A Bride for a Jackass

Christopher de Bellaigue

  • Twelve Days in Persia by Vita Sackville-West
    Tauris Parke, 142 pp, £9.99, August 2009, ISBN 978 1 84511 933 1

Nineteen twenty-seven was a fine year to be Vita Sackville-West. She was 35, attaining what her son would call her ‘tumultuous maturity’, besieged by lovers. Her elegy to Kentish life, The Land, had won the Hawthornden Prize, and she was hesitantly revising her earlier, somewhat churlish opinions of her own talent. She was a muse to perhaps the greatest novelist of the age, Virginia Woolf, who was now setting out to immortalise her in the pages of Orlando. And then this. A book about trudging through Persia, as Iran was then known, with Harold Nicolson, her diplomat and writer husband.

‘For a long time,’ the first line of Twelve Days in Persia runs, ‘I believed that it would be impossible to make a book out of these experiences.’ She had begun a prequel, Passenger to Tehran, less about Persia than about getting there, with a similar provocation – ‘There is no greater bore than the travel bore.’ Do not expect, these lines warn, travel writing according to convention, with a careful ration of political and historical information amid the topographical and human descriptions. If a tangent presents itself on some crag in the Zagros mountains (an insight into solitude, for example, or progress, or Proust), it will be followed and to blazes with the armchair traveller back home. No, she decides near the beginning of Passenger to Tehran, she is not even sure she likes the idea of travel. Perhaps – and for the Nicolsons there are few greater sins – it is middle class, like saying ‘weekend’ or getting a knighthood.

She went twice to Persia because her husband was on a posting there, and while there was never any suggestion that she would exchange her glittering English existence to keep house at the legation, she went without compulsion, because she missed him. This, her second trip, would take her among some of the wildest inhabitants of Persia, the Bakhtiari tribe – whose origins, lost in antiquity, remained (and remain) the subject of romantic speculation. And if, after getting home, she is ‘loath to let the whole thing go unrecorded’, it is less that she has valuable new information to impart than that she sees her own life as a necklace of epiphanies, each one important, each one asking for recognition. She will ‘clap the net over the butterfly of the moment’.

She was not, by any means, the first Western writer to visit this part of the world. In Persia and the Persian Question, Lord Curzon devotes much attention to the Bakhtiaris, though Vita sniffs at his pro-consular tone. (This is naughty of her: Curzon, as foreign secretary, had been her husband’s boss.) She is kinder about the archaeologist Austen Henry Layard, who, before digging up Nineveh for the British Museum, enjoyed Bakhtiari hospitality for two palpitating years, which he described in his Early Adventures in Persia, Susiana and Babylonia. She makes passing allusion to the documentary film Grass (1925) – which had its first London screening while she was writing up Twelve Days in Persia – a barnstorming account of the annual Bakhtiari migration made by an American woman spy and the future creators of King Kong.

The Bakhtiari tribes present, in Curzon’s words, one of the unsolved ‘riddles of history’. Fractured into numerous divisions and subdivisions, they straddle the Zagros mountains, Iran’s natural frontier to the west, and scholars are divided over whether they are of Persian, Kurdish or Turkish origin. (They share a language, Luri, with the tribes of adjacent Luristan, but disclaim blood ties.) Despised by their foes for their greed and treachery, lauded by their friends for their chivalry and generosity, the Bakhtiaris have been known since the Middle Ages for their refusal to submit to a sedentary overlord. They seem always to have been party to the confrontation between farmers and pastoralists that ran through most of Iran’s history, and which only ended (in the way these conflicts always end, in the defeat of the nomads) in the 20th century.

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