industrial towns and cities would have to be softened. At the moment they were utterly foreign to each other. We had to agree; our road had led us through country where the sight of a lorry passing in a cloud of dust was a shock, a sight that for a moment was unacceptable to our minds already steeped in the aura of a long-dead empire. Teheran itself had been a revelation of contrast, particularly emphasized by our slow approach. Like Turkey, Persia's need is primarily for sound communications, veins of life-blood to the remote wilderness dwellers. Only then can any concrete plan for a new life be embarked upon. Another eminent Persian told us that too many people were prone to live by the principles of the Persian poets, that life was to be enjoyed sensually. He felt that the spirit of the Rubaiyat was leading modern Persia into the ancient dust of Persepolis.
One more visit to the Embassy produced the information that our next stop, Meshed, was in the middle of a holy month, and that Nita would have to be careful to keep her hair and wrists covered in that town. The First Secretary told me that the people were fanatical in their sacred city, especially at the time of rejoicing. We also learnt, on our last day in the capital, that we could have camped on the lawn of the Embassy and had the use of an excellent swimming-pool in the grounds. It was nice to know what we could have done if someone had given us permission three days earlier.