BEFORE I got to Iran, 12 years ago, I spent a few months wandering around the countries of Europe, making the surprising discovery that I liked everyone, even the French. I had flown over there via Icelandic Airways (The Panel Truck of the Sides) expecting to be loathed across the continent for being an American, a fear I decided to meet head-on by wearing my Levi's, my James Dean autograph-model nylon windbreaker, and combat boots. I wanted to be Joe Sixpack, Hank the Yank, a walking defi American.
The result: I was taken as a German, a Russian and even an Italian, and I got along with everyone, even after they found me out. However, it seemed only civilized to learn about the art of irrational national prejudice, something that had animated Europe for millennia. Ultimately I settled on Canadians, mostly because nobody else seemed to hate them, and partly because they were wandering around Europe with Canadian flags stitched to their backpacks, to make sure that nobody would take them for Americans.
But my heart wasn't in it.
Besides, I hadn't gotten to Iran yet. The point is, I'm not sure I ever did, despite entry and exit stamps on my passport implying that I spent a month in the former home of the Peacock Throne.
Perhaps the single dominant aspect of the Persian psyche is an overriding system. . . . The practical effect of it is an almost total Persian preoccupation with self and leaves little room for understanding points of view other than one's own.
Thus wrote L. Bruce Laingen, charge d'affaires at our Tehran embassy,; shortly before the hostages were taken. The cable, sent to Cyrus Vance but made public only after their return, went on about general incomprehension of casuality . . . Persian aversion to accepting responsibility for one's own victory . . . In other words, the Iranians not only act as if nobody else exists, they sometimes act as if they don't exist either.
On the first point, they're wrong, of course. We do exist. At the very least, I am not an Iranian, therefore I am.
It's them I'm not so sure about. They are Iranians, therefore they might not be. I'm not sure that Iran is even there to be explained. After a month of traveling the length of the country, north and south, in the heyday of the shah of shabs, I started to suspect that it was the fool's gold, the dry hole, the busted flush of nations.
Last summer, to test this thesis, I called the Iran Air authorized ticket agent, over in Arlington, to ask if he might have any tourists brochures to send me on the delights of the Islamic Republic.
He said: "No."
"Is there a tourist office I could call?"
"No." Just flat, final, stone-certain, Allah-absolute no.
"Is there any tourist information to be had anywhere about Iran?"
I'd heard that voice before, that particularly smug and intransigently; world-weary "Nothing."
The word alone was enough to warp me back through time to a taberna on the storm-swept waterfront of the island of Mykonos, in the Aegean. It was the dead of a Levantine winter. My friend John Robert Sitlington Sterrett Greenwood Jr. and I had decided there was more to life than watching Greek fishermen tenderize squid by flailing them against the concrete dock, making a wet, snapping sound familiar to anyone who has ever broken a collarbone.
It seemed that it wouldn't make anything worse to travel overland through Turkey, Iran and Pakistan to India. Greenwood had a friend on Mykonos who'd already made the trip -- a Canadian. I believe it was. If so, I backslid in my newly acquired prejudice and we cornered him in the taberna.
We weren't interested in touring Iran, just in traveling through it. Nonetheless, since it would take up to two weeks, we wanted to know what the country looked like.
"There's nothing there," he said.
This wasn't the nothing that the Iran Air agent's "Nothing" reminded me of. That would come much later, when we were struck in an oasis town in southwest Iran, and we had learned better to argue. But on this gray day on the Mykonos waterfront, with the squid cracking against the concrete, I refused to believe it.
"There's nothing there," the man who had been there told us. "You look out the window when you're driving along, and you see nothing."
Impossible! Surely this was Western arrogance talking, the same sort of smugness that our liberally enlightened critics of American foreign policy had been deriding since the '50s, touting instead the gospel of cultural relativism.
But what a temptation: Nothing was something I'd never seen.
A few weeks later, after forging a student card to get cheaper fares; after a fistfight in a hotel full of hash-heads in Istanbul; after getting stuck for four days in Erzurum, in eastern Turkey. I found myself in a customs shed on the border of Iran.
Waiting. For what? Customs officials drifted in and out of doorways. Sometimes they'd look at papers, check a passport, untie one of the metaphysically complicated bundles that are luggage on buses in that part of the world. But mostly they all seemed to be smoking several cigarettes at once while they waited too.
We asked what the problem was. Nothing, we were told.
Our fellow passengers, mostly Iranians, found this a normal state of affairs, wandering around with the apathy of people lost in a labyrinth. Some took an interest in Greenwood's speargun. I didn't blame them. I didn't quite know why Greenwood was carrying a speargun to India, and the Iranians didn't even know what it was for. They kept asking.Greenwood kept answering: "To kill fish." They backed away in horror. They didn't believe him. Were fish sacred in Iran? Then they'd come forward and ask again. Maybe the problem was that there isn't a lot of water in a lot of Iran. I only recall seeing one stream, and that had standing in it, of all things, a camel, but that came later, when the nothingness had gotten much worse.
Anyhow: The lesson of the speargun was that they refused to believe it existed, which is to say that there was nothing to be discussed about it with them. The lesson of the customs officials was that nothing had held us up, and nothing in particular accounted for our getting back onto the bus to Tehran.
For some reason, most of my memories of a month spent traveling through the former deputy dynasty are at night, which is to say that I seem to have succeeded in seeing nothing.
I believe it was the next night, on our way to Tehran, that Greenwood went berserk. Greenwood was a New Englander, a chunky type with blond hair. He gave the impression of an anvil covered with a thatched roof. He was endowed with the courage of his convictions, and then some, especially in the presence of Iranians.
Also: He had flunked out of college because he made his first intellectual priority the completion, every day, of the crossword puzzles in both The New York Times and The Herald Tribune. This made him hard to travel with, after awhile. There isn't much to do on a bus in the middle of Iran and the night except to play word games, all of which he won.
(You may be interested to know that "tufa" is, in fact, a word and it denotes a kind of porous stone. I lost the last game of Ghost I will ever play, learning that.)
Anyhow, we were vibrating along some corduroyed dirt highway at some strange hour when the bus suddenly filled with an appalling series of hisses and whines, a noise like Disposall baying at the moon, like the battle cry of an army of sinuses.
I finally divined that this was music, Tehran's Top 40 or whatever. And didn't they have a right to it, wasn't I obliged to hear it from their point of view?
The answer, from Greenwood, who was knitting his monolith of a brow in an astonishment of outrage, was "No."
I tried to stop him. I cringed with embarrassment when I couldn't. But he stormed down the aisle to the driver, and demanded to know what the noise was.
"Music," said the driver.
"No, it's not", said Greenwood. "It's just noise."
The driver argued that the rest of the passengers enjoyed it -- a sprawl of people dressed in chadors and kaffirs, looking as if they were peeking out from under the bedclothes to see if the bogeyman had gone away yet.
Says Laingen: "One should never assume that his side of the issue will be recognized, let alone that it will be conceded to have merits. Persian preoccupation with self precludes this. A negotiator must force recognition of his position upon his Persian opposite number."
"It's not music," said Greenwood. "And you're turning it off. Now."
Being a man who recognized a jihad, a holy war, when he saw one, the driver gave in.
Greenwood strolled back to his seat.
"It's just noise," he said to shut me up, and I had to admit that I had no reason to argue, except the sort of family-of-man optimism that recently seemed to sustain the Ramsey Clarks and peace-loving padres who periodically flew to Tehran to have their pictures taken with the hostages.
The next day we were in Tehran, which I remember largely as Persia's mysterious answer to Plainfield, N.J., mile after mile of gritty, half-deserted streets where nobody seemed to know when or where anything came or went, especially the next bus out of there. Inshallah, they would say: God knows.
The only thing more depressing then Tehran itself was the American Embassy compound, which was plainfield, N.J.
We were stuck in Tehran for days. Arguing with taxi drivers helped break the monotony. In most cities, taxi drivers try to gyp you by persuading you that they know where they're going better than you do. In Tehran, the drivers' standard ploy was to claim being lost, forcing us to shout directions at them.
Nights, or one night, there was Shahr-E-No.
Greenwood wrote a song about Shahr-E-No. Besides his speargun, he'd brought a Martin guitar to Iran. If you ever get to Tehran, There's a place you should go. It's a little piece of heaven They call Shahr-E-No.
Shahr-E-No was the red light district, and surely there had to be something there, an island in this sea of nothingness, seeing that red light district, like McDonald's, run pretty much the same all over the world. I remember a place in Taiwan, once, that had a ticket booth, like a movie theater, but generally, it's a routine that comforts the traveler with, at the very least, its familiarity.
The dingy streets were the same as always, with that odd, slow milling of men from door to door in walls I remember as being made of mud, with no windows for the girls to lean from. And there was nobody hissing at the customers from the doors.
We picked a door and went in. There was a huge sunken room with a raised platform in the middle, and raised walks around the walls. On the platform stood a hookah, and nothing else.It looked like the worst possible combination of an air-raid bunker and Union Station. Worst of all, we couldn't stop wondering: What did they do on the platform?
We saw a couple of woman wondering around, but they didn't have that certain look you get accustomed to. We saw a lot of men who didn't seem nearly as puzzled as we were that none of us were being hustled or hassled in any of the usual ways. In fact, the service was downright lousy, If that's what you were looking for, which we weren't. It was all too weird.
Laingen writes: Even those Iranians educated in the Western style and perhaps with long experience outside Iran itself frequently have difficulty grasping the interrelationship of events.
But then, there was no interrelationship of events. There weren't even any events. We left.
After days of this nullity, we boarded a bus along with a couple score Iranians, and hundreds of well-wishers who'd piled on as if this were an ocean liner, with bon voyage parties. They were frantic with emotion, so desperate that when the driver finally kicked them all off and drove away, one horde of a family crammed into a white Mercedes sedan and pursued the bus for miles, driving up on both right and left sides to honk and wave, over and over again, until the bus escaped into the pebbly nothingness that was Iranian countryside.
Landscape? Scenery? Nothing quite decribes it. The only thing that compares to it is the vision sent back from Mars by our landing module.
There is nothing there. You can't even imagine anything being there, except maybe for Carl Sagan waving his arms. It looks like a test range for Agent Orange; as if it's all being used to train an army in scorched-earth warfare, that being the logical tactic when you get stomped for thousands of years by everyone from Alexander the Great to Iraq.
It was hard to get a fix on the people. Very late one night in a roadside restaurant, with the last vestiges of my liberalism slipping away, and a crowd of grimy Persian peasants watching us eat meat-rice in an ominous silence, I leaned across the table to ask a fellow bus passenger, a Britisher, exactly what the word "wog" meant. I knew enough of the answer to ask the question quietly. No doubt I hoped to elicit from the Britisher a sense of community, of Them against Us.
He was no help. He blinked, thought about it, then told me: "Frankly, old man, anyone who isn't British."
That was the nights. Days, we looked at nothing. When there was snow on the ground, and a cloudy sky, the world vanished into white-out, ending at the bus windows, which were smeared with fingerprints.
One day the white-out broke, and for a moment, the sky boomed blue over a stream slashing through the snow, spangled with light and stocked with a camel bearing two Iranian women. Something! There!
Then gone, the next thing I remember was coming into the desert town of Zahedan, down in the southeastern corner of the country. We were supposed to catch a train that day, but then we learned that the train wouldn't leave for five days. No one was sure just when it would leave on the fifth day, but they advised us to relax, there was nothing to be done.
Greenwood and I spent the night in a hotel where the bathroom was a hole in the floor -- one hole for the whole hotel.
Even so, we were still foolish enough, the next day, to let our hopes rise when we spotted a sign advertising a government tourist office.
We entered. A man with a mustache, fluent English and a full ashtray looked at us with the sort of smirk I'd last spotted on the face of that camel. We told him of our plight. We asked if there was any other transport out of here, during the next five days.
"Nothing," he said.
If so, we said, what sights were there to see in Zehedan?
"Nothing," he said.
Surely there had to be a mosque, a bazaar, a rug factory, something, anything, I said.
"Nothing. Nothing of any interest whatsoever."
Greenwood was angry by now of course, and started waving his arms like Carl Sagan and shouting that he knew for a fact that there was a new airport on the outskirts of town.
"You can go out there. There is nothing to see."
Well, it made it easy to understand the whole hostage mess. And to stop hating Canadians, especially after the Gray Lady to the North smuggled some of our people out of Iran after the embassy takeover.
Laingen writes, with the utmost of optimism: Cultivation of good will for good will's sake is a waste of effort. The overriding objective at all times should be impressing upon the Persian across the table the mutuality of the proposed undertakings. He must be made to know that a quid pro quo is involved on both sides.
The tourist official stared at us. We stared at him.
What quid?What quo?