“You… you can’t take a white woman out into that country!”
“She’ll be right, mate! I’m Aussie,” she snapped with a smile.
After safely negotiating the minefield, I was particularly happy to get back to Tehran with my giblets intact to meet my sweetheart Felicity. Two years before, she’d gone from Australia to Switzerland on a one-way steamship ticket to meet her two girlfriends who were working as nurse’s aides at a hospital in Leysin, the small village where I was ski bumming. As a registered nurse unable to speak French, she would have to settle for cleaning bed pans and butts to earn a living. On her first day, she’d stopped in the bar of Club Vagabond, a refuge for young travelers on a low-budget, to have a glass of wine while waiting for her friends to get off work. The club worked like a university without classes where young people could learn about the world from others who had seen it. But there was never any homework so it was also a perpetual party; learning while living and laughing.
I hobbled in with one leg in a temporary cast because my femur had cracked in a skiing accident. It would heal quickly if I didn’t put pressure on it. With no idea of who the newcomer was, and driven by unknown powers, I clompted up to her, put my arms around her and kissed her on the lips for a full second, leaving her speechless. I have no idea where the idea came from, but I attribute it to Kahlil Gibran, “Think not that you can direct the course of love, for love, if it finds you worthy, will direct your course.” Kahlil had me on remote control.
I looked directly into her eyes and said, “Where the Hell have you been?”
“Wha… what?” was all she could manage.
I was as surprised as she was to hear my voice say, “I’ve been looking for you for 26 years.” That was my age. The bond was sealed an instant later.
I discovered she was the bride’s maid in the wedding picture on the wall in Laurel and Darryl’s apartment, the notoriously clever party princesses admired by all. On first seeing the photo several months earlier, I’d imagined her as my destiny and had unwittingly remained unattached (Kahlil again?). She moved into the chalet with me and my roommates a week later and I spent the rest of that glorious winter teaching her the basics of skiing while my leg healed under her care.
In the following summer-of-little-resources, we’d acquired a junked out, dented and twisted Volkswagen van that would crab along the highway at no more than fifty miles an hour. The passenger side door wouldn’t open and we had to push-start it for lack of a battery. But it was home for an unforgettable ten weeks that saw us through France, Spain and Portugal. We cooked on a tiny tin stove that burned small pellets just long enough to boil a cup of water or fry an egg. So we ate a lot of tomato and cheese omelets with bakery fresh bread and label-less wines from the small villages we lazily passed through. Just before we crossed the English Channel to London at the end of our journey, we picked up a Canadian couple who were hitchhiking and gave them the van for the same price we’d paid for it… nothing… which, of course, is what it was worth. We finished our journey hitchhiking. So after all this, I wasn’t the least bit worried about Felicity adapting to a strange new culture.
On our first assignment, Page sent us to a site they had so artlessly named 1102, a microwave repeater perched atop an isolated mountain about a five-hour drive out of Bandar Abbas. They had only defined the problem as “Something strange happened to one of the radios and we need someone to look at it.” Well, I was someone and I had eyes, so I guess that was a good call.
We flew to Bandar Abbas with a letter to the area construction manger telling him to give us whatever supplies we needed. I took a taxi from the airport to the field office, a small, rented house with a large yard, now filled with parked construction trucks and trailers. The area manager, a tall and skinny American with a balding head and black, horn-rimmed glasses, read the letter with his feet propped up on his desk. He nonchalantly tossed it in a pile of other papers and said, “So, what do you need?”
“Well, I need a four-wheel-drive vehicle, two cots, two sleeping bags, some water and some cash.”
“He screwed up his face and looked at me like I was a child. “So is this your first trip to this area? How long have you been in Iran?”
“I’ve been here about six months, I’ve been to Bandar Lingeh before and I’ve made a lot of field trips to other areas,” I explained.
“Then you should know you need a lot more than that.” He continued. “There’s nothing out there. No food, no water, no gas, no restaurants, no hotels and no stores. Nothing!”
“There’s people,” I suggested.
He screwed his face up in disgust. “They’re not people. They’re animals. They live like animals.” I guessed to qualify as “people,” they’d have to adopt the rigid rules of freedom.
“Well, I’ve got a map here and it shows some villages. I’m sure we can get by on what’s available.” The map was printed by the Iranian National Oil Company, the only oil company in the country. Although it looked like the Sunday comics, the map had a little red gas pump stamped by each village that had gasoline. Many of the villages in the area had stamps.
“That map’s a piece of shit. Listen, I’m telling you, there’s nothing out there. Our guys have been traveling those roads for months and they should know.” He switched from angry to confused. “And why do you need two cots and two sleeping bags?”
I called to Felicity and she stepped into the office. She was twenty-four, five foot three, a hundred and seven pounds with long, straight auburn hair and eyes that glittered like a Christmas tree. The manager bolted to his feet so abruptly that his chair skittered back and slammed against the wall. He gasped, “You… you can’t take a white woman out into that country!”
“She’ll be right, mate! I’m Aussie,” she snapped with a smile. She wore an orange, long-sleeved shirt and fresh blue jeans with no holes. She’d been indoctrinated to the Iranian dress code for female travelers so she would fit in with the local women who wore chadors – black shawls that covered the entire body. Having learned to say, “Hello,” “Please,” “Thank you” and count to ten in Farsi, she could haggle in any market with the best of them. Those of us who took the few simple steps to show respect to the Iranians had no problems. Those who felt they had the right to act however they damn pleased because they were Americans had problems… sometimes grave problems.
As the manager settled back in his chair, I assumed he’d surrendered. “So can you get us the stuff we need?” I asked.
He picked up the letter again and noticed the signature was from pretty high up the ladder. “We’ll get a vehicle together for you, but it’ll take about an hour. Why don’t you go have an early lunch? We’ll have it ready by the time you get back.” He let out a sigh as he tossed the letter back into the pile.
When we got back they presented us with a short-wheel-based Land Rover loaded with enough camping supplies to get us to the moon. There were cots and sleeping bags, cans of food, bags of pasta and rice, a camp stove, pots and pans, lanterns, a tent, twenty liter plastic jars of drinking water, twenty liter tins of gasoline, a folding table and two chairs. There was even a little vase with a flower in it attached to the dashboard with masking tape and a note that said “Bon Voyage.” As we looked at each other, Felicity said, “Oh, how sweet,” as she elbowed me to keep me from rolling my eyes.
In parting, I asked the manager, “By the way, how do ask for gas in Farsi? I forgot.”
“Bahnzeen haast injah,” he said, exaggerating each “h.”
“Bahnzeen haast injah,” I repeated, and then muttered it several times to practice. “OK, thanks a lot. We’ll be on our way.” We left with several employees waving goodbye.
As soon as we got out of sight, Felicity and I made a pact. We wouldn’t use any of the stuff they had given us and would return the jeep exactly as it was to try to get our point across: that the country was indeed livable if Americans would only open up a bit. Sure, it wasn’t the Riviera, but it was quite pleasant and there was nothing to fear. Iranian people were indeed different, but they were still basically families who wanted to live in the peace that Allah would surely give them if they asked, as He had done for 2,500 years. Perhaps, I thought, we could learn something from them.
Because the road along the coast snaked around giant boulders at radically changing elevations, I rarely got the Rover past third gear, often shifting to first to get through deep ruts and giant potholes. The raging river from a previous adventure was reduced to a trickle in a wide, rocky valley with barely visible tire tracks. After about two hours, we had only gone about 70 kilometers, but the gas gauge was reading only about a quarter of a tank. As we approached a village that had a gas pump stamped on the map, I saw a boy of about 12 years old on a moped. He made a right turn onto a narrow road that apparently led to the village center. I said to Felicity, “There’s no way he rode that moped all the way from Bandar Abbas. There’s got to be gas here!” I decided to follow him.
Several yards later, the boy turned left onto a street parallel to the main road with several mud buildings hidden by the row of hills. As we passed through the streets, I didn’t see a single sign or any indication of a gas station. I started tapping the horn lightly and flashing the lights to get the boy’s attention. He looked around, stopped and got off his moped with a puzzled look on his face. I got out and asked him in a peppy bright voice, “Bahnzeen haast injah?” I’d forgotten the customary blessing from Allah before speaking. He looked at me like I was an idiot, shook his head, “no,” kick-started his bike and went on his way frowning. I said to Felicity, “That can’t possibly be the right way to ask for gasoline.”
I got back in the jeep and followed him a little further, tapping lightly on the horn and flashing the lights again. When he finally stopped again, he looked much more worried. I assumed he saw me as possibly insane. With a beaming smile, I motioned him to come to the cab of the truck and look inside. He hesitated, but then came slowly with widened eyes and cautious steps. I pointed to the gas gauge and said with descending intonation, “Boop, boop, boop, boop, boop,” while moving the index finger on my other hand down like the needle on the gauge. He just looked at me. I motioned him to the back of the jeep, removed the gas cap and extended my thumb and forefinger to look like a gas pump spigot. I put my finger into the tank and said with ascending intonation, “Guk, guk, guk, guk, guk!”
His face brightened up as he said, “Ah, bahnzeen!” He ran back to his moped and hopped on, kick-started it again and gave me the internationally recognizable curl of his arm that said, “Come on!” I followed him through the narrow, dusty streets to the end of town, then up a hill to a large yard with a freshly whitewashed house and, off to the right, a matching single-car garage with a closed aluminum door. Before we stopped, a man I guessed to be about seventy years old came running out of the house wearing a smile as large as his turban. His long sleeved, collarless white cotton shirt went to his knees, covering white baggy pants tightened in at the feet just above his colorful, pointed woven slippers. He seemed very proud of his hundred words of English and anxious to use them all.
“Praise Allah, my friend! How are you?” he asked through a set of sparsely spaced, gold-capped teeth.
“Hello, how are you?” I remembered the Iranian custom of never telling how you actually are because you might make the others feel bad if you tell them you’re not well. On the other hand, you might make them jealous if you’re feeling well and they’re not. So you never tell anyone how you actually are, but you do ask them how they are. It could get confusing, but unknowing foreigners usually earned laughs, not scowls.
“Welcome to our village.” He offered his hand as his smile widened across his weathered brown face with scruffy patches of black and grey beard. “And why has Allah sent you here?”
“I’m looking for the gas station. I need some gasoline.”
“Ah, that is why Allah has sent you to me!”
“Oh, so you know where the gas station is?” I was confused. There were no pumps, no signs, no smell of gasoline, no black oil marks on the ground; just the fresh, clean smell of the desert flowers surrounding his house and a magnificent view of the arid land below with the grey, hazy mountains in the distance. Surely he would send me somewhere else.
“No, no. I am the gas station,” he giggled. He trotted to the aluminum garage door and rolled it up to reveal twenty-liter tins of gasoline stacked to the ceiling. “How much you need?”
“Ah… well… I guess I just need enough to fill up.”
“Yes, yes, I fill you up. But first we must have tea.” He motioned us to follow as he hurried into the house.
We entered the large front room that had hardly any furniture other than a massive and thick multi-colored Persian carpet on the floor, curled at one end to fit inside the walls. Soon he appeared with a tray and the now-familiar metal teapot, shot glasses and lumps of crystallized sugar. We sat down on firm cushions with colorful, heavy wool coverings and began enjoying the break. Soon he asked, “Why so many of your countrymen pass our village but never stop? I see trucks like yours pass every day, same color, same sign on door, but no one stop.”
“Well, I guess they don’t know you’re here. They told me there was no gasoline in any of the villages outside of Bandar Abbas,” I explained.
“Why they never ask? It look like you ask boy. He bring you here.” He nodded his head to the boy, now standing in the doorway along with a crowd of other children studying the newly arrived extraterrestrials.
“Well, they say they’ve been asking for gas, but I think they’re asking the wrong question.”
“What they ask?”
“Bahnzeen haast injah?”
The old man threw his head back and laughed out loud, almost tipping over backwards. When he recovered he said, “That mean ‘do you have gas?’ Everybody think you wanna know if they gonna fart.”
After a good laugh together, the old gentleman explained that the carpet on which we were sitting was five hundred years old… and he could tell us the names of all his ancestors who had sat on it. It was his treasured possession, and I felt a special honor being invited to join the spirit of his family. Felicity had a warm smile as she slowly moved her hands flat over the carpet, as if to feel its warmth. As we were talking, more small faces appeared beside the moped-boy in the doorway, and several others began appearing in the glass-less windows. The old man said, “I ask wife and daughters to come but they too shy. No speak English.” He chuckled again. “Maybe later.”
At the first lull in the conversation, I went out to my spaceship and got a magical device… a Polaroid Land camera! Most of the children had seen cameras before, but never one that would print instant pictures. All the children wanted some, so I used up all but the last pack of film that I would need when I got to the problem site. After an hour or so, we left for Bandar Lingeh with promises that we would soon return with more film… and more aliens who would start stopping for tea and bahnzeen.
In Bandar Lingeh, I went to the new telephone switching office that I’d visited on the previous trip. It was recently built and included bathrooms with showers and a small kitchen. A crew of about seven installers who camped there with cots and sleeping bags assured us there were no other accommodations in Bandar Lingeh and we would have to join them if we wanted to spend the night. All were from English-speaking countries. Taking what they said with a grain of sand, we walked into town and asked for a hotel by putting our hands together, placing them on our cheeks, tilting our heads to the side and snoring. We soon found a no-frills but charming little room on the second floor of a small hotel. Although the mattress was a bit lumpy, the sheets and pillow cases were clean and we saw no six-legged intruders. The small sink had hot water and the bath and toilet were down the hall. We went back to the telephone building to report our find and excuse ourselves from dinner, and also report to the amazed faces that we’d found a gas station in one of the villages along the coast highway. As we wished them goodnight, we promised that when we returned from 1102, we would spend a night with them to tell them more about our discoveries. None of them wanted to go into the village after dark.
We arose early the next morning with the sound of the mullahs peacefully singing prayers at daybreak from atop elaborately ornamented masonry towers. After a breakfast of pita bread, spiced yogurt and tea, we found a deli that made us submarine type sandwiches to take along for lunch, and headed out into the desert. In this area, the installers were right; there was absolutely nothing. We even found one tiny village that showed a gas station on the map but was completely abandoned. We weren’t completely right in our planning, but fortunately we had the extra gas. Praise Allah and the Americans.
Because 1102 was on top of a mountain and had two 10-foot microwave dishes, it was easy to spot from a distance, but not easy to reach because of the atrocious quality of the roads. We got to it at about one in the afternoon and found the electronic equipment only partially installed. The equipment racks were bolted to the floor and some of the wiring has been placed in the cable troughs, but none of the wires had been connected. The radio was a Lenkurt brand made in Canada with which I was familiar. It had an inspection door that was open, so I looked inside to find it stuffed with crepe paper packing material and mouse turds, instantly identifying “something strange” as something out of a Tom and Jerry cartoon. Mice were a very common problem with telecom equipment left idle for long periods of time. I looked for more rodent damage such as insulation nibbled off wires, but found no other problems. It looked to me like the installers simply bolted at the first excuse to get out of having to work. I took Polaroid photos to add to my mouse turd trip report.
When we got back to Bandar Lingeh that evening, we went to the telephone building and selected a yet-to-be-furnished office on the second floor to set up our cots. Then we went down to join the installers sitting around a large cable reel on its side that functioned as a table. Dinner was mostly canned goods: beans, sardines and spam. I suggested that they find a Filipino to join their crew because they were such good cooks. They said they didn’t like the “Flips” because they always stole their food. I didn’t bother to tell them about my experience with Uri and Kani during the 2,500 year celebration. But they wanted to know about the gas station, so I told them about the boy on the moped, the old man, the garage with the aluminum door, the house, the carpet, the tea and the Polaroid pictures. I even showed them the ones I’d kept. In the course of the conversation, they later asked me if I would show them where the gas station was the next morning. They all wanted to see it, so I agreed.
The next morning, we awoke again to the singing of prayers, but this time it was quickly followed by two of the installers screaming at the top of their lungs, “Shut the fuck up. We’re trying to sleep.” Felicity and I just looked at each other, and then went reluctantly down to join them for coffee. We had promised.
After a short session of inane small talk, the in-charge installer who I’ll call Dick said, “Well let’s get doing. We all want to see that gas station.” He seemed excessively anxious and I wondered why. It was only a gas station.
On the highway, Felicity and I were followed by seven installers in six vehicles: two short wheel-based Land Rovers, three long and a three-quarter ton Ford four by four pickup truck, all with the Page logo painted on the door. I assumed they wanted to fill each vehicle up, but when we arrived at the pleasant little hilltop station, they all raced out of their vehicles to be the first to confront the little old man who was walking briskly out of his house to greet us with his largest smile ever. But his elation was short-lived.
Dick was the first to reach him and shout, “Hi. How much you want for your rug?”
“Huh?” His eyes widened and he looked astonished.
Another installer tried to push in front. “I’ll give you five hundred dollars for it.”
Another shouted, “I’ll give you a thousand.”
Another shouted, “Can we see it? I might even give you more.”
“Fuck it! I’ll give you two thousand dollars without even seeing it. It’s 500 fucking years old, for Christ’s sake.” He had the cash in his hand and was shaking it in the man’s face. “Here! Two thousand fucking dollars for your rug.”
The old man silently looked from one face to another, to the cash and back to another face. His jaw slowly dropped as tears welled in the corners of his eyes.
One installer came as close to the old man’s face as he could. “Look,” he said a bit more quietly than the others. “We want to buy your 500-year-old carpet. Just tell us how much you want for it. We’ll work it out from there.”
As the old man looked at the ground, I came up beside him. His head reached just above my shoulder. I said to the installation team, “Look, his carpet has been in his family for 500 years. He doesn’t want to sell it. It means far more to him than any amount of money you could possibly have.”
“That’s bullshit,” yelled one of the installers. “We’re offering him more money than he’ll ever see in his stupid fucking life. Of course he wants to sell it.”
I put my hands on the man’s shoulders and looked into his eyes. I said calmly and quietly as if talking to a child. “Look, these men want to buy the carpet in your house. Do you want to sell it?”
He just shook his head slowly from side to side.
I continued, “But they have a lot of money and they’ll give you however much you want.”
“But what would I do with money?” he shrugged. “There’s nothing to buy here.”
“So you don’t want to sell it?” I asked.
“No…” He was speaking just above a whisper.
I turned to the group and announced, “He doesn’t want to sell his carpet. He has no use for the money, so he wants to keep it.”
“Well, fuck him then.”
“Yeah, fuck him.”
“Fuck the stupid son of a bitch.”
One of them spoke directly to me. “So why the fuck did you bring us all the way out here if he doesn’t want to sell his rug?”
“I thought you wanted to buy gas,” I shrugged. “If you’d have asked, I could have told you he probably wouldn’t sell it.”
“Well, fuck it then,” said Dick. “Let’s just fill up and get the fuck out of here.”
I turned back to the old man. “OK, they understand that you don’t want to sell it. But we do need to buy some gas. Can you fill us all up?”
He looked at the ground seeming even more distressed. Then he looked up and said, “I have no gas. I sell it all.” Then he pointed to another three-quarter ton Ford four by four pickup stopped at a small building about 50 yards down the road back to the main rutway. “They buy all my gas.” I could see the back of the truck was filled with the 20-liter tins. Two men came out of the building that I assumed to be a store and opened the doors to the truck. The old man continued, “They’re working on new road not far away. They have many trucks.” I started to chuckle. The old man looked at me and started chuckling too. Felicity joined in and soon the three of us were laughing pretty hard.
“What’s so fucking funny?” yelled Dick. “We don’t have enough gas to get back to Bandar Lingeh. We’re fucking stuck here!”
The old man stopped laughing and yelled, “Don’t worry, I fix.” He started running toward the other pickup truck flailing his arms and shouting in Farsi. It had just started to move, but stopped and the two men got out. After talking a while and looking back in our direction, the two men got in, started the truck and made a U-turn to come back to us as the old man hopped onto the back bumper. It stopped just a few yards in front of us and two six-foot-four burly Iranian men dressed in shabby work clothes got out and approached. The installers all took small steps backwards until the little old man came running around from the back of the truck shouting, “Everything OK. They give you gas… and I don’t mean fart.”
One of the Iranian men asked Dick, “Where tank?” Dick didn’t answer. Then he looked at the old man and said again, “Where tank?” Then he looked at the other man and asked again, “Where tank?”
The other man said, “Where tank?” then looked at the old man and repeated, “Where tank?”
The old man laughed, looked at one Iranian and then the other and said, “Yes, yes, where tank, where tank, very good, very good. I teach you English.” Then he scurried to the nearest vehicle, took off the gas cap then ran into the house. The two construction workers went to the back of their pickup and each took out a can of gas. The old man came running out of the house with a funnel, and the refueling process began. The installers looked on without speaking.
While holding the funnel for the first vehicle, the old man said, “They give you enough to get back to Bandar Lingeh.” His beaming smile had returned and the three of them continued until they’d put gas in each vehicle.
Dick pulled out his wallet, started fingering bills and muttered to me, “So how much do we have to give these assholes?”
The old man saw the wallet and said, “No, no, no. You no pay. Gas already paid for.”
“Yeah, but how much do we have to give these guys?”
“Nothing! These men paid.”
“But don’t we have to give them money to pay them back?”
“No, no, no,” explained the old man. “Gas has two places in Iran: belong to government or belong to people. This gas paid for, so now it belongs to the people. These men pay, so you don’t have to.” His smile widened. The two Iranians were leaning back on the front of their truck with folded arms and huge, toothy smiles.
Confused, Dick looked at me and asked, “So what the fuck do we do?”
I said, “Just… everybody shake hands, say ‘thank you,’ and we’ll go.”
The old man looked at the two Iranian construction workers, raised both his hands like a professor in a classroom and loudly instructed, “Now we say, ‘Goodbye.’” Then he repeated slowly, “Good… Bye.”
They each tried, “Good… Bye,” first to the old man and then to each other. They repeated it several times while chuckling.
The old man said, “Yes, yes, goodbye, goodbye.”
Everyone shuffled around for a while shaking hands and saying, “Thank you” and “Goodbye.” The two Iranian men still wore their toothy smiles as they got back in their truck and drove off, waving out the windows until out of sight.
The old man excitedly offered, “Now we have tea?”
Dick said, “We really don’t have time for tea.”
One of the installers yelled, “Ask him if he’s got any beer.” The rest chuckled.
Dick snapped over his shoulder, “It’s too early!”
As we all headed for our vehicles, Dick pulled me aside and said in a low voice, ‘These Iranians have got to be the stupidest fucking people on earth!” I didn’t answer because I was thinking how to politely turn down the tea. After the installers had left, I promised the old man we we’d return when I had more Polaroid film and we’d spend more time. He wished us Allah’s blessing as Felicity and I got into the Land Rover and drove off.
About five minutes down the road, Felicity finally broke the mesmerized silence with, “Do you think that carpet was really 500 years old?”
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