All afternoon I watched three shadows moving beneath us. Mine in front, Akbar’s at the rear and between us the mule’s: its shadow legs, twenty feet long, jerking like a spider’s over the glowing thorn scrub. I felt happiest in the afternoons. The flat glare of noon had gone but the day was not yet over. Staring at that shadow image of our motion and our isolation on the 7000-foot ridgeline, I said: ‘Isn’t it beautiful?’
‘Not for me.’
Akbar did not reply. He often didn’t reply.
I hadn’t imagined that I would have Akbar with me when I crossed Iran. I planned to walk around the world, a journey which seemed to me to be very simple. I was able to explain it to my five-year-old godson and he said he would follow me on a map. I left my job and travelled on three dollars a day, like a backpacker. But I thought that my slow pace and physical contact with the ground would help me understand the Asian landscape better. Since I would be moving at an archaic speed on old pilgrimage and trade routes, or passes used by Alexander, and sleeping in remote villages, often inaccessible to cars, I hoped to develop a different view of local cultures from other travellers. I was also interested in what two years walking on my own would do to the way I thought.
An Iranian official met me at the Turkish border and said: ‘It is forbidden to walk across Iran.’
‘But you can hitchhike, ride or cycle.’
‘Yes, but you cannot walk.’
We debated the subject for a week and they finally agreed that I could walk, on condition that I took a Government escort. Akbar is older than me. He is half a civil servant and half a climber: he has reached the summit of Everest. But he was not a guide because he did not know the way and he was not quite a companion because he walked a hundred yards in front of or behind me. I suspect he hated the walk. His Iranian gym shoes, with the label ‘Nike by Ralph Lauren’, rubbed his feet raw. He never complained but in the evenings I saw him trying various homeopathic remedies. He soaked his feet in henna until they were dyed purple. I can only guess why the Government wanted him with me but we spent every night together and he shaped my understanding of the journey. He often repeated the phrase: ‘Iranians are famous for their hospitality and generosity.’
In the course of three months we were differently mistrusted almost every night in every village. Villagers assumed that, as strangers on foot, we were dangerous men. So did the police. Sometimes we concealed Akbar’s Government credentials, sometimes we emphasised them, but neither approach seemed to overcome the hostility. People often said that his identity card and my passport were forgeries. Nobody believed I was a foreigner. They thought I was only pretending to speak bad Farsi. Their fears are a reflection of the violence of the Iranian countryside. A man from the north-east told us that four hundred Afghans with automatic weapons had kidnapped his father from his village a few months before and only released him for a ransom of a thousand dollars.
Many villagers assumed that we were smuggling drugs. One man, who offered us opium before dinner, said that in his village 70 per cent of the men and women smoked between two and twelve grams a day. He blamed the problem on British sales of opium in the 19th century. The more aggressive aspects of the Government’s anti-narcotics campaign have terrified villagers and some would not sell us bread because they were afraid they would be arrested for aiding drug-smugglers.
What we were accused of most often was digging for archaeological treasures on a nearby tumulus, or in the village cemetery. A week after we left one village our host was arrested and charged with helping us look for ancient bronzes. This is a common activity. The last grave robbers in his village had turned up in police uniform. South of Lake Ormieh we climbed through a cave in which a Tehran gangster was found dead from methane asphyxiation earlier in the year. He had been tunnelling in secret for ten months, hoping to find Scythian gold.
In one cemetery we visited, every gravestone had been smashed. Among the mounds of earth were large stone rams and tigers, lying on their sides. One of the rams had a bow and a quiver of arrows carved on its back. ‘These probably date from before Islam,’ I said to Akbar. There was a rifle carved on the other side.
A group of four men had been slowly walking towards us and, as they reached us, the leader, eyes heavy with opium, shouted in Farsi: ‘You have come here to rob the graves. You are grave robbers. I will not let you take this gold. It is for us. If anyone digs here it is us. I will call the police. Give me your ID card.’
We ignored them and went back to get the mule before leaving the village. The men followed us shouting for a hundred yards and then disappeared. As we walked up the mud-slurry of the village streets, people stopped talking. I saw women staring at us through half-closed courtyard doors. One by one, they slammed the metal gates shut as we approached. A group of young men, pressing themselves against a wall as the mule and the saddlebags squeezed past, stared into my eyes unblinking. When I was ten yards down the street one muttered: ‘Kurdish smugglers, bringing things from Iraq.’
It is not the pessimism of these assumptions, or even what follows from them, that I found unsettling. It is particularly hard to define yourself when you have no fixed relationships. To be an Afghan drug dealer one day and a Kurdish freedom fighter the next (not just in idle fantasy but all the way to the police station) troubled me.
Akbar told me not to speak when we arrived in a village. He concealed the fact that he is a Kurd and Sunni. He would bring out his mobile phone. A reticent man, he would be forced by the situation to say, while pulling out a pile of substantiating documents: ‘We are mountain climbers. I am an official of the Ministry of Islamic Guidance, studying for an MA in Tehran, and I have climbed to the summit of Everest.’
He did not want to be thought a smuggler. He was enraged to find that no one believed he was an official. He was sure that if we lost the mule and changed our clothing our walking would be accepted as a modern sport. Dress was the key because, he said, villagers see ‘proper’ clothes as proof of good character. He made me buy new clothes every fortnight and after two months of argument I agreed to dispose of my hat and stick (‘villagers have seen that kind of stick in films – it looks very sinister’). Akbar believed the ideal appearance was his own clean-shaven face over a bright blue Gore-Tex jacket and jeans. With this he hoped to pre-empt the roles which others might assign him. The clothing did have some effect. I twice saw him pulled out of crowds for police questioning, while I and others like me in drabber clothes were ignored. But no costume provoked a favourable reaction from the villagers.
Perhaps our objective was confused by our aspirations: travellers in disguise often choose the role they have always wanted to play – when Lawrence dressed as an Arab he wore prince’s clothes. The arguments Akbar used to justify disposing of the mule were the same as I used to justify walking in an Islamic cloak with a tall staff. I no longer believe that anything stops villagers being suspicious of strangers on foot.
I felt anchored to the journey when I had the mule’s reins in my hand. I had become aware of his vulnerability when in the cold rain I had to tighten the slippery leather of his girth strap or, in the desert, when he drank three gallons from the bucket then looked up at me, dribbling the last water onto the sand. Calming him when the approach of wolves sent him into a frenzy at night, or checking his feet in the morning, often felt like a spectacle put on for the large village audience, but it was necessary. And finding slopes through the mountains which I could drag him up, unloading him when he sank up to his hocks on the salt flats, having him as a marker to return to when forced to take a side-trip by police car, had all added a sense of seriousness to the route. He linked me to the ancient caravan paths and to the historical travellers who could not go long distances in winter without a pack animal.
For Akbar, however, the mule was an unnecessary, incongruous and embarrassing companion and a troublesome responsibility. Once, when we had just climbed out of a gorge where the leaves of the willows and walnut and birch were all different shades of yellow, we saw, ahead of us on the path, a broad comb and arching spine glistening in the sunlight – the branch of a coconut palm, you might have thought. It was the neck and ribcage of a donkey. A yard further on, two of its hooves were laid neatly beside each other, attached to most of its hide. I put my arm round the mule’s neck to calm him, but he seemed quite unperturbed, only sighing grumpily at the gradient. We followed the wolf’s prints (deep and widely spaced, they suggested he was a big animal) up to the scentless air of the ridgeline.
As I was admiring our long shadows Akbar said: ‘The mule is a big problem for us. The mule makes problems with the police . . . He is like a centipede: every evening the centipede takes off his two hundred shoes to go to bed, and when he has finished, he has to start putting them on again for the morning. Loading and unloading the mule is like that centipede . . . In the desert we cannot find food and water for him. The villagers say that white mark on his nose will bring bad luck. It will make us die.’
‘But you are not superstitious.’
‘No I’m not. We will be more free without the mule. You do not understand Iran. If people see us without the mule, they will treat us better.’
We saw a man coming towards us, leading a donkey to which he had tied two thin trees.
‘You’re going the wrong way,’ the man said. ‘You’re two hours off your path. What are you selling?’
‘Nothing, we’re walking for fun.’
He laughed. ‘With a mule? You’re smuggling from Iraq – what have you got in the saddlebags?’
We gave the mule away a week later. Perhaps it was the loss of the mule that later made me feel so insubstantial: the routines of walking, the repetitive diet, the hours without interruption, underscored by the steady beat of my feet, seemed to emphasise the fragile, unstable and irregular changes in my thoughts and muscles. I was without books, and unable to write or talk for eight hours a day, since Akbar preferred to walk in silence. My thoughts meandered in daydreams.
I wondered what different impressions Akbar, as an Iranian, had of the landscape and the villages. In the desert there are no trees to deliver variety of height and colour and texture. Gravel and sand do not alter with the seasons but emphasise the marks made by humans on the landscape. The only vertical lines are formed by pylons or houses. The only animals, apart from the drab eagles and the sparrows on the electricity wires, are domesticated flocks. The only marks in the soil are made by the plough. I find things so obvious and so uniform difficult to interpret.
When we walked into the village of Goz Hasle by the Turkish border and had spent half an hour answering the familiar questions we were invited into Masawali’s house. As we sat down on the acrylic blankets a dust storm rose and Masawali closed the window through which the chickens had just been chased. The flies seemed to congregate around my dark jacket. I could smell the cow-dung which had been piled up to dry for winter fuel and through the doorway I could see the shadows of veiled women moving in the kitchen. Masawali left us alone to go and organise some food.
The only piece of furniture in the room was a glass-fronted television cabinet, containing a porcelain blonde princess, a gnome and some china teacups. But we were drinking tea from glasses and there was no television. We sat on a woollen rug, woven by Masawali’s mother on a narrow nomad’s loom, and on a machine-made acrylic blanket with a red tiger pattern. There was a small photograph of our host on the wall and a chubby blonde doll in a short skirt hung by her neck from the ceiling.
An old man came in and we stood up to greet him. Instead of wearing European trousers, a form of dress obligatory under the Shah’s modernisation campaign and still almost universal, he had on a pair of Kurdish bell-bottoms. Akbar addressed him in Kurdish, but they spoke quite different dialects and could not understand each other. The man left and we sat down again. Something uncomfortable was lodged behind my cushion. I reached back and pulled out a dirty single-barrelled shotgun, its butt bound with yellow tape, and a bandolier of empty cartridges. Masawali came back in.
‘Goz Hasle is a very old village, God be praised,’ he said, sitting down and refusing to take the place of precedence furthest from the door. ‘My father was born here and my grandfather was born here. We were always here.’
‘What does Goz Hasle mean?’ I asked.
‘It means “cross-wearing girl”.’
‘So it was an Armenian Christian village?’
‘No. My grandparents did not live alongside Armenians. The Armenians left a very, very long time ago.’
‘When my father was a child.’
Faced with these contradictions I assumed, perhaps unfairly, that his family had helped the Ottomans drive the Armenians out.
‘Where was the Armenian church?’
‘I don’t know.’
Masawali’s stable was a long building with a vast door, a base of neatly dressed masonry and a wooden roof that soared thirty feet high. In the south side was the trace of an arched window.
Three hundred miles further on, we stayed with Ali Reza in Sefid Han. ‘This is a very poor home,’ Akbar said to me when we reached the unlit sloping courtyard. Two goats were kept in an old cave beneath the house.
Ali Reza took us into a small white-washed room. Here, too, the only piece of furniture was a television cabinet. Again, there was no television. Again, we sat on folded acrylic blankets with red tiger patterns, looking at a blonde doll suspended from the ceiling. Ali Reza was due to play his mandolin that evening at a wedding ceremony so he sat with his old nine-string instrument on his lap, sticking strips of gold paper over the mother of pearl inlay. He talked to Akbar in Turkish rather than Farsi and I couldn’t follow.
‘Please ask him about the history of the village,’ I said to Akbar.
‘He doesn’t know.’
‘Please ask him.’
Akbar asked. ‘He says this is the oldest village in the region, that there is a very old graveyard on the hill, that when a tractor was working in the next-door field, it turned up three levels of settlement going back thousands of years. That the villagers have got very rich from gold they have found in the grave-mounds. There was an inscribed stone stele on the graveyard hill, which they broke up for building material.’
‘What else did he say?’
‘I don’t care.’
The architectural traces of an Armenian past and the trousers of the Kurd were the only things that seemed visibly to differentiate Masawali’s house at Goz Hasle from Ali Reza’s house at Sefid Han. One man was a Kurd, the other a Shahsevan Turk, one spoke an Indo-European language, the other an Altaic language. But Masawali’s house had the same television cabinet, with the same stickers, saying ‘Sony’, stuck on the glass, the same clock (‘Sieko Quarts’) with plastic flowers in its case and a photograph of the host. Both families were weaving $2000 carpets to a Tabriz design for the Saudi market. Inside sixty village houses belonging to different ethnic groups (Bakhtiari, Qashgai, Kurd, Azeri-Turk, Lur and Fars) spread over a thousand-mile area, I observed a bewildering similarity in manners, clothing, interior decoration and food. This was not my experience of walking in Pakistan, Indonesia or China.
In every house people were very concerned with who entered first and who sat furthest from the door and with standing up when a man entered but not when a woman came in. Every host served bread in the same way from a folded tablecloth on the ground and was thanked with precisely the same expressions translated word for word into Farsi, Kurdish and Turkish: ‘Strength to your arm, God be praised, long life to you, may you not be tired.’
I can’t explain this uniformity. I assume that blonde dolls may be popular as decoration because they are the only available legal depiction of unveiled women. (Though I’m not certain that the doll’s short skirt is more significant than the noose round her neck.) In a middle-class house I saw a poster depicting houris reclining on tiger skins, and wondered if the tiger on the acrylic blankets was a reference to the archetypal rug, long after the last Caspian tiger had been shot. That repetitive spartan interiors could be the result of the combined pressures of mass production, a closed economy, pastoral migrations, poverty, religious distaste for ostentation and social conformity was conceivable. But nothing quite explained that particular glass-fronted plastic television cabinet.
I found it stranger still that so much was made of differences between local popular cultures in Iran. President Khatami claims to be fighting American influences to preserve them. This is in part why pop music, Hollywood films and McDonald’s are banned. (So too, until recently, were billiards and Nietzsche.) The current rulers are opposed to their predecessors’ enthusiasm for alien cultural forms. It’s as though Iran’s most significant frontier is with America. A country marked by its physical centrality has turned into one of the most marginalised in the world: diplomatically, culturally and economically.
Kurdish villages around Goz Hasle, despite their superficial resemblance to the Azeri villages, do have very different religious and political attitudes. Many Sunni Kurds did not fight in the Iran-Iraq war (a war that played a key part in creating the new political culture) and continue to fight the state and Azeri militia. They are poorer. The Government does not give them substantial subsidies or senior jobs and they are not provided with automatic weapons such as the Kalashnikov I found behind a cushion in an Azeri village near Hamadan. My host was the weapons instructor for the village militia, which had fought for the Government in Iraq and Kurdistan. The state repaid his loyalty with subsidies and investment in the village and senior positions for Azeris in business and the civil service.
After two months we reached Gilli, a hundred miles north-west of Isfahan. We had been following pylons through the desert, carrying everything ourselves. The fog was so low that we couldn’t see the cables and we were cold and tired. I was hoping to be welcomed, to meet some people over a meal, to find a safe place to sleep.
Just before dusk we walked down an avenue of bare, pollarded willows. Two women were staring at us over a mud wall.
‘Salaam aleikum,’ we shouted. They did not reply.
We turned down empty lanes between blank courtyard walls. It was a small village. We found the mosque unlocked and went in, leaving our boots at the door, dragging our backpacks with us. Five old men in woollen hats were warming themselves at a big iron stove and we walked over to sit beside them on the carpet. One man shook our hands. His were wet from religious ablutions. To my surprise he did not say anything. The others ignored us entirely and continued to discuss the price of sheep. Akbar and I waited in silence. Occasionally I saw one of them glance in our direction. Along the gallery was a row of black and white photographs of young men. They had all died fighting in the Iraq war and they were numbered from one to 26. Among them was a ten-year-old boy.
‘Excuse me. Who was that boy?’ I said to the man with wet hands.
‘My nephew. He wasn’t that age when he died – it was just the last picture we had of him.’
‘How old was he when he was killed?’
‘Fourteen. Excuse me.’
The sun had set and the call to evening prayers began. The men moved away from the stove. There were now about thirty old men in the mosque and they all began to pray, but not in unison, kneeling and standing-up again, grumbling and whispering. An eighty-year-old was studying us sideways between his prostrations. He was looking at two men in wet clothes, with stinking feet and large, clumsy rucksacks beside them, leaning their backs against the wall to recover from the last hurried miles. But when he stood, he kept his eyes forward, his chin up and his shoulders back as though he were standing to attention at a remembrance parade. Through the thin green curtain of the women’s section I watched the silent white shrouds, rising and falling. For the next half-hour no one spoke to us.
But when the old man had finished his prayers, he came over, shook our hands and said: ‘Hello. May God bless you. I hope you are well. Where have you come from?’
We started to explain about the journey. There was a pause, then the man sounded more troubled: ‘Why have you come here? . . . Where are you going? . . . How did you come here? . . . But why don’t you have a car? . . . Have you spoken to the police?’ He seemed hardly to hear our answers. A crowd gathered round him, whispering. From the medley of muttered words, I could hear: ‘grave robbers’, ‘PKK’, ‘walking to avoid the checkpoints on the roads’, ‘drug-dealers’, ‘rape’, ‘whisky’.
Men pressed forward and shouted questions that we had already answered. For half an hour we said the same things over and over again, showing our documents to different people. We kept telling them we were walking across Iran as tourists. Nobody believed us. To have walked two thousand miles sounded absurd to them.
‘You cannot sleep here,’ the old man concluded.
‘Where can we sleep?’
‘Anywhere except here.’
The headman entered. He was wearing a rust-stained yellow jumper beneath his jacket and his pinstripe trousers were torn at the thigh. He held Akbar’s Government identity card in front of him while a teenager read out what it said. ‘What is your name?’ the head man asked when the boy had finished.
‘Isn’t it written on my identity card?’ Akbar asked.
‘Are you sure?’
‘You must go to the police.’
A little later a Government pick-up truck was driven fast into the square. One policeman remained in the car revving the engine, the other ran to the doorway and shouted at us to come to the station. In the superintendent’s overheated office, listening to his loud jokes, I half-admired the clear image that the policemen seemed to have of themselves. They had entered the police station as though they were humming the theme tune of a cop film and jumped down the front steps as if just abreast of a crisis. When the superintendent tired of us he let us go.
By day, I sometimes experienced a fragile coincidence of mind, landscape and muscle which made me feel more substantial. I might look back at a peak I had crossed three days before. My footsteps left prints in the earth behind me, stretching back over the thousand miles I had walked in the past months. The lack of music, sex, conversation, literature, alcohol, or much food beyond bread and goat’s cheese, seemed irrelevant or even beneficial. I was aware of the breadth of the sky, the angle of the ridges falling away. I looked at the geometry of a desert thorn curling in on itself like a wicker ball, or the trace of bright cobbles beneath the white salt surface of the soil. Akbar was forgotten. Inaccessibility and solitude became a delight. My vast, vague shadow on a desolate Iranian hillside seemed almost to resemble that of a hero. But that conceit vanished by the mosque stove. There, questions began that expressed and refined the roles that others gave me – roles that were never heroic. Spending a lot of time on my own, I was unsettled by the inconsistency and instability of the identities which others gave me. As a stranger, confronting this every evening, I worried that the only way to compensate for the narratives that other people created for me was to invent my own. Perhaps this is why travel writers always lie.