We completed the three months stint in Bandar Abbas without further incident, then said goodbye to the cozy little house which was still the only one in the neighborhood. We would see Tom and Emily again on various adventures, but not for any length of time. Felicity and I would continue on field trips to various parts of the country to solve problems, but most of them happened in the Kermanshah area near the satellite earth station, the newest and most complex technology of the time. When summoned, we’d leave Tehran in the morning and check into the brand-new, 30-room motel just before lunch. I’d become accustomed to the traffic conditions and felt confident that I would safely drive most of the roads.
Because the earth station attracted the leading edge of technology, Kermanshah seemed to be the most developed town I visited. Aside from the hotel, there was a super market that competed with the bazaar and a few foreign chain restaurants getting a foothold. Up-to-date control systems guided the traffic orderly through the well manicured and newly paved streets. Men and women in Western dress outnumbered those in traditional garb, and the perpetual clean, dry desert breeze constantly whispered a calm harmony.
Outside of Tehran, the normal Iranian work-day was from 8:00 am to noon, then 4:00 in the afternoon to 8:00 in the evening, allowing a generous rest period during the hottest part of the day. While in Kermanshah, we used the excuse of the dangers of driving after dark to stay in town until the next morning, working only half-days. In the mornings we always chided, “Look, another nice day,” before setting out to investigate the problem. It was perpetually warm and sunny. After lunch, we’d take a dip in the pool before taking a nap and spending a peaceful, relaxed evening exploring the evolving community.
One morning on the way to the earth station, I could see patches of green on both sides of the highway, irrigated by an age-old, underground system of canals. The 11-mile, straight stretch of highway dipped slightly in the center, allowing me a comfortable time to assess any potential danger… or at least I thought so. I could see the occasional pedestrian and animal traffic that kept a bullfighter’s distance from the massive, 10-wheel Mercedes-Benz dump trucks that bulleted by at just under the speed of sound, loaded to the point of tipping over with a few passengers clinging to the top to boost the revenue. Calling it dangerous would be like calling the ocean wet. But the wide open desert, the bright sunshine and the warm wind whistling into the open window gave us a naughty sense of freedom. Should we really be doing this?
In my head, I was taking account of everything: camels and donkeys on the left, dump truck approaching from behind them, plenty of time and room to pass, pedestrians ahead on the right – plenty of time and room to pass – man with small boy approaching the highway from the left. Man and small boy arrive at shoulder, man flails arms and yells at boy, boy steps back, man enters highway and motions to boy, boy hesitates, man crosses highway and motions to boy. Boy hesitates, man motions and yells. Boy runs into highway – plenty of time to pass in front of me. Dump truck zooms behind boy, another on the way. Boy stops and freezes in center of highway.
Oh, shit, I thought. Which way will he go? Will he go back? Will he try to cross? I was braking but there wasn’t enough time to stop. Shit, shit, shit. Should I veer behind him? No, there’s a dump truck coming in the other lane, blowing its horn. I’ll veer to the right.
At the last instant, the boy lurched forward toward his father’s waiting arms… but too late! He slammed into the side of the Rover as I veered off the road. I saw him spinning down the highway in the mirror that had just clipped the top of his head. I heard him crying. Thank God! I went off the road between a telephone pole and its guy wire before sliding to a stop the sand below the shoulder.
Felicity yelled, “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine. You’re a nurse, go look at the boy!” Without hesitation, she got out and ran back to the crying boy.
I got out and assessed my position through the cloud of dust: well off the road but not in deep sand. I would only need to drive up the slope back to the highway, not steep enough to need four-wheel-drive. A crowd was gathering around the boy now cradled in Felicity’s arms with blood on his face and a rag applied to the top of his head. His father was kneeling beside them weeping bitterly. The unspoken language of Felicity’s authority had already defined her as a nurse. I looked around at the crowd: some had been walking; some had been driving vehicles now stopped. I suddenly remembered the indoctrination warning, “If you hit a child, don’t stop. A crowd will form and they’ll kill you.” I quickly scanned the several pairs of eyes. None were looking at me. All were looking at the boy… everyone: the old, the young, the males, the females, the modern, the traditional, the drivers, the pedestrians, the passengers… even the baby in the arms of a woman in a chador. All eyes looked at the boy. All eyes held the natural grief and concern for an injured child, exactly as would happen anywhere else in the world. My fear of being killed never exceeded the level it had reached at the insipid indoctrination lecture. It was now confirmed: pure bullshit.
The police arrived and started directing traffic around the injured boy still in Felicity’s arms. They asked questions, took notes and, after looking at the injury under the rag, loaded the boy and his sobbing father into the back seat of a police car. The cop-in-charge came to me and pointed his finger at the center of my chest from about six inches away. He said, “I take boy to hospital. You stay here.” His unblinking brown eyes stayed glued to mine and his jaw tightened as he continued. “If you leave, I find you, I kill you.” He jabbed his finger without touching me. “I find you, I kill you.,” he repeated, then froze his hawk eyes and pistol finger for a full five seconds. “You stay here!” he commanded, then turned away, got into the car, made a U-turn and sped back to Kermanshah with his siren on and his lights flashing.
I read his directions to mean, “I’m fucking sick to death of foreigners hitting children and running off.” I assumed only one would be enough to ingrain the attitude.
Soon the crowd dispersed and Felicity and I were left in a beautiful and clean, but lonely desert. As we began wondering what to do for whatever amount of time it would take for the policeman to return, a little man came walking up the bank of the road with huge, hobbit feet that seemed to curl up at the toes as he plodded towards us. He wore the same huge and inviting smile I’d become accustomed to seeing throughout the country. Without saying a word, he motioned for us to come down the bank to his small, eight by eight mud brick hut nestled in the corner of large field of yet to be identified crops. The sod roof was about five feet above the ground, too short for us but just right for him to enter without stooping. From inside the doorway, he motioned us to hunker by a small wood fire with a kettle near the entrance.
After disappearing inside for a few moments, he emerged with three un-matching shot glasses and a small bowl of crystallized sugar on a worn and tarnished metal tray. As he slowly labored through serving the tea, his grand smile showing gold-capped and broken teeth that upstaged his tattered clothing that exactly matched the color of the earth he worked. His body language suggested curiosity at just who and why Allah had sent us to him, but I was at a loss for words to begin a conversation. So I pointed at the plant nearest to him and shrugged my lack of knowledge. He beamed to light as he reached over and pulled up a purple onion the size of a baseball. By his nodding approval, I assumed it to be the best onion in the world. He took a knife whose handle has long since worn away, sliced off a bite and popped it into his mouth as he spoke a word we assumed to mean either “eat” or “onion.” Then he sliced off a bite for me, then one for Felicity, handing them to us with an elegant but primitive flourish. Allah graciously held back our tears as we chewed, trying nonchalantly to reach for the sugar and tea.
Then he pointed up and behind us and said, “Barf.”
Felicity and I looked at each other with the pantomimed question, “Does that translate literally?” We looked back at him and noticed he was pointing to the mountain range in the distance.
“Barf,” he repeated. “Barf, barf.”
Felicity looked at him at him and asked, “Barf?”
He repeated again, nodding, “Barf, barf.”
After a puzzled expression followed by possible enlightenment, Felicity drew a triangle in the air then a squiggly line beneath. She pointed to the imaginary triangle and said, “Barf.”
He shook his whole body in delight at his accomplishment. “Barf, barf,” he repeated. He had taught us the Farsi word for the “snow” on the distant mountains. He continued the language lesson by pointing to various objects and pronouncing their names slowly for us to repeat. After each word, he waited for us each to say until we got it right. Then he would struggle with the English pronouncement we provided before moving on to the next word. We covered “knife,” “teapot,” “sugar,” “tea,” “glass,” “tray,” “house,” “man,” “woman,” “earth,” “sky,” “clouds…” everything in sight.
Along came a young boy on a donkey, providing fresh vocabulary words: “boy,” “donkey” and “earthenware water jug with strap.” The boy instantly understood the conversation and offered Farsi words and animated explanations for “donkey’s tail beneath which earthenware jug swings,” “donkey shit caked to earthenware jug,” “cork in top of earthenware jug,” “fresh water inside cooled by evaporation of water that seeps through,” “cool, fresh water unaffected by the donkey shit,” “the donkey’s legs,” “the donkey’s hoofs” and even the “donkey’s butt hole.” Then, after taking a drink himself, he offered us a taste of the surprisingly cool and fresh water in the no-longer-threatening jug.
The increasingly jovial conversation concluded when we saw the police car return from the hospital. The officer parked his car on the edge of the road and motioned us up to speak with the boy and his father, both sitting in the back seat with the door open. The boy had a bandage around his head like a toboggan cap. The policeman entered the front seat and turned to talk to the man, urging him to speak directly to us. As the weeping man sobbed his words, the policeman turned to us and translated.
“He say he very sorry make you delay,” then turned back to the man to continue urging in Farsi. He turned back to us and said, “He say his boy OK and you no need worry.” And after further urging, “He promise Allah he take better care of his son. He also pray for Allah’s help.” He concluded with, “He promise never to call boy to cross road alone, and he always hold hand when cross.” The father’s expression and tears confirmed the sincerity of his sorrow.
Felicity spoke directly to the policeman. “Please tell him we accept his apology and we’re very sorry this happened. We’ll also pray that the boy grows up to be as fine a man as his father.”
After Felicity and I stumbled through handshakes and our feeble “Khoda hafez” to all, the gnome returned to his hut and the police car turned onto a stretch of dirt road, apparently to return the boy and his father to their home.
As we pulled back onto the highway, Felicity and I began an inventory of the people we’d met on the project, classifying them as those who would have stopped and those who would have sped off. Mr. Shababian certainly would not, nor would Tom, Emily, Kane or Ari. But the cigar chewer, the screaming construction manager and the carpet buyers probably would. We then muddled over if the indoctrination had been true. We would be dead. But we shrugged the possibility off as being as rare as someone actually speeding away.
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