Features Australia

Persian palimpsest

28 September 2019

9:00 AM

28 September 2019

9:00 AM

It was 1966. We were two young Australians, fresh out of Melbourne University. We decided to drive from India to London via the Soviet Union. On the way, we had to traverse Iran, or exotic Persia, as we saw it, the kingdom of Shah Reza Pahlavi, he of the beautiful wives and extravagant week-long wedding celebrations in the ancient archaeological excavations of Persepolis.

Motivated by an urge to discover the history of Western civilisation on the ground, we arrived, after a gruelling road journey through a moonscape, at Mirjaveh, a couple of buildings in the desert, which made up the border post between Pakistan and Iran.

It was 2.00 a.m. We woke up the hapless chief of border police from his slumbers to get a stamp in our passports and go on our merry way. Unfortunately, the policeman couldn’t find an Iranian visa in our passports for the simple reason that we’d forgotten to get one. Good grief.

We were directed to a room and instructed to sit on cushions on the floor. The mountains which we had just crossed, loomed in the distance. Returning to Pakistan to get an Iranian visa was not an option. At the border post in Nok Kundi, in Pakistan, we had been asked to produce exit visas. Exit visas? We didn’t have any. The policeman was adamant. ‘No exit visas?’ You must return to Quetta and get them.’

Quetta was a harsh day’s journey back. He was probably dropping a hint that we should pay a bribe but that was unacceptable corruption to us! Unwilling to pay a bribe to anyone, we jumped the control post in the middle of the night and raced away in our faster car for the Iranian border, Beethoven blaring on the radio, courtesy of Radio Moscow. But now we were stuck in the middle of nowhere, at the mercy of an Iranian generalissimo sporting impressively long leather boots, epaulettes, a peaked cap, and sinister dark glasses. After toying with us for a couple of days he told us to call Zahedan, the nearest large town. We eventually cranked up the primitive telephone and managed to reach a British consular official. At that time diplomatic relations between Australia and Iran were handled by Great Britain, as Australia had no diplomatic presence in the country. None too pleased with our stupidity, the official nonetheless called the Iranian border policeman, declared that we were under the sovereignty of Britain and to allow us to pass. Not wishing to lose honour by complying too easily with this directive, the Iranian insisted that we fill our car with his prisoners whom he wanted to send to the next town. In view of the circumstances, we agreed to this bizarre demand, and with some trepidation delivered ‘the goods.’

Free at last, we set off on the road to Bam, an ancient town of labyrinthine alleyways and modest mudbrick dwellings, protected as a world heritage site. Years later, it was largely destroyed in a catastrophic earthquake, with great loss of life. The locals, all men, looked at us suspiciously, but were not aggressive. They were poor, with a deprived downtrodden look about them, their females safely at home, in the kitchen, with the children. Images of the Shah were everywhere; on multitudes of posters, statues, even on bathmats.

Our car provided a cosy bed when the backseat was lowered flat. A folding mattress fitted nicely into the space. A box containing extra gasoline, drinking water, toilet paper and cans of baked beans and sardines could be moved to the front seat, along with a pile of maps and art history books. Otherwise we ate in simple restaurants, usually shish kebab and piles of steaming rice. We bought natural yogurt sold in handmade clay bowls, painted with a turquoise glaze — no plastics here. Desserts were uber-sweet offerings like baklava. Fresh squeezed orange juice was delicious and inexpensive, and gasoline ran like tap water in this petroleum-rich land.

We continued on our way, following the sun’s trajectory westward, searching for Persepolis, once a glorious city under Cyrus the Great in 550 B.C. The majestic ruins of massive columns, huge, ornately-carved, fallen capitals, paved roads and exquisite reliefs of curly-haired warriors in battle garb were an awesome sight, giving pause to reflect on the passing of empires, the transient power of kings and human vanity.

Our next stop was Isfahan, where mosques of graceful sinuous shapes were crowned with domes adorned by tiles and mosaics of startling turquoise, blue lapis lazuli, coral and gold. Verses from the Koran were quoted in decorative panels of mosaic. No human image is ever used in Islamic art, in accordance with the Jewish commandment against making graven images, in the struggle to prevent a return to idolatry. From here we went north to the capital, Tehran, where we discovered that Western culture had made inroads – women mostly wore modern dress including, surprisingly, the radical and controversial mini-skirts that had taken the West by storm. The city bustled with traffic and pedestrians, Beatles songs played in restaurants and clubs, but the ubiquitous face of the Shah was plastered everywhere — a reminder of the supreme leader. We explored the Shuk, the ancient market, where we agonised over the purchase of a couple of antiques – ancient coins, a bronze candlestick, a delicate painted bowl. If we bought them, we would have to share meals for days.

These were the experiences we enjoyed as naïve young explorers, during the reign of the Shah. That was then – this is now: three Australian citizens have been arrested and detained in Iran. One woman, an academic from Melbourne, has been behind bars, reportedly in solitary confinement, for almost a year and the other two, a couple travelling overland through Asia, were seized about ten weeks ago. The Australian Government’s travel advice cautions people from visiting Iran due to the risk that foreigners ‘could be arbitrarily detained or arrested.’

The Shah’s regime was repressive and brutal to his enemies, but his security police did not arrest tourists on a pretext and lock them up in solitary confinement. We remained together – neither of us disappeared for a year of inexplicable, terrifying silence into a dungeon of the regime. We took photos and no-one accused us of spying for a foreign country. We were Jewish. No one arrested us. We came, we saw, and freedom conquered.

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