Sunday, March 30, 2008

A Personal Journey: Begin at the Beginning

“Little know the pampered children of the West – they who ride on the wings of steam, and slumber as they ride – of the pains and penalties which attend beyond the Hiddekel and the Araxes” - Edward Backhouse Eastwick, “Journal of a Diplomate’s Three Years’ Residence in Persia”, 1864

The village of my ancestors lies against the Zagros Mountains several hours drive west of Tehran. My cousin and I set out early, driving his Iranian made Peykan. Until production stopped in 2005, the Peykan or “arrow” was Iran’s national car. Designed on the 1960s British Hillman Hunter, it remained virtually unchanged for forty years. It was the brunt of many jokes (Question: What is found on the last 2 pages of every Paykan owner's manual? Answer: The bus schedule), but the little Peykan seems indestructible. It is the brave sheet metal gladiator of Tehran’s mosh pit streets. Dented, shorn of mirrors, windows stuck, doors sprung, the Peykan rolls on.

Despite its polluting and gas guzzling ways the Peykan is a source of pride for many Iranians - a symbol of Iran’s industrial self-sufficiency in the face of the long standing American embargo and the reluctance of other countries to invest in Iran’s economy.

We turn onto a divided highway heading east where, free of the crowded crawl of Tehran streets, drivers race to their destinations. Engines strain and whine over the rhythmic scraping and tapping of parts unaccustomed to the exertions of the open road. There are many broken down vehicles along the highway: a bus with its engine resting on the pavement behind it, a Peykan missing a tire, its wheel propped up with rocks scavenged from the roadside.

A reliable donkey and rider plod past them along the highway shoulder.

We reach the tomb of Ayatollah Khomeini, on the arid outskirts of Tehran. It's more impressive in its scale than its beauty. Four super-sized minarets and a series of blue tiled domes surround a dull gold central dome. Expansion of the shrine is ongoing and my cousin acidly points out that a group of old family mausoleums is being destroyed for the sake of the construction. Here there is none of the beauty of the old mosques of Isfahan and elsewhere. Even the ornate Quranic script that once decorated everyday objects from water pitchers to pen boxes is missing.

There is something barren about this place. Where is the garden with pale roses and the low hedges of lavender and rosemary? There are no cyprus trees with their slashes of shade. Where are the teahouses of the poets' tombs? How does a pilgrim take his rest? In keeping with the Khomeini’s aestheticism and severity, there is nothing in this desert spot to comfort the visitor – only reminders of life’s harshness, deprivations and suffering.

It's quiet on the day we visit. There are few pilgrims praying inside the cavernous hall where the tomb of Khomeini and his son are protected by an enclosure of criss-crossing bars. Supplicants rub their hands on the smooth metal and push money through the bars. My cousin exclaims under his breath when he sees the large pile of worn bills that has accumulated in a pile.

Outside, we walk past a row of shops. A young man sits quietly in one, gazing over counters displaying baseball-type cards and key chains that bear Khomeini's photograph.

There is no business today. The thin trickle of people who take the train from Tehran, to this, its last stop, are poor. They bring only prayers for relief and perhaps a one thousand rial note, worth less than 15 cents, to push through the bars.

The Imam's chilly visage stares down from framed portraits in shops and huge murals on the walls of buildings throughout Iran. Khomeini once remarked that the revolution was not about the price of watermelons – in other words not about anything as profane or worldly as economics. It seems ironic that his is the only face that adorns Iran’s currency. In 2005, when the government issued the first-ever 20,000 rial notes there was controversy because the portrait of Khomeini was thought to be too "soft". There is just a hint of benevolence to his expression. The bills were withdrawn. In the replacements, Khomeini's eyes are in shadow and the temples and creases of the elderly face are darkened to bring back the familiar look of admonishment.

Once in an orphanage in Tehran, I saw a poster of Khomeini, a grandchild on his knee and a smile on his face. It was a wonderful smile, especially for someone who must have had little practice. Apparently, though, it was reserved for grandchildren.

As we leave the tomb an old woman approaches the car and waves a smoking incense burner through the window. She is burning 'aspand' or rue to ward off the evil eye and earn small tips from passersby.

We drive on. There is green on the desert mountain from the spring rains.

In the midday, families stop to spread blankets at the edge of the road, enjoying lunch and tea, unbothered by the traffic that speeds by only a few feet away.

Along the highway a few red poppies bobbed among the weeds. I wonder if they're left over from a time when opium production was part of the agricultural economy.

From a distance the villages of Zagros foothills seem pressed from a mold. They look like collections of neatly arranged cubes the tawny color of the surrounding desert.

Closer, the beauty gives way to dust and poverty. The unfortunate villages that rest hard along the highway are there in service of it. Lines of dark, oily garages face the road, their maws cluttered with metal and machinery. Men sit in the debris, smoking cigarettes and waiting to go home to the small mud houses that hunch in the background, set against the panoramic backdrop of the desert mountains.

I pray that my ancestors village isn’t one of these places whose history seemed to begin with the arrival of the internal combustion engine. I’m hoping for something more...pastoral.