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As Gail’s sister, I’m thrilled to be a small part of making his adventures available to interested readers.  I’m fairly new to blogging, so this might not be as smooth as it could be; sorry.  You’ll find the Prologue (GO THERE FIRST!), Index, Footnotes, and Glossary in the “Pages” at the right, also accessible from the tabs above, and his stories will appear as one document in the next post.  About the footnotes: Gail spent days italicizing the words in the story to refer to them, but the italics all disappeared when I imported the document.  I hope we can fix this.  Right now, I fear the Index will be meaningless, until I can figure out how to paginate the stories, which may not be possible.  However, it should give you a general idea of where in the manuscript you can find the individual pieces.  Go here: http://loel.smugmug.com/Photography/gails-photos-aden/4649013_The5Z#377466748_6Axbe to view the photos that accompany the stories; you can choose the size at which you want to see them, or run a slide show. You will also be able to purchase prints. I hope to make Gullible’s Travels available as a book, as hard copy and as an e-book, and will announce that here when it happens.  Meanwhile, HAPPY READING!  I hope you enjoy his tales as much as I have. (Photo is of Gail and me in Lawrence KS, circa 1954.)

—Loel Barr

gail and me, circa 1954

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Gullible’s Travels

A Pool of Nectar

It was July and the monsoon was late. The plains of North India were transformed into one vast shimmer of heat haze. Day after day the sun pressed down through a sky of beaten bronze. The heat assaulted you the second you stepped out of the shade – heavy, oven-hot, airless. The nights, now almost as hot as the days, provided little relief. A drought was developing in Rajasthan and water shortages were spreading across northern India. Everyone agreed – as, I am told, they do every year – that this had to be the hottest summer in living memory.

The day we visited Humayun’s Tomb – wandering bareheaded through immense, sun-baked, dusty courtyards – the temperature reached 57oC (134.6oF). We hadn’t realised the ferocity of the Indian sun until, somewhere in the middle of about ten blistered acres of beaten earth, we both ‘came over all peculiar’. We had enough sense to head at once for the nearest patch of shade, but at one point, dizzy and disoriented, I actually didn’t think we could make it. Nauseous and dehydrated, with heads splitting and muscles cramping, we staggered into the shade of a Pepsi-walla’s umbrella just outside the gate, and collapsed onto a patch of frizzled grass. Swilling tepid fizzy drinks and mopping our brows with damp cloths, it took more than an hour to restore ourselves. Our symptoms, we later found out, were consistent with those of mild sunstroke.

We decided that it was probably time to head for cooler climes – to do as the British had done every summer for a hundred years – to head for the hills. We had two choices – the famous hill station of Simla or the Vale of Kashmir. We opted for Kashmir.

Getting from Delhi to Kashmir wasn’t quite as straightforward as we’d thought. Neither of us had expected Amritsar to be enroute – nor, according to the map, was it. The railhead nearest Kashmir was at a place called Jullundar. Jullundar was on the line between Delhi and Amritsar, about fifty miles short of Amritsar. So all we had to do was catch a train to Jullundar, and travel from there to Srinagar, via Jammu, by bus. It seemed simple enough. But it wasn’t.

Leaning forward against the weight of our backpacks, we queued up at a little kiosk outside Delhi Railway Station to buy platform tickets. Everybody, whether travelling or not, had to have one of these. They cost two annas (about US$0.02) each, and permitted the bearer to wander freely inside the station and out on the platforms. The idea, I guess, was to restrict the numbers of beggars and panhandlers inside – which was pretty frantic and chaotic at the best of times – while still permitting access to legitimate travelers, well-wishers and those greeting people off the trains. We were careful to keep these tickets. We would need them wherever we got off the train. Ticket-checking guards manned all entrances/exits to/from railway stations. When leaving a station some sort of ticket had to be produced. Luckily they would accept either a train ticket or a platform ticket.

It was intended – indeed it was the law – that, platform ticket in hand, the prospective traveler should then proceed to the ticket windows in the ‘Ticket Hall’ and purchase a ticket to his destination. This was something Dave and I never – well, almost never – did. We’d learned early on that lots of travelers in India seldom actually bought tickets, but managed to reach their destinations anyway. I don’t know how the Indians managed to do this, but for us ‘whiteness’ was everything. Our ploy’s success depended on the lingering inferiority complex – a legacy of the British Raj – that made it nearly impossible for any Indian to query the bona fides of any white man. The pukka sahib had been an object of fear and respect in India for nearly two hundred years. Even in 1958, a full decade after independence, Indians – even those who didn’t even like Europeans much – were psychologically unable to suspect them of skullduggery. Nothing we told them – no matter how outrageous – was ever questioned. We played on this unashamedly.

Once inside the Ticket Hall, we proceeded to the information window to check on the logistics of catching the ‘down-train’ to Amritsar and disembarking at Jullundar. “Oh, ’down-trains’ to Amritsar don’t stop at Jullundar,” the ticket-wallah informed us with a grin, “Only ‘up-trains’ stop there.

What that meant in practice was that we would have to take the ‘down-train’, which didn’t stop in Jullundar – all the way to Amritsar, then catch the ‘up-train’ back toward Delhi. From the ‘up-train’ we would be able to disembark in Jullundar. If this sounds stupid, it was. It also turned out to be pure bullshit, but we didn’t know that at the time. However, since we’d intended to visit Amritsar anyway, to see the Golden Temple of the Sikhs – and since, in any event, we didn’t intend to actually pay for our tickets – we didn’t let it worry us too much.

The hullabaloo of an Indian Railway station has to be experienced to be believed. Delhi Station – like every other station we ever used in India – was jammed. On a series of platforms thousands of white-cottoned travelers spilled in and out of steaming trains. Crowds seethed back and forth amongst heaps of luggage, hand-carts, kiosks selling snacks and trolleys heaped with luggage. New arrivals elbowed their way single-file through the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds, following in the slip-stream of their porters. Their passage was marked by the skeins of suitcases – held overhead by the bearers – seeming to float above the crowd.

Every new train set off a sort of circus. As the train pulled in, the platform sprang into a frenzy. Roving vendors accosted the trains, yelling and scampering up and down the carriages. Porters in red turbans and grubby dhotis staggered toward the first-class carriages under mountains of smart suitcases, valises and trunks. Farther down the platform, near third-class, solitary peasant women sat stranded amidst seas of less ‘gainly’ luggage, ambiguous parcels done up with rope, lumpy sacks, bits of porcelain, the arm of a chair and huge, amorphous bales of bedding. Vendors trawled the platform selling trays of brightly-coloured sweetmeats, nuts, hot tea in red clay cups, or the latest film magazine.

Soot and coal dust, exhaled by panting locomotives, sifted down on all this; dust boiled up from underfoot; horizontal jets of boiler-exhaust steam swooshed amongst the feet of the crowd; and layers of gauzy smoke, smelling strongly of kebab and marinade, eddied across the platform. Other odours, too, assailed our nostrils – sweat, feces and urine and the sharp tang of powdered coal. The noise was incredible – everything and everybody at full volume – bearers importuning new arrivals, passengers shouting to bearers, radios blaring pop music, greeters shouting at friends (and friends shouting back), regiments of cripples and runny-nosed children whining for alms (it is considered a propitious act for travelers to give alms to beggars – and bad luck not to do so – something of which the beggars of India are all too aware), stall-holders hawking their wares, stationmasters’ whistles and conductors’ bells. Above all this, Tannoys blared muzzily – their bursts of static and feedback shrieks like fingernails on a blackboard.

Multiple queues converged on the doors to every carriage. Relatively calm at the back, the queues became increasingly agitated as they merged near the train. Around the steps to each carriage door was what looked – and sounded – like a small riot. The actual process of boarding was a full-on exercise in pushing and shoving – elbows, knees and fists flailing. Forward progress was paralytically slow – the stairwells seemed to be stuffed with human body parts. Quite a lot of people simply gave up and threw their luggage in through the windows, then clambered in after it. This, curiously, seemed to work. When embarkation and disembarkation were going on at the same time there were free-for-alls at both doors, and a lively two-way traffic in and out the windows.

The stations were inhabited by whole villages of people washing and cooking in the ticket halls, arriving days early for a train and building encampments on the platforms. Quite a lot of people actually lived on the platforms, sometimes marking out their territory with chalk lines. Privacy was unknown to them, they ate, mated and slept on the platforms, washing under hose taps, defecating and urinating on the tracks. There were sleeping bodies everywhere, scattered randomly across the platform. We stepped over at least thirty or forty, some laid out on their backs like corpses with their heads covered, others simply sprawled face-downward as if shot in the back. How they managed to sleep through all this I cannot imagine.

So, still ticketless, Dave and I pushed and shoved our way to the platform from which the Amritsar Express (the ‘down-train’) was to leave. We always tried to be at least half-an-hour early, because third class – by which we travelled – was always incredibly overcrowded. If we came late – as sometimes we did – and found both seats and luggage racks occupied, we had learned what to do. We would hire the strongest-looking bearer (porter) we could find, sometimes offering to overpay him outrageously (one rupee – about US$0.20). For this pittance he would physically create enough space on the overhead racks for our baggage by simply taking down some of the luggage that was already there. Then he would evict a couple of seated passengers – more-or-less at random, as far as we could tell – so that we could sit down. Finally, accepting his tip, he would salaam his way outside. Curiously, none of the travelers whose luggage – and, indeed, whose persons – our bearers mishandled ever seemed to bear us any ill-will. We certainly weren’t the only passengers who’d hired goondas (thugs) for that purpose, but we felt – indeed, I still feel – considerable guilt over it. Considerable, but not enough to make me give up the use of ‘hired muscle’. Actually, at the time, my main worry was whether our sadly-depleted exchequer was up to the extra rupee we’d had to pay.

Third class on Indian Railways was pretty grim. The interiors of the carriages were lined with something like scrim that had been splintered and chipped by generations of travelers. The floors were of rusty sheet-iron. Instead of glass in the windows, there were wooden louvres which could (at least in theory) be pulled up from slots in the wall beneath to keep out rain. None of these ever seemed to work. There were horizontal bars across all the windows, but they were so widely spaced it was possible to crawl in or out between them. On both sides of a central aisle were hard-slatted wooden benches – the sort usually found in parks at home – in sets of two, one facing forward, the other aft. Above the windows was a luggage rack – a slatted shelf about eighteen inches wide and eighteen inches below the ceiling. Some of the carriages contained oscillating fans screwed to the ceilings; some didn’t. It really didn’t matter, since I never saw one that worked.
We chose a carriage near the middle of the train. When third-class Indian Rail carriages were full – as they nearly always were – not only were all the seats occupied, but there were people standing or sitting in the aisle and lying under the slatted wooden benches. Sometimes – especially at night – people were even jammed into the overhead luggage racks.

Eventually, the characteristic sequential jerks fore and aft indicated that the train was actually pulling out of the station, and the platform began to slide past the windows. We left Delhi half-an-hour late, a neighbour explaining with a shrug, “The train is not in the mood for travel.”

Once settled, Dave on the right and I on the left would carefully scan the outside of the train for ticket-checker (known, in local ‘Hinglish’ as the ‘ticketer’). There were no internal connections between carriages, so the ‘ticketer’ could only check tickets in one carriage between stations. Not until the train stopped – which it did with great frequency – could he disembark from the carriage he had checked and proceed to the next one. On a longish train, it could take a couple of hours for him to complete his rounds. By then, of course, a lot of embarking and disembarking would have taken place behind him and he would have to make the entire round again.

Since we had no tickets, it was important that he never caught up to us – that we always knew exactly where he was. So we checked his progress up and down the train more-or-less continuously. By the time he was checking the carriage next to ours, we were ready. As the train pulled into the next station, we would disembark, and proceed along the platform to the carriage the ‘ticketer’ had just inspected. It would, we knew, take him an hour or more to complete his rounds. So we were safe until he came back to check for recent arrivals. Then, of course we had to go through the process of finding seats and luggage racks again. Sometimes we had to do this four or five times per journey. But, over the course of a long trip, it was a small price to pay (or, rather, a largish price not to pay) for getting to travel hundreds of miles for nothing.

Despite our best endeavours, we were caught at this several times by ticket-collectors during our four months in India. But we had our cover story ready – that we’d not had time to purchase tickets on the platform, intending to purchase them from him – a perfectly normal procedure. We always told him we’d come aboard at the most recent station, and no ticket-collector ever questioned our honesty. This, too, was a function of our white skins. But we still had to purchase tickets on the spot. When your entire travel budget is US$1 per day, this hurts considerably.

We weren’t the only ones to do this. There was a sort of continuous rolling pilgrimage – from the cars the ‘ticketer’ was about to check to the cars he’d just finished checking – along the tracks whenever the train stopped. It progressed, station-by-station, from just ahead of the ticket taker as he moved up the train, to just behind him. By the time our journey was half-completed, everyone on our car knew what we were about, and clearly they were all on our side. More than once we were warned of the approach of a ticket taker by a hissed warning of “Sahib! Sahib! Beware yourself! The ‘dick-eater’ is coming!”

Dave and I shared our bench with a thin, tall girl of about twelve, with gold teeth and hair pulled back so severely her face had a sharp, ferret-like look. She spent most of the night eating some sort of gooey sweet – gulab jamun I think – from a large tin in her lap. Dave, who drew the short straw that night, got to sleep on the floor, more-or-less under her seat. Next morning the back of his sleeping bag was enameled in dried sugar syrup – presumably hers. He didn’t much mind this at the time, but later it was to make him so attractive to ants that he had to resort to a professional cleaner – something he could ill-afford.

Next to her was a young couple, the wife extremely pretty, as was their two-year-old daughter, whose eyes were blackened with kohl to ward off evil spirits. The husband, who was barefooted, wore a Western navy suit jacket over his white dhoti. They quarreled in vigorous Punjabi for the whole journey. Two fat baniyas, a very thin woman in a crimson sari and a very small boy wearing very large shorts occupied the bench facing us. The little boy had no undies on. I know this because he would periodically pull up the leg of his shorts and expose his genitals, which he would inspect carefully, then scratch vigourously. I suppose he had parents somewhere aboard, but as far as I could tell, nobody ever paid him the slightest attention, and I never found out who he belonged to.

We picked up people at every stop along the way. They squeezed aboard with their woven baskets and bales of what looked like bedding. Mainly they looked to me like field labourers, as grey and tattered as the ragged clothing they wore. They squatted wearily on the floor; the ones who had the corridor space fell instantly asleep. Their dark brown legs looked as functional as pistons – hard, thin tools locked in at the knees.

When we flipped to see who got to sleep in the luggage rack, I won. After manhandling our luggage down, I had to cram myself into the volume the backpacks had occupied – a space about eighteen inches square and four-and-a-half feet long. It was every bit as uncomfortable as it sounds, but I slept surprisingly well. Dave, on the floor, had more room to move, but he also got puddles of betel-nut spittle, wads of used chewing gum, cigarette butts and cockroaches shuttling between the debris of many snacks that littered the floor – not to mention the sugar syrup. Then, too, being underfoot in a crowded railway carriage has its own occupational hazards. He was heavily trodden on at least three times during the night.

***

I had always liked nighttime train journeys. The monotonous clacking of the wheels and the swaying of the carriage usually lulled me to sleep. But not tonight. There wasn’t enough monotony – no constancy of either sound or motion. The train seemed always to be accelerating or decelerating – or hissing and panting in noisy stations, doors banging, whistles blowing and bells clanging. People shouldered their way up and down the aisle, stumbling over luggage and recumbent bodies, and swearing at each other in Punjabi, Hindi or Urdu.

Bladder-pressure woke me in the middle of the night, so I clambered down from my perch and struggled through the mass of sleeping bodies to the noisome toilet at the end of the car. Afterwards, I stepped through into the entrance hall, where steps led down to exit doors on either side. A group of youngish men were lounging there, sharing a thermos flask of tea, smoking bidis and chatting. I made my way down the steps and leaned out the open top half of one of the doors. A flat, silver landscape lit by a crescent moon was streaming by. The warm, humid air smelled of sage and dust and coal smoke. Some of the sweat on my face evaporated in our slip-stream, and the effect was marvelously cooling.

I yawned hugely. This turned out to be a mistake. Hardly had I opened my mouth when something struck me violently in the face. No, I realised almost immediately, not the face. I’d been struck in the mouth. Even that wasn’t quite right. It took me a few seconds to figure out exactly what had happened. Something large and hard had entered my gaping mouth at great speed and had lodged in the back of my throat near my epiglottis. Not only was it painful, but I found I couldn’t swallow. The thing – whatever it was – had completely blocked my throat. I doubled over, gagging and retching, trying – and failing – to breathe.

The bidi-smokers gathered anxiously around me, thumping my back and conferring volubly in Punjabi. Finally when one of them grabbed me around midriff and squeezed violently (had the Heimlick Manoeuvre even been invented in 1958?) the object was, at last, expelled into my open hand. It turned out to be a large and very indignant beetle about the size of a marble. It was black, with a hard carapace and very prickly legs. Apparently even less damaged than I was, the thing promptly rolled over in my palm and stood up. Waggling its antennae at me, it unfurled a pair of gauzy wings, leapt off my outstretched hand and disappeared into the night.

One of the youths offered me a thermos cap full of sweet, tepid tea, which I swigged gratefully. It soothed the scratchiness at the back of my mouth and helped to get rid of the taste of beetle. I should have known better than to stick my head outside the window at all. Weeks previously I had done almost the same thing travelling between Allahabad and Nagpur. In that instance, I was hit right in the mouth by a huge gobbet of betel-stained saliva from somebody up forward.

The trip took all night, the train alternately hurtling or creeping across the hot, flat plains of the Punjab, hooting mournfully at unseen level crossings; untended stations, bright as rockets, flashing past the dark windows. We reached Amritsar just at sunrise under a sky as pink as Turkish delight, the city’s pale, whitewashed suburbs sliding by like phantoms in the early morning mists.

By the time we reached Amritsar Station, we were exhausted; we were hungry, dirty and we itched. We were in desperate need of the old ‘shit, shine shave, shower and shampoo’ routine – in other words, we needed a toilet and a place to clean up. As with the tickets, we had a ploy for this, too – pretending to be somebody we weren’t. Looking as nonchalant as possible, we sauntered over to the ‘First Class Retiring Room’. We knew what was inside – a Spartan lounge with leatherette sofas and chairs, clean toilets and bathrooms with showers. For holders of First Class tickets, these facilities were free – all part of the service, you might say.

There was an attendant at the door, and the chowkidar (guard) was still on duty. Both men wore grubby white uniforms which had clearly been designed for smaller men (there was a lot of wrist and ankle on show). The attendant made a half-hearted attempt to see our tickets, but backed away hurriedly – hand still outstretched – when we strode haughtily past him. The chowkidar just grinned and gave us a surprisingly smart salute.

***

Amritsar was founded in 1577 by Ram Das, the fourth guru of the Sikhs. It is both the centre of the Sikh religion and the major city of Punjab state. Mostly we found it to be just another dusty Indian town. Inside the old city – enclosed by a roughly circular road where the city walls used to be – are several mosques (all but one of them abandoned) and a couple of very ordinary Hindu temples.

A tout picked us up on the platform just outside the retiring room, and badgered us into following him to the Mata Temple, in the new city near the station. “Very fine temple, it is,” he effused, “Too holy! Much beautiful painting statue there!” Well, maybe. But in my opinion there are some ‘sights’ you just aren’t meant to see. Mata Temple was definitely one of those.

Mata was a twentieth-century female saint called Lal Devi – who, judging from her statues, wore spectacles – and her temple is a sort of monument to bad taste. Apparently, women who wish to become pregnant come here to pray. I can’t imagine why. The statues – and there are lots of them – are grotesque enough to bring on a miscarriage. Representing Hindu deities, they occupy a series of Disney-esque grottoes and shrines around the periphery of the temple. A circumambulation involves crawling through a tunnel (which, we were told, represents a fallopian tube) and wading through a stream (semen). Almost the entire temple – walls, ceilings, statues and even parts of the floor – is done out in what looks like high-gloss acrylic paint, in unimaginably vivid colours. Incredible as it may seem, there is actually a branch of this temple near Jammu. That’s overkill. In my opinion, one of it should have been enough.

***

At independence and partition in 1947, the problem of where to draw the boundary between India and Pakistan was particularly difficult in Punjab, a state with large communities of Moslems, Hindus and Sikhs. The Sikhs had already campaigned unsuccessfully for their own state (which they would have called ‘Khalistan’) and now saw their homeland divided down the middle. The new border ran straight between Punjab’s two major cities – Lahore and Amritsar. Amritsar, in India, is only twenty-six kilometres from the border: Lahore, on the other side, only about fifteen.

The division of Punjab was always likely to release religious hatreds that had been held in check for generations only by the British presence. Everyone (except, arguably, the British) knew that it contained all the ingredients for an epic disaster, but the resulting bloodshed was worse than anyone could have imagined. Huge exchanges of population took place. Trains full of Moslems fleeing westward were held up and slaughtered by Hindu and Sikh mobs. Hindus and Sikhs fleeing to the east suffered the same fate at the hands of Moslems. The army that was sent to maintain order was hopelessly inadequate and, at times, only too ready to join the partisan carnage. By the time the Punjab chaos had run its course, twelve million people had fled their homes, and more than a million had been slain.

Lahore and Amritsar had – in a sense – had their religious minorities forcibly exchanged. Prior to independence, Lahore’s population included about 500,000 Hindus and 100,000 Sikhs. When the dust had settled, only about a thousand remained. Those who had fled were almost immediately replaced by Moslems fleeing from India. A third of Amritsar’s inhabitants – the Moslem minority – fled west to Pakistan, but hundreds of thousands of displaced Sikhs and Hindus flooded in. Many of these settled in Amritsar, some occupying the abandoned homes and shops in the Moslem quarter of the city.

A decade later memories of the horrors of partition had hardly begun to fade. Although Amritsar looked, at first glance, much like many other Indian cities – big and noisy and dusty and crowded – there was something wrong with the atmosphere – as though the city was still trying to come to terms with what it had become. There was a sense of ‘dislocation’ – that people were living in the wrong houses, wearing the wrong clothes, eating the wrong food, even speaking the wrong language and praying at the wrong shrines. And this was likely true. After all, about a third of Amritsar’s inhabitants had been there for less than a decade, and there was still a sense that they were ‘squatting’ – squatting in the homes and shops abandoned by their Moslem neighbours.

***

The holiest shrine of the Sikh religion – the ‘Hari Mandir’ – is in the centre of the old city. The temple itself – known to tourists as the ‘Golden Temple” – is surrounded by a large square tank (pool) about a hundred metres on a side. It was the tank, called Amrit Sarovar (‘Pool of Nectar’) that gave the town its name. The square, two-storey marble temple is reached by a causeway known as the Gurus’ Bridge. The lowest parts of the marble walls are decorated with inlaid flower and animal motifs in the pietra dura style of the Taj Mahal. Its dome is gilded with what is said to be 250 pounds of pure gold. We had to remove our shoes, wash our feet and cover our heads before entering the precincts.

A marble-paved walkway – the Parkarma – surrounds the tank. Other buildings – the ‘business district’ of the shrine, you might say – clustered around the back and sides of Amrit Sarovar. There was a clock tower containing a Sikh museum and a baggage store, a bathing ghat, a post-office, a railway agency, the Ramgarhia Minars, a garden, the Akal Takht (Sikh Parliament building), the Manju Sahib (assembly hall), a kitchen and the Guru ka Langar (dining hall), where volunteers prepared free meals which were served to up to 30,000 people every day. Nearby were the gurdwaras offering free accommodation to all. Actually they offered free accommodation only to pilgrims, but…..well….since nobody ever asked whether we were or not……..

Never ones to look charity in the mouth, Dave and I had a free meal in the Guru ka Langar, sharing chapattis and lentils with (I assume) 29,998 others. We spent our first night in Amritsar in the gurdwara as though we belonged there, spreading our sleeping bags on a cold marble floor amongst dozens of pilgrims. Nobody ever bothered to turn off the brilliant overhead lights, and there were several world-class snorers among us. So, despite my exhaustion after our all-night journey from Delhi, I slept badly.

***

We met Manmool as we were leaving the Akal Takht. He was both tall and very ample – a bit taller than I, and at least half again as broad. He offered to treat us to a cup of tea – “tea and a bit of a chat,” he’d called it, in the sort of crisp British accent that can only be learned in an upper-class English-medium school. We were soon chatting around a table at a tatty kerbside stall, and dipping crunchy samosas in bowls of spicy dhal.

Manmool Singh was a Sikh – one of those who had been displaced by partition, having been born near Multan in what is now Pakistan. Fourteen years old at the time of partition, he was attending the prestigious Cliffden College in Murree – a hill-station north of Rawalpindi. That explained his posh accent. He was actually at the college, four or five hundred miles from home, when the killing began. He couldn’t even go home. Together with about forty other Sikh and Hindu students, he was evacuated directly from the college by a prescient British headmaster, who took the boys north through the mountains to Kashmir in the school bus. It took him more than a year to find the rest of his family – all of whom survived to reach Amritsar. But they had lost their home and their business.

He was one of the many Indians who offered to share their homes with us. He was some sort of administrator for the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbanhak Committee (the Sikh parliament). Judging by his accommodation, his job couldn’t have paid too much – at least by our standards. He had a third-floor walk-up flat in a crumbling six-storey postwar block just off Bazaar Shardha Nand in the old city. His flat had a smallish lounge with peeling rose-coloured wall-paper, a double bedroom and a hall with a wash-basin in it. He shared a primitive kitchen and a bathroom with three other flats on his floor. He offered us his bed – the only one in the flat – but we couldn’t accept. So we dossed down on the floor in our sleeping bags – Dave in the lounge and I beside Manmool’s bed. We talked late into the night.

***

On our last day in Amritsar, the weather suddenly changed. The sky became strangely overcast and heavy. Sulphurous yellow thunderheads rose up in the southeast. A brief dust storm swept across the city. Then the sky darkened even further to turn almost the colour of ripe plums.

A breeze rose, the trees shivered and, for the first time in weeks, it began to rain: the first of the pre-monsoon showers. Nannies rushed out onto roof terraces to rescue their laundry. Children playing hopscotch in the road gave up their game as raindrops wiped clean the dust they had carefully marked out into squares. There was a distant peal of thunder. But in the event, it turned out to be only a brief shower. The first of the rainy season clouds floated on northwards, the sun came out and the streets shimmered and steamed. It left behind it the wonderful odour of freshly damp earth.

Manmool dragged us along to Jallianwala Bagh (known in English history as ‘Chillianwalla Bagh’). It was, he said, something we simply had to see. At the time I wasn’t much interested, but, in the event I was to be glad I went. It was – and is – a poignant reminder of the evils inherent in ‘empire – anybody’s empire’. The tree- and flower-filled park commemorates the 2,000 Indians who were killed or wounded here, shot indiscriminately by the British in 1919. This appalling massacre was one of the major events in India’s struggle for independence. There’s a lot of propaganda there – most of it, unfortunately, true. According to one plaque the British killed “337 men, 41 boys and one baby” in the space of only six minutes. Fifteen hundred others were wounded.

General Dyer, who gave the order to fire on the peaceful crowd, was found ‘not culpable’ by the British, as was his superior, the governor of Punjab Province, Sir Michael O’Dwyer. It was in response to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre that Gandhi instigated his programme of ‘satyagraha’ (peaceful civil disobedience) and announced that “Co-operation….. with this satanic government is sinful.”

Today the lawns of the garden are filled with little boys playing cricket in the dry water channels; goatherds with their flocks; picnicking Punjabi families with their tiffin tins; loving couples reclining against trees; saffron-robed Hindu ascetics sitting cross-legged on the grass, and elderly men with walking sticks. It seemed a most unlikely place for a massacre.

***

When we went to leave Amritsar, we decided we could afford to pay our way – in other words, to travel legally for a change – the fifty miles to Jullundar. So, feeling quite virtuous, we fronted up at the ticket window. “Two third-class tickets to Jullundar on the ‘up-train’ to Delhi, please.”
“No ‘up-train’ for Delhi. Only ‘down-train’.
Remembering what the ticket wallah in Delhi had told us – that the ‘down-train’ didn’t stop in Jullundar – only the ‘up-train’ did – we asked, “What about tomorrow?”
“Same like today. No ‘up-train’. No ‘up-train’ ever from Amritsar Station. Only ‘down-train.”
Since the instructions we’d been given in Delhi had been very specific (“You must take the ‘up-train’ back to Jullundar.”) we chose to argue with him. A confused – and confusing – argument ensued, from which nobody emerged with credit. At the end, all of us were pissed off, we’d delayed a lot of putative passengers by five or ten minutes – they were all remarkably patient considering the circumstances – and nothing much had been accomplished.

When we finally figured out what he was trying to tell us, we were ashamed of ourselves. The problem was absurdly simple. It was a language problem, pure and simple. In “Hinglish” an ‘up-train’, was a train coming to wherever you were (in this case, any train coming toward Amritsar). A ‘down-train’, on the other hand, was one leaving wherever you were (in this case, leaving Amritsar). So the train to Delhi, since it originated in Amritsar, was known as the ‘down-train’ to Delhi. Although it left Amritsar as the ‘down-train’, it would, of course, arrive in Delhi as the ‘up-train’. It also worked in reverse. We’d left Delhi on the ‘down-train’ to Amritsar, but had arrived on the ‘up-train’ from Delhi.

The ticket-wallah in Delhi had been either stupid or mischievous. In Jullundar we found out that, not only had our original ‘down-train’ actually stopped in Jullundar (while we were both blissfully asleep) but that all ‘down-trains’ (or, of course, ‘up-trains’, depending on the perspective from which they are viewed) stopped in Jullundar, which turned out to be a major railway centre.

Anyway, the ‘down-train’ to Delhi took only a couple of hours to reach Jullundar. And from Jullundar, the two hundred kilometre bus journey to Jammu was uneventful. At least I assume it was. To be perfectly honest, I have absolutely no memory of it.

No, that’s not quite true. I have one memory. About two hours out of Jammu, both Dave and I came down with violent doses of the ‘squitters’ – from something we’d eaten in Amritsar, we assumed. Dave decided to call our afflictions the “Sick Sikh Shrine Shits”.

Banihal

Our target was to ‘do’ India on US$1 per day. And we succeeded. After four months in India and Pakistan, we had spent just under $120 each on food, accommodation and travel. In order to do this, we accepted every meal and drink offered, no matter where or by whom. We knew a lot of them weren’t actually fit for western stomachs, but if we were to meet our budget, it was a risk we more-or-less had to take.

As a result, I’d had gut problems for five or six weeks. Like every other poor traveler in India who has to – or chooses to – eat local food, I’d had periodic attacks of various kinds of diarrhoea – the “Calcutta Craps”, “Bombay Belly”, “Seringapatam Shits”, “Poona Poops”, “Delhi Belly” – things like that. I’d had all those and several more besides – things we’d called “the squirts” at home when I was a kid. Toilet paper was in desperately short supply throughout India. So Dave and I had learned to ‘visit’ toilets in upmarket hotels (the sort frequented by Westerners) periodically, and rip off as much toilet paper as we could carry. We often had two – sometimes even three – pockets stuffed with the stuff.

Mostly the squirts weren’t serious, but they were debilitating and a real pain in the arse (pun intended) – especially in a country where toilet paper was hard to come by. Public toilets were few and far between in India, and most of them were loathsome almost beyond description. They were usually ankle-deep in crap, and quite a lot of them were surrounded by so many little seeping piles of shit we couldn’t even reach the door – if, indeed, they actually had a door. And the stench was appalling. It attracted lots of enormous winged cockroaches and clouds of flies, which swarmed over both shit – which was so thick with maggots it seemed almost to be alive – and us. Given the already-delicate condition of my digestive track, I often found myself involuntarily unloading the wrong end, or sometimes both ends simultaneously. This – while squatting on tiptoe in an acre of shit – was no mean trick. It’s also not a whole lot of fun.

We’d managed to keep our diarrhoea more-or-less in check by liberal doses of a readily available drug called Entero-vioform. Entero-vioform wasn’t a wonder drug, and it didn’t actually cure the diarrhoea. What it did do was form an impenetrable plug to seal off the lower end of your digestive system – rather like stuffing quick-drying cement up your arse – so that for a couple of days you couldn’t shit even if you wanted to. After that, peristalsis would take over again, and for a few hours you were likely to blow your bum off. Then, of course, if your diarrhoea hadn’t cured itself, it was time for another dose. But in the meantime – and this was the whole idea – you’d had a couple of shit-free days.

The way Entero-vioform was administered in India those days scarcely caused me to raise an eyebrow at the time. Now just remembering it sends shivers down my spine. The drill was simple. I had only to enter a pharmacy and say the magic word “Entero-vioform”. No further conversation was necessary. The pharmacist would issue instructions to his ‘bearer’, who would promptly disappear down the street. In a few minutes he would reappear, loping along the footpath carrying a syringe. As far as I can recall, all of the bearers carried the syringe as a runner would carry the Olympic flame – high on an extended arm – with the exposed needle pointing up. I suppose that was meant to keep the needle clean – I certainly never saw any other sign of prophylaxis – and maybe also to avoid accidentally stabbing passers-by in the crowded streets. After taking the syringe from his bearer, the pharmacist would sometimes pat my arm with a wad of grimy damp cotton before he poked the needle into me, but more often he just stuck it straight in, dirt and all.

Of course, nobody had even heard of AIDS in 1958, but I still worried some about the dirty needles and occasionally it occurred to me to wonder just where it was the bearers disappeared to and what was actually in the syringe. But a couple of hours after administration of every dose, my arsehole would pucker up right on cue and the “runs” would stop. What more, I asked myself, could I want?

***

The road from Jammu to Srinagar was famously awful – mostly because of the incredible gradients up Banihal Pass – not the sort of road a reputable bus company would want to run its buses on. So, of course, no reputable bus company did. This left travelers at the mercy of a lot of entrepreneurial Doghri-speaking tribesmen who had set out to make and run their own transport. That they had more imagination than knowledge or skill deterred them not at all. By cutting, welding and cannibalizing they eventually produced something – or, rather, some ‘things’ – which fit their only two criteria: the vehicles had to be able to make it up the hill, and they had to hold a lot of paying customers. There were half a dozen of these ‘creations’ – parti-coloured and grotesque – waiting at the bus station in Jammu – all run by a company called ‘Banihal Transport’.

Dave and I hadn’t intended to stop in Jammu. But we’d both caught the squirts – again – in Amritsar. We were blowing off at one end or the other every ten or fifteen minutes, and neither of us was in a fit state to face an all-day bus trip up into the Himalayas. So we’d over-nighted in Jammu just to get another shot of Entero-vioform and to give it time to work. Next morning, arseholes at ‘full pucker’, we arrived at the bus terminus early so that we could pick our own seats. We deliberately chose opposite ends of the rearmost bench – a place we knew to be unpopular with locals – and piled our luggage on the bench between us, hoping that nobody would ask us to move it. Experience had taught us that these would be good places for us to sit. We were about a foot taller than any of our fellow passengers (for whom the bus had been designed) and only these seats had any leg-room to speak of. So we felt quite pleased with ourselves as we swept out of Jammu town and headed north.

In an earlier incarnation, our ‘bus’ had probably been a Bedford 4X4 truck. A very long roofed-in plywood cage had been erected on the truck bed, with eight or ten hard wooden benches. The cage was a lot longer than the truck had been, and there was an incredible overhang – ten or twelve feet – at the stern, where we sat.

The metamorphosis hadn’t been entirely successful. Although they’d more-or-less doubled the vehicle’s capacity, they’d kept the same old engine. It was never intended to haul large loads up Banihal Pass. Wheezing and roaring, it could barely manage a walking pace on any serious gradient. In the event, that hardly mattered. It may even have been a good thing. There was so much weight behind the rear axle of the bus that the front wheels only occasionally touched the road, so the driver was only actually steering about half the time.

Baggage and freight were carried on the roof. Every traveller between Burma and Turkey seems to have a large blue-and-white-striped plastic bag in which he/she carries his/her bedding. They are even carried by air-travelers and are a common sight on the luggage carousels throughout the Middle East. There were fifteen or twenty of these huge blue-and-white-striped plastic-covered bales of bedding up there, together with a lot of assorted bags, several battered cardboard boxes tied up with rope, and half-a-dozen largish wooden crates, at least one of which contained some sort of livestock. The driver and his assistant clambered over and around this great heap of luggage – it was five or six feet high, and overhung the chassis on all four sides – weaving a sort of complicated web of ropes around it. By the time they were finished, I was seriously worried about the bus. It wasn’t just top-heavy: asymmetrical loading had given it had a distinct list to port.

About a third of our fellow-travelers chewed betel nut. Since betel activates the salivary glands, chewers spit often and copiously. It also thickens the saliva and colours it blood-red The ubiquitous use of betel nut has made spitting socially acceptable everywhere in India, and streets, footpaths, walls – even the floors of buses and trains – are widely spattered with dark gobbets of indelible red spittle. The first time my mother saw this phenomenon – when a Bangkok taxi half-opened his door and hawked an oyster of betel juice into the street – she thought he was having a haemorrhage.

Most of our betel chewers – all of whom were clearly old hands at bus travel – had positioned themselves next to windows, through which they regularly expectorated streams of cherry-coloured liquid. This worked fine for them, but not so well for Dave and me sitting way at the back. From time to time a gobbet of saliva, caught in our slipstream, would be sucked back inside through the glassless rear windows to spatter over us passengers at the back of the bus.

Otherwise, the 200-km trip from Jammu to Banihal was OK. The road wound around the Siwaliks – pretty pine-covered hills – then headed north into the foothills of the Himalayas. As we progressed, the countryside gradually grew drier and less hospitable. The road eventually see-sawed its way across barren slopes of scree and rock along the south face of the Pir Panjal Range to the village of Banihal. Banihal was a little green oasis in the midst of a grim, grey landscape – hard and steep and bare – below an immense ramp of rock rising up to Banihal Pass

The Banihal Pass road is of great military importance to India. The only natural access to Kashmir is from Pakistan – from Lahore or Rawalpindi via Murree and Muzzafarabad – entering the province from the west up the Jhelum River valley. At independence in 1947, the rulers of more than two hundred independent states (of which Jammu and Kashmir were among the largest) were allowed to choose whether to join Muslim Pakistan or Hindu India. Although the population of Kashmir was predominantly Moslem – and despite the natural access from Pakistan – the Hindu Maharajah of Jammu and Kashmir opted for union with India. Almost immediately upon its accession to India, Kashmir was invaded along the natural route by so-called ‘freedom-fighters’ from Pakistan who quickly over-ran the western half of the province. A vigorous – and ultimately successful – defence was mounted by Indian troops, most of whom – because India had no overland routes into Kashmir – had to be air-lifted in. An access road across Banihal Pass became a sort of national priority for the Indian government. And it was quickly done – at least by Indian standards. But access was still awful. The pass – at an elevation of 2,832 metres (9,200 ft) – was often blocked by snow and impassable for half of each year. To rectify this, construction of the Jawahar Tunnel began almost immediately. The twin 2,500 metre tunnels – at an elevation of 2,200 metres (7,216 feet) were opened for traffic in 1956, permitting year-round access to Kashmir for the first time.

Nobody seemed to know whether the tunnel would be open or not – it was, after all, primarily for military use and was occasionally closed to civilian traffic. We figured we’d know when we got there. It was only seventeen kilometres from Banihal village to the south portal of the tunnel – but they were seventeen of the longest kilometres I have ever had to travel.

I hardly know how to describe the climb from the village to the mouth of the tunnel two thousand metres above. Launching itself up a series of ramps and switchbacks the road literally ‘stitched’ itself to the mountainside.  Zigzagging up steep rock and scree slopes, it tacked sharply between alternate right and left hairpin bends.

The bus was too long to make it around the sharpest turns in one go. But the driver knew how to resolve this problem. He simply cranked the steering wheel to full-lock on really tight hairpin bends. This caused the bus to more-or-less pivot around its front wheels, the rear of the bus skidding sideways around the corner, effecting a 180o turn almost within the bus’s own length. Thus the front end of the bus mostly just spun on its axis, but the back wheels had to cover ten times as much ground – skidding sideways around the hairpins at quite dizzying speeds. Because of the long overhang, our part of the bus whipped around faster still – the analogy of ‘cracking a whip’ sprang to mind – centrifugal forces mashing us back into our benches. I was literally afraid I might shit myself. I had had ‘Delhi Belly’ for almost a week, and my sphincter muscles were already in crisis. I knew that Entero-vioform could handle bacterial diarrhoea, but I wasn’t sure how it worked on shits induced by terror. By the time we got to the tunnel, both my nerves and my anal muscles were exhausted. But Entero-vioform had done its thing. I had managed to contain both my terror and yesterday’s dinner.

It took until noon to reach the graveled turnaround at the tunnel’s south portal – literally the first stopping place we’d come to. I looked down on the panorama below us – across the tawny rumpled hills of Jammu and out toward the plains of Punjab. Straight below us we could see the switchbacks up which we had climbed – like looking down the front of a half-laced boot. And about a mile below us, where the toe of the boot should have been, was the little green smudge of Banihal Village. It had taken five terrible hours to get from there to here. The appalling perpendicularity of the view may have been more apparent than real, but memory tells me that I could have lobbed a stone down onto the roofs of the village below.

The mouths of the tunnel (there were two – one inbound, one outbound) were guarded by a pair of sand-bagged machine-gun emplacements, each manned by half-a-dozen fiercely-bearded Sikhs in khaki uniforms and sky-blue turbans. Huge signs – each about six feet high and ten wide – blocked both tunnels. They read, “Half-day closure of Jawahar Tunnel for military convoy.” In English, Hindi and four or five Indian alphabets – Bengali, Punjabi, Telegu, Malayalam, and/or Tamil, I assumed. What the signs’ message meant, in practice, was that instead of barreling through the tunnel as we’d planned, we had to proceed over the pass itself, some 2,000 feet – and many, many switchbacks – above us. It would add several hours to our travel time to Srinagar.

This was the first ‘comfort stop’ we’d had, so most of the passengers took the opportunity to relieve themselves. I looked around to see where it was intended that we should ‘go’. The turn-around was as bare as a baboon’s bum, with neither facilities nor anything to hide behind. So those who had to go – by now practically everybody – simply….well….’went’. This is not as disgusting as it might seem. The men mostly wore knee-length shirts or coats and women ankle-length chadors. To relieve themselves, both sexes had only to squat down beneath their voluminous clothing, thus exposing no parts of their bodies to anyone else. Only a trickle of urine, darkening the dust to mud, gave the nature of their activities away.

My problem was a little more complicated. My bladder was in crisis. I didn’t have a choice. Like everybody else, I had to go – and I had to go now – but, unlike everybody else, I simply didn’t have the proper wardrobe to pee in public. Shorts and a T-shirt just didn’t cut it. The only way I could pass water with anything like modesty was to turn my back on absolutely everybody, and the only way to do that was to face out over the cliff and piss into space. This may sound simple – it may even sound like fun – but for me it was anything but. I suffer from acute acrophobia. So I spent several minutes weighing up my options – essentially terror versus modesty. Modesty finally won, and I opted for the precipice.

I don’t think any of my fellow passengers – all of whom, regardless of sex, squatted down to relieve themselves – had ever seen a man urinate standing up, and their interest in the operation was intense. I could feet hot eyes on my back and a cold lump in my gut as I approached the brink with knee-trembling terror. As I fumbled with my fly, it occurred to me that the excruciating embarrassment of this public display – made while teetering, terror-stricken, on the brink of a mile-high cliff – might, in a manner of speaking, ‘freeze my pipes’. But in the end, bladder pressure overcame both modesty and fear, and I, too, ‘went’. I reckon the crowd mostly went away disappointed. Although they almost saw everything, they actually saw nothing, but they’d known exactly what I was doing while I was doing it. The humiliation of it haunts me still.

You may well wonder why I didn’t do the usual thing – pee up against the rock face at the base of the cliff. To be honest, I wonder why, too – but I can clearly remember that there was, at the time, an absolutely compelling reason. I wonder what it was. Anyway, the deed was done. There was, I suppose, one bright spot – I had just peed the better part of a mile.

As we clambered back aboard our bus, a motorcycle roared out of the southbound tunnel, followed by a Russian-made jeep – the head of the convoy, we assumed. Judging by the Sikh guards’ smart salutes, the jeep must have contained somebody pretty important. Roaring across the turnaround in a cloud of dust, they set off down the hill toward Banihal. By the time our bus pulled out, skeins of trucks were emerging from both portals of the tunnel, merging on the turnaround to form a long green caterpillar of army trucks that crept down the mountainside.

Beyond the tunnel the road deteriorated alarmingly. Since this part of it wasn’t used much, the road crews hardly attempted to maintain it. The asphalt surface disintegrated progressively uphill, and by the halfway point, what was left of it had broken into tilted plates separated by potholes. Farther up, the asphalt vanished altogether, leaving a washboarded surface covered with loose gravel and scree. The road was incredibly narrow up there. I don’t know what we would have done if we’d met anybody – a problem exacerbated by the lack of maintenance. Nobody had bothered to remove the fans of rock and scree that had slumped down onto the road from the cliffs above. Some of them were big enough to force the bus right to the outer edge of the road, where it teetered on the rim of one awesome precipice after another. And almost all of the guard-rails were missing, especially across the big arcuate gaps where chunks of road had fallen away into the gorge below.

At practically every corner, as the bus fish-tailed around the switchbacks, its ass-end would swing way out over the abyss, so that each of us – first Dave on the right and then I on the left (both clinging frantically to our respective window frames) – could look straight down one dizzying vertical drop after another. And there were a terrible lot of corners – forty or fifty if memory serves – and a terrible lot of ‘dizzying vertical drops’. Only over the last mile or two did the gradient moderate, and the actual crest of the pass was something of an anticlimax.

My relief when eventually we reached the crest – where we were again permitted to disembark – was indescribable. The landscape up there was hard and bare. Immense slabs of grey rock, some of them the size of small towns, rose all about us, casting long, jagged shadows in the afternoon sunlight. There’d been snow flurries the night before, and some of the slopes still looked like they had been lightly salted.

I looked back down the way we’d come. Because the last bit of slope had been convex, I was unable to see Banihal. That came as something of a relief. After eight hours climbing, it was nice not to be able to spit down on the place you’d left at dawn.

To the north was a landscape so unlike the dust and scree and shriveled beige grass, through which we had been climbing all morning, it could have belonged to an entirely different world. I suddenly knew how Dorothy must have felt when she first arrived in Oz.

The prospect below us was stupendous. A river meandered in great shining loops through a broad valley – green and lush and intensely cultivated. Immense white mountains floated in the sky above it. Fading downward into blue, their splintered caps of snow seemed translucent and fragile as lace. Beyond them, vague and misty with distance, a series of mighty ridges rose toward the gigantic icy spire of Nanga Parbat. At 26,600 ft, Nanga Parbat is the ninth highest mountain in the world. Its name means “Naked Mountain”. Its southern face – rising three vertical miles above the valley – is one of the great precipices of the world.

We were on the roof of the world – well, maybe not the roof exactly, but certainly high on the eaves. There were great mountains all around us. Behind us was the Pir Panjal range, ahead loomed the Karakorums, to our left the Hindu Kush and to the right the Himalayas – the warp and woof of a landscape scaled for titans and set atilt above the clouds. Tucked away in the rumples and pleats of this gigantic tapestry of mountains and sky were fabled kingdoms – Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim, Gilkit and Hunza, Skardu and Chitral, Swat and Kashmir – all names exotic and romantic almost beyond my imaginings.

Below us, a thousand feet or so, the forests began – tall pines and firs and weeping deodars leaned across the road above giant ferns and rhododendrons. The air smelled of lilacs and of resin. Farther downhill, we came out of the forest onto bare hillsides of slippery, sunburnt grass. There we came across the other end of the tunnel, just in time to see the last few trucks – of what must have been a very long military convoy – vanishing into both shafts of the tunnel.

Below the tunnel were orchards – apples, apricots, peaches, cherries and pears – and dry stone walls. On the lower slopes were rows of anar (pomegranates), badam (almonds) and pisteh (pistachios) underplanted with mustard. The Vale of Kashmir was clearly rich and fertile. On the valley floor tall poplars lined the road and there were coppices of huge walnut trees and mulberries amongst cultivated fields of green and yellow. And behind it all were the mountains, fading tier upon tier into the sky.

Here and there we could see distant villages – pagoda-like minarets and tall brick and timber houses with steeply-pitched roofs, immersed in trees. Irrigation channels gurgled beside the road, and pollarded trees – their anaemic bursts of twigs like giant dandelions – cast filigree circles of shadow across the road.

***

Dave had come to greatly respect my fund of local knowledge about India. But I really knew hardly anything. It was all a scam. I had set out early in our trip to impress him, something I did mostly by surreptitiously scanning guidebooks at bookshops and memorising bits of data relevant to our next stop. These bits of data – things like heights of mountains, population figures or ages of temples, etc. – I would later trundle out when appropriate, as though I had always known them. I had done this to him all the way across India. Amongst many other things, I had told him the age of the rock-cut temples at Mahabalipuram (7th century), the population of Madras (2,500,000 in 1958) the age and height of the Qutb Minar in Delhi (765 years and 239 ft). All these bits of esoteric information had impressed him mightily – just as I had intended they should.

I had also told him who had built the Taj Mahal and when (Shah Jehan in 1631). In 1958, it was permitted to overnight in the spectacularly beautiful gardens surrounding the Taj Mahal for the three nights before and after the full moon. The moon was full when we visited the Taj, so we unrolled our sleeping bags and dossed down in the iwan (porch) of the red sandstone mosque beside the Taj. Not that either of us got much sleep. As it happened, on that particular night there was nobody there but us, and we had the vast complex to ourselves. It was magic – the great tomb shimmering under the moon, and the immense gardens flooded with pale light.

For today’s trip I had rummaged through a bookshop in Jammu and had learned the names of all the hill stations in the Siwaliks – Udhampur, Kud, Patnitop, Sansar and Batote – (that had impressed him), the length of Jawahar Tunnel (1.5 miles), the height of Nanga Parbat – 26,600 ft – (that had impressed him, too). I also knew that Kashmir was one of the world’s major suppliers of saffron. So far I hadn’t had any occasion to tell him about the saffron.

Now, I thought, as we trundled across the flat valley floor, For my hat-trick. Pointing to a field ablaze with yellow blooms, I nudged Dave. “Saffron,” I told him, waving expansively out the window. “It’s a major cash crop here. Yellow food-colouring, y’know. Very, very expensive.” I even knew how expensive. I could hardly wait to tell him. But, in the event, I never got to.

“Bliss to egg shoes me foreign to erupting,” A deep voice came from behind us, “Dad’s moose turd. Dad yell loaf elders moose turd.“ A very dark Indian with a memorably large nose had leaned forward and was waggling his index finger between us. “Hits moose turd. Nods afar an.”

“Moose turd?” I’d missed most of what he’d said, but I’d certainly heard “Moose turd”. I had, in fact, heard it several times. I knew it wasn’t what he’d actually said, but it was what both Dave and I had heard. This was a problem we’d had ever since arriving in India eight or nine weeks before. Lots of people in India spoke English – but most of them had accents so dense that, to our untutored ears, they might as well have been speaking Martian.

The problem, I guess, was that generations of Indians had each learned English from the generation before them – who had learned from the generation before them, and so on – until both students and teachers were four or five generations removed from the last actual English-speaking instructor. Accents and word usage had progressively diverged from the original English until Indian English and English English were about as mutually comprehensible – or incomprehensible – as, say, Spanish and French. We were learning – painfully – how to translate, but it was a slow process, and we were still pretty awful at it. Anyway, we both mulled over what we thought we had heard.

Dave tweaked first. “He must mean ‘mustard,’” he said. “He said, ‘Please to excuse me for interrupting. That’s mustard. That yellow field is mustard’.”
“Mustard?” I was both disbelieving and hostile. I didn’t want it to be mustard. To keep my credibility intact, I needed for it to be saffron. How was I going to impress Dave with my vast knowledge of saffron if I couldn’t even correctly identify a whole field of the stuff when it was right under my nose? I turned to the ‘nose’ chap, “Mustard? Are you sure?”
“Oh, yes, High yam be ink whites hurtin’. Zaff Aran’s collar is a sword of burble” His thick accent made it sound as though his nasal passages were blocked. ‘Sword’, I quickly worked out, was ‘sort’ and ‘Burble’ ‘purple’. Then the rest sort of fell into place. ‘I am being quite certain,’ he had said, ‘The colour of Zaff Aran (whatever that was) ‘is sort of purple’.
“Zaff Aran…Zaff Aran.” I rolled it around in my head, “Zaff Aran.” Sometimes we were only able to understand local English in the context in which we had heard it. This was one of those times. A light went on in my head. Saffron! Of course: ‘Zaff Aran’ = ‘saffron’. These guys are talking about saffron! I knew saffron all right. Or at least I wanted Dave to think I knew it.

But if our new acquaintances were right, I knew a whole lot less than I’d thought I did. This was turning out to be fairly embarrassing, and I was sorry I’d brought the whole thing up. The one thing I was sure I knew was that saffron was a yellow food colouring. “You’re telling us that saffron – zaffaran – is purple? Not yellow?”
“Yes. Statics act Liam Dylan queue. (Yes, that, exactly, I am telling you) Zaff Aran has burble plossoms. It is….” He gesticulated wildly out the window, “Luke!” he ejaculated (Look!)…. “Dare…Zaffaran!’

We were passing a huge field – a field of a violent purple colour. Well, not actually purple, but a sort of vivid mauve. Close enough, I reckoned, to purple to clinch his argument – at least if this really was saffron. On close inspection, it turned out to be covered in small blossoms like miniature lilies. I was so intrigued both by the vivid colour of both field and flowers – having never seen a mauve crop before – that I almost forgot how pissed-off I was. Our Good Samaritan was turning out to be more interesting than irritating. My pique began to evaporate.

“Are you sure?”
“Deaf innate lees your. Use howl beet old heavy wreath ink eye Noah bough tit.” (You shall be told everything I know about it). Hardly pausing to draw breath, he launched into his subject, “Zaffaran” he began, “Ease teem oh sticks pence sieve Gandhi meant inter whirled, end…… (is the most expensive condiment in the world, and…..)

Over the next hour – slowly and painfully, stumbling over his dreadful accent and our inadequate linguistic skills – I was to learn more about saffron than I ever wanted to know. By the time he’d finished, our heads were spinning. But to be fair to him, he was a damned good teacher. After more than fifty years, I can still remember everything he told us.

The name ‘saffron’ comes from the Arabic ‘Zaffaran’ – meaning ‘yellow’ – referring, as it happens, not to how it looks but to what it does. Saffron, it turns out, is harvested from the Crocus Sativas plant – a small showy perennial member of the lily family. The blossoms of Crocus Sativas – about four inches across – are lily-shaped and pale mauve in colour, darkening to a sort of deep purple in the centre. Protruding from the throat of the flower are three fat yellow stamens (the male organs) and three threadlike stigmas (the female organs) – all about an inch long. Only the stigmas, which are of a rich red hue, are used to make saffron. Nobody has yet been able to explain to my satisfaction why the red stigmas of a mauve blossom should impart a yellow colour to the food to which they added.

It takes up to five hundred stigmas to make a single gram of saffron – or half-a-million per kilogramme. Saffron is grown in many countries – Iran and Spain produce 80% of the 300 tonnes of saffron harvested each year. That represents 120,000,000,000 individual stigmas – but the best saffron – called ‘Mogra Cream’ – comes only from Kashmir. A one-acre field can produce about two kilogrammes of saffron per year. Saffron growing is so labour-intensive that a one-acre field is about all a family – even a large family – can handle. Everything has to be done by hand – planting, weeding (saffron is violently weed-averse), picking, plucking, sorting, packing – everything. That’s why, even in India where labour costs are very low, it’s still almost prohibitively expensive. A kilogramme of Mogra Cream cost nearly US$11,000 – about twice the price of gold, then pegged at US$35/ounce – in Delhi. Because of local demand, it is practically unobtainable outside India.

Curiously, Saffron is actually seriously poisonous – an ounce is considered to be a lethal dose. Saffron poisoning, although not unknown, is extremely rare – mostly, I expect, because of the prohibitive cost. Maybe it’s just as well that almost nobody can afford to keep an ounce of saffron in his or her cupboard.

***

Gradually others of our neighbours got themselves involved our discussion, and conversation gradually became more general. Soon we were pretty much surrounded by an interested and animated crowd. As we juddered along the road to Srinagar, half the passengers jammed the aisle around us – sitting, standing and kneeling – and a lot of them ended up leaning over our seats. In the ordinary run of things, I am not claustrophobically inclined, but Indians seem to require a lot less personal space than we do, and their proximity made me a little uncomfortable. Not only that. A bag of fruit had been passed amongst them, and somebody was dripping what turned out to be mango juice down my front

We had had this same conversation fifty times by now. Every Indian we met seemed to want to know the same things – how old we were, what were our jobs, how much money we had, if we were married and how many children we had – and how did we like India. We weren’t at all shy. Nor had we anything to hide. So we told them. We were both twenty-three, students, had no money to speak of, were single and – as far as we knew – childless.

As for how we liked India, that was a tad more difficult to answer. To be honest, neither of us actually liked it much. It was an uncomfortable place – hot, crowded, noisy and dirty – really tough to ‘do on the cheap – and we’d been living too rough to really enjoy it. Everybody had warned us about drinking the local water. Even Pepsi was often adulterated and sometimes deadly. So the only safe alternative was tea (because it was boiled), of which I consumed more cups than I like to remember. Fiery local food incinerated our taste buds, seethed in our guts, and blew our arses off. We’d both been sick on and off for weeks – Dave eventually came down with hepatitis and had to be airlifted home from Kabul. I ended up with amoebic dysentery and malaria, both of which were eventually diagnosed and treated in Iran, at the Bemaristan Nemazee in Shiraz. And we were tired and thirsty and we itched. We’d have killed for a hot shower, a hamburger, a plate of baked beans – or even a glass of water we weren’t afraid to drink.

But India was an awesome place. Its mosques and temples, its forts and tombs were wonderful – stupendously big and marvelously exotic. Even its ramshackle, chaotic cities had a certain tacky charm and a super-abundance of local colour (‘local colour’ is really just the outward manifestation of poverty. People wear rags because they can’t afford clothes, look dirty because they wash in muddy water, beg on the streets because otherwise they starve. Mud houses and slums and quaint markets survive only because nobody has enough money to tear them down and replace them. If these people could afford to live like we do, they would do it. In fact, in India those who can afford to, do. The prosperous suburbs of Indian cities are about as exciting and colourful as, say, Indianapolis). Anyway, we hadn’t come here for ‘comfortable’ – we’d come for ‘different’. And India was the most ‘different’ place either of us had ever been. Everything was different. Not for a single moment was it possible to forget that we were a long, long way from home.

In the end, without actually liking India, I fell in love with it – and I think it showed. The Indians we met were wonderful. Total strangers from all walks of life – mostly people we met on the trains – invited us into their homes. During our four months in India we stayed with parliamentarians, baniyas, provincial governors, zamindars, railway workers, farmers, students, village mayors, university professors, high-school teachers, penniless serfs and doctors – and at least one maharajah’s son.

Two words did – and still do – summarise India for me – ‘fabulous’ and ‘awful’.

***

About half-way to Srinagar we stopped at a little tea-house in a coppice of undersize plane trees that had been pollarded down to almost their last leaf. There was a pergola beside the road about twenty feet square – eight whitewashed brick pillars holding up a thick mat of grapevines and wisteria. Under it were a sort of trestle table, two battered ice-chests – each bearing the ‘Pepsi’ logo (Coke was banned in India because they refused to provide the government with a copy of their secret recipe) and eight or ten crates of soft drinks. On the table were a gargling samovar and two large, shallow terracotta charcoal braziers, over which. skewers of kebab hissed and crackled. Layers of gauzy smoke, smelling strongly of marinade, eddied amongst the mutilated trees. There were four or five folding aluminium tables and a dozen or so folding lawn-chairs in what would have been shade if the trees had had any leaves.

We were still very much the centre of attention. Most of our fellow-travelers gathered around our table, and we had ‘conversations’, some of which were still of the “How much money have you?” variety. Someone – as it happened, one of the better English-speakers – asked us what we intended to do in Srinagar. Because he was easy to talk to, we concentrated on his question. We had no real plans, we admitted, except to spend a couple of weeks on a houseboat. Immediately we were smothered in advice. Almost all of our new acquaintances seemed to have relatives or friends who owned a houseboat – and each offered to put in a good word for us and to make sure we got what they, in their patois called “haggard teal”. It took us a while to figure out that they meant “a good deal”.

A sort of family squabble ensued, each of them trying to convince the others that their friend/relative was the one we should contact first. We didn’t know enough to choose – nor were we actually sure whether it was our interests (or those of the relatives/friends they were promoting) for us to choose – so we let them fight amongst themselves to decide whose friend or relation should get the dubious pleasure of our company for a couple of weeks.

Eventually, a chap called ‘Bezam’ identified himself to us. It was his relative, a cousin called Ali Abdul Shala, who had drawn the short straw – or, rather, for whom the short straw had been drawn. We would be staying in his houseboat. It was, Bezam told us, called ‘Gwenette’. I hoped that nobody – not us, not Bezam and not Ali Abdul Shala – would regret it. ’Gwenette’ was hardly a name to conjure with. I found myself hoping that she would be more romantic than her name seemed to suggest.

***

We reached Srinagar just at dusk, the city unfolding in layered silhouette against a great red smear of sunset. The river, reflecting the sunset, flowed like a stream of lava through the city, melting its way toward the western horizon. Two steep hills – backlit in the dusk – dominated the otherwise flat cityscape. As the sun briefly gilded the town’s jumbled skyline, the towers atop them – an ugly little Moghul fort on Hari Parbat and the Shankaracharya Temple on Takht-e-Sulaiman- caught its very last rays, glowing like immense lanterns high above the darkening city.

Sand Gorilla

If legend is to be believed, the Kashmir valley was once a lake as large as a sea – it is a geological certainty that this is so. The valley floor is clearly the bed of an old lake – and here lived an abominable demon that was killed – but only after most of the lake had been drained by the goddess Parvati with the help of Brahma’s grandson, Kashyap. It was Parvati who finally killed the demon by dropping a mountain on him.

The Srinagar bus terminus – at the junction of Polo Road and the Bund – was in the middle of the ‘New Bazaar. Arriving at the market just after sunset, we instantly plunged into a kaleidoscope of light and noise. We disembarked in a seething market square, amidst carts and kiosks brilliantly illuminated by pressure lamps. There was so much dust, refracting and reflecting the light that everyone seemed to be wading through clouds. They were all thrown into silhouette, with brilliant shafts of buttery light flickering amongst shadowy people. Several of our new friends, including Bezam – whose job was to make sure we got together with Ali Abdul Shala – accompanied us into the market and escorted us through the crowd.

Along one side of the market was a row of low modernish buildings containing mostly touristy shops. They were ablaze with neon strips that threw fans of gaudy light out across the street. On the other side was the bund – what passed in Srinagar for a waterfront – a ramp of dusty cobblestones leading steeply down eight or ten feet to the shore of Dal Lake.

Along the top of the bank were thirty or forty signs – all advertising the famous houseboats of Kashmir. Curiously, there was nothing exotic about most of the names – in that, our houseboat was fairly typical, I suppose. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, most of them had previously been owned by homesick Englishmen. They were mostly English names – things like ‘Dunroamin’, ‘Elizabeth’, ‘Margaret’, ‘Bide-a-Wee’, ‘Cirencester’ and ‘Isle of Wight’ – things like that. And, of course, ‘Gwenette’.

Of the houseboats themselves, we could see nothing. The lake itself was ink-dark except for an irregular line of lights marking what we assumed to be the far shore. Below me, in the darkness, I could see only the sharp prows of a lot of small boats tethered there in flotillas – six or eight radiating like spokes from each of a series of posts sunk in the mud.

A horde of houseboat touts – at least two or three per sign, it seemed – suddenly materialised out of the crowd, waving their arms and clamoring for attention. It was, I quickly realised, our attention they were clamoring for. Ours were the only white faces around, and they were all heading in our direction. We suddenly found ourselves up to our armpits in short brown people plucking at us and shouting at the top of their lungs.

Thank God for Bezam! He waded into the crowd like a shark into a shoal of sardines, and almost before we knew it we were being introduced to Ali Abdul Shala – a square, solid man of about forty, with a thatch of dark hair and a moustache of astonishing dimensions. With Bezam’s help, a deal was soon struck. We were to pay Ali Abdul $US8/day for board and room for two.

“My houseboat,” Ali Abdul told us, waving vaguely at the darkness beyond the bund, “Is ‘over there.” and without further ado we set off to find her. Holding a pressure lamp over his head, Ali Abdul guided us down to the edge of the lake where we’d seen the little boats. With a long, hooked pole, he snagged a rope and pulled one to shore. About thirty feet long and six or eight wide and sharply pointed at prow and stern, it had a square canopy suspended amidships on four raked poles. Grasping the gunwale near the bow, Ali Abdul knelt down and smiled up at us. “Well comma border sand gorilla,” he said.

Oh, God, I thought, Here we go again. More ‘Hinglish’ translating. “Well comma” – was probably “Welcome.” I broke it down one syllable at a time. “Welcome aboarder…sand gorilla”. “Welcome aboard the…” That was what he’d said….“Welcome aboard the Sand Gorilla” Now all I had to figure out was what ‘Sand Gorilla’ was supposed to be.
I decided to tackle this one head-on. “Sand Gorilla?”
“Yes. Name of boat.”
“This boat,” I pointed, “Is called ‘Sand Gorilla’?”
“Yes. ‘Sand Gorilla’.”
“I thought your boat was called ‘Gwenette’.”
“Oh, yes. Houseboat name ‘Gwenette’, he replied, “But this not houseboat – not for living.” He gave us a huge smile, the corners of his mouth disappearing upward into the vastness of his moustache. “This,” he pointed down, “Is ‘shikar’. For travel only – like taxi. ‘Sand Gorilla’.”

‘Sand Gorilla’, as a name for a Kashmiri boat, was so unlikely as to be ridiculous. It had to be something else – something reasonably logical. But, try as I would, I could think of no useful homonyms that might give me a handle to be going on with. Still, I resolved to keep worrying at it.

Grinning, Ali Abdul gestured for us to step aboard. Beneath the canopy – half-buried in a heap of cushions – was something I was totally unprepared for: a huge feather mattress. It was like stepping off into a cloud, and I was lucky to be holding onto one of the canopy supports. Even so, I sank to my thighs in its vast softness, then floundered awkwardly amongst a surfeit of pillows trying to get my head back above gunwale-level. Dave, laughing at my predicament, lowered himself more cautiously.

Ali Abdul cast off the painter, and, thrusting a long pole into the water, he pushed off from shore. ‘Sand Gorilla’ moved silently across the surface of the water with hardly a ripple. At first, in the circle of light cast by his lantern, we seemed to be traversing a maze of narrow passages between low banks of reeds and vegetables. After five or ten minutes, we emerged from the channel onto Dal Lake.

The thirty-minute trip to the houseboat was magical. The shikar, gliding silently across the lake, hardly disturbed its mirrored surface. Except for reflections of stars wavering on its almost motionless surface, the lake was invisible. The mountains glowed in the moonlight against a glittering shroud of stars. The air was crisp – even cold. It seemed brittle as glass, and the immense landscape as insubstantial as the sky – fragmented and luminous.

The Kashmiri houseboat is a British invention. It originated in the Victorian era as a typically British solution to a typically Indian problem. The British liked Kashmir for its cool climate and splendid scenery, and they migrated there in large numbers during the hot season. In similar hill stations elsewhere in India, in states ruled directly by the Raj, British families bought land and built bungalows and churches and clubs – whole towns, in fact – to which they returned year after year. The big hill stations at Murree, Simla (to which the entire machinery of the British Raj migrated from the sweltering capital of Delhi – where temperatures of over 50oC were not uncommon – each summer), Musoori and Darjeeling, with their typical Victorian cottages perched improbably on the foothills of the Himalayas, having long-outlasted the Raj itself, continue to charm. They are also still enormously popular and are fully booked each summer, but now by Indians rather than the British.

But Kashmir was one of the so-called ‘princely states’ where the writ of the Raj didn’t really run. The Maharajah, who suspected the British of having designs on his sovereignty, had been to Simla and Murree (now in Pakistan) and he hadn’t much liked what he’d seen. He wasn’t, he said, having anything like that on his territory. He couldn’t ban the English outright from visiting Kashmir – the treaties he’d signed gave them control of his foreign affairs and an absolute right of access. But he could – and did – refuse the British land on which to build.

But the Brits were cunning. If they couldn’t vacation on the Maharajah’s lands, they would do so on his lakes. So, commencing in the 1880s, they built houseboats – modeled loosely on a local all-purpose boat called a ‘doonga’ –The basic mode of transport on the lakes, rivers and canals of Kashmir – instead. A doonga is about thirty feet long with a beam of ten or so feet and a draught of less than a foot. Bow and stern are identical. The amidships portion contains a wooden cabin, usually with a thatched roof. A shikar, of which “Sand Gorilla” is typical, has the hull of a ‘doonga’, but is without the superstructure. The style of houseboats has hardly changed from the first one to the present day. Many hundreds of British administrators – from Amritsar, Rawalpindi and Lahore – spent much of many hot seasons in Srinagar.

The ‘Gwenette’ was tied up – along with half-a-dozen others – next to a thicket of willows across the Nagin Channel from Srinagar’s waterfront. Looming out of the darkness, I saw her mostly in installments. Looking nothing like I expected, she seemed to be a smallish barge – square-ended, flat-bottomed – about fifty feet long with a beam of ten or twelve feet, her deck a couple of feet above the water. Except for small covered verandahs fore and aft – and narrow unrailed walkways to port and starboard – her shoebox-shaped superstructure occupied every square inch of deck space. Low railings decorated with potted geraniums enclosed the flat roof. I could see deck chairs up there, and a lounger under a sunshade.

Boarding ‘Gwenette’ via a set of narrow steps, we found ourselves on a little covered verandah. With a smiling flourish Ali Abdul ushered us into a smallish parlour. It was strangely homely. There were plaid curtains at its windows and three plump overstuffed chairs covered in flowered, slightly faded chintz. Old English-language magazines (the most recent dated October, 1947) were heaped on the coffee table, and there were prints of the English countryside and hunting scenes on the wood-paneled walls. They, too, were all a bit faded. The only exotic touch was the colourful dhurri on the floor. Sliding doors led to the dining room, which contained an elegant but battered mahogany table and four chairs – and more faded English prints.

There were two bedrooms – each with a double bed, a feather mattress and an eiderdown duvet. They could be accessed only through sliding doors from the narrow, unrailed port and starboard walkways. There were porcelain bowls and ewers – for hand and face washing – on little stands in both bedrooms. The major facilities – a chemical loo set into a wooden box with an elaborately carved lid, and a galvanized tin hipbath – were right at the stern, tucked under the narrow stairway leading up to the roof.

Every surface of ‘Gwenette’ – walls, ceilings and floors – was of pale, honey-coloured wood. I can still vividly recall her odour – a curious mixture of the familiar (furniture polish, new wood, crisp linen) and the exotic (dust, dung, coriander, scorched wheat, and spiced onions simmering in ghee).

‘Gwenette’ had no kitchen. Ali Abdul’s doonga was moored just astern, and food was prepared in the family kitchen there. He lived with his mother, his wife Samara, and three small children – two sons: four-year-old Aziz and seven-year-old Mohammed: and a daughter Hazira, ten. Their doonga, about a third of ‘Gwenette’s’ size, had a double-pitched thatch roof. It had only one window, but the two front panels of the roof were hinged at the ridgeline, and could be propped open for ventilation or to let out cooking smoke.

***

We quickly fell in love with the ‘Sand Gorilla’. She was wonderful. She was a ‘shikar’ – an all-purpose craft used to transport both passengers and freight up and down and across the rivers and lakes of Kashmir. A luxury shikar – of which ‘Sand Gorilla’ was a fine example – must be one of the most sumptuous modes of travel ever invented. About the size and shape of a Venetian gondola – itself a pretty marvelous thing – she was, perhaps, three or four feet broader in the beam. Her design was curious: there were very long overhangs at both bow and stern, and only about a third of the rounded hull lay below the water-line. If the boat were less broad in the beam, I suppose this would make her unstable, but it also gave her a very shallow draught – certainly less than a foot fully-laden. Like the gondola, a shikar is not propelled by oars. The boatman, like the gondolier, stands in the stern and propels it with a long pole. Neither Dal nor Nagin Lake was much over ten feet deep anywhere.

There was a huge soft mattress amidships, beneath a large canvas awning. ’Sand Gorilla’s’ down-filled mattress was covered in brocade and heaped with multi-coloured cushions – upon which we lolled in almost sybaritic luxury. Just behind us – at Ali Abdul’s feet – was a round clay firebox. Usually he kept it filled with glowing charcoal with a pot of tea bubbling over it. There was a small ice-chest up forward, normally filled with bottles of Pepsi Cola and sarsaparilla packed in ice. The boat could easily accommodate six or eight people, but we were usually only two. Sometimes we invited Ali Abdul’s children to come along – and they often came – but they always played in the bow, leaving the luxurious canopied diwan to us.

Traveling by shikar was one of the great experiences of my life – probably the most decadent thing I have ever done – lolling amongst sumptuous cushions on a feather mattress of voluptuous softness, and sipping mint tea surrounded by stupendous scenery. I don’t suppose our speed ever exceeded two or three km/hour, but that was OK. Dal Lake isn’t really very big, and an hour or two usually sufficed to reach our destination. Cruising by shikar was such an enjoyable experience that ‘getting there really was half the fun’.

I was still worried about that damned name. I could think of nothing – at least nothing in English – which mispronunciation of the words ‘sand’ and ‘gorilla’ might resemble. But I hadn’t given up. Not yet. I was still almost certain that somewhere, there was a ‘Hinglish’ homonym that would give us a clue.

***

For about a week we explored the lake and the city, cruising up and down its canals and threading our way through floating gardens and lotus beds. Sometimes Ali Abdul’s mother would come along, bringing baskets of fruit and tomatoes and roti bread, hardboiled eggs, lettuce and bowls of sauce, and we would have a picnic. Ali Abdul would cook kebabs – or goat cutlets or chicken – in his charcoal brazier, as he poled us across the lake. Sometimes we would disembark on an island to eat. Other times we ate as we sailed. These I remember as the happiest of happy times.

A lot of Dal Lake is hardly what one would expect a lake to be like. It’s not really one lake at all, but three. Nor is it very large – only eight or ten km square – and very shallow. Much of it is a maze of intricate waterways and channels, floating islands of vegetation, houseboats that look so firmly moored they could almost be islands, and houses on islands, that look like they could simply float away.

Near the city the surface of the lake was covered by the ‘floating gardens” – house-sized rafts of woven water weed tethered in the shallows. After earth was piled upon the rafts, and seedlings planted, the floating gardens supplied the city with most of its vegetables. These gardens apparently last about a decade before rotting and eventually sinking. The gardens were connected to each other and to the shore by rickety wooden causeways, a couple of which extended completely across the lake.

The surface of the lake seemed always unruffled, almost unnaturally calm and luminous – sky-coloured but brighter than the sky. Its mirrored perfection was only occasionally disturbed by the curving eruption – the flick and nibble – of fish making muted noises, like corks pulled out of submerged bottles. The water was so clear that we could see right to the bottom ten or twelve feet below – and watch fish swimming amongst stalagmites of water weeds.

Except for the centre of Srinagar city, the loudest sounds in the valley were bird-calls and, at night, the croaking of thousands of frogs. Part of the reason for the peace and serenity of the valley was the simple absence of the internal combustion engine. There were no motorised vessels on Dal Lake – only shikars sliding silently across the glassy calm water – and few vehicles in the city either – most traffic was horse-drawn tongas.

There were lotus beds on the lake – the first I’d ever seen. As ‘Sand Gorilla’ glided silently through them, their big circular leaves would rustle in our wake – one of the few sounds I particularly associate with Kashmir. The vivid, cup-shaped blossoms seemed to float above the water. “These good to eat,” Ali Abdul told us. After he pulled off a few seed-pods, young Aziz showed us how to pick out the individual seeds. The blossoms grow on a slender upright stem about six inches long and face directly upward, like a cupped hand. After the bloom is spent, the petals fall away, leaving the seedpod – an almost perfect hemisphere with its flat side facing upward – standing erect on its stem. The actual seeds are imbedded in the upper surface of the pod in little depressions, each with a circular lid – perhaps twenty seeds, each the size and shape of a pea – in each pod.

Lotus seeds taste something like hazelnuts. That doesn’t do justice to their flavour, but it is about as close as, after fifty years, I can get. Lotus-eating became one of our favourite pastimes. We would munch them off and on all day – snacking on them like popcorn – and sometimes we’d get Ali Abdul to divert through a lotus bed just so we could have a snack en route to wherever we were going.

***

Srinagar was a classic Himalayan city, cut from the same architectural cloth as Kathmandu, and set between two steep fortified hills and a beautiful lake. Water – the Jhelum River, Dal and Nagin lakes and a mesh of canals – dominated Srinagar. The river slid in oily loops down through the city to Dal Lake, dividing again and again across the delta on which Srinagar was built, patterning the city like the veins of a gigantic leaf. Even in its quiet reaches, the river seemed curiously ‘muscular’, its pale green water sliding by in rumpled layers. The main channel, about thirty or forty yards wide, was spanned by nine incredible bridges called “kadals” – all made almost entirely of logs. The city, with its canals and bridges, had the look of an oriental Venice. The whole town was threaded on skeins of water – an urban tapestry with a warp of silver thread.

Tall brick and timber houses with steeply-pitched roofs and many gables rose directly from the water. Aligned bow-to-stern, straggling rows of doongas lined the riverbanks below them. Roads in the old city were less important than canals, and many were too narrow for vehicular traffic. The colours were subdued: earthy tones of brick, the glow of copper and dark stained wood predominated. Lush wild gardens of lotus and water lily flowered amidst busy lanes.

There were mosques with distinctive pagoda-like roofs – each rising in diminishing tiers to a finial spire. The pentagonal wooden Shah Hamdan Masjid is the oldest, the Jamia Masjid (Friday Mosque) – an immense wooden structure built in 1400 by Sultan Sikander – the largest. Its vast stone-paved courtyard is surrounded by two-storey wooden arcades, supported by more than three hundred pillars, each the trunk of a single huge deodar.

A thousand feet above the city centre Shankaracharya Temple crowns the hill known as Takht-i-Sulaiman. On the other side of town is Hari Parbat, another sacred mount, ringed with crenellated walls and crowned by a fort built by the emperor Akbar in 1592. Durga Temple, a Hindu shrine, stands nearby at Chakreshwari. On the last bend of the river, where it swings east to enter the lake, is the Maharajah’s palace, the curious Sher Garhi (Tiger Fort) – a vast rectangular mass surmounted by a regiment of little Rajput-style cupolas.

The bustling bazaar area was a labyrinth of narrow streets, open shop fronts and wandering cattle. It smelled of dung and straw and hot spiced foods that sizzled in pans on charcoal fires. Lining the streets, like paintings in a gallery, were the stalls of tailors and grain merchants, calico printers, tattoo artists, stonecutters and locksmiths. In a lane off Nowhatta Chowk, were shops overflowing with copperware. At Habba Kadal shop after shop sold nothing but skeins of wool – mainly, I guess, to carpet weavers.

Colourful crowds seethed through the bazaars – penitents wrapped in chains, dhobis straining under laundry sacks three times their size, chaprasis (man-servants) walking ahead of their masters’ palanquins, ‘Sikhs in gaudy turbans, families of Marwaris driving herds of yearling bullocks, Baluchis with muskets as long as lampposts, kite peddlers, knife sharpeners, jugglers, three or four naked fakirs (Hindu holy men, usually smeared from head to toe with ashes) and even a pair of yogis.

On the western shore of Dal Lake, opposite Nishat Bagh, stands the holy shrine of Hazratbal. Its tulip-shaped dome of white marble contains a holy relic – a hair from the beard of the prophet Mohammed. Once we sailed across the lake just to see the famous hair, but the mullahs wouldn’t let us in.

***

For the climb up to Sonamarg – ‘the valley of gold’ – we hired horses, and a mountain guide named Anwar. We’d picked him out of a breathtakingly piratical-looking group of eight or ten men – all fiercely bearded, their faces immersed in matted tangles of hair. They wore baggy three-quarter trousers, loose knee-length shirts, a sort of waistcoat, and sandals on bare feet. Each had a woolen shawl draped over one shoulder, and wore a grubby turban – originally white, I think, but now shades of beige and tan. Not so much because they were dirty – I had watched one of them washing his voluminous underdrawers on the bank of a muddy stream – but because they mostly couldn’t afford soap, and had only dirty water in which to wash.

Anwar came with a pack horse and two grubby boys – about eleven or twelve years old – who did almost all of the actual work. Both of them had to walk the entire distance – about fifteen steeply uphill miles, as I recall – each carrying a substantial backpack. Both boys were barefooted. I had a look at their feet. Their soles had thick horny calluses at least a centimetre thick, and they could walk on surfaces that hurt my feet through the soles of my boots. They must have been mountain-bred, those kids, because they not only kept up with us, but skipped about, climbed trees, played tag and even stripped off for a brief swim in an icy mountain stream. Just watching them brought me out in goose-bumps. For a time in the afternoon I lost sight of the boys. By the time the Thajiwas Glacier – our ultimate destination – appeared, cascading down the steep rock-face ahead of us, I was about ready to ask about them, when our guide pointed ahead. There, at our intended campsite, the boys had already pitched our cook tent and were accumulating firewood from the edges of the forest. They’d picked a grand campsite – on a grassy lea beside a grove of huge deodars – with a view up the glacier to a thicket of almost vertical needles of stone rising nearly to 20,000 feet. We intended to camp in the valley overnight and attempt to climb up to the glacier the next day.

When I went to dismount, sharp pains shot up and down the whole of my body. I hadn’t expected dismounting to be a pleasure. I hadn’t ridden a horse since I was nine or ten years old – and never for more than half an hour at a time – and I could still remember how sore and stiff I had been. But this – this was an order of magnitude worse. The insides of my thighs had been scraped raw and my hips and knees seemed to have fused, locking my legs into permanent parentheses. I was totally humiliated. Here I was, a ‘wannabe’ intrepid explorer – fifteen or sixteen thousand feet up in the high Himalayas – and I couldn’t even get off my bloody horse.

After Anwar and Dave had eventually pried me off my saddle, I could hardly stand. I think Anwar was enjoying my discomfiture, but he gave me some ghee to rub on my raw crotch. It helped a little but didn’t do a thing for my stiffness, so for half-an-hour or so, I lurched about camp like somebody on stilts. Eventually my petrified muscles limbered up enough for me to sit down. That, too, was a mistake. I should have kept moving. By the time we were ready to turn in I had stiffened up all over. Nothing worked, and I ached in places I hadn’t even known I had.

Pain woke me about a couple of hours before dawn. It had gotten worse – a lot worse – during the night, and now everything – fingers, toes, even the muscles that wiggle my ears – hurt. I also had a splitting headache. And I was incredibly cold – shiveringly, tooth-chatteringly cold. I crawled out of my sleeping bag and hunkered down over the campfire, stirring up the embers and throwing an armful of wood on it. As it blazed up, I did everything but actually crawl into it, leaning over it and thrusting my hands almost into the flames. But nothing seemed to warm me. I was still freezing cold. Then I realised I was sweating profusely. My hair was dripping wet, and perspiration was streaming down my face and running down my ribs.

Something was clearly wrong with me – maybe something deadly. I was light-headed and slightly dizzy, and nauseous when I attempted to stand. Every joint in my body ached like buggery. One other thing. I had an obvious fever – even without a thermometer I could tell this – and my temperature was galloping up the Fahrenheit scale.

Most of my bodily pain could be explained by stretched muscles and sore joints, but not the headache or the sweating and freezing. I was beginning to get seriously scared – at least scared enough to rouse Dave. It had occurred to me that a deserted valley in the middle of the Himalayas probably wasn’t the best place to be sick. Pressing a hand to my forehead, he said, “God, Gordon, you’re burning up.” Curious that. I knew he was right, but I wondered if he knew I was freezing on the inside. I’ve forgotten how fast my heart was beating, but I know that my pulse was fast enough to raise both Dave’s eyebrows and mine. He quickly decided that whatever was wrong with me was serious enough to need a doctor. I was in no condition to disagree.

Dave got Anwar to saddle up the horses, and the boys started dismantling our camp. Anwar and Dave had to help me onto the horse, but, once aboard, I was able to stay in the saddle without help. By daylight, we were on our way back down hill, our trip up the glacier abandoned.

Our return journey wasn’t half the ordeal I’d expected. This was because almost as soon as we left camp, I began to feel better, and the farther we descended the better I felt. By the time we’d reached the village itself, my fever seemed to be gone – and to have taken the worst of the aches (especially the headache) with it. I still felt weak and washed out, but otherwise OK. I wondered whether my attack had been some sort of altitude sickness. The whole episode had taken – depending whether or not my dinnertime aches had been the onset of it – no more than six or seven hours. I offered to turn around and head back uphill, so that Dave, at least, could tackle the glacier – I knew I wasn’t up to it – but he wouldn’t have it. Maybe, he said, what I’d had was nothing, but – as he pointed out – neither he nor I could tell whether or not it was. I needed, he said, a doctor to take a look at me.

By the time we’d ridden to the village, taken a tonga to the main road and caught a bus back to the city, it was almost sunset. Ali Abdul wasn’t expecting us back, so we had to hire a shikar-taxi back to ‘Gwenette’. Samara had pulled up the boarding stairs, so we sailed around to Ali Abdul’s doonga and routed him out of a family dinner.

I actually felt a little silly about all the fuss. By now I was feeling perfectly OK, but everybody else seemed to be in some sort of ‘panic mode’ – especially Ali Abdul. Looking extremely worried, he and Samarra wrapped me inside six or eight blankets, pulled a sort of balaclava down over my face and head and thrust a hot-water bottle into my hands. I kept trying to explain that I wasn’t feeling cold any more, but he wasn’t listening. He hustled me into ‘Sand Gorilla’, shouting, “Bismillah rahman ar rahim” (Let’s go!). He leaned on his pole, heading us back toward the city through the deepening twilight. A quarter of an hour later we were pulling up at a flight of stone stairs leading up from the river to a group of tall brick houses that looked out over the river, their ground floors occupied by shops. There he left us briefly. “You await here,” he ordered, “I go to find hakim.” Then he vanished into a dark alley.

By now I felt far too good to sit quietly in a shikar, swaddled in blankets and hot-water bottles, waiting for the hakim to be located. So, despite Dave’s objections, I shucked all Ali Abdul’s paraphernalia and set out to explore some of the adjacent shops. I was ‘ambushed’ by the first shop we came to – or, rather, by the name of the shop. It was run by somebody who called himself ‘Suffering Moses’ – a name that has stuck in my mind all these years. Of course, we had to go inside. Despite the intriguing name, ‘Suffering Moses’ turned out to be only a sort of haberdashery and general store. There were lengths of blue-striped cotton shirting, lace table cloths, local and imported cigarettes, hair oil in dusty bottles with insecure corks; and curling photographs of Indian film stars recommending toothpaste. A glass cabinet contained tins of jam, a string of what might have been vertebrae, and tablets of soap in wrappings decorated with patterns of lotus flowers and scantily-clad girls looking into pools.

I was actually in the process of buying a souvenir when Ali Abdul tracked us down about twenty minutes later. “Hakim gone away,” he reported nervously. “You can wait until tomorrow?” By now my embarrassment was acute. All I wanted was for the whole episode to go away – to be forgotten. So I assured him I could wait. The next morning, when I refused to go to see the hakim, my ‘case’ was no longer urgent enough for anybody to insist I go. Although I was sure I didn’t want to have whatever I’d had again, I wasn’t sure I wanted to know what it had been.

***

It took me a while to understand why the atmosphere in Kashmir seemed so different from, say, Amritsar – what set Srinagar apart from the other Indian cities. It came to me one lunchtime while we were in the Jamia Masjid, watching the congregation kneeling and bowing in unison at their noontime prayers. I was reminded that Kashmiris were mostly Moslems.

India, of course, was overwhelmingly Hindu – nowhere more than in Amritsar – the last big town we’d visited. I couldn’t imagine this sort of worship taking place in Amritsar, with its memories of institutionalised death, its refugees, and its abandoned mosques. At independence, Kashmir was almost the only state in India with a Moslem majority. Isolated behind its wall of mountains, it had largely escaped the bloodletting of partition in 1947. So the frenzied religious riots that ravaged the Punjab never took place there. Moslem and Hindu continued to live pretty much at peace, and the few Sikhs and Hindus who fled through the mountains to Kashmir at the time – including, of course, our friend Manmool Singh – were made welcome in Srinagar.

Hindus seek nirvana through reincarnation. It seemed a nice enough idea, but I had trouble understanding how people could believe in it. Hinduism, with its multitude of gods, grotesque idols, and ritual abasement, didn’t exactly repel me, but it was incomprehensibly alien – beyond my ability to come to grips with what it stood for.

Hindus seem to believe that, if they sin excessively in this life, they may come back as some lower form – for instance, a dog or a cockroach. On the other hand, if they live this life without sin, they’ll get a better deal in the next – coming back as a rich landlord, or a beauty queen. Because of the caste system, one of the major sins seems to be that of causing offense to those of higher caste. What this means in practice, is that lower caste Indians – the vast majority – seem to ‘fawn’ a lot on those they perceive to be their betters. I have always had a problem with fawning. Widespread institutionalised subservience – a sort of national ‘whipped puppy’ syndrome – is one of the least attractive features of Indian culture. I wasn’t exactly offended by this behaviour – though it was definitely off-putting – but it made familiarity hard to come by and friendships hard to form.

Despite its name, Islam (which means ‘submission’) is an aggressive and warlike faith – a religion spread mostly by the sword. The Moslems of Kashmir, believed that if a warrior died while on jihad (holy war) his soul went directly to paradise. About these Moslem worshippers there was an atmosphere – a sort of militant sanctity – that rang a bell with me. Their religion, unlike that of their Hindu compatriots, was one I could understand. After months among Hindus, I somehow felt ‘linked’ to these people. Despite our linguistic and cultural differences, I could, I felt, relate to their beliefs. I knew the God to whom they were praying. He was the God of my childhood.

Srinagar was one of the few remaining Moslem cities in India. We were on the borderlands of a Moslem world that stretched all the way across North Africa to the Atlantic Ocean. Unlike their Hindu neighbours, they looked me straight in the eye, these people, and didn’t willingly take much crap from anybody. With them, mutual respect was quick to develop and friendships came easily.

***

Srinagar seemed a world away from the appalling squalor of the rest of India – the seething crowds, the noise, the dust, the beggars, the filth and the stench of decay. India had seemed immersed in poverty. Despite the sometimes frenetic activity, everywhere there was a pervasive sense of apathy and despair. ‘Fabulous and awful’ I had called India. Poverty was its ‘awful’ face.

Kashmir had none of this. It was serene and beautiful. Outside the bustle of its busy bazaars, the silences were vast and complete. In fact, my fondest memories of Kashmir are of peace, calm and silence – of serenity. It took me a while to realise that Kashmir, too, was desperately poor – that its peace and serenity were no less the result of poverty than the frantic bustle and clamor of lower India. In a very real sense, Kashmir was beautiful for the same reason the rest of India was so polluted and squalid. Dal Lake was quiet – and people poled or rowed their boats – because nobody could afford internal-combustion engines. The water and the air were pure because there were no industries to pollute them. And the people – who seemed so laid-back and relaxed – were actually just unemployed. They simply had nothing else to do.

Of course, it helped that Kashmir had good bones to start with – mountains and lakes and a wonderful climate – things that most of India had to make do without. Kashmir also wasn’t overcrowded, and that gave it a big leg-up. But I reckon that the lovely vale had stayed serene and beautiful only because nobody could afford to screw it up.

***

There were shikars in sight at any hour of the day, moving silently across the lake. There were freight shikars, mostly so heavily laden their gunwales were awash, shikar service boats, shikar-taxis and lots of floating shikar-shops. A shikari delivered drinking water to ‘Gwenette’, transferring it from one of the drums on his boat to one on Ali Abdul’s doonga with a long-handled ladle. Another came to Gwenette’ every morning to empty and clean our chemical toilet. After dumping its contents into one of a set of lidded 44-gallon drums nestled amidships, he would rinse it out under a hand-pump affixed to the top of another barrel – presumably containing some sort of cleansing solution – and return it to us. I don’t know how efficacious this was as a disinfectant, but our toilet always smelled clean to me. I didn’t ask – because I didn’t want to know – where he eventually dumped the effluvium.

Each morning, just after dawn, we would wake to the calls of the shikaris. Poling their way across the limpid surface of the lake, flotillas of shikars would work their way down the line of houseboats crying out their wares. They sold meat, fish, vegetables, cloth and clothing, household utensils, charcoal, water, soft drinks and God only knows what else. Some of them sold several sorts of ‘fast-food’ – kebabs, nan, simple curries, tea and soup. We could identify them halfway across the lake by the smoke rising from their charcoal braziers.

Samara did nearly all of her morning shopping from the prow of her doonga. One of our favourite things was to sit on ‘Gwenette’s’ verandah and watch her bargain with the floating marketers, sometimes clambering down into their boats to check on the quality of their goods. In the vegetable-seller’s shikar – called a ‘garden boat’ – was the produce of the floating gardens – huge crimson bouquets of radishes and piles of potatoes, carrots in woven baskets, and something like lettuce. Heaps of watermelon, cantaloupes and rock melons vied for space with beans and peas. Whatever she’d bought would be wrapped in old newspapers and handed up in exchange for a few coins. Whenever a souvenir-seller came by, Dave and I would do the bargaining. Sometimes there would be three or four shikars gathered at the foot of our boarding ladder, each selling something different.

***

The Moghul emperors built gardens from Tehran to Agra – the best-known of these surrounds the Taj Mahal – but it was in Kashmir that their gardens most closely approached perfection. Indeed, after houseboats and mountains, it is the Moghul gardens, laid out in rectangular terraces rising one above the other up the hillsides, for which Kashmir is most famous. Down the centre of each garden a stone channel carries water falling through a series of pools and cascades from terrace to terrace.

My fever was back gnawing at me again on the day we took ‘Sand Gorilla’ to Shalimar Garden. My eyes felt as though they were fronting for a volcanic vent, but – at least today – I wasn’t feeling nauseous. Shalimar Bagh the largest – a vast rectangle, measuring 540m by 183m – and most famous of the Moghul gardens, lies directly across Dal Lake from Srinagar. Like all great Moghul gardens, Shalimar Bagh has an air of seclusion and repose, with its long perspectives where rows of fountains and shade trees seem to converge toward the snow-capped mountains behind.

It was laid out in 1616 by the emperor Jehangir for his wife Nur Jehan (‘Light of the World’). Shaded by rows of enormous chinar and deodar trees, it was built in four terraces, each with fountains, cascades, and pools. The top terrace, reserved for the emperor and the ladies of the court, included an elegant black marble pavilion rising from the centre of an ornamental tank (pool). The lower terraces also had spacious pavilions, with fountains and cascades so that they, too, were filled with the sound of running water. At the time of our visit, everything in sight was blooming, and every terrace was ablaze with colour.

It was a wonderful late summer day. The sun blazed down from a cloudless sky and the lake was calm as glass. We picnicked in the marble pavilion in the top terrace. The whole family had come along. Mohammed and Aziz were pressed into service to manhandle (‘boyhandle’?) the makings of our feast up to the top terrace. I carried the picnic blankets and our plates and glasses, Dave the cushions and a carton with several bottles of soft drinks. Samara, Ali Abdul and his mother each carried a couple of ‘tiffin tins’. A ‘tiffin tin’ consists of a stack of identical cylindrical tins, each with an airtight lid, which fit together to form a stack of six or seven tins, usually fastened together by a bracket with a carrying-handle on top.

I watched Samara unpack them. As usual, each segment of each tin held an Individual dish – the top one contained bread, the next curry, a third soup, the fourth salad, the fifth vegetables, and so on. She must have brought twenty different dishes, which she laid out carefully on the blankets I’d spread under an enormous chinar tree. Today we had, amongst other things, roasted eggplant and cauliflower and peas and potatoes and fresh-baked chapattis. We also had dhal and two curries and four or five sorts of chutney.

But there was a cloud on my personal horizon – that damned fever. It was definitely getting worse. By the time we’d finished eating, I’d started to feel really cold. At first I was able to adjust my comfort-level by moving from shade into sunlight. But, eventually, despite this, I seemed to grow progressively colder. By the time I started to ache all over, I knew where this was going.

I started to sweat profusely, though I felt terribly cold. My hands shook uncontrollably and my teeth started to chatter. Samarra fired up the samovar to brew me a cup of hot tea. While it was working up to a boil I huddled over it, trying to warm my hands in its radiated heat. I don’t think I had ever felt so cold. This was worse even than the attack at Sonamarg. The Rasools could see that I was in great discomfort. Eventually Ali Abdul wrapped me in our picnic blanket – a thick rough square of woven camel hair – and pulled it tightly about me.

Nothing seemed to help. I was still freezing. Before long, Ali and Dave had begun to worry about me. For that matter, I had begun to worry about me too. By mid-afternoon Ali and Dave had decided to get me to a doctor. I told them that they should just go on with the picnic – that if this was the same as the fever I’d had at Sonamarg, it’d be gone by the time we got back to ‘Gwenette’ – but nobody was listening. So we packed up ‘Sand Gorilla’ and headed back for town as fast as Ali Abdul could pole.

I was still streaming with perspiration – and so bone-chillingly cold that the air seemed almost to burn my flesh. Samara got me ensconced in the middle of ‘Sand Gorilla’, lit two little terracotta charcoal braziers and tucked them in under a blanket wrapped around me like a tent. I was aware of their heat, but I still felt as though I was immersed in ice.

It took Ali Abdul almost two hours to pole us back to ‘Gwenette’. As I’d hoped, my fever gradually diminished and I actually managed to enjoy the last half-hour or so. By the time we were back in the Nagin Channel, the fever had gone and I was feeling much better.

This time Dave, who had now seen me feverish twice, insisted that I see a doctor. Despite how much better I felt, I was inclined to agree with him. Two days out of my last week had been spoiled by whatever it was I had, and I wanted it cured before we set off across Pakistan for the Khyber Pass. It was one thing to be miserable and feverish in a relatively civilised place like Srinagar. It would be quite another in the middle of Afghanistan.

The hakim arrived standing upright in his shikar – just like Washington crossing the Delaware, I thought. All he needed to complete the illusion was an American flag and a powdered wig. He made an elegant first impression – I was, after all, expecting a sort of ‘witch-doctor’. Tall and lean, he was wearing a perfectly-draped gallabiya and a fez. His skin was beige – exactly the colour of his gallabiya. He was clean-shaven, except for a pencil-line moustache, and had a hooked nose and hooded black eyes. In one hand he held a fly-whisk; in the other a battered leather briefcase, its clasp broken, its top agape. The ‘ear-ends’ of a stethoscope protruding from it identified both the hakim and his occupation.

He had with him a pair of small boys as alike as two peas (I wondered idly if they might be twins), each carrying a sort of wooden suitcase. Once aboard ‘Gwenette’, the boys set down their boxes, stood them on end, and levered them open. They were like Pandora’s Box. Their tops and bottoms were comprised of forty or fifty little compartments, each only about three inches square. Most of them seemed to contain organic substances – leaves, stems, dried blossoms, things like that. Others held bottles and phials of pale powders or liquids of several colours. Some seemed to contain pebbles or crystals. Then there were unmistakable animal parts – I recognised deer velvet, frog’s legs and something with feathers. I wasn’t especially pleased with this. The more I saw of the hakim, the more he began to seem like some sort of central-Asian quack faith-healer – a sort of ‘layer-on-of-dirty-hands’. If he was, I might find something unspeakably vile forced down my throat – a potion of ground elephant penis and snake bile.

In the event, the hakim was nothing like that. “Let us see,” he said, fishing a thermometer from the bowels of his briefcase, and snapping the mercury down vigorously, “If we can determine what ails you.” Like everybody else, he spoke in ‘Hinglish’, but by this time, neither Dave nor I was much troubled by it. In any case, the hakim’s accent wasn’t bad, and he spoke very slowly and distinctly. In the deepest voice I think I’ve ever heard. Wiping the thermometer on the hem of his gallabiya, he stuck it under my tongue. It tasted vaguely of garlic. While the mercury adjusted itself to my body temperature, he took my pulse and listened to my breathing.

Ali Abdul described my symptoms – the high fever and chills, and its abrupt onset and its short duration – that, and the fact that I’d had it twice in the last ten days – at least that’s what the hakim said he’d said when he turned to me to hear my version of events. He listened to both of us attentively, nodding from time but saying nothing.

He rummaged through one of his boxes, turning back to me with a handful of something unmistakably vegetable – several largish curved flakes of a grey, papery substance. A mortar and pestle were produced, and he ground whatever-it-was to a fine powder and tipped an ounce or two of it into a small paper envelope.

“This will fix you up,” he said, handing it to me. ”Once every day put some of this into your tea. It won’t cure you but it will certainly alleviate your symptoms.”
“D’you know what I’ve got?”
“Most assuredly I know. You have (something that sounded like) ‘egg’.”
.. “Egg?”
“No…Ague.- A…G…U…E,” he spelled it out.
”Ague?”
Yes, Ague.” He looked at my perplexed face, then added, “It is an English word. You don’t know it?”
“I know the word,” I replied, “I just don’t know what it means in terms of how sick I am.”
“What you have is ‘malaria’. Perhaps you know it by that name.”
“Malaria?” I couldn’t decide whether to be scared or thrilled. I’d never known anybody who’d had malaria, and I had no idea how serious it was, but it’d always seemed to me to be the sort of glamourous ailment that only famous explorers and heroes of adventure novels got. “Me?”
He nodded, “Yes, certainly. You haven’t been taking prophylaxis?”
“I have, but…..” I cast my mind back…”But I forgot to take my chloroquine pills to Nepal, and went about two weeks without. Maybe that was a big mistake?”
“Yes, maybe it was. In any case, you most certainly have malaria now. Fortunately, I believe, quite a mild form.”
“What is this, then?” I asked, eyeing the little envelope suspiciously. I had decided to trust the hakim, but I still wanted to be reassured that it wasn’t some weird thing like ‘eye of newt’.
“Cinchona bark,” he replied, passing it over to me, “It contains quinine. The fever will recur from time to time – there is nothing to be done about that – but it will gradually decrease in both severity and duration over time. In four or five years, you should be right as rain1, but in the meantime this will certainly help.”

***

Five or six shikars had gathered about ‘Gwenette’s bows – one with sewing requisites and bolts of cloth and one with souvenirs. There was a greengrocer, a butcher – his shikar loaded to the gunwales with large chunks of meat – and a service shikar – malodorous and full of barrels – waiting, I think, to empty our chemical toilet. Samara had climbed down into the butcher’s shikar and Dave had got down to business with a souvenir-wallah. I was leaning on my elbows on the front verandah railing looking down at the floating bazaar. Samara was having an argument with the butcher – about the quality of his wares, I guess, or maybe their prices. Standing amidships he was holding up what looked like a leg of lamb for her inspection (it turned out to be a leg of goat).

After Samarra had explained what she wanted, the butcher weighed each of her purchases with a set of hand-held scales. The scales themselves were familiar enough – they were exactly like the ones ‘Blind Justice’ holds aloft over hundreds of Western courthouses – a pair of circular pans hung on opposite ends of a crosspiece that swivels around a central axis. Metal weights are placed in one pan and the goods to be purchased in the other. What was odd was how he used them. He had none of the ordinary metal weights at all. Having laid her meat in one pan, he fished around in a box at his feet and brought out several handfuls of smooth rocks – stream-worn pebbles and cobbles of several sizes. Some of these he put into the other pan. Then, he added – or took away – rocks of different sizes until the two pans of the scale hung at the same level. He said something and Samarra nodded. He wrapped the pieces of meat in old newspapers and handed them to her. I assumed they had agreed on a price and a weight. But I wondered – and I wonder still – how it was done. Did Samarra agree to buy ‘two cobbles of lamb’? – or ‘three pebbles and a granule of goat’? I never found out. I tried to ask her about this, but the intricacies of weights and measures were beyond our mutual competence at ‘Hinglish’.

Dave looked up from his haggling. “Hey!” he called, “Look at this. Our shikar has a name!”
“We already know its name, you great berk. It’s ‘Sand Gorilla’.
“No,” he replied, “We don’t and it’s not.”
“You mean we don’t know or that her name’s not ‘Sand Gorilla’?”
“Both. We don’t know and her name’s definitely not ‘Sand Gorilla’.”
“Not ‘Sand Gorilla’?”
“Come and look!”

I climbed down from the verandah and peered intently over at ‘Sand Gorilla’, which was moored alongside Ali Abdul’s doonga. Sure enough, there was a name – or what was left of one – along her starboard bow. It was hardly surprising we’d not noticed it before. This was probably the first time we’d ever seen the outside of ‘Sand Gorilla’ at eye level. Usually we’d just stepped directly into her from the ‘Gwenette’ and then spent the balance of the day inside her without ever seeing her exterior. Painted in elegant copperplate script across her bows, the name had obviously been there a very long time. It had been scratched and battered and had faded a lot, all of which made it hard – almost impossible – to read.

“Samara,” I called, “Ali Abdul give this boat name ‘Sand Gorilla’?”
“No, El Angrezi (the Englishman) give name. He paint it there,” she added, pointing to the script we’d been examining, “Before we buy. He name boat ’Sand Gorilla’!”

It didn’t seem very likely that an Englishman would ever name a boat ‘Sand Gorilla’. So Dave was very likely right. It probably wasn’t ‘Sand Gorilla’. “This name?” I asked, running my finger along the faded script.

She nodded.

It was never going to be easy. We had to try to work out one letter at a time, and some of them were missing. In the end all we were able to read was “- – – – g r i – l a”. It looked a lot like ‘Sand Gorilla’, but somehow I knew it wasn’t. Although five of the seven letters of the word ‘gorilla’ were there – and in the correct order – the gaps for missing letters were clearly in the wrong places. And, judging by the arrangement of letters and gaps, the name appeared to have ten – rather than eleven – letters. Close, but probably no cigar.

As usual, it was Dave who twigged first. He grinned. “Do you remember James Hilton?” he asked.
James Hilton….James Hilton…I knew I should know who he was, but it just wouldn’t come. James Hilton……”Nope,” I said, finally, “Not offhand. Should I?”
“Absolutely. He wrote a very famous book – ‘Lost Horizon’. Remember it?”

I remembered it all right. Hilton’s classic story had been hovering in the back of my mind ever since we first reached the crest of Banihal Pass and looked down into the valley for the first time. I remembered thinking it was like looking at Shangri-la.

Shangri-la! A light came on inside my head. Of course! How could I not have tweaked two weeks ago? If that was the real name, the first four of the five missing letters should be S, H, A and N: and the last would be…….well, actually, it wouldn’t be a letter at all, it would be…..would be…. a….. hyphen (-). So, fitting them into our gaps, I got ‘S H A N g r i – l a’. A perfect – and perfectly sensible – fit. It was also, I thought, just the sort of name an Englishman ought to give to a boat on Dal Lake. Our shikar wasn’t ‘Sand Gorilla’ at all. She was ‘Shangri-la’.

‘Sand Gorilla’, was – just as I’d always assumed – a ‘Hinglish’ perversion of a perfectly ordinary word. The problem was, the word wasn’t actually English, since the name had been more-or-less invented by Hilton to sound Kashmiri. We’d been struggling with a ‘Hinglish’ version of something that wasn’t even a real word. Still, I reckon we should have guessed

Well damn! I’d really enjoyed cruising Dal Lake in a boat called ‘Sand Gorilla’. So had Dave. We both agreed that doing it in ‘Shangri-La’ just wouldn’t be quite the same. Not that it really mattered. We were pretty much done cruising anyway. We were leaving Kashmir the next day. To us, she had always been ‘Sand Gorilla’, and ‘Sand Gorilla’ she stayed.

***

The bus for Jammu left at dawn. Ali Abdul poled us across Dal Lake for the very last time through a luminous, nacreous mist. We arrived at the bund just as the sun came up in our faces, half-blinding us and casting long, thin shadows across the empty market-place. Across the lake behind us, the white dome of Hazratbal, gilded by the dawn sun, floated like a mirage above the mist.

Saying goodbye to Ali Abdul and Samara and the kids was hard. To a pair of slightly homesick young Americans a long way from home, they’d become a lot like family. They all came to the bus terminal to see us off. Samarra and her mother-in-law shook our hands shyly (something remarkable for Moslem women to do – especially with young Infidel men) but Ali Abdul more than made up for their reserve by embracing us and kissing us on both cheeks. Tears were streaming down his face. There was a lump in my throat, too. They had been wonderful to us, and I knew I would miss them. I can still vividly remember the six Shalas standing in the middle of a deserted ‘New Bazaar’, being slowly engulfed by the cloud of dust thrown up by our departing bus.

A Problem with Purdah

In the bedlam of Amritsar station, it took us a while to realise that the reasons we couldn’t find the train to Lahore were (1) it was only a little train – a superannuated engine and a single coach – and (2) it wasn’t even in the concourse. Instead, it stood panting quietly to itself off in a corner of the marshalling yards about fifty metres from the nearest platform. I guess we shouldn’t have been surprised. Amongst the departing trains at Amritsar, ours had to be of low priority. Although Lahore was only about forty kilometres away, it lay on the other side of a border perpetually on the edge of war.

So we trudged across fifty yards of gravel, hoisted our backpacks up the steps and clambered up into the car– which turned out to be Third Class with hard wooden seats. We weren’t the only passengers. There were six or eight very sorry-looking brown men – Pakistanis, we assumed – who were probably being evicted from India. And there were a couple of other white men. Both turned out to be Welsh. I think they were as glad to see us as we were to see them, and in only a few minutes we were chatting away like old friends.

The train pulled out on schedule, the squalor of Amristar’s slums unreeling slowly behind us. Desiccated fields – flat, brown and fallow for winter – flanked the railway for the first few kilometres. And then suddenly we were there – wherever ‘there’ was. The conductor swung down the aisle shouting in Hindi (one of many Asian languages I don’t speak) something about Pakistan. There was only one thing about Pakistan for him to announce – the border. So we, together with our new Welsh friends and the Pakistanis, shouldered our backpacks and stepped down from the train.

Our little engine was panting with its nose to a set of bumpers that marked the end of the track. Just beyond the bumpers a ferocious barbed-wire fence stretched across our path. There was a heavily guarded border post about thirty yards to our left – a little customs shed, two sandbagged machine-gun posts, a tank and twenty-five or thirty soldiers. We lined up outside the little shack and handed our papers in through a sliding hatch. “Pakistan visa?” a disembodied voice interrogated us. If I wondered why the Indians cared about my Pakistan visa – and I did – I was about to find out. When we indicated by pointing at the appropriate page, an Indian exit visa was promptly and deliberately stamped directly over the Pakistan visa. We knew that, even now – a decade after independence – there was no love lost between the two countries, but this seemed a little over the top. Still, there was nothing for us to do but to proceed ahead, through the cyclone wire gate toward the Pakistan customs post.

About 200 yards ahead of us was another barbed wire barrier – this time with an enormous Pakistani flag fluttering from the mast. Not only had the rails had been torn up across this sort of ‘no man’s land’, but all the vegetation had been uprooted, leaving us to traipse across six hundred feet of pitted gravel plain, toting all our baggage. Clearly India and Pakistan wanted as little to do with each other as possible. Luckily Dave and I were travelling light, but several of the Pakistanis had astonishing amounts of luggage – in hindsight, possibly everything they possessed – and had to make several trips from barrier to barrier.

We already had valid visas, so the Pakistani customs and immigration officials gave us no trouble – except that they rummaged through our passports to find our Indian visas, then stamped their own entry stamps on top of the Indian ones. Their stamps were very large (the better part of a page) and they almost totally obliterated the Indian visa beneath. I guessed the Pakistanis had seen what the Indians had done to their stamps and were taking their petty revenge. Our new train – also an engine and a single coach – was waiting. Our Pakistani fellow travelers, however, were stopped by customs, who went through their voluminous luggage item by item. It seemed to take forever, while we sat on our hard wooden seats and swatted ineffectually at the swarms of flies that boiled in through the glassless windows. We were two hours late leaving the border.

After only eight or ten kilometres, the train shuddered to a halt. A goods train had derailed, blocking the tracks, its little empty wagons, still coupled together, unwinding from the rails in a slow spiral. So we all disembarked, shouldered our luggage, and set off walking along the tracks in the general direction of Lahore. The derailed train was about half a kilometre long, so after half-an-hour or so, we were climbing aboard our third train of the day. This train, sent especially to carry passengers from our stalled train to Lahore, sat on the tracks with its engine facing Amritsar. Since it was just a sort of ‘one-off’ emergency, they’d not bothered with the roundhouse in Lahore station. They’d just sent out the most available engine. Anyway, nobody seemed to mind much when, with all of us aboard, it started backing down the track.

I can still remember the peculiar sensation of arriving in Lahore Station in reverse. Our arrival seemed curiously festive. Stepping down onto the platform we found ourselves practically in the midst of a Pakistani military pipe band – in khaki and tartan uniforms – marching briskly along the platform, their pipes skirling ‘Scotland the Brave’.

Lahore Railway Station looks like a fortress. This is no accident. It was designed to be easily defensible and was intended as a redoubt to which British civilians could retreat in case of massive civil unrest. Somewhere in the mass of transients in the station, we met Michael. Michael – we never learned his last name – was a Pakistani Christian, something he seemed very proud of, and turned out to be a junior railway inspector, based in the Lahore Station. He was about our age (23) and spoke excellent English. He attached himself to us at once, and offered his services for the duration of our stay. “Free from charge,” he insisted, “I do you only a service but I will show you everything.”

Normally I am pretty chary of natives offering services – there always seems to be a sting somewhere – but in this case there were two of us and only one of him. Besides, Michael couldn’t have weighed more than 120 pounds dripping wet. So we decided to take him up on his offer. It turned out there was a sting, but in the end Dave and I seemed to have gained both on the roundabouts and on the swings.

Michael guided us to a really cheap hotel, where we occupied a seedy double room at the end of a fourth floor balcony. We looked down on a slum area so decrepit it was hard to believe it hadn’t just been demolished by some great natural upheaval. Only the intricate web of electrical wires suspended over the shattered-looking corrugated iron roof-scape, the thickets of crooked TV aerials, and the fans of light spilling from unseen windows onto the lanes beneath them at night – indicated that someone actually lived there.

Lahore had none of the signs of the “cultural shock of partition” we’d noticed in Amritsar, even though the two cities had each lost a third of its population and had it replaced by a vast mass of refugees. I reckoned that maybe this was because of the differences between the two religions. After all, in Hinduism, the meek genuinely inherit the earth (albeit they have to wait for another incarnation to do it) whereas in Islam, always a militant religion, warriors on Jihad go directly to paradise. On this basis, maybe the displaced Hindus were still trying to figure out who to kowtow to, while the Moslems went on about their normal business of whomping the newcomers into shape. Then, again, maybe this whole paragraph is bullshit.

Lahore, one of Asia’s great cities, reached its full glory under Moghul rule (1524-1752), ranking with Delhi or Agra in its range of superb Moslem architecture. The third Moghul emperor, Akbar, held his court in Lahore from 1584 to 1598. It is Pakistan’s cultural and intellectual centre. Its faded elegance, busy streets, bazaars and wide variety of Moslem and British architecture make it a city of atmosphere, surprises and contrasts.

Akbar built the present Lahore fort. His son and grandson – Jehangir and Shah Jehan – added to the fort, built palaces and tombs and laid out gardens. The last of the great Moghuls, Aurangzeb (1658-1707), erected Lahore’s most famous monument, the great Badshahi Mosque.

The Badshahi (King’s) Mosque, built in 1674, is the largest mosque in the subcontinent, and one of the largest in the world. It consists of a vast square with a minaret at each corner. In plan and design it is practically identical to the (only marginally smaller) Jamia Masjid in Delhi. To enter you climb a broad set of steps and pass through a monumental gateway. Inside is an enormous open square courtyard paved with red sandstone (very hot on bare feet in the summer). A square marble fountain stands in the centre and white-arched arcades surround the courtyard on three sides. On the side opposite to the entrance gate is the prayer chamber, crowned with three elegant marble domes. In rooms above the entrance is kept a hair of the prophet Mohammed. We climbed up the 204 steps to the top of one of the minarets for a bird’s-eye view of the mosque, the fort opposite, and the old city of Lahore.

Lahore Fort is a huge rectangle, 380 by 330 metres standing on the northwest edge of the old walled city. It ranks with the Moghul forts at Agra and Delhi. Its construction is the work of several emperors and it has been much changed – first by conquering Sikhs and later by the British – but many of its original splendours – the glittering ‘Shish Mahal’, ‘The Diwan-i–Khas’, the ‘Diwan-i-Am’, the hammam (the bath house – which was used by the British as their kitchen), several towers and three massive gates – remain.

When Akbar built the fort, he also enclosed the old city inside a high brick wall with twelve gates, six of which are still standing. To get to Wazir Khan’s Mosque you can either walk from Lahore Fort, through the maze of narrow lanes in the old city, or else take a tonga from the fort around to the other side of the old city to Delhi Gate, and walk from there. Delhi Gate leads into the bazaar area – a series of narrow lanes where everything from patent medicines to paper money garlands, from nail polish to rat traps is sold. The lanes are lined with tiny shops and overhung by precarious wooden balconies. Overhead, within easy reach from the balconies, is a maze of electric wires, festooned with wrecked kites.

We entered the old city through the Delhi Gate, the most impressive of the six portals still standing. The hot and crowded bazaars blazed with light and heat. The crowds are as dense now as they were when Kipling’s ‘Kim’ (which was set in Lahore) was published in 1901. The cannon ‘Zamzama’ on which Kim played is on display there. But, unlike the bazaars in India itself, there were hardly any beggars and few of the hustlers that make life miserable for tourists in places like Delhi and Agra. Despite the press of humanity, you can still have a measure of solitude in Lahore’s old city.

Wazir Khan’s mosque is decorated with glazed mosaics and is the most beautiful in Pakistan. It was built in 1634 by the governor of Punjab under Shah Jehan (who built the Taj Mahal). The mosque is made of brick and faced with brightly coloured glazed tile mosaics of Moghul floral designs on a clear yellow background. It has five domes and four octagonal minarets.

***

Michael became increasingly familiar with us – personally and distastefully familiar – with much ‘laying on of hands’ and patting thighs and caressing shoulders and backs. Dave and I both did our best to keep out of his reach – just in case he was really turned to be what we were beginning to think he was. On our last night Dave had gone to bed early and Michael and I were sipping Pepsi on the balcony outside our room. It was then, when, for the first time he had one of us ‘one-to-one’, that he made his move. His proposition was that he – as a railway inspector – had a private compartment whenever he traveled by rail. If one or both of us would make him free of our body or bodies for sexual favours, he would let us use his compartment for a free trip to Karachi and back. As he spoke, he sort of leapt on me, scrabbling desperately at the fly of my trousers, and I had to physically fend him off. Given the disparity between my size and his, it wasn’t actually very difficult. I dragged him inside by the scruff of his neck, and woke Dave directly. “Don’t look now, Dave,” I said, “But one of us is a queer as a three-dollar bill.” About two minutes later a still-protesting Michael was ejected from the room. Happily, we never saw him again.

The timing was good – he’d already pretty much shown us what there was to see in the city. Still, it’d have been nice to visit Karachi – something I didn’t get around to doing for nearly forty years. As Dave pointed out, we could have taken Michael’s deal, then, when he went off to check tickets, locked him out of his own compartment for the whole of the overnight trip to Karachi and thus have got at least a one-way trip free. But, despite the way our relationship had ended, he’d done us a very real service and we felt we owed him something. Not, of course, our bodies, but at least we didn’t think we should go out of our way to shaft the poor sod.

***

In New Zealand Dave had met a Pakistani exchange student named Nain Khan. Over the months they were in New Zealand together they became quite friendly. When Nain heard Dave was going to Pakistan, nothing would do but that Dave and I should visit his family at their farm at a village called Moinuddinpur, about a day’s journey northwest of Lahore. He’d written down directions how to reach his village from Lahore – what buses to catch, what to ask for, etc – all in both English and Urdu. After the Michael fiasco, it seemed time for a change of scene.

So next morning we took a tonga to the bus station and, following Nain Khan’s instructions, caught a bus to a place called ‘Wazirabad’ (literally ‘ built by the vizier’) – a village on the Great Trunk Road where it crosses the Chenab River. From there, with great difficulty and much recourse to Nain’s carefully written directions in Urdu (we’d reached a part of Pakistan where nobody – absolutely nobody – spoke English) we managed to find a local bus that would take us to our destination, the village of Moinuddinpur.

We already knew that nobody in the village except Nain’s dad and elder brother could speak any English. “But,” Nain assured us, “That’ll be no problem. Neither of them ever goes anywhere, so you don’t even have to advise them when you’re coming. Just turn up and they’ll welcome you with open arms.”

So, happily following Nain’s advice, we just turned up. We arrived in Moinuddinpur about an hour before dusk, and disembarked into a very dusty village square filled with very dusty Pakistanis out enjoying a cool evening after working all day in the fields. Dave marched up to the tallest man there. “Salaam aleikum,” he said (roughly, “Peace be with you.”) and held up the Urdu version of a letter Nain had written to his father telling him who we where and how we came to be there. Two or three men had to handle the document before they found anyone who could actually read it. A young boy was dispatched down a dusty lane and returned in a few minutes with a very handsome and distinguished-looking elderly man with a beautifully trimmed white beard, and wearing white shalwar kamise. He introduced himself as Baba Ali Akbar. We stood – Dave on the left, me on the right – feeling incredibly intrusive while he read Nain’s letter. When he’d finished, a huge smile appeared on his face. Stepping forward, he spread his arms and put one of his hands on Dave’s left shoulder, the other on my right. “Ahlan wa sahlan,” he smiled his welcome. Then he added something in Urdu – something that fortunately contained two of the four Urdu words I knew – ‘Eederow’ (Let’s go) and ‘gher’ (house).
“C’mon, Dave,” I called, “I think he’s just invited us home.” And we set out following Baba Ali Akbar into the bowels of the village. I assumed he was taking us to see Nain Khan’s father and/or brother. Not so!

He took us directly to what turned out to be the zamindar’s (landlord’s) house, where we had tea on the verandah with the zamindar and what I took to be the town council. Looking out and down from the verandah, the entire village appeared to be ruined – a vista of crumbling walls and piles of fallen bricks, through which tracks of beaten earth meandered. The zamindar’s house, itself, was in good enough repair. It was painted a sort of dusty rose colour – a colour repeated on the spectacularly extravagant balustrade that surrounded the verandah. Like every other house in the village it consisted of a single story and had a flat roof. The zamindar’s house, however, was built on a sort of platform about five or six feet high, from which it was possible to overlook almost the entire village.

They had some bad news for us. Without having a single word in common, the zamindar explained to us that the patriarch of the Khan family was out of town (he was in Karachi on business) and his son – the only other English-speaker in town – was in Peshawar. As far as we could tell, nobody had the faintest idea when either of them might return.

After tea, Baba Ali Akbar and the zamindar took us on a tour of the village. Seen close-up, Moinuddinpur looked more than ever like the aftermath of an earthquake. The whole town – every other house, it seemed – was made of mud bricks, and – except for the zamindar’s place – strictly utilitarian and unornamented.

Everything was khaki – the colour of the earth. It was a bleak and barren place with a spare and boney look about it. All of the houses were single-storey, flat-roofed boxes. My first impression that the village was largely in ruins was correct. Only about half the houses in the village were habitable. The rest were missing roofs or walls, and some had been reduced to heaps of decaying mud bricks. Even some of the newer houses were in various states of decay. I wondered what was (apparently) destroying the village.

It turned out that nothing was – but I didn’t know that at the time. In fact, I didn’t learn that until I was living in South Arabia four or five years later. Mud, it turns out, requires more or less continuous maintenance – especially in a climate as relatively moist as northern Punjab, and many of the houses in the village were clearly in terminal decline. But, strangely, right next to one of those ruins would be a brand-new house of the same design. It turned out that nobody in Moinuddinpur ever wasted any time repairing houses. When their residence begins to show too many signs of wear, the house-owner simply begins a new house next door. Nobody bothers to tear down the abandoned dwelling either – to remove the debris. Eventually the ruins are reduced to a heap of bricks so disarticulated that only a pile of dirt remains. Later, somebody – maybe the owner – will roughly level the site and then build a new house over it. Only much later in my travels was I to realise that this is how ‘tels’ are formed – especially where the primary building is mud. Old mud buildings are knocked down and new buildings erected on the rubble. Over the years, as more and more mud is brought in, the base level of the town gradually rises above the surrounding countryside by building new over old.

Anyway, the whole town was full of crumbling, empty houses, disintegrating mud walls that no longer served any purpose and gates that led nowhere. As far as I could tell, all this had resulted in a Moinuddinpur that consisted of a single sprawling complex of loosely interconnected structures, some new, some in ruins. Farm outbuildings – byres, cow sheds, etc – were randomly incorporated within the overall structure of the village. There were a couple of beaten earth threshing floors a camel-powered mill and at least two ox-driven saqqiehs (water wheels) and one powered by camels. There was a sort of a maidan in front of the zamindar’s house – an area of flat, beaten earth a couple of hundred feet square. When we arrived, it was full of young boys playing an undisciplined game of soccer. The village tank – about forty feet square and six or so feet deep – was at the far end of the village.

For five or ten minutes we followed the zamindar through a maze of alleys and lanes about a yard wide, mostly confined between mud walls eight or ten feet tall, and very claustrophobic. Finally, he knocked in at a massive wooden door in an otherwise blank wall. There were sounds of two bars being drawn back and at least one large lock being undone. Then a good-looking young boy of about fifteen opened the door. By gestures the zamindar and Baba Ali Akbar gave us to understand that the boy – identified, with some difficulty as Ali Ajmer Mohammed – would be our host (at least that’s what we – mistakenly in the event – thought they were trying to tell us). It was actually his family’s house, but being host wasn’t part of his duties. That was his father’s duty. Ali Ajmer was to be our ‘minder’ for the duration of our stay – a job that turned out to be far more important than that of ‘host’.

***

Because of the strict requirements of purdah – and the absence of the two senior Khan men in Karachi and Peshawar – the Khan’s house had been deemed unsuitable to accommodate us. So we were to stay with Ali Ajmer’s family – who had a much larger house – while we were in the village. Because of the curious restrictions on our movements – and the parts of the residence we were forbidden to enter – I was never able to decipher the floor plan of the house. We never even figured out how many rooms it had. We tried to figure the floor plan from the outside, but that didn’t help. The house seemed to be attached to at least half-a-dozen other structures – some new, some in ruins – and there were lots of intervening walls, so we were never able to determine where Ali Ajmer’s house ended and somebody else’s house (or barn or manger or store shed) began. We were, as far as I could tell, free to wander anywhere in the house except for the women’s quarters – the harem – which was mamnoo’ah (forbidden), as long as Ali Ajmer was with us. Actually, we were never quite sure where the harem was. I guess Ali Ajmer was careful not to guide us anywhere near it, because we were never stopped from going through a door.

Most of the houses in Moinuddinpur, even the larger ones, had no internal hallways. So to move from, say, living room to kitchen always involved traversing all the intervening rooms. In this family of strict purdah – where the womenfolk must never be seen by outsiders – our presence must have caused massive inconvenience. It was Ali Ajmer’s job to precede us everywhere we went to make sure the women of the family had plenty of time to get out of the way. Since he was a family member – either the son or brother – or, as it turned out, grandson – of any women in the house, it didn’t matter if he saw them. We think – though given our linguistic problems, we couldn’t be sure – that Ali Ajmer told us there were eleven women resident in the house, not counting young girls. And his job boiled down to making sure that we never got to see any of them.

As we entered each room, all doors would be hastily closed – both those ahead of us and those behind us. Then as we approached the door through we next intended to pass, Ali would knock loudly on the door and shout something in Urdu. I don’t know the words he used, but he was clearly warning the women in the next room to vacate it pronto so what we wouldn’t catch a glimpse of them when we entered. This procedure took a lot of time – sometimes the women were involved in some task they couldn’t just drop, so we occasionally had to wait. Sometimes we had to pass through three or four rooms to get where we were going (I think the house was probably very large). Then there was the business of opening and closing all those doors.

In the course of our visit to the village we visited many other houses – including that of the zamindar – and in all of them a similar painstaking ‘early warning system’ was quickly implemented – using a young male member of their family. Eventually this caused us to meet practically every adolescent boy in the village. Quickly realising just how much of a pain in the arse our movements were for the whole town, Dave and I consciously restricted our movements inside houses to a bare minimum. Outside there was no such trouble, although we later found out that women’s movements were very restricted outside while we were there. During the whole of our ten days in Moinuddinpur, we never so much as caught a glimpse of a woman – not even the end of a chador disappearing around a corner.

Mealtime wasn’t much of an issue since men and women eat separately anyway. We never got to see the kitchen, since that’s the women’s domain. In any case, it was also where the womenfolk had mostly retreated to keep away from us. The only food-related problem was that the womenfolk normally serve the men. While we were there, this chore devolved on a gaggle of giggly little girls nine or ten years old (purdah doesn’t usually kick in until the girls reach puberty).

The bathroom was a mud lean-with its internal walls plastered – I guess to make them waterproof. It was attached to what I think was a manger. I was never able to find the other side of the ‘manger’ (if that’s what it was) to make sure, but there seemed to be a lot of wet ‘chomping’ sounds and moos coming from behind the wall. There was a large pot of water on the floor and a tin cup. The drill was to use the cup to splash yourself with water with the pot, work up a good lather and then rinse the soap off with the cup.

The other sanitary arrangements were – at least to Dave and me – a lot less satisfactory. There were no toilets in the village. Everyone just walked out into the fields – usually squatting behind a convenient bush – and let fly. There weren’t a lot of bushes near the village and they weren’t very large. The Moinuddinpurians were accustomed, I guess, to defecating in more-or-less full view of fifty or sixty other people. Dave and I could never quite bring ourselves to do this. We finally got in the habit of waiting until dark and then creeping out into the fields. Ali Ajmer seemed worried about snakes, and eventually he turned up with an electric torch, which he loaned us for snake-spotting. We would use it to guide ourselves to our chosen spot, then turn it off and ‘do our business’ in the dark. Finally, when we’d finished, we’d turn it back on ourselves and check each other to make sure we’d cleaned our rumps properly. Just for the record, we never saw any snakes.

***

Ali Ajmer was a really nice kid – attractive, bright, ambitious and personable. Once he had realised that he and we were going to be thrown together most of the time for the next week or so – surely not something he would have done by choice – he decided to make the best of it. As we explored the village he would learn English and teach us Urdu at the same time. Dave and I thought it an excellent idea, and he started at once. We began with simple nouns – ‘gher’ (house), ‘charpoy’ (bed), ‘khana’ (food) [‘khana khana’ meant ‘dine’], ‘ghosht’ (meat) – and numbers: ‘ek’ (1), ‘doh’ (2), ‘teen’ (3) and so on….all the way to ‘doh hazaar’ (2,000). Actually, we didn’t want to learn quite so many numbers, but once Ali got started there was sometimes no shutting him off.

Young Ali had a curious habit of stroking his upper lip with the index fingers of both hands, as though stroking an imaginary moustache – the operative word being “imaginary”. All he had on his upper lip was a downy shadow so faint it was virtually invisible except in a strong light. But we could tell he was very proud of it. In a land where every adult male had some sort of facial hair (either a moustache or a beard or both) whiskers were a sign – maybe the sign – of manhood, and I could understand his youthful impatience with his recalcitrant peach fuzz. But, looking at his smooth cheeks, I reckoned he had a couple of years to wait before he’d need a razor.

***

We were perfectly free to wander through and around the village – as long as we did it with Ali Ajmer – and we did our best to see everything. We watched the men ploughing with oxen and a wooden plow (I even had a fairly disastrous go at it), had tea with the blacksmith, watched some boys playing a scratch soccer match, helped close a weir in the irrigation system, visited the local school, found a potter and a pit-sawn timber mill. The villagers even put on a musical evening for us in the maidan.

It took me a long time to locate the mosque – mostly because there wasn’t one. Instead, the villagers gathered for prayer in the maidan. Near one corner of the maidan a short free-standing wall had been erected at a slight angle to the outer walls of the maidan. In the centre of this wall was a niche, which somebody had decorated with richly-coloured tiles. I knew at once what it was. The only requirement of a mosque is that it be surrounded by walls and that it contain room for worshippers. Since the maidan fulfilled both of those criteria, it could be a mosque if the villagers wanted it to be one. Many mosques – even the huge Badshahi Mosque in Lahore – were basically just vast courtyards with some sort of a prayer niche. The function of the prayer niche – or minbar – was to show the worshippers which way to face in order to pray to Mecca. This direction is called the qibla. In every hotel room I ever saw in Pakistan, qibla is clearly shown, usually – since there isn’t room for a minbar – by a green-painted arrow. In Moinuddinpur, the minbar in the mud wall showed everyone where qibla was.

Eventually, under the determined tutelage of Ali Ajmer, our Urdu progressed to phrases like ‘Meyn amrikani hun’ (I am an American), ’Lahore kiss turaf heyh?’ (Which way to Lahore?), and the three most useful phrases ‘Yeyh kya heyh?’ (What is that?), ‘Yeyh kitnay ka heyh?’ (How much is that?) and ‘Shukriya’ (Thank you – clearly a close relative to the Arabic ‘shukran’). After about a week of this linguistic ‘immersion’ we were able to converse – albeit haltingly and virtually without grammar – with the most patient inhabitants of the village. We owed Ali Ajmer a lot. I wish I’d been able to remember more of what he taught us. But it has, after all, been a very long time and I’ve had no occasion to use it since 1962. It’s hard to realise that, if he’s still alive, the boy of fifteen I remember is now 65 years old. He may have grandsons of his own.

‘Baba’, we discovered, meant ‘Grandfather’, so the real name of our first friend in Moinuddinpur wasn’t ‘Baba Ali Akbar’ as we’d thought, but just ‘Ali Akbar’. We met his youngest grandson, a beautiful, sloe-eyed little boy of about four. Ali Ajmer, too, was one of his grandsons. Ali Akbar had, he told us, thirteen grandsons and twelve granddaughters – all in the village

The people of Moinuddinpur – all of them – were astonishing accommodating. They were kind and gentle and took time to show us what they were doing and how things worked. We got to ride the off-duty camels – the ones that usually drove the saqqiehs – through the village and out across the fields. Ali Ajmer saddled one of the family horses and we spent one afternoon taking turns riding it. He had, as they say, ‘a good seat’. Dave and I, on the other hand, came unstuck a lot. Once I came off beside a flooded paddock and returned home enamelled in mud.

The food in Moinuddinpur – for that matter everywhere in Pakistan – was fantastic! Ali Ajmer’s mum was a terrific cook and we quickly learned to look forward to every meal. We were invited out five or six times and each meal was more memorably good than the one before. Mind you, Dave and I both fell in love with Pakistani – or at least Punjabi – food at once. After eating violently spiced goat and lamb – and uncountable vegetarian dishes – in India, it was wonderful to be back in a land where people ate real meat. True, it wasn’t really beef – cows weren’t sacred in Pakistan, they were just worth too much as milk suppliers – it was gamoosa (water buffalo). But it was wonderful – tender and always delicately spiced. If I could pick a single cuisine to eat for the rest of my life, it would undoubtedly be Punjabi. Everything was good! And what these people could do with a chili pepper and a handful of red onions has to be seen to be believed.

We lingered in Moinuddinpur a little longer than we really wanted to – and, I’m sure a lot longer than the villagers wanted us to. But finally we told the zamindar and Baba Ali Akbar we thought it was time for us to go. We tried to explain that, if we’d overstayed our welcome, we were sorry, but we’d been hoping one of the elder Khan men would return before we left. Both the zamindar and Ali Akbar were far too polite to let us see the relief they must have felt. They protested – as, under Moslem rules of hospitality, they were bound to do – but we could tell their hearts weren’t in it. I could hardly blame them.

Our bus left early in the morning, so the villagers gathered in the maidan – which was where the bus stopped – and made a sort of dawn ceremony of our going. Everybody was there. We were embraced by every member of the village council, by the zamindar and, of course, by Baba Ali Akbar and his wee grandson. We both gave young Ali Ajmer huge hugs. He was such a great kid – almost like a little brother to us – and we both knew we were going to miss him like anything. Not only that, but we owed him big time for the language lessons. The words he taught us stood us in good stead all the way across Pakistan and Afghanistan and – later, for me – Iran.

He had an even greater gift for us – a letter he’d written to somebody called Mohammed Akhbar Khan. ‘His to be my father brother,” Ali explained in a curious mixture of English and Urdu, “Is big, big work with Sherkat Pakistan tayarat at Kabul.” – literally ‘company Pakistan airplane at Kabul’. It took us a while to work this out but we finally decided (correctly) that he worked for – and that ‘big, big work’ probably meant he was some sort of manager of – Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) in Kabul. “Maybe he sleep house you. His homelife here”…he pointed to the address in Urdu…”I say him you my brothers. He necessary keep care for you.” He grinned ruefully. “Khoda hafez,” he said finally, (“Go with God”).

School had been let out for an hour or so and the kids made a presentation to us. It was the eve of a festival (the name of which now escapes me) and they had put together a five or six-foot wood and bamboo decoration that looked like a two-dimensional Christmas tree. They had brought it to the maidan especially to present it to us. It made for an awkward sort of farewell. It was much too large for us to take on the bus to Rawalpindi, our next stop. Luckily the zamindar, who knew what the kids had in mind, had already planned for our escape. We think he told the kids that we were so overcome by their generosity, that we would donate it to the village so that their festival would be really successful. Everybody clapped and cheered at that, especially the kids – who probably hadn’t really wanted to give it away in the first place.

The arrival of our bus, enveloping all of us in a cloud of dust, mercifully brought the proceedings to an end. It barely paused long enough for us to clamber aboard, then set off down the winding dirt road with much clashing of gears. We waved out through the bars on our glassless window until the village disappeared behind a row of trees around a bend.

Tom, Dick and Harry

Rawalpindi lay on the plains in the shadow of the vividly green Margalla Hills. As a town, it didn’t do much for us. It had been a military town and its cantonment was almost unbelievably British, though now inhabited by officers of the Pakistani army. Mostly the city was just a maze of bazaars – sort of medieval shopping malls – the whole damned town. Bara Bazaar (smuggler’s market) sold electrical goods, crockery and cutlery. At Trunk Bazaar all shapes and sizes of trunks and suitcases were sold. At Moti Bazaar you could buy ladies’ things – shawls, woolen goods, make-up, false hair braids, beads, etc. There was a second-hand clothes market, a vegetable wholesale market, and a market selling dried fruit, nuts, lentils and spices. Conical mounds of red chili, orange turmeric, yellow lentils and green dried peas evoked all the bazaar scenes of Arabian Nights. Kalan Bazaar sold shoes and stockings, hats, hair and beauty oils. The next street, overhung with old wooden balconies, sold scissors, knives and whips. At Purana Qila (Old Fort) Bazaar you could buy wedding dresses, fancily embroidered cloth and heavy gold braid. Sofra Bazaar was the jewellery market, then came the brass shops selling household utensils made of copper, brass, tin, aluminium and stainless steel.

At first Rawalpindi seemed like an urban cornucopia of good things after the relative austerity of Moinuddinpur, but after a couple of days of not wanting anything they sold, that attraction soon palled. We left early the next morning. Our train crossed the mighty Indus River at Attock, about half way from ‘Pindi – as most Pakistanis call it – to Peshawar. From the train we could see the mass of Attock Fort, built between 1581 and 1586 by the Moghul emperor Akbar as a base for his military campaigns against Kabul. Now used by the army, the fort wasn’t open to the public.

At Attock station, three young European-looking men joined the train. We soon discovered that they, like us, were Americans. But we could tell from their conversation that, unlike us, they clearly lived somewhere in Pakistan. Eventually, as foreigners do, when they find others of their ilk on a train they introduced themselves to us. “I’m Dick,” the tallest one said, “And these are Tom and Harry.”

My retort was far too quick for good manners. “Yeah?” I shot back, “How remarkable. We come all the way to the middle of Pakistan only to meet Tom, Dick and Harry. How likely is that?
“Not very,” Dick obliged, grinning, “But that’s really who we are. Maybe you think we don’t catch a lot of shit over it.”

It turned out that Tom, Dick and Harry were with a small detachment of the US Air Force stationed in Peshawar to train Pakistani pilots how to fly some new fighter planes Pakistan had recently purchased from the USA. They’d been in Peshawar for about six months and were on a small bit of R and R. They’d just returned from the famous ruins at Taxila and were on their way back to Peshawar. We told them who we were – a pair of impecunious students hitching our way across Asia to the USA. When I asked them if they knew of any cheap accommodation in the city, they put their heads together briefly, then invited us to stay with them.

“We’re at Dean’s Hotel,” Dick told us. It’s a pretty neat place – an old hotel dating from the days of the Raj. The Air Force has leased ten rooms on a permanent basis and we come and go pretty much as we like. Two or three rooms are vacant at present and you guys can doss down in one of those. Nobody checks up on us any more. There are so many of us and we come and go so much, they decided it was just too much trouble. We can even provide food. The Air Force provides that too – at a flat rate. So, again, nobody’d even notice you were there.” We accepted with almost indecent haste.

Once across the bridge we had left Punjab and entered the Northwest Frontier Province, of which our destination – Peshawar – was the capital. Beyond Attock the country became increasingly arid – desiccated and dry. After an hour or so, the carunculated humps of the Muzafarabad Mountains rolled over the western horizon. Then, at their feet we could just make out a green smudge in the khaki landscape. It was the oasis of Peshawar, fed by the Kabul and Swat rivers. Thirty minutes later, we were there.

***

We took a pair of tongas directly from Cantonment Station to Dean’s hotel – something between a quarter and a half mile. I was never able to work out the geography of Peshawar, but the hotel was on Islamia road somewhere in the Cantonment. The streets of the cantonment were straight, wide and shaded by huge trees. The spacious bungalows (which, by the way, is an Indian word) and government buildings were set back in large gardens.

The hotel was a rambling single-storey bungalow-style building sitting in a large cool garden shaded by enormous plane and chinar trees. It was approached by a circular drive, which divided right and left around a good-sized ornamental fountain. The old-fashioned building – in what has come to be called ‘cantonment style’ – had a low-pitched roof of green tiles and a broad verandah extending around all four sides. It could have used a good coat of paint, but otherwise was in good nick.

Our room was large, had a high ceiling, both a ceiling punkah and a window air-conditioner, and a private bath. For us, all of these were sheer luxury. We wallowed in hot water, then let the air-con blow us dry. It was wonderful. The only thing wrong with the hotel was its proximity to the railway line and to the Cantonment Station. So the huffing, sighing and pinging of old coal-burning engines disturbed our sleep the first night or two.

In the evenings we would sit out on the verandah with Tom, Dick and Harry – all of whom had spent some part of their day guiding us around the city – sipping imported American beer. I don’t know whether Pakistan is officially dry or not, since I never tried to buy any alcoholic drink, but it was most enjoyable to sit outside in the cool of the dry desert air working up a mild alcoholic ‘buzz’.

We didn’t meet the Air Force mascot until our last night in Peshawar. He was a small, grey monkey named AWOL (a military acronym for ‘Absent Without Leave’). His favourite haunt was the ornamental fountain in the centre of the traffic circle in the front garden. He also liked beer. As we all sat in a circle on the grass around the fountain, AWOL moved from person to person importuning each for a sip of his beer. When eventually somebody (Harry, I think) gave AWOL a can of his own, he lay down in the grass on his back and literally poured the beer down his gullet.

By the time he’d finished his beer, AWOL was roaring drunk. The boys, it turned out, had got him tiddly deliberately. Whenever he got sozzled, AWOL would go swimming in the fountain. Not only did he swim, but he swam under water – and he swam very, very well. He was able to hold his breath long enough to make two complete circles around the plinth in the centre of the fountain. Then he would climb to the top of the plinth and jump, screaming with excitement, back into the fountain and make another couple of rounds.

***

Peshawar was a considerable disappointment. Somehow I’d expected the gateway to the fabled Khyber Pass to be exotic and exciting – something to push the envelope of my experience – a feast of minarets and palaces – things like that. But it turned out to be just another big mud town.

It had been the capital of great Kushan Empire about 200 AD and an immense Buddhist stupa was erected there by King Kanishka (its site is now a brick factory). When the Kushans fell about 600 AD, Buddhism declined, the Khyber Pass was closed and Peshawar died. The city regained much of its former importance under the Moghuls in the 16th century. They planted trees and laid out gardens, thereby turning the city into a ‘city of flowers’ (one of the meanings of its name). In 1818 the one-eyed Sikh conqueror Ranjit Singh captured Peshawar, burned a large part of the city and felled its trees for firewood. He also destroyed the Shalimar Gardens and Babur’s magnificent fort. When the British came, their only interest in Peshawar was as a frontier garrison, so about all they did was to build one of their more spectacular cantonments.

The old city was still mostly surrounded by an ancient wall with sixteen gates. Inside them was a city of bazaars, each selling its own special products, linked to each other by a labyrinth of narrow lanes. Tall thin buildings with wooden shutters and intricately carved window-frames and balconies lined the streets of the wonderful Qissa Khawani Bazaar (Story-teller’ market) where, just at sunset, food stalls would magically appear. The Banjara Bazaar sold bells, beads and braid. At Meena Bazaar – the Women’s Market – trimmings, machine embroidery and trinkets were on display, and you could buy burqas, the all-enveloping garment for women in purdah. Around the central square of the old city at Chowk Yadgar the narrow streets of Andershah Bazaar were lined with shops the size of cupboards selling jewellery and coins. Along Katchery Road were the holstery shops, selling gun holsters and bandoliers, and on the outskirts of town you could buy fine-looking rifles hand-made entirely from scrap metal. At Peepul Mundi2 was the wholesale grain market. There were bazaars for brass and copper, for baskets, for pottery, for cloth and for shoes. There was even a bird market. Khyber Bazaar was full of doctors and dentists, and enormous sets of false teeth gaped at us from huge billboards. Looming hugely above all this, the great fortress of the Bala Hissar brooded on its bare hilltop. It wasn’t very old – built by Sikhs in 1834 – but it was enormously massive and vastly impressive all the same.

Bizarre Bazaar Belly

All transport to Afghanistan left from the Khyber Bazaar so we hustled over to see what was on offer. The transport ‘hub’, near the Kabuli Gate, was really only the intersection of three streets – Hospital, Railway and Qissa Khawani roads. Long lines of buses, taxis, jeeps and trucks jammed all three streets. Finding transport was a piece of cake – every vehicle there was going to Kabul – but getting a ticket through the Khyber Pass turned out to be harder than we had imagined. We were both nearly broke and we couldn’t afford fares on even the cheapest regular bus. It took us most of a day to find a driver willing to carry us cheaply to Jalalabad. Even then we had to haggle for hours, beating him down a rupee or two at a time, until finally he named a sum we could barely afford. And so the bargain was struck. Departure time was 8:00 AM tomorrow. Maybe, I thought, the date was some kind of good omen. Tomorrow, September 2, 1958, would be my 24th birthday.

***

When we saw our transport, we understood why it was so cheap. Clearly a victim of mechanical misadventure, the Indian-made flat-bed truck was almost old enough to be of historical interest. It had bald tyres, only one headlamp, and no bonnet at all. Half of its windscreen was missing. The remaining half was starred and cello-taped almost to opacity. A sort of roofed-in plywood cage had been erected on the truck bed, with wooden benches down both sides and another down the middle. It had been painted three or four times – a different colour each time – but never very well. Every layer had chipped off somewhere, so that bits of every colour adhered to the truck like specks of confetti, giving it a curiously festive look.

We arrived early next day – just after dawn – so as to claim good seats, and we sat in them for nearly three hours while the vehicle slowly filled. Not until it was absolutely cram-packed with travelers did the driver grind the vehicle into gear and we wheezed off toward Jamrud Fort. The old truck’s suspension was so skewed it crabbed sideways. Cyclists and pedestrians – who couldn’t tell which way we were pointed – scattered desperately out of our way. They needn’t have worried. Wheezing and roaring, the engine could hardly manage anything much faster than a stiff walking pace.
It was to be an incredibly uncomfortable trip. Besides nearly forty passengers (including six or seven babies), and a bizarre assortment of bags, bales, boxes, bundles and bed rolls, there was quite a lot of livestock – a trussed-up lamb, a pair of goats, several chickens in a tiny wooden cage, and a rooster that crowed all the way to Jalalabad. I didn’t really blame it. Somebody had tied its legs together and hung it upside-down from the roof by its feet.

The radiator leaked profusely, and it boiled more-or-less constantly, so that we progressed across the desert through dense clouds of steam. Our billowing dust cloud mixed with the steam and boiled in through the windows as a sort of muddy mist that seeped down inside our collars and shirts. It covered us with a sticky beige film that itched like buggery as it dried. The press of bodies was so close I could hardly manoeuvre my arm to scratch. Every time I tried I seemed to bang somebody in the ribs. They were all good-humoured about it, but I wished I knew how to apologise in Pashtu.

We had to stop every few minutes to top up the radiator from the little stream that paralleled the road. At every stop, clambering over baggage, everyone would disembark, so they could stamp about to free up stiffened joints, or scoop drinks from the ditch – the same ditch in which others were relieving themselves. Dave and I, warned repeatedly about drinking water in Afghanistan, abstained. But we quickly grew very thirsty.

It took me a while to get comfortable with our Afghani travelling companions. I was frankly scared of them when we started out. The Pathans – dressed in what passes for the national Afghan costume – baggy white pants, enormous white shirts whose tails were worn outside and reached below the knees and a richly patterned vest – were, after all, famously ferocious. Despite the heat, most of them wore heavy military-looking overcoats. Every one wore a dirty turban, one end of which trailed over the shoulder. They also carried rifles and bandoleers studded with cartridges, and at least one dagger. Every man aboard was a warrior and I knew that Pukhtunwali (the ‘Way of the Pathans’) required every insult to be avenged. The problem was that I didn’t know how not to insult a Pathan. So I tried not to jostle anyone – especially anyone female – and was careful not to make eye-contact, concentrating instead on the passing countryside. But every time I turned back inside the cabin, everyone seemed to have been staring at me. At any rate, I caught a lot of Pathans quickly averting their eyes. As our gazes flicked quickly past each other, I suddenly realised that they were trying as hard not to stare at me as I was not to stare at them. Then I noticed that whenever we did lock gazes, I always got a beaming smile – the sort of huge grin that folded their cheeks into wrinkles at the corner of their eyes and showed a lot of brilliant white teeth. Finally, tentatively, I grinned back. That broke the ice. The act of clambering aboard the bus back in Khyber Bazaar together had quickly made us into strangers. Those smiles made us into friends instantly. We couldn’t understand each other, but we did quite a lot of communicating all the same.

A fiercely-bearded neighbour was peeling fruit with a wickedly hooked dagger. When he was finished, he quartered it, skewered one of the quarters on his dagger and held it out to me. I smiled, raised my eyebrows in query and touched my chest. I needed to be really sure he wanted me to have it. He did. He grinned broadly, nodded, and said “Kumquat.” His fingers had left quite a lot of dirt on the fruit. I tried surreptitiously to wipe some of it off on my sleeve, but decided it would be too obvious. The fruit was the consistency of a floury apple and had a nasty castor-oily sort of taste. Still, I managed to get it down – I hardly dared, after all, to reject it – then grinned and smacked my lips appreciatively. “Mamnoon”, I essayed one of my four words of Pashtu – “Thank You”. He grinned back and nodded. Then he gave me another quarter – somehow, I had known he would. Damn! Still smiling, I gagged it down, too. He offered a third piece. I didn’t actually want any more of his damned fruit – kumquat or not – and I began to wonder how I was going to turn this guy off. It turned out that I couldn’t. Unable to talk to us, the Afghanis had apparently decided to show their good will by feeding us. My neighbour (who, unfortunately, had brought a whole bag of kumquats) and a lot of others, were to ply us with bits of assorted fruit all day. I still can’t look a kumquat – if that’s what it was – in the eye.

About ten o’clock we rattled across the flats below Jamrud Fort and into the Khyber Pass. The mouth of the pass is wide and flat, bounded on either side by low stony hills. The road quickly dropped into the valley of a little river and the hills closed slowly about it. Wherever the river flats were significantly wider than the road, huge concrete tetrahedrons had been set out in staggered rows from one side of the valley to the other. Five or six feet on a side, they turned out to be tank traps. There must have been a dozen sets of these things on the Pakistani side of the border. It seemed curious to me. I didn’t pretend to know much about Afghanistan, but what little I did know made it seem unlikely that they would have many tanks.

The road zigzagged slowly uphill for about another five or six miles, between bare rocky hills that slowly grew higher and steeper. So gradually did the terrain close in on the road that the transformation from plains to gorge was almost imperceptible, and I actually didn’t notice when the canyon began. The hills just pressed closer and closer together until the road had to burrow its way between them.

Anyway, we suddenly found ourselves in a formidable gorge, which quickly grew both deeper and steeper, with near-vertical rock walls on first one side, then the other. The steep rocky banks threw our dust and steam mixture back at us, and a blizzard of mud blasted in through the windows. After a few hundred yards, everyone was enamelled in it. We looked like a truckload of life-size clay figurines. Only our eyes showed that we were alive. It was a relief when the road tipped steeply upward, slowing the truck down (the slower the truck went, the less the dust it generated). Grinding down through all his gears, the driver kept us going – but only just. Though our engine howled and roared, our progress slowed to a walk.

In the narrowest part of the gorge, below Ali Masjid Fort, the road became one-way and hugged a narrow ledge beside the river bed, under high cliffs. Before the road was widened, we were told, two camels could not pass each other at this point. The return road, and the railway, followed separate ledges higher up on the opposite cliff. At the bottom of the gorge a mismatched pair of fragile-looking bridges – a bailey bridge and a contraption made entirely of wood – spanned the river, one carrying our road, the other the east-bound traffic. Beyond the bridges the road, looping right and left around a series of terrifying hairpin bends, climbed rapidly up the cliff face toward the fort.

***

About halfway up the cliff there was a sort of natural platform. A couple of acres or so in area, it turned out to be a bustling little market-place. Around its periphery were fifteen or twenty little hand-carts, with tatty awnings casting trapezoids of shade. Eight or ten buses and trucks had stopped there and quite a lot of people were milling about in a haze of dust. Our driver nosed his truck into the shade of a mechanic’s awning, which sat in an irregular circle of oil-impregnated dirt. He set the hand brake and the engine wheezed gratefully to a stop. While the mechanic and the driver made mechanical noises under the bonnet, the rest of us trooped outside, slapped ourselves more-or-less free of dust, then dispersed to buy little cups of tea or relieve ourselves.

Three or four of the little kiosks sold Pepsi and local soft drinks. A chai-seller had his glasses set out in rows around a gargling samovar on a rumpled sheet of oilcloth. Layers of gauzy smoke eddied across the marketplace. The samosa stalls had vats of boiling fat, and two little café-kiosks had bubbling curries and skewers of kebab hissing and crackling over glowing beds of charcoal. We bought a couple of spicy fried samosas each and crunched them as we explored the little market. There were pyramids of watermelon and heaps of kharbuseh (cantaloupes) and grapes. One cart was piled high with anar – pomegranates – the first I’d ever seen. A wild-looking Pathan caught me eying him as he pulled one apart, exposing its intricate interior compartments. Grinning, he nodded and indicated I should hold out my hand. When I did he scraped a handful of seeds covered in transparent ruby-coloured flesh into my palm. The flavour was violent – both astringent and sweet – a relief after too many cups of tea. It was incredibly juicy, and my chin ran red. I wiped at it with the back of my arm. I was about to learn something. Anar juice doesn’t wash out – ever. My shirt was so indelibly stained that I finally had to throw it away.

Next to the cliff were a dozen tank traps – ready, I guess to be dragged out to block the road in case of attack. There was even a place for prayer – a sort of open-air mosque – lines of whitewashed rocks enclosing an area fifty or so feet square. I could tell where qibla was – the stones in the semi-circle outlining the mihrab were painted green.

We were both rather taken by this bustling little place. It was a sort of oriental truck-stop – a Howard Johnson’s set incongruously in the midst of a forbidding and desolate landscape. All it needed to make us feel right at home was a clean toilet and a menu with ‘chicken in a basket’ on it. Dave decided it ought to have a name. He dubbed it the “Bizarre Bazaar”.

It was Dave who first noticed the clear water gushing from a cleft in the rocky ledges above the road. Fellow travelers were drinking and washing themselves noisily at the little stone-lined tank into which it fell. We’d been warned about the water in Afghanistan, and we’d promised ourselves never to drink any of it, but we were very thirsty, and this…well, it looked to me like a spring. And if it was a spring, its water would be pure. We were both sick to death of tea and Pepsi – we hadn’t had an ordinary drink of water for more than a month. We examined it closely, then washed our hands in it. Then we splashed some on our faces. Little muddy rivulets ran down our cheeks, so we took it in turns to wipe each other clean. The water was wonderfully cool to the touch. It sparkled and gurgled and gleamed. Oh, to Hell with it, I thought thirstily, It has to be a spring. And anyway, we aren’t even in Afghanistan yet. This is still Pakistani water. Dave must have had much the same thought. We looked at each other and nodded almost simultaneously. Then Dave stuck his face under the flow and opened his mouth. I got the second turn. It was wonderful – icy cold and fresh – and it went down like ambrosia. We drank long and deeply: We thought ourselves very clever.

But a few hairpin turns later and a couple of hundred feet higher, when the truck stopped again for water, we saw the folly of our ways. The water in the little ditch beside the road gurgled briskly downhill, and quite a lot of our fellow passengers squatted to relieve themselves in it. This is not quite as disgusting an act as it might seem. Men wore knee-length greatcoats and women ankle-length chadors. To relieve themselves, both sexes squatted down beneath their clothing and expose no parts of their bodies to anyone else. Only a trickle of urine, darkening the dust to mud, gave the nature of their activities away. When they were finished they dipped their hands into the water and washed their bottoms. Idly following the progress of a turd downstream, I noticed that the flow – and the turd – disappeared into a concrete grill just downhill from us. It was, I thought, an astonishingly modern thing to see on this ancient road. I wondered where it went.

Dave was teetering on the edge of the cliff looking down. “Hey, look!” He called, “We’re straight above Bizarre Bazaar.” I crawled to the edge of the road and looked down. Sure enough, two or three hundred feet almost vertically below us was the big bus-stop with the little food stalls. Four or five more buses had pulled in and, even from my height, I could tell they were still doing a roaring trade. Although I couldn’t see the ‘spring’ from which we had drunk, I could tell where it was. It was almost twelve o’clock and people were crowding around it – performing the ritual washing before noontime prayers.

Without thinking about it, my subconscious began to put two and two together – the drain and our spring, the turd and our drink – and I didn’t much like the sum. It wasn’t exactly rocket science. If our ‘spring’ sprang from the rock directly beneath the roadside drain beside which I now stood…..Oh God, I thought. I really don’t need this! How long, I wondered, would it be before the turd that had just disappeared into the drain beside me popped out amongst the worshippers below?

***

The hills slowly parted and leaned away from the road as it climbed up between them. Then the nose of our truck tilted forward, and we could see forever. We seemed to be on some sort of watershed. From where we were, streams flowed both east and west. Were we, I wondered, at the crest of the pass? As it turned out, we were. I wasn’t ready for it. I had assumed the crest would coincide with the frontier, and we were still eight or ten miles from the Afghan border. I wondered then – and I wonder now – why, on a frontier as hotly and savagely contested as this one has been, the physical and political borders don’t coincide.

Big bare hills receded, drawing back from the river, and a wide fertile valley sloped down ahead of us. There were fortified Pathan villages surrounded by high crenellated mud walls with watch towers at the corners. At Landi Kotal, where the railway line ends about five miles short of the border, we could see down across the green oasis at Torkham and onto the bare brown plains of Afghanistan.

Topographically, the drama was now all behind us. Flat beige plains sloped down into Afghanistan. The sun was just beginning to set, and its refracted light turned the dust haze along the western horizon the colour of rust. It became opaque. Jalalabad, the nearest town, was invisible behind it.

Customs and immigration at Torkham were a dawdle. The immigration officers couldn’t actually read – well, at least they couldn’t read English. They held our passports upside-down and leafed through them from back to front, then whanged their stamps in without ever turning them over. After half an hour or so, we clambered back aboard, and waited while the driver and his boy finished refilling the radiator. Finally, the driver settled himself, floored the clutch and ground the transmission through three or four gears, and we roared off into the sunset.

We arrived in Jalalabad in the middle of the night. All I saw of the city in the dark was a tunnel of road overhung on both sides by substantial-looking trees. Having no idea where to go, Dave and I followed our fellow travelers off into the darkness toward a sort of caravanserai. We all dossed down – men and women together – on hard wooden charpoys in its single big room.

Before turning in, I cast a mental eye over my digestive tract – a precaution I’d learned the hard way it was wise to take. So far, no problems, but I extracted a rumpled pile of toilet paper from my pack anyway, and left it handy on the floor beside me. I’d already found out where the mostarah (toilet – it was the first word I learned in Afghanistan) was before I turned in. I’d been caught short before in strange dark places and wanted to take no more chances.

Toilet paper was hard to come by in the Indian sub-continent. The natives didn’t use it and we couldn’t afford the sort of hostels that catered for the needs of foreigners. Since we were periodically stricken with the runs, we never passed up a chance to stock-up on toilet paper. Often three or four of my pockets would contain nothing but handfuls of purloined toilet paper.

It was morning – not yet light, but well after midnight – when I was awakened by violent discomfort in my nether regions. Something was seriously adrift down there. I could feel peristalsis accelerating through my bowels in waves. My gut gurgled loudly – a sound like upending a carboy of water – then gurgled again. I could feel the bubbles rising against the downward peristaltic tide. Everything inside me – organs and all – was being liquefied and there was nothing I could do about it. My sphincter muscles contracted involuntarily, but I knew that when push came (literally) to shove they wouldn’t be able to cope. I Ieaped off my charpoy, grabbed a double handful of crumpled toilet paper, and headed at a gallop for the outhouse.

Twenty seconds later, I was squatting over the hole. After blasting out two or thee gallons of lumpy fluid, I was feeling like the business end of a bazooka. Clutching my toilet paper anxiously I wondered if I had brought enough. Then came the second tranche. It was like a rocket, and the force of it nearly lifted me off my haunches. This, I quickly realised, was no simple case of ‘Delhi Belly’ – no common garden-variety dose of the squirts. This was elimination on a cosmic scale – the mother of all movements! My fundament had simply blown out like a volcanic vent. The volcanic simile was reasonably apt. I felt as though I was being flushed out with lava.

The outhouse at Jalalabad was one of my least favourite types – a little cubicle about a metre square with a hole in the centre of the floor (over which it was intended for you to squat) and a tap (for bottom washing) set into wall. On one side was a latchless wooden door. The other three sides were mud walls about four feet high. At the Jalalabad caravanserai there were three of these little cubicles side buy side. To see if the toilet was in use, you just sauntered by and looked over the wall. This is not quite as awful as it seems. Afghans wear ankle-length robes, so that when they squat down no part of their anatomy is actually exposed. They keep their head down during defecation, so all passers-by can see is the back of an anonymous turbaned head and a lot of rumpled clothing. Thus, although able tell that the loo was occupied they could neither identify the occupant nor determine exactly what bodily function he/she was performing. That was fine for the Afghans, but there was no way I could ever be anonymous. Everyone was able to identify me. I was the one with short hair and no turban – and with his bare arse hanging out.

I was still in there at first light. I simply didn’t dare to leave the loo. When the squirts hit – as they did every minute or two – there was just no stopping them. Eventually Dave came looking for me and stood chatting over the mud barrier wall while our Afghani friends took turns in the other two cubicles. I quickly sent him away for more toilet paper. He had to make several trips.

Dave, too, felt unwell, but his problem, he said, was nausea rather than diarrhoea. By the time I was finally able to hoist my trousers and fasten my belt, he was well into projectile vomiting which continued for most of the day. Then he got the shits. The intervals between my spasms gradually increased, but I still got warning of only a minute or two. Clearly neither of us was fit to travel. Quite aside from how miserable we both felt, neither of us could have got off a bus quickly enough to avoid shitting ourselves. Not to mention soiling our neighbours – something which, remembering Pukhtunwali, we certainly didn’t want to do. So we decided to hole up in the caravanserai until our respective orifices settled down. Over the next couple of days our conversation pretty much revolved around the subjects of…well…not to put too fine a point on it, puke and shit. After a while we even managed to joke about it. Dave thought we had probably raised the art of crapping to a new level. We ought to invent a name for our affliction, he said. We tried a lot of euphonious-sounding names – ‘Khyber Craps’, ‘Peshawar Poops’ and ‘Afghani Arsehole’, amongst others. Finally Dave came up with ‘Bazaar Belly’. In the end, we named it after what we both thought was its most-likely place of origin. We called it ‘Bizarre Bazaar Belly’.

It was three days before we felt brave enough to board a bus for Kabul – a trip of only three or four hours. Our digestive systems still weren’t 100% but we both managed. Twice, though, I had to bare my bum in public – hanging it over the little stream beside the road – the same stream, I expect, that ultimately fed that God-damned ‘spring’ at Bizarre Bazaar.

Hiss Matches Tea Scrapes

We reached Kabul on September 7 – a pale autumn day, with a cold wind whooping down from the Hindu Kush. Four days ago we’d left Peshawar in hot bright sunshine, but the high Afghan Plateau was on the edge of winter. The beige slopes of the hills around the city were still bare, but their tops were dusted with newly fallen snow. The line between white and beige had been geometrically precise at dawn – striking with abrupt horizontality across the rumpled landscape – but now the sun was melting wedges of bare rock upward into the splintered white cap of snow.

Kabul wasn’t much to write home about – a kind of poor man’s Peshawar. Most of it was built on river flats but urban skeins had crept up and around the rocky slopes of the surrounding hills – irregular lines of crumbly mud huts, like flotsam stranded along the lines of ancient tides. The Bala Hissar – an immense, derelict mud fortress high on a ridge – dominated the southern part of the town. Whitewashed mud houses cascaded from the gaunt loom of its towers and battlements in an avalanche of bright rectangles and parallelograms of shadow. The Kabul River, which divided the town into two unequal halves, was only a trickle of dark water oozing through boulder fields and drifts of rubbish. A grid of newish streets had been roughly bulldozed through the lanes of the old town. They were lined with scruffy two or three-storey mud buildings leaning tiredly against each other. Grubby and peeling, they mostly contained, behind dusty plate glass fronts, dark little shops under two or three tiers of flats. Tatty awnings cast irregular trapezoids of shade down their facades and out across what passed for footpaths. The new streets were wide and straight, but only the centre strips had been paved. The rest was just beaten earth, pot-holed and half-blocked with piles of what looked like building material. In open drains on either side, scummy grey water seeped among dead animals, human waste, heaps of rubbish and skeins of fly-blown offal.

Kabul was the first place I’d ever been where I couldn’t communicate with anybody at all. Lots of people spoke to us – Afghans were incurably friendly to strangers – but not in any language we could understand. Dave spoke pretty good German and I still had a little schoolboy French, but it just didn’t matter. Nobody we met spoke either. We were lucky to have a letter of introduction to Mohammed Khan (from his young brother, Ali Ajmer, in Moinuddinpur) asking him to help us during our visit to Kabul.

Mohammed Akhbar Khan was office manager of Pakistan International Airways in Kabul. He had a nervous habit of running his fingers repeatedly through his pomaded, slicked-back hair, then wiping his hands up and down along the front pleat of his trousers. That explained both the dark stains on his pants and his curiously greasy handshake. He quickly arranged for Dave and me to share a little storeroom above the PIA office in downtown Kabul, dossing down in our sleeping bags on the floor, amongst dusty boxes and drifts of yellowing paper.

That solved our accommodation problem, but our main difficulty was food. By the time we got to Kabul, our innards had settled down quite a lot, but that wasn’t the end of our dietary problems. A doctor in Kabul had diagnosed our illnesses. He’d not yet received final results of our tests, but he was pretty sure, he said, that Dave had contracted hepatitis somewhere in the Indian sub-continent. Since our run-in with Bizarre Bazaar Belly, anything even slightly greasy went through us like the proverbial ‘dose of salts’. And everything in Afghanistan seemed to be swimming in grease. Hardly any western food was available, especially at prices we could afford. We wandered desperately through lots of dark little shops, scanning the shelves for something familiar – something we knew we could eat. Something we could afford.

What we found was Carnation Sweetened Condensed Milk – the perfect food for delicate digestions. In most shops it was the only thing we could identify by sight. More importantly, it was cheap. We didn’t even have to know what the locals called it – just as well, since we never learned. We just pointed and held out a five Afghani note. Sometimes we got change, sometimes not.

In a vegetable market below the Bala Hissar we’d discovered the wonderful Afghani melons – hendovaneh and kharbuseh – and we already had a couple up in our room. Hendovaneh (watermelons) cost five Afghanis, and kharbuseh (cantaloupes) ten. So we mostly bought watermelons.

We’d also located a bakery – by the simple expedient of following a yeasty smell down a dark alley. At the end of it, a boy with a long-handled spatula forked fat round loaves of bread from a huge mud oven and dexterously flipped them across the room onto a pile against the wall. The loaves were about ten inches across and four or five high. Women in chadors stood in line to pass him coins, then tucked their bread under their arms and set off down the lane like black daleks.

When the boy glanced at us, we pointed, mimed eating and raised our eyebrows. He grinned and held up five fingers. “Panj Afghanis,” He said, then counted the fingers off one by one with his other index finger, “Yek, doh, seh, chehar, panj.” Though I didn’t understand a single word he used, I knew what he said. He had said “Five Afghanis, One, two, three, four five.” It wasn’t much of a sentence, but it was a breakthrough all the same. It was the first thing anyone had said to me in Afghanistan that I had understood. We ordered four loaves. As he handed them to us he patted the top loaf. “Nan Rus,” He said, “Nan Rus.” – “Russian Bread.” I had understood a second thing. This kid was a master at communicating. I felt myself pretty clever, too.

I should have known better. It was the last thing I was to understand until the episode with the grapes. Clutching a pair of loaves each, and grinning like Cheshire cats, we set out for our lair over the PIA offices.

So, about twenty Afghanis a day fed us cheaply, if not very well. The bread was of a dark colour – almost black. It tasted fine, but it was incredibly tough – so chewy that mastication and digestion probably resulted in a net energy loss. We quickly learned to stuff chunks of it into glasses of Carnation Milk, and to stir it around until the bread had soaked up all the milk. This softened the bread and cut the sweetness of the milk. We ate the mixture with a spoon. In retrospect it seems a poor and monotonous diet, but I remember that I enjoyed it enormously, and looked forward to every meal. I still retain a great fondness for bread and milk. And we had big slabs of melon for dessert.

***

Mohammed had lent us his pushbike and had borrowed another from a friend so that we could explore the environs of the city. On a fine mid-September day, we pedaled along an important-looking gravel road, past a surprisingly modern stadium, and then through the outer suburbs to the open countryside beyond.

A stiffish breeze was shredding clouds against the big bare hills. The snow had melted and everything was in shades of beige and tan. Although the valleys were irrigated, and cultivated terraces surrounded the city, the harvest was over and most of the fields were fallow and winter-bare. There were quite a lot of trees along the irrigation channels, their leaves already paled into yellow for autumn. Close-up, they looked crippled and incomplete. They’d been ruthlessly pollarded, and their anaemic bursts of twigs – like giant dandelions – cast filigree circles of shadow across the road.

There was only one landmark in the area. Five or six miles ahead was a truncated conical hill, with a stone tower on top. It wasn’t a very big hill – nor was the tower very impressive – but they dominated the valley. Below the hill, and more-or-less surrounding it, was a vivid patch of brilliant green – the only bright thing in that pale, bleached landscape. Since we had no itinerary, we set the tower as our destination and kept our bikes pointed more-or-less at it, following the zigs and zags of the roads and irrigation bunds.

The main part of the tower was a ‘keep’ of three or four storeys dominating several lower wings. When we got within a few hundred yards of the tower, we could see that the green around it was a series of wedge-shaped vineyards radiating outward from the hill. The big ragged leaves, still vividly green, had only just commenced to curl inward for autumn.

It was Dave who first noticed that the vines were laden with ripe grapes. It must have been near harvest-time. The rows of grapes were four or five feet high and must have been two or three hundred yards long. And there were miles of the bloody things. There were more grapes here than I’d ever seen – more than I’d ever thought existed.
“D’you reckon they’d miss a few?” Dave asked – rhetorically, I assumed.
“Naw.” What else could I possibly have said?

We dusted to a stop and had a look-around. Except for the vineyards themselves, we could see forever. There was nobody in sight. Feeling decidedly guilty, we dismounted, wheeled our bikes a few yards into the vineyards – in case a bicycle thief should happen by – and set about assuaging our thirst.

In the ordinary way of things I am not kleptomaniacally inclined – I’d never dream of stealing from some poor Afghan peasant – but by this time we were well and truly thirsty. And besides, no vineyard this large and sophisticated was ever going to belong to an ordinary peasant. Whoever owned these grapes had a more-than-normal income – of that we were reasonably certain – so he could afford to lose the few we coveted.

The wind was still keen, but it was beautifully warm in the sheltered stripes of sunlight between the rows of espaliered grapes. I quickly hunkered down with a bunch of grapes in either hand. My mouth was agape and a grape was poised almost between my lips when I remembered Bizarre Bazaar. I bloody knew what drinking untreated Afghan water and eating unwashed fruit could do to you – we were still ‘digestively disadvantaged’ – and I reminded Dave of it. We paused long enough to briefly discuss whether or not we ought to eat grapes straight off the vine. At the end of the row there was a little irrigation channel where we could wash them if we wanted to. I wondered briefly if we should at least go through the motions. Remembering what had happened at the spring at Bizarre Bazaar, ‘motions’ were literally what we were likely to go through. So we decided not to bother. On balance we reckoned the cure was likely to be more dangerous than the disease. Clean or dirty, we were going to eat those bloody grapes!  So for twenty or thirty minutes we stuffed our faces with both hands. Like the spring at Bizarre Bazaar, those grapes tasted like ambrosia. And in the end – both metaphorically and literally – they were to have much the same effect on us. Next morning Dave and I both came down with doses of uncontrollable diarrhoea – a condition I knew from my childhood as the ‘squirts’. What with twenty or so violent spasms per hour, we involuntarily spent several days pretty much housebound in our storeroom over Mohammed Akhbar Khan’s office. The ‘long-drop’ bog shared by PIA and the other offices in their building had filled up entirely. Instead of a hole in the middle of its porcelain tray, there was a moist brown mound from which dark odoriferous liquids seeped across the floor. You knew exactly what the previous occupant had done there. You could tell because you were squatting in it. And sometimes it squelched up around the sides of your soles. For days afterwards we tried not to touch our shoes whenever we put them on. There was, as always in Kabul, a terminal shortage of toilet paper. Luckily there were heaps of dusty PIA files stored in our lair. We used quite a lot of them to wipe our bottoms – something we never told Mohammed Akhbar Khan about. But that’s another story.

“Voter ewe hoodwink gear? “Fire ewe weir?”

The voice wasn’t loud, but it carried a lot of authority. Startled, we looked around. Two men – one large and one small – had suddenly appeared behind us. They were spectacularly overdressed – their clothes more suited for central London than for rural Afghanistan. Both men appeared to be in their early forties. Who on earth, I wondered, were these people? We’d neither heard nor seen anyone approaching, and we had no idea where they’d come from, but they had certainly caught us with our hands in the cookie jar – their cookie jar, I assumed.

It was the larger man who had spoken. Six feet one or two and about fifty pounds overweight, he was either Pakistani or Indian. Bare-headed and bald, he was dressed in a smart navy blue suit, white shirt and red tie. The smaller man, clearly an Afghan, wore a green fedora and a Harris tweed jacket with leather elbows. His black brogues were remarkably shiny and there was something vaguely regimental about his tie. He had wheat-coloured skin and a very Aryan nose – long, thin and very straight – which overhung a pencil-thin Clark Gable moustache. When he took off his hat I could see that his dark, thinning hair was combed straight back. Somehow, he seemed familiar – as though I had seen him somewhere.

“Voter ewe hoodwink gear?”3 Dave and I looked at each other. Neither of us had any idea what he had said – or even what language it was in, although it clearly wasn’t Pashtu.
“I don’t understand. Can you speak English?”
“Eye hems picking ink leash! Voter ewe hoodwink gear?”
“Pardon?”
“Ewe pre dish? Hammer icon? Kennedy an?”
“Parlez Vous Francais?” I tried another tack. My schoolboy French wasn’t very good, but it was a damned sight better than my command of whatever language he was speaking.
“Oui, un peu.” He brightened visibly. “Peut-etre vous et Americaine? Anglais? Canadien?”
“Oui, Monsieur. Nous sommes Americaines.”
“So, ewer Hammer icons?” He had quickly reverted to his original tongue – whatever it was. There was something familiar about those syllables. He spoke to the smaller man in Pashto, then turned back to us. “Ice picking leash, put hiss matches teak ant.” Whatever language he was speaking, he clearly preferred it to French. “Icon Hindustan heavy sing dad use aye. Ice picking leash worry veil.”

His last two words – “worry veil” – tweaked something in my memory. Maybe I did recognise that language. Maybe – just maybe – he was speaking a sort of dreadfully accented English. If you transposed the leading consonants (something most Indian English-speakers did) they became “Vorry Weil” From there it was a short step to “Very well”. “Very well”…. Now back to the beginning…back to “Ice picking leash”. That was easier now. “I speaking….”…”I speaking…..”….No, not “I speaking,” but “I speak ing-something” – “ing-leash”….”English”. What he’d said was ”I speak English very well”.

Well maybe he did, but we were going to need a new definition of ‘well’. His speech had the chewed vowels and transposed consonants of a dense south Indian accent – Telegu or Malayalam I guessed. Maybe he could, as he had said, “hindustan heavy sing dad use aye” (“understand every thing that you say.”) but it certainly didn’t work in reverse. However large his English vocabulary might be, his pronunciation was horrible, and we still had to translate his every phrase from what we heard to what he had actually said.

“Voter ewe hoodwink gear?” translated as “What are you doing here?” “Eye hems picking ink leash!” to “I am speaking English.” “Hammer icon” must be “American”, “Kennedy an” “Canadian” and “Pre dish” “British”. Now that my ear was getting attuned to his accent, translation became progressively easier.

“High yam Amir Khan.” He said. I worked on the last two syllables – the ‘Amir Khan’ bit – for several moments before I recognised what it was. He’d been introducing himself and that was his name – Amir Khan. So now we knew at least one of our companions.

“Voter ewe hoodwink gear?” Amir Khan repeated.
“Oh, here! Well….. We were thirsty and we were…..” Blushing furiously, Dave gestured toward the nearest row of vines. ”We were…..well…”
“To be perfectly honest,” I cut in, essaying the truth (With both hands still full of freshly-plucked grapes, there wasn’t much else we could do) “To be honest, we were stealing. Just a few grapes. We were thirsty, and….”
“Stilling crepes, eh?” He tut-tutted and tapped the side of his nose with his index finger. He turned to his companion and the two men had a shortish conversation. The dapper little Afghan still seemed familiar. Where had I seen that face?

Footsteps approached from behind us, crunching through the gravel between the rows of grapes. Two small men in baggy green uniforms and very large boots had appeared – one in the row to my right, the other in the row to my left. They were either soldiers or policemen. I had no idea which, but it hardly mattered. Both carried automatic rifles. Things had suddenly degenerated, I thought. We looked at each other. Adrenalin was doing funny things to my skin. Dave had blanched visibly. I wondered if I had. He had more balls than I did. He was still munching grapes.

Then Amir Khan turned back to us. “Hiss matches tea nose.” He said, “Dew note teaser hiss matches tea scrapes?” The conversation had run way ahead of my ability to translate. I knew from the rising inflection that he had queried something, so I had to formulate an answer.

But first I had to figure out the question. What was all this business about “matches”? He had twice used the phrase “matches tea”. I had to work from there. “Matches tea” might mean….I tried another tack…..

“Matches tea,” I said it aloud to get the ring of it, “Hiss matches tea.”
Dave’s eyebrows shot up. “My God!” He murmured. “D’you know what you’ve just said?”
“Hiss matches tea…” I repeated. Then it hit me. “Hiss matches tea” = “His Majesty” – almost certainly, “His Majesty”.
“His Majesty knows,” is what he’d said.

Then…”Teaser” must be “These are…..” It was all falling into place. “Hiss matches tea scrapes” – “His Majesty’s…what? His Majesty’s……grapes”
What he’d asked was, “Do you know these are His Majesty’s grapes?”

Oh Lordy! A terrible thought shot through my brain, What have we done?

“No!” We replied in unison. “We had no idea they belonged to the King.” I wondered how deep the shit was that we were in. “Please, when you see His Majesty, convey our sincerest apologies to him.”
“I’ll read it old jew hiss matches tea nose. (I already told you His Majesty knows).”
He was right. He had already told us. But how, I wondered, could His Majesty already know?

The more we translated Amir’s masticated vowels, the easier it got, and by now we hardly even noticed it any more. I cast a nervous glance back at the two guards. One was puffing contentedly on a roll-your-own cigarette and the other, scratching vigorously at his crotch, looked up and gave me a big friendly-looking grin. Arrest didn’t seem particularly imminent, so I reckoned I could relax – at least slightly.

The smaller man had taken no part in our conversation, but he was observing us with barely concealed amusement. He still looked like somebody I ought to know – he really, really did. Then I remembered. He was somebody I ought to know. I had seen his face before. I had seen it a lot before. Suddenly I knew why he seemed familiar. His face was displayed on big hoardings all over the city, and there was at least one picture of him in practically every shop. I knew who he was all right.

He was Mohammed Zahir Shah, King of Afghanistan.

And these were his grapes!

Much alarmed, I glanced at the king, who gazed calmly back at me. The ghost of a smirk played about the royal lips, wrinkling the perfect line of his moustache. He knew, all right. I knew he knew, and he knew I knew he knew. What, I wondered, came next? I suddenly realised that His Majesty was enjoying all this. Well good for him, I thought. I wasn’t!

“Oh, I’m so sorry. You don’t know His Majesty.” Amir, gesturing toward his companion, managed to sound contrite. “This is he. This is Mohammed Zahir Shah, king of all Afghans.” The king smiled and nodded pleasantly. “Please identify yourselves to the king.” Amir went on. He looked, first, at me.

I gaped. My mouth opened and shut like a goldfish, but nothing came out. I don’t know whether I was scared or just mortified, but for some reason I was unable to speak. Dave came to my rescue. “My name is Wilbert…Dave Wilbert. And this is Mr Gail Gordon.” As Amir Khan translated all this to the King, I could barely identify our names. He mangled words, I noticed, in both directions. He identified us as “Daft Wigrat” and “Gill Bollocks”.

What, I wondered, did one do in the presence of an oriental despot? I couldn’t decide whether I should bow or just bend my head. For all I knew prostration might be in order. Considering our situation, I had a strong urge to grovel. In the end I did something much worse. Trying to fawn without being obsequious, I did a sort of twitchy cross between a bob and a curtsy. I actually lost my balance and had to windmill my arms. I looked at the king. He never batted an eyelash, but I wonder what he thought I was doing – maybe having some sort of fit. I can remember how incredibly embarrassed I was. For that matter, I am incredibly embarrassed now. I still blush at the memory of it.

Clicking his astonishingly shiny heels together, the king nodded fractionally – a very Germanic (not to say Nazi) gesture that I found slightly unnerving. He did it twice – first to me, then to Dave. Then, bless his heart, he smiled – the kind of smile my Mummy used to give when she ‘kissed something better’. It was hard to stay scared of somebody who could smile like that. I felt a whole lot better.  Still looking directly at me, he said something to Amir – something he clearly wanted me to understand.

“Since you are visitors in the kingdom, his majesty invites you to the palace,” Amir pointed up toward the hilltop tower, “For a grape-tasting. D’you wish to attend?”

Actually, I did – not that we had any choice (his wish being our command and all that) – I did want to taste grapes with Mohammed Zahir Shah. I really didn’t want to eat any more grapes – we were both gunwale-stuffed with them – but, with a little luck, I would have a story I could dine out on for years.
“Yes, please,” I replied. “We should like that very much.”

As we walked toward the tower, the King chatted to us (perhaps ‘chatted’ oversimplifies the process by which we communicated. Translating and re-translating Amir Khan’s masticated vowels was an involved and painful process). The tower, he said, had been the royal family’s summer palace (“zoom harp Alice” in Amir-speak), but now it was disused. He had become interested in viticulture, he said, and had developed a farm here to see how many varieties of grapes could be grown in the harsh, dry climate. As it turned out, he explained, almost all grapes did well here, and the forty hectares of the experimental farm had produced an embarrassing surfeit of grapes. They had come to compare and to taste the vintages – at least that was their excuse. Really it was a sort of ‘boy’s day out’, a break from the fuss and protocol of palace life.

The two guards followed us, each pushing one of our bikes. Was this ominous? It was, on balance, hard to tell. At the very least it suggested that we weren’t going back the way we’d come. I didn’t know whether that was a good thing or a bad thing.

In front of the castle two single-storey L-shaped wings, extending diagonally right and left from the foot of the tower, enclosed a dusty diamond-shaped courtyard about twenty by thirty yards. Several trestle tables had been set up to form a sort of ‘H’ in the centre of the courtyard. They had been covered with white cloths, and twenty or thirty plates were lined up along the insides of both top and base of the ‘H. Behind each plate was a biggish pile (a peck or so, I suppose) of grapes. There were twenty or thirty varieties, ranging in colour from blackish purple through rose, pink, green, and dark yellow to almost white.

While the king set his technicians in motion we had a chat with Amir Khan. Once we got over his atrocious accent, he turned out to be a really nice chap – a visiting expert on a two-year assignment for the World Health Organisation (WHO – which he pronounced  “debut hitch hoe”). He apologised for his accent – which really was dreadful – but it wasn’t his fault. Neither Pashto nor English, it turned out, was his native tongue. He was a Bengali-speaker from what was then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). So much for my picking him to be a Telegu or Malayalam-speaker. He was fluent in Hindi and three Assamese dialects, and also spoke passable French. Pretty impressive credentials, I reckoned) and he was interpreting between his sixth language (Pashto) and his seventh (English). He’d learned English mostly from books and from teachers with accents even worse than his, he said. I believed him. I’d visited English classes in Pakistani and Indian schools before and I knew what they were like. I believed him absolutely.

“Do you know,” He asked conspiratorially, “That the King can speak English?”
“He can?” I had thought His Majesty had seemed pretty au fait with our conversations with Amir Khan. “Then why didn’t he?”

It took a while – and a lot of mental effort – to decipher Amir’s story. His job in Kabul wasn’t really necessary, and he was sort of a supernumerary – trapped here for two years and bored and embarrassed to the verge of humiliation. The King, he said, had seen his need. So His Majesty had made work for him to do – kept him busy and active. Interpreting for us was just one facet of it. “Of course,” He added, “My vocabulary (My evoke able hairy) is much bigger than his. But I think it’s his way to make me feel important. He’s a very gentle man. And a good friend.”

I instinctively agreed. I found myself liking the king enormously. Mohammed Zahir Shah probably was, I decided, just what Amir had called him – a ‘gentle man’. I knew we were seeing only his gentle side. I wasn’t sure I wanted to see his other side. The rest of him was probably tough as nails. It would need to be, I thought. I’d seen just enough of Afghanistan to know that life was bloody tough for most of its people. Isolated in a gaunt, barren landscape of implacable hostility, his subjects lived in biblical squalor wherever they could get a little water onto the terraces they’d scratched into its rumpled surface. The impenetrable terrain had made them intensely parochial – loyal first to village, then to clan, and finally to tribe. I doubted that any of them considered themselves to be ‘Afghans’. What, I wondered, did it take to hold all this together? I wondered if there was an ‘iron fist’ in his ‘velvet glove’. On balance, I decided I didn’t want to find out. I didn’t want to see Mohammed Zahir Shah have a snit.

There was nothing particularly scientific about the royal sampling methods. He had two or three middle-aged men collecting and weighing samples from each pile and slipping them into labelled plastic bags. From time to time they consulted the king, who either nodded or shook his head. He and Amir Khan sort of ‘grazed’ along the buffet, tasting first this grape, then another, sampling, as it were, on the trot. They clearly had their own agenda and pretty much left Dave and me to our own devices, so we just mooched along behind them. Occasionally the king spoke to us directly, to recommend some particular variety for tasting: things like that. He took the time to teach me a new word – “bohmazeh” – “delicious”.

After half-an-hour or so, the technicians had packed up and driven away in one of the Land Rovers. Amir had already disappeared outside – to attend to some royal business, I surmised. By now we were feeling quite comfortable in the royal presence – Shah Mohammed had, I guess, that sort of gift – and we were absolutely stuffed with grapes. Everyone began to drift toward the gateway. We also drifted, as did His Majesty. He reached the gate before us and waited courteously. As we approached, he shook our hands solemnly.

“I am,” He said in English, “Delighted to meet with you. I hope you enjoy my country.”
”Your Majesty speaks English?” Since I didn’t know if he knew I knew or not, I feigned surprise. I thought it politic to keep Amir’s gossip to myself.
“I am…..taking practice.” He made – and held – eye-contact. I wasn’t sure whether I was supposed to hold his gaze or not. But I did. He seemed to approve. “I hope you enjoy my country.”
“We thank Your Majesty for your hospitality, and for sharing your grapes with us.” I could hardly believe how easy it was to speak to the king without going both ways through bloody Amir Khan. “They were….” I remembered my new word, “….bohmazeh!”
The king beamed, “It is not likely that we shall meet again. Thank you for visiting my country.”

He gestured us through the gateway where the guards gave us back our bicycles. We climbed aboard, pointed our bikes east and followed our long, thin shadows back toward town.

I looked back over my shoulder. Behind us a spectacular sunset was brewing. The wind had picked up and brilliant red cloud-pennons with fiery orange edges streamed from the hilltops. The sun was melting its way into the horizon and the whole hemisphere of the western sky glowed a pure incandescent gold. Silhouetted against all this, the ‘zoom harp alice’ looked like a fairy castle. The king was still standing beside the gate, watching us across the plain. Should I, I wondered, wave to him? Or should I not? I decided to wave. And Mohammed Zahir Shah, King of all the Afghans, waved back.

To The Mother of Cities

Our little idyll in Kabul was not to last. Dave was seriously ill. He was listless, depressed, feverish, unable to keep food – even our bread and condensed milk – down. Neither of us had the slightest idea what ailed him until the day he told me his urine was the colour of Coca-cola. That was one of the symptoms of a disease I knew – one of the diseases most impecunious travelers dread – hepatitis. I had a good look at his eyes. And there I saw the second symptom: the whites of his eyes were a vivid yellow colour. It was only a matter of time until the rest of him followed suit.

The doctor’s advice was chilling. “Go home – now! Hepatitis isn’t a disease you can afford to fool around with. You need a proper no-fat, no-alcohol diet and a lot of bed rest. Hepatitis, treated gently, will go away and in five or six months you can probably resume a normal life. But if you persist with what you’re doing, it’s likely to kill you.”

This pronouncement was a sort of double-whammy. If Dave had to go, that left me completely alone – a prospect I found to be more than a little chilling. Travelling alone is never a lot of fun, but in areas where you know neither the customs nor the language – and which you know are perilous at the best of times – it seems really scary.

Dave’s luck was in. He found that Aeroflot had really cheap flights to Europe via Tashkent and Moscow. I mean they were really really cheap – about US$100 one-way. He was able to book a flight only five days away. Despite how awful he felt, he decided he wanted to do all the sightseeing his condition and our limited funds and time would allow.

***

The best day was the buskashi match at the national stadium. Buzkashi translated into English means ‘Goat-grabbing’. The national sport of Afghanistan, it’s a dangerous, free-wheeling battle to keep control of the dead goat. The carcass to be used in buzkashi is gutted and soaked in water 24 hours before the game starts. This is done so that it stays together and won’t be torn to pieces while the hundreds of horsemen compete to grab the carcass and score. Sometimes sand is also packed inside the carcass to give it some extra weight.

Once the carcass is ready, it’s placed in a circle chalked in the middle of the field of play. And then the fun starts. On a set signal, all the horsemen will race to grab the carcass and gallop away with it. The rider who manages to carry the carcass back into the circle wins. The other riders try to prevent that by attacking him and trying to steal the carcass away. In this game anything goes. Opponents can punch each other in the face, kick each other, even use their whips on each other.

It was certainly the most blood-thirsty sporting event I ever saw – or hope to see. But it was damned exciting. A crowd of about 40,000 – all on their feet and cheering and shouting throughout the match – was crammed into the 20,000 seat stadium. The din was tremendous. At times clouds of dust, stirred by the hooves of the riders’ horses, almost totally obscured the field, then suddenly a dozen horsemen, flailing each other with fists and whips would burst from the dust, all trying to rip the goat – which was somewhere in the middle of the melee – from whoever had it at the time.

Despite division into teams, buzkashi is actually an individual sport. The player who manages to deposit the goat carcass in the winner’s circle is feted as the champion by both teams, and if there is a trophy involved, it goes to him. Our match lasted nearly four hours. More than a dozen riders had been carried, inert, off the field and eight or nine horses went down before the carcass made it back to the circle. At least two of the horses had had to be put down. An exceedingly brave man ran onto the field – twice – and shot them where they lay while the match swirled around them.
***

Saying farewell to Dave was not a pleasant experience. Despite how miserably ill he was, he remained resolutely upbeat. After all, he would be home in Wisconsin in a few days – back among people he knew and loved – somewhere he could be treated properly for his hepatitis. I, on the other hand, was feeling very sorry for myself as I watched him climb the gangway. His going would leave me very much in the lurch – alone in an unlikely country where so far everything I’d touched had turned to custard. My diarrhoea – which later turned out to be amoebic dysentery – kept my stomach gurgling and rumbling ominously as I waved him aboard his plane. The last time my nether regions had behaved like that had been in Jalalabad after our transit of the Khyber Pass. I suddenly felt incredibly alone.

We had originally planned to travel through Iraq, visiting Baghdad – with a side trip to Babylon – and then through Jordan to Lebanon. We both knew people in Beirut and Dave had a couple of contacts in Iraq from his university days. Both of them had written inviting us to visit their families while we were in Iraq – civilized versions of our stay in Moinuddinpur, we assumed.

Unlikely as it seems, I already knew the Iraqi king – Faisal II – who was exactly eight months younger than I. We had met in New York in the summer of 1950 when we were both fifteen years old. In hindsight, I’m sure he wouldn’t have known me from a bar of soap, but at the time I had visions of using my ‘royal connections’ during our stay in his country. Unfortunately, just as we’d arrived in Moinuddinpur, there was a violent coup d’etat in Baghdad, and the whole royal family, including King Faisal, was murdered in the courtyard of the palace. Though he was only twenty-three, he had reigned – though a regent had done most of the ruling – for more than nineteen years.

The rest of our plan had involved catching a series of cheap ferries from Beirut to Larnaca in Cypress and then on the Athens. Faisal’s death brought the whole plan down. Iraq had suddenly become almost as dangerous to foreigners as it is today, and the border with Iran was closed. Syria had recently joined the United Arab Republic and was up to its ears in galloping xenophobia4. What all this meant to us was that we had to divert through Turkey – a country about which neither of us knew anything at all. This wouldn’t have been so bad had we still been travelling together. But it turned out that I wasn’t quite the intrepid traveler I’d thought I was. I know that because, after long and mature consideration I found I simply couldn’t face the prospect of making that whole damned trip alone.

Travelling with a staunch companion is a very different thing from doing it alone. I didn’t think I was going to like ‘alone’ very much. Not only was I alone and – let it be said – scared, I also had terrible money problems. I had a couple of hundred dollars waiting for me in Vienna – and more in London – but in order to use any of it I had first to get at least to Vienna. Back in my room I counted out my remaining funds – a little less than US$250. After a night ruminating on my predicament, I found I just couldn’t bring myself to go it alone. I knew there was a company – called, as I recall, ‘Trans-Asia Express’ – that ran cheap bus tours for young people from London to Calcutta and back. We’d seen several of their buses and once spent a night camping with a group of their travelers. The trip took about six weeks and passengers were expected to rough it. They spent their nights in tents, cooked their own meals and did their own laundry.

I contacted their local representative to see if I had enough funds to join their bus in Kabul. Alas I didn’t. We negotiated for several hours and finally he offered me passage from Tehran to Vienna for $200. The terms of the ticket were fairly strict, but only one need concern us here. The bus would overnight in Tehran – stopping at the Hotel Amir Kabir for one night only. As it happened, that night was Oct 31 – Hallowe’en. If I was there, I could join the group. If I wasn’t there, he didn’t propose to wait for me. Neither, the clerk in the office pointed out to me, would any refund of my ticket be possible.

If I could pull this off, it would make the task in front of me seem far less formidable. Having to make my own way from Kabul to Tehran seemed a far less onerous journey than Kabul – Vienna. I already knew a little about Afghanistan and we had our itinerary all planned. All I had to do, I reckoned, was stick to it and all would be well. So in the end I chickened out and paid for my passage. This left me about six weeks and US$50 to get to Tehran. Six weeks alone I reckoned I could manage. So after a couple of days of courage-screwing-up I snagged a ride to Mazar-i-Sharif – in the far north of the country – with a heavy lorry, and the driver and I headed up through the Hindu Kush.

***

The road got pretty scary where it wriggled through narrow gorges in the Kuh-i Baba (the ‘Grandfather Mountains), but – mercifully – most of that part we did at night. The driver of the truck I’d hitched my last ride with didn’t know my target was Balkh, so we overshot it during the night and he put me down in the maidan of Mazar-i-Sharif at dawn. Mazar-i-Sharif was a bustling – but not very interesting – town of about 75,000 pretty much in the middle of nowhere.
The name ‘Mazar-i-Sharif’ means ‘Tomb of the Blessed’. The city is centred on the Shrine of Hazrat Ali (the tomb of Ali bin Abi Talib – built in 1481 to replace an earlier tomb destroyed by Genghis Khan’s armies). Ali bin Abi Talib was a cousin (and son-in-law) of the prophet Mohammed, and was the fourth Caliph of Islam (ca 656-661 AD). He is regarded as a ‘Hazrat’ – a sort of minor saint – a ‘blessed’. Hence the name of the shrine translates as the ‘Shrine of the Blessed Ali’. It contains, in addition to an elegant mosque and the sepulchre of Ali5, the tombs of numerous later figures – sultans, holy men, etc. The complex, half the size of a football field, is covered almost entirely in tiles and painted panels. Although the tiles are of many colours, the vast complex appears to be mostly a sort of pale robin’s egg blue. Of several domes, the largest is the 15 metre dome over the ziarat khaneh, adjacent to the tomb chamber.
In death – he was murdered at prayer in a mosque – Ali became a pivotal figure in the history of Islam. The schism between Shi’a and Sunni Islam is centred about his person. I don’t know exactly what happened that this should be so, but he is regarded by Sunni Moslems as the final rashidun (rightly guided) Caliph. Shi’a Moslems regard Ali as the first Imam and consider him and his descendants as the rightful successors to Mohammed. Today the schism is at least as significant as that between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. Although much less numerous than the Sunnis, Shi’a Moslems are a significant minority in both Afghanistan and Iraq and a large majority in Iran.
***

Balkh – the famous ‘Mother of Cities’ – when I was finally able to retrace my steps to it – turned out to be a huge disappointment. I had thought the city lay on the banks of the famous River Oxus, but it didn’t: the river was about fifty km north. Balkh, capital of Bactria, was supposed to be nearly 5,000 years old, and was already ancient when Alexander the Great stomped through the area about 320 BC. The ruined walls of the ancient city – abandoned since the armies of Ghengis Khan sacked it early in the thirteenth century – had been gradually reduced to nothing but enormous linear piles of rotten mud bricks, with, here and there, the ghosts of ancient battlements – were probably six or eight miles in circuit. Inside them was a neat little town of eight streets (I know. I counted them) which dated only from 1934, and miles and miles of cotton fields. In the centre of the town was a grassy park where kids played soccer in the shade of a huge ruined mosque. The mosque, the fifteenth century Masjid-i-Sabz (Green Mosque), is named for its green-tiled onion dome. Little remains but the massive entrance iwan and the dome – which to my eyes is turquoise in colour rather than green In gardens northeast of town was a four or five hundred-year-old caravanserai surrounded by magnificent chinar trees. I spent three remarkably comfortable nights there.

Rising here and there amongst the cotton fields were vast heaps of crumbling mud bricks – heaps identified by a little guide book I’d bought for five Afghanis (about 25 cents) in Mazar as a mosque, two palaces, a tomb and a lot of Buddhist stupas. I have no reason to quarrel with those identifications, but as far as I was concerned they were just big piles of dirt. Only the ruined mosque in the town centre was complete enough for me to recognise it for what it was. But then, it was two or three thousand years younger than the ruins of the ancient town – many of them ruined stupas – that stood amongst the fields, immersed to their knees in cotton.

It was here, in 329 BC that Alexander the Great married the Bactrian princess Roxanne and simultaneously had ten thousand of his Greek soldiers wed their Asian concubines.

I visited the two most famous ruins. The Top-i-Rustam is the circular stump of what must once have been a monstrous Buddhist stupa. Its mud brick ruins, fifty yards in diameter, are still fifty feet high. In the 7th century, Balkh had over a hundred Buddhist monasteries and more than 3,000 monks. The Nan Vihara – equally famous – is now only a wedge-shaped pile of mud.

In 1220 Genghis Khan sacked Balkh, butchered its inhabitants and leveled all buildings ‘capable of defense’ – treatment to which it was again subjected by Tamerlane in the 14th century. It must have had great powers of recuperation, because a hundred years later Marco Polo described it as “a noble city and a great.” It was part of the Moghul Empire during the reign of Aurangzeb. Captured by Nadir Shah of Iran in 1736 and later by the Khan of Bokhara, the city only became part of Afghanistan in 1850.

From Balkh, I managed to hitch a ride with the driver of a truck headed for Termez – a town on the River Oxus – in Uzbekistan S.S.R. There wasn’t any town on the Afghan side of the river, so he just dropped me by the riverbank and headed off for the customs shed on the south bank next to the ferry pier. Like most things in northern Afghanistan, the Oxus was a considerable disappointment. It was a grey day with fleets of leaden clouds sweeping slowly across the border and piling up against the north face of the Hindu Kush (‘Killer of Hindus”) Range. The Oxus, about five hundred yards wide, was also the colour of lead.

In 1958 there weren’t any bridges across the Oxus. The only way to cross the river was by ferry. Not that I had any plans to cross it: I didn’t. The principle on which the Oxus ferries are worked is peculiar to these regions – so peculiar, in fact, that the ferries were by far the most interesting objects in the landscape. Large flat-bottomed boats are towed across the river by small horses attached to outriggers projecting beyond the gunwale by means of a surcingle or bellyband. They are thus partially supported in the water whilst they swim. The horses are guided from the boat, and a twenty- or thirty-foot barge with a heavy load of men and goods can be towed across the 500-yard-wide river with ease by two of these animals. I don’t know – mostly because there was nobody I could ask – whether vehicles ever travel on these ferries or not. But the load from my truck was unpacked and carried aboard the ferry by relays of bearers.

In half-an-hour or so I felt I’d exhausted the photographic potential of the ferries – and everything else about the Oxus – and set about trying to find transport to Daulatabad, my next stop on the road to Herat. From there it was only 400 or so kilometres to Herat. And from there Iran was only a hop, skip and a jump away.

***

Although nobody’d told me it was forbidden to photograph the river – which was the border between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union – I should have been able to figure it out for myself. After all, the view across the river – mostly of the endless steppes of Central Asia – was framed by barbed wire entanglements, tall guard towers with spotlights, and sandbagged machine gun emplacements. All facing our direction.

None of the Afghan guards who ‘apprehended’ me could speak English. They were very polite – almost deferential – but they were very firm. When words failed, they simply took matters in hand, removing my camera and backpack from me and removing all my films from both. Thus I lost about a week’s worth of photos – from Kabul to Bamiyan (where we’d stopped only briefly after dark, thus depriving me of even a glimpse of the famous giant Buddha) and, of course, the Hindu Kush, Mazar-i-Sharif, the River Oxus and the ruins of Balkh.

The border guards spent quite a lot of time trying to figure out what to do with me. It seemed that foreigners with cameras were pretty thin on the ground back in 1958 and they hadn’t received any instructions that covered my situation. It took them three days to decide. In the meantime I was detained in the caravanserai. Except for the loss of my film – and, of course, worry about my future – I was happy enough. I spent a lot of my time button-holing locals and trying to learn a little Pashto.

Finally, they decided to ship me back to Kabul and let the authorities there worry about it.6 To do this, they simply flagged down a truck heading south from the Termez landing and put me (and a young guard) aboard. As it happens, they’d stopped the same truck I’d hitched my way north on just a few days before, so the driver and I were sort of old friends. The trip back took four days. I learned quite a lot of Pashto from the driver and the young guard.

Fun With Dick and Jane

Back in Kabul I quickly found myself in the city jail. But not for photographing the Soviet border fortifications. That was, as I’d assumed, forbidden – but not actually a crime – so the authorities reckoned confiscation of my films was punishment enough. The crime for which I was jailed was returning to Kabul. The terms of my Afghan visa were, I thought, a little curious. They permitted me to go anywhere I wanted, but restricted my stay to a maximum of three days in any one city and I was expressly forbidden to return to any city once I’d left it. So, by returning to Kabul – albeit involuntarily – I’d violated the terms of my visa. Afghan immigration officers quickly realised that I hadn’t intended to return to Kabul – that I had been forcibly returned by the border guards at Balkh. So I was quickly freed, but – I think to cover their own asses – the authorities gave me only 48 hours to get out of town. Since I’d already been along the northern route to Iran, I had no choice. I couldn’t go back to Mazar-i-Sharif. So I would have to travel to Iran along the southern route – via Ghazni, Kandahar and Farah – to Herat.

I first contacted the US Embassy for help, but got no joy at all. The highest official I was able to reach told me to ‘Fuck off!” I must have looked as gob-smacked as I felt. “We are here.” He added, with an evil glint in his eye, “To serve the government of the USA and not its people.” He positively leered at me. “We don’t need pitiful fuckers like you muddying our political waters.” I have never forgiven him. If I could remember his name I would make a little doll of him and stick lots of pins in it.

I was lucky to meet Squadron Leader Dick Brown and his wife Jane – a lovely pair of Britons in early middle-age7. Dick’s assignment with the Indian Air Force had terminated and he and Jane had decided on an adventure – to drive overland back to the UK. To this end, they’d purchased a second-hand VW van that had been converted into a sort of mini-RV, with beds, cooking facilities and a table and bench. It wasn’t until they reached Kabul three weeks later that the magnitude of the task they’d set themselves actually hit them.

They were in the British consulate seeking a male companion to join them at the same time I was there trying to hitch a ride with someone heading for Iran. In the event, we got chatting and made our deal there and then in the waiting room without ever getting past reception. Their plan was to stop in hotels or caravanserais wherever possible. They also had a tent for emergencies. Travelling on the same weird sort of visa I had, they’d allowed themselves a week to reach Herat.

***

In a general sense, the trip was a non-event. I’d originally picked the northern route because it looked topographically interesting. The southern route mostly traversed the grim, desolate plains sloping south from the flanks of the Hindu Kush and the Afghan Parapomesis.

In Ghazni we stayed in a most curious hotel. Standing on an isolated hillock about a mile out of town, it was brand new – not, in fact, quite finished. Architecturally, it was pure Dutch. It looked exactly like a group of row houses of the sort you see along the canals of Amsterdam. I can’t imagine how it came to be here in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. Anything more startingly out-of-place would be hard to imagine. I was given a room that smelled strongly of new plaster, with a cement floor, several light fixtures and a very modern bathroom. Unfortunately, the hotel had neither electricity nor running water.

In the otherwise empty dining room we were served dinner on a large table groaning under the weight of fresh, starched linen, polished cutlery and elegantly thin bone china – a complete service for twelve. The meal, unfortunately, consisted of a tasteless goat pilaf and several glasses of rusty-looking water that tasted of mud. Dessert was a plate of desiccated juiceless slices of oranges.

Afterwards, we washed in buckets of murky cold water carried from a nearby well. There were neither lanterns nor candles in my room or the Brown’s, and somehow we weren’t able to explain our need to the staff. So we spent the evening in the VW van, trying to play chess by feeble light of its interior lamp.

***

Although it was the largest city we passed, I have virtually no memory of Kandahar. The city lies in the midst of an enormous oasis – miles and miles of flat, green fields watered by the Arghandab River. The oasis I remember vividly: it’s the city I have a problem with. It was founded as ‘Alexandria in Archosia’ by (you guessed it) Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC. Ahmad Shah Durrani made it capital of his empire in the early 18th century. When his son moved the imperial capital to Kabul upon his accession to the throne, Kandahar became just a big provincial city.

***

One of the niggling problems none of us had predicted was how hard it was to have a pee or a crap in private. No matter where we stopped in Afghanistan – even in the midst of an absolutely barren, flat plain – by the time we’d disembarked from the van and were about to drop our trousers, a crowd of eight or ten curious locals would have collected. Mostly young boys, they certainly meant no harm, but very few westerners are able to defecate in the presence of an attentive and intensely interested crowd. We never did figure out where they came from. Sometimes there were villages in sight, but none of them was less than two or three miles away – we’d made sure of that – and the kids hadn’t had time to come from there. They just seemed to materialise all around us.

Once they’d gathered, there simply was no way to get rid of them. They weren’t just there for pee stops. They gathered to watch us eat lunch, change tires, top off the radiator – everything. The only solution – and something we frequently did – was to just drive off, leaving a gaggle of kids standing out in the middle of a vast expanse of bugger all. But, of course, it solved nothing. We still had to pee (or whatever), and whenever – and wherever – we stopped again, a new gang would appear as though sprouting from Cadmus’ dragon’s teeth.

Leaving Kandahar, we happened on a huge camel caravan moving slowly west. For two or three miles we threaded our way through forests of plodding angular legs, herds of bounding sheep, and dark-skinned nomads – all shuffling together through the dust. As we reached the head of the caravan, Dick and I left Jane to drive the car while we got out and walked for about a mile with the nomads. They spoke no English, of course, nor we any language they knew, but we passed out cigarettes – they had never seen one before, so Dick had to show them how to light them and how to puff – and how delighted they were, laughing and pointing like children. To the kids we gave sweets, kept just for that purpose, but the women crowded around Jane and followed her as she cruised slowly along beside us, laughing and pointing to her. We had a wonderful time, talking our few words of Pashtu and taking pictures. But Dick made the mistake of letting one of the men – a grizzled elder – peer through his view finder. We were immediately besieged with requests for more. The result – entirely predictable – was that for half an hour or more our cameras were passed from nomad to nomad, and Dick lost about thirty feet of movie film when a happy lout found the trigger and took a lot of pictures of the end of his grimy thumb.

There were always mountains in sight – the northern horizon was snaggly as a dragon’s jaw, but the road confined itself to the monotonous beige plains. In Farah we stayed in a curious, newish accommodation block that was somewhere between a caravanserai and a motel. Built caravanserai-style around a courtyard, the ground floor consisted of something like stalls in a stable (maybe they were). The rooms above were the accommodation. Each was reached by a flight of stairs – each room had its own external staircase – to a verandah which ran around all four sides of the courtyard.

I awoke sometime in the middle of the night to the sound of someone breathing heavily somewhere in the room. There were muffled sounds and scratchings and the rustle of cloth – and my heart leapt to my throat. Somebody was going through my backpack which lay on a table only a couple of feet from my bed. I wasn’t just afraid – I was absolutely petrified – but I knew I had to do something.

I was afraid to call out, as all the local men seemed to carry remarkably lethal-looking daggers and were not – according to the British Consul-General in Kabul – averse to using them at the slightest provocation. But I couldn’t just lie there until he found my money or – worse – my passport. I rolled over noisily, sighed loudly, yawned and coughed, so that he would know I was waking up and have time to make his get-away – always, of course, assuming he wanted to get away – with no fear of getting caught. It was pitch black, and I couldn’t even see my shaking hands in front of my face.

Footsteps padded to the door, then stopped. I sat up, making the bed rattle as much as possible, yawned again, then banged my shoes against the floor. The footsteps disappeared down the steps leading to the courtyard, and I heaved a sigh of relief. Quickly I put on my clothes and carefully opened the doors to the verandah, meaning to rouse Ian. Our night guard lay at the foot of my stairway fast asleep. I roughly routed him out, and though he spoke no English, I made sure he got my message. I got him to light a lantern and we inspected the damage. Nothing seemed missing except a fountain pen.

For the rest of the night I kept the lantern burning atop the table in my room. But I can’t honestly pretend I went back to sleep – even with the guard ostentatiously prowling outside. Just for the record, this was the only time I was robbed in all my years in Africa and Asia.

***

We could see Herat long before we reached it. The towering mud walls of the old city dominate the plains for miles. But, looming over even these immense constructions is the incredible mass of the citadel or ark. Its fifty-foot walls spring from an artificial platform nearly a mile long, a third of a mile wide and sixty or seventy feet high. Its ten round towers – all more-or-less complete – rise another thirty or forty feet. We could actually see the citadel an hour from the city – brooding over the plains like a range of big hills.

There was some sort of festival in town and accommodation was hard to come by. It was dusk by the time I located a placed to stay in a modernish caravanserai – a sort of prehistoric motel – out near the Musalla Minaret complex. When I asked for a private room, I was told that there weren’t any left. Eventually they put me into a twin-bedded room by myself, but the innkeeper warned me that if more travelers appeared during the night, I would have to share. I was OK with that.

At some time during the night I was awakened as they showed somebody into my other bed. Trying not to wake me they didn’t turn on the overhead light, but managed to show the new guest to his bed by torchlight. I could tell from their conversation that my new roommate was not only an English-speaker, but also an American.

It was a glorious dawn. I stepped outside to survey the famous Musalla – seven blue-tiled minarets, originally belonging to a group of now-vanished mosques and madrassas. Rising haphazard and leaning crookedly into the sky, the minarets look their age, their tops broken, their bases twisted and eaten away. Originally, there were at least four more. Two were razed in 1885 to deny cover to an invading Russian army. Two more fell in an earthquake in 1931.

When I went back inside, my new roommate was astir, so I had my first look at him. To my amazement, I recognised him at once. We knew each other well. Not only was he my new roommate – he was also my old roommate. Dave Horr and I had shared a dorm room at University of Kansas during our undergraduate days.

Upon graduation we’d both received Fulbright Scholarships – he to England and I to New Zealand. Now we were both on our way home – I travelling west and Dave east. Both of us were travelling alone and I think Dave was as glad to see me as I was to see him. We both broke our journeys for four or five days. It was with some trepidation that I told Dick and Jane to go on to Tehran leaving me behind, but having another old mate close at hand, gave my wavering courage a real shot in the arm.

Herat, on the Hari River, is supposed to be the most beautiful of Afghanistan’s ancient cities. Well, maybe. With a single exception (Isfahan) ‘beautiful’ is not a word I would apply to any mud city of my acquaintance. In my experience, almost all the big mud towns on the high plains of central Asia look like big versions of Moinuddinpur. Every other building is in ruins and the whole town looks as if it’d just been shattered by a major convulsion of nature. It is, I guess, one of the penalties of building in mud. It corrodes quickly and it is, in many cases, easier to build a new building than to repair the old one. Almost the only exceptions to this are the mosques, most of which have had funds invested for their maintenance. A mud mosque requires as much maintenance as any other mud building, so parts of all the great mosques of central Asia always seem to be under restoration and are usually shrouded in scaffolding.

Herat has been a settlement for over 2,500 years and has been fought over by successive rulers starting with Alexander the Great in 330 BC. Moslems captured the city in the 7th century AD. The Mongol conqueror Tamerlane made it his capital in 1381, and it subsequently became a center of Persian art and learning. The Afghans captured Herat in 1749. Principal architectural features of the city are stupendous city walls, the citadel, and the Friday Mosque.

The great cruciform mosque – with four iwans surrounding an immense sahn, and its monumental gate – was built about 1200 AD by Ghiyath al-Din. It is entirely covered in minutely detailed geometrical patterns made of tiny glazed tiles. This – except for the Shrine of Hazrat Ali in Mazar-i-Sharif – was the first Iranian-style mosque I’d seen. After the austerity of the great Moghul mosques, its blizzard of colour nearly blew me away. Although there are many colours within the overall decoration – including gold leaf – the predominant colour is blue. The elements of decoration are mostly limited to calligraphy, geometry and foliation, but their manipulation results in a rich and sumptuous effect. The staggering effect of all this intricate tilework was unfortunately somewhat reduced by the acres of asphalt with which some twit had re-surfaced the great sahn. Then, too, scaffolding smothered the right side of the mosque, which was being restored.

Mostly Dave and I spent our time strolling through the bazaars of the old city – drinking coffee during the day and arak at night – reminiscing in the noisy, crowded cafes. Saying goodbye to Dave was almost as hard as it had been to say goodbye to my other Dave in Kabul. Suddenly I found myself alone again – this time on the edge of a new country. But I had already covered most of the hard part. Iran, if nothing else, was organised and orderly, and my route lay straight across the northern part of the country to Tehran – where, all going well – I would meet my bus.

***

A local bus took me to the Iranian border at Torbat Haideri. Neither Afghan nor Iranian customs or immigration gave me more than a quick glance. There was a bus station just next to the customs post and I was quickly able to purchase a ticket for Mashhad (Meshed). It was bitterly cold in Mashhad, so one of the first things I did was buy myself a warm coat – something I’d not needed since we left New Zealand. I found a little shop that sold second-hand clothing from CARE packages. I got a handsome tailor-made (in New York) camel hair overcoat with commodious pockets for only US$5. From this point on, unless I state otherwise, you should think of me as always wearing it.

Mashhad (1958 population 175,000) was a small village at the beginning of the ninth century. In 808 AD the famous Caliph of Baghdad, Haroun al Rashid, fell ill and died there while on his way put down a rebellion. Ten years later somebody called Al Ma’mun martyred the Imam Reza who was buried beside the caliph. The name ‘Mashhad’ in Farsi means “the place of martyrdom” – referring to the martyrdom of the Imam Reza – AKA Ali al Rida – which took place here in 818 AD. From then on, the town was known as ‘Mashhad al Rida’ – ‘the place of martyrdom of Ali al Rida’. Pilgrims soon began to visit his tomb and within a few years a dome was erected over it. The town grew rich from pilgrimages and soon bazaars and caravanserais grew up around the shrine.

Mashhad was not an important city until the Mongol raids of 1220 AD, which caused the destruction of most of the other large cities in Central Asia, but left Mashhad relatively intact. Thus many of the survivors of the massacres migrated to Mashhad. When the famous world traveler, Ibn Battuta, visited the town in 1333, he reported that it was a large town with abundant fruit trees, streams and mills.”A great dome of elegant construction,” he reported,”Surmounts the noble mausoleum, the walls being decorated with colored tiles.”

In 1418, Tamerlane’s wife Goharshad erected a vast mosque next to the shrine of al Rida. Shah Abbas, first and greatest of the Safavid kings, once walked from Isfahan to Mashhad to encourage his subjects to visit the shrine. During the Safavid era (mostly the 17th century) Mashhad gained even more religious recognition, becoming the most important city after Isfahan, as several madrasas and other religious structures were built beside the shrine of the Imam Reza. Today the holy shrine and its museum hold one of the most extensive cultural and artistic treasuries of Iran, in particular manuscript books and paintings. Several important theological schools are associated with the shrine of the Eighth Imam.

The Holy Shrine of Imam Reza, and the surrounding buildings are known collectively, as the ‘Astan-e Ghods-e Razavi’ (God knows what that means) and comprise one of the marvels of the Islamic world. Like the mosque in Herat, the vast complex was a blizzard of colour, its domes and minarets shimmering with mosaic tiles and sheets of beaten gold. As well as the shrine, the complex contains two mosques, four museums, twelve lofty iwans (two of them coated entirely in gold), six theological colleges, several libraries, a post office and a bookshop. The Holy Shrine itself is closed to non-Moslems, but the rest of the complex is open to visitors. Goharshad’s vast Mosque – now 590 years old – has a wonderful blue dome fifty meters tall, and a cavernous gold-plated portal.

***

I took a local bus to Nishapur, home town of the famous poet Omar Khayyam, to see his tomb. His mausoleum was unimpressive, but the gardens surrounding it were wonderful. Khayyam, although known to the West as a poet for his famous ‘Rubiyat’ (‘Quatrains’), is regarded by Iranians as a mathematician. From there I took a local bus – painted all over with roses – to Tus, best known for the Mausoleum of Ferdowsi (935-1020AD) – possibly the most famous poet in a land that reveres its poets. Tus existed before Mashhad: mounds and ridges betray the outlines of the old city. An antique bridge of eight arches spans the river, and a massive domed mausoleum the colour of dead rose petals, stands up against the blue mountains.

It was 544 miles from Mashhad to Tehran. There are four biggish towns on the road – Sabzevar in the east, Shahrud and Damghan in the centre, and Semnan in the west. For the whole of its length the road clings to the lowest pediments of the Elburz Mountains. Floating dim and gauzy above the dusty air, the line of great peaks – many of them over 4,000 metres and buried in snow – seemed to go on forever.

We set out at dawn from the Mashhad bus station, stopping only for petrol and to top up the bus’ radiator, which – like the one that’d taken me through the Khyber Pass – leaked like a sieve. The driver and his boy had to descend from the bus about every ten minutes or so to top it up with water from a roadside jube. Listening to their conversation – of which I understood, of course, not a word – I noticed one word – “baleh” – repeated again and again. Eventually I decided that based on the activities of the two men, the word most likely meant “water”. I felt quite proud of myself for a while. I later found out that “baleh” is Farsi for “Yes”. So much for my linguistic skills.

We made really good time, reaching Semnan, about 140 miles east of Tehran, a little after sunset. And there we spent the night crammed into a hotel with only eight rooms. There were about forty of us on the bus, so – carefully segregating the sexes – our complement was divided among them, seven or eight to a room. Most rooms had more than one bed, but most of us still had to sleep on the floor. It was cold as buggery in that damned hotel. As far as I know I was the only one with a sleeping bag, so I managed a night comfortably warm but considerably disturbed by the snores of four or five of my fellow travelers.

After a breakfast of fried eggs, nan, jam, onions and chai, we set out for Tehran. The south face of the Elburz Mountains had become more and more colourful as we progressed westward – bands of red and white and green rocks, bent and folded into intricate shapes, writhed across the bare mountain slopes. Just above Semnan was a double whorl of interbedded red and white rocks that formed a giant letter “S” more than half-a-mile high. At first I thought that rather charming – a giant “S” on the mountainside, signifying “Semnan” – “S” for “Semnan” – but I quickly realised my mistake. Farsi is written in an Arabic script. Not only is it written from right to left, but the sound of “S” in Farsi is represented by something that looks a lot like the English letter “U”.

We arrived in Tehran in late afternoon and I set out to find the Amir Kabir Hotel. I finally located it just off Khiaban Sa’adi not far from the Park-i-Shahr (municipal park). The hotel occupied the top floors of a U-shaped six storey building, the ground floor of which was a tyre vulcanising factory. There wasn’t any lift. Luckily I was able to get a room on the third floor. The rooms were reached via open balconies that extended entirely around the inside of the ‘U’. All the rooms had huge plate glass windows facing onto the balcony, and only gauzy net curtains for privacy. There wasn’t enough putty around the glass in my room and that vast pane of glass rattled noisily every time a nearby vehicle revved its motor. My room contained a saggy wire-wove bedstead, a small desk, a wardrobe and a chair. Still, for US$0.50 a night, what did I have a right to expect? Everything in the hotel smelled of tires and raw rubber. The smell wasn’t unpleasant, but it was ubiquitous. To this day, every time I think of Tehran, my nose remembers the vulcanized smell of the Amir Kabir.

There was a toilet at each end of each floor. There were no bathing facilities. This wasn’t uncommon in cheap Iranian hotels where:guests were expected to avail themselves of the services of the nearest hammam (public bath-house). The hammam on Khiaban Sa’adi was excellent – acres of gleaming white tiles, scads of scalding hot water, and clean towels and washcloths. All this for ten riyals (about US$0.10) per hour. I don’t think I’ve ever been so clean.

Nesf-i-Jehan

I’d arrived in Tehran eight days early for my bus to Vienna. It took me less than a day to determine that Tehran was far too big and modern to be of much interest, and I wondered if I dared take a quick trip to the fabled city of Isfahan. Isfahan was 435 miles south of Tehran – a distance I was assured by several of my new Iranian acquaintances could easily be covered in a day. The road, they said, was one of the best in the country. They even produced bus schedules showing an eight-hour travel time including a lunch stop.

And in the end I opted to go. The “Express” bus – as promised – took only a little over eight hours to carry me back 300 years in time.

A line of dark peaks, collectively known as Kuh-i-Sofeh, rises south of Isfahan. Rolling up over the horizon like a set of bad teeth, it is the first thing you see. Peculiarly rugged, its jagged silhouette seems to have been designed for a much larger landscape, and it rises from a high tilted plain where there is nothing for scale.  It seems enormous and distant, and it dominates the town like the Himalayas, but the eye is deceived. Kuh-i-Sofeh is really only a big hill.

The boundary between oasis and kavir is blurred, indistinct. The oasis ends where the skeins of water unraveling from the river finally become too fine to flow. In a wet year the oasis expands, in a dry one it contracts. The outermost fields rarely get moisture, and lie fallow most years – corrugated rectangles of old furrows slowly filling with dust.

The oasis of Isfahan coalesced slowly out of desert – first a pale grey-green smudge below Kuh-I-Sofeh. Then a line – and finally an apron of fields veined in irrigation bunds – brown lines on green, converging across the plain toward the mountain. Juddering over the corrugated gravel surface of the road, we dragged our plume of dust deeper and deeper into the green expanse. Here and there we could see distant villages – a beige dome, bulbous and worn, or a minaret immersed in trees. Jubes (irrigation channels) appeared, gurgling beside the road, and occasional pollarded trees, looking crippled and incomplete. Their anaemic bursts of twigs – like giant dandelions – cast filigree circles of shadow across the road.

We never really saw Isfahan coming. Brick by brick, the city gathered up its skirts from the fields – rising from irrigation bunds to low mud walls, then to walls head-high – one on each side of the road. Crops, too, grew taller – barley and millet gave way to maize and then to orchards and walnut trees. Walls linked to houses – singly or in small groups – windowless mud brick cubes with barrel-vaulted roofs – many wearing rakish haystack hats. Goats and chickens skittered out of our way, and fat-tailed sheep tried to stare us down, with their pale vacant eyes. A group of women in bright chadors squatted beside a jube, beating their laundry on rocks. Except for them, everything was beige – the colour of dust (‘khak’ in Farsi, from which comes the English word ‘khaki’). Blank wooden gates pierced the walls, and the road was featureless as a ditch.

Trees began to appear – cypresses and chinars – aligned along the jubes. These, too, had been savagely pollarded but – seen in rows – they seemed faintly decorative – like crude topiary. There were donkey carts and camels with improbably huge loads of thorn branches. Orchards overtopped the walls – then there were more, and larger, buildings, then more trees. A qaweh khaneh (coffee house) – with elderly men in felt hats huddled over a hookah – then small shops amongst the orchards, then more and more. At some point the road surface changed from gravel to asphalt. The street grew wider and acquired kerbs. Cyclists appeared, and taxis. Buildings with complicated Turkish-style cornices rose to two or three storeys. Big lopsided lorries, their suspensions permanently skewed, crabbed along the road, scattering cyclists and pedestrians.

Suddenly we were at a big traffic circle – with beds of desiccated marigolds and a dry fountain in the middle – surrounded by peeling yellowish tenements and a ring of street lamps. “Maidan Pahlavi” the signs said. A bus, with a distinct list to starboard and festooned with passengers clinging outside by their fingertips, roared around the circle. The driver locked his brakes: the bus slewed sideways in a great cloud of dust, then shot off down a radial street. To avoid hitting him, we had to stop. Instantly our own dust cloud swept forward and wrapped us in a blinding khaki mist. We fanned ineffectually at it with our hands, but it made no difference. We just had to wait for it to settle. So, coughing and sweating, and feeling very sorry for ourselves, we sat. It had, I reckoned, been a very long day. I was tired and I itched. Cleaning my spectacles, I peered myopically into the dissipating dust. Behind it, a line of huge trees was materialising – enormous great chinars, thirty or forty metres high with trunks like houses. Suddenly I knew where I was. I had never been here before, but I knew what it had to be. It had to be Khiaban-i-Chehar Bagh – the heart of Shah Abbas’ ancient city – and it was.

Shah Abbas – a contemporary of Elizabeth I – probably moved his capital to Isfahan because of the river. An imperial capital needed lots of water – on the high plateau of central Iran, it is desperately scarce – and the oasis of Isfahan is watered by the Zayandeh Rud. The Zayandeh isn’t much of a river – it ends just west of town in the marshes of Gavkhaneh. Sometimes it doesn’t even flow – and when it does, it can be waded – but the Zayandeh has been the making of Isfahan. It would take a hundred qanats to equal its flow in flood. Even Shah Abbas couldn’t afford that.

So, in 1598, he moved to Isfahan, and set about creating a splendid new city. For thirty years Shah Abbas built. His sons, and their sons – and theirs – built for eighty more. By the early eighteenth century, Isfahan may have been the most beautiful city in the world. “Isfahan, Nesf-i-Jahan” the Persians said of it (“Isfahan is half the world”). It probably was. They still say it.

I took a room in the Hotel Kasra – about half way along the Chehar Bagh – sharing it with a young Iranian Jew. The hotel was built around a courtyard with a blue-tiled pool. You could tell there had been an elegant garden once – but half of it had been converted to a car park, and the rest was mostly derelict. The ceiling was very high – so high the room was almost a cube – with tall French doors onto a balcony overlooking the courtyard. It was cold and austere, and the beds smelled of mildew. Little puffs of dust rose from the cheap Persian carpets – there were several layers of them – when I walked across it. To be fair, we were only paying fifty cents a night each, so what did we have a right to expect? We lit the kerosene heater, but it smoked abominably and stank, so I went for a walk. I had never been to Isfahan before – though it was a place I’d dreamed of visiting as a boy – so I decided to make the most of my time in the city.

The main avenue of Isfahan, Chehar Bagh (Four Gardens), was laid out by Shah Abbas to link his palace to his country estate south of the Zayandeh Rud. Designed to be a place for walking for pleasure, flower beds and avenues of plane trees gave it a special charm. A little canal linked the fish ponds and fountains along the avenue, and there were gardens on both sides, with painted and gilded pavilions. The Chehar Bagh is still the favourite place for walks, but most of the pavilions have been replaced by shops. Of the magnificent gardens, only four rows of plane trees survive, but they are enormous and wonderful. In summer they shade the whole broad thoroughfare, and in autumn great drifts of leaves – big as handkerchiefs, gold as butter – swirl among their vast pale trunks. Water still flows along Chehar Bagh – down four clattering jubes – and on a quiet night the rasp of water over stone fills the avenue with echoes.

The Madresseh-i-Madar-i-Shah, a hostel for theology students, was built by the mother of the last Safavid, Shah Sultan Hassan, in 1714. It is entered from the Chehar Bagh through a vaulted iwan covered in blazing turquoise tiles. Inside is a double arcade courtyard shaded by fine old plane trees, and decorated with panels of glazed mosaic tiles. The deep blue dome – fragile as a tulip bud – rises and swells above its pale drum. Most Safavid buildings are a little too monumental for comfort – you are too busy being impressed to actually enjoy them. The madresseh is not like that. Maybe, because it was meant to accommodate rather than intimidate, it is more intimate – its ambience sanctuarial, subtly feminine. Just to sit in the sahn, watching splinters of sunlight refracting through tiers of golden leaves on the ancient chinars was wonderfully soothing.
In the middle of the Chehar Bagh, a modern square – Maidan-i-Sevom Esfand (dominated by an equestrian statue of Reza Shah Pahlevi) – leads to the Pol-i-Allahaverdi Khan8, which carries the road across the Zayandeh Rud. The bridge consists of two long tiers of arches. The lower twelve arches, which carry the roadway, rise over a series of sluice gates which form a dam. The roadway is lined with twenty-four arched niches – two above each arch of the lower level – forming little kiosks with pavilion rooms looking outward. There are larger pavilions at the end and in the middle of the bridge. On the downstream side the water cascades over a series of stone steps – wonderful places to sit in the afternoon sun. A delicate filigree of glazed blue tiles remains on the panels between the arches.

The bridge is considered to be a masterpiece of Islamic architecture, and every tourist, they say, should see it. Personally, I wondered what all the fuss was about. It seems to me to fall between two stools. It is far more bridge than the Zayandeh Rud deserves, but less than the splendid thoroughfare of Chah Bagh leads you to expect.

***

Somewhere among the chinars I met a youngish Iranian. As an excuse to practice his English, he invited me to the movies. The only English film showing was something called “Princess of the Nile”. We arrived early at the theatre, so sat for half-an-hour or so in the lobby ‘people-watching’. My new acquaintance proved to have ‘unusual’ interests. He began pointing out all the “lovely young boys” in the crowd, and telling me how he wanted to sleep with them (he pronounced it ‘slip weezim’ and it took a while for the penny to drop).  I suddenly wished I was back at the hotel. All through the movie he kept wanting to hold hands – which I mostly avoided – and afterwards he said, “You, too, fairy butte fool. You bliss come to slip my house – weezme – tonight?” After our earlier conversation (about the young boys) I recognised ‘slip’ – and I figured out ‘weezme’ pretty smartly. The rest sort of fell into place. The Hotel Kasra was looking better and better. In the end, he was too polite to insist (Persians are a very polite people) and we parted amicably enough. Back at the hotel, I had a long look in the mirror. I didn’t think I was ‘fairy butte fool’ – maybe I just wasn’t my type. Then I had a really good shower – and I was especially attentive to my hands.

***

It was exactly sunrise. Our heater had gone out during the night, and I was cold. The room was freezing and smelt strongly of kerosene. Hurriedly putting on all the clothing I could find, I quietly let myself out, reaching the pavement at about the same time the sun did. The air was bitterly cold and I found myself keeping to the sunny side of the street. Eventually, peckish and shivering, I found a little tea house facing into the sun across the great maidan.

The vast Maidan-I-Shah (Royal Square) – with its great planes and converging lineaments – brings the desert back into the city centre. The sunlight seemed fractionally brighter in the square – as though the pale end of the spectrum had been focused there by the great dome of sky. An immense rectangle five hundred metres long and a hundred and fifty wide, it was the centrepiece of Shah Abbas’ new city, and his most famous monuments are here. The maidan used to be covered with sand so that polo matches could be played there, but now it is conventionally done out in flower beds, trees and fountains, with a reflecting pool in the centre. An elegant double-storey arcade, arched in pale stone with blue inlaid panels, extends entirely around it. In the centre of each side rises a single monumental mass – Masjid-i-Shah (King’s Mosque), Masjid Sheikh Lutfalah, Qaisarieh and Ali Qapu. Two mosques, the great bazaar and the imperial palace, these immense constructions were intended to define the centre of Safavid imperial power, but it didn’t quite work out like that. They are dwarfed by the scale of the frame in which they are displayed. The maidan is so vast that, immense as they are, they barely intrude on its massive horizontality.

Hunched over a table in the thin watery sunlight, I put away three or four little glasses of scalding chai, sipping it Persian-style through a cube of sugar. I ordered my favourite Persian breakfast – fried eggs – and warmed myself by the samovar while the cook prepared them. He tipped a pair of eggs into a pot of boiling mutton fat with one hand, then almost instantly scooped them out with the other – in and out, just like that – and onto my plate. The white was just solidified, done on both sides, and the yoke really runny. They made a lovely breakfast, those eggs – with nan, piaz (onions), jam (morrabah) and paneer (goat cheese) – and lots more hot tea. By the time I was full, I was also warm, and the sun seemed to have got its furnace stoked. It was obviously going to be another fine autumn day.

The centuries have been kind to Isfahan. Shah Abbas’ capitol remains largely as he laid it out. The boulevards and the maidan represent late sixteenth century town planning, and the great monuments relate to them as they were intended to. We can still see them as their builders saw them – as they were meant to be seen. Isfahan is an almost perfectly preserved seventeenth century central Asian capital. Shah Abbas would probably still feel at home there.

The Masjid-I-Shah, most spectacular of Safavid mosques, was built by him. The entrance portal is a vast slab more high than broad, pierced by a soaring arch and flanked by a pair of cylindrical minarets – the whole covered with tile mosaic. Once inside, the cruciform plan of the great mosque – with four identical iwans – is obvious. There is a vast paved courtyard (or sahn) – possibly eighty metres square – surrounded by a double-storey arcade with a reflecting pool in the centre.

Ahead and to right and left, rise three monumental iwans, thirty metres wide and forty high, each a frame for a single mighty arch. Straight ahead, at the qibla, a larger iwan is flanked by two more minarets: behind it, over the mihrab and minbar (pulpit) rises the domed ‘kiosk’, a fantasy in turquoise and gold swelling outward above its drum, then sweeping up and in toward the lantern nearly sixty metres above the ground.

After the darkness of the entryway, the light was brilliant, and so intense it hurt the eyes. The stone-paved sahn – tawny as a sea of dust – lapped against the feet of the iwans. Massive and luminous, they emerged from it like cliffs. Shadows bent across the planes of both, defining immense dark volumes below the huge arches, light and dark demarcating vast spaces, skewed across both iwan and sahn. The mosque was filled with a pool of silence so deep that our little pebbles of sound made hardly a ripple.

Safavid tilework at its most brilliant, the whole mosque glows in the sunlight like a great jewel. Turquoise predominates: it is a favourite Persian colour. The interior is covered with complicated patterns of tiles in coloured glazes – mostly yellow and pale and dark blue. Repetitive geometries of turquoise and white glow softly in refracted light. Outside, geometric patterns and bands of Kufic script dominate the minarets and iwans, and around the drum of the kiosk, but the great turquoise dome swirls with formalised arabesques of flowers and vines.

More knowledgeable travelers than I have dismissed the Masjid-I-Shah as a major work of Islamic architecture. They say that the mosque is flawed – both in design and execution – that, built in excessive haste, its foundations are too shallow, its proportions wrong and tilework shoddy. All of these may be true, but I thought it wonderful. It is marvelously huge, its great dome floating above vast numinous spaces defined by iwan and sahn. Its planes and elegant curves refract and bend sunlight through a deeper part of the spectrum, to a set of soft aquatic colours – turquoise and blue, butter yellow and cobalt – that shimmer against the pale sky.

A group of schoolboys – all about twelve or thirteen – corralled me in the square, and we had English conversation. “How are you?”, “How much money have you?”, “What is this thing?” To none of these questions was any answer expected. I had been asked these identical questions by kids in half-a-dozen Iranian towns.  These boys – like those – were reciting their English lessons, and these were the only words they knew. “How many children have you?”, “What job you do?”, “Do you like steak?”(they pronounced it ‘esteak’)9 English is taught in practically every Iranian school, but its standards are dreadfully low. That’s a real pity. By the time they’re twenty-five, I suppose these kids will have graduated to elegant English phrases like “slip weezim” and ”fairy butte fool”.

I knew practically no Farsi at all, so conversation quickly lapsed into awkward silence. They were pleasant and good-natured, these kids, and they certainly meant no harm. I was the most exciting thing in their day – probably in their month – the only show in town.  So they followed me around the maidan, repeating – over and over like a rosary – their little set of phrases. “How are you?”, “Do you like steak?” I soon grew particularly tired of “What is this thing?” (pronounced roughly “Wadi teas ding?”) – mostly because every boy who asked the question pointed at me as he asked. I wondered what they thought it meant.

Leading your own parade like this gets old quickly. In provincial Iran, it is a sort of occupational hazard for tourists. Today, however, the kids didn’t have a chance.  There was a nominal admission charge of five rials (about seven American cents) to all the monuments. It wasn’t much to me, but it was more than any of these youngsters had. I only had to go inside to get rid of them. Only much later did it occur to me just what that actually meant. These Moslem boys had never been able to pray in Shah Abbas’ lovely mosque. The entry fee was simply beyond their means. I, on the other hand – a “rich” unbeliever – was permitted entry. The intrinsic unfairness of it bothers me still.

The Ali Qapu – a huge plinth rising above the arcade on three great arches – was already in use as a palace gate when Abbas laid out the city, so he incorporated it into the maidan as part of his master plan. He built a vast platform on it, with a thicket of spindly wooden columns rising to a high roof so astonishingly overblown it made the whole structure look top-heavy. From this balcony10 the emperor could review troops in the maidan below, or watch a polo match – the game of polo was actually invented in Isfahan. The dimensions of the maidan were chosen to accommodate the sport – or supervise an execution. In the curiously decorated rooms behind it ambassadors were entertained and musical entertainments held. As with the Pol-i-Allahaverdi Khan, the Ali Qapu is said to be an architectural gem. Well, maybe. I thought it pinched and ugly.

The Chihil Sutun is one of the garden pavilions that formed the palace complex. Like the Ali Qapu – which, unfortunately, it resembles – Chihil Sutun has a soaring portico, with an outsize roof supported – in this case – by twenty high wooden columns. These are doubled by their reflection in the great pool opposite; hence the name Chihil Sutun, ‘forty columns’. Behind the portico is a vast hall, with walls painted in historical scenes of dubious artistic merit. To sit on the portico and look out over the long reflecting pool framed in dark cypresses, is wonderful – and the garden, like all Persian gardens, is a delight. But looking back across the pool toward the pavilion, the reflection seems unnecessary. One of it should have been enough: it is ugly as a hay-barn.

The little mosque of Sheikh Lutfalah, opposite Ali Qapu, is a gem – a simple domed prayer chamber with a single iwan and no minaret. It is externally self-effacing, its facade barely rising above the pale arcades of the maidan, and its dome – low and recessed – hardly breaks the skyline. Only the burst of turquoise tilework on the entry iwan suggests something worth visiting. The mosque consists of a single square room, thirty metres on a side and thirty high, capped by a wonderful dome. The entry hall is long, so the eye has time to adjust from the brilliance of the maidan to the softer light – filtering through a series of double grills in the drum of the dome – that plays over its inlaid and faceted surfaces. Each of the eight-pointed arches supporting the dome is outlined by a twisted turquoise molding framing a number of inlays picked out in dark and light blue, wine and a clear lemon yellow colour. The dome itself is patterned with green and blue lozenges – which decrease in size upward – on a cream background. As in all great mosques, this glowing, vaulted sanctuary was numinously silent. There were small sounds – the scuffle of our feet on marble paving – but the echoes died as though they had no place to go.

The Qaisarieh – entry to the great bazaar – lay at the opposite end of the maidan from the Masjid-i-Shah. Its great gateway mirrors the entry iwan to the mosque, and was especially built as an architectural balance to it. Its name literally means “Tailor’s Centre”. The tailors have long since moved elsewhere in the bazaar, but the name remains attached to the gateway. Behind it a series of vaulted chambers, each tall and narrow and capped by a brick dome, converged and shrank into the distance. The near and far sides of each chamber were open, creating a long aisle framed in receding arches. The sides opened into little cubicles with upraised floors, each containing space for one or more shops. Atop each dome was a single lantern to admit light and air. Cones of sunlight flaring from the lanterns lit dazzling vignettes against the greater peripheral darkness of the bazaar. There was other illumination – mostly bare bulbs suspended over shops – but against the brilliance of the sunlight they seemed more like stars than lights, not so much illuminating as twinkling against a firmament of shadows.

A boy was sprinkling the earthen floor to settle the dust. He barely dampened the surface, and it became slippery and treacherous underfoot. Somebody slipped and cursed in Farsi. The pungent tang of water exploding against dust reminded me of summer thunderstorms: it made me suddenly a little homesick. Fast food – a box on wheels with a brazier set in the top, wreathed in smoke and smelling of marinade. Skewers of kebab, tended by a little hunched man in a felt cap, hissed and crackled over a glowing bed of charcoal. Served with a flourish, the kebab came wrapped in a flat of nan with a dollop of ab duq – yoghurt with n’na (mint) and khiar (cucumbers). A little boy rolling a hoop whistled past, dodging amongst feet and legs, then disappeared into shadows. A spice-shop – a platoon of fat hessian bags of spices, the tops neatly opened and rolled back, so that they always seemed to be full.  The dust here was pale green in colour – and smelled at first like drying hay, then like cloves and coriander, then cinnamon and sage and pepper. I plunged my hand up past the wrist in tiny aromatic seeds and wriggled my fingers. It was like beach sand, but light and dry. A burst of odour – of turmeric and thyme – exploded in my nostrils and I sneezed. A pickle shop – a strong smell of vinegar and shelves of bottles with contents of fantastic colours – fruit and vegetables, preserved in unimaginable ways.

The centre of the Qaisarieh was a cross-road, surmounted by a huge cupola. Shafts of sunlight streamed through openings in the drum of the dome, partially illuminating a vast dusty chamber thirty metres on a side and forty high. The dust, refracting and reflecting the light, outlined and defined the shafts and rays of light – giving them such substance it seemed they could be cut like butter cake. Crowds surged across the Qaisarieh, flickering as though strobe-lit as they passed from shadow to brilliant light, then back again into shadow. Huge, lurching shadows solidified into a train of camels. Nose-to-tail they swayed across a bar of light, passing silently through a fiery mist of dust, blinking and flapping their lips, then vanishing head-first into darkness. Three mullahs, laughing together, burst singly from the gloom, their dark robes swirling vortices of dust. Their turbans and beards were briefly illuminated, but their faces remained in shadow except for a brilliant flash reflected from a pair of spectacles. Then, one by one, they congealed into shadows and vanished.

The bazaar has grown away from the Qaisarieh and its main street now runs parallel to its north-south axis, but a hundred yards east of the great gate. The inexorable spread of this warren of ramshackle passageways has engulfed mosques, khans and madressehs. These, now immersed to their knees in a commercial tide of shops and alleyways, continue to function. But entry to them is now mostly via anonymous doors in dark little alleyways. Thus they surprise and delight the eye with sudden bright vistas of sahn and minaret through open gates.

A blast of warm yeasty air – a bakery. A boy with a long-handled spatula forked enormous warped sheets of nan from the oven, their rough surfaces crisped and toasted to several shades of brown. He dexterously flipped them up to hang from hooks in the ceiling. Women in chadors stood in line to pass him coins, then tucked these immense sheets of bread under their arms and set off down the lane like black daleks. A blaze of improbable colours – plum and navy and crimson and blue – a carpet shop, smelling richly of mildew and lanolin. Ceiling and walls were hung with layers of gaudy Persian carpets; tall heaps of rugs, some folded some not, covered the floor and encroached onto the passageway.

An accidental turning and a burst of brilliant light and colour – the sahn of the Masjid-i-Jomeh (Friday Mosque). The shape of this eighth century mosque has become increasingly complicated as succeeding rulers added to it. The mosque has been absorbed into a maze of additional structures which, like the natural growth of coral reefs of irregular form, accumulated around the nucleus of the original design. The Safavids faced the iwans with glazed tilework and added the crowning minarets to the principal iwan. The great mosque has two domed chambers – one in front of the mihrab and another set into the arcade facing it across the sahn. The courtyard is forty by fifty metres, and contains two large reflecting pools. Because its iwans are lower than those of the Masjid-I-Shah, there is a sense of vast space – of immense enclosed volumes.

The sun-brilliant courtyard of an old khan, festooned with skeins of freshly dyed yarns – reds and yellows – like great limp flowers drying on an immense web of sagging clotheslines. Across the yard and through another door to a smaller court, filled with tanks and vats – large as bathtubs and of various shapes – all raised on mud plinths over charcoal fires. The vats were filled with dyes of several colours, and they steamed in the cool autumn evening air. Boys stoked the fires and stirred the vats with long sticks. An old man came in with a two-pronged wooden implement. He jabbed it into a tank – screwing yarn onto it, like fixing spaghetti on a fork – and lifted from it a fresh-dyed skein of wool. He carried it, dripping and steaming, over his head like a sodden flag, into the drying yard through which we had just passed.

Then I dived forward into more gloom, this time into a cubic space roofed by a shallow dome. It was lit by a single cone of sunlight from the lantern in the dome. Backlit by sunlight diffused through swirls of fine dye-dust, the air itself glowed and became translucent. The peripheral darkness was intense, and most of what I could see seemed like shadows embedded in a lurid orange mist. In the middle of the floor was a pair of stone mill wheels; the lower fixed flat to the floor, the upper on a horizontal axle with a pole affixed to it. A blindfolded camel, harnessed to this pole, paced in a circle, grinding the dyes for the courtyard next door. The camel was so accustomed to its duty that it plodded around and around all by itself in the darkness. There was only the camel there – and a young boy to ladle coarse grains of dye between the grinding stones.  Both the camel and the boy were entirely coated in orange dye, and they glowed in the incandescent air as though cast in metal.

There was a potter in an alcove cross-legged at his wheel, throwing a long-necked pot. Below him, in the passageway, a man and a boy were decorating his pots with geometric patterns. Behind him graceful Farsi script flowed across a wall – “Shah Reza Ceramic Workshop” it said, but the script was so entangled with electric cables it was difficult to read. Huge crimson bouquets of radishes and banks of potatoes, carrots in woven baskets, and something like lettuce. Heaps of watermelon, sample slices red and luscious, cantaloupes and rock melons (the wonderful kharbuseh). Brittle-skinned anar like Christmas balls, torn open to show their intricate interior compartments and transparent alexandrite-coloured flesh. Bolts of shimmering cloth, in reds and golds and greens, rank on upright rank. Cheap samovars, luggage, dried fish hanging like trophies from a rack of wood. Shining copper pitchers, vases, bowls and trays, and a powerful smell of brass polish. A painted trolley full of grapes, tall stacks of nested plastic colanders in yellow and red. Empty bottles, teapots and lanterns, skeins of rope and folded canvas, shirts and pants, tunics and chadors, shoes and balls, toys. Tribal rugs – strange geometries in beige, crimson and blue – a Mongol face with a frizzled curly beard and blue-striped white turban, a string of yellow worry beads in a gnarled hand. A donkey, saddle-bags brimming with tomatoes and a vendor with a set of scales and a skull cap.

Another khan – a courtyard, lined with arcaded tiers of dark rooms, flooded and brilliant with sunlight. There were half-a-dozen mud forges, three in the shelter of a huge old chinar and three together beneath a tatty striped awning suspended from a thicket of poles. The forges were simple mud plinths, each about two feet high and as wide and deep, with shallow depressions in the top filled with charcoal. Pipes angled down from the bottom of the depressions, emerging about half-way down the plinths, where leather bellows were affixed to them. Furiously pumped by small, sweaty boys, the bellows hyperventilated asthmatically. Whistling and moaning, they blasted air up through the burning charcoal, and the forges roared and hissed with their bronchial exhalations. Jets of flame, blue as sapphires, burst furiously through the incandescent charcoal, blowing skeins of sparks in all directions.

Copper and brass, turned and turned again with iron tongs, incandesced and grew ductile. Glowing furiously and exfoliating clouds of sparks, they were scooped up and banged onto anvils. Flailed by half-a-dozen hammers, they changed in shape – grew flatter and broader – their individual molecules shifting away from the points of impact. Finally, they were plunged, still glowing, into tubs of scummy water. Explosions of steam – a contact of volcanic violence, like lava hitting the sea – bubbles so hot they burst with audible cracks. And finally, still hissing and crackling, fiercely hot but no longer glowing, the metal pieces were poked back into the forges.

The Nahassin – Coppersmiths’ Bazaar – a hundred metres of shops and khans – shelves and racks of copper and brass – brilliantly reflective under a galaxy of light bulbs. Bowls and pitchers, aftabehs, plates, trays, cups and lamps. Rank on rank they receded into shadows. Against the surrounding gloom, each shimmering object of brass seemed incandescent – almost as though the light had been drawn into its substance, then re-focused directly into the retina. They winked and sparkled as I passed, flickering sequentially across the reflective focus of my eye. Illuminated only by what little light managed to escape, the arched roofs overhead were barely visible. Converging into gloom, the uplit arches pulled lines of winking points of light together, focusing them toward some imagined vanishing point. In every shop small boys polished furiously, and there was a strong smell of Brasso – an odour I still associate with the great bazaars and souks of the Middle East.

Julfa, the Armenian quarter of Isfahan, lies south of the river, and is built on the tawny plain that slopes down from Kuh-I-Sofeh. It has several fine old Christian churches and an ancient synagogue, but there was no sense of sanctity in any of them – at least in any of the churches. Sterile storehouses of Christian trivia, they displayed embroidery and old vestments in bright empty halls. Their hollow ambience seemed to suggest a faith shriveled and parsimonious of spirit. In Moslem Isfahan, faith was defined by vast numinous spaces framed by iwan and sahn. In Christian Julfa, we saw the Lord’s Prayer carved on the head of a pin.

Sherkat Naft Ban Amrikan

When it was time to return to Tehran, disaster struck. My passport disappeared. I knew if anybody had nicked it, I was screwed, but it seemed more likely that I’d managed to misplace it somehow. I’d allowed myself two days to get back to Tehran just in case something came up – but this wasn’t the sort of ‘something’ I’d envisioned. I spent all of both days ransacking the Hotel Kasra, retracing my every step through the ancient city, packing and unpacking my backpack hoping I’d missed it the last time I’d looked. Nothing! Then, early on the morning of the third day, Oct 31 – the day I was to depart Tehran on the bus – I found it. The pocket of my greatcoat had a hole in the bottom and the passport and slipped out of the pocket and had fallen down inside the lining and lodged against the hem at the bottom of the coat – almost the only place in Isfahan I hadn’t looked.

I ran like a mad thing all the way to the bus station. I was too late to catch the early morning bus, and only had time to leap, breathless and ticketless, aboard the 11 AM bus. Even if things went well, this bus wasn’t going to get me to Tehran before 8:00 PM. I would make it back to Tehran on the day Trans-Asia Express had stipulated – but only just. Usually their departures were very early in the morning so as to make maximum mileage per day. I could only hope that their plan was to arrive in Tehran on Hallowe’en and to depart at the crack of dawn on November 1. Otherwise I was screwed.

As it turned out, I was screwed. Arriving at the Amir Kabir about 9:30 PM, I found a long note from Trans-Asia. They had called for me 6:30 AM. Finding me not even registered at the hotel – to save money, I had checked out for the duration of my trip to Isfahan – they’d scratched my name off their list and proceeded toward Tabriz, Ankara and Istanbul. The note reminded me – again – of their ‘no refunds’ policy.

I had no idea what to do. For a few days I just mooched aimlessly around Tehran. I’d found several places where I could eat cheaply – including a subterranean eatery that sold pomegranate juice. Several young Iranians approached me on the street offering to help – and some quickly became friends – but there wasn’t much they could do. A few bought me meals, a couple invited me home for dinner and all were willing guides to the sights of Tehran. I was most grateful for any help I could get. At first I’d been suspicious of their offers of assistance, wondering what sort of skullduggery they planned to work on me. But I have to say that every single one of them was genuinely helpful – they’d all meant what they said and only wanted to help.

One young man even took me to the movies in what he reckoned was the cheapest theatre in the city. It should have been. The film we saw was an old black and white Tarzan movie starring Johnnie Weismuller as a very young man – something I’d never seen before. It had been cut and spliced dozens – if not hundreds – of times, but whoever had done the splicing hadn’t bothered to make sure the ends he spliced together really belonged together. I doubt if any single piece of film was more than two or three minutes long and they seemed to have been strung together completely at random. What we saw was Tarzan leaping into a river to fight a crocodile, leaping off a building onto an Arab’s back, carrying the heroine out of a blazing building, swinging through the jungle on lianas, fighting the same crocodile again, fighting the Arab he’d leapt on, back to fighting the crocodile, then a set of film credits, then Tarzan carrying the heroine out of the burning building again, then halfway through a dive down a waterfall, and so on. I was so intrigued with the way the film had been butchered that I watched it again. I reckoned that if I watched it often enough, long enough and carefully enough I would be able to figure out what the plot had been. Well, maybe. But after three showings – at which point I reluctantly gave up – I was nowhere close to the plot.

I only had enough money for a few more days in the Amir Kabir. And then I would be absolutely stony broke in the middle of Iran – not a prospect I looked forward to, but one I could see no way out of. I was overcome with melancholia. In less than a week I wouldn’t even be able to afford food. To make things even worse, somewhere on my trip to Isfahan I’d lost my camera. And as if that weren’t disaster enough, I also had insufficient money to buy even a cheap replacement for the rest of my trip. Always assuming, of course, that there was going to be a ‘rest of my trip’ – something that seemed far from certain from where I sat.

But I did have one bright thought. What I did have was a lot of camera film. My camera – a curious sort of Agfa – took marvelous pictures, but it used an odd-size film – 828. I’d known from the beginning that I’d be unable to buy that film anywhere outside the West, so I’d set off from New Zealand with about half my backpack full of camera film – more than a hundred rolls of it. By the time I wound up In Tehran, I still had about twenty-five rolls left. If I could manage to sell all that now worthless (at least to me) film for what I paid for it (about US$8/roll including developing) I might have an extra US$200 to tide me over. I knew it wouldn’t be enough to get me to Vienna, but first things first.

For the next couple of days I haunted every camera store I could find, vainly trying to peddle my stash of camera film. I spoke not a word of Farsi (well, actually, I could say “Yes” – ‘”Baleh” – but that was about the size of it) and my schoolboy French wasn’t really up to much. On the third day, while I was importuning a camera dealer who clearly had no idea what I was on about, another customer – a young Iranian – entered the shop. After listening to us for only a minute, he spoke to me in almost unaccented English. What he said was, “I believe that you are an English-Speaker. It that correct?”
“Absolutely correct,” I grinned hugely, “You wouldn’t believe how happy I am to see you.”
“What seems to be your problem? Maybe I can help.”
“I doubt it – I’m really in the shit – but thanks for asking. Right now I’m trying to sell these rolls of film.”
“Let me have a go,” he said, “Oh, by the way, I’m Ardeshir – Ardeshir Zahedi. Who are you?”
“I’m Gail, and very glad to meet you Ardeshir.”

It took only a few minutes for Ardeshir to find out that here – as in every other camera shop I’d visited in Asia – the proprietor had never even heard of 828 film. Nor, of course, could I blame him when he turned me down.

Anyway, Ardeshir volunteered to take me out to dinner at a restaurant famous for its chello kebab – a dish I could hardly ever afford in Iran – near the entrance to the Tehran Bazaar. It wasn’t just a good dinner – it was a great dinner. Our chello kebab – succulent marinated strips of lean lamb, buried in piles of buttered rice – served with ab duq (yoghurt – maast – mixed with cucumber and mint) was delicious beyond measure.

Ardeshir turned out to be the son of a wealthy landowner – one of the so-called ‘thousand families’ who owned nearly the whole of the country. Ardeshir had just turned 21. For a birthday gift, his father had given him fifty-one villages, complete with tenants and livestock. He was full of plans for his new business empire. Some of the villages he would convert entirely to the growing of popcorn, for which he could envision a future market in Iran, and the others would grow nothing but chickens. I liked Ardeshir at once – not only because he was feeding and otherwise helping me – and we remained firm friends for as long as I remained in Iran.

In the course of our meal I told Ardeshir about the pickle I’d got myself into. His reaction was immediate. “Why,” he asked brightly, “Don’t you just get a job here in Tehran? It shouldn’t be too hard and you would only have to work until you have enough money to go on. What are your skills” Have you any university degrees? They’re often very helpful.”
“Well, I don’t know that I have any special skill, but I do have a degree in Geology from the University of Kansas.”
“Geology? I’m not sure what that is. What,” he asked, “Does a geologist do?”
“Many things, Ardeshir, but mostly they are involved in mining and oil prospecting. Reckon that make a difference?”
“Oh!” he beamed at me, “Iran is a great oil-producing country and there are many companies prospecting for oil. Almost all of them have offices here in Tehran.” He paused for a minute, rubbing his chin, “Hey,” he expostulated, “My uncle is the Personnel Officer for a big sherkat naft. Would you like for me to contact him?”
“What in Hell is a ‘Sherkat Naft’?’”
“Sorry about that. Sometimes I forget what language I’m speaking. It’s Farsi for ‘Oil Company’. Are you interested?”
“Absolutely. Yes I am. That’s the sort of work I’d planned to go into eventually anyway.” I wondered who this big oil company was, so I asked.
“Iran Ban Amrikan”, he replied. “Ever heard of it?
I had to think a minute. “Noooo,” I finally managed, “But don’t let’s let that put us off. I’d love to meet your uncle.”
“I’ll call Uncle Ali at once and see if there’s any hope of a job. If there is, I’ll try to set up an interview for you with him.”

There was, he reported, hope. So two days later, Ardeshir and I turned up at the foot of a ten-storey marble tower on Khiaban Takht-i-Jamshid – headquarters of the mysterious Sherkat Naft Iran Ban Amrikan’. A brass plaque beside the main door identified the company as ‘Iran-Pan American Oil Co’. So at least I knew who I was trying to get a job with. Even with the mystery of the name cleared up, I had still never heard of the company.

Ardeshir marched me into a lift and up four or five floors, then steered me down a hall to a luxurious corner office labeled “Personnel Manager”. His uncle, who introduced himself as Ali Gudarzi, was one of the ugliest men I’d ever seen. He was very short – the sort of short that made him look as though he’d once been a lot taller but had been physically compressed – and flabby in a sort of marshmallowy way. His head was egg-bald and his face was extraordinarily wide with huge pop-eyes set almost on the sides of his head. He had a wide mouth with a set of large, protruding teeth fanning out over his lower lip that made him spit a lot whenever he talked, and almost no chin. In short, he looked – at least to me – like a gargantuan coffee-coloured toad.

Despite his appearance, Ali Gudarzi turned out to be a charming little man and obviously very good at his job. Long before my interview was over I found that I was beginning to like him a lot. He’d obviously spoken with other company managers and said he was very hopeful. The company was experiencing what amounted almost to an ‘epidemic’ of hepatitis. Four geologists were out of action and one had had to be flown back to the US for treatment. So we are quite desperate for young men with exactly your qualifications. “Even,” Ali added, “Our Chief Geologist – the man who must hire you – is confined to bed with this disease.”
“Does that mean I can’t be hired?”
“No. Not at all. Not unless you’re afraid to approach him. He wants to interview you from his sickbed. Are you willing to do that?”
“You bet I am. Lead the way.”

Company offices occupied only the lower six floors of the building, which had been designed to contain twenty upper-class fiats. The company was new to Iran and didn’t yet have anything like a full complement of employees. The upper floors – not yet needed – were reserved as temporary accommodation for newly arrived staff members and their families who still hadn’t found suitable houses. Six or eight bachelors were also accommodated in what would have been the penthouses if the building had had penthouses. The Chief Geologist shared one of the flats with three other geologists. I found him in his bed, pen in hand, surrounded by mountains of papers. He had one of the young secretaries poised beside his bed and was dictating a letter when we arrived.

Ali Gudarzi went a bit over the top introducing me. “Here, he announced, “Is my very good friend Gail Gordon. I have known him for years and he is a most excellent geologist.” I wondered if he got paid a bonus for everyone he could get the company to hire. The Chief Geologist, who identified himself as Ivo Fellerson, was a nice-looking man in his early thirties. He was small and blond and soft-spoken – and very, very yellow. He said something to the secretary, laid aside his paper work and turned to me. “I’m sure Ali has told you the problems we are having just now. On the face of it you seem like the answer to a maiden’s prayer. As far as I’m concerned, you’re hired.” He held out his hand, “Welcome aboard”.
“Just like that?”
“Just like that.”

So, just like that, I had a job. “There is,” Ivo continued, “one caveat. We’ll have to check your bona fides to make sure you really do have a degree in Geology – otherwise the Iranians wouldn’t let us hire you. But in the meantime consider yourself employed.”
“Right, boss,” I couldn’t help grinning, “When do I begin?”
Ivo looked at his watch, then replied, “About four hours ago – at 8:00 AM this morning. Does that sound good to you?”
“Sounds bloody marvelous. And thank you – thank you very very much.”

“One other thing,” He rummaged in a drawer of his bedside and pulled out a big wad of Iranian bills, which he handed to me. “My first instruction to you is to go out and buy some respectable clothing – you look like a rag-picker. Get some decent slacks, a jacket, shirts and a tie. And, for God’s sake, get some decent shoes. I don’t know about your underwear. Guess that’s up to you.” He grinned broadly, “Don’t worry about the money. It’s a cash advance and we’ll take it out of your first paycheck.”
A thought crossed my mind. “Speaking of paychecks,” I asked him, “How big can I expect mine to be?”
Don’t know exactly, but your annual salary’s going to be just over US$18,000 plus overseas bonuses and board and room11. Does that sound OK? On your way back pick up your gear at that crap hotel and bring it back here. You can move in with Moon and Van Wagner just across the hall this afternoon. Then report back to me and I’ll put you to work.

By two o’clock – after a shopping expedition with Ardeshir, a hasty move of my gear, a shower and a change of clothes, I was hard at work at my new desk in my new office on the fourth floor. I had also found out who I was working for. Iran-Pan American was a subsidiary of American Oil Co (Amoco) – the former Standard Oil of Indiana – AKA Stanolind.

An unexpected die had been cast. It was November 6, 1958.

1959

The Last Qanat

The Farsi words for ‘desert’ are ‘kavir’ and ‘dasht’ – both mean literally “a place without life” – a definition far more rigorous and precise than ours. Iran has more than its share of dashts and kavirs – most smallish, a few biggish. Two of them – the Dasht-i-Lut and the Dasht-i-Kavir – are importantly large. Both occupy shallow basins entirely surrounded by mountains, and each is about the size and shape of Kansas (about 200 by 400 miles), but otherwise, they could hardly be more different. The Dasht-i-Lut is absolutely without water – a wilderness of sand and gravel. The Dasht-i-Kavir12, where this story takes place, is a hyper-saline swamp.

Its floor is a salty wasteland where nothing ever moves. It never rains, but in winter the peaks surrounding the basin wear white doilies of snow, and in spring snow-melt-water cascades into the basin creating ephemeral lakes. During the summer, the water evaporates, leaving behind a few millimetres of dirty salt. Over time, the floor of the basin has become covered by meters of these salty deposits. A shallow salt lake, Daryache-i-Namak (Little Sea of Salt), its fetid water stiff with brine, occupies the lowest portion of the kavir.

From the air the flat floor of the Dasht-i-Kavir is a geological spectacle. Bands of red and green rock, intricately bent and broken, make graffiti whorls across its surface. These faint indications of complicated subterranean structure were the reason we came to the Dasht-i-Kavir. My job was to drive out across the kavir, sampling, measuring and describing these rocks. Why, exactly, it was important that I do this is another story altogether. It is enough to know that it was this job that took us to the little town of Torut on its northern margins, and – later – to the village of Jandaq and beyond, on its southern side.

***

Without pictures, it is hard to describe a qanat – a well-and-tunnel irrigation system developed in Iran more than 2,000 years ago. It all starts out with a well, drilled high on the talus slope at the foot of a mountain ridge. If it hits water, a gently sloping tunnel is then dug downslope from the bottom of the well (Actually the tunnel is dug upslope from the field to be irrigated back toward the well, but that’s another story altogether – a miracle of engineering and surveying). The gradient of the tunnel is calculated to be less than that of the surface, so that the water eventually flows, entirely by gravity, out onto the surface and into a network of irrigation channels (called “jubes”). A single qanat may irrigate a hundred acres or – if it is a very big and very successful qanat – two or three square miles. Once dug, a qanat can last forever. A 50-mile long qanat, named ‘Gauhariz’, still supplying water to the city of Kerman, was dug in 1735.

Most farmland in central Iran was irrigated by qanats, which were time-consuming and expensive to construct. So anyone who constructed a qanat was given – in perpetuity – all the land it irrigated. The new zamindar (land-owner) then constructed a village and tenant farmers were brought in as sharecroppers to farm the land. Over the centuries, some families funded the drilling of hundreds of qanats – and hence became landowners on an almost unimaginably large scale. These were to become the famous ‘thousand families’, and they really did own most of Iran. When the Shah initiated his ‘White Revolution’ – a plan to redistribute these vast estates amongst the peasant farmers – the largest landowner in Iran, Haji Aziz Batmangelich, who owned hundreds of qanat-irrigated villages, simply donated them to the state. Only then was it discovered that his landholdings were collectively slightly larger than the whole of Switzerland.

The underground water channels are entirely hand-dug, by a now-hereditary artisan caste known as ‘muqqanis’. The tunnels aren’t very big – about 2 ft by 4 ft – but they are usually between ten and thirty miles long, so it can take twenty or thirty years to complete one. On very long qanats, the muqqanis sometimes pass the work on from generation to generation. Under recent conditions of rising wages and costs, qanat construction has become uneconomic, and these days muqqanis mostly earn their keep by repairing, rather than constructing, qanats.

The muqqani uses only a short-handled pick, a shovel and a bucket or bag. The dirt and stone are loosened with the pick and shoveled into the bucket. The assistant – often a muqqani’s son, learning the trade – drags the bucket to the nearest ventilation shaft. At the top of the shaft is a surface team with a rope attached to a primitive reel. The boy fixes the bucket to a hook on the rope and it is hauled up. Where the soil is subject to falls, the tunnel is carefully lined with baked clay collars, called ‘nars’, to keep the ceiling from caving in.

Vertical ventilation shafts are generally dug every thirty yards or so along the channel. These provide air to the digger and also facilitate removal of debris. The dirt is simply dumped around the top of the shaft. This makes the opening of the shaft look – when seen from the air – remarkably like a bomb crater. There is a line of these craters all along the length of each qanat – marking, on the surface, the route of the subterranean flow. In Iran, qanats number tens of thousands and the air-shaft openings have become a characteristic feature of the landscape. They look like long lines of bomb craters across the desert surface. Sometimes, where many qanats service a big town, they converge, and near the town the lines of craters coalesce. The linear patterns are lost, and the pock-marked landscape looks as though it had been subjected to a blizzard of bombs.

Qanats were what made the peopling of Iran possible. Most crops in central Iran are irrigated by qanats. There are little green oases along every mountain pediment, each fed by the flow of one or more qanats. Even the Dasht-i-Kavir is ringed with little villages, each with its few precious acres of qanat-irrigated fields.

***

Three qanats converged on Torut, each marked by a straggling line of little craters. We first picked up the craters about twenty miles north of the village – on the haunches of the Elburz Mountains – and followed them as they gradually converged downward across a featureless gravel plain. Torut lay at their confluence, about a mile from the edge of the kavir, its little fan of irrigated fields the only colour in the vast bleached landscape.

Six months ago, just before dawn, a momentary lapse of gravity had killed Torut – had shaken it apart. The earth had shuddered upward about a metre, then fallen back, sending the whole town into two seconds of free-fall. When the walls of the houses lifted apart, their barrel-vaulted roofs collapsed onto the sleeping villagers. Nearly four hundred of Torut’s five hundred and fifty inhabitants died.

Now only the bones of the little town remained – mud rectangles skewed and broken, enclosing heaps of bricks and dried mud. The spiral of mud bricks comprising the dome of the local mosque had disarticulated itself, collapsing downward into the sanctuary. Six months later, its spiral form was still identifiable – like the crushed and fossilised coils of a gigantic snail.

Wind and rain had abraded the ruins, flensing planes and angles into more organic shapes, sifting their very substance downward. Warped and bent, each surface was slowly subsiding into itself. Already the ruins looked old – as bony and gaunt as ancient Balkh.

The underground channels of two of Torut’s three qanats had collapsed, cutting off most of the town’s water supply. One of the dry jubes was marked by a row of dying anar (pomegranate) trees, and more than half the fields below the village were now just corrugated rectangles of dry furrows slowly filling with dust. Probably they would never be cultivated again. The villagers could never find enough money to re-dig the qanats. Not that it really mattered anymore – there weren’t enough farmers left to till the land anyway.

But the survivors, mostly still living in tents, were trying to rebuild their lives. On the communal threshing floor a gaggle of muddy boys was hand-mixing water into piles of earth and straw to make a sort of ‘adobe’. A dozen or so men scooped the mixture into knock-apart wooden forms and carefully tamped it down. The bricks were then turned out to dry in the sun, standing on-end in long crooked rows snaking through the ruins.

A dozen new barrel-vaulted houses had already been finished. Another eight or ten were under construction. The squinches had been finished on the walls of the mosque – converting the top of its single square room into an octagon – and above them a new brick spiral was winding up around the half-finished dome. Even at the risk of opening old wounds, I felt obliged to ask why, after barrel-vault roofs had proved particularly susceptible to earthquakes, they were being used again. The answer shouldn’t have surprised me. In a land where wood is practically non-existent and certainly expensive beyond any village farmer’s means, there simply was no other way to roof their houses

The presence of foreigners was always a great draw card in provincial Iran, and Torut was no exception. A crowd surrounded us even before we stopped. Work was quickly abandoned as most of the villagers gathered to watch us unpack our vehicles, and boys were sent scurrying away to find the kadkhoda (mayor).

The kids, especially the younger ones, were both fascinated and scared by our jeeps. They treated them like large dangerous beasts – hesitantly and with a sort of skittish bravery. Bodies taut with fear, poised for instant flight, they would rush forward, lightly brush the bonnet with quick fingertips, then dance away. Eventually, emboldened, they gathered around the bonnet, touching the hot metal, then blowing on their fingers; and listening to the sounds of the cooling engine, laughing and giggling every time it ‘pinged’.

Even though the village was only about seventy miles from a major road, most of them had never seen a motor vehicle. They couldn’t imagine how it worked. One boy wanted to know where was the donkey – the only sort of motive power he knew. How, he wondered, could we fit one inside the bonnet? We took the time to open the bonnet and, with the help of some of the adults, made a sort of explanation, but I doubt that the kids really understood what we were on about. Cars, trucks and buses are collectively known in Farsi as “mosheen”. This is a word only recently acquired by the language. Its origin – from the English “machine” – is obvious.

We pitched our camp under a scraggly tree beside a jube flowing from the surviving qanat fifty yards upstream from the village. Our two big tents – each ten feet square with a verandah of equal size – were pitched nose to nose giving us a large covered porch with an office tent at one end and a sleeping tent at the other. Mohammed set up his kerosene stove in the cook tent and, scooping water out of the jube, set about rehydrating some of our dried rations for tea.

While Mahmoud, Abdullah and Hooshang pitched camp, Jack (AKA Mohammed Taghi Razaghnia) and I drove down to the edge of the kavir to scope out the job ahead. What we saw was a desiccated plain, barren as the surface of the moon. Mottled brown and tan, it stretched away to the horizon. We couldn’t, of course, see the other side. It was more than a hundred miles away.

What worried us was that there weren’t any rocks – none at all – just miles and miles of bloody beige grit. We knew from our air-photos that the green and red whorls were complex in this area – that was why we had chosen to come here. But there was nothing to see – absolutely bloody nothing.

We walked out onto the surface, to get a closer look. It was of two sorts, distributed in big irregular patches – wide tan flats covered in big polygons of dried mud in a sort of crazy paving; and dark brown expanses, lumpy and curdled into gigantic hard clods.

Ahmed and the kadkhoda joined us. Ahmed tried to explain to him what we planned to do. The mayor probably didn’t understand what work we intended to do, but he certainly understood where we intended to do it. He blanched visibly. “You don’t want to go there,” He said, and waggled an index finger in a negative gesture. “It’s not safe!” He stroked his moustache in embarrassment. (Frankness is a trait that has been selectively bred out of Iranians for 2,500 years. Their over-riding concern is always to please the listener, to make him happy. I was already sufficiently conversant with Iranian culture to understand how difficult it was for him to give us this bad – ie ‘unhappy’- news.)

”This”, He insisted, waving his hand out over the kavir, “Isn’t really solid earth – only a thin crust over lots and lots of mud. It’s not strong enough for your mosheens. Even under camels, “He said, “It buckles.” He stamped his feet vigorously, as though daring the crust to break. It seemed solid enough to me. “Sometimes they fall through it. Sometimes they break a limb, sometimes they die, and sometimes…..poof!” He threw both arms up into the air,”……They just disappear!”

We had no reason to disbelieve him, but we really had no choice. We had to get out into the kavir. We had either to locate the rocks we’d been sent to study, or prove that they weren’t actually there. And to do either we had to get out onto that surface – way out onto that surface, like fifty or sixty miles out onto that surface. We looked at each other. The prospect wasn’t one either of us relished.

***

Torut was in terrible trouble. The third qanat was failing, the kadkhoda told us. Its roof and sides – disturbed, he thought, by the earthquake – were caving in, and the village would probably have to be abandoned. They had hired a team of muqqanis – a dozen wiry, grubby little men and boys – to try to keep the qanat from collapsing completely, but they weren’t very optimistic. They had tried to contact the village owner – after all, his profits, too, would suffer if the village should die – but he now lived in Switzerland. He owned many villages, and his agent – interested mostly in his own convenience – thought it unlikely that the demise of one or two of them would even be noticed. In any case, he said, he didn’t intend even to bring the matter to the owner’s attention.

We could tell where the muqqanis were working. They had erected wooden reels over two of the air vents half a mile above the village, and there were heaps of nars. An old man tended a battered samovar, feeding it sticks and sneezing in its smoke. Small frightened-looking boys – no more than five or six years old, I reckoned – were lowered down the shafts on ropes, each carrying a short-handled pick and a goatskin bag. Two boys were lowered down each shaft, one to work upstream, I was told, and one to work downstream.

The boys had to crawl along the crumbling subterranean passages for up to thirty yards, through icy water and mud, with sand and debris cascading from the roof. There, in pitch darkness, they had to scrape fallen debris into the goatskin bag with the pick. The tunnel was too small for the boys to turn, so they then had to back along it on hands and knees dragging the filled bag to the air vent. There, by means of the wheel, two men raised the bag and emptied its contents.

Once a section of the tunnel had been cleared, nars were sent down the rope and inserted by the boys to brace ceiling and walls. From then on they had to crawl through the nars in order to reach the work-face. Suddenly I knew why the diggers were all little kids. The dimensions of the nars determined the size of the workers; and these particular nars were only about fifteen inches wide and two feet high. (There were many sizes of nars – some more than six feet high, and in many qanats an adult male could walk upright comfortably. Nars used for repairs, because time and the horizontal distance cleared out were of paramount importance, were always very much smaller.)

The boys worked in half-hour shifts, crawling through icy water the whole time. When they were pulled out of the qanat, their bodies were shaking with cold and enameled with mud and grit. As the old man plied them with boiling tea, they stripped off their sodden clothes and sat warming in the sunlight like lizards.

They were all so tiny, the boys – all less than four feet tall, maybe fifty or sixty pounds dripping wet. “Is it legal,” I asked Ardeshir, the mudir (boss), “For little boys – you know, young like these – to do this sort of work?”
“Legal?” He replied, indignantly, “What d’you mean ‘legal’? These are our sons!” I had clearly asked the wrong question. “They work for their families – not for money! You think we work babies? One of these…” He waved at the dozing boys, “….is my son! We train them to our business everyday. Our boys don’t work before they are eight years old.” He seemed proud of that.

There were three generations represented in our muqqani crew – the old man, Reza, the mudir Ardeshir, and his son Parviz – and none of them was more than five feet tall. Darwin, I thought, would have loved these guys – a sort of ‘survival of the smallest’. At some point, I reckoned, muqqanis must have been the same size as everybody else. Over the centuries (or millennia) they had bred down to their present size. Small men made the best muqqanis and therefore made the most money. These small men married small women and therefore produced small children, which, in turn made the best muqqanis, which in turn……

***

As it turned out, we were to owe the kadkhoda big-time. His warning was to save at least one of our vehicles. Because of him, we remembered to be very careful when we decided to find out just how drivable the surface of the kavir actually was. Bill climbed into the jeep and set it rolling toward the edge of the kavir – toward one of the darkish, lumpy areas. He drove very slowly out onto the curdled surface. Much to our relief nothing much happened. The shock absorbers and springs flexed and straightened in a sort of exaggerated slow motion as the wheels climbed over clods a foot and more high. The vehicle’s motion was, Bill reported, highly unpleasant – violent, almost more vertical than horizontal – and he had to hang onto the steering wheel for dear life. Even so, he got tossed around pretty badly. He drove around for an hour, varying his speed, trying to find a less uncomfortable velocity. But it just wasn’t on. He was a danger to himself and his vehicle even at speeds too low to nudge the speedo needle off its peg. Two or three mph was about the limit. Any increase would have shaken both jeep and rider to pieces.

The clods were clearly non-starters. We could walk across the curdled surface faster than we could drive. Nothing was left but to try the crazy paving, which had always seemed the most likely. It looked like what it was – the dried-up bottom of a pond. The question was how dry was the pond – ie how thick was the crust. We were about to find out.

Driving carefully to the edge of the lumpy patch, Bill eased his front wheels out onto the beige crazy-paving surface. For a few seconds nothing happened. It could, it seemed – despite the kadkhoda’s dire warnings – actually support a jeep’s weight. Well, at least the weight of a jeep’s front-end. But then the big beige polygons started to crack, to tilt and to break – and, in a fifteen-foot semi-circle, began to sag inward toward the jeep.

The whole thing seemed to happen in slow motion – as though the vehicle was caught in a sort of petrified whirlpool. As the funnel-like depression widened and deepened, noisome black muck spurted up through the cracks, pooling beneath the jeep and spreading outward over the sinking polygons of mud. It stank abominably. The front end of the jeep tilted sharply forward as it dropped into the sludge. Bill, caught off-balance, was thrown against the windscreen, starring it with the top of his head. The front end of the jeep sank until the crank-case snagged the edge of the clod bank. And there it hung. By then, the jeep was as nearly vertical as horizontal, and the black gunk was lapping over its headlamps.

Bill, a little dazed by the blow to his head, and afraid the jeep was about sink without trace, threw himself out the door. He landed on one of the polygonal plates, which promptly disintegrated, dropping him up to his armpits in the muck. Extricating himself with our help, he scrambled desperately back up onto ‘solid’ ground. We gave him a quick once-over, carefully standing upwind. He stank spectacularly, but wasn’t seriously hurt – a goose-egg on his forehead and a few scratches.

Later, while our Power Wagon winched the jeep backward to safety, we examined the crust, walking very softly and prying up big beige polygons with the help of a tyre iron and a pry-bar. They were only two or three inches thick. Beneath them, the black muck was about the consistency of peanut butter. I recognised its smell – a combination of wet dog, burned feathers, cat piss and something awfully, awfully dead. I had encountered it before – at Great Salt Lake in Utah and I was to encounter it later at Bogoria in Kenya and the Dead Sea in Israel. It must, I reckoned, have had something to do with a surfeit of salt.

It had, on balance, been a close-run thing. We’d been lucky not to lose a jeep – not to mention losing a geologist. Back in camp, we washed ourselves…and washed ourselves…and washed ourselves (nothing seemed to remove that awful stench) while the boys decontaminated the jeep. Later we sat over cups of coffee trying to figure what to do next. Thanks to the kadkhoda we’d managed to save our equipment, but we’d totally blown Plan ‘A’.

There wasn’t a Plan ‘B’.

***

The muqqanis – especially the kids – were proud of their skills and eager to show us their work. Ardeshir’s eleven-year-old son, Parviz, offered us a quick qanat tour. “Is easy to inside,” He explained, his grin cracking the dried mud across his cheeks, “Because is no nars at bottom end. Qanat is of very great size.”

My enthusiasm for this venture was seriously tempered by mild claustrophobia, but the others were all keen to go, and I recognised a rare opportunity when I saw one. Parviz leaped to his feet, pulled on his muddy wet clothing, and led us to the head of the jube. A sort of trench had been dug back into the slope so that the jube emerged from the qanat at the head of a ten-foot ditch. He lit three candle-lanterns and passed them among us.

The qanat’s opening was about six feet wide and six high, with the water reaching up to our knees. As we proceeded inside, it quickly grew darker and the wavering bubbles of light around our lanterns only dimly lit the tunnel walls. They were only made of sand and gravel – worn and soft-looking. I ran a finger down the wall. A handful of it crumbled away at my touch, splashing softly into the flow below. The wall wasn’t just soft-looking – it was just plain soft! No wonder they were having trouble with cave-ins! The hair on the nape of my neck began to stir.

The water had scoured at this soft debris for decades, erosion and roof-falls redistributing the original geometry of the tunnel. The channel widened and narrowed, grew higher and lower, and looped right and left – like a natural feature rather than an artifact of man. Sometimes the roof was less than four feet high and in others it was yards above our heads. About fifty yards in, there was a great cavern where many roof falls had occurred, and the flow curled around a huge conical pile of debris. Just beyond it – to my vast relief – light was filtering down one of the ventilation shafts. So, sometimes scraping our shoulders, sometimes bumping our heads and twice being forced to crawl, we crept upstream in the eerie, moist darkness.

We had gathered in a tall chamber just past the second air shaft when a blast of air came beating down the tunnel, carrying with it a long, deep sound – like a load of gravel being dumped – followed by a muffled ‘thump’, then a splash. We all sort of froze in place. The silence – except for the beating of my heart – was deafening. The flow of water suddenly ceased. Everything else seemed to stop, too. I had never been much of a ‘caver’ and this particular subterranean experience was fast becoming one I really didn’t need. I could feel my adrenal glands kicking into high gear, and my extremities went cold. Nobody said a word. We were all, I think, too busy holding our breaths.

Parviz just grinned at us, enjoying our discomfiture I think. Not to worry, he explained. There must have been a fresh earth-fall somewhere ahead. A temporary blockage, he expected. Happened all the time, he said, especially in this qanat. It had made the boys’ work most difficult. His torch, uplighting his face, folded the smooth contours of his boyish grin into a gargoyle’s leer.

This was way beyond my comfort zone. The last place I wanted to be was where I was – in the middle of a collapsing tunnel in the middle of a desert in the middle of Iran. I was way too deep in the tunnel and way too far underground. The others could do whatever they wished, but I was getting the Hell out of there!

Just as I turned around, a waist-deep wall of mud and water surged across the chamber. As it drove me backward, my adrenalin spiked again, and my pulse rate shot up to about two hundred. This was one of my worst nightmares. I raced frantically down the tunnel. Surging through the water like an enraged hippo, I made it to the entrance in about thirty seconds flat. Shaking with fear and gasping for air, I burst from the tunnel mouth almost simultaneously with the wall of mud.

Half a dozen young shepherds, watering sheep from the jube, gaped with amazement as I erupted out of the qanat, cresting the wave of muddy water and scattering their flocks in all directions. I collapsed beside the jube gasping for air. The deep, muddy wave passed in a moment – almost before I had sat down. Then normal flow resumed and the water cleared again.

To my everlasting shame, nobody else had chosen to run. Parviz had taken them all into the qanat another fifty yards or so to have a look at the obstruction. When they came back out, they explained that part of one wall had collapsed out into the qanat. Its debris cone, extending entirely across the narrow channel, had momentarily interrupted the flow. The mud-flow had occurred when the water burst through the obstruction, carrying its debris downstream. Parviz had been right. My panic had been ‘much ado about nothing’ then. Well, at least about almost nothing. Not for the first time in my life – nor, unfortunately the last – I felt a right twit.

***

We knew what the kadkhoda had thought about our project out in the kavir – “You don’t want to go there!” He’d said. Still, we had to try – it was, after all, our job. We probably should have known better, but we weren’t thinking too clearly. We were too busy trying to come up with Plan ‘B’. For three days we scouted the rim of the kavir, taking a Power Wagon along for backup (we reckoned – correctly as it turned out – that we were likely to need its powerful winch). We did. We got stuck more times than I can remember, and spent most of each day pulling our jeeps out of the muck. Our worst day was when we managed to drive almost a kilometre onto the kavir before we got stuck. Getting the damned jeep out of that one was a real challenge. We couldn’t lift it out, we couldn’t dig it out, and we couldn’t push it out. Eventually we linked both jeeps and both Power Wagons in line, winch to bumper, winch to bumper – like a sort of vehicular ‘bucket brigade’ – reaching out to the stranded jeep. Winding up all four winches simultaneously, we finally got the jeep back to ‘shore’, but the process took until dark. But the day wasn’t a total loss. This little contretemps showed us what the main problem was likely to be: the more successful we were, the greater the failure to follow. In other words, if we got any farther before getting stuck, we would be beyond the reach of our winch cables. None of us could imagine how to rescue a stranded vehicle under those conditions.

***

We returned to camp covered in stinking black goo and desperate for a good wash, only to find that the qanat had dried up completely. Ahmed said it hadn’t flowed since just after dawn. There had been, he told us, a massive roof-fall. The muqqanis had finally managed to locate it, by lowering boys down shaft after shaft until one of them reported his section of the tunnel to be completely full of water. The boy two shafts downstream was then sent carefully up the tunnel until he found it completely blocked by fallen debris. Water, he reported, was beginning to seep around the heap of debris. This was apparently a good thing.

The blockage was just upstream from a ventilation shaft. This was a good thing. It gave the muqqanis a good chance to reopen the qanat. It was still a fairly desperate scheme, and to do it one of the boys had to deliberately risk his life. It was the smallest boy – ten-year-old Ali Reza – who volunteered. The plan was simple enough. The surface crew would drop him down the shaft nearest the blockage. He was to crawl upstream and attack the blockage from the downstream side, and to pick away at it until the water broke through.

The muqqanis knew what the chief risk to the boy was. The tunnel was completely full for more than sixty yards upstream from the fallen debris, and a ferocious head of water would have built up behind it. When the barrier collapsed, a torrent of mud was likely to burst through it, sweeping the boy down the tunnel. It was this eventuality the muqqanis had to prepare for. One end of a stout rope was tied around Ali Reza’s waist, the other end affixed to the surface crew’s reel. The moment he thought something was going to happen, he was to call out to the men above, and they would haul him up instantly.

As a way to free up the water flow, this scheme was a sure winner. Sooner or later, as he progressed upstream, young Ali Reza would dig away enough debris to let the water burst through. It might take hours or days, but it would happen. What worried me was whether or not they could actually get the boy out of the way fast enough. What would happen if he got jammed, somehow, or if another fall occurred behind him? Or if the rope broke? These were very real risks. The mortality rate among muqqanis was phenomenal. They died in their tunnels with monotonous regularity. Sometimes they were crushed or suffocated by falling debris; sometimes, trapped above an obstruction by rising water, they drowned; sometimes they were swept away by torrents of muddy water; and sometimes they fell down the ventilation shafts – some of which, near the top of the qanat, were over 300 feet deep. Sometimes they just vanished.

Anyway, by the time we got to the diggings, it was all over. Ali Reza had been down for more than hour and had sent up about a ton of debris. The blockage had just collapsed and the surface crew was winding frantically at the reel. Just as we arrived he reached the surface, muddy, cold and exhausted but giddily triumphant. Five minutes later a wall of mud and water exploded from the end of the qanat. Torut had had another reprieve.

***

After a few days cruising along the edge of the kavir, sticking and unsticking our jeep, we decided to give up on the whole idea of vehicles. We couldn’t keep them unstuck long enough to get anything done. We thought about our predicament awhile, wondering what on earth to do. Finally we decided to mount an expedition on camels out into the kavir. The intent was to borrow half-a-dozen camels from the village and spend six or seven days riding due south into the desert, then return. With luck, this might get us half-way across. In any case, we reckoned it would be enough to keep head office off our backs.

No one without experience of camels has any idea how disgusting they are. They’re stubborn, stupid, cantankerous and mean. Anyway, we had steeled ourselves for the ordeal before approaching the kadkhoda. But he wouldn’t have a bar of it. “Not my camels,” He expostulated violently, “Absolutely, no! I told you they fall through the crust and damage themselves. We have not too many camels already and I will not have them risked out there!” He waved at the kavir. “Maybe they die! Maybe you die! No!” We argued, we cajoled, we tried to bribe him, but he was absolutely adamant. I expect he was also a lot smarter than we were.

So camels were out – at least his camels were out. It would take eight or ten days to bring enough in from anywhere else – always, of course, assuming that their owners would be willing to send them out into the kavir – and that was time we really didn’t have. I didn’t know whether to feel frustrated or relieved. I really wanted to get this job done. On the other hand, I really didn’t want to get it done this particular way. In hindsight, I know what I feel. I love the kadkhoda of Torut.

The only thing left was to walk. Bill and I filled a couple of packs with enough food and water for a couple of days, tied on a pair of roll-up canvas cots and staggered off across the kavir. The plan was to walk briskly all day, spend the night in the kavir, then hike back to camp. We expected to manage ten or fifteen miles in the course of a day – hardly what head office wanted us to accomplish, but a whole lot better than anything we’d managed to do so far.

The kadkhoda had asked if we would take three or four of the muqqanis to Shahrud (the nearest big town) in our Power Wagon. There had been so many cave-ins down in the tunnel that they had run out of nars. The villagers had scraped together enough cash – just over 800 tomans (US$ 125) – to buy about fifty. They needed at least twice that many. So we decided to dip into our Field Party funds and buy another fifty. A hundred nars, even the small ones our muqqanis were using, take up a lot of space, so both Power Wagons set off to the north as Bill and I set off to the south.

We had an awful trip. Leaving just at dawn, we trudged south for ten miserable hours. It was midsummer, and the thermometer soon passed 40oC. We could feel the sun searing a landscape shimmering with heat, sucking out its life. We tried to keep to the crazy pavement surface, because it provided much better going. But we soon realised that it was not as stable as we’d thought it would be. In some places we could watch slow ripples spreading outward from our feet – wrinkles moving across the beige surface – and once or twice we could actually hear the mud plates rustling against each other. As we went on – and got farther and farther from help – the wobbles in that beige surface became progressively scarier. It was a bit like walking across a gigantic jelly. I remembered what the kadkhoda had said about camels going ”poof” and disappearing. That just wasn’t how I wanted to go. Finally we decided we’d best stick to the curdled clod surface. It was, as far as we knew, capable of supporting a jeep.

The surface was like a field ploughed by giants – all huge, hard, angular clods. We had to constantly watch our feet – to take care with each step – to avoid doing our ankles a serious mischief. Worse still, poncing about like that slowed us down a lot. By sunset, we might have done seven or eight miles – certainly not more. We unfolded our camp stretchers, pried open a couple of tins of baked beans and pineapple slices, and sat in a feeble grey twilight munching our cold supper.

Unfortunately, the desert turned out to be a little less lifeless than we’d thought. We were kept awake most of the night by enormous camel ticks – dozens and dozens of them. In the light of our torches, we could see them coming for us. How did they know we were there? How did they know where, exactly, we were? I still don’t know. We finally reckoned they were probably attracted by our vibrations. I had always thought tick bites to be painless, but these certainly weren’t. Maybe it was just that camel skin is so insensitive that these ticks hadn’t had to develop any anesthetic. When these little bastards bit, it was like being stuck with a thorn. Then it itched like buggery for hours. I don’t know how many we killed, though it would have been easy to keep count. To kill one required an act of great determination. You had to crush it between two fingernails – a fairly nasty and bloody operation. Once a tick had latched onto you, it swelled up as large as a grape. At this stage, we didn’t dare just pull them off – apparently this leaves the head behind which causes a festering sore. The best way to get rid of them is to burn them off with a cigarette end. Luckily both of us smoked. So we spent the night scrunching and scorching ticks, sweating, swearing and scratching. By morning both of us were tired and bloody – and we itched. “I wonder,” Bill said, peering into the sunrise and scratching vigorously, “What the bloody things live on between passing geologists?” It was a fair question. I wondered, too. For that matter, I wonder still.

The expedition was not a success. Quite aside from the heat and the ticks, we never saw anything remotely resembling a rock – nothing but salty dirt. It wasn’t a question of being lost. We knew exactly where we were. And on the aerial photos in our packs we could see the bands of rocks we’d come to sample. We were there. Where in the Hell, we wondered, were the damned rocks?

We arrived back at camp just at dinner time. The damned qanat had stopped flowing again. The power wagons had returned from Shahrud with their loads of nars, and the muqqanis planned to work through the night. That meant no baths again. That pissed me off considerably until I thought what else it meant. For us it was only an inconvenience, but for the villagers, it was an impending catastrophe.

***

We sat for hours trying to figure what else we could do about the missing rocks. In the end, we decided there wasn’t anything else – that the kavir had won. It wasn’t just a logistical nightmare. The Dasht-i-Kavir was impassible, but that was the least of our problems. There simply were no rocks to see.

So, next morning we folded our tents, packed up our power wagons, said our goodbyes to the kadkhoda and the villagers, and set out for Tehran. Five or six miles north of the village we stopped for a chat with the muqqanis. They were shifting both reels, leapfrog-fashion, uphill along the line of craters, dropping boys down progressively deeper shafts, trying to find the blockage. So far, no luck, but they seemed optimistic. But then, they were always optimistic. Why, I thought, shouldn’t they be? After all, they thrived on catastrophe – they needed disasters. If qanats didn’t dry up, their livelihood would. So, in a sense, their interests ran counter to those of the villagers they had come to help.

Like the villagers, they seemed sorry to see us go. Well, in a way we were sorry to go. Our project had been the pits, but the people had been something else. They had charmed us – both villagers and muqqanis. They had been kind to us and hospitable. And gutsy. Now they were in desperate straits and I felt like I was running out on them – going back to a life good beyond their imaginings. We’d done, I guess, what we could for them – more, God knows, than their absentee landlord had done – but in the end we’d hardly inconvenienced ourselves on their behalf.

We stopped by the ustandari in Semnan to alert the officials there to Torut’s problems. They already knew. The quake had been widespread and devastating, they told us, and their resources were already at full stretch. Help would, they assured us, reach Torut ‘as soon as practicable’. I was not impressed

It was only much later – back in head office – that we figured out what had happened to the rocks. None of the rock strata we saw actually cropped out at the surface. Instead, they were covered by thinnish layers of dirty rock salt. From the air, the salt covering the basin was more-or-less translucent – so that from a plane we could see through it to the twisted and deformed rocks beneath. But when we were on the ground it was perfectly opaque. Close up, the surface was about as transparent as….well, as dried mud. So we’d folded our tents, packed up our power wagons, said our goodbyes to the villagers of Torut, and gone back to Tehran.

***

Before setting down this story, I consulted my Times Atlas of the World (1958 Edition) to ensure that the geography of my memory coincided with that shown in the atlas of that time. To my surprise, the village of Torut actually appeared on the map of Iran – albeit in the smallest typeface. I expect it was included just to fill in a blank space. It was, after all, the only namable feature for fifty miles in any direction. The map confirmed my memory that the village wasn’t served by any sort of a road. That was the main reason the kids of Torut had never seen a car. Today, as I finished typing the story. I found myself wondering how it had actually ended. I had thought about Torut off and on for nearly fifty years, wondering what had happened to it – whether the village had survived the qanat crisis. Today I wondered again. But how was I to find out? Where should I look? Then I had one of my infrequent ‘great thoughts’. If the qanat had finally failed, and the village died, the name of Torut should be absent from current maps of Iran. So, I dragged out another of my Times Atlases (this time, the 2000 Edition). Not only was Torut still there, but the map on which it appeared had clearly been updated. On the new map, a straight red line – labeled, on the legend, ‘other road’ – extends directly from the village to the town of Emamrud (with the fall of the Shah, the ruling Imams had changed the town’s name from ‘Shahrud’ – ‘Shah’s River‘ – to ‘Emamrud’ – ‘Imam’s River’) on the main Trans-Asia Highway. Clearly the village has not only survived, but has – at least within the context of revolutionary Iran – managed to prosper. I find myself quite unreasonably pleased that this should be so.

Checkpoint Charlie

At first head-office was OK with our decision to just give it up. Then some asshole got the bright idea of trying to redo the whole expedition in the winter. His logic was that the superficial muck would be frozen in mid-winter, and thus should be strong enough to support our vehicles. We could, he reckoned, hand-dig a series of pits across the kavir down through the salt to the underlying rock layers so that we could observe and measure their attitudes. He had also, by careful perusal of our topographic maps, discovered a sort of ‘island’ of slightly higher ground near the middle of the kavir. Out there, he said, the ground might even be solid enough for a campsite. The plan was to camp on the ‘island’ and to dig a line of pits down to solid rock – three or four feet, we reckoned – which we could then study. It was always going to be hard work. We set out from Tehran in late December, 1959.

The maps (above), each covering an area roughly 400 X 200 km, were compiled from aerial photographs by US Air Force personnel who travelled the length and breadth of Iran questioning locals to make sure they got all the names correct. We quickly noted that there was – on this and every other map in this series – a surfeit of villages called ‘Nemidonam’ – at least six or eight on each map. It wasn’t until my Farsi lessons were reasonably advanced that the penny dropped. “Nemidonam” is Farsi for “I don’t know”. Clearly, when asked ‘What is the name of that place over there?’ the villagers had answered, “Nemidonam” (I don’t know). The Americans, who didn’t know any better, entered the remark as the name of the village.

The personnel of my field party had been changed some. This time Bill Lewis and I had a new camp boss – a young American-educated Iranian, Cyrus Mauvi. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the American-educated sons and daughters of the so-called ‘thousand families’ – who owned almost the whole of Iran – often chose to work with American companies when they returned to Iran. That many of their jobs were curiously menial seemed not to matter. What appeared to be important was the intimate connection with Americans. Anyway, that’s the way I met Cyrus Mauvi. Cyrus (pronounces Sir ROOS) was exactly my age – 24 – and from the start we got on famously. He was large, bright, muscular, extraordinarily hairy, rich, arrogant and a lot of fun. A graduate of UCLA, he was the son of the Military Governor of Tehran Province – a man of immense wealth and power – and, through his paternal uncle, Abolfath, Cyrus was connected to both present and past royal families and to the entire power structure of the country.

In Iran, where corruption had been entrenched as a way of life for more than two and a half thousand years, every man in the country was as corrupt as his station in life allowed. Conversely, since power devolved downward from an absolute monarch, every man was as subservient as his station in life demanded. I knew Cyrus was high up on the ‘subservience tree’ – his family pretty much bent their collective knees only to the Shah. Cyrus was somebody – somebody with connections, somebody with power – somebody to treat very very nicely to if you wanted to keep the butter on the right side of your bread.

Having Cyrus in my field party was a huge advantage for me, personally. As scion of such an illustrious family, he commanded immense respect wherever we went. For Iranian peasants, who were at the bottom of the political food-chain, groveling to one’s superiors was a fact of life. It was important to know when and to whom you needed to grovel. Not only was there no point kowtowing to the wrong person, but failure to do it to the right one could have dire consequences.

Cyrus’ high station meant we spent a lot of time in the field up to our collective necks in sycophancy. Even mayors and provincial governors – one of whom actually bowed to him – thought it politic to accommodate his wishes whenever possible. Although wall-to-wall sycophancy got tiresome after a while, what it meant in practical terms was that we always had the best accommodation in town – frequently the kadkhoda’s house – and the promptest attention to our requests for material or information. And if we needed labourers, lots of ‘volunteers’ were always available. It was all most subtly done. My first thought was that Iranians must be very polite and obliging – and so they were. It took me a long time to realise that what I took for politeness was, in fact, a sort of institutionalised groveling. Cyrus’ requests – however politely worded – literally were their commands.

It was a little like travelling with God.

***

We headed anticlockwise around the west end of the Dasht-i-Kavir, keeping its desolate flats on our left. The scenery was grimly magnificent. The snowline struck horizontally across the rumpled khaki landscape. Above it snow peaks glittered. Below it, the Dasht-i-Kavir, frozen and dead, was a flat beige wilderness of dust and salt. The ninety-mile drive to the holy city of Qum, along a fine tar-sealed road, took only a couple of hours. We could see the minarets and domes of the Hazrat-i-Masumeh – the Shrine of Fatima – for miles across the khaki plains. Gilded and fragile as tulip buds, they floated like a mirage above the city.

The shrine’s leading cleric, Sayyid al Hindi13, was the sort of Moslem that gives Islam a bad name. A ferociously xenophobic fundamentalist, he abhorred all foreigners, and was trying to close the entire city – and, indeed, the whole country – to ‘unbelievers’. In the end, he failed – only the shrine remained off-limits – but he had made Qum so unpleasant that no foreigner ever went there unless he had to.

We booked into the Eram – the only hotel in Qum that would still accept foreigners. Although the hotel clerk was at pains to advise us that entrance to the shrine was forbidden to non-Moslems, Bill insisted on arranging a guide for later that evening to show him around the holy place. The Shrine of Fatima was, he said, far too beautiful not to at least try to have a look. But somebody had snitched on him – the guide never showed up. Instead, a fierce delegation of furious mullahs was waiting outside the hotel door, waving sticks and shouting down our protests. Their message was simple: Unbelievers, they said, weren’t welcome in holy Qum – not just the shrine, but the entire town. “Get out!” They shouted, “Get out! Get out! Get out!”

In the face of all this hostility, we quickly retreated inside. The manager was most apologetic, and made all sorts of helpful noises, but he knew perfectly well which side his bread was buttered on. We were welcome to stay until morning, he said, but “Please to going before sunrise. Otherwise big tamasha”. We left at 4 AM.

Al Hindi’s fundamentalist fixation eventually got him crosswise with the Shah – with whose ‘White Revolution’ (a massive and very liberal programme of land reform) he was interfering – and he was exiled in 1963 for fomenting religious violence. He founded a revolutionary movement in Iraq, which took as its mission the violent overthrow of the Shah. Much to everyone’s amazement – including, probably, his own – it suddenly succeeded when the Shah’s regime collapsed in 1979. Al Hindi was back in Iran within days. Now he ran things! He was suddenly known right across the world. Now he called himself Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

***

At first, the gravel road was level and straight. Raised on causeways eight or ten feet high it drove directly down the middle of a wide, desolate valley for nearly a hundred miles. About every hundred yards there were large piles of gravel heaped on the shoulders of the roadway, and every kilometre or so we would see a road-worker leaning on a long-handled spade. They were supposed to shovel gravel from the piles into the deepest corrugations, thus improving the driving surface. The intent, I guessed, was good, but in practice whatever gravel they moved – and we never saw even one of these guys actually move any – was blasted out of the corrugations by the first passing vehicle. In the meantime the gravel pile did nothing but reduce the cross-section of the already narrow roadway.

Along the road to Natanz – ancient kabutar khans (dovecotes: kabutar=dove, khan=house) – tall and phallic – soared amidst the pip-fruit orchards. Roughly whitewashed, the tall tapering cylinders, pierced by rows of holes, each with a small perching branch, were prickly as hedgehogs. Centuries old, made of mud on mud, most have fallen, and none is now quite vertical; all are skewed and bent with age. Rising into a sky the colour of eggs, they leaned against the clouds.

Pir Bakran – named after a Moslem saint who is buried there – is desperately poor. Once important, its peripheries are ruins – bleached and hollow as old bones – and except for a single iwan, even the saint’s tomb has vanished. What remains of the little mud village is slowly being beaten back into earth. Winds and rains have abraded the little town – flensing planes and angles into more organic shapes – sifting its very substance downward. Warped and bent, each surface is slowly subsiding into itself.

Just beyond Pir Bakran we picked up a hitch-hiker – a very young soldier who looked about twelve, in a uniform at least three sizes too big for him. He had several bags of assorted foodstuffs with him – a fifty-pound bag of rice, two five-pound ‘cones’ of sugar14, a sack of tea, and several other indeterminate parcels, one of which (presumably some sort of meat) was very popular with flies. It seemed a curious lot of baggage for a very young conscript to be dragging around in the middle of an Iranian desert, so we asked him where he’d been, where he was going, and why he’d had to hitch.

His name, he said, was Taghi, and he was stationed at a checkpoint out in the middle of nowhere. It was not far ahead on the road to Natanz – at the foot of the Khorassan Ranges – a checkpoint we were going to have to pass. This was a good thing because it meant we could deliver him right to his destination. He seemed awfully pleased about that.

Hooshang (my overweight, colour-blind, Iranian field assistant) had invited Taghi to share his jeep, pointing out, quite correctly, that he had more room there than we did in our Power wagon, but I vetoed it. Hooshang was quite a nice chap, but he was as queer as a three-dollar bill, and I could see him salivating at the thought of being alone with this fresh-faced young boy. Anyway, largely because of this, young Taghi sat, wedged between me and Cyrus in my Power wagon and chattered happily away, telling us both more about army life than either of us really wanted to know. He’d been on supply duty, and had had to hitch-hike to Isfahan, he said, to purchase supplies. It had taken him three days, he told us, to get there. Nearly froze his balls off, he said.

Conscripts in the Imperial Iranian Army, he said, earned eighteen rials (about 24 US cents) per day. As long as they were on a military base, they were also fed and housed. But when away from a base, they had to pretty much fend for themselves. What this meant in practice was that the six or so team-members at a checkpoint had to feed themselves on a communal fund of about US$45 per month. Since the checkpoints were almost always in remote areas, they might have to travel as much as fifty miles just to buy food. They had neither vehicles nor travel allowances. Although infrequent passing buses would pick them up and deliver them, they had to be able to pay, and even third-class fares for a fifty-mile trip were more than their entire month’s food allowance. So mostly, if they wanted to eat, the soldiers had to hitch-hike to the nearest town. We were often to give lifts to young soldiers hitching to market or returning with the week’s groceries – or sometimes delivering messages from one commanding officer to another. There wasn’t a lot of road traffic in provincial Iran back then, and sometimes they’d been waiting beside the road a day or more before we came along, either baking in summer or freezing in winter. To quote our young passenger, checkpoint duty was “the shits”. It was, he told us, a kind of punishment for the young conscripts that usually manned them – punishment, he said, for ‘insubordination’ – a euphemism, he thought, for being insufficiently obsequious.

There were lots of checkpoints on Iranian roads – usually just a wooden bar – sometimes candy-striped, sometimes not – hinged at one end, that could be lowered across the roadway, and a couple of guards. I never did find out exactly what purpose they were meant to serve. In my experience the only thing they did was delay traffic by three or four minutes. They never seemed to want anything or to be looking for anybody, and as far as I could tell, they never recorded our licence numbers or, for that matter, the simple fact of our passage. Maybe they were just a way to keep the army fully employed – or, as Taghi seemed to believe, a way to punish lippy young conscripts.

He seemed a nice kid, and we all got along famously until, from something one of us said, he suddenly realised who Cyrus was. First there was a sharp intake of breath and his eyes got big as saucers. And then he became very quiet and started to sweat. From then on he was practically inarticulate. He made very polite answers to our questions, but was otherwise completely silent, his eyes swiveling warily from one of us to the other. We tried our best to bring him out of it, but he wasn’t having a bar of it. Clearly he was scared to death. Scared, I guess, of Cyrus – scared that he would do or say something to offend him. Cyrus, often had that effect on people. With – as I was about to learn – good reason.

Checkpoints really weren’t much of a hassle. Usually when we stopped at a checkpoint, a soldier or two would saunter across to our vehicle and lean on the window sill. Having identified Cyrus, he and our driver would exchange small talk for a minute or two and then he would jack up the pole and wave us through. We had papers, of course, for our vehicles, our staff and for ourselves – and, for some areas (like Baluchistan), special passes – but nobody ever asked to see them. Of course, our business was obvious – the company name – “Iran Pan American Oil Company” – was emblazoned on the doors of all vehicles – and, besides, the mere sight of Cyrus usually put the fear of God in the young peasant boys manning the checkpoints.

But today was to be different. I was about to see just how much power Cyrus could actually exercise – just because of who he was – and how casually he would do it. I also saw what could happen when he chose to abuse it. On balance, I was to find the experience pretty scary.

As mountains go, the Khorassans didn’t amount to much, but, even so, the pass behind the checkpoint was high and steep enough to make the road tack and veer up three or four switchbacks to get over it. Just where the road started to climb – in a rocky saddle covered in dirty snow and grit – was Taghi’s checkpoint. There was nothing unusual in the checkpoint itself. There were a junior officer, a tent and half-a-dozen very young soldiers in the usual ill-fitting uniforms – conscripts, I would guess – each holding a superannuated firearm. A trooper in a baggy green uniform and very large boots clumped over to our vehicle. Hardly more than a boy, he had certainly not started to shave. Like Taghi – who had turned out to be eighteen – he looked to be about twelve years old.

As the guard sauntered up to one door of the Power Wagon, young Taghi bailed out of the other, abandoning his bales and bags in the vehicle. He hit the ground running and headed straight for the ‘command’ tent. I wondered what he thought he was doing – what his problem was. I later found that he was trying to save us all a lot of trouble – trying to tell his lieutenant who we were – or, more exactly, who Cyrus was – before anybody did anything stupid – anything Cyrus might make them regret. Unfortunately, he was just a little too late.

“Your papers, please.”
“You don’t need our papers. You know who we are – Sherkat Naft,” Cyrus retorted. He pointed to the door. “It is written there. Can’t you read?”
”I must see your papers. I need to know who you are – you, personally,” The boy pointed his index finger almost in Cyrus’s face. ”And those others, too.”
“You don’t know who I am?” Cyrus was incredulous, “You don’t know me?” His voice was rising in pitch and volume.
“No.”
“You really don’t know me?” Cyrus clearly found this hard to believe.
“No, I don’t. D’you think I be asking if I did?” This kid was pretty lippy for a simple soldier – in the context of Iran’s power structure, he was asking for trouble – maybe that was what the army meant by ‘insubordination’. “That’s what I’ve been trying to find out…” he went on, “….who you are!”
“But I’m….I’m…” Cyrus tended to spit a lot when he got agitated, and his salivary glands were working overtime. “…I’m Cyrus Mauvi!” he finally sputtered, spit flying in all directions,” That’s who I am!”

The young soldier screwed up his face as Cyrus’s spittle hit it, but he never faltered. He may have been lippy, but he was also a gutsy kid; I had to give him that. Also, in retrospect, a bit stupid. I guessed maybe his boyhood training in ‘kowtowing’ had been deficient. It was hard for me to imagine any Iranian peasant facing up to Cyrus in full flight. But this one was doing it. It was to prove a monumental mistake.

He looked Cyrus right in the eye, “So……?’
“What’d you mean ‘So…..?’ My father is Ustandar (governor) of Tehran. That’s who I am!”
“Yes, of course he is,” Unimpressed, the young soldier smirked, “Your father is the Ustandar of Tehran and my sister is the Shahbanu15 (Empress) of Iran.” Somehow I knew he was going to regret that smart-arsed remark.

The argument grew rapidly louder, faster and more violent. Most of it, of course, went right over my head – the heated exchanges were far above my ability to comprehend spoken Farsi – so much of what you are reading was reconstructed for me by Cyrus and Manoucher after the event. Taghi, meanwhile, was speaking urgently to the lieutenant-in-charge, gesticulating wildly and repeatedly pointing in our direction

Finally Cyrus had had about all he could take. “Enough of this shit!” Forgetting to turn down the volume, he turned his head and bellowed right in our driver’s ear, “Manoucher!!” The driver jerked like he had been shot, his hand massaging the ear Cyrus had blasted, “Get down and get that fucking pole out of the way”.

Manoucher tugged his metaphorical forelock as he scrambled out of the Power Wagon. He dashed across to the barrier, flipping it upright with a flick of his hands. Before anybody could lower it again, Cyrus – who had slid over into the driver’s seat – gunned the engine and floored the accelerator. Our truck lurched forward, then roared past the barrier, our spinning rear wheels blowing huge fans of gravel and dust behind us. The young soldier, still clinging to our window ledge, ran valiantly alongside for a few seconds, but our acceleration was too much for him and he soon dropped away. I wondered briefly whether he might shoot at us. Not bloody likely, it turned out. Looking back as we climbed away I saw him standing in the middle of the road, his shoulders slumped. Gasping for breath and leaning on his rifle he looked defeated, utterly beaten, I thought. I felt almost sorry for him, humiliated and coughing in our dust cloud.

“Stupid bastard,” Cyrus laughed aloud, “Did he really think he could stop me?” But his laugh turned out to be a little premature.

A few hundred yards beyond the checkpoint the road made a 180 degree turn into the first of several hairpin bends and started back up the mountainside above the checkpoint. As we rounded the first curve Cyrus pulled up. Manoucher, who’d been on the running-board, clinging to the door for dear life, climbed back into the driver’s seat, breathed a huge sigh of relief, and we set off uphill.

But the young guard wasn’t done with us yet. By the time we’d reached a point on our switchback directly above the checkpoint, he had scrambled up the steep slope and was standing in the middle of the road ahead of us. This time he clearly meant business. He was panting and covered with dust – and probably scared witless – but he was also mad as Hell. He had his rifle at his shoulder and he had it aimed directly at our windscreen.

Manoucher looked questioningly at Cyrus, who seemed about to explode. For the first time since I’d known him, Cyrus looked totally flummoxed. This, I thought to myself, is probably the first time in Cyrus’ life that his position in society hasn’t been enough to get him where he wanted to go.

“What you want to do?” By now Manoucher – looking right down the barrel of a rifle – was beginning to sweat.
“Piss bastard fuck!” Cyrus roared – he was still bellowing even though Manoucher and I were in the cab with him (despite his fluent command of the English language, Cyrus had never learned to swear properly. This was his favourite swearword). “This shit never happening to me before! Guess we got to stop.” The more agitated he got, the worse his English became and the more erratic his use of swear words. “Somebody,” he hissed, showering Manoucher and me with spittle, “Gonna pay for this!”

By the time we got stopped, the whole of the little checkpoint camp was astir, and the officer – a very junior lieutenant – was scrambling up the hillside toward us. It was pretty clear that the young soldier had no idea what he should do with us now that he’d made his point and successfully got us to stop. He just stood there, his rifle wavering a little, but still pointed at us. Cyrus, his face dark as thunder, jumped down from the Power Wagon and headed purposefully for the guard, intending, I reckoned to do the young man some sort of mischief.

The young lieutenant arrived, gasping for breath and clearly very upset. At first I thought that we were in serious trouble. We had, after all, just crashed a roadblock. What the repercussions of that might be I had no idea. In the end, I was never to find out. By the time the officer arrived, Cyrus, striding quickly over to the young soldier, had already yanked the youth’s rifle from his arms, and slapped him hard across the face.

The lieutenant strode over to Cyrus, his face a study in perplexity. He clearly he didn’t know whether to be mad or scared. He knew what his duty was – what he was supposed to do – to arrest us and throw us in the nearest pokey. But he also knew that if he did his duty – and if Cyrus turned out to be who Taghi had told him he was – he could kiss his commission (and probably his arse) goodbye. Anybody who would do what Cyrus had just done had to be either mad or – more likely – powerful. ‘Mad’ he could handle. ‘Powerful’ was another matter altogether. And that’s who Taghi had told him Cyrus was – somebody powerful…God-awful powerful!

We could see the indecision on his face, and for a few seconds his mouth worked without any sound coming out. “Are you….Cyrus…..Cyrus Mauvi?” he finally managed, “Is your father really the military gov…..?”
“Yes,” Cyrus, still simmering, cut him off venomously, “I am Cyrus Mauvi – As I have been trying to tell this stupid khar!” He jerked his head toward the young soldier, “before he shoots somebody! And yes, my father is military governor of Tehran Province.”

The lieutenant’s mouth opened and shut like a carp out of water. “And my uncle,” Cyrus continued, “Is Abolfath Mauvi.” This last revelation clearly hit the young officer right where he lived. His jaw dropped. Whether or not he knew who Cyrus’ father was, he obviously knew who Abolfath Mauvi was, and that knowledge completely unstrung him. He seemed quite unable to speak.

When Abolfath (irreverently known amongst us company juniors as “Apple-fart”) was born – about 1910 – he was a son of the then-crown prince of the ruling Qajar dynasty. If the Shah’s father hadn’t overthrown the Qajars in 1925, Abolfath – rather than Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlevi – might have been sitting on the Peacock Throne of Iran in 1960. Not that I had anything against Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlevi. He and I had become – not friends, exactly, but familiar to each other. In those days, it wasn’t that uncommon for a young American to become more-or-less familiar with the Shah. He and I bowled together very occasionally, and I used to hunt with his younger brother Mahmud Reza. Two or three times I was invited to parties at Niavaran Palace or at his weekend mountain retreat at Colbeh (‘The Hut’) in suburban Darband – and I knew Abolfath Mauvi, too – knew him quite well, in fact.

Abolfath was a major part of the power elite of Iran – a man of no position but vast power – a man much admired by foreign businessmen, but much-feared by Iranian peasants. He was – amongst many other things – my company’s ‘Government Liaison Officer’.

I’d first met Abolfath through Cyrus, and, despite the difference in our ages – he was about twice as old as I – we had become firm friends. Abolfath was tall, bearded and slim, with handsome – if vaguely Mephistophelean – features. A man of elegant dress, impeccable manners and impenetrable charm, he was fluent in Farsi, French, German and English. I thought Abolfath’s curious place in the scheme of things was kind of interesting. It seemed odd that the Emperor of Iran and the pretender to his throne should be good friends. But then, it seemed even odder that a nobody like me – a small-town hick from Kansas – should be hobnobbing with both of them.

Abolfath knew everybody who was anybody in Iran and his elegantly manicured ex-imperial fingers were into practically every commercial pie in the country. He had used his contacts to make himself into a sort of political ‘facilitator’. Because of his personal connection with the Iranian royals – in particular the Shah’s predatory twin sister, Ashraf – and the ‘thousand families’, he had made himself the man to see if you wanted to do big business in Iran. It was he who engineered my company’s entry into Iran – for which, of course, he received a huge fee and a substantial monthly retainer. It was by these means that Abolfath had grown fabulously wealthy. He and his Japanese wife had a spectacular and very elegant marble mansion in Tajrish, one of Tehran’s most fashionable suburbs, with three or four acres of manicured gardens and a half-Olympic-size swimming pool tiled with panels of Onyx. During the four years I knew Abolfath, he had the entire pool moved twice from one part of the garden to another to suit his wife’s changing tastes in landscaping. He was that kind of rich.

I didn’t know it at the time, but Abolfath, known to American businessmen and politicians as ‘the prince’, was personally responsible for channeling billions of US dollars – from US corporations seeking lucrative Iranian contracts – into Swiss bank accounts held by the Royal family and other powerful Iranians. His contacts reached the highest circles of both Iranian and American politics, and his influence in these high political and commercial circles was immense. In Iran, having Abolfath on your side was a very, very good thing. Getting up his nose, on the other hand, really really sucked.

Meanwhile, back at the checkpoint…………

“We….we….What can…?” the lieutenant began. He didn’t quite fall to his knees, but I could tell the thought had crossed his mind. “Bebakhsheed,” He finally managed, “Please, forgive us. We didn’t know your Excellency was coming. We would never have…..”

“Sir….Sir….” The young guard, rubbing at his rapidly reddening cheek, blundered into the conversation, “Could you…..?” He began.
“Shut up!’ the lieutenant hissed at him, “And stand to attention. I will attend to you later!” The young guard, looking very worried, beat some of the dust off his uniform and snapped to attention. He had committed what amounted to a mortal sin – he had dared to interrupt his betters. He was visibly terrified – presumably so scared he had forgotten to be humble – always a serious mistake in Imperial Iran. He had no idea what he had done wrong, but he clearly knew that a lot of shit was about to hit the fan – his fan, I assumed.

By now he had probably figured out that Cyrus wasn’t somebody you messed with lightly. I wondered what his punishment would be. I didn’t know it then, but I was to find out. To my shame, I must admit I was beginning to enjoy this – not so much the young soldier’s predicament – which turned out to be serious – but the lieutenant’s frantic efforts to dig himself out of a deep hole with the political equivalent of a teaspoon. Now, I thought to myself, might be a good time for the lieutenant to practice his groveling.

Luckily, his years in the military had taught him to grovel with the best of them, and after five or ten minutes of abject self-abasement, Cyrus let him off the hook. He finally dismissed the young lieutenant with a stiff warning. “If I were you,” he admonished, ”I’d take care of that….” – he pointed at the young soldier, who was still stiffly at attention  – “….Personally!”

The lieutenant saluted smartly as we climbed back into our Power Wagon and set off up the hill toward the crest of the pass. As the road reversed itself again up the next switchback, I found myself on the downhill side of the cab. Looking idly down toward the barrier, I was surprised to see that the lieutenant and the young guard were still in the road above the checkpoint. At first I thought they were arguing, but I quickly realised that that wasn’t what I was seeing. What I saw was so unlikely that I looked again. The image has remained burned into my memory for nearly fifty years.

The Lieutenant had yanked the boy’s rifle out of his hands, and was beating him about the head and shoulders with the butt end. The boy had already been beaten to his knees and was holding his arms up to protect his head, but the officer continued to rain blows down on him. Even from this distance, I could tell there was a lot of blood. As I watched, a blow knocked the young soldier sideways and he fell over onto the road, where he lay motionless. The lieutenant stared down at him for a few seconds. After a couple of vicious kicks, he threw down the rifle and stalked off down the hill. Just then we crested the pass, and the awful little scene disappeared from view.

I tried to get Cyrus to go back so that we could at least find out what had happened to the young soldier. For all we knew, I pointed out, he might be in need of urgent medical attention. But Cyrus wasn’t having a bar of it. “The son of a bitch deserved whatever he got!” was his prompt reply, “What did he expect, disrespecting somebody like me?” He frowned. “You got to learn how things work over here. Whatever the officer did to him is only the beginning of his punishment. Maybe he’ll go to jail. Maybe he will even be shot. Stupid, stupid boy!!”

The inherent wrongness of the whole thing haunts me still. If Cyrus had been just a little less arrogant, it need never have happened. We had all the necessary papers, so all we had to do was wave them under the boy’s nose and he would have passed us through. I knew that and so did Cyrus. I’d have been happy, the lieutenant would have been happy, and that poor little bastard wouldn’t have been lying unconscious in the road. After all, the kid was only trying to do his duty. Even if he’d made an honest mistake – which, as far as I knew, he hadn’t – he still deserved the support of his commanding officer – something the terrified and humiliated lieutenant wasn’t about to give him.

In retrospect, I guess nobody’d really had any choice. It was just the system. It had made Cyrus who he was – had instilled arrogance in him – the awareness of the power he had over others, and the willingness to use it. It had made the lieutenant – also aware of Cyrus’ power – subservient and weak, and had turned him into a bully. And it had got the young guard – who wasn’t quite subservient enough – beaten half to death.

As with the village of Torut, I have wondered for nearly half-a-century what happened to him. With Torut I was eventually able to find out. With the young guard – whose name I never knew – there was no way.

Band-i Sar Qom

The vale of Natanz, high on the shoulders of Kuh-i-Karkas, was one of my favourite places. Watered by many springs, its broad valley was filled with orchards, lush and green in summer. Now it was frozen in for winter and all the colour had drained away. White blankets of snow tucked the villages against dark pillows of hills. Rough grids of dry-stone walls, shrinking and converging with distance, quilted the plains below the little towns.

A caravanserai looming out of the dusk at the end of a long journey is one the grandest sights in central Asia. And the dilapidated caravanserai at Samarqand, on the plains below Natanz, was no exception. It was a huge rectangular mass of stone, fifty or sixty yards square, built around a central courtyard. One side of it comprised a fort, windowless and machicolated, with slits through which archers could shoot. The other sides were lined with double-storey arcades with chambers upstairs for the travelers and downstairs for their goods and livestock. Nearly four hundred years old, most of it was now derelict and only a couple of largish chambers across the front were still in use.

Hurrying through the dark doorway, we were greeted like long-lost friends by Hassan al Balkh, the proprietor. “Come in my friends!” He boomed, “Befarmayid (please), sit down. You will eat?” Along one wall mud-brick arches supported a bench. A samovar gargled at one end and skewers of kebab hissed and crackled over a glowing bed of charcoal at the other. Layers of gauzy smoke, smelling strongly of marinade, eddied across the room. There were half-a-dozen bed-size wooden benches, a table with a kerosene lantern on it and some chairs. There were four elderly men around the table, playing trik-trak (backgammon), their bearded faces brilliantly uplit by the lantern. Shadows, radiating like spokes behind them, bent across the floors and the walls, leaving the room mostly in darkness.

The long barrel-vaulted room was incredibly cold. An oil-drum stove hissed and roared in the centre of it, but the wind, whooping around the eaves, seemed to suck all the heat up the chimney. Cozying up to the stove, we ordered tea and kebab. I quickly put away three or four little glasses of the scalding liquid, sipping it Persian-style through a lump of sugar. Then we sat cross-legged on one of the benches and ate. Served with a flourish, the kebab came wrapped in a flat of nan with a dollop of ab duq and piles of sliced onions. We talked late into the night and finally, about midnight, crawled into our sleeping bags and settled down to make the most of the hard, wooden benches.

I ordered my favourite Persian breakfast – fried eggs – and warmed myself by the samovar while the cook prepared them. They made a lovely breakfast, those eggs – with nan, onions, jam and goat cheese – and lots of hot tea. By the time I was full, I was also warm, and the sun seemed to have got its furnace stoked. It was obviously going to be another fine winter day.

As planned, Bill Lewis joined us at Nain, where we turned left – away from the main road – and headed north toward Anarak where the road ended. The little mining town cascaded down a conical hill to a circle of crumbling mud ramparts. Only its hilltop citadel was above the snowline – each of its battered machicolations wore a little hat of snow – but the town below was brown and dusty, except for the shaggy dark silhouettes of date palms. To the south, a thicket of sharp peaks rose behind winter-bare orchards of almonds and pomegranates. East and west of town, the kavir – featureless and barren as the moon – stretched forever. A long, low gravel ridge sloped away to the north out into the kavir. According to our maps, it marked the way to Jandaq.

***

In the bright winter sunlight the snow hats on the parapets of the hilltop fortress quickly melted. Muddy melt-water cascaded down into the village, and by mid-afternoon, walking along the unpaved streets was like wading through porridge. There was no accommodation in Anarak – not even a caravanserai. We were trying to find a bit of land dry enough to pitch our tents, when the kadkhoda – with typical Iranian hospitality – offered to share his home with us. “My house is very comfortable,” he explained, “It has kurseh – very good kurseh.” What on earth, I wondered, is a ‘kurseh’?

By the time we headed for the kadkhoda’s house it was sunset, and the town was silhouetted against a lava-coloured sky. As the day’s heat drained away over the western horizon, an icy blanket descended over Anarak. Needles of ice interlocked across the surfaces of the mud puddles, and almost before we knew it, the sludge was as crunchy as cornflakes.

The kadkhoda’s house was right at the end of a narrow, muddy lane. A pair of battered French-style doors opened directly off the street into a room about fifteen feet square. A low mud bench, covered with a faded carpet runner, occupied the far wall of the room. On it were seven samovars. Six of these were handsome brass objects, highly polished and lovingly tended, their tops ringed with stamps in Cyrillic script. Persians, particularly in the provinces, collected samovars as indications of wealth. The more samovars they had on display in their lounge rooms, the more successful they were seen to be. The best – and most valuable – samovars were made in Russia. Those of the best quality bore imperial stamps: the more stamps a samovar had on it, the more valuable it was. The seventh samovar, very plain and business-like, was made of aluminium. Scratched and battered – and clearly the family’s everyday samovar – it was the only one in use. A fire of twigs had been lit in its bowels. Wisps of smoke circled its chimney, and it gurgled and steamed companionably.

There was only one piece of furniture, but the room was uncomfortably full nevertheless. In the centre of the room was a low circular table about two feet high. Eight or nine feet across, it was entirely covered with several layers of camel-hair blankets. They not only covered the surface of the table but they draped down each side to the floor and then spread out across the worn Persian carpet in all directions – more-or-less to all four walls of the room. Against all the walls were heaps and heaps of assorted cushions.

Six or eight people – an old woman and a young one, several middle-aged men and a couple of young boys – were seated around it. They turned out to be the kadkhoda’s family – mother, wife, father-in-law, brother-in-law, brother and two sons. They’d just finished a meal. On the table were several of the largish brass trays on which Persians served meals – their surfaces littered with crumbs and half-eaten bits of nan bread, a bowl of date lollies, a scatter of empty pisteh (pistachio) shells, several tea glasses, some cube sugar – and a curious sort of kerosene lamp. There were also a half-completed game of chatrange (chess), a trik-trak board, a deck of cards and several books. It looked as though the family had spent the entire day gathered around that table. The temperature in the room was only just above freezing. How, I wondered, had the family been eating and playing games in these frigid conditions?

“Befarmayid” (“Please”). Gesturing toward the table, the kadkhoda invited us to sit. The family shifted themselves around to one side of the table, leaving room for us to join them. Eight or ten pairs of assorted shoes just inside the door reminded me that Persian etiquette requires removal of footwear when entering a house. Somehow, I hadn’t expected it to apply in such cold weather – and in a room so frigid – but it clearly did. So I struggled out of my boots and left them near the threshold. It would have been incredibly gauche of me to have kept them on, especially since they were half-covered with slush off the street. Still, I found myself wondering if it was possible to get frostbite inside a house.

I carefully arranged myself on top of the several layers of blankets on the floor beside the table. Getting comfortable was a little awkward. Because of the drape of the blankets down the side of the table and onto the floor (on which I was endeavouring to sit) I couldn’t get my feet under the table. So I tried to curl up with my feet more-or-less under me. As a place to sit – with a soft carpet and several blankets under me and a heap of cushions behind me – it was remarkably comfortable, except for the lack of foot room. I didn’t know what I could do about that.

But our host knew. “No, No! Not like that!” He said. Watching me trying to find someplace to put my feet, he had decided I needed some advice. “Not like that,” He repeated, crossing his arms across his chest and waggling his fingers – in imitation, I guessed, of my cramped legs. “Put your feet to under the blankets. Look at Ali,” He gestured at the boy sitting next to me. “Do the same like him.”

Young Ali – who seemed to be about ten or eleven – grinned up at me and raised the blanket in front of himself. I quickly saw that he’d snuggled in underneath the blankets – just like getting into bed, and had then pulled them up and tucked them in around his waist.

So, carefully raising the layers of blankets in front of me until I was actually sitting on the carpet, I slid my feet in under them. As I did so, a blast of hot air – really hot air – rushed out at me. It was just like opening an oven door. The air temperature under the table must have been at least 50oC. How, I wondered, was this miracle achieved? This was a mystery I simply had to solve.

Lifting the hem of the blanket, I peered underneath. On the floor beneath the centre of the table was a large brass charcoal brazier. A heap of glowing charcoal filled its fire-tray and the incandescent embers winked and gleamed through the holes in its lid. From all sides of the table, the family’s legs extended inward toward the brazier, to a circle of stocking-clad feet, all toasting themselves in its heat.

The penny dropped. The answer was so simple I wondered why I hadn’t cottoned on to it straightaway. I guess it was just that it was such an extraordinary solution to an ordinary problem – how to keep a family warm when you can’t afford to heat even a single room. No wonder everyone looked so comfortable. Our dinner, like theirs, was served atop the kurseh. We had chello kebab– succulent marinated strips of lean lamb, buried in piles of buttered rice – served with ab duq (yoghurt – maast16 – mixed with cucumber and mint).

The lamp in the centre of the table was a curious sort of object and it quickly caught my attention. It consisted of an ordinary-looking kerosene lamp mounted atop a Bakelite box about ten inches on a side. Except for a grilled opening about three inches in diameter on one side, the box was featureless. Inside the base of lamp’s glass chimney – just above the flame – there was a small stainless steel paddle-wheel mounted horizontally on a vertical axis. The base of this device was clearly some sort of radio receiver. It wasn’t hard to deduce this because it was playing loud Persian pop music. So at least I knew what the thing was – it was a lamp/radio. It seemed an odd combination, and I wondered idly why the two quite different appliances had been produced as a single unit.

Partly to make conversation, I asked the kadkhoda about it. He was, it turned out, very proud of it. It was the only one in the town – not even the Mohandes17 had one, he said. The lamp, he explained, wasn’t just a lamp: it also powered the radio. The rising air, heated by the lamp flame, turned the little fan inside the chimney. The fan, in turn, turned a tiny generator in the base of the contraption, which produced just enough current to run the radio.

It was, I thought, an exceedingly clever device. Not only did it provide a good, steady light (a great boon in areas without electricity), but because the lamp powered the radio, it needed no batteries. In a land of biblical poverty, this was an important consideration. Even if the villagers had been able to afford batteries – which hardly any of them could – the nearest shops that sold them might be several days away.

The radio was playing very loudly and I asked the kadkhoda if he could reduce the volume a little. “No,” was his reply, “When light is on radio is on. When light is off, radio off.”
“You can’t make louder or softer?”
‘No. Is always same like this.”
“But how do you tune it?” I asked.
“Tune it?” He looked genuinely perplexed. “Tune it? What d’you mean ‘tune it’?”
“How do you get another station?”
“Other station? – is only music and news. Is no other station.”

Cyrus leaned across and whispered in my ear “Keep your voice down!“ – He’d changed, I noticed, from speaking Farsi to speaking English. I wondered why. “You don’t tune it. It only picks up one station – it’s permanently tuned to Radio Moscow”
“Radio Moscow?” I blurted out. He shushed me furiously. “Radio Moscow?” I repeated in a whisper. “What d’you mean, ‘Radio Moscow?’” I was flabbergasted. This was during the height of the Cold War. Iran and Russia weren’t even on speaking terms. In fact, they’d both erected loudspeakers on their common border by means of which they traded insults twenty-four hours a day. “Radio Moscow broadcasts Iranian music?”
“And Farsi news. It’s their Farsi Language Broadcasting Service. Only music and news. Twenty-four hours a day.” He shrugged, “Good music, good propaganda. What can we do?” I was familiar with Radio Moscow news broadcasts. Voice of America’s coverage of the Korean War (which was then in progress) was so different from that of Radio Moscow, it actually seemed they were reporting different conflicts. “This,” he added, “May not be the best time or place to pursue this subject,” He tapped the side of his nose with a forefinger, “Almost certainly nobody in this room is even aware that they’re listening to Radio Moscow. But it’s absolutely illegal for them to do so. We certainly wouldn’t like for SAVAK to get wind of it. I couldn’t guarantee that it’s not a hanging offense.”

So, sipping scalding tea Persian-fashion through cubes of sugar, we tried to make small talk while carefully not mentioning the lamp/radio – which, unfortunately, was all the kadkhoda wanted to talk about. It turned out to be his prize possession. Given that we and the kadkhoda had virtually no other interest in common, the conversation quickly ran down. So we were considerably relieved when his wife announced that it was time to sleep.

All she had to do to end the evening was to turn off the lamp. And that’s exactly what she did. Because Persian pop music is acutely painful to Western ears, I was indescribably happy when the radio ceased blaring. Then everybody – about a dozen of us altogether – just snuggled down beneath the kurseh, pulled the covers up to our chins and went to sleep. Although I was awakened twice when someone crawled beneath the table to replenish the charcoal in the brazier, I had the best night’s sleep I’d had in ages.

These radio/lamps, I later found out, were smuggled across the border from Russia and secretly distributed by the Iranian Tudeh (Communist) Party throughout most of provincial Iran. The device was an engineering tour de force – technically effective, cheap to make and simple to operate. It provided a diet of Iranian pop music interlarded with news. In many isolated parts of Iran – most of which had no telecommunications, and some of which were without roads – these radios were the only source of news. This was both a good thing and a bad thing. The good thing was that it provided good light and lots of free entertainment to a lot of people whose lives were hard and grim beyond our imaginings. The bad thing was that the news it provided was the sort of news Russia wanted Iranian peasants to hear – in other words, Soviet propaganda, which was both anti-American and anti-Shah.

***

Early next morning we packed our gear and headed for the local bowser. We arrived exactly at sunrise. Brilliant sunlight streamed almost horizontally across the maidan. A curious crowd of villagers, wreathed in wisps of condensed breath, squinted into the low morning sun watching us refuel. The bowser consisted of a stack of 44-gallon petrol drums and a hand pump in a corner of the maidan. A dozen young boys vied to turn the crank. The attendant good-naturedly let them take turn about, so it took probably twice as long as usual – but nobody was in a great hurry. We were, after all, the only show in town – probably the highlight of their month. Everybody waved as we drove away.

The track to Jandaq was only a camel-trail following a line of qanat craters. Behind us Anarak’s little tuft of mountains slowly sank out of sight. A hundred and fifty miles ahead of us – still invisible below the horizon – another range of mountains would mark the far side of the Dasht-i-Kavir. Between us and them was nothing – absolutely bloody nothing.

Well, nothing except Jandaq. The village sat at the end of a long tongue of rock and scree; the last bit of solid earth for a hundred miles. A few pale blue tiles still clung to the dome of the dilapidated mosque. The two dozen or so mud houses that huddled together near it had been worn almost shapeless by wind and rain. A little fan of irrigated fields, separated by thatched mud walls, stretched downslope toward the edge of the kavir.

We stopped in Jandaq just long enough to make sure of our bearings. According to our aerial photos, our destination was forty miles due NE across the kavir. We reckoned we’d recognise it when we got there. Our maps showed a sort of ‘island’ – a circular hump of higher ground about twenty miles across. We assumed it would be dry and solid enough to pitch camp. The villagers knew of the ’island’. It even had a name, they said. It was called ‘Band-i-Sar Qom’.

A camel trail meandered in the general direction we wanted to go, but we decided to navigate by compass. Remembering our previous encounter with the kavir, we started off gently, easing our vehicles out onto the crazed surface – crisp beige polygons of dried mud separated by shrinkage cracks. At Torut, in the middle of summer, these dried plates of mud had turned out to be too thin to bear the weight of a vehicle. So every time we drove out onto the kavir they disintegrated, precipitating our jeeps into stinking black muck.

But not this time. That asshole in Tehran turned out to be right – winter had made it possible to drive across the surface of the swamp. Ice crystals had stiffened and strengthened the mud plates until they were hard and brittle as crockery. Tilting up and sideways, they clattered and banged against the bottoms of our jeeps. Snapping and cracking like gunfire, most of them broke, exploding black jets of mud from beneath the vehicles. Jerking and banging – dragging enough noise for a small war across the warped surface – we could only do about ten mph, but that was enough. A keen wind whipped across the salt pans, stirring up plumes of fine salty dust. The crystalline grains cut our faces, and the salt made our skin burn.

Despite the ice, it was a desperately close-run thing. Nobody wanted to drive in anyone else’s ruts, so we set out in line abreast. Beneath the frozen plates the mud – too salty to really freeze – was still viscous, and the whole surface heaved and sank as we passed. The moving weight of our vehicles set up surface waves that swept away from us in all directions, wobbling the whole kavir like a monstrous jelly. We never dared to stop. Luckily we never had to. Behind us we left four deeply churned sets of ruts, slowly filling with freezing mud.

We could see Band-i-Sar Qom almost an hour before we reached it – a pale line lifting above the horizon. It turned out to be only a couple of feet higher than the swamp, its flat gravel surface grim and forbidding. The temperature was just below freezing and the sun had gone behind a sheet of lead-coloured clouds. It was cold as buggery. Ice-sharp winds roared down the slopes of the Elburz Mountains, ramping dark clouds against the Khorassan ranges and burying their tops in snow.

The gale howling across the kavir was strong enough to shift pebbles, and it blasted us with salty grit, drilling the cold right into our bones. We spent most of the afternoon trying to figure how to get out of that bloody wind. Just before sunset Hooshang found a shallow depression about ten feet deep. It was almost perfectly circular and about fifteen yards across. By dark we had four tents pitched and tea was cooking over Mohammed’s kerosene stove. Next day we had to start digging holes.

Doing this project in mid-winter had seemed a good idea when we thought it up in mid-summer. But we weren’t half as smart as we thought we were. Aside from freezing our arses off, the ice created nearly as many problems as it solved. The freezing conditions that made this second expedition possible also nearly doomed it to failure. Although ice had made the crust strong enough to support a vehicle to get us there, it had also frozen the ground as hard as….well, as hard as ice. We spent a whole miserable day hacking and picking to dig two pits – each about a yard square and deep enough to reach strata we wanted to examine. The actual examination took about three minutes – that was the useful part of our day. The rocks, when we finally reached them, really were banded green and red. And (at least in our first pit) they were tilted steeply down to the south. Those were the bits of information we sought, so no matter what else might eventuate, the expedition was already a technical success.

Next day, while Hooshang and I were hacking through frozen muck and banging rocks along the west side of Band-i-Sar Qom, Feridoon and Cyrus, reconnoitering southeast of camp, found that our ‘island’ wasn’t really an island after all. Thirty miles southeast of camp – way beyond where we expected the edge of the island to be – they’d stumbled across a village called Kvor.

Hidden in a dip in the gravel plain, beside three or four irrigated acres planted out with onions, Kvor looked like a ruin, its half-dozen mud houses beaten shapeless by the elements. A single line of qanat craters led up the gentle slope toward a range of hills. The presence of the village – and, more particularly, its qanat – proved that Hooshang and Cyrus had left the Dasht-i-Kavir. Our maps, at least in this particular area, were wrong. Band-i-Sar Qom was actually a sort of peninsula extending northwest into the kavir from its southeast ‘shore’.

The villagers showed Hooshang what was unmistakably a vehicular track leading southeast, toward the hills. They couldn’t remember when last there’d been an actual vehicle on the track, but it led, they said firmly, to an ‘iron road’ at a place called Robat-i-Pusht-i-Badam (The ‘safe place’ – or ‘haven’ – ‘behind the almond’). “At Pusht-i-Badam,” they said, “All foods can be ordered, all things can be bought and every desire fulfilled.” I reckon that said more about the rusticity of the villagers than it did about Pusht-i-Badam. Some of the kids had never seen any kind of a picture and had no idea what one was. Our Polaroid camera was a great hit in Kvor.

Pusht-i-Badam wasn’t even on our maps. Neither, for that matter, was the ‘iron road’. The Farsi word for ‘railroad’ (‘rah ohan’) translates into English as ‘Iron road’ and it was this word the villagers used. There were no railroads anywhere in southeastern Iran, and we told them so, but they were adamant. The road, the villagers insisted, was real. It led north to Tabas, they said, and south to Yazd. If they knew what they were talking about, this was great news. It meant that our exit from the Dasht-i-Kavir was no longer weather-dependent. We didn’t have to wait for a hard freeze to plough our way across the salt swamp back to Jandaq. We had an easy way out now, one we could travel whenever the mood moved us.

It took us just under two weeks to dig about forty holes, each roughly a meter square and deep, and to measure and describe the strata we’d exposed. The north wind howled the entire time, numbing our extremities and blasting us with frozen salty grit. We were cold and miserable and hot and sticky all at the same time. Unable to bathe and trapped in our own dirty clothes (which, for six weeks, we never took off) and sweat, we itched incessantly. And we stank. We could hardly stand ourselves or each other.

But finally it was done. ”Tomorrow,” I announced, “we can pack up and set off for civilization.” We’d try to make it to Yazd via Kvor and Pusht-i-Badam. On the map it looked to be about 250 miles to Yazd.  None of us had ever been to Yazd, but it was certainly big enough to have a hammam – a public bath-house. And that was very, very important to us just then.

The Manchester Men

Cold woke me during the night – that and a need to pee. The wind had died away, and it was breathlessly silent. I got up, pulled on my parka and boots, picked up a torch and undid the tent flaps. It was snowing, silently and heavily. The huge flakes swirling through the cone of torchlight seemed as big as doilies.

I scrunched noisily through the snow to the edge of camp and set about doing my business. The worst thing about camp life in the winter, I thought to myself, Is trying to find a two-inch object inside two pairs of pants with two pairs of gloves on. It took a lot longer than I expected, and I was numb by the time I had crawled back into my sleeping bag. Shivering uncontrollably, I zipped myself head-and-all inside, and eventually managed to get back to sleep.

“Snow! Bloody Snow!” Bill, in his rumpled long-johns, was silhouetted at the flap of our tent. “Bloody, bloody snow! Just what we bloody well need. Now we’ll never get out of here!” I slid out of my sleeping bag and joined him. It had stopped snowing, but the fall must have lasted almost all night. It was deep enough to have smoothed out the contours of the surface, and our tents were thatched with five or six inches of it.

Everything was astonishingly silent. We pulled on our boots and climbed up to the rim to look around. The snow was very dry – light and fluffy – and the huge brittle flakes crackled and snapped beneath our boots. It was like wading through cornflakes. There was hardly anything to see. There hadn’t been a whole lot to see before, but there was even less now. The whole landscape seemed curiously blurred – out of focus. Everything was without colour – the plains, the hills and, behind them, the mountains – all white under a white sky. Our breaths fogged when we spoke and our lungs burned with the cold. We weren’t likely to get out of here today. That much was for sure. Well damn!

During the morning our drivers made several desultory attempts to get our vehicles up out of our little depression, but without chains not even our power wagons could make it up the slopes. We spent an increasingly frustrating morning in the work tent, catching up on paperwork, playing cards and drinking more hot coffee than was good for us.

“Somebody coming,” It was Hooshang who’d gone out for a pee. “Outside I hear somebody coming….from there.” He gestured to the SW. We all went quiet and listened for a few seconds. There was, indeed, a faint, barely audible, hum.
“Plane, I expect,” Bill observed. I concurred. After all, I thought, what else could it be?
“Not plane,” Hooshang was adamant. “Car or truck maybe. Not plane!”

The distant hum grew slowly louder. Very slowly louder. Very very slowly louder! In the absence of any other sound, we were continually aware of it. What got my attention was how slowly it waxed. At some point it occurred to me that we had already been listening to it for a very long time indeed. Surely if it were a plane it would have long-since passed overhead and the sound of it would have started to diminish. Pulling the hood of my parka about my ears, I set out up slope toward the rim of our little bowl. The noise seemed to increase exponentially as I climbed. Breasting the top of the slope, I peered myopically into the southwest.

Hooshang was right – there was something coming. About where I reckoned the horizon would be – if we had had a horizon – was a tiny black speck. It was clearly a vehicle and I wondered what on earth it was doing careering across the Dasht-i-Kavir in the dead of winter.

Wonder who they are.” Hooshang mused. “Nobody knows we’re here, and for sure, whoever they are, they can’t see us.”
“Well, Bill answered, “If they’re not military, police or SAVAK they’re in great trouble.”
“What d’you mean ‘great trouble’?”
“Well, for starters, they’re terribly, dreadfully lost. They’ve been off-road for fifty, sixty miles – maybe more – and they’re heading off across the biggest, nastiest salt marsh in the country in the dead of winter. There’s bugger-all ahead of them. The only thing out here – and I mean the only thing – is us. The next thing more than six inches high is….what?……Tabas I guess. And it’s….how far?….twenty farsakhs (120 km)?” Tabas had been a town of about 10,000 inhabitants. It had been totally destroyed by the same earthquake that had damaged Torut.
“At least. Maybe more.”

Soon they – whoever they were – were near enough to see the four of us standing silhouetted against a wilderness of white. The vehicle veered slightly until was headed straight for us. I wonder what the driver thought seeing four men standing in the midst of that immense empty snowscape. After a few minutes, we were able to ascertain that the vehicle was neither jeep nor truck. Ploughing gamely through the snow across the frozen surface of the kavir was what looked like an ordinary saloon car. Slowly the vehicle grew larger and we could soon see that it was an ordinary saloon car. At a range of two or three hundred yards we could identify the make; it was a Vauxhall Victor. It was red.

With a great scrunching of snow, the Victor pulled up, and both doors flew open. A smallish man in a fedora and Harris Tweed jacket got down from the passenger side. From the driver’s door emerged an enormous backside. Behind it, the mid-section of a very large man began to unfold. It unfolded and unfolded…and unfolded. He was a very, very large man. Erect, he was nearly twice the height of the car – something near seven feet – and immensely fat, his bulk exaggerated by the thick cashmere greatcoat into which he was struggling. I wondered how he’d ever managed to lever himself into the driver’s seat.

His egg-bald head was supported by thick rolls of fat sloping toward his shoulders. He had widely spaced beady black eyes and a long flattish nose sweeping down to a spectacular eruption of hair on his upper lip. Despite his intimidating size, I instinctively liked the man. He looked like a walrus – like a Lewis Carrol Walrus (The time has come, the walrus said, to speak of many things) – that sort of walrus.

Extending a gloved hand, he strode over to us making footprints the size of snowshoes. Towering over Bill, he enveloped his hand in a gargantuan grasp. The sheer bulk of the man was intimidating – there was just so much of him. Bill instinctively recoiled, involuntarily taking a step backward. But his arm – which seemed imbedded to the elbow in the giant’s fist – pulled him up short.

“Hello!” The giant smiled. His voice was a light, almost flutey, tenor. “I’m Willie Duggan,” He introduced himself, “And this is Jim Peters18. We seem to have lost our road.”
“Lost your road?” That, certainly was the understatement of the year. “Where’re you headed?”
“Yazd. We were on our way to Yazd.”
“You say you’re headed for Yazd?” I was intrigued. I couldn’t imagine what two middle-aged Brits were doing in the middle of the Dasht-i-Kavir in the middle of winter in a Vauxhall sedan. I’d never been to Yazd, a biggish town about 150 miles SE of Nain. We were about two hundred miles NE of Nain and an almost equal distance straight north of Yazd. “Yazd?” I knew I was repeating myself, but I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“Yes. Couldn’t really find the road this morning when we set out from Nain – too much snow, y’know.

Half an hour – and a good meal – later, Willie picked up his story. “The farther we drove the less we knew where we were. “Passed through Ardakan, we think, more than two hours back. So according to our map we should have reached Yazd by now. Just how far out do you reckon we are?”
“Just about as far as possible.” Bill shook his head in disbelief. “For starters you took the wrong road in the very beginning – from Nain. You’re as far from Yazd now as you were this morning. It’s over there!” Bill waved to the south. “The town you saw – the one you thought was Ardakan – did it have a cone-shaped hill with a fort on top?”
They conferred with each other. “As a matter of fact, yes.”
“Well that wasn’t Ardakan. It was Anarak. You’ve been going at right-angles to where you thought you were going. Why didn’t you ask someone in Nain?”
“Oh, we did. We asked the innkeeper if we were on the right road. He acted most peculiar – almost as though he thought we were spies or something. Anyway, he insisted we were.”
“Were what?”
“On the road to Yazd.”
“He actually told you you were on the road to Yazd? Did he use the word ‘Yazd’?”
“I think so……can’t be sure.  No..no he didn’t.
“Can you remember exactly the conversation?”
Willie looked puzzled. Then he rubbed his chin. “Well, more-or-less,” He finally said, “I think so…I said something like ‘Where does this road go?’ Yes, that’s right, I remember because then he asked me, ‘Where are you going?’ Then he winked. Seemed odd. I remember that……”
“’Yazd’. I said ‘Yazd’.”
“And he said?”
“And he said……he said ‘It goes there. Your friends are there already’. Think he mistook me for someone else?”
“I dunno about that. ’It goes there.’ Is that what he said? What was that about ‘friends’?”
“Beats me. But, yes. Then in…….what’s that last little town? Aradak?”
“Jandaq.”
“Yes, Jandaq. We asked them where the road went and….”
Ray interrupted, “And they asked you where you were going?”
Willie thought a minute. “Something like that,” He rubbed his chin, “Yes. And I said ‘Yazd’ and they said ‘It goes there.’
And I asked how far it was and they said, ‘Just near.’ And I said, ‘How near?’ and they said, ‘Six farsakhs (about 36 km).’ That was nearly fifty miles ago. We were beginning to get a bit worried.

“Anyway, the road sort of gradually faded away bit by bit into the snow as we went on, and finally there were no shoulders…..nothing. All we had to follow were some sets of fresh-looking ruts (they should have been fresh-looking. After all, they were ours). We could have been driving cross-country for all we knew. By the time we saw you chaps standing out in the middle of nowhere, we were bloody worried. I can tell you, we were mighty pleased to see you!”

“For your information,” Bill was pointing our approximate location on the map, “We’re right in the middle of the Dasht-i-Kavir! Here!” The end of his finger just about covered the ‘island’. “You’ve been more lost than you can possibly imagine – nowhere near anything for the last fifty miles! There is nothing out here – absolutely bloody nothing! If you’d carried on you’d have had at least a hundred miles – all of it frozen salt marsh – before you came back to dry land. And you’d still be in the bloody desert!”
“We were beginning to realise….”
“D’you have any idea how close you came to death? This close!” Cutting him off, Bill held up a thumb and index finger a millimetre apart. “This close! If we hadn’t just happened to be here – and Hooshang hadn’t just happened to hear you, and we hadn’t just happened to climb up to investigate – you probably wouldn’t have been found ‘till spring!”

Willie blanched visibly, but said nothing. I guess there wasn’t really anything to say.

Over supper, Willie told us their story. He and Jim had worked together for twenty years. Both were employees of The Huddersfield Textile Company (not its real name) in Leeds. They had been travelling overseas together on behalf of their employer for the past four or five years – mostly to the Middle East where their sales techniques had proved to be particularly effective. They had done particularly well in Iran, where they had established close working relationships with a number of Tehran merchants. They had visited Iran at least once – and sometimes twice – each year for the last three or four years, spending three to four weeks each time. They had tried to learn Farsi. Both of them had acquired a rudimentary vocabulary – enough to order a meal, book a hotel room and ask directions – although neither even pretended mastery of conversational Farsi. They enjoyed their visits to Iran and liked Iranians.

Late last year, Willie and Jim had decided they would take their annual leave together, combining it with a business trip to Iran. They decided to use Willie’s two-year old Vauxhall and to drive through central Europe, the Balkans and Turkey enroute.

The nominal reason for their trip was Willie’s discovery that Iran was a silk-producing country. The silk industry, they told us, was centred on the town of Yazd. Not only did Yazd produce silk – a material not previously traded by Huddersfield Textiles – but it was the centre of the Parsee religion. Their towers of silence, near the town, were said to be objects of great interest.

Willie and Jim prepared for their trip from Tehran to Yazd carefully. The distance was about 420 miles – mostly on gravel roads of unknown quality. They’d taken the precaution of loading two jerricans of spare petrol and two of water in the boot, and keeping enough imperishable food in a box to last two or three days in an emergency. They also had two spare tyres and lots of warm clothes. They were, in a word, prepared for anything but the misfortune that had actually befallen them.

“We’re in manchester,” Willie was saying. “We………”
“My cousin been there once,” Hooshang cut in. “He enjoyed very much.”
“Pardon?”

Hooshang Zardosht had a vast vocabulary, which, unfortunately for everybody concerned, consisted mostly of archaic and/or obscure words. I found out why when he once accused me of ‘tautology’. When I asked him how he happened to know a word as obscure as ‘tautology’ he explained that he’d taught himself English by reading Time magazine. Whenever he came across a word he didn’t know, he would look it up in the dictionary. “Then,” he said, “Every time I do this, I also learn next word in dictionary.” Having found the word ‘taut’ in a Time article, and having looked it up, he then noted the next word, ‘tautology’. I probably should have warned Willie about Hooshang, but we’d sort of got used to his curious English.

“My cousin, Khusrow,” Hooshang replied, “He been there.”
“Where?”
“Manchester – on holiday.”
“Oh,” A light dawned in Willie’s eyes. He held up both hands, palm outward, “No! We’re not from Manchester. We’re in manchester.”
“Yes. That what I say. You live Manchester.”
“No. We live in Leeds.”
“You don’t live Manchester?”
“No. In Leeds. We’re both from Leeds, actually. We’re in manchester in Leeds.”
“In Manchester in Leeds?” Hooshang shrugged his shoulders, indicating a total lack of comprehension.
“Yes.
“You both in Manchester.”
“Yes.”
“But from Leeds?” Hooshang frowned, his dense eyebrows meeting over his nose. “’In Manchester’ but from Leeds?” It occurred to me that Abbot and Costello had nothing on this pair. Mentally comparing this with the famous “Who’s on first” routine, I was beginning to enjoy this conversation.

“Manchester,” Willie continued, “Is what we sell. Manchester – textiles, sheets, pillow-cases, tablecloths, curtains – those sorts of things. In England, these are called ‘manchester’.”
“You sell cloths and like that – manchester?”
“Yes.”
“But not in Manchester?”
“In Leeds.”
“You going to sell this ‘manchester’ in Iran?”
“We’re not selling anything in Iran. This is a buying trip. We’re on our way to Yazd to buy silk.”
“Silk?” Hooshang looked nonplussed, “What is ‘silk’? I don’t know this word.”
I didn’t know it in Farsi either, but I quickly whipped out my pocket English-Farsi dictionary and flicked through to the ‘s’ pages. I found silk quickly. “’Tirma’, Hooshang. Silk is ‘tirma’.”
“Ah, tirma,” Hooshang smiled back. “Yazd makes tirma?”

“So, anyway,” He added, “You ‘manchester men’? You both ‘manchester men’?”
“Manchester men?”
“You sell manchester. You ‘manchester men’.”
“That’s what we do, so I guess it’s what we are,” Jim grinned, “I guess that makes us ‘manchester men’.”
So ‘manchester men’ they became. And so this story got its title.

***

We laid out our plans for Willie and Jim – told them we intended to depart next day driving cross-country to a place called Pusht-i-Badam to see whether or not there was a road going toward Yazd. We had, we told them, only the word of some villagers that the route was passable, but we reckoned anything was better than trying to get back to Jandaq. They were welcome to join us if they wished.

Jim said he couldn’t imagine that cross-country to Pusht-i-whatever-it-was-called could be any worse than cross-country back to Jandaq. They, too, had noticed that the land surface wobbled a lot. We both reckoned that if they were ever going get to Yazd, we were about the only game in town.

None of us had ever been to Yazd either – that was part of the reason we were so willing to take the long detour involved in going there. So we decided we’d spend a day or two there ourselves. Besides our craving for a good hot bath, we thought we might sort of ‘do’ the city – take a look at the silk market and the famous Friday Mosque. The Parsees, too – modern-day Zoroastrians – might be worth visiting – a tower of silence or two – where they expose the bodies of their dead for the vultures to devour – and maybe their atesh kadeh (fire temple). There were also a couple of ancient buildings – the Mazar-i-Davazdah Imamat (Tomb of the Twelve Imams) and the Mausoleum of Shams ed Din.

When the snow melted, as it did next day – and the whole kavir became a sea of mud – we were glad we were going via Kvor instead of back across the morass to Jandaq. We all set out in line astern at dawn, Jim and Willie in the centre, so they had our winch vehicles fore and aft. As it turned out, we didn’t need them. The driving surface was flat and smooth, and we averaged nearly thirty mph. Forty miles from Kvor was another village called Baiazeh and thirty miles beyond that we found the ‘iron’ road at Robat-i-Pusht-i-Badam. Iron it wasn’t. The ‘iron’ road turned out to be a gravel road of about average quality. The villagers at Kvor had tried to describe the main road in the English sense (a ‘metal’ road) rather than the American sense (a ‘gravel’ road), but their vocabularies contained no word for ‘metal’. ‘Iron’ was the word they’d used. Anyway, it was a pretty good road and we were very glad to see it.

There was nothing at Pusht-i-Badam except a half-ruined caravanserai. Although in a terrible state of disrepair, it was immense and very impressive. Made of dressed stone, two storeys high and seventy or eighty yards on a side, it dominated the plains for miles around. We pulled our vehicles in through the fortified gateway and parked. The vast central courtyard, lined with arcaded tiers of dark rooms, was flooded with sunlight. The stump of a huge old chinar tree struggled for life in the middle of the yard. Ruthlessly pollarded for two or three hundred years, it had managed one last explosion of twigs and branches – a ragged halo of foliage encircling the massive pale trunk. Even now, in mid-winter, huge golden leaves, brittle as old manuscript, clung to it, clattering in the breeze. Shoals of them, crisping to brown at the edges, rustled across the courtyard, collecting in the corners in untidy drifts.

At first, except for a gangly rooster pecking dispiritedly in the dust, the caravanserai seemed to be deserted. But repeated blasts on our horns finally brought, from a dark tunnel, a bewildered-looking unshaven little man with both a stoop and a limp. He was wearing a skullcap, a tattered vest, pin-striped flare-bottomed trousers six or eight inches too short, and canvas shoes on bare feet. Squinting and blinking in the sunlight, he seemed stupefied by our arrival. He turned out to be the cook. I don’t know what other jobs he may have had around the place, but we never saw anybody else about. His name, he said, was Rustam. He had hardly any teeth.

I remembered what the villagers in Kvor had told us about Robat-i-Pusht-i-Badam. “All foods can be ordered, all things can be bought,” They’d said, “And every desire fulfilled,” Yeah, well……What I desired just now was food. So we ordered lunch.

After taking us dish by dish through a long and complicated menu – every item of which turned out to be ‘temporarily unavailable’ – Rustam finally admitted that all he could actually provide was chicken. So we ordered chicken. Rustam hadn’t bothered to tell us that the only available chicken was the rooster we’d seen in the courtyard. So before we could eat it, he was going to have to kill it. And to do that he first had to catch it.

Like so many things in provincial Iran, it was easier said than done – especially for a hunchback with a gimpy leg. He never even got close. We might, I suppose, have offered to help Rustam, but that bloody rigmarole with the menu had got right up our noses. In the end, we took over his kitchen while he chased the chicken. Mahmoud made tea in the caravanserai’s battered samovar and we got tins of food out of one of our mess-boxes. Then we sat in the sun on a mud bench eating cold spam, creamed corn and crackers and watched the chase. We’d tried to call Rustam off – told him to cancel our order – but he was beyond having any interest in our affairs. He seemed to have something to prove. To whom he had to prove it wasn’t clear to me. To the rooster, I guess.

When we left, Rustam was still grimly in pursuit. He and the rooster closed with our departing vehicles right at the gate. Dodging around a jeep, the rooster lost several yards, and Rustam got close enough to make one last dive for it. His axe-head made brief but violent contact with the ‘parson’s nose’, propelling the bird through the gate in a cloud of feathers. As we drove away, I looked in my rear-view mirror. Rustam was still prone in the gateway. ‘Lunch’, still shedding feathers, was disappearing at a gallop around the corner.

***

“The oasis of Yazd produces corn, cotton and mulberries. It is said to have more qanats – about sixty (one per thousand inhabitants) – than anywhere else in Iran, so it is approached across a blasted-looking wilderness of qanat craters. There are many Parsees – modern Zoroastrians – in Yazd and their towers of silence – great hollow stone cylinders, brooding and solitary – rise out of the desert. Vultures and kites circling and wheeling above them are the first things you see as you near the town.

Willie and Jim booked themselves in the state-run Beharistan Hotel right downtown. They offered to shout us rooms as well, but we turned down their offer. Bill and I both liked ‘roughing it’ in tatty little provincial hotels. If nothing else – and, usually, they had nothing else – they had atmosphere. Their dusty fustiness, we felt, served to remind us where we were. Besides, the Iranians in our party felt more at home there, so we could all stay together. Our hotel, the Roshan, was down a lane too narrow for vehicles. Like most hotels of its class, it had no bathing facilities, but we neither expected nor wanted it to. We had both become addicted to the hammams.

The hammam on Khiaban-i-Kerman was wonderful. Each of us got two little dome-roofed rooms, one for dressing and drying and one for washing. The walls were done out in clean white tiles. There was a heated tile bench in the dressing room, and in the bathing room there was a huge tile bath along one wall and three showers along the wall opposite. All of this, including towels, face cloths and soap, cost 10 rials (about US$0.16) per person per hour. My bath took more than an hour.

A variety of towels and wash cloths was provided to satisfy all tastes, but they had to be ordered with care. Unless otherwise specified, ordering a smooth towel got you a youthful female bathing companion. Ordering a rough towel got you a boy.

The bazaar in Yazd faces the elegant fifteenth-century Masjid-i-Mir Chakhmaq across a tatty little maidan. It is entered through a high arched portal with superimposed arcades. Smelling strongly of mildew, lanolin and brass polish, the bazaar has a sort of rustic grace. After a month amongst landscapes of beige, khaki and tan, entering the silk market was like walking into a gigantic kaleidoscope. Banks of spotlights illuminated a dazzling array of shimmering colours – reds and golds and greens, blues and purples and incandescent oranges. The light, painfully bright after the gloom of the bazaar, made us squint. Peering through our eyelashes, everything was slightly blurred, the colours running together like a painting by Monet. There were bolts of silk everywhere – stacked rank on upright rank against the walls and spilling out into the arcades. Rainbows of light were reflected upward from them, lifting whole spectra of pure colour up onto each squinch, dome and arch. The gaudy simplicity of it all was simply breath-taking.

For a while we all just goggled. Then we all drooled. The prices were ridiculous. The silk was four feet wide and sold for about twenty-five tomans (US$3.80) per yard. So everybody decided to by some – even our cook and the drivers. Bill sent a cable to his wife, Delma, in Tehran. She had been looking for material for lounge drapes – for a whole wall of floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the garden and pool. Bill told her what he’d found and the price. He got her answer the very next day. On Delma’s instructions Bill bought seventy yards of pale lavender silk – enough, she reckoned, to do the whole wall. I bought two five-yard lots to send home to my mother so she could make herself a couple of swish dresses.

Sightseeing in Yazd turned out to be a bore. The town – which claims to have the best-preserved inhabited Old City in Iran – was pleasant enough, with tree-lined streets, and lots of friendly kids. But, since building practices and architectural styles have hardly changed in provincial Iran over the centuries, the old town was just like Bam with people. The fourteenth century Friday Mosque – Jameh Masjid – with its slender blue-tiled entrance portal, soaring minarets and elegant mosaic-covered dome – is undoubtedly the sight in Yazd. That and the spectacular shrine of Sayyed Ja’far. The interior of the shrine, decorated with thousands of glittering mirror tiles and shimmering with light and colour, is stunningly beautiful. But the other mosques and tombs we’d read about were so ruined as to be almost unrecognisable and there were few other attractions.

The most eye-catching objects in the city were the hundreds of badgirs – wind towers – rising above the rooftops. Badgirs are designed to catch even the lightest breeze (‘bad’ is ‘wind’ in Farsi) and direct it to underground living rooms. Although – like everything else in provincial Iran – badgirs are made of mud bricks, they are often ornate. . About eight or ten feet high, they look like fat chimneys with louvers on all four sides. Diagonal internal baffles catch the wind from any direction and force it down into the rooms below. The problem with badgirs is that when you’ve seen one badgir, you’ve seen them all.

The Parsee atesh kadehs usually open to visitors, weren’t during our visit. Nor were the towers of silence. We did go out into the country and walk all around one of towers. Up close it looked just like it had from a distance, only bigger. There was one difference. Up close the stench of decomposing flesh was almost overpowering. The towers, up to thirty ft tall and thirty in diameter, have no internal floors, only an iron grid across the top where the Parsees expose the bodies of their dead for as long as flesh remains. The bones, which fall through the grillwork, are collected and later interred.

When word got out that a pair of big-spenders was in town Willie and Jim were up to their armpits – in Willie’s case, almost literally – in silk-merchants. But they didn’t mind. They were in pig heaven. They looked, they sampled, they bargained and they bought…and bought…and bought. Their futures, Willie reckoned, were assured – this had to be the best thing ever to happen to Huddersfield Textiles. In addition to a carload of samples, they ordered fifty bolts of the stuff in assorted colours. When we said goodbye, they were burning up the wires to England, arranging letters of credit from head office.

***

On the way back to Tehran, we stopped for lunch at our favourite teahouse in Nain. It had a prime location – right where the roads to Anarak, Yazd, Isfahan and Tehran intersected. We’d stayed there often and knew the owner, Amir Abbas, well. Today he greeted us with unusual warmth.
“Your friends find you?” he asked as we arranged ourselves around a long table.
“Nooooo…..what friends?”
“Your Angrezi friends.” He laid out plates and cutlery. “They stay here one night. Next day is lost. Cannot find any road after snow.”
“Angrezi?….Oh, English. Our English friends?”
“One fat and big, one little.” Salt, pepper and a jar of sumac arrived. “In red car. Very small red car.”
“Why that was….must have been Willie and Jim. Yeah, Amir, they found us – or, rather, we sort of found them. What made you think they were our friends?”
“Easy. No ferangs ever come here in winter except sherkat naft people.” He laid out big, crisp slabs of nan on the table, a bowl of sugar cubes and little glasses of boiling tea. “First you come, then they come – two more ferangs in the middle of winter – only little while behind you. I am adding…how you say in English? – ‘two and two together’. So they must be look after you.”

I was beginning to get an inkling how Willie and Jim had gone so hopelessly adrift. It seemed likely they might have had help. “Did they ask about us?”
“Oh, no. They asked the road to Yazd, not mention about you at all.” Amir set about serving us, balancing six plates of chello kebab along the top of one arm, and dealing the plates like playing cards with the other. “But I think,” His index finger tapped the side of his nose. “Is probably some secret oil company business. So they really looking after you. I play their game. I say them, ‘Yes, that road’, the road you take ….” He pointed to the Anarak track…”’is road to Yazd’. So they go off very happy. They find you, eh? You happy to see friends?”
“You got it wrong, Amir,” Bill told him through a mouthful of food, “They weren’t friends and they certainly weren’t looking for us. They really were trying to get to Yazd. They just got lost. They were strangers. We’d never met them before.”
“Strangers?” Amir’s eyebrows shot up. “Not friends? Not looking after you?”
“Yes, no and no!”
“Really wanting Yazd?”
“Really wanting Yazd!”
“Maybe I making big mistake?”
“Maybe you making big mistake!”
“But is all OK now?”

What could we say? We hardly knew whether to laugh or cry. It wasn’t just Amir. Willie and Jim had been misled in Anarak and Jandaq, too. The villagers in Jandaq certainly knew that our tracks didn’t lead to Yazd, yet they’d happily told the ‘manchester men’ that they did. In fairness, it must be said that if they’d been asked point-blank whether the road went to Yazd, the villagers would have said ‘No!”

This was the sort of wacky thing that seemed to happen all the time in Iran. Iranians made wonderful friends but dangerous acquaintances. Truth had a curious elasticity in Iran. The peasants’ desire to please – their instinct to tell you what they thought you wanted to hear, whether or not it was the truth – was more frustrating than all of Al Hindi’s machinations laid end to end. There was no malice in them. They meant only well. But with friends like them, what traveler needed enemies?

Epilogue – Now Ruz with Notti

Delma finished the drapes in time for Now Ruz, (pronounced ‘No Rooz’ – Iranian ‘New Year’. It falls on March 21) and had a sort of ‘drape-warming party’ to celebrate the day. The drapes looked great. Delma was a good seamstress and the silk, she said, had been a pleasure to work with. She was very pleased with herself. She had reason to be. Bill was pretty pleased with himself, too. He was dining out on the story of the silk bazaar ‘he’d’ so cleverly discovered in Yazd.

A couple of weeks later, Bill and Delma took their boys, Raoul and Pepi, to Ab Ali (Tehran’s only ski resort) for a picnic. We’d been asked to keep an eye on their place, which was right next door. It was a fine sunny afternoon and we’d been lolling beside our pool, so we said sure.

***

Helga and Notti – a German mother and daughter whose family name escapes me – lived the flat above us. Notti, the mother, was really something else. Amongst her many peculiarities was a delusion of youth. Somewhere in her mid-seventies, she was still a peroxide blonde. She came down to sunbathe by our pool nearly every day, and we saw an awful lot of her – both figuratively and literally. Despite her age and her state of advanced decrepitude, she habitually wore a bikini – the first bikini I’d ever seen. It was a cotton print of vivid tiger-stripes. Its size – or rather its lack of size – quite literally took my breath away. Even on her, it took my breath away.

I was never quite comfortable with Notti’s bikini – and only partly for prudish reasons. God and gravity had been working on her old body for a lot of years, and by the time I knew her she was all angles and flaps. Her skin seemed several sizes too large for her, as though she had shrunk inside it. Seamed and creped with fine lines, it hung in fleshy cascades from every boney underpinning – in wattles, in dewlaps, in folds and in pleats. Even her knees had wrinkles.

Though she baked for hours, I never saw her actually swim. I suppose she couldn’t. She wore so much make-up a smile would have cracked her face, and her hairdo was of the sort you don’t mess about with lightly.

Notti soon became more-or-less the colour of mahogany. Well, most of her did. She had tanned around so many wrinkles that her skin ended up as striped as her bikini – brown as a nut between the wrinkles and fish-belly white inside them. Whenever she stood, her oversize skin wobbled and slid. White stripes winking and vanishing with every movement, she looked like an animated Venetian blind. Unfortunately, although everyone else noticed, she never did. She was very proud of her tan and took every opportunity to display it. So, when we came home from work to have a sundowner on the terrace, there Notti would be, doing her Gretta Garbo impression on our banana-lounger, stripes gleaming and winking in the afternoon sun.

Notti, for reasons of her own, had set her sights on me. I wondered then – and I wonder now – why she found me attractive. Even in my youth, I was – at best – very ordinary looking. In hindsight, I reckon it was the fifty-year age gap between us that did it. She was probably attracted to anyone who she could assume to be ‘fully functional’.

Because of Notti, we all forgot that we’d been supposed to be baby-sitting and the arse-end of a spring shower had blown into the lounge windows of the Lewis’s flat. It wasn’t until the Lewises came home that the shit hit the fan. The rain, it turned out, had soaked the bottom half of Delma’s new drapes. But it wasn’t that that had so upset her.

When Bill called us over we found Delma in tears. “Look at this, will you? “ She wiped her nose and tried not to sniffle. “Just look at this!” She pointed at her new curtains. We looked. It didn’t take long to see what was bothering her. The lower half of the drapes wasn’t just wet – that she could have understood – it was gone! She had only half a set of lavender silk drapes across the front of her lounge. The bottom half had vanished – just simply disappeared, leaving a sort of sodden ‘fringe’ along the bottom. On the floor underneath was a line of puddles of something very like purple snot.

The rain, it turned out, had simply dissolved the material. Unable, at first, to believe the obvious, we tested a bit of the material in a cup of water. It vanished in seconds, leaving just a hint of lavender colour behind. No wonder Yazdi silk was so cheap – it was 100% water-soluble!

I quickly wired my mother to warn her. “If you’ve already made a dress,” I said, “For God’s sake don’t ever wash it.” She never did anything with it. When she died in 1990, we found her silk, neatly folded and in its original wrapper, in the bottom of a chest. I didn’t – and still don’t – know whether or not the material could be dry-cleaned.

We wanted to warn Willie and Joe, but for a few days we did nothing. We expected them to call in on their way back to Leeds, but they didn’t. They had left their business cards and we thought about sending a cable to warn them, but we were afraid our message might reach their bosses before it reached Willie and Jim. We reckoned the shit they were in was going to be deep enough even if they were the ones to advise management.

But we had to do something. Huddersfield Textiles weren’t going be too pleased to find themselves owners of fifty bolts of disappearing silk, and they’d surely blame Willie and Jim. That was fair enough – they were to blame – but we’d grown fond of them during our week together. We did write to them, telling them what we knew, and offering to do whatever we could to mitigate their mess. At least we were in the right country and had access to lots of Farsi-speakers. We even offered to pop down to Yazd if things got desperate enough.

We sent half-a-dozen copies over the next month or so. But they never answered. We never heard from them again. I have wondered, for more than forty years, what ever happened to the ‘Manchester men’.

Nigeria

Godiva

Nigeria, August, 1959. Britain had promised independence for next year – 1960. An all-Nigerian Government had already been set up to take over – including everybody from a Prime Minister-elect to a Federal Parliament. And these, together with their British predecessors, were working together to ensure a smooth changeover.

Although the British were still in charge, and the new political structure was uncompromisingly democratic, most of the country was still ruled by a bewildering variety of hereditary rulers. Most powerful of these was the Sultan of Sokoto – a Moslem – who ruled most of the northern half of the country through his emirs. Elsewhere tribal loyalties still dominated most of the country. Rulers such as the Wazire of Tula, the Alaphine of Oyo, the Lamida of Yola and the Arkle of Wukari reigned as they always had – some as absolute rulers, some as god-kings, and some as leaders of tribal councils.

The reason for our trip was simple. The British had awarded exclusive oil exploration to rights to Shell Oil more than twenty years before. The first phase of their concession agreement was to end with independence. Under its terms, Shell had to relinquish 75% of its concession area – which the new government intended to open to competitive bidding. My company thought it might want to apply for an oil concession in some of the soon-to-be-available acreage. Our job was to find out whether or not it would be a good idea.

During their twenty-odd years Shell had had more on its worldwide plate than they could really handle, so they had been extremely dilatory in their Nigerian operations. They hadn’t done much, and hadn’t told anybody anything. As a result, what little data there were, were – until the day of the actual handover – still proprietary to Shell – who still weren’t telling anybody anything.

All my company knew (all anybody but Shell knew) was that there were a few small oil fields – most notably at Abakaliki – in the Niger Delta. Our task was four-fold: (1) to make contact and establish our corporate credentials with both the present and the incoming governments, (2) establish rapport with tribal and religious leaders to facilitate any exploration we might choose to do; (3) to obtain as much geological, geophysical and drilling data as possible from the government archives: and (4) make appropriate recommendations to corporate headquarters in New York as to the advisability or otherwise of entering the 1960 bid round for oil exploration concessions.

They put together a team of three. The leader was Charlie Hatton, a hugely experienced geologist. He had two jobs – to establish rapport with the second-tier rulers of Nigeria – the Emirs, Alaphines, etc – all over the country – and to oversee the work I was doing. Peter A.J.James – a retired British diplomat with vast expertise in things Nigerian and a wonderful network of ‘old boys’ amongst the present and putative leaders of the country – was liaison officer. His job was to establish the company as a legitimate bidder in the eyes of the government, and – through his network of old mates – to arrange contacts for Charlie with the people he needed to meet. He did all of his work in Lagos. I was the dogsbody. My job – as a very junior geologist – was to go through the government archives in Kaduna (where the Geological Survey of Nigeria was then located) and to collect and collate any available geological data. I didn’t mind. I was thrilled to be included in this team at all. An avid fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs, it had been my boyhood ambition to travel through ‘darkest Africa’, and I didn’t much care what I had to do to get there.

Although we were in Nigeria for more than three months, the work we did is barely relevant to this story. Suffice it to say that Peter did successfully establish relationships with the government. After my stint in Kaduna, Charlie (who had already finished his work in the Western Province) took me with him on an amazing and exhilarating tour of the rest of Nigeria while he finished charming the Alaphines, Wazires, Emirs, etc. As Charlie’s sidekick, I got to visit a lot of fantastic places and to meet a lot of equally fantastic people – most notably, the Emir of Zaria, the Alaphine of Oyo and the Wazire of Tula. I had no duties – nothing at all to do. A virtual supernumerary, I got to go along mostly because…. well…because Charlie wanted a bit of English-speaking company. And, besides, there was nothing else to do with me.

It was to be an absolutely astonishing trip – something out of ‘Boys’ Own’ or – except for the near-total absence of wildlife – ‘Tarzan of the Apes’. Most of the time my jaw was ajar and my eyes out on stalks. Everything was the stuff of dreams and fables. These were people and places I’d read about – or seen pictures of – in my boyhood – people and places I’d always thought to be either extinct or imaginary.

This is the story of that trip.

***

Lagos

It seemed as though I’d been flying forever, although – even counting refueling stops and layovers and everything – I’d actually been just over thirty-four hours enroute. This was back in the days when everyone who flew anywhere put on his or her Sunday best clothes for the occasion. So I’d been uncomfortable – wearing a shirt and tie, a light woolen suit and the shiniest shoes I possessed – for the whole of that time. I’d been on a series of DC-4s from Tehran to Beirut via Baghdad, then a Constellation to Athens, Naples and Rome. There I met the rest of the team and we caught a BOAC Britannia19 for our overnight journey to Lagos, with stops at Tripoli, Timbuktu and Kano.

In was just dawn when our plane slanted down through a thin overcast, nosed through a swarm of lumpy, cotton-ball clouds, then settled gently onto the long tarmac runway of Lagos’ Ekeje Airport. The airport had been built way out in the sticks. Africa’s deep red soil showed soggily through a thin cover of pale grass, and the road to Lagos seemed to have been cut through virgin forest – or at least what Edgar Rice Burroughs had led me to believe a virgin forest should look like – gaunt, thin-foliaged giants rising above a dense, green welter of undergrowth.

As soon as a flight of stairs had been wheeled up, the door opened, and a blast of warm, wet air flooded into the plane. I had begun this journey on a crisp autumn morning on the high plateau of central Iran, and disembarking in Lagos was like falling into a sauna bath. By the time I reached the bottom of the steps my skin was beaded with perspiration, and before I had reached the terminal dark stains were spreading across the back and front of my shirt. Inside the terminal a few punkahs whirled slowly overhead, shifting the hot, humid air in circles and rustling the rubbish underfoot. The immigration officers were as sleepy as I was, and it took only moments to finish the formalities.

We were lucky to get an air-conditioned room in the Ikoye Rest House, ten miles from the city centre. The city of Lagos is built on a roughly rectangular island lying athwart the main channel of the Lagos River, which broadens to form a sweeping lagoon behind the city. Lagos – which claimed to be nearly a thousand years old – but had really been sort of thrown together over the last fifty or so years – had grown from a sleepy slave-trading village to a sprawling, ugly city of nearly 400,00020. Twenty or thirty years ago British planners laid out the basis for a modern city – a loose network of roads, a modern port served by a railway and an airport that turned out to be jet-capable. A dozen or two government buildings and twice that many commercial towers clustered along the major streets near the centre of town. They were surrounded by a sea of shanties, with rusting roofs of corrugated iron. The new streets were wide and straight, but the older ones were just narrow crooked lanes of beaten earth, pot-holed and half-blocked with piles of what looked like building material. In open drains scummy grey water seeped among dead animals, human waste, heaps of rubbish and skeins of fly-blown offal. There were big gaps in the fabric of the city – swathes of derelict land, swamps, even patches of forest – places where business and immigration pressures had not conformed to the planner’s ideas. Africans aren’t big on streets – they just don’t seem to see the need for them. So in the black parts of town – thousands and thousands of elbow-to-elbow tin and straw and cardboard shanties all jammed together higgledy-piggledy – you pretty much had to walk.

Across the river in Ebute-Metta, new industries were springing up on land newly reclaimed from the lagoon, and the busy wharves at Apapa were already unable to cope with Nigeria’s rapidly growing foreign trade.

In the streets of Lagos, the tribes of Nigeria met and mixed with amiable casualness – Ibos from across the Niger; stout Yorubas from the west, and the Hausa and Fulani of the arid north. Dress, too, was a casual matter to these people. Some were clad in impeccable European suits, some in the colourful, flowing robes of the north, many in shorts and singlets, and a few in almost nothing at all.

Most natives spoke – in addition to their tribal language – a sort of Pidgin English that served as a national patois: to quote my tailor, who said, with reference to my order for trousers, “I settum small small tomorrow.” Long too and good good quick.” My interpretation – “I will finish them tomorrow. It is too late today and the sooner the better.”

***

Early the following morning we were awakened by a gentle tapping on our door, which opened to reveal an enormous young Nigerian. From his splayed bare feet to the top of his kinky head was about 6’3”. I estimated his weight at something over 200 pounds – all of it muscle. He flashed a dazzling smile, bowed slightly, then said, “Name this man be Jauro. Name before that George. I can steward. I be cook of goodness and do all things. I be honest, hurry and cheap. I be before work to Europeans and wanting work. Money small small. I am not of south. South no good. I be Hausa man. I borned to Yola.”

Having finished this recitative he retired to a corner, and squatted on his haunches, chin on knees, to await our reply. Still bleary-eyed and fuddle-headed with sleep, rumpled and unshaven, I routed out the hotel manager who announced, after a long conversation with our ‘guest’ that, “His name is Jauro, George Jauro. He wishes to join your employ as steward. He is a Hausa from Yola and has worked before for Europeans. He was raised by Catholic fathers after his Moslem parents died. Do not hire him.”

Trusting our instinctive dislike of the manager – a fat, sullen, obsequious Ibo – we hired George on the spot for $15 per week. George’s first official act was to send the manager packing smartly, “I work these masters. This room not for you. Better for you go!” Almost before the door closed, George had laid out clean suits for his new ‘masters’ and was busy tying the shoes I had slipped on to my bare feet when I went in search of the manager. My attempts to explain that I would prefer to have stockings under my shoes elicited no response. “You master, and to do nothing. I do all wok!” Then explaining that “Masters need tea fok, I buy.” He scurried out the door, leaving me to undo the laces (knotted, not tied in a bow) and don my socks.

Hardly had we dressed and shaved before George reappeared bearing his ‘tea fok’ – a two-gallon thermos flask – and accompanied by a slender youngster with a face seamed with vertical scars a half-inch apart. “This Ali,” George stated, “He my brother21. He be good small boy for work me. You pay four pounds week him.” And thus it was that we acquired Ali, a good-natured, hard-working boy of sixteen, the Moslem son of a pagan father. The scars on his face, we later learned, were the marks of his tribe, the Mummieh, and were the result of the ceremonies initiating him into manhood at the age of twelve.

According to the local paper, we had arrived during the last week of a nation-wide contest to design the new national flag. Apparently there had been more than 60,000 entrants, and entries were reported to be of ‘a very high standard’. The result, the article said, would be announced in ten days’ time. That meant I’d most likely be in Kaduna when the great day came.

After three days of frantic labour clearing our equipment through customs, arranging to hire a vehicle and packing it full of the necessities of expat life, we were finally ready to commence work. My first task was to get myself to Kaduna, about five hundred miles NNE of Lagos. Charlie and Peter kept George (who had been promoted to cook/driver) and one of the Land Rovers in Lagos. I got the other vehicle and young Ali. We stowed our gear in the
Rover’s commodious posterior, and set out along the narrow, tar-sealed road.

Heading North

About seventy miles north of Ibadan the jungle ended in a green wall, and beyond stretched the vast savannah of Central Africa. Large pale trees dotted the landscape at intervals of a few tens of yards, and between them elephant grass nodded in a gentle breeze. We had left the land of the Yorubas and entered the open domain of the Fulani and Hausa – fierce Moslem warriors who, two hundred years ago, had swept out of the Western Sahara, destroying the pagan kingdoms of Nigeria’s north. They’d sold the survivors into slavery to the white man and driven a pitiful remnant into the hills of the east. Their empire, ruled by a sultan and a hierarchy of emirs and viziers, from the mud-walled capital of Sokoto, survives even today22 – and is, in effect, the virtually autonomous government of the Northern Region of Nigeria.

A full mile wide, the Niger River splits about the whale-backed island of Jebba, where the only bridge spanning the river in the whole of its 2,500-mile length is located – a bridge shared by narrow-gauge rail and road traffic. The river narrows as it passes the island and rushes past towering granite walls in a series of foaming rapids. On the island, the conical-roofed huts of the town of Jebba rise up the steep hillside from the edge of the river. We lunched on fried peanut patties and cassava, amidst a crowd of curious onlookers, then sat on worn woven mats sipping dark, bitter tea and listened to the thunder of the rapids.

Twenty-five miles north of Jebba, the good road ended abruptly, and we rattled onto a narrow road of red laterite that wound across a gentle countryside. Between villages grazed herds of prong-horned cattle, guarded by little bare boys. We met pagan hunters along the roadside – tall, slender people in loin cloths with roughly-tanned hides draped over their shoulders, each bearing a leather quiver of featherless arrows and a bow. We also met Hausa warriors from the far north – fierce, turbaned riders in flowing robes, their horses draped in brilliant silks, big men with bristling black beards. Many of them carried firearms – ancient flintlocks – across their knees.

A curious ferry carried us across the Kaduna River. Horses, yoked in eights, toiled up and down both banks of the river drawing a wooden barge back and forth across the quarter mile of muddy water.

We spent the night in the old Hausa city of Bida. Like Jebba, Bida is a city of straw and mud – lots of conical houses beside a swift brown stream. For the night we were given a bare mud hut with whitewashed walls and a thatched roof. It had a toilet and an antique bathtub with running cold water.

Two tiny frogs – both trying grimly to bring down an enormous rhinoceros beetle at least four times their combined bulk – amused me for a little while. Each time their tongues shot out to grasp the beetle and they tried to reel it in, the beetle remained immovable and the poor little frogs ended up reeling themselves up to the beetle. The beetle – its shiny black carapace more than six inches long and at least four high to the tip of its horn – was probably oblivious to the frogs. It never even paused in its slow traverse of the cabin – in one door and out the other. The uneven struggle continued for eight or ten minutes while the three combatants made their way slowly across the floor of my hut. I fell asleep to the rustle and thump of the little frogs’ mad labours.

We drove through a torrential rainstorm the last fifty miles to Kaduna, but by the time we arrived, the rain had ended and a high haze was spreading across the horizon.

Kaduna

Kaduna lies near the centre of a sort of ecological ‘twilight zone’ known as the ‘Sahel’. Derived from the Arabic word ‘sawahil’ – meaning ‘border’ – the Sahel23 runs from the Atlantic coast to the Horn of Africa, changing from semi-arid grasslands to thorn savannah. The countries of the Sahel today include Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan and Eritrea. The Sahel comprises a vast area of savannah – grasslands with scattered trees – between the rain-sodden jungles of the coast and the Sahara24 to the north. Trees become less common from south to north, reflecting the gradual diminution of rainfall in that direction. All of the Sahel is habitable, but to wring even a bare living from its semi-arid expanse is pretty gritty work. For generations the Sahara has been spreading slowly but inexorably south, and in all the big towns of the north – Sokoto, Zaria, Kano, Kaduna and Maiduguri – desertification is a growing problem, relentlessly driving farmers off their already marginal lands.

Kaduna is a relatively new town, laid out within the twentieth century to be the administrative centre of Nigeria’s huge Northern Province, and almost a quarter of its 25,000 inhabitants were white. The town – apparently designed for a much larger population – sprawled for miles across the savannah, its network of long, straight streets linked at every intersection by roundabouts. Much of Kaduna seemed to consist of empty spaces – grass-grown paddocks grazed by sheep and goats, smallish fields of maize and yams, and what looked like disused building sites. There didn’t seem to be anything like a ‘downtown’. Rather there were clusters of small shops here and there, and several government compounds containing various provincial offices. Away on the east side of town was what I already thought of as the ‘native quarter’ – a square mile or so of mud buildings roofed in rusting corrugated iron.

Architecturally, the city was a fairly good example of really bad Art Deco. Everything had a vaguely 1930s sort of look about it – lots of round-cornered, flat-roofed, box-like buildings of painted plaster over concrete blocks – most lacking even a token embellishment. The Government Guest House, where I was to stay, looked just like a motel I had once stayed in back in Kansas – two or three rows of beige boxes separated by sunburnt grass. A larger central unit contained the reception area, a large dining room where whirling punkahs shifted dust from table to table; a ‘reading’ room with half-a-dozen tatty leather chairs and a small shelf containing second-hand books and out-of-date magazines; and a very large covered verandah. My spacious room had a private bath – tub, no shower – a desk, a couple of leather-cushioned chairs with wooden arms, and a wardrobe. In the very centre of the room was a double bed completely tented in by mosquito netting suspended from a ring in the ceiling. My window had a view (across a very narrow courtyard) to the kitchen window, where vultures gathered every day to devour scraps. Two punkahs – one each side of the anchor for the mosquito netting – shifted the hot, dry air around the room. This, then, was to be my home for the next six weeks or so.

The offices of the Northern Province Geological Survey were on the outskirts of town. My job was to ferret through their files to dig up as much subsurface geological information as my time – and their security system – would allow. The problem was that all of the data had been acquired by Royal Dutch Shell in the course of their twenty years’ exploration in the south of the country. As such, the data were proprietary to Shell. The government – by the terms of their agreement with the company – had copies of all of Shell’s files. But – also by the terms of their agreement – the Survey was obliged to keep the contents of those files absolutely confidential. And it was these files I was after. It would be, wouldn’t it?

Everyone in the Survey – both white and black – was most pleasant and helpful. They gave me an office to work in, and the services of a secretary and a draughtsman. I was permitted to copy any document or map to which I had access. But, whenever I brought up the subject of Shell’s drilling data, nobody knew anything.

On my fourth day in Kaduna, results of the national flag contest were announced. The judge’s choice, I thought, was pretty dumb. The chosen flag consisted of three equal sections aligned vertically. The centre section was white. Both ends were grass green. And that was it – the flag. Six months of hoopla and over 60,000 entries, and this was the best they could do. I later read that the first green band represented the fertility of the soil and the white band the purity of Nigerians’ souls. I forget what the other green band was meant to represent, but I never really cared very much anyway. To this day, I never see the Nigerian flag without remembering how disappointed I was. You’d have thought it was my flag they’d designed so badly.

Zaria

After two frustrating weeks in Kaduna, I treated myself to a weekend in Zaria, long-time capital of the eponymous Moslem-dominated emirate. Zaria was spectacularly different from Kaduna – seething with local colour and people. Fifty miles north of Kaduna, the ancient Fulani city was enclosed by massive mud walls with square towers. The vernacular architecture – of which there was an awful lot – was wonderfully extravagant. The tall houses were built of hand-packed mud with decorative spires above sloping walls. Elaborately carved and vividly painted in coloured geometric and floral designs, some of them were astonishingly beautiful. Zaria was, on balance, a pretty enchanting sort of place.

The old town was densely crowded within the square of its walls. In the market place, big huts with conical thatched roofs were grouped neatly around a small square shaded by groups of young eucalyptus trees. In the patchwork of light and shadow under the slim trees the traders had spread their wares on the ground, each on his own little patch, and around them thronged the villagers in gesticulating, chattering, arguing wedges. The wares offered for sale were astonishing in their variety and, sometimes, in their incongruity. There were freshwater catfish, dried by wood smoke and spitted on sticks, great bales of cloth, some of it the highly coloured prints so beloved of the African, imported from England; more tasteful was the locally woven cloth, thick and soft. Among these patches of highly-coloured cloth were an odd assortment of eggs, chickens in bamboo baskets, green peppers, cabbages, potatoes, sugar-cane, great gory hunks of meat, giant cane rats, neatly gutted and hung on strings, earthenware pots and cane baskets, wooden chairs, needles, gunpowder, corn beer, gin-traps, mangoes, papayas, enemas, lemons, native shoes, lovely raffia work bags, nails, flints, carbide and cascara, spades and leopard skins, plimsolls, calabashes full of palm wine and old kerosene tins full of palm and groundnut oil.

The inhabitants of the market were as varied and as curious as the wares offered for sale: there were Hausa men clad in their brilliant robes and little white skull-caps, local chieftains in multi-coloured robes and richly embroidered caps with tassels; there were pagans from distant mountain villages wearing nothing but a scrap of dirty leather around their loins – or, in some cases, nothing at all – their teeth filed to points, their faces tattooed. For them this represented a teeming metropolis, and the market was perhaps the high spot of the year’s amusements. They argued fiercely, waving their arms, pushing each other, their dark eyes shining with delight over such things as cocoa yams or cane rats; or else they stood in little groups gazing with hopeless longing at toppling piles of multi-coloured cloth, milling from one vantage point to another to get the best views of these unobtainable luxuries.

Ali had disappeared into this pungent, swirling crowd like an ant into a treacle tin, leaving me to wander around by myself. After a time I decided to take some photographs of the pagan tribesmen, so I got out my camera and started to focus it. Immediately, pandemonium broke out; the tribesmen, with one accord dropped their goods and chattels and fled for the nearest shelter, screaming wildly. Bewildered by this, for the average African is only too pleased to have his photograph taken, I turned to a Hausa standing nearby and asked him what was the matter. His explanation was interesting: apparently the pagans knew what a camera was, and knew that it produced pictures of the people it was pointed at. But they were firmly convinced that with each photograph taken, the photographer gained a small portion of the subject’s soul, and if he took many photos he would gain complete control over the person in question. This is an example of witchcraft being brought up to date; in the old days, if you obtained some of your victim’s hair or toe-nails, you had great power over him; nowadays if you get a photograph it apparently works just as well. Curiously, I was never to encounter this attitude among pagans again – anywhere. Aside from this particular group, every bunch of pagans I ever saw posed happily for as many photos as I cared to take.

It was not long before I discovered something that drove all thoughts of photography and witchcraft right out of my head. In one of the dark little stalls that lined the square, I caught a flash of reddish fur, and, moving over to investigate, I found the most delightful monkey on the end of a long string, squatting in the dust and uttering loud and penetrating ‘prroup’ noises. She was offered for sale by a wizened little trader who called himself Mustafa bin Sharif and filed his teeth to betel-stained points. The monkey had light ginger-coloured fur, a white shirt-front and a mournful black face, and the strange noises she was making sounded like a cross between a bird cry and the friendly greetings of a cat. As I bent over to inspect her more closely, she leapt suddenly toward me. Her string was, it turned out, long enough for her to wrap herself around my neck before I even had time to recoil.

She clung to me with the desperation of the damned, making soft purring sounds and rubbing her little cheek against mine, while briskly caressing my left ear. I fell in love with her at once. Mustafa bin Sharif’s asking price was $40 but after much haggling (“Magida you know I pay $35 for her. Magida you makin’ my wives go for no food! Magida, my child is say you pay $25 sir for keep from starve!”). I eventually purchased the monkey for $6 and a bottle of hair tonic.

Pocketing his profit, and solemnly transferring the string around her neck from his fist to mine, Mustafa solemnly identified my purchase as a half-grown female Patas monkey. As I turned away, I had a thought. Turning back to Mustafa, I asked, “What is this ‘Magida’ you keep calling me?”
“Magida?”
“Yes, ‘Magida’. What does it mean in English?”
“Ah….um…I think in English its mean ‘laud’.”

There are some conversations you know right at the start you were never meant to have. This, I suspected, was going to be one of those. But I persisted, “’Laud’? You sure that’s right?”
“Yes, Magida, ‘laud’.”
“’Laud’?” I repeated the word, “as in ‘praise’?” In the context of this conversation, ‘laud’ made no sense at all. There had to be something I was missing here.
“Yes,” he answered, “You Nasrani 25 man – a Hallelujah people?”
I thought for a moment, resisting the urge to smirk, “Yes,” I replied, “Why?”
“Hallelujah peoples prays, yes?”
The penny was starting to drop – I’d said ‘praise’ and Mustafa had countered with the homophone ‘prays’. Then what about ‘laud’ I wondered. Did it have an interesting homophone, too? “Yes,” I finally answered, “I prays.”
“You prays to your laud every day?”
I prays to my…..my laud. There was my other homophone. Mustafa wasn’t saying ‘laud’: he was calling me ‘lord’. It was all in the pronunciation.
“You mean ‘lord’,” I pronounced it very carefully.
“Yes. That what I tell you – ‘laud’. In you country is too many lauds and ladies walking.”

Then I had a great thought. “What,” I asked Mustafa, “is ‘lady’ in Hausa talk?”
“Lady?” he looked blank
“Yes, ‘lady’ – wife of laud – like lauds and ladies. What is lady?”
Ah, yes, ‘lady’. ‘Lady’ is ‘Warigida’. ‘Laud’ is ‘Magida’. Lady is ‘Warigida’.”

I had planned to call the monkey ‘Lady Godiva’, because she was naked except for her hair, but, now, thanks to Mustafa, I had a better name – something much more infra dig. So I christened her ‘Warigida Godiva’, and bought her a bunch of bananas at one of the stalls to celebrate. She was so overcome by my generosity that she rewarded me by wetting all down the front of my shirt. For the rest of the day she rode around on my shoulder, chittering softly in my ear.

With Godiva on my shoulder, Ali and I strolled on through the market. We watched dyers staining cloth the deep indigo of the desert people, dipping long skeins of wool into deep circular pits filled with bubbling fluids heated by hot stones. Godiva took an intense interest in everything that went on around her, but never offered to leave my shoulder – at least not as long as my supply of bananas lasted. She attracted a good deal of attention – not only, I later found, because of the spectacle we offered of a Potouri26 with a monkey on his shoulder. It turned out that monkeys like Godiva are regarded as ‘foine beef’ – very good meat – for lunch.

As we left Zaria, a horde of small children, our faithful entourage throughout our visit, scrambled for the handful of coins I had tossed them, shouting, “Sayan jemah!” (“Goodbye and Good luck!”).

On the way back to Kaduna, I had time to ponder the wisdom of my purchase. I would be living in a government rest-house for the next five or six weeks and then travelling around the country with Charlie (whose attitude toward monkeys I had yet to determine), staying in guest-houses, hotels or tented camps, for another six – hardly the best environment in which to raise any pet, let alone a half-grown monkey.

I thought long and hard about how to restrain Godiva. As a kid, the only pets I’d had had been cats. This wasn’t because I had any aversion to birds, or rabbits or dogs, but rather because I’d never liked the idea of having pets that had to be caged, fenced-in or leashed. So I decided I’d let Godiva run free. After all, she’d only cost me $6 (plus, of course, that bottle of hair tonic) so if she did bugger off, I wouldn’t be out much. And if she chose to stay, well……I knew I’d like that a lot.

So I untied the string around her neck as soon as we got in the Rover to return to Kaduna. For the whole of the trip Godiva made no attempt to escape. Rather, she seemed perfectly content either to sit on my shoulder, or – and this she infinitely preferred – to ride the steering wheel, hanging on for dear life with all four limbs, gurgling and shrieking with pleasure.

As soon as we got back to Kaduna, I approached the manager of the Guest House and we discussed the problem. Like everyone who was ever to become involved with Godiva, he was kind and helpful. He understood, he said, that monkeys were – in what he called ‘the way of monkeys’ – very destructive. What this meant in practical terms was that he expected there’d be a lot of damage in the Guest House during our tenure – and particular in the room Godiva and I shared. If, he said, I was prepared to cover the cost of repairing whatever damage Godiva might wreak on the place, she would be very welcome. After only a moment’s thought, I agreed to his terms. I was, after all, on full expenses, so I had only to add Godiva’s costs to the regular tariff and my company would cover the whole amount. This didn’t resolve the problem of what to do with her once Charlie and I went touring, but it solved my immediate dilemma.

Arriving back at the Guest House Godiva was riding my shoulder as I strode over to our cottage. When I opened the door, she let out a squeal of delight. She leapt from my shoulders onto the lower slopes of the mosquito netting over my bed and scrambled up to the ceiling ring at a rate just below the speed of light. Once there she hung by one hand, swinging back and forth while I got myself organised. By the time I had poured myself a beer, and had settled down in one of the leather chairs with a book, she had tired of that game. Yawping27 loudly she let go with both hands and tobogganed down the slope of the mosquito netting. Screaming wildly, she shot off the end of the net (where it was tucked under the edges of my mattress) and slammed into an empty metal rubbish tin four or five feet away. The din was terrific – the yawps and screams of an excited monkey and the clanging and banging as the rubbish tin rolled around the room. Thinking she might have done herself a mischief, I put down my beer and my book and got up to go and succor her.  But she didn’t need succoring. Squealing with delight, she leapt from the floor to my shoulder and then to the mosquito net, which – again – she quickly scaled to the ceiling. Almost quicker that I can say it, she was tearing down the slope again, and rocketing off into space at the bottom. But this time, of course, the rubbish tin wasn’t there to stop her. This lengthened her trajectory, so she flew a bit farther than she expected – enough farther to bang her head against the leg of a table. Whimpering and rubbing her head, she climbed into my lap for a bit of TLC. After a minute or two she hopped down and bounded over to the fallen rubbish tin. She tried and tried to pick it up, but there just wasn’t enough of her to manage it. Looking at me she yawped loudly, patting the rubbish tin, bobbing her head up and down. When I didn’t rise to the occasion, she climbed back to the top of the mosquito netting and, hanging from one hand, yawped again. Then she slid slowly down the netting, braking with both hands and feet – I guess to make sure she didn’t bang her head again – climbed down from the bed, walked over to rubbish tin and patted it, yawping again.

It took me a while to realise that she was trying to tell me something. It took even longer to figure out what it was she wanted. But she persisted, and in the end I got the message. She wanted me to return the rubbish tin to its original position – something she wasn’t strong enough to do. So, of course, I did. I hadn’t even made it back to my chair before Godiva came screaming off the end of the net again, slamming again into the rubbish tin and sending it banging and clanging across the room.

For the duration of our time together, this remained Godiva’s very favourite thing. There was one unintended – but probably predictable – consequence of this seemingly harmless pastime. Mosquito nets were never designed to bear the weight of tobogganing monkeys, however small, and after three or four days of such abuse, my net split under her weight, dumping her unceremoniously into the middle of my bed. She didn’t mind this at all. After all, there were still three sides she could slide down. But I minded: There were lots and lots of mosquitoes in Kaduna and some of them carried malaria – something I’d already had once. It was an experience I wasn’t anxious to repeat. Management, too, took a dim view of this new hobby of hers, but – reminding me that the replacement was at my expense – a new one was installed in a matter of minutes. I tried hard to discourage Godiva from tobogganing on my netting, but between us we went through two or three mosquito nets – plus several other damaged items – every week for more than a month.

My days in Kaduna were mostly spent in the offices of the Geological Survey of Nigeria, poring through ten to fifteen-year-old files. Nearly all of the interesting data – the reason I was in Kaduna – were, technically, proprietary to Shell. What this meant was that I had free access to every bit of data I didn’t need or want, but no access to any of the data I’d traveled 7,000 miles to see. The staff, both black and white, were extremely helpful – but not that helpful. None of them – well, almost none – was prepared to jeopardise his job for mine. So day after day, week after week, I pored over maps, cross-sections and drilling data that did nothing whatever to progress my job.

In the evenings Godiva and I used to go for long walks through the town – not that there was anything much to see – mostly just for exercise and to spend a little time out of doors. Godiva loved these times. She would walk beside me, reaching up to hold my big hand in her little one – just like a small, trustful child. Whenever we passed an empty lot – especially if it had tall grass and weeds in it, she would let go of my hand and bound through the grass in incredible leaps of five or six feet. It didn’t take me long to figure out that she was hunting. She adored eating any member of the Mantid family, of which there several sorts in Nigeria – some of them enormous. She would bring it back to me, holding it (in the hand that wasn’t holding mine) like a candy bar, crunching it up loudly from the head down as we walked along. On a twenty minute stroll, she might manage to catch and consume half-a-dozen or more mantises. She also enjoyed crickets, grasshoppers and – when she could catch them on the ground – cicadas.

Somehow, word got out that I was on the prowl for Shell data – and it didn’t take long for corruption to rear its ugly head. Eventually I was approached by a black senior draughtsman, who unfolded a very large sheet of paper and held it up in front of me. He allowed me to scan it only briefly before refolding it and putting it back in a file folder. I knew at once what it was. It was a summary chart of every well Shell had drilled in Nigeria – exactly what I was looking for – what I most wanted. “You like for buying this paper?” he asked, “Must nobody other person can knowing. You understand?”

I did, of course. I was being given a chance to bribe a junior government official in order to obtain what amounted to state secrets. The problem was that I’d never done anything even remotely like this before, so I had no idea how to proceed from here. I had no mandate to bribe anybody – I don’t think the idea had even crossed Charlie’s mind (certainly it hadn’t crossed mine) – nor had I any idea the value of the chart on offer. I didn’t want to haggle with him – somehow simply buying it seemed less distasteful than bargaining for it – so I went off and thought about how much it might be worth to me for three or four days.

Only one thing in the world scared Godiva – dogs: dogs of any size or persuasion. I dunno whether all monkeys can do this or only Godiva, but she seemed to have some sort of built-in dog-antenna. She could spot a dog in dense bush at fifty yards or so and whenever she did, she made straight for the top of my head. I didn’t mind this much, except that it sometimes proved embarrassing. Whenever there were any Nigerians around – as more often than not there were – they would have a really good laugh at my expense. But then, I expect I did look like a dork. and I soon became a fairly common sight in our part of town. People knew me, Ali said, as the Potouri with what he called my ‘funny monkey hat’.

In the end I decided to offer the draughtsman 200 pounds for the paper – the most I figured I could afford to lose if Charlie didn’t approve of the transaction. Like me, the draughtsman had little idea of the paper’s value. In hindsight, I think he was probably expecting to get five or ten pounds, so when I inadvertently raised the stakes by offering him 200, he must have thought all his Christmases had come at once. But then cupidity overtook common sense. If I offered 200 pounds, he reckoned, it must be worth much more. But the question was, ‘how much more?’ He couldn’t have been too bright, because he made the mistake of conferring secretly with a couple of his co-workers about it. That was never going to be a good idea, and almost before we knew it, rumours of my proposal had leaked out and his managers were breathing heavily down his neck.

I don’t know exactly what happened, but next day the Chief Geologist called a special meeting in the central courtyard. When everyone was there, the draughtsman was brought out, the summary chart in his hand. After unfolding it, he showed it around, giving each staff member a good look. Then, striking a match, he set the paper alight, and we all stood silently, watching it burn. It only took a couple of minutes for the fire to consume it entirely. Then his boss stirred the ashes vigorously, and the meeting was adjourned. Nobody had spoken a single word.. I have no idea what happened to the draughtsman – whether he got the sack or was just told to keep well away from me – but I never saw him again.

Charlie later told me that, if what I saw was what I thought I saw, a bribe of several thousands of pounds would have been in order. He didn’t blame me for the failure. In fact, I got quite a lot of praise for trying – both from him and, later, from Head Office. We both knew there was no way I could have raised that kind of money, and I’d been unable to ask Charlie, who, off pressing the flesh of the movers and shakers of southwestern Nigeria, had been out of contact for more than a week.

***

I learned quite a lot about the fauna of Kaduna during my little walks with Godiva. After two or three weeks I was able to identify – by sight anyway (I knew hardly any of the names) – thirty or forty species of edible insects. I don’t know that the word ‘edible’ has any real meaning in this context. I never saw an insect – or, for that matter, any other sort of organic matter – that Godiva wouldn’t eat. On her diet of insects, bananas and bites of everything on my plate, Godiva grew rapidly, and after about a month she was probably about two feet tall at the shoulder when she stood up.

In the guest house bar one night, I made the acquaintance of the government veterinary surgeon – a pleasant-faced Englishman of about thirty-five. George Arnott and his family lived on what today would be called a ‘life-style block’ on the north edge of town. Like every other European family in Kaduna – George, his wife Gay and their kids Damon, 13 and Fay,11 – were starved for what he called ‘a little novelty in our lives’28, and he invited Godiva and me out for dinner. He said he wanted to see how Godiva got on with his family’s two pets, Fizz and Stinky, which I assumed to be dogs.

I was quite wrong – twice. Fizz turned out to be an ocelot – a beautifully marked twenty-pound wildcat with spectacular tufted ears and the manners of a Tasmanian Devil. She spent the whole evening under a couch, hissing furiously, eyes blazing and claws bared, every time Godiva got close. For that matter, Fizz took an instant and intense dislike to me too, and despite the best efforts of Damon and Fay she refused to come out.

Stinky, on the other hand, was lovely. He was, of all things, a fully-grown hyena, weighing in, according to George, at 120 pounds. It was obvious how he got his name; he stank powerfully of something like skunk. Because of that, George said, he wasn’t allowed on the furniture. But in every other respect Stinky behaved – and was treated – like a gigantic housecat. He was super-affectionate, and loved to be stroked – and when scratched under his chin, he would purr loudly. Stroking Stinky was an odd sensation because the hair on his plump spotty body was as bristly as a broom. When he rubbed himself against your legs – which he did a lot – you could hear his bristles rustling against your trousers. He even let Godiva ride around the room on his back – something that she seemed to enjoy at least as much as riding on my shoulders. I felt an irrational pang of jealousy.

Godiva was very taken with George – but then she was taken with almost everybody we met – and he fed her tidbits from his plate during the meal. “How come you call the monkey ‘Godiva’?” he asked afterwards, “Seems a curious sort of name under the circumstances.”
“Godiva?” I replied. “I would have thought it was obvious. Her full name is ‘Warigida Godiva’ (‘Lady Godiva’),” I explained, ”She’s named after the lady who rode around naked on a horse wearing only her hair.” I paused, remembering his exact words, “What d’you mean ‘under the circumstances’? What circumstances?”
“The circumstances?……The circumstances are that Godiva’s not a girl. He’s a boy!”
“Godiva’s a…..?”
“A boy, yes.”
“But the guy in Zaria who sold him to me said she was a half-grown female.”
“’He probably didn’t have balls then. Now, he has,” George grinned, “’Half grown’ he is. ‘Female’ he’s not. Haven’t you noticed his balls?”
To my shame I hadn’t. We looked under Godiva’s tail together. Sure enough, there were a couple of little lumps down there, right where balls were supposed to be.
“Guess we should change his name, then,” I ventured, “I already know the word for ‘lord’. It’s what guy who sold her – him, rather – to me called me. ‘Magida’! That’s what he called me. Said it meant ‘Lord’. Does it?”
“Yep. So you’re gonna change his name from ‘Warigida Godiva’ to ‘Magida Godiva’ – have I got that right?”
“Absolutely. From this moment on, he is ‘Magida Godiva’ if anyone wants to know.” Not that it mattered, I’d only ever referred to her/him as Godiva, and that wasn’t about to change.

***

It was early October when Charlie and George turned up. George was captivated by Godiva, but Introducing him to Charlie was a little more awkward. In the first place, Charlie wasn’t particularly into pets. He had, he said, nothing particular against them. It was just that he’d never actually had any. Nor had he ever wanted one. Charlie and Godiva got on well enough – in the end Charlie was to become rather fond of him – and he gave me permission to keep him, but there were several caveats. Although Godiva wasn’t nocturnal, he was given to prowling around the room at night. I’d got used to it, but Charlie resented being disturbed by the rattles and clanks Godiva inadvertently made. He made it clear that if he were to lose too much sleep, I would lose a monkey. Then there was the matter of damages. Until Charlie turned up, I could cover the costs in a variety of slightly nefarious ways by a little gentle book-cooking. But with the boss sharing our quarters, I was forced to keep a straighter set. This meant that, unless I wanted to fork out a lot of my own cash, I had to get a better handle on Godiva’s behaviour.

The other thing that had worried me most introducing Godiva to Charlie was my total inability to house-train him. When he wanted to pee or crap, he peed or crapped, regardless of where or with whom he was. In the course of a month he’d peed and crapped in my lap, down my back, down my front, in my bed, on the carpet, in the car, even once or twice on the dining table during a meal. Not to mention all the other people – like on George and his son Damon and, of course, poor Ali – on whom he left his malodorous little deposits. Nothing I could do had the least effect on the workings of the lower parts of his alimentary tract. What it boiled down in the end was simply that proximity to Godiva had its own unique perils. He was funny and loving and gentle. But sooner or later – even with the most careful attention – you knew that he was gonna piss or crap (or both) all over you.

Our first job was to pack for our tour. We knew that accommodation wouldn’t be available everywhere, so we were prepared to camp wherever necessary. We had imported more than a ton of freeze-dried food (the first I’d ever seen), tents, camp stretchers, a camp stove, water storage vessels, etc. We had two vehicles – both Land Rovers; Charlie and I would travel in one and George and Ali in the other. Roughing it in the back-blocks of Nigeria was all very well, but to do it without our servants – who had, by now, become integral parts of both our lives – was unthinkable. Not only were they our only interpreters, but the boys were also important for purposes of ‘face’ as well. There were a lot of powerful people on our agenda, people we needed to impress. Charlie reckoned having servants would help. The main purpose of the trip was to touch bases with as many powerful/important Nigerians as possible. If the company did decide to make a run at Nigeria, the more good political connections we had the better.

Because Zaria lay outside our proposed itinerary, we made a side-trip there before setting off on our main trip. The Emir, a huge, man in red and white robes, greeted us outside the entrance of his flamboyant palace – a huge sprawling structure of interlocking courtyards with scarcely a square corner throughout. Across the square from the palace loomed a fortress of ochre mud – the citadel of the old city – and below its battlements was the great market. Only Charlie got invited inside. For the first – and only – time in our trip together, I had to cool my heels while Charlie bonded with somebody important. Still, I already knew Zaria – I had, after all, bought Godiva there. I had liked the market then, and he and I enjoyed our time browsing there again. I even touched base with Mustafa bin Sharif. He admired how much Godiva had grown and we inspected his balls together.

I’d finally had to buy a collar and leash for Godiva. I hated having to do it, but there really wasn’t any alternative. At mealtimes, I didn’t dare leave him alone in our room because of the carnage he was likely to wreak when bored and lonely. So he would come to the dining room with me. The only problem with this was that Godiva was incurably friendly and tended to wander about the restaurant, observing – and sometimes performing for – the startled occupants of other tables. I’d got in the habit of feeding him tidbits from my plate, something he’d by now come to take for granted. So, while visiting other tables he would sometimes sample their food, too. Not all of the other patrons even liked the idea of my monkey at somebody else’s table, much less their own. But when he began nicking food off their plates, something had had to be done. The collar and leash were that something.

Even so, I still had to keep a close eye on Godiva at – and after – mealtimes. He was inordinately fond of peas, and if there were any peas on the table – no matter whose plate they were on – he would be into them, stuffing them quickly into his mouth with both hands without bothering to chew. I didn’t know that Patas monkeys – like squirrels – have large cheek pouches in which to store food, but they do. When he ate peas, Godiva would shovel them into his cheek-pouches until his face looked ready to explode. Then he would chew and swallow them at leisure. Somehow he was able to eat the centre out of each pea while leaving the spherical outer shell almost intact. So, when he had finished eating his peas, both cheek pouches would still be about half-full of pea shells. These he would expectorate explosively whenever he felt like it – usually when we least expected it. He didn’t especially aim at anybody, but because he was intensely sociable, he was usually in somebody’s lap or on somebody’s shoulder when it happened. So the first three or four times he did this, one of us invariably ended up enameled in half-masticated peas. Godiva thought this was immensely funny. Like Cheetah, he had a knack of grinning hugely while yawping hysterically, and we were all convinced he was actually laughing at us. The new wore off this particular trick pretty damned quickly. Fortunately we learned how to avoid it. It took about fifteen minutes per mouthful, for Godiva to be ready to spit – a habit we were never to cure him of. Knowing this, we seldom got caught by surprise again, but as long as there were peas in the vicinity, we had always to be watchful.

Back in Kaduna, we took care of our last-minute affairs, packed up our vehicles, and set out for Jos, a mining centre 170 miles away on the high plateau of central Nigeria. For the first two hours the almost uninhabited land was flat and dusty, with shriveled elephant grass and scattered acacia trees wilting in the heat. After a couple of hours big, blue hills climbed over the horizon – still vastly distant, ragged and irregular – a vague promise of coolness and breezes in the ambiguity of their dimly seen crags.

Big herds of Fulani cattle grazed across the parched landscape, the naked boys who watched them standing stork-like, one foot resting on a knee. Villagers toiled from town to tiny town carrying big loads of vegetables or bundles of firewood balanced on their heads. Occasionally we met groups of tall, thin Fulani on their way to market, the women with their hair standing from their heads in long starched plaits.

As we neared the hills, groups of monkeys skittered across the road, and there were families of baboons gamboling among the trees, their flamboyant posteriors flashing grotesquely through the fronds of elephant grass. We stopped briefly beneath a clump of fever trees and ate a hasty cold lunch, feeding scraps of bread to the baboons, and watching a wheeling funnel of vultures turn slowly overhead.

Jos

While my Rover underwent surgery in a local garage, we wandered about Jos in search of adventure. Jos wasn’t much to write home about. A chaos of mud, concrete, tin and thatch, it managed to incorporate the worst features of both European and Hausa/Fulani cultures. Here, as elsewhere, dress appeared to be optional, varying from impeccable European to nothing at all. My memories of Jos – which really wasn’t much of a town – are predominantly of smells – the lesser odours of incense, perfume, sweat, unwashed bodies, urine, earth, and a powerful alkaline smell that drifted across the city from the tin mines that ringed the town and provided livelihoods for two-thirds of its people. On the hills north of town were the elegant homes of the rich Europeans who own the mines or governed the province, each with its carefully tended garden and rust-streaked tin roof. We stayed in Jos just long enough to confirm what we already knew. The sorts of rocks that produce tin aren’t the sort that produce oil. So we could strike another bit of Nigeria off our list.

From Jos we motored east toward Gombe, hoping to reach there about mid-afternoon. Beyond Jos, the road narrowed, became rutted, sandy and soft as it penetrated a landscape of increasing ruggedness. Little villages huddled in the lee of vast rocky hills, their skirts of ripening fields spreading toward the sheltered valleys below.

We had to walk for an hour to the village of the Zulwa people. The Zulwas are pagans who mutilate their women to prevent them from being kidnapped by neighbouring tribesmen. Zulwa folklore tells that once their women were the most beautiful in Nigeria, and how men from more powerful tribes ravaged their villages time after time in search of brides. Finally, in desperation, the Zulwas began to deface their beauties by inserting wooden discs in both upper and lower lips. Unlike the more famous Ubangis (who place the discs inside the lips) the Zulwas place the discs on the outside, where they are clearly visible. Some of the women had lips as big as saucers, though young girls have only tiny plates – sometimes only pegs29. Like their neighbours, the Shashas, they wore very little – only a few leaves (in most cases, far too little for our idea of decency). Zulwa women, like Shasha women, seemed to enjoy our photography, pirouetting coquettishly, one to reveal a leg swollen and raw with huge open sores caused by venereal disease.

***

Nigeria was the first place I’d encountered so much public nudity – especially at close quarters – and I had a hard time figuring out how to handle it. It wasn’t that I minded looking at lots of naked women. Quite the contrary. I enjoyed it immensely. It was just that I was even more a curiosity to them than they were to me. This meant that all eyes were pretty much on me, so I had to be careful of where I seemed to look. I didn’t want them to think my gaze was prurient – which, to be honest, it often was – but everywhere I looked there were acres of naked black flesh. There was nothing ‘innocent’ upon which I could fix my gaze. In other words, my problem was….well…..how to look disinterested – or, at least, a lot less interested than I actually was. It is, after all, pretty hard to look cool when your eyes are out on stalks.

In the course of this trip I was to discover for myself just how much western women owe to the inventor of the brassiere. Young Nigerian women often have very attractive bodies and remarkably pert breasts, often with upturned nipples – something I’d never seen before. But by the time they’re twenty-five or so – and have suckled three or four children – their breasts become heavy and pendulous, drooping to below their navels. I have watched some of these women at their daily chores – grinding maize, hoeing in the fields – and those big tits flap around a lot, sometimes slapping loudly against the skin of their bellies. I never saw any of them grimace or heard them complain, but I reckon that it must have hurt some.

I especially remember one woman. She looked ancient, but I would guess that her age was somewhere on the right side of forty. Her chest had fallen so far she no longer had breasts. She had dugs – long, flat things the shape of empty condoms – that dangled way, way below her navel. She was bending over a creek bathing a little boy who looked to be about two, her pendulous breasts hanging straight down from her chest. The baby had reached up and grabbed a breast with each hand and he was swinging on them, cooing and laughing – having, I guess, the time of his young life. As she looked up, she gave me a toothless grin. I pressed my shutter release to capture what should have been a memorable photograph, but nothing happened. I had run out of film.

I didn’t mind the sight of naked men so much. No, on second thought, I probably did, but for a quite different reason. African male genitalia are generally bigger than those of white men and I guess I suffered from a sort of ‘penis envy’. Even most of the kids – boys of eleven or twelve – were better hung than I was. I really got tired of feeling jealous of them.

Bauchi

Most of the city walls of Bauchi had come down – they were being replaced with rows of concrete shop-houses – and the city was enveloped with yellow clouds of construction dust. Old mud buildings crowded upon the narrow streets, vying with ugly new buildings of concrete and tin. Crowds were seething about the marketplace. Everywhere were dust, flies, heat and the odours of too many people and too few sewer pipes. Brilliant robes flashed past and towering Negroes in turbans; and horsemen rushing by in a flurry and a clatter. Lean long-horned cattle stood patiently amongst the hubbub. Labourers pulling heavily-laden hand carts passed slowly through the streets crying, “Hunkele! Hunkele!” (“Careful! Beware!”).

Tiny open-sided shops sold calabashes, raw lead ore for cosmetics, fruit, groundnut paste, cloth, silver and brassware, foodstuffs, soap, etc. Market stalls crowded one against another and crowds surged across the narrow lanes between. Red African dust eddied about the market, and noise eddied with it – a cacophony of voices, the clatter of tinware, hawkers’ cries, the squeals and grunts of livestock, the shuffle of bare black feet, and a constant distant rumbling of drums. Right in the middle of the market was a huge Kwalimang (Baobab) tree that looked like a giant carrot planted upside down. Its hugely fat trunk stores vast amounts of moisture behind its smooth, grey bark. Its short, spare branches seemed to have too few leaves to permit photosynthesis. Big, pear-shaped fruit hung on long stems below the branches.

A stall selling an assortment of small reptiles – frogs, lizards, toads, tortoises and a glass case full of pale yellow snakes – caught Godiva’s attention. Watching the shopkeeper doing business, it appeared the animals were all destined for cooking pots. Godiva was very taken with a large chameleon hanging by its tail from the rafters. For a time the two eyed each other warily, the chameleon observing the marketplace with one of its independently swiveling eyeballs, while glaring fiercely at Godiva with the other. Eventually, overcome by curiosity, Godiva reached up and patted tentatively at the thing more-or-less between the eyes. Then suddenly he reached up as though to grab it just in front of its hind legs. I don’t know what he intended to do, but it hardly mattered, because the chameleon gave him no chance to do it. Almost faster than the eye could register, its long orange tongue whipped out and wrapped itself around the base of Godiva’s tail. Shrieking in alarm, he was lifted briskly off his feet. For a moment or two, the pair of them swung back and forth, Godiva dangling from the end of the reptile’s tongue, and the chameleon still hanging from the ceiling by its tail. The musculature of the chameleon’s tongue, it turned out, wasn’t up to the task of reeling Godiva in, so it promptly lost interest in Godiva and dropped him – straight into a tank of water containing several small, gaudy tortoises. Godiva shot out of the tank like a rocket and headed straight for me. Almost before I knew it I had four or five pounds of sodden monkey wrapped tightly around my neck, shivering violently and whimpering loudly. Luckily for both of us the shopkeeper had a sense of humour. He settled for $5 ‘dash’30. This was the only time I saw anyone – or anything – get the better of Godiva.

Gombe

There was a terrible drought ravaging northern Nigeria, and beyond Bauchi was a vast beige plain of shriveled grass, and pitiful villages with fields of withered maize. A sign marked the boundary of the Emirate of Gombe. It also marked the end of the passable road. We had a following wind, so dust boiled around our vehicle and filtered into our noses, mouths, eyes and ears. It itched maddeningly inside our clothes, ran in muddy rivulets with sweat, and sifted in jiggling drifts down across the windscreen.

It was with intense relief that we passed the straggle of rammed earth huts that marked the outlying districts of Gombe. Gombe is less a town than a lot of buildings scattered through the bush – a cluster of shops, a tuft of pointy-roofed houses or a group of rusty tin warehouses, all connected by a bare network of rutted tracks, and at every intersection, a dusty weed-grown roundabout.

We stopped briefly at a dark little shop for a bottle of luke-warm Krola (the local version of Coke), then, after many false starts – one roundabout, we found, looks very like another – finally located he local rest house and checked into an astonishingly clean and neat room. After supper we adjourned to the Gombe Club – a sort of DIY bar built by and for the eleven English residents of the emirate – and watched the lads, as they put it, ‘live dangerously’. Godiva was a great hit at the club. Like George Arnott, these guys were bored half to death, and Godiva – even in Gombe – was exotically different.

Within five minutes of checking into the rest house, Godiva – quickly noting that there were no mosquito nets down which to slalom – decided to do his ‘Tarzan’ act, swinging from curtain to curtain and from window to window along one wall of the room. Their pelmets were not particularly well affixed to the walls – at least not well enough to sustain the weight of the curtains and a rapidly moving six-pound monkey – and in about seven minutes flat, he’d managed to pull down four sets of drapes. Charlie – who, had never really seen Godiva in action before, and who, as boss, was paying the bill for this room – was not, as they say, ‘best pleased’. He made a point of letting me know the damage bill was gonna end up on my plate.

East of Gombe a new road was being constructed, and our Rover rolled like a seasick cow. At Birili the ‘road’ rose into a range of spiky volcanic peaks. Rising above the whole range was the black snag of Tangale Waja, Nigeria’s highest peak31. Today the harmatan was sweeping in from the Sahara and the sky glowed a luminous grey. The land was parched, the air breathless and stifling. The hills rose steeply – often precipitously – above the plains. Crowded in amongst these forbidding mountains we came upon the town of Kaltungo, seat of the Emir of Kaltungo, ruler of the southern part of Bauchi province.

The narrow valley was full of mud huts and fields of ripening guinea corn. Walls of woven flax separated the natives’ housing compounds from one another. In the shade of a Kwalimang tree, an old woman – blind and naked – beat guinea corn into meal in a huge wooden mortar and pestle, her sightless eyes rolling furiously. We could hear drums rolling across the village, and singing and the sound of castanets and of whining native flutes. We found a group of natives dancing and singing who invited us to stop and watch. After a time, I took a few photos of the dancers, and presented them with five shillings ‘dash’. A youngish man stepped forward and spoke to me, “We were enjoyment ourselves with native music,” he said, “Now with this dash we can drink also. I am Catholic and I will bless you in my prayers for one week. I am Catholic and my mother before me. I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ His only Son who was born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate….” He recited the whole of the litany then and there, as if so doing he reassured himself of his faith. Then he said, “Again, I will pray for you. I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of……” He was still chanting when we slipped unobtrusively away, climbed into our Land Rover, and drove quietly out of the little town.

Tula

Tula had been pretty much the last white outpost in eastern Nigeria – end of the road. The end, it turned out, of practically everything. Two white men had lived in Tula – an American missionary who had left three months ago, and an English D.O. (District Officer) who had died a week before our arrival. The town centre perched on a hilltop and the village straggled gradually down the slopes below it. Highest of all was the Wazire’s compound – a large courtyard ringed with conical huts. Fields of guinea corn surrounded the village with clusters of huts visible here and there in the dusty greenery.

We were greeted by the local schoolmaster. Educated by the missionary, he now had seven pupils (out of a local population of nearly 3,000). He guided us to the chief’s compound where we were welcomed by the chief, about fifty naked boys and a group of women wearing only aprons of leaves. The chief had been advised of our intentions and the villagers were ready for us. We were given a vast thatched hut with whitewashed mud walls. It had been the D.O.’s home. Its bathroom had a crude mud commode and an amazing whitewashed mud bathtub. A sort of kitchen had been rigged up in a hut at the rear, and there were some rough wood furnishings. George and Ali quickly unpacked our beds and the cooking gear and rigged up our Tilley lamp ready for the night.

In Tula it was easy to tell the religion of the inhabitants; the Christians wore string vests and shorts, the Moslems robes, and the pagans little or nothing at all. Three tribes lived in Tula – the Tulas, the Tangales and the Wajawas. Most were pagan, but the Fulani Lamida (Emir) of Yola had forced some to turn Moslem and the American missionary had swayed some to a sort of perverted Christianity before he died. The only lasting monument to either religion was the dying school with its pitiful enrolment of seven.

It was chilly when I woke next morning, with glowing mists sweeping across the valley. The high harmatan silvered the sky and the early sun was veiled and indistinct, where it rose in a saddle between the mountains. Doves filled the morning air with their soft cries, and somewhere in the village behind us a pair of scrawny roosters vied with one another to wake the town. A light breeze was combing the elephant grass, and smoke rose from the cooking fires of little settlements invisible amongst the trees.

The Wazire had offered us a grand tour of the three villages. Just before noon a breathless schoolmaster arrived to summon us to his compound, where he stopped us just outside its decorated gate. The Wazire greeted us clad in a loin cloth and carrying an umbrella. He was handsome in a sinister sort of way, with slanting eyes, a little square grey mustache and a tuft of beard. Bidding us to wait, he disappeared back into his house. He returned wearing a bright yellow robe, trousers, lace-less black shoes  and a little gold-coloured skull cap. He wore, in addition, a pair of pink ladies’ sunglasses – I noticed that he looked over, rather than through them.

Tula had a population of about fifteen hundred, spread over an area of several square miles. Its nine compounds, each composed of from one to five little settlements, were separated from each other by dusty fields of maize. Each settlement was a cluster of conical thatched stone huts with dry-stone walls, separated by more dry-stone walls. A single home might comprise as many as a dozen little huts crowded close together to conserve space, each hut a separate room. The narrow passageways between were roofed with woven straw mats and sometimes floored with flagstones. The huts hugged the steep hillside, and there were flights of rough steps leading from level to level – walkways hewn out of the sandstone cliffs. Narrow terraces of corn were interspersed among the huts, which, in a single compound, might straggle up several hundred feet of cliff-face. Each compound had its own sacred platform – a carefully levelled stone terrace containing one or more stone phallic symbols and a circular stone platform for ritual dancing. Sometimes grass totems stood on the platform or in special niches set into the surrounding walls. These were, we were told, replaced by sacred idols when it was time for dancing.

We visited the home of the school-master – seven conical huts on five levels just below the chief’s hilltop residence. In the first dark hut a young woman sat nursing a baby while she roasted guinea corn over a fire. In the second the young man’s father was mashing kwalimang fruit to make the bitter native wine. Nearby, at a sluggish spring, three old women, bare but for a tuft of leaves each, squatted patiently, waiting while their jugs filled below the trickle of water that seeped from the rocks.

Maize and ground nuts were spread on a large flat rock to dry. A boy of eleven or twelve – his naked body gleaming with perspiration – was fanning furiously to keep away insects and birds. Beneath a giant acacia were two naked old men sewing at a tattered hide, and a young boy strumming on a sort of calabash ukulele. In niches carved into the face of a large rock sat a number of bullet-shaped drums of various sizes. When they are played, I was told, the pointed end is stuck into the ground ‘with goatskin sticking tight next the behind end’. The school-master said they were used only for dancing. “Tomorrow,” he added, “my people will be much happiness to dancing for your goodselves. You buying much liquor.” This last, which elicited a big grin from the Wazire, was news to me. I wondered what George and Ali had been up to. It turned out that we had agreed to fund the preparation of a dozen calabash pots of cornmeal wine in exchange for the dancing. As I remember, the ingredients cost us something less than $US5. There was enough wine to get all the dancers – and the four of us – drunk as lords.

We passed through villages – Dong, Swa and Benli Tula – where villagers gathered by the trail to wave us on. We passed herds of cattle and flocks of sheep and goats grazing on the steep hillsides. Here and there were brush fires where Fulani herdsmen were burning off the tall elephant grass so that their flocks might more easily graze on the tender young shoots beneath.

We passed the boarded-up church with its sagging tin roof and crumbling mission house, and I thought the Wazire looked rather pleased at the sight of it. A soccer field still existed nearby although now it was used for the local weekly market. Only the school, I thought, remains to remind the Wazire of the Europeans who, alone, ruled the Wazire. Actually, he wasn’t nearly as free as he would have liked us to believe. His immediate boss was the corrupt Lamida of Yola. He, in turn, reported to the Sultan of Sokoto.

Each time the Wazire smiled, which I thought was rather seldom, he revealed a row of yellowed teeth, each filed to a sharp point. “He is a pagan,” explained the school-master, rather as though it left a bad taste in his mouth (he, himself, was a Methodist), “and once was cannibals.”

A crowd of young boys followed our Land Rover constantly, and inside we had crammed ourselves, the school-master, the Wazire and his third son, and four or five other kids. Many of the kids had large navel hernias and nearly all had the distended stomachs that speak eloquently of malnutrition. Their diet consisted almost entirely of corn, yams, a soup made from the leaves of the kapok tree, a sour corn wine and, on occasion, the meat of an unfortunate passing monkey.

We returned to our ‘house’, treated the Wazire to coffee and tea, and presented him with a half-consumed bottle of cherry brandy, a gaudy robe, tidbits of dehydrated food, and a waterproof flashlight. He made us promise to take him the following day on a tour of the outlying parts of his little domain, some of which he had never visited. In particular, he said, he wished to call at a place called Jessu – “Just ten miles distances from away,” we were assured. Mostly, I think, he just liked to ride – and to be seen riding – in our Land Rover. Apparently it gave his prestige a substantial boost. Everyone fell on their knees and bowed with their faces to the earth as he passed. Curiously, they often did this for us, too. I wondered who they thought we were.

After supper I wandered to the edge of the hill. Mists were rising from the valley and the hills gathered veils of it about their shoulders. The sun smoldered in the west, then flattened, darkened and settled behind an unseen mountain, its last rays flickering briefly on the spire of Tangale Waja. Blue smoke rose in lazy spirals between the hills, then drifted across the valleys to mingle with the mists. Inside the house a cricket shrilled, and our own private colony of bats swooped and darted across the room in search of the insects attracted by our light. Our little transistor radio blared tinny music from the French station at Fort Lamy and the wick of our gas lantern, fizzing, needed trimming. A cool breeze swept in over the hills below the mist, bringing sounds and smells from across the sleeping plains.

***

The trip to Jessu proved much more of an undertaking than we’d expected. It was more than three times as far as the chief had intimated. What he had assured us was a road proved to be nothing more than terrain passable – with difficulty – to a Land Rover, and he’d insisted on lots of stops so that he could speak to groups of his subjects who emerged from the bush to gape as we passed. Trees grew thickly in the broad valleys and spread more thinly up the lower slopes of the great bald peaks. Little streams clattered in miniature gorges, sometimes widening to form clear pools where villagers gathered to bathe. We passed the villages of Chum, Dadiya, Lamurde and Bumbum, then left the ‘road’ at a place called Yolde.

At Jessu Sabon Lai the villagers all gaped at our dusty car. There we picked up a youthful guide who led us at a walking pace across a country of increasing roughness, finally coming to a halt at the bank of a little stream that blocked the path completely. Across the stream, on the near slopes of a range of bald hills, the town of Jessu straggled along the hillside – clusters of brown and grey huts shaded by stands of acacia trees and surrounded by fields of ripening maize.

The local chieftain, a paunchy black man with a bristling handle-bar moustache, came to pay obeisance to the Wazire, who had never previously visited Jessu – the most distant of his domains. He led us to the royal compound on a hill about a mile away. There the town’s dignitaries were presented to the Wazire, bowing low and presenting gifts of chickens, yams and corn.

We sat cross-legged on the earth of the courtyard in front of the chief’s house and drank tepid corn beer from earthen bowls. Natives gathered around us, prodding, fingering our clothes. A circle of little naked children gazed at us in wonder, fingering our straight hair, plucked at our shoe laces, stroked the white skin on our arms. Then, at my invitation, each peered through my spectacles, cooing with delight. Even the Wazire insisted on a turn, strutting grandly about the compound for a few minutes, then collapsing dizzily on the ground and returning the glasses to me with a less than steady hand.

Rather reluctantly we left this happy gathering and set off up a nearby stream bed in search of rock outcrops to sample. A pair of young teenage boys, one wearing a panama hat and a shirt and carrying a reed pipe, with which he would occasionally play a few notes, accompanied us. Neither boy was wearing anything below the waist. Several nude women, bathing at the first pool we came to, fled hastily as we approached. At the second, a herd of goats tended by nude boys milled restlessly as we passed. The third pool, deeper and clearer than the others, was occupied by several naked men bathing. Children played at the fourth, and at the fifth, where the river emerged from a tangled swamp thick with elephant grass, we sat in the lee of a basalt boulder to eat our lunch of K-rations – surrounded, as always, by a crowd of curious young Africans.

It took a while for us to realise that the rocks in the river bed had already told us what we wanted to know. Here is a small lesson in geology. There are, in general, two kinds of rocks – hard rocks and soft rocks. Hard rock geologists study, as the name suggests, the hard rocks. These are the sorts of rocks that contain minerals – gold, iron, manganese, even diamonds. But they never contain oil. They are either igneous rocks – ie formed from magma or molten lavas – or metamorphic rocks which have been altered by so much heat and pressure that any oil would have been squeezed and cooked out of them. Oil geologists call these latter sorts of rocks, collectively, “basement” – which has the same connotation in geology as it does in architecture – ‘the bottom’ or the ‘base’. Once basement has been found, there’s no point in looking any deeper. Soft rock geologists, on the other hand, study the sort of rocks with which most of us are more-or-less familiar – sand, shale, limestone, etc. These are the rocks in which oil and gas are found. I, of course, was – and still am – a soft-rock geologist. Basalt – the material in this river bed – is just a sort of fossilized lava flow. That makes it ‘basement’, so its message is simple – don’t look for oil here. Up to this point in our Nigerian endeavours, every rock we had seen had been of the ‘hard’ variety.

A crowd of about twenty men in various states of undress had appeared, and squatted across the pool to watch us. They waded into the pool to retrieve our discarded tins, and called and waved to us until we invited them over for a closer look. One man tendered his calloused foot for inspection. After a ten-minute operation I had extracted a half-inch thorn from the sole, removing in the process, half an inch of flesh without ever penetrating the thick callous. When we left, we presented them with waterproof matches, tiny packets of salt, pepper and sugar, and our little ‘one-time-use’ Sterno stoves – which, being still hot, produced a rash of blistered fingers and muttered curses.

***

Just as we were finishing supper, the evening quiet was broken by the sound of drums throbbing from the village centre. The dance we were paying for was about to begin. We hurried to the compound, arriving just as the festivities were getting underway. We sat with the chief on the village’s three chairs, while earthen jugs of corn wine were set before us. I was presented with a clay bowl of the thick, pinkish liquid. Even Godiva, sitting quietly on my knee, was given a tiny mug of wine. It wasn’t unpleasant – rather like apple cider that had been allowed to ferment a bit too long – but it turned out to be extraordinarily potent. After a couple of bowls I was feeling decidedly light-headed and rather queasy. I had brought my camera and flash-gun, and took quite a lot of photos, the crowd gasping in awe each time the flash went off, a mob of children scrambling for each discarded bulb.

No fires had been lighted; but somebody had set a fifty-gallon drum in the centre of the circle with a kerosene lantern on it, and the drummers squatted around it. The dancers had gathered in a rough ring around the drummers. Beyond the circle of dancers were about five hundred villagers, all clapping and shouting encouragement to the dancers. The dancers – all men – were wearing costumes handed down from father to son – crossed straps of gaudy cloth across their chests, long aprons of the same cloth around their waists. A leopard skin hung down each back, and a row of clapperless brass bells. Each man carried a spear or a staff in his hand. The din was terrific – the bells clashing, the harsh dissonant singing, the thumping of bare feet on the hard earth and the banging of the drums. Naked kids joined the circle trying importantly to imitate their elders, their little bare posteriors jiggling as they performed the odd, jerking rhythms.

Three Hausa horns – six-foot lengths of giant bamboo with a mouthpiece at one end and an ox horn at the other – were brought in to announce the start, finish and change in step of each new dance. As the night wore on, the drums beat faster and faster, the cadence of the dance increasing. The dancers gyrated and stamped, their songs grew wilder, louder, faster – sweat pouring from bare black bodies, soaking their costumes. Big earthen jugs of beer were passed among the dancers, who gulped the contents without any let-up in their frenzied pace. Young girls began to join the circle, their little tufts of leaves bobbing ludicrously over their gyrating posteriors.

As the horns blared, several of the dancers prowled menacingly about the margins of the circle, threatening the crowd with spears and swords, acting out the motions of combat, screaming, charging and shouting. Mock duels were fought with staffs, spears and clubs, and skin shields appeared among the dancers.

Suddenly I saw Ali among the dancers. The tall, rangy boy had a spear in each hand. At first the villagers hooted and jeered good-naturedly as he danced; then they laughed; but finally, as he performed the intricate steps flawlessly, gave him their grudging admiration and applauded wildly. Finally the chief called him over, spoke to him briefly, stripped off his clothing and presented him with a leopard skin and a string of bells.

The dancing went on long after we left. The last thing I remember was the booming of the drums and the blare of the bamboo horns echoing among the great black hills of Tula.

***

Godiva had gone when I awoke – out somewhere pursuing Mantids, I assumed. So Charlie and I had our breakfast undisturbed by his antics. Charlie, who had never properly bonded with Godiva, made a couple of pointed remarks about how pleasant it was to have what he called ‘a normal meal’ for a change. We had just finished breakfast when the chief banged open our door and strode in, his face a picture of rage

“The Wazire, he send me for show you ‘dis thing!” he announced. He held both arms up. I hadn’t noticed before that he was carrying a dead chicken in each hand, gripping them both by the neck. Both were missing quite a lot of feathers. “What you say for dis?” he asked, frowning so hard his eyebrows met in the middle, “Dis for your monkey! What for he killit?”
“What’s the matter?” It was Charlie who asked the question. “Who’s killed what?
”Looks like Godiva’s killed a couple of the chief’s chooks,” I replied.
“Oh shit….” Charlie began, but the chief cut in.
“No!” the chief said, “Not couple! He’s killit many – lots. You comin’ me. Quick I show.” It was an order, not an invitation.

We struggled into our clothes while the chief paced impatiently back and forth outside. He led off uphill, toward the Wazire’s compound, at a killing pace. Just outside the compound wall he veered left and led us around toward the back. There we found not only the scene of the crime, but the victims and the perpetrator as well. We hadn’t even known the Wazire had a fenced-in chicken run – every chicken we’d seen in Nigeria had been running free. Inside the chicken-wire enclosure were twenty or thirty chickens, running about, flying, clucking frantically and squawking – fleeing, I guess, for their lives. There were feathers everywhere – the air was full of them and there were drifts across the floor. And, there, in the centre of the enclosure was Godiva, calmly wringing the neck of a large White Leghorn hen and doing one of his loud vocal renditions of Cheetah. Four or five other hens, already dead, lay on the floor near him. What on earth, I wondered, had Godiva been doing?

Rushing inside, I quickly pried the frantic chicken from Godiva’s grasp and threw it out the door, where it promptly took off at a gallop and disappeared in a cloud of feathers. It had occurred to me that in the excitement of the moment Godiva might choose to bite the crap out of me if I wasn’t careful. So I grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and marched him briskly out of the enclosure shaking him vigorously as I did so. I held him out at arm’s length, offering him, as it were, to the chief, who recoiled as though the monkey were a chalice of hemlock. “Don’t to giving’ dat me!” he bellowed. “Dat – and dese” – he gestured at the chicken in the enclosure – “be for de Wazire. You go give dat monkey for him!”

But the Wazire didn’t want to see us just then. His chicken flock – all pure-bred White Leghorns, a legacy from some sort of failed U.N. project – was his pride and joy. It was the thing in his life of which he was most proud. We later found out that he was trying to decide whether to kick us out of town now because of Godiva, or to keep us around for one last Land Rover ride and then kick us out. In the end, he decided he didn’t want to ‘see’ us again – ever.

To make a long story short, we tried to make things as right as we could before we left. We offered – through the chief (the Wazire had decided he wasn’t even going to speak to us any more) – to pay $5 for each of the seven chickens Godiva had killed. After a conference with the chief, the Wazire decided to levy an additional $2 for each of the twenty-five surviving chooks – on the grounds that they might be too upset to lay properly for a while. Charlie made me pay the chief the $85 out of my own money. In Tula US$85 was a fortune, and I’m sure it went a long way toward repairing our reputations. I don’t know how the Wazire felt about us when we left, but the chief smiled and waved as we drove away. Maybe he was just glad to see the back of us.

Across the Benue

We pulled up behind a long line of decrepit lorries and mammy wagons on a sand bank beside the half-mile-wide Benue to wait for the ferry, with the tin roofs of Numan glittering on the distant bank. On the south bank of the river, the rainforest began again. The humidity had been increasing ever since we left Tula, and we had now left the savannahs of the north. After about half an hour our turn came and we were ferried across and entered the town. We drove through a city of broad dusty streets lined with irregular rows of mud and thatch huts.

The road beyond Numan traverses the little-known domain of the Mummieh people – an area opened to Europeans for less than three years. The hundred thousand pagans who lived here still distrusted white people and had had, as yet, almost no contact with them. The road had just been completed and the English District Officer in Numan informed us that, as far as he knew, ours would be the first private vehicles to traverse it. He advised us to avoid stopping at villages for “Even now, the only security in the whole of the Benue Valley are the strongholds where the Fulani warlords maintain their barbaric courts” (his words). The area was, at least in theory, administered by the corrupt Lamida of Yola, southernmost of the great Fulani emirs, whose rotten officials and high taxes were hated by pagan and Fulani alike.

Zinna

Beyond Numan mountains pressed upon the river from the south. At Zinna, largest town of the Mummieh, we stopped briefly at the little Catholic Mission in hopes of refreshment. We were greeted by a wizened little Irishman, Father Reilly, who not only gave us a good meal, but pressed upon us an invitation to spend the night in his isolated mission at Yakoko, eight miles south in the mountain massif. “Tomorrow.” He assured us, “is market day here in Zinna. Surely you’ll be wanting some pictures.” Surely, we acknowledged, we would, so we accepted. The prospect of real beds was more than slightly alluring, and in less than half-an-hour we were on a high tree-studded plateau among the great peaks that had beckoned us all day from the road. There we were joined by another priest (from Yola) and, with their beds and our booze, contrived quite a festive evening. I spent the night shivering with a mild bout of malaria32, but – except for my hangover – felt quite recovered by dawn.

Things were never quite the same between Godiva and Charlie after the episode in the Wazire’s chicken coop, and it was clear that, as far as Charlie was concerned, Godiva was, at best, on a sort of probation. Their ‘alienation’ was further exacerbated when Godiva – normally petrified at the sight of anything remotely canine – took on Father Reilly’s big Alsatian – and won. It started out as sort of a chasing game in which both participants knew there was never going to be a catch, but something went wrong when Godiva somehow got caught an impossible distance from his safe-base in a tree. Knowing he was going to be overtaken, he stopped, turned on the proverbial dime, and hurled himself at the big dog. He grabbed hold of his muzzle with both hands and feet and then, holding the dog’s mouth shut, he bit him about thirty-seven times on the nose. It took three of us to pull the furious monkey off the panic-stricken dog. It took the good Father about an hour to clean, blot and bandage the dog’s muzzle and to calm it down. It wasn’t especially Godiva’s fault – the game had clearly started by mutual agreement. But Father Reilly wondered aloud whether he’d had to bite the dog quite so many times.

The market was full of pagans – mostly women – some entirely nude, some wearing tiny bunches of leaves and some in abbreviated multicolored beaded aprons. Intricate tattoos covered most of their bodies. Some had patterns of scar tissue where ritual mutilations had been filled with charcoal and salt to leave long ridges of raised flesh, and many of the men bore the scars of ritual beatings – to prove their manhood, Father Reilly said. None was shy with us. Rather they were exceedingly curious, for the father was the only other white man they had ever seen. Some felt of our skin and murmured among themselves. “They think you come from water,” the father explained, “and they are surprised that you’re not icy cold. They think that your colour must mean that your skin is cold to the touch.”

There were thousands there in the market – buying, selling, trading – or those who had just come to join in the festivities. Tobacco, yams, salt, sugar, dried fish, unimaginable cuts of meat, offal, pears, pipes, crude wooden axes, bolts of hand-woven native cloth, knives – all were on offer. Huge jugs of native wines attracted crowds; ground nuts and guinea corn, fruit and pastes of various sorts, cosmetics – heaps of merchandise lay on the baked ground. The noise, smells, heat and dust were almost overpowering. Dust hung over the market place trapping, as it were, smells and sounds alike.

Four boys, all eleven or twelve I guessed, followed us around for a while. All were naked except for what looked like a Band-aid wrapped around the ends of their penises. “They’ve just come from the circumcision ceremonies,” Father Reilly explained, “I circumcised them myself – bandaged ‘em too. Otherwise too many die from infection.” One of the boys, realising that we were talking about the events of his day, came over and, obviously very proud of his wound, thrust his pelvis forward. Then he grinned at me and pointed toward his groin, so I took a quick look at his genitals. Then, disbelieving what I thought I saw, I looked again. The boys actually were wearing Band-aids where – as recently as this morning – their foreskins had been.

“Out of all these,” Father Reilly said, with a gesture to indicate the whole market place, “we have only fifteen converts, and I think they only come for the prestige value.” When I expressed surprise, he continued, “All Christianity offers the Mummieh is a pair of shorts and some prayers in Latin – prayers memorized but not understood. And who of these people,” he sighed, “is likely to be drawn to that? Oh, yes, we have a small school, but our Nigerian teachers only have a fifth-grade (Form 1) education.” Sighing again, he continued, “But then, we have been here less than a year, and all this will change. With time will come understanding and with understanding, faith. Already they come to us to get their sons circumcised – not Christians particularly, most of the younger generation of parents. Also not for cleanliness – I don’t think they have any understanding of asepsis. The Band-aids seem to be a sort of status symbol. Most of the boys wear them for months – until they literally rot off. Sometimes their parents actually tie the bandages on with bits of string.”

***

Drums echoed from the east, where a cloud of dust swirled below a hill. “That will be the gathering of the Fulani,” Father Reilly said. “They are gathering here to greet the Sardauna of Sokoto33. All the great Emirs will be here. You should go see it.

Just east of town, on a hill of yellowish grass, was a great crowd of Fulani, perhaps three or four thousand in full array. Pennons floated above the crowd. Noblemen mounted on elaborately decorated horses lined the roadway, each wearing a turban and long coloured robes. Many of them also wore what was unmistakably chain mail. They had helmets with visors and carried long iron lances with pennons on the ends. Scores of drums throbbed over the savannah, thundering a greeting to the religious leader of the warrior Fulani. It was the rumble of drums that set the scene for this panorama of barbaric splendour – the gaudy crowd, the shrieking pipes, the eerie notes of the great horns, the medieval horsemen with their pennons and lances, the dancers – pagan and Moslem together – a scene as unforgettable as it was unexpected.

This was also the time of the Fulani beatings – a ceremony in which teenage boys undergo ritual beatings to prove their manhood. We stood for a time on the outskirts of the crowd, but were soon guided to the front ranks, where we sat almost literally in the midst of the participants. The young Fulani, naked and nervous, stood before us awaiting the start of the ceremonies. Most of them seemed to be about twelve or thirteen. When I asked Father Reilly, he said that age didn’t matter – partly because in this part of the country nobody knew how old he was anyway. “What matters,” he said, “is pubescence. When a boy starts to develop pubic hair, and his voice breaks, he’s ready.” I couldn’t tell about their voices, but since they were all naked, I could tell about the hair. Sure enough, every boy had at least a little kinky fuzz down there. The ceremony was heralded by a series of blasts on the bamboo horns.

At the signal, each boy stiffened, tense and expectant. In his extended hands he held a small mirror into which he gazed, on guard for the least indication of pain or terror. A grizzled elder – his examiner – squatted in front of each boy. Behind each young initiate stood a brawny warrior with a four-foot wand of bamboo about half-an-inch in diameter. At the signal, he brought the wand down with all his strength on the naked back before him.

“Usually,” Father Reilly explained, “Twenty lashes are administered, during which the boy must carry on a lively question-and-answer session with the elder in front of him. The least grimacing or flinching – the slightest indication of pain or flagging of conversation – if observed by the examiner – means failure – humiliating failure.

It was a pretty grim affair. For a time the only sound was the whistle and thump of the wands against the boys’ bare backs. Then the crowd began to shout words of encouragement to the boys, cheering and clapping – occasionally booing boys who showed signs of weakness. Then the first boy gave way. He yelped as the tenth blow was delivered, then sagged to his knees. He was led away, his back streaming blood, by his father. Another, his face, contorted and jerking, fled sobbing. The youngster nearest to us fainted. The others endured the beatings without the slightest indication of the pain they must have felt. And still the awful ceremony continued. Another fled from the circle, leaving bloodied footprints in the dust. Two more were down and a third was led, protesting, from the circle. The rest endured stoically until the ceremony reached its end – until the full twenty blows had been delivered. The survivors – fourteen of the original twenty – were led away by their families to be treated for their wounds. All would be scarred for life, some crippled. Dust was stirred over the arena until the reddish stains were obscured, and the crowd dispersed without further ado. Shaken and sobered, we resumed our trip.

Gwoza

Our next stop was at the market place in Gwoza, chief town of the tribe of the same name. The pagan Gwoza were perhaps the most inimical of the barbaric peoples of Nigeria. For one month each year, during their initiation ceremonies, Europeans are barred from entering their domain. Two friends of mine once drove unwittingly through Gwoza land during the forbidden period in a pickup with a canvas-covered bed. Upon their arrival in Numan they were asked if whey had had any difficulty and replied, “No. Why?” For answer they were directed to look at the back of their pickup, where fourteen spears bristled from the canvas.

The Gwozas practice a curious custom known as ‘bride-fattening’. Upon her betrothal, the prospective bride is led to a piece of ground sanctified by the local witch-doctor and made to sit, while a tiny mud house is built around her. It is doorless and contains only a single small window. There she remains for a period of two or three months while her relatives feed her prodigious amounts of rich, fatty foods. When she has attained a weight of two hundred or more pounds she is deemed ready for marriage. The hut is knocked down and the ceremony is performed. The fatter the bride the more munificent her dowry and the happier the husband.

Both men and women wear their hair in elaborate designs – ornate upstanding designs which resemble, more than anything else, cockscombs – with a single v-shaped braid hanging down over the centre of the forehead. Women wear bamboo skewers through the septum of their noses and have large wooden plugs inserted in their earlobes – which sometimes are stretched to such an extent that they flap against their shoulders. Both sexes go about nearly naked – the men usually wearing more than the women, but for some reasons known only to the Gwozas, all of their body coverings are worn behind.

We were greeted, after a time, by the chief, wearing a large conical hat and very little else. Out of courtesy we presented him with a five-pound bag of salt – a highly prized commodity in inland Nigeria – which seemed to delight him. When we produced our cameras, he eagerly herded his subjects together for photos, singling out particularly toothsome beauties for individual attention. There were a dozen or so enormous women in the crowd – two or three-hundred pounders. When I asked the chief, he confirmed that all of them were married. Half an hour and several dozen pictures later, we shook hands with about half the local population, said our farewells to the chief, and set out once more

Wukari

The country became richer and greener, and streams more frequent. At Bele we crossed the River Taraba. By the time we reached Donge, on the banks of the sluggish river of the same name, we were back in dense forest, hot and still. It took twenty minutes for the ferrymen to pole us across the quarter-mile wide stream, then another hour for us to reach the isolated town of Wukari – home of the famous Jukuns – an aristocratic-appearing people, who claim to have migrated long ago from Yemen, home of the legendary Queen of Sheba. Their heads are shaved, except for a single lock at the back. We pitched our tents in a large open-sided thatched structure on a hill overlooking the town. It was the afternoon of the 21st of October.

Father Reilly had told us we simply had to make it to Wukari by Oct 21 – the day, he said, they were to unwrap the Arkle. “The Arkle, their ruler,” Father Reilly had told us, “is a god-king, ruling with the aid of a council of high-priests. He is believed to be the incarnation of their deity, and is mummified like the Pharaohs at death. The body is embalmed in a sitting position, wrapped in yards and yards of linen, then set on a horse and led to the grave. The entrails and much of the body fat are mixed into a sort of paste which is incorporated into each meal of his successor.

“The Arkle is ritually strangled after ruling for seven years – subject to approval of the council of priests – but the present Arkle has been ruling for fourteen years and has just had another summing up. Whether he is allowed to continue his rule for another seven years depends largely upon crops, weather, plagues or famines which he has – or has not – successfully avoided during his tenure.

“The present Arkle,” He continued, “Has just found out that he has a mandate to rule for another seven years. Apparently, to celebrate this, they wrap him up like a mummy and carry him through the streets in a palanquin. Then, at the end, they have a ritual ‘unwrapping’ which confirms his mandate for another seven years.”

We rushed into town but we were too late. The Arkle had already been unwrapped. He was standing, totally naked and oiled from head to foot, just outside the door of the royal hut, receiving the congratulations of his subjects Beside him was the palanquin and a huge heap of soiled linen – presumably his recently-shed wrappings. He was astonishingly fat – well over three hundred pounds I reckoned. It must have taken a thousand yards of linen to wrap him up, I thought.

The Arkle graciously consented to a brief audience. We had a go at polite conversation, but neither George nor Ali spoke any language the Arkle could understand, or understood any of the several languages the Arkle spoke34. So we stood around for five or ten minutes – us, the blubbery Arkle (still naked) and six or seven of his advisors – everybody mute with embarrassment. It was a great relief when he graciously gave us leave to go (meaning he grinned – showing a set of teeth filed to needle-sharp points – and waved his hand toward the door).

Makurdi

It was still cool and dim when we started on the last leg to Makurdi, largest town on the Benue River, where the rail bridge leapfrogs the river via Bush Cow Island. A ghastly welter of mud and tin, Makurdi sprawled for five or six miles along the south bank of the Benue. The streets were rutted and muddy and lined with decrepit shops in dilapidated buildings. My only fond memory of Makurdi is of some curious signs we noticed – “Makurdi Hotel – Trust in God and Do Right”, “Shop Previously in Mabo Stores”, “Embassador Bar O! Customers Well Come”, “NOCredit Here come AGAin TOMorrow” and “Don’t shop across THE STReet WE are HyGENicer”. Hygenicer, I wondered, than what?

Gutters seeped dark fluids from beneath the woven walls of the compounds and there were clouds of flies. Vultures roosted on rooftops and fought, squawking over piles of offal. The town rises inland up a series of bald hills toward the European quarter, where the Government Rest House was located. The city smelled and steamed, and it was good to be well above its sweltering chaos on the clean-topped hill.

We were stopped for a time by a large crowd gathered to watch the local dodos (witch-doctors) exorcising the site of a new water well. The dodos, twelve or fifteen in number, wore straw skirts and hats, thick-legged straw trousers and beaded masks with many eyes. They danced in a tight circle about a group of drums, chanting in unison. Now and again they turned to a group of little nude boys crouching nearby in the dust, whom they switched repeatedly with long willow canes. The boys endured the beatings in stoical silence, although their faces streamed with tears. It was, we later learned, an integral part of the ceremony. The whipping was supposed to imbue the exorcism into the boys’ memories so that they might serve as infallible witnesses at a later date.

After a little time the dodos saw our Land Rover, forgot the well, and came over to exorcise us. They gathered about the vehicle, prancing in a gesticulating circle while the watching natives clapped and cheered. They blew on pipes, sprinkled coloured powder on the ground around us, and chanted incantations. Then, to our horror, they began to belabor us with their canes. For a few frantic minutes we howled and pranced, dodging their blows as we tried to record the proceedings on film. But we finally beat a retreat to the Land Rover and set off. For a time the dodos trotted beside the car chanting in unions something that sounded suspiciously like “Geeve me moneeey!”

Enugu

Enugu, capital of the Eastern Province, was a charming town of about 50,000. The most European town of Nigeria, Enugu – like almost every other town in Nigeria – sprawled for miles across the plains of the Cross River – scattered clusters of buildings connected by a network of paved streets and roundabouts, with lawns, parks, cricket fields, stadia and government buildings interspersed among corn fields, open plains and stands of what appeared to be virgin bush. At the Government Rest House we were given (after much delay) an old, crumbling chalet that had neither running water nor any sort of fan.

At the Geological Survey – the visit to which was our reason for coming to Enugu – we were taken in hand by Robin Hazel, a hugely tall blond Scotsman who offered to show us the local scenery.
“What we want,” Charlie told him, “Is to see some sedimentary (ie ‘soft’) rocks. We’ve been in this damned country nearly ten weeks and we’ve yet to see a rock that’s not either igneous or metamorphic. If Shell’s found oil here in the Niger Delta, surely to God, there must be some sediments. Can you point us in the right direction?”
“Well, what I know is this,” Robin replied, “There’re precious few rocks cropping out in the delta, I can tell ye that much. As ye know, the sludge accumulating in a river delta – although it may be prospective for oil and gas – is notoriously soft. It fact, the top two or three thousand feet of the rock sequence under here is little more than mud – and, since it’s in a river delta, its wet mud. So you don’t get many surface bumps that’re big enough to have an outcrop on them. There’s only one outcrop in the whole of the delta. As it happens, it’s not too far from here – at least if you don’t mind a long, damp walk. I dinna think the seein’ o’ it’ll do ye a lot o’ guid, but I’m game t’ take ye if you’re up t’it.”

We told him we were. “T’morra morning, first thing, then.” He said. “Now let’s go and get some dinner.” During the night Godiva, despite my best efforts, managed to rip down both sets of drapes in our chalet.

Climbing into our Land Rover next morning, Robin guided us several miles into the Niger Delta, to the outskirts of a little mud and thatch village. “Ye’ll like this place”, he said. “Young girls aren’t allowed any clothing until marriage. All they wear is a wee string o’ red beads about their mid-section. They’re known hereabouts as the ‘beaded virgins’.

We ate our lunch in the village while half the population – including the ‘beaded virgins’ (who weren’t anything special – at least not after the Zulwas, the Shashas and the fat ladies of Gwoza) – looked on. Then our friend Hazel, who knew a bit of the lingua franca, asked for a guide to the sacred spring. After a short palaver, the chief seemed to understand, and produced a small, limping boy to guide us to the place. The boy, about nine or ten, looked like he was about to burst into tears. In hindsight, that was hardly surprising. He was in obvious pain from a strangulated hernia. Even I could see the large inflamed lump in his groin.

After a single glance at the boy’s swollen groin, Robin was furious. “That boy should go for hospital!” he bellowed, “Who is for father?” A tall, spare, naked man stepped forward. “You take that boy for hospital, you hear?” Robin shouted at him, as they stood almost nose-to-nose. “He go die if no go for hospital. Now, where is better guide?”

Then to us he said, “He will take the boy to Enugu for treatment now. He has been publicly warned by a Potouri that the boy is ill, and if he ignores me and the boy dies, he will lose much face in the village. He probably has no particular interest in the child’s health – he’s probably got a dozen more – and almost certainly distrusts white doctors, but he would hate like Hell to lose face.”

After a lot of persuasion, Hazel found another guide to take us to the sacred spring – this time a sleek adolescent Adonis, who looked like he ran marathons before breakfast. In hindsight, maybe he did. He set a cracking pace that soon had us sweating and gasping for air – and he was able to maintain it for the whole hour it took to get there. Robin, Charlie and I were sweating like pigs the whole time – limbs and lianas slapping at our faces, and by the time we arrived at the spring the three of us were totally knackered – dehydrated and panting, our muscles cramping from a surfeit of lactic acid. Our youthful guide, on the other hand, wasn’t even breathing deeply, and his smooth skin was cool and dry.

At the spring, where a little stream of clear water gushed from fractures in a vertical wall of rock, village women had gathered to fill their calabash water jugs. Here, for the first time, I noticed an old Ibo custom of dyeing the body with juices to produce a pattern of lines. Girls have horizontal lines about six inches apart circling bodies, limbs and faces. The older women had vertical lines – all of indigo – at about the same intervals. The custom originated, we were told, in the days when the Ibos were relentlessly persecuted by rapacious slave traders, and the tribe was likely to be set upon without warning. The system of lines was designed to enable a mother to identify her daughter in case the family was split up and sold into slavery. Nowadays the patterns have lost their meaning and are used solely as ornament.

Noting several large mudfish basking in the pool at the foot of the spring, I asked Robin if they were edible. “We’ll never know,” he replied, “This is a sacred spring and these fish represent the spirits responsible for its very being. The natives would never dare disturb them for fear the spring would dry up. You see that hut there?” he indicated a little circular wooden hut built where the flow slipped over a six-foot drop, “That’s the home of a local dodo whose sole job is to propitiate their fish gods. Seems he’s done a good job, too. This is the only spring for miles that never dries up during the dry season.”

The rock face was entirely covered in algae and moss, thick-grown and dripping with moisture. There might well be rock under that wall of green slime – maybe even an interesting rock – but without scraping off some of the moss – and, hopefully, whacking off a fist-sized sample – we were never going to know. But when Charlie unlimbered his geologic pick and stepped forward to scrape some of the muck off to get a peek at the rock underneath, Robin went ballistic. “Put that fucking hammer down – quick!” he hissed at Charlie, “You stupid……stupid……..Didn’t you hear what I just told you? If you think whacking off a great chunk of that rock isn’t going to disturb the sacred fish, you’ve got another think coming. If the dodo,” he gestured at the little hut at the side of the pool, “starts to come out of there, run like hell. He’s not only a witchdoctor who believes. He’s a modern witchdoctor who believes. He’s got some sort of automatic weapon in there – I know, he once threatened me with it. He keeps it just in case unbelievers like you and me come along and try to bother his fish.”

Charlie just shrugged his shoulders. “I knew it was too good to be true,” he said, “Sometimes I think God just hates this company.”

Abakaliki

Early next day we set out toward Abakaliki across a rolling landscape that gentled to the east, and at Eshinkwor we crossed the Aboline River on another little hand-poled ferry. We skirted the villages of Ugalanga and Ugalanga Ameta, with their teeming, dusty markets, then stopped briefly at Okposi where, in the only tin-roofed building in town, we were served bottles of luke-warm Krola. As we sat sipping, a group of young bead-clad virgins came by, this time wearing dozens of brass rings on their legs, sometimes reaching as high as their knees. They must have been terribly heavy, for they walked slowly, picking their way as though their legs weighed a ton. “That’s their dowry,” Robin explained, “They are only taken off at marriage, whereupon they become the property of the groom to dispose of as he sees fit.”

We’d come to Abakaliki to see the famous oil field, but it was surrounded by miles and miles of cyclone fencing and Shell’s guard wouldn’t let us in. In fact, Shell bosses were totally inimical to us and our efforts. We once picked up a pair of Shell employees whose car had broken down and detoured more than fifty miles to deliver then to the Shell camp that was their destination. By the time we delivered them it was past midnight and there was no way we were going to make it to our destination, so they offered us the use of an empty cabin in the camp. We had no more than got our beds set up and dinner cooking when a Shell boss came in and ordered us out of the camp that instant – despite the entreaties and explanations of our would-be hosts. In the end we set up camp about a mile from the Shell facility. “I’m having,” was his explanation for the middle-of-the-night eviction, “No fucking spies in my camp!”

***

Beyond Okposi the forest closed about the road and flocks of tiny Wydah birds – the sparrow-sized males sporting two-foot tails of red and white – flashed among the trees. Semi-nude pagans carried their loads to market along the road. The women’s skin was dyed fantastic shades of red ochre, black, white or grey with the natural cosmetics they use as beauty preparations.

Amasiri

At Amasiri, long a pagan centre, we came upon the fertility rites held once each year in order to ensure a sufficiency of offspring. “Be careful,” Robin cautioned, “Take no pictures here. We aren’t really welcome y’know. We can only stay a minute.” But what a scene it would have been for photos! The women, all dyed red with black bands around their waists, squatted in a large circle on fallen logs, playing pipes and beating large oval drums. Many had strapped big calabashes about their waists – “in imitation of pregnancy” Robin whispered. In the centre of the circle was an immense carved wooden phallus, and squatting around it – facing outward – were six dodos dressed in grass skirts that reached from their necks to their feet. They wore ferocious wooden masks with duck-like bills studded with great wooden teeth. The masks had tall feather plumes waving above a set of three red and blue eyes, and were beaded with intricate designs and set into fierce, scowling expressions. Upon our approach the entire group ceased dancing. The drums and pipes fell silent and they all just sat, watching us with a sort of silent, sullen hostility – just waiting for us to go.

The men – about fifty in all – were entirely naked except for two-foot wooden phalluses, painted red, blue and green, strapped about their loins. They had long lashes in their hands and many were already bleeding from slash marks across their backs when we interrupted the ceremony. Each wore hideous carved wooden masks with many eyes, horns and tusks and hooked noses painted in a variety of colours, some with real hair inserted into holes in the wood. We never left the Land Rover – just sat and stared for perhaps a minute or a little more – while the participants glared at us in an unfriendly silence. Then we drove on, leaving them to their rites.

At Afikpo, we saw herds of knackered-looking horses being driven along the road. “They’re for sacrifice,” Robin explained, “They have each year a sacrifice they call ‘The Deeding’. Their concept of the afterlife is one of a world identical to the present in every detail. Each man is entitled to have in heaven as much as he had on earth. Until a few years ago it was customary to sacrifice an enemy by flaying him to death. In that manner the Ibo would receive not only his own share in heaven, but that of the dead enemy as well. The government put a stop to the human sacrifice, but the natives merely changed to sacrificing horses. Each Ibo tries to sacrifice a horse each year, thus ensuring that he will have a valid ‘deed’ when he reaches the ‘promised land’.”

We drove for about three hours, crossing little streams, rising up on little sandstone ridges, then passing out onto farmed plains. Much of the high forest of the Eastern Province was destroyed between 200 and 250 years ago to make charcoal for the smelting activities that flourished in the old empire of Benin, the land being later used for farming. Ducks, chickens and most of the crops – coconut, palm oil trees and yams – were imported by Portugese traders in the early 1700s, and have now become the staple foods of the Ibos.

Cameroons

About 6:PM we reached the Cross River – a quarter of a mile of syrupy-looking brown water. It was dusk when we arrived at the crossing. The ferry – a few planks mounted on a couple of canoes – was tied up on the other side, and the ferrymen had obviously retired to their little tin hut for the night. We shouted and yelled furiously, but in vain. Finally, I became desperate and blasted the forest’s silence with the vicious air-horn we’d had fitted to the Land Rover. Almost immediately the banks were swarming with Negroes, some of whom eventually managed to get the ferry over to our side. Hesitantly we edged the Rover up onto the rickety planks and ordered the ferrymen to take us across. To the accompaniment of a pair of drums they did, the crossing taking just under an hour.

We finally reached the landing on the far side of the river and plunged into a tunnel in the densest forest I’ve ever seen – on a road that would have been dark at high noon. After an hour or so the forest began to thin – we knew, because we could see scattered stars – and we came out onto spreading country with fields of maize and plantations of yams. Away to the south was a range of mountains jagged as a dragon’s back. The wind from the mountains was cool and sweet and smelled of flowers, and we longed to be up there on them. It was this hopeful anticipation that gave us the strength to drive right through the night. Finally, at the little town of Mamfe, we ground to a stop before the ‘Hope Rising Hotel and Bar’, had a cold tinned meal out of our rations and spent the night fighting off bedbugs and mosquitoes in the black hole of a room that was the best they had.

Next day we began the ascent of the Bambuto Mountains, the barrier separating Nigeria and the Cameroons. The road was perilously narrow as it was, but driving had been further complicated by politics. The Cameroons was divided between a British and a French mandate35, in which you drove on the left – or the right – depending in whose mandate you lived. The inhabitants, however, paid little or no attention to the geographic boundaries of the mandates, but drove in accordance with their political convictions, a course of action which used to give rise to the most appalling accidents.

Eventually the authorities decided to make the road across the mountains one-way. So, in 1959, Anglophiles – who drove on the left – used it on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Francophiles were loosed on it to drive on the right on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. However, the seventh day remained an insoluble problem; neither side wanted the other to have the use of the road on Tuesdays – this giving them four days use to the other side’s three. The result – in the interest of equality – was that on Tuesday, two-way traffic – and driving on either side of the road – was allowed. In all ignorance of this, we started our drive across the mountains on a Tuesday – a drive which called for extreme vigilance, great trust in the powers above, and a lot of luck. Almost immediately we had to hurl ourselves to the left to avoid a bus, its windscreen painted with “Hallelujah!” and then to the right to escape a former army truck bearing the inscription “Love they Neighbour”. In the end, however, we began to master the technique and were able to devote some attention to the scenery.

There are many beautiful parts of Nigeria – the high, cool plateau of Jos, the softly rounded hills of Tula, the great sweep of the Benue near Makurdi, the lush rain forests outside Lagos – but the Cameroons contained the loveliest of all Nigeria’s varied scenery. At the start of the climb we left the wet and melancholy jungle and emerged into a high world of light and coolness and colour. The big bluebell umbrellas of the Jacaranda tree could not climb so high and their place was taken by the burning candelabras of the tulip tree. Then came a belt of hibiscus woods and giant ferns, where you saw millions of flamingo pink and scarlet flowers which covered the slope. Finally, even the hibiscus woods came to an end and there you had mimosa flowering in brilliant yellow clusters against a sky of blue silk, so that the whole countryside looks as though it had been swathed in the Swedish flag.

In Bamenda we found ourselves in a sort of African version of paradise. The women walked about naked and had tall slender bodies. They were neither coy nor timid but stepped as in a dance, and they met our gaze with a strange mixture of inquisitiveness and contempt. The children went about leading the household pigs, and elder men wore dark-coloured cloaks and gave us dignified greetings by laying their hands on their hearts.

Here we found a high civilization. The people of Bamenda love beautiful things, even for everyday use: their baskets were masterpieces of weaving, the shafts of their spears were carved with figures of hunting magic and their calabashes decorated with elegant line patterns. They know how to cast small bronzes in the manner of Ife and Benin.

In the evening we came to a little hotel nestling under a cloud of Jacaranda blossoms and there we decided to stop. Again we ate from tins, but here, at 5,000 feet, we slept under blankets for the first time in weeks and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Next day we drove the great loop of road that winds through the hilly plateaux of Bamenda Province – passing through Kumbo, then returning finally to Bamenda. The land was all hills, big and rounded and green. We couldn’t see the soaring volcanic peaks that rose above them because of the clouds. Bamboo grew in great green plumes and the road was raw and red as it wound among the hills. The little fields were separated from the forest only by fences of woven reeds, and long lines of naked Africans toiled single-file, scratching at the soil with long pointed sticks. In clear, rushing streams kids gathered in whooping, laughing groups, and in the markets the teeming crowds danced to their throbbing drums and drank palm wine.

Back in Bamenda we ate a hasty lunch in the little tin-roofed hotel, filled our petrol tank, then raced, Francophile-fashion, down the road to Mamfe and bed.

Thirty miles east of Mamfe, we swung south along the seldom-used road to Calabar. The road from Ikom to Calabar was clearly marked by a sign that read, “Northbound traffic Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Southbound traffic Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Maintenance only Mondays”. We arrived on a Tuesday. After a short, sad silence, during which we gazed gloomily at one another, then at the road with its damned sign, Charlie looked at me and I looked at him, and in one breath we both said, “What else can we do?” So we did it. Taking our consciences by the scruff, we set forth to drive the hundred-odd miles to Calabar in defiance of the sign and the law. At first it seemed as though we might, after all, succeed. The road was narrow and rutted and it snaked around steep cliffs of granite, and there were absolutely no places where oncoming traffic – were we to meet any – could pass. Then, to top it all off, it began to rain – great enormous globs of water that splattered messily on the dust on the windscreen, mixing it to mud which turned most of the windscreen opaque. The road became slippery and our Rover slid, bounced and yawed hideously, skidded over little hump-tacked bridges and slithered across seas of terracotta-coloured mud.

We sidled dizzily around hairpin bends, slurped across rain-obscured fords – one had a sign that read “This is a changeable ford. Drive ahead 30 yards, then turn to SSE for 12 yards and bear left. Steady on.” After a time, when the rain had settled down to a steady drizzle, and the road surface had become so rough that it was nearly impossible to slide, we began to make better time. When the road rose into the great granite massif of the Oban Hills, the forest marched down from the hills and overhung the road with a canopy so dense that we actually needed our headlamps to negotiate it. White mist boiled up from the valleys and scudded along below the green and purple hills that seemed to float suspended on the mist. A breeze blew from the sea – cool and damp – dappling the windscreen in fine spray. This was the Kembong, greatest of Nigeria’s forests, 40,000 square miles of uninhabited, largely unexplored rain forest. After five hours we had made just sixty miles.

***

As our trip drew toward its close, I began to worry about Godiva – about what would happen to him when we left Nigeria – what to do with him. Taking him with us was an absolute non-starter. For me, putting him down was unthinkable, and I knew nobody I’d have cared to leave him with. For more than a week the Godiva disposal problem exercised my mind considerably. Nothing – absolutely nothing – suggested itself as a solution. In the end, it was Godiva himself that solved the problem – and he did it in typical Godiva fashion.

It was on an afternoon, when Charlie and I were both already exhausted and ill-tempered, that Godiva made his move. We had left him free in the vehicle, something that usually didn’t cause any problems. But today the back of the car was crammed with assorted baggage, much of which was new to Godiva. His first act was to eat a packet of cigarettes. Hardly surprisingly, this made him sick, and when he brought it back up, he puked the lot right in Charlie’s lap. While we were cleaning Charlie up, Godiva managed sneak a carton of Marlborough cigarettes from the glove shelf without being seen. As we resumed our trip, he took the carton up the back, managed to open it, and shredded the whole thing without either of us noticing. When he’d finished, he filled his hands with shredded cigarettes, leaned forward and threw handful after handful of the stuff into the passenger compartment, covering both Charlie and me with shredded tobacco and paper, yawping and cackling with unmistakable glee. While brushing his seat clean, Charlie sternly ordered me to get out Godiva’s leash and fasten him to the back of the seat somehow so he would be unable to reach the glove shelf. I did so, leaving Godiva more-or-less free access to the rear of the vehicle. This turned out to be another mistake. Godiva then amused himself by rummaging around in the baggage. Almost immediately he found – and managed to open – Charlie’s shaving kit. The next thing we knew he had opened a pressurized tin of shaving cream and had figured out how it worked. Within seconds, the whole front seat of the Land Rover – and, of course, Charlie and I – were largely covered in shaving foam.

It took us quite a while to get the mess cleaned up. We had to stop and unpack some of our luggage to find clean shirts to put on. Charlie wanted to change the pants Godiva had puked on while he was at it, but his suitcase was right at the bottom, so he gave up. As we climbed back into the Rover, he insisted I shorten Godiva’s leash until he was pretty much confined to the back of our seat – unable reach either the luggage behind him or the glove tray in front. Charlie was still steaming as we finally set out again.

Godiva may have been pretty bright by monkey standards, but he wasn’t quite smart enough to stop while he was ahead. Sitting on Charlie’s shoulder – God knows why Charlie was still letting him sit there – Godiva turned to face the rear, and crapped all down the front of Charlie’s shirt. “Shit!” Charlie bellowed (more appropriately than, perhaps, he realised) and slammed on the brakes, bringing the Rover screeching to a halt. Before Charlie could move, Godiva swiveled around and – quite deliberately – pissed on him. Because Godiva, sitting on the back of the seat, had the high ground, the stream of urine hit Charlie in the side of the head – just in front of his left ear. Spluttering and furious, Charlie lurched from the vehicle. Half-covered in shredded tobacco, monkey puke, monkey piss and monkey crap, and festooned with shaving cream, Charlie had pretty much reached the end of his tether. And, much as I liked Godiva, I didn’t blame him. He reached back inside the vehicle, got a grip on the leash, and dragged Godiva, protesting loudly, out of the car.

I don’t know what Charlie intended to do to him, because at that precise moment, a grubby black man stepped out of the brush beside the road, holding a rope on the other end of which was a half-grown baboon.
“Hey mister,” he called, grinning happily at Charlie, “You wanna buy a cheap baboon?”
Looking from the monkey to the baboon and back, Charlie did a magnificent double-take – the kind you only see in movies. “Hell no!” Charlie finally managed. He paused, thought for a moment, and looked again from monkey to baboon and back. Then he added, “How about you? You wanna buy a cheap monkey?”
“How much?”
“One penny! That’s all. You can have him for one God-damned penny!”
“You mean dat?”
“You God-damned right I mean it!”
The baboon-vendor rummaged around in his pocket for a few seconds, then, grinning, held out a penny.
Charlie, without the slightest hesitation, took the penny, and thrust the end of Godiva’s leash into the flabbergasted black’s hands. “Take the damned thing and get it out of here,” he said. “Its name is Godiva.”

With the baboon on a rope in one hand and Godiva on a leash in the other, the black man turned and disappeared into the brush. We never saw Godiva again.

Calabar

At the police toll station we were chastised – but not punished – for our misdemeanor (we played it real dumb – “What sign? It was raining so hard we could barely see the road!”). The sergeant told us that unless we could make the next forty miles in an hour we’d miss the ferry across the Great Kwa River to Calabar.

When we finally screeched to a halt on the river bank, we were just in time to see the ferry mooring for the night in midstream. For twenty minutes we shouted back and forth, arguing and pleading with the captain, but all in vain. It seemed that the purser had already retired to his home for the night – and no purser, no ferry. Then I spied an old barge – really just planks lashed across three big dugout canoes. “Why can’t we use that?” we asked. The captain replied that it would undoubtedly carry us, but that it belonged to the Public Works Department, and that he was sorry (“berry too much sorrow me”) but he could be of no further use to us – and, besides, his wife was waiting dinner on him. At length a villager volunteered to guide us to the PWD foreman who said, yes, he was willing, but where was he to get a crew to pole it across? No, villagers could not do. It was PWD property and, as such, must be poled only by PWD workers. Finally, after scouting for nearly an hour up and down the road, stopping at isolated villages to pick up members of the PWD crew – who seemed always to live at least a mile apart – we returned, tired and disgusted, to the ferry with five stalwart black PWD workers aboard.

However, upon our arrival, we found that during the interim the tide had fallen three feet and the massive barge was now high and dry. Heave as they might, the men just couldn’t budge it. We then recruited eleven locals at 50 cents each just to get it off the mud, but twenty minutes of hard labour got us nowhere. Finally, resigned to a night on the mosquito-infested bank of the river, we cooked ourselves a meal – surrounded, as always, by a crowd of curious blacks. It was pitch dark by now and we used the Rover’s headlamps for light to open and heat a scratch meal from our freeze-dried supplies. About 9:30, when everyone had gone home, I suddenly noticed that the tide and come back in and the barge was once again floating. Half an hour later we’d rounded up everyone and we were at sea.

On close inspection Calabar wasn’t anything to write home about. It was perched on a sort of tableland about a hundred feet above the island-studded mouth of the Cross River, and looked over vistas of mangrove swamps, shallow, sluggish river channels, and lots of mud flats. The town was a chaotic place of rusting tin and rotting thatch on mud, smelling of rot and damp and mold and dead fish and offal. There were several ratty little parks with granite plinths that apparently commemorated nothing, and a pair of gigantic Catholic churches that seem to have grown up from the mud like large, grey fungi. Low purple clouds hung over the city and it rained incessantly. Mud and soft squashy sand were everywhere underfoot, paintwork was streaked with lichens and dark mosses, and grass grew in the streets. In the evening we attended the Patsol Cinema and saw “The Day the World Exploded” – possibly the worst film ever made – and wondered at the sign over the screen, which read “Please don’t move seats and don’t be afraid. Thanks.”

In Calabar Charlie got a cable from Peter, who was still in Lagos. Peter advised him that a firm invitation to visit the Alaphine of Oyo – who had been unable to receive Charlie when he was first there – had been received. The date was only four days away. So we had to get a move on if we wanted to make it on time. We hurried west. Overnighting in Enugu, we took the ferry across the Niger at Onitsha and drove directly back to Lagos. Next morning we headed north to Oyo. About fifty miles north of Ibadan, Oyo lies almost exactly where the jungles peter out into the savannah of Northern Nigeria. We had both been there before – the town was on the main highway from Lagos to Kaduna – so we knew what to expect.

Oyo

The Alaphine, ruler of a hundred thousand Yoruba tribesmen, greeted us in front of his ramshackle palace. Tall and spare, he was a generous host, unfailingly affable, always obliging, and ready to perform some small service to make our stay in his mud capital, Oyo, more pleasant. On the second day of our visit we had been invited to a royal audience in the throne hall of the palace. We presented ourselves, scrubbed and sweating, at the outer gates just after sunrise. We were met by two stately old advisors clad in flowing crimson robes and led into the outer court of the palace – a large, irregular compound, weed-grown and ringed with a thatched verandah supported by thickets of carved wooden posts. In one corner a row of ancient cars lay rotting. One – a 1924 Mercedes limousine – was entirely chrome-plated. “Dash (a gift) from King George,” explained one of the advisors. “Never used – Our Alaphine no allow drive, must be allatime many men can carry, but he like-it dat car too much”

We passed through a series of gateways into ever-smaller courts, finally stopping in front of a newish building of concrete blocks. On the verandah we were directed to remove our shoes. Inside the high-ceilinged throne room it was dim and dusky and it took our eyes some time to become accustomed to the gloom. The walls were lined with trophies of the hunt – including a pair of very large elephant ears – autographed photos of foreign monarchs, and a bizarre assortment of objects of the sort of gifts exchanged between rulers – ornate gilded clocks, marble desk sets, musical gadgets, ornate chests, etc. Ancient wooden statues of Yoruba gods stood beneath the tall windows, some dressed in blue and red robes, all with indigo-dyed skull-caps. A double line of tatty overstuffed chairs, some with wickedly protruding springs, extended the length of the room to a raised dais carpeted in red. On the dais were two ‘thrones’ – one an ornate object of gilded wood and plush upholstery, with a canopy of faded velvet; the other a gleaming chrome and red leather barber chair.

The Alaphine, dressed in a flowing robe of indigo flecked with gold and wearing a tall bee-hive hat of some sort of heavy gold-coloured cloth, was sitting on the canopied throne. He stepped down from the dais and greeted us each courteously with a firm handshake. Then, with a wave of his hand, indicated that we should be seated.

Our conversation consisted largely of questions directed at the Alaphine, which he answered in a rapid sing-song voice. He was well-informed concerning what he referred to as the ‘outer world’ and had read widely in both French and English, both of which he spoke fluently. The Alaphine never walks out-of-doors, but is carried, as protocol demands, in an ornate wooden sedan chair. In his role of God-king it is mandatory that he never be seen eating. For this reason, he wears a sort of veil over his lower face when dining, lifting it just a trifle to insert food into his mouth. It is also written that he may eat neither from a table nor the floor as his subjects do. This difficulty was surmounted by having slaves36 kneel on the floor holding dishes before him as he ate.

The Alaphine’s brother, a dapper English-speaker in his middle twenties, arranged a tour of the city. There are no streets in old Oyo, just haphazard passages between mud walls. The houses are low-walled and rectangular, roofed with double layers of thatch and surrounded by mud-walled compounds. Not only is the city the administrative center of Oyo Province, but also the holy city of the Alaphine’s subjects. We were allowed to visit certain shrines – small and dark with wooden gods peering from their gloomy alcoves. Bizarre masks and ceremonial spears hung from the rafters. Urns smeared with what looked like blood lined the walls. Usually a priestess was in attendance – mostly wrinkled, toothless and openly hostile, displaying her gods unwillingly at our guide’s insistence. Before low altars of mud lay sacrificial offerings – chickens wrapped in palm leaves, small mud bowls of rancid butter or goat blood, and small wooden effigies.

We stopped before one large thatched enclosure. “This,” our guide explained, “is the – how do you say? – ‘Holy of Holies’, our most sacred shrine. Only two men enter here – the high priest to care for the idols, and the Alaphine once each year to bear offerings.” When we insisted that we be allowed to see the idols, he and the priest went into a huddle, finally deciding that if we were to buy sacred oil to anoint the idols, they might be brought outside the temple enclosure without desecration. “But,” he cautioned, “No photography!” The priest prostrated himself before the enclosure, prayed long and earnestly, then vanished inside. He returned shortly, bearing an idol, covered in a crimson cloth, reverently in his arms. Five trips in all were required before, with a flourish, he removed the crimson cloths to reveal his wooden gods. He prostrated himself before each, praying softly. “He asks their forgiveness,” our guide explained, “and promises them extra sacrifices for a month if they will bear him no ill-will.”

The effigies, each about three feet tall, were carved from some fine-grained white wood. They sat astride horses, grotesque and unreal, yet each beautiful for its intricate workmanship. Almost immediately the priest re-covered the idols, then hurriedly removed them to the interior. “He fears that they will be seen by the people.” Our guide told us, “That is strictly forbidden and would be an unforgivable blasphemy.”

In the dark, earth-floored homes we watched native women preparing corn-meal patties over little fires. We were curious about tiny wooden effigies that appeared in some of the homes. They were crude exaggerated images of humans, some female, some unmistakably male.  Many were dressed in tiny doll-like garments and in one home, where the family was eating their midday meal, the wife made a ritual offering of each bite of food to the idol. “It is the custom of my people,” said our guide, “that twins bring bad luck. In consequence, one of them is always slain at birth. To console the mother, she is given this small image of her child – we call them ‘ibejes’ – in which the spirit of the dead child reposes. She must treat it as though it were alive. She clothes it, bathes it, offers it food as you saw, and cares for it. Failure to do so might alienate our gods. These idols are very sacred and must never leave the home.” However, through the good offices of young Ali, I managed to acquire half-a-dozen of these little figurines. I guess this proved something – that, even amongst the devout, money talks. I only paid US$1 each for them.

Lagos

During our last week in Nigeria, which we spent in Lagos, Charlie invited the prime-minister elect, Alhaji Sir Abubakr Tafewa Balewa and the Sardauna of Sokoto to dinner37. Peter James, who already knew both men well, was there, of course, and I got invited – mostly, I think, because nobody wanted me to feel left out. I don’t remember the name of the restaurant, but the menu was in French and the prices were astronomical. It was, apparently, the snazziest place to dine in the whole of Lagos. I was charmed by both men. They were bright, well-spoken and well-informed, and they were very kind to me – the ignorant junior – including me, as far as possible, in the conversation. The important parts of the discussions were way over my head, but it didn’t matter. I sat there in a happy daze, dazzled to be the host – well one of the hosts – of the first Prime Minister of Nigeria. At the age of twenty-five (I’d just had a birthday), with a work history of barely a year, it was pretty heady stuff. I got to drink my first French wine – I can still remember that it was a Beaujolais called Chateauneuf du Pape38 – and ate my first escargot.

At the end of the meal when the bill arrived, it was inadvertently handed, not to Charlie, but to me. It was a huge bill. The total came to just over £400. At the exchange rate of the day, that was about US$1,000. I hadn’t known it was possible to spend that much money for food. I hastily passed it on to Charlie. He tendered his American Express card, only to be told that the restaurant didn’t take credit cards. So he and Peter had a very serious – and very quiet – discussion. Neither of them had anything like enough cash to pay the bill. To be embarrassed in this way at this time in this place – and with these people – was unthinkable. As it happened, I had cashed up that afternoon in order to buy a spectacularly expensive Zeiss Ikon camera I’d seen at the duty free shop in Tripoli, so I had a wallet full of money, which, of course, I offered to Charlie.

Charlie’s gratitude seemed, at the time, overwhelming. Maybe it was, I don’t know. But, rather than give me cash back next day as I’d hoped, Charlie told me just to put it on my expense account. So, in the end, I was unable to buy the camera I coveted in Tripoli airport. Not only that, but my expense account was dishonoured by the company. “Junior Geologists,” I was told sternly, “Do not entertain prime ministers with company funds.” 39

Decisions, decisions, decisions

At the end of November, Charlie and I got together and tried to decide what sort of recommendation to make to corporate headquarters. My research had proved that the northern half of the country was geologically a ‘no-go’ area. Regarding the south half, we had absolutely no data, so we put our heads together and – well, frankly – in the end, we made a guess. It seemed to us that, although more small discoveries like Abakaliki40 were possible, the likelihood of major oil discoveries was vanishingly small. So, covering our asses as well as we could (by admitting that we actually knew almost nothing about the geology of southern Nigeria), we finally recommended that no action be taken – stating (although not in so many words) that Nigeria wasn’t a likely place to discover significant future oilfields.

Mistakes often happen in the oil business – they are regarded pretty much as an unavoidable occupational hazard. Nevertheless, when we made a mistake, we made a doozey!

In the following ten years, over five hundred oil fields were discovered in southern Nigeria. Oil production peaked in 1985 at over 860,000,000 barrels (over 2,400,000 barrels/day). Producing companies included Chevron, Mobil, Agip, Elf, Texaco, Ashland, Phillips and Shell – but, of course, not our company. Charlie and I had really screwed up. Godiva would have been proud.

1960:

Iran

Frights of Fancy

Baluchistan is a seamed and pitted land, barren, inhospitable and dangerous – almost uninhabitable and nearly uninhabited. Sometimes called the Makran Coast, it faces the Arabian Sea along the southern shores of Iran and Pakistan. Even now it is a wild and wooly place – where government writ hardly runs. In 1960 the government was still trying to catch the bandit chief Dotshah, who had kidnapped and murdered the last foreigners to visit there.

A team of geologists – including me – was being sent to Baluchistan for a six-week surface reconnaissance of the Makran Coast. So head office in Tehran decided a brief aerial survey of the area might be in order. As a member of the surface party – albeit the most junior one – I was invited to fill a spare seat on the plane. Flying-fancier that I was in those days, I accepted the offer with almost indecent haste.

There was only one airstrip in the whole of the Makran – the dirt strip at the little port of Chah Bahar, where we planned to overnight. There was no place to stay in Chah Bahar, but we didn’t know that. In the event, it was hardly to matter. In Farsi, ‘Chah” means ‘spring’ – as in ‘water bursting out of the rocks’. ‘Bahar’ also means ‘spring’ – as in the season between winter and summer. So the name of the port, in English, translates as “Spring Spring”. I always thought that was sort of cool.

So, in March, 1960, I was on my way to Baluchistan. Twenty-five years old, I was walking on air – literally and figuratively. Well, actually I was sitting on air – me and five others – in a twin-engine six-seat Piper Aztec. It was five minutes after takeoff from Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport. We had climbed four thousand feet, and were circling to gain altitude. I stared intently out my window, dazzled by the stupendous panorama of desert and mountain unfolding below me.

I was still new to flying, and had never seen a city from the air before, so I was entirely unprepared for the vast expanse of Tehran’s urban geometry. The whole plain between Kuh-i-Qareh Qach and the main ranges of the Elburz Mountains was triangulated, rectangulated and squared. The city was the colour of the plateau it covered – khaki – the colour of dust. In the north, where the city lapped against the mountain pediments, its high suburbs – Tajrish and Shemiran – were leafy and green. The other end of town, where all the brick factories were, was under a perpetual haze of charcoal smoke.

The Elburz Mountains raised an immense carunculated wall of beige behind the city, their bare slopes covered in boulder fields and ramps of scree. The crests were round and worn looking – more like a range of big hills than mountains – and lightly dusted with snow. Kuh-i-Qareh Qach, knobby as a lizard’s spine, swept down from the main range to shelter the city from the east and south. Above all this, vague and misty with distance, floated the gigantic pale dome of Mt Demavand – a huge extinct volcano rising to almost 19,000 feet and the only peak in the range to wear perpetual snow.

Nearly eight hundred miles long, the Elburz Mountains sweep in sinuous curves entirely across Iran, from the Afghan Paropamisus in the east to the great knot of mountains rising up to Mt Ararat in the west. Their rocky heights define and guard Iran’s northern borders. The immense round-shouldered peaks rise highest – to just over 15,000 feet – near Tehran.

The Elburz are high enough to trap rain clouds sweeping down across the Turkmen steppes. The north slopes, which loom above the lush Caspian province of Mazandaran, are densely forested, but rain seldom reaches the south face, overlooking Tehran. Snow sometimes covers the mountains from base to crest in the winter, but in summer the slopes facing Tehran are done out in shades of tan, khaki, sepia and beige – the same colours as the plains they overlook.

We all knew our pilot, Darwish Khaled – a personable young IIAF (Imperial Iranian Air Force) pilot – both socially and professionally. He was USAF-trained, had an American wife and spoke perfect idiomatic English. He was a very nice chap and we all liked him enormously, but as a pilot he might not have been my first choice. He’d had two previous aerial ‘mishaps’ – one with a jet fighter and one in a light plane while moonlighting – about which, in Iran, was it neither polite nor politic to enquire. Jaques, Ivo, Ted, Rich and I had crammed ourselves into a cabin jammed with luggage, warm clothing, lunchboxes and – of all things – life-preservers. The luggage space aft was taken up by ten jerricans of fuel. The Aztec was so grossly overloaded we used up most of the jet-capable airstrip getting airborne.

After circling for a few more minutes to gain altitude, Darwish swung around to the east, aiming more-or-less directly at the centre of Qareh Qach.
“Is this,” I asked Darwish, “The usual route? I mean through the spur rather than around it? Will we be able to fly over it?”
“Well,” He replied, “In the normal course of events we’d fly right over it, but today we’re so heavily loaded that our rate of climb is only about half what it ought to be. So I’m gonna take us through the Sang-i-Sar Pass. It’s just under 9,000 feet. There are three passes through these mountains.” He pointed at the massif ahead of us, “Two of them are probably higher than we can manage, but Sang-i-Sar we should be able to do OK.”

The flanks of Qareh Qach were bare and beige, its crests rounded and worn-looking. Except for three very steep-sided canyons incised into the west face, they looked more like big hills than mountains. Darwish steered the plane into one of the valleys – the one leading to Sang-i-Sar, I presumed. As we flew up the canyon, the slopes to port and starboard, became progressively more precipitous. Rising up toward big bald knobs of rock, they slowly converged ahead of us. I glanced at our altimeter. Although we had just passed 7,000 feet, we seemed to be gaining altitude awfully slowly.  I wondered if there was still room for us to turn around.

I asked Darwish about it. “Hadn’t thought about it,” He replied. “Never needed to. I’ve been up here half-a-dozen times and made it over the top every time.” He glanced right and left. “I must admit,” He muttered, “There’s not a lot of room left either to starboard or port. Don’t worry about it. If we keep climbing, we’ll eventually duck out over the top.”

It seemed to me that the walls of the canyon were rising faster than we were climbing. The cliff-tops were now about as high as we were. The view ahead was still more alarming. Our canyon didn’t just have cliffs on both sides. It had a cliff on the end as well – one at least as high as those to port and starboard.

Darwish surreptitiously pulled back on the stick and shoved both throttles to full ahead. The pitch of the engines deepened and our nose rose, but nothing else seemed to happen. The plane was too heavy and the air too thin for it to climb any faster. It just sort of ‘mushed’ along almost horizontally in a ‘nose-high’ position – something almost as close to a stall as to a climb. I looked nervously from side to side. By now the canyon was much too narrow to turn, and we were fifty or sixty feet below the top of the cliffs. Mercifully the cliffs had topped out – whatever height they were going to reach they’d reached. And we, at least, were still slowly – very, very slowly – climbing.

As we neared the cliff ahead, it disappeared behind the top of the instrument panel. Looking right and left it seemed that we were aimed exactly at the rim of a five hundred-foot wall of rock. If we didn’t make it we were going to mash ourselves against the cliff and then fall five hundred or so feet onto the scree slopes below. All of this sounded terminally fatal. The thumping of my heart was very nearly as loud as the howling of the engines, struggling to gain altitude. We couldn’t be more than five or six seconds away from either hitting or missing the cliff top.

In the event, we did neither – or maybe we did both. Actually, I’m not sure I know. It was too quick – over almost before it began. The passenger compartment certainly cleared the cliff top. I should know: I was in it. The wings, too, seemed to clear it – but only just. But the plane certainly hit something. There was a loud bang, then a screech. The plane jerked – then nosed sharply down. It slammed violently into something hard – and slowed abruptly with a sound of tearing metal – throwing us forward hard against our seat belts. There was a series of loud bangs to both port and starboard. Brilliant showers of sparks broke against the fuselage, and both engines stopped. Juddering across a roughish surface, with more metal-ripping sounds, the plane slewed slightly sideways – starboard wing forward, port wing aft – and ground to a stop.

The silence was deafening. For a moment we all just sat there, stunned, both engines ‘pinging’ as they cooled. We must have crashed, I thought. The engines have stopped. We’re not moving. But, curiously, nothing else seemed to have happened. The interior of the cabin looked entirely normal. We were still upright – apparently intact. All I could see ahead was clear blue sky – exactly what I’d seen a few seconds before we hit.  I peered out my side window – straight out onto a wide flat ledge of khaki rock. I could tell we were above the snow line. There were little dirty drifts of the stuff in the shadows.

The ground seemed close – awfully close. Then I realised that was because it was awfully close. The plane was sitting on its belly on a rocky shelf at the very top of the pass. The undercarriage was gone, and the starboard wing had a very considerable kink in it. The propeller blades of both engines were bent back at right angles. They’d chewed themselves to scrap against the rocks. That explained the showers of sparks and the dead engines.

Darwish’s eyes were the first things to move. He looked slowly from left to right and back again without turning his head, as though he were afraid it might disarticulate itself from his neck if he did. Like the rest of us, he was trying to take it all in – to collect visual evidence of what he already knew. Then, looking over his shoulder he counted passengers, waggling an index finger at each of us in turn, his lips silently mouthing “yek…doh…seh…”  (‘one’, ‘two’ ‘three’…). When he got to ‘panj’ (‘five’), he took a couple of very deep breaths.

“Good!” He murmured to himself, “All present,” (Where else, I wondered, did he think we might be?). He pressed both palms to his forehead, fingers extended, and looked upward, silently mouthing a prayer. It didn’t take a lip-reader to recognise the words “Alhamdullilah” and “Allah Akhbar”. He unbuckled his seat belt and half rose, turning toward us with a rueful grin. “We must gather snow,” He said. “We must all gather snow now.”

As people began to stir, I looked around. Everybody seemed to be OK.  There was a rock ledge outside the starboard windows, too. Darwish crawled over me and opened my door. Unbuckling my belt I clambered stiffly out of the plane, glancing at my watch. It was ten minutes after eleven AM. Darwish followed me out, and the others trooped out behind him. Darwish quickly began gathering handsfull of snow. My God I thought, He meant it. He was serious about gathering snow. Some sort of reaction to the shock, I assumed.

Although all of us were dazed and numb, nobody was even slightly hurt. We looked over the plane. Then I realised what a close-run thing it had actually been. The fuselage had cleared the cliffs at the top of the pass by a matter of inches. The big bangs and sudden stop had been caused by the undercarriage slamming into the cliffs and being ripped off as the fuselage slid forward onto the rock ledge. A few inches lower and we would have been sausage.

The ledge of rock – the very summit of the pass – was only about thirty yards wide. The plane had bulldozed its way more than half-way across it – half-way to a sheer drop of several hundred feet down the other side. I walked around behind the plane. Peering carefully over the edge of the cliff, I could see our undercarriage. Bent and twisted, most of it was wedged between a pair of boulders two or three hundred feet below me.

The view down the canyon was stupendous. The cliffs bent back on both sides, opening up great vistas across the khaki plains a mile below us. In the near distance I could see the tall chimneys of the brick factories on the south side of Tehran. Behind them were the white towers of the city centre. Against the horizon the great blunt peaks of the Elburz Mountains floated in the sky above the city. Fading downward into blue, their splintered caps of snow seemed translucent and fragile as lace.

“Well,” Jaques said, with a wan grin, looking out at the tremendous view down the canyon toward Tehran. “Guess we know how we’re gonna spend the rest of our day.”
“We do?”
“Well, I do, anyway.”
“What d’you intend we should do?” He was, after all, my boss.
“Looks to me like we’ll be walking.”

“Everybody gather snow,” Darwish repeated. “Collect all you can carry. It’s very important.”
“Do what?” We were all frankly incredulous. “Gather snow? What in Hell for?”
“We will have to walk out from here. It will be many farsakhs. There will be no water.”

What we had to do was simple. We had to walk southwest – down along the crest of Qareh Qach – until we reached the end of the mountains. There we would find the main road from Semnan to Tehran – we could see it snaking across the plains to the southeast. The straight-line distance was about twenty miles, all of it hill walking. We’d already had a good look at the longitudinal profile of Qareh Qach. Like most mountains in this area, its profile was gentle. Cliffs and canyons were pretty much confined to its flanks. As far as we could remember, walking the crest would pretty much mean walking up and down relatively gentle – but extremely long – slopes of rock and scree. We anticipated nothing more than a very very long walk. We didn’t expect to have to do anything scary like rappelling, abseiling or tricky ropework. Just as well, since none of us knew how to do any of those things. We also didn’t have any rope.

Darwish was so insistent about collecting snow that nearly all of us had at least one handful before we set out. He had a whole armload. In the end, all it got him was wet sleeves. As an idea, collecting snow made a certain amount of sense – but not much. Water was certainly a problem, but by the time we got thirsty, the snow had long since melted.

We’d guessed right about everything. It was about twenty miles to the road and the walk was pretty much a dawdle. It took just under six hours for us to reach the main road, and another twenty or so minutes to thumb a ride on a gravel truck bound for the city. It took another two hours to reach town. We got the driver to stop in Garmsar – the first big town – so we could call head office to let them know we were OK. By now we were eight or ten hours overdue at Zahedan, and authorities were fixing to mount an air search for our missing aircraft.

Jaques wore cowboy boots that day. He was our only casualty. His boots were just fine for wearing in a plane, but singularly inappropriate for walking down hills. Their high heels had the effect of steepening the apparent slope, so that while we were walking down 30-degree slopes, Jaques was descending what amounted to slopes of 45 degrees or so. He was effectively on tiptoes all the way down the hill. By the time we got to the road, the fronts of both his feet were bleeding and blistered, and he had acute cramps in both thighs and calves.

The truck-driver dropped us off at the south edge of Tehran, at a taxi stand below a thicket of brick-factory chimneys. He left with our profuse thanks – tendered in two languages – and all the cash we could scrape together. Then we all piled into the first cab to pass – a rattletrap old Chevrolet – and pointed its driver north.

Our office was a ten-storey building on KhiabanTakht-i-Jamshid near the university. We were living in bachelor flats on the fifth and sixth floors.  It was nearly midnight when the cab pulled up in front. We were half way out of the cab before anyone remembered that we’d given all our cash to the truck-driver. Ivo volunteered to go up to the flat and get enough cash to pay the cabby.

Well, maybe not just like that. Nobody had thought to take his keys on the plane. So we couldn’t even let ourselves into the lobby. Luckily our new chief accountant was occupying the transit flat on the seventh floor. So Ivo buzzed him to come down and let us in. “And please,” Ivo added, “Could you bring a handful of money for our taxi?”

“Down in a jiffy.”  The accountant was much more amused (at our predicament) than upset (about being roused in the middle of the night). Jaques had to be helped from the cab. Once we got him across the sidewalk, he could barely stand, so we leaned him against the wall like a rolled-up carpet while we waited for our keys and money to arrive.

As young bachelors, we used to frequent Shahr-i-Now (New City) – the oldest part of Tehran – for two reasons. Shucafe Now was an enormously popular local nightclub with cheap arak wonderful food, and an incredible floor-show. Including performing bears, trapeze artists, pop and classical singers, dancing boys, bands, magicians, contortionists, belly dancers and many others, it lasted more than six hours. We often went there. It made a great night out.

Shucafe Now was more or less in the centre of the red light district – which also made a great night out. That was the other reason. There were whole streets of tacky brothels – about a square mile of them as I recall. They were mostly pretty grubby and disgusting – people screwing under tables in the lounges and drunks puking in the halls – but they were really cheap. In most of them you could get a quickie with any girl in the house – including the madam – for the equivalent of US$5. Only a couple of us actually partook much of the ladies’ attractions – we were mostly too fastidious to risk the diseases we reckoned they probably had. But, when they were in town, Jaques and Ray spent three or four nights a week ‘wetting’, as Ray put it, ‘our wicks’.

But even they had to be pretty well-oiled before they could bring themselves to undo their flies in Shahr-i-Now, so by the time they were finished, they were usually in an alcoholic stupor. So somebody had to hang around to take them home. Since they were our bosses, we juniors spent a lot of time in the brothels’ lounges waiting for them to get their rocks off. It was sort of like being inside a porno movie – sometimes disgusting, but seldom boring. When it did pall – when we’d had a surfeit of raunchy sex – we amused ourselves by coining names for groups of prostitutes (as a ‘pride of lions’, an ‘exaltation of larks’, etc.). Some of our better ones, if memory serves, were a ‘chamber of whores’, a ‘jam of tarts’ and – my personal favourite – a ‘flourish of strumpets’.

There was another red light district of sorts a lot closer to home. The west end of Takht-i-Jamshid – just near the office – was where clapped-out old whores went when they could no longer cut it in Shahr-i-Now. They were a pretty dreadful lot. None of them was presentable enough to solicit in daylight, so they plied their trade only after dark. The old, the raddled, the diseased and the just plain ugly lurked in the nighttime shadows and offered whatever was left of their bodies for whatever they could get. It wasn’t a lot – they were really cheap.

They preyed on anything that moved after dark. From our apartment windows, we could see them flitting across the pools of light under the street lamps, their dark chadors flapping behind them like black wings. Ted dubbed them ‘the night bats of Takht-i-Jamshid’. The name seemed appropriate so it stuck. The bats operated out of a bushy park across from the office, and whenever we came home late, a flock of raddled old harpies would swoop out of the shadows and descend on us. Usually the ‘night bats’ were only a nuisance – we’d learned to pay off our taxis quickly, and had only to duck inside to be shut of them – but tonight, without our keys, we had no place to run.

Anyway, back to my story. As we were leaning Jacques against the wall, something clutched at my sleeve. It was a raddled old hag in a flapping black chador. Oh God, I thought, The night bats have caught us!
“Hey, ferang!” She cackled, “I give you real good sucky sucky. Only ten tomans” (about US$0.63). Three or four of her sisters were lolloping across the street toward us.
“Where the Hell is Reagan?” Ray shouted.” Two of the ‘night bats’ had him backed against the taxi. ”Get these fucking bitches away from me!”
“You very handsome boy!” Another cackled, fingering my sleeve. She was a real piece of work. Grinning though cascades of wrinkles around a mouth full of crooked, discoloured teeth, she threw open her chador. She had nothing underneath. If she really wanted to peddle her wares, opening her chador was a mistake. Bare, she was appalling! She didn’t have breasts. She had dugs – long, flat things the shape of empty condoms – that dangled almost to her navel. Her pubic bush looked like a hedgehog had died in her lap. Her breath was awful – I recoiled in disgust – and her body odour could have melted glass.

“For God’s sake, Ivo,” I yelled, pushing her violently away, “Get Reagan down here and get that damned door open. We’re all gonna contract something terminal out here!” There must have been eight or ten ‘night bats’ clutching and cajoling by then. Ted was flapping his long arms, trying to fend off what looked like a black dalek, and Rich was being vigorously groped by a six-foot, two hundred-pound Amazon. Just then the inside light went on and the lock unlatched with a buzz and a ‘click’.

Fighting off three or four ‘night bats’, two of us took Jacques – each by an elbow – and  hobbled together through the front door. As soon as Ivo, flushed and disheveled, made it inside, we slammed and bolted the door, breathing huge sighs of relief. “What on earth have you guys been up to?” Reagan asked, wrinkling his nose. The whole lobby reeked. We pressed the lift button and leaned painfully on each other waiting for the lift to come.

Looking expectantly at a lift door is – in any third-world country – a better than average way to tempt fate. And, this being Iran, we should have known fate didn’t take a whole lot of tempting. So, of course, the lift never came. That night, of all nights, it had broken down – again. We still had five flights of stairs to climb. My last memory of that dreadful day is of Jacques on his knees, gripping the banister desperately, and hauling himself hand-over-hand up the stairs.

***

Three days later we were back at Mehrabad. We were going to Chah Bahar even if it killed us. This time we’d upgraded ourselves to a ten-seat Fokker – a high-wing, twin-engine plane with great passenger visibility. It could fly faster, farther for longer than the Aztec and had a lot more room – both for passengers and for the spare fuel we insisted on carrying.

Six of us – in addition to the pilot – eventually embarked. I didn’t know whether to be pleased or alarmed when our pilot turned out to be Darwish Khaled. Now, I thought, he had three aerial mishaps on his record. I didn’t know whether this was a bad thing (how long until he screwed up again?) or a good thing (maybe he’d already filled his quota of screw-ups). It didn’t really matter. I still fancied flying.

Our flight time to Zahedan was just over four hours. We left Tehran in fine, calm clear weather, which deteriorated slowly as we progressed to the southeast.

From the air the flat floor of the Dasht-i-Kavir was a geological spectacle. The featureless khaki plains ahead gained intricate detail as we approached – detail spectacular both in scope and in colour – then faded back to tan and beige flats once we’d passed. Bands of red and green rock, intricately bent and broken, appeared, coalescing briefly out of the beige mists ahead, then vanishing into mist as we passed. Viewed from directly above, they made graffiti whorls across the surface.

By the time we were over the Dasht-i-Lut, high clouds had covered the entire sky. In the Dasht-i-Lut sand and gravel flats, barren as the surface of Mars, rise gradually in desolate terraces toward a mountainous periphery. The tracks of dry watercourses snake across them.  Their channels, encrusted with salt, show as white lines branching upstream, then branching and branching again, until the whole vast surface of the desert is patterned like the veins of a gigantic leaf.

Zahedan was a grim little town in the middle of a desolate gravel plain. Its only purpose was as the railhead for the Indo-Pakistan railway network. From Zahedan you could catch a train all the way to Calcutta. The Iranian railway system was – and still is – under construction. At the time of this story the southeast line had only reached Kashan. By 2000 it had passed Kerman, and by the time of this writing, the rail link between London and Calcutta may have finally been established.

The ruins of a mud-brick citadel clung to the flanks of the only hill in sight. A cold wind had sprung up throwing waves of dust and grit against its battered towers. We stopped just long enough to refuel on the dirt airstrip south of town.

A new, lower, cloud layer had inserted itself into the sky by the time we took off, and the weather continued to deteriorate as we flew south. This caused two problems. The most immediate one was turbulence. It wasn’t serious enough to threaten the integrity of the aircraft, but it got rough enough to upset the more delicate constitutions amongst us. When lunch boxes were distributed, my seat-mate, Rich Henry, passed me mine, then took one himself. When we opened them up, the smell of food must have tipped him over the edge. We hadn’t the slightest warning. He was leaning across me pointing to something below, when he suddenly upchucked copiously right into my lap. I was instantly enameled from chest to knees in about a gallon of alimentary ejecta.

The smell of vomit quickly permeated the cabin pushing two other passengers over the line. They, too, were suddenly and violently ill. Their seatmates, however, were luckier than I had been. These ‘second-tier’ pukers got enough warning to stick their faces into barf-bags (‘barf’, incidentally, is the Farsi word for ‘snow’) before erupting. I looked down at my lap. I could have killed Rich. Not only was I gonna have to wear his breakfast until at least mid-afternoon but, despite the disgusting smell, I was still actually hungry.  And that bastard had also filled my lunch box with puke.

The other problem was the cloud base. Although we’d been flying beneath solid cloud layers for hours, it had been way above our cruising altitude, but now it began to descend. We didn’t need this problem.

The Djaz Murian is a huge swampy area, usually mostly dry. But today it was about 20,000 square miles of green, scummy water with sand dunes rising from it like islands. Ridges of hard clay divide the swamp into gigantic compartments, each a slightly different shade of green. There were little villages of wattle and daub huts single-filed along some of the dykes wherever they were wide enough to permit a little cultivation. Their paddy fields made mosaics of little brown polygons.

Ahead of us, the yellow and orange striped cliffs of the Mali Sar Plateau – two or three thousand feet high – rose, like a gigantic dam, into the clouds across our line of flight. Above them, invisible in the clouds, were the granite peaks of Nokhoweh and Hamunt. In this kind of weather, we couldn’t fly over the ranges: we had to fly through them. The broad valley rising above the Tang-i-Sar’had (Sar’had Canyon) wasn’t the only breach in the walls of rock, but it was the lowest – the only one not entirely closed by cloud today. The ground gradually rose ahead of us while the cloud base overhead slowly descended. It was likely to be a close-run thing. I began to worry again. Rain set in – a fine, misty drizzle that cut our visibility to only a half a mile or so. By the time we reached the top of the pass, the cloud base was only a couple of hundred feet above the ground and the drizzle had turned to rain. I remembered our encounter with the ground in Sang-i-Sar Pass just three days earlier. Today’s exercise was almost as scary as that – like flying through a tunnel. The only saving grace was that we could actually see light at the end of it.

Well, not exactly light, it turned out – just something less dark than rock. As we dropped down the backside of the pass, it started to rain really hard. Within a minute or two we were flying almost totally blind through a spectacular cloudburst. It was as though the bottom had fallen out of the clouds. Within a minute or two we could hardly see our wingtips.

“Not to worry,” Darwish assured us, “There aren’t any more hills between us and Chah Bahar. We’ll just descend until we can see the ground and then follow the terrain down to the coast.” Yeah, well, I thought. Where’ve I heard that line before? After about twenty very nervous minutes of dropping slowly through dense mist and lashing rain, glimpses of mud flats appeared below us through rents in the bottom of the clouds. We were only a couple of hundred feet high. I began to breathe again. After another fifty or so feet, as the lowest streamers of cloud whipped past our wingtips, the glimpses of mud coalesced into a sodden beige plain. Terra, I thought, has never looked so firma.

After a further five or so minutes we crossed the coastline and turned sharply to port to follow the beach east. Almost immediately, Chah Bahar Bay – a perfectly circular body of water ringed with gold sandstone cliffs – swept out of the murk. A beach curved across the inland end of it. Behind the beach was a line of dunes, and behind them a wide shallow lagoon. The town was a long thin straggle of wattle and daub huts between the beach and the dunes. We could see the airstrip. It was a sodden grey strip of mud on the other side of the dunes, next to the lagoon. We circled hopefully couple of times, but there was no way we were going to land there – at least not today. Rain had overfilled the lagoon, and streams of runoff were scouring deep channels across the airstrip and into the sea.

By the time we realised this, the clouds had descended to close Tang-i-Sar’had behind us. For a moment we all just looked at each other. Nobody seemed to have anything to say. Maybe, for that matter, there wasn’t anything to say.

“Well,” Ted finally broke the silence, “Looks like the cork has been well and truly stuck into our bottle!” That wasn’t the best news I’d had lately. It looked like we weren’t about to get out of the Makran – at least not by air – today. And Chah Bahar was out. What that meant in practice was that we had to find some other place to set our plane down.

Chah Bahar had the only airstrip on the whole of the Makran Coast. That’s why we had headed there in the first place. What, then, were we to do? It took only a few minutes with our charts to figure out that it didn’t matter which direction we went. There weren’t any airstrips within reach of our fuel supply.

We finally decided to make for Bandar Abbas (Port Abbas –named after Shah Abbas, builder of Isfahan), two hundred miles up the coast. There was no place to land at Bandar Abbas either, but we knew that OSCO had a big oil rig drilling in a valley just north of town – and we knew that the rig had an airstrip. Being only a temporary facility, it didn’t, of course, appear on our charts. So we turned west and set off up the coast. For nearly an hour we flew through torrential rain, with the striped cliffs of the Mali Sar Plateau looming just off our starboard wing, their tops buried in clouds. The gullies across the coastal plain were brim-full, and the sea was discoloured with mud for miles offshore.

The Zagros Mountains run for over a thousand miles along the coast of the Persian Gulf. As mountains go, they’re not particularly impressive. Only one peak – Kuh-i-Dinar, near Shiraz – rises to over 13,000 feet. Around the highest peaks there are small glaciers and patches of permanent snow, so the intervening valleys are well-watered and fertile. But at our end of the range, the Zagros were running down, and the highest peaks were only two or three thousand feet – not high enough to cause rain or capture snow – so the area was baked and dry. Hardly anyone lived there. All the hills were held up by a single thin layer of limestone, bent and folded like a vast rumpled bedspread into a series of gigantic en echelon folds. The folds, separated by broad, flat valleys, ran diagonal to the coast, each making a little headland where it plunged into the sea. The whole landscape was beige – the limestone hills and the flat dusty plains between them. Rain like today came only once or twice in fifty years.

The little town of Bandar Abbas – between the first of the whaleback mountains and the beach – had once been an important port. Dhows could still anchor in the estuary of the Minab River east of town if they wanted to, but the city of Bushire had stolen all its trade in the eighteenth century. Now it was desperately poor – its only industry a state-sponsored fish-canning factory. There were half-a-dozen old two and three storey stone buildings in the town centre – once the Portuguese, Dutch, French and British consulates – but now they were surrounded only by a sprawl of wattle and daub huts.

The peripheries of Bandar Abbas had crumbled into ruins – bleached and hollow as old bones. Except for a single crumbling iwan, even the mosque had vanished. What remained of the little mud and thatch village was slowly being beaten back into earth. We made a pass low over the town. Its grey thatch roofs were darkened with rain, the little mud houses like islands in a shallow sea. There was water everywhere – so much, flowing down the broad valleys and spreading across the coastal plains and discolouring the sea, that we couldn’t even tell where the land ended and the Persian Gulf began41.

We didn’t know the exact location of the rig. We knew it was in one of the big intermontane valleys and was more-or-less due north of Bandar Abbas. What we didn’t know was which valley it was in. Turning inland, we headed up the valley behind the first range of hills. We’d decided to fly for about twenty-five miles up the valley then cross the ranges to the next valley and fly back to the coast, then up the third valley for twenty-five miles and so on. We only had fuel for about thirty minutes more flying – or about three valleys – but that was the least of our problems. The sun was already setting. It had dropped below the cloud base, and we could see it flaring away to the west through the rain. Full dark was only half an hour away. Once it got dark, we were stuffed! We had to find that damned rig!

The floor of the first valley was a flat grey sheet of water between big smooth hills. So was the next one. By the time we found the rig – halfway up the third valley – it was almost dark. The rain had eased a little and we could see the lights on the tall steel mast of the rig from ten or fifteen miles away. The pilot dropped to about a hundred feet and made a first pass to see if we could find the actual strip. The whole floor of the valley was under water here, too. The rig itself stood on an elevated steel-legged platform rising out of the water. Aside from the rig, there wasn’t anything to see – nothing but water. On a second pass, Ivo spotted a windsock sticking up on a thin pole in the middle of the vast muddy lake. We made a third pass. By this time, we all had seen the windsock, but nobody’d managed to see anything else of use. We had neither fuel nor time for a fourth pass.

There was no way we were ever going to see the strip, which was somewhere under all that water. We knew its approximate location – and, because of the lay of the land, we could determine roughly in which direction it ran – but it could be anywhere in an area three or four hundred yards wide. Just for starters, it could have been on either side of the windsock. By this time we had attracted the attention of some of the workers in the camp – a group of skid-mounted accommodation units clustered on the slopes a mile or two away, above the flood. We could see torches as they emerged from their accommodation blocks. The lights of a vehicle suddenly flared and a Land Rover started through the flood heading for the windsock. That gave us some idea how deep the water was – about two feet. At least we knew we could probably land in it.

Twilight was upon us by now. The mountains were visible only in silhouette, fading, tier on tier, into a vast red smear of sunset. The valley floor was a flat, grey expanse dimly visible through the mist. Finally Darwish had to make a decision. “We’re going in on the left hand side of the sock,” He announced. “God knows where the end of the strip is, so everybody brace for a crash!”

We all assumed ‘the position’ – heads between knees, arms around heads. Lower and lower we dropped. I kept peeping out the window until almost the last second. I don’t know what I expected to see, but what I saw was acres and acres of water streaming backwards past our wings. There wasn’t any way to judge how high we actually were. My back began to cramp. I seemed to have been braced for a crash for hours.

“Now!” Darwish shouted, “Brace now!” Even as he shouted, the wheels made contact with the water. The whole plane was instantly engulfed in mud. The windows blanked out and everything went totally dark. It was as if we had flown directly from daylight directly into night. The plane lurched abruptly as the water and mud pulled at the wheels, and nosed down violently, throwing us forward against our seat-belts. Darwish quickly applied all his brakes and in only a few seconds we had stopped. He switched the engines off, and we sat in stunned – and enormously relieved – silence.  All the windows were totally obscured by mud, and we couldn’t see anything. But we were down, and we were still in one piece. I suppose, in retrospect, that was hardly surprising. Darwish had throttled the engines back nearly to ‘idle’ and pulled the nose of the plane up to reduce our forward speed before impact. We probably weren’t going more than fifty or sixty mph.

As we opened the door, the Land Rover – up to its floorboards in water – pulled up beside the plane. A strong Texas accent said, “What in the Hell (he pronounced it “Hey-yell”) do you crazy bastards think you’re doin’?” The driver took us across to the camp where, after half-a-dozen cups of scalding coffee, we were fed a huge meal and offered clean dry beds in a spare bunkhouse. I finally got to wash off Rich’s vomit, too.

By morning most of the water had gone. The plane was mired up to its axles in sludge in the middle of a sea of mud. It turned out that Darwish had hit the strip right on the button. The plane had stopped almost in the exact centre of the airstrip. Next day the roustabouts and roughnecks from the rig helped us to manhandle the plane out of the mud. Darwish spent hours poring over the landing gear and finally announced that, as far as he could tell, it was fine. It took two days for the strip to dry enough for us to take off, so we enjoyed the hospitality of the drilling company. In that flat, desolate valley there wasn’t a whole lot to do. They had a VCR – the first one I had ever seen – and a drawer full of tapes made from American TV programmes.

The sky was blue and the wind light, and both our takeoff and our flight to Chah Bahar were uneventful. But we still couldn’t land there. Coming in low over the town we could see that runoff from the lagoon had scoured six or eight channels across the middle of the airstrip. A few peasants were shoveling dirt back into the trenches, but it would clearly be days – if not weeks – before the strip would be operable again. So we turned north toward Zahedan.

As we passed the north uplands of the Mali Sar Plateau, we saw, for the first time, what a curious geographic feature it was. It had been so eroded – both from north and south – that hardly anything was left of it. It was, in fact, no longer a real plateau, but just a wide ridge. In places it was a mile or two wide, but mostly its width was somewhere between ten and fifty yards. The Djaz Murian was in full flood. All the sand-dune islands had disappeared, and the little wattle and daub villages were dissolving in the muddy water of a vast inland sea.

But it hadn’t rained at all in Zahedan – not for a very long time at least – and we flew into a howling dust storm about fifty miles south of the town. Visibility was instantly reduced to a few tens – or maybe hundreds – of yards (in the middle of a boiling cloud of khaki dust it was hard to tell). Luckily, the terrain around Zahedan – aside from the ruined citadel – was reasonably flat – or so we thought. Just as well, since we were forced to do a rerun of Chah Bahar – only this time blindly dropping through clouds of dust – (instead of torrents of rain) – trying to find the ground. My adrenal glands began to do their thing again.

Darwish gradually throttled back and the plane slowly descended through beige murk. It descended and descended…..and descended. Damn, I thought, I’ve been here before. Surely once a week is enough for this kind of crap. When we finally saw the ground – from a height of about two or three hundred feet – it was exactly the same colour as the dust-clouds. We were able to identify it only because there were bushes growing on it.

The good news was that we were probably higher than Zahedan’s citadel – and even if we weren’t, we could now see it coming – so we didn’t have to worry about hitting it. The bad news was that Darwish had only the vaguest idea where we were. Now all we had to do was find the airstrip. We knew it was directly south of town, but given our limited visibility it could take hours to locate such a small target. So we picked Zahedan – which was about a mile and a half square – as our main target. This made the job a lot easier. Darwish thought it was probably five or ten miles ahead.  After that he was prepared to fly a spiral course which, he said, would surely find the town. Fuel, he added, wasn’t a great problem – at least not yet.
“What d’you mean, ‘Not yet?’” I had to ask.
“I mean, ‘not yet’. After all,” He said, “We can’t fly forever on what we’ve got on board. We were meant to refuel at Chah Bahar.”
Damn! I said to myself, I didn’t need to know that.

But, in the event, it didn’t matter. Both Darwish’s distance estimate and his aim were good. Ten miles farther on, a scatter of rectangular shadows emerging from the murk turned out to be the west edge of Zahedan. One quick loop located the citadel. Darwish quickly oriented himself and we flew south toward the airstrip. Because of the bloody gale, we had to overshoot, come around and land to the north.

As we came in over the gravel strip, we noticed a cluster of planes just off one end of the strip. There was a US Air Force Hercules, with its doors open and a couple of fighter-bombers with USAF rondels on their wings. There was also a curious-looking plane – slim and sleek and with very long slender wings. It was a jet – that much was obvious – but its wings weren’t even slightly swept back. They extended for an extraordinary distance at right angles to the fuselage. It looked like something improbable – especially in 1960 – a jet-powered glider. Vehicles scuttled among the planes, and the slender long-winged plane was clearly the focus of attention. As we taxied past this hive of activity, we noticed a number of heavily-armed soldiers – both Iranian and American – maintaining a sort of cordon about the planes.

Four months later, when Gary Powers was shot down over Russia, I found out what we had seen on Zahedan airstrip that day. It was a U-2 spy plane – still, at that time, a top secret American weapon – forced down in Zahedan by engine trouble. Reacting to the pilot’s SOS, a team of repair experts and armed guards had been dispatched from US bases in Turkey to repair the plane and to protect it from casual observation.

Weeks later, on my return to Zahedan, I noticed two parallel ranges of hills about a thousand feet high just south of the airstrip. We had clearly come down through the dust storm into the valley between them. It was just blind luck we didn’t fly into one of them.

Near Kerman we flew into a massive storm front moving down from the Elburz Mountains. The plane dropped about a thousand metres then swooped and banged through dense, boiling clouds and torrential rain almost all the way back to Tehran. Our Fokker was only a little plane and turbulence threw it all over the sky. There was violence enough to keep us all hanging onto our seats for dear life. The plane side-slipped, it fell into holes in the sky that drove our bodies up into our seat belt restraints, then mashed us down into our seats riding enormous updraughts. Everyone that hadn’t been sick on the way down, was sick on the way back. The cabin smelled strongly of vomit. All of us were frightened – the clenched teeth, pale sweaty skin and glittering darting eyes gave everyone away. Even Darwish had gone pale. His knuckles, gripping the controls, weren’t just white. They were paler than that. I was scared in ways I’ve never been scared – either before or since. And watching Darwish sweat didn’t help any.

Somewhere over the Dasht-i-Kavir, ’white knuckledom’ struck. My nervous system simply imploded. Looking out at the clouds streaming downward past my window – we were screaming straight up on a sudden updraught – I suddenly became intensely aware of the wings. As they flexed up and down, little wrinkles writhed across their smooth aluminium skins. All at once I knew – beyond any doubt at all – that they were coming off. I didn’t know exactly when or how. But it was only a matter of time until the storm tore one wing or the other from its fixings.

I glared fixedly at portside wing (the one on my side of the plane) for the next hour, hardly daring to blink – watching it as though the sheer intensity of my attention might help to keep it attached to the fuselage. It worried me that I could only watch one wing at a time. What, I wondered, if I was watching the wrong wing? I quickly made my peace with a God I’d spent most of my adult life ignoring, and grasped both armrests with a grip that made my hands ache for days. For the rest of the flight, I kept the plane in the air by sheer willpower.

Disembarking at Mehrabad, I was in a state of complete nervous collapse. Nothing on earth, I vowed as my feet hit the tarmac, would ever get me off the ground again. Nothing!!!

But of course something did.

A year after this story took place, Darwish took a group of visiting SOHIO oil company executives on a grand tour. While cruising through clouds over the Zagros Mountains at 13,000 ft, he managed – by incredibly bad luck and sheer stupidity – to fly directly into the top of Kuh-i-Dinar – the only 13,000 foot peak in the entire range – killing himself and all eight of his passengers.

I was a ‘white-knuckle’ flier for many years – for fourteen to be exact. My particular fear was that the wings would come off in mid-air. It was, I knew, a largely irrational fear. That knowledge was the only thing that kept me in the air – that and the fact that my job depended on being able to fly. Just for the record, my fear did have an actual basis in fact. I know of four crashes caused by the wings actually falling off planes – two Lockheed Electras and two Comet Mark 1s – all in the early 1960s.
Then I discovered Valium. Enough little white tablets administered pre-flight eased the physical symptoms of my terror, though they didn’t make me any less scared. Booze did that. So, I drank before boarding, and I drank as I flew – as fast as the stewardesses could bring it. And at the end of a flight, still awash with gin, I was always stone-cold sober. After a while, I could only fly drunk. I tried to fly sober once – out of Rongotai Aerodrome in Wellington – and had a panic attack as I boarded. I turned around and got back off the plane, despite the best efforts of the flight crew and immigration officials.

I found that by manipulating my ‘medication’, I could spend most of each flight in a stupor. My best flight ever was from Cairo to Tananarive via Addis Ababa, Dar es Salaam and Majunga, on a brand-new BOAC Trident jet. I had, as always, an aisle seat (when you drink a lot you pee a lot and I wanted quick access to the loos). At takeoff from Cairo, my seat-mate was an attractive grey-headed French lady. The next thing I knew, we were a couple of minutes from touchdown in Tananarive, and my seatmate was a fat middle-aged German. So I’d survived twelve hours in the air – twelve hours of terror, no doubt – three landings, three takeoffs and at least one change of seat-mate. Of all this, I remember nothing. Bliss!

In 1971 I worked up enough nerve to take my family on a round-the-world trip. It was our last day in Bangkok and we were doing some last-minute shopping. By noon – only hours from yet another damned take-off and flight – my mental springs were wound up about as tight as they could go. Close to panic, I dragged the family back to the hotel hours early, so I would have time to down a lot of triple gins – and pop a few pills – before departing for Don Muang Airport.

There was a note in our pigeon-hole at the front desk. It said – in elegant copper-plate script…….

Dear Mr Gordon,
Your airline called.
This is to inform you that your fright has been delayed until 7:00 PM.
Thank you,
the Manager

My father thought this both apt and enormously funny. I, too, laughed, but it cut pretty close to the bone. A young man who had once greatly fancied flying, I had been like this – petrified whenever airborne – for eleven years. Ever since January,1960. And it was all the fault of an otherwise perfectly pleasant young Iranian called Darwish Khaled.

I’m no longer a white-knuckle flier – or at least I no longer have a phobia about flying – but it’s still not my favourite mode of transport. I can appreciate the feelings of those who still fly with their hearts in their mouths. There is, after all, good reason for their fears – they are not altogether unfounded. I spent lots of time during my white-knuckle years taking the airlines’ safety statistics and using them to calculate my odds of survival on every single flight.

I thought it would help. It didn’t. It was really scary.

What I learned is that, sooner or later, any habitual air-traveler is statistically likely to die in an air crash. For every million passenger miles flown, 0.7 statistical passengers will die42. So, whenever a passenger has accumulated a million flight miles – around the world about forty times – 0.7 of him/her should die. Or, after 1.43 million miles – about 65 times around the world – all of him/her should be ready to cash in his/her chips.

The mathematics are easy. An average 747 carries about 300 passengers. On a 5,000 mile journey – say, from London to Delhi – those passengers will collectively accumulate about 1.5 million passenger miles. Thus, by the laws of chance, one of them will perish in an air crash. Therefore, on a 15,000 mile flight from London to Sydney, everyone spends the first two-thirds of the journey travelling with a statistically dead person, and the last third with two. By the time they land in Sydney, three passengers will be statistically dead. I find this pretty scary.

Statistics can’t tell us the two things we most need to know – who, exactly, is to die and when, exactly, it is to happen. But I do know one thing – whenever it happens, and whoever it happens to, he/she is going to take everybody else down with him/her. It is important not to fly with any of these people. So far I guess I never have.

1961

The Makran Diaries

These are genuine diaries – originally with an entry for every single day. I have edited them severely, excising whole days during which nothing even remotely interesting occurred. What remains, however, is entirely as I wrote it in 1961

Baluchistan is a seamed and pitted land – barren, inhospitable and dangerous. Almost uninhabitable and nearly uninhabited, it faces the Gulf of Oman along the southern shores of Iran and Pakistan. Even now it is a wild and woolly place, where – at least in the Iranian part of it – government writ hardly runs. In 1961 – at the time of our trip – the Iranian government was still trying to catch the bandit chief Dotshah, who had kidnapped and murdered the last foreigners to visit there.

The Iranian part of Baluchistan – popularly known as the ‘Makran’ – is a vast rectangle three hundred miles wide and a hundred deep, divided horizontally into three roughly equal parts each about thirty miles deep. From north to south they are: the Djaz Murian, the Mali Sar Plateau and the Coastal Plain.

The Djaz Murian is a huge swampy area, usually mostly dry. But when we were there, a couple of months after unprecedented rains, it was about 20,000 square miles of green, scummy water with sand dunes rising from it like islands. Ridges of hard clay divided the swamp into gigantic compartments, each a slightly different shade of green. There were little villages of wattle and daub huts on some of the dykes wherever they were wide enough to permit a little cultivation. Their paddy fields made mosaics of little brown and green polygons.

South of the swamp, the yellow and orange cliffs of the Mali Sar Plateau – striped as liquorice all-sorts and two or three thousand feet high – rise like a gigantic dam. Barren as the surface of Mars, the Mali Sar dominates central Baluchistan. Near the village of Khash, the great cleft of Tang-i-Sarhad (Sarhad Canyon) cuts through the centre of the plateau. The road, scratched into its cliffs, is the only land access to the Makran Coast.

The coastal plain consists of mud flats and canyons. The canyons – steep-sided, deep and narrow – strike north from the coast, slicing deeply into the south flank of the Mali Sar Plateau. They extend south across the foothills from the cliffs almost to the sea, where they debouch onto the mud flats. The flats are sodden, shimmering expanses of mud several miles wide, and extend along the coast all the way from Chah Bahar to Jask. At high tide almost all of the mud flats lie under at least a few inches of water. At low tide all of them are – at least nominally – emergent.

Actually, there isn’t a discernable coast at all – because the mud flats are mostly neither land nor sea. They consist of a sort of nasty sludge that grades from grey watery mud on the landward side to grey muddy water on the seaward side. On one side of this dreary expanse you can walk dry-shod, and on the other side you can swim. Anywhere in the middle – and practically all of it is middle – you find yourself wallowing waist-deep in stinking grey muck.

We couldn’t, of course, drive across the mud flats – we couldn’t even walk across them. Neither, in the event – because of those damned canyons – were we ever able to cross the grain of the country above the mud flats. This was a complication we’d not included in our calculations.

The previous year (1960) we’d flown across Baluchistan – flown a lot more than we’d intended. Low cloud and rain had trapped us south of the Mali Sar. The only airstrip in Baluchistan – at Chah Bahar – was under water, so we set out for Bandar Abbas, four hundred miles to the west. For nearly an hour we’d flown through torrential rain, with the Mali Sar Plateau looming just off our starboard wing, its top buried in clouds. The canyons above the coastal plain were brim-full, and the sea was discoloured with mud for miles offshore. There was water everywhere – so much, flowing down the gorges and spreading across the mud flats and discolouring the sea, that – from the air, at least – we couldn’t even tell where the land ended and the Gulf of Oman began. In the end, we’d had to land at a temporary dirt strip at a drilling rig north of Bandar Abbas. The strip – indeed, the whole valley – was under a couple of feet of water, so, although our pilot made a perfect landing, the plane was stuck in the mud for three days.

This year – 1961 – A team of geologists (including me) was being sent to Baluchistan for a six-week surface reconnaissance of the Makran Coast. The diaries (below) are a record of that trip. We never expected to find oil in the Makran. We’d known before leaving Tehran that the surface rocks in the Makran were at least sixty million years younger than the oil-bearing strata in the northern end of the Persian Gulf. Geologically, as far as anybody knew then, the geology of the Makran had nothing whatever to do with that of the oilfield belt, which contains one-third of the world’s known oil reserves and almost half its gas.

Mostly our reconnaissance was just an exercise to fill in a blank space on our maps. The only things of potential interest were a mud volcano called Napag and the reported gas seeps at Ain and Bulbulak. If the gas seeps turned out to be real – and of significant size – the possibility of a new, hitherto unknown petroleum province might be suggested, and further work might be required. Since we didn’t expect to find anything very interesting in the way of rocks, we were saving the seeps – which we hoped would be best – for last.

There were only three towns in Baluchistan – Iranshahr, on the north edge of the Djaz Murian: Chah Bahar, the administrative centre and chief port – with the only airstrip – on the southeast coast: and Jask, also on the coast, but away to the west – almost as close to Bandar Abbas as to Chah Bahar. In Farsi, “Chah” means “spring” – as a supply of fresh water. “Bahar” also means “spring” – as in “Spring follows winter”. Hence the town’s name, translated freely, is “Spring Spring” in English.

Our main logistical problem turned out to be roads – or, rather, the almost complete lack of them. There was only one road in the whole of Baluchistan. It ran south from the railhead at Zahedan through Iranshahr to Chah Bahar. There was a lively trade in smuggled dates, dried shark meat and woven mats running from south to north – up the more accessible of the valleys – and even a little gun-running. But, apparently nobody except us ever seriously considered any sort of travel – let alone vehicular travel – east-west in the Makran. Indeed, there were hardly any tracks of any sort crossing the formidable north-south grain of the terrain. The gorges and the mud flats pretty much put paid to that idea – that and the almost complete lack of people – Iranshahr had less than 4,000 inhabitants, Chah Bahar less than 2,000 and Jask about 500. Every other hamlet had less than fifty inhabitants. As the Bakhsdar of Basman put it, “Even if you wanted to go east or west, what would you do when you got there? Who would you see?”

Rain – the same rain that had trapped our aircraft south of the Mali Sar Plateau last year – more-or-less saved our bacon this year. Even almost a year after the rain, there were still pools of water in the deeper parts of many of the canyons, and none of the regular water holes had dried up. This was important because when they went dry, not even camel caravans, we were told – incorrectly, as it turned out – could cross the inhospitable terrain.

And so to the diaries……………….

Feb 2, 1961

It’d taken us five days to drive from Tehran to Kerman, with overnight stops at Kashan, the old caravanserai at Samarqand, Hassan al Balkh’s teahouse in Nain and the Roshan Hotel in Yazd. We’d been to all of these places before, so for us the real journey – the ‘adventure‘ – only began at Yazd. From Yazd it was an easy day’s run – 231 miles – to Kerman.

Kerman (1962 population 50,000), the chief town of a farmandar was – and is – famous for its luxurious carpets. It was a pleasant desert city, but there was nothing very remarkable in it – the town had had a long bloody history of invasion, rebellion, rape, pillage and sacking dating back at least to 642 AD when it was seized by Arab conquerors. It fell again in 1041, 1187, 1307, 1340, 1502, 1509, 1720, 1722, 1729, 1746, 1747, and finally in 1794 when the town was destroyed and 20,000 of its inhabitants were blinded and another 20,000 sold into slavery. Fath Ali Shah, third emperor of the Qajar Dynasty, finally allowed the town to be rebuilt early in the 19th century.

There are a few old buildings – three or four mosques in the town – most notably the Jamia Masjid (built in 1349) which has four lofty iwans, shimmering blue tiles and a clock tower – and a couple of battered old fortresses – Qaleh-e-Ardashir and Qaleh-e-Dokhtar – on hilltops outside the town. I wondered how any of them had managed to survive all those sieges.

Feb 3, 1961

Dawn threw pastel streamers over the Jupar Mountains as we set out from Kerman, and the first rays of sunlight glinted off the elegant blue dome and minarets of the mausoleum of Nur el Din Nimat Allah – a famous poet who died in 1431 – at Mahun. It was cold as buggery and the water bag hanging from the mirror on my jeep had frozen solid overnight.

We lunched in the date groves of Bam on the southern fringes of the Dasht-i-Lut. Bam was a drab little town in the shadow of the spectacular ruins of a whole abandoned city. From the ramparts of its great hilltop citadel, the Qasr, the old city’s maze of roofless medieval ruins – a rectangle of crenellated fortifications five or six miles in circuit – spread below us like a sort of mud Pompeii. Nobody seemed to know exactly how old Bam was – it was probably founded in the third or fourth century. The Qasr, despite its impressive bulk and height (it’s supposed to be the largest building in the world made entirely of unbaked brick) can’t have been particularly effective. The city fell to the Arabs in the year 642, to the Seljuk Turks about 1095, and to the Afghans in 1722 and again in 1850. After this last attack, the city was entirely abandoned by its 13,000 inhabitants. They founded the present town (population about 20,000) about two kms to the south. Exactly what this move was expected to accomplish I have no idea, but it has to be said that the town was never attacked again. Maybe the inhabitants of Bam knew something I don’t know.

Bam – later declared a “World Heritage Site – was almost totally destroyed in the great earthquake of 2003.

About two hundred miles from Kerman two of our vehicles got trapped in the ‘sinking sands’ – a signposted peril on the road – while crossing the dry bed of the Shurgaz River. By the time we’d managed to lever them out, it was nearly sunset, so we decided to call it a day at the next stopping place we came to.

Nosratabad Sipi was only a little village of low mud houses with a thicket of badgirs – tall wind-scoops for ventilation that looked like chimneys. The teahouse was only about thirty feet square, with raised mud benches for sitting or sleeping around three sides. A workbench with a shallow depression filled with glowing charcoal and a bubbling samovar occupied the fourth. The room was jammed with villagers when we arrived – all watching a troop of travelling musicians – a sitar player, a drummer and a dancing boy. We had to wait until the performance was over and the crowd had gone home before spreading our sleeping bags over the mud benches. The performance was interesting, but it seemed to last a terribly long time. It was the first time I had ever seen a dancing boy and, frankly, he didn’t do a thing for me. I guess he was good at what he did because the crowd applauded wildly. Or maybe, they were just easy to please. Anyway, as a result of his performance, we got a lot less sleep than we really wanted.

Feb 4, 1961

It was almost impossibly cold when we climbed from our sleeping bags this morning. The sun showed only a pale crescent behind ash-coloured clouds, and there were crusts of ice in shadows on the sand. I ordered my favourite Persian breakfast – fried eggs. They made a lovely breakfast, those eggs – with nan, onions, jam and goat cheese – and lots more hot tea. By the time I was full, I was also warm, and the sun seemed to have got its furnace stoked. It was obviously going to be another fine winter day.

Zahedan, our next stop – railhead for the Indo-Pakistan railway network – was a grim little town in the middle of a desolate gravel plain. The ruins of a mud-brick citadel clung to the flanks of the only hill in sight. A cold wind had sprung up throwing waves of dust and grit against its battered towers. We spent the night in the tatty little Mehmankhaneh Jaleh, then walked around the corner to the Iran Restaurant, where we feasted memorably on black beans and lamb chops. It was to be our last restaurant meal for six weeks.

Feb 5, 1961

A few miles south of Zahedan the plains ended and the road rose slowly through ranges of barren hills, each a little higher and steeper than the one before. To our left rose Kuh-i-Taftan (13,262’) – highest peak in the Sar’had Range. The road and railroad to Pakistan pass northeast of the mountain: the road to Baluchistan to the west. Coming down off the mountains, just beyond the village of Khash, we found ourselves on the brink of a tremendous escarpment. A thousand feet below us was the vast swamp of the Djaz Murian. The road fell away into the great cleft of Tang-i-Sar’had – a terrible gorge that is the only land access to the whole province.

Turning right, the road – hacked roughly from the thousand-foot cliffs – steepened abruptly and launched itself down a series of ramps and terrifying switchbacks. Literally ‘stitching’ itself to the mountainside, and, zigzagging down the precipitous sides of the gorge, it tacked sharply between alternate right and left hairpin bends.

The washboarded surface of the road, covered with loose gravel and scree, was incredibly narrow. I don’t know what we would have done if we’d met anybody – a problem exacerbated by the lack of maintenance. Nobody had bothered to remove the fans of rock and scree that had slumped down onto the road from the cliffs above. Some of them were big enough to force us right to the outer edge of the road, where we teetered on the rim of one awesome precipice after another. There weren’t any guard-rails.

At the bottom of the cliffs, we entered a wide streambed with shaggy groves of date palms. Flooded rice fields spread across the valley floor, like mirror-shards, shining sky-blue and green against the khaki flats. Little barasti villages huddled on the hills overlooking the valley. The first of these was Hamam-i-Chah Gheybi: then – I liked the names – came Karevandar, Tigh Ab, Shadroa, and Kamsuptar – and finally Iranshahr itself.

About 335 BC, When Alexander the Great reached the Beas River (just inside India), his army refused to march any farther. Angered and disappointed by this, he sulked for three days. Then he chose the long way back, exploring the valley of the Indus River to the Arabian Sea. From there, Alexander sent part of his forces by ship along the coast in a fleet of nearly 2,000 vessels. “It was remarkable,” recounts Arrian, “To hear…the noise of the rowers when all together they raised their rowers’ shanties…..those Indians….to whom the clamour of the oarsmen and the beat of the oars reached, came also running down to the bank and followed, singing their wild songs.”

Alexander himself, with about 35,000 of his soldiers, set out overland across what is now Baluchistan. He had hoped to set up supply depots for his fleet sailing along the coast, but his guides lost their way. For more than sixty days his troops struggled across the burning desert. Pack animals sank in sand, men died of thirst and went mad from the heat. On one occasion too much water caused as much grief as too little. A flash flood drowned most of the camp followers, and the troops barely escaped. At Pura “Alexander found food and water,” according to Arrian, then “set off on the royal road to Persepolis”. The ‘royal road’ road lies buried and forgotten beneath desert sand and rocks. But Pura still exists. Only the name has changed. Now it is known as Iranshahr.

So we had had high hopes of Iranshahr. There might, we hoped, even be interesting ruins to explore. On our maps it looked to be the largest town south of Zahedan. I guess maybe it was. It was certainly the metropolis of the Djaz Murian, but that’s not saying much. It was just a big mud village – mostly nothing but a lot of barasti huts scattered amongst some date groves.

Most Baluchis live in beehive-shaped huts of wattle and daub – called ‘barasti’ – made of date palm fronds and mud. The palm fronds are planted, butt-first, into the ground in a rough circle about ten or twelve feet across. Their tips are pulled toward the centre and fastened together, enclosing a hemispherical space with a radius of six or eight feet. This is covered by another layer of fronds and lashed together with woven mats of reeds. Finally, the whole structure is covered – both inside and out – with thin layers of a mixture of mud and straw. A hole in the centre of the roof serves both as a chimney and as the only source of light and ventilation.

‘Downtown’ Iranshahr was centred about the only stone building in town – a three-storey cube with verandahs on all four sides – that passed for city hall. On the ground floor was the police station, on the first the offices of both the farmandar and the kadkhoda. The second floor was the Mehmankhaneh Melli (National Guest House) where we were to spend an incredibly uncomfortable night. Next to ‘city hall’ was a sort of ad hoc bazaar – a dozen or so open-fronted mud boxes on both sides of a narrow lane. On one side of the street, little cubicles, each about the size of a closet, sold hardware, woven baskets, and clothing, and packets of tea and bitter Moccha coffee from the Yemen. And a brand of dreadful local cigarettes called Ushnu Vijay. Ushnu Vijay were sold all over Iran. Often (as in Iranshahr) they were the only brand available. The only good thing about them was the price – ten rials (about US$0.07) for a packet of twenty. Not only were these cigarettes unspeakably vile, but they were actually rolled from used newsprint – clearly cut from local newspapers – rather than cigarette paper. They were so loosely packed that, if you weren’t careful when pulling a cigarette from the packet, most of the tobacco stayed behind, leaving you with an empty tube of newsprint between your fingers).

There were lots of other things on offer, too – bolts of cloth, samovars, luggage, teapots and lanterns, skeins of rope and folded canvas, shirts, shoes and toys. There were chickens underfoot, and pie-dogs, and flocks of goats and sheep – and lots and lots of little kids, mostly with snotty noses, that gathered around us whenever we went outdoors. The other side of the street was mostly a vegetable market. There were potatoes, crimson bouquets of radishes, carrots in woven baskets, huge green ruffles of lettuce, pyramids of melons, a painted trolley full of grapes. Tatty awnings, stretched between them, cast irregular polygons of shade, and relays of small boys sprinkled water on the footpath to keep down dust. This dark, moist passage seemed a curious sort of place to find in this town of brilliant sun and dust.

There was a sort of rudimentary maidan across from the farmandari where, about sunset a sort of prehistoric food-court would appear – tatty hand-carts with charcoal burners and rows of sauce bottles set into their tops, and rows of rickety little tables and cauldrons of boiling fat. They sold samosas, spiced cakes, chello kebab, ab gusht, roasted beans, and battered chili peppers so hot the fumes alone could seriously damage your nasal passages.

The guest house had only four rooms – one on each corner of the building. We took three of them. Our room was a cube about twelve feet on a side with two single wire-wove iron bedsteads and a battered wardrobe. The walls were streaked with water marks and the ceiling was visibly damp. And I wondered – prophetically, it turned out – whether the roof leaked.

We spent the late afternoon walking the streets with the Bakhsdar of Basman (the next village – which lies at the foot of the volcano of the same name) and, of course, our ever-present entourage of small sniffling children. Not even the Bakhsdar could get rid of them. For want of any common interest to discuss, the Bakhsdar spent the evening explaining how the provincial hierarchy worked. From top to base, the system consists of an Ustandar in charge of the state (an “Ustan” – there are twelve states in Iran). Below him is the Farmandar, in charge of a Farman (province). Then comes the Bakhsdar in charge of a district – several villages or towns – and finally the Kadkhoda (mayor of a town or village).

Just after we’d climbed into our beds it started to rain again. The roof leaked like a sieve and the rain-sodden ceiling dripped gobbets of mud into our faces throughout the night.

Feb 6, 1961

We left Iranshahr at dawn. Much to our surprise, the road wasn’t obvious. We knew only a few words of Baluchi, but most Baluch men could speak some Farsi. With these and a lot of gestures we persuaded a young man to guide us twenty miles to Bampur, the next village on our map. After an hour ploughing through sand, we realised he was following no trail, but making a beeline course. We asked about the camel trail shown on our map.
“Mosheen better than camel,” he grinned. ”Camel go easy way. Mosheen go to cross over even hard thing.”

On an isolated hillock twenty-five miles west of Iranshahr, near the village of Bampur, are the ruins of a small stone fortress. The locals who showed us through its shattered battlements identified it as ‘Qasr Iskander’ – ‘Alexander’s Castle’. Well, maybe. Stone ruins are pretty few and far between in this part of the country, and these were in bad enough shape to be 2,300 years old. Alexander is, after all, known to have stopped in nearby Iranshahr.

Beyond Bampur, a rough causeway carried the road first west, then south across the monotonous landscape, crossing – then peripheral to – the immense swamp of the Djaz Murian – mostly mushy-looking gravel flats dotted with scrubby willows, thistles as big as houses and stagnant pools of green, scummy water. The causeway hadn’t had any maintenance done on it for years, and the recent rains hadn’t helped any. Big chunks off both sides had collapsed into the swamp leaving the actual roadway perilously narrow. So narrow, in fact, that both our power wagons slid off it sideways – one to the left and the other to the right. It took the best part of a day to get them both upright and back on the road again.

The track twisted between wind-whipped tamarisk groves and steep ravines, across dunes where soft sand grabbed at the wheels, and clumps of spiny grass caught on the chassis. The floods had done immense damage and long stretches of the road had simply disappeared. All bloody day we wandered south-westward, navigating more by the feel of the land than by compass.

Beside some of the waterways were scruffy villages where little bare kids gathered to wave us past. Behind the villages, ridges of red rock, stiff as cocks-combs, rose among the sand dunes of the Darya-i-Shenn (Sea of Sand). Beyond the dunes, a straggle of villages, collectively known as Ispakeh, curved around the foot of a huge dissected talus fan below the Mali Sar Plateau.

Ispakeh lay amongst the distributaries of the Rud-i-Puzm, a sometime watercourse that drained the north slopes of Kuh-i-Nowkoweh. Its flood plain was fifteen or twenty miles wide where it entered the Djaz Murian, with dozens of little gravel-bottomed channels distributing the runoff across the flats. Rows of long straight dykes – each five or six feet high – had been constructed right across the flood plain. Six or eight miles long, and laid out in an inverted chevron pattern, they funneled floodwater from a dozen or more distributaries inward toward a mud-walled enclosure next to the town. It contained a few acres of ploughed fields

Whenever it rained on the mountain, water would flow briefly down some of its distributaries spreading thinly across the plains. The dyke system would divert much of this water toward – and ultimately into – the enclosure. Rain was infrequent in Baluchistan and most years the fields lay fallow, their furrows filled with dust, but every three or four years some runoff would reach the dyke system. In a good year the enclosure would be flooded with enough water for the Ispakehis to plant and harvest a meagre crop

It was damned impressive, that irrigation scheme. It had been all made by hand – by a local population of probably less than one hundred – and must have required more-or-less continuous maintenance. Every village from Ispakeh to Chah Bahar – and there were a lot of them – Pip, Ughin, Kazmir Hichas, Nikshahr, Talagh Ramazan, Zeyarat-es-Shamil, Munan and Purkh – was served by a similarly impressive dyke system. Their very existence showed just how tough it was to wring a living from this dreadful lunar landscape. I reckoned that anyone who would work that hard for a few acres of intermittently arable land deserved to live somewhere better than Baluchistan.

We pitched a fly-camp in the lee of some dunes as far from the nearest village as we could manage, but by the time camp was set up practically the entire village was gathered around us. An intensely interested audience watched us eat corned beef and creamed corn cold from the tins. They were still there as we crawled into our sleeping bags. They were pleasant and good-natured, these people, and they certainly meant no harm. We were the most exciting thing in their day – probably in their month – the only show in town. But they stood awfully close and there were lots and lots of them. I finally fell asleep counting stars and trying to ignore the circle of people squatting in companionable silence around us.

Feb 8, 1961

It rained in desultory fashion all night. We awoke to find a smoky haze swirling between the sandstone peaks and a sky filled with dissipating clouds.

Here, where few men pass, game was abundant. Every day we saw herds of gazelle. Mountain sheep and ibex grazing on the mountainsides goggled at us as we passed. Next morning we were startled to find the tracks of two leopards circling our tents. That was alarming but not serious. What was serious was that all that was left of Mahmoud’s two chickens – which we called our “C-rations” – was a circle of bloody feathers. Mahmoud had been sleeping only two yards away.

Feb 9, 10, 11 and 12, 1961

The next night we lay in wait for the cats and got a quick shot at a leopard which lay observing us from beneath one of our power wagons. A panther killed a gazelle beside the pool the following night, and an immense brown bear completely gutted the interior of one of our power wagons. The last night in camp we looked up from a game of chess to find three brown wolves sitting quietly on their haunches about twenty yards away – just watching.

Measuring sections is what field geology is all about. There’s nothing complicated about measuring sections. It’s just fiddly and time consuming – and bloody hard work. What we did was tramp up and down hillsides, dragging a fifty-metre measuring tape behind us. Whenever we came to a rock stratum, we would bang off a sample – usually about the size of a large bar of soap – describe it in a notebook, and slip it into a carefully labelled cotton drawstring bag. Then we would measure the distance from the last rock we had sampled and record the distance between the two strata. By means of an instrument called a Brunton Compass (technically called the ‘Brunton Pocket Transit’, it was really just an ordinary compass to which were added an inclinometer and a spirit level. It was invented by David William Brunton [1849-1927] in 1898). We could also measure the strike and inclination of the rock stratum from which the sample had been taken. These data, too, were meticulously recorded.

The theory was that if enough sections were measured – each, hopefully, of a different sequence of rocks – the paleontologists in their laboratory in Tehran could arrange them in order of their geological age from oldest to youngest. This, in the success case, would give us the total thickness – and description – of rocks underlying the area surveyed.

We spent three days in this camp, measuring sections both upstream and downstream from camp – up and down those bloody cliffs. Hours were required for the ascent, banging on and describing rocks layer by layer, and hours more working our way back down with our heavy bags of rock samples

Feb 13, 1961

As we broke out of the mountains onto the grim coastal plain a hot wind blew from the sea and dust devils raced across the desiccated sweep of dried mud. In the dimness of the south horizon the red mesas behind Chah Bahar shimmered with heat mirages. Where the dunes swept down to the sea, was a spot of colour and squalor, noise and date palms – the village of Tis – sandwiched between an elegant serrated golden castle-cliff and the sea.

At Tis the road left the sea and climbed the sandstone cliffs behind Chah Bahar. The view from the summit was breath-taking. The cliffs below us swept to right and left to enclose the almost perfect circle of Chah Bahar Bay. Arcs of golden sand reached out toward its sheltering promontories with the Gulf of Oman glittering beyond. Against a wash of brilliant blue, Chah Bahar town stood out in bold relief – shaggy dark date palms, a stumpy minaret and a line of what looked like domes beside the sea. Dhows, round and plump as guppies, drew long curved wakes across the bay toward the little port. Above their wakes, sea birds dipped and swooped against a sky the colour of eggs.

The town of Chah Bahar, however, seemed much more than it was in fact. It was only another mud village, built on tussock-covered dunes. The town’s two thousand or so inhabitants lived in biblical squalor in an assortment of crumbling mud towers and barasti huts. The only substantial building in town was a big stone cube with double-storey verandahs on all four sides. Like the mayor’s office/hotel in Iranshahr – to which it was nearly identical – it was a last legacy of vanished British imperialism. The lovely beach – a great sweep of golden sand – was entirely deserted except for one naked little boy sailing a crude model ship in the surf. It didn’t take long to figure out why nobody was about. The main catch of the local fishermen was shark, and the beach was used to dry them. Thousands of shark carcasses were drying there, and the stench of rotting fish was overpowering.

Near the ‘gas station’ – a dozen petrol drums under a tattered awning – a group of women sat weaving, their noses pierced and ornamented with silver rings set with turquoise, their earlobes permanently stretched by heavy bangles. The local gendarme, looking up from the shaded step where he was sprawled, said one word, “Papers!” He accepted them laconically and ambled into a nearby office with peeling plaster walls and a single broken window. When he returned – without, I noticed, our papers – he kicked aside a thin dog that had usurped his place, slouched against the pillar and muttered, “See me before you leave. No leave, no papers.” Before we could reply, he was humming softly to himself and gazing vacantly across the bay. Then, abruptly, he spoke. “Mehmankhaneh unja hast,” (“The Guesthouse is there,”), he said, pointing up, “upstairs”.

Sure enough, there was another Mehmankhaneh Melli – identical to the one in Iranshahr – on the top floor of the big stone building. And, also as in Iranshahr, the offices of the Kadkhoda and the Bakhsdar were there. We checked ourselves into the mehmankhaneh, lugging all our sleeping gear up three flights of stairs – the only stairs in the whole damned village – to our tacky room.

According to Arrian, Nearchus (Alexander’s admiral) rested his fleet here after a harrowing voyage from India. “All here was friendly and produced fruit of all sorts,” he reported. “The men blew bugles to scare off whales, ate camels to keep from starving, and battled hairy savages who lived in whalebone houses.” I guess quite a lot has changed in the last twenty-three centuries.

Feb 14, 15 and 16, 1961

We spent three days in Chah Bahar with the Kadkhoda trying to get our logistics in order. He soon convinced us that we were going to require camels for most of our work. After putting our heads together, we decided it sounded an interesting proposition. Then we spent hours together with the Bakhsdar trying to arrange camels for our first off-road reconnaissance trip. We told him where we wanted to go – at least as nearly as we could tell with neither a map nor any real idea of the geography of the country – and what we wanted to do there. He frankly didn’t believe that we might actually intend to spend our time banging on rocks. He didn’t just disbelieve us; he told us he disbelieved us. ”Nobody,” he insisted, “Comes to Baluchistan only to bang on rocks. There must be many rocks,” he added, ”nearer to your home that you could reach without all this trouble.” But in the end, I think our explanation – that his rocks (as we were careful to call them) were unique in the world (which was true) and that we wanted to study them so that the whole world would know of their excellence (which was bullshit) – charmed him entirely. It was probably the first time in his life that anyone had praised anything about Baluchistan.

His first advice was for us to hire two dozen camels for a period of a month. First we had to bargain with the Bakhsdar to convince him to put us directly in touch with the camel owners and drivers (thus depriving him of his cut of the action) and then we had to bargain with them. There were several problems with this. We had no idea of where it was we actually wanted to go. Neither did we know exactly what we would want to do once we got there. We also knew neither how much a camel could carry nor how fast a camel caravan traveled. Both numbers, when we learned them, turned out to be considerable disappointments. In the end we agreed on eight camels for two or three weeks. This done, he arranged for us to meet a group of camel-owners early the next morning.

Feb 17, 1961

Our camels and their drivers met us at the village of Kuh-i-Nowkjhon. They had all come from the nearby village of Qal-e-Ramazan, a barasti settlement of only thirty-five people. We discovered something else we didn’t know – the price of hiring a camel. The bargaining was surprisingly hard. In the end they agreed to provide us with eight camels for two or three weeks, but insisted that one of them accompany each camel. Considering that each of the men owned only one camel, this was understandable. None of them wanted to entrust his camel – his entire livelihood – to anybody else. Cost to us would be 100 rials (US$1.33) per day for one camel and one camel driver. And so it was eventually done.

Our camel drivers were a breathtakingly piratical-looking group of men – all but one fiercely bearded, their faces immersed in matted tangles of hair. They wore baggy three-quarter trousers, loose knee-length shirts, a sort of waistcoat, and sandals on bare feet. Each had a woolen shawl draped over one shoulder, and wore a grubby turban – originally white, I think, but now shades of beige and tan.

We had, first of all, Khodabaksh, the caravan leader. He was tall and dark, with a walrus moustache, almond-shaped eyes that bespoke his part-Mongol ancestry, a glib tongue and a multicoloured turban. Then there was Khalim of the sad, wise face; Abrahim with features sharp as a knife and a tongue to match, and Delwash, the youngest, a boy of eighteen – strongly built and with a hoarse laugh, sparkling eyes and endless humour.

Then there was Muhammed with eyes like fire and a twisted, sad smile, who complained of a chronic stomach complaint (we later found he loved pills), Darkarim with the best physique of the lot, a bristling square beard who never smiled; and Assah, a great talker and teller of tales – all hair and stomach and flashing teeth.

And last but not least, Miral Khan, the eldest. He claimed to be 105 but the others said he was only about seventy. He had a tiny body (about 5’ 2” not counting his grubby turban) and an insatiable love of attention. He had a fine set of white whiskers – a neatly-trimmed beard and a spectacular handlebar moustache. He had been, in his time, he said, the strong man of a local sardhar (king) in the days before Reza Shah.

A keen hunter, Miral Khan claimed to be husband to four wives and father of nine sons (the youngest only seven). He was much incensed when the others referred to him as ‘pir-e-mard’ (‘old man’) for, as he put it, “I am only old when Allah says so, and he hasn’t said so yet!”
“But Pir-e-mard,” the others would chime in, “Your beard and moustaches are all white, so you must be old.”
“Not so,” He would reply with some heat, “I am husband to a wife of twenty-five and father of young, strong sons!”
“Ah, yes, Pir-e-mard, but are those sons really yours?” And so it would go. He was the constant butt of all jokes; songs were made up by Assah regaling the others of Miral Khan’s past prowess and conquests – all bawdy. But the old man, in spite of his protestations, loved every minute of it. You could see it in his old eyes and the way he straightened his back whenever he was the subject of conversation.

Our first night in camp with the camels – which were hobbled about a hundred yards away – was fairly wretched. Tethered nose-to-nose in a circle, they belched and gargled anxiously. This was OK during the day, but once night fell, they cranked the volume up. Without a single interruption, they spent the entire night collaborating in a chorus of ghastly noises; they barked like seals; they cried like babies; they roared like lions; they gulped, they burbled, they cooed and they gurgled and they gargled.

Feb 18, 1961

We gathered near the beach about an hour before sunup. Our equipment was loaded into panniers woven from date leaves – one on either side of each camel. Camels seemed to hate almost everything, but – more than anything else in the world – they hate being loaded or unloaded. Roaring and gurgling with rage, the camels folded and unfolded themselves, tipping and bowing like huge insects.

I knew practically nothing about camels until the day I first mounted one – that would be today. The .African camel – or dromedary – is a study in contradictions. Once described by a famous wit as ‘a horse designed by a committee’, camels seem to have been put together from spare parts from half-a-dozen larger and smaller beasts. Their legs are too long and seem have more than their share of joints – a sort of surfeit of knees, as it were. Their teeth – especially their incisors – are way too big for their mouths and jut angularly forward like great yellow fangs. They have barrel chests, wasp waists, and tiny tails with pom-poms on the ends.

Their South American relatives – the llama and the alpaca – are sleek and well-proportioned animals, with equable dispositions and coats that make fine wool. Even the Bactrian camel – their two-humped cousin from across the Himalayas – has a stately gait and a kindly eye, and seems, in general, well-disposed toward humans. Besides, with two humps, riding a Bactrian camel – lolling back between the humps – is a piece of cake. It’s nothing like teetering atop the single hump of a dromedary.

Dromedaries are not controlled by kindness. They are controlled by pain. There is neither kindness in a camel, nor anything that responds to kindness. Personally, I found it hard to be deliberately mean to my camel, and I tried to treat her as I would have a horse. And I’m here to tell you that it didn’t bloody work! For the best part of three weeks, she ignored my every attempt to control her, and did exactly as she pleased.

Dromedaries have spectacular lashes – long and dark and upcurving – above eyes enormous and limpid and brown – eyes that would appear beautiful if only they weren’t attached to grotesque faces set in permanent supercilious sneers. Camels are very tall – their heads are about ten or twelve feet in the air. So camels look down – both literally and figuratively – on the world – something that seems to have given them a superiority complex – the kind of complex that involves having chips on both shoulders.

Camels do nothing willingly. They are always on the lookout for insults – real or imagined – spoiling for a fight. They’re big and they’re strong, and when they’re upset – which they usually are – they kick and bite and excrete incredible volumes of several sorts of vile fluids – puke, snot and shit – which they deploy as weapons. Dealing with camels is a nasty and physically demanding sort of a job – and sometimes downright dangerous. I had all of this good stuff still to learn.

It seemed to take forever to get them loaded – four to carry the gear and four riding camels (for Ted, me, Ahmad and Mahmoud). We promptly devised names for our private steeds. Ahmad’s became ‘Alphonse’, mine ‘Mehitabel’, Mahmoud’s ‘Nomad’ (it was forever straying from the caravan) and Ted’s – for obvious reasons – ‘Old Wart-Nose’.

Camels are boarded when sitting down. With their long legs folded underneath them, the top of a camel’s hump (where the saddle is located) is only about five or six feet off the ground and it is relatively easy to clamber up the beast’s folded legs far enough to grab the pommel of the saddle (there are no stirrups) and hoist yourself aboard. That’s the easy part. Then the camel gets up – that’s the hard part. They do it in installments. First their long hind legs half-unfold more-or-less instantaneously, raising their ass suddenly four or five feet in the air and tilting both saddle and rider steeply forward. It takes a powerful stiff-armed grip with both hands on the pommel to avoid being pitched nose-first off the camel. And no matter how many times you’ve done it, this maneuver almost always brings on a powerful adrenaline rush. Then the front legs unfold completely, tilting you sharply backward. The same grip on the pommel will save you again, but now you must pull rather than push. This engenders a second adrenaline rush. Finally the rest of the hind legs unfold leaving you on an even keel, but now sitting precariously on something like a small padded table about twelve feet in the air.

Camel saddles – except for tall wooden pommels fore and aft – look more like footstools than saddles. Ours were made of wood lashed together with wild date fronds and covered with mats woven from the same material. They were lashed to the camels with ropes woven from date fronds, then covered with one or more blankets. Baluchis sit cross-legged on the saddles, which have no stirrups. We, more accustomed to horseback riding, tried to ride astraddle – something for which camel saddles were never intended. They are considerably wider than horse saddles and are configured quite differently – riding a camel saddle is a bit like straddling a coffee table. And, like tables, camel saddles have ‘edges’ which dig into the inside of the thighs of the neophyte rider.

This caused all of us agonising discomfort – pains that spread from the thighs to the hips to the lower spine, and then shot right up the arse. After an hour or so, it was like having a hot poker stuck right up your fundament. There was no way to ease the agony. The lower part of the human body – at least the lower part of my human body – is not sufficiently bifurcated to fit astraddle across a camel saddle. We tried riding cross-legged like the Baluchis, or even side-saddle, but when your arse is twelve feet in the air, your nerves insist that only with a leg down each side can you stay aboard.
The camels were guided by a single rein attached to a wooden plug inserted in their nasal septum, and neck-reined for a turn to the offside. This sounds simple, but – except for Mahmoud – none of us ever managed to get our camels to obey any commands at all. Not that it normally mattered very much. Camels, accustomed to caravans, instinctively travel nose-to-tail, so as long as the lead camel knows where it’s going, everybody else will get there, too. It was just the frustration of being twelve terrifying feet in the air and unable to make the damned beast go or stop or sit down (which is the only sensible way to get off). Their only gait was a slow rhythmic walk, not unlike a horse but rather less jerky and with a fore-and-aft pelvic motion that was faintly – and sometimes unnervingly – reminiscent of sexual intercourse. The ride was remarkably smooth because their long oddly-jointed legs and their immense footpads soaked up most of the jarring impact of the rocky terrain. Our first ride lasted just over three hours – three of the longest hours of my life.

Riding had been sheer agony, but getting off turned out to be even worse. Once Khodabaksh got Mehitabel to sit down, and I went to dismount, sharp pains shot up and down the whole of my body. I hadn’t expected it to be a pleasure. I hadn’t ridden anything – not even a horse – since I was nine or ten years old – and never for more than half an hour at a time – and I could still remember how sore and stiff I had been. But this – this was an order of magnitude worse. I felt like a broomstick had been shoved up my arse all the way to my epiglottis. My lower back was in a state of permanent cramping, the insides of my thighs had been scraped raw and my hips and knees seemed to have fused, locking my legs into permanent parentheses. I was totally humiliated when, to my horror, I found. I couldn’t even get off my bloody camel.

Even after Delwash and Assah had eventually pried me off my saddle, I could still hardly stand. I think Assah was enjoying my discomfiture, but he gave me some ghee to rub on my raw crotch. It helped a little but didn’t do a thing for my stiffness, so for half-an-hour or so, I lurched about camp like somebody on stilts. Eventually my petrified muscles limbered up enough for me to sit down. That, too, was a mistake. I should have kept moving. By the time we were ready to turn in I had stiffened up all over. Nothing worked, and I ached in places I hadn’t even known I had. And it wasn’t only me. Ted and Ahmed were in similar predicaments. Mahmoud, who had had to prepare supper, and therefore couldn’t relax, turned out to be a lot more limber when we went to clamber back aboard our camels next morning. There was a minor dust-storm during the night – not a lot of wind, but the air was fogged with dust that settled like talcum powder over everything. It got right up my nose and seriously aggravated my asthma.

We carried tents with us, but, in the event, seldom had occasion to use them. Night-time temperatures in Baluchistan were pleasant and rain, our caravanseers assured us, was not something to be worried about, so mostly we just dossed down near the fire, laying our sleeping bags on the softest pile of dust we could find. Surprisingly, I found I slept very well. Or rather, I would have slept very well had we not been in the company of camels. The camel, it is said, has seven stomachs. He can go without a drink for five days, they say, and I have no reason to disbelieve them. But there is a price to pay for all this. These bloody camels sat up all night making vast drain-like noises as they switched their water ballast from one stomach to another.

Feb 19, 1961

In the beginning each cameleer walked beside the head of his camel, holding the rein and directing the beast with clicking noises he made with his mouth. After only a few hours of this, Ted – who said he resented “having my beast led for me as though I were still a kid at a school gala” – got them to desist. So they put the four freight camels – which they still guided – in the lead. Our riding camels, well-accustomed to moving in caravans, automatically fell into place behind them and followed wherever they led. All except for Mahmoud’s. He, somehow, managed to get his camel to respond to his commands. It never seemed to bother him that what the camel did never corresponded with what he thought he was telling it to do. Sometimes they would be out of sight for hours at a time, but – since they always turned up at the evening campsite – the caravanseers allowed him to keep the illusion of command.

Today was the first day of Ramadan – the Moslem month of fasting, during which time no bit of food or drop of fluid must pass a man’s lips from sun-up until dusk – technically, they were not supposed even to swallow their own saliva. The period between sun-up and dusk is very clearly defined as that period during which a man can discern the difference between a black thread and a white one held at arm’s length. Travellers – those more than 60 miles/100 km from their homes – are specifically excluded from the strictures of Ramadan fasting. We were more than 60 miles from our home, but our caravanseers were not. So, although we were allowed to eat and drink, they were not. No man may think bad thoughts nor sing nor otherwise entertain himself. Pregnant women and children under twelve are not required to fast either. People who are ill are also allowed to eat and drink during Ramadan, but they are expected to make up the lost days after they recover.

Most of our people managed to look appropriately miserable during the day (probably not too difficult for a hungry, thirsty and tired man), but poor irrepressible Delwash insisted on forgetting and was always being taken to task for whistling.

My arse still hurt like buggery from yesterday, and my hips and legs were simply too painful and stiff for me to hope to ride astride Mehitabel. They say necessity is the mother of invention, and maybe it’s true. In the course of this one day – with a lot of help and encouragement from young Delwash – I learned an acceptable way to ride a camel saddle. Sitting well forward, I hooked one leg around the forward pommel, doubling the other beneath me. In this position – providing I kept a firm grip on the rear pommel of the saddle, I eventually grew to feel reasonably secure. This arrangement wasn’t perfect by any means – the leg beneath me kept going to sleep, and I had to change legs every fifteen or twenty minutes – but it made camel riding barely tolerable.

All day dust filtered steadily from a breathlessly hot sky. The sun seared the rock-ribbed gorge as we ascended, and in the shade of stunted trees flies swarmed maddeningly about us. We wound among dun-coloured cliffs of sand and clay for some hours, then were informed by Khodabaksh – our chief caravanseer – that there was no more water for “many, many miles” and that we must camp “here”. “Here” was a narrow cleft in a massive sandstone ridge where a dry waterfall had scoured a deep hole. The muddy residue of water in the bottom of it was alive with mosquito larvae. We got our camp set up and ate lunch. The Baluchis gazed so longingly at us as we ate, that our consciences pricked us something awful. But not quite awful enough for us to actually refrain from eating.

After lunch we ordered up three riding camels for a brief reconnaissance up the gorge.
“But we are fasting,’ Khodabaksh complained, “And we cannot walk with the camels. We are too weak. We can work only half days during Ramadan.”
“But,” Our Ahmad interjected, “We hired you at 100 rials per day. If you work only half-days, we can give you only half-pay!”

With this sudden predicament staring them in the face, they finally agreed to come with us, but on the condition that “We will ride two to each camel. We dare not leave our camels in another’s hands and we are too weak to walk.” Thus it was agreed. It turned out to be a terrible mistake. There cannot be anything more miserable than riding pillion on a camel. After a half-day of it, we all preferred walking back to camp to riding double on those damned camels again. By the time we got back to camp, the camels had been unloaded, and the drivers were chatting or sleeping around little fires. Belching and roaring, the hobbled camels lurched and staggered amongst the fires, casting long spidery shadows. Camels are hobbled by tying the lower part of one front leg back against the upper part. Camels are perfectly capable of moving about on three legs, but this slows them down a lot.

In the evening I joined the Baluchis by their fire, taking a gift of chocolate-chip biscuits and tea for the Iftar Feast. Khodabaksh salaamed graciously and said, “Thank you for these welcome sweets. Your servants will sacrifice themselves for your Excellency. Give me a cigarette please.”

Feb 20, 1961

After much shouting, readjustment of loads and bickering, we finally set off up the valley of the Ab-i-Camb (little water) into the first rays of an ascending sun. The valley meanders among low hills of dun-coloured clay near the foot of the mighty Kuh-i-Kuruj (Date Mountain).

No one without experience of camels has any idea how disgusting they are. They’re stubborn, stupid, cantankerous and mean. Everything about them is offensive – in both senses of the word. They belch and they fart and they have an appalling body odour that instantly transfers itself to their rider43. By rotating their tails while crapping, camels can spray dung over a hemisphere thirty feet in diameter. The other end of a camel chews sideways. It can spit into a thimble at four or five yards, and fill a pocket with green snot at five paces. It also bites. An irritated camel can chomp anyone or anything within a circle with a radius of about ten feet centred about its shoulders. That long neck is surprisingly flexible so that the camel’s mouth can reach any portion of its body – including the tail. Its great yellow incisors – fangs the size of dominos – can bite entirely through both the upper and the sole of a desert boot. I should know, Old Wart Nose did it to me.

Feb 22, 1961

Baluchis have a sort of gift for making things from dates (kuruj). I guess they have to – date palms are almost the only raw material they have. They eat the dates and the heart of the wild date palm, and weave their sandals of date leaves. Their ropes, belts, baskets, saddles – even their homes – are made from he date. They burn date trunks and leaves in their fires, powder the leaves to chew or smoke as tobacco and savour young shoots as a sort of salad.
The sun glared from the pale slopes above us. A gentle breeze rattled the big ragged date leaves like castanets as we climbed up the valley of Ab-i-Camb. The gentle rocking gait of the camels gave a sensation of floating past unreal scenery, and the sunglazed sky seemed like a backdrop for some gigantic theatrical production. Every camel took at least one bite from each thorn bush we passed, and the crunch of their rotating jaws masticating thorns remains one of my most vivid memories of the trip.

We stopped briefly in the shade of some date palms and ate lunch beside a deep pool while the camels farted, sprayed the earth with waste products and gurgled at one another. Miral Khan sedulously gathered up all our discarded cans, and muttered something into his moustache that sounded suspiciously like, “Cigar bedeh.” (‘Give me a cigarette’) It turned out that that’s what he was saying, and by the time sufficient weeds had been distributed an empty Ushnu Vijay packet lay on the ground beside a little pool of tuna oil and a used Kleenex.

In the afternoon, as the breeze died and my pocket thermometer recorded a temperature of 103oF. The path climbed through narrowing gullies and over ledges of sandstone where the camels found the going so painful we felt obliged to dismount. Miral Khan walked beside me repeating endlessly, “We are Moslem  – Sunni – We believe in God who watches over us. You are Nasrani (‘‘Christians’ – the word is related to ‘Nazarene’, somebody from Nazareth) but you are not unclean – I mean, like swine are – since you also believe in God.”

Shortly before sundown we pitched our camp in a thicket of wild dates overlooking a green scummy pool full of hoarse frogs. While Mahmoud prepared a supper of what he called “pilaf-i-bully beef” (boiled corned beef on rice), Assah and Delwash built an immense fire of date logs and Ahmed and I settled down to a game of chatranj (chess – the game was invented in Iran).

Even though all our camels seemed to graze more-or-less continuously all day, our camel drivers spent quite a lot of time gathering fodder for them. This seemed, at first, a sort of gastronomic overkill, but I later saw why they did it. During the night our drivers usually formed a rough circle around their fire, with bunches of camel-fodder between them. The camels, in turn, formed a ring around the drivers, their heads poised over the piles of fodder. The drivers seemed to spend a large part of their nights hand-feeding their camels. It turned out that this was the easiest way to make sure the camels were handy for loading next morning. Otherwise, even if hobbled, the camels might wander considerable distances and it could take up to an hour or two in the morning to get them all assembled in one place.

From time to time, the camels would either spit or blow their noses all over the camel drivers on either side of them. The drivers took absolutely no notice of it – as though as just part of the job. I dunno – perhaps it was. One of the things that most repelled me about this was that I never subsequently saw any of the drivers make any effort to wash the snot or spit off. And I was, after all, living with these guys.

There was another thing too. Like everything else about a camel their spit and snot stank abominably. So, of course, did all our camel drivers. Since they never seemed to bathe – and certainly didn’t change their clothing during our time together – just being near them was something of an ordeal. Maybe I shouldn’t talk. We were also pretty ripe. The water in the water holes was green and slimy with algae and mostly covered with a scum lumpy with things that looked like turds. Filthy and miserable as we’d become we could never bring ourselves to bathe in it. So, trapped in our own dirty clothes and sweat, we itched incessantly. And we stank. We could hardly stand ourselves or each other.

We hadn’t anticipated that bathing would be a problem. Since we knew we would mostly be working only a few miles from the coast, we had assumed that we could drive – or walk – down and have a quick dip in the Gulf of Oman. Much easier said, we found, than done. Because of those damned mud flats, bathing in the sea turned out to be mostly impossible. We tried and we tried – and we tried – to have a swim in the sea. Getting to the coast, we discovered, was one thing – but getting to the actual sea was quite another. We got to the coast in a lot of places, but – aside from the beach at Chah Bahar (where all the shark carcasses were drying) and another at Kachuo – we could never actually get down to the water.

Feb 23, 1961

After supper Ahmad and I joined the Baluchis at their fire. Their camels were gathered in a circle around them with their long necks extending inward, heads toward the fire. The caravanseers had their sleeping rolls piled against their saddles, and sat comfortably leaning back, munching date paste (their only food) or weaving ropes and mats from date fronds. I asked Delwash what happened when a camel wandered off and became lost. “Oh,” he replied, “Camels are never lost. It is their driver who is lost. To a camel one place is very like another.”

Delwash leaned eagerly forward, “I helped to hunt Dotshah (the leader of a band of brigands who had kidnapped and killed the American Carrol and his wife in 1954). For five years we hunted him. Those were good times. The Shah gave each man ten tomans each day, and I was allowed to carry a rifle again.”
“Did you catch him?” I asked.
“Alas, no,” he replied. “He is still out there” – he waved at the darkness beyond the reach of our fire – “Still with his bandit friends. But now he is careful not to kill foreigners, so you are quite safe.”

Up to that point my questions had been just to satisfy my curiosity. I hadn’t even thought about my own safety. But after Delwash’s off-hand comments about Dotshah’s continuing presence, I was never again able to look in the darkness beyond the light of our campfires with quite the same feeling of peace. A small but persistent itch suddenly developed in the small of my back – an itch I was never quite able to scratch until we finally left Baluchistan altogether.

“Ah, yes. Rifles,” Miral Khan’s eyes brightened, “I was a great shikari when I had a rifle. Ah, to hold one again,” – he peered meaningfully at Ted who had, beneath his cot, a 12-gauge shotgun and a 22 calibre rifle.
“Tomorrow,” I promised, hoping Ted would agree, “We will see!”

“How is your king?” Mohammed wanted to know.
“We have no king,” I replied.
“No king? How, then, are you governed?”
“We rule ourselves.”
“No king? That seems very strange. Have you come in search of one?”
I was about to try to explain, then thought better of it. “How many Americans have you seen, Mohammed?” I asked.
After a long consultation it came out that Miral Khan thought he’d seen one once before – but he said it might have been an Italiyieh (Italian).

I had brought some cookies from our stores and presented them to Khodabaksh. He carefully apportioned them to the others, explaining that, “All Baluchis are brothers. What one has he shares with his brothers. You, too, are our brothers and we share with you.” He left unspoken the corollary – that if they shared with us, we would be expected to share with them, notwithstanding the obvious difference in amounts to be shared. I also left it unspoken, hoping the subject would be changed.

Mehitabel sneezed, spraying Delwash and Assah with green snot. In the general hilarity that followed, Miral Khan lapsed back into his song. Sensing that it was time for a departure, we returned to our fire and our beds.

Feb 24, 1961

We were at breakfast before the first faint crimson appeared in the east, and by the time a sliver of sun was casting long shadows across the sand we were in the saddle and enroute. Entering a gorge in the flanks of Kuh-i-Kuruj, we called a halt while the caravanseers said their morning prayers. Later that morning we met a small caravan enroute to the interior and stopped to bargain for salted fish from Cunarak. We, bearing in mind the “share and share alike” fetish of our fellows, offered to pay for the fish. However, after retiring behind a nearby cliff to negotiate, Miral Khan announced that all Baluchis were brothers and that the other caravan – “seeing that we were in need [had] offered to give us fish for nothing”. This seemed a fine thing at the time. I was later to change my opinion drastically.

About noon we made our camp beside a deep muddy pool in the Kand-i-Kuruj (Gorge of Wild Dates) at the foot of a thousand-foot cliff. Unfortunately we were – again – downwind of the camels.

Feb 25, 1961

Dawn was shrouded with purple clouds with the sun streaming in shafts between them, as Ted and I set off up the scarp, leaving the Baluchis to tend camp. For nearly six hours he and I clambered up and down that damned cliff, measuring everything in sight. Measuring sections – the technical name for what we had done – was always the pits. It was hard, dirty work, but something we did nearly every day. Today the temperature approached 40oC, and we were absolutely buggered by the time we made it back down to camp. We were surprised – and not best-pleased – to find piles of dried fish and a twenty kilogram bag of rice near the fire.
“Where did this come from?” I asked.
“That,” Abrahim replied, “takes much telling. Some fish we got from an old man who passed. When we told him we wanted his fish, he refused and said, ‘Even if you kill me I will not give to you – you brigands!’.
“’Brigands,’ He called us – us, his brothers. When we wanted to kill him your cook made the old man to give us fish. The rice we got from a caravan of our brothers.”
“Do you mean your ‘Baluchi brothers’!” I queried.
“Baluchis are our ‘brothers’ only when we are more than they,” was his reply. “Today we were more and we took what they had. Thus, they are our brothers.”
“And the rest of the fish?”
“Well, these we got by cleverness. They were more than we, so we told them that you and the other mohandes were from the government. We told them that there was an epidemic spread by fish and that it was our duty to confiscate all fish and burn it. We had your guns and they had no arms, so they did as we asked and passed on. Now we have fish, and no one is dead.”

This was the evening of rifle practice. Ted brought out his elaborate 22 caliber rifle and the boys took turns at it. Old Miral Khan proved his much-boasted prowess by being the only one among them to hit both targets (a bully beef can and a sheet of writing paper) at twenty yards. He then announced that from now on he would use the rifle to hunt. He would, he promised, provide all the meat we could eat.
“And our fish?” I asked.
“Yes,” He replied, chuckling, “And our fish!”

That evening Abrahim and Delwash were busy weaving date frond shoes for us. “When the Americans conquer Baluchistan,” Delwash stated (Whatever, I wondered, had given Delwash this idea), “We will make you Khan. You are a good man and will keep our stomachs full. You will not give us dates. We know you. We do not need money, we only just hate dates. Every day we eat dates – nothing but dates. I hate dates!”
Khodabaksh leaned forward, “Cigar bedeh, cigar bedeh,” he muttered.
After all, I thought, as I passed my cigarettes around, they were more than we and so we were their brothers.

Feb 26, 1961

Under a cloud-spotted sky we made our way south through the ever-narrowing Kand-i-Kuruj. As we progressed the pools of water increased in number and the foliage of the dates increased in thickness and luxuriance. The day was cool with cloud shadows racing across the valley floor. Today we met a large camel and donkey caravan. Miral Khan brandished Ted’s rifle meaningfully and demanded fish.
“No fish.” Was the reply, “We have no fish – only salt.” Nothing would satisfy the old man but a search – which was, in due course, conducted. They were honest men. No fish. However, they departed the lighter by ten kilograms of salt and ten large woven mats which Miral Khan planned to use as partial payment for a coat he had “borrowed” in Chah Bahar the previous year. “To keep from jail,” He explained. “Four times jail plenty.”

We made camp on a shelf of smooth water-worn grey boulders in the lee of a serrated cliff of yellow clay and green sand, beside a clear green pool full of little fish. The camels were bedded down around a curve in the stream, but even so occasional breezes brought us their little mementos – odours, sounds of flatulence, etc. A herd of Ibex paced the cliff top, keeping us carefully in view, but vanishing as the last shell slipped into the breech of Ted’s shotgun.

About two hours before sunset old Miral Khan came over for what he probably considered a courtesy call. Mahmoud – our backsliding cook – promptly placed temptation in his path by offering a can of tinned fruit (their favourite item among our stores).

We were aroused from our conversation by the sound of shots from around the bend. As we arrived, breathless, at camp, we found that Ted had just shot an immense wild boar he’d found rooting around in our food supplies. Before it could die Darkarim had pounced on it and slit its throat. As blood spurted everywhere, a great shout of “Halal”44 went up. Notwithstanding that pork is unclean to Moslems, a great feast was had in the Baluchi camp that night and Ted’s standing went up at least ten points in everyone’s estimation – including mine. That night a pair of very large somethings had a fierce tussle over the entrails, and in the morning, only a bloodstain and a large area of pug-marked sand marked the spot.

Feb 28 and March 1 and 2, 1961

By now, we’d realised that camels were not the ideal platforms from which to do our job. Field geology is a hands-on job – it’s all about banging on rocks – banging on lots and lots of rocks with a hammer, then examining them closely. To do this we had to be on the ground. This, of course, required us to dismount. From a horse, one has only to swing down by a stirrup. A donkey, whose back is even closer to the ground, is better still – one can simply slide off. But from a precarious perch twelve feet in the air atop a dromedary’s hump, the act of dismounting is not for the faint-hearted. Just for starters there are no stirrups – no way to control the descent. Jumping off wasn’t usually an option because we were normally weaving our way through fields of large boulders, and the risk of broken limbs was very real

To dismount from a camel we had first to get her to sit down. To do this, we had first to stop her – something normally done by adroit manipulation of the single nose-rein. But, since none of us ever learned to control our mounts by the nose plug and neck-rein, we had to get a cameleer to stop our camel and get her to sit down. None of us spoke a word of Baluchi, so we needed an interpreter to relay our instructions. We had one, of course, but Ahmad – who didn’t know how to halt his camel either – might be half-a-mile away trying to rein back his steed, when we needed him. Then he had to explain what we wanted to the cameleer, who then had to ride back to us, dismount, take the rein of our camel and cajole the beast into sitting down. Then we could dismount.

Five or ten minutes might elapse between espying an especially interesting rock and accomplishing the complex logistical chain involved in the simple act of getting off a camel. By this time we might be a hundred and fifty yards down the track. So we’d spend another few minutes hiking to the outcrop we wanted to sample. The actual sampling – the chipping off and bagging a bit of the rock – took only a minute or two. Then we had to hike back to the camel, where the cameleer – who had been waiting patiently to help us mount – would get her to her feet and lead her back to the tail-end of the caravan.

This left us with the choice of taking only about half as many samples per mile as we’d intended or spending twice as long as we intended collecting samples. None of us liked either of these options. In the end, thinking more-or-less ‘outside the square’, we found a third course. We opted to walk. Then, if we saw an interesting rock, we could just squat down and bang on it. While certainly unpleasant and bloody hard work some of the time, walking wasn’t quite as onerous as it sounds. A camel caravan only travels at about three or four miles an hour, so keeping up wasn’t much of a problem. And we took turns doing it. As a rule, two of us would walk, leap-frogging each other while the other two rode. At first we did this only when amongst interesting rocks, but as the days wore on, we noticed that the simple act of walking seemed to ease the chronic pains in our bottoms, lower backs and thighs – what we’d come to call our ‘saddle sores’. By the time our trip was half over, most of us were walking most of the time. It was a lot easier on our posteriors than those damned camel saddles.

Over the next three days we plodded over sixty miles of gravel, rocks and dirt with huge cracks in it, with nothing to break the monotony except when our camels tripped and dashed us or our luggage onto the ground. In Ted’s case this seemed to happen once every mile or so. We knew the next three our four water holes were likely to be dry, so our water bottles had been filled before we set out, but by the end of the second day someone had absconded with the water from the camel’s water bags and all of them were empty.

At noon on the second day, the thermometer read 133oF. But we didn’t really suffer much. Although we perspired copiously and continuously, the air was so dry that constant evaporation kept the skin quite cool. On the same principle our water was kept at a pleasant temperature. Coarse canvas water bottles were hung from a tripod of sticks, and the rapid evaporation did the rest.

Half way across, at the foot of a huge dome-like rock, we passed Maganu, a miserable little barasti village that was in terrible trouble. Its well had gone dry. The chief was just about to move everyone to a less-interrupted water supply, and the whole village was already packed to go. When the rains set in again, he told us, he’d move the village back. Could we tell him, he wanted to know, where water was in more plentiful supply. Unable to think of anything better to tell him, we recommended our last water hole.

March 3, 1961

After our stretch without water our ‘ships of the desert‘ needed to be filled up with water ballast. It was the first opportunity I’d had to see a really thirsty camel drink. One would naturally think a beast that hadn’t had water for three or four days would show at least a mild interest in liquid refreshment, even if it didn’t just dive head-first into the drink, but not so a camel. First they had to be coaxed to get them down to the water. Even there, they didn’t seem to know what to do with it. Stupid beasts!

So they stood there and waggled their heads and goggled their eyes at each other. Finally the camel boy splashed the water with his hand and sang to them in a high minor key. Having apparently been through the same performance every time they took a drink for the last thirty years or so, the camels at once proceeded to stick their noses into the water and drink – and drink……..and drink. As this process continued, I began to realise just how they were able to go for five days without a drink..

March 4, 1961

Today we worked slowly downstream while the caravan followed us. About ten, a very large caravan was encountered and the “usual measures” were put into effect. However, the other group very badly outnumbered ours and they rightly surmised that the rifles Khodabaksh and the others brandished weren’t loaded, so our boys ended up the losers of twenty-four dried fish and five large straw mats. Khodabaksh was beside himself with rage. “They are not true brothers!” He charged, “Only beasts steal from another. They are barbarians! Give me a cigarette.”

Later that day another encounter occurred. However, this one proved amicable since one member of the other caravan was Darkarim’s brother. To make the time pass more pleasantly, they decided to trade camels – “Old Wart Nose” in exchange for a beast from the other caravan. After about two hours of acrimonious haggling, the trade was agreed, only to discover that “Old Wart Nose” had mysteriously disappeared. However, after much wheedling, Abrahim was allowed to take the other beast on promise to send “Old Wart Nose’ along as soon as she could be located. No sooner had the other caravan vanished around a turn in the trail than “Old Wart Nose” was discovered – being held down out of sight by three of our men. I can’t say that the stranger was “taken” – for I never found out whether or not the trade was eventually consummated – but ‘Old Wart Nose” accompanied us to the end of our journey.

That night I gingerly broached the subject of the “sharing” – of the seemingly enforced “gifts”. When I asked Assah why the other caravans usually gave but never expected returns, I felt it was best to avoid use of the word ‘bandits’.
“Because there are more of us than of them,” Was his reply.
“You mean they are afraid not to give to you?”
“Well, maybe not afraid, but they don’t wish to anger us.”
“But sometimes – twice if I remember – you stopped caravans larger than ours. And once you had to give to them. Why did you not avoid them?
“We Baluchis have no sense.” was his reply.

March 5, 1961

Our camp at the water-hole at Vashnam lay at the bottom of a deep cleft between rows of overleaning crags of sandstone. Surrounded as we were by tall blunt pillars of rock that looked more like huge rotten molars than hills, it was like being inside the jaws of some gigantic beast.

It had been an awful day – and it didn’t show any signs of improving. Enveloped in the stench of decaying fish, I was dirty and tired and I itched. My clothing was sticking to me – I hadn’t undressed for sixteen days – Mehitabel’s fleas had been gnawing at me all day and now I could see camel ticks migrating from Miral Khan’s saddle – against which I was leaning – onto my back. The saddle smelled overpoweringly of the beast from which it came – like cowshit mixed with wet dog. The wood was damp and our campfire was smouldering abominably. In the eddying wind everywhere seemed to be downwind. Not only that, but a sharpish rock was digging into my right buttock. Delwash’s camel had just sneezed up a bucketful of greenish mucus over my shoulder. Delwash was practicing his English……..”Bliss gibbet one cigar for me (Please give one cigarette for me)” It was the only phrase he’d learned – actually, I think, the only one he’d ever intended to learn.

Camels are opportunistic grazers. I guess, given the landscapes in which they mostly live, they pretty much have to be. At any rate, they seem unable not to scythe a mouthful or two from any tasty-looking bush along our route. All of them are especially addicted to the leaves of the neem tree – a middle-sized shrub with stiff straight branches, sparse grey foliage, and a lot of thorns – for a bite of which they will sometimes embark upon quite substantial detours. Our camel drivers did their best to dissuade the beasts from snacking on neem trees, but seemed unconcerned when they browsed on other shrubbery. It turned out that there was a reason – a very good reason – why our boys tried to discourage the camels. Neem leaves, it turns out, give the camels violent diarrhoea.

Why, I hear you ask, does this matter? Well, camel caravans tend to travel single-file, with six or eight feet between camels. Camels can – and do – crap on the march. They tend to flick their tails while crapping, and can spray pellets of dung over a hemisphere thirty feet in diameter. Having a few of these whistling past your ears from time to time is little more than a nuisance – just one more thing not to like about camels. But when the camel’s spinning tail is blowing malodorous, green slime all over you, that’s a whole new ball game. It gives new meaning to the phrase “when the shit hits the fan”.

March 6, 1961

The following day we spent in and around camp. We awoke to find that some kind of big cat had invaded the campsite during the night and had managed to kill and half-devour the sheep we’d bought and tethered to a bush out beyond the camels. We sent Mohammed to harass a nearby shepherd until he finally agreed to sell us another young lamb, which we were dumb enough to tether to the same stake. About three in the afternoon, as we were all in the midst of a siesta, a pair of eagles swooped down from the cliffs behind camp and made short shrift of our “pet”. The eagles beat a hasty retreat amidst a hail of buckshot, but we were left with a rather scanty lamb kabob for supper. Just after we’d turned in, a pair of large brown bears invaded camp and uprooted our lantern stand – in search of roots we presume – before we could assemble and load our guns. They, too, beat a hasty retreat, at least one the heavier by a rump full of shot. Ted then sat up half the night behind a bush with a loaded shotgun hoping for a return.

That night, for the first time, the camels needed to be tethered. We were sharing the water hole with another caravan and there was a very real risk that any of our camels left wandering during the night might be ‘camel-napped’ by our Baluchi brethren. Camels were a lot more gregarious than I would have been if I had been a camel, and liked to be bedded down together. Failing that, an all-night feed around the campfire was OK with them, but being tethered apart was not much to their liking. Roaring and gurgling, the camels blew spittle in all directions as the boys dragged each of them toward a separate bush.

“Come and help me with this pedar sag,” Delwash shouted. He was trying to tie old Wart Nose’s halter to a bush, but the camel had balked. She had simply stopped about five yards from the bush and folded herself fore and aft. Rocking back and forth – first head down, then rump down, she finally got comfortably settled on her knees. Evidently she had decided that was as far as she intended to go.

Delwash and the camel had both dug their heels in and Delwash was leaning back at an angle of more than 45 degrees. Old Wart Nose’s neck was at full stretch, her septum distorted by the pull of the nose rein, and she was roaring and gargling with rage, but she showed absolutely no inclination to move. Three or four of us gathered around her posterior and heaved together as Delwash pulled on the rein. We tried thumping and kicking the recalcitrant beast on her arse while Delwash hung onto the nose-rein. Old Warty swung her head left and right trying to find someone to bite, in the process actually managing to drag Delwash off his feet. Gargling and moaning and spraying gobbets of spit in all directions, she made no move to move.

We actually made an attempt to bodily shift the camel. As Ted pointed out, we only had to move her twelve or fifteen feet. Surely a dozen of us, gathered all around the beast and heaving together on cue, could manage that. It sounded simple enough, but this was, after all, provincial Iran, where nothing simple ever works. For all the good it did, we might as well have been trying to uproot Gibraltar. Not only was Old Wart Nose heavy – adult camels weigh in at about a ton – but she was very considerably upset. An upset camel, reduced to basics, consists of a ton of gristle and spite with four boney legs, each as long and as hard as a cricket bat. At the anterior end of all this, on a long flexible neck, are lots of sharp yellow teeth and a fountain of noisome saliva. Then, too, there aren’t a lot of good grips on a camel.

At first she took things remarkably calmly. She let us all get into position, kneel down and each grab some part of her anatomy. She even let us heave. Then she came unglued. It was suddenly like trying to pick up an elephant with diarrhoea in the middle of a hockey match.

In the end Old Warty – still unmoved – was left in possession of the field. Ted had a spectacularly bruised shin, and almost every one – whether they had been at the front or rear of the beast – came away bruised somewhere and/or covered in snot, spit or shit.

For a time we all just stood back, licking our wounds. Then Miral Khan, laying a finger aside of his nose, and nodding wisely, got up and strolled over to the thorn bush. “Watch this!” He said. He broke off a short, stiff branch and took it around to the rear of the camel. Delicately lifting her tail, he suddenly jammed the stick – thorns and all – right up Old Warty’s arse. With a God almighty roar, the camel’s head came up swinging around taking a mighty bite out of the air where Miral Khan’s hand had been a second before. But the old man had been ready for this. As soon as the camel’s teeth had clicked together, and before she could open her mouth for another bite, he ducked back in again and thrust five or six inches of thorns right up the furious camel’s fundament. You could have heard the bellows of pain and fury ten miles away. The camel trembled in her every extremity, roaring and gargling, spitting furiously at everyone she could see and trying to guard her painful posterior with those terrible yellow teeth. But she didn’t move an inch.

Then Delwash had an idea. Wrapping the nose-rein tightly around the camel’s mouth and nose – so that, he said, the camel would be unable to breathe – he got six or eight of us to pull on the rope. The theory was that Warty would eventually be forced forward toward the bush in order to breathe. This sounded fine in theory, but in fact absolutely nothing happened. Well, not absolutely nothing – just nothing good. The looped nose-rein did, in fact, prevent Old Wart Nose from breathing. So in that regard the attempt was successful. As far as moving the camel was concerned, however, there was a major problem. She was so stubborn she’d have died rather than shift. With her nasal passage and mouth tied shut, she had to sort of ‘hum’ her rage and panic and the look in her eyes grew wilder and wilder.

I don’t know what would have happened if she hadn’t eventually passed out from lack of air. Her resistance was total – we might as well have been pulling on a mountain – until she suddenly collapsed. Oh, my God, I thought. We’ve killed the damned thing! The camel drivers, too, panicked. Delwash and Miral Khan were all solicitude, stroking her cheeks, talking softy to her, wheedling. Darkarim actually pried Old Wart Nose’s mouth open and blew vigorously into it. Abrahim climbed up astraddle of Wart Nose’s back and, leaning forward on straight arms, applied something that looked very much like CPR. The rest of us pretty much stood around. But, once Warty got her breath back – which occurred almost instantaneously – we were just scattering for our lives. Old Warty was back in battle mode.

At Ted’s suggestion, we brought a jeep over, hooked one end of a rope around the towbar, and tied the other firmly around the camel’s neck. Putting the vehicle in Low Low gear, Ted set out slowly forward. The camel’s neck went straight as a board as the tow-line tightened. Slowly….slowly…the vehicle towed her forward, her ‘knees’ and ‘elbows’ gouging ruts in the sand. This actually might have worked if we’d just had the courage of our convictions. The camel actually was being moved. We gained, I guess, two or three feet before Delwash – afraid we’d break her neck – panicked. I couldn’t really blame him.

Ahmad suggested that we loop the rope around the camel’s nostrils so that it couldn’t breathe while we towed it – sort of a motorised version of Delwash’s idea – so we tried that, too. All that happened was that after five or six minutes the beast suddenly went limp again. Delwash was frantic. After all, Old Wart Nose was his livelihood, and if we’d done her any serious harm, he would be in serious strife. Assuming that she was unconscious, we rushed to unloop the rope, three or four of us hovering solicitously over the prostrate beast. But she wasn’t unconscious – not this time. She was only seriously unhappy. And very much awake! I think she’d actually planned this.

By this ruse she’d got four or five of us within striking distance of her long, yellow teeth. Instantly her head came up swinging, bellowing and gargling, spraying saliva and snot – not to mention scattering geologists, drivers and cameleers – in all directions. Fortunately, nothing very serious ensued. Ahmad ended up with a set of bite-sized bruises on his ample posterior and I lost a wedge of rubber from the sole of my desert boot. The worst thing was that all of us were more or less festooned with gobbets and ropes of snot and malodorous camel spit.

Finally, in desperation, Assah piled a few handfuls of twigs and grass under Old Warn Nose’s tail, then set it alight. The dry tinder lit instantly. So did Warty. With an audible ‘whoosh’ the whole of her rump burst into flame. Almost faster than it takes to tell, a halo of fire expanded to include most of her posterior. Old Wart Nose’s whole body jerked. Her head went up and her mouth opened to expel a series of agonized shrieks and moans. But did she move? Not on your life! Not old Warty! She gargled and moaned, but clearly, if that was what it took, she was prepared to smolder.

Delwash, watching his livelihood literally ‘going up in smoke’, panicked and doused the camel with a bucket of water, putting out the fire and raising a little cloud of steam. It turned out that the fire hadn’t done the camel any real harm – just flash-burned half her hair off. Clearly, when the chips were down, the camel would rather burn than shift. She gurgled and roared with rage and pain, and rolled her eyes, trying to keep all of us in focus while her scorched posterior steamed gently. At this point we all just gave up and, defeated, went back to our fires.

The problem of how to get the camel attached to the bush finally resolved itself in typical Iranian fashion. Five minutes after we all gave up and went back to our fires, Old Wart Nose levered herself to her feet and ambled over to graze on the branches of the bush we’d been trying to tow her to. She remained perfectly calm while Delwash briskly tied her rein to the bush.

March 7, 1961

Ted had decided to have a go at the herd of Ibex we’d seen the previous day. His weapon, a double-barreled shotgun, was totally unsuited for this sort of hunting, and we both knew it, but it was all government regulations would allow us to carry. He had managed to obtain some slug shot, which, at ranges of less than a hundred yards, would probably prove fatal even to a beast as large as an Ibex. In the Makran nobody hunted Ibex – well, since the Shah had disarmed the population, I guess nobody hunted anything – and Ted hoped that the Ibex would have grown careless. I went along just for the hell of it and to act as a sort of assistant ‘spotter’. Darkarim volunteered to be a spotter also, and Ted made the mistake of letting Delwash talk him into acting as gun bearer.

The Ibex had disappeared over the crest of a line of clay hills just behind camp. Ted hoped that they might still be grazing in the valley just over the crest. So at dawn we set out upslope. We climbed more-or-less in line abreast, about five hundred feet apart, with me on the left flank, Ted and Delwash in the centre and Darkarim on the right. The big clay hills were a lot steeper than they’d looked, and the clay surface broke and slid beneath our feet. So our progress was a sort of ‘two steps forward, one step back’ sort of thing. It took nearly two hours to reach the crest. The thousand-foot climb left us all gasping. Enameled in sweat and mud, I was first up and found a place among a cluster of rocks where I could look down into the valley in front of us without silhouetting my head against the sky. A herd of six Ibex, two big males, three females and a calf, were grazing on the slopes about a hundred yards almost directly below Ted.

I silently caught Ted’s attention and gave him a ‘thumbs up’. His huge grin showed he’d got my message. Waving our two Baluchis to keep down, Ted carefully poked his head over the skyline. The Ibex grazed on, oblivious to our presence. For the first time, I began to believe that Ted might actually manage to pull this off. I knew how much it would mean to him. To me it meant fresh meat for the pot, but for Ted – well, he’d wanted to bag an Ibex since he was a boy.

Very slowly Ted slid a pair of shells into his shotgun and poked its barrel over the crest. He was just on the point of bringing the shotgun down into firing position when Delwash’s turban and eyes broke the horizon – about twenty feet to Ted’s left. I guess he’d never seen Ibex before. At any rate, his jaw dropped, his mouth making an ‘O’ of amazement.

He jumped to his feet, waving his arms and shouting at the top of his lungs. “Look! Jenebali…Jenebali….Goats!…Goats!……Goats!! Look!” The flock of Ibex jerked upright, all heads swiveling toward Delwash. “Look!” He kept shouting, “They are just here! Oh, Excellency, shoot quickly! Quickly!” The flock pivoted as one animal, and in a shower of stones and puffs of gravel, they were away across the slope. They traveled in enormous leaps, their route marked by little puffs of dust where their hooves hit the clay slopes – something like the sequence of spreading ripples left when a stone is skipped across the surface of a pond.

Desperately, Ted whipped the shotgun to his shoulder and got a pair of shots away at the rumps of the fleeing Ibex, but it was clear he’d hit nothing. In fact, he knew, he said,  as he raised the gun that he had no chance. I think if his shotgun had held three shells, young Delwash might have received the third one somewhere important.

March 8, 1961

Today we set out on a much-postponed pack trip down the gorge of the Rud-i-Nikshahr. The idea was to sample and describe the rocks in the canyon walls. For some distance the camels managed the steadily narrowing gorge, floored with clear green pools and patches of willows and scrub dates. But finally we hit a dry waterfall down which we couldn’t get the camels, so we were forced to shoulder our packs and set off on foot down the gorge, leaving the camels and all eight drivers to set up camp.

The landscape – wind-sculpted from sand as fine as talcum power – was unlike any I’d seen before. It was wild and ragged, yet soft and creamy, voluptuous as a gigantic meringue. In a cliff above the valley, clear water gushed into a broad, ice-coloured pool and below the pool was the first running water – clattering and cold – we’d seen. For perhaps ten miles we trudged wearily along, twisting our ankles on rounded boulders, wetting our boots and feet fording the stream, and generally exhausting ourselves scaling the gorge walls to circumnavigate waterfalls. About an hour before sunset we found a campsite – beside a pale green pool between thousand-foot golden cliffs – too irresistible to pass up. We spread our sleeping bags on a straw-coloured beach in the shade of a willow in the lee of a jumble of boulders, stripped off and plunged into the pool. The water was sweet, icy and clear, bordered with boulders and powder-fine sand. We never did reach the bottom, although I dived to more than twenty feet. When at length we emerged, we were cool and much refreshed. If only we’d thought to bring soap along: then we’d have been clean, too.

Unfortunately, mosquitoes made a hell of our little paradise after sunset. To add to our discomfort, the sand was surprisingly hard and lumpy, and managed to sift into crannies where even the mossies couldn’t penetrate. I had finally managed to drift into an uneasy sleep when I was awakened by Ted’s frantic “Lookout!!” There he stood in his underwear with his knife in one hand, a blazing torch in the other, waving wildly at the boulders behind us where I could hear something large crashing away. “It was a leopard!” He exclaimed breathlessly. “It was standing right there,” He pointed at a spot about half-way between his bag and mine. After examining the pug marks – it had been standing between us, alright – we built the fire to colossal proportions, moved rather nearer to it in spite of the heat, then had to go through the whole disgusting procedure of dozing off again.

March 9, 1961

A pale blue mist lay across the valley when we awoke. It was cool and the peaks above the gorge were gilded with sunlight. The water beside us was a gleaming mirror, and our willow a delicate black sketch against a coral sky. The fire sputtered fitfully in its dark cranny and the great sandstone boulders glowed dully against the smouldering coals. A raven perched in a niche above us grated in the dawn against a background of distant falling water. It was breathlessly still – as though the creatures of the night had made their departure and those of the day were awaiting a signal to come out.

After breakfast, we shouldered our packs and set out to work our way back up to the camels. Back once again in camp we found Delwash, Ahmed and Darkarim holed up in the branches of a thorn bush while a very large and truculent wild boar prowled grumpily through the mess packs.

March 10, 1961

We camped beside a deep pool of clear green water. We planned to be here for a couple of days, so we decided to put up our tents and – for the first time on this trip – have a proper camp. It took a while to organise things – to batten down our three tents, clear a series of trails through the boulder beds on the terrace, and lay a stone causeway across the mud out into the pool below us to where the water was clearest and deepest. We set up our table in the shade of a prickly thorn bush and settled into our everyday routine. This valley lay almost in the exact centre of the Makran. Rimmed to east and west with low cliffs of green clay and to the north by the sandstone massif of Kuh-i-Kuruj, it opened south onto the broad flats of the coastal plain. The valley itself was perhaps a mile wide, dotted with thorn bushes, scrub dates and a sort of willow. The stream bed meandered across the flats. Usually it was dry, but now there were many pools of water left by the rain.

March 11, 1961

It was to be another of ‘those days’. The sky was dirty brown and a howling wind seemed to have sucked half the Makran up into the air. Dust swirled in dirty pillars across the valley, and the great dim shapes of the mountains were only half-visible behind the murk. We spent a dirty, dismal day measuring half of a rugged and miserable section near Turp Sar.

March 12, 1961

Today was like yesterday – blowsy with the air full of grit. We climbed the cliff behind Turp Sar and spent a miserable day measuring the other half of the section. Back in camp, we discovered that our pool – the one that had made our campsite so attractive to us – had practically disappeared. Just as well we were leaving the next day. But it had been almost the only pleasant camp we’d had in Baluchistan. Still, there was nothing for it but to start to pack for the move to Chah Bahar scheduled for the following day

March 13, 1961

We’d intended to fill our water bottles this morning from our little pool, only to find that it had entirely dried up during the night. We broke camp in the pre-dawn wind, amidst the usual chaos of bellowing camels, cursing drivers, spilled and mis-packed loads and clouds of dust. Somebody had set fire to his sandals trying to stamp out our campfire and Ted was tending to his burnt feet.

This had been our caravan’s last camp. Our cameleers were going to leave us tomorrow – we didn’t plan to travel anywhere else we couldn’t go by jeep – and none of us was very happy about the parting. The cameleers were about to lose the best source of income they’d had for years, and I think they’d come to genuinely like us. The fact that we’d gone through Ramadan together and had shared our food with them had, I think, endeared us to them. The Baluchis, for their part, had got to be a lot like a family – like a set of pixilated uncles and half-wit cousins – and I, for one, was really going to miss them, especially Miral Khan and Darkarim.

Somebody’s camel gargled loudly, reminding me it was time for us to go. I was gazing at our campsite with a sort of preliminary nostalgia, trying to imprint it indelibly on my memory. I was, I knew, going to miss caravanning across Baluchistan. It had mostly been pretty awful – sweaty, filthy, tiring, hot, sometimes indescribably boring, always painful – my bottom was still incredibly tender – and I had learned to loathe and detest everything about camels. But it had been, in the strictest sense of the word, a real adventure.

After we’d finished, I stood for a time looking at the little paved paths that led from one cleared area to another and at our stone-paved causeway that went from nowhere to where our pool had been before it dried up completely. I thought of the puzzle it might someday pose for some future archaeologist.

March 14, 1961

An old beggar had been all afternoon besieging Mahmoud in hopes of a crust of bread. Finally he gave him the bread just to be shut of him and the old man shambled happily for about fifty yards, then suddenly stopped, turned and came back. “I returned,” He explained, “To get tea to drink with my bread.” The last I saw of him, he was beating a hasty retreat with Mahmoud, brandishing a machete, in hot pursuit.

Another old man had turned up, his clothing in tatters, angrily cursing “Those bastards who have beaten me and ruined my chalwar. Give them their just desserts!”
“Just who do you think we are?” Ted asked.
“Well,” He retorted, “I don’t know, but you must be the gendarmes.”

Today we paid the men off. Each made his salaams and said, “We wish permission to thank your Excellency very much. (Farsi is a wonderfully flowery language. The English above is an exact transliteration of the Farsi used by a man to thank a superior “Khaily Mamnoon Jenebali”. An even better example is the Farsi for ‘Come here’. When speaking to an inferior you say simply “Biar” (Come). But when speaking to a superior you say “Jenebali biavarid hahishmikonam” (literally, “Will your excellency please bring his dignity in this direction?). Their wages came to 100 riyals (US$1.33) per man and camel per day, and we gave them each an extra day’s wages as baksheesh.

As they turned to go, Miral Khan, wordless for once, turned back and embraced me fiercely, tears streaming down his face. Darkarim grasped my hand in both of his, murmuring “Khoda Hafez” (“God keep you”) over and over. Then, putting his hands on the older man’s shoulders, he guided him gently away.

Suddenly Khodabaksh turned and spoke to me, “Take me with you when you go to Tehran. I will be your servant for nothing and you will feed me and clothe me and keep me warm. I will be your servant for nothing and you only must keep my stomach full. We are always hungry. In Baluchistan we have only dates to eat and we hate dates.” A general murmur of agreement followed this statement. I had heard that Baluchistan is the most poverty-stricken part of Iran, and this seemed like a good time to sound the locals out.
“Have you no rice?” I asked.
“Yes, sometimes.” was the reply, “But when we have no water the rice dies and when the rains come we have floods and the rice is washed away and we have no money to buy more.”
“Have you no meat?”
“There is never meat for selling. In the old times,” Miral Khan broke in, “We were rich – in the time of the Qajars. Then came Reza Shah. His people came to us and said, ‘We are the government. You will pay us taxes,’ but we knew little of taxes and became afraid and hid ourselves in the hills. Soldiers were sent and they found us and took us to jail and took what we had. I was a very great bandit and have killed five times, but now the government has taken away my rifle and I find that I must work. I am not very good at work.”

That, I thought to myself, was the understatement of the day.”

March 15, 1961

Next day we measured a long and monotonous section on the flanks of the Kuanz Hills and made it back to camp in time for lunch. It seemed odd to be doing geology without our Baluchi crews kibitzing. As we sat and ate under a baleful sky, a bank of rolling white rose slowly over the southern horizon. As it rose, it blended almost imperceptibly into the blue overhead, blanking out the distant mountains and finally dimming the afternoon sun. Wind snapped across the plains in fitful gusts and monstrous whirlwinds marched one after another across the desert.

A dust-bleared landscape slowly faded, succumbing to the whirling white wall boiling up from the south. As we watched uneasily the inexorable advance of the great dust storm across the plains, tree after stunted tree vanished behind the maelstrom. And then it was upon us – blinding clouds swirled through camp, our great tarp split with a sharp crack and took off across the plains. Our cook tent shuddered and jerked like a thing in agony and the power wagons heaved and bucked against the wind. The wind hissed and roared, our tableware slid to the ground in a clatter of breaking glass and a jar of spilled coffee powder vanished in a second into the gale. We spent the balance of the afternoon huddled in the more-or-less sealed power wagons with damp clothes across our faces while the storm gradually roared itself out and drifted eastward across the plains.

March 16, 1961

Not only had all our tents been flattened, and our gear spread over half a square mile, but the paint had been scoured off the front and one side of each vehicle. But there was worse. The windscreens had been sand-blasted to near-opacity. We made a jerry-rig job of reassembling our gear, washed off the worst of the dust, ate, and went to bed.

March 17, 1961

The surface geology of Iran is absolutely spectacular – a sort of paradise for a young geologist. Everything God did to rocks anywhere in the world, he also did in Iran. And mostly he did it on a grand scale. There was hardly any vegetation to obscure the details, and between the mountain ranges were broad desert flats from which to take distant observations. I loved doing surface geology in Iran. Behind every mountain was some new geologic wonder for me to explore.

But the Makran was different – its geology unremittingly monotonous. Every day we saw the same sorts of rocks – greyish, coarse sandstones interbedded with yellowish or orange muds, silts and shales. Day after day, the same sorts of rocks – day after day after day.

It took us quite a while to figure out what the rocks were trying to tell us. But when we did, the whole puzzle sort of fell into place. Almost the whole of the Makran turned out to be nothing more than a big pile of sand and mud – a gigantic petrified river delta. The sands represented the river channels and the silts the intervening swamps. Tens of thousands of feet of sediment had accumulated in this vast delta about five million years ago – just yesterday in Geologic time. Then, a million or so years ago some sort of cataclysm thrust the whole thing up above sea level and broke it into thousands – maybe millions – of pieces, ranging in size from pebbles to immense slabs the size of large towns. These had collapsed higgledy-piggledy against each other, and about a hundred thousand years of erosion had carved them into the jagged and jumbled landscape through which we were travelling. So, what we were seeing was just what it seemed – the same rocks over and over again, broken and tilted and eroded into a sort of nightmare terrain.

March 18, 1961

The next day we motored south toward the Gulf of Oman. For two hours we crossed gently undulating clay flats before we found ourselves enmeshed in a tangle of intersecting drainage which took several hours to cross. By the time we reached the village of Gurankash – about noon – we were dirty and tired. The whole population – having watched our approach from a hillock – had gathered in front of the mosque to welcome us. They informed us that there was a camel trail south to Kachuo – one farsakh (about 6 km) south against a cliff – but beyond that they could not say.
“A man can walk to the sea from Kachuo in an hour,” they said, “But whether vehicles can go ‘malu’um nist’ (‘it is not known’)

In Kachuo – seven wattle huts, a crumbling fortress keep and a mud and wattle mosque – we engaged two young shepherd boys to walk ahead of us, scouting out the least impassable routes. If we reached the sea, they said, it would be necessary to drive along the beach the last seven farsakhs (forty two kms) to reach Biriz, where we hoped to do some work. For two kids who’d never seen a car before they made pretty good guides – able to estimate where a vehicle could (or could not) pass with uncanny accuracy. But it was pretty slow. They led us through a maze of gullies, over cliffs, across mud-flats and steep-sided terraces of red sandstone. In four hours we had progressed just over three miles, and found ourselves in a muddy wadi. The boys left us there, after assuring us that it led directly to the sea. They were right; it did – via a broad swamp and a deep tidal pool which we skirted with much difficulty. At length our power wagons were stopped by the tide. It was on the full, and the larger waves were crashing over the dunes behind the sea. So we decided that, rather than wait for the tide to go out, we’d set up base camp there.

It was a gorgeous place. To our right and left knife-ridges of clay towered several hundred feet. Below the cliffs the golden dunes lay hard against a broad and gently-shelving beach (the Farsi word for beach – ‘la’ab-e-darya’ – translates as ‘the lips of the sea’). Massive breakers rolled ponderously across the beach. Rolling walls of green water rearing above the beach, then feathering, leaning toward the land. They broke and fell, driving streamers of foam high onto the sands. The tide was full high, and since we had several hours to wait before we could dare to drive along the beach, we stripped down and plunged happily, soap in hand, into the surf. The water was cold – almost icy – pale green and clear. A single fisherman stood low on the beach casting a corded, weighted net again and again into the surf – each time in a single fluid motion – casting and pulling, casting and pulling, tireless in his work, undisturbed by our presence.

We buried Ahmad to his neck in sand and erected over his body a crude image of stegosaurus complete with armour plate and cruelly-taloned feet. We told him the face matched too. At length, as the tide receded, we felt that the time had come, so we dressed, climbed into our two heavily-loaded jeeps and set off down the beach toward Biriz.

It was wonderful driving – smooth, fast. A cool, salt-tanged sea breeze whipped the froth to mist across our path and flocks of sea birds circled the shore. In the distance, below a beetling headland, we saw a fleet of fishing boats pulling toward the surf. There, beside the sea the graceful craft, sails furled, were rolled from the sea by a great crowd of fisher-folk, pulling in unison to the chant of “Ya Ali! Ali Yar’a’toon” (Hey, Ali! Ali be our friend.). Behind a curve in the dunes we found the village of Biriz – half-a hundred barasti huts scattered amongst the dunes, and a single, gleaming whitewashed mosque. A crowd quickly gathered about us – naked, dripping children; fishermen still smelling of salt and wind and fish; veiled, bangled women in dark swirls of chadors; and a trio of ancient men, taking turn about on a silver water pipe.

Inland the land rose quickly into a desolate dissected clay plateau where driving proved impossible. So we returned to the beach, retraced our steps about ten miles, then wallowed up a shallow declivity, climbing slowly into the dunes until we were brought to a stop at the top of a vertical cliff that fell away to a plain of grey sand. Everywhere over this plain reared hundred-foot serrated ridges and spires of bluish grey clay – vertical-sided, without plan or pattern, like the ruins of a vast alien city – mile after mile into the distance. A broad tidal river looped across the plain, and in the distant north loomed the south face of the Mali Sar Plateau. Faced by this grim prospect, we abandoned all pretence of work, and raced the tide back to camp, arriving just at sundown. Too tired to unpack the trucks or set up a camp, we spent the night in our sleeping bags beside the vehicles.

March 19,1961

Bars of sunlight lay among the clouds when we awoke next morning, but we had scant time to enjoy the magnificent dawn. Our time in Baluchistan was running out and we had several important jobs yet to do. Paramount among these were the visits to the mud volcano at Napag and the two reported gas seeps at Ain and Bulbulak. This, in many ways, was the most important part of the work we had to do in the Makran. Gas seeps are a seriously important tool in oil exploration. Gas is the most volatile member of the hydrocarbon family and often some of it manages to escape upward from a subterranean oil or gas accumulation. Thus the presence of a real gas seep at the surface would be a very strong indication of the presence of hydrocarbon accumulations at depth. The existence of two of the largest fields – Kirkuk in Iraq and Takht-i-Soleiman (Solomon’s Throne) in Iran – was first suspected because of gas seeps. The gas seep on Takht-i-Soleiman has been burning for more than 3,000 years. The seep has been a holy place to the Zoroastrians (fire-worshippers) from the days of Cyrus the Great (ca 550 BC) to the present. A colony of Zoroastrians, sadly much depleted, still survives in Eastern India, where they are called ‘Parsees’, which (by some curious etymological quirk) is the Hindi word for Persians

So it was mandatory that we never leave any report – however vague – of a gas seep uninvestigated. I’d hate to have to count the days or months I have wasted trying to track down rumours of gas seeps. Nearly all reported gas and oil seeps turn out to be wild-goose chases – iron stains in water, some sort of human contamination, etc – but we were always careful to thank informants profusely, and we always sent samples of the water for testing in our Tehran lab. This was because we just never knew when the sort of information they supplied would be important. There were many sorts of gas associated with oil pools, not all of them flammable and many of them readily soluble in water. So, more often than not, we didn’t know ourselves whether or not the reported seep was significant until we saw the laboratory results

We set up our fly camp in the lee of ragged clay cliffs near Taran – five faded thatch huts – a breeding place for all animals, it seemed. There we saw only naked children, camel calves, lambs, kids and expectant mothers of several species. We were looking for a guide, but since the menfolk were all away in the fields (“What fields?” We thought) we were forced to drive to Bir, the largest village in the area where twelve little huts straggled in an untidy line across the plain. There we were ceremoniously met by the kadkhoda – a short, stout man with a stiff bristling moustache, and wearing – even in 40oC heat – a heavy wool balaclava. With him was his half-blind father who looked to be at least ninety years old. “Jur’eh, jur’eh” they said courteously. Neither we nor our cameleers had any idea what they said. They quickly agreed to serve as guides, but refused our offer of money. “It is just for the pleasure of riding in your mosheens” the kadkhoda told us, “We will be ready to guide you at earliest morning.”

March 20, 1961

We’d left behind us the hilly country at the foot of the Mali Sar Plateau and entered the desolate Dasht-i-Ain (‘Desert of Springs’) where the mud volcano and the gas seeps were reported to be. The mud volcano – called ‘Napag’ – was easy to find. It towered over a lifeless flat plain where its outflow of mud had smothered the vegetation for hundreds of metres in all directions. Napag was a breast-shaped mud mound – complete with nipple from which thin streams of liquid mud issued – just over a hundred feet high and five hundred feet in diameter. The mud had spread over an area of more than a hundred acres, creating a sort of elevated circular swamp we were quite unable to cross. We scooped up several samples from the edge of the mud and sealed them carefully in the containers we’d brought from Tehran for just such a purpose. Judging from the total lack of any odour of oil or gas, we decided the driving mechanism was most likely some sort of artesian effect propelling ground water up through the thick layers of silt with which the valley was filled. There were three or four smaller vents – all but one of them – from which we managed to collect some samples of mud – inactive. To our surprise, the mud – which was about the colour and consistency of chocolate syrup – was quite cool to the touch as it issued from the vent.

March 21, 1961

Today was Now Ruz – not that it mattered very much in the field. We returned to Bir for the reconnaissance of the reported gas seeps near the village of Ain – another word for ‘spring’. The kadkhoda had told us he knew the seeps well, so we picked him up, together his father – the one with the wandering eye – and set off, with much waving of hands, across a terrain of sand and lumpy bushes. Three hours later, hot, dusty and thoroughly miserable, we burst out of a narrow gorge he had gotten us into. The kadkhoda, who had seemed thoroughly lost for the last half-hour, suddenly beamed. ”Ain!” he announced proudly.
Ain? Here? Where? I wondered. And then I saw it – not the seep, but the village of the same name – two little huts nestled beneath a giant bush. Two naked boys of about twelve and a pair of girls about the same age, both swathed to the ears in gowns and veils, were the only evidence of life – their parents, I guess, were away in the fields. Finally one of the boys volunteered to guide us to their menfolk, and – still naked – settled happily in my lap as we maneuvered among the irrigation dykes. The men – both of them – were so fascinated by our vehicle (“Where are the donkeys?” The younger one asked, “How does it go?”) – that nothing would do but that both of them should accompany us to their gas seep, and so we set off, six men and a bare boy in a jeep.

Ain was the real McCoy. It really was a gas seep –- a spectacular gas seep – the sort of gas seep that made all the time I’d wasted on wild goose chases seem worth while. Ain was certainly the most impressive gas seep I’d ever seen, and perhaps the most important I ever recorded. It was a great pool thirty feet across, of heaving, agitated mud in which enormous bubbles of what smelled like methane rose and burst with dull booms, flanked by a series of little mud volcanoes which gurgled companionably. Trying to determine whether the gas was flammable – ie if it really was methane – I held a lighted match to one of the huge bubbles. It was methane, all right. The resulting blast singed off my eyebrows and frightened all of us half to death. We collected several mud samples, a bottle of the gas, and took a series of pictures (posing the Kadkhoda and his mates – and the boy – against the seep). The photo shop in Tehran refused to either develop the film or return it to me on the grounds that it contained an indecent picture of a naked person.

We could hear Bulbulak (the name means ‘your nightingale’) before we saw it. Bulbulak was really spectacular, and it made Ain look like what it was – a big puddle of boiling mud. Unlike Napag and Ain we immediately knew Bulbulak contained methane. Because it was already ablaze, and huge methane bubbles detonated with shattering booms. It was less a seep than a huge, violent explosion in slow motion. It was more than a hundred feet across, and flames were more than fifty feet high. The heat was terrific. There was so much fire about and so many gas explosions occurring more or less at random, that none of us had the guts to go anywhere the edge of the seep to try to pick up a sample of the gas.

March 22, 1961

Back in Chah Bahar the same policemen still lolled in the shade of his pillar, as though he hadn’t moved since we last saw him. He didn’t even speak this time – just held out his hand and yawned. While our vehicles were hand-loaded with petrol from drums dragged laboriously from a mud storehouse, Mahmoud and I wandered through the bazaar in search of eggs, tea and cigarettes.

The sea breeze had died and it was desperately hot in Chah Bahar. The air was close, fetid with the smells of unwashed bodies, spices, offal and drying shark – mostly drying shark. Flies droned everywhere; they gathered in the shade, swarming on piles of ordure and in the fruit and vegetable stalls. The eyes of the children were crusted with flies, as were their mouths, and the merchants at their tea made continual ineffective ‘shooing’ gestures as they talked, with now and again a more effective vicious swipe at some particularly tenacious insect.

March 23, 1961

At last, our business completed, we set out once more, this time to the north – back toward home and Tehran. In the end, we’d had to break the frosted windscreens out of all our vehicles in order to see where we were going. This hadn’t mattered much at the speeds we were forced to travel overland in the Makran, but once on real roads north of Iranshahr, with 60 mph winds blasting in our faces, the lack of windscreens quickly became a right pain. But the Makran wasn’t quite done with us yet. Once we got back on real roads and put our accelerators down, we found that our vehicles had taken such a battering over the last six weeks that they simply began to fall apart at speed – individual components failing, one after the other, on every vehicle. Axles snapped, brakes failed, steering gear went, springs broke, engines seized up and electrical systems cratered. By the time we reached Kerman, the three least-crippled vehicles were towing the three that had been effectively immobilized by multiple breakdowns. Even after emergency repairs in Kerman – repairs that were much hampered by a lack of spare parts for American vehicles – two of our vehicles still needed to be towed and a third (my Power Wagon) had no brakes. In the end, a trip that had taken us five days on the way down, took eleven on the way back, and it wasn’t until April 2 that we actually arrived back in Tehran. It had been exactly two months since we’d left Kerman.

1962

Dr. Z

A drilling rig in the middle of the Persian Gulf is no place to be ill. But I already was – the back of my mouth and the right side of my tongue were red and swollen and I had developed an incredibly sore throat. The ‘medic’ on the rig – a partly trained male nurse called Don – had taken my temperature (I hadn’t any) and palpated my chin and throat for a few minutes. “I’m damned if I know what you’ve got,” He finally said, “Looks like mumps. Had mumps before?”
“Don’t think so.”
“Well then,” He said, “I can’t be sure, but I reckon you’ve got them now. Not at all serious,” He added, “As long as you take care of yourself.”

His chief worry, though, wasn’t me. It was the rig. There were over a hundred men out here, all of which were about to be – if they hadn’t already been – exposed to my mumps. The important thing was to get me off this rig as quickly as possible before he had a full-blown epidemic on his hands.

A chopper was dispatched to take me ashore, and arrangements were made with the nearest local hospital – in Abadan – to take me in. The chopper arrived within an hour and I was back on land in less than two. When we landed at our shore base at Khorramabad, the camp manager met the chopper with a rattly old Chevrolet taxi. Carefully keeping his distance, he bundled me with almost indecent haste into its back seat. “Bemaristan Abu Ali (literally ‘the hospital of Ali’s father’)”, He yelled after us, “The driver knows where to go!” It took just over half an hour to drive from Khorramabad through the little port city of Khorramshahr and on to Abadan.

The Shatt el Arab, a great river formed by the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates in southern Iraq, forms the boundary between Iran and Iraq for about 75 km at the head of the Persian Gulf.  The main ports of both countries are on the river – the Iraqi port of Basra lies on the right bank of the river about 30 km upstream from Abadan. “Abadan,” according to the 1965 edition of Hachette Guide to the Middle East, “Is an important industrial city of about 200,000 inhabitants on the left bank of the Shatt el Arab With the exception of the petroleum refineries, for visiting which you require a special permit obtainable from the National Iranian Oil Company, the town offers little of interest.” They got it about right. Abadan was an oil town. Everything in it was either directly or indirectly linked to the production, refining and/or transport of oil. And there was nothing – absolutely nothing (including the refinery) – of interest.

Abadan’s bazaar surrounded Abu Ali Hospital. Arriving at the market just after sunset, we instantly plunged into a kaleidoscope of light and noise. Ten minutes later the taxi dusted to a stop in a crowded little market square, amidst carts, and kiosks brilliantly illuminated by pressure lamps. “Bemaristan Abu Ali inja hast” (“Abu Ali Hospital is here.”) my driver announced. I leaned out the window and looked around. All I could really see of the hospital was the uplit architraves of three storeys of shuttered windows looming above tatty awnings and heaps of hardware and Manchester. Its battered wooden door was set into a niche between a bakery and a shop selling carpets. There was a sign tacked to the door; it bore an inscription in Farsi, which I couldn’t read. But under it was the symbol of the ‘Red Lion and Sun’, so I knew I had been delivered to some sort of medical facility. The ‘Red Lion and Sun’ was the Iranian equivalent of the Red Cross. Since, to Moslems, the Red Cross is synonymous with Christianity, they had chosen to use the symbol of the ruling Pahlevi Dynasty – a rampant lion with a sun rising above it – in an identical colour. In most of the Moslem world, The Red Crescent (a crescent moon and star – symbol of Islam) replaces the Red Cross symbol for medical facilities.

I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to do this, but I banged sharply on the door anyway. At this time of night, in a strange town in a strange country – and with a jaw half the size of Wisconsin – what else was I to do? My knock was answered by a very pretty young woman wearing a chador. “Bemaristan Abu Ali?” I asked. She nodded and I stepped inside. As far as I could tell, she spoke no English. When I gave her my name, she made a note in a little notebook on a table beside the door. She said something in Farsi which included the words ‘doctor’ and ‘tomorrow’. I nodded. Gesturing for me to follow, she set off along a corridor, then up a couple of flights of stairs.

Abu Ali Hospital was a hollow square structure of three storeys surrounding a courtyard. Aside from a scummy little pool and fountain in its centre, where the hospital laundry was done by hand, the courtyard was just a square of beaten dust. On clotheslines haphazardly strung across the corners, sheets and pillowcases hung to dry and gather dust. All the rooms were accessed from narrow balconies extending entirely around the courtyard and connected to each other – and to the ground floor and the roof – by flights of external stairs.

As we turned from the stairs onto the second floor, the girl pointed on up the stairs and said, “Mostarah (toilet)” My room overlooked the bazaar. The windows had neither glass nor screens, but only slatted wooden shutters, which could be closed to keep out direct sunlight. It had a splintery wood floor, whitewashed walls covered in stains (some of which looked suspiciously like blood) and a bare light bulb on a long kinked cord hanging from the centre of the ceiling. There was an old double-door wardrobe with peeling oak veneer, and a pair of single iron beds. They had wire-wove spring bases, sheets that had probably once been white and kapok-filled mattresses that were astonishingly lumpy. A striped wool blanket was neatly folded across the foot of each bed. On the only chair were a pair of thin greyish bath towels and two bars of used soap.

I surreptitiously thumped both beds to see which was least lumpy. Little clouds of dust rose from both, but lump-wise there wasn’t much to choose, so I picked the one nearest the window. At least it had a view. Having nothing else to do, I unpacked my overnight case, changed into my pyjamas, threw open the shutters and sat on the bed looking down into the bustle of the bazaar.

The whole street was mostly a vegetable market. There were potatoes, crimson bouquets of radishes, carrots in woven baskets, huge green ruffles of lettuce, pyramids of melons, a painted trolley full of grapes, and heaps of brittle-skinned anar – like Christmas balls, torn open to show their intricate interior compartments and alexandrite-coloured flesh. There were lots of other things on offer, too – bolts of cloth, samovars, luggage, teapots and lanterns, skeins of rope and folded canvas, shirts, shoes and toys. There was a spiffy-looking chello kebab shop on the corner of Khiaban-e-Shah Reza and chickens roasting on spits in the window of the Nakhlestan Restaurant across the street.

It was murderously hot – something above 35oC with humidity of about 95%. I knew if I closed the shutters I would sweat like a pig; if I didn’t, I was stuck with the noise and glare of the bazaar. I settled for the latter. Eventually – very eventually – I drifted off to sleep. I slept badly. Not only was it hot and bright and noisy, but the bed was as hard and lumpy as a table set with a full china service for six.

The sounds of iron shutters banging roused me about dawn. Stiff and bleary-eyed, I leaned out the window. The bazaar seemed curiously ‘hollow’. All done out in shades of grey, it looked shadowy and empty in the pale morning light. A few young boys were rolling the shutters up for the day – undoing padlocks, opening doors and dusting down the shops and kiosks ready to open. One was sprinkling water on the street to keep down the dust. A remarkably pretty girl delivered my breakfast – a pot of tea, a round of nan two fried eggs, sliced onions, a slab of goat cheese and little pottle of jam. This was – and still is – my very favourite breakfast.

A youngish unshaven Iranian with a stethoscope around his neck appeared at my door. His flared trousers stopped several inches short of the ground, exposing incredibly hairy ankles above bare feet stuffed into what appeared to be bedroom slippers. His top half was enveloped a in spotty off-white smock at least three sizes too big for him. Fiddling with a plastic pocket-liner bristling with ball-point pens, he identified himself as Dr Zahedi – Dr Parviz Zahedi. “You are Mr Gordon?” He asked in English. I confirmed that I was. “You are from the drilling rig, I believe” He said, “What is supposed to be wrong with you?”
“They say maybe mumps,” I pointed to my swollen throat.
He stared fixedly at my neck as though I had inflated it on purpose to confuse him. “But this is Abu Ali Hospital!”
“Yes, I know. The company sent me.”
“Why they send you? You are man.”
This hadn’t escaped my attention. “Yes,” I agreed, “I am. Why does that matter to you?”
“This is Abu Ali Maternity Hospital.”
“Maternity Hospital?….” It took a little while to sink in.
“Maternity Hospital – only for ladies.”
“Maternity hospital?” I knew I was repeating myself, but I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“Yes. For having babies. Things like that – for povertied ladies all without charge. We are a ‘charity’.” I nodded. “But you – for you it cannot be free. You can afford to pay?” A private charity, the hospital existed mostly to help really poor women – especially solo mums – get a little maternity care. Most of the young women in the hospital had no money at all and, in general, they worked off their bill after the birth of their children by dong laundry, scrubbing floors, fetching meals, etc.

“Oh, my company will pay. Don’t you worry about that!” I had no idea whether my company expected to pay or not. But they would – they would pay, all right! If I had anything to do with it, they were going to pay through the nose – for plonking me down on a lumpy kapok mattress in Abu Ali Maternity Hospital!

“Good. Now that you are here, let us see what is wrong with you.” He gently massaged the glands underneath my chin for a few seconds with a set of surprisingly cold fingertips, then smilingly confirmed Don’s diagnosis. “You have had mumps before? As a boy, perhaps?”
“Not,” I replied, “As far as I can remember.”
“Well,” He said, whipping a thermometer out from amongst the ball-points, and snapping the mercury down vigorously, “You are having one now.”
“One?” I had to ask.
“One mump. The right one,” He explained, “Your left mump is perfectly well. Otherwise you would be much more ill.” Wiping the thermometer on the tail of his smock, he stuck it under my tongue. It tasted strongly of something like garlic. While the mercury adjusted itself to my body temperature, he took my pulse and listened to my breathing. “Except for your mump,” He said, “You seem quite a fit young man. A week or so should see you right.”

“For having mump,” Dr Zahedi advised as he left the room, “Adult men should refrain from walking. Otherwise the disease might, um, drop. You know, go down to your…..your…. khayam. Damn!….I forget what is ‘khayam’ in English.”
I knew what ‘khayam’ was. “Testicles?” I asked. This, curiously, was one of the first words of Farsi I had ever learned. There were two Farsi words transliterated into English as ‘khayam; by preference, I smoked a local brand of filter cigarettes called “Khayam’ – named after Omar Khayam, author of the famous Rubaiyat. and pronounced with the second ‘a’ to rhyme with ‘Tom’. In testicles (a word spelt the same – ‘khayam’ – in English, but not in Farsi script) the second ‘a’ rhymed with ‘yam’. Unaware of this rather fine distinction, I had, for months, greatly amused the proprietor of the little tobacco kiosk across from our office by asking each day for “a packet of twenty testicles”. I had only recently learned the difference.

“Yes testicles – ‘balls’ – thank you. Try to walking only to the mostarah – to the toilet.”
“Where is the toilet?” I hadn’t seen any sign of a toilet anywhere on the way up to my room. All I knew was that it was somewhere upstairs.
“There are four,” He replied, “All on the roof. Just rise the stairs and you will see beside you another door. It is there.”
This seemed to be a considerable distance – twenty or thirty yards along the hall and up a flight of stairs – for someone advised not to walk. “You don’t have bedpans?” I should have known better than to ask an Iranian a negative question. His answer would always be “Yes” – meaning either “Yes we have bedpans” or “Yes, you are correct, we don’t have bedpans
“Yes,” He said.
“Yes, you do?”
“Yes, we don’t. I will visit you again tomorrow.”

About lunchtime a cheerful young woman wearing a black chador over a violently coloured nightgown appeared at my door, carrying a very young baby wrapped in what can only be described as ‘swaddling clothes’. “I am Fatima,” She announced in Farsi, “And this” – she smiled down at the baby – “Is Khusrow. He is two days old.” Thrusting the boy – a tiny brown thing all squints and wrinkles – into my arms, she stood back, arms crossed. “What would you like for lunch?”
“What do you have?” By now my Farsi was at least up to the standard required for this sort of conversation.
“Whatever you want. I will bring to you.”
“You bring? From where?”
“Hospital has no kitchen. I bring food from the bazaar – whatever you want.”
I cast the gastronomical eye of my memory over the shops I had seen last night in the bazaar below my window. “I’ll have chello kebab, please.”
“Baleh, Agha.” (literally ‘yes sir’) And she departed.
I looked down at my armful of baby. “What am I to do with….with Khusrow?” I called after her retreating back.
“Mind him while I fetch your meal.” Her voice faded as she disappeared down the hall.
In about five minutes she was back. “No chello kebab,” She announced. “What else you like?”
Curious, I thought. I wondered what the problem was. “I’ll have roast chicken, then.”
“Baleh, Agha.”

It took less than five minutes to determine that chicken, also, was not available. Neither, it turned out, was roast beef or ab gusht – a sort of snotty green soup of spinach and beef broth that every Iranian seemed to love. I pointed out both the chello kebab place and the Nakhlestan Restaurant to Fatima, but she remained adamant that the dishes I’d picked were not available. Neither her English nor my Farsi was adequate to explain exactly why this should be so. So, eventually I told Fatima to bring me whatever she could find. Twenty or so minutes later she turned up with a plate of sandwiches and a bottle of Fanta. The sandwiches – there were half-a-dozen of them, each almost a foot across (enough to feed a jury) – contained some sort of thinly sliced meat smothered in wheels of dill pickle and onion.

Dill pickle…dill pickle. There was something about dill pickle. I seemed to remember something from my boyhood – something about mumps and dill pickles. Oh yes, it was a sort of test for mumps to try and eat a dill pickle. If you could swallow the pickle you didn’t have mumps. The sandwiches turned out to be very tasty – delicious, in fact – and I had no trouble swallowing the pickle. Well, I thought, so much for the pickle test: either it didn’t work or I didn’t have mumps.

The bathroom was eight feet square, its floor and walls covered with chipped white tiles.  There was a tap on one wall with a tin ladle in a galvanised bucket underneath it, and a drain in the middle of the floor. To bathe, all you had to do was fill up the bucket, slosh water over yourself with the ladle, then work up a good lather and rinse it all off. Mechanically, this worked pretty well, but from my perspective there was one huge problem. The water was absolutely frigid! I don’t think I have ever had to bathe in such icy water. I made myself do it at least once a day, but it was a memorably painful experience.

Several times each day young women would turn up in my room – each with a tiny baby, which she would give me to mind while she got on with her work. I grew quite fond of one of them – Miryam, a plump, bubbly mother of twins. Miryam explained to me that the girls all scrubbed and cleaned around the place until their hospital bills had been worked off. So I nursed lots of babies – little rumpled things, with wild tufts of black hair and dark eyes bright as agates – while their mothers made the bed, or dusted or scrubbed the floor. I didn’t mind minding them at all, but it worried me some. It just didn’t seem right that they should be left in the arms of a total stranger with mumps.

Fatima never returned – I guess she had worked off her bill – but at each mealtime girls would appear at my bedside taking orders. I tended their babies, too, while they went for food. Like Fatima, each girl assured me that whatever I wanted would be provided. Like Fatima, they were all wrong. At every meal I requested chello kabob, then chicken. I never got either. Each day we went through my wish list and each day I ended up with meat and pickle sandwiches and Fanta.

I liked meat and pickle sandwiches just fine, but after the third or fourth successive meal, they had definitely begun to pall. When Dr Zahedi next popped in to knead my ‘mump’ I asked him about this. He thoughtfully explained to me that, since all care in the hospital – including meals – was free, they had had to cap meal expenditure. On this basis, they had only allowed fifteen riyals (about US$0.20) per person per meal. This was the exact cost of six sandwiches (at two riyals each) and a soft drink (three riyals). If I was ‘willing and able’ to pay (the doctor’s phrase was if I ‘could and would’) the girls would bring me anything available in the bazaar – including chello kabob which, he explained, cost sixty riyals (about US$0.80). To make a long story short, ‘willing’ to pay I was, but ‘able’ to pay I wasn’t. I had been packed off from the rig in such haste that nobody had thought to provide me with any cash. Since there was also nobody from the company in Abadan, I didn’t have any visitors. Also, as far as I knew, there was nobody I could call. So I ate a lot of meat and pickle sandwiches.

“Oh, by the way,” Dr Zahedi turned at the door as he went to leave, “I have to tell you something. Something that…..mostly, we have…..” He hemmed and hawed a bit, “You know about the girls who clean your room?”
“You mean like Fatima and Fereshteh? Miryam told me they work here until they have paid for their treatment. They seem nice girls. I especially like Miryam. She’s good value.”
“Miryam? Yes, well, Miryam is…. We have…..Our patients mostly are…..How you call in English ‘femmes de la nuit’ ?”

‘Femmes de la nuit?’ My schoolboy French wasn’t very good. But it didn’t have to be very good to translate that phrase. ‘Women of the night’ – it meant ‘Whores’! “You mean prostitutes?” I blurted out.
“Yes, prostitutes. They mostly come to here to have babies. My partners thought you should know.”

Good God! I thought. Young Miryam was a whore! All of them might be, for all I knew. This place was a sort of – a phrase from an old boyhood joke bubbled to the surface – a sort of “institute for destitute prostitutes”. What on earth was a nice boy like me doing in a place like this?

Nothing much happened during the next couple of days. My mump slowly but inexorably grew larger. My right cheek was twice its normal size and my neck had got distinctly lopsided. I still didn’t feel sick at all, but I was getting damned tired of having a sore throat. Dr Zahedi would turn up several times each day to take my temperature, read my blood pressure, finger my ‘mump’ and chat. He was always pleasant but unnervingly vague about my condition, which he unvaryingly described as “progressing”. He prescribed neither medicines nor treatment. I didn’t know whether there was anything to be done about mumps or not, but Dr Z seemed not to be a whole lot better informed than I. I actually wondered if he hadn’t diagnosed mumps just because I had told him that was what Don thought I had. But I was a good patient – mostly because I honestly couldn’t think what else to do. I ate my pickle sandwiches, watched the bazaar, hiked to and from the mostarah and perspired a lot. And minded lots of babies.

About mid-morning on the fourth day, one of the young girls turned up at my door guiding a tall, grey-haired ferang. It was Bill Deevers – Captain Bill Deevers – skipper of the deep-water tug servicing our drilling rig. Ah, I thought, a guest. “Bill!” I was delighted to see him. “What brings you to visit my sick-bed?”
“Who’s visiting?” He retorted, “I’m sick. They tell me I’m your new room-mate.”
“My new…..? You’re sick? What ails you?”
“Dunno. I’ve been having dizzy spells and puking a lot. Somebody here is supposed to diagnose me.”
“You’ll be lucky. This is a maternity hospital! The only disease they seem able to treat is pregnancy. I don’t suppose you’re pregnant?”
“Hardly.” He ignored my attempt at humour.
“Have you had mumps?”
“Mumps? No, why?”
“I’m in here for mumps,” I pointed to my grossly inflated jaw. “If it’s as contagious as it’s supposed to be, you better keep to your side of the room.”
“Oh, shit!”

Just then the girl turned up to take our lunch orders, so I told him about the hospital’s curious catering arrangements. The best thing about having Bill around was that he had brought money with him. So we ordered – and got – chello kebab for lunch. And chicken (murgh) for dinner. After three days of pickle sandwiches, they both tasted wonderful.

Dr Z took Bill away to be examined early the next morning. Half-an-hour later I could hear Bill stomping angrily along the balcony on his way back. I could tell he didn’t much like whatever he’d been told.
“Well, Bill,” I asked, as he threw himself down on his bed, “What do they reckon you’ve got?”
He lurched to his feet, stalked across the room and leaned out the window, knuckles on the sill. “Sea-sickness! Fucking sea-sickness” He spat out the window. “You wouldn’t credit it. Sea-bloody-sickness! Twenty-five years at sea and I’m on fucking Dramamine!”

Bill steamed quietly for a couple of hours, muttering and cursing under his breath. The word ‘dramamine’ figured prominently in his soliloquy. Most of the other words were quite short – a lot of them had only four letters. I didn’t much blame him. “Tomorrow,” He finally said, “I’m checking myself out of this God-damned place. You wanna join me?”
I had been wondering when – and how – I was ever going to escape Abu Ali Maternity Hospital. “Nothing,” I assured him, “Could give me greater pleasure. I dunno exactly what ails me, but whatever it is, it’s not getting any better here.”

I think Dr Z was both pleased and relieved when I told him I was leaving next day – a little smirk sort of played about the corners of his mouth – but all he said was, “We must have X-ray of your mump. Then, if everything clear, you can leave. We do it before tea. OK?”
“OK!” I agreed. I couldn’t imagine what he hoped to accomplish with an X-ray, but at this stage I was willing to do whatever it took to get out of this place.

Nothing could have prepared me for the X-ray room. Along one wall were three or four five-gallon lidded plastic buckets. Bolted to the floor in the centre of the room was a massive steel plinth, to which was attached a ten or twelve foot articulated arm with two or three universal joints along its length. On the end of it was a small x-ray camera of the sort dentists use.

The arm had rusted and all of its joints had fused, so it was impossible to move or rotate the camera. It was now permanently fixed about a foot off the floor, pointing raffishly toward a corner of the ceiling. To x-ray my ‘mump’, I had to squat on my heels, lean back on my hands and arch my body convexly upward so that the camera could be tucked up underneath my chin. Luckily I was young enough and thin enough – and, in those days, fit enough – to manage this.

Dr Z took, as I recall, two pictures of my ‘mump’. He didn’t bother to wear his little lead apron. If he does this often, I thought, his ‘khayam’ must glow in the dark. Motioning me to the only chair in the room, he removed the lids from the plastic buckets. A strong smell – something between cat piss and vinegar – instantly filled the room. Suddenly a boyhood memory – of a little darkroom I had set up in the cellar of our house – flashed into my mind. That was the smell – developer and fixer.  He was fixing to develop the film right here and right now. He flicked the wall switch. The lights went out. He didn’t have a red lamp or anything – he and I were in absolute darkness. This didn’t seem to bother him. I could hear him moving about. There were noises at the camera – film being removed, presumably – then sloshing sounds from the buckets of chemicals. After a few minutes the lights came on and Dr Zahedi had a developed x-ray film, still dripping, in each hand.

Stepping out into the courtyard, he held the plates up to the sun, and for several minutes he and I admired them. I could identify my mandible and he had got a really good shot of some of my teeth, but I couldn’t see anything else.
“Good!” he said. “They seem to have come out well.”
Clearly he had absolutely no idea what he was doing. “How,” I asked, trying not to smirk. “Is my ‘mump’ doing?”
“Honestly, not good.” I wondered what he had expected to see. “But we have done what we could. Will you be seeing your doctor in Tehran?”
“You bet I will.”
He held out his hand. I shook it. “Khoda Hafez,” He said – literally ‘in the keeping God”, but it was the traditional Iranian ‘Goodbye’.
“Murramutaziad,” I replied. I have no idea what this means. I had learned by listening that Iranians always said it in reply to ‘Khoda Hafez’. I could never get anyone to translate it for me.

Bill had a taxi waiting and twenty-five minutes later we were checking into Iran Air’s Viscount service to Tehran. The flight took just over three hours, including layovers in Shiraz and Isfahan. A massive storm front was moving down from the Elburz Mountains and we flew directly into it just after Isfahan. The plane suddenly dropped about a thousand metres – I lost my stomach about half-way down – and we swooped and lurched through dense cloud all the rest of the way. We were both airsick – and I, a white-knuckle flier at the best of times, was totally petrified with fear – almost until touchdown.

As soon as I got home, I called Dr Hashemian, the company doctor, to make an urgent appointment. Next morning at ten, I entered his surgery. He took one look at me and grinned hugely. “Well, it’s not mumps,” He said, “But I expect you’d already figured that out.”
“Yes, I didn’t think it could be. But what do I actually have?”
“A blocked salivary duct. The saliva can’t get out so it just backs up in your salivary gland – that’s what the swelling is all about.”
“What’s the cure?” I asked apprehensively.
“This!”

Taking my chin firmly in both hands, he pressed hard upward on the base of my ‘mump’ with a thumb. A needle of pain shot right up to the top of my skull, and I involuntarily tried to jerk backward. But his grip was firm. A jet of clear fluid shot from my mouth, splattering against the wall behind him. He pressed, then pressed again. As he screwed his thumb around under my chin, it spurted again and again. Gradually the flow grew weaker until finally it stopped altogether. “That’s it!” Dr Hashemian said, blotting my chin and his hands dry with a towel. “I now pronounce you cured. D’you know what that fluid was?” I shook my head. “Saliva – just plain old spit!”

Hashemian was actually one of the world’s leading oncologists and had been one of the team of surgeons who operated – unsuccessfully, in the event – on King George VI, who was suffering from lung cancer. He had been lured back to Iran by government guarantees of a very substantial annual income. He had operated on me a year and a half earlier for a burst appendix. Not only was the operation a complete success, but he never bothered to charge me for it. He was, he said, famous for the neatness with which he stitched his patients up. On my last day in hospital he had run his hand gently up and down my six-inch incision. “You know,” He said, “I always do very good work. But this….this is my finest!”

SOUTH ARABIA

Arabia’s Bottom

A vast rectangle of desert a thousand miles long and eight hundred wide, slung at an angle between Asia and Africa, the Arabian Peninsula consists of almost a million square miles of bugger all. Most of it – the big, empty middle bit – is Saudi Arabia. Jordan, Iraq and Kuwait wrap around the top end. Along the Persian Gulf coast, from Bahrain to Ras Musandam, are Qatar and the Trucial states – Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Umm al Qawain, Sharja, Fujaira, Ajman and Ras al Khaima – now collectively known as the United Arab Emirates. From his ancient stone palace in Muscat, the Sultan of Oman rules Jebel Akhdar and down past Ras al Hadd to Salalah in Dhofar. British South Arabia ran along the Arabian Sea and down to the Bab el Mandeb at the mouth of the Bahr el-Abyad (Red Sea), with Aden at the very bottom. Inland, looming both geographically and physically above Aden, is the high massif of the Yemen.

The Asir Mountains, barren and seared, rise along Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast, and sterile deserts slope away eastward for six hundred miles to vast salt marshes and the date groves at Abqaiq and Dhahran near the Persian Gulf. Only in the southwest corner of the peninsula – in the Yemen – do the mountains rise high enough to interrupt the monsoon and cause rain. The highest of the Yemeni peaks, Jebel Hadhur Nebi Shu’aib, is 3,800 m (12,400 ft) high.

. Farmed intensely since biblical times, the profiles of the big round-shouldered mountains are stepped from foot to crest by irrigated terraces. In these high oases are ancient cities – Tai’izz, Sa’na, Marib and Ibb – once ruled by the Queen of Sheba. The city of Sheba itself (modern Shabwa) is located in the Western Aden Protectorate

The prosperity of successive civilisations in the Yemen caused the Romans to name the area ‘Arabia Felix’ (Happy Arabia). The Minaeans had developed a civilisation as early as 1,000 BC. They were traders with colonies as far north as Maan near the Gulf of Aqaba. They were succeeded by the Sabaeans, who in turn were succeeded by the Himyarites. This southern Arabian civilisation, which lasted 1500 years, came to an end in the middle of the sixth century AD when the great Mar’ib Dam – more than a thousand years old – collapsed, but while it lasted this remote land acquired a reputation for fabulous wealth. For centuries Egypt, Assyria and the Seleucids schemed and fought to control the desert route along which frankincense was carried northward, and in 24 BC the Emperor Augustus sent an army under Aelius Gallus, prefect of Egypt, to conquer the lands where this priceless gum originated. The army marched southward for nine hundred miles, but lack of water eventually forced it to retire.

The next conquerors were the legions of Mohammed in the seventh century AD. For ten generations the Yemen had been ruled by hereditary Imams of the Mutawakkil family – first in fief to the Ottoman Turks, then as absolute monarchs. In 1962, when I arrived, the mad Imam Yahya was on the throne. The ‘Mutawakkilite Imamate of the Yemen’ – as it was known – came to an end in 1963 when he was assassinated and his son, Seif al Islam (‘Light of the Moslems’) Mohammed al Badr assumed the throne. Al Badr was poorly regarded both inside Yemen and in the West. Time magazine described the situation in the Yemen as “going from Badr to worse.” In the end, he lost a civil war with Marxist rebels, and was himself slain.

The Sultan of Lahej ceded a 194 sq km area (including Bandar Tawahi) to the British in 1838. In 1857 it was enlarged by the islands of Perim, Kamaran and Curia Muria to 257 sq km. The colony eventually grew to a 287,490 sq km British protectorate, divided into the 229,667 sq km Eastern Aden Protectorate (3 states) and the 58,016 sq km Western Aden Protectorate (19 states). In 1959 13 states and the colony of Aden joined to form the Federated Emirates of the South, renamed, in 1962, The Federation of South Arabia. In August 1967, following departure of the British, the National Liberation Front expelled all hereditary rulers, and the People’s Republic of South Yemen was proclaimed, renamed on 8 November 1970, the Democratic People’s Republic of the Yemen. On 30 November.1989 an agreement was signed to unify North Yemen (pop about 7,000,000) and South Yemen (pop just under 1,000,000) into the present Republic of Yemen. Despite two serious civil wars, the union remains today.

***

The desert landscape of British South Arabia, below the oases of Yemen, is fabulous. In the west volcanoes, black and hollow, line the shoreline. In many of their deep lunar craters are small salt lakes – blue, yellow, brown and green. There are plains of gravel with sand dunes undulating across them: from the air they look like washboards. Steep mountains rise directly from the beaches. Behind them is a landscape of lava, limestone and shale – bent and crumpled and thrust up together through beige wildernesses of sand, to form intricate mountains – layered in every possible colour from ashen white to deepest red and jet black. From the air you can see the stratification – a geological history book, with millennia between the pages.

In the east is a huge limestone plateau – the jol. Rising three thousand feet almost straight from the sea, it tilts imperceptibly northward and finally, after five hundred miles, dips beneath the sands of the Rub ‘al-Khali near the border with Saudi Arabia. Barren as the moon, its brown slabbed surface is cut into unequal halves – the Northern Jol and the Southern Jol – by the spectacular Wadi Hadhramaut. The great wadi branches upstream, then branches and branches again, cutting into the plateaux until their vast surfaces are patterned with canyons and crevasses like the veins of a gigantic leaf.

Winds from the Rub ‘al-Khali gnaw at the ends of the jols, abrading them to sand, piling the grains into dunes tens of miles long and hundreds of feet high. Creaking and groaning, they advance like petrified breakers against the crumbling cliffs. Hardly anything grows anywhere, except in the deepest parts of the wadis. All the way from Aden to Salalah in Dhofar, green is the rarest colour in an arid and primeval landscape.

At the very bottom of Arabia are two offshore volcanic peaks – Jebel Shamsun and Adan as Sugra – Mount Samson and Little Aden – each joined to the mainland by a sand spit. The two peninsulas shelter a large body of water, known as Bandar (Port) Tawahi. Aden colony included both peaks, the sand spits, and a narrow strip of coast connecting them.

Bandar Tawahi is almost the only shelter along the straight south coastline. It was occupied by the British in 1837 to use as a staging post on their routes to empire in the east. There was a small fishing village, called Adan, at the foot of Jebel Shamsun. The British appropriated the name (which they mispronounced as “Aden”) for their colony. Expanding into the political vacuum around their new port, they gradually subdued their neighbours and progressively brought them under their control. Seventeen little states were eventually forced to accept a sort of ‘Pax Britannica’, and these, collectively, made up the Western Aden Protectorate. In 1962 the these little states were coerced into joining a political union called the Federation of South Arabia45. The Federation was dissolved in 1967 when the British left.

Farther to the east were a pair of larger states – the Qa’iti Sultanate of Ash Shihr and Mukalla, and the Kathiri sultanate of Seiyun and Tarim – whose sultans’ claims to rule the jols were based only on proximity – their people lived around the fringes of the huge plateaux, which were otherwise uninhabited. Farther still to the east – in the crumpled gypsum landscapes around Jebel Habshiya – were the Mahris, non-Arabic speakers whose land – the Mahra Sultanate of Qishn and Socotra – was ruled by an absentee sultan from Hadibo on Socotra – the ‘island of dragon’s blood’.

British expansion eventually took in Qa’iti and Kathiri, and political advisers were installed in their capitals. Northern Mahra was also brought under control by the simple expedient of building and garrisoning mud forts at the only two wells. The rest of Mahra – the desolate plains south of the mountains – the British never entered (although they had a treaty with the sultan giving them political control of the whole of Mahra). These three sultanates were collectively known as the Eastern Aden Protectorate.

***

Except in the mountains of southern Yemen, the protectorates had only ill-defined boundaries – lines drawn arbitrarily straight by the British across miles of empty sand and rock. This gave Aden a curiously ad hoc appearance on maps. Shaped rather like a door-stop, British South Arabia – including both protectorates and the colony of Aden – sprawled across the bottom of the peninsula, its thick end in the east at the Mahra border with Dhofar. The city of Aden was close to the pointy end – on a sliver of land tucked away where the mountains of Yemen tumble down into the wilderness of Lahej.

Aden city (estimated 1965 population 140,000) wrapped around the north side of Jebel Shamsun – a huge black fang rising straight out of the sea. There wasn’t a lot of flat land and the city had grown as separate bits. In the east, facing the open sea, was the cliff-top suburb of Ras Marshag, where villas of rich merchants looked down over the Gulf of Aden.

Then came Crater, the old Arab part of the city, sweltering and stinking within its circle of black cliffs. Crowded, stifling and grubby, it faced the open sea diagonally across Front Bay and looked down the sand spit across Khormaksar toward the mainland.

Khormaksar, built on the sand spit connecting Jebel Shamsun to the mainland, was flat, modern and dull. It contained the airport, the RAF barracks, the spanking new Queen Elizabeth Hospital, and a few streets of big concrete villas that were mostly rented to foreigners. We ended up living there.

Ma’alla, beside the dhow harbour, and built on land reclaimed from mudflats, was new – a long dual carriageway lined with eight-storey apartment blocks, cheaply built and expensively leased – which mostly housed the families of British servicemen. They were all eight storeys high because any building of more than eight floors had to have two lifts. Eight or less required only one.

In the commercial centre of the city, Steamer Point, or Tawahi, there was a tatty little maidan – surrounded by hundred-year-old Victorian buildings with arched verandahs over the footpaths – and the town rose from it into an amphitheatre of spiky hills. Beyond Steamer Point was the army base at Ras Tarshyne, and farther along a coral sand beach stretched two or three miles to the volcanic ridge at Elephant Rock, where layers of black lava sloped steeply down into the sea. At the foot of Elephant rock – at the very end of the road – was the Gold Mohur Beach Club. There were lots of beaches in and around Aden. But the Red Sea in this area was full of voracious sharks and none of the beaches was safe for swimming. The week I arrived, a woman was taken off the beach just outside the Gold Mohur shark nets in less than a foot of water: she had been trying to rescue her toddler who had just been attacked while sitting in less than six inches of water. The chief attraction of Gold Mohur, therefore, was its shark nets. Effectively it was the only place in Aden where swimming was safe.

Aside from the anaemic banyans at Steamer Point and a few tamarisks at Gold Mohur, there wasn’t very much green in Aden. There were thorn trees on some of the streets of Khormaksar and in Tarshyne, and some tough, stringy oleanders.

On one side of the peninsula of Little Aden was a big oil refinery with a workers’ village – rows and rows of grey concrete cubes – and a long pier jutting out into deep water. On the other side, hot winds moaned across a chillingly desolate military cemetery – ranks of identical grey headstones in a wilderness of gravelly sand. On the road between the two peninsulas was the unfinished new federal capitol at Medinat Al Ittihad (‘Union City), the old Arab town of Sheikh Othman, and lots of Dutch-looking windmills pumping brackish water into salt pans that smelled of dead fish.

Because of the humidity and dust in the Aden air, the sunlight was filtered and shadows tended to be slightly blurred – out of focus. There were hardly ever any clouds. The sky was usually more silver than blue in colour, and brilliant, painful to the eye. No matter which direction you looked you always seemed to be staring directly into the sun. Sometimes Aden put on wonderful sunsets. Once the sun had gone, the sky seemed to light up. Because there were never any clouds, the displays – unlike ordinary sunsets – were extravaganzas of pure colour involving the whole dome of sky.

The sunsets were almost the only good thing about Aden. Rain fell about twice in a decade, daytime temperatures reached 50oC, and humidity averaged about ninety percent. The climate was so awful that people mostly swam in the winter when the sea water was relatively cool. Then there was the wildlife. Onshore there were ticks, mosquitoes, camel spiders, scorpions and snakes. Offshore there were lots of sharks.

Such entertainment as there was had to be mostly home-grown. Aside from ample opportunities for heavy-duty drinking, night-life consisted of a couple of open-air cinemas and a roofless garden club with a sign at the door that read “Gentlemen Will Please Wear Shirts.” Joe had an apt descriptive phrase for Aden – he had an apt descriptive phrase for almost everything. “If God ever gives the world an enema,” He said, “Aden is where he’ll insert the tube.

East is West

I arrived in Aden after flying the length of Saudi Arabia in a Middle East Airlines DC-4. It had taken nearly eight hours from Beirut with a brief stopover in Jeddah. I had already flown four hours that day – from Tehran to Beirut via Baghdad. It was two in the morning when the scallops of lights along the city’s waterfront flashed below our starboard wing, and in a moment or two the plane bumped to a landing at Khormaksar Airport. As soon as a flight of stairs had been wheeled up, the door opened, and a blast of warm, wet air flooded into the plane. I had begun this journey on a crisp autumn morning on the high plateau of central Iran, and disembarking in Aden was like falling into a sauna bath. By the time I reached the bottom of the steps my skin was beaded with perspiration, and before I had reached the terminal dark stains were spreading across the back and front of my shirt.

Inside the terminal a few punkahs whirled slowly, shifting the hot, humid air in slow circles and rustling the rubbish underfoot. The immigration officers were as sleepy as I was, and it took only moments to finish the formalities. The city looked deserted. There were little drifts of rubbish by the kerbs, and the widely-spaced street lamps were as feeble as moonlight. The city covered a lot of ground, but there were large expanses of open ground and water, and big steep hills, and even in the dark I could tell it wasn’t really very populous. Parts of the city seemed very new, but most of it looked Victorian – and all of it looked slightly dilapidated.

In the commercial centre of the city, Steamer Point, there was a tatty little maidan near the waterfront, and the town rose from it into an amphitheatre of spiky hills. We drew up at the Crescent Hotel – a Georgian-style building fronting the maidan. One of the series of arches that ran along the ground floor was lit – that’s where the taxi stopped – and I trudged up the eight or ten steps that led to it. In the lobby were a marble-topped reception bench and a scatter of cane chairs and tables on a polished terrazzo floor. All around the walls were shuttered French windows with fan-lights above them. Illumination was by a single bulb over the reception desk – the night light I assumed. There was no one about, but a smart “Ping!” on the bell marked “Service” brought a sleepy young Arab out of a back room. He swiveled the register around to face me and took my passport. I signed, he returned my passport, then reached under the desk. “You like dirty magazine?” He asked. They were the first words he had spoken. He put a plain brown envelope on the desk and began to slowly pull the magazine out. “Only two hundred shillings,” (ten pounds sterling). It was a dog-eared three-month old copy of Playboy. I turned him down.

Playboy was banned as an indecent publication throughout most of the Moslem world. I am reminded of a friend who was transferred from England to Pakistan. Among other things he carefully did was to advise Playboy – to which he had subscribed since it was first published – of his change of address. When, after two or three months, no copies had arrived in Islamabad, he wrote to complain. Playboy management replied that, although they were sure they had been sent all copies his new address, they would resend the missing copies and would carefully monitor future deliveries. After two or three further months, Howard – still without his Playboys – wrote again to complain. This time Playboy’s response was less apologetic. They had, they said, kept very careful records and were absolutely certain that they had sent the requisite number of copies to the correct address. “We would suggest,” their letter ended, “That you look for the source of your problem closer to home.” Howard searched. And searched. Nothing. Then, after another month, He received an official notification from Pakistan Customs. ”Dear Mr Dalton,” the letter commenced, “This is to advise you that your subscription to Playboy has expired and needs to be renewed.”

A creaking cage lift took me to the second floor. My room – on a corner overlooking the maidan – was spacious and high ceilinged, with a punkah spinning lazily and tall arched windows with shutters. The walls and ceiling needed a new coat of whitewash and the floor was bare wood. There was an enormous bed, a couple of wicker armchairs, a table or two and a huge old wardrobe. It had a white-tiled bathroom with an enormous claw-legged bathtub and mildew stains across the ceiling behind the fluorescent bulb. An air conditioner had been installed under one of the windows. It was old and it rattled. It had managed to chill the air but had failed to remove the humidity, and everything was dank and clammy. I was no longer sweating because I was hot: now I was in a cold sweat. I took a quick shower, hung the “do not disturb” sign on the doorknob, and lay on top of the covers to dry off, until I became too cold, then rolled myself into a sheet and spent the rest of the night sweating.

Next morning I threw open the shutters and looked out across the maidan. There were birds singing. My windows were level with the foliage of the few tatty trees, so I looked straight out into a wall of green leaves. This gave a totally false impression of lush vegetation. After a quick shower I had breakfast – eggs, bacon, kippers, steak, toast with jam and cheese, and a gallon of scalding tea. The dining room had delusions of grandeur – the tables were stiff with starched napery and there was a surfeit of silverware and china at every place. Its windows looked out on the maidan at ground level, and a glance quickly disabused me of any idea that it might be lush. Between the ratty trees – thorny acacias and a couple of spindly banyans – most of the ground was compacted salty grit with a few weeds masquerading as lawns.

When I stepped outside, the Turkish bath was waiting – instant sweat – and this was Aden’s winter! The maidan was roughly triangular, the longest side fronting the sea along a stone-built quay. Lots of flights of stairs descended from the quay to rickety wooden pontoons where lighters came ashore with loads of tourists off the liners that stopped here to refuel. The hotel and a couple of government offices – including the Secretariat – occupied most of one side of the maidan. Just around the corner was the tallest building in town – a ten-storey hotel known as The Rock. Its name was appropriate: it backed directly against a cliff taller than it was – one of the outlying ridges of Jebel Shamsun. The third side of the maidan curved gradually and the land across the street from the absolutely flat maidan rose gradually, so that, away from the hotel, the kerb gradually grew higher and higher. It became two steps rising from the street, then three and so on up to six at the far end, where it was truncated by the quay. It was lined with mostly Indian shops and little restaurants in old double-storey Chinesey-looking buildings with fore-and-aft sloping roofs and verandahs with rooms above arching over the footpath.

Most of the shops were deep and narrow and incredibly hot. Their ceiling punkahs didn’t cool anything. Mostly they just redistributed sweat. Some of the buildings were offices of the colonial administration. Others held a variety of commercial enterprises, mostly with Indian names – Sunderji Kalidas and Sons, Bhicajee Cowasjee, J Premjee and Co, and Cowasdee Dinshaw. Bhicajee Cowasjee had knocked several shops together and sold – from separate emporia – musical instruments, general hardware, haberdashery and foodstuffs. They also had a restaurant – the Galleon Grill – described in their adverts as “an intimate, dear little place plucked right from Home and transplanted in Aden for you”.

There were a bespoke tailor, a pharmacy (The English Chemist) two cafes (The Rex and Blue Bay), a general store and two hotels – the Marina and the Victoria. Beneath the Victoria, in a narrow doorway next to Patel’s Haberdashery, a battered little sign had an arrow pointing diagonally up. In copperplate script was written “The Victoria Verandah Bar” (actually it said, “The _ictoria Verand _h B_r”). A long dark stairway, smelling strongly of urine, angled up from the street. Just thirsty enough to overcome my distrust of the tatty sign and the odoriferous stairway, I went on up. The Victoria Bar consisted of a single huge room – very high – with an embossed tin ceiling in serious need of paint. It was held up by lots of spindly iron pillars that looked like metal street-lamp bases. Little drifts of rubbish were being shuffled across the splintery wooden floor by the punkahs. Tall French windows were open all along the front, giving access to a wide, covered balcony overlooking the maidan. I marched straight out through these doors and threw myself into a cane chair by the railing. Even out here there were punkahs, shifting hot, damp air slowly from table to table. Sitting there I could look out over the busy harbour – at the freighters at anchor and the lighters shuttling back and forth like water beetles.

I only wanted a drink, and I hadn’t expected the full lunch menu delivered to me by a dapper little Somali. In well-pressed dark trousers, and a gleaming white shirt and apron, with an immaculate white towel over one arm, he seemed not to belong in this tatty barn of a place. But he did. Like the dining room of my hotel, the Victoria clearly thought itself several cuts above what it actually was. The menu reminded me that it was early afternoon, so I read my way down it. My eye was instantly caught by “Ground-nut Curry with Gentlemen’s Accompaniments”. Wondering what “Gentlemen’s Accompaniments” were, I ordered one.  What they were was nothing special – banana slices, ground coconut, peanuts, raisins, chopped onions, things like that – but they were served with a curry so rich and succulent that my taste buds still tingle with the memory of it. I washed it down with a couple of bottles of beer.

Afterwards, replete and somnolent, I leaned back with a tall glass of Irish coffee and looked out over the harbour. An incoming passenger liner had just passed the mole, and a flotilla of little lighters – trying to anticipate her anchorage point – was hovering anxiously about her. They disturbed only one quadrant of the harbour surface, and the sunlight, reflected and refracted from their intersecting wakes, was painfully brilliant. Otherwise the harbour was as flat and bright as a mirror. This, I thought, was the perfect time to orient myself. Knowing that Aden was a major port on the southernmost point on the Arabian Peninsula, my mental picture of the city had it facing south over the sea. But that wasn’t how geography worked. The city actually faced north, looking across Bandar Tawahi toward the stony deserts of the mainland sultanate of Lahej. The plains of Lahej rose slowly northward to the foothills of the mountains of Yemen, but they were sixty or seventy miles away and – through the humid, dusty air – were seldom visible. Bandar Tawahi was about ten miles wide and thirty long, so, looking north from the waterfront, the mainland coast was invisible.

Ignorant of all this, I looked out across what I took to be the sea, and my mental compass automatically set that direction at “South”. Happy with that, I finished my coffee and resumed my walk. It didn’t take long for me to realise that something was seriously adrift with my orientation. The sun moved the wrong way all afternoon, and by teatime, while the western sky turned green and then purple, the sky in the east went the colour of brass. Swollen and shimmering, the sun burned its way into the eastern horizon. When it disappeared the sky turned to gold. Like all tropical sunsets, it was brief. It dimmed quickly and in a few minutes almost the entire spectrum – yellow and red through green and blue to indigo – had drained away across the horizon. There was a brief flare of a deep incandescent violet, then blackness. The night sky was gorgeous. It was a desert sky and there were a gazillion stars – all spectacularly large, some of them very close – set tier on tier above the city and its mountain.

Next day I got up at dawn and took particular notice of the sun. It was a perfectly ordinary dawn, except that the sun rose in the west. Well Damn! I had been afraid it would. Damn, damn, damn! There had to be something I could do about this – or so I thought. But apparently there wasn’t. For the next four years I tried to get my head around the problem, but I could never make it come right. So from that day on, my directions were always 180o out. Eventually I got used to having the sun rise in the west and set in the east. Nobody else did – but then nobody else had to. In my four years in Aden, I never met another person who suffered from my particular affliction. Curiously, the minute I set foot on the mainland of the Arabian Peninsula, my compass instantly reoriented itself so that, except for the city itself, my sense of direction functioned quite normally.

The Boozy Bureaucrats

By our third day in Aden, we had got over the worst of our jet-lag and most of us had had two decent nights’ sleep. We were all still in the Crescent Hotel. Tomorrow we would begin looking for office and accommodation space. Today, Ivo had ordained we should make courtesy calls on some of the colonial administrators who ran the colony. Assuming it would be good to meet the powers that be, Ivo decided to take us all. He had two visits arranged – with the Director of Communications and with the Logistics Director, Western Federation Levies – the former to gain access to radio frequencies, the latter to arrange for a military escort for travel into the interior.

Both offices were near the maidan, so he’d decided to walk. We breakfasted amidst a sea of starched napery and silverware, then all five of us trooped out the front door in Ivo’s wake. It was a typical Aden morning – the sky cloudless, and the sun huge and indistinct behind a silvery haze of salt and dust. The thermometer in the foyer had just edged above 30oC, and the air was motionless, thick and heavy with humidity. We were soaked in perspiration before we got across the street. Howard, who was about twenty pounds overweight, mopped continually – but ineffectually – at his face with a large bandanna.

The office building was typical of those inhabited by the British civil servants – a hundred-year-old Victorian building beside the maidan, with arched verandahs over the footpath. The office into which we were ushered had high ceilings, a slow, ticking punkah, tall shuttered windows, and a creaking floor that was no longer quite level. Faded and shabby, its walls had been done in a pale blue wash – but not recently – and their mud plaster surfaces had delaminated over the years, exposing sequentially grubbier layers of blue or whitewash. Below the obligatory photograph of the queen was an immense, battered desk covered in piles of papers attached to each other by means of sewing pins. Each pile was held down by some sort of weight – usually a small stone – to keep the punkah from blowing them off the desk, but the individual piles rustled in sequence around and around the desktop, following the slow passage of the punkah blades overhead.

The British Colonial Service had a curious habit of simply dumping young university graduates in at the deep end to see whether they sank or swam. Remarkably, all of them I ever met – about half-a-dozen – never even paused for breath. They were dedicated, brilliant and tough. Sitting at the top of the administrative pyramid was a group of incredibly experienced Foreign Service officers. As their empire shrank, the British retired most of their staff, but withdrew their best men – literally the ‘cream of the cream’ – to other postings. By the time I arrived in Aden, it was practically the last outpost of empire – literally the last posting left. As a result, the colony overflowed with super-experienced old-timers – withdrawn from Iraq, Palestine, the Gulf states, Kenya, Tanganyika, Pakistan and India as they gained independence – many with twenty or thirty years experience, six or seven regional languages and a genuine love of Middle Eastern cultures. As a result of all this, Aden was probably the best-governed colony Britain had ever had. That nearly all of the administrators were eccentric almost to the point of lunacy was hardly relevant. I was to meet two of these incredible men – Alex McTavish and Archie Wilson – today. In every way they typified the men chosen to rule British South Arabia. It seemed a shame that such a vast reservoir of experience and talent should be wasted on such a pitiful remnant of empire. These men all deserved much larger canvasses upon which to leave their marks. However bizarre their personal lives, the way they governed Aden was a joy to behold. Nearly everything I know today about governance, I learned from them.

The man at the desk was in his early sixties. He wore a pair of those huge-legged shorts the British used to wear in the tropics, an open-necked short-sleeved white shirt and sandals. Short and round, he had an untidy thatch of dark hair that looked too much like a bad wig not to be his own, and a dense grey military-style moustache. Below the short sleeves of his shirt his arms were covered in long dark hair, and the backs of his hands and fingers were covered in what looked like fur – almost as though caterpillars had settled there, one on each finger. His hands were square, with short thick fingers that all seemed to be the same length.

“Um, come in,” He spoke softly, lowering and tilting his head to look up at us through his bushy eyebrows. “McTavish…Alex McTavish.” He introduced himself. “Mr, um, Felerson, isn’t it? We, um, met, I believe.” Ivo made introductions all around. McTavish beamed, then extended both arms, hands open, palms forward. “Welcome to Aden, um, gentlemen. What can I do?” He waved us all to seats. He had a mouth-full of extraordinarily large, white teeth, which he kept clenched even when speaking. This made him spit quite a lot – particularly when enunciating sibilants. His uppers neither rose nor fell when his gums and lips did, so his lips and teeth often seemed to be pronouncing different sounds. This made whatever he said seem like bad lip-synch. It was actually quite unnerving and made him difficult to understand. We quickly learned not to watch his mouth when he spoke.

Ivo briefly explained our mission. We had brought with us a lot of highly sophisticated radio gear – enough to set up a network to communicate with field parties, drilling rigs and three or four offices. What we now needed were assigned frequencies on which we could legally broadcast. McTavish’s office had the authority to do this. Alex – he had insisted that we all call him by his first name – listened carefully to Ivo’s presentation, then cocked his head and looked up at him through his grey hedge of eyebrows. “I, um, anticipate no problems in this, um, regard.” Picking up Ivo’s list of frequencies, he bellowed, “Abdullah!” A very tall, dark man appeared, was given the papers and a string of instructions – in a language I recognised as Urdu – and departed.

Alex turned to Ivo. “Half an hour,” he said. “Libations now in order. Shall we?” Waving us toward a side table where there were half-a-dozen glasses and a pitcher of tepid water, he leaned forward until his chin rested directly on his desktop, wrinkling his forehead and screwing up his eyes with concentration. For a moment I wondered what on earth he was doing. Then I realised that each of his hands was rummaging in the bottom of a separate desk drawer. They emerged – one with a very large bottle of gin, the other with a bottle of Angostura bitters. Heaving himself out of his swivel chair he lumbered across the room to join us.

“I,” He announced, “Shall be Mother.” A lot of saliva shot out on the word ‘shall’. He sloshed half a glass of gin into each tumbler, then a shot of bitters. “Anybody wants (more spittle) water…..?” He nodded toward the pitcher on the table. Mercifully, he let each of us do his own. To cut the almost neat gin, I filled my glass to the brim. It still wasn’t enough. Alex took none. “Chin chin!” Alex raised his glass in a toast as soon as we had all doctored our drinks. “Bottoms up.” He upended his glass and drained it. Out of politeness, I tried, but it took me three swigs to down the bitter, violently aromatic mixture – it was almost like drinking perfume. To make matters worse, there was no ice. In Aden there was never any ice.

After refilling all our glasses, he returned to his desk, taking his with him. “Now,” He said, “About these, um, frequencies….” He rummaged through several of the stacks of fluttering paper on his desktop, finally emerging with the one he sought. “Urgent?” He asked. Ivo nodded. “Only one frequency – 1775 mH. Same as, um, Jeddah and Riyadh airports.” We looked blank. “Interference? Thousand miles away. Not major problem. Yours if you want it.” He spoke in a sort of brisk, verbal shorthand – using a bare minimum of words – as though hoarding the more elegant parts of our language for use elsewhere.

He handed an untidy bundle of papers to Ivo. “Skim. Wallahs’ll prepare, um, something for me to sign.”  A lot of spittle flew on ‘skim’ and ‘sign’. He drained his glass. “C’mon, chaps (more spittle), chin chin!” Reluctantly, we set about draining our glasses. I glanced at my watch. Mercifully, it was nearly lunch time.

For a few minutes we made desultory conversation while his assistant drafted the formal assignment papers. Alex had already refilled our glasses yet again, and had downed his own straight away. The rest of us, already tingling at the extremities from a surfeit of gin, were trying to pretend to drink. Alex was particularly attentive to Martin, youngest of our group, drawing the normally taciturn youngster into the conversation and eliciting from him quite a lot of background information even we didn’t know.

It turned out that Alex was a galloping queer – a long-time resident of the Moslem world by choice because of their casual attitude to homosexuality. He kept a sort of stable of exquisite young Somali houseboys to tend house (and, I assume, perform other services) for him. He had taken a real fancy to young Martin and was to pursue him relentlessly – but in vain – for the next four years.

To make conversation I asked him why he had spoken Urdu to his office wallah. “Oh that!”, He grinned, “You’re, um, perceptive to notice. Thirty years in the, um, NWF46. District Officer. Demobbed in ’50. Independence. Sent here. Brought Abdullah with me. Helps keep me, um, tongues fresh.” It turned out that Alex was fluent in Zaboli Persian, Urdu, Pashtu, two Uighur dialects and Arabic. He had, we later found out, become well-known as a poet in Urdu and had had several works published. It was Alex who first told us about the old Pashtu love song that began, “There’s a boy across the river with a bottom like a peach, but alas I cannot swim.” He was also an Arabist of note, sufficiently fluent to advise imams and mullahs from the local mosques on the finer points on interpretation of the surahs (verses) of the holy Koran.

“Str’ordin’ry, um, craftsmen the Pakis – make firearms out of, um, scrap. Made these,” He added. Putting his fingers into his mouth, he quickly extracted a complete set of false teeth. That explained his speech problem – his teeth were not only false, they were so loose they simply didn’t open when his mouth did. Popping them back in, he continued, “Keep these in a glass of, um, gin beside me bed every night. Drink the, um, gin and pop in the teeth at dawn. Jars the old, um, system awake, I can tell you.” I shuddered at the thought of a stiff pink gin at dawn, but I believed him – I believed him absolutely.

A clock in the hall boomed twelve. “Chaps,” Alex said, “Lunchtime. What say we adjourn to the, um, Victoria for a spot of curry? It’s only just across the, um, maidan.”

The Victoria Restaurant and bar was upstairs above an Indian apothecary shop. Inside, little drifts of rubbish were being shuffled across the splintery wooden floor by the punkahs. Tall French windows were open all along the front, giving access to a wide, covered balcony overlooking the maidan and part of the harbour.  We took a table there by the railing. Even out here there were punkahs, shifting hot damp air slowly from table to table.

The same elegant little Somali presented the menus. Having eaten here before, I unhesitatingly ordered the ‘Ground Nut Curry with Gentlemen’s Accompaniments’. Most of our group followed suit. “Pink gin all round?” It wasn’t a question. Alex raised his arm, index finger pointed upward, and waggled his hand in a circle, “Dubla, dubla minfadlik” (“Double, double, please.”). I really wanted a beer with my curry, and – trying to cancel the gin – I ordered it. I got both. The curry was as good as I remembered it to be. It was fiery enough to require quite a lot of fluid, and those of us who only had gin drank it all. Two or three – including, of course, Alex – had a couple. I drank my beer carefully, having disposed of my gin by surreptitiously upending my glass into the water pitcher. This seemed a good idea until I realised that I had inadvertently spiked my mates’ water supply.

By the end of lunch my extremities were rapidly going numb and my nose tingled – and I was probably the sober one. On our way back to Alex’s office Ivo was distinctly unsteady on his feet and his eyes had gone quite glassy. By the time we had conducted our business, we had consumed two or three more tumblers of almost neat gin and were a lot the worse for wear. Alex seemed entirely unaffected by the enormous amount of alcohol he consumed. Quite a lot of senior British civil servants in Aden were able do this – a skill, I assumed, acquired by long practice. We weren’t. It made it exceedingly difficult for us to get through a full workday sober.

***

Our three o’clock appointment was with a Mr Wilson of the Ministry of Interior – a five minute walk around the corner. After the darkness of McTavish’s office, the sky seemed incandescent. The sun was brilliant, and the hot humid air sticky as a poultice. I had the beginnings of a very considerable headache and the distance seemed much farther than five minutes to me. We were all perspiring like stuck pigs by the time we arrived.

Archie Wilson met us at the door of a uniquely tatty Victorian building known as the ‘Secretariat’, shaking hands with each of us with grave dignity. A tall, cadaverous Englishman, he spoke with an upper-class lisp, enunciating his words carefully with exaggerated lip movements that showed an awful lot of teeth. Nearly six and a half feet tall, and lean to the point of emaciation, he had a wispy corona of grey hair and a remarkably long straight nose down which, because of his imposing height, he seemed always to be looking. His glasses, which he wore almost at the tip of his nose, had little unfashionably round lenses.

He made his greeting into something of a formal statement, “I am quite utterly charmed to meet you chaps.” He wrung each of our hands in both of his. “It is a very great pleasure indeed. Alex just rang through to advise me that you were, as it were, on a ‘collision course’ with this office. You will, I understand, be requiring escorts through the Western Protectorate. I shall, of course, be happy to help in any way I can. Please come through.” He guided us down a tall, narrow hallway (done up in that peculiar double-gloss paint, seen mostly in hospitals, that seems only to accentuate the imperfections in the wall it covers) and up two flights of stairs, then bowed extravagantly, waving us through a tall set of battered double-doors. “Welcome to my world,” He said, “With due apologies to What’s-his-name Reeves.”

Wilson’s office, like McTavish’s, was tall and gloomy with a punkah rustling the papers on his desk. An enormous topographical map of the Federation of South Arabia occupied the Queen’s place on the wall behind it.

Without preamble he presented Ivo with one of the smaller piles of paper on his desk. “Look, especially for Ataq,” He said, “top right-hand corner of the map on page three, as I recall.” Ivo passed some of the papers amongst us. Most of them were maps and we scanned them avidly. These were the places where we were going to work and live – tiny, mysterious nations with the most wonderfully exotic names – al Qasha, Musaimir, Zingibar, Dhala, Qa’iti, Nisab, Beihan al Qasab. And towns – Shuqra, Mafidh, Husn al Ataq, Milh Mqah, Shibam, Seiyun, Bir Asakir – each an oasis set amongst gaunt, sterile mountains or in stony deserts or sand. They were magic, those maps. These were names I couldn’t pronounce of places I couldn’t even imagine. And we were going to all of those places – and soon – the first Europeans to do so in twenty-five years!

“Archie,” Joe asked – like McTavish, Wilson had insisted we be on a first-name basis – I don’t see many roads. Is this route really feasible for Bedfords and Power Wagons?.”

“Well, young man, “Archie replied, “There are hardly any roads anywhere in the Western Protectorate, though there are a couple in the East.” Then, like McTavish, he bent over and began to rummage in his desk drawers. ‘Oh, God,’ I thought, ‘Please not again!’

“The dashed lines,“ He continued, his chin resting on his desktop while both hands scrabbled out of sight, “The ones, there, mostly in blue pencil – are the approximate routes taken by such vehicles as now ply amongst the states of the west.” Because his chin was resting on his desk, his head had to jerk violently up and down for him to enunciate his words. Since I couldn’t actually see his mouth, this made him look like he was chewing on the edge of his desk. I was just drunk enough to get the giggles. Ivo shushed me ferociously. “As to the particulars of your question, the most accurate answer I can give you is ‘I think so’. And that is the official word of HMG. The fact of the matter is, you shall probably have to play it by ear.” Archie was as loquacious as Alex had been taciturn. It was as though he had discovered the cache of words Alex had squirreled away and set out to use them all. He also had a way of deliberately mis-using famous phrases – a sort of Mrs Malaprop of quotations. He gave a smile of triumph and began to straighten up.

“Eureka!” He stood up with a gin bottle in one hand and Angostura bitters in the other. I wondered if these were standard Aden office equipment. (Four years later, having never entered a colonial office without gin and bitters – and having almost never come away sober – I concluded that they were).

“Oh, dear!” He murmured, peering lugubriously at the gin bottle, which was nearly empty, “The flesh, it seems, is willing but the spirits are weak.” He held the bottle out for inspection. “Not to worry. We shall discuss your matters in the Yacht Club yonder” He gestured broadly out the window. “My treat. Mr….um, Felerson, is it?” Ivo nodded, “Yes, Felerson. Bring the papers with you. Come along, all.”

Papers in hand, Archie led us briskly down the street, toward a little triangular building at the far end of the maidan. Originally on the waterfront, the Steamer Point Yacht Club had since been engulfed by a tide of reclamation, and was now stranded, like a beached whale, a hundred yards from the quay on a small traffic island. If the club still had any yachts attached to it, they were moored well out of sight. Shaded verandahs, cantilevered out from its first storey over the footpaths, made the Yacht Club look top-heavy. Like everything else in Aden, it needed a coat of paint.

There was no wind. The harbour, like the sky, was a sort of luminous grey – it could have been a sheet of lead – and everything else shimmered in silhouette. It was unspeakably hot, and the air seemed almost too thick to breathe. Being three parts drunk didn’t help. Saturated with perspiration after our two-hundred yard stroll from Archie’s office, we climbed the stairs, collapsed gratefully into wicker chairs on the seaward verandah and waited for the slow rotation of the punkahs to surround us with someone else’s stale air. The thermometer on the wall read 37oC: humidity must have been at least 95%. A waiter appeared with more pink gins – tall glasses beaded with moisture – several saucers of salt-encrusted sudani and some soggy crisps.

While Ivo pretended to peruse his papers, Archie drained his glass, then reached up and balanced it on his head. “Waled!” he bellowed, “Wahid same again!” (“Boy, One same again”). The glass-on-head trick had become the way to reorder drinks in Aden long before we arrived. We all learned – and used – it from day one.) The waiter whisked the glass off his head and quickly brought a new round of drinks. By now my taste buds were almost as numb as the rest of me, and the aromatic gin – even without any water – went down relatively smoothly. That wasn’t good news: it only meant that another part of my anatomy had gone numb.

“We shall, of course, attend to your particular requirements to the best of our ability,” Archie tried to quickly guide Ivo through the thick folder of papers, leaning over him and mumbling in his ear, marking in the margins for emphasis with a red ball-point pen. Both Archie and Ivo were too drunk for this to work. The intermittent blasts of the punkahs whipped about every third page out of Archie’s hand and away across the verandah. Ivo had lost contact with his fingers and he dropped about half the rest, the sheets sifting slowly down across his lap to the floor. Both Archie and Ivo ignored the missing pages, working their way unsteadily down through what remained of the pile, while the rest of us scrambled to pick up the loose sheets shuffled along the floor by the punkahs. Finally – about three rounds of gin later – they reached the bottom of their abbreviated stack. Whirling his finger above his head, Archie ordered another round of gins.

He leaned forward conspiratorially, “You chaps want to learn a bit of Arabic doggerel verse?” Glassy-eyed, we all nodded uncertainly.

“Wahid whisky, wahid bir, wahid zig-zig, quais kethir.” He grinned broadly. We all looked blank. I was trying to work it out, but I knew hardly any Arabic. I had got to “One whisky, one beer, one – something – something – good”. Ivo tried unsuccessfully to light a cigarette, but he was unable to control both lighter and cigarette at the same time.

“D’you know the Arabic word ‘zig-zig’?” Archie asked. I didn’t, but it didn’t take too much imagination to figure it out.
“Something to do with sex, I’ll wager,” Howard offered.
“It is sex!” Archie replied, “You like my sister?” He mimicked a young boy’s voice, “She give you good zig-zig! Only fifty shillings!”

The whole thing translated as “One whisky, one beer, one piece of ass, very good” (It loses quite a lot in translation). As far as I know, this bit of doggerel verse was original with Archie. Today it is in common use by expatriate communities throughout the Arabic-speaking world.

We all laughed ‘till our faces hurt. It wasn’t so much funny as ridiculous – especially out of context – and we were all drunk as lords by this time. Ivo had given up any pretence of working. He had a problem just remaining upright in his chair. I, too, was having control problems. My problem was navigating to the men’s loo across a floor that seemed to heave and yaw a lot. My nose and ears were quite numb. Howard, glassy-eyed and inert, was nearly stupefied by gin and heat. I looked at my watch. I had to close one eye and squint hard to read it. It was nearly five o’clock. Tree shadows in the maidan were edging toward us and the sun, just settling toward a notch in the mountain, had dropped below the edge of the verandah roof and shone almost directly into our eyes.

“Perhaps we could conclude this matter tomorrow,” Joe offered hopefully. “After all, it‘s nearly five.”  He seemed to be holding his gin better than anyone except – of course – Archie. Ivo looked up, his head wobbling slightly, eyes shining, unfocused. Clearly he wasn’t in any condition to accomplish anything further. Nor were any of the rest of us.

After helping each other down the Yacht Club stairs, we started unsteadily back to the hotel, everyone clutching at least one handful of rumpled damp maps. None of us could walk a straight line. Just keeping to the footpath took all my concentration. My head buzzed and my lower legs seemed to have gone to sleep. Acacia leaves began to rustle as a light onshore breeze set in. Sweat-wet as we all were, the breeze felt wonderfully cooling. The tide had gone out, and the odour of the sea – a rancid smell of dead crabs and iodine – was almost overpowering. Howard was suddenly ill, bending at the waist and puking violently into a straggly oleander bush.  My stomach coiled and heaved in sympathy.

Then Aden gave us one of her peerless sunsets. The whole sky – cloudless and perfectly hemispherical – flared incandescent gold. Just for a moment or two, it was so bright in the west you couldn’t look at it, then all the fire quickly drained away. The brilliant colour faded to brass, then to blue and purple in the wink of an eye, leaving only a thin bright line between sky and earth. A single brilliant spark – Venus, the evening star – appeared, waxing amongst the darkening colours.

I staggered from the lift, crossed the hall, fumbled my door open and fell into bed fully-dressed. I didn’t so much fall asleep as finish passing out. My last conscious thought was ‘Dear God, Please let me die before dawn!’

Nine Days To Mukalla

In Tehran, in mid-1962, shortly after learning of my impending transfer to Mukalla – a place I had never even heard of – I stumbled on an English language book entitled “Nine Days to Mukalla”, by somebody called Frederick Prokosch. Thinking it was a travel book I quickly read it from cover to cover, eager to learn something about my putative home. The book turned out to be a novel – a fairly lurid one at that – but that didn’t worry me unduly. Surely, I thought, the author will have done his research and, at least, I can learn something about the geography of the city. I even took notes. It wasn’t until we actually arrived in the city (which event occurs at the end of this story) that I realised that, not only had Prokosch never been anywhere near Mukalla, but he apparently had never even met anybody who had. Every single fact in his book – except for the fact that Mukalla was a port on the south coast of Arabia – was grossly in error. I have never quite forgotten – or forgiven – Prokosch for his sloppy writing. As it happens, our first trip to Mukalla – the one described below – was to take nine days. It seemed, somehow, only fair that I appropriate the name of Prokosch’s novel and use it for my short story – a sort of ‘poetic justice’. His was the better story, but a least mine describes a real place.

As the crow flies it was four hundred miles from Aden to Mukalla – straight up the coast of the Arabian Sea – but we weren’t trying to be crows. We intended to drive to Mukalla via Wadi Hadhramaut, deep in the interior of southern Arabia.  We had to drive – actually, we had chosen to drive – about twelve hundred miles, and for half of that distance there weren’t any roads. It was November – late autumn in South Arabia.

We had all studied our maps avidly for days. They were magic, those maps. This would be the first time any of us had actually seen the emirates, sultanates and sheikhdoms where we were to live and work for the next four years.

There was a fair chance that our vehicles might not be able to complete the journey. Camel caravans were still the normal means of transport in Southern Arabia, and there weren’t really any roads between Aden and Seiyun. Land Rovers and specially-strengthened trucks had made the journey in the past, but nobody had tried it in the last three or four years. We had two short-wheelbase Land Rovers, a pair of immensely powerful Dodge Power Wagons, and a pair of especially modified Bedford Two Tonners, which carried our escort of Western Protectorate Levies. All of these vehicles carried lots of spare parts, and both we and the WPL had mechanics with us. We carried twelve hundred gallons of drinking water and a thousand gallons of fuel in our power wagons, a four-month supply of essentially imperishable food, and a three-year supply of illegal booze. All of the little states of southern Arabia were officially teetotal, in deference to sharia (religious) law. Consumption of alcohol was “mamnoo’ah” (forbidden). Since this was likely to be the last time we would be able to drive our own vehicles from duty-free Aden directly to Seiyun and Mukalla, we were building up booze stocks for the field offices we intended to open.

Abdullah Hassan al Ja’afar was our camp manager and chief interpreter. Abdullah was what passed for a city boy in South Arabia. Educated at English-medium schools in Aden, he had spent most of his adult life helping young British administrators come to terms with the alien culture they had come to administer. He was not a young man – he admitted to fifty-four years – and his little paunch had a comfortable middle-aged look about it. But his cheeks were well-fleshed and full of colour and, although his hair was thinning on top, his face was cherubic except for smile-wrinkles at the corners of his eyes. I had met his wife and one or two of his grown children. We were to become great friends.

Day 1

There was a stiff breeze off the sea at Khormaksar. Ahead, a long beach swept away toward the sunrise. It was high tide, and breakers hissed and crashed against a line of dunes. Behind the dunes were ranges of almost vertical black mountains. When the tide went out there would be room for our vehicles to pass between the sea and the dunes. It was that or nothing. For the first eighty or so miles, it was the only road there was.

While we were waiting for the tide to recede, Abdullah Hassan introduced me to a young boy – Juma’an – who had sort of ‘attached’ himself to him. About eleven or twelve, Juma’an had a face of classic beauty, pensive and rather sad in repose, but which lit up when he smiled. Antinuous must have looked like him when Hadrian first saw him in the Phrygian woods. Dressed only in a loin-cloth, the boy moved with effortless grace, walking as women walk who have carried vessels on their heads since childhood. I wondered how his smooth, pliant body would bear the rigours of desert life.

The lamentations of sea birds wheeling and crying against the sky punctuated the hiss of our tyres and the thunder of surf. Past the whitewashed tomb – the qubba – that marked the trail to Abyan we could see dark clouds gathering against the mountains. At the village of Shuqra sand dunes sweeping down from the Western Desert set their toes in the sea, and the beach disappeared altogether. Unlikely as it seems, it had been swallowed by the desert. Shuqra was dying among the dunes. The leaves on the date-palms were crisping and shriveled, the fields were each year a bit less fertile and the fishing poorer. Its main street was already knee-deep in sand.

Beyond Shuqra the track turned north into a range of black volcanic peaks and steep boulder-fields, then passed a high, desolate plateau. It was ringed by walls of lava, and a line of absolutely vertical peaks of upended limestone. Nothing – not a single plant – grew anywhere: rocks and dust and sand were all there were. Dusk found us crossing a dark plain, with snaggly little mountains silhouetted against a vast red smear of sunset. As night fell, a half-moon lit the dust plumes behind each vehicle and blurred the dark landscape in a silver mist. Fortress towers reared against the horizon, guarding unseen towns. Our headlamps, refracted through stifling clouds of dust, were almost useless, and we ploughed blindly forward for hours, until at last a row of gleaming windows appeared high above the track. “Here is Mudiyeh,” Abdullah Hassan cried, “Here we will rest this night. The Naib here is my friend.”

As we dismounted, grimy, sweaty and exhausted, we realised that we were in the maidan of a substantial town. To the south rose a cluster of impressive mud houses. East and west of the square were colonnades, and to the north a large whitewashed tower of five or six storeys. The lower floors had no windows – only loopholes for defense – but above, lights gleamed from two or three levels. Armed servants led us – half-blind in the gloom of steep stairways and narrow halls – to a spacious unfurnished room on the fourth floor. “Here you will sleep. Come up, the Naib awaits your presence.”

Never one to disobey armed men, I led the way to the tower above – into a room crammed with overstuffed chairs and little plastic tables. Tiny windows overlooking the town could be closed by heavy shutters, each with a loophole. Tonight they were open admitting a cool night breeze. The Naib – tall, spare, and clean-shaven – had grave dark eyes and a commanding manner. He spoke one word “Affadal.” (“Sit”) and pointed to a corner. I sat.

Chai was brought, spiced with cloves, and as we sipped gratefully, the Naib gradually drew out Abdullah Hassan as to who we were and what we were doing. Then he announced, “You should go and bathe now. You will find a meal waiting when you are finished.” Back in our room we gathered our bedding, set up our cots, then adjourned singly to the bath, only to find, to our amazement and delight, a flush toilet, hand-basin and a cold-water shower.

Refreshed, we were taken up to the roof where servants had laid out a meal on threadbare Persian carpets. There were about fifteen of us in all. As was normal, we sat cross-legged around the edge of the carpet and ate with our fingers. Food was served on large brass trays laid out on the carpet so that each guest could more-or-less reach every dish. Eating Arab-fashion requires practice and – in some cases – strong nerves. Food is picked up and carried to the mouth by the fingers of the right hand. In Moslem countries, where toilet paper is not used, the left hand is used to wipe and/or wash the bottom and, therefore is regarded as unclean. There is a natural desire to use both hands, but using your left is unforgivably gauche anywhere in the Arab world. For things like curry, pieces of nan are torn off and curved between the fingers to form a sort of crude spoon. For the pilafs, rice is pressed together into firm balls and then placed directly in the mouth. There was boiled goat, a savoury pilaf and a shirin (sweet) pilaf, slabs of hot, crisp nan, and fruit and coffee to follow.

During the meal, the Naib seemed intensely interested in young Juma’an, who was curled up at Abdulla Hassan’s side. Eventually, he leaned forward and engaged Abdullah Hassan in conversation – clearly wanting something that Abdullah was loath to give. Abdullah eventually became quite indignant and for a while I thought they were going to have a real argument. But in the end, Arab good manners prevailed. It turned out that the Naib, like many town Arabs, had a penchant for adolescent boys, and, assuming young Juma’an to be a slave, was trying to buy him from Abdullah. He had, Abdullah later said, offered 30,000 EAS (East African Shillings – equivalent to 1,500 pounds sterling). Although slavery had been abolished in the protectorates as early as 1851, it had been legal in Saudi Arabia and Oman at least until 1952. Even when abolished, the abolition specifically did not apply to any existing slaves. Thus, had Juma’an been Saudi or Omani, he was just old enough to have been born – and thus to have remained – a slave, and the purchase might have been legal.

Although Juma’an thought the whole thing enormously funny, he probably really was a bit too pretty for his own good. But as far as I could tell, there was nothing queer about Juma’an – or his relationship with Abdullah – and none of the overtures he received seemed to bother him in the least. He was a cheerful, likeable kid, and he soon became a camp favourite.

Later there was dancing in the street below the palace. Bedouin girls and local lads, whirling and stamping in a circle around a Tilly lamp, raised clouds of dust waist-deep. The lamp uplighting the dust gave a wonderfully theatrical effect – a disc of light pulsing and flickering to the momentum of the dance. The drum rhythms were hypnotic – fast, exotic and syncopated – but the nasal wailing of the bedu flutes nearly did my head in.

Day 2

After breakfast of tea and nan (unleavened bread) with gibna beidha (goat cheese) and onions, we were away north again, ploughing through deep, soft sand in the upper reaches of Wadi Dheiqa. At the watershed we climbed into a wilderness of cliffs and steep gorges – another landscape without vegetation. We lunched amongst fortress towers on the desolate plateau at Mafidh. There, so great was the distrust of neighbour for neighbour that there were no towns. Houses, built at intervals of about fifty yards, were tall slim towers with slit windows and crenellations. Though we caught occasional glimpses of heads through the slits atop three towers, no one came out to greet us as we ate.

Beyond Mafidh the track dropped onto dry, scoured flats at the mouth of Wadi Habban, then climbed to short, steep slopes, and more boulder-fields. The temperature had topped 50oC again. At dusk, having traveled just thirty-two miles, we skirted the town of Habban and dropped down into the headwaters of Wadi Yeshbum. In the wadi, there were date groves – the first green things we had seen for almost two days – and villages and a little clear stream, overhung on either side by thousand-foot cliffs. At about half-past nine, we finally entered the city of Sayeed.

Built on dunes where the wadi enters the Western Desert, Sayeed, capital of the Sheikhdom of Dathina, was a considerable town. The Sheikh had been notified of our arrival and had lent us a house on the outskirts. After setting up our beds and bathing from a stone-lined irrigation reservoir, we proceeded on foot to the palace of the Emir. The whitewashed surface of his vast mud dwelling – six storeys and thirty yards square – glowed in the moonlight. Only two buildings in Sayeed – the Sheikh’s palace and that of the Emir – had electricity. Otherwise, except for a few flickering candles, the town was in darkness.

Dinner, as in Mudiyeh, was boiled goat, pilaf and fruit laid out on trays and served on carpets on the floor. The Emir was immensely fat and hugely funny. Like the Naib of Mudiyeh, he ogled young Juma’an a lot. In his scanty loin-cloth there was a lot of Juma’an to ogle. I wondered why Abdullah didn’t get the kid some decent clothes. The Emir decided that I should be guest of honour – something usually reserved for Abdullah Hassan, who is known by everyone in South Arabia – so I got the sheep’s eyeballs to eat.

Later I had to ask where the toilet was. This turned out to be a huge mistake! I was taken up to the top of the Emir’s house and shown to his “long drop”. My God! Cantilevered off a sixth storey roof, the two-inch thick stone slab was about two feet wide and protruded about three feet beyond the rooftop parapet over the village street below. There was a six-inch hole near the far end. The Emir’s servant withdrew discreetly below stairs, leaving me to “attend to my business” alone. Thankful that it was dark, and being very careful not to look down, I managed to drop my trousers and to back out until I was correctly positioned over the hole. I suffer from acrophobia, and my fingers were cramped and my knuckles white from gripping the edges of the slab. When I finally dared to look down, I saw, to my horror, a sizeable crowd looking back up. I was ‘mooning’ about half of the town from a height of fifty feet. They were standing in a half-circle well clear of my ‘drop-zone’ looking, as it were, up my arse. I tried – really I did – but my pipes just seized up. I was literally scared shitless.

I still needed to go desperately. Finally the Sheikh took pity on me. Taking me to one corner of the fifth floor he showed me to his new indoor flush toilet – virtually identical to the Naib’s in Mudiyeh. He said Howard had asked him not to tell me about it. He thought it a marvelous joke! So do I – now. But at the time……..

When I finally made my way back downstairs, there was a sort of commotion going on. While I was aloft, the Emir had called Juma’an to sit beside him, and had been caressing the boy – in public – in intimate places. What most worried Abdulla Hassan was that – far from trying to escape – Juma’an seemed to be enjoying the Emir’s attentions. Abdullah Hassan had had to take him back to our room in the Sheikh’s palace to avoid a serious confrontation.

***

After that incident – and the one in Mudiyeh – Abdullah Hassan took me aside to discuss Juma’an’s future. He said he’d spoken to the boy, warning him about people like the Naib and the Sheikh. Juma’an’s reply had rattled him considerably. “Oh, I know about that,” Juma’an had replied, “Men did those things a lot to me before, when I am very young – when I am beggar boy.” He grinned, “Actually I don’t mind doing – makes my body feel good and I get some money. But now I have family – you – so not necessary to do those things anymore.”

“I had thought,” Abdullah said,” That Juma’an was an ‘innocent’ who needed to be warned….protected….from sexual predators. Now I don’t know what I should do. It’s hard to predict how a boy, sexually abused as he was from a young age, will grow up. If anything happens to me,” Abdullah said, “I want to make sure somebody takes care of my young friend, so he does not fall back into his old life.” He spread his hands helplessly, “His beauty is a curse. It makes men to lust after him. He is a good boy – of that I am sure, But he is a child with only one talent – pleasing men with sex. I need to train him for some better sort of life. To be a catamite is very sinful.”

Day 3

North of Sayeed the track disappeared into the Ramlat Sabatein – rank upon rank of long, straight sand dunes, advancing in parallel lines toward the cliffs of the Hadhramaut jols. The alignment of the dunes was oblique to the direction of our travel, so we knew we would have to cross several of them. Their average height was on the order of 300 feet.

The landscape – again – was utterly barren. Nothing – absolutely nothing – grew. There wasn’t any road, because the huge shifting dunes buried tracks in a matter of minutes, and traverses were largely a matter of dead-reckoning. Crossing a sand sea – even a small one – is not something you quickly forget. Most of it is bloody hard work, a little bit of it is scary, and part of it is pure exhilaration. All of it is dangerous.

The fun part was getting a really good run across the flats, hitting the base of the dune at sixty mph, and roaring – foot to the floor – up the dip slope. Then, right at the top, a frantic application of brakes. Teetering on the crest – rear wheels dug into the back face, front wheels hanging out over the slip face – was the really scary part. These were the first dunes we had tackled and all of us were frightened to death of slip faces. Looking down from the crest they might as well have been vertical. Then, the slightest nudge on the accelerator. The vehicle tipped forward and careered straight down the steep sand slope, barely under control, tons of sand cascading down behind it. Fifty litres of adrenalin roaring through my system, the wind screaming by my ears, the desert floor came up at me like gangbusters. Then, wheels thumping on the hard flats, I hit the brakes and stopped. A feeling of indescribable exhilaration! I remember two sounds – the hiss of tons of displaced sand sliding down the slip face in my wake, and the thunderous beating of my heart!

But, aside from my glorious first run, we had precious little fun with these dunes. Our heavy vehicles simply couldn’t make it to the top, no matter how good a run-up they got. We heaved and we dug: we pushed and we pulled. We burned out the bearings in two of our winches and snapped three axles before we realised that there simply wasn’t an easy bloody way. So, tired and frustrated, we set out to do it the hard bloody way. I looked at my thermometer. It read 46oC.

We dug our Land Rovers in at intervals up the back-slope and then used them as anchors to winch the power wagons and Bedfords up. The sand had a fierce grip, and none of our winches was powerful enough to pull a Power Wagon both out of the sand and up the slope. So we had to get out our sand-tracks, dig them in under all four wheels of the vehicle and then winch the truck up while its own engine ground it forward to the end of the tracks. There, more often than not, the vehicle would promptly bog down again and the whole process would have to be repeated. Once we got a Power Wagon part of the way up, we could use it as an additional anchor and could then double-winch the following Power Wagon up. There were two major dunes to cross in the first thirty miles. It took us nearly eight hours.

We had been traveling roughly north, paralleling the cliffs of the jol, trusting our guide to lead us to the fortress town of Ataq. He missed it by several miles – Martin spotted its stone towers looming way to the east at the edge of the dunes. At Ataq the government maintained a large mobile force to guard against incursions of Yemeni guerillas. We refueled, dropped off our escort and had chai with n’na (which sounds impossible, but means “mint”) in the officers’ mess. The little town was being slowly engulfed by a huge sand dune. Two of its half-dozen tall earth-coloured towers were already immersed up to the second storey, and a tide of sand was sweeping across the date palm groves. Creeping higher and higher up their trunks, it was drowning them in dryness.

A fantastic sunset caught us just a few miles outside the town. Rainbow bands of colour swept from east to west across the hemisphere of sky. First gold, then orange, then a vivid wash of salmon rushed down across the western horizon. In the east, enormous stars rose against the deeper end of the spectrum, and we set up camp amidst a blaze of gaudy elegance. As we lit our fire, the sky darkened until only a single band of incandescent green burned in the west between the sky and desert. Creamy curves of sand – sensuous and erotic – were silhouetted against it.

Day 4

Beyond Ataq, bare sand plains stretched to the three black ridges of Heid el Milh – literally ‘cliffs of salt’. There had been salt mines here since time immemorial. Our next landmarks, they loomed vague and blue against the northern horizon. Three hours later we were among the peaks and cooling off in the depths of an enormous hand-dug salt pit, having lunch.

After helping a Somali miner load his camels with crude bricks of salt, we set out again across the bleak sandy flats, this time toward a whale-back mountain on the border with Yemen. As we passed it, roaring along six abreast at about sixty mph, three Land Rovers sped out from the shadow of the peak where they had been waiting, and waved us down. As the first drew alongside us, seven barefoot bedu youths in flaming red kuffiyehs and khaki blouses and skirts jumped out and formed a line to present arms. They were our new escort of Hadhramaut Bedouin Legionnaires. From the last vehicle stepped the massive bulk of Jim Ellison, NDPO. He had come from Seiyun to lead our escort in person, because of renewed skirmishing between Hadhramis and Yemenis near the border town of Shabwa, around which he intended that we should detour.

We especially wanted to go to Shabwa because of its historical and biblical associations47, and we told him so. Jim reluctantly said we could try, but not to expect too much. Not only, he said, was there danger from guerillas, but the Shabwans themselves were implacably xenophobic.  Whatever we did in Shabwa, he added, we would have to do pretty damned quickly – before they had registered just who we were. “Don’t, on any account, let the wee lad…….” He gestured at Juma’an…”Out of the vehicle. He’s too pretty by half. Nekkid as he is, he’d just be bugger-bait.”

Shabwa occupied a substantial tel that was almost the only landmark in a gravel plain as barren as the surface of the moon. As towns go, Shabwa wasn’t any great shakes – two or three hundred whitewashed mud huts with grey thatched roofs. In the brilliant desert sun, it looked ruinous – bleached and hollow as old bones.  Looking at the grim, baked landscape that surrounded it – the temperature had just topped 50oC again – I wondered how it survived. We stopped at the well just outside of town. Almost before we got the doors open, a hostile crowd began to assemble. I had time for one quick snap before rocks began to rattle against the sides of the Land Rover and Jim ordered us to “Get the Hell out of here!” We got.

Our detour took us between lopsided dunes in the shadow of Milh Mqah (Salt Mountain), then east to a gap in the cliffs at the western end of Wadi Hadhramaut. Far to the north, across an absolutely desolate plain of sand, we could see the three peaks that mark the last British outpost at Husn Al Abr. We stopped for lunch at the edge of the salt mine and – dangling our feet over the edge of the mine pit – ate cold corn from tins and drank mugs of hot tea.

Picking up something from the ground, Jim turned to me and placed a small metallic thing in my hand. “Ye’d never guess,” he said, “That this was a famous battle-ground, would ye? Biggest fight in South Arabia in over a hundred years.”

I looked down at my hand. In the centre of my palm lay a spent rifle shell – about the calibre, I guessed, of a heavy military rifle – something like the Lee-Enfields the HBL jundies carried. “And this,“ I quipped, indicating the shell, “Shall be a sign unto me……..?”
“Ye bet it’s a sign. One of a very great many. There are thousands and thousands of these scattered all around here – thousands.” He scrabbled about in the gravel near his feet and quickly turned up two more shells.
Intrigued, I dug my hand into the dirt next to my bottom. To my surprise, I, too, turned up a pair of shell casings. “God!” I grinned at him, “There really must be thousands of the damned things. When was this great tamasha?
“About five years ago – winter of 1957, I think. The As Sayaar tribe from the Yemen took exception to our Menhali tribesmen quarrying their salt. After at least a thousand years of peaceful co-existence, they decided they wanted it all for themselves.
And in…yes, I’m sure in was ’57     the two tribes went to war over it. They fought it out just there,” – he indicated the sand and gravel flats west of the mine – plains as flat as a billiard table and utterly without cover. “Nine hundred warriors from the As Sayaar slogged it out with four hundred Menhali for five days at a range of less than two hundred yards. The battle was eventually decided not by tactics, strategy, or even casualties, but by logistics. The As Sayaar, who’d been firing about ten rounds to the Menhali’s one, eventually ran out of ammunition, and had to withdraw, leaving the Manahil in possession of the field. And, of course, of the mine.” Salt Mountain no longer exists. Over the last three thousand or so years, it has been entirely excavated away in the search for salt, and now there is only a large (100 X 50 yards) pit forty or fifty feet deep.

”British military investigators later retrieved over 200,000 spent cartridges – not to mention all the hundreds or thousands they missed.” – he opened his hand to show me six or eight more cartridges he’d scrabbled from the dust while we talked – “And would you believe there was only one casualty? Two hundred thousand cartridges fired and only one man wounded? Hard to imagine, isn’t it? One man wounded – and even he hadn’t actually been shot. He had cut his heel on a sharp rock.”

This, I think, goes a long way to explaining the humiliating Arab defeats in the famous ‘Six-Day War’ in 1967. Arab armies are all noise, bravado and bombast, but for the most part they can’t fight worth a damn. Their idea is to overawe their enemies and make them retreat. Killing, per se, is not at the top of their agenda. The Israelis, on the other hand, fought like Westerners. In other words, they killed first and asked questions afterwards.

We paused at the little HBL fort at Bir Asakir – Soldiers’ Well (‘Bir’ is Arabic for well. ‘Asakir’ is the plural form of ‘Askari’ – ‘soldier’) – just long enough for Jim to give the garrison a quick inspection, but he didn’t want to stop there. We pitched our cots ten kilometres farther down the wadi, at the foot of a conical hill topped by a little abandoned stone fort.  “D’ya ken that wee fort?” Jim asked, waving a meaty hand in its general direction, “Well, about two years since, a chappie saw all th’ caravans passin’ by and decided ‘twas a great chance to levy himsel’ some taxes. He’n two other chappies built yon wee fort and made quite a good thing of it too for a time. These lads,” He indicated our heavily-armed escort, “Got t’ him last year. He’s buried somewhere hereabouts.”

As we sat down to eat, Jim nodded at Juma’an, who was curled up by the fire, his smooth skin glowing like bronze. “Wherever did ye find such an absolutely gorgeous boy?” He asked.
“Juma’an? He came with Abdullah Hassan.” I replied, “He seems to be a sort of ‘dogsbody’.”
“Are you sure there isn’t something more to their relationship than that?”
“Not that I know of…..but, no, I’m not sure.” It occurred to me that I couldn’t possibly be sure. I’d only known Abdullah about three months and Juma’an less than seventy-two hours. I thought about it. Somehow it just didn’t fit what I knew either of the man or of the boy. “I don’t think so, though. Why? Does it matter?”
“No. At least not to me,” Jim replied, “But ye’d best get the lad some clothes before ye get to Seiyun. He’ll have half the men in town pantin’ after him.”

It didn’t matter to me, either. So far I had liked them both enormously. But I had to admit that they were practically inseparable. The closeness of their relationship was to raise quite a lot of eyebrows – and may, in fact, have been the proximal cause of Abdullah’s death three years later.

I had noticed the behaviour of the Naib and the Emir toward Juma’an, and I could appreciate Jim’s concern. I brought the up the matter with Abdullah Hassan before bedtime. Finally he agreed to provide the boy with some clothing. “Anything,“ he said, “we can do to keep men away from him. Something,” he said, ”to cover up more of Juma’an and make him less attractive. Maybe some ill-fitting Western clothing.”

For supper we ate nan provided by Jim and a stew made up of chili, tamales, ravioli, Irish stew and spaghetti from our stores of tinned goods. It wasn’t wonderful, but it sure beat sheep’s eyeballs. We broke into our stores of scotch and all got rather maudlin. It was a memorably beautiful evening. Our bedouin escort sat at their fire singing Arab love songs while a monstrously swollen yellow moon washed the canyon with luminous gold.

Day 5

We were back again in that damned Ramlat Sabatein. The ramlat was shaped something like an axe, with its head out in the Western Desert (where we crossed it the first time) and its handle thrusting down inside Wadi Hadhramaut (where were crossing it now). The dunes gradually grew larger and steeper as we worked our way down Wadi Hadhramaut. Huge cliffs pressed in on us from both sides, and just beyond Houra, we hit a great swatch of soft, rolling sand where we could never get enough of a run at a dune to get even our lightest vehicles over the top. Soon, all seven vehicles were bogged down. Only with everybody pushing were we able, by winching and sand-tracking one vehicle at a time, to get clear. My thermometer read 48oC. It took us about seven hours.

Beyond the raml, the wadi floor was a vast sterile plain of baked clay. We hardly had time to notice, because we were wallowing through feshfesh a yard deep, and engulfed in roiling clouds of something very like talcum powder. It sifted in everywhere, and mixed with sweat to form little rivulets of mud than ran down inside our shirts. There were a hundred or so sets of parallel tyre tracks across the feshfesh where previous drivers had tried to find the most drivable surface, so we could drive anywhere we dared. We fanned out across these tracks to avoid following one another, and roared down the wadi, jolting and banging, dragging spectacular plumes of fine dust behind us.

By evening, we were absolutely exhausted. It had been an awful day. We were dirty and hungry and we itched. On the outskirts of Al Qatn we came upon a grove of date palms – the first living things we had seen since Ataq. Beside them was a large, stone-lined irrigation reservoir – a pool of clear cool water about five feet deep. We stripped off and were in it up to our noses before anyone had even thought of diseases48. It was wonderful. We splashed and made fools of ourselves in front of a growing crowd of perplexed villagers until it got too dark to see. We set up our cots beside the reservoir and our cook, Mohammed, lit the primus to brew coffee. By this time, practically the entire village was gathered around us. An intensely interested audience watched us eat corned beef and creamed corn cold from the tins. They were still there as we crawled into our sleeping bags. They were pleasant and good-natured, these people, and they certainly meant no harm. We were the most exciting thing in their day – probably in their month – the only show in town. But they stood awfully close – Arabs need a little less personal space than Westerners do – and there were lots and lots of them. I finally fell asleep counting stars and trying to ignore the circle of people squatting in companionable silence around us.

Day 6

I awoke to find a pair of elderly Arab faces looking down at me. A sizeable crowd of villagers seemed to have spent the whole night watching us sleep. They stayed to watch us dress, cook breakfast and pack. Shivering, I climbed out of bed in my underwear and splashed icy water from the reservoir on my face, while a couple of young boys amused the crowd by mimicking everything I did. We had to drive a mile or so down the wadi – out of sight of Al Qatn – to find a place to have a quiet morning pee.

The pre-dawn chill lingered deep in the cliff-shadows, and blue mists eddied among the trunks of the date palms. This was the fertile heart of South Arabia. The wadi walls, about two thousand feet high, were four or five miles apart. Around the little villages were orchards of papaya and banana, groves of date and betel palms and fields of ripening grain. Little channels of clear water crossed and recrossed the track. And there were people – farmers ploughing with bullocks or camels, children playing with hoops in the dust, boys tending flocks of goats, donkey carts with tall creaking wheels, camels with improbably huge loads of thorn branches, and women in dark purdah – like black Daleks – carrying tall jugs of water on their heads.

Beyond Al Qatn we saw our first siqayas, the system of water supply for travelers in the wadis of the Hadhramaut. Siqayas are small structures, about three feet square and five to seven feet high, covered with a domed roof and brightly whitewashed. Inside the siqaya is a shallow earthenware basin filled with water. In the wall above the basin is kept a drinking mug – formerly, I believe, of wood, but these days usually of tin – which the traveler dips into the water to quench his thirst. Assistance to travelers is enjoined upon Moslems as a religious duty, and to this the siqayas owe both their existence and their regular replenishment. It is a meritorious act to provide in one’s last will and testament for the erection of a siqaya and its daily filling with water. They are only found in places where travelers regularly pass. Since they have to be filled daily, one finds them only in inhabited regions – which is, of course, not where they are most needed.

The city of Shibam stood on a rectangular tel about two hundred by three hundred yards. Within its walls it contained some of the tallest mud buildings in the world. The outermost row of towers – fifteen or twenty of them on each face – rose eighty or a hundred feet above the valley floor. The upper floors of most towers were plastered or whitewashed, and some had windows elaborately decorated with gypsum fretwork above rows of loopholes on the unplastered lower floors.

Over the centuries, houses and byres had accreted, like coral growths, against the outside of the city wall – larger buildings had actually incorporated it within their fabric – blurring its linearity and obscuring its angles. Because of the structural limitations of rammed earth, the tower walls are much thicker (up to eight or ten feet) at ground level than on the ninth floor (only about a foot). So the walls of these towers slope inward, the top of the building being several feet narrower than the base. A few buildings gleamed with new whitewash, but most were visibly crumbling, and the outer skin of one tower had collapsed into a cone of debris exposing a honeycomb of little rooms above. Gradually over time, the soft undulant lines of erosion had come to predominate in Shibam, making the city seem somehow organic, as though it had been thrust up through the floor of the wadi – its face a great cliff split with gullies, the darkly shuttered windows the burrows of some gigantic species of bird.

Just outside the city were two wells, where flocks came to drink. A single narrow street cut straight through the city from west to east. Up the causeway we entered the city through the west gate and passed through the town, driving straight into the sunrise. At first the street was a dark slot between brown towers. There were cords stretched across the street between many buildings at about an eighth or tenth storey level. By this means the occupants were able to exchange food, tobacco and other things, without the inconvenience of walking up and down innumerable stairs when they wanted to borrow anything. In the city centre was a small maidan – a square of beaten earth about thirty by fory yards – where the tall towers looked down on the small domed tomb – a ‘qubba’ – of a Moslem saint, the mud benches of a deserted souk and a mosque.

Leaving the maidan, we found ourselves in what passed for rush-hour in Shibam – a mass of camels, yoked oxen, tall creaking donkey carts, farmers with mattocks and hoes, small boys with sticks smacking at the rumps of flocks of fat-tail sheep and goats, and women and girls on their way to the wells carrying tall water jugs. We fell into line and they accepted our presence good-naturedly. The sun was rising directly ahead of us and brilliant light exploded upward into our eyes. The canyon of air over little street was filled with feshfesh dust. Refracting and reflecting the light, it gave the air such substance it seemed as thick as custard. Everyone ahead of us was in silhouette, with brilliant shafts of buttery light flickering amongst shadow people and animals. The street behind us was swallowed up in a cloud of dust; the brown scene vanished in the way chalk vanishes when you wipe a blackboard with a dry sponge.

As we drove away, the city shrank back into the vastness of the wadi. The hundred-foot towers that had looked so enormous from the well, could again be seen in their proper perspective – a child’s sand castle under immense cliffs in a landscape scaled for titans. From five kilometres away, the city looked like a badly-iced sponge cake.

Between Shibam and Seiyun, in the narrow tracks between the cultivated fields, the feshfesh was deep and the substrate violently uneven. Ten mph was a good speed there and we had to drive single-file and eat each other’s dust. It took more than two hours to make the twenty miles from Shibam to Seiyun. Two years later, in 1964, a hand-laid cobblestone road replaced this track. It cut travel time to fifteen minutes.

What with the dust and all, we never really saw Seiyun coming. Brick by brick, the city gathered up its skirts from the fields – rising from irrigation bunds to low mud walls, then to walls head-high – one on each side of the road. Crops, too, grew taller – barley and millet gave way to maize and then to orchards and groves of tall date palms. Walls linked houses to houses – singly or in small groups – windowless mud brick cubes with barrel-vaulted roofs – many wearing rakish haystack hats. Goats and chickens skittered out of our way, and fat-tailed sheep tried to stare us down, with their pale vacant eyes. A group of women in dark burkas squatted beside a watercourse, beating their laundry on rocks. Except for them, everything was beige – the colour of dust. Blank wooden gates pierced the walls, and the road was featureless as a ditch. The houses drew closer together and became larger, growing higher toward the town centre.

Seiyun had twice as many people as Shibam, but it occupied ten times the space. Random urban skeins had unraveled outward, diminishing slowly across the rural landscape. Orchards and paddocks extended inward almost to the city centre and there were tall houses in isolated clusters amongst the date groves. There were no streets – just unimproved lanes around groups of houses, or gaps between garden and orchard walls wide enough for vehicles. The city was cut by half-a-dozen dry watercourses where no one had built, and these had become the main arteries of transport. They were mostly filled with soft sand, and – aside from camel and donkey-drawn carts – only four-wheel-drive vehicles were able to traverse them. Infrequent but devastating floods swept down these watercourses. We were to see what one of these could do three years later.

The city was dominated by the huge white ziggurat of the sultan’s palace. We entered by the west gate at dusk and roared across the maidan – an irregular area of beaten earth of about four or five acres in front of the palace. An arcade along two sides of it was the centre of a thriving souk, which spilled out into the maidan.

Hardware, woven baskets and clothing were spread in heaps on the ground on threadbare rugs. There were sacks of wheat and sugar, and packets of tea and bitter Moccha coffee from the Yemen. Men in gallabiyas and futahs bargained with bare-chested bedu. A pair of women in dark burkas, black veils and straw witches’ hats haggled over aubergines in a vegetable stall. Arabic pop and classical music from four or five radio stations competed and blared through the bustle and dust. There were chickens underfoot, and pie-dogs, and flocks of goats and sheep. Black-robes, fat turbans and long grey beards identified a group of mullahs arguing with a qat seller, sampling his bundles of leafy green twigs.

A flock of young camels, tethered nose-to-nose for auction, belched and gargled anxiously. Young girls dashed past in a kaleidoscope of colours, then stopped to browse and giggle at a row of little rickety glass cases where jewelers sold gold and silver bangles. Swerving and whistling, cyclists careered through the crowd. There was a qaweh khaneh (‘coffee house’) – a couple of tables, a few chairs and a samovar – under a tatty awning outside the palace gate. It called itself “The Intarnashonal Hotel”. Elderly men sat on its benches sipping little glasses of chai and taking turn about on a qalion.

Abdullah Hassan made us stop in the souk long enough to buy some clothing for Juma’an. Over the boy’s objections, Abdullah bought him a pair of second-hand trousers, underpants, a shirt and a lightweight pullover. He put them on on the spot. Nothing fit very well – the trousers were tight and too short and the pullover too long in the sleeves, but at least, as Jim observed, they covered him up decently. Almost too decently, I thought. Instead of a young Adonis, Juma’an suddenly looked a bit like one of the beggar boys in Crater.

We had made arrangements for accommodation with a local merchant, Ahmed Yussef Sharif. He was hoping to rent us the only building in the wadi with a flush toilet. We slept in his house that night. In the back of the beaten-earth compound there was an octagonal irrigation reservoir twenty feet in diameter, the rim of which stood about four feet above ground level. We all left a trail of clothing across the compound as we raced to be first in. We had a quick meal (on a real table), a half-way decent shower, and a few drinks with Jim Ellison. Then we fell into real beds for the first time in more than a week. It was all wonderful. We rented the house on the spot. We decided to spend the next day in Seiyun, making a courtesy call on the sultan, refilling our water tanks and hammering the worst of the dents out of the aluminium skins of our Land Rovers.

Day 7

From the roof of our new house, there was a magnificent view of the big oasis surrounding the town, and beyond to the mountains of Jebel Gedarr and Jebel Gobbel. The houses were less impressive than at Shibam, but better maintained. Few were more than three storeys high, but some of them were plentifully embellished with elaborate, mostly abstract, decorations. Far more than at Shibam, the oasis dominated the view: it even extended in between the outer houses, breaking up the town.

I was up before dawn and went for a walk. The little city glowed in the pale sunlight and cooking smoke wavered in ethereal towers. The calls of the muezzins lingered among the minarets. Somewhere a camel grumbled. A boy warbled past, scattering notes from a reed flute, and three small girls, two in black purdah, the third in red, chattered past, laughing. Four small black stone-laden donkeys were maneuvered across a courtyard by a yawning maqqani, whistling and clicking directions and scratching himself absently.

A fine veil of haze drew about the horizon, accentuating the flawless blue of the sky. There were more sounds – the shouts of boys playing football on the plains behind the house. I could see them, ant-like, but too quick for ants, laughing and falling. A woman passed, following her long angular shadow, balancing a fine earthen jug on her head. Shutters opened one by one, and the houses looked less empty. Laundry fluttered from fretted balconies, and chickens deployed themselves across the maidan near the souk. The guards at the palace gate self-consciously adjusted their futahs, rubbing the sleep-wrinkles from their cheeks with the backs of their hands. Two small girls were leading a goat across the maidan. They had no rope, so each one grasped a horn. The goat was amenable enough but it was frightened of the sudden jerks and tugs – sometimes in opposite directions. It stumbled often and the girls had to realign themselves, and so their progress was erratic. Camels from a just-unloaded caravan, rested comfortably in the sun, gazing about like somnolent tourists.

We were to live in Seiyun off and on for four years, and I remember it as a place of peace and silence and calm – a place where we could unwind our mental springs and forget about the terror in Aden and the ambushes set for us in the desert by hostile bedu. I used often to take these morning strolls, and sometimes I would meet the sultan – also a great walker – who would greet me with polite gravity. Life was slow and unhurried, and the sun always seemed to shine more gently there. I know these to be selective memories. Seiyun was by no means all peaches and cream. We were set upon more than once by mobs, and our compound was largely destroyed – with us inside it – in the riots of 1966. But I still remember the little Kathiri capital with great fondness.

Day 8

We rattled and banged between date groves through feshfesh to the airstrip at Ghuraf, then turned south where a real road – a forty-mile stretch of hand-laid cobblestones – began. It followed the gradually ascending floor of a tributary of Wadi Hadhramaut for some miles, then climbed the cliffs on a dizzy set of narrow ledges up and out onto the Southern Jol.

The Southern Jol is a vast plateau reaching from Wadi Hadhramaut almost to the sea behind Ash Shihr. It is four hundred miles long and a hundred wide. Comprised of a single thick slab of hard limestone, it is as barren as the surface of Mars. Seamed and incised with wadis, its expanse of tan, brown and fawn rock tilts gradually up to the south for a hundred miles. Then, at Aqaba Maadi the road drops almost three thousand feet into the mile-wide Wadi Maadi.

Differential weathering had corroded the surface of the jol to form a sea of little spikes and boulders, which stretched to the horizon. There wasn’t really any road – just lots of faint sets of tracks heading south – because no route was any better or worse than any other. All were terrible. There was nothing technically difficult about traversing this vast plain, except that it was murder on tyres and suspensions. Our speed seldom exceeded ten mph and the discomfort was incredible. At the end of a day of it – and it took a whole day to cross it – our heads and spines had been jerked, banged and vibrated almost beyond the threshold of pain.

We had just started down the cliffs at sunset when one of our vehicles snapped an axle. It was too dark to effect repairs, so we camped half way down the cliffs at the edge of a breath-taking, swooping precipice above the oasis of Ghayl Ba Wazir. Behind us the hills slanted slowly up to the great jol. Below us, spires and turrets of limestone fell away toward the Arabian Sea. The palms and corn fields in the oasis – like green beads on a necklace – stretched up a long narrow valley, with ochre villages perched protectively on nearby hills. Cloud shadows grazed across the sterile plains, and far to the west the pale towers of Ash Shihr gleamed against a sunset sea luminous as mercury.

Day 9

It took all morning to repair the vehicle – the snapped axle was the least of its problems – so I decided to walk down the camel trail to the oasis below where the tops of coconut palms showed above the rocks. I walked alone down the trail to the oasis below and up the twisted valley where a spring gushes from a cleft in the cliffs. Carefully guided from terrace to terrace, this flow has nourished a microcosm of paradise in this desolate landscape. I trudged up the little valley, threading my way past enormous polished boulders and jumping stagnant pools arrowed by fleeing frogs. Date and coconut palms49 crossed fronds over the path and latticed silver diamonds of sky. Damp moss squelched underfoot. Cotton trees glowed in the patchwork sunlight.

I heard the clatter of falling water, and the laughter and shrieks of children at play. Rounding a last smooth wall of rock, I found myself at the spring. A smooth cliff of glowing stone rose abruptly above the valley floor, split by a single angling cleft where water leapt clear of the wall and into a shaft of sun. Below lay a great dark pool of green water, rimmed by giant boulders, with spears of reeds and stalagmites of moss rising from the bottom. Four towering coconut palms leaned together across the pool, drooping tresses of vine over the water, and a row of slender betel palms rustled and rattled beside a mossy stream. A group of small boys was doing cannonballs into the pool, splashing an old washerwoman kneeling beside the pool. The old woman screamed and threatened to no avail, as she retreated, half-drenched, from her laundry. On the other bank, an old man sat against a stone, surrounded by a half-circle of teen-age boys.

This tableau froze as I appeared – all eyes turned toward me – only the frogs in the pool, not realising in their dim way that their terror was over, still darted frantically from rock to rock. As I stood, hesitant, beside the pool, the old man rose, smiled, and beckoned to me. “Ahlan wa sahlan!” He called, “Welcome” as I picked my way across to the boulders where he sat. “Ismak?”, he asked (“Your Name?”). He seemed to realise that my Arabic was, at best, rudimentary, and limited his conversation to single words. “Gail”, I replied, giving it the guttural Arabic pronunciation “Ghayl”.

His eyes widened. He beamed, then laughed aloud, revealing a red mouth of betel-stained teeth, “Ghayl! Ghayl! Ghayl!, Ha Hoooo Hooo! Ismi Del Abed!” (“My name is Del Abd”), “Ghayl, Del Abd! Haa Hee Hee!” He leaned forward and said something to the kids around him. The boys instantly joined in his laughter and, although I failed to see anything particularly funny, their laughter was so infectious I soon found myself laughing as hard as the rest. Del Abd quickly noticed that I hadn’t got the joke.

“Affadal” (Sit), “I will explain,” Del Abd gestured me to a stone. “Hinna Ghayl,” he patted my knee. (“This place is Ghayl”), “Ghayl ba Wazir“. I, of course, already knew this – I had read the village’s name on the map. But I managed to look surprised.

“Enti Ghayl. Hinna Ghayl” (You are Ghayl. This place is Ghayl). The similarity of its name to my name, however, had previously escaped me. This time my look of surprise was real. “Enti Ghayl ba Wazir” (“You are ‘Ghayl Ba Wazir”). He roared with laughter, pounding my back with his fist, and the boys all cheered and clapped. I was quite unreasonably pleased. “We will call you ‘Ba Wazir’”. I felt as though I’d won something – like Del Abd had awarded me a prize. Well, maybe he had.

Del Abd’s name reminded me of something. ‘Abd’ means ‘slave’ in Arabic and is a common part of men’s’ names – as in Abdullah (Slave of God), Abdulqadir (Slave of the Merciful), Abdulmejid (Slave of the Teacher) – all meaning ‘the slave of God (Allah, in Arabic). God, according to myth, has one hundred names, three of which are listed above. Moslems know ninety-nine of these names. Only the camel knows the one hundredth name. This is why the camel wears such a supercilious look on his face.

“Salim!” he gestured imperiously to one of the boys and spouted a torrent of Arabic. One of the boys quite literally leapt up the trunk of the nearest coconut tree.  He simply walked up the almost vertical trunk on all fours, holding with fingertips and toes. Reaching the top, he settled himself amongst the branches, and coconuts began to rain down. “Bas, Bas!!” (Enough), the old man screamed, “Bas, Bas!!” Finally, apparently feeling that his prowess was sufficiently demonstrated, Salim descended and rejoined the circle. The coconuts were passed around and the boys took out their hook-pointed jambiers and began to remove the heavy green husks. As they worked, they chattered and laughed among themselves, smiling and casting coquettish glances at me.

The husks removed, they deftly topped the nuts, leaving the stem as a sort of handle. Offering me one of the crude cups, brim full of translucent milk, old Del Abd raised his cup and solemnly intoned, “Bismillah (God be with you) Ba Wazir” and we all drank. By some natural magic the milk was cool and after a morning of hard climbing with no water, a wonderful tonic.

The little boys had gone back to their swimming, and the old woman, still wary, was left undisturbed to beat her laundry against the rocks beside the pool. The sun hung just over a notch in the mountains behind us, and long undulating bars of shadow lay across the water. A breeze sprang up from the valley and the fronds overhead rustled. With gestures, I asked whether the betel palms – trees with impossibly tall slender trunks – were, in fact, just young coconuts (I hadn’t then learned the difference).

“Abdullah!” again Del Abd gestured.  Another boy sprang up onto one of the slender trunks. Like a monkey he scampered up about thirty feet, then braced himself and jumped across to another trunk and clambered up another ten feet or so, the slim trunk leaning far out of the perpendicular beneath his weight. Then he leapt again – and again – from tree to tree! None of the trees could bear his weight for long, and they swayed and bent like whips. He was like some forest sprite, slim and brown and agile – leaping and balancing and leaping again. At last he reached the top of one tree and rode it nearly to the ground. Seizing a handful of the yellow, date-sized fruit, he slipped off just before the tree rebounded upward, landing neatly on his feet. He ran back and stood before us, panting and perspiring, but grinning – obviously quite pleased with himself.

“Tayib! Tammam Jib’al”, I muttered almost under my breath, rather afraid that my atrocious Arabic might not mean what I thought it meant (Good. Everything’s great) and hoping that if I muttered nobody could be sure just what I had said, “Tayib.” Abdullah beamed, salaamed deeply, then whipped off his futah and threw himself into the pool in a flat dive, scattering a flotilla of somnolent frogs and re-inundating the old lady.  After a single irate moan, she spat, “Allahu Akbar!”, gathered up her still unfinished washing, and stalked off down the path, her damp clothing slapping wetly against the rocks

Abdullah returned, handed the wet nuts to Del Abd (who promptly began cracking them with his teeth) and sat down, still naked, to dry off. He looked so obviously cool that all the boys promptly shucked their futahs and jumped into the pool. They laughed and splashed and ducked one another with great glee as old Del Abd finished cracking the nuts, then reached into a fold of his futah and withdrew a roll of kola leaf and a canister of what I later found was lime paste.

Del Abd finished rolling the leaves, lathering them in the lime paste, bit off a chunk of betel nut, inserted it with a flourish and handed it to me.

Luckily, I still remembered from India how the stuff must be chewed.  If it is chewed too fast, you swallow some and become violently ill; if too slowly, the lime paste will burn off half the skin in your mouth. My memory seemed to pay off. As I chewed and spat redly without apparent discomfort, young Abdullah touched my shoulder, “Tayib! Tammam Jib’an Ata’alim” (Good, very fine. You are learning). So my Arabic had been right after all – he had praised me with the same words I had earlier used to him. Enough rolls were completed for everyone, and for some time we chewed and spat in companionable silence (it is rather difficult to talk and chew betel nut at the same time – not only does it make you salivate until you nearly drool, but it also partially paralyses the tongue). Then Selim fetched another round of coconuts, and we all drank. The boys’ bodies had, by now, dried; but none chose to get dressed. Instead, each took up his futah and wrapped it, turban fashion, around his head.

Following this, with much goading, I tried climbing one of the palms, managing to reach the dizzying height of ten feet before I lost my grip and fell heavily into a flooded terrace. So it was that I made my departure, muddy and dripping, laden with half-a-dozen coconuts strung on ropes across my shoulder, and escorted by a garrulous old man and a dozen naked boys wearing their clothes on their heads.

When I turned to the path back up the cliffs, Del Abd waved and called out, “Ma salaama Ba Wazir, Ma salaama”, (‘Goodbye’ – literally, ‘with peace’). Even after he and the boys had disappeared around a corner I could still them chanting “Ma salaama, Ghayl Ba Wazir, Ma salaama, Ghayl Ba Wazir”.

Back in camp I told Howard and Martin about the curious coincidence of finding an oasis called “Ghayl”, and related some of Del Abd’s conversation – especially the bit about “Ghayl Ba Wazir”. Howard’s eye brightened immediately, “Well,” He said, “If they can call you ‘Ba Wazir”, we can go them one better. Remember ‘Lawrence of Arabia’? Why can’t you be ‘Ba Wazir of the Hadhramaut’? It’s got a really good ring about it.”

He grinned, stood and raised his coffee cup as for a toast. Martin and Joe joined him, raising their cups. “To ‘Ba Wazir Of the Hadhramaut’,” Joe got the giggles, “And ‘Ba Wazir of the Hadhramaut’ you shall be”. And ‘Ba Wazir of the Hadhramaut’ (‘Ba Wazir al Hadhrami’ in Arabic) I became. As soon as Ahmed and Abdulqadir had been told the story, they relayed it to our HBL troops, and before we went to bed, the young bedu soldiers were already addressing me as ‘Ba Wazir’. It caught on, and after a few weeks everyone called me ‘Ba Wazir’. I liked the sound of it. I still do.

Howard himself later earned an Arabic nickname. He had grown a formidable beard over his months in the field, and the bedu called him “Abu Duqn” (the father of beards”).

***

It was late afternoon by the time we left Ghayl Ba Wazir, juddering west along a wash-boarded gravel road, dragging pillars and clouds of dust into the gathering twilight. Against a flaming sunset, the fortress towers of Al Hibs and Ash Shihr loomed huge and vague behind veils of incandescent dust. We stopped for tea with the officers of the little RAF outpost at Riyan. There were eight or nine young Brits there, sort of ‘camping-out’ in half-a-dozen Nissen huts beside a dirt airstrip. It was incredibly hot in the mess. The ceiling punkahs gave hardly any relief – they only redistributed the humid air inside. No planes were based at Riyan. The young soldiers were mostly air-traffic controllers whose main job was to man the corrugated iron control tower. Aside from the occasional RAF Bristol freighter bound from Aden to Salalah in Dhofar, the only traffic was the twice-weekly Aden Air Dakota bound to and from Ghuraf, which always stopped to refuel, and would pick up and drop off passengers. Riyan was a “post of extreme hardship”, and they were rotated out of Khormaksar in Aden to serve six-week tours of duty – and they had a huge supply of duty-free booze. Though our intentions were honourable – we actually did stop only for tea – they insisted we stay for dinner. When we discovered their booze supply, we all got mildly tiddly in the Officers’ Mess.

West of Riyan was a range of steep-sided little mountains. They had black cliffs that swallowed all the light from our headlamps, and we seemed to be driving blind as the road switched back and forth across them. To make matters worse, we found ourselves entangled with a large flock of fat-tailed sheep – preposterous beasts that looked not like sheep, but like small-headed beetles stuck onto very long legs. The name describes their enormous tails, perhaps eighteen inches across and shaped like a thick round cushion three inches thick covered with wool. Rich in accumulated lanolin, the grotesque afterpieces served the same functions as the camel’s humps: in good times they stored food which in bad times they fed back to the sheep. The tails swung from front to back when the sheep moved, seeming to ‘goose’ the animals on their way, so that they walked in a series of little jerks. I supposed that was why their boney black faces always wore looks of faint apprehension. As I sat watching the huge bustles bounce up and down I speculated on how the beasts managed to copulate. To this day I don’t know.

The actual road ended in the date groves at Buqayrayn, three miles from Mukalla. Turning left, we ploughed through deep, soft sand down the gorge of Wadi Wasit to the coast. There, beside the sea, we found Mukalla. We arrived just after 9 PM and the city gate was shut and locked.

Mukalla was technically a walled city, but it relied mostly on the thousand-foot cliffs of Qarat al Mukalla – the mountain behind it – for protection. The city wall was more formality than fortification. Fifteen feet high and made of whitewashed mud plaster with neither loopholes nor machicolations, it extended only from the mountain to the sea – a distance of less than two hundred yards. In the middle of this wall was a sort of bastion – a white-plastered cube pierced by a single arch with double wooden gates on both inner and outer faces. Three of the doors were still in place, held together by rusting iron studs, but one of them had come adrift from its top hinge and leaned out over the roadway. Still, the remaining functioning pair was closed and bolted at sunset each day. We arrived at Mukalla just after dark only to find the city gate shut and locked.

Several caravans were waiting to enter the city at dawn. Their camels had been unloaded, and the drivers were chatting or sleeping around little fires. Belching and roaring, the hobbled camels50 lurched and staggered amongst the fires, casting long spidery shadows. We soon convinced a guard to let us in. We were, we said, to be guests of the sultan, and we were expected. Somebody would have had left instructions, we insisted. Nobody had, but the guards let us in anyway.

A pair of vast mock-Georgian mud buildings – the Sultan’s palace on the right and the Residency on the left – faced each other just inside the city wall. The town was so narrow here at its western extremity that the grounds of the palace backed onto the beach and those of the residency onto the slopes of Qarat al Mukalla. The royal guesthouse – where we stayed for the first couple of weeks – was within the grounds of the Residency. It had about a dozen Spartan bedrooms and a dirt-floored parlour sparsely furnished with overstuffed couches that puffed clouds of dust when anyone sat down. Illustrated quotations from the Koran hung from the walls in dusty gilt frames. Overhead was a blue, white and purple chandelier eight or ten feet across which looked like a porcelain octopus. Only one of its eight bulbs actually worked.

A western-style bathroom had been installed in 1901 especially for the visit of a minor female member of the British aristocracy. It consisted of a tiled room with a shower rose in the middle of the ceiling. In the room overhead was a barrel – filled manually with warm/hot/cold water as required – which connected directly with the shower rose. The installation was a model of simplicity. There were no valves or controls – nothing but a peephole in the bathroom ceiling beside the shower rose. The peephole had been cut so that the operator upstairs could look down into the bathroom. That way he would know when to pour water into the tank. As far as we could discover, the aristocratic guest never knew of this curious arrangement. We only found out because when we were showering the moiya-wallah, pouring water into the tank upstairs, would chat to us through the hole.

There were, unfortunately, other guests – hundreds and hundreds of voracious bedbugs – in the Sultan’s guesthouse. By the middle of the first night we were all awake and scratching. And cursing in several languages. Only Joe was able to make light of it – he was able to make light of anything. “Someday,” He said, “We’ll look back on all this and we’ll laugh.”

Yeah, well maybe. At the time, nobody seemed to take much note of his remark, but, as events were eventually to prove, we all remembered what he’d said.

Alf Layla Wa Layla51

Next morning I climbed up to the roof to take a look at our new home. I’d thought Mukalla might be an anticlimax after the long trip. It wasn’t. The first thing I noticed was the spectacular theatricality of its setting. A mountain – Jebel Qarat al Mukalla – rose a thousand metres almost directly from the Gulf of Aden, its ramps of tawny sandstone tapering back above black cliffs. The city of Mukalla was squeezed onto a narrow ledge between the mountain and the Gulf of Aden – a vast expanse of cobalt-coloured sea streaked with silver. About two miles long, the town was nowhere more than a couple of hundred yards wide. On the south side of the town, stone buildings rose directly from the sea. On the landward side, whitewashed towers extended up the scree-slopes as far as the lowest cliffs. There were three or four mosques, each with a tapering cylindrical minaret, but most of the buildings were simple square towers of different heights with rows and rows of shuttered windows. They had all been mud-plastered and whitewashed, but patches of white had fallen away to expose the mud underneath. From a distance the dark scars looked like holes. This made the whole town look sort of porous, as though it was made of sponge.

At the east end of town a knuckle of black volcanic rock – connected to the mainland by a sand spit – gave shelter from the prevailing wind during the southeast monsoon. The municipal government offices were out there, located in a vast, crumbling mud palace that looked like an old sand castle.

A crooked stone mole extended from the side of the headland just below the qadi’s office to enclose a shallow basin where small boats could shelter. Dhows stood offshore and freight was ferried ashore by bum-boats and lighters. Between high and low tide marks, dhows under repair were propped stern-to on thickets of poles, exposing their steeply raked poops. Flocks of sheep or goats, waiting to be ferried offshore, sheltered in the shadows of their high square sterns.

The main catch of the local fishermen was shark, and the beach fronting the town was used to dry them. Most days, thousands of shark carcasses would be drying there. During the southwest monsoon the stench of rotting fish permeated every corner of the town, and the flies in the souk were unbearable. The local Arabs had long since given up trying to do anything about them. Many had fly whisks made of camel tail-hairs, which they flicked languidly about their faces, but kids always had flies clustered around their eyes and mouths – attracted, I guess, by the moisture – and, in general, they simply ignored them. Eye diseases, especially trachoma, were endemic, and lots of locals were blind in at least one eye.

Almost none of the houses had even rudimentary toilet facilities. There were a few long drops and that was it. They didn’t need a sewage system – so the qadi (mayor) explained to me – they had the sea. Everybody did his or her business outdoors. Each morning the men of the town would defecate squatting in companionable groups along the beach between high and low tide marks. They would greet each other gravely, “Shiftum?” (”Has it moved?”) and reply, “Shiftum Allah” (“God has moved it.”). The expectation, I guess, was that at high tide, the sea would carry their excreta away. But in practice, the strand line was almost always marked by lots of little piles of shit. Ladies, I understand, had their own beach.

On the east side of the sand spit was the cemetery – so full that the dead already lay buried three-deep. A high stone wall had had to be built up to contain it. An elegant two-storey arcade, built against the cemetery wall, was the centre of a thriving souk, which spilled westward out into the maidan and across it to the beach.

It was the only place in town that seemed to ever be crowded. By day it was sort of a food market. Under a cascade of tatty awnings were heaps of desiccated-looking vegetables, and eviscerated goats swinging slowly on brass hooks. In the evening, food-stalls would appear along the beach – rows of rickety little tables and cauldrons of boiling fat. They sold mostly Arabic ‘junk food’ – samosas (triangular pastry envelopes filled with spicy meat and/or vegetables, and deep-fried), spiced fish cakes, and battered chili peppers so hot the fumes alone could seriously damage your nose.

There was only one street in Mukalla. There were lots of crooked little lanes about as wide as a laden donkey, but only one street. Known as ‘New Road’, it extended from the qadi’s office at one end of town, to the city gate at the other. There were no footpaths, no gutters – no anything. The street, a tawny sea of dust, lapped against the feet of the buildings along it on both sides.

There were lots of pedestrians – kids in futahs and bright shirts rolling hoops and playing ball in the dust, and a scattering of adults in gallabiyas and burkas, the latter floating like Daleks on invisible feet – and cyclists, and flocks of sheep and goats on their way to the port. But not a lot of wheeled traffic – donkey carts, a few Land Rovers, an old Bedford lorry, and two or three little Fiat cabs.

The little cabs were a surprise. Mukalla seemed neither large enough nor modern enough to have cabs. They weren’t anything fancy – no top light or anything, just a sign saying “TAXI” painted on the doors. Then I noticed that the word painted on their doors wasn’t actually “TAXI”. It was “IXAT”. I looked at three or four of them, and they were all “IXATs”. It turned out that a local entrepreneur had been much taken with the taxi service in Aden. Not slow to recognise a new business opportunity, he had imported the Fiats and set up a service in Mukalla. In Aden he had bought a “TAXI” stencil, which he brought back with him, and he had hired a local plasterer to transfer the word onto the cars themselves. Since neither plasterer nor owner could read English, neither of them was aware that he had painted the signs with the stencils back-to-front. Nobody else seemed to notice either – or maybe it was just that nobody much cared.

***

The number of foreigners in Mukalla varied between about eight and twenty-two, almost from day to day. Permanent residents included the Resident Adviser and his family, the manager of the Eastern Bank and his wife, the commandant and four or five British officers of the HBL, the Chief Fisheries Officer, and the Northern Desert Political Officer (NDPO) and his assistant (ANDPO)52. These last two were almost always away on field duty in the desert. There were eight of us, but we were never all there at once. Most usually four or five of us would be in residence at any one time.

There was absolutely nothing – at least nothing in a Western sense – to do in Mukalla. There was, of course, the souk, which was interesting to visit two or three times. There were only two little shops in the town. One sold cigarettes, soft drinks, matches, sugar, salt and spices and a few bolts of cotton material from Manchester. The other shop sold perfumes, eau de cologne and various toilet waters. It had a limited variety but huge stocks of each item – up to fifty or sixty bottles of each of four or five brands of eau de cologne, and twenty or thirty bottles of, I think, four perfumes. There were no cafes in town, although the food stalls that appeared in the souk and along the beach near the palace about sundown did a roaring trade in Arabian junk food. I don’t know whether most families ate at home or not, but the whole town seemed to be on the streets after dark. There were no clubs, no cinemas, no nothing. To fill in the long hot afternoons and evenings, we played a lot of bridge and canasta – and, of course, ‘swat’. We also read a lot of books. But mostly we drank.

In Mukalla, Sharia law was strictly – if superficially – enforced by local imams, so officially no one ever drank in the sultanate of Qa’iti. Statistics, they said, proved it: Mukalla imported no alcoholic beverages. This, I guess, was true, but there were quite a lot of drunks in town all the same. What Mukalla did import was staggering quantities of eau de cologne and various toilet waters – and these were what they drank. People actually skulked around the streets nipping at perfume bottles.

Arabs need a little less personal space than westerners do, so they tend to stand too near when conversing. At close range, the eau de cologne on their breaths could be absolutely overpowering. It shut your bronchial tubes right off – like inhaling the spray directly from a perfume atomiser. I could never imagine how they were able to drink enough of the stuff to get drunk – or how they were able to breathe afterwards.

All of us expatriates had large quantities of smuggled booze, and it was these supplies from which we nipped. The government knew we had it and left us alone, as long as we didn’t damage the morals of the locals. We drank frequently and heavily – ordinarily we would be invited out (or have guests in) for drinks three or four times a week and most of us fell into bed most nights more drunk than not.

***

Because of the odours and the flies, we rented a house in Buqayrayn, about three miles up Wadi Wasit outside the city gate. The house was made of mud-plastered stone and had been newly whitewashed – walls, ceilings, floors, everything. Separated from its nearest neighbours by about two hundred yards of gravel, it sat on a bare hill with splendid views across the date groves of Al Baqrayn and down the wadi to the sea. It was quite a large house, but spare and boney – grimly utilitarian and very plain. There were four bedrooms and a lounge upstairs and two large lounge-rooms and a kitchen on the ground floor. None of the windows had glass, but they had rough wooden shutters to close against the light and there were punkahs in each bedroom. Most importantly, it actually had a toilet. It was only a long-drop, but at least the business end of it was inside the house.

Flies were the bane of Mukalla. We got a lot of spill-over from the sharks putrefying on the beach, so no matter how many we killed, there were always plenty more. They nearly drove us mad. Although we imported screen-wire from Aden and installed it over every window, clouds of flies always got in somehow. Despite the screens and the closed shutters, dawn always found the kitchen filled with a grey mist of flies. We could actually hear the insistent droning of their wings without even opening the door. At the dinner table we couldn’t keep the flies off our plates, so even eating was a problem. The flies tended to get mired in our food – especially in sauce or gravy – and would flounder and buzz until we picked them out. We couldn’t even raise a fork to our mouths without at least one fly getting stuck in the food on it. God knows how many flies I actually ate.

Joe and I finally made killing them into a sort of game – called (appropriately) “swat”. After sprinkling a few grains of sugar on the coffee table, we would each hold a folded copy of Time or Newsweek (Statistically, Time is a much more efficient fly-smasher than Newsweek) at arm’s length over our heads. On the count of ten we would bring them down smartly onto the table. Then we would see who had mashed the most flies, wipe the entrails off the paper and have another go. We actually kept a sort of ‘dead fly tally’ for several months. The single-swat record was twenty-eight flies. The game quickly caught on, and we all played ‘swat’ on and off for the next year. I have no idea how many flies we killed – tens of thousands, I guess – but it wasn’t nearly enough. One day, grimacing as he wiped little corpses off his copy of Newsweek, Joe looked up and grinned. “Remember,” He said, “Some day we’ll look back on all this and we’ll laugh.”

Water was a problem everywhere in South Arabia, but it was especially difficult in Mukalla. There were neither water reservoirs nor any sort of reticulation in the city. The only wells were a couple of miles upstream in Wadi Wasit and water was drawn from them by hand – pulling goatskin waterbags up from a depth of about thirty feet. Young boys would empty the water bags into tanks on the water-carriers’ donkey-carts. The water carriers – all of them gnarly old men – delivered water to every house in town, pumping it from their carts by means of lever-operated hand pumps. Our water tank, like everyone else’s, was a forty-four gallon oil drum on the roof, connected by a pipe to another drum at ground-level. Each morning the water-carrier would fill the lower drum from his donkey-cart. Then our suffragi had to hand-pump the water into the upper drum. The click-clunk, click-clunk of that pump woke me nearly every dawn. That one drum of water – forty-four gallons – was all we got every day for the six of us.

***

We got to know the qadi fairly well during our stay and he often invited us around to his office for tea – visits I always enjoyed. We would sit on his rickety wooden balcony overlooking the noise and bustle of the port – the qadi practicing his English and we our rudimentary Arabic – sipping the tea Persian-style through lumps of sugar. Mukalla (1962 population about 50,000), he told me, was about a thousand years old, and had been a major port for the export of frankincense. It was from a harbour exactly like this, he said, that Sinbad – who, he insisted, was a historical character – must have sailed. He wondered, he said, if Sinbad had ever been to Mukalla.

I liked watching the dhows, trundling up over the horizon with their lateen-rigged sails belly-full of wind. Round and plump as guppies, they drew long, curved wakes across the Gulf of Aden, then swept in to anchor in flurries of foam. Their high square sterns, forward-raking masts and low blunt bows, made them look so nose-heavy as to seem unseaworthy. Their spread of canvas seemed to be driving them not across the surface of the sea, but rather bow-first down into it. Flotillas of little lighters and rowing boats – trying to anticipate the dhows’ anchorage points – hovered anxiously around them, disturbing the oily heave of the harbour surface.

***

The sultan of Qa’iti, Amir Awadh Ibn Saleh Bin Ghalib, was devious, indecisive and probably a little mad. Middle-aged, bald and plump, he had narrow shoulders, broad hips, and a soft, pendulous gut. Although his forehead was narrow, it was the only part of his face that was. Beneath it, close-together beady eyes straddled the bridge of a substantial Aryan nose. The glasses he wore – pince nez with tiny round lenses of an electric blue colour – emphasized its size. Unusually for an Arab, he was clean-shaven.

From the eyes down, his fat rubbery cheeks and multiple chins seemed to belong to a much wider person. The net effect of all this made him look distinctly pointy-headed – an appearance exaggerated by the tapering Nehru cap he habitually wore. His usual costume, the shalwar khemis, was invariably of cloth interwoven with gold or silver threads – gold lame was a favourite – so that it had a glittering metallic sheen. The overall effect of all this was, I think, not actually what the sultan intended. Although I’m sure he felt majestic and grand, he actually looked like a gigantic cellophane-wrapped pear.

The sultan was both miserly and eccentric. The royal wives took in laundry – which they beat against rocks on the beach behind the palace. The cavernous, gloomy interior of the palace – or at least the public part of it – was furnished with ornate gilt and overstuffed furniture of a style known by expats as ‘Louis Farouk’. One of my friends aptly described the Louis Farouk ‘look’ as “early bad taste”. Imitation Louis XIV furniture was popular with wealthy Arabs from Syria to the Mughrib – usually upholstered in garish colours. The epithet had been coined, I understand, by a British political officer trying to describe the furniture in King Farouk’s Montazah Palace in Alexandria.

He was the ultimate pigeon-fancier, and over a thousand uncaged pigeons lived in the royal quarters. Whenever we visited him – which we did more often than we really wanted – dried pigeon dung crackled and snapped underfoot, and we spent a lot of time flicking bird-crap off his furniture. Mercifully, we were never asked to dinner.

The sultan didn’t believe in paper money (actually he didn’t believe our paper was money) and insisted our annual payment be made in Maria Therese Thalers. The ‘Thaler’ (root of the modern English word ‘dollar’) was the unit of currency of the Austro-Hungarian Empire before World War I. Maria Theresa, (1717-1780), whose spectacularly-bosomed profile adorned the obverse of these handsome coins, was a long-time Austro-Hungarian empress. For reasons unknown to me, the Yemenis and Hadhramis adopted the thaler – a large solid silver coin about the size and value of the US dollar – as their medium of exchange. Following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, when the south Arabians complained that their supply of thalers needed replenishing, a new mint was set up in Vienna to supply their needs. The first edition of coins from this mint was rejected on the grounds that the date was incorrect. What the Arabs required was a supply of thalers all bearing dates from the reign of Maria Theresa – any other date, they said, made the coins effectively counterfeit. The Austrians eventually acquiesced to their wishes and Vienna minted new thalers – all dated 1773 – especially for the Yemen. By the time I came along – in 1962 – the mint had closed down, but thalers – all still dated 1773 – were still in plentiful supply. Our payment was 20,000 pounds sterling – about 65,000 Thalers – per year. He was a great smoker of bhang (marijuana). The first time we met him – we’d come to give him the initial payment for our petroleum exploration concession (several stout wooden chests containing a total of sixty five thousand Maria Theresa thalers – he was so high he barely knew we were there.

***

The real political power in the sultanate lay with the British Resident Adviser, to whom the sultan was obliged to listen on really important matters of state. His brief was vague and all-encompassing. He was entitled to interfere in the running of the sultanate whenever – and in whatever capacity – he felt appropriate. Then, too, the local government sometimes chose to employ him for its own purposes.

The incumbent, Arthur Waites, was about fifty. A lawyer by training, he was a fine Arabist and an expert on Islam. He advised the sultan on the finer points of sharia law, the local mullahs on interpretations of cryptic sura of the Koran, and presided over a sort of ‘appeal court’ on cases of ‘political delicacy’.

A large, gregarious man of huge intellect, he lived with his wife, teenage son and daughter – both of whom spent most of their time in boarding school in the UK – in “The Residency” – a gigantic, ramshackle house opposite the palace just inside the city gate. Arthur played the violin. His wife played the piano, his daughter the flute and his son the clarinet. They were all marvelously talented and, on the rare occasions when all four were in residence, would occasionally perform for the local European community.

Arthur also had a commercial 35 mm movie projector. From time to time someone in Aden would send him a film. He would invite all western residents, and we would adjourn to the back ‘garden’ for a night of cinema. Largely because of proximity, but also for reasons of politics, the sultan was always invited to these cinema nights, and he would sometimes stroll across the street and join us. We would sit in overstuffed chairs placed between the cliff and the Residency, and Arthur would project the film on the whitewashed back wall of the house. Drinks and snacks would be served, and “cinema night” became something of an occasion.

The Residency garden backed directly onto the mountainside, and ramps of rubble rose above the back wall, making a sort of steep natural amphitheatre. Cinemas were forbidden in Mukalla – “graven images” the mullahs called them – so, of course, dozens of locals always turned up. They would squat up amongst the rocks behind us, clinging precariously to the loose scree. None of them could understand the English-language dialogue, so they would laugh and chatter amongst themselves. Some even brought radios. Everybody smoked in those days, and behind us in the dark an amphitheatre of sparks winked and glowed. Occasionally there would be a loud “Aaaaaargh!!” as a spectator came unglued and careered down the steep slope in a shower of rocks and sparks – usually bringing down everyone below him as well. Sometimes Arthur had to stop the projector until everybody had climbed back to their seats and got resettled.

Electricity in Mukalla was 220 volts, 50 cycles, and most of the movies, which were American, were made for 110 volt, 60 cycle current. The voltage we could change with a transformer, but there was nothing we could do about the cycles. So all films played about seventeen percent slower than normal. The main effect of this – aside from a slight flickering – was to lower actors’ voices by about an octave. I can vividly remember Melina Mercouri singing “Never on Sunday” in a slightly draggy – but remarkably attractive – baritone.

***

It wasn’t uncommon to see boys – even nine or ten-year-olds – doing what Joe later described as ‘practicing buggery’. When first I saw a pair at it, I thought they were playing leap-frog, but a second glance quickly disabused me. These kids were definitely buggering one another – casually and publicly, as though it was some sort of game – teasing, laughing and shouting – and not at all shy. One young pair even waved at me – in mid-stroke, as it were – shouting “Ya ferang! Shoof di! Shoof!” (“Hey, foreigner, Watch this, watch!”)

Arthur explained it to me. “Although everywhere illegal,” He said, “Buggery is tacitly accepted in much of the Middle East – largely, I expect, as a result of the strictures on relations between the sexes – especially among young males. In practice, this tolerance has come to extend to any sort of male-male intercourse. Nobody much worries about it. The kids all bugger each other and everybody has a good time.

“The problem arises, “he continued, “When a boy carries his taste for buggery into adulthood, but still prefers young boys. Then what was buggery becomes pederasty. As a general rule few Arabs condone pederasty – it’s as wrong to them as it is to us – but in a few places, like Mukalla (and a place called Borujerd in SW Iran), everyone seems to. The town’s actually famous for it. Practically every adult male here is a practicing pederast – not that any of the kids seem to mind – and they’ve a lively paedophile tourist trade.

“I’ll tell you my best buggery story,” Arthur went on. “About six months ago, on the one day a month I wear my Chief Magistrate’s hat, the qadi brought a case of pederasty before my bench – the first I’d ever handled. A middle-aged man had been caught rogering an eleven-year-old boy – who was, by all reports perfectly willing – in the public latrine in the souk”.

“The latrine in the souk?” I knew the bog in question – right beside Ar Rawdha Mosque. A typical Arab latrine – a pair of little cubicles each about a metre square with a hole in the centre of the floor over which it was intended for you to squat – it seemed a strange place to commit a sexual offence. To begin with, there was hardly any privacy. Three sides of the loo were mud walls about a metre high. On the fourth side was a latchless wooden door. To see if the toilet was in use, you just sauntered by and looked over the wall. Besides, there wasn’t a whole lot of room inside. If both man and boy were in the cubicle, the top halves of both their bodies must have been above the top of the walls for the whole world to see. No prizes for guessing what was going on in there.

“Anyway,” Arthur continued, “The crowd was really rowdy, shouting and waving their fists in the air, and the qadi was beside himself – really, really furious – and insisted that I find both man and boy guilty of pederasty. How, I thought to myself, can this be? After all, practically every man in town is – or has been – a pederast, and every boy in town has been buggered ever since he learned how to bend over.”

“’Since when,’ I asked him, ‘has pederasty been a crime for the magistrate to judge? Everybody in this town,’ I told him, ‘Does it and everybody knows everybody does it. Nobody here has ever been charged with pederasty before, so why is this case before me now? What have this pair done to merit such special attention?’ All I really wanted to know was what all the fuss was about.”
“’Oh, Mr Arthur, you don’t understand!’ The qadi replied, his voice quavering with emotion, ‘This…this was in the afternoon!’.”

Arthur grinned and took a small bow.
I didn’t see the point. “Is that it?” I asked
He shrugged and spread his hands. “That’s it. I know it’s not especially funny – though, I assure you, it loses something in translation.”

He was right. It wasn’t especially funny – but it was a curious sort of story nevertheless, and it has stuck in my mind for more than forty years. It showed me, I guess, something about the Arabs – or at least about these Arabs – that I hadn’t realised before. How differently they and we perceive our world.

They and we were all upset – if not actually outraged – at what had happened. Superficially Arab and westerner were of one mind – something immoral had occurred and somebody deserved to be punished. But in reality, our viewpoints could hardly have been farther apart. To us, it was the sexual act itself that was reprehensible. The Arabs objected to the unseemly time at which it was committed. To us, the offenders were guilty of gross sexual misconduct – or, at least, one of them was. To the qadi, they were mostly guilty of bad timing.

***

The city gate was the end of several caravan routes, and there were always trains of camels being loaded or unloaded. Roaring and gurgling, the camels folded and unfolded themselves, tipping and bowing like huge insects. Lines of sweaty bearers staggered away through the gate with monstrous loads suspended from headbands down their backs.

But today there weren’t any caravans. Instead there was a largish crowd outside the gate, completely blocking access to it. Whatever the crowd had gathered for had obviously not yet started, and I clearly wasn’t going to get through quickly, so I turned off the ignition and got out to see what was going on. The crowd wasn’t dense, and parted amiably to let me through. They had left a clear space ten or fifteen yards wide extending about fifty yards along the wall north of the gate. About a dozen soldiers – armed and in QAC uniforms – were resting and smoking near the gate. A Land River had just emerged from the gate and a group of uniformed officers had gathered around it. Some sort of military display, I wondered?

Well, sort of. An unshaven youngish man in white shirt and dark trousers was roughly manhandled out of the vehicle. His hands were tied behind his back. A couple of guards, each grasping an elbow, frog-marched him a few yards from the gate, then shoved him against the wall. He stood there, alone, while the legionnaires loaded their rifles and formed a rough line about thirty yards from the wall. Suddenly, I knew what the occasion was.

Public executions took place here. Someone had pointed the place out to me. It was easy to recognise. There were lots of bullet marks – circular brown scars about the size of saucers. They resulted from impact exfoliation of the whitewash and its mud sub-crust. They mostly occurred from three to six feet above the ground and extended almost the whole length of the wall. I had wondered why they were so uniformly distributed along the wall. The unshaven man was standing right in the middle of them, and it seemed that I was about to find out.

On a signal, the soldiers raised their rifles, and began to shoot – not in a volley, but individually. As the riflemen fired at him, the man actually ran up and down the wall ducking, dodging and weaving, bullet impacts blowing great flakes of whitewashed plaster from the wall behind him. A hit knocked him down, but in a second he was up again, lolloping unsteadily sideways. The crowd – mostly boys – behaved as though the execution was a sports fixture, shouting and cheering. Because things happened so fast, crowd reaction lagged behind events and I couldn’t really tell whether they cheered the hits or the misses. More misses – a storm of whitewash flecks – then another hit spun him around, blowing red streaks across the wall. More cheering and shouting. He stumbled, then took off again, running heavily through the clinging sand. A third hit slammed him backward into the wall in a cloud of plaster particles. For a second he stood as though winded, head back, the mud plaster surface erupting around him in a blizzard of whitewash flakes. Then, knees slowly buckling, he began to fall forward, away from a red sunburst on the wall. Another bullet blew part of his face into a cone of red mist, spinning him around and smashing him against the wall. For a few seconds he balanced there facing into the wall, bullets plucking at his clothes, impact haemorrhages, like obscene little red flowers, blooming all down his back. Then he tipped sideways, sliding slowly down the wall, his head tracing a ragged red arc along its surface. A last flurry of plaster filtered down on him like snowflakes.

The crowd went suddenly quiet. The whole thing had taken only about thirty seconds from first shot to last. An officer stepped forward and shot him behind the ear. The crowd burst into applause, clapping, cheering and whistling. I wondered what on earth the dead man had done.

There wasn’t any further drama about it. Four soldiers picked up the corpse and threw it into the back of the Land Rover, which drove off. The firing-squad, still carrying their weapons, wandered back through the city gate in ones and twos, mingling with the slowly-dispersing crowd.

I found myself curiously unmoved by the whole thing. It seemed more interesting than awful – like some exotic documentary unrelated to real people. Even now I feel that way about it. I never discovered what he was executed for.

I found out later that the condemned man had had a sort of choice. He didn’t have to die by firing squad. They also did beheadings. The royal surgeon – whose main job was lopping off the right hands of convicted thieves – was also the royal executioner. He apparently did the honours with a very large two-handed broadsword.

I knew the surgeon slightly – we’d met several times at Alec White’s booze-ups – and had found him a bit vague, but likeable enough – this was, of course, before I found out how he made his living. He was a large, soft man with a slight stammer and a chin full of whiskers too fine to make a decent beard. I never got to see a beheading – not that I especially wanted to see one – but, unless the surgeon was incredibly ham-handed, it must have been a quicker sort of death than the execution by firing squad I saw.

***

The waters of the Gulf of Aden were marvelously coloured – wonderful shades of blue and green – and absolutely clear. We sat for hours gazing across its rumpled surface, dreaming ourselves immersed in its coolness. But it was only a dream. We never even considered swimming – at least not near Mukalla. Because the languorous waves that hissed up onto the beach were pink and frothy with shark offal.

We did once try some snorkeling near Alec White’s house, where a narrow little salt-and-pepper coloured beach spilled coarse sand down through a rift between two boulders. Little waves hissed and gulped among the rocks as we climbed down into the sea, wading carefully to avoid the huge long-spined sea urchins that clustered in the shallows. The seabed tilted steeply and the water was ten or fifteen feet deep only a short distance offshore. For a long time we were cautious, and we all kept within arms-length of the shore. It was pretty hard to be brave about sharks when we’d seen a mile of them drying on the beach just around the headland. In the event, I turned out to have the biggest balls. I finally left the safety of the rocks and glided out into deeper water. Entranced by coral of spectacular colours and the tall spindly sponges growing thickly among the big black boulders, I actually forgot to be scared. Eventually I found myself about fifty yards offshore, in thirty or forty feet of water. Beginning to tire, I swam to a pinnacle rising steeply from the sea floor. It rose to only about two feet below the surface. On top of the spire was a little platform a couple of feet square. It looked a perfect place to rest.

I quickly hauled myself up and settled my posterior on the platform only to have something that was clearly alive explode from under me in a cloud of dark fluid. My knee-jerk reaction was to shoot off toward shore. What on earth? I wondered. After a couple of strokes I turned and looked back to see what it had been. It had been a three-foot octopus, now jetting itself frantically in the opposite direction, trailing clouds of dark ink. I don’t know which of us was the more scared.

Still trembling, I climbed back onto the little platform and sat down, resting for a few minutes while my heart rate slowed. The water came just to my chin. Waves rolling by rocked my body fore and aft in a motion curiously like riding a camel. Visibility was amazing. The water was so clear I could see details on the bottom all the way back to shore. Eventually, wanting to astonish my mates – none of whom was aware of the existence of my little perch – I carefully stood up. More than half my body was above water, (water they thought to be twenty or thirty feet deep) and it must have looked – from their perspective – as though I was walking on the stuff. At any rate, that was how I wanted it to look. Feeling pretty pleased with myself, I waved my arms and shouted to attract their attention.

Everybody seemed suitably impressed. Several of them waved back, but nobody, I noticed, came out to join me. Then I noticed that a couple of them started waving again. They carried on and on, and after a few seconds everybody was waving and shouting at me through cupped hands. Unable to hear above the noise of the sea I suddenly realised that their gestures weren’t waves – they were ‘come here’ gestures…..’Get the Hell out of the water’ gestures. They were trying to tell me something – something serious, something urgent – something I needed to know.

My blood ran cold. ‘Sharks’ was the first thing to cross my mind. “Bloody sharks”…and here I was fifty yards from nowhere in thirty feet of water. Quickly I turned to scan the open sea behind me. About ten feet behind me a very large dark shadow was bearing down on me, its dorsal fin arrowing the surface. Before I could even move, a large, black torpedo-shaped body hit me behind the knees, knocking me off my feet. I bounced once off the sleek, dark hide, then hit the water. By the time I hit it my arms and legs were windmilling frantically. I had nothing clever in mind. I was just trying to get the hell out of there before whatever-it-was came back to remove some or all of my appendages.

I was still swimming when I hit the shore, and ‘swam’ my way up eight or ten feet of rocks before my panic subsided, skinning both knees and an elbow in the process. I clambered up another six or eight feet before turning to see what had happened to my pursuer. It was still out there, circling my spire – it and three or four others. But they weren’t sharks. It was a family pod of dolphins. They probably only wanted to play. But after my fright, none of us wanted to test their intentions just then. Somehow, after that, none of us had the balls to ever try snorkeling again.

“But remember,” Joe giggled, “Someday we’ll look back on this and we’ll laugh. That was, I thought, hardly fair. The rest of the buggers – who hadn’t been anywhere near the water – were falling over themselves laughing already.

***

My predominant memories of Mukalla – in the order in which I recalled them – are of never feeling quite clean, of flies, of dust, of the stink of decaying sharks, and of a surfeit of eau de cologne. We all disliked the place intensely. It was crowded and dirty and it stank. Pervasive, salty winds had shriveled the few tamarisks and oleanders that grew there until they were as brown and stiff as brooms. It didn’t help that the locals were mildly xenophobic and treated us with a barely polite reserve.

I think we all recognised that Mukalla had a sort of mad charm – it was, if nothing else, very different – but it was the sort of charm you could only really appreciate in retrospect. We could hardly wait for ‘retrospect’ to begin. “Some day,” Joe had said, “We’ll look back on all this and we’ll laugh!” God, we hoped so! In the Mukalla context, the phrase took on a whole new meaning – at least for us – and we said it to each other every single day.

The Men Who Came to Dinner

Clean-shaven and plump, Hussein Bin Ali Mansur Al Kathiri – the Sultan of Kathiri – was in his mid-forties. A pleasant, rather ordinary-looking man, he was often seen strolling about in the town, or even having coffee in the souk. He had a royal car – a ten-year-old Opel Kadet – and a uniformed chauffeur, but Seiyun was small enough (population about 20,000) to make driving largely unnecessary. Born bedu, he hadn’t been raised to be king – his father had been suddenly thrust onto the throne by the unexpected deaths of three senior members of the family in the siege of Mukalla in 1947, when Kathiri soldiers managed to seize the walls of the Qa’iti capital before running out of ammunition and being forced to retreat – and he frankly preferred to be outdoors. He never wore shoes, and often held his diwan in the maidan where anyone could speak to him. So nearly everyone in town knew him personally. By tribal tradition he was more father-figure than ruler. His power, although nominally absolute, was actually severely limited by the British.

Unlike his neighbour, the Sultan of Qa’iti, he had no British Resident Adviser peering over his shoulder and meddling directly in affairs of state. This reflected both his relative unimportance in the British scheme of things and their perception of his ability to rule. There simply weren’t enough capable British advisers to go around. The sultanate of Qa’iti was considerably larger and richer than Kathiri, and its sultan was eccentric almost to the point of lunacy, so an adviser had been put in place to keep things in hand. Hussein Bin Ali Mansur Al Kathiri, on the other hand, was known to be a reasonable – and reasonably competent – administrator, so the colonial authorities left him pretty much alone. This was both a good thing and a bad thing. He got to make his own decisions, but he also had to figure out how to fund them. The sultanate was peaceful and, by local standards, prosperous, but it had only forty thousand inhabitants – many of them penniless bedu – and therefore a minuscule tax base, so money was a perpetual problem.

For the most part, the sultan’s overheads weren’t anything to worry too much about. His standing army had only fifty men. For defense he could call on the British-funded HBL. There were hardly any roads to maintain in the sultanate, no water or sewage systems and only a rudimentary electric power grid in Seiyun. The British – through the Hadhramaut Pump Scheme (HPS) – maintained the irrigation system in the wadi. They had also built and staffed a hospital and seventeen schools. Maintenance of the palace was the sultan’s biggest headache. Like any other three-hundred-year-old mud building, it required more-or-less constant repairs, and its recent face-lift had nearly bankrupted the royal exchequer.

I knew the sultan to speak to – we nodded when we passed in the street, and sometimes he would enquire as to the state of my health – but even in his little scheme of things, I was pretty unimportant. My company, on the other hand, was not. We had negotiated for months with the sultans of Qa’iti, Mahra and Kathiri to obtain petroleum exploration rights within their territories. Finally each agreed to accept an annual stipend of 400,000 EAS (East African Shillings( – 20,000 pounds sterling – payable in cash.  For the Kathiri and Mahri sultans, this was practically the only cash income they received.

When we flew to the island of Socotra to pay the Sultan of Mahra, our Dakota crashed on landing. There wasn’t a road to the royal capital at Hadibo, so we rode the twenty kilometres on camels and then had to spend several days ‘camping’ in a derelict mud hut. The sultan, “communing with the royal cattle”, was unable to see us. In the end we had to give the money to the royal executioner, who refused to give us a receipt.

The Sultan of Qa’iti insisted on payment entirely in Maria Theresa Thalers, so we had to charter a plane just to fly the crates of coins to Mukalla. When we got there we found the royal audience chamber ankle-deep in pigeon dung. The sultan, ‘high’ on something, was barely aware of our presence.

Hussein Bin Ali Mansur Al Kathiri, on the other hand, threw a banquet for us in his great palace in Seiyun. The biggest building in Arabia, it dominated the city like a ziggurat. Parts of the vast mud building – which was rumoured to have a thousand rooms – were three hundred years old. The royal gate, flanked by round machicolated bastions, led to a colonnaded courtyard. Behind the court, the main tower, about forty yards square, soared six storeys above its pediment. Three further tiers stepped back and up in a thicket of decorative white spires. Circular bastions at each corner tapered upward to hemispherical domes, and there were arched blue panels – like eyebrows – over each window. The whole palace had been newly plastered and whitewashed, and you could see it from miles away, floating – insubstantial as a mirage – above the date palm groves.

Close up, the palace looked its age. It had been patched and fixed up again and again, and it showed. Mud is like that. Treated well, it is amazingly durable, but its surface ages quickly. Rammed earth buildings are made of a mixture of mud and straw. When exposed to the weather, the surface of mud wears off, leaving thousands of little bits of straw sticking out, and it gets sort of ‘furry-looking’ – so new mud never looks like old mud. Inside the ten-foot-thick walls, parts of the palace were close to derelict. The ground floor had originally been the stables, and it still smelled strongly of animals. There were hardly any windows, and it was bloody dark. There were a few bare bulbs suspended high in the gloom, but they didn’t so much illuminate as glow against a firmament of shadows. The stairs were in the middle of the palace and right-angled their way up a sort of dark shaft – six steps, turn right: six steps, turn right, and so on. Not only couldn’t we see anything, but the treads – also made of mud – were worn down in the middle almost through the risers, which made it difficult even to feel our way. But we eventually stumbled up to the second floor.

The banquet chamber – about twenty yards square and full of fat pillars – occupied about half of the second floor of the palace. The floor was of whitewashed mud, and the ceiling of shallow mud-brick vaults between beams made of whole trees. There was a pair of mismatched “crystal” chandeliers, the larger of which hung nearly to the floor. Along one wall were about a dozen papier-mache washbasins – “for washing hands after dining” the sultan explained. These were regarded in local Arab circles as ultra-chic, and he was very proud of them. I later got a good look at his chandeliers. They were actually made entirely of plastic.

Chrome kitchen chairs covered in gaudy plastic were lined up around the other three walls, alternating with little formica-topped tables of several shapes and sizes (plastic and chrome furniture was immensely popular with wealthy Arabs everywhere. They were also into plastic gewgaws in a big way. Plastic salt and peppershakers were popular, lava lamps were ‘in’, and cheap plastic curtains hung in many an audience-chamber). On the tables were drinking glasses, bowls of roasted pumpkin seeds and sudani, some violently salty pickles and pots of a rather nasty paste made of dried dates. Until everyone had arrived, we sat in the chairs making small talk, munching sudani and cracking pumpkin seeds with our teeth – none of us was game enough to try the pickles or dates – while servants offered us rose-water, orange soda, sarsaparilla, Coke and 7-Up. Since the Koran expressly forbids alcohol, all Moslems are – at least publicly – teetotallers, so beer, wine and spirits are never served at banquets. Quite a lot of Moslems in the neighbouring sultanate of Qa’iti drank enormous quantities of toilet water and eau de cologne. I don’t know whether or not Kathiris also did this.

In the middle of the room, on a dozen or more old Persian carpets, other servants were laying out the banquet. There were about forty or fifty guests. As was normal, we sat cross-legged around the edge of the carpets and ate with our fingers. Food was served on large brass trays – several trays of each dish – laid out on the carpet in such a way that each guest could more-or-less reach every dish. There were lots of pilafs, several kinds of chicken, trays heaped with chunks of boiled mutton, three or four whole roasted goats stuffed with dates, some little charred, boney-looking things (grilled quail I think), and several unidentified curries. There were also lots of samosas, deep-fried chillies, side dishes of chutney and pickles, and – under every guest’s plate – great crisp slabs of nan.

Eating Arab-fashion requires practice and – in some cases – strong nerves. Food is picked up and carried to the mouth by the fingers of the right hand. In Moslem countries, where toilet paper is not used, the left hand is used to wipe and/or wash the bottom and, therefore is regarded as unclean. There is a natural desire to use both hands, but using your left is unforgivably gauche anywhere in the Arab world. For things like curry, pieces of nan are torn off and curved between the fingers to form a sort of crude spoon. For the pilafs, rice is pressed together into firm balls and then placed directly in the mouth.

There were servants making the rounds of guests during the meal with ewers of warm rose-water and bowls so that each guest could wash his hands whenever he wished. We ferangis tended to quickly have grease dripping from our elbows, and we needed to wash our hands a lot. Our hosts, on the other hand, seldom needed to wash until the end of the meal.

I had already mastered the art of eating with only one hand, and I was doing pretty well until Arab hospitality began to assert itself. Arab banquet etiquette is for the host to personally serve particularly delicious morsels onto the plates of his chief guests. At previous Arab feasts, I had been offered – and had managed to choke down – sheep’s eyeballs, fatty shoulder-blade of ewe and half-raw gazelle heart. At least today I knew I was to be spared these. My boss was here – and his boss from New York – so I was too far down the pecking order to have to worry much about those particular items. I might, I knew, be offered some lesser delicacy.

The Sultan himself laid a pair of sheep’s eyeballs on Jim’s plate one at a time, gripping each delicately between the tips of thumb and index finger as though presenting jewels for inspection. I had warned Jim that this was likely to happen – if not tonight, then soon. Still, he wasn’t ready for it (I don’t quite know how you get ready for sheep eyeballs even if you know they’re coming). He tried to smile his thanks, but managed only a feeble cheek-twitch and a blush. He had guts, did our Jim. He quickly picked one up, bit it in half, and chewed and swallowed desperately. His eyes popped and he gulped a lot of air, but he got it down. Sheep eyeballs are about the same size, shape and colour as an average onion. Curiously, they are also much the same crunchy texture, but bursting with mutton-flavoured oil. Actually, it’s not as bad as it sounds. It’s the idea that’s repugnant.

John Shipman, 24-year-old director of the HPS got the shoulder-blades. An old hand at this sort of thing, he never batted an eyelash. He just picked one up and began to tear strings of mutton fat off the bone with his teeth.

As one of the lesser guests of honour, my morsel came not from the sultan but from the vizier. I didn’t actually see what he had chosen. He leaned forward, picked something off a tray of meat and – with a theatrically extravagant flourish – laid it on my plate. “Tfadl’, he smiled, “Enjoy” (literally ‘please’). I smiled back – whatever it was, it smelled dreadful – “Alef Shukr, ya sidi” – “A thousand thanks, oh excellent one.”

At first I had absolutely no idea what the vizier had given me. I knew it was the inside of something, but the inside of what? Keeping my smile in place, I turned it over gingerly with one finger. After a moment I thought I recognised it. I looked again. I did recognise it. My smile started to wilt. My morsel for tonight was a goat nostril – complete with hair. It was about five inches long: the goat had had black and white spots.

Trying not to shudder, I picked it up from my plate as etiquette demanded, and stuffed one end in my mouth. It felt like the business end of a hair brush, and tasted like shit. I blocked off the back of my nose and chewed rapidly, hoping to quickly dispose of the damned thing. But it was not to be. I quickly found that goat nostril is nearly as indestructible as it is disgusting. I gnawed at – and gagged on – the thing for what seemed to be a very long time, while trying to smile at the vizier, who was watching my efforts with great interest. Waves of nausea rose to the back of my mouth. I couldn’t swallow and dared not spit.

Still trying to chew and smile at the same time, I desperately tried to think of some “innocent” reason – ie not disgust or nausea – to take that damned thing out of my mouth. Finally, I thought of one. Goat grease, running down my arm from the un-chewed end of the nostril, was about to drip off my elbow. Still gnawing, I gestured frantically at a ewer-bearer. When he bent over me, I had an excuse to lay the goat nose back on my plate. I stretched out both hands and he poured warm rose-scented water over them and offered me a towel. By the time my hands were washed and dried, the vizier had been distracted, and I was – at least briefly – free of his attention.  Now, how to get rid of the damned thing?

There’s not an awful lot you can do to tactfully dispose of a goat’s nostril – especially in the middle of a feast. For a few minutes I shoved it around, trying to hide it under some pilaf and curry, but neither of these seemed likely to be successful. My meal had cooled, and my plate had become a grey disc of congealed fat with lumps of meat and rice sticking out of it. With only one hand I could neither pick it up nor break it up enough to create a hiding place. Finally, when I was pretty sure nobody was looking, I managed to palm the nostril in my left hand and closed my fingers over it. I kept it there until almost the end of the feast, while trying to eat normally with my other hand. I finally managed to slide it inside the overlap between two carpets behind the vizier. I’m sure he knew I had somehow disposed of the nostril, but he was much too polite to ask. I had banked on that.

Toward the end of the meal, satisfied guests produced the loud chorus of a capela belches that Arab meal-time etiquette demanded. There had been an awful lot of greasy food, and lines soon formed at the little hand-basins, where soap was available. When we were all more-or-less clean, we sat back down. Platters of orange and watermelon slices were brought around, and little glasses of scalding Turkish coffee ‘sa’ada’. Turkish coffee comes in three ‘strengths. ‘Ziada’ (roughly ‘a lot’) is usually absolutely saturated with sugar. ‘Masbut’ (‘just right’) is pleasantly sweet. ‘Sa’ada’, on the other hand, means ‘without’ (ie without sugar) and it is as bitter as gall.

When the sultan rose, the party was over. Just like that – no ceremony or anything. He just got up and strode out the door. Everybody got up, and we all trooped down those dark stairs and out into the night.

We had probably eaten less than a third of the food on offer. This I knew to be intentional: the servants were traditionally entitled to any leftovers. Tonight I reckoned they were going to have to earn them. The banquet room carpets were a mess: there grains of pilaf, crumbs and pieces of nan, little gobbets of mutton fat, stains from spilled drinks, and bones of sheep, goats and birds. And, of course, a goat nostril. It took me several days to get the last stray hairs out from between my teeth.

1963

The Water Protocol

The Sahra as Shumal (Sahra=desert: shumal=north: hence “Northern Desert”) is an inhospitable place. To the north are the sands of the Rub ‘al Khali. The barren rock platforms of the Northern Jol tilt up to the south. Only in the deeper wadis can gnarled old ‘ulb trees grow. There are a few stunted thorn bushes, which camels can eat, and sometimes the desiccated stalks of plants that bloomed four or five years ago during the last rains. These latter are all the fodder the flocks of the bedouin ever get.

Everything the bedu do is constrained by water – or by the lack of it. Although their flocks are able to draw most of their fluid needs from the leaves of the thorn bushes they eat, they must still be watered about every three weeks, so the bedu can never be more than about ten days’ walk – eighty or a hundred miles depending on the terrain – from one of the wells. Mostly they themselves subsist by drinking sheep or goat milk to eke out their scanty water supplies – at most six or eight gallons for five or six people for three weeks (about a litre per person per week).

About four thousand bedouin live in the sahra – members of a dozen feuding tribes. There are only four wells, about two hundred miles apart – at Al Abr (in the west), Thamud and Sanau (east and west of centre) and Habarut (in the east). At each of these, the British have built a small fort of mud or rubble, manned by a small detachment of HBL troops to control who uses the well. No bedu live near any of these forts. Nothing much grows near any of them – they were sited only because of the wells – so the flocks come not to graze but only to drink.

The rammed-earth fort at Thamud – where this story ends – had been newly whitewashed. In the flat, beige landscape of the Sahra as Shumal, it could be seen an hour’s drive away. Its walls, about twelve feet high, made a hollow square sixty feet on a side. There were low square bastions on two diagonally opposite corners and two-storey towers on the others. A sort of parade ground had been made in front of the fort with lines of whitewashed rocks enclosing an area thirty or forty yards square. The hand-dug well lay just outside the parade ground. Flocks of goats or fat-tailed sheep were always gathered there while the shepherds drew up water in goatskin bags.

Two major tribes – the Manahil and the Awamir – share the water at Thamud. These tribes had been on good terms with the British – and with each other – for years, and most HBL jundies were Amri or Menhali youths. Like most bedu in the sahra, the Awamir and Manahil still kept to the old ways, roaming in small family groups across their desolate tribal lands. Thamud is the only well to which either tribe has free access. Al Abr lies in the lands of the tribe of As Sayar, and Sanau is on the border with Mahra, in Beit Sumada country. They could use these wells – by convention, tribal warfare and family feuds were suspended near a well – but the passage across lands of a hostile tribe was always a dangerous business.

Before heading out into bedu territory we took lots of advice from the people who knew them best. Richard Ettridge, the twenty-two-year-old ANDPO, put it most succinctly:

“The desert,” he told us, “makes opportunists of everyone. Where wells are two hundred miles apart, and the most water a man can carry is a goatskin bag, any chance to get additional water must be taken. People are thin on the ground out here, and chance encounters are rare. You may see – or be seen by – a bedouin, but he will usually be a kilometre or more away. If he wants to contact you, he will fire a shot into the air. This is a signal to stop and wait a few minutes. He will come to you”.

“There is a strict rule in the desert,” He said. “If you are driving a vehicle, and you see a bedu – or hear a shot – you stop and wait. You always stop and you always wait – to find out what he wants. Mostly he will just want to exchange news – he may, after all, have seen no other human for a week or more”.

“If he asks you for water – and if you have water – you will give him to drink. Water is always shared. This is the most fundamental rule of life in the desert, and one which everyone – on pain of death – obeys”.

He called this rule the “water protocol”.

***

Our convoy – bound for the seismic camp in Wadi Arabah via Thamud – had left Seiyun about noon. There were thirteen Bedford two-tonne trucks, each with an HBL guard riding shotgun atop the load. The drivers for this convoy were all from Mukalla. They mostly did coastal runs, with occasional trips up to the big towns in the Wadi Hadhramaut. None had been to the Northern Desert before. This was a mistake we were not to repeat.

That summer, Wadi Ardha was an awful place. Its steep walls collected heat from the sun during the day, then radiated it back at night into humid, motionless air. In its lower reaches were the most predatory ticks and mosquitoes in the protectorates. Our convoy had had a slow trip up the wadi. Our road – the one we had built and were so proud of – was frankly appalling, and accidents and breakdowns were common. This convoy had had one of each. One truck had broken an axle and another had tipped sideways off a ledge, so we had had to camp overnight in the wadi. All night we had sweated, swatted and scratched. By morning everyone was bleary-eye-tired and bloody. It was mid-afternoon before the convoy reached the head of the wadi and set out across the jol, dragging great plumes of dust behind it. To avoid dust-suffocation, we kept at least a mile apart, so even our small convoy was more than ten miles long.

Somewhere near Wadi Qunab, a small group of bedouin – Menhali, as we later discovered – saw the convoy passing half a mile away. Having been six days without water, they ran toward the road and fired a signal shot to get the driver of the first truck to stop. The driver of this truck, however, was a “townie” on his first trip. Not only had he never heard of the “water protocol”, but also he thought he was under attack. He put his foot down and roared off in a cloud of dust. A second truck, following a mile behind, behaved in the same manner. By the time a third truck had got there, the bedu were only about a hundred yards from the track. This time they aimed their first shot into the offside windscreen, which exploded into the cab. The terrified driver, instead of stopping, panicked and took evasive action. When he accelerated and turned the vehicle away from the bedu, they aimed their second shot to kill. Striking the young guard in the back, the 303 slug blew him off the load and across the roof of the cab. He slid forward and down, leaving a bloody trail across the windscreen. His body bounced off the bonnet and landed between the front wheels. By the time the driver finally slammed on the brakes and stalled the engine, the vehicle had passed completely over the young soldier. Immediately, the trailing plume of dust swept forward and enveloped the Bedford. Everything suddenly went dead quiet. While the four Menhali closed on the truck, the driver, covered with glass pellets, sat in petrified silence behind the wheel. The guard lay motionless behind the truck.

Not a word was spoken. The bedu ignored both the terrified driver and the wounded legionnaire. One of them ripped the canvas water bag off the driver’s side mirror bracket, and they took it in turns to have a long drink. Then they hung the bag back on the mirror, turned their backs on the truck, and set out walking across the desert. By now another truck had caught up, but nobody dared get out. Its HBL guard lay prone, covering the bedu with his Lee-Enfield until they were out of range, but he knew better than to fire. When it was clear that the bedu weren’t going to return, the injured trooper was quickly loaded into the cab of the leading vehicle and they headed for Thamud. It was only a thirty-minute drive, but the eighteen-year-old guard, shot in the lungs, his body smashed by the truck, died on the way.

The first two trucks had already arrived with wild tales of bedu attack, and the young mulazzim in charge was trying to organise patrols. Since none of the drivers actually knew what had happened, he was trying to read between the lines and figure out what to do next. So far, nothing really out of the ordinary seemed to have happened. He had correctly figured out that the drivers had most likely run afoul of the “water protocol” – something that occurred frequently, and was usually not very serious.

However, when the young jundi was brought in, the situation escalated dramatically. At first nobody realised that he was actually dead. Abdullah Hassan knelt beside the body and felt for vital signs. It was hardly necessary, he said later. The boy’s eyes were open and covered with dirt, and there was a hole in his chest you could put your fist in.

It was twilight by now, and a Tilly lamp was placed in the centre of the courtyard. Footsteps rattled on the loose cobbles as they carried the body into the yard, and shadows lurched and staggered across the walls. A fire of ‘ulb wood was glowing in a corner, its smoke drifting in gauzy layers. The coals were prodded into life and, as we squatted warming our hands, tea was served in battered enamel mugs. The soldiers, faces glowing copper in the firelight, gathered around us. A steaming pot of goat meat and rice was set before us and a bowl of spicy red sauce. Surprisingly, everyone seemed to be in good appetite.

The mulazzim radioed HBL HQ at Mukalla and requested the urgent presence of a senior British officer. Patrols were readied to leave at first light to search for the killers. Their instructions were to locate, but not to engage. There was still the matter of “water protocol” to settle before any more blood was shed. Some of the soldiers began to prepare the young guard for burial. This only involved cleaning his body and wrapping him in a white shroud. In accordance with sharia law, he would have to be buried tomorrow. The victim, like the killers, Abdullah Hassan told me, was Menhali.

Several groups of bedu – some with flocks to drink from the well – were already camped around the fort. Others arrived during the evening. They also bedded down outside the fort, and soon a dozen or so cook-fires flickered and glowed. That night, all thirteen trucks parked close to the fort. There was no way our terrified drivers – all city boys – were going to sleep anywhere near those wild-looking people. Too scared to camp outside, they were permitted to light their fire and bed down inside the quadrangle.

At dawn, one of the drivers went outside the fort to relieve himself. Tiptoeing among the smouldering campfires, he recognised one group of sleeping bedu. Trembling and nearly incoherent with excitement, he rushed back into the fort and alerted the mulazzim. He was sure that they were the ones responsible for the shooting. He had had to look twice, he said, because he could hardly believe that they would have camped just outside the gate.

The mulazzim quietly gathered a dozen legionnaires who quickly rushed outside and surrounded the sleeping Menhali. The astonished bedu – who awoke to find themselves in a circle of rifles – were quickly disarmed and taken into the quadrangle. The argument that followed was confused and loud, but it was them all right. They all admitted firing shots at the trucks. One, named Abdullah, readily admitted to having shot the young guard. More angry than frightened, he explained how they had asked two trucks for water – by firing shots into the air – and how both had refused to stop. Firing directly into the third truck, they had thought, would surely make it stop, but not so. So to get the water that was “rightfully” his, he had had to shoot to kill.

They clearly saw themselves as more sinned against than sinning. Abdullah regretted, he said, that he had shot the guard and not the driver. But he had only done what custom permitted. And anyway, since everyone inv