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A drive around Iran in the era of the Shah


Following our adventures in South Africa and Namibia, the Fates – and the Personnel Department at the FCO – decided that the time had come for our first married posting to Tehran, which always had something special about it as it was the place where Marguerite and I first met. I was posted there as First Secretary, Commercial – and immediately became enormously busy, as it was boom time on the commercial front. Even so, by the summer of 1973, when I had been in the job for over two years, I was definitely beginning to get itchy feet. I decided that it was high time for us to get out and explore some of the remoter south-eastern quarters of the land.

An excuse was provided by a meeting with Dr Reza Rastegar, a mining tycoon who urged me to visit his lead-zinc mine west of Kerman, which is one of the great desert towns of Iran, almost six hundred miles south of Tehran. When I asked him precisely where it was, he pointed with a flourish to an area on the map around the middle of the country apparently surrounded by desert. I decided that we must get there and that beating the drum for British trade along the way could provide official justification for some of the journey. To add a further dimension, some great friends of ours, David and Jill Wrightson, promised to join us for much of the journey. He was a top insurance man and, for them, this was a long-hoped for trip of a lifetime – as, indeed, it proved to be for us.

***

Our journey took place between 14th May and 3rd June 1973, roughly ten years after the solo bus journey I had made with pilgrims in 1963. This time, as fortune would have it, there was no need for us to contemplate those wild, unstable buses; instead, we would cover all four thousand miles in our long wheel-based Land Rover, a trusty vehicle we named Camel. Looking back, it seems extraordinary that we should have been able and allowed – even encouraged by the Embassy – to undertake such a journey; but this was still six years before the revolution and the removal of the Shah. Back then – and in spite of the grinding poverty, the incompetence and lawlessness we were to encounter – there was much cheerful co-operation with foreign travellers in Iran and no suspicions about our motives for making such a journey.

undiplomatic episodes book coverAs usual whenever I planned a lengthy journey, a host of nay-sayers sprang up with prophecies of doom. This time, some of them told us that it would be too hot in the south and others too cold in Meshed. Undeterred, Marguerite and I – along with Jill and David Wrightson – set off, leaving only our two youngest children, Chris (aged 6) and Ella (5), to be looked after at home, the two bigger boys being at boarding school.

We drove first to Qom, which is famous as a centre for Shi’ism and also for the very special, crispy, ultra-sweet and ultra-delicious biscuits made there. Once in town, we sought out the best-known biscuit-maker there, a man of blue eye and dignified bearing, who quickly alluded to his staunch Moslem faith and went on to ask my views about whether Christ was in heaven. We then bought our biscuits and I commented on the high price. To my surprise, he readily agreed that they cost more than elsewhere; but he was alone in using proper sheep’s fat, as opposed to vegetable substitutes.

On that first day we covered 385 miles, coming via Kashan and ending in the wondrous city of Isfahan where, apart from catching up on its manifold sights, I put on my commercial hat and visited the Aryamehr steel plant. Our guide here had managed to reconcile devout Moslem principles with producing a Persian translation of one of the James Bond books, in spite of which feat he preferred to speak Persian to me. He told us that the steel mill and the nearby “steel city” of Aryshahr were bringing a considerable extra population to Isfahan. We stayed that night at the Irantour Hotel, only to find it invaded by a horde of Germans from what they called their Rolling Hotel – an articulated vehicle they slept in, descending for meals, like overweight locusts, to the hotel restaurant.

In the morning, we pressed on towards the considerable city of Shiraz, stopping off to take in major historic attractions in the shape of Pasargadae, Persepolis and Naqshe Rostam. To follow this, I had previously made arrangements to visit the Dariushe Kabir Dam, by all accounts a crucial part of the development of the region; but everything had been done by phone. I had no reassuring laissez passer in my pocket and, in my experience, nothing was more bureaucratic than a junior Persian official. The entrance to the dam area was closely guarded. True to form, the massively proportioned guard denied all knowledge of any impending Embassy visit. Eventually he was soothed by the sight of our diplomatic plates and papers, but insisted on escorting us to the dam, looking like an enormous egg as he went ahead perched on a tiny Japanese motorbike.

Almost equally typically, when we reached the dam we were greeted warmly by the senior engineer who had indeed expected us earlier. The Iranians have a touching faith in the ability of the foreigner to arrive punctually across huge distances.

In those days, Shiraz was important enough to warrant the posting of a British Council representative who duly invited us to dinner. Most of the guests were visiting British academics, but the solitary Persian at once button-holed me to complain about the non-delivery of equipment imported from the UK. This was a story I heard all too often while I was doing commercial jobs, both in Iran and, later, Finland.

The next morning, we drove half-way back to Isfahan before turning off along the dirt road to Yazd. No-one in Tehran had been able to tell us what this road was like and the distances looked forbidding on the map. The only advice proffered was that we were foolish to attempt driving from Shiraz to Yazd in a day. Fortunately, we turned a deaf ear to these prophets of doom; as the dirt road was in magnificent order, we reached Yazd at 6.30 p.m., after many stops to photograph a splendid series of caravanserais.

Now it was time to visit Dr Reza Rastegar’s mine at Kushk, which we approached along dirt roads via Bafq, quite a thriving desert town thanks to nearby mining activity. It was some 115 miles from Yazd to Kushk. At the mine we were greeted by Messrs Triggs and Briggs, whom the long arm of coincidence had brought together as General Manager and Mining Manager at this lead-zinc mine, in which Rio Tinto Zinc had at one time an important interest. Dr Rastegar was paying a flying visit, so we had a lively evening.

Having done our stint underground, we set off the next morning towards Kerman. We decided not to double back to the main Yazd-Kerman road, but to continue through the semi-desert with a guide whose local knowledge was essential. The road tended to blend imperceptibly into a dry river bed. We were amazed by the number of quite decent little villages to be encountered in this far-flung area. After seeing many of them, we decided that the thin tracks leading to the villages were made by motorcycles, not donkeys, though there were still plenty of these, not to mention the odd herd of camels.

We found our way to Kerman (population 100,000, number of cinemas 7) past the coal-mining area at Pamedana, then moved onto the rather dismal and dirty little town of Zarand. Here we tried three hotels. All were full. We were tired and, with night approaching, I had only one phone number. I dialled our contact, Mohammad Agah, and as fortune would have it, he responded warmly and influentially. He escorted us back to the only good hotel and miraculously found an empty room where none had been before. Luckily, Mohammad’s business preoccupations were of a kind which could be cast to one side and he spent much of the next two days showing us the sights and subjecting us to a dinner party hosted by one of his friends.

***

By now it was 22nd May and we set off for Jiroft, a town dominated by a huge agribusiness, which the Ambassador had specifically instructed me to visit. On the way we paused to observe the wonders of Mahan, notably the shrine of the Sufi divine and poet Nureddin Nimatullah. It was only a little over 60 miles from here to Jiroft, but we didn’t make it till 8.30 p.m., as the road wound round a considerable mountain range and was incredibly steep, twisty and dangerous, not to mention that at this time it was infested by heavy lorries carrying water-melons, the province’s principal product.

As we finally neared the actual town of Jiroft we found that, as though to emphasise its importance, its approaches were studded with no fewer than three entirely unnecessary roundabouts. We soon found the Farmandar, the Governor, a rather dignified young man in dark glasses and trendy trousers. He was chatting to a couple of cronies, who turned out to be the mayor and head of police. Later, we dined with these notabilities, among others, at the guest-house into which we had been booked. The next morning, we were taken around the area by the Director-General of the Jiroft Development Organisation. The heat was intense, but we were impressed by the enthusiasm of most of the staff and the volume and 85

variety of produce, including the four hundred lorries of water-melons that were shipped from here every day the fruit was in season. Personally, I have never liked them – and seeing them in such huge quantities put me off further.

To get to faraway Zahedan, which lies near the borders of Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, we had to travel back to the historic fortress town of Bam, the ancient part of which is an astonishing agglomeration of broken and deserted mud vaults, domes and dwellings. There I called on the Farmandar, who turned out to be as undynamic as one might expect in such a faraway and unpromising region. On the other hand, it was somehow gratifying when a passing policeman asked if I was the First Secretary from the British Embassy. It felt good to be identified in these distant parts.

After visiting the date factory at Bam, we flogged across the desert and paused first at a remarkably lonely tower known as the Mile Naderi. There I saw a strange sight which has proved to be the most-remembered moment in the whole trip. It had something of the quality of a dream. Marguerite had gone up the stone stairs inside the tower first. My eye was caught by the sight of her hat floating down from the top. Next, I saw a small, reddish, desert fox with big ears rushing frantically around the battlement at the top. Then I saw it sixty feet below, limping away. It had jumped down. Undeterred by this omen, we picked up Marguerite’s hat, continued through the heat of the day and at last reached Zahedan, 215 miles from Bam. Here, we were at our furthest point from Tehran.

In Zahedan we found that no less a figure than the Ostandar – or Governor-General – of Sistan and Baluchistan was expecting us for dinner. He was a civilised host; the traditional tea soon gave way to whisky, as he outlined his plans to build up the agriculture of the area. This was something he’d already done in Jiroft, where he had earlier been in charge. A diversion was caused by the gymnastics of one of the attendants, the object of which turned out to be the crushing of a large cockroach.

On the Ostandar’s instructions, we were joined in Zahedan by a young official from the National Tourist Association. On his advice, we rose at 4.30 a.m. the following morning and headed north for Zabol. On the way we inspected the five thousand year old remains of Shahre Sukhte, the Burnt City. There was not much to see at this junction of Bronze Age trade routes, beyond a series of hillocks, all of this in the boiling heat at 7.30 a.m. The wizened custodian regaled us with stories about the lawlessness and dangers of the area. He spoke luridly about the prevalence of smugglers ferrying arms and opium in the region, no doubt carried out at night by camel or vehicle.

In a village near Zabol we were in the hands of a local chief known over the years by the Wrightsons, Parviz Irani. They thought he was probably something of a brigand in his own right. When we met this colourful character, he informed us sadly that he had expected us earlier. The several “cattles” slaughtered for our benefit had, it seemed, already been consumed. We were nonetheless forgiven and, after two whiskies and a camel ride, he told me with great seriousness that I (as well as David Wrightson) was now his friend forever. My pleasure at this was diminished much later when we were told by our friends the Alams in the eastern city of Birjand that this new friend added opium addiction to his other failings and only managed to support his large family through subventions from his brother in the United States.

In Zabol itself we stayed at a thoroughly insalubrious hotel named the Kurosh, where we dined with the Farmandar, who confirmed that there was still a steady demand for camels. A good riding one might cost as much as five hundred pounds. The following morning, we visited the bazaar, which we found really exciting – full of fierce-eyed turbaned characters who looked as though they had stepped out of a battle-scene from a Genghis Khan epic.

***

Now it was time for us to tear ourselves away from this exotic scene and head north. First we had to get back from Zabol onto the main north-south route between Zahedan and Meshed. Our minor road had accumulated quantities of sand, almost amounting to dunes, overnight. Two schools of thought developed in the Land Rover as to whether these obstructions should be tackled fast or slow. The women won – so, slow it was. Emerging triumphant from these hazards onto the main road, we found our visibility curtailed by sand-storms, but the surface of the road was much improved and, in this near-desert area, we were entertained by notices adjuring us not to fish or hunt, on pain of severe penalty.

It was a long and extraordinarily empty road towards Birjand, the capital of eastern Iran that sits on the Silk Road going into Afghanistan. We were stopped on the way by gendarmes, probably in need of company.

One of them said that no more than seven vehicles passed a day. Gradually, the scenery became gentler, with many green and fertile stretches. As we neared Birjand, we lost no time in making for the stronghold of Senator Khozeime Alam at Rahimabad. Our visit had been arranged, but we were not expecting to meet the Senator. Safely within the gate, we hardly had time to admire the splendours of the garden before we were enveloped by a cloud of retainers, clucking sympathetically at our travel-worn state.

undiplomatic episodes book coverThe sumptuousness of the Alam residence could not have contrasted more completely with the cockroach-infested hostelry of the night before. The Alam dominance of the region – his cousin, the Minister of Court, had an even grander residence across the way – was underlined by the fact that both the hospitals in Birjand had been donated by the family. We visited the well-equipped Red Lion and Sun hospital with its director, who assured us that treatment was free for the poor; but the wards were suspiciously empty and we heard stories elsewhere of people turned away when they were unable to pay large sums of money.

After a day of idleness and luxury in the Alam bosom, we set off at 5.20 a.m. on 28th May for Meshed, but not before we had witnessed the even earlier departure of the young master of the house, the Senator’s son. As he stepped across the threshold, the senior retainer threw rose petals in his path and passed a Koran over his head. His ancient nanny kissed the only part of him she could reach, his elbow. Thus reinforced, and accompanied by a carload of guards, Mr Alam Junior left to catch his chartered plane back to Tehran. With him went our friend David Wrightson, who had just received bad news relating to his father’s health.

The 320 miles to Meshed, along excellent tarmac after the first hundred miles, were uneventful. In the city we were admirably fostered for two days by the British Council chief, Peter Harrison, and spent time with the Mayor, Massood Mahdavi, an impressive 32-year-old whom we later invited for an officially sponsored visit to the UK – all part of regular British efforts to attract up-and-coming individuals from countries important to us for political or commercial reasons.

On one of our Meshed days, we set off optimistically to find the turquoise mine near Nishapur, the home of the ancient scholar Omar Khayyam’s memorial. He died there in 1123 and is known in Iran for his astronomy and philosophy rather than his poetry. After inspecting the memorial, we enquired about the whereabouts of the turquoise mine and kept being told “a little further in that direction”. An unbelievable forty miles later, we plunged into a mine which seemed right until we noticed that the workers were hacking out salt rather than turquoise. Still not discouraged, we pushed on to the correct mine, which turned out to be… shut. As fortune would have it, the obliging gendarme who had taken charge of us opened up for us. The working area was a vast distance away, but we saw enough to get an idea of the ramifications of this ancient mine which turned out to be – surprise, surprise – royal property. Even the rejected stones heaped outside the mine frequently had turquoise streaks. We were told that there was little danger of the good quality stuff running out. Security was strict and the 200-odd workers were regularly searched on their way out. Their wage was, of course, a pittance.

On 31st May, we struck north and west to Quchan and Shirvan along the good but over-narrow road which leads back to Tehran via the fringes of the Caspian. We then continued west towards Gorgan and reached the cotton farm of our Armenian friend Hrair Tounian – with whom we had stayed with the children a year earlier. He was an entrenched critic of the Government and regaled us with many stories of corruption and inefficiency in high places. He made gloomy comments too about what he considered to be the failure of land reform and other enlightened policies. He told us that, in his town, Khan Bebin, poverty was so dire that the inhabitants were compelled to turn to prostitution to make ends meet and there were as many as five bawdy-houses in this tiny town. The funny thing about Persian prostitutes seemed to be that foreigners never saw them – whereas the locals, or so they told me, had an infallible eye for spotting them, even among a crowd of the virtuous.

Our tour ended, somehow appropriately, with a visit to Gonbad-e- Qabus, quite close to the border with Turkmenistan. This remarkable tower was built in 1006 as a tomb to receive the body of Shams el Ma’ali Qabus, who died in 1012. Robert Byron (of The Road to Oxiana fame) described it as one of the great buildings of the world. It is 150 feet tall, made of very small bricks and looked to me exactly like a pencil balancing on the thick end and appearing astonishingly slim and featureless. There was a single window in the roof facing due east and it was here that, according to one theory, Qabus’s body was suspended. There was no way of entering the building now. And, in a way, it somehow looked modern, even at the age of a thousand years old.

***

We returned to a baking Tehran after the cool high drive through the mountains at 5 p.m. on 3rd June. I thought this my best journey ever. We were, after all, four great friends having a quite exotic adventure together. Later, as time went by in comparatively humdrum Tehran, we kept recalling the uncertainties which had been overcome, the charm of many of our hosts and, perhaps most of all, the constant beauty of the scenery. I think of these things whenever Iran is mentioned – particularly the prevailing wildness of the desert and mountainous areas.

Extracted from Martin’s newly-published book, Undiplomatic Episodes, available from the publisher or, if you have to, from Amazon.

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