Zerky in Storybook Persia

November 19, 1967
Shiraz, Iran

Dear Zerky, these last few days have taken us into the most exotic places we have ever seen. We have found that storybook Persia, the fabled land where camel caravans wind their way through deserts, linking together cities of shining emerald mosques. A quanat system brings water to the gardens of Shiraz, making them nearly as spectacular as the mosque itself. You cannot truly appreciate the beauty of gardens until you have seen them in the context of the desert. The two of them put together create an overall effect of total luxury. It is natural to expect beautiful gardens in bountiful Western Europe and North America where nature has endowed countries with great generosity. But when you see green luxury bursting forth in a sun-parched desert, the effect is truly magical. Because you see, Zerky, there really is magic in Persia: mirages, whirling dervishes and exquisite carpets reputed to fly. This is the birthplace of Zoroaster and of the religion bearing his name. Zoroastrianism still flourishes in some Persian cities with magical names like Yazd, Bam and Zahedan. Persia is the birthplace of Cyrus the Great and of Darius the Great whose son Xerxes once ruled a Persian Empire stretching all the way from India to Egypt, Greece, and to Romania. The capital of King Xerxes’ empire was a place called Persepolis, built by his father, Darius the Great, who ruled Persia from 522 to 486 B.C. Some people say Darius and Zoroaster were friends. At Persepolis you visited the Giant Gate of Xerxes, guarded by two immense stone bulls, and you also visited what is left of Xerxes’ Hall of the One Hundred Columns. Unfortunately, after two and a half thousand years the ruins are not in good shape. Wood was used in some of Persepolis’ original construction before Alexander the Great sacked and burned Persepolis in 331 B.C. Most of the statuary has sat out in the weather for many centuries, and when you were there nobody was around to keep an eye on us. Today, Persepolis is a mess and many of Iran’s historical treasures have been carted off to foreign museums in London and other places in Europe.

Driving through the desert lately, we have become interested in quanats. Quanats are the ancient watering systems on which life in southern Persia has long been based. Just like the Roman aqueduct that you saw in Spain at Segovia, Zerky, in parts of the Iranian desert quanats are still in use today. They do under ground what aqueducts do over ground and are what made Persian civilization possible in the desert. We see them often from our car—long, straight rows of truncated cones in the distance, one to two hundred feet apart, stretching as far as the eye can see, some of which are still in use. They run to the nearest underground water, usually at the base of the nearest mountains or hills. From a distance, they look like giant strings of anthills but in fact they are a long series of man made wells connected by a single horizontal tunnel near their bottoms. Those “anthill” cones you have been seeing on the desert floor are really “people hills,” the detritus painfully hauled out of the shafts and the tunnels below. The horizontal connecting tunnels lie as much as three hundred feet below the surface of the desert, hooking the succession of wells together to create the subterranean rivers that carry water to many of the towns and villages of southern and central Iran. Most of the population here owes its existence to these ingenious survival devices that were dug by hand over hundreds or thousands of years without the benefit of modern engineering. No pipes, culverts nor timbers were used to shore up the shafts and the tunnels, quanats are simply burrows, burrows traditionally dug by children—take note—children who are better able to work in narrow confines in the dark. So be good or you, too, of the blond hair could meet with such a fate.

We bought a book about quanats written by an amateur English scientist who descended into a quanat and went swimming in the dark. There he discovered a previously unknown species of freshwater fish—a species that has evolved in the dark over many centuries—a fish without eyes in a place without light, a fish even whiter than you are, Zerky. For without light there can be no color. Our book is titled Blind White Fish in Persia.

We have been making some friends lately. Not Iranians, alas—the language and cultural barriers make that very difficult—but fellow travelers such as ourselves. First and foremost are “The Swedes,” Lars and Ula whom we met in the campground outside Tehran. They bought an old VW bus for two hundred dollars and are now driving it eastward until it breaks down. Ever since Tehran, we have been playing leapfrog along the road with them. They are younger than we are but are still quite interesting people whom we are beginning to think of as family.

We have also met four young Americans traveling in another beat-up old VW bus, some hippie types from LA. We first saw them at the mosque in Isfahan and then later we passed them on the road, after which we were passed by them in turn. Several times on the road to Shiraz, we also ran into them at Persepolis and then again when we woke up early yesterday morning and spotted the silhouette of a van parked a mile or two away on the flat floor of the desert. Today when we came across their van again, parked far off the road, we couldn’t resist the temptation to go see who the people were. It was about 10:00 am and they were just waking up, after which they told us they had been stopped there for two days. A few days ago they purchased a water pipe in a village bazaar and then when they passed the spot where we found them they decided that, what with all its weird eroded rock formations, it was the perfect place to break in their new water pipe and try out their latest purchase of hash. It was “some real good stuff,” they told us enthusiastically. It got them so stoned that they had not been able to move for the past two days but were hoping to get back on the road before too much longer. The two of them turned out to be a nice young couple, Mike and Fiona, on their way to spend Christmas in Katmandu. They are sharing the gas with Frank and Ben whom they met at a pot party in Istanbul.

Mike and Fiona have an extensive medicine kit, containing, among its more pedestrian drugs, Aralen, a commonly used anti-malaria pill made from quinine that has got to be the most incredibly bitter substance on earth. As you will no doubt testify once you learn how to talk. Prior to Mike and Fiona and their fancy little coated tablets, you had successfully thwarted virtually every attempt your mother and I had made to get our own uncoated tablets down you. You are small but mighty. Even when your mother and I overpowered you and forcibly stuffed Aralen down your darling little throat, you managed to have the last say. In a minute or two, up came the Aralen along with whatever remained of your breakfast. Mike and Fiona’s coated little pills are a godsend. Fiona says you are too cute to get malaria, so she gave us a generous supply. Our daily struggle to get those old uncoated tablets down you had become a serious problem, but now you are holding up well, as is Tarzan who loves it out here in the desert because its such a good place to dig.

—Excerpted from Letters to Zerky

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