The Journey series
This week’s Mustard Seed picks up where my van let me down. I was stranded on the far outskirts of a small Iranian town. All I could see was a long dusty road and the all-too-soon deadline for getting my vehicle out of the country.
My van was clearly not going anywhere. Three options remained. Pay the import duties, far beyond my means; go to jail, a non-starter; or flee. Any escape entailed crossing the border before my abandoned vehicle was discovered by the authorities so I opted to proceed with as much haste as I could manage while I planned. I packed what I could into my one sport-bag and began walking, trying to hitch a ride whenever a car approached. My dearth of funds paled to insignificance beside my looming lack of freedom.
Several hours and a few miles later a taxi pulled over. There was a young fellow from the US in the back. I explained that I couldn’t afford taxi fare – not even half a taxi fare. The passenger beckoned me in anyway. He, too, was headed to the border, his fare was already paid, and I was welcome to join him just for my company. I thanked him profusely and felt a bit of relief until he began telling me his story.
He was one among the many following The Beatles’ spiritual quest to India and enlightenment. He, also, had purchased a camperised van outside the Australian Embassy in London. I longed to share our common experience but dared not – perhaps the taxi driver was SAVAK. (I must confess here that I was so caught in my escape planning that I don’t remember the fellow’s name, or even whether I heard it.) My fellow traveller’s previous plans ended when his van was forced off the road and over a cliff by an oncoming transport truck driving on the wrong side of the road.
He was badly bruised but still able to limp his way back to the road. He sat on a rock near his wreck as a Good Samaritan, who had observed the incident and stopped, poked and prodded him. My companion spoke no Farsi. His rescuer spoke a lot of Farsi, but no English. A policeman soon noticed the commotion and stopped. He had a conversation with the helper, nodded understandingly, and bundled my new-found friend into the back of his cruiser.
To my friend’s surprise, rather than driving to a hospital, he was taken to the police station. An English-speaking officer questioned him and looked over his passport. He was then told he would be held in jail until he paid 400,000 rials import duty (over US$15,000). He was in jail for several weeks until his parents were able to raise the tax, a fee for his accommodations in jail, and enough extra to see him home.
Needless to say, his story terrified me. He went on to describe beatings and firehose baths. He exposed the gap where his two upper left incisors belonged and explained how they broke beneath the gum-line during his crash and were left to painfully fester until they fell out. I abandoned any thought of pleading for mercy at the border.
My anxiety grew as we approached the border. Was I nearing my freedom or my doom? My benefactor called the driver to stop a few hundred yards from the border. He said, although he trusted me, he didn’t want to risk any complications at the border. I thanked him and set off to cross the border on foot – hopefully!
I queued up, madly trying to devise a plan. I got to the customs agent still with no plan. I presented my passport, feeling rather ill. He looked inside and found the attached document about my vehicle. “Where’s your car?”
“Outside,” I said, neglecting to add two hundred miles away.
“Go over there.” He pointed across the room to a man behind a desk. “He will inspect your car.”
I looked around desperately. Jail loomed before me; freedom lay to my left. I turned and walked as casually as I could toward the exit for cleared travellers, expecting to be accosted at any instant – or shot. I made it out and picked up my pace as I headed for the Turkish customs. I made it to their small shack and presented my passport. I only had one small bag for the agent to check through but he seemed to take forever doing it. I didn’t have faith that international rules of diplomacy held much sway in this outpost. I kept anticipating an irate Iranian border guard dragging me back to an unpleasant fate. Finally I was cleared and waived on.
I left the Gurbulak border crossing behind, much relieved, still a free man. I was in the middle of nowhere, with two-and-a-half continents plus an ocean between me and home, but at least my biggest hurdle was behind me. I had my freedom, one small bag of clothes, three hundred and sixty-five dollars, and my wits to see me forward.
Next week: Beyond Frugal Traveller.
P.S. The above image is a newer construction but still shows the desolation of the Gurbulak border crossing. In 1979 there was only a small brick shack at the border, a house for the guards a few feet away, and not much else for several miles.
This week’s Mustard Seed follows my changing status in early 1978.
Sharing a house with several fellow teachers also provided a reliable return address for correspondence. I began hearing from friends and family back home in Vancouver, Canada. I was delighted to read that my friend Greg planned to join me. I was equally relieved that my friend Danny wouldn’t be visiting. They were from different sides of the track. Greg asked for my employer’s contact information and travel advice. Danny offered solace for the lack of pornography in Iran.
Since the Playboy pictures Danny's letter claimed were enclosed weren't, I gleaned that, not only had the Iranian police seized and searched my van, they were examining my correspondence. Although definitely not upset by the absence of said images, I was alarmed at the degree of surveillance. I also suspected the incident was meant more to caution me than to protect my moral integrity because, although literature of Playboy’s genre was banned in Iran, images of naked ladies were still readily available. There were many creative ways to circumvent the restrictions; I uncovered one ruse in the course of my weekly trip to market as the designated household shopper. My upstairs room mates had a TV and VCR. Although I was never invited to the screenings, a list of movies, to be acquired as available, always accompanied their shopping list. I was amused to find all the original jackets; even of such standards as Cinderella, Mary Poppins, and Snow White; replaced with pornographic versions. I never found out if the tapes themselves had been modified.
Close scrutiny by the police made me more aware of my surroundings and, ironically, more aware of subversive rumours that grew in both content and volume. A general unrest became apparent and I began hearing of protests. I was increasingly cautious of what I said to whom.
A one-week holiday approached. I needed to take my van out of the country to avoid onerous import duties so I planned a return trip to Turkey. I had intended to invite someone along to keep company and share expenses but two thoughts kept nagging at me:
1) Can they be trusted? Might they be under cover SAVAK agents? If they're known to be SAVAK, will those who know begin to suspect me?
2) If they are to be trusted, is it fair to subject them to the scrutiny I’m under? Will they themselves become suspect by associating with me?
I completely nixed the idea of a travel companion when someone, who on the surface had no reason to know, warned me I would be arrested if I did not get my van out by the fast-approaching deadline recorded in my passport.
On my final day of work before our break, I got home, loaded my bags, ate dinner, and headed south. I turned west at Qazvin and pulled over in a safe spot to rest.
I woke refreshed in the morning, brewed coffee, ate some cereal, and continued on my way. I made it almost to lunch when my van stopped running. I got out and inspected the engine. When I opened the hatch I found both ducts meant to direct air from vents in the side of the van to the cooling fins of the cylinder heads were lying loose on the floor of the engine compartment. I reasoned one loose duct might be an accident, two were treachery. Paranoia set in.
I looked around to see if I was being followed. There was no one in sight. Off to the left a little ahead there was an auto wrecking compound. I pushed and steered my van into the yard next to a group of rusting hulks. I removed and buried the license plates. Taking my cues from nearby vehicles, I rolled down the windows and dispersed some of the contents around the yard. Satisfied with my van’s disguise, I sat down on the door sill to contemplate.
Next week: Where to From Here – and How?
This week’s Mustard Seed shares an event that put me in place.
Most teachers treasured their breaks and the seclusion of the staff lounge. I preferred to spend breaks with my students. We played basketball or ping pong and, on occasion, wrestled. Few of my students had any training so the coaching I received on my college team allowed me to prevail. I soon became known among the students as keshta geerman, champion wrestler.
Wrestling was very popular in Iran at the time due to Olympic gold medalist Gholamreza Takhti. He was not only a skilled athlete but a genuinely nice man who wore his fame well. My prowess on the mat earned me a loyal following. Students flocked around me wherever I went.
One day, another teacher warned me that I shouldn’t mix with the students as much as I did. When I asked why he told me, “It makes people watch. Don’t trust everyone.”
I asked an Iranian friend what the teacher meant and she told me that there were lots of Savak (Iran’s secret police) agents in the school. I reasoned that I wasn’t up to anything subversive so I carried on as usual.
Shortly later, three of my students invited me to go to a movie with them. They told me where to meet after school. I picked them up in my van and we drove a short distance to the theatre. The floor crunched as we made our way to our seats through the darkened theatre; it was covered in pistachio shells. We watched a black-and-white gangster film that had been dubbed to Farsi. My students tried to translate for me but the movie was so clichéd I needed no translation. The next day rumours spread through the school that I was actually fluent in Farsi.
When I returned home my van was missing. I recalled passing a police station during my shopping excursions so I went there to report my problem. The officer at the desk informed me they had taken my van to make sure no one stole it. He said it would be returned if I signed a paper which he slid toward me. It was written in Farsi. I asked him what it said and he told me it was a standard form to say my van had been returned in good condition. I asked if I could see my van first.
“No,” he said. “It will be returned to your house tomorrow.”
I asked how I could sign a paper declaring my van was in good condition when returned before seeing it returned. He told me the alternative could be worse. Then he warned me I shouldn’t see any students outside of the school. Under duress, I signed the form in a manner I could claim wasn’t my signature. The officer took the paper and shooed me away with flick of his hand.
The next day I spent my breaks in the staff lounge. I went home, found my van parked out front, and examined it. Everything had been rummaged through. I couldn’t detect any problems but I understood the message.
Next week: It Gets Worse.
In this week’s Mustard Seed I share my experience settling into my new routine.
Five days a week I taught my students and tended to my domestic chores. I did all the shopping because my house mates – three American men, retired RAF Colonel Ted, and his Moroccan boy Max – spoke no Farsi at all. I didn’t understand how anyone could live in a country for several years and not learn how to even say please or thank you in the native tongue. I chided them for it, but was happy to do their shopping in exchange for them paying my share of the expenses. Bargaining at the market was also a great way to immerse myself in the local culture.
Each weekend I would venture out in a different direction to see the sights. I visited an ancient village where people had lived in bee-hive like structures which were accessed via a hole in their top. Semi-precious gems were embedded in the sun-baked clay. The view inside resembled a galaxy of multi-coloured stars. I visited Masuleh, built on a mountainside, where the roofs of the houses in front served as yards and walkways for those behind.
Many towns had traditional local crafts. I watched tinsmiths craft copper pots over wood fires, weavers produce rugs on hand built looms, and embroiderers create tapestries as they sat in a sewing circle – paying more attention to their chatting than their work. In the small towns people cared only about their daily routine and the weekend Shanbeh bazaar(Saturday market).
In the cities there were murmurs of political unrest. There were many obvious contradictions. Some women wore western attire and heavy makeup, others were clad in chadors. One high fence might conceal a mansion with a lush, green lawn and an ornamental fountain while the next surrounded a cement-block shack with chickens foraging in a dirt yard. I saw a procession of six shiny, new, single-occupant Mercedes cars followed by a motorcycle bearing six people, a chicken, and a sheep.
These anomalies seemed to foment contempt. Several people told me that it is not charitable for a rich person to invite a beggar to dinner. Once the beggar sees what he doesn’t have he won’t be satisfied with what he does have. I got the sense most of them were beggars who had been to the banquet.
The Shah must also have felt the tension. It was rumoured that one in seven Iranians worked for Savak, the secret police force. I was cautioned several times not to say or do anything which might draw their attention. Apparently, befriending students was one such an activity.
Next week: Consequences.
Peter T Elliott