Zerky in the Great Sand Desert

Map of Iran

Iran's Great San Desert

Iran's Great San Desert

November 22, 1967. Dear Zerky, this morning you gave us quite a scare. We were camped near the road at the base of a rocky ridge, four or five hundred feet above us. I was standing outside the bus, finishing the breakfast dishes, while you were wandering around and Tarzan was lying underneath the car in the shade. Suddenly an exotic tribesman in flowing white robes and a wild floppy turban straight out of the National Geographic magazine rode up on a beautiful black Arabian horse. Your mother poked her head out of the bus to see what was going on. Soon all four of us were standing there, smiling at each other and admiring the horse. The tribesman was very polite and friendly, seeming to be as interested in us and in our conveyance as we were in him and in his. We tried talking to each other in a mixture of pantomime, gestures and body language, which seems to be our primary means of communication these days. Besides our bus, Zerky, he was also interested in you and in Tarzan. Babies and dogs, that’s how you get elected. Before long, he had our vote of confidence. You fell in love with the horse.

After a bit of attempted chitchat, our wandering tribesman climbed back onto his horse and gestured down to you, offering you a ride. What an opportunity! You were as excited as I was. Both your mother and I found his manner to be very pleasant and friendly, and I soon I found myself hoisting you up onto the horse and into the tribesman’s outstretched arms. I had assumed he was simply going to trot you around the car, but instead, wrapping one arm around you and pressing you back into the crook of his saddle, he slapped his horse on the rump and the three of you went charging up the road at full gallop. After a few hundred feet, he made a turn to the right and then started climbing up the ridge at an angle. As the grade grew steeper, the horse began to struggle, setting off small rockslides as you climbed ever higher and higher. You were heading for the top of the ridge, a quarter mile away while your mother and I watched with increasing horror as you grew smaller and smaller. How could I ever have been so stupid! He had seemed so friendly, so gentle, and then the unthinkable: Middle-Eastern people seem to have a thing about blond children. That run-in with the Turkish soldiers flashed through my mind as I started thinking about how people cannot seem to keep their hands off your blond head. How much might such a boy fetch in some Arab bazaar, I wondered? Paranoia ran rampant. How were we going to find you? Even though the horse’s hooves were leaving intermittent marks on the rock-strewn slope below, such scattered markings would be insufficient to track you. That would take bloodhounds. Do they even have bloodhounds in Iran? I should call the police! But what is their telephone number and where is there a telephone? Why would there even be any phone or any policemen out here in this godforsaken desert? There was not a town within seventy-five miles. And even if I could find some policemen, would they be willing and able to find you? What had they accomplished that day up on the slopes of Mount Ararat? Would they even care? How angry are they still at us Americans for having stolen their country? Such were the thoughts that raged through my mind as you grew smaller and smaller. Your mother stood still, mute and petrified.

Gradually the horse began to slow as it grew tired from the climb. As you approached the top of the ridge, I prayed that you not disappear down the other side. If your horse didn’t stop, by the time I could climb up to you, you would be long gone. Please God or Allah or whatever your name is—I was ready to convert on the spot to anyone or anything that would answer my prayer.

At the top of the ridge, the horse slowed to a walk, and then stopped. There, silhouetted against a fluffy white cloud in a pale blue sky, was an angel in the arms of a man in flowing white robes on a jet black Arabian horse. You were a biblical vision, Zerky. Then, in a minute or two, the horse began turning counterclockwise oh so slowly. Halfway around, you were finally facing us once again. I waved to you and then, lest my wave be misconstrued as a goodbye, I raised my other arm and moved it toward you in a hooking, come-back-little-Zerky sort of motion. The tribesman then picked up your arm and waved back to me. His horse continued swinging full circle until once again you were facing the valley on the other side of the ridge. We stood there terrified as you kept on swinging until you finally stopped when you were once again facing us. “Maybe he’s just showing him the view,” I ventured to your mother, feeling hopeful and stupid simultaneously. Then, after an eternal minute, the horse started slip sliding its way back down the hill in a rush of rocks and gravel. Soon you were back at the car, beaming. Yours was no pony ride at the zoo, Zerky, now you were Zerky of Arabia. By the time our now gallant tribesman handed you back down to me, your mother and I were on the verge of tears. A now wonderful tribesman had returned you safely to us at the end of an even more wonderful ride. Who was he, this mysterious stranger on horseback? Where had he come from, where was he going? Why had he given us such a scare?

Like all good cowboys at the ends of all good cowboy shows, the apparition smiled and rode off.

—Excerpted from Letters to Zerky


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