Zerky in Tehran

Map of Iran

November 14, 1967

Dear Zerky, at last we have made it to Tehran. A month ago, we were in Europe talking about whether it might be possible to drive to here. To me, Persia had always been just another one of those legendary places people love to write about but seldom actually go to—up until we met that German couple on the beach in Peloponnesia. To our great surprise, we have discovered that driving to Tehran is not all that difficult; anyone with a reasonably dependable vehicle and a sense of adventure could do it. In the campground where we are currently staying on the southwestern edge of Tehran, there are several groups of people traveling in vehicles that few of us would characterize as being “reasonably dependable.” Many of the “hippies” in our campground have simply pooled their money in order to buy a junker and are now in the process of driving it eastwards until it breaks down irreparably. Then they will sell it for a song and start hitchhiking or otherwise improvise their way along “The Road to Katmandu.”

Probably the most dangerous part of our trip has been driving inside this giant city. The drivers here are unbelievable. Whenever we drive into the central district, we feel like kamikazes taking off on our final mission. Somehow I had imagined Tehran to be the center of Persian culture full of ancient mosques, magic carpets and Omar Khayyams sitting under date palms, sipping mint tea and eating their dates, if you catch my drift which I hope you don’t, that sort of thing. But to our great surprise, Tehran appears to have nothing to do with such images as these, but is rather a large, modern, western-style city of over six million people, most of whom seem to be careening about in automobiles. No narrow twisting streets full of carts and donkeys here, instead we see wide landscaped boulevards full of scary steel projectiles hurtling along like rockets from outer space. There don’t even seem to be any traffic laws here, only a token sign now and then that nobody pays any attention to other than traumatized foreigners such as ourselves who cannot read anything written in this funny looking fancy script. We are not even sure of what kind of writing it is, although it sort of looks like maybe its Arabic or maybe Farsi. Either way, driving in Athens and Paris was kid stuff compared to driving in this total chaos. Two of our fellow campers have already had accidents and, as soon as they told us about them, we rushed on down to an automobile club and took out a special kind Iranian insurance policy. I doubt anyone else even bothers with insurance in Iran. Still, the club was more than agreeable towards relieving us of our American dollars.

Money: we went to the bank yesterday to exchange some American Express Traveler’s checks for Iranian Rials. We also thought we would take advantage of this good opportunity to pick up a few Pakistani Rupees and some Afghan Afghanis so we would have a small amount of local currency on hand when we enter Pakistan and Afghanistan. We had no problem getting the Rials, but the teller told us we would have to go see one of the moneychangers on the sidewalk across the street in order to get the Pakistani and Afghan money. Normally, we try to steer clear of such street hustlers, but since the bank was sending us to them specifically, well, we decided to give it a try. Which turned out to be a harrowing experience.

For at least half an hour we went around in circles, trying to get the moneychanger (who spoke English only when it served his purposes) to answer one simple question: “What rate will you give us on Afghanis and on Pakistani Rupees, in exchange for American Dollars?” The guy had a bottomless bag of tricks and we never did manage to get a straight answer out of him. It went something like this: if we were to give him so many dollars then he would give us so many Pakistani Rupees in return, provided we would also take a large number of Afghanis plus a vague and uncertain number of Indian Rupees. “But we don’t want any Indian Rupees,” we told him, “just a few Afghanis to tide us over until we can get to a bank in Afghanistan.” Well then, if we did not want a whole lot of Afghanis, he could still give us a few Pakistani Rupees so long as we were interested in buying even more of those same Indian Rupees we did not want any of in the first place. No? Well then, how about some Rubles? He could give us a very good deal on Rubles. In Russia, we could exchange them for Pakistani Rupees and take them into Pakistan where we could spend as many of them as we liked, before taking the remaining ones back out of Pakistan and into India where we could then exchange whatever we had left for mucho, mucho more of those same Indian Rupees that we never wanted any of in the first place. The fact that we were not going to Russia was of no consequence, we were going to love Russia, he assured us. Calculator in hand, he kept coming at us with a bewildering array of such scenarios, all of which were obviously designed to separate us from our American Dollars.

Luckily, your mother once worked in a bank and is good at handling money. Were it not for her cool head and agility with numbers, our foray into enemy territory would have been a total disaster. Then, for no apparent reason, our moneychanger just rolled over and gave up, telling us that our original proposal was just fine. By the time your mother finally OK’d the deal, I was on the brink of giving him anything he wanted, just to get away from him. Exhausted, we left with a strange assortment of very large and beat up tired-looking, funny-looking bills. Then, when we got back to our car, one of the tires was flat.

We soon discovered a half-inch slit in the side of the rear tire. Cursing these damn thieves, I got out the jack and started getting ready to put the spare tire on, at which point some young juvenile delinquent darted onto the scene and started falling all over me in an attempt to help me change the tire but I instantly knew he was a street hustler, or perhaps I should say, just another poor Iranian trying to make a living off foreign tourists. However he did speak a little English, so I taught him a new American expression. “Shove off.” We Americans may seem stupid I would show him we are not so stupid as to be incapable of changing our own damn flat tire. Only when I had at last managed to get rid of him and managed to change my tire all by myself, did it occur to me that he was probably the very same guy who had previously stuck a knife into my tire. So here he was a budding entrepreneur with a novel business model; when demand was slow he simply went out and created a market for his services.

Yesterday we had an interesting experience at the petrol pump. I told the attendant to “fill’ er up,” an ungrammatical English statement that every gas station attendant in the world understands. Per usual, I got out of the car to make sure the pump had been zeroed out before he started pumping gas. A little slow on the draw, by the time I got there the pump was already running and, even worse, I could not read the weird numerals that were already clicking on by. They were of course in Arabic script like all the other writing on the pump. Soon I began getting that clammy paranoid feeling that tells me I’m in trouble, and—sure enough—as soon as the tank was full the attendant handed me a piece of paper with an exorbitant number written on it. We argued for a while, each of us in our own language the other could not understand. My own message, however, was delivered to him loud and clear, and very simple: I was not going to pay! “How many liters are you charging me for?” I demanded. “Liters, Litres, Litros,” I tried them all, after which, to my surprise, the gas station attendant wrote down a number in western-style numerals, a number that was much too large, at which point I got out the Volkswagen Service Manual. Under “Specifications” was listed “Total Tank Capacity in Liters” and the number in the manual was substantially less than what he had written on that slip of paper. And the gas gauge was not even on empty when I had pulled in to gas up. So I showed the guy the manual and pointed out to him where it read “Tank Capacity,” and then started yelling and acting very upset, an easy thing for me to do given the circumstances. “You are trying to cheat me. Cheat me, cheat me!,” I yelled, “Cheat, cheat, cheat like a thief, thief, thief! Hah! Now I had the bastard flat-footed! But the problem still was that I could not read the pump and had no idea of how much I owed him for my now full tank of gas. Clearly, I owed him something. But now he was sullen and would not respond to me but only shrugged. Which really pissed me off, at which point I considered simply driving away without paying him anything but—thinking better of it—I peeled off a few of the bills your mother and I had already been cheated on by the moneychanger and angrily stuffed them into his outstretched hand. Once again, he just shrugged, whatever that means. Is a shrug better than a no?

Your mother and I find business transactions here in Tehran to be very trying. We are used to being pestered by people trying to sell us things, but what we find so unusual here is being pestered by people trying to buy things from us. For example, Tarzan seems to be very popular here in Tehran. We don’t know why this is, but people keep asking us how much we want for him? We tell them, “no, he’s not for sale, he’s part of our family,” which inevitably leads to a higher offer. “No” seems to mean “yes,” here, “yes we are negotiating.” It appears to me that everything in Iran is for sale. Lots of people are interested in our VW bus, many of whom have never before seen such a car you can live in. At first we would occasionally show off the interior to people who seemed interested, just to be polite and to strike up a conversation. We don’t do that anymore. Always it seems to elicit the question: “how much are you asking for it?” More people want to sell us things than to buy things from us however. “We have no use for your Persian carpet,” I told a guy, “we live in our car and we don’t have a floor large enough to put a carpet on.” “Why would you want to put this beautiful carpet on your floor?” he replied. “To do such a thing would wear it out. You must hang it onto your wall so you can look at it and then, when you are in one of the many countries you are traveling to, you will sell it for far more than you shall pay me for it.” “But I’m not in the carpet-selling business!” He did not believe me. After all, what kind of man would pass up an opportunity to sell something at a profit? Buying and selling things here in Iran do not seem to be ends in and of themselves but rather only steps in the eternal process of life. No doubt that is why nothing in the stores has a price tag on it. With everything for sale, a fixed price would probably be an impediment to reselling things. But what with everyone in Iran being so versed in the art of buying and selling, what chance does a poor westerner have?

Dear Zerky, the notion of the “fair price” is one of those truly big ideas the likes of which I hope you might want to try to get your mind around someday. The fair price is an issue that has plagued western civilization for centuries. The “fair price,” the “asking price,” the “selling price,” the “buying price,” the “fixed price,” the “right price,” the “real price.” How do you know what any of those prices truly are? Capitalism, Communism, Catholicism, they all had big ideas as to this subject. Wars, crusades, the holocaust. These too are part of it. You see, in medieval Europe the Catholic Church believed it its duty to regulate the moral behavior of its flock, back when its reach extended into areas of behavior that we think of today as within the province of the State, including economic behavior and, especially, commercial and financial transactions.

In 1515 AD, at the Council of Letran in conjunction with a ban on usury, the Catholic Church issued an edict known as the fair price doctrine, which declared all prices set by anyone other than the church to be illegal. This idea was an outgrowth of a statement in the Bible saying bread has to be made by sweat of the brow. Un-sweated-for profits were looked upon as they were to be looked upon much later by Karl Marx: as perversions of the law of nature akin to incest, which, if left unchecked, would ultimately destroy the society in which profits were allowed to flourish. As is the case with both interest and incest, the damage unleashed by profit was seen to compound over time, leading slowly but surely to a feeding-frenzy of economic cannibalism. Today’s multinational corporations come to mind. Under the doctrine of the fair price, only the price that the Church had already determined to be fair was allowed to be charged for a particular item. Presumably, this was a well-meaning attempt to shield desperate and unsophisticated people from being taken advantage of—perhaps in the same way your father was taken advantage of earlier today. This was a nice idea, protecting people from victimization by unscrupulous sellers, but the Church was soon to realize that it had bitten off more than it could chew. As it became increasingly clear that greed was a more powerful motivator in the short run than was hell and damnation in the long run, the fair price doctrine began to require continual modifications in order to accommodate special situations and special interests. This is where my sense of outrage at the gas station came from today, Zerky, my idea that the price of a tank of gas should be “fair.” Under our system of Capitalism, the price that is fair is any price at all that a willing buyer and seller can agree upon. The sky is the limit. If you do not like the seller’s price, you can always walk away. Still, this is not a very satisfying alternative when it is a two hundred mile walk to the nearest gas pump and then another two hundred miles back again, carrying a can of gasoline.

I should hasten not to make too big an issue out of “thievery” in the Middle East, Zerky, we Americans are quick to blame others who don’t share our values. When we are on other people’s turf, rich westerners such as ourselves no doubt do have some dollars stolen from them from time to time, but this pales in comparison with what we have stolen from Iran. We stole their entire country. More precisely, we stole the government of their country, not to mention much of their country’s oil reserves.

In 1953, our government got upset with Iran because its Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, tried to nationalize the Iranian oil industry that had been formerly owned and controlled by BP (British Petroleum Corporation). But, like most Iranians, Mossadegh thought that the Iranian oil industry rightfully belonged to Iran. Our President back then, General Eisenhower, did not like Mr. Mossadegh’s idea because Eisenhower believed that the Iranian oil industry belonged to our friends, the British. So Eisenhower had the CIA get together with some Iranian Generals and together they overthrew the elected Mossadegh government in what French people call a coup d’etat. And then some other guys in our government went out and found themselves another Iranian guy to run things for us, a guy who liked us a whole big bunch for making him so special and so much richer than he already was. This new guy’s name is Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi, often known as the Shah of Iran. He’s the guy who owns all those crown jewels you saw yesterday in the National Museum. Do you remember all those pretty diamonds in that beautiful crown? You see, Zerky, the Shah loves to wear his beautiful crown. That is what all those pretty Christmas decorations we have been seeing are about. Just like you, the Shah loves to play with his toys, which is why he keeps re-staging his coronation. That gives him another opportunity to wear his jewels and to play with his beautiful diamonds. This Shaw guy, Zerky, is the richest guy in Iran and—thanks to us—also the most powerful. The Shah of Iran likes to play coronation because that is his way of telling people that he is in charge. He has to do that a lot these days because many people don’t believe he really is in charge. They think he is just a puppet created by the Americans. You remember puppets don’t you, Zerky, all those funny little wooden guys going in and out of those clocks we saw in Switzerland?

So you see, Zerky, Iran does not simply belong to Iranians, a little bit of it belongs to you and to me, too, and to all our other fellow Americans who benefit from the world’s cheapest gasoline prices every time we tell them in our worldwide petroleum lingo to “fill’er up.” Just please try to remember that it is our tax money that financed the overthrow of Iran’s duly elected government. That was done in our name and it is to you and I that the resultant benefits accrue. “We stole it fair and square.” So when you grow up, Zerky, please try to be thoughtful before passing judgment on people from foreign cultures whose history you do not understand. And when at last you traveling on your own, please try to be aware that you are often the beneficiary of your own government’s exploitive foreign policies, and that you—too—have dirt on your hands.

JoAnne and Zerky at Persepolis

JoAnne and Zerky at Persepolis

—Excerpted from Letters to Zerky

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