Saturday, 1 December 2007

Persia (Chapter 6, Meshed, Persia)

The market-place was swarming with throngs of different nationalities, and Moslems from Egypt, Afghanistan, and Arabia rubbed shoulders with the Persian residents over the riotously coloured silks, skins, leather-work, and spider-web silver. The noise, the smells, the jabber of multi-lingual tongues were unabating despite the tremendous heat: the Holy Month in the Sacred City was in full swing. It is here that part of Mohammed's body is said to rest. The city was, we felt, little different for the passing of the odd thousand years.

Such were the activity and excitement that we puttered into the heart of this cosmopolitan oasis almost unnoticed, which really made a pleasant change. We could dismount and stretch luxuriously without being hemmed in on all sides, and take a good look at the bustle around us in the dusty, sun-baked streets.

Meshed absorbed us into its life. I remembered the warning of the British Embassy in Teheran. Nita was wearing a sleeveless blouse and slacks, wrists and arms uncovered, her face and hair exposed; she had pulled the scarf from her head and was shaking some of the sand from her locks. I didn't see so much as one fanatical glance. Several smiling faces, looks of passing interest at our strange transport, that was all. I wondered how long it was since the Embassy secretary had visited this lovely city. It had a throbbing vitality, excitement, and jubilance that were certainly peculiar to the Orient. But here was no sign of fanaticism. Everyone seemed too happy to be concerned with such fervour. My apprehension regarding infidels being put to the knife, or being disposed of by any other unpleasant method, in this Moslem stronghold, faded and died.

Accommodation was at a premium, naturally, and having tried a couple of hotels without success, Nita and I were idly speculating whether to drive out to the desert and camp, when we were accosted by a most villainous-looking individual. He had an aggressive black beard, preposterously hooked nose, and piercing black eyes, while a dagger hilt protruded from his voluminous robes. He stared at us in silence for an interminable time and I began to shift uneasily, for he had all the attributes of a first-rate fanatic. He tore his glance, with apparent reluctance, away from our faces and his eyes travelled over our battered machine.

'German, isn't it?' he said, conversationally, in almost perfect English.

‘Er, yes, of course; German,' I replied, taken aback at this chatty remark in my mother tongue. He hawked ferociously and spat with great force into the dust. There was no inference in this; he did it every few minutes with disconcerting regularity.

'I'm a truck driver,' said our brigand amiably. 'I know Pakistan, Persian Gulf, Iran-you know, oil companies-all over.' He waved his hand in an expansive gesture.

'You have your own truck?' I asked, fascinated by the luxurious turban he was wearing.

'No, but my brother owns two-Internationals. Very good trucks, better than English, well, perhaps not better, but we can get good delivery, and spare parts too we can get. If one of yours breaks down it is finish.' Incongruous though the conversation was-Arabian Nights characters with upturned slippers and jewelled daggers just don't talk about trucking and spare parts-the shaft got home. Why should these countries, admitting that so far as quality went, Britain was still best, buy American and German products in preference to our own? We ourselves were mounted on a German machine, simply because the British manufacturers did not make such a vehicle-and this, five years after Britain had been flooded with Continental scooters and the general public had accepted them as a permanent institution! I changed the subject hastily; even the infidel could become fanatical over some subjects.

'My wife and I are very impressed with this beautiful city,' I said. 'Is it always so crowded and lively?'

'No, but it is a very important centre for us Moslems and there are usually some visitors who come to worship. You are staying for a few days to have a look?'

I said we should certainly like to but, with the hotels full, this did not seem very likely.

'Then you could stop where I do. It is full, but there would be ways to admit you.' He hawked again, and I began to fear for the hotel proprietor's life, until I remembered this was merely a form of verbal full stop. .

'Done,' said I.

'Good, then you follow me and go slowly, it is only a few minutes away, but rather hard to find if you do not know the city well.' We threaded our way through the million-or so it seemed -stalls and bustle of the holiday-mood crowds, never letting the sight of the flowing grey-flecked robes of our guide disappear entirely. Endless turnings; contrasts of sun and shadow; streets narrowing progressively; till finally our guide stopped before a
little door set in a high, whitewashed wall. He drummed heavily with his beringed knuckles and we waited expectantly in the brilliant sunshine, smiling affably to fill in the pause. Eventually the door creaked open to reveal a heavily veiled woman who gave us only a brief glance before opening the door wide and motioning us through.

I don't know quite what Nita and I expected to see on the inside of the walls; certainly the exterior did not look too prepossessing. However, we were almost staggered at the contrast of scene. Here were no poky little overcrowded rooms, airless and cramped. Nita gave a little gasp of surprise at the interior of the hotel. Before us was a large square compound, paved with cool terrazzo and studded with palms which surrounded a pool of crystal water rippling under a fountain. Around the pool, languishing on rugs, were three very beautiful women and a couple of young men. On every side of the compound, balconies led into cool bedrooms.

The three women hastily replaced their veils as we entered, but that was the only concession they made to the appearance of the two unbelievers. Nita and I were shown into a lovely room, cool and dim, windowless and furnished only with an abundance of hand-made, ornate carpets and rugs which decorated the walls and floor. We laid out our sleeping-bags and other belongings in this cosy lair elated at this lucky conclusion to our past days of hardship. We began our own belated siesta ten minutes after arrival.

Our friend, Mahmud, had an inspiration the next morning; we must see the Mosque of Meshed. We fell in promptly with this suggestion and riding in a broken-down droshky, driven by a drowsy old man, arrived some time later in the centre of the city with its smell of leather, pepper, human sweat, and the acrid fumes thrown out by the open fires. Everywhere, blinded and scarred donkeys kept the air jangling with their neck bells, and the veiled women, virtually beasts of burden, carried huge loads on their heads and gossiped in shrill, high-pitched voices.

The mosque stood aloof from the main stream of humanity, a huge golden-domed temple, secure behind high walls. We had an outsider's view through giant gateways of the imposing edifice, all porcelain blue and glittering gold, but that was our only glimpse for we were not allowed inside. Mahmud was crestfallen but not dismayed. Instead we drove around the city at a leisurely pace and away from the market there were some cool avenues, tree-lined and still wet from spraying. We went from this serene atmosphere to the hubbub of the Street of Silversmiths. There I really bemoaned our tight budget: superb, solid silver cigarette cases, snuffboxes, delicate filigree jewellery, all quite cheap and very desirable-but we could only look.

Our Arabian Nights hotel kept us well fed. Too well, really, with copious piles of rice and cuts of goat meat which we ate with the other guests, digging into the communal bowls with our fingers. For our three-day stop we never used a chair, a table, or cutlery. The first day was strange and we found it difficult to adapt ourselves, but by the third morning we began to wonder if perhaps our own society was bogged down with too many accoutrements.

By the time we were ready to leave Meshed, Nita and I were entering the second phase in the mental metamorphosis that comes with travel. The first phase, which had remained with us through the Balkans, Turkey, and most of Iran, had consisted of a somewhat superior attitude to the countries through which we were passing. This was an intangible, almost unconscious feeling, which neither mentioned to the other. But it was there nevertheless. We were British-people from one of the 'dynamo' countries of the world-and even in 1956, this influence radiated a long way from our little island. It carried us on the crest of its wave nearly into Afghanistan-that nasty little amused, indulgent air, which I found hard at times to suppress. But then, in the sacred city of Meshed, the second cycle began.

'The Mosque is beautiful and the sun is warm,' they said. 'But what are these things beside your modern, organized world?' What indeed? We in Britain had all the advantages. Now, almost overnight, 'all the advantages' seemed to lose their value. Now, when an enthusiastic visionary, with sparkling eyes, told us how one day Teheran would be the first city in all the Middle East and all the towns and villages would be modernized-the veil swept away, emancipation of women, health schemes, television, with all the throb and urgency of an imported New World-I recoiled in horror. Silently and perhaps selfishly, I hoped that day would be a long way off. So much for changes of attitude; we had fallen under the spell of the East. We were now sufficiently mellowed to appreciate Afghanistan.