Days of God
I first came to Iran in 1974, the year the price of crude oil rose fourfold and Europe switched off its power stations. After the darkness of the autobahns, I found the city of Tabriz illuminated as if for a perpetual wedding. On my first day in Tehran, the capital, I was taken on by a school teaching the English language to cadets of the Imperial Iranian Air Force. The rows of desks receded out of sight. It was Ramazan, when Muslims fast the daylight hours, and the pupils dozed on their pen-cases or glared at the wrapped sandwiches they had brought in to eat at sundown. Among those Turkoman boys, there must have been the makings of at least one military aviator, and it was I who was going to make the start on him. I was the smallest component in one of the greatest military expansions ever undertaken. The owner of the school was a brigadier general and I used to see him, in uniform in the afternoons, striking the male secretaries. At payday, the cashier, an old man with stubble on his chin, who was the general’s father, took half an hour to sign my check. An Indian colleague whispered that a tip was expected. I quit.
I moved to Isfahan, the famous old city in the heart of the country. I found a job in a morning, teaching schoolgirls. I was a bad teacher, but I was an Oxford sophomore and nineteen years old. The class doubled in size and halved in fluency. My pupils cultivated feeling to a pitch, and sighed over adjectives. They made fun of me, as if I had been a bashful seminary student.
Bred up in the medieval Persian of Oxford University, I was baffled by Iranian modernity. In this famous town, with its palaces so flimsy you could blow them over with a sigh, there were military instructors from Grumman Corp. and Bell Helicopter International, with their
Asian women and a screw loose from Vietnam, sobbing in hotel lobbies. I thought I had come too late to see what I had come to see, forgetting an ancient lesson: that in a year or two even this, also, would be obliterated.
I did not know, as I know now, that nations salvage what they can from the wreck of history, and the warriors of the national poet Ferdowsi were the tough guys or lutis (“buggers”) of the bazaar, and the lyrics of Hafez were the songs on the car radio: Black-eyed, tall and slender, Oh to win Leila! The Isfahan women rose early, buying their food from the grocery fresh each day, a clay bowl of yoghurt which they smashed after use, or those bundles of green herbs that Khomeini liked to eat, all to cook the daily lunch. For an Englishman, standing in line to buy cigarettes, it was tempting enough to stay and settle down with one of these angels, and pass his life in inconsequential fantasies. The grocer wore a double-breasted suit of wide 1930s cut, a tribal cap, and the rag-soled cotton slippers known as giveh. It was as if he had thrown off a tyrannical dress code, but only at its up and down extremities. It seemed to me that the Shah had run a blunt saw across the very grain of Iranianness.
In the cool vaults of the Isfahan bazaar, where I supplemented my wages by dealing in bad antiques, a lane would end in a chaos of smashed brick and a blinding highway, as if Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was trying to abolish something other than medieval masonry: an entire and traditional way of life, with its procession from shop to mosque to bath to shop to mosque and its interminable religious ceremonies.
Somebody, presumably the Russians, had given the Iranians a taste for assassination and vodka. Somebody else, no doubt the Americans, had given them Pepsi and ice cream. A third, perhaps the British, had taught them to love opium. Laid across that beautiful town was some personality that expressed itself in straight roads crossing at right angles, mosques turned into mere works of art, and all the frowstiness of an overtaken modernity. It was uneducated or even illiterate, violent, avaricious, in a hurry to get somewhere it never arrived. I know now that that personality was the Shah’s father, Reza. Over that was another impression, not at all forceful, but cynical, melancholy, pleasure-loving, distrustful, also in a hurry. I supposed that was Mohammed Reza. I did not understand why those kings were in such a hurry but I knew
that haste, as the Iranians say, is the devil’s work. I could see that Iran was going to hell but could not for the life of me descry what kind of hell.