This Sort of Thing...


The Iran - Tie Rack War



Part 5 of my personal magic carpet-ride through Persia.

In an attempt to appear multicultural, multilingual and possibly even intellectual, I extended my grasp of the Farsi tongue and greeted Vahid the driver with sob bekhey (good morning) instead of plain old salaam (hello) as used by most other members of our group. A term that Vahid had probably never heard before but which was used quite regularly amongst my travelling companions was smartarse. This seemed to them the perfect opportunity to demonstrate its use.

Minutes later we were saying khodâ hâfez (goodbye) as aboard our tour bus we sped past the sign that probably bore the legend ‘Thank you for driving carefully through Shiraz’ but which could have said absolutely anything because it was written in the Perso-Arabic script that I wasn’t quite familiar with.

As we headed for the desert, Mahtab’s information stream was soon in full flow. She began with a rundown on the general characteristics of people from various regions of her country, reinforcing my theory that all women make sweeping generalisations. According to Iranian lore, Tehranis were generous, people from Shiraz were lavish, Yaz’d folk were reputed to overindulge in food, and the good citizens of Isfahan were extremely careful with their money… a bit like Aberdonians, she added. Others seated near me informed her that it was believed that the same could be said about people with Yorkshire blood in them, whilst gesturing towards me. She smiled at me before hastily scribbling something in her X Travels group leader’s notebook.

There then followed the misunderstanding of the trip. Women in Iran are required by law to always have the crowns of their heads covered, and to do this a large proportion of the younger ones wear brightly coloured silky scarves rather than the black hijab that non-Iranians might expect to see. Angie from Essex was wearing a particularly brightly patterned item that many people had commented upon in admiration. Another of our group asked her where she had got it from and she replied ‘Tie Rack’, which most of us knew as a clothing company with branches in airports, railway stations, and shopping centres all over Britain. Elderly American Connie wasn’t aware of such retail outlets and expressed shock upon believing she had heard that Angie had been to Iraq, which Americans pronounce as ‘Eye Rack’. She couldn’t understand why Angie was still alive, until this was explained to her. I had been to Iraq in the late 1970s but I didn’t mention this to Connie as I hoped to prevent a return to the state of commotion or the start of a debate over whether or not I was dead.

Whilst on the subject of Iraq, and to complement the fun-filled holiday mood that we had found ourselves in that morning, Mahtab told us some of the story of the Eight Years War (1980 to 1988) fought between Iran and Iraq. Apparently it had come at a very unfortunate time because Iran was just finding its feet in the wake of the Islamic Revolution when Iraq, heavily supported by the U.S.A., attacked. This assault on Iranian territory was inspired by the Iraqi leadership’s belief that it was a necessary step to prevent the spread of new post-revolutionary Iranian ideology. It was a horrific conflict in which the combined number of dead from both sides exceeded 1.5 million. Since hostilities ceased, the relatives of the Iranian dead, who were considered martyrs, had received some benefits such as easier entry into universities, but this had seemed to cause some resentment amongst those who hadn’t lost family members in the war. Clerics had told the people that the dead would go to Paradise because they were fighting  to defend their country, so many volunteered to go to the front, including nomads and Armenians. I imagined that as this promise was made on both sides of the militarised zone, the dead would have been able to continue the battle when they arrived in Paradise. By the time of our visit, people of the two nations had come to exist side by side on friendly terms, largely because many Iraqis, especially clerics, had fled to Iran to escape Saddam’s regime in their own country. Pilgrims from both sides often entered their neighbouring country to visit religious shrines and holy places. 

Our modern history lesson complete, I sat back in my seat to study the physical geography that was on display beyond the tinted glass of the coach window. My guide book described the Plain of Dasht-e-Morghab, a large stretch of which we would traverse that morning, as vast but beautiful. I couldn’t disagree as what I saw was mostly arid, but with pockets of vegetation and areas of agricultural activity. And it was clear that it had been a place of great geological upheaval over millions of years as flat stretches of landscape would suddenly be sliced open by deep chasms which I assumed were features of seismic goings-on. I had read about there being a number of fault lines crossing Iran but in this region there seemed to be a multitude of mini versions of them. I wished I’d known how to tell Volvo Vahid to drive carefully in Farsi. At that point I was unaware that the harshness of the terrain we were crossing was nothing in comparison to what we would see later in the day. To my relief, the majority of the roads in Iran were in very good condition.

Two hours after leaving Shiraz we stopped at Pasargadae, an archaeological gem that pre-dated even Persepolis. This was our UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Day where we saw the austere but imposing tomb of Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire, and the remains of several of his palaces, all located in this lonely windswept spot surrounded by the virtually boundless expanses of an inhospitable landscape. There was absolutely nothing there apart from these incredible ruins that dated back more than 2,500 years. Admission was free. There wasn’t even a fence around the place.

It was there that I had the pleasure of bumping into Hassan Marshad, the motorcyclist. I was taking a photograph of a most unusual Honda bike parked by the road when he came up to me and asked if I would like any information about it. Not being mechanically minded I wondered what I would be letting myself in for but his face beamed as he explained to me all the useful devices he had added to the machine since he had purchased it in Egypt. On it he had ridden through most of the countries of the Middle East. His journey, he said, wouldn’t have been possible without a few technical enhancements. These included the fitting of a fire extinguisher, a gas cylinder for inflating his mattress, a windscreen wiper and a system for boiling water to make tea. If the Iranian Film Board had ever decided to make its own version of Inspector Gadget then Hassan would have been the obvious choice to take the lead role. I was pleased that he invited himself to have morning coffee with us near to the tomb.

The numbers of the gathering swelled further a few minutes later upon the arrival of a family of touring Iranians who seemed keen to adorn us with compliments. I didn’t doubt their sincerity but I felt a little uncomfortable as these plaudits obviously didn’t come naturally to them and gave me the impression that they were trying very hard to be profound and witty in an Oscar Wilde sort of way. ‘Your garment, magnificently tailored with the golden needles and silver threads of the angels, displays the grandiose extravagance of the hide of a tiger’ was what a woman said to me whilst examining my tee-shirt that I had picked up for around a fiver in Primark in Bristol. Formal English lessons were illegal in their country and it soon became obvious that they were just practising on us what they had learnt from books.

Recognising the need to bring things back down to earth, Hassan told me a joke and drew enough confidence from the fact that I had laughed to enable him to tell it again to the whole group. Before commencing his brief stand-up comedy routine, he apologised to me because he would be repeating himself. Hassan’s joke went like this:

If your nose runs and your feet smell, you were born upside down.

Uproarious laughter ensued, as much at the delivery as at the joke itself. Hassan grinned from ear to ear with pride and I could see that the response from his audience had caused him to become a little emotional. He was keen to quickly shake my hand, thank me profusely and then ride off across the dusty plain on his magic Honda.

The travelling family stayed with us a little longer. We expected them to drive away as soon as all our coffee and cake had disappeared. Our mid-morning snack was really nice, having been generously prepared and packed up for us by the kitchen staff of our hotel in Shiraz, but what our new friends then produced from the boot of their car to share with us was far superior and absolutely delicious. I’ve been on 1,447 picnics in my life, but to this day the one at the Tomb of Cyrus remains my absolute favourite. In fact, I if I worked for UNESCO I would designate it a World Heritage Picnic.

The next stop on our journey, about an hour’s drive beyond Pasargadae, was to meet another Hassan. He had been described to us in advance as a farmer, local historian and jovial raconteur. It turned out that he was the sort of person who, where I came from, might easily be described as a bit of a lad. His farm was really a vineyard and, whilst taking us on a tour of it and explaining how raisins are produced, he confessed to having made maybe a little wine, just for family and friends. He also told us he was a big fan of Joan Baez and world peace, as silent but smiling female members of his family laid out plates of food for us on tables beneath the tall cypress trees that shaded his garden. This was a real desert oasis; miles and miles from anywhere we dined in verdant luxuriousness surrounded by rocks and sand as far as the eye could see. Naan, goat’s cheese, dates, melon, huge sweet rose-coloured tomatoes and Hassan’s words of wisdom were the perfect ingredients for what seemed a banquet.

‘The Earth is just one place. If you go to the Moon you cannot see man’s borders on Earth. All men have the same coloured blood.’ he said philosophically. He repeatedly called us his friends so we asked if this gave us some sort of entitlement to a drop of his ‘little wine, just for family and friends’ but, as expected, he laughed and said no, explaining that he would worry about the trouble we would be in if we were found out by the police. I found it strange that, so soon after the picnic of a lifetime, this had been the lunch of a lifetime.

Sarv-e Abarkuh (the Cypress of Abarkuh, National Tree of Iran) said to have been alive for more than 4,000 years, was an interesting sight to see. Please don’t tell this to anybody at the Iranian Tourist Board, but it didn’t look that old to me. We asked Elderly American Connie if she had seen it on her previous visits and she said she had but it had been different and much better back then. This was what she always said when we asked her questions about her travels that had spanned seven decades, but becoming accustomed to our humour she added that it had only been a sapling the first time she saw it. Nearby was a vast circular beehive-shaped ice house built from local stone in which, before the introduction of electricity and freezers, ice from the mountains had survived being stored through the ravages of Persian summers.

The final 150 kilometres of the road to Yaz’d wound through the breathtaking Zagros Mountains, the tallest of which was Shir Kuh Peak, towering to a height of 4,055 metres above sea level. I read that it was a feature of an arc of volcanoes composed of Jurassic granite. The setting sun bathed the landscape in crimson making it one of the most beautiful and surreal places I had ever seen. Roadside mosques and a couple of old fortresses silhouetted against the dying embers of the desert sun enhanced the spectacle further. This was the climax of a day in which I had already collected a headful of memories to treasure for the rest of my life.

The Parsian Hotel in the City of Yaz’d was very nice. Not luxurious, but clean and comfortable and I was never more than a couple of metres away from an electronic knob or switch or lever which never did anything, and which nobody could explain, but kept me intrigued and amused nonetheless.

In the evening our whole group ate dinner together for the first time. We had delicious ‘troutfish fish’ and aromatic rice topped with the juicy sarcotesta of pomegranates. The drink flowed like water. This was mainly because, in the absence of anything else, it was water. Entertained and amused by Mahtab and my companions, I spent a wonderful couple of hours at a table beside the hotel’s ex-swimming pool that had been filled in with soil and planted with rose bushes but still had a diving board. Iran’s senior clerics, like my mother, must have recognised that it wasn’t wise to swim on a full stomach. Mahtab corrected me, saying that it wasn’t wise to remove any articles of clothing at all and consequently swimming pools had become totally redundant since the revolution.

Retiring to our room, Kidderminster Andy and I lamented the passing of another day void of mosque visits. We hit the minibar and managed to run up a bill of over 100,000 rials (almost two British pounds) on the strength of us each having a bottle of alcohol-free apricot beer… my favourite! It must have been good stuff because it had ‘Extra Halal’ written in English on the label.


ABC 093


Photograph: Hassan Marshad, the inventive nomadic stand-up comedian.


Link to Part 6:

Razzmatazzed in Yaz'd



Number of comments: 0

:) :( :D ;) :| :P |-) (inlove) :O ;( :@ 8-) :S (flower) (heart) (star)