by: Ali Rezai, MD
My trip to England was not so well organized. Thus I happened to land in London Airport and then in Manchester Airport sometime in late spring of 1965 without prior notice. I still remember the surprised face of my uncle Mohsen when he opened the door to see me standing there with a suitcase in my hand. We had not seen each other in five years. We hugged and greeted each other warmly. Ever since my childhood I used to love this uncle very much. He was only a few years my senior. Whenever I visited Tabriz in my youth he would treat me well, like he would rent a jeep and teach me how to drive. I had fond memories of him.
He had emigrated to England some five years before and by the time I met him there he was already a graduate engineer in Urban Development from Manchester University. I stayed with him for nearly two months in a house that also housed my younger uncle, Karim, and a cousin named Asad.
We had fun together day in and day out. The picture here shows four of us in a historical British castle in that part of the country. We even took a trip along the Welch countryside driving in a rundown British car, camping at night in a tent. The car had been purchased for a grand sum of 50 or 20 pounds by my uncle! I can't remember exactly how much. It ran well but had major bodily defects, like a big hole in the floor of the passenger compartment. You could see the road go by directly underneath your feet while traveling, and you might say you had a direct view of the road conditions in this manner, a certain advantage compared to modern cars! Amongst the whole crowd I was the only one with a valid driver's license from the United States. Uncle had only a student permit. And Asad had nothing yet. So I played the instructor and my uncle drove the car. Those days were great and we were young and life was good.
Eventually I paired up with an Iranian student in Manchester who wanted to go back to Iran by land. His name I believe was Javad. That was a common practice in those days as there was a profit to be made if you drove a German car to Iran and sold it off in the local market. Of course you would get to tour the entire Eastern Europe into the bargain as well. I was excited about this land trip to Iran. I would get to see half of the Europe for fun, and I was very curious in my own mind to see where exactly on the face of the Earth western culture transitioned into the eastern way of life.
Javad and I traveled to London and a week later continued on by train and boat to Frankfurt in Germany. In the boat we stocked up on a cache of so called duty free Johnny Walker whiskeys, as gifts for back home, but ended up consuming a good part of it ourselves later in this fateful trip. Javad purchased a 1962 Opel Rekord car in Frankfurt which was only three model years old. He made arrangements to have its oil changed and made ready for our trip the following day. The dealership, however, did not do any of that as we learned to our chagrin later in the trip. The aim was for us to join the thousands of people who traveled to the mystical East in search of Nirvana. I am being facetious here. For Javad and I there was no mystery in the East, but such was the talk of the hippy movement of those days who traveled to India in flocks riding VW vans to explore mysterious eastern philosophies and gain back the virtues that had been lost in the West!
Passing Through The Iron Curtain
Distance between Frankfurt and Tehran was only 4,800 kilometers. Most people would cover it in one week or so including some sightseeing along the way, We had intended to do the same, but how wrong we were!... Very wrong indeed..... We spent more than 20 days on that road and for the last few days we were driving day and night continually for 24 hours on end. We had no time to lose or to spare! We experienced many days of extreme despair and destitution on that trip, which was beyond the tolerance of our youthful spirits. Worse yet, we were stranded in communist countries in which none of the familiar channels of communication that we knew of was available.
We started off from Frankfurt in good spirits driving on German autobahns. Very soon. we entered Austria. By night time we were crossing the majestic Alpine mountains in that country and despite it being summer at that time of the year there was snow falling in the elevations. We stayed the night in a modest hotel and very early in the morning set off towards Yugoslavia, as our first encounter with a communist country. I grant you that Yugoslavia under Marshal Tito was not as bad as the rest of the communist countries, but nevertheless it was a communist country.
It was 10 o'clock in the morning and we were driving at our maximum speed over the main Yugoslavian highway towards East. We now had left the cold mountains behind us and were driving along the coastline of the beautiful Mediterranean Sea. This part of the world from Spain to Turkish coastline is very beautiful and unparalleled in the whole world. The weather was very beautiful that day, and we two young youngsters felt ecstatic about the whole world. And why not? We were young, had accomplished many feats, each had a few thousand dollars in our pockets, and were driving towards our homeland while enjoying the scenery around us.
We had just passed Ljubljana and the time was roughly around 10 o'clock in the morning. Suddenly the car's engine started making loud and strange noises and suddenly came to an abrupt halt. Javad and I pushed the car to the side of the road and sat inside it waiting for help. Every half an hour or so a farmer would come by and say something that neither we understood what he said nor he figured out what our problem was. We were simply hungry, thirsty and very much heartbroken and anxious as to what is going to happen to us in that communist country, in the middle of nowhere, and with no one understanding our language.
Stranded in Slovenia
Finally around four o'clock in the afternoon an older man riding a tractor came by with a nice grandfatherly look about him and some white hair flying in the wind about his face. In a rudimentary English he offered to tow our car to the nearest mechanic for a modest fee with his tractor and we agreed. After half an hour of traveling on various farmlands and dirt roads at the slow speed of a tractor we eventually arrived in what appeared to be a large village and shortly thereafter entered a very large courtyard covered with dirt and surrounded by a row of one-story dwellings and shops that obviously had been there since at least the middle ages and never flinched with the passage of time. The courtyard was the playground of many children and village dogs and mixed among them were roosters, hens, and some occasional flock of docks. The structures around were mostly residential dwellings, but amongst them stood out a mechanic's shop, where we had landed, as well as a blacksmith and a barber. Likes of this place are plentiful in less developed parts of the Middle East and are called Caravanserai. And that is exactly what they had been in their glorious past, a place where caravans stayed when in town and their merchants sold off their goods and prepared for the next trip. Needless to say there were no more caravans in our times and these places had turned into poor urban dwellings. I did not need to pinpoint where East met West any longer. I already was in the East despite being only 100 kilometers away from the Italian or Austrian borders. The only distinguishing feature of this Caravanserai was the race of its people. The local inhabitants of Yugoslavia are amongst the most handsome on earth. They are generally tall, blonde, fair skinned and have good figures.
I approached the mechanic and it immediately became apparent that he did not speak English. He could speak some German and did so with a Turkish family who had been traveling from Germany to Turkey but were stranded there due to car problems too. With great difficulty I opened a communication channel with the Turkish man utilizing my version of Turkish and asked him to act as an interpreter between us and the mechanic. It was not easy but we could after all communicate with the mechanic albeit meagerly. We then learned the depth of our calamity. Our car had suffered a major meltdown of its engine bearings due to lack of oil. Ordinarily the remedy for such major damage was to get a rebuilt engine, or perform extensive repairs with factory spare parts. But this was a communist country and they did not have engines or spare parts for German cars. The mechanic promised that he would work on the engine and fabricate some bearing to get it going again but it would take 10-12 days for him to do so.
Everyday Javad and I had nothing better to do but go for a walk around the town and dine at the city park at night. The menu there was 'kabab-kichik' every night. Obviously this was a leftover from the era of Ottoman occupation. It was ground beef shaped like mini-sausages about an inch long that was broiled on charcoal . There was also a constant accompaniment offered at the city park, namely tomatoes and diced onions presented under the name: salata. The combination was very delicious. We enjoyed it for a couple of nights, tolerated it on nights 3-5, and had grown quite averse to it by day 6. Fortunately on that sixth day a new development broke our monotony. The only Moslem resident of the town wanted to meet us.
Yugoslavia consisted of a quilted combination of many different ethnicities. The main part in the middle was Serbia, who were Slavic Christians, but to the west there was a major enclave of Moslems called Bosnia Herzegovina. Beyond that there were Christians again of European race in what is now Slovenia. This is where we were at that time and it so happened that there was a single Moslem living in that village. He had heard about us, two passing by Moslems in town, and wanted to meet us and shake away his long solitude. Towards the evening he showed up on foot and somebody pointed us to him at a distance. He started to walk towards us while quite excited and the further he walked the more excited he became. He stopped several steps in front of me and with his face glowing in an ecstatic expression pointed his finger at me and asked: Muslim? .... Muslim?
I put my palm on my chest and said: Muslim! He sprang forward and embraced me quite emotionally. Then he pulled back, still facing me, and was dying to say something to me, but we both knew well there is no common language between us. He was bursting with excitement but quite helpless when he suddenly shouted
|In the name of the God merciful and generous||
بسم الله الرحمن و الرحیم
To which I responded
|Praise be to the God of both worlds||
الحمد لله و رب العالمین
He had hit on the ultimate medium of communication possible amongst Moslems across the world; the Arabic verses of Quran they all chant in their daily prayers. He and I alternated to chant the entire Arabic verses of the daily prayer. Needless to say, I was no longer a Moslem at that time... but that was besides the point, and trivial. ... very trivial.
The young man invited our entire crew to his house and within half an hour we were sitting around a round table in his lovely courtyard garden enjoying a carafe of local red wine. Mediterranean evenings are very delicate, fragrant, and heavenly, but on that particular evening the air was also vibrant with the sweet spirit of human bondage. As you can guess, the language problem crippled us somewhat, but once the red wine started flowing it did not matter all that much. The scene was funny though, as I have tried to depict in this drawing. On one side of the table the mechanic and his friend might cite some anecdote pertaining to the situation on hand. They would laugh together and then the mechanic would turn to his right and share it in German with the Turkish fellow and they two laugh together. Then of course the Turkish man would translate the joke into Turkish for the benefit of his own family and me who were all seated on his right side. And finally the grand finale; with everybody staring at me and Javad with anxious eyes and laughter in their faces I narrated the episode to Javad in Persian, and we all laughed again!
A few days later our car was ready to go and we drove off. The mechanic and his aide gave us a very emotional farewell. They emptied our pockets as well. Our entire reserve was spent on the repair of that car. We only had a meager budget left that was barely sufficient to get us to Istanbul in Turkey where we could receive additional funds via international transfer. Before leaving town therefore we sent telegrams to have some money remitted to Istanbul in our name, care of the general post office delivery. At the behest of the mechanic we also obtained a document from the local police specifying why we had stayed for so long in that remote Yugoslavian town. The mechanic said without that paper they would cause trouble for us at the border to make sure we were not spying, etc. This was for sure on the East side of the Earth; a totalitarian paranoid government ruling over kind and easy going citizens.
We were not bothered by the Yugoslavian authorities at the border at all. It was the Bulgarian border guards who annoyed us most.. We only had a small cache of Yugoslav Dinars left in our pocket and no western monies, yet the Bulgarian immigration insisted that since we were not native Yugoslavs we could not use Yugoslav money to pay for our transit visa through Bulgaria. I walked over to the bank kiosk on the border area and exchanged all my money into Bulgarian currency and returned to the immigration officer and offered to pay the visa fee in their own money. She again said that is unacceptable, bring dollars or franks, etc. I was so furious I shouted at her 'if you don't accept your own money, how do you expect the rest of the world to accept it?' At any rate, we returned to the gate crossing area and begged the incoming drivers to exchange about $20 worth of their money with us before changing it at the bank. Eventually one Iranian did so and we got our transit visa and set off towards East on Bulgarian roads.
We were driving fast so we would pass through that dreaded country in the shortest time possible, but to no avail. Our car had developed a new problem. Suddenly while driving at full speed the engine would go dead and would not come back until a few hours later. Each time we had to pull over, check the engine, keep starting until eventually our battery drained, and thereafter could only push start by pushing the car, which was unsuccessful 80% of the times anyway. I am pretty adept at auto mechanics. Each time I would dismantle the carburetor, and check out the distributor, and the coil, and cables, etc. And lo and behold they all checked! Both of us were scared now. Two youngsters, 23 years of age who were hungry, lonely and penniless, stranded in the wilderness of a backward country with a totalitarian communist government.
On the second day after several off and on episodes with the car we were near the Turkish border and very hopeful that we would make it out of Bulgaria before the night set in. Right at that moment though the car quit again and no matter what we tried it would not budge. We went through the usual routine of checking the engine and I removed the air cleaner on top of the carburetor and put it on the ground. We attempted to jump start the car and since the road was on a hill sloping backwards, we turned the car around and let it coast downhill rather than we pushing it uphill for starting. Doing so, however, we were about a mile away from our original spot. From that distance I realized that a vagabond van stopped by and picked up our carburetor damper and made away with it. It is a relatively worthless piece of hardware, but nevertheless it is needed to dampen the sound of the engine and clean the air going into the cylinders. From there on our car would roar loudly wherever we went! . It was 6 o'clock in the afternoon and we decided to settle down for the night.
In short order a Bulgarian truck stopped on the roadside and its driver joined us on the banks of the road. Citizens in communist countries were curious about the world outside the so called Iron Curtain. They would like to know what is going on in the West and especially were curious about the prices of commodities. This guy also would point to my shirt or my shoes and rubbing two fingers together enquired about the price using the universal gesture language. Of course we did not have a common language so I had to inscribe my answer on the ground dirt using a stick. He would be amazed and shake his head. Then we asked him the same question and it turned out a pair of shoes there would cost a full month's worth of a truck driver's salary. Eventually he left but in short order a Bulgarian Highway Patrol arrived on a motorcycle.
He checked our passports but could not ask any questions as he did not know any English. Fortunately at this time a shepherd came by with his flock of sheep going to his village. Since it was near the Turkish border there the shepherd boy knew Turkish and I started again barely communicating in Turkish with the shepherd boy and through him with the police. His first question was where we were headed and I replied Istanbul. He took a step backward and looked at us suspiciously head to toe. Then said sarcastically, as if he had caught the enemy spies red handed, 'how come your car is facing away from Istanbul if what you are saying is true that you were going to Istanbul.' At the time I was so angry and bitter that I blurted out we were just teasing nosy stupid Bulgarian policemen, but also added that we somehow had found it easier to let the car coast downhill to start it, rather than push it uphill. I'm pretty certain the young boy did not translate any of my ranting and simply relayed the facts. The policeman told us to stay the night over there and he would come in the morning and arrange transportation for us. We spent the night in the car there.
True to his word the policeman showed up at 6:30 in the morning and with a single gesture of a finger stopped a passing by truck immediately. He ordered the driver of the truck to chain our car to his truck, and told him to tow us to the next town. I was behind the wheel and I clearly remember how sad and down trodden I was feeling at that moment. My main concern was how we were going to pay for this truck's service and the mechanic in the next town? We did not have any money. I eventually thought of a transistor radio that we had in the trunk and I figured we would donate it to the mechanic. Such goodies are relatively expensive and valuable in communist countries. While on the road though I decided to try one more time to get the car to start. While being hauled by the truck, I put the gear in second shift, turned the ignition switch on and gently released the clutch pedal. The poor Opel stuttered a bit but then it came on alive and its engine roared. Needless to describe to you our happiness at that moment. We were very, very, very happy. From that point on we were honking and trying to draw the attention of the truck driver which eventually we did. We thanked him profusely, got unchained and darted towards the Turkish border like mad animals!
Twenty minutes later we were inside Turkey and within an hour's drive from Istanbul when the engine quit again. But fortunately this time around I figured out the culprit. It was a worthless but nevertheless important piece of hardware. A graphite stick that connected the center wire of the distributor to the rotor and thereby to the spark plugs on cylinders. There was nothing quite like it available in the middle of the boonies that we had been stranded in. Thus I took a radio battery and dug out the graphite core of it and trimmed and cut into the appropriate size and installed it in the car's distributor. That car ran gloriously from that point on till I bid farewell to it in Tehran two weeks later.We spent the night on the European side of the Bosphorus planning to go to the city in the morning and claim the money that we were expecting to have arrived there for us. We were in a nature park located on a cliff overlooking the sea separating us from Istanbul. It was a beautiful night and all kinds of vendors were preparing kabobs and other foods around us and spreading their heavenly aromas in the nocturnal breeze. We had no money as yet but were happy. So I opened a bottle of Johnny Walker whiskey that we had bought on the ship from England and started to slowly sip and enjoy the life as we watched the majestic nightline of Istanbul reflecting on the surface of the Bosphorus. Life was truly beautiful. Obviously pure whiskey had made us tipsy. Then one of the beggars approached us and asked me who was sitting behind the wheel for money. I offered him what we were having and told him in Turkish "I have this", pointing to dried bread crumbs, "and this", showing the whiskey bottle. If you want, join in, but we don't have money." He uttered a few words that if you don't want to help, just don't. You don't need to be sarcastic towards poor people. He was right of course, but we were right as well. In this instance everybody was right.
The next morning we hurried to the post office in downtown Istanbul and searched hard for anything in our name. There was nothing. We came back the morning after and the morning after that. The results were the same. Thereafter we searched hard in the pockets of our clothing and collected all our loose changes and converted them to Turkish money. With that we could buy some bread and some grapes to dampen our hunger momentarily. Obviously we were running out of all viable options. Thus, out of desperation, we ended up going to the Iranian consulate in Istanbul and told our story and asked that they give us a loan from their emergency fund. The Consul who was a very nice fatherly looking man listened to us compassionately and said my sons we don't have such an emergency fund here. I will give you 300 Liras in Turkish money from my own pocket to be paid back to my sister in Tehran. We insisted on giving him a receipt for that money, but his answer was you will pay it back if you want to, not if you don't. A receipt is only a piece of paper. There are few times in life that you may get to see with your own eyes the beautiful soul of a noble man. On that day I witnessed the noble spirit of Mr. consulate general of Iran in Istanbul nakedly in front of my own eyes.
300 Liras probably sufficed just for our gasoline costs to Iran. We thus set off immediately towards the Iranian border driving continuously day and night without wasting a minute The distance was about 1,550 kilometers. After Ankara it turned into a dirt road and the closer we got to the Iranian border, the more deteriorated the road conditions were. Our food was some bread and occasionally a little grape or cheese that we bought from villagers whom we saw on the road. Early in the morning of the second they we were coming out of a city which probably was Erzurum a little old man waved at us and asked we give him a ride to his village which was twenty some kilometers down the road and we agreed. Once there though we realized we have to go down from the top of the mountain where we were to the bottom of the adjacent valley in order to reach his house. It required extra gas, but we went anyway.
The old man insisted that we go in and share breakfast with him. We complied gladly, as we had not eaten properly in so many days. His four sons immediately spread out a magnificent food cloth and brought out all kinds of village goodie like breads, cheese, butter, fresh cream, a host of pastries and marmalades, and hot tea. I enjoyed myself immensely. It had been more than a month that I had not had a nice cup of hot Persian tea. I truly gulped it down with desire. I commented and specifically admired his tea. He said he gets it from Iran. Then he brought some money to give to us so we can buy and bring him Iranian tea on our way back. With great difficulty we convinced him to pay us in the future when we actually would deliver the tea to him! Then we bid farewell to the nice old villager and his sons, drove back up to the mountain, and continued on our path to The East. The next day as the Sun's morning rays were beginning to shine on Mount Ararat we saw a dilapidated Turkish road sign that meant the end of our long ordeal. It said 'Iran Hodudi' meaning Iranian Border. For the first time in twenty some days I saw our nightmare coming to an end. I relaxed and let the sun's rays paint my face red and delve into the depth of my heart as I was stepping on my homeland again after such a long and drawn out anguish.
Home At Last
Twenty minutes later we two youngsters, exhausted from our long and despairing journey through inhospitable lands and covered with the dust of thousands of kilometers of hard roads, eventually reached the skirts of our motherland and rested in her bosom peacefully. This was the major port of entry for North West of Iran and was called Bazargan. It consisted of a cluster of lackluster buildings interspersed with hundreds of buses, trucks and some cars all in a haphazard manner. Around the perimeter there was some loading docks and some amenities like restaurant, etc to serve the passengers. Going through the paperwork for our car took some time and it was nearly noon hour before we got to the last station, which was a bank. Next to the bank some stairs led upstairs to a restaurant and at that time of the day the smell of kabob emanating from that place was driving everybody crazy. The bank took the title of our car in escrow and issued a guaranty for the customs that we will pay the import duty and do the paperwork in Tehran. The bank clerk signed and handed us the documents and then asked: "do you need money too?" Javad and I looked surprisingly at each other and the bank clerk and I asked: "do you give money to passengers here?" To which he replied: "sure, we have your car title in escrow and we can lend you money on that too." Javad as the owner of the car immediately asked for 5000 rials and the good clerk counted and gave to us five crisp notes of 100 toomans each.
That was a fortune for us at that moment and quite unexpected. We immediately went up to the restaurant and sat by a table. The server came up and asked what we wanted? To which we replied, like those having escaped a famine: "bring everything, chelo-kabab soltany with extra skewers of koobideh times ten, and grilled tomatoes, and yes ... don't forget such paraphernalia as onions, egg yolks, bread, and dough, and so on."
After that heavy lunch and full of our youthful contentment with life we sped off towards Tehran. Local time was around midnight when Javad eventually dropped me off at Jaleh Ave - Noorayee St, No 94. We hugged and bid each other farewell. In a very short span of time we had grown very fond of each other as we had lived through many unforeseen calamities of life together and grown very close to each other spiritually. We kissed each other's face ... wished each other luck ... and went our own separate ways.