Zerky in Persia

Map of Iran

November 7, 1967
From Chalus in Iranian Azerbaijan

Dear Zerky,

Dear Zerky, after hundreds of miles of interminable earth-colored roads, landscapes and houses, the Iranian border came as colorful relief. The Shah of Iran is restaging his coronation and all the government buildings along the border are decorated up like Christmas trees in the colors of the Iranian flag, red, black and green.

Upon crossing into Iran, to our great surprise we discovered that we are in Azerbaijan. We thought Azerbaijan was in the Soviet Union and we never had intended to go there. And even if we had, this is not how we would have expected it to look. Instead of green fields and orange groves, we find only barren dry land and an occasional irrigation project. As was the case in eastern Turkey, Iranian Azerbaijan strikes us as an awful place to live. All was redeemed, however, by our first camel, a whole caravan of them in fact, ambling down the road in their long-legged deceptively slow gait. They were a tonic to our rain-soaked souls, our first taste of the romantic Persia of childhood fantasies. Your namesake, Xerxes, used to own this place.

Camels in the snow of Persia

Camels in the snow of Persia

A few hours later we arrived in Tabriz, Iran’s second largest city, where we spent the day getting our car serviced. This provided us with an opportunity to go exploring on foot. In contrast to eastern Turkey where the men wear more or less Western style clothing, in Tabriz I found the younger women to be quite striking and exotic. As part of his coronation, the Shah of Iran has issued a decree banning the veil, a decree that does not appear to be having much effect. Most of the women around here still appear in public in large flowing shawls of high-grade dark blue and brown material that they coquettishly and belatedly, pull up over the lower parts of their faces in the presence of men. Beneath their shawls, you often catch glimpses of expensive western-style dresses. But they don’t fool me, these Iranian women enjoy teasing men. As for myself, I find them to be quite sexy: a pair of dark almond eyes and a pair of spiked heels, peeking out at you from opposite ends of a lovely Persian shawl—my imagination runs riot even though Mother Nature may not have endowed their in-betweens with as much generosity as she has endowed my prurient interest.

Driving around Tabriz, while trying to find our way out of this huge city, a police officer on a bicycle pulled us over and demanded that I follow him to the police station. I must have violated some traffic law, I figured, that sort of thing is easy to do when you cannot read traffic signs written in Farsi. On the other hand, exactly why ignoring traffic signs should be a problem here isn’t at all clear to me. Everyone else ignores them. My guess is that once again I was the rich foreigner who was about to pay his dues.

For nearly an hour we cooled our heels in the police station, where I spent much of my time contemplating the unfairness of law enforcement authorities who use otherwise non enforced laws to harass people they don’t like. Finally they brought in a translator, who told us to go with some officers and unload the top of the bus. “Everything?” I groaned. After eight months of living in it, our Volkswagen is no longer an automobile but rather a household on wheels. “Everything!”

We still don’t know why that cop stopped us; we hadn’t been searched the entire trip. As the police officers started picking through our things, we began to get the picture. They were especially interested in our food compartment. “What is this?” Their translator picked up a box of your baby food, sifting a little white-powdered Cream of Wheat through his fingers. “And this?” A bottle of aspirin tablets. And then finally, way down deep they came across the first of more than a hundred little glass containers. Here was pay dirt and our inquisitors studied them with great interest. “For the baby,” I smiled, pointing to the picture of the little baby on the label, a baby whom, I might add, is not nearly as cute as you are, Zerky. It soon became apparent that they were looking for drugs. Opium is grown extensively in both Turkey and Iran. Then one of our officials came across several boxes of dried brown pellets, a few of which he poured out into his hand and squeezed between his thumb and forefinger. They looked like hashish. “Kibbled dog food,” I told him, pointing to the picture of the happy little dog on the side of the box. Then they tasted the salt in one of the many little saltshaker boxes we had stocked up on in Athens, and then our powdered milk in cardboard cans, and even our cornflakes. They finally arrived at our first aid kit containing everything from sore throat spray to perianal ointment. By then it was obvious to us that they had never before seen many of our things. The contents were generally printed on the packaging but nearly always in German, French, Italian or English, all of which are as incomprehensible to them as were their traffic signs to us. In most of Asia, packaged foods and drugs such as we take for granted in the West are virtually unknown. Gradually JoAnne and I began feeling sorry for our captors as we watched their authoritarian attitude at the beginning of the search give way to surprise and wonderment as their search progressed. Towards the end, they appeared to have lost all interest in finding anything illegal, they were simply taking advantage of an opportunity to muck around in our wonderful, magical stuff. We Westerners are now the ones out of the Arabian Nights, the ones with the all the latest improvements to their magic carpets. They were the Keystone Cops. When one of them came across a box of tampons and held one up inquisitively, your mother and I cracked up.

Later, when they were gone, we laughed some more about how they probably thought they had nabbed a couple of arms smugglers smuggling in some new kind of high-powered American ammunition.

They finally signaled for us to pack up our stuff and come back to the office when we were finished. An hour later, when we finally got the car back together, we went to the office in order to retrieve our passports. It had all been a mistake, the commissioner offered politely. If we would just sign a sworn statement they had prepared, we could go. We had to swear that we were who we were and that you were who you were, Zerky, and that Tarzan was who he was and still was. “Tarr-sa-an,” the commissioner sounded it out phonetically, his pen tracing beautiful Arabic script backwards from right to left. “What good is this dog?” he suddenly demanded. “What good?” I asked, confused. “This dog must be good for something,” he prodded. “What is his purpose?” I’d never thought about that before. “He must be good for something?” the commissioner pressed on, sensing my befuddlement. “Can this dog hunt? What does he hunt? Does he herd sheep? He is very small!” “He belongs to the baby,” I finally told him, passing the buck to you, Zerky. “He protects us from robbers, he barks and he scares them away.” The commissioner wrote it all down and then made each of us sign a series of statements swearing that each and every one of the statements, individually and collectively, were true. Then, as soon as JoAnne and I had finished initialing every item on the list, all the officers stood up and said together, as if on cue, “Welcome to Iran! You are free to go.”
—Excerpted from Letters to Zerky

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