This Sort of Thing...


Just Deserts



Part 7 of my personal magic carpet-ride through Persia.

Yaz’d had been the place where I think I really fell in love with Iran. In the middle of the Dasht-e Kavier desert we had left behind the hubbub of the country’s more popular cities and we had greater opportunity to mingle, chat and laugh with people, some of whom had never met foreigners before. Marco Polo, the Venetian merchant, explorer and writer, had passed through eight centuries earlier (introducing mints to the local cuisine) and I supposed that he had been even sadder to leave than I was because at least I knew where our group would be going next. Poor old Marco didn’t even have a map. Yaz’d, they said, had been continually inhabited for seven millennia. I hoped that it would stay that way for another 7,000 years, but in my mind there were doubts and fears for its future.

This was a day that will always stay with me as the ‘day of the desert’. In our super-comfortable tour bus on which we had to wrap up warm to combat the chill of the super-efficient air conditioning, we travelled 350 kilometres on the road to Isfahan, the next stop on our itinerary of super-ancient cities.

The scenery along the way might have been described as monotonous though there were intermittent points of interest such as broken down trucks, drive-in highway mosques, old abandoned fortresses, ancient dwelling places, interesting looking but indecipherable graffiti daubed on crumbling old walls, and far away through the shimmering heat of the dusty plain, we saw a flock of camels grazing on the sand. The police stations, of which there were many, were places of great intrigue for me as I shuddered to think about the things that might have gone on inside them. Small dusty uniformed men with big dusty moustaches and guns to match signalled to us to halt at a couple of these for Vahid our driver to get his documents stamped in a tacographic kind of way. On both occasions, upon discovering that we weren’t Iranian, the men in positions of authority climbed aboard the coach, smiling, shaking our hands and proudly welcoming us to their patch of the desert. I would have loved to have snapped a few pictures but we’d been warned against photographing anyone or anything that looked official and, despite the good-natured reception, I felt that I might have been pushing my luck in doing so.

Mahtab pointed out to us a power station two or three kilometres away from the road. She said it was the place that political leaders and spies of the western world believed that Iran’s nuclear enrichment was going on. She also told us to keep this under our hats as it was an aspect of Persian life that X Travels had told her to exclude from their list of less controversial matters covered in the schedule. So we weren’t allowed to go and have a closer look. Years before this I had worked for the electricity generating people at home and as a perk of the job I had visited a great number of power stations in England and Wales (a nerdy hobby that I share with only a few special friends). So remembering the old saying that once you’ve been contaminated by uranium particles in one power station, you’ve been contaminated in them all, I didn’t feel aggrieved at this missed opportunity. Though it would have been nice to have been able to buy a deadly power plant fridge magnet.

Our request to stop the bus and hop off to stretch our legs and take in some fresh air wasn’t ignored. A few kilometres from Sizewell’s sister station, at a place where there was nothing at all to see but the road and the desert, we stood on the verge and looked around us. It was like the surface of the moon but without any sign of American flags (well, not yet) and it was utterly breathtaking in its nothingness.

The guidebook said that the great thirteenth century Persian poet Rumi had once written of his time in this desert, ‘A great silence overcomes me, and I wonder why I ever thought to use language.’ I experienced that same overwhelming sensation myself, 800 years later.

Just before noon we rolled into the slumbering town of Na’in, an important transit point at the geographical centre of Iran and at the start of the real no-nonsense desert road to the cities of Tabas and Mashad near to Iran’s borders with Turkmenistan and Afghanistan. None of us had read the Surviving Extremely Harsh Desert Conditions for Dummies book so we gave that a miss and went for a nice cup of sweet black tea instead.

In downtown Na’in we visited the tenth century Jameh Mosque which had no iwan (arched entrance) which, for those who are up on this sort of thing, is quite novel. Such an omission was something I wouldn’t normally have noticed but ever since then, whenever visiting a mosque, I have always looked out for the presence of an iwan and explained to anyone visiting with me that the poor people of Na’in didn’t have one. I also learnt that any mosque referred to as a Jameh Mosque was a congregational mosque and could also be called the Friday Mosque, even though they’re open every day of the week. Apparently Na’in’s Jameh Mosque was especially noted for its fine mihrab (a niche or depression indicating the direction of Mecca) and beautiful stucco decoration.

The nearby old baked clay traditional houses and fortress were fascinating to look at and walk amongst, but many were in a poor state of repair. I felt it was a huge shame that no effort was being made preserve them. Because so few people ever went to Iran there was no Ministry of Tourism to preserve non-religious buildings and there was no interest among the local population to secure their existence for future generations of foreign visitors to point their fingers and cameras at. Like in many countries I had visited, people who had lived their lives surrounded by the old ways were keen to brighten things up a bit by seeking out the trappings of the new ways. Iranians had more historic buildings than they could find a use for but, in places like Na’in, there was very little evidence of anything else.

Until we had left Yaz’d, the vast majority of cars that we had seen on the roads had been very shiny and modern. Every registered driver in Iran had a monthly allocation of fifty litres of free petrol. Any fuel that they needed over and above this allowance cost them a matter of pence per litre.  And there was no road tax or purchase tax on overseas brand vehicles if they had been manufactured in Iran. So the cost of motoring was very low. But in Na’in, and for much of the rest of the trip, there were old Hillman Hunter cars on every street. Apparently, when their production ceased at the Rootes Motors factory at Linwood in Scotland in 1979, the whole production line was sold to Iran. The sight of these wonderful vehicles, rebranded as the Paykan (meaning ‘arrow’), brought me moments of soppy sentimentalism as I thought back to my very first car which had been a Hillman Hunter. It was in this that I had most of my driving lessons. A strange feature of this right-hand drive car had been that the handbrake was on the floor to the right of the driver’s seat, greatly enhancing the look of fear in the eyes of my friend who was teaching me.

Another fabulous lunch was laid before us at the Traditional Na’in Inn in Na’in (try writing that when you’ve been on the alcohol-free beer). I had lemon barley soup (Robinson’s I presumed) followed by ghormeh sabzi (a beef stew that was unofficially Iran’s national dish) with raisin rice. Jo (daughter of eighty-year-old birthday girl, Ann) told me about all her own intrepid travels over lunch. By that I mean that while we were eating she told me of her travels, not that she had been travelling while we had been eating. Out of the blue, she became another person for me to be in awe of, though I can’t remember where she said her travels had taken her because my head was concentrating so much on the job of eating the sumptuous food.

Refreshed and exercised, we were back on the road with lots more vast expanses of emptiness to look at. From English language books I had bought in Shiraz I tried to read some of the verse of the poet Hafez but it was almost as heavy going as the scriptures of the Quran which I had dabbled in for a whole five minutes. So I turned to my MP3 player for entertainment and not surprisingly had the words of songs by Shahram Nazeri, the Kamkars and Chengis Mehdipour stuck in my head for the rest of the day. It was probably disrespectful to Iranian culture, and it was certainly irritating to other members of our group, but I sang them out nice and loud anyway. Unfortunately, Mahtab was unable to tell me where and when the next Asiavision Song Contest would be held.

We broke the final 150 kilometre stretch of the day’s journey with a stop in the village of Rafsanjan, not to be confused with the city of Rafsanjan to the south of Yaz’d. The city of Rafsanjan was the birthplace of Ayatollah Akbar Rafsanjani, the former president of Iran, and the village of Rafsanjan was the birthplace of Mohammed the weaver. Before leaving Britain I had somewhere between very little and no knowledge of these two men, but I was glad that we had stopped in the village rather than the city because Mohammed seemed like a much nicer sort of person than Akbar. If you’re reading this, Akbar, I do apologise, even though we both know it’s true.

Mohammed, who for a living wove the coarse woollen cloth used for making clerics’ robes, was approximately eighty-five years old. Nobody could be completely sure of his age because everyone who had lived in Rafsanjan at the time of his birth was no longer around and documented records hadn’t been a big thing in desert villages in the 1920s. Descending four or five steps from the street into the basement of his very simple white-painted, mud-built, dome-roofed house, we entered an archaic workshop where this frail old man sat and worked at his ancient loom. With no windows, the room was lit by a single energy-efficient lightbulb that hung at the end of an electric cable stapled in place to make its precarious journey across the ceiling to the wall where it connected with a fuse box as old as Mohammed himself. Also on the wall were scraps of paper with scribbled quotations from the Quran and a large colour photograph of local rival, Ayatollah Akbar Rafsanjani. The floor was littered with bundles of wool, pieces of cloth, teapots and teacups. He obviously hadn’t been expecting us.

As he wove he answered our questions, translated via Mahtab, about what life had been like in rural Iran when he was young, his work, his relationship with the clerics who he worked for and his family. We asked if he had travelled far from his home and we were told that he had been a few times to Na’in, about seventy kilometres away. It was incredible to think that we’d seen so much more of his country than he had.  Finally, someone asked if he had any questions for us. He only had one. He wanted to know which cities we came from. Going round the room he was given the names Southampton, Oxford, upstate New York, Oldham, Kidderminster and a few others that I can’t remember. No one has ever heard of Chippenham where I lived, so when it came to my turn I said ‘Leeds’ where I had spent much of my youth and Mohammed immediately remarked ‘Ahhh, Leeds United!’ I couldn’t believe it. Since then I’ve told many people this story and the majority of them didn’t believe it either, but it’s completely true. Had it not been for Iran’s austere rules and regulations regarding physical contact in public places I would have kissed him.

Listening to Mahtab talking to Mohammed in Farsi was fascinating. We later found out that much of what they were saying was in desert slang Farsi, so it was obvious that we wouldn’t be able to understand them. I could have listened to them all day. It was like music to my ears. The chatter became even more intense when we were joined by the weaver’s daughter who seemed to enjoy a bit of a chinwag. And then, when we went outside, there was an absolute Farsi frenzy as Mrs Mohammed the weaver’s wife appeared. Apparently they had wanted to know all the news from those faraway places like Yaz’d and Shiraz that they’d never been to.

In most countries it’s not permitted to drink beer on a bus so I took great delight in returning to my seat beneath the cool blast of the air conditioning and drank a bottle of beer from the small mud-built shop on the corner of Mohammed’s street. It was alcohol-free mango beer… my favourite!


ABC 095


Photograph: Mohammed the weaver in the desert village of Rafsanjan.


Link to Part 8:

The Great Falafel Kerfuffle




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