We drove southeast into Iran, and, as evening approached, the wind was blowing hard. Dust everywhere. We pulled up against the mud brick wall of a compound, in the lee of the wind, and began cooking dinner. Not long after, a man came around the corner, carrying a big samovar, with tea for us. We had, of course, parked next to his house. This was Muslim hospitality at its best.
After arriving in Tehran, Brian looked up the family that was expecting him. Brian’s family had hosted their son in the US, and they were about to return the favor. The two of us moved in with the family, whose name I don’t recall. But they were well-connected. The Shah (King), Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, was in power. He was a son of a bitch, but he was “our son of a bitch”, so Iran enjoyed, at that point in time, good relations with the US and Israel. We were, on one occasion, invited to the country home of an Iranian general. It was uphill from Tehran, towards Mt. Damavand, with a creek flowing through the property, which property extended for miles in all directions. The house had a “Persian garden”, filled with every kind of fruit tree and flower, and surrounded by high adobe walls. After dinner, I, and a daughter, Maheen, wandered off into the garden, under the moonlight. That moment did not last long, of course, as we were quickly summoned back. Of necessity, I found work, which turned out to be of two sorts.The first was giving English lessons to children of the local Jewish community. The local Jews were known as “Baghdadis”, meaning that they had originated in Baghdad, Iraq. Many of them had green or blue eyes, with olive complexions. The girls were very attractive. I had dinner with one family, who, like the rest of Iran, ate sitting on the floor around a rug spread with different dishes of food, and eating with their hands. The Iranian Jews, mainly well-off, had the best of both worlds. The UJA (United Jewish Appeal) had provided them with a hospital and other kinds of aid. Most were merchants, and many of them traveled back and forth between Iran and Israel. But the ones I talked to had no wish to settle in Israel. They said the Israelis worked too hard. Life in Iran was more relaxed. There were also Jewish communities outside of Tehran, and I was shown rugs woven by Jewish weavers from a particular village out in the sticks. My other job was as a proofreader at an English-language newspaper called Kayhan International. This paper was the organ of the government, publishing propaganda.
Since my proof-reading job brought me back in the early morning hours, I chose to move out of the home where I was staying with Brian, and rent an apartment.
I climbed Mt. Damavand with a German “bergkamarad”, whose name I have forgotten.
There were sulfurous fumes on the summit, adding to the discomfit of high altitude. But, as I wrote in a poem: “Snow and rough rock – relief for my concrete-sore feet”. And we had great glissades on the descent.
Brian and I took a drive to the Caspian Sea, north of Tehran, which went through the mountains not far from Mt. Damavand.
We also set off for Isfahan, in the desert to the south, but turned back when it got too hot.
I visited the US Embassy on July 4th, where they were having a celebration for the Americans living in Tehran: “The American Embassy on the Fourth of July. From Iran right into middle America, with green green grass, hamburgers and hot dogs, patriotic songs – the works”. This Embassy was stormed during the Iranian Revolution and occupied, with American staff taken hostage, from November 4, 1979, to January 20, 1981, a period of 444 days.
Having the days free, I often went to the British Council library, to read books on Himalayan mountaineering.
But things had started to heat up in early June. The mullahs (clergy) instigated riots. They were opposed to the westernization of Iran, along with the fact that the Shah ran things with an iron fist (what third world despot doesn’t?). The Shah’s secret police was known as the “Savak”, and was feared by all. Those Iranian intellectuals we met with would, in the privacy of their own living rooms, whisper into our ears the mildest of criticisms of the Shah, so freaked-out were they with the possibility of being disappeared. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say on the subject: “In January 1963, the Shah announced the “White Revolution“, a six-point program of reform calling for land reform, nationalization of the forests, the sale of state-owned enterprises to private interests, electoral changes to enfranchise women, profit sharing in industry, and an anti-illiteracy campaign in the nation’s schools. All of these initiatives were regarded as dangerous, Westernizing trends by traditionalists, especially by the powerful and privileged Shiite ulama (religious scholars) who felt highly threatened.” And: “The demonstrations of June 5 and 6, 1963, in Iran (also called the uprising, or the events of June 1963, and known in Iran by the Iranian calendar as 15 Khordad (Persian: نهضت پانزده خرداد)) were a protest against the arrest of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini after an angry speech by him attacking Iranian Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Israeland the United States. The Shah’s regime was taken by surprise by the massive public demonstrations of support, and although these were crushed within days by the police and military, the events established the importance and power of (Shia) religious opposition to the Shah, and Khomeini as a major political and religious leader. Fifteen years later, Khomeini was to lead the Iranian Revolution which overthrew the Shah and his Pahlavi dynasty and established the Islamic Republic of Iran“.
Martial law and a curfew were decreed, and here I am, walking home, late at night, after curfew. I had a pass, of course, but that was little comfort as shots rang out every night – usually soldiers shooting soldiers. Tanks maneuvered in front of the main Post Office, grinding ridges in the hot asphalt as they turned. Soldiers stood guard: “I look at a soldier and shrug. He looks back and does likewise”.
I moved into an upstairs room at the house of my boss at the newspaper, an American married to an Iranian woman. “You fucking Iranian whore”, he would scream at her. He wanted out of Iran bad. He had asked me to replace him at the newspaper when he left. He might have been contractually bound to stay or find a replacement. I don’t know. He got furious when I told him I was soon to leave. I had hid my savings in my room as best I could, but he found the money and took it, to try to thwart my plans to leave. I then had to work another two weeks to get enough money to leave, and this required that I get a visa extension. I got that, but the episode precipitated a panic attack that lasted those two weeks, and was alleviated only when we drove out of Tehran.
We drove east, now three of us in the VW Bug. An Englishman had joined us. In Mashad we tried in vain to enter the Imam Reza Shrine, which is closed to non-Muslims. The road deteriorated significantly from Mashad eastward, ultimately turning into a jeep track with a ridge of cobble stone down the middle. The border crossing was the most desolate place I’ve ever been. There was a single building located there, a decrepit hotel that was probably no longer in use. Through the open doors at either end, a hot desert wind blew the length of the hallway, while a big black scorpion scuttled along the baseboard. Then we entered Afghanistan, which will be seen in the next chapter.