TRAVELS IN PERSIA

 

Summer 1972

 

 ‘London 5,886’, painted black on flaking white, might just as well be light years as miles - the moon seems nearer than the metropolis. I am studying a sun beaten post stuck in white sand; the other side tells that Quetta is 5 miles away and I wonder, briefly, if I shouldn’t return there to chill out, perhaps before heading up to Swat or Chitral.

 

Another bus rattles up and stops behind ours. A horde of small and grubby boys scramble up from the withering vineyards and swoop on the bus like flies to a cowpat. They carry bunches of grapes and plastic bags packed with maggoty apples, thrusting them up to the windows for inspection, yelling out the price.

 

This is the old road to the West, a narrow black carpet rolled out over Baluchistan, leading to southern Persia and the Gulf ports. But it’s a roundabout way to London - quicker to go north to Kandahar over the Bolan Pass, and then you’re on the nice new Russian concrete all the way through Afghanistan. I stand in the shade watching gnarled fingers seize the proffered fruit, feel its weight, twist a grape from the bunch and place it between shaggy lips; spit it out, name a price. The boy looks terrified: his father would kill him if he sold at that price. The black eyes of the would-be customer stare down beneath black brows, waiting, indifferent. The boy snatches back his grapes and runs to another window.

 

I have chosen already. I am heading for the Trucial States, or perhaps Bahrein, and returning the same way to collect my belongings in Peshawar. My mission, in the course of 5 weeks and 5000 miles, is to purchase one small camera, my third eye, a replacement for one stolen in India.

 

The small boys with heavy pockets draw back into the fields to gather for the next bus opportunity. For the moment, we have peace. It grows hot inside when the bus is stationary. I move about outside, in my own breeze, watching customs men rummage among the tin trunks, the sacks of cloth and the cases of tea on the roof, looking for what. My bag’s all right - under my seat; yes it’s still there, peeping casually in through the window to check. And the passengers are still there: squatting five abreast, rows of fierce, dark faces under bulging turbans, patiently chewing their grapes.

 

At last the engine starts and I’m in, tucked, knees grating on the back of the driver’s seat. He glances round to see that I’m there, a kindly frown, then peers forward at the mirror. It is cracked and the pieces rattle in their mount but he adjusts it anyway, then crashes the stick forward and we lurch past the customs barrier, the first of several on the 400 mile road to the border.

 

It’s desert outside, hurtling past my window in a blur of sand and stone. These raw ridges we ride among are rays of rock beamed at the Gulf from a remote source in the border mountains. Deep scores in their flanks are purple and dull green - wadis that blossom long after they were first filled with water. Here’s one now - a quiet trickle of pebbles meanders by our side, the flow sometimes broken by a blur of tumbling boulder rapids. We halt, jerkily, as a truck comes belting by, trying to beat us to a small bridge spanning the wadi; roaring, it passes, a flash of idyllic landscapes pastel-painted on its high wooden sides.

 

We halt again, more gently, as the engine dies and even the rumble of wheels on lumpy tarmac eases off, rolling onto the sand by a little adobe shack. Silence, for a brief moment, until the driver opens his door and jumps out to meet two uniformed men lounging in front of the hut. Here are more customs, more rummaging on the roof; the passengers mutter then shuffle out into the desert where they squat in solitude, to piss in the prescribed manner. I go off to examine some pallid shrubs whose yellow flowers attract my eye. Returning, I find assorted baggage lying in the sand and my travelling companion crouching, disconsolate, over his burst suitcase. He says, “the custom must throw it from the bus top”. And do I know how valuable its contents are? It’s an electronic amplifier, matching the electric guitar he keeps in the bus, one I know well, for it leaps up and jabs me in the calf whenever we go over a bump, which is often. Fawzat is a seaman, returning to his home in Jordan laden with tax-free booty from Singapore. He wants to give up the sea to learn the guitar and become a professional guitarist in a band; oh, and emigrate to the States to make his fortune. He wears a moustache, gold tooth and fancy shirt, with longish hair (“but I am cut it before my father see”). He goes over to remonstrate with the man for ill-treating his amplifier. The man doesn’t understand pidgin English (nor any English) but understands Fawzat’s ire only too well. He waves his arms, shrugs, then disappears into his hut. He doesn’t reappear; the bus starts up; Fawzat scrambles in cradling his amplifier and we’re off. We pull into Dalbadin at hot midday for refreshment: yellow dhal from a cauldron, sops of flat bread (we’re out of chapatti land now) and tea, either with milk if you’re a plains Pakistani or served black in dainty glasses if you’re Baluchi. Fawzat slices a watermelon but here comes the driver gesticulating and we have to stuff it into a plastic bag before carrying it aboard in a hurry. He offers a chunk to small brown boy on the seat behind but the lad looks scared and cringes, turning away to hide in his mother’s skirts. The rest of the melon goes out of the window - they’re plentiful enough, and cheap. I remember another roadside café - just a cool cave built of adobe, next to a similar building with a crinkly parapet: the mosque. The passengers entered the mosque in twos and threes and after prayers went to buy melons at a stall under a thin tree and ate them in the shade of the café. We bought one each and immersed our faces in their red, wet flesh, afterwards flinging the skins to goats.

 

Moving again, this time our teeth chattering with the rattling of the bus: the tarmac’s over and it’s this corrugated track for the rest of the way. So I close my eyes and try to pretend I’m somewhere else but it’s not easy when there’s a woodpecker guitar at work on your leg; the faded ranges on the horizon slide monotonously past; the luminous desert still sears my eyes and my mouth is dry. Then the engine note changes to a laboured chugging, as if on a hill; we’re crossing a steep cone of angular basaltic gravel. Clumps of dark green bushes with pink flowers stud the slope and a fuzz of spiky grasses covers the hazy plains below. When the bus stops in the late afternoon, a man gets out, gathers his wife and child to his side and the rest of his chattels on his shoulder, and strides away across the sand. A long grey smudge seems to persist in the haze several miles away and I wonder why, if it’s a village by a stream, the road doesn’t go that way and save his family the walk.

 

Stopping again as the sun reddens, I awake from a daydream and go out into the oven, now cooled to moderate, and suddenly I’m the only infidel there. The driver’s leading them in prayer: a line of white-bearded Gandalfs bending their wise-lined faces to Mecca; and just behind, a separate row of women - black, shapeless bundles performing their own rak’a of submission. The men, normally looking like black-faced villains, are always gentle of countenance, even cherubic, when communicating with their God. Here’s one who looks as though he’s just slashed his grandmother, fervently kissing the Koran. Late in the night, we stop at Yakmatch, a name to remember. It seems just like the black veil over a woman when our headlights rudely illuminate it preparing for sleep. But the innkeepers are roused at the prospect of custom; one dredges potato curry from the bottom of his pot, while another prepares two alcoves in his mud walls for us to sleep in. Fawzat, thinking of lice-ridden bedding, prefers to sleep on the sand, clutching his briefcase.

 

Morning, before dawn, is the sound of water being cranked from the well; the wailing of the call to prayer; the shuffle of feet in dry sand; the murmurs of prayers being recited, and then: hooting from the bus to call the travellers to their places. As the shadows evaporate, and the sun warms my back, we’re racing across a broad sand pan with a tuft of grass there, and there. Serried streams of sand grains slide over the surface as we slow to take a bend, becoming blurred streaks of light on a tawny backdrop as we pick up speed. A man on a bicycle flashes backwards, wobbling in the sandstorm of our passage. We approaching human habitation - Nokundi, the last border town before Iran. It’s just a few lines of mud houses, a radio station, customs, a railway station. “But who can live here?” exclaims Fawzat. We sit in a café in a dusty alley and take breakfast and lunch until the bus is cleared by customs. The Iranian border is still 4 hours away over grey gravel plains. It’s a dust storm outside so we cover our faces with head cloths and sleep it out. Suddenly the bus stops and everyone is scrambling to get out; we take our bags and follow. A clutter of wooden shacks marks the end of Pakistan. Our driver points to a coach standing beside a tidy concrete building on the far side of a wadi. “Autobus Zahedan”. We run over the bridge into Iran; Fawzat, myself and the man who slashed his grandmother are ushered into a concrete palace with glass doors and air-conditioning, the quarantine block. We are given stomach pills and told that Pakistan is full of disease. We must take these antibiotics to kill the germs so that we’ll enjoy our stay in Iran. I thank the man, putting the capsule under my tongue for later ejection. The coach is making roaring-to-go noises but I have to follow my passport to a little hut where the official can’t find my visa and so leaves me till last. Oh hurry, hurry, the others are in the coach and the driver’s just been in to see what the delay is about; relax, he wouldn’t go without me, not here in the patient East; my passport is being stamped; only two more stamps to go and the coach outside is revving-up; I grab my passport and rush outside. The bus has already passed the barrier, gone, in a cloud of dust.

 

So I sit by the side of the road in Persia, spitting melon seeds into the dirt. Along comes a motorbike and I ride pillion, clutching 4 hens in a basket, to the border town 10 miles away. I see, peering through dust and dusk, that at least there’s a cafe there. A doss house also, for the next bus to Zahedan is tomorrow at 10. Soup is all for dinner and here come two customs men for a nip of vodka (and a rummage in my bag). "Tourist? Sleep, no? Sleep custom house." So I sleep in a courtyard under a customs blanket and in the morning I’m first in the queue for the bus. When it arrives, stirring up the dust in the empty street, a rabble of people appear from shadowy doorways and converge upon it. The door is locked but they climb in through the windows, each wearing a crumpled and creased jacket or two, each with a bundle of fancy cloths or suiting material under his arm, the fruits of their trading at the border. As we leave the border town, we stop at a barrier, and have to offload all the bundles, dumping them in rows on the sand, their owners standing by to answer for their contents. Three toothless old crones sharing a seat refuse to go outside to be searched. They squat on their bundles like broody hens, cackling, whining and pleading with the soldiers to let them be. It’s a familiar game; the soldier grins to his audience and begins tugging at the bulging nest eggs, provoking a spitting, scratching, screeching response as scrawny fingers tighten their hold and hideous faces stretch into contortions of hate. Releasing his hold he lets the hags slump back in their seat and, laughing, turns to easier game. The search over, the baggage is reloaded and someone sets up a chant to which the whole bus responds vociferously. Praising Allah for delivering them from the ravages of the customs, or an invocation to for a safe journey?

 

I don’t know but feel glad to be in the company of such reverent travellers. Zahedan is a hot gridiron of tarred streets laid out on a grey gravel desert. I am reunited with Fawzat and we travel through the night to a place on the southern edge of the Great Salt Desert, Kerman. A town blending the desert its mother with the Persians its father, we behold it in a transparent dawn. We stroll through the bazaar just beginning to burgeon with the day’s goods for sale. We pass along alleys still in cold shadow, looking to peep through doors left ajar. There are few at that hour but occasionally I glimpse a sunlit courtyard with a well in the centre and the woman bending over it to draw water. Later, the women hurry to the main street, pulling their cloaks across their faces when they pass us. Following, we watch them filling brass pots from a cauldron of seething green soup and, with great slabs of pockmarked bread bought from the bakery next door, go home to feed their families. Sometimes, where the old walls have crumbled, we can gaze across the town to its dark mountain rim and look for patterns in the jumble of baked walls and domes and towers. The great humped roof of the Bazaar stands stranded above an expanse of flat roofs like a whale on a sandy beach. Here and there on the roofs, squat louvred towers stand ready to catch the slightest breeze. A pair of slender minarets shimmers under the sun like the horns of a browsing antelope. Come mid-morning, they’ll burst into strident song, cajoling the faithful to prayer. Nothing will move in the baking alleys but in the private patios and the cool bazaars, men will lay their mats, remove their shoes and, muttering, bow once more to Mecca.

 

We leave early on a luxury coach bound for Bandar Abbas on the Gulf. The road, fresh asphalted, cuts across the trend of the Zagros chain, a system of gaunt ridges interleaved with broad basins. I sleep much of the time but wake when the coach sways abruptly, knocking my head on the window. Once, it’s the driver taking on water from a plastic canteen. Once, Fawzat indicates the driver climbing out of his seat to give the wheel to his mate. And look at him in the big mirror above his face, yawning. We enter a series of yawning chasms, one a memorable canyon where the rock is contorted and black and streaked with glistening salt. From it issues a trickle of water and downstream the date palms flourish their fronds in the feeble sea breezes. Shortly afterwards we arrive in Bandar Abbas and find space on the roof of a seafront inn just as the sun is being doused in the sea.