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.

In the years preceding Vita’s visit, modernity had seemed like a friend to the Bakhtiaris. The tribal khans had boldly struck for power at the national level, dominating governments in Tehran and intervening to save Iran’s young democracy movement. At the same time, the khans had enriched themselves by guarding Britain’s vital new Persian interest, the oilfields on which the Royal Navy depended, situated in the tribes’ winter quarters. (The navy had stopped building coal-burning vessels and was now building oil-burning ones. Iranian oil was therefore vital.) The khans were rich and powerful, their sons were learning table manners and tennis at universities abroad, and the protection of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company was a perimeter wall no government could pierce. No government, that is, until the arrival of Persia’s 20th-century strongman, its Atatürk and its Mussolini: Reza Khan.

The Nicolsons witnessed his coronation, in 1925, and Passenger to Tehran contains Vita’s description of events. Tehran wore its best face. Trestle tables had been placed at the sides of the roads, loaded up with anything gay and new – vases, teapots, photographs, china ornaments, but especially clocks, ‘so that the streets of Tehran tinkled all day with the strikings of discrepant hours’. Most striking, the walls of houses had been hung with carpets, some of them huge works of art, so the city ‘ceased to be a city of brick and plaster, and became a city of texture, like a great and sumptuous tent open to the sky’. The ceremonials were a pastiche concocted on the hoof – at once Persian and European, one part Muslim and one profane.

‘What can be more absurd than a coronation?’ And yet Vita found herself craning to see the man who would rule Persia.

The aigrette in his cap blazing with the diamond known as the Mountain of Light, wearing a blue cloak heavy with pearls, the Shah advanced towards the Peacock Throne. The European women curtsied to the ground; the men inclined themselves low on his passage; the mullahs shambled forward in a rapacious, proprietary wave … then from outside came a salvo of guns, making the windows rattle, proclaiming to the crowds in the streets that Reza Khan was King of Kings and Centre of the Universe.

The Bakhtiaris and the other tribes had turned out for the festivities, cavorting on their ponies and shouting their allegiance in exotic dialects, but it was these nomads, even before the clergy, that Reza bent to his will. The process had started well before Reza attained supreme power. Earlier, as war minister and then prime minister, he had begun curtailing the tribes’ independence and disrupting relations between the Bakhtiaris and the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. Nicolson – who foresaw before most the tyrant that Reza Khan would become – was vexed by his government’s reluctance adequately to support tribal leaders who had loyally served British interests, but the Foreign Office and the Company alike longed for a central government they could do straightforward business with, and for a while they deceived themselves that this was what Reza offered.

Although they were born of the same crucial time in the history of relations between the tribes and the Persian government, neither Twelve Days in Persia nor the documentary film Grass gives the impression that the Bakhtiaris were facing violent upheaval. They are quite different productions. Grass is a deliberate, brilliant work of romantic antiquarianism, excluding almost any allusion to the modern world and imparting to the Bakhtiari migration an air of timelessness and inevitability. Vita, by contrast, does address the chafing of tradition and progress, and her poetic handling of these elements gives her book precisely the shape – the ‘pleasing curve’ – that she initially despaired of finding.

Several pages elapse, after the five Westerners and their Persian escort set out on muleback, before she finds her traveller’s voice. There is an ugly description of a sunrise, full of trumpet blasts, discs and chariots, and the discovery – surprising, somehow – that she is a grumpy, unstoical traveller. She does not care for the cold, the smoke in a ruined caravanserai along the way, the blisters, or having to rise early in the morning. (The modern reader may not feel much sympathy, for the servants do all the work and she is hardly over-burdened with responsibilities.) She is short with her fellow travellers and refuses the mount that has been allotted to her. Along with Nicolson, whose attire suggests he’s out for a stroll in Hyde Park, she embarks on an imprudent ramble through a thick, rain-lashed wood, which culminates in a shared confession that they hate mountains – at least prompting the pair to laugh at their own wretchedness.

Soon enough Vita’s feet toughen up and she derives material from her surroundings for a powerful observation. As an outsider, she writes, she is expected to find the spring migration of the flocks romantic, but for the Persian shepherd there is nothing romantic about ‘the everyday business of getting a lot of tiresome animals along. Since romance is the reality of somewhere else or of some other period, here, on the Bakhtiari Road, this truth is doubly applicable.’ She proceeds to an affecting description of the flocks as they pass, as laconic and diminishing as Grass is grandiose. There are thousands of sheep and goats, she writes,

jostling, leaping, hustling each other among the boulders. Some of them are very lame, but what of that? That is reality, not romance; lame or not lame, they must go forward. There are 200 miles to cover before the sun gets too hot and the already scant pasture shrivels up. So the shepherds come after them with sticks. ‘Oh,’ say the shepherds – a flat English ‘Oh’ that sounds curiously out of place on the Persian hills … and the sea of backs surges round the legs of our mules. The smell of fleeces comes up to us, acrid. The men follow, in their blue linen coats and high black felt hats, and their sticks fall with a thud on the woolly backs. Oh. The sun is hot and high … a child passes, beating up his flock of lambs and kids, – youth put in charge of youth. Oh. And then a fresh shower of sheep and goats, animated boulders. How stony the road is! How slow our progression! Come along, come along. Oh.

The expedition goes on; the landscape gets more beautiful, her mood improves; she collects iris rhizomes for the garden back at Long Barn, the Nicolson home in Kent. There are some humorous episodes, such as when she startles the mount of a splendid dervish wearing a cape of sapphire blue – he is unseated and writhes in the dust, to the hilarity of everyone watching.

She had written in Passenger to Tehran that travel is intellectually a worthless activity, but it has a strong taste, and this stimulates her to a preposterous fantasy. What, she wonders, would it be like to stay in these mountains for 30 years? And this opens into a meandering river of thought, with the hermit Vita permitting herself a yearly post, including a single copy of the Times (the post is meant to arrive on 23 September, but is always late), and perhaps a wireless set for listening to the chimes of Big Ben. She writes, she tells us, ‘as one with a strong head for large draughts of solitude’, but she is patently not at one with the elements around her. Her thoughts turn waspishly affectionate when she looks back to England, where upper-middle-class families desire advantageous marriages (she gives them a name, Mr and Mrs Humphrey Turnbull, of 157 Pont Street), and where she herself is enmeshed in a ‘network of obligations and relationships’. Eventually she controls her fantasy and brings it to the only plausible conclusion. She repeats an earlier traveller’s story of an Englishman who married a Bakhtiari woman and went native, only one day to tire of his bride, whom he exchanged for a jackass on which to ride home – proof, we are told, that ‘the desire for escape will, after sufficient indulgence, be replaced by the desire for return.’

For Nicolson, even more than for Vita, the trip across the mountains is a return. His posting has come to an end, and, having bidden farewell to his colleagues and sobbing butler at the legation, he and Vita will go on to England via Baghdad. (Arriving at Long Barn, he will be physically sick from the high emotion of it all.) In his luggage, the reader has been told, he carries the proofs of his latest book, Some People, which dejected him to the point where Vita had to dissuade him from cabling home to cancel publication. (This is arch, by any standard; Some People was rapturously received when it came out, as Vita was writing Twelve Days in Persia.) For both Vita and Nicolson there will be more books, more lovers, more accolades. Their engagement with their own world, their social and literary aristocracy, will not break.

The caravan moves out of the close, hunched Bakhtiari hills and onto a plain that seems more conventionally Persian in aspect, and then down again, but there is a climax in store, for on the 12th and final day of the expedition, in a scene of great drama and power, Vita is confronted by brutal irruptions of modern civilisation, a landscape of ‘huge skeletons’ between crinkled mountains, paved roads sweating under a diabolical sun, and always a smell of gas – the ‘fantastic, almost grotesque, scenery of the Persian oilfields’.

Here, at the bottom of the trail, is the most dramatic answer that may be conceived to the primitiveness of life in the Bakhtiari mountains, a nightmare of hammers and drill bits and gas flares, and a young British engineer wearing shorts, who ‘rouses himself from his apathy to give a few explanations to the strangers’. Rather than live innocuously off the land like the Bakhtiaris, the British Empire reaches greedily inside it, and ‘the engine of man comes stabbing down, through the darkness of the earth, a sharp and persistent auger’. Vita is ambivalent about what she has observed, and senses its potential to triumph over the life she has spent the last 12 days witnessing. ‘Twenty years ago,’ she writes, ‘this region lay inviolate; only the wandering shepherd bent to scoop the oil as it floated on the pools.’ And further back still, she observes, the oil kept the Zoroastrians’ fire temple alive.

A record of agricultural practices that were already falling out of use, The Land was an occasion for nostalgia even when Vita wrote it. Twelve Days in Persia had to wait, if not very long, to become one. In 1929, provoked by high-handed officials, the Bakhtiaris rose against the central government. Reza Shah put down the sedition, executing and imprisoning the leading khans, and went on to implement a policy of integration that has continued, albeit unevenly, to this day. Exile; land reform; culturally ‘improving’ measures such as the imposition of an alien dress code; conscription and forced settlement – the Iranian tribes have been subjected to all, and the number of Bakhtiaris living the old life has fallen sharply. At the same time, the Bakhtiaris have not been immune to the attractions of modern life, particularly modern education. The annual migrations still happen, but they are smaller and much less picturesque, with trucks sometimes being used to transport the flocks, while many thousands of Bakhtiaris have moved to Iran’s towns and cities, where they lead lives indistinguishable from those of their non-tribal compatriots.

In 1951, with the nationalisation of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (as it had become) by Iran’s prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, the Bakhtiaris lost the last vestiges of their privileged association with the country’s oil industry, and the British one of their most important strategic footholds in the Middle East. After Mossadegh was toppled in a CIA-backed coup two years later, Britain ceded its pre-eminent position in Iranian affairs to the United States.

Here, in this postscript, lies the great value of this reissue of Twelve Days in Persia. It describes a fortunate literary encounter, between a writer and a process, at a unique and poignant time. She could not know it, but the netted butterfly was not just her own.