History and political science were boring subjects and I usually got Cs in them, but something about Iran had captured my imagination and made me want to learn more. I thought I had gotten an A+ on that term paper because of my in-depth analysis of Iranian culture and politics. I suppose, from my professor’s point of view, that may have been true, because he would have been suckered by American revisionist history as much as I had been. I wasn’t going to learn the truth from my new acquaintances in Iran, though. They were afraid to tell me. All I learned was what wasn’t true: the Shah was not a beloved leader.
I took that course in 1967. Two years later, I learned more about Iranian history in a different way. A friend in the Bay Area had gotten some psyilosybin and kindly offered it to me. I dropped it in Berkeley and we headed up the coast. By the time we got there, I was well-and-truly tripping. I’m not sure where we went, but magnificent sculptures that looked something like this had been carved into the cliffs:
These carvings don’t do my vision/hallucination justice, but they’re the closest approximation I can find. I didn’t know it at the time, but the carvings I was looking at were Zoroastrian and Zoroastrianism has its roots in ancient Persia.
“Wow! Who carved these?” I asked my friend.
“Carved what? It’s just a cliff.”
And so it was, but I remember the hallucination far more vividly than I remember the cliff face.
Alas, I didn’t go to Persepolis when I travelled through Iran in 1970. I did, however, find myself in the inner sanctum of a magnificent mosque in Isfahan. I’m not sure which one it was, but this will do to illustrate my point:
I wasn’t brought up as a Christian, but Christianity permeates American culture and I don’t think any American quite escapes its influence. Even though I had steeped myself in yoga, meditation and eastern religious philosophies for years, when I thought of “God”, Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam spontaneously came to mind. Intellectually and even viscerally, I knew there was something very wrong about the concept of God looking and thinking like a human, but couldn’t visualise “God” as anything other than as a being created in man’s image.
Inside this mosque, I saw God as a conscious Energy far greater than our human minds can comprehend. Above us, all around us and within us, God is ineffable, but can be sensed when we are in tune with all that’s loving, just and harmonious in ourselves.
I had unknowingly stepped into an area non-Muslims were not allowed into and when my presence was noticed, an angry group of men approached me. I was in seriously hot water until a man stood next to me and, after placating the others, explained to me why they were angry. From memory, he gently held me by the arm, told me to cast my gaze to the floor and walk backwards out of the inner sanctum. Turning my back on the men or on God would be too great an offence to forgive. It may not have gone quite that way, but that’s how I remember it and is essentially what the experience felt like.
Tehran to Kabul
I loved Isfahan and only reluctantly left after a few days of enjoying great food in the company of very hospitable people. I was on a mission, though, and couldn’t afford to stay too long in any one place, so I moved on to Tehran. I had to go there in order to get a bus to Afghanistan, but as it turned out, I didn’t need to buy a bus ticket. A British guy at my guesthouse was driving to Herat in an ice cream truck he had converted into a mobile home and I was welcome to hitch a ride with him and three others he had picked up along the way.
I didn’t know what to expect in Afghanistan, but vaguely thought of it as anarchistic in the worst sense of the word. I was only half-right. The people of Afghanistan seemed more tribal than citizens of a country ruled from a central location and they were as tough as nails, but there was nothing scary about them. If you didn’t mess with them, they were perfectly happy for you to visit.
When we got to the border, we were stopped by border guards dressed in a rag-tag assortment of what looked to me like mismatched thrift shop military uniforms. After going through the motions of checking our passports and visas, the one who spoke the best English asked us where we were headed. We told him Herat and he suggested staying at a little guesthouse at the border for the night because it was getting late in the afternoon and bandits came out after dark. In our infinite wisdom, we decided he was trying to scam us, so we told him, no, we wanted to drive on to Herat. He tried arguing with us, but when that failed, he insisted on sending one of his fellow border guards with us. Our escort had a rifle. That, and the fact that he was a fellow Afghani, would be enough for most bandits to back off.
I’ve looked in vain for a photograph of Herat that looks anything like I remember it. It’s much larger now and, of course, the country has been occupied by both the Soviet Union and the United States in the intervening years. Herat may have seemed small for a young man from L.A., too. Suffice it to say that it was the most amazing city I’d ever been to and the people were hands-down the coolest people I’d ever met.
The first place I went to was the bank, to change money. I knew there were money changers in the street, but I wanted to do “the right thing” and change my money at the bank. When I got to the counter, the teller pointed to a man squatting in a corner and told me I could get a better exchange rate from him. So much for doing the right thing. Afghanis had a different concept of it than I. They preferred helping a neighbour make a buck to adding to their bank’s stockpile of money, even if they worked in the bank.
I didn’t have a camera with me, but fortunately, a guy named Peter Loud had his with him at about the same time and took some great photographs that capture the spirit of the city perfectly. I chose this photograph of a father and son from Peter Loud’s amazing collection because the father reminds me of a guy I met on the outskirts of town one day who just may have saved my life.
It wasn’t all that late in the afternoon, but it was late enough that if I had walked to the village I saw in the distance, it would have been getting dark by the time I made the return journey. The village, which looked something like the one below, was so intriguing looking, I decided I HAD to go check it out.
I had just stepped off the road and started walking towards the village when a man called out to me and waved me back. He didn’t speak a word of English, but it was clear he didn’t want me to go there. I smiled and said I was just going to have a look (as if he could understand me any better than I understood him), but he became increasingly agitated. Idiot that I was, I smiled and turned back towards the village. Then I felt his arms wrap tightly around my waist. He wasn’t going to let me go, so I relented and returned to my guesthouse. The proprietor told me I was lucky. Bandits would have killed me for sure if I’d been that far from the city after dark.
I had been in the Middle East all of three weeks, if that, but already four total strangers had looked out for my welfare. The list would grow longer over the coming months.
Herat was known as the hashish capital of the Middle East at that time. That was the reason my travel mates were going there, in fact. It was a little ironic that I was the first one to find any and I only found it by accident.
I hadn’t bought any “samples” in Iran because everything was too expensive. The shops and stalls in Herat were an absolute bonanza, though. I didn’t have space in my backpack for a rug, but there were plenty of textiles to choose from and I bought a variety of smaller items to show Lorelei when I got back to the States. I also bought a pair of sandals made from used tires. They cost almost nothing and I reckoned would sell like hotcakes in our imaginary hippy boutique.
Then I moved on to a little stall that sold all kinds of trinkets, including hash pipes. The proprietor noticed me looking at the pipes and pulled a cow turd sized cake out from under the counter. She wanted to sell me the whole thing, but I told her I just wanted a little. I forget how much it cost, but it was less than one of the two hash pipes I purchased. One of the pipes went into my backpack and the other I gave to my travel mates. I believe we spent that night staring blankly into space, too stoned to even speak.
If I had it to do over again, I’d have stayed longer in Herat — not to get stoned, but to explore the city and surrounds further. It was the most foreign place I’d ever been and I loved the raw beauty of the country. I was on a mission, though, so I left the next morning. The bus ride was the weirdest one I’d been on yet. I got a window seat, but the bus was so crowded even the aisles were filled with people and a few random animals. Still being stoned from the previous night seemed to help, but as I gazed out the window with my head resting against the window, I didn’t even notice that the constant jarring of the bus was creating a large bump on the side of my forehead. By the time we got to Kabul, I was feeling the pain, though, and ended up spending a few days in Kabul recuperating.
Whatever you’re visualising about Kabul in 1971, you’re probably wrong. The photo here shows Kabul University students in the 1970s. For some insight into how Afghanistan went backwards, read the article I pinched the photo from on Global Research.
Personally, I found the Westernisation of Kabul a little distasteful. While I was all for equality of the sexes, I couldn’t see what that had to do with the wholesale adoption of Western culture I saw in parts of Kabul. I would have preferred something more uniquely Afghani, but I wasn’t a young Afghani woman and knew that Kabul was something of an exception. In Herat, most of the
women still wore burqa. If the head-to-toe burqa was meant to hide a woman’s sexuality, it didn’t work. One of my most vivid memories is of falling in love with a woman’s eyes in Herat.
Kabul was interesting and the comfortable accommodation and decent food was just what I needed for the next stage of my journey. After crossing over the awesome Kyber Pass and through a Pakistan that was gearing up for war against India, I finally crossed the border into Mother India. Little did I know, I was in for some surprises and not all of them were pleasant.
to be continued . . .